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The years bled together. Each waking morning—or afternoon, truth be told, or evening—couched in a familiar bloom of panic. After that, after Vale realized where he was, who he was, came the rest: sickness, fear, assessment of damage, all of it stitched together with the fine red thread of guilt.
Art & Artists had once called him a “relentless avatar of our contemporary, post-nuclear unease.”
He woke to the alarm, studded in fresh bruises. New scabs on his knees and his teeth loose in his mouth. His lack of memory familiar in itself. Sunlight fell in the room in fierce, distinct bands.
He stood shivering in the shower, the water lancing against him while lava, hot and malicious, compressed itself behind his optic nerves. This pulsing thunder in the skull, and moments from the Ace High the night before came to him slowly, like something spied through a fun house mirror. He bent over to pick up a sliver of soap and with his trembling hand batted a rust-dotted razor lying on the rim of the bathtub. The razor slid down the tub, luge-like, and Vale reached down for it, trying not to gag as dark spots burst like stars in his periphery. He stumbled and stepped on the razor. The crack of plastic, and thin threads of blood began to snake toward the drain. It was painless.
“Oh, come on,” he croaked. “Shit’s sake.” He’d smoked nearly two packs of Camels the night before and sounded now like something pulled howling from a crypt. He tried to stand on his other foot to examine the cut and couldn’t manage it. He put his foot back down and stepped on the broken razor again, and now the floor of the tub was awash in an idiot’s Rorschach of red on white. He retched once and shut the water off, resigned to death—or at least collapse—at any second. The towel hanging from the back of the door reeked of mold, and he gagged against it and dropped it to the floor. He left bloody, shambling one-sided footprints to his bedroom.
Apart from the painting hanging above his bed (the sole Mike Vale original still in his possession), the fist-sized hole next to the light switch was the room’s only decoration. There was a dresser pitted with cigarette burns and topped with a constellation of empty beer bottles. An unmade bed ringed with dirty sheets. The alarm clock on the floor. Plastic blinds rattled against the open window.
He dressed slowly and stepped to the kitchen. Flies dive-bombed bottles mounded in the sink, on the counters. The light on the answering machine was blinking. He pressed the Play button, already knowing who it would be—who else called him?—and there was Candice’s voice.
“The only man in the country still using an answering machine,” she said. “Okay. This is me saying hi. Give me a ring when you discover, you know, fire and the wheel.” Her voice then became steeped in a cautious, thoughtful cadence, a measured quality he remembered more clearly from their marriage. “Richard and I should be heading up through there on tour for another Janey book soon. It’d be good to touch base, get dinner. Call me.”
It was September, the last gasp of summer. The apartment was explosive with trapped heat. A swath of sunlight fell across the countertop. Just looking at that glare hurt his eyes, his entire body, made him feel as if rancid dishwater was shooting straight into his guts. A nameless sadness, the sadness, the exact opposite of the Moment and so much more insistent, tore through him like a torrent. Like a rip of lightning, there and gone, and Vale sobbed. Just once. One ragged, graceless gasp. Pathetic. He stood sweating over the answering machine, ashamed of himself.
He was out the door five minutes later, blood wetting his sock, cold coffee and aspirin hammering a bitter waltz somewhere below his heart.
Time had once called him “a shaman of America’s apocalyptic incantations, one who catalogs our fears and thrusts them back at us in a ferocious Day-Glo palette.”
On his way to the bus stop Mike Vale, the shaman, the avatar—looking down in his shirt pocket for a cigarette—ran directly into a telephone pole, hard enough to give himself a nosebleed.