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14. So Was the Sphinx

They were talking about me.

Gypsy said, "You see? Hes paralyzed. He cant do anything. Everything goes in, and nothing comes out. He has no idea what he is. He doesnt remember anything deeper than the Milky Way."

"Shush," Nora said, "He can hear you. Youll upset him."

"So what? It doesnt make any difference. Look at him. Hes not even here."

"Poor baby. Still, thats it for Shaman. He cant do this twice. Mel is his feed hole. Shamell starve down there. You can take Mel back to Sandy. Hell be a hero."

"What hero? Theyll build a museum around him. Put him in a glass case. He doesnt know what he is, Nora. Theres nobody in there."

"Thats because of Shaman. He blew Mels mind, is all. Its like the Sphinx before Tuthmosis: half-buried in the sand."

"What mind?" Gypsy said. "Ill bet he cut it off himself when he was a baby, like a trapped rabbit gnaws its foot off. Maybe its an impediment down on Earth to be what he is. Thats what made it so easy for Shaman to put a hole in."

"Izzy tried to patch it. Look."

They leaned into my face like oral surgeons. Gypsy waved his phony fingers in front of my eyes. I just felt numb. I didnt want to respond to them yet. I wanted to keep thinking about things Id seen at rest stops in the west, on Earth I mean.

"Its a temporary," Gypsy said.

"Yes. Sloppy work."

"Goddamn Izzy Molson!" Gypsy said. "Hey, wait a minute! Whats that?" I felt Gypsys finger come straight in through my eye to nudge a spot near the filling.

Nora said, "Gone Joe. Guy in Mels mind. Looks like hes trying to squeeze out."

"Typical. Lot of damage in there, but its small stuff, non sequiturs, lacunae, causal gaps, the usual. Itll heal. Izzys bung wont last more than a few months though. You want to insert anything while we have the chance?"

"For heavens sake, no! This is a sovereign person, Gypsy."

"The hell he is! Hes just an extremity, Abu al-Hawls blow hole or something. The Mel Bellow personality thing is just static, a TV ghost. Shamans feeding through him, Nora. The guys nothing but a junkies vein."

"Youre beginning to sound like Shaman Look! Hes coming round. Get your hand out of there!"

I started to "come to." I had been reluctant. You dont try to land in a volcano. I had plenty of fuel left inside my mind, plenty of things to think about, vivid, fascinating. I didnt have to join Gypsy and Nora in this impossible reality. But then I heard Nora defend me to him? "a sovereign person"?and things felt much safer.

I made my entrance: "Where are we? Whats going on? Why is it so black out there?" I pretended to be woozy at first, for the sake of continuity. Discontinuity is a terrible enemy of ones sense of selfhood.

Gypsy looked at his wristwatch, if it was a watch, which hung half through his wrist, if it was a wrist. "Fifteen minutes," he said. "Were about a hundred million miles out."

Gone Joe said, "Run!"

"I dont want to be here," I said.

For some reason, this sent Gypsy into a rage. He stormed over to the bus tray station and overturned it, shattering dishes and launching silverware. "Sure. Lets just turn around. Lets take you back to Shaman. Maybe we should garnish you with parsley first. I think theres some in the goddamned kitchen."

"Careful, Gyp, or youll jar us off course," Nora said, like a nanny admonishing a fractious toddler. "Have we reached the Magellanic Stream?"

"Not quite." Gypsy stood stock still and glared at me. His fury had distilled itself into a poisonous timbre.

"Lets do an epoche. We want to make sure Shaman cant catch up. Go into the kitchen and use the automatic dishwasher."

"But Nora"

"An epoche, Gypsy. Ill see if I can get the rabbits foot."

"Ah!" Gypsy turned on his heel, on his fake heel, and shouldered through a padded, swinging door into the kitchen.

"Youre safe with us, Mel," Nora said. "You know what Shaman would do to you on Earth. Izzy told you, didnt he?"

"Izzyll be back in a year," I said. "Thats what he told me. On his next vacation. He hasnt got much seniority."

I felt better with Gypsy gone. I looked around. Except for Gypsys mess and the fact that a few tables remained to be bused, everything looked fine. There was a map of U.S. Route 40 on the wall nearby, with colored lights at the rest stops and interchanges; ours glowed red. The condiments station had plenty of ketchups and mustards, though the relish was getting low; maybe a few more of those tiny paper cups would help, in case of a rush. There were kitschy oil paintings of long-horned steer and cacti over the empty tables. The one over ours had a campfire in the foreground with a circle of chiaroscuro bronco busters; one of the cowpokes had a guitar in his lap. Near the stack of salts and peppers at my elbow, there was a display explaining how you could get prints of the Western Landscape Series for your very own. Everything was fine. Everything was okay.

But out the window

"Mel" Nora said. What is that moment between a man and woman when he starts to see her face as skin, the pores, the sweat, the small swells and hollows that he will fill, swell for hollow with his own? When his eyes become tactile organs? When her breath warms the air between them, and they feel themselves drawing nearer, like buns proofing under a warm, wet towel?

"Nora, do you look like him underneath, like a snake or something?" I said.

"Didnt Izzy tell you?"


"Run!" Gone Joe clamored.

We were leaning together like tin leaves in an electroscope. Our knees touched. "Mel, why dont you know what you are?" Her nose grazed mine. We rubbed. I groaned.

"Shaman wants to eat me," I said. "How do I know you wont eat me too?"

"Why would I eat you? I love you, Mel." She kissed me. A purple dye seemed to swirl through the room, tinging everything. The walls, tables, paintings, juke boxes, bus and condiment stations, cashiers desk, melted as they changed hue. Everything shrank and became cylindrical. I felt her kiss in my stomach, in my toes.

She peeled her lips away slowly. I wanted to cry. She was tearing my heart out. She never broke eye contact. We were in some sort of space vessel, it seemed like. I was a hundred million miles from home, I think. There wasnt a single fact I could rely on. I looked around. As soon as Nora stopped kissing me, the spaceship looked like a rest stop cafe again.

I said, "I was hitchhiking"

She said, "So was the Sphinx."

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