David Leo Rice
David Leo Rice is a writer and animator living in New York City. He's also the author of the novels A Room in Dodge City, The PornME Trinity, and Angel House, one of Dennis Cooper's favorite books of 2019. David's debut short-story collection, Drifter, is forthcoming in mid-2021.
U l t r a M a x
That’s one thing.
The two of you pay.
I remain in the back under my red blanket while you move around the car, filling the tank. When there comes the need to relieve myself and you are away, I lean carefully out the door and onto the parking lot, coming to my feet like a much older man, shuffling toward some sprig of greenery or density of refuse, upon which, I’m ashamed to admit, you often discover me, and are obliged to hose me down with the self-service nozzle and buckle my trousers back around my waist.
There are no towns.
We drive up and down the coast and nowhere are there any towns.
I believe we are in the general vicinity of Sacramento, but this could well be a story I’ve told myself to paper over some much harsher truth.
Things were not different when I was your age. There was not abundance and grandeur then, only the same cracked, hot highways, watched by the same wolfish dogs, the so-called Real World already lost on the far side of the Fundamental Nightmare.
We drive on.
There is hardly any dialogue.
At most, you chat low in the front seat.
I remain silent beneath my blanket, feeling its bristly underside on my lips, rough as an overgrown mustache. I relish the feel of even this much, knowing well the feel of less.
I began tearing off these pages beneath the blanket nearly nine years ago, when the two of you were nine and I was much the same age I am now.
With a combination of tooth and elbow I remove each day as it passes. All the days of the years to come were bound into this calendar when I received it, fat as a book by some author of fat books, long since forgotten. I am down to, now, I do not want to say how many pages, but not many. Little more than a remnant of binding hairy with glue.
I aspire only to dwell within the days that remain. And to think a little while I can, before my return to the Middle Country, where, as you will find out, one can hardly think at all.
Your music plays through a device. Laidback, melancholic trios out of Nashville and Cincinnati. Though my hearing is watery at best, I enjoy the sounds these singers make and the intention I perceive behind them. I swell in my chest under my blanket, luxuriating in a notion as obsolete as “Nashville,” the bravado of the claim to be from that place or anyplace. Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit. So improbable and yet there it is, in the voices on those ancient tapes. It makes me feel cradled, held. Part of something.
I do not think, most of the time, you recall that I’m here. Or you do but do not think about it. You drive concerned with your own nascent matters, coming into your own despite how little you stand to inherit.
When we stop at a roadside stand, I get a milkshake. You—the bigger one—prop the sweating cup on my forearm and mold my other hand around the base. I then drink as much as I can through the straw. I cannot taste it but I enjoy its thickness and cold, while you—the smaller one, disgusted by me—look away, up the road in the direction we’re going.
On weekends ULTRA MAX is closed for maintenance and internal operations. There are cement hulks still called motels, with empty rooms for lying down and hoses out back for washing.
This is where we stop.
I stay in the car while the two of you go inside.
I’ve spent my nearly nine years of weekend nights looking through darkened backseat windows, writing in these pages until my strength gives out. I hear the Fundamental Nightmare whirl in my ears as I unclog them with my left fingertip, which I maneuver bluntly with my right hand. A few people—you, me—can still sense the Nightmare’s presence, with the so-called Real World on its far side. Most cannot. Whether this is a mercy or a shame is a matter I once devoted no small effort to considering, though I could not say now what conclusion I reached.
Every time you go in to sleep, you gather up the money you’ve saved and take it with you. This I find at once insulting and endearing, as if I would deign to steal from you. As if I were capable. What would I buy?
On Sunday morning you emerge with clean, wet hair, wearing windbreakers and jeans that appear freshly washed, the outlines of cigarette packs visible in your back pockets.
You—the bigger one—wear a pale blue windbreaker, while you—the smaller one—wear a black windbreaker, zipped to your throat. The heat does not deter you from these costumes. Good to have something that’s part of who you are.
You’re both clean-shaven except for sideburns on you—the bigger one—and, on you—the smaller one—the hint of a goatee, which you’ve fostered for some time without it becoming thicker or darker. I catch you examining it in the rearview mirror, popping the hairs out with a frown, hoping there will at last be too many to count.
You—the smaller one—begin the day’s drive, as you—the bigger one—make your way into the passenger seat, unfolding the map after secreting your money back into the glove compartment, where, I imagine, you tell yourself it will be safe from whatever threat you believe I pose.
You enter the car without acknowledging me and I remain where I’ve been. My seatbelt keeps me from rolling when the engine starts up.
The day is hot and long, full of shredded tires, wordless billboards, birds of prey.
Now it’s evening before the new week’s first night at ULTRA MAX, our last week together, not that you know this yet. I try to push the thought away, which is to say I drag it through and work it down into my mind until no other thought remains.
We park in the ULTRA MAX lot, so large that no edge is visible from its center.
Your movements are jocular, almost dancing in your clean clothes, visibly lightened after your weekend’s rest. I lean on you—the bigger one—while you—the smaller one—look away. The mammoth one-story hulk of ULTRA MAX materializes in the distance.
The last steps of the approach are crucial. You—the bigger one—free a shopping cart from its stall and peel my hands off your arm, molding them around the cart’s handle. I lean heavily upon it, hanging back as you make your entrance. Here you forget the road, the car, and, maybe most of all, me. You draw your lines closer in, zip your windbreakers tighter, preparing to travel back through the Fundamental Nightmare and into the so-called Real World, to do the work you’ve been hired to do there. I know because I did the same at your age.
When you are out of sight, I nod, as forcefully as I am able, at the automatic door. On a third try, it whooshes to admit me to the air-conditioned foyer of coin-operated dinosaurs and glitter-encrusted rocket ships, bubble gum dispensers and candy-claws that loom above pits of sleeping plushies. Everywhere are tattered photos of lost children, barely visible, like the fading faces of saints on the walls of a cathedral in… not Nashville or Cincinnati, but some city known by another name.
There is a smell of cinnamon and mint. There are images of men and women in cologne and perfume ads whose sultry good health mocks the drudgery of one day having to die.
You proceed out of the foyer through a sparse crowd of drunks, wobbling in sweatpants and flannel shirts. Then you pass Cosmetics, nearest the entrance, and enter the Great Outdoors. Here you set up fishing chairs in the aisle and sit heavily down, taking up display poles and casting about for lint and wrappers. You try on floppy-brimmed khaki hats and multi-pocketed vests and clip-on belts that hold bait and tackle.
Next you go to the Snack Bar where a tired girl elbows the popcorn machine open. You each fill a paper cone and walk, munching, through Hardware, admiring drillbits and tossing kernels at the passing drunks, who shrug off the tiny impacts and keep moving.
I make my way toward the back.
I have to hurry. My body hardens quickly when I’m away from you. Soon I lose purchase on the shopping cart and have to let it go. I sink to my knees, then my elbows, then my chin. I move on my side, slithering along with a shoulder and a hip.
I try not to think of when and how this will happen for the last time, the two of you gone, me alone and paralyzed, never to stand again. I divert these thoughts into consideration of your birthday. I’d like to get you something that recognizes your coming of age and also does the work of saying goodbye.
As I slither through the aisles, I try to look up but see only the bottoms of shelves, like rungs on a ladder to the ceiling. I focus instead on where I’m going.
When I get there, I pass through the steel doors by way of a special flap, on my way to meet Thompson in his Orchard.
You drift through Homewares, Wood, Food Products, Appliances, Automotive Parts, Digital, and Guns & Chemicals, until you stand before the twelve-foot sign that reads HOMETOWN (WHERE WE’RE FROM).
You reenter the Hometown, in the far back corner of the store, on the righthand side, set up exactly the same way in every ULTRA MAX on our route. Every weeknight, you pass the sign that reads SETTLED 1737, INCORPORATED 1821, COUNTY SEAT 1877.
The streets are dark in the ULTRA MAX lighting, designed here to resemble distant moonlight. The ceiling gets higher, like you’re descending into a concavity, a pit drilled in the foundation. The ambient shopping noise fades, replaced by a gentle country breeze, piped in from invisible jets.
You pass familiar stores and restaurants. The sports bar and the barbershop are neither closed nor open, but in a third state that does not change, since ULTRA MAX is 24h. I cannot express the degree to which I envy your freedom to return here, not yet burdened by knowledge of the Middle Country’s silence and heat.
You nod to those who nod hello.
Passing faces, friendly inquiries. You reply that you’ve been well, graduation was fun but it sure is nice to be finished with high school. “Now,” you conclude, the same way every night—unchanged, indeed, since my day—“we’re trying to save a little money from our summer jobs and getting excited about the next thing. It’s our last summer here, so we’re just drinking it all in before we leave, you know? After that, we’ll see!”
You stand for a moment in front of the church, regarding the sign that reads GOD PROMISES A SAFE ARRIVAL BUT NOT A SMOOTH JOURNEY. Then you pass the Carnegie library with four neat columns like a shrunken Greek temple, across from the Moravian Cemetery.
A FOR LEASE sign dominates the window of the old stationary store like that’s all it has to sell.
You think of your Hometown in terms of blocks.
Each block has one dominant business, defining its mood. For this one it’s Ben’s Watch & Timer; for the next it’s Giant Chinese, where you’re starting to remember eating lunch specials when school got out early once a month for curriculum development meetings. Not very good, you think, as the memory resurfaces, but big plates and cheap.
It’s one more block to Da Vinci’s, where you now remember sitting, day in and day out, with coffee and scones, surrounded by paperbacks and dime store notepads as you labored to imagine the outside world.
The door is propped open with a rock and on the patio are three tables, twelve seats, always a nice crowd on warm evenings like this one.
You take in the pastry case, the smell of coffee passing through a percolator. A boy and girl serve you and ask how you’ve been.
“You know. Pretty good. You?” you say.
They shrug happily.
With fresh coffees and a scone apiece, you sit down at a patio table. Your seats are at the edge of a square across which old-timers shuffle. The square is elegant, cobbled, though the stones are cardboard. The old-timers touch down in empty seats and get up again. Two men claim that the bake-off is coming and their wives will be entering cakes; a third claims that his wife will be the judge.
As you sit, faint images of the road and the wolfish dogs along it, nights in the motels, the sun beating down on gas pumps, dinners in parking lots, and my face, simmer low in you, like longings for the future, indistinct promises firming up in a nutritive brine. “If we can just save enough to get out of here…” you think, as I thought.
When you’ve finished your coffee and scones, you scoop your cigarettes and keys off the table and thread up the rest of Main Street, deserted but for a few old women peering at the empty train tracks from second-story windows.
Approaching the neighborhood where you live, you perch your cigarettes in your mouths and swing your arms loose and long, looking upward, affecting the kind of world-weariness of those about to turn eighteen. You—the smaller one—tongue the inside of your lip enough to primp your goatee, tasting a canker sore whose pain is hard to resist.
The air thickens, turns striated and fibrous, as if filling with long branches beginning to bud. A small reflecting pool gleams in the near distance, mottled with Lilly-pads and the shadows of clouds in the moonlight.
Something is piped in from the ULTRA MAX ceiling, much too high to see. It smells citrusy, like a fine aftershave. You inhale, swoon, grateful for the anesthesia. Having reverted fully to the feeling of being from somewhere, a town in which people are born and grow up and one day hope to leave, you are now at the very edge of the Fundamental Nightmare.
The keys are hidden in the usual place. You enter your homes, wiping your shoes on your welcome mats before taking them off. You each live alone, across a narrow footpath from one another, close enough to confer from your bedroom windows. How I wish that I still had such a home, a sealed box where I could get in bed and close my eyes, regardless of the dream I would then fall into.
You wash your faces with very hot water and drink very cold milk on your way upstairs. Then you go into your bedrooms and close the doors.
The Fundamental Nightmare begins. You sink all the way into it, or it rises all the way up in you. You move down its long black corridor and out the other side, into the so-called Real World.
Looking back on the long-ago nights when I was in the position you are in now, I picture you tearing along rows of sleeping newborns in a nursery, each one swaddled in blankets wrapped over full-body pajamas.
You stretch open burlap sacks marked COFFEE, BRAZIL, broken-in from years of use. You grab the newborns by the neck and stuff them inside, pushing them down to make room for more. No one knows why there are so many, what generative principle so perversely refuses extinction.
At first the sacks jerk and wriggle and cry, brought to sudden, endangered life.
Then, almost smothered, they begin to breathe in a smooth vegetal drone, bald heads solemn as cabbages. You carry them out of the so-called Real World, back through the tunnel of the Fundamental Nightmare, and into the field behind Thompson’s Orchard.
The final step. The most dangerous part, that for which you are paid the money you’ve been saving. You must check each newborn for the Fundamental Nightmare. Most do not carry it, but some, like us, do.
God, I do not wish to remember the feel of that Nightmare on my hands. The newborns’ innate sense memory of the so-called Real World, and the tunnel, full of shrieking static, that has led them away from it, and into the hindquarters of ULTRA MAX. As best I understand it, the Fundamental Nightmare and the ability to have the Fundamental Nightmare are one and the same: the tunnel is in you just as surely as you are in it, with the so-called Real World on one side and ULTRA MAX on the other. Not that you’ve asked, but if you had, I could offer no explanation more cogent than this.
Like a burn or a bite, a snake-fang between the knuckles: the presence of the Fundamental Nightmare, at any rate, is unmistakable. There is no need for explanation now.
The anesthesia you breathed earlier is a kindness.
You sit in the open field, smelling of wet grass. Not speaking, you sort through the stirring COFFEE, BRAZIL sacks, touching each newborn just long enough to tell.
When you find one that has it, you heave it as hard and far away as you can, back where it came from, to spend the next years playing on a playground in the so-called Real World, like the two of you did until you met me.
Like I did too, until I met my taker.
Catch and release, on and on through time.
The three of us were not made to be processed by Thompson.
Tonight, mercifully, the haul is clean. All the newborns are usable.
Back in the Orchard with Thompson, I lean toward the window to watch you approach. You look powerful and confident, well-conditioned by your summer job, as you heft your cargoes high on your shoulders. Though it may be that I’ve taught you nothing, I am proud when I see you like that.
A ceiling spigot mists every few minutes, condensing on the fleshy roughage that Thompson is growing in troughs and pots, awaiting your arrival.
I want to get up and let you in, but I am by now far from able. A few hours away from you and I revert to the state I was in before we met.
So you let yourselves in. After brushing the dirt from your shoes, you kneel to empty your sacks. As the cargo is laid out, Thompson taps each newborn with a rubber mallet until it lies still.
You back off to let him work.
He strips off their pajamas and cuts their torsos open and pulls matter through the cut, tossing it into a blue plastic bin like fish parts. Some of them will die and be tossed likewise into that bin, par for the course, like the few pieces of rotten fruit per hundred. But most will survive, their hearts, brains, and lungs strong enough to take root inside the roughage, turning it from vegetable to animal.
Thompson is in many places at night, at work in all the Orchards of all the ULTRA MAX’s of the nation. I have never known whether to consider him Thompson or a Thompson. I have never asked. We move from one ULTRA MAX to the next so as never to deplete any one source, allowing the newborns in each nursery to regrow. I am astonished not only at the dexterity but the care, the tenderness, with which Thompson treats them. He, and perhaps he alone, knows the value of human life.
Once he has implanted their organs into the roughage and covered it in something skinlike, jets of warm air gush down to dry them.
He nods in the direction of a steel box on a table. From this, you remove your wages, stuffing them in your pockets and signing a sheet with an attached pen. Then you make your way into the break room.
The break room looks more like a hospital than a residence, but, save for on weekends, it’s the only place you can sleep, since your beds in your houses in the Hometown are only jumping-off points for the taking.
You lie on cots here, coming down from the anesthesia, passing back through the Fundamental Nightmare, but this time without agenda.
This time, you traverse the tunnel and enter the so-called Real World as yourselves, not as takers. You barely remember being thrown back into the nursery as newborns, your taker recoiling upon feeling your sting in the COFFEE, BRAZIL sack, the Fundamental Nightmare coursing through you, making you unfit for the aisles of ULTRA MAX.
Where is your taker now? Surely in the Middle Country, where I was too, lying flat on my belly, or my back, the two almost interchangeable by then. I had lost all sense of myself by the time I made the call from where I lay, begging to be sent back to the coast for one last ULTRA MAX tour before the permanence of exile set in. The Middle Country, as I’ve written before, awaits you as well: boiling salt flats dotted with spent bodies, hard, de-nerved, all former duos looking away from one another in mutual recrimination for having let it come to this.
Still, some of us in the Middle Country find the strength to make the call, demanding to be sent back to the coast to guide nine-year-olds like you in and out of ULTRA MAX until they turn eighteen. I drummed up the energy for what felt like years, focusing all my depleted resources on it, all the yearning I’d once harbored for the future—gestated at that same table in front of Da Vinci’s when I was sixteen and seventeen—until I managed to force my mouth open and broadcast my loneliness into the hot, stagnant air.
Hearing my call, the chauffeur appeared, loaded me into the backseat of his car and drove me out to a playground on the coast. He helped me up the hill and left me with this calendar stuffed with nine years’ worth of days and the keys to the car you’ve been driving, and are likely driving still.
You were almost nine, alone on the playground. All the other children you’d been born with were long-gone inside ULTRA MAX. Only the two of you remained, foraging for scraps.
Then you saw something in the low foliage. I sat propped against a tree, my feet lost in roots and pebbles and the season’s first fallen leaves, some orange, others still green.
You drew near, deep in private conference. You sounded, from where I sat, like a scuttling of squirrel feet.
I could see only that there were two of you and that you looked similar, though one of you was slightly bigger, the other slightly smaller. I was starving, having eaten nothing since the chauffeur dropped me off. In the Middle Country, one feels no hunger, but here, as I began to thaw in your presence, the lack in my center expanded to threaten my whole being.
You heard a low groan, no louder than a rustle of undergrowth but not the sound of plants. I pursed my lips, pressed my tongue into the seal where they met, and groaned again from my belly. I knew how lovely it sounded to you because I remember how lovely it sounded to me when I was your age and my taker waited likewise among the leaves for my counterpart and me, both of us almost nine and sick with boredom. It sounded like escape, like someone had come for us at last.
You conferred at the edge of the playground while I sat where I’d been placed, trying to keep my hunger from killing me. Just before I lost consciousness, I saw you striding in my direction. Then I felt you picking me up, carrying me down the hillside. You were strong enough, or I was light enough.
At the bottom, you helped me into the backseat where the blankets and pillows from my trip out of the Middle Country lay where I’d left them.
We departed, stopping only for the milkshake that saved my life. You managed to drive, comically low in your seats, barely able to see out, but the roads were flat and wide and there was no traffic.
Just before sleep, I used my newly workable hand to tear the first day from this calendar. Happy ninth birthday to both of you.
Once again,it’s the three of us in ULTRA MAX at the start of a new day, the two of you almost eighteen.
Thompson’s work is done.
What he’s processed will soon rise from where it’s resting.
He makes green tea in a Styrofoam cup stained with much earlier tea, and sips it without offering me any. He makes notes in a ledger with one hand. With the other, he finds a last rye biscuit in its package, always the same type and always down to the last one.
Finishing his tea, he pours out the bucket of newborn-waste. It froths through a drain in the cement floor. The remaining solids are tossed onto the compost pile.
He retreats into his private quarters, through another set of steel doors that whoosh for him alone. In a few days, he will make the call to summon the chauffeur who will take us all to the Middle Country.
I grind out the last of my energy to set off the alarm with my cheek.
It howls in the break room.
You—the smaller one—open the door in your boxers and undershirt.
“One second,” you say, your cash clenched in your fist.
When you’re both ready, we walk out with the small crowd Thompson has made, men and women in their forties and fifties in sweatpants and flannel shirts.
By the time we take our place in the breakfast line, they all know one another, chatting about their errant families and sore backs, the jobs they’re hoping to get healthcare from, the storm gutters that need cleaning.
We find a table. You gather pancakes and bacon strips, plastic cups of orange juice with ice cubes and black coffee. You offer me a sip once the coffee is cool and I’ve regained the energy to swallow.
I watch this new population eat and drink and mingle, their day beginning in earnest, ticking down toward the hour when they’ll process into the Hometown, the only home they’ve ever had or wanted. First, they’ll take their places at the tables outside Da Vinci’s and in the square across from it, and at Giant Chinese. Then, a short or long time thereafter, they’ll lie down in the Moravian Cemetery, where their remains will be exhumed by Thompson’s Proxies and brought to the Orchard to help grow more of the roughage that will in turn be implanted in a new crop of people, eager to take their places in the breakfast line and at the tables I am looking at now.
A few more days and nights like this one pass.
On the last day, we take our time in the parking lot, under a morning sky that will remain merciful until nine. You stretch, squint, shake off the residue of your hours in the break room. When you turn on the car, the tape player comes on too. A song about drinking beer in Louisville, waiting for love to arrive.
You do not know what day it is. It’s the same as any day, except it’s your birthday. I’d say it was not, but the stripped calendar would insist.
“Happy eighteenth birthday to both of you,” I wish I could say.
I see the chauffeur now, standing between a parked SUV and a motorcycle, still too distant to tell if he sees me.
Unable to find a gift on the high ULTRA MAX shelves, I’ve decided to leave you the car. The car does not belong to me, of course. I have orders to keep you waiting until the chauffeur arrives, at which point he will drive all three of us back to the Middle Country, just as he once drove my counterpart and my taker and me.
But the truth just now is that I slip quietly from the backseat. I huddle like a turtle into myself as you pull out, not noticing that I’m gone.
I huddle so tightly that if you’ve run me over, I hardly felt it. I find the strength and dexterity to turn my neck, averting it from the final sight of your departure, riveted instead on the great unfazed façade of ULTRA MAX.
Then the chauffer’s on top of me, kicking me, trying to turn me over with his boot, to get me to face his face and the sun bearing down on both of us. I knew he would do this. I’ve written it here, for you, exactly as I knew it would happen.
I hear his voice reporting the emergency into a cell phone and feel even more like a turtle than I did a moment ago. Each footfall cracks my shell a little more, but I receive it like bad news from another part of the world.
Just before I think nothing, I think of the two of you a mile up the road, having already achieved a featureless vista that will remain so throughout all the hours of daylight.
I do not wish my fate upon you, nor do I believe you will escape it. I hope only that, on occasion, before you are caught or harden to the point where you can no longer drive, and before you turn on each other for having let such a thing happen, you will look in the rearview mirror and catch sight of the blanket and the pillows, and recall, or imagine, that there was once something there, some other part of your lives. Perhaps, shaking out the blanket at some gas station at dusk, you will turn up the rind of my calendar, and, instead of tossing it to the weedy concrete, you will feel some impulse to put it in the glove compartment, or perhaps even take it with you when you go in to sleep on weekends, along with whatever money you have left. If you happen to open it, you will find these pages stuck back in the binding, pages I should have thrown out but did not, and on them you will find words meant to remind you, once the hardening sets in, that there was once something before it. That you were young, and that, improbable as it will begin to seem, you had a Hometown and in it you were known and your future opened out onto infinity.