Cactus Land - Chapters 1- 3

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A Novel


Robert Bonomo

December 2004



For Maite

‘This is the dead land
  This is the cactus land
  Here the stone images
            Are raised, here they receive
                            The supplication of a dead man’s hand
                      Under the twinkle of a fading star.’
T.S. Eliot, ‘The Hollow Men’


            The train snaked its way slowly through the stunningly tall buildings, across wide pedestrian streets lined with fashionable shops and gently came to a stop on the raised platform of the shiny clean station of Zephyr Park.  A light mist fell on the fading light of the overcast day.   Alex skipped down the wide crowded ramps through the stampede of wet shoes and the ruffling sounds of raincoats and opening umbrellas. 
            His eyes jumped in thought, pleasantly anticipating the Thursday evening and planning for the weekend.   He was well tucked into his raincoat below the now-lit pedestrian street, the moisture not yet able to soak into his hair.  He jumped up the step of the store full of the energy and single-mindedness that comes with the planning of pleasure.  He carefully maneuvered the bouncy rubber gangplank, on each side large screens with consoles demonstrating new games.   A fashionable immigrant salesgirl sullenly asked what he wanted.
            “Part III of Fabian’s Journey please.”  It was payday, the world was fresh and full, the card slid majestically through the computer.  Behind her stood a large black curtain with a sign, “ADULTS ONLY”.  He took the bag and walked through the curtain, her glance warmer.  Through the curtain stood a row of mannequins fitted into a kind of wetsuit, with bulges around the genital areas and remote controls in the hands.  Behind them flashed the erotic films that were programmable to coincide with the impulses emitted by the suit; the large screens had menus of fantasies.  At the end of the row was a middle-aged woman, carefully reading the description of the suit.   Alex walked down the aisle, browsing lazily, looking toward the woman who nervously turned her head.  He brusquely turned back and left the store.
Down a side street and through a gate that protected a small garden with wet wooden tables; it was almost night.  The music snuck under the door.  Inside a variety of old chairs and beanbags were filled with people younger than Alex. He stood out in his fashionable sports coat and large, attention getting shoes.  He wore what that they would wear in ten years if they did what they thought they would do.  He hadn’t smoked since Sunday, and the smell of hash and marijuana mixed with tobacco smoke was thick enough to make him want to indulge.  His mouth and jaw longed for nicotine. 
He gratefully spotted a corner table with a comfortably standard chair.  “Hi Simon, how’s things?” The dreg locked waiter shrugged lazily.  “A Bombay and tonic and a pack of Marlboros, have you seen Wicki?”
“He’ll be around.”  Alex uncomfortably waved at a girl he made friends with on one of those Thursdays that got away from him.  Mercifully, Wicki made his unmistakably criminal entrance through the door, saving Alex from profoundly realizing the capacity of gin to distort reality.
“The doctor is making a house call on a very sicko patient.”  Alex peered forcibly amused while he maneuvered through a bizarre handshaking ceremony.  “Two sex-ex for him, two sex-ex for her, and a bag of homegrown Wicki Weed.  Will there be anything else?”
“A gram of coke and a 10 Valiums, 10 mg.”
“You are one sick patient.  That comes to a total of one-twenty-five.”
“My insurance will cover it, right.”
“Not yet.”  As he filled his pockets he felt the satisfaction of abundance.  He ordered drinks for the two of them.  Wicki sprawled across the seat, never taking off the dark sunglasses.  “But with all this weird stuff going on, I don’t think it would be a bad idea. Yesterday there were three more leapers in Zephyr land, all teenagers.  Something is going wrong man, people are losing it.  And have you seen the new campaign from the Ministry of Culture, of Culture man, telling us to hold on to what is ours. What the fuck is that?  What is ours?  Who is us? You work in advertising, tell me what it’s supposed to mean?”
“But I’m in your line, only porno and casino, online vice. But I saw it, a lot of money. Strange it didn’t come from the Ministry of Health.”
“Alex bro, you got on your Person Zone?  See if you got selected by a Souris, cute brunette.  Says she likes playin FJ.”
“Yeah, I got her, nice, she’s right down the street, at least she left blank her favorite positions. I mean, what are you supposed to say, ‘I like being tied up too.’?”
“I am goin to check her out, and if you take all that stuff don’t call me in the morning.”  
  Alex strode through the night, eyes reaching for the tops of the eighty story towers.  The dark hills and forests in the distance could have been the sea except for the occasional car or truck imitating a fast ship.  There were no cars or motorbikes in Zephyr Park, only trains and bikes.  Alex liked the new, clean feel of it, very satisfied with himself, awaiting the physical pleasure to be had during the next few days.  From around the corner the swirling red lights flickered over a group of people, some in uniform. 
As he approached the he saw the two reflective blankets, he then looked up.   A uniformed man spoke to a middle aged man.  “It is the fourth one today, the tenth this week just in Zephyr Hills, almost all of them teenagers.”  The gray-haired man slowly shook his head.  Alex stared at the shape of the blankets, trying to imagine what expression they had on their faces, what the ground looked like right before impact, what was behind the crease?  He had been going to save himself for the weekend, but he now had a good excuse to bring a bottle upstairs.
The wall facing the couch sustained a two-meter long by one-and a-half-meter-high television built into the wall.  The drugs were placed carefully into a carved wooden box on the coffee table.  To the right was a large window, the tops of the other towers visible with an occasional aircraft light blinking.   By the window rested a large leather armchair facing the view.   The state-run news channel lectured hopefully on the talks between the Alliance and Federation nations, the weatherman said that spring was coming to an end; soon the heat would be upon them.  The TV became a console, Fabian’s Journey.  He relished the guide’s voice; she accompanied him through the night while he wondered why he really needed anyone else.


There was absolutely no light in the room.  Matilde’s eyes searched for something to focus on, but nothing appeared.    She began to realize where she was and with whom.  She ran her hand over the sheet to Alex’s shoulder and rocked him slowly to stop his snoring.  Her body tried to remember where it had been, what it had consumed, and what it felt now.  She rested her head back on the pillow waiting for sleep to return.
            Through the crack in the door came the faint sound of a television and its flickering light reached her.  She approached the large kitchen counter that faced the living room still squinting from the lights, the windows reflecting the night again.  The TV emitted a live broadcast from the street in front of a well-to-do-home, the word Standoff being used constantly.  “Good morning or evening.  What’s going on?”
            “Hungry? I have some stuff; it’ll be ready in a few minutes.  You know the footballer Kapi?  Apparently he found his girlfriend in bed with his teammate Angeletti and killed Angeletti, and now has her hostage, they have him surrounded.”  The wooden bar began to fill with jars of large white asparagus, ham, cheeses, and warmed bread.   He put down his beer and opened a bottle of wine.   She accepted the long stemmed glass as if it were a mug of coffee.  He passed her the machine rolled joint that looked so good she thought it was a cigarette.  “Makes it all taste that much better.”   As they both timidly began to eat the, TV shouted.   The camera focused on the front door, which had just been opened, a framed darkness, the commentary resembling the subdued tones of golf tournaments.  
            “The door has been opened, the police are waiting for Julie Voll to come out first, our information is that she will come out first, then Kapi, there she is.”  She appeared, her sweaty blonde hair falling in front of her hunched walk, a juvenile kick up from her toes.  Then the  head swung suddenly down, the body jolted forward then rolled sideways.  “She appears to have been shot, I repeat, she has been shot and seriously wounded!”  Kapi’s long pony tail swung anxiously across the Nike tee-shirt, the large hand gun pointed to his temple, the spray of blood and the falling body.
             The images were replayed in a constant loop.   They ate in a long, marihuana induced silence, painfully aware of how little they knew each other, eyes glued to the repeated images, the obvious commentaries hypnotizing them.  Alex became conscious of the noise he made eating.  Matilde wondered how she looked, how she smelled.  “I’m gonna jump in the shower.  The dinner was great.”  Her decision bringing relief to both of them.  She sought shelter in the bathroom, trying to think of a way to escape, just leave really, while she enjoyed the strong endless beating of hot water, so different from the five minutes of weak spray she was used to.  Slowly the anxiety left her, and she began to desire more pleasure, her body remembered what they had done, she trembled, then the images, finally the water, just the water.
            Alex smoked his cigarette.  He was capturing the point he longed for, the moment of intoxication that was just a moment, before it anxiety, beyond it excess and the void of pure action.  But that moment, a point on a ski slope, impossible to map or measure, with no place to remain, only a glimpse of eternity, so many nights it never appeared.   Weeks, months without raising its head, but tonight, amid the blood and uncertainty, it appeared.  It would stay with him like a wonderful dream for hours. 
            She walked toward him in black boots, with the unmistakably arrogant strut that initially attracted him to her:  the strong firm legs, the arched rear, the wildly curly hair rushing out.  She smiled at his gaze, her mildly vulgar perfume accenting the bouncing breasts in the tee-shirt with the star and triangle symbol of the Alliance.  She sat close to him, recapturing the affection they had lost in the kitchen, her hand running up his back and into his neck.  He turned and kissed her, then raised the tray with the lines.  “A drink?”
            “Great.”  She did the after line sniff.  “Where are we going?  I’ve never been out in Zephyr Hills.”  He wondered where she had been two Saturdays ago, another sexy immigrant girl that he didn’t know.   She was somewhere, but she resisted the easy explanation. 
            “You’ll see.  The music is like the place in the Old Quarter where we met, maybe a little younger crowd.” 
            “You are the first younger guy I have ever dated.  I have always had older boyfriends.”  How many?  The lure of the immigrant girl was the mix of the severe with the wild, the ultra orthodox with the vanguard.
            “Sophy told me you were my age, that you had just turned 33, you look it.”
            “Noo..”  Shaking her head, “She always gets these things confused. She thinks everyone is her age.  I’m 35, but everyone tells me I could be 30.”  She bit her large upper lip with her bottom teeth. 
            “Take this half now, and we will save the quarters for when it begins to fall off.”  He took a long drink and lit another cigarette.  She no longer touched him.  “Is there a difference? I mean, do you notice I am younger than you?”  He tried to maneuver the tone, but it came out tinny.
            “It’s different, but don’t worry, let’s just enjoy things, don’t you think?”   He nodded, looking for the point, but it was gone.  “Can we do another line?”
            As the pills began to take effect, their hands found each other again, then their lips and finally the music.  He felt her distance fade, but he knew it was there, beyond the drugs.  He watched her move, the aggression, the confidence, the complete oneness with the rhythm.  He clutched his drink and his cigarette.  She moved side by side with a fortyish immigrant man, they both smiled and rubbed shoulders, almost one.  She clapped her hands above her head in joy, in recognition of the perfect unison.  Luckily for Alex the pills reinforced his feelings of affection and peace.  It was for him her most beautiful moment.  As the tune changed she strode up to him and gave him a long embrace.  She purred with joy.  “I want to fuck you.” She whispered, and then smiled drunkenly.  “I feel great.”
            “You are great.”  He felt her back and arms.  Her tongue wove in and out of his mouth.  Finally a song he could move to, then another, and more pills and more drinks till finally they became inseparable, completely unified by what they both knew was an artificial bond, at least most of it.
            “These pills are potent.”                           
            “Or maybe it is us.” He responded.  She grinned.          
From the chair facing the window onto Zephyr Hills they watched the blinking lights from the tops of the antennas of the buildings.  The night was dark and the stars stood out.  She sat on his lap, nude like him.  She drank water and he continued with the whiskey, a CD of hers playing.  There was no sign of dawn.  They relaxed in a posture that allowed them both to smoke and him to drink.  He watched a plane cross the sky, very dim, very high, another close behind it, then three in a wedge.  He pointed.  “Look, those planes, they are flying together, like a military formation.”
“They are coming back from bombing missions.  My mother told me they can hear the explosions at night, even see the light flashes.  But I have never seen the planes, so many of them, so small; they almost look like moving stars.  What must the night look like from there?”
“But they said that those bombings were terrorists.  At least that is what they say here.”
“At home they say it is the Feds.”  The lights continued to pass, wave after wave.


            The sleek dark sports car jumped to a stop.  Matilde swung her bag into the small trunk.  “What was wrong with the old one?”
            “The lease was running out. I got a very nice deal on this one.  Did you get the phone number of the real estate developer?”  He was anxious.
            “Yes, I got it.  You’ll give me a commission on it if you take him with you, right?  Remember, I am getting a part of the account’s production, half of all my commissions, our team’s biggest account.”
            “I am flying you in first class, aren’t I?”  The expensive watch bounced on his thin tan arm as he up shifted, racing across lanes in a violent acceleration.  “If they only knew I was taking their assistant away for the weekend, and then their accounts.”
“It sounds like you’re fighting over slaves.  I’m here because I want to be, not because I am a pawn in your game.”  He turned and stared, silently lighting a cigarette.  She  took the pack and lit another one.  “Did you see the planes last weekend?  My mother said there were more bombings. You think there will be any problems?”
“These pigs won’t bomb their own people.  This resort is very exclusive, most of the people who stay here are from Fed countries, don’t worry.  Is your family all right, do they need anything?”
“No, they’re fine.”
Denis pulled his weight back on the harness of the Hobbie Cat, bringing it back to the water before tacking towards the beach, both relaxing in the calm glide towards the shore.  Two young men clad in white approached the boat as it stuck into the sand, one looking severely at the bright bikini on Matilde’s creamy skin.  “We….” Pointing down toward the boat, then another very quick and angry glance at Matilde.  “We from here, us ok.”  Denis nodded politely and they both began to walk up toward the tables on the patio.   The beach was virgin, not a structure or vehicle visible except for the two sailboats and the cabins tucked deep into the trees behind the patio.
“Some look he gave you.  They have no mercy.”
“Little scoundrels, I can’t believe I have to put up with this.”
Denis shrugged.   “I suppose they are used to us taking advantage of these beaches, serving us, but they’re not used to seeing a mixed couple here, and to seeing their women here in bikinis.  Don’t let it worry you.” 
The large sun gloried in its last half an hour gliding toward the trees.  Denis played with his drink while Jan shook his head.  Matilde looked straight up from her chair which enveloped her like a throne.  Her gaze was direct and young, as if she were afraid, the red hair band keeping the wild curls at bay.  Across from her sat the thin and wiry Yolanda who lingered between time, not yet beyond a certain attractive decadence.  Jan scratched his gray beard and wiped his teeth with his tongue.
“I don’t know. I mean, I interviewed Minister Waxson, and he told me with a straight face that the rumors were false:  Alliance propaganda.”
“But I saw the planes with my own eyes, right before dawn, at least fifty of them, my mother saw the explosions in the distance.”
“But why aren’t there ever any pictures of the planes?  Everyone one sees them but never any videos.”
“Jan, they are there, everyone has seen them.” Answered Denis
“Have you seen them?”  Jan asked. Denis rolled his head back.  Yolanda took off her sunglasses and looked directly at Matilde.  Jan continued.  “I believe you.”  Looking at Matilde.  “But it’s more complicated than it seems.  There could be weapons programs going on that are dangerous.  There’s an enormous amount of uncertainty.”
“But what right do they have?  How are we to ever develop?”   Yolanda shook her head as she spoke as Matilde pleaded with them.
“I’m afraid, my dear, that it is not weapons they are bombing, but fossil fuel fields and refineries.  I think it is a last ditch effort to save what is left of the atmosphere.  Don’t you see, the Federation is eighty-five percent clean energy; the Alliance is almost all fossil.  I know, they use what they have, for years it was their treasure, but if it isn’t stopped we are finished, if not already.”
“I’ve seen that in the markets, actually, with the safe energy funds, the rumors are sending them through the roof.  I bought some for both of you through the trust. By the way, did your cousin sell the sailboat yet?”
“No, I told him to call you.  How are we doing this year?  I have been so busy that I really haven’t even looked.”
“Fantastic, we have moved it all into safe havens and it has paid off.”  Matilde´s eyes grew as the sun faded and a silence fell upon the lonely table.  Anxiousness gripped them.  Cigarettes lit up, ice swirled while Matilde´s eyes grew even larger.  Their breathing became strained, more drinks and the orange faded to a dark blue sky.
“Didn’t see any orcas, did you?”  Asked Jan with a grin.
“No, that happened up the coast, about two hundred miles from here.  It only seems to happen when there’re in large groups, popular beaches.”  Answered Denis.
“I used to go to that beach when we were children.”  Her voice fading.
“They say they confused them with penguins, a bit warm for penguins though, wouldn’t you say?” Added Jan.
“I’ll stick to the pool.” Finished Yolanda.
“My uncle is a fisherman.  He used to tell us about catching tuna in the straits, they would hook them and fight for a long time, and the Orcas would wait close by.  They would throw rocks, scream at them, but they would just wait, and when the tuna was tired and they were ready to bring it up into the boat, the Orca would eat the whole thing, except for the  head. He hated them.  He was probably one of the ones who went to hunt them.”
They lay facing each other nude on the couch in the suite.  The breeze gently shook the wooden Venetian blind.  Their breath rose smoothly, only interrupted by the forced inhalation of smoke.  Matilde peered above Denis’s short black hair and small, handsome face.  “You seem like you’re someplace else. What is it? A new boyfriend?”
She smiled, looking over his head. “No, not really.”
“Then what is it?”
“I was thinking about what I told you the day you told me you wanted to break it off, that I would never talk to you again.  And here I am.  I really don’t know if I should be here.”
“Are you having a bad time?” His tone offering an above it all understanding.  “I don’t want these types of getaways to hurt you.  I know you had a tough time when we broke up.”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be.  But why don’t you bring her, the painter?”
“I told you, we’re not in a stable relationship.”
“But you sleep with her, right?”
“Sometimes. It’s a shame I can’t convince the both of you to come together some weekend.  I’d love to sleep with both of you.”
“I saw her once.  She was very pretty, a very nice body.  I liked her breasts, for me no problem.”
“Did you ever sleep with Sophy after the failed attempt in the bath?” He asked.
“No, I suppose that was the moment.  You never called her, did you?  I mean, after we stopped seeing each other.”
“No.  Why?”
“Because I knew you liked her, and she was attracted to you.  She told me.”
“Aha, another possibility. You’re a good organizer. Let’s get these thing worked out.”
“We’ll see.”  She filled their wine glasses than lit another cigarette.  “You know one day I am going to find another boyfriend and these trips will be over.  I’ve been thinking about having a baby, and I am not getting any younger.”  Her knees spread and he stared at her sex.
“You’re at the perfect moment for a woman.”  She poured drops of wine on her tummy and put down the cigarette.
“We haven’t stopped, these young guys have nothing on me.”
“No, they don’t, not at all.”
“Sounds like I am being compared to one.”
“I have been seeing a younger guy.  He’s thirty, but nothing like you.”
“You use condoms, right?”
“And what about you?”
“So do I.”
“Is this the possible future father?”
“No, I don’t think so, too young. I can’t feel right with a younger guy.  Your age is perfect, eight years older than me. In our culture it is very normal.  My father is twenty-one years older than my mother.  They met on their wedding day, all done through pictures.”
“Are they happy?”
“Well, they get along.  Once in a while he’ll get a little violent but now that my brothers are older he doesn’t hit her anymore.  She laughs at him, but I suppose they get along all right, in her own way she understands him.”  Her eyes avoided his while she spoke, flicking the ashes nervously.  “You never want to settle down?  Just go from flower to flower?”
“Maybe someday.  Look at Jan and Yolanda.  They’re happy.  They are really good people, don’t you think?”
“Sure, very nice.  Were they both friends of yours?”
“We all went to the same school.  We have known each other since we were kids.  Our parents are also friends.  I often envy Jan.  He really does something constructive.  You know how I like to write and be around artists, but I never had the guts to do what he does, just do it, forget about the money.”
“But he has a trust, right?”
“Yeah, but it’s just enough to keep them going, but without any frills.  His income from the articles isn’t very steady, and he paid to publish the book of poetry.”  He turned and raised his head. “You know I’d really like to meet your family.  You never introduced them to me.”
“Ah, but not now. I told them we broke it off.”
“Tell them we are back together so I can meet them.”
“We’ll see.”
Matilde’s body climbed and fell through the sand, the wrap around cloth skirt reaching the middle of her thigh, her sandals in her hand.  She seemed small beside Jan as they approached a path that rose out of the beach and up across the rocks where Denis and Yolanda turned out of sight.  “This is a beautiful country.  I can see why your parents came back here to retire.”
“And the pension goes a lot farther.   I am worried about them though.  Do you think this conflict will get resolved?”
“Maybe.  It depends on coming to an agreement over the energy policies and weapons programs.  There’s a lot of money involved and the cultural and religious problems.  You never know how much each side is manipulating these groups or being manipulated by them. But anyway, your parents will be ok; they are using very specific targets.  I think we are more in danger from terrorist attacks then the people here from the bombings.  Some even say the bombings don’t exist, that they’re rumors invented to keep recruitment high in the terror groups.  I know you say your mother saw them, but they could have been set off by someone here.  What do the young people here think?  The people in your family.  Do you know anyone really involved in these groups?”
“There is not much work, so they either emigrate or stay here and barely get by, but the truth is the only real radicals I have met were second generation immigrants, usually doing pretty well. Here most people are more worried about work.”  They continued along the path that sloped above the beach, Matilde and Jan following Denis and Yolanda.   The path became more difficult as it rose, at points only a few feet wide.   The calm silence reassuring Matilde that Jan and Yolanda knew the path.  The sharp black rock curved out to the orange sky; the four reached the end with moments to spare for the sunset.  Matilde put Denis’s hand in hers as they both leaned on a rock, the light racing away leaving an orange semicircle.
“We have a full moon to light the way back. We can stay a while if you like.”  Everyone seemed to agree that the moment and place were worth maintaining.   The beach had become cliffs, and the waves now were far below, more menacing.  Denis’s hand wrapped around Matilde, he gave her two kisses on the cheek and she turned and gave him a big rare smile, her large front teeth shining freely.  He brought her head on to his chest and stroked the long black curls. 
Her head suddenly rose and turned toward the sea. They all looked seaward toward what began as a humming sound and quickly became a roaring scream.  The fighter-bombers rose slightly off the cliffs, the pilots’ helmets visible in the last rays of light.  The roar of the jets rose and fell as they passed over; the Federation symbol dark across the fuselages and tails of the aircraft.  They returned to the hotel in silence.

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