Thursday, June 21, 2018

My Air BnB Review



Recently, my wife and I had the pleasure of traveling to Elcinor. We are avid travelers and, always, excited to use Air BnB for the intimate glimpses of local culture that this service provides. Although our experience with hosts Alpay and Oglor in Elcinor was not optimum, I hope that no one will construe this review as hostile to that country and its wonderful, hardworking inhabitants.

The occasion of our trip to Elcinor was a happy one. Several years ago, we had the pleasure of hosting an exchange student from that nation. We have kept in touch with this wonderful young man and he invited us, as his American foster parents, to attend his graduation of the University of Elcinor. Those ceremonies happened to coincide with the Dragonfly Festival, a notable local fiesta (celebration) in Elcinor. So, after the requisite vaccinations and doses of prophylactic antibiotics, my wife and I flew to Elcinor, landing at Elcinor International Airport. (As AirBnB readers will know, the capital city and the country bear the same name.)

Public transportation in Elcinor is iffy. All car rental agencies are controlled by the ruling junta and transactions with them, particularly those involving credit cards, are discouraged. My wife and I elected to take a taxi from the airport for the 50 km ride to the University District (about $750 American). Depending on traffic and road conditions, the trip takes two to two-and-a-half hours. Elcinorians speak creole English and it will take you a few hours and several conversations to pick up the accent and diction. The ride to the University District passed through picturesque wetlands, many of them extending to the horizon and we were able to glimpse vast flocks of dragonflies with iridescent wings and other insects swarming over the oozy terrain.

Alpay and Oglor are instructors at the University and their dwelling is conveniently located. Our hosts resided in a small, very neat and pleasantly decorated bungalow to which was attached a tin-roofed student dormitory (the so-called Ostelhay). Set near, but apart from the dormitory was our lodging, an old but perfectly serviceable mobile home. The Air BnB listing assured us that the mobile home afforded privacy and seclusion from the student revels in the dormitory with the added benefit of a semi-private bathroom. Strictly speaking neither of these representations were true. I should also note that upon our arrival, we were both issued complimentary fly-swatters, but asked to provide a credit card number (complete with security code) as a guarantee that we would return these swatters to our hosts.

Alpay and Oglar greeted us with a buffet of roasted small, local mammals, washed down with El Dictator beer. Then, fatigued, to bed! The students in the dormitory were a rambunctious lot and spent the evening consuming the local, fiery aguardiente. Some of them, I’m afraid, indulged to excess and our midnight was enlivened by the sound of brawling and couples making love in the shrubbery near our lodging. Many of the students were proficient at playing flutophones and pan-pipes and they regaled one another with simple country tunes, a pleasant enough evening concert but rather disconcerting to hear after midnight and at the crack of dawn. (I don’t wish to be judgmental; we later learned that half of the so-called students were, in fact, refugees from the fighting in the Sierra.)

After a sleepless night, my wife and I were more than a little peckish. However, we were looking forward to the Dragonfly Festival at the campus a couple kilometers away. It was difficult to prepare for the day’s events because the students (and displaced persons) in the dormitory occupied to our exclusion the single rest-room available for use in the Ostelhay. (There was another privy outside the trailer house but it was occupied by large and aggressive jumping spiders and, even, the locals were not willing to make use of that facility.) A night of drinking fiery aguardiente is deleterious to the bowels and the students stood in nervous queues waiting to make use of the small closet-like toilet. Needless to say, my wife and I had to make due with toilet facilities that were grossly inadequate.

Our hosts served us with a tasty breakfast of Orpsekay fruit, so named for its distinctive odor and texture, and steaming cups of hot coffee. Alpay, then, announced that he would drive those who desired an excursion to the campus for the Dragonfly Festival. Of course, my wife and I were glad to accept his offer.

Oglor, unfortunately on house-arrest, was not able to accompany us on this trip. Our conveyance to the University was memorable. Alpay hooked a flat-bed trailer to the rear of her small and elderly John Deere tractor and bade us hop aboard. We stood on the trailer as she put the tractor in gear and drove us through the citrus groves to the Moorish pavilions and ornate baroque buildings on campus. About half-way along our trip, Alpay urged one of the refugees, a man blessed with a beautiful baritone voice, to entertain us with an old and popular ballad, Elvetway Onelinesslay. The man sang beautifully, although we were distracted by the fact that, during his serenade, he perched precariously on the hitch between tractor and trailer, balancing between the two moving implements.

At the campus, the commander of the local regiment inspected our passports and the student’s identification cards and, then, granted us admission. The splendid buildings at the university are an artifact of the last century’s rubber boom in the country and they are wonderful edifices, although much in disrepair these days. We toured the ruins of the library, very majestic and still occupied by great stacked towers of books moldering in the humid, sub-tropical weather, and, further, were shown the spanking brand-new modernist eugenics laboratories and registry, quite a contrast to the faux-Baroque of the older structures. Alpay summoned us together for the mandatory salute to the colors commencing the celebrations of the Dragonfly Festival. As I was standing on the flatbed trailer, I felt inconvenienced – my bowels were churning and I was in some need of a rest room. (I believe it was the combination of coffee and the unfamiliar tastes and textures of the Orpsekay fruit that I had consumed.)

I asked Alpay where I could find a toilet. He obligingly directed me across the bramble-covered quadrangle to the field house. The field house was a large, cavernous structure in which big bats patrolled the upper air. The military firing range was adjacent and local students, the equivalent of ROTC scholars, were discharging their weapons at life-sized targets depicting various imperialists as well as the presidents of the adjacent regimes. A neatly groomed officer met me at the threshold to the facility, checked my passport, and politely told me that I could enter the building, but had to remove my shoes because the floors were antique and could be damaged by my footware. I was given a plastic sack and a cubby-hole in which to deposit my shoes.

Oddly enough, I didn’t detect any unusually beautiful or ancient wooden flooring in the building. Everywhere that I went, the floor was wet concrete, the surface drenched with water from the adjacent showers where naked men were bathing. Several times, I inquired as to the "WC" but had difficulty making myself understood. In most cases, the students simply ignored me. At last, a young man with a badly damaged eye, directed me to corner in the big open hall where there was a drain in the floor. This was manifestly unsuited to my needs, which were becoming ever more urgent, and so I politely declined the use of that facility.

I repeated my request to the soldier at the door. He seemed bemused but walked with me to the building next to the Field House. I was becoming increasingly concerned that my wife, alone with the students at the tractor-trailer, would be distressed by my long absence. (It’s always very embarrassing when on a tour with others to be the last person returning to the means of conveyance.) But there was nothing that could be done for this problem. I was, indeed, a man with a mission!

The building adjacent to the campus Field House was a sort of natural history museum. The military officer asked me to show my passport to the attendant and, then, I was admitted to a display on volcanism in Elcinor. I asked the guard at the exhibit about a restroom, but he only shrugged. He was apparently one of Elcinor’s indigenous tribal people and purported to not understand my version of local creole parlance. The exhibit was a darkened space with groove-like walkways set in a fiberglass facsimile of mountainous terrain. Beyond the upper ramp, there was a simulated caldera filled with some sort of viscous syrupy substance bubbling and spurting in the intense red cast by an overhead light covered with a red filter lens. I asked a guard protecting the caldera about a toilet, sniffing at the strong odor of sulphur in this part of the museum. He suggested that I simply approach the caldera and use that as a receptacle for this call of nature. Obviously, this was unacceptable to me. Then, the guard, grasping my discomfiture, suggested that I enter a corridor ending at a long descending stairway. At the base of the stairway, I found a squat toilet comprised of filthy bars opening into a cavity below. I lowered my trousers and was about to use the facility when I heard a low groaning sound directly below me. Peering into the darkness of the pit, I dimly descried several prisoners, entirely blackened with filth, sprawled in the ordure. I assume that they were political prisoners. But, by this time, my need had grown so insistent that there was nothing to do but avail myself of this unpleasant facility. (When traveling in Elcinore, tourists are advised to equip themselves with their own toilet paper since this amenity is almost never available in public restrooms – fortunately, I was cognizant of that minor inconvenience and properly supplied for this occasion.)

When I returned to the surface, a pleasant guard hustled me out of the building. Only, then, did I discover that I was missing both my wallet and passport, apparently fallen into the noisome pit that I had used as a toilet. And encountering brambles in the quadrangle, I looked down to see that my feet were quite bare.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

N + 1 Mississippi


In our climate, snow after Easter is heavy, sullen, ashamed of its transience and, therefore, prone to cling stubbornly to utility poles and trees and highway signs. The snow doesn’t even necessarily delight children (except if school is canceled) because the stuff is very wet and encourages bullies to make snowballs and, often conceals mud, so that play is both sodden, perilous, and filthy. The only people who welcome these last embittered snowstorms are the contract snow removal companies, at least those paid by the event as opposed to those who have wagered on the weather and agreed to a flat fee for their services.

At Faith Lutheran, the snow removal service was paid by the episode and, so, any snowfall greater than a half-inch warranted arrival of the truck-mounted plows and the kid pushing the snow-blower along the sidewalk – pay was by the call and not the inch: indeed, for the trucks careening around the parking lot and the kid dancing with the snowblower, it didn’t really matter whether the snow was an inch or a foot deep: the same general strategies applied – the two trucks did their minuet pushing the snow into conical mounds at the perimeter of the parking lot and the kid in the orange hood and blue snowmobile mittens shot the snow off the sidewalks and into the bushes and shrubs that were already heavily laden and, with the work of a half hour, the job was done whether a dusting or a blizzard.

So the snow came down in a final unseasonable assault by the winter and the two trucks masked by orange plows appeared and the kid with the snow-blower carved his swaths in the wet, heavy stuff and, since this work was done after sunset, the headlights swept back and forth over the parking lot and sent their beams across the snow slumped on the lawn and crushed down to wet ice on the streets and the trucks dropped their plows with a thud, only slightly muffled by the matted snow, and whisked back and forth, cutting down to the asphalt which the blades abraded, sometimes kicking up a little fountain of sparks incongruous amid all the cold and dark and wet, and, apparently, all this plowing and scraping ripped up the asphalt sealing a deep, round hole where the sidewalk dips down near the far end of the parking lot.

The next morning, the lady who volunteered in the office parked close to the sanctuary doors. Our church opens its doors directly onto the parking lot – the fellowship hall is between the sanctuary and the Sunday school wing and the pastors’ offices are an annex built onto the back of the corridor and classrooms. It’s an unusual design and somewhat impractical but an artifact of the way that the church was built in stages as the congregation’s stewardship allowed. And so, the volunteer parked her car at the far end of the parking lot, next to the side-walk, and, therefore, the round cylindrical hole in the asphalt, planning that she would enter the church through a side-door that opened into the Sunday school classrooms. She didn’t exactly fall into the hole but came perilously close to it and took offense at the way that what had once been a smooth parking lot was now pierced with a hole that was "half-invisible" (as she said – although it was open and obvious) descending to God Knows Where since her eye couldn’t discern its bottom, a snare and a trap that she immediately reported to the senior pastor who was, at that time, visiting some elderly congregation members at the Lutheran nursing home on the other side of town. The senior Pastor, Dr. Zwingli Pederson, talked briefly with the volunteer and, then, said he would inspect the declivity when he returned to the Church. The office volunteer repeated that it was a serious hazard, one that was undoubtedly created by the snow-removal service and that they should be summoned out to the parking lot to fix the hole.

The sun was yellow and hot enough to clear the remaining ice on the sidewalks and the trees leaked icy water down around them, droplets pitting the white fields of fallen snow. The pastor found the hole without any difficulty – it was a round, vertical shaft, bottomless at least to the eye, with its sides armored with circular tin or aluminum plating. The shaft was a little larger than a pie tin, probably about 15 inches in diameter. The mouth of the shaft was actually on a low prominence of asphalt and, therefore, didn’t function as a drain. Although Pastor Pederson paced around in the adjacent mounds of snow, wetting his pants to the knees to see if he could sound the drifts for the asphalt or metal cap that had once covered the opening. But he couldn’t find anything. When the maintenance man, Joe, showed up, smelling very faintly of booze, he told the Pastor that he didn’t recall seeing any metal fixtures or lids in that part of the parking lot – he called it "the drive way." "The cap musta been set in the asphalt drive way, sealed in the tar," Joe said. "The blade guy cut off the tar and exposed the hole."

Pastor Pederson called Boris, the man who owned the pickup trucks masked by orange plows, what he knew about the hole. He drove to the church in his black Suburban and squatted down by the hole. "Where does it go?" he asked. "I don’t know," Pastor Pederson said. "Well, what do you want me to do about it?"

"Well, your workers exposed it."

"I’ll see about that," Boris said. He drove away and called a half hour later. "I talked to my boys," he told the Pastor. "We don’t know nothing about that hole in the ground. It’s obviously some kind of ventilation shaft. It’s not something we created."

"Ventilating what?" Pastor Pederson asked.

"How would I know?"

Pastor Pederson sent the Youth Pastor to Fleet Farm to buy a couple of bright orange cones. The youth pastor set the cones next to the vertical shaft. The volunteer lady came from the office, limping a little to dramatize that she had almost fallen down the hole.

"Where does it go?" she asked.

"Who knows?" the Youth Pastor said. He was gay with a red head of hair and a red moustache. He dug around in his pant’s pocket and found a dull brown penny.

Then, he dangled the penny over the open shaft.

"Don’t throw that penny down there."


"You’ll clog it all up," the volunteer lady said.

"Clog up what?"

"Well, I don’t know," she said.

The Youth Pastor dropped the penny and began chanting "One Mississippi, Two Mississipi, Three Mississippi..." and so on. At 15 Mississippi, he stopped.

"I didn’t hear it strike," the Youth Pastor said. "Did you?"

"No, I didn’t," she said. "It must be bottomless."

"Well, it can’t be bottomless, but it’s very deep."

"Very deep," she said.

"I’d better talk to Zwingli," the Youth Pastor said. "We need to get some measurements."

The Youth Pastor went into the educational wing of the church and was gone for a few minutes. The lady volunteer picked up some trash in the parking lot and, then, sat in her car. Zwingli came down the sidewalk with the Youth Pastor – they had a yardstick and bright-beam flashlight.

The aluminum tube was 15 inches wide. The flash light showed mirrored reflections dimming to grey and, then, darkness.

"I can’t see any bottom," Zwingli said.

"It’s bottomless," the volunteer secretary said.

"Bottomless usually means about 42 feet," the Youth Pastor said.

The janitor came from sanctuary toting a panel of plywood just cut with its raw edge leaking sawdust. He came to the aluminum-sided pit and set the plywood over the hole. "There," he said. He replaced the orange cones on top of the plywood.

"That’ll keep people from falling in," the janitor said.

"No one could fall in," the Youth Pastor replied.

The lady volunteer grimaced a little. "Someone could pitch an unwanted new-born down that hole," she said.

"You’d have to cram the kid down," the Youth Pastor observed.

"They’re very tiny," the volunteer secretary and receptionist said.

The next day, Pastor Pederson called the City Engineer. He asked if there were steam tunnels or some other infrastructure near the Church. The Engineer said that the Church was in a residential neighborhood and that he didn’t know why there should be a shaft of unknown depth in that area. He came to the Church and photographed the tube inserted in the parking lot and, then, looked at some topographic maps. "It probably is some sort of drain to the river," he told Pastor Pederson.

At the end of the week, two hydrogeologists driving a State truck came to the Church. They used a plumb line to sound the tunnel but had only 350 feet of measuring tape. The tunnel was deeper.

"Were there military facilities here?" one of the hydrogeologists asked.

"Not to my knowledge," Pastor Pederson said.


"What would they mine here?" the Pastor asked.

The scientists dropped six blood-colored sacks down the hole. The sacks looked like blister-wrapped chicken liver. It was dye that could be used to track any drainage through the hole.

"You’ll clog it," the Youth Pastor said.

"Clog what?" one of the hydro-geologists replied.

Over the weekend, three local boy scout troops and several interns working for the City waded in the shallows under the river banks. A lot of construction debris had been dumped at the edge of the river over the generations and it was hard to walk amidst the rotting timbers and the shattered pieces of sidewalk and the ham-sized chunks of fractured asphalt with the savage mesh of re-rod eroding through slabs of broken concrete. The densely wooded ravines above the river held suspended refrigerators and TV sets and parts of car bodies. A couple boy scouts cut themselves on broken glass. Toward the end of the day, an intern called out that the river was pink just below the dam. Falling water hung in a silver veil over the dam and the old mill pond upstream still had some ice floating in its center and aggressive robins were strutting and prancing on the turf overhanging the river banks.

The City Engineer verified that the river was tinted pink in the sandy shallows just downstream of the dam, but also found the guts of a half-dozen fish decorating a slab of pavement that extended like a wharf into the stream. On the river-walk on the bluff, a couple of Laotian immigrants were walking away from their fishing hole.

"It’s just fish-blood," the City Engineer said.

No trace of dye dropped into the hole was found.

Pastor Zwingli was off on Mondays and worked only a half-day on Tuesday. The Youth Pastor usually went to the Cities on Thursday night and didn’t come back to town until mid-afternoon on Sunday. So the only day that they could reliably meet was Wednesday. After the volunteer receptionist and secretary had left for the day, Pastor Pederson and the Youth Pastor met in the Senior Pastor’s office. Pastor Pederson ostentatiously shut the door even though the church was empty except for one old lady baking a funeral cake in the kitchen.

"We have to develop a cost-effective plan to get that hole in the parking lot filled," Pastor Pederson said.

"I agree," the Youth Pastor replied.

"We’ve got a few people in the congregation who apparently think that the hole is an opening into Hell," Pastor Pederson said.

"H - E - double hockey sticks," the Youth Pastor said, whistling between his teeth.

"They say that if you put your ear close to the hole, you can hear new-born babies crying down there," Pastor Pederson said.

"Is that true?"

"I wouldn’t think so," Pastor Pederson said.

"Why would new-born infants be in Hell anyway?" the Youth Pastor asked.

"I don’t even believe in the place," Pastor Pederson said, " the whole concept is wrong, inconsistent with our theology: – it’s medieval bullshit."

"Well.... you know: it’s in our Creed – ‘he descended into Hell and on the third day he rose..." the Youth Pastor replied.

"It’s a mistranslation – it should be he descended down to the local garbage dump outside Jerusalem – Sheol right?"

"Or," the Youth Pastor said, "He descended to the dead."

"Whatever," Pastor Pederson said. "You can’t have an infinitely loving God and a place of eternal punitive torment."

"I don’t know," the Youth Pastor said. "I find Hell to be a useful mental category. It’s fun to imagine people I don’t like cooking down there."

"So do I," Pastor Pederson said. "But we’re not talking about theology. We have to keep that in mind. We’re talking about a hole in the asphalt near our sidewalk."

"It’s got to be fixed," the Youth Pastor said.

"I’ll call Darwin Vulture," Pastor Pederson said. "He’s our best resource on things like this."

Mr. Vulture’s pick-up truck was alarming. It had fog lights on metal stanchions that rose above the cab like antennae, a black King cab long and sleek as a limousine, and huge flotation tires, duals in the rear, that lifted the driver’s seat up above the pavement like a throne. The side of the truck, drawn up next to the hole bored into the asphalt, told the world Darwin Vulture was a "dirt man" and that he did business with his sons – the latter insignia was untrue: Darwin was quarrelsome, a trait he had passed to his boys, and the last time he had seen them was in court at a hearing arising out a squabble over the ownership of a half-dozen Ziegler graders. He was small and wiry, a lean bundle of sinew and he wore a baseball cap over his bald head and big round sunglasses that made him look vaguely nocturnal. His beak was bright with varicose veins and shoulders were flared up above his armpits.

Darwin was profane and bullied everyone around him, but he had also made a fortune in his earthmoving and grading business and, so, even, Pastor Pederson was a little afraid of him. Darwin was very old, but he had supernatural energy and there was something indelibly exorbitant about him. For many years, he had served on the Church Council, ordering people around as if the Church were his private corporation and, although the others resented his management style, the congregation had to acknowledge, grudgingly in many cases, that his leadership brought prosperity and that Faith Lutheran Church was successful in outreach, always had new members in a favorable demographic (young professional families with lots of babies to baptize), praised the Lord with several excellent, and well-staffed choirs, and, even, could afford to tithe its support to Mission Work in Burkina Faso (obstetrical and neo-natal clinics). Darwin was tight-fisted and astute with investments and, when he retired from the Church Council, several managers from the Company, capable men in their own right, were required to do the tasks that he had completed on his own.

Darwin slid down off his patent letter throne and stood next to his big truck, blinking at the hole that the Youth Pastor had exposed by kicking aside the orange cones and sliding the plywood off the shaft. Pastor Pederson had been picking up litter from the lawn and putting it in a black garbage bag. He set down the bag and shook Darwin’s hand. Darwin’s had strange hands, mutilated and stubby – he had ground off a couple of fingers both right and left. He wrists were scabby with half-healed dog bites. He big old German Shepherd, Duke, was in the back seat of the King Cab snarling at everyone, bearded with white lather. When the dog suddenly barked from the back of the pick-up, the Youth Pastor who had not noticed the beast was startled and jumped high in the air.

Darwin Vulture told Pastor Pederson that his wife had given him a two-ton crawler-loader with a detachable 100 inch bucket as well as earthmoving blade for his 80th birthday. "It’s fun as hell," Darwin said. "I take the tractor and just butcher trees, I knock them down in the wood-lot or shelter belt. Then, I push them together and make big piles. You should see them burn. It’s my toy."

"Why are you clearing the trees?" Pastor Pederson asked.

"For shits and giggles," Darwin said.

"No really?" Pastor Pederson asked again.

"Because he can," the Youth Pastor said in a half-whisper.

"Because I can," Darwin said.

He stood over the hole to Hell as if he were going to piss in it, legs apart, mangled hands on his hips.

"How deep?" Darwin asked.

"Bottomless," Pastor Pederson said.

"That usually means about 60 feet," Darwin said.

Darwin squatted to inspect the shaft. He kicked a stone over its edge and cocked an ear to the pit, lips moving: "One-Mississippi, two-Mississippi, etc."

"I don’t hear any bottom," Darwin said.

Darwin went to his pickup truck and found a long black baton of a flash light. He pointed the flashlight down into the hole. The Shepherd dog howled mournfully.

Darwin lit a Swisher Sweet cigarillo and leaned back against his truck.

"We’ll have to cap it," he said. "I don’t think we can fill the thing. This means I’ll have to set some kind of metal plug down a couple feet and, then, pour asphalt into the hole until its full."

Pastor Peterson nodded his head.

Darwin Vulture said that a couple months after his retirement, he decided to dig a hole in his back pasture straight down to China.

"How far did you get?" The Youth Pastor asked.

"Well, it’s 7951 miles through the core of the earth to China and I don’t think I got more that a third of that way."

"Why did you stop?" Pastor Pederson asked.

"Molten lava," Darwin Vulture said.

Pastor Pederson looked at him quizzically.

"No," Darwin said. "I got about 20 feet down and I hit a concrete shelf. Turned out to be the roof of a Bomb Shelter that the previous owner had built and fully equipped and, then, when the Berlin Wall came down just plowed under."

"A bomb shelter?"

"Fully equipped," Darwin said. " A dozen 55 gallon drums of water, bags of rice, a whole room full of peanut butter, gas-powered electrical generator – I retrieved that from the shelter."

"Did you know it was there?"

"No," Darwin Vulture said. "But when you dig you find all sorts of stuff: Indian arrowheads, old cemeteries full of bones and hairy skulls and brass handles on the rotted caskets, subterranean rivers..."

He paused: "You know if you were to jump into a bore-hole all the way through the earth’s core, you’d fall very fast at first, but, then, the air pressure would increase so that it would be like sinking down through water. Then, you’d just stop right there, a couple thousand miles down, corked up by the density of the air pressure and cooked alive by the adjacent magma – it’s maybe 1000 degrees down there."

"You couldn’t fall through the earth anyway," Pastor Pederson said. "Wouldn’t gravity pull you back down to the center?

"Right," Darwin Vulture said. "If you evacuated the tunnel, pumped out the air, to avoid the problem of the air resistance of several hundred atmospheres, you’d keep falling and shoot past the core, and, then, fall up, I suppose, toward the surface in China before the gravity would catch you and suck you back down and, then, you’d yo-yo back and forth through the center of the earth until ultimately coming to a complete stop right at the molten core, where it’s like 5000 degrees Fahrenheit."

"Is that right?" the Youth Pastor said.

"You betcha," Darwin said. "But you’d break up anyway long before you got to the core. You see the earth is rotating and the Coriolis effect would hammer you against the sides of the bore-hole, back and forth, until you were pretty much atomized, ripped to shreds.

"I never thought of that," Pastor Pederson said.

"It’s part of the problem of digging a hole to China – you got the air resistence, the deadly heat, the Coriolis effect, and, of course, the fall-out shelter right in the way only twenty feet down with its metal bunks and moldy mattresses and the peanut butter and drums of water."

"Maybe, this is ventilation for a fall-out shelter down below," the Youth Pastor said.

"Or a whole underground City," Darwin Vulture said.

"Some people say it goes straight to Hell," Pastor Pederson said.

"Maybe it does," Darwin replied.

Darwin said that he would call the City Engineer and ask the authorities to treat the shaft as a sand-point well. In some parts of the town, every house had an old sand-point well, hand-dug in the pioneer era – unless properly sealed, these pits oozed pesticides and hydro-carbons down into the aquifer and poisoned the ancient glacial waters there. "We’ll see if we can follow that ordinance," Darwin said.

A couple days later, Darwin came to the church parking lot, his big pick-up flanked by two dump trucks. A few old men who were members of the church stood around kibbitzing. They teased each other, joked with Darwin’s truckdrivers and pitched some pieces of gravel down the aluminum tube. The City Engineer arrived as well to watch the work.

An agile young man climbed down from Darwin’s truck. He was chewing tobacco. The young man squatted next to the bore-hole, aiming a flashlight down the shaft. He dropped a fiber-optic probe plugged into his battered laptop set on the asphalt next to the hole. The screen showed greenish reflections as the probe rapelled down into the darkness. Dangling from the end of the wire, the probe showed the gleaming surface of the circumferential tube with darkness above and below.

The young man said that he was surprised. In his experience, most "bottomless holes" were about 70 feet deep. The probe was hanging 150 feet below the surface.

"Why would it be that deep?" the young man asked.

"We don’t even know what it is," Darwin Vulture said.

The young man spit on the asphalt. Then, he rolled over on his side and put one of his ears directly over the hole.

"What do you hear?"

"I can’t tell," the young man said. "Voices maybe."

"It’s from up here," Darwin said, pointing to the peanut-gallery of old men, several of them sitting on canvas folding chairs. They were cackling at some joke and clapping their hands together.

The young man got up and went to the pick-up, bringing two white jugs of Chlorox bleach. He opened the bleach and kneeling by the hole poured the fluid down the sides of the aluminum tube. Then, a truck came and funneled a couple cubic yards of washed limestone chips into the shaft. The limestone chips were very white and glittered in the sun. The other truck backed up to the hole and funneled a couple cubic yards of black, sooty Bentonite clay down the shaft. The two trucks alternated dumping limestone chips and Bentonite into the hole. When the limestone rattled down the hole, a haze of snow-white dust stood man-high over the pit. The Bentonite rose in a plume like dark smoke over the shaft.

When both trucks were empty, the young man dropped his fiber-optic probe down the tube. There was no sign of either the washed limestone chips or the Bentonite clay.

"It must go straight down to Hell," the young man said, shaking his head and spitting on the asphalt.

The City Engineer went to the side of Darwin Vulture’s truck and spoke with old dirt man. Then, the Engineer left.

"We’re on our own here," Darwin Vulture said. "He don’t have any good ideas." Darwin pointed in the direction that the City Engineer had gone.

"I’ll fill in the goddamn thing tomorrow," Darwin Vulture said.

Pastor Pederson blinked at him.

"Pardon my French," Darwin Vulture said, "but I’ll cap the son-of-a-bitch tomorrow."

Pastor Pederson blinked again and the Youth Minister grinned.

Darwin couldn’t come the next day or the next. It was raining, a hard soaking downpour, and the fields and woods were wet and half-drowned worms decorated the sidewalk with limp, pink curlicues. The third day was almost dry and Darwin came on the fourth morning with a Ziegler grader fitted with a front-end bucket and a big, ugly-looking auger mounted on stilt-like pads that could be retracted or extended according to the terrain.

Darwin’s men used the auger to twist about twelve-feet of aluminum tubing out of the hole. The aluminum tubing was coiled into spiral, something like the silver skin of an apple pared away from the fruit. Two of Darwin’s helpers jack-hammered asphalt away from the tube to a distance of about a car-length. Then, with his grader, Darwin gouged out a cup-shaped hole down to the raw metal twisted up over the open bore.

The sun was above the trees and the dew in the grass evaporated into a pale haze. Darwin and his helpers drove off to Burger King in the big black pick-up. Pastor Pederson had retreated into his office during the jack-hammering – the heavy concussions gave him a headache. Fragments of asphalt like the pieces of a perverse monochrome puzzle were scattered across the parking lot. A crater with steep, slick-looking yellow clay walls opened downward to the silver twist of aluminum casing.

Pastor Pederson wondered about the voices that people said they had heard echoing in the vertical shaft. On an impulse, he stepped over the rim of the crater and, then, slid down the steep side, launching little avalanches of clay and gravel behind him. The coil of metal casing looked very sharp, a torn blade suspended over the open bore.

Pastor Pederson dropped to his knees and, then, slid sideways, cocking his head toward the metal tube. He closed his eyes to listen. At first, he heard birds singing in nearby shrubs, a truck shifting on an incline, the faint rattle of dislodged pebbles and sand sifting down the sides of the crater. It took him a little while to ease into the sound coming from the hole. It was very faint -- the whisper that you hear when you hold sea-shell to your ear, something tidal, the wash of waves, perhaps, a tiny voice murmuring something unintelligible, the hoof-beats of your heart carrying you along the deserted beach.

Something moistened his cheek. Pastor Pederson sat up and groped at his ear. The razor-sharp edge of the auger-torn casing had cut him and an ooze of blood ran down under his right ear-lobe. He struggled to his feet and climbed half-way up the crater’s side before losing his footing and sliding back down to the bottom. He tried again, got to eye-level with the shattered asphalt and, then, slid back down into the pit. Exertion made him breathe heavily and, when he looked down at this hands, Pastor Pederson saw that they were bloody. After he caught his breath, he lunged at the side of the crater again, but achieved nothing other than a landslide of clay and gravel that buried his feet and ankles. The old men who had been spectators to the previous attempt to cap the Hell-mouth were nowhere in evidence.

A mentally retarded man named Gary lived a block from the church. Pastor Pederson saw him sitting on his bicycle looking down into the crater.

"What are you doing down there?" Gary asked.

"Just looking," Pastor Pederson said. "Can you help me to climb out?"

"Sure," Gary said. He dropped his bike on its side, and, before Pastor Pederson could say anything, slid down into the bottom of the crater.

"Don’t!" Pastor Pederson shouted. But Gary took hold of the twisted coil of casing. He cut himself and stepped back.

"Sharp!" Gary cried. It didn’t look like a very bad cut but the palm of Gary’s hand was bleeding vigorously.

The Youth Pastor had just returned from lunch. His Mini-Cooper was parked at the opposite end of the lot. He ambled over to the crater.

"What are you doing down there?" the Youth Pastor asked.

"We can’t get out – the sides of the hole are too steep and this metal is like a razor-blade," Pastor Pederson said, pointing to the twisted casing.

"I’ll get you out," the Youth Pastor said. He stooped over and extended his hand down to Gary. The retarded man was crying a little because of the gash in the palm of his hand. Gary took hold of the Youth Pastor’s hand clutching him with both of his hands. He started up the side of the crater but, then, fell back, dragging the Youth Pastor into the hole.

The three men sat with the bore-hole between them as if it were fire-pit or a common hearth. Gary cried a little because he was cut, dabbing at his eyes so that his cheek and nose were sticky with blood and ocher-colored clay. After a few minutes, Darwin Vulture returned. He and his helpers laughed at the men in the hole. Then, they dropped down some ropes and, one by one, the trapped men dragged themselves up out of the crater, first Gary, then, the Youth Pastor, and, at last, Pastor Pederson.

Darwin Vulture’s helpers slid down the sides of the crater, snipped off the twisted casing with a tin shears, and set a galvanized wire mesh with half-inch grating over the open bore. They set another grating with 1/4 inch mesh across the larger grating. Darwin Vulture dropped a four by four plywood form into the crater and they poured a couple yards of concrete into the box that was staked around the mesh. They set a lattice of re-rod over the freshly poured concrete and poured more concrete to seal the Hell-Mouth. They put orange-cone barriers around the open crater. The next day when the concrete was set, they dumped gravel into the pit up to grade, carted away the spoil and the broken asphalt and, then, poured a concrete patch over the place where the crater had been. The job cost about 4900 dollars but what else could you do?

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Pledge Drive




The Spring Pledge Drive at the Public Radio Station didn’t go well. The Station was under attack at the Endowment of the Arts and politicians in Washington had promised to punish the non-profit organization for its audio documentaries on hazing in the military (decried as "unpatriotic") and gay marriage. Indeed, Congressman Pritchard, representing a largely rural section of the State, made a vehement speech threatening an investigation to withdraw the Station’s non-profit status under 501( c) (3) – "if they want to advocate along Democratic party lines," Representative Pritchard bellowed, then, they "should be taxed like any other political advocacy organization."

In past Pledge Drives, a whole bank of telephones were installed in the downtown studio and volunteers were recruited to man the phones and take incoming calls making pledges. But the paradigm was shifting: in the last pledge drive, half the phone operators had nothing to do, since more donations were pledged on-line than by phone. So during the this Spring Pledge Drive, only six phone operators were on-duty per shift. And, as it happened, this turned-out to be six too many.

Just after the Winter Pledge Drive, Addison "Whiskers" McGee, the avuncular long-time host of the Station’s most popular progam, Li’l Ole Opry of the North (abbreviated LOON) had been accused of serial sexual harassment amounting in some instances to attempted rape. LOON had been an anchor program for the station for more than 30 years – it was a kind of country-and-western variety show, Hee-Haw with Proust and Hemingway jokes. The show was broadcast live from the State Fair and traveled around the country and was a venerable, highly profitable institution. Addison "Whiskers" McGee was the public face of the Station and, so, when he was accused of misconduct, summarily fired, and, in fact, expunged from broadcast, re-runs of his vast library of shows also wholly forbidden and announcers admonished not to mention him by name, eyebrows were raised and many contributors, particularly corporate sponsors balked at making donations. "Whiskers" was replaced by an enthusiastic and, apparently, deeply sentimental mandolin player, Jeremy Benson, who began each show by leading the audience in singing Lutheran and Methodist hymns. The LOON show was re-named North Country Pickin’ and Grinnin’ and it also quickly ran into trouble – Benson was accused of beating his wife with a frying pan and he also had to be summarily discharged.

Callers offering donations to the Spring Pledge Drive fell into two parties: the "due process" camp denounced the Station for firing "Whiskers" and Jeremy on grounds of political correctness and without a thorough investigation of the allegations against the two hosts. But, in fact, the Station had conducted an independent investigation and concluded that "Whiskers" was well-known to all employees at LOON as an inveterate sexual harasser, a man who had once written on a white board in the Station’s conference room an elaborate and bawdy stanza in "Rime Royale" featuring no less than five rhymes on the word "ratio." The problem with the investigation, publicized to some extent just before the Pledge Drive, was that it showed that everyone was aware that "Whiskers" was prone to attempted rape and that, until his firing, management had done nothing. (And the allegations about Jeremy were a matter of public record, a public record that apparently no one had scrutinized before hiring him as "Whiskers" successor.) These factors explained the second category of callers – those who contacted the station to denounce it for failing to act with proper alacrity and forcefulness when it became aware of the crimes and misdemeanors committed by its on-air talent. This latter camp, the "cover-up" callers, were just as angry as the "due process" donors, indeed, enraged to a point approaching threats of physical violence.

And, then, in the midst of the Pledge Drive, management received a phone call from someone outraged that no one was manning the phone banks and that those hoping to donate by making their pledges to a volunteer were being wholly unheeded. The woman taking this call on the news tip line hurried down to the studio where the six volunteers were supposed to be stationed at their phones. The phones were lit-up and buzzing with calls but no one was there. The station manager saw that the corridor door was open and, further, that the door to parking lot was askew. She went outside and found the six volunteers engaged in a fist-fight – they had divided into "due process" and "cover-up" combatants, three on each side, and were hurling feeble punches and insults at one another. One of the lady volunteers, with her braided grey dreadlocks whirling, shrieked "Fascist!" while another woman, plump with prominent rosacea on her cheeks, dived at her knees, in an attempt to tackle her – "Sexist!" the plump lady cried.

A little later that day, Ian and Carrie were on-air. A local Indian casino had offered a challenge grant and the two broadcasters were trying to gin up pledges to match the grant money. Carrie received an email that Jennifer in Edina had made a 10 dollar a month pledge, thereby entitling her to a tote bag and public radio stocking cap. Jennifer’s pledge was registered on-line and, in the comment section, below her address and the pledge amount, she had typed: I am a news-slut. I am a whore for the Facts. Just call me a Truth Junkie. At a break, while they were broadcasting an abbreviated version (due to the ongoing Pledge Week) of Ira Flatow’s Science Friday, Carrie showed Ian the email. "We need to acknowledge her on-air," Carrie said. "But I don’t think we can read that." "No, no," Ian said. "We can’t read that."

After the break, Carrie said to listeners: "We want to thank Jennifer in Eden Prairie for her generous donation. Jennifer, you know who you are – she says she’s an addict for public radio news." Ian muted his microphone and mouthed to Carrie: "It’s Jennifer from Edina not Eden Prairie." Carrie mouthed back: "Same difference."

The story has a sequel. After the pledge drive, Ian looked up Jennifer from Edina on the internet. He found her Facebook page. The picture showed a pale vampirish woman with red lips. Jennifer, the news slut, was an intellectual property lawyer, and her mother was a well-known State representative. Ian was intrigued and sent her some flirtatious messages and she "friended" him. Later, they met, went on dates, and began a relationship. Ian and Jennifer, the news slut, married and, if I am not mistaken, have two children. Unless they are divorced, they are still together today.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Lacrimae Rerum

It was twenty minutes before dawn, and, although the sky was half-lit, the narrow valley remained dark and shadowy. The trail leading down to the river and footbridge had not been groomed since the last blizzard and David M – saw that it was icy. Although he had chains wrapped around his boots, he suspected that the steep switchbacks grooving the hillside would be too slippery to traverse and he didn’t want to risk a fall. No one was around – the homes on the river bluffs behind him were mostly dark and the streets deserted. Across the river, the town stood on a terrace above the black waters – someone was walking a dog there, precariously picking a way through patches of ice. A lamp still shone above the dumpster next to the old building that had once been a train station but was now a single’s bar. One car was stopped at the red light on Main Street. A mile away the freeway throbbed with early risers driving to work.

David M – followed the foot path on the hilltop. A dog let out to do its business barked at him from a fenced backyard. The trail was level and crossed the empty fields between School for the Blind and the Medium Security Prison. The wind had cut the snow into elegant porpoise-shaped drifts and the hollows on the hill were blue with shadowy ice. The sun was rising when he came to the railroad trestle and, then, the highway bridge slanting down to cross the valley. As he hiked across the bridge, the buckles of his chains clattering on the concrete, a couple cars passed him. One of his patients recognized him and pulled to stop next to where he was walking on the bridge.

"Do you want a ride, Doc?" the man in the car asked.

"No, I am walking a little for my health," David M – said. "But thank you anyway."

The driver nodded to him and continued on his way.

David M – thought about his medical practice. He remembered patients that he had seen twenty-five years before. Of course, they were almost all dead now. In the end, everyone died notwithstanding his best efforts. The cemeteries around town, he imagined, were full of his former patients. Death wasn’t a thing to be avoided. It could only be delayed.

The sidewalks in town were glazed with ice from a recent thaw. A couple times he slipped, but the chains on his boots kept him from falling.

The hospital and clinic stood next to the campus of the bible college. A carillon hidden in the concrete filigree of the Bible College tower sounded – the bells played a hymn that David M – recognized but couldn’t identify. Shift change was underway at the hospital and the new nurses on-duty were taking report from the night-shift. The parking lot was alive with people coming and going.

David M – stopped at the cafeteria in the hospital. He bought a large cup of coffee and a chocolate chip muffin. It was his custom to spend the first 45 minutes of his work-day reading case-studies in medical journals. He took off his coat and boots and put on a pair of shoes that he kept under his desk. Then, he sat down with a bound print copy of The New England Journal of Medicine, took a pen from his breast pocket and set an opened ledger next to the periodical. He wrote a few notes in the ledger as he read. On the shelf above his desk, there were thirty ledger books, all of them filled with his notes but covered with dust because he never looked at them, indeed, didn’t even touch them after the volume was put away.

Case 23 - 1683 was documented in the medical records of Massachusetts General Hospital and entitled Copious aseptic discharge bilaterally through fistulous apex of olecranon. David M – cocked his head and began to read. From time to time, he stroked his chin and made notes in his ledger.

The account was a collaboration between a Hospitalist at Mass Gen, two interns in internal medicine and orthopedic surgery respectively and two board-certified physicians, also an internal medicine specialist and orthopedic surgeon. David M – speculated as to which specialist had written which paragraph or sentence, suspecting, of course, that the prose by the orthopedic doctors would be clumsy, grandiose and rife with solecisms. But the editors of the periodical had, apparently, combed the prose so carefully that it was entirely without idiosyncrasy, a text that seemed to have been translated not once, but two or three times successively from completely unrelated foreign languages. It was the sort of prose that a space alien might write.

In fact, most of the report was written by a second-year resident in internal medicine, Evgeny Sugata. Evgeny was the eldest son of Russian Jews who had emigrated to the United States in 1988 when he was only one year old. His parents settled in Brooklyn and were both quickly disenchanted with life in the United States. The Jewish community in the neighborhood was very orthodox and conservative – but Evgeny’s parents were secular and didn’t attend the synagogue. Evgeny’s mother had been a gynecologist with a substantial practice in Leningrad; his father was a cardiologist. Neither of his parents spoke English when they came to the United States and they had difficulties with the language. Evgeny’s father drove cab to support the family and came home each day exhausted from fighting the traffic in the city. On a couple of occasions, he was mugged and beaten. Sometimes, drunken passengers threatened the cab driver or insulted him and this seemed a grave indignity to the older man who had, in fact, been a prominent physician in his native land. Evgeny’s mother had things worse – she was afraid of the neighborhood where the family lived and, so, she kept to herself and would not leave the apartment unaccompanied. People knew that she had been a gynecologist and, after a while, she began performing abortions for girls in the neighborhood. But one of those operations resulted in an infection and, then, death and, so, Evgeny’s mother was prosecuted for practicing medicine without a license. She pled guilty to the charge and spend two months in jail; part of her plea was that she agreed to never re-apply for a medical license in the United States. This aspect of the sentence she experienced as a profound insult and indignity – in her heart, she knew that she had been a capable, generous, and caring physician. One day, she said that she was going to visit a relative on Staten Island. She bought a ticket for the ferry but never arrived at her destination. A couple days later a featureless corpse washed up near Rockaway Beach wearing her clothes.

Evgeny’s father was broken by his wife’s death. He ignored his family, now consisting of Evgeny and his little sister, Sophia. Alcohol ravaged the family and Sophia was taken from the home to be raised by her Aunt on Staten Island. Finally, Evgeny’s father bought a one-way ticket to Moscow and went back to Russia without saying goodbye to his twenty-year old son, then, attending Columbia on a scholarship and enrolled in pre-med classes. The whole story was too complicated to tell and, so, Evgeny simply said that he was an orphan and, even, implied that his parents had died in a pogrom of some kind in Russia. One of his girlfriends said: "I don’t know how you’ve been so successful in school with this terrible tragedy in your family." Evgeny told her: "I’m an immigrant. I don’t have time for grief or sorrow. My children, I suppose, will mourn all this misfortune – I don’t have time." Later, his girlfriend accused Evgeny of being cold and, even, emotionally shallow: "If you won’t shed a tear for your parents and your sister, I’m pretty sure, you won’t have much compassion for me." Evgeny told her that his life would be lived in opposition to what happened to his parents:

"I will succeed where they failed." "I am revenging them," Evgeny said.

A professor at medical school encouraged Evgeny to consider writing case-studies to advance his career. "A case-study in a peer-reviewed journal" the professor said, "is quite a feather in your cap." Accordingly, Evgeny kept notes on some of his patients. His ambition was to have an article bearing his name published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

After graduating from Columbia, Evgeny commenced a residency in Internal Medicine at Mass General. It was there that he met Farrington W– . At the time of his illness, Farrington was living in Fall River, but had been raised West Roxbury, an elite neighborhood in Boston. Evgeny recognized the surname – most people living in Massachusetts would have read about Farrington’s family from time to time in the financial and social pages in the newspaper. Of course, Evgeny dutifully concealed the identity of his well-known patient. The case study begins: "A 24 year-old WM presented to his dermatologist with symptoms of psoriasis bilaterally at the apex of each oleocranon. The erythematous papules showed copious joint effusion. Fluid cultured from the discharge sites was aseptic and saline with trace amounts of lysomal enzymes as well as amylase. Treatment with topical cortisone and ultra-violet radiation was unsuccessful. Thereafter, systemic corticosteroids were prescribed without any long-term benefit to the patient. A course of methotrexate followed, also without any apparent benefit. The patient was referred to Massachusetts General Hospital where skin biopsy studies were conducted."

One of the key words searchable under the case study abstract is "tropical infections". To understand that reference, additional case history data is required.

Evgeny saw Farrington W– sitting on an white-papered examination table. He was slender with a sardonic smile. At first, Evgeny thought that he was homosexual but his somewhat affected, slightly British accent was an artifact of his education and status. He was blonde with bushy eyebrows that were remarkable fair, almost white. His eyes were blue and he had no discernible lips, merely a very slightly purplish trace outlining his mouth. When Evegeny looked at this tongue and uvula, he noticed that Farrington’s teeth were perfect, straight as little pale soldiers standing guard over pink gums – the order in his mouth seemed implausible, obviously the result of very expensive orthodontic treatments and dentistry. Evgeny noted that the patient was height-weight proportionate with narrow shoulders and narrower hips. His fingers were long, pale, and delicate. When he stretched them forth to itch at his inflamed elbows, Farrington’s fingertips had the aspect of a blind man’s fingers tentatively stroking a page pimpled with braille.

"My elbows have this wicked itch," Farrington said, groaning a little at his use of the word "wicked."

He tilted his shoulders upward so that Evgeny could examine his elbows. At the apex of both elbow bones, the olecranon, Evgeny observed a puffy reddish inflamation around the crater of a small urethral opening. Colorless fluid was oozing from the opening.

"This is fistulous," Evgeny said.

"Fabulous, you say," Farrington responded.

Evgeny probed both openings with a stainless steel sound. Farrington winced but didn’t complain of pain.

The discharge from the points of both elbows was copious, wetting the tissue on the examination table. Evgeny captured some samples of the discharge. It was both colorless and odorless with a slightly viscous or slimy texture.

Farrington had first noticed symptoms about four months earlier, a couple weeks after a trip to Bimini in the Bahamas.

It was not his first trip to Bimini. Farrington’s father had bank accounts on the islands and, in fact, was involved in some sort of business involving currency exchange. "Don’t ask me about it," Farrington said. "I never grasped what exactly my father did and, in fact, it was understood not to discuss that subject either publicly or privately."

Evgeny nodded.

It seemed that his father had been injured while using a jet-ski rented to him at the resort where he was staying. Some barrels were floating in the cove, mostly submerged, and the jet-ski crashed aground on them. Farrington’s father was flung clear but suffered a painful back injury. On the telephone, his father said that he had two compression fractures that were untreated except for a corset that he was wearing. "I will get my back fixed in Miami," his father said. He told Farrington that he had to facilitate an exchange and that, due to his injuries, he couldn’t accomplish this transfer. "So I need you to come down and make the transfer."

Farrington asked him why the transaction couldn’t be accomplished by a wire or some other electronic means. "You don’t understand," his father replied. He told him that a plane ticket was waiting for him at the airport in Boston.

Farrington flew to Nassau and stayed overnight in a hotel in Cable Beach. The next morning, he took a cab to the airport and where the once-daily flight to Bimini was scheduled to depart. The airline was called "Flamingo" and the little propeller-driven plane was painted a bright pink color. The sky was clear and cloudless to the far horizons and the archipelago of islands was spread below on an ocean dabbed and swathed with every imaginable tint of blue. Some of the islands were densely encrusted with houses and the lagoons were streaked with the wakes of speed boats. Other islands were uninhabited, swaddled in mangrove swamps or dissolving around the edges into dunes of lime-colored sand.

The plane landed on the North Island of Bimini. Farrington’s father was staying at an All-Inclusive on a pine-shadowed cove. The resort’s bar and restaurant were floating on pontoons in the limpid water. His father was confined to his room, propped half-upright on a mound of pillows. A cinnamon-colored nurse seemed to be staying with him or in the adjacent room. The older man looked haggard and his complexion was grey with streak of red flaring in his cheeks. He was drinking vodka and medicated so that he slurred his words. He explained the transfer to Farrington.

This case history need not be burdened with unnecessary detail, particularly when it doesn’t pertain directly to the syndrome at issue. It suffices to note that there was a rental car located in the resort’s parking lot and that, at a certain time, just as the sun was setting, Farrington was to drive the vehicle to a shed in Alice Town. Farrington’s father sketched the route from memory.

No one reminded Farrington that he had to drive the SUV on the left side of the road. The steering wheel and transmission were on the left side of the car just as you would expect in Massachusetts and, so, Farrington forgot the local rules of the road and almost crashed within the first 300 meters of his mission. But he recovered, made his way to Alice Town and found the shed, a rusting metal building with a badly storm-damaged roof located next to a particularly murky-looking slip. A big commercial fishing boat was moored there and some men wearing sunglasses notwithstanding the darkness – the sun had set en route to Alice Town – were standing next to the vessel. A couple men helped Farrington lug several heavy boxes from the back of the SUV to the boat. There were no introductions and Farrington didn’t say anything to the men at the slip. Driving back to the resort, Farrington was blinded by the oncoming headlights, coming at the front of the car from an unfamiliar angle, and he felt very dizzy – the air was humid and smelled of rot and crab-sized bugs with wings were buzzing around the street lamps.

The next day, Farrington drove his father to Alice Town. The nurse directed him to a baseball diamond on the edge of town and, after a few minutes, a helicopter appeared marked with insignia of a Miami hospital. The helicopter landed about where the shortstop would be positioned during a game. The nurse helped him into the ‘copter and it levitated over the pitcher’s mound, flattening some of the tall grass in the outfield with its rotor-wash. Then, the helicopter climbed and set out across the ocean.

Farrington drove the nurse into town and let her off at the clinic. He returned the rental car because he found that driving on the left side of the highway was disconcerting. A cab brought him back to the resort. His father had rented the room for a week and he had a couple days remaining at the All-Inclusive.

That night, at the floating bar, Farrington talked to an attractive young woman. She smelled slightly of cocoa-nut butter lotion and had braided hair that the sun seemed to be brightening to the color of corn-bread. The girl let Farrington buy her a few drinks. She said that she was a guest at the All-Inclusive but that her companion had jilted her.

"That show’s poor taste," Farrington said.

The drinks were watery and didn’t pack much punch. But the spongy floor of the floating bar was a little had to navigate. The sun set was too glorious: it brayed at them, orange and purple, like a hundred trumpets.

Farrington asked her about her date.

"It’s complicated," the girl said.

Farrington suggested that they go for a walk on the beach. "Too many bugs," she said. She told him that she had a reservation to visit the island’s famous "healing hole", a freshwater spring where the mineral-laden waters were supposedly medicinal. "It’s supposed to be wonderfully relaxing," the girl said. She told him that Ponce de Leon had discovered the spring and that it was reputed to be the Fountain of Youth. Farrington asked her to come to his room. "Have to leave early tomorrow on the excursion," the girl said. "You should go with me." Her name was Mandy.

"What’s early?" Farrington asked.

"Ten o’clock," she said.

"That’s not early," Farrington replied.

"Speak for yourself," Mandy said.

The next morning, he met Mandy at the dock. She was wearing a sleek black one-piece bathing suit and had wrapped her hips in a big, orange towel. "Where’s your swimming suit?" Mandy asked. "I didn’t bring one," he said. "You’re gonna skinny-dip?" Mandy asked. "I’ll swim in my underpants," Farrington told her.

An old woman wearing a windbreaker but with bare legs met them on the dock. A big black man with a round barrel-chest skillfully slid a flat-bottomed boat beside the dock. The black man’s head was shaved bald and glistened in the sun. He was very, very dark so that his features were hidden in the gloom except for the shark-flash of his teeth and the whites of his eyes were like the flames of an acetylene torch. The man spoke with a slight Scottish accent and his "r"-sounds were round with the roll of his brogue. Farrington thought to himself that the guide sounded like a suave and deadly villain in an old James Bond movie.

The old woman in the jacket, Mandy, and Farrington boarded the shallow-draft boat.

"We have to make time here," the James Bond villain guide said. "You can only reach the Hole at mid-tide."

The three tourists sat at the front of the boat and the guide fired the engine so that they flew out of the cove and around the point of land where some palm trees were embedded in big boulders all white with bird-lime. They followed the pale sand beach to a place where it began to dissolve into reefs of wet gravel interspersed with great half-drowned ranks of mangrove trees. After a while, there was no trace of the beach at all and flat-bottomed boat was whirring through a channel surrounded by bushes that seemed to float on the salt swamp water. The canal beneath them looked pale and milky and the mangroves were green, heaped with leaves on spidery branches that rested atop a crooked tangled of bare roots. The roots were like puzzles embedded in the swamp-water, reaching down to the pale, white-veined sand at the bottom of the channel. The whole floating jungle, with its water and labyrinth of narrow canals, changed color every time a cloud crosse the sun and dimmed the light – in the sun, the mangrove swamp glittered and raw, salt-encrusted roots seemed fragile and dead, but when the shadows slipped over the watery landscape the leaves on the trees looked grey and the water changed to the color of brown silt and the crouching tangles of roots looked animate, tense and coiled as if ready to spring.

A couple of times, they stopped in the channel, at wider places where there was space to swim, and the tourists jumped in the water. It looked as if the water was very shallow, only a couple feet deep, but where they slid into the sea, the water was deep enough to swallow them to the neck.

After a half hour gliding through the swamp, the guide stopped the boat, shut off the outboard, and moored the vessel to a tree.

"Here we go by foot," he said. A hundred feet ahead of them another flat-bottomed boat was bobbing in the channel, also anchored to the roots of mangrove.

"Are you kidding me?" Mandy said.

"It’s not far," the guide said.

"By foot?" she asked.

"We wade," the guide said.

The water was waist-deep, brackish, and warm as bath water. They followed the guide along a narrow opening between the closely clustered trees. At times, branches gathered over them as a canopy and they had to duck and swim with their chins in the water to keep from being scratched by tangle of tree above. Once, a big pelican-like bird stirred up directly ahead of them and flew skyward, dangling down legs like a serpent’s body. A fat greenish spider sat on one of the branches that they glided under.

The swamp-bottom was sandy with dead leaves that, sometimes, swirled in fragments up and around them so it seemed that they were splashing forward in tea.

The guide stopped. They heard voices. For a moment, it was uncanny, a vibrating hum in the tangle of mangrove trees. "Om Vashrahani Uum." The chant continued. The guide dramatically drew apart a veil of mangrove branches. The hole was elliptical, roughly the shape of a pear, although this was something you gathered only by measuring out the spring with your body. The water smelled faintly of sulphur and it was suddenly, startlingly cold – there was no gradient between the soup-warm lagoon water and the scrotum-tightening chill of the spring boiling up in the middle of the swamp. Four women were arranged on their backs, floating on surface of the hole, and they made a pattern like an Escher print, interlocked arms and legs. The women were wearing bathing caps and yellow suits and floating with their eyes closed, chanting at the sky. A skinny charcoal-colored tour-guide wearing a baseball cap and soccer jersey stood at the opposite edge of the spring.

After a few minutes, the women floating on their backs stopped chanting and dropped their feet to the sandy bottom of the hole. Cold currents brushed their shins and calves, as if icy fish were finning by them. The more they splashed and moved the more the air reeked of sulphur. The women apologized and bowed to them and, then, their guide led them back toward the main channel.

"It’s nothing like I imagined," Mandy said.

The trees dangled branches down very low, so that they had to wiggle through them, and the cold draft of water rising from below numbed their feet and thighs. The water was chest-deep and they crouched to submerge themselves in the spring. The guide opened his mouth and swallowed some of the water although he spit it out.

"It will heal you," the guide said. "It will make healthy and strong."

He began to sing the hymn "Amazing Grace." His big bald black head made him look like a seal.

After he was done singing, Farrington and the old lady clapped. The old lady said that the spring water was rejuvenating – "I don’t feel a year older than fifty," she said.

Then, they turned and waded back to the flat-bottomed boat. The guide pulled out a cooler and offered them each a beer, Dockyard Pale Ale. The old lady and Farrington sipped the beer. He had a bottle of tequila in the cooler as well. Mandy said she would like to drink a few shots and so he handed her the bottle.

On the way back to the resort, the guide pointed out a bronze monument to Martin Luther King, several unusual birds standing on one leg on a mud-flat, and a large skinny fish with the hide of an alligator – it was some kind of salt-water sturgeon. A frog jumped from a lily pad and landed in the bottom of the boat. Later, Farrington told Evgeny that he had touched the frog and, then, possibly brought his hands up to his mouth while sipping the beer. He denied intentionally drinking water from the spring although he said that some drops might have got in his mouth. He had some suspicious-looking insect bites that he discovered on his buttocks and shoulders after the trip through the mangrove swamp but they healed right away.

At the resort dock, Farrington told the guide, whose name was Baron, to wait there so that he could go to his room to get him a tip. "No, sir," Baron said. "It’s all-inclusive."

"I want to tip you," Farrington said.

"If you wish," Baron replied. But when Farrington came back to the dock with a 20 dollar bill, the guide was gone.

That night, Farrington hooked-up with Mandy. Mandy said that normally she charged for her services but, in his case, it was "already bought and paid for." She told Farrington that she was returning to Miami the next morning. Farrington told Evgeny that he used a condom when he had intercourse with her. Mandy said that the water of the spring was evidently good for your skin – she told Farrington that her C-section scar was almost invisible after bathing in the "healing hole" and that some stretch-marks on her upper thighs had simply vanished.

Farrington took the Flamingo flight back to Nassau at noon and, then, returned to Boston.

About two months after his trip to Bimini, police executed a pre-dawn raid on the West Roxbury home where Farrington’s father was living. Computers and financial records were seized and Farrrington’s father, who was then encased in body cast, was briefly taken into custody. Farrington’s mother called him to say that she suspected all phone lines connecting to the West Roxbury address were tapped.

At the same time, Farrington noticed a reddish rash at the points of both of his elbows. The rash was uncomfortably itchy and Farrington scratched at his skin until his fingernails were specked with blood. He consulted with a general practictioner who suspected that the inflammation was some form of contact dermatitis. The GP told him to change his shower soup and use a different laundry detergent. Farrington was given some topical salves and told to return in ten days.

Farrington was living in Brooklyn at that time, part of a team of writers providing comedy material to a late night TV show. He worked out in the gym four times a week. In the gym, he wore athletic tape wrapped around his elbows and told his trainer that he had a susceptibility to bursitis and elbow dislocation – "it happened when I was playing tennis last year," he said. He didn’t want others to see his elbows because they were red, scabbed over where his fingernails had cut his skin, and the inflammation was puffy and purulent. One day, after exercising, Farrington noticed that he had trouble pulling his shirt on over his biceps. Those muscles seemed to have become hypertrophic. He wasn’t conscious of doing a lot of exercises to build muscle mass in his upper arms and so this puzzled him. Furthermore, his enlarged bicep didn’t feel hard and muscular – instead, there was a swampy, puffy feeling to the muscle.

Farrington met his mother at a delicatessen near JFK. She told him that she was now under indictment and that she suspected the federal government of threatening her with prison as a way of inducing a guilty plea from his father.

"I’ll be next," Farrington told her. He put his fingers to his eyes, expecting to find his cheeks wet with tears, but no moisture was there. The itching in his elbows was maddening him.

"What do you mean?" his mother asked him. Farrington said that he didn’t want to tell her.

"The lawyer says that it will all work out," she told Farrington.

Farrington was wearing a long-sleeve shirt and the cloth at the elbows was soaked with discharge.

A few more weeks passed. Farrington saw a dermatologist who suggested that that elbow inflammation was some sort of parasitic infection. An intravenous infusion of antibiotics was administered. Medi-honey leptospermum gel was applied to the wound and sterile dressings were wrapped around both elbows. Farrington had to change the dressings three-times a day and this was difficult for him to accomplish without help. He was ashamed of the condition and felt that it was stigmatizing and, so, he had to attend to the wound on his own.

One night, he was performing some new material in comedy club in the East Village. Farrington had written some jokes about his father, whom he called "the Racketeer." The show was stressful and some of the material flopped and, while he debating the gags with a heckler, the dressing on his left arm ruptured. A flood of warm, slippery fluid poured down his forearm. At first, Farrington thought that a blood vessel had torn and that he was bleeding to death. The colorless fluid spilled off his finger tips and when he moved his hands droplets were flung in all directions. People in the front tables leaned back in their chairs because Farrington seemed to be dissolving and melting before their eyes. So much fluid poured out of his left elbow that his shirt was soaked and a puddle formed on the floor and, when he cut short his routine, and tried to exit the stage, he slipped in the fluid and fell. Some people in the audience thought this was an intentional pratfall and guffawed. Farrington went back stage and found that his left bicep muscle seemed deflated and slack. When he flexed his arm, fluid squirted from the tip of his elbow. The next morning, Farrington awoke in a bed awash with fluid. His right elbow was squirting fluid into his sheets and mattress whenever he moved his arm.

Farrington took the train to Boston where he had several friends in medical school. One of his friends was interning with Evgeny at Mass General and it was, at that place, that the discharge though his elbows was treated.

Evgeny’s treatment, supervised by several senior doctors, involved draining and electro-cauterizing the interior of the cysts located bilaterally in the tissue of his biceps. The course of therapy was complex and involved skin auto-grafts. By the time of the trial in Federal Court of Farrington’s father, drainage through fistulas had been controlled and Farrington was well on his way toward recovery. His mother told him to keep his distance from his father and not attend the trial. When he next saw his father, he had been released on bond pending his appeal of the jury verdict against him. Farrington’s father looked exceedingly weak and thin – he seemed to be in a great deal of pain from the compression fractures that he sustained in the Bermudas. Farrington saw him at a restaurant in a famous hotel in Boston where they met for lunch. While they were eating, a man came up and tried to take their picture. Farrington stood and punched the man in the face. The journalist was expelled. He waited outside on the sidewalk and, when Farrington came outside, the photo-journalist swung his camera tripod into his face and broke his nose. Farrington sat on the curb, holding his smashed nose between his thumb and forefingers, dizzy and waiting for an ambulance. A month later, Farrington’s father committed suicide.

Evgeny published two more case studies after the note about Farrington. The first of these studies was printed in the Journal for Infectious Diseases, peer-reviewed and very highly regarded. The article was entitled "On a possible correlation between Fruit Bat Syndrome and infectious hemorrhagic fever." Evgeny was invited to the World Health Organization’s International Conference on Infectious Disease Control in Geneva, Switzerland where he presented his Fruit Bat paper. After that presentation, Evgeny became a post-doctoral research fellow at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. After two years at the Mayo Clinic, Evgeny was terminated and ignominiously marched to this car by Mayo Clinic security. Another researcher had discovered that Evgeny had falsified the data in his laboratory work and key microbiological studies reported in the Fruit Bat paper could not be reliably replicated. A statistician retrospectively reviewing Evgeny’s data concluded that his mathematical analysis was flawed, although it was unclear whether the errors in the management of that data were due inadvertence (as opposed to intentional falsification) or simply the result of unchecked confirmation bias. Evgeny’s claim that he had personally visited several sub-Saharan African countries could not be independently verified.

Evgeny’s third case-study was published on-line in the proceedings of Revitalization – the Journal of Rejuvenation. This study was not peer-reviewed. The title for the article as "The Use of Embryonic collagen as an anti-oxidizing dermatological agent." Evgeny currently directs a research laboratory at Shanghai for Aveda, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Estee Lauder Companies.

When his coffee cup was empty and the chocolate chip muffin reduced to a scatter of moist crumbs on the desk, David M – closed the bound volume of The New England Journal of Medicine and replaced it on the shelf. He put down his ballpoint pen and set aside his ledger book. He swept up the crumbs and muffin wrapper and threw them in a waste-basket. Then, he put on his white lab jacket.

The hospitalist on-duty knocked on the door to the office and, then, entered.

"Always studying?" the on-duty hospitalist said.

"Indeed," David M – replied.

"Anything of note?"

"I read four notes," David M – said, "they were mostly unilluminating except one about Poland Syndrome. It’s a congenital asymmetrical weakness of the chest."

"From Poland?"

"No," David M – replied. "It’s an eponym."

The on-duty hospitalist handed David M – the census. The patients were listed in order of the perceived severity of their illness. The census was high and several of the cases demanding. Mid-winter in this climate is cruel: you count yourself lucky if you survive until Spring without pneumonia or flu or a bad fall on the ice. The cold and dark had driven several patients mad.

David M – looked at the chart material showing vital signs, blood-work and, then, tests, and took report on those patients whose conditions seemed to be deteriorating. He made notes on 3 by 5 cards that he arranged in an array in his black log book.

"I’ve got more than an hour of charting," the on-duty hospitalist said.

"Well, I’m off – " David M – said, rising to start his rounds.

David M –‘s shift was 36 hours. When he left the hospital, the weather had changed and a warm, wet wind was blowing. The moon was low and bright enough to cast deep blue shadows. The ice in the narrow valley had thawed and David M – crossed the black river on the footbridge among the bare trees. Rafts of ice under the bridge groaned and there were jams where the stream was tightly braided so that sheets of dark flood water stretched between the bends in the river. His boots wrapped in chain gripped on the upward trail and he reached the bluffs overlooking the river with no difficulty.

David M -- was tired but felt radiant and ennobled by the work that he had completed. Death had been kept at bay – at least, during his shift at the hospital. His home was warm and quiet. He drank a bottle of Belgian beer before retiring to his bed.








Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Five Scenes from a Crime Film




Who would have thought such a landscape existed, not three hours from Manhattan’s thronging pavements and soaring skyscrapers? A dark escarpment shaggy with old trees loomed over watery meadows where a braided stream wandered between dark pools of bog-water. From the left side of the escarpment, a waterfall hung like a white and foaming curtain over the upper-end of a wild valley cleft in the rocks. On the lower, right side of the cliffs, another smaller waterfall cast up a whirligig mist from where the plunging flood was split by a boulder poised like an axe in the middle of caramel-colored (tannic acid) waters.

A feeble-looking dam impounded some water above the falls. From time to time, a gaunt-looking mill on the height diverted water into stone channels and through a slimy, algal-green sluice spillway. Then, the density of the upper waterfall changed slightly, lightened a little and the perpetual motion of the falling river became translucent, so that the stony cliffs behind the veil of waters could be better discerned.


The top of the escarpment is wooded. A road leads from the valley up to the ridge where the rivers flow down from foggy mountain heights. The road curves in several places and ascends a steep grade to an overlook from which the traveler can peer down at the way that he has come.

Where the road crests on the heights opposite the waterfalls, a chateau is perched on the granite flank of the mountain. The chateau is made of white clapboard above stone cellars cut into living rock. Once elegant, the place is now a little threadbare and worn. Travelers park their cars in the lot underneath the diner that now occupies a part of the chateau. Stairs lead up to the white porches running around the sides of the big mansion house. Formerly, this was the home of the vintner who raised grapes and made wine in this area.

Entering the house, there is a sort of promenade that runs between a café and observation decks. The decks extend over the cliffs, affording an impressive view of the valley and the road switchbacked through fields of fallen boulders up to the mansion. When I toured the house, I found a narrow room with panorama windows overlooking the hillsides descending steeply to the grey-green pastures below, terrain that seems to have been farmed once but is now left fallow, a scarecrow brooding over a small pond and naked rows of lathe trellises on which dry and wizened vines are still tangled.

Well-dressed and silent people are sitting in pews in the narrow room with the high and wide panorama windows. At first, I think it is some kind of religious ceremony. Then, I understand that it is a concert, that there is an old, dusty-looking grand piano at the head of the pews. The people are waiting for the pianist to arrive.

A young man in a suit appears framed in a doorway. He takes his place at the piano and starts to play, Beethoven’s "Moonlight Sonata." But, there is something wrong with the piano’s action, one of the notes necessary to his performance does not sound when he presses down the ivory key. This occurs and re-occurs and the young man is frustrated. He rises from the piano seat to protest the defect in the instrument.



In extreme close-up, we see the intricate action of the grand piano – the wippens or repetititons, taut bass and treble wire, capstans, bridge pins, dampeners, all of these things in the gloomy belly of the piano. The tuner spreads out his tools – he has several tiny silver hammers, a tiny wrench, tuning fork, two mutes with handles and four mutes without handles, some felt temperature strips.

The piano tuners hands are delicate and they glide skillfully between the wippens and bridges. He finds the hurt part of the piano’s action, twists something and taps with his silver hammer, and, then, the repetition that was locked is unlocked and a note sounds and it would not be unfair to compare the sound that this note makes to a limpid drop of bee’s honey.



A man dressed in old fashioned clothing sits on white-washed wooden rocking chairs gazing down over the stone terraces into the misty valley. The man wears a scarf at his throat and has a neatly trimmed goatee. His teeth are yellow.

The man tells elaborate histories, intricate with family chronicles – who married whom, children in and out of wedlock, dastardly cousins and uncles, aunts who were courtesans in the capitols of Europe, heirs, inheritances and disinheritances, estates in fee and entailed. He speaks of seafaring members of the family and the Iroquois confederation and how the first guest-house was so close to the foaming brink of the upper falls that no one could sleep because of the perpetual thunder of the waters. He recalls duels, celebrated crimes from the last century, and, then, remarks that it is pity that the oenoculture in the hills has given way to sugar beets and that sugar beets are, indeed, the most unsightly things, scarcely to be differentiated from the filth in which they grow, and, then, he rambles and his fine hands become transparent and his goatee evaporates like the dew and the interlocutor is mildly appalled to realize that all this time, he has been talking to a ghost and, soon, nothing remains of the apparition except the faintest trace of his burning gaze...



In the parking lot, passed from mouth to mouth: the word that someone has murdered the pianist. This crime will have to be solved. We are all suspects.

Monday, December 4, 2017




The men were both encased in mud. They sat on the tail-gate of the pick up truck and looked across the twilight chaparral into Mexico – a mountain range hovered on the horizon serrated like a hacksaw blade. The mud on them was sinewy, the color of wet cardboard and its smell was ancient and musty, the odor of the cave. Their hard hats with smeared carbide lamps sat on the tail gate next to them. Above the eyes, their hair was slicked down with sweat but not caked in mud and their foreheads were startlingly white.

Two-lanes of black-top ran across the grasslands and the lights of a military base arrayed against the Sonoran mountains twinkled like stars fallen to earth. A passing car threw headlights into the gathering darkness. The road dropped into the basin and, after the car had gone by, it could not be seen any longer although they heard the hum of its engine. Otherwise it was silent and, although the wind roamed in the mountains behind them, the range was bare and nothing caught the attention of the breeze to make it musical.

Both men were weeping but their tears were hidden in the mud on their cheeks. Traven stood up first, legs a little wobbly. Wolf rose also and some of their armor of mud flaked off and fell onto the sandy track below them.

"It’s the greatest day of my life," Traven said.

"But now what do we do?" Wolf asked.

Wolf was also a little unsteady on his feet. Fatigue had softened his posture and his knees bloody under the pads threatened to give.

"There will never be a day like this," Traven said. "Never again."

"I know," Wolf asked. "But what do we do now?"

"I don’t know," Traven said.

They embraced. Mud rubbed against mud. It smelled of a musty tomb.

The pick-up bumped down the narrow track, winding down the slope of the mountain foothill. Wolf drove. He stopped at the fence near the stock-tank and Traven got out to open the gate. The highway was closer here and, when cars passed, they could hear their radios blaring.

The pickup truck headlights speared a jackrabbit and, confused, the animal ran straight ahead, lunging forward until it outran the light and was gone in the darkness.



Traven caught the bug when he was eight or nine. His father was an earth sciences teacher at a Junior High School in Tucson and he collected rocks. Traven’s father said that he was a "rock-hound" and that, therefore, his little son was a "pebble-puppy." Abandoned mines were good places to hunt for mineral specimens and, on weekends, Traven’s father took him to those places. Most of the time, they prospected the tailings piled up around the dark, mysterious openings cut into the barren hills. But, sometimes, they put on hard-hats with small, smelly lights burning above their eyes and entered the mines. The shafts were unpredictable, sometimes flooded and, in other places, half-collapsed. Rats and scorpions lived in the rubble near the entry and, near the point when the last light of day was lost, bats seethed in dark colonies on the low ceilings. Galleries pitched into the central adit at odd angles and, sometimes, the tunnels cut into shallow pockets or niches toothed with glittering crystals, azurite, malachite, amethyst gleaming in alcoves frosted with quartz. The crystal caves were wonderful and Traven peered into the gleam of the crystals in the hollow places exposed by the raw, blasted rock, the gemstones seeming to lunge and jerk when his father took flash photographs of them. Traven asked his father if they could use their hammers to smash out some specimens to take home, crystals that could be displayed in school for "Show and Tell." His father shook his head and said that the crystals were alive, creatures growing far from the light according to their own secret laws, and that they should be left undisturbed in the bowels of the mines where they had been discovered.

In High School, Traven wrestled and excelled at gymnastics and, most weekends, he went to the gymnasium to practice his sports. He had an old Jeep Cherokee that he bought with money earned bagging groceries and, sometimes, at semester breaks, explored the old mining trails in the foothills of the mountains near Tucson. It was basin and range country and the mountains had once been at the bottom of great, turbid seas and so the stone was limestone, karst formation, by and large, riddled with caverns. Generally, Traven explored the hills with a friend, a kid on the wrestling team or one of his fellow gymnasts.

One afternoon, Traven was systematically inspecting dry ravines in the Dragoon Mountains 40 miles from Tucson. It was warm and the tracks leading up into the gulches were rough, ruts sometimes so faint that Traven lost sight of the path on which he was driving. The sky was cloudless and the sun’s full weight fell upon the grey and brown land and the saguaro and ocotillo cactus seemed tormented in the blazing light. A couple of times, the Jeep got high-centered – pushing got them over the bump in one case; in the other, Traven had to hitch the tow-chain to a boulder and engage the power take-off – the jeep jerked off the boulder, but, then, a hundred yards up the track, lurched to the side with flat-tire. Traven and his buddy repaired the flat tire and, then, checked their water – they were low and it was dangerous to be abroad in the desert without adequate supplies of water and, so, they were laboriously turning the jeep around, an operation conducted between the narrow and rocky jaws of the ravine, when the prospector appeared.

The prospector was an old man with a torn flannel shirt open on his grizzled white chest hair and he was leading a small, sad-eyed burro along a ledge overlooking the narrow gorge where Traven was spinning his wheels in the loose gravel and sand. A couple state-of-the-art metal detectors were slung over the back of the mule. Traven greeted the prospector and admired his metal detectors. "They are unerring," the prospector said.

"What’s up that way?" Traven asked the old man, gesturing up the gulch toward the low, overhanging peaks, each of them conical as a witch’s hat.

"Not much," the prospector said. "Snakes, I guess. The workings of a copper mine just under that point." He aimed his hand at a peak.

"We’re looking for caves," Traven said.

"Why?" the old man asked.

Traven ignored the question. "Do you know any in this part of the hills?"

"I know all these hills," the prospector said. He took off his sunglasses so he could look Traven full in the face.

"There’s one cave," he said. "Ain’t much, but you can find the hole over there."

He gestured back down the hill and, then, toward another dry wash a few hundred yards away. At the foot of the wash, there was a fan of sand that glittered in the sun. Uphill, a cluster of writhing, spidery mesquite showed a place where water sometimes collected.

"A little to the left of the mesquite," the prospector said.

Traven thanked the man and, then, continued the enterprise of turning the jeep in the tight trench-like ravine. When he looked up from the steering wheel and gear-shift, the man and his burro had vanished.

"Let’s see if we can find that opening," Traven said to his friend. The other boy shook his head. "It’s awfully hot," he replied. "We’ll go back after we check out that hole." Traven replied.

In fact, the sinkhole was easy to reach – there was a well-worn dirt path leading up to the pit from a place where local kids had apparently parked their cars. A bumpy, but passable track led uphill and they could see crushed sage and broken cactus decorated with a scatter of smashed glass from beer bottles with some potato chip and candy wrappers caught in the thorns.

Some withered, spiky tumbleweeds were caught in the sinkhole’s throat. A half-dozen wolf spiders darted away when Traven crushed the tumbleweed to the side. The pit was a dozen feet deep, shaped like a funnel and choked with brittle-looking stones and sand washed into the hole. The pile of fallen debris almost blocked access to the gloomy closet tilting downward away from opening. Traven had to turn on his side and half-skid, half-roll into the adjacent chamber. The place opened a little and he could squat under the dry roof of cracked stone. It was like being in the mouth of a big animal, moist and warm and foul-smelling. A notch in the wall led into a larger room, a dark round dungeon without any formations. On the smooth parts of the wall, kids had scribbled their names or obscenities. Trash covered the floor and there was broken glass, even a couple of cans of beer that someone had abandoned without opening.

"Nothing," Traven said as they scrambled back out of the sinkhole.




Traven went to the State College and studied education. He met Wolf in a PE class. It was an introduction to rock-climbing and the students rigged rope-lines into harnesses with belays so that they could ascend the taller buildings on campus and, then, rappel down onto the lawns. Traven excelled at these exercises because he was cautious and patient – he took care to untangle the nylon ropes, passing them through his hands and around his wrists to inspect for frayed lengths or splices, checking each knot and carabiner not just visually but by touching the hitches with his fingers and pulling against them. Wolf was intuitive and disdained the rope and said that he wanted to free-climb without the bother of the harnesses and other hardware. When he rappeled down the facade of Old Main, he threw himself out over the abyss so enthusiastically that he lost control and plunged through an open window, swinging into a class of sophomore macro-economics students. Wolf was older that Traven, enrolled in a MFA program, and he wrote poetry. He was the opposite of Traven in many ways and, so, they became friends. On the weekends, they climbed together, making an ascent of the sheer needle of Picacho Peak between Tucson and Phoenix and bouldering in the rock field at Texas Pass at the rest stop on the freeway to El Paso.

Traven tried to persuade Wolf to spelunk with him but Wolf wasn’t interested. "Why would you want to hide in a dark hole in the ground, when you can be outside and enjoy all of this?" They had climbed to the top of cliff overlooking Tucson and Wolf lit a Swisher Sweet cigarillo, gesturing down at the sunbaked city stretching out beneath them.

In November, Traven drove with Wolf down to the Dragoon Mountains, ostensibly to look for stone faces they could climb. Traven was student-teaching in a Tempe suburb. Wolf was still enrolled in the MFA program at the college, editing a campus literary journal.

The day was overcast but the air was clear to a great distance, a sort of magnifying lens poised over the grey flats and the stony ridges. Sometimes, the clouds dipped down to swath the spine of the mountains in mist, withdrawing upward at intervals to show the uppermost heights sprinkled with snow. The jeep tracks in the hills were abysmal, forcing Traven and Wolf to focus on the smashed rock ledges that they were navigating to the extent that couldn’t look away and across the slopes at the landscape. They came to a couple of mines, conical slag heaps facing one another across a narrow brown ravine – the slag from inside the earth surprisingly dark, like melted chocolate. One of the adits was buried under a landslide, but the other glared at them like an empty eye-socket. Traven tried to persuade Wolf to explore that shaft but he refused, sitting in the jeep smoking a cigarette while the other man poked around in the rubble heap with his chisel and hammer.

They drove to the crest of the ridge. There was nothing on the other side of the hill but a crumpled and abject landscape, treeless and without any roads or paths. Wolf was irritated: "I thought you said there were some faces up here."

"That’s what I thought," Traven replied.

"Not even any boulders," Wolf said.

Descending into the foothills, they saw the long scar of the Interstate incised into the desert, the deep sandy wash beneath the mountains where a dry river-bed twisted through a scatter of houses and commercial buildings rising to a sandy terrace where some bars and pawnshops lined the two-lane blacktop running cross-country to the military base. "What’s that town?" Wolf asked. "GI strip for the base," Traven said. "I don’t know that it’s got a name. Interstate exit 322 or something."

A thin, dilute column of white smoke rose from a brown crease in the hill.

"Something burning," Wolf said.

"Probably a prospector," Traven replied. "Let’s check him out and see if he’s got any intel."

The jeep track broadened into a gravel ranch road and slipped down the hill through a couple of cattle-gates. The smoke ascended over a clutch of tormented-looking mesquite trees, charred-looking and miserable under a plume of white sand. They didn’t see any vehicles near the smoke than hung like a faded, pale banner in the cool air.

"Could be a wild fire," Wolf said.

They found a rutted way that led toward a funnel-shaped depression in the gulch. Traven recognized the place. "It’s a sinkhole," he said. "I’ve been here before. Years ago."

Cheerless as before, the little dimple in the ravine was leaking mist upward. A smashed mountain bike clogged the shaft and the edges of the crater were sharp with broken glass.

"I’m not going down there," Wolf said. "It looks like a dump."

"It’s been used as a dump," Traven said. "But it’s a sinkhole."

"You’ve been down?"

"Yes," Traven said. "It wasn’t anything but...this mist, this fog..."

"What does it mean?" Wolf asked.

"The cave’s exhaling. It’s venting. The humidity in the cave air is making the mist," Traven said.

"So what?"

"This is a lot of mist," Traven said. "It means a big, big cave."

"I’m not going down there," Wolf said.

Traven told him that he was going to crawl down into the sinkhole and see if he could find the vent from which the wet warm air was leaking. "It’ll just be a minute."

Traven slid down into the hole, crouched, and, then, squirmed out of sight. Wolf lit a cigarette and watched the big semi-tractor-trailers on the freeway, drifting to the right, even onto the highway shoulder, as they climbed the grade out of the deep, sandy wash six or seven miles away.

After a few minutes, Wolf heard the staccato concussion of Traven’s rock hammer muted and underground, tapping against the stone as if knocking on a door. The tapping sound continued for a long time. The rhythm of the blows against the stone was vaguely iambic, a pulse that reminded him of a poem, perhaps verse by Andrew Marvell. Wolf rolled a joint and smoked a little weed. The sun came out and the moldy-smelling mist diffused a little.

Traven stood near the jeep. His hard-hat was cocked a little to the side and crusted with mud.

"You gotta help me, dude," he said. Wolf blinked at him. He wiped the sleep out of his eyes.

"I’m half-way through," Traven said. "Chipping my way into the cave."

"What is it?" Wolf asked.

"I found a blow-hole, like the size of the bottom of a wine-bottle maybe," Traven said. "There’s a gale blowing out of that opening."


"Big cave, big, big volume cave," Traven said. "The stone’s friable, brittle. I’m making decent progress knocking a way into the cavity. But you gotta help me."

"I’m not goin’ into that hole," Wolf said.

"Come on, Dude."

"It smells like shit. It smells like a fuckin’ open grave," Wolf said.

"That’s the cave smell," Traven said. "This could be a big discovery."

Wolf stepped out of the jeep and, then, rummaged in the back for his hard-hat. Traven found him another rock-pick and, then, hurried ahead of him to the funnel-shaped sinkhole.

The place were Traven had been working was a little tilted cavity in the corner of the chamber. Shards of broken limestone were strewn around the bowl-shaped hollow and they were sharp, cutting against Wolf’s belly.

"You gotta be kiddin’ me," Wolf said.

"Just a half-hour," Traven said. He began to swing the hammer against the sides of a dark vent in the rock. The cave’s breath wheezed and hissed through the blow-hole.

When the stone opening had been enlarged to the width of Traven’s shoulders, he said: "I’m gonna try to squeeze through."

"Suit yourself," Wolf said.

Traven wormed forward and the upper part of his body vanished. For a while, his hips were held in the tight claws of the rock. Then, Traven wiggled his feet and, suddenly, vanished, knees and calves twisting into the hole like the tail of a snake.

"Follow me," Traven shouted.



Wolf wrote the vow of secrecy on an envelope for an unpaid bill that Traven had in his briefcase. They agreed that neither would enter the cave without the other present. Both of them signed the back of the envelope.

Traven was student-teaching in west Tucson. Another young teacher, Elizabeth took an interest in him. They went to a movie together and, after a couple of dates, she invited Traven to come to her apartment for dinner. Elizabeth wanted Traven to spend time with her over the Winter Break, but he told her that he had other commitments. She was sad and seemed a little suspicious but didn’t question him about his other obligations. Wolf was married. But his wife, Miranda, was a member of the National Guard and about to be deployed to the Middle East. Most of her weekends were spent training for her deployment.

Traven deposited his wages in a Savings and Loan in Cortaro. He rented a mid-size Safety Deposit box at the Savings and Loan and put the envelope with the signatures there together with some video tape that Wolf had taken of the big room in the cave.

Over winter break, Traven and Wolf explored the cave. Wolf had the first roll of film developed at a Walgreens near the air force base. He thought that the clerk looked at him askance when he retrieved the photographs and, so, he drove to Phoenix to have the next six rolls of pictures processed. He didn’t use a check, but paid in cash for the pictures. Traven put those pictures with the negatives in the lock-box at the Savings and Loan.

One day, the two men climbed a jagged heap of rock-fall, big slabs of greasy-looking and wet limestone dropped down from an enormous tub-shaped cavity in the ceiling. The rock-fall was pimpled with knuckle-sized nascent stalagmites, and so they knew that the ceiling stones had collapsed thirty or forty thousand years ago, a violent calamity nonetheless that crushed the speleotherms under it, plank-shaped boulders squeezing out pale silica roses and angular lance-tipped formations from between layers of fallen boulders. Traven took the lead and he marked his path with bands of yellow police-scene tape, fencing off the particularly fragile formation along the zigzag ascent. (Traven’s wife was in the military police and, for some reason, there were a couple of rolls of the yellow tape in a kitchen cupboard.) At the crest of the rock-fall, a grey limestone slab pointed diagonally up at the ceiling, a kind of stone pulpit. Above them, the fissures in the ceiling leaked water in a continuous drizzle, falling water channeled by the forest of yellow and cream stalactites adorning the dark crack overhead.

Traven and Wolf sat on the protruding edge of the pulpit stone, legs dangling down, and looked across the wet dark canyons beneath them. A great column, fluted with salmon-pink flowstone rose out of the darkness. The column seemed to rotate, twisted like a baldachinno and streaked with bands of reddish rust, rising to the point where its great spade-shaped top pierced the dome and was fused there. At the column’s base, buttresses of delicate flowstone dipped their dainty toes in crystal pools impounded by fragile-looking calcite dams.

"How big do you think it is?" Traven asked.

"At least six stories high, maybe higher," Wolf said.

"Do you know of any speleotherms in the State that are taller than that column?"

"Maybe something in Carlsbad Cavern," Wolf replied.

"But in this State?" Traven persisted.

"I don’t think so."

They sat in silence, the two men side-by-side above the spiraling path upward marked by the orange-yellow tape.

"I’m gonna call this feature, ‘Kubla Khan,’ " Wolf said.

In a loud voice, he recited: "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree...where Alph the sacred river ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea..."

"Xanadu?" Traven repeated.

"So this is all ours," Wolf said.

"None of it is ours," Traven replied

"But how do we develop this?" Wolf asked.

"Maybe, we shouldn’t develop it. Maybe, we just leave it all as we found it." Traven said.

"I like that idea," Wolf replied. "It’s our private place. Something no one else knows about. You didn’t tell that woman – the other teacher..."

"I didn’t say a word, not a word. And you?"

"She’ll be in Iraq next week. But I didn’t breathe a word to her."

"So what do we do now?" Traven asked.

There was no reply. In the beam of their hard-hat lights, the immense column, draped in its elegant flow-stone drapery, seemed to shift and wobble a little – the column rose from lower darkness and ended in the darkness above them so that it seemed, for a moment, to float weightlessly beyond the black wet gorge, a vast angel casting a shadow in their lanterns like a black wing or sword.

"Maybe it’s best that the place remain wholly fantastic, I means, just an idea that the two of us share," Wolf said. "It’s our private playground."

Traven didn’t respond.

A couple of hours later, Traven drove the jeep down the hill toward the ruinous ‘in-drive" off the two-lane blacktop running between the military base and the freeway. He cursed. In the rear-view mirror, he saw a big red pickup truck lurching down the hillside, skidding right and left and fishtailing on the washboard curves to catch up with them.

"Shit," Traven said. "We’ve got company."

The pickup careened over a big hump in the jeep track, kicking out a spatter of stones and sand, as it charged forward passing them on the right. The oversized tires of the red truck tore up the sage and crushed a dead mesquite bush. A hundred yards ahead of them, the vehicle slid sideways to block access to two-lane asphalt.

A young man wearing a cowboy hat and a shirt with the sleeves torn off at the shoulders got out of the pickup, signaled them to stop, and approached their jeep.

"Who are you two?" the kid asked.

Traven gave their first names and offered his hand through the window. The kid ignored the offer.

"What are you doin’ up in the hills?"

"Exploring, checking out the abandoned mines," Traven said.

"I’ve been patrolling. The ranchers pay me. Someone’s been leaving the gates open and the cattle have been out, running loose as far out as down here. One of ‘em got hit by a soldier on the way back to the base a couple nights ago."

"We’re very careful about shutting gates," Wolf said.

"No, you ain’t," the kid replied. "And I want to know what you been doin’ up in these hills. I seen your jeep three times this past couple days."

"Exploring the mines, the tailings," Traven said. "Rock collecting."

"I don’t think so," the kid replied. "Do you know that this here’s private property? All of it."

"I didn’t see nothing posted," Wolf said. "You sayin’ there’s a posting."

"I’m not saying that," the kid said sullenly. "I’m just telling you what should be obvious to anyone."

"We don’t know who owns this. We just thought it was federal land."

"It ain’t," the kid said. He spit on the ground. "The ranchers hereabouts pay me to patrol."

"Okay," Traven said.

"You take anything, any souvenirs or specimens from the workings up there," the kid asked.

"No," Traven said. Wolf repeated the word "no."

"You better not," the kid said. "How’d you like if someone come to your house and harvested your cactus or took your stones?"

"Wouldn’t like it," Wolf said.

"Then, you two don’t do it here," the kid said.

"We didn’t," Traven said. "We won’t."

"And you need to get some fuckin’ permission," the kid said. "Otherwise, you’re trespassing and liable to have someone take a shot at you. I ain’t kiddin’."

"Who do you get permission from?"

"Well, you can start by getting permission from me," the kid said.

"Okay, what’s your name? How do we get permission from you?" Traven asked.

"You don’t," the kid said. "I think you’all better just stay away."

"Okay," Traven said.

The kid backed away from the jeep, spit again and, then, got into his pickup. He pulled his pickup to the side so they could pass, almost slipping down into the gravel-edged ditch next to the jeep road. Traven looked in his rear-view mirror.

"The son-of-a-bitch!" Traven said. "He’s writing down our license plate."

Traven stabbed his foot down at the accelerator and the jeep burst up onto the black-top, scattering gravel as it turned. There was a car coming, very close, and it swerved hard to the left to avoid hitting them. An oncoming pick-up, northbound toward the freeway, was aimed at the swerving vehicle and both cars did a tense, little minuet on the black-top narrowly avoiding a crash. The pick-up laid on its horn and this caused the kid in his battered red vehicle, a dozen yards behind them to hit his horn also. He pulled out onto the highway, turned away from the freeway direction where Traven and Wolf going, and shot down the road in pursuit of the other pickup.

"Jesus!" Wolf whispered.

"That was a close-call," Traven replied.

raven couldn’t sleep. He imagined the kid in the cowboy hat and the sleeveless work shirt wiggling like a worm along a limestone bench studded with delicate helictites. The boy’s body was big and coarse and it crushed the delicate crystal cricket-cages of the formations into glittering white powder. Traven’s rage burned in his face and ears and his eyes were hot with tears.

He rolled and tossed in the warm bed and Elizabeth woke up, extending her hand and exploring the darkness with it. Traven told her about the cave and said that he wished nothing more than that she might see it with her own eyes.

"I get claustrophobic in elevators," Elizabeth said. "I could never crawl into a place like that."

Traven described Kubla Khan to her and said that the column of calcite was a big as a sequoia, surrounded on all sides by cave-flowers, fist-sized crystals glittering like astonished, wide-open eyes.

"It must be wonderful," Elizabeth said.

"It is wonderful beyond my ability to tell you," Traven said. "I don’t have words."

Then, neither of them could sleep. Sex just made them more alert and tense. Dawn lengthened across the desert and they saw the yellow school-buses moving like figures in a mirage, stopping and starting on the brown suburban lanes at the edge of the desert where the saguaro gestured at the orange sky and, then, a custodian raised the flag at the school where they both taught and they faced their students with great, burning eyes.

The secret that they guarded between them brought them closer together. Elizabeth and Traven were married. Traven traded his old jeep for a big used SUV. "It’s not a practical vehicle," Elizabeth complained. "But I need something different for the roads by the cave." Traven told her.

Traven took her to the highway that led from the interstate to the military base. The Dragoon Mountains cast long, humped shadows across the deep sandy valley braided at its lowest point by the salt-white channels of the dried river-bed. They pulled onto the side of the highway and the traffic hurrying back to the base zoomed past them, everyone speeding it seemed on this featureless stretch of two-lane blacktop.

"It’s over there," Traven said, pointing into the hollow between the ridges at the place where a clump of remote green marked the sinkhole.

Elizabeth shuddered to think of the tight blowhole and the secret, hidden passages studded with crystal under the hills. "A terrible place," she whispered.

"No," Traven said. "Wonderful. Very wonderful."



Unlike other caves, Xanadu was not a system. Some caves branch into labyrinths of innumerable tiny chambers, an underground capillary system ventilated by places where sinkholes pierce the karst. Other caves end in watery sumps, drowned corridors and black lakes tilted toward waterfalls pouring ceaselessly into the center of the earth. But Xanadu had a top and a bottom – the cave had hollowed out one of the round, capitol-shaped foothills to the mountains and all chambers radiating from the two central basilicas, great rooms with towering domed ceilings, terminated in decisive dead ends. At the highest point in the cave, a great wet shield loomed overhead, festooned with clusters of stalactites like chandeliers. The bottom of the cave was a round basin the size of a baseball stadium filled with grey-brown mud. The mud seemed to be bottomless and, when Traven and Wolf explored that part of the cave, they took care to leave only a single, deeply rutted pathway through the mire. It was best to stay always on the paths that they had carefully established – the density of formations in the cave made any other route perilous: you might impale yourself on a lance of glistening travertine or inadvertently crush a pendant soda-straw or finger-shaped stalagmite 50,000 years old. In some places, long soda-straw formations, hollow nascent stalactites, had snapped under their weight, pulled down from the overhead ceiling and, like pins, the white straws pierced the field of mud, standing upright in the clotted bog. The big swale of mud in the belly of the cave was its heart. When rain fell, water percolated down into the mud and, sometimes, there were standing pools of water, even, occasional floods that submerged the white hollow straws stabbed into the mire like porcupine needles. Moisture rose from the mud and condensed on the cool dark stalactites riveting the dome of the big rooms, that same water drizzling back down with its burden of carbolic acid and dissolved limestone. In one corner of the mud field, there was a chocolate-colored smear of bat guano, dark as an oil spill, but without bats in that part of the cavern, a fossil deposit that meant that at one time the lower chamber had been open to the upper air and sunlight. Now, that part of the cave seemed hermetically sealed. In the higher big room, one panel of overhead stone hissed and twitched with a colony of Mexican long-tailed bats, a suppurating pyramid of guano swarming with bone-colored beetles and centipedes. It was impossible to approach to bats too closely because the ammonia stench burned in your eyes and throat. Presumably the animals flew through an exit somewhere in the corkscrew passages atop the dome, although Traven and Wolf never could find that way into the cave and didn’t ever see the bats departing into the night a sunset.

Wolf had an eye for detail and a strong three-dimensional imagination and he filled up several Moleskines with maps of the cave. Always keeping to the trench that they had made slogging across the mud-basin, they measured the cave from one side of the black amphitheater to the other. Adding the distance from the sinkhole entrance through the upper room, smoky with bats, Wolf was able to assess the amount of surface that they would have to acquire to own the caverns below. They paced out the dimensions of the cave on the side of the hill, climbing up to the top of the rounded knoll that they knew concealed the dome-shaped big chamber below. At the corners of the tract, they built inconspicuous cairns of piled rock and marked those monuments with shreds of red bandana knotted into the thorns of nearby cactus. The work that they did on the surface, above the cave, was accomplished in the twilight or, even, after dark so as not to draw attention to their labors. They were accustomed to park the SUV a half-mile away near a concrete bridge spanning a dry ravine that rock-hounds sometimes favored – a good place to find lapis lazuli and azurite in the outcroppings cut by the periodic flashfloods. They alternated Traven’s SUV with Wolf’s VW van and, even, sometimes, unscrewed the license plates from the vehicles, when they hiked into the hills to survey the land.

Wolf’s uncle was a lawyer in San Diego. His name was Poore. On a couple of occasions, Wolf and Traven went to the offices of Poore, Locke, and Bass by the glittering harbor and discussed circumspectly their desire to acquire some land in the foothills of Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains. Poore formed a holding corporation, valid under California Law, Ari-Xanadu, LLC. with Wolf and Traven as the sole shareholders. Ari-Xanadu hired a real estate title and abstracting company to make some discreet inquiries at the Cochise county seat in Bisbee – the first step was to learn who owned the land on which the cave was located. All of this was done secretly with payments made in cash.


Wolf’s wife returned from her deployment embittered and fearful. She accused Wolf of betraying her with a woman in southern California, someone from San Diego on the basis of receipts from that city she found receipts in her husband’s clothing. Wolf wouldn’t explain to her why he had gone to San Diego, not once but three times, and so they were divorced.

"I’ve lost my marriage because of this goddamned cave," Wolf said. "It had better be worth it."

"It will be," Traven said. He didn’t think that Wolf had been happily married and, in fact, had seen his partner flirting with waitresses in restaurants in San Diego. Wolf was a handsome man, an adventurer with a fierce look and he could recite poetry. On a couple of occasions, Traven had glimpsed him with other women. But he made no remark on that point.

Traven compiled a list of title holders in the vicinity of the cave. Patents on the land grants went back to the Gadsden Purchase of 1853. The pioneers in the Dragoon Mountain hills overlooking the San Pedro river basin were mostly ranchers and prospectors. They built scattered farmhouses with high adobe walls penetrated by slits from which defenders could fire their rifles, fortified compounds built around water seeps. Some of the earliest pioneers were scalphunters, men who earned their living from bounties paid in Nogales and Durango and El Paso for Apache scalps. Needless to say, war was constant: the Apaches attacked their fortified places and killed their cattle as they roamed the range and the scalphunters kept their hogs close at hand, within their walled compounds, man and beast sleeping in the stye as some accounts had it. The country turned out to be too dry for cattle and the scalphunters abandoned their forts so that the big adobe walls melted into the desert, worn down by wind and rain into flat scuff marks on the hillsides. Prospectors tramped through the hills and acquired mineral rights on the land, but the fee title remained in the descendants of the old scalphunters, families that had scattered by the 20th century so that the miners sometimes had to acquire a dozen signatures from as many States on a single contract to exploit placer silver and gold in the area. The mineral rights lapsed after a matter of years or were terminated when the prospectors abandoned their claims but the gold and silver rush left the barren slopes and gulches crisscrossed with mule trails on access easements and decaying head-frames. Ultimately, Traven concluded that the 20 or 22 acres under which the caverns were located was owned by as many as forty-five heirs and next-of-kin, people with fractional interests arising under wills and through intestate succession. Some slivers of land had reverted to the State by reason of tax liens. Nothing had been consolidated and, in many instances, ownership of premises couldn’t be precisely determined – a quiet title action was probably required to clear the fee title with respect to part of the acreage. All of this was very complicated and transactions had to be accomplished secretly and money, of course, was at a premium. Traven and his wife now had a family and it wasn’t easy to make ends meet on their teachers’ salaries – particularly, since Elizabeth didn’t work part-time in the summer but stayed home with the children.

Wolf was restless. He free-climbed some of the big pitches in Yosemite and, then, summited Mount Logan in the Saint Elias Mountains in the Yukon. He wrote several articles about his exploits and one of them was published in Outside magazine. Wolf moved to Santa Fe where he lived with his wife, a former ballerina with the San Francisco ballet who was working as a potter and photographer. He met with Traven only a couple times a year and, then, under compulsion. Ari-Xanadu was required by its by-laws to have two meeting annually.

"Why can’t we just acquire mineral rights?" Wolf asked Traven. They were eating lunch at a casino in Las Vegas, the place where Wolf had demanded that one of the two annual meetings take place. Wolf’s face bristled with a half-beard that he affected and he looked hungover.

"It won’t work," Traven said. "Those contracts always provide the owner with a percentage of the profits on minerals extracted from the ground. And if you don’t exploit the minerals in seven years, the contract automatically terminates and reverts to the owner."

"We’ve spoken about this," Wolf said. "We should just use the oil and mineral contract to get us seven years access. It’s a toe-hold and, then, we negotiate from there."

"So we put in an access tunnel," Traven said, "stairways, clear out trails, set up a lighting system. All the improvements belong to the title-holder."

"But we’ve got a negotiating posture," Wolf replied.

"The risk is that we invest a million dollars and lose it all on the reversion," Traven said. "And I don’t have the money."

"You’ll have to get it."

"How?" Traven said. "Tell me how?"

"That’s your problem," Wolf said. "Listen, Dude, I think you’re just delaying because you don’t have the wherewithal."

Later, Traven saw Wolf in the casino with his wife. The woman was whip-thin, with huge black eyes like those of a nocturnal animal outlined in charcoal. Her posture was so erect that it shamed those around her, even, Wolf in his expensive blue blazer.

"So this is your college roommate," Wolf’s wife said. Her words were sweetened by a foreign accent that Traven couldn’t identify.

"More or less," Traven said. He shook her hand. Her fingers were cold and strong and instrumental.

Elizabeth was back in Tucson with the kids. "You told her didn’t you?" Traven asked Wolf at breakfast the next day.

"Of course not," Wolf said. "She thinks this is just some kind of college roommate weekend."

"But we were never roommates," Traven replied.

"You start lying," Wolf said, "you never end. That’s how it goes." He shrugged.

Wolf nodded. "We have to proceed on Xanadu," Wolf said. "I feel like my life is in some kind of limbo."

"I thought you were climbing Mount McKinley or something...this winter?"

"Denali," Wolf corrected him. "Okay," Traven said.

"I’m on assignment for the magazine," Wolf said. "But that’s irrelevant. We need to move forward."

In the summer, Traven took a job as a roofer. It was terrible work and, a couple of times, Traven thought he would pass out from sunstroke. His skin was burnt until it blistered. But the pay was good and Traven brought peanut butter sandwiches to work for his lunch and didn’t join the other laborers in the bar after knocking off and, so, he managed to save a few thousand dollars.

Wolf seemed to be wealthy. He matched Traven’s funds and they bought an easement from the highway up to the sinkhole. They also acquired the acre of land where the sinkhole was located, a transaction with a lawyer in Phoenix who represented two families with title to that part of the tract. Traven attended the closing with a realtor hired by his lawyer in San Diego. Traven had given the realtor power of attorney and he introduced himself as "Bill Mercator," a representative of the California corporation. Bill Mercator said that the colonels and generals living at the military base to the south of the freeway enjoyed hunting. Upper brass were well-paid and could afford nice homes and Ari-Xanadu planned to stock a ranch in the foothills to the Dragoon Mountains with big game. After paying a fee, patrons could hunt the premises for elk, bison, white-tail deer as well as exotic game such Yugoslavian red stag and Iranian bighorn rams. "All trophy-worthy," Mr. Mercator said. He had printed a couple of business plans and, even, an example of the brochure he intended to distribute at the Base.

No one believed the story. The acreage that Ari-Xanadu was trying to acquire seemed too small for big game hunting. An article appeared in the Base newspaper, The Fort Huachuca Scout: local businessmen, it was reported, were buying land in the mountains for an ostrich ranch. Ostrich meat is famously lean and salubrious, an enemy to the plague of obesity afflicting the nation. The article was reprinted in the Benson Desert Messenger. The correspondents for the Scout and Messenger tried to reach Mr. Mercator for comment, but he was not available and, indeed, could not be located.

Both articles noted that Ari-Xanadu had posted some land in a dry gulch in the mountain foothills as "No Trespassing."


One of Traven’s sons had a blood disease. The child was chronically ill and medical expenses impoverished Traven. He had no surplus money to contribute to acquiring the land in which Xanadu was located.

Wolf’s lawyer in Santa Fe specialized in entertainment law – he doubled as Wolf’s literary agent. But the attorney knew enough about general practice in New Mexico to set up an assumed name, Nubibus. Acting under that dba, Wolf contacted a business that operated several show caves open to the public in the intermountain west. Wolf said that Ari-Xanadu would have to partner with that business to develop their cave. His lawyer sent out a couple of inquiries and the business operating the show caves, Family Entertainment Enterprises, Inc. ("FEE") expressed some interest. Of course, Nubibus didn’t reveal the location of the cave or the status of ownership of that property. After some additional correspondence, a meeting was scheduled in Albuquerque between representatives of Nubibus, Mr. Bill Mercator and Mr. Samuel Taylor, and the manager of development for FEE. The meeting was scheduled for the middle of August, before his work required Traven to report to the pre-academic-year duty days preparatory to the Fall semester.

At the end of July, Traven drove to the hill country in Texas to tour one of the show caves managed by FEE. Wolf met him at the airport in Austin. He was returning from Nepal and severely jet-lagged. The tips of several of his fingers had been frozen black and were purplish and oozing and his face was badly sunburned and peeling. Wolf walked with a limp and winced when Traven shook hands with him.

"You look like shit," Traven said.

"I heal fast," Wolf replied.

They drove across rolling hills dotted with brawny-looking cattle. The ticket building at the caverns was built like a castle with forty-foot high fieldstone towers. In a café next to the rest rooms, visitors could buy grilled bison burgers served with pickled nopal and french fries. Traven had a burger. Wolf sucked on a vanilla milk-shake. The place was crowded and they had to wait ninety minutes for their tour. After eating, they sat together on a metal bench under an awning where the tour guides, all of them young women wearing tight shorts oriented their guests. Traven and Wolf sat away from the groups of people gathering every fifteen minutes for their excursion underground. It was sunny and the brown hills glistened with mica outcroppings. A jack-rabbit darted through the brush. Wolf told Traven about the monasteries in Nepal. One of them owned a balding conical bit of fur that was said to be the scalp of a Yeti. One of the climbers on Wolf’s expedition had died. A Buddhist priest chanted over the body wrapped in a mylar shroud and, then, a helicopter came from between the peaks to take the corpse away.

Their tour-guide was a blonde girl who said that she attended the School of Mines in El Paso. The girl’s skin was bronzed, as if she were part Latino, and her nose seemed to have been broken at one time and, then, badly healed. Her shorts were very tight and she spoke in a high-pitched singsong voice. The tourists leaned forward to attend upon her words.

She said that the cave had been discovered when a longhorn steer vanished into a sinkhole. The cowboys had climbed into that pit and discovered a wonderful world of crystal formations. She advised that the formations were still growing and that the cave was, in spelunking parlance, "live". "I have to ask you to not touch the formations," the girl said apologetically. "What will happen to me if I touch?" an old man with a crooked mouth asked. "We will have to spank you with a wet noodle," the girl said. Everyone laughed. She hefted a tusk of dead, brownish stalactite in her arms. "We call this our ‘get-it-out-of your-system’ stalactite," the tour guide said. "If you want to touch, please touch this stalactite." There were about 20 people in the tour and they clustered around the girl to touch the pointed bludgeon-shaped stone. "Smooth," the old man with the crooked mouth said. "Touch it, Lacey," a young mother said, lifting her daughter’s tiny hand to stroke the broken stalactite. "Isn’t it awesome, Lacey?" the young woman asked. Lacey giggled.

Someone asked about bats. The girl answered evasively. "We probably won’t be lucky enough to see any of them," she told the tourists.

"Have any of you ever been in a cave before?" the girl, then, asked her group.

People raised their hands. Even Lacey raised her hand. The tour guide asked people about their favorite caverns. "I really enjoyed Carlsbad," Traven said. The girl nodded. "My favorite is Xanadu," Wolf said. "I’ve never heard of that cave before," the girl said. "Where is it?" "Arizona," Wolf said. "It must be new," the girl said. Lacey’s hand was still up. "What is your favorite cave?" the tour guide asked. "Oh, she is just holding up her hand because everyone else is," the young mother said. "Are there bats in the cave?" the little girl asked.

They entered the cave through a horizontal silo, metal-rimmed and tilted diagonally into the side of the hill. "This is not the historic entrance," the tour guide told her party. "You would have to crawl on your hands and knees for forty feet to get into the cave through the historic entrance."

After the outside, it was cold and humid in the cave. There were some metal steps that were slippery with condensate and Traven saw knuckle-shaped mucous-textured stalactites of bacteria growing above them in the entrance tunnel chiseled through the grey and brown rock.

In the cave, they stood on a sort of windy balcony, a stone ledge with dripping iron railings. The cave spread out below them, lit dramatically by hidden bulbs. A hundred yards away by a great pillar of rock supporting the vaulted ceiling another tour was listening to the guide’s lecture. Voices echoed off the stone walls. The air smelled like a freshly furrowed field, an odor of soil and earthworms.

The girl pulled a sweater that she had tied around her waist over her shoulders. She said: "The air in this cave circulates naturally. It will follow the trail that we take. That’s how the cave breathes. It means that if any of you passes gas, the scent will follow us wherever we go down there."

The old man with the crooked mouth chortled: "I’ve had a stroke. My bad."

Lacey’s mother laughed. The child was fearful and she laughed anxiously also.

A dozen yards into the cave they came to the formation called the "Pygmy Bathtub," a small crystalline puddle within a travertine tub shaped a little like two cupped hands. "What is a pig-me?" Lacey asked. "I’m a pig-me," the old man said. "I’ve had a stroke." Traven saw that the edges of the pool were a little green with algae.

"The lights make algae grow," Traven said to the tour guide.

"Yes," she said. "It’s a problem. That’s why the lights will go off once we leave this area. They are controlled by an automatic photo-sensor."

They followed a winding trail under a roof studded with stalactites. The tour-guide stopped to show them the fossil of a fish imprinted in the wall. "It is millions of years old," the girl said. They stopped again at a stalagmite that was the color of scrambled eggs. "We call this the Baby Bottle," the tour-guide told them. The people in the group whispered to one another. "Why is it called the ‘Baby Bottle’?" Lacey asked. "That’s an awesome question, Lacey," the young woman told the little girl. "It’s called the ‘Baby Bottle’ because it looks very much like a baby bottle," the girl said. "Can I touch it?" a woman asked. "No, ma’am, please don’t touch it," the girl in the shorts said. "But why is it called the ‘Baby Bottle’?" Lacey asked again. This time her mother didn’t congratulate her on the question. "It looks a like a woman’s titty," the old man with the crooked lips said. "Some people say that," the tour guide girl said, giggling a little.

The walked through the Comanche Council Room and, then, down the corkscrewing corridor of the Underground Bowling Alley. The girl told the people on her tour about carbolic acid and how caves are formed. She used a laser pointer to show a crack in the ceiling rimmed with a spiky-looking forest of stalactites. "The water comes through there," she told her tour. "We call it the cave’s life-line." "Will the acid burn my skin?" a young man wearing a Metallica shirt asked. "No," she said, "it is a very mild acid."

In a corner of the Queen’s Parlor, a stone grizzly reared at them, thrust forth in bas relief from the shadowy wall. "It’s so perfectly carved that some people think an artist actually chiseled the grizzly into the wall." "Who was the artist?" the old man with the crooked mouth asked. "There was no artist," the tour guide told him. "God was the artist," Lacey’s mother said. "God?" the little girl asked. "How did God get down here." "God is everywhere," the man with the crooked mouth said. "He was with me when I had my stroke."

The tour-guide turned her laser to point to another formation. "The Marble Madonna," she proclaimed. "I don’t see it," Lacey whined. "It’s right there," Lacey’s mother said. "I can see it," the kid with the Metallica tee-shirt said. "It’s easy to see," the old man declared. "But I don’t see it," Lacey said. She squirmed and tried to break free from her mother’s hand holding her own hand. "I’m hungry," Lacey said. "I’m hungry too," the old man with the crooked mouth said.

"Then, you can have bacon and eggs," the girl said. She pointed with her red laser light to a couple veils of pinkish stone, smooth and glistening like strips of raw bacon. A daisy-colored deposit of stone below simulated a fried egg.

"It looks like a pussy," Wolf whispered to Traven. "Pussy lips," Traven agreed. A dark-haired man said something in Spanish to his wife and the woman giggled. "I know Spanish," the tour-guide said. "Lots of our Spanish-speaking guests say the same thing."

"Make me real hungry," the old man with the crooked face said.

"I’m hungry, mom," Lacey repeated.

It was warm outside the cave. Traven shook the humidity and chill of the cave off his shoulders like a wet dog shakes himself coming inside from a rainstorm. Wolf just looked down at the concrete pavement and muttered to himself.

Wolf asked: "What did you think?"

"It is what it is," Traven said.

Three days later, Traven parked his Suburban at the overpass where rockhounds sometimes found azurite and lapis lazuli. He met Wolf at the sinkhole.

"How long’s it been?" Traven asked Wolf as he shook his hand.

"More than two years since I’ve been down under," Wolf gestured at the funnel-shaped pit.

They slid into the sinkhole. The bottom of the crater was dusty and Wolf sneezed. Nothing had changed: caramel-colored broken glass, dark as a spider’s eye, lurked in the rubble. Trash was tufted in the tumbleweed clogging the pit and a tangle of rags, like an animal carcass, was underfoot.

When you are underground, time seems to slow down. This means that even ordinary gestures and speech seem somehow accelerated. You are moving at a pace incongruent with the slow drip of water and the accretion of limestone particle by particle on the growing formations. Traven and Wolf dismantled the heap of rubble that they had piled around the blowhole, paddling the stones away from the dark dent in the cave’s wall. It felt as if they were working maniacally, clawing the rocks away from the opening, but, in fact, they moved deliberately and with care in an effort to avoid stirring up too much of the fine, granular dust sifted onto the sinkhole’s floor.

When the opening was clear, Wolf glanced at Traven and, then, back at the round cavity.

"Dude," he said, "you aren’t gonna fit."

Warm, humid air gushed into their faces from the blowhole.

"I’ll make it," Traven said.

"If you get yourself stuck," Wolf said, "I ain’t gonna pull your ass out."

"Let me try," Traven said.

He wormed forward, pushing himself with the toes of his boots. His head and his shoulders fit easily enough into the cavity.

"I’m in," Traven said, his voice muffled.

"Not so soon," Wolf replied. "You don’t gain weight in your shoulders. You’re not at the thickest part yet."

Traven twisted sideways and his feet went up into the air a little and another eight inches of his chest corkscrewed into the hole. His arms were ahead of him, as if he were diving.

"There’s nothing for me to grip," Traven said.

He wiggled forward another couple inches or so and, panting, stopped.

"Inhale," Wolf said. "Then slide in."

"It’s too tight," Traven said. "Grab my feet and yank me out."

Wolf took hold of Traven’s boots and crouching leaned backward, letting gravity pull against the man pinned in the hole. One of Traven’s boots came off in Wolf’s hand.

"You’re stuck," Wolf said.

He pulled again and Traven twisted sideways and, then, came unstuck so that Wolf sprawled back, the other boot ripped free as well.

"Too many fuckin’ Big Macs," Traven said. His arms and chin were scraped and bleeding.

"You gotta go on a diet," Wolf said.

"Too many Big Macs," Traven repeated.

"Now what?" Wolf asked.

"You go ahead," Traven said. "Just be careful. Check you clock."

They synchronized their watches.

"Be out in an hour," Traven said. "That should be plenty of time."

Wolf speared his lean body through the hole. His boots kicked a little, a flipper motion as if he were swimming. Then, he was gone.

Carrying his boots in his hand, Traven squat-walked across the bottom of the chamber. A piece of broken glass bruised his heel, but didn’t cut him. He clambered up the dusty funnel and, then, stood blinking at the high, blue sky overhead. He untied the laces of his boots, put them on, and, then, after retying the laces, kicked at some of the stones near the crater. Cursing, he wiped tears out of his eyes, and paced in tight circles around the sinkhole.

After about forty minutes, a young man on a mountain bike came down the jeep track that led up to the mines. The young man was wearing a khaki-colored Tilley hat with a Hawaiian shirt and cut off jeans that showed his bald, sunburned knee-caps. The kid saluted Traven from across the gulch, parked his fat-tired bike on a level patch of the lane, and, then, strolled between the squat mesquite and cactus toward him. Traven hid his hard-hat with the LED behind a rock. The kid waved at him again.

Traven walked quickly away from the sinkhole and met the young man in the middle of the narrow valley.

"Nice day," Traven said.

"Gorgeous," the young man answered. He said that he had been exploring the mines at the top of the valley.

"They’re interesting," Traven said. "But it can be dangerous."

"I know," the young man said. "I’m real careful."

"I think this area is posted," Traven said. "No trespassing."

He pointed to a sign stapled to a cactus beyond the ravine.

"I didn’t see those markers," the young man said.

"There’s a bunch of them," Traven said, gesturing.

"I heard that some rich guys formed a partnership and announced that they were gonna turn this mountain into some kind of safari-ranch," the young man grimaced. "Some kind of pay-for-play big game hunting."

Traven nodded.

"That’s a cover," the young man said. "The mountain isn’t big enough. You can’t have lions and tigers out here without a shit-load more land. It’d be inhumane. And elephants – you’d have to make some kind of waterhole for them. They need lots of water."

"I didn’t think they were going to import lions and tigers," Traven said.

"That’s the story,’ the young man replied. "But it’s bullshit. This isn’t large enough for a big game reserve. I think they’re planning on raising ostriches here. It’s gonna be an ostrich ranch."


"The best, leanest meat there is," the young man said. "And you get the hides and feathers too."

Traven glanced at his watch. Wolf had been in the cave about 50 minutes.

"You know what," Traven said, "some archaeologists have been around here and they found some ancient Indian sites."

"Really," the kid said.

"If you promise to keep this quiet," Traven lowered his voice conspiratorially, "I’ll show you."

"That’d be great."

Traven led him up the ravine to a little hollow in the hillside close to the cactus posted with the "No Trespassing" sign.

"Look," Traven said, pointing.

Seven or eight fire-blackened stones formed a disorderly cairn and other rocks formed a crude alignment around the charred place.

"Those are hearth-stones," Traven told the young man. "It marks an ancient fire-pit. And those rows of white and brown rocks – see them? – that was a wall of some kind."

"Wow," the young man said, gaping at the cairn.

Traven stooped over and pointed to a white, serrated lance-point embedded in the crumbling clay bank of the ravine.

"That’s a Clovis point," Traven said. "Paleo-Indians. More than 10,000 years old. It’s just beautiful."

"It looks like it could have been made just yesterday," the young man replied.

The pale, serrated lance-point was shaped like child’s outline of a Christmas-tree and its base was delicately fluted.

"Such wonderful craftsmanship," Traven said.

"Is it valuable?"

"Museum-quality," Traven told the young man.

"Why didn’t you take it?"

"It’s against Federal law," Traven said. "You can’t collect antiquities like this for yourself. This Clovis-point is over 10,000 years old. It belongs to everyone. Our common patrimony.

"Over 10,000 years old?" the kid said. He cocked his head and looked puzzled.

"Someone gets caught collecting an artifact like this – shit, you go to jail for 15 years. Fifteen years or more. It’s against the law stealing artifacts like this."

"Holy shit," the young man said.

"Listen," Traven lowered his voice again, "you gotta pledge to me that you’ll keep this quiet. You can’t tell any one. Do you follow?"

"I do," the young man said.

They shook on his promise. The young man walked up the ravine to the red "No trespassing" sign tacked to the cactus. He reached up and ripped the sign off the cactus, kicking it under foot into the sandy wash.

"Take that mother-fucker!" the young man said.

Then, he scrambled up the hill, hopped on his bicycle, and pedaled down the rutted jeep track toward the highway. Traven watched him zigzagging around the more formidable gouges in the lane. Looking toward the sinkhole, he saw Wolf’s muddy helmet and dirty face peering over the rim of the sinkhole funnel.

Traven walked back to the crater as Wolf climbed out.

"So how is it?" Traven asked.

"Unbelievably beautiful," Wolf said. "You forget how beautiful it is."

"Really," Traven said.

"It’s so much more beautiful than you can remember," Wolf said.

Wolf looked up at the empty blue sky, blinking. Traven shook his head.

"You know, I can’t imagine people, crowds of people traipsing around down there," Wolf said.

"We’ll have to come up with another plan," Traven said.

"Who was that man?" Wolf asked.

"Just some kid, a wannabe desert rat. He was snooping around up at the mines," Traven said.

"Well this land’s posted," Wolf said.

"I told him that," Traven replied. "And, then, I took him to see the ancient Indian site."

"Did that work?"

"Sure, kept him a quarter-mile from the blowhole," Traven said.

"That’s was the best idea you ever had," Wolf said. "Coming up with that distraction."

They hiked back to their vehicles parked beside the bridge over the dry-wash. "I have to go to Antarctica," Wolf said. "It’s an article for Men’s Health, an assignment."

"Sounds exciting," Traven said.

Two weeks later, Traven came out to the land. He parked at the dry-wash and, then, hiked over the low ridge to the ravine where the paleo-Indian site was located. The beautifully sculpted Clovis point was gone. Traven opened his backpack and took out another bone-white lance-point. He examined the artifact and saw that it was still marked "Made in China" so he peeled off that decal. Then, he pissed on the clay, muddied the lance-point, and, carefully, embedded it in the eroded side of the ravine above the monument of charred stones.

He spent another half hour, hiking the perimeter of the acreage that he had purchased with Wolf, posting another half-dozen no trespassing signs. He had a reserve of white quartzite lance-points at home. You could buy them for ten dollars apiece at the Heard Museum of the American Indian in Phoenix.




One night, while channel surfing, Traven saw a picture of Wolf hanging from a bright blue rope over a dark abyss. The TV showed Wolf gritting his teeth heroically and, then, sliding the visor of his face-mask down over his handsome features. He slipped into black waters and swam away from the camera. The program was called "The Deepest Cave" and, a couple days after the ad, it aired on Nat Geo. Traven watched it with his wife and children. They ate Orville Redenbacher buttered popcorn as they sat in front of their television.

The show had been produced in the Yucatan and was followed by a profile piece in The New Yorker, not written by Wolf but about him. Traven emailed congratulations to Wolf.

Wolf suggested that they meet at Flagstaff, more or less midway between Santa Fe and Tucson. He emailed that he was lecturing at the college there about adventure and exploring. Traven drove up to Flagstaff and they spent a few hours discussing Xanadu but couldn’t come to any agreement as to how they should proceed. Wolf suggested again that they partner with some enterprise to develop Xanadu as a show-cave. Traven replied that he had made some discreet inquiries through the local Sierra Club in Tucson – perhaps, the Nature Conservancy was interested in financing acquisition of the cave to protect the Mexican longtailed bats that used the upper chamber as a maternity roost. They argued bitterly and the encounter made Traven feel weak and unhappy. The next day, he told his wife: "I wish we had never stumbled onto that place. It’s just a hole in the ground but it’s ruining us."

For a year and a half, Wolf was out of the country, reporting on wars in the Middle East. He was embedded with combat units and survived fire fights and mortar attacks. Sometimes, Wolf appeared on TV to comment about the wars on which he reported. Invariably, it was the middle of the night in the Middle East when Wolf appeared live on CNN – he stood in a garden under exotic trees sometimes luminous with fruit and there was an ancient wall behind him that seemed to be yellow-orange in the camera’s light. Wolf’s trademark fuzzy half-beard looked neatly groomed and his eyes were intense and serious and, sometimes, the burning wick of a flare or Tomahawk missile lit up the dark, velvety sky behind him.

When Traven saw Wolf next, he looked haggard and the whites of his eyes were yellow. He said that he was suffering from an amoebic infection that he hadn’t been able to shake. Wolf said that he was exhausted from war reporting and had resigned from that position.

"I’m going to write a book," Wolf said. "I have seen a lot of amazing things."

Wolf and his wife had moved from Santa Fe to a more remote place, Gallisteo. Wolf offered Traven a large sum of money to buy out his interest in Xanadu. Traven was tempted at first because the offer was large. He said that he had to sleep on the proposal. The next day, he met Wolf for breakfast and rejected the proposal. "I guess I’m relieved," Wolf said. They shook hands. "I’ll see you soon, partner," Wolf told him.

Wolf returned to Oaxaca to report on a cave diving expedition into the Sistema Huautla. He was pushing a sump at the 1100 meter depth when his rebreather failed. Disoriented because of the poisonous mix of gases, Wolf swam into the wrong passageway, became trapped, and drowned. The other divers were able to pull his body out of the sump, but there was no way to drag the corpse upward through the many shafts and siphons that had to be traversed to reach the Huautla’s entrance. The explorers wrapped Wolf in his sleeping bag and, then, slid him through a muddy chamber into a small niche in the wall. They set Wolf’s gear next to him, including the fatally malfunctioning rebreather, and, then, gathered stones to fit them together to wall off the little cell where the body lie. One of the explorers videotaped the process for Wolf’s wife. The images of Wolf’s burial in the cave began with a sixty-second image of the dead man’s face. Wolf’s beard was longer and flecked with grey. His eyes were closed but his lips were retracted in a faint snarl over his teeth.

After the service in Santa Fe, Wolf’s wife approached Traven in the little walled garden next to the old adobe church. Her hands were trembling and, although it was a warm and sunny day, she seemed to be very cold. A shrub was flowering and the big heart-shaped leaves of a catalpa tree gestured toward them.

Wolf’s wife had big black eyes. Her face was wet with tears. A dramatic swath of white slashed across her otherwise dark hair. She spoke with a faint accent.

"You had some secret with Wolf," the widow said.

They were momentarily alone, the others still standing in the church or at its threshold.

"We were just good friends, college friends," Traven said.

"No, no," she replied. "There was some secret with you. Wolf carried it close to his heart. It almost ruined his life."

"He had a wonderful life," Traven said. "People from all over the world have come to this service."

Wolf’s wife was very slender. She wore a brilliantly colored scarf twisted over her throat although the rest of her clothing was black. The scarf was patterned with the Zia sun sign.

"Please set my mind at rest," Wolf’s wife said. "Tell me his secret."

"There was no secret," Traven said.

A crowd of wellwishers from New York and Los Angeles came toward them over the cobbled stones in the church courtyard. Both the women and men bent forward to embrace Wolf’s widow. Traven backed away from her. He went to his pickup truck, tore off his tie, and, then, drove away.

A couple days later, Traven went to the safety deposit bank at the Savings and Loan in Cortaro. He spread all the papers on the table in small work room adjacent to the lock boxes. He withdrew all documents signed by Wolf and put them in a manilla envelope. Then, he examined the Moleskine notebooks containing Wolf’s survey notes. Wolf had used a mechanical pencil to make the notes and draw the diagrams in the little black book. Traven carefully erased Wolf’s initials from the sketches, blowing the flecks of synthetic rubber crumble off the edges of the paper. Wolf had written his name in blue ink on the first page of the notebook along with his address and phone number. Traven ripped out that sheet of paper from the Moleskine. He sat alone for a long time at the metal desk in the workroom, his fingers idly turning the pages of the remaining documents on the table – the easements, articles of incorporation, the deeds transferring land to Ari-Xanadu.

Traven thought of Wolf underground wrapped like cigar or a joint of marijuana in his sleeping bag. His cheeks burned and his ears were red. When his complexion had returned to normal, Traven put the documents remaining after his inspection back into the safe deposit box.

His wife was visiting her sister in Phoenix. Traven went to a Burger King and ordered supper for himself and his children. He didn’t use the drive-through but went into the restaurant. A garbage can stood sentinel by the door and Traven dropped the manila envelope containing his handwritten agreements with Wolf into the trash.




Traven’s mother died and there was a small inheritance. He used most of the money to acquire more land in the Dragoon Mountains. His wife opposed those purchases and said that they should pay off their mortgage with the cash or contribute more to their 401K. The quarrel was long and bitter and, for a time, Traven was afraid that the dispute would result in a divorce. He wondered if his wife would claim half-ownership of the cavern.

Instead of a divorce, Traven got cancer. The illness began as a skin cancer, a purplish melanoma, on his cheek and the back of his neck. Traven imagined that the cancer was a result of the summer that he had spent roofing in the blazing Arizona sun.

Cancer cells infiltrated Traven’s thyroid. He had surgery to remove his thyroid and the melanoma. For a couple months, Traven suffered radiation treatments. These were followed by seven months of chemotherapy.

When the chemotherapy was completed, Traven drove out to the sinkhole. Because he was weak and couldn’t walk well, Traven maneuvered his Suburban over the jeep track and parked close to the crater. The "no trespassing" signs were still in place, although some had been peppered with bird shot. Traven hobbled around the desert hill, leaning on his cane.

There had been more wars, and the threat of wars, and the military base had expanded. This meant more traffic on the highway between the freeway and fort. Big silver transport planes buzzed like bumble bees over the stony peaks of the mountains. From the slope over the state highway, Traven could see earth-movers next to the right-of-way cutting the hard, dusty caliche with their blades. A couple of heavy trucks were parked a quarter mile away on the part of the highway that had already been widened to four lanes and a median. A cloud of creamy lime rose from where the concrete mixers were pouring wet cement and aggregate to make the new lanes.

The warm sun and the breeze blowing down from the mountains was refreshing. Traven got back into his Suburban, rolled down the windows, and watched the machines working to widen the highway. Traffic was reduced to a single lane through the construction area and a pilot truck moved back and forth leading the columns of cars along the shoulder of the road, past the gouged-out place.

A Honda SUV pulled off the road, nosed its way to the jeep track, and, then, lurched uphill toward where Traven was parked. Traven cursed under his breath. The trail was too rough for the Honda and, so, it stopped a hundred yards from him and a young woman wearing a baseball cap climbed out of the vehicle and made her way up the hill toward him. There was no escaping her. The Honda blocked his way to the road. He looked at the dimple funneled into the hillside and back toward the young woman striding in his direction.

"Good afternoon," she greeted him.

Traven nodded suspiciously.

"Do you know who owns this part of the hills?" the young woman asked him.

She had a freckled face and was wearing a wedding ring.

"Who wants to know?"

"I’m a reporter down in Benson and with the newspapers in Tombstone and Bisbee as well," she said. "I’ve heard some rumors about land in these hills and I wanted to know if you could confirm what I’ve been told."

She reached into the back pocket of her jeans and took out a small notebook.

"I don’t really care to talk to you," Traven said.

"Please," she said. "Do you know the owner out here?"


"Whoever posted the ‘no trespassing’ signs," she replied.

"That I don’t know," Traven told her. He took a few steps away from her to see if she would follow him. The young woman reached up and rotated her baseball cap so that the bill was over the back of her neck and, then, she followed him.

"Here’s what I’ve heard," she began. "There’s a Bill up with the legislature to exercise eminent domain over a couple thousand acres in these hills. Supposedly, there’s an impressive limestone cave hereabouts. The governor wants to acquire it for a state park."

"What?" Traven leaned toward her.

"A state park. Somewhere in these hills," she repeated.


"A cave. A big underground cave,"

"Caves are usually underground," Traven said.

The girl grinned at him and squinted because the sun was bright.

"So what do you know about that?" the young woman asked.

"I don’t know," Traven replied. "Ten...fifteen years ago, I explored all the cracks and crannies in these hills."

"What did you find?"

"Not much. Nothing worth touring that’s for sure," Traven said. "There’s some crawlspaces, some squeezes you can wiggle into, but they don’t go anywhere. Just dirty little holes."

"That’s so," the woman said.

"And the problem, to be honest with you...the problem is the wild life, the zoology, I guess you would say."

She nodded at him as if she knew what he meant, but, then, asked: "The wild life?"

"It’s the creepy-crawlies," Traven said. "You go into any of the cracks and nooks in these hills and the first thing you meet are tarantulas, big hairy fellows that can jump six or eight feet, then, the fire ants that flop down off the ceilings into your hair, and, finally, the scorpions..." he paused. "I tell you that a hole in these hills will be just full of scorpions, forty or fifty of ‘em, in the first six feet. And all kinds. The little guys who will crawl into your pants and up your legs and down the back of your neck and, then, big fat ones, the jumbos who are about the size of a Maine lobster. And, then, you got the bark scorpions –black as night so you can’t see them in the cave, charred-looking little buggers but if one of them stings you, it’s light’s out. I heard of a spelunker out there who felt a tingling in the back of his hand – at first, I guess it’s like an electric current – and, then, this blinding pain, just red hot, like a molten dagger going into his and, so, he backs up out of the crawlspace and the little amber scorpions are just dropping off the walls and roof like leaves falling, he’s got the things all over him, he’s wearing one over each eye-socket like wiggly blonde eyebrows. But the little ones aren’t bothering him so much – it’s big black scorpion latched on his right hand, clinging there and its sting embedded about an inch in the meat of his hand and it’s pincers waving defiantly. He looks and he knows it a bark scorpion and he knows what that means as well – so the guy whips his knife out of his backpack and hacks off his own hand and, then, takes that hand in his other hand and throws it as far away as he can and the whole time that scorpion, black as night, is riding the severed hand, hunkered down on it like a mouse on a frisbee..."

Traven paused. The girl bit at her lower lip.

"This isn’t true," she said.

"Of course, it is," Traven told her. "I’ve seen the tarantulas and the whip-scorpions and the bark scorpions, the red fire ants, not to speak of the fucking bats, the vampire bats. I’ve seen ‘em and felt ‘em crawling on me when I went on my belly into those caves."

"Your belly?"

"The cracks you got to navigate aren’t any bigger than a good size dinner plate. You gotta go in head first," Traven said.

"Sounds awful," the young woman said,

"I was in one of those tunnels, narrow and hot and full of spiders and scorpions – the whole thing like a pipeline I was wriggling through, and, then, I come face-to-face or...I guess ... face to jaws with a huge centipede. The thing had to be a yard long and white as a ghost and it was coming right at my mouth and nose and, I tell you, I couldn’t exactly step aside, there was no place to go, and the thing had a head like a baseball bat with these weird razor-sharp shears going back and forth, back and forth, and, I’m telling you, the thing just kept coming, right at me and, then, it climbs to the side and tries to go around me, but that doesn’t work so the thing slides right into the collar of my shirt..."

Traven paused. "You see how I’ve got the collar of my shirt buttoned-up right under my chin."

"I see that," the reporter said.

"Ever since that day," Traven said. "I keep buttoned-up because...well, just because... I mean that creature got in my clothes right next to my skin and slid along the whole length of my body, all those little spiky legs, and, then, emerged, crept right out under the cuff of my pants."

"This isn’t true," the young woman said. "There aren’t any centipedes a yard long."

"No," Traven said. "You caught me there. I’ve been exaggerating. I think the centipede was maybe 15 or 16 inches long. That’s what it was."

The young woman shuddered. She slid her baseball cap back around to the front to cast a shadow on her face.

"It sounds awful," she said.

"It is awful."

The young woman looked dejected. She put away her notepad, shook his hand, and walked back to her SUV.

After she was gone, Traven went to his Suburban and bounced down the jeep track to the road. He waited patiently a little uphill from a little yellow CAT pushing gravel with its front-end loader bucket. The dust-smeared pilot truck passed by, a little Hyundai pickup, followed by a dozen cars northbound from the base to the freeway. Traven pulled over the rough, gouged shoulder onto the road, falling into line behind the last vehicle.

A quarter mile down the road, over the rise in the land, the single lane procession crossed the concrete bridge over the dry gulch where rockhounds hunted for malachite and geodes and lapis lazuli. On the flat terrace near the bridge, a dozen cars and trucks were parked. Traven had never seen so many vehicles in that place and, at first, his heart beat at an accelerated pace – the hills were full of people searching for his cave. Then, he noticed the blue chemical toilet next to the parked cars and realized that these were the vehicles the road construction workers had driven to the job site. He sighed heavily.

The pilot truck veered off to the side. Beyond the bridge, the road had already been widened – two lanes coming and two lanes going. The pack of cars divided into those willing to speed, those daring to outspeed the speeders, and the vehicles content with traveling at the posted limit. Traven was exhausted and so he drove the speed limit.




Throughout the summer, Traven rose early and drove with his border collie to the mountain park. At first, he hiked the short trails around the visitor center. The air was heavy and dew sparkled on the thorns of the saguaro and, sometimes, his dog strained against his leash, anxious to harass the javelina croaking and snorting at them from the thorny dry ravines on the hillside. The place became crowded as the day advanced and the parking lot at the trailheads filled up by 8:30 am and so it was best to come just after sunrise, before the sun was too high overhead and the desert pavement radiating heat like the inside of an oven.

After his morning hike, Traven drove back into town. He ordered a milk shake with fries at the In-and-Out Burger, sharing the fries with his dog. Gradually, his strength increased and, by the end of the summer, he could walk several miles without becoming tired. In mid-October, Traven’s PET scan showed that he remained cancer-free.

One morning in November, Traven drove to the cave. He no longer thought of the cavern as Xanadu. Rather, it was nameless, something inaccessible to which he had devoted his life, more a memory than a place.

Above the sinkhole, the hills were empty, nothing stirring beneath a lead-grey sky tightly nailed down over the desert. The crater smoked like a fumarole, diffuse columns of mist rising over the cave’s opening. Traven opened the gate that he had installed around the property, the metal rails cold, almost electric, against his hand and, then, drove his SUV to fog-capped sinkhole. Downhill, traffic shot by on the four-lane highway between the interstate exit and the army base.

He slipped into the sinkhole and, crouching, slid down the rocky slope to the place where the blowhole was hidden behind a loose mound of book-sized stones. The beam of Traven’s flashlight cut through the haze in the chamber and illumined the pale white dust whirling around him. They had stacked the stone in a disorderly way, hoping to simulate natural rock-fall, and the barrier collapsed easily enough when he removed some of the larger rocks. The black hole leading into the cave was exposed, a naked socket in the limestone wall exhaling an odor of mud and lime-water, a musty no-outlet smell that Traven associated with the slow accretion of time, seconds heaped up to become minutes and, then, hours and days and years, and, at last, millennia: a dark, dusty, defleshing, buried-alive smell that was not rot but the essential pre-condition for rot. In the probing beam of the flashlight, the opening seemed surprisingly large, a neat passage bored down into the rock.

Traven turned around and climbed up the slope to the funnel-like entry to the sinkhole. On the surface, he rummaged in the back of his vehicle and found his old, battered hardhat. Traven said to himself that if the LED mounted on the hardhat didn’t light, he would hike the perimeter of his property, check on the "No Trespassing" postings, and, then, go home. He tilted the LED upward and, then, switched it on. Beneath the dust, the light shone clear and bright. Traven checked the spare halogen bulb in its receptacle – to his surprise, it looked intact and, when he tested it, lit as well. In a black 40 gallon garbage bag, Traven found his knee and elbow pads, satisfyingly scuffed but still intact.

Under the crater’s funnel, Traven scuttled up to the blowhole and tilted forward to inspect the black oval dent in the wall. The cave blew its breath into his mouth. Traven’s heart was beating very hard against his ribs and he felt slightly dizzy – it was the way that he felt the first time after his diagnosis when he was slid into the round sepulcher of the MRI machine. Only a fool enters a wild cave alone and Traven thought briefly about Floyd Collins pinned in the crooked passageway of the cave in Kentucky. – I will just put my head inside, Traven thought to himself, look around for five minutes and, then, come out.

His shoulders were now the widest part of his body and he wormed through the blowhole without any difficulty. After the constricted space, the darkness expanded around him explosively and the beam of his light, thrown out against the darkness, caught crystal, caught flowstone, caught a drizzle of falling water, each droplet flaring like a diamond against the blackness, and, then, was lost in the silent distance of the big room. Then, it all returned to him, muscle memory of the inclines and drop-offs in the room and he saw the stark yellow ribbon, the crime-scene tape marking the optimum pathway among the formations studding the floor. With the tape as his guide, there couldn’t be any harm venturing a little more deeply into the cave.

Traven followed the corridor of yellow tape up an incline to where the overhanging ceiling opened to a high dome. He looked up and the probe of his light caught the forest of slick spear points all aimed down at him. Water infused with ancient stone dripped into his eyes. The tape-route zigzagged across the cave’s floor, using big, bland slabs of rock-fall as stepping stones through the wet lagoon of sculpted flowstone and quartzite crystal. He could walk upright and the tip of the LED beam went ahead of him, now sweeping across the floor, now lost in the black distance. The nursery roost overhead murmured to him and he heard many leathery wings rustling and, sometimes, a bat would fall from overhead like a falling leaf, dropping black into the black mound of guano, the air all poisonous with ammonia fumes that drove the tape-trail to spiral down in the darkness, reversing its direction so that he had to crouch at first among sphinxes of flowstone and, then, crawl head down among the knobs of stalagmites, a long painful slog to the other big chamber tilting down to the cave’s mud bowels.

Traven recalled that Wolf’s first wife had been a soldier in the military police and the yellow crime-scene tape leading him downward between the underbrush of delicate formations was something that his friend had found stored in a kitchen cabinet. He and Wolf had placed the tape together, many years ago, in their first enthusiasm of exploration, marking the optimum route through the cavern – it was important to conserve the cave’s wonderful formation and the trail was designed to lead visitors downward without bringing them into contact with the more delicate formations. The narrow twisting corridor between the two big rooms was crooked and steep and the crawl tired Traven. He took a deep breath and was dizzy and, so, he sat for awhile with his head tilted forward and his eyes closed. While he rested with his eyes closed, he felt Wolf at his side. Wolf was breathing heavily through clenched teeth and Traven could smell the faint scent of his deodorant dissolving in his sweat. Wolf put his hand on Traven’s shoulder to encourage him to continue. Wolf was smiling, no longer underground but atop a white conical peak – he had an ice-axe in his hand and he waved it above a chaos of peaks and fractured glaciers.

Traven felt thirsty and he was sweating, but the yellow tape urged him deeper into the cave. He scrambled down a broken and irregular slope to a brown stone pier thrust out over the amphitheater filled with mud. The tape defined a path past some encrustations of cave popcorn, little crystal blossoms the color of rose quartz on the stone slabs. A tangle of helictite fogged an overhang and, then, the tape barrier drooped down and stopped at the edge of the mud. The room smelled of rot and the mud looked organic, the detritus of a swamp. There was no need to mark the path across the mud flat because the trail incised across the mire by Traven and Wolf was still exactly as they had left it a quarter of a century before – each of their steps was engraved in the mud forming two parallel trenches that passed between the glistening syringe-needles of the soda straws fallen from the ceiling and embedded in the muck. Traven slid down to the edge of the mud lake and rested there. This was the very bottom of the cave.

When he closed his eyes, Traven saw Wolf again, not a vision but a memory – he recalled how they had crossed the mud, each step an agony because the muck filled up around their feet and calves and thighs, holding them tight to the buttocks, mocking them with an obscene sucking noise as they struggled free of its clasp. Wolf was smiling over his shoulder, encouraging Traven to follow him. The sweat streamed down their faces and salted their eyes. The cave had been in him so long, concealed in the hollow beneath his heart that, now, Traven had the peculiar feeling that the darkness and the formations and the unceasing drizzle of water was both inside and outside. The cave was all around him but it was also under his ribs, the same size in that place as around him, and Traven sensed himself, like a worm, moving through a darkness that was hidden inside of him, a tiny, inconsequential figure in the belly of the great darkness that was his body, the cave concealed as it had always been and as it would always be within a fabric of lies and deceit and indirection, and, yet, at the same time a very palpable exterior all around him, a vast cathedral-like landscape where he was now sitting, his legs dangling over the black mud.

He turned his head and saw something that riveted him to the spot. The beam cast out and reeled back to his eyes another track through the mud. A dozen yards to the side of the two parallel trenches that Traven and Wolf had cut into the mire, he saw another path – a single set of footprints piercing the crust on the mud and, then, step by step leading away, crossing the concave basin in a completely different direction. Overhead the great spire of Kubla Khan rose up to suture the ceiling to the bottom of the cave but this was invisible in Traven’s head-lamp. Instead, he stood up, reeling dangerously and almost falling, the beam of his light capturing evidence of an interloper in the cave, someone else underground, another explorer. Some cave roses crushed under his boots as he staggered toward the stone rim of the mud lake. The trace was unmistakable: footprints marking someone else’s stride across the belly of the cave.

At first, Traven wondered if Wolf had come into the cave during the years when he was too fat to pass through the entrance. But he and Wolf had scouted to the very edges of mud basin, explored its perimeter for leads and there would have been no reason to cross the flat in a different direction – no reason and, indeed, this would have been perilous for a man exploring alone. Wolf had always been very cautious and, so, Traven was convinced that the new set of boot marks pocking the mud was from someone else, even, perhaps, another claimant to the cavern. His mind reeled and Traven felt dizzy and nauseated. Perhaps his whole life, and Wolf’s life as well, had been in vain.

Traven didn’t recall reversing his steps and scrambling up the slippery rocks to the upper room. Somehow, he deviated from the tape-marked trail and was briefly lost and panic made his heart throb and burn in his chest. Then, his head-lamp beam caught the yellow ribbon framing the proper path, high above the dead-end of a dank sump rimmed with crystals the shape of sharks’ teeth. Traven cut his forearm and hands hauling himself out of the pit. He found the blowhole and wiggled through it and, then, came to the surface.

– How long have I been underground? The condensation from the blowhole had spread across the landscape. He was enveloped in a pale mist that blurred the outlines of his SUV and made the cactus along the jeep track seem half-formed and unfamiliar. When he latched his steel gate, the metal was dripping with water.

The desert basin was invisible. The mountains behind him showed snow crusted on their grey upper heights and they were shaggy with fog.

Traven reached the State Highway. – Who had invaded his cave? He looked in his rear-view mirror, half-expecting some interloper to appear pursuing him down the sloping, rutted lane behind. For a moment, he startled – but the mud-splashed, appalled face in the rear-view mirror was his own. He thought that he would have to drive to Bisbee as soon as possible and search the tract index for new real estate transactions on the mountain.

Traven turned left onto the two-lane highway in the direction of the interstate. A semi-truck marked with the golden arches of McDonald’s hit him head-on. Traven had forgotten that the road had been widened to four lanes, two coming and two going. The McDonald’s truck smashed into his SUV in the left, passing lane of the state highway bound for the military base. The impact killed Traven and threw his SUV into the gouged-out median. The truck was damaged a little and jackknifed across the right-of-way, but the driver was not seriously injured. Traven’s spelunking helmet shot like a cannon-ball through a shattered window and was found 80 feet from the crash. The helmet was intact and its LED lamp still operable. The sun came out and cleared the mist. The State Trooper who retrieved the battered, turquoise-colored hard hat from road’s shoulder looked at it curiously. When he switched the lamp on, its wan beam shone faintly against the brightness of the day.