Forty Years in the Desert

Nowhere wakes up in his king-size driveway next to the container of hope that filled up overnight. Unconcerned, he gently pulls the orange stopper and lets the contents drain onto the ground. His pessimist sees an empty container. His optimist knows it will fill again. He must believe it. Occasionally, animals keep him company.

In the cold dawn of a new day he thinks of a veteran, he of scratchy clothes and vulgar prose, who can emerge again grateful for a simple life. Nowhere is in love, or at least he thinks he is. He's too busy hanging on to notice. He should try to sleep, but the day has begun. He reminds himself to be grateful for his things, and in doing so, recommits himself to their maintenance.

Nowhere lives in the stead of Lord Whitebread. Lord Whitebread was a wall. A very large and solid stone wall with gleaming steel gates, mechanisms oiled to slam shut with surprising swiftness at the approach of any entanglement. Now the gates are rusted shut and Nowhere is unwilling to even try to open them. He fears the winds outside. Nowhere opened a gate once and had it torn from his hands. Closed gates have served him well, he believes. They have kept him. The winds are fierce and consummate. No wall can withstand them forever.

Lord Whitebread once had a stable full of fine foxes, to ride each upon his whimsy. Nowhere remains behind to tend the estate, but after all this time the lazy susans have spread and seem to follow him wherever he goes. He runs as fast as possible to avoid them, but he has no destiny, no safe harbor in which to rest, and the winds of years have blown the stable away.

Lord Whitebread occasionally enjoyed himself. Nowhere has not known enjoyment for a very long time. His wall is crumbling and he is desperate for more stones. He is cold inside and out. He feels the wind eating him alive.

Today Nowhere spends hours riding fences of no importance, and arrives home to his cat, Potential. He has had Potential for decades, and Potential does nothing. Potential and two slices of bread will get you a wish sandwich. Nowhere has the two slices of bread. Potential screams at him, but he ignores the cat.

He spends a lot of time adding pickles to his sandwich.

He lives with the Ghost of Christmas Past. He falls asleep, exhausted, during his favorite TV shows, but wakens no more than four hours later under cozy blankets of loneliness. He thinks he may be mistaken about being in love. Alone, he faces the horrors of a new day, as he does every day, wishing on a sandwich that the last would arrive.

Nowhere owns his prison, and incarcerates himself within it, alone with Potential and the Ghost of Christmas Past.

He awakens with insomnia one morning from a sort of nightmare. It is not a horrifying dream filled with terrible things, but it is disquieting. He had dreamed of feelings. He grounds himself, looking around the darkness, and is relieved to notice the feelings slipping away like the smell of snow, becoming vague memories.

The feelings had been a nightmare about war. A sunny springtime sky lay like a thick, cozy blanket over classic bleeding and dying forms spilled across wide open fields. Again. The holocausts and the winters are a dime a dozen. Nowhere has developed a kind of immunity to the war dreams. Looking around his cold room, he feels nothing when he realizes the dream of war has ended. The feelings creep to the corners of the room and dissipate, like moisture drying, like Ghosts seeping into the walls, leaving nothing but faint stains.

He wanders in circles through a grey day and ignores Potential, who screams to be fed. There is nothing to eat except leftovers and sandwiches. Potential screams to be let out. Nowhere is not opening the gates today. His happiness pill has worn off. And that is all that happens. Nowhere's prison is filled with echoes.

Lord Whitebread awakens with a start, and a headache. He has built his castle, and incarcerates himself within it, alone and cultivating a small square of grass. Calm and composed, he killed the cat, Potential. He remembers the feel of the terrified cat's hysterical scratching inside the box. Other cats he has killed were larger and quieter. He keeps his eyes closed and tries to fall asleep again. He tosses and turns. He has become comatose, but does not allow himself to care.

But illness will not stop the Obligatories that beat constantly against the rusty steel gates, keeping him awake. He wanders out of his cell and wishes he were in love. Failing that, he puts on his lucky clothes and maintains the castle walls and his small square of grass. His castle is filled with echoes, but the Ghost of Christmas Past lives with Nowhere now, and Lord Whitebread has been relieved to dutifully devote the rest of his life to maintaining appearances. The Obligatories tell him that visitors must be able to say "what lovely castle walls" and "what a lovely square of grass." He has not had visitors in over a decade. He has become a very old man, sitting within his wall, cultivating his grass, and wishing he were in love.

Lord Whitebread is a floating piece of particulate matter. He has no real fear of breaking open one of his large steel gates, but upon inspection, he finds the locking mechanisms have become solid chunks of oxide. He chips absently at the corrosion, making little headway, but there appears to be nothing really worth living outside the wall anyway.

He watches ants swarm out of a hill, spreading over the surface of the planet. Flatworms feast on a chunk of raw liver suspended in a warm stream. Mold spores rise up like bobble-headed grasses from a crust of bread, to wave silky fronds in the breeze. Indifferent, he watches ovines graze on the lazy susans outside.

Nowhere awakens once more, puts on his mask and goes to sit on his wall. Snow is on the ground in Arbitrary Park, a park that he once owned, but which is now being devoured by the rapid encroachment of skyscrapers. It is winter, and the people are all waiting happily for another festive war, while glowing glass cubes laud the blessings of new uniforms. Obligitories pile the bodies high at the end of the year. Potential is a ghost, weak and waiting to be fed.

Weary from lack of sleep, Nowhere falls off of his wall. There are no witnesses; the King's horses are sleeping. Each entombed in his own Franciscan cell, they only awaken from their slumber to count their gold. Nowhere calls for Technical Support, but there is no answer. Without a suitable war, the King's horses cheerfully knife each other. The telephones ring, and the cubes glow, and the casualties mount.

Lord Whitebread finds Nowhere lying broken. He covers the unmoving form with a thick cozy blanket, but can do nothing more. Nowhere must heal himself. Potential watches quietly, perched atop the wall.

The next day, Nowhere awakens with a bad taste in his mouth. He struggles to make a call, but the Customer Service line is disconnected. Potential is sleeping at the foot of the bed, and out at the wall Lord Whitebread maintains a vigil, spending all day dragging the King's dead horses off his small square of grass. The lazy susans need room to grow.

Nowhere, lying weak and shivering within a sanctum of concentric rings, chips idly at the corrosion that has cemented his defenses. He briefly thinks of using a screwdriver, but it wouldn't really help. He is awakened by sounds of battle. The Obligatories have closed ranks outside his wall, admiring the defenses. He is confused. He thinks he thought there was a cease-fire. He thinks he may be in love, but he can't remember. He feels dizzy. He is healing quickly, but there is a dull pain. The fractures may not have set properly. He dismisses it.

Lord Whitebread is amused by the bedlam. The enemy batters against the gates, and Lord Whitebread amiably assists in the effort, eager to show the swarm his small square of grass, carefully tended and neatly trimmed. Small showers of rust fall from the corroded mechanisms. There will be scratches and dents. He does not need to be in love.

Inside his cell, Nowhere is unconcerned, knowing this will all have little effect. He curls into a ball and lies motionless for some time. Eventually he struggles into his robe and slippers and wobbles his way into the courtyard to watch the battle. A good war has always distracted him. But with midwinter's arrival a large part of the enemy force has departed. The Obligatories that remain are quietly encamped out of range, at a distance beyond the wall, eating soup and staring at boxes. It is quiet, and when night comes, Nowhere dreams that he is in love.

He remains in his cell as days pass him by, and soon it happens again. The dream is a memory of something that never happened two decades before. His hair is still wet from the shower as, smiling, she kisses him and says, "We could go for a walk in the woods." He returns the smile, and suddenly, Nowhere awakens, alone in his fortress with the stabbing pains in his back and a headache. The Ghost of Christmas Past slowly dissolves like a sand castle in the tide, leaving behind a fading scent of age that clings to each of his prison's stones, that lingers in each empty hall.

Nowhere quickly takes inventory. The Obligatories, despite their persistent hammering, have had no profound effect upon the wall. And the ghost of Potential, with no one to feed it, wants to be let go, released to roam the courtyard. Nowhere is alone, staring out at a grey and misty morning, while Lord Whitebread, ignoring the stains evaporating on his wall, prepares for battle.

from the collection Are you Scratch & Sniff, or Peel & Eat?