Illustration by Katie Fricas.

Quipster called it: A dust storm was on the way. He’d been preparing for it for days, perhaps months, checking goggles, storing up WD-40 and other lubricants, duct-taping the yurt seams, and strapping and bungee-cording the sails that provided us with shade and shelter.

“Fore and aft,” he yelled. “Check those knots!”

The sun had already fallen behind the dark mountains to the west and the light now flared fluorescent oatmeal. Insect-like pellets pinched my face. I slid a purple bandana over my nose.

Quipster disappeared, then reappeared with a mallet. “I said check those knots.”

Quipster was a sailor with a nautically themed apartment: The doormat had an anchor; the living room had a painting of an old sea captain with Scottish beard and pipe; the throw pillows were emblazoned with terms such as “Ahoy!” and “Land Ho!” Now he was on a combination of drugs I couldn’t pronounce, attempting to batten down our hatches.

Waley emerged from his tent, scratched his balls, scanned the sky.

“It’s nothing more than a nor’easter,” Waley said.

“A nor’easter? This is no storm,” Quipster returned. “You just wait till your cooler is blown to the foot of The Man.”

Here it finally was, one of those infamous dust storms I’d heard about. This was my first time. I was, as they say, a virgin. I was here to get my head right after my marriage went wrong, but it seemed all I was doing was bracing for a tidal wave of dust to invade the crevices of my tent, car, and every orifice exposed to the elements.

“Don’t worry,” Waley said, winking at me. “This ain’t so bad.”

Waley’s tent flaps split and inside I saw a woman’s bare ass. She rolled onto her stomach, her breasts falling to the tops of her arms. I caught her eye, and she flashed me the peace sign.

“Where’d she come from?” I asked.

“Dusty Moon,” he said. “My God is she hot.”

At sunrise the night before, I tried to talk to a woman wearing a unicorn hat. The new sun cupped me in its hands and spilled me into the universe. I looked around and saw people writhing in the desert, their eyes bulging, their mouths twisting in contorted flips. My tongue became wet granola in my mouth and I couldn’t speak, and the unicorn trotted off.

“Dusty Moon?” I asked.

“That’s her Playa name.”

“But what’s her real name?”

Pellets of sand flicked my eyelids.

“Melissa? Melanie?” he said. “Don’t ask so many questions.”

“We got to zip this tent,” Dusty Moon yelled. “Dust is getting in.”

“Dusty Moon don’t like dust,” Waley said. “You want a bump?”

“Let me first take care of my own dusty tent,” I said.

Cocaine didn’t exactly fit the vibe out here. Ecstasy, yes. Mushrooms, okay. Maybe even acid. People were apparently sniffing horse tranquilizer, Special K. I’d heard whispers of something called “Lightning Bolt,” whatever that was. Whenever people said “Lighting Bolt,” I pretended to know.

Quipster had been coming for fifteen years, Waley for eight or nine. Quipster insisted I “burn” because I found out my wife was having an affair with a local restaurant owner. The guy’s wife had called me and said, “Do you know your wife is fucking my husband?” “No,” I said. Then I unearthed all the details, emails about coming over for a “quickie” on Christmas Day, emails about cuddling sent on my birthday.

The ground shook, or seemed to. Flags snapped like artillery fire. Nylon tents curled, then exploded. Plastic structures soared above, lunar tumbleweeds floating in the night. A lone biker out on the street yelled, “Shit!”

“What should I do?” I said.

“What?”

“How help?” I yelled.

Now the storm was on us, a maelstrom of sand and dust thick as cotton with the bristles still in. One of Quipster’s sails rose with the wind and crashed on the hood of Waley’s car.

“What the fuck was that?” Waley yelled from inside his tent.

A rubber mallet and rebar were pushed into my fist.

“Tidy up!” Quipster yelled.

We caught the flap, attached it to the rebar, and I pounded it into the ground, the so-called Playa.

“Let’s retreat,” Quipster said, and disappeared.

I went to my tent. The nylon walls were shaking. I turned on my headlamp. Dust floated thick in the light, a layer coating my mattress and sleeping bag. I would be sleeping in the dirt once again.

Maybe I fell asleep or maybe I was abducted by aliens or maybe the drugs hadn’t worn off, but I lost myself and only came back when Quipster unzipped my tent. “The Man burns in an hour. Can you be ready?”

I shined a light on his dark handlebar mustache.

“My mustache is in tatters,” he said. “She’s limp. And my wax gives no fight in this dust. Here,” he said, handing me a cap and stem of some mushrooms. “For color.”

Later, we rode our bikes to The Man. Art cars circled like neon wagons at a corral. A yacht on wheels. An octopus. A pair of chattering teeth. There would have been a Trojan Horse, but they burned it the night before.

We locked our bikes and walked toward The Man, standing on top of two pyramids and rising five stories above us. A woman stopped and looked at me and smiled and twirled, and when she turned to face me again, it was her face, my wife’s—or my ex-wife’s. Then she disappeared.

“Quipster,” I said. “I thought I saw her. Could she be here?”

“Who?” he said.

“Her!”

Music blared from the cars as we passed through them and into the center ring around The Man. Fire dancers processed in a swirl around him.

Mi amigo,” he said, “if she’s here, you can have my middle finger.”

“Just talk to me straight for a second,” I said.

“She’s not fucking here. Don’t you think I checked? This is your moment.”

He handed me a soft flask filled with whiskey. Streaks of color and fire spun in the caverns of my eyes. There were so many lights, even here in the desert, I couldn’t see the stars. The world flickered and jumped.

The Man’s arms suddenly rose, a gesture of opening and acceptance, his heart offering itself to the world in surrender. Fireworks twirled into the sky, and a halo of smoke circled his feet. The crowd gasped and hurrahed.

Flames rose between his legs. We were silent and awed, you could hear the crackling of wood, and the heat from the fire, though footballs fields away, warmed our faces.

The flames climbed The Man’s arms, and one fell in a sweep of sparks that left a red trail etched in the sky. Quipster turned to me, and the twists of his mustache were stiff and glowing.

Then there was a crack and it was as if someone had taken a bat to The Man’s knees. He buckled and fell like a puppet in a heap. Sparks danced like fireflies in the air around us. The fire settled into a steady flame.

The cars unraveled from the circle and we followed them. “We retreat to camp,” Quipster said. “Many hours lie ahead.” He went out into the desert, in the direction of another camp.

I returned to the disorder of our camp, to the dust of my tent, to my sleeping bag and the sharp desert cold. When day broke, I rode out to The Man and ran my fingers through his ashes. I wondered if others would later do the same.

Scott Laughlin

Scott Laughlin’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Great Jones Street, Post Road, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Night Owl, and other publications. He’s also contributed essays to the books A Manner of Being: Writers on Their Mentors and Such Conjunctions: Robert Duncan, Jess, and Alberto de Lacerda. Scott has an MFA from Converse College and is co-founder and associate director of the DISQUIET Literary Program in Lisbon, Portugal. He currently teaches English at San Francisco University High School and parents two strong girls.

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