Fiction by Spencer Fleury
The thing is—and this will come as a disappointment for you, but it wouldn’t be sporting to leave you in suspense—there are no pyramids in Quartzsite, Arizona. Forget what the bartender told you. They don’t exist. And neither do the camels, though this will not come as such a blow. You have seen camels before. Truth be told, you find camels to be a little off-putting.
So. No pyramids and no camels, despite both what you’ve been told and the implications of the town’s “welcome” sign, situated just off the Interstate directly in front of the Burger King. It is about five feet high by seven feet wide and is the color of copper and sand. Arizona colors. Desert colors, which you are sick to death of by now. Beneath the town name is a simple diorama, a pyramid ringed by camel silhouettes cut from bronze sheeting.
Implications, hell. This is an outright lie, is what this is.
But you don’t know any of this yet. All you have is what the bartender said, back at the HoJo in Beaumont, Texas. And the weird little guidebook she gave you.
She was young and pretty—blonde, fair-skinned, just your type—with a cagey sort of half-smile, like she knew something you didn’t and wanted you to be aware of that fact. The top edge of a back tattoo poked out above her collar, but you couldn’t make out what it was. She checked your ID and was nice to you when she found out that you are from her mother’s hometown, even after you explained that the city listed on your driver’s license isn’t actually your hometown. It’s really just the place I left most recently, you told her. Mom never stayed in one place long enough for any of them to feel like home, probably because habitual check kiting isn’t really compatible with long-term domestic stability.
She mixed you the best Manhattan you’d had in a long time. Then she mixed you another. It did not take much effort to convince her to come up to your room after her shift. But you did not get much out of the encounter; you were far too tired to feel anything.
This, of course, did not surprise you. It had already been that way for you for some time.
After, she balled herself up beside you and quickly slipped into a quiet little stream of consciousness monologue. You had a hard time following her at first; her narrative was slippery and elusive, and you couldn’t quite focus on it. But it didn’t take long for you to pick up the thread. It was the story of her hometown, a place named Quartzsite, Arizona, and the pyramids in the desert just outside of town there. When she was a girl, she used to sneak away from her mother’s trailer and go play among them in the middle of the night, alone except for the tarantulas and scorpions and rattlers and the camels, which she occasionally would climb atop and ride around. They—the pyramids, of course, not the camels—are two hundred feet high and were built thousands of years ago, by a long-lost tribe of indigenous Americans who predated the Puebloans and who had mastered astronomy and geography and even the basics of plate tectonics, centuries before any white man ever thought of such things. Then they disappeared without leaving so much as one single solitary archaeological trace of their existence.
Other than the pyramids, that is.
While she slept, you sat in bed, in that liminal state of half-wakefulness that defines your existence these days. Your mind fixated on the pyramids. Kings lived in pyramids, didn’t they? Egyptian kings. Pharaohs. One thing you know about the ancient pharaohs is, when could not sleep, they drank a psychoactive concoction made from wild lettuce stems. This is a random fact you have picked up in your research. The drink was thick and milky and contained a natural sedative—you can’t remember the name of it right now, but the people at the Whole Foods back home had never heard of it. They wouldn’t even try to help you. They were obviously embarrassed by their lack of knowledge, which is understandable, but a lifetime ban was, without question, an overreaction on their part.
Maybe I can do that, you thought. Forget about California altogether. Just stake your claim to a pyramid and live like a king in the Arizona desert.
In the morning, she pressed a strange little guidebook into your hands. The cover read The Intrepid Traveler’s Guide to the Lost Pyramids of Quartzsite, Arizona. It’s only about sixty pages or so and has a vaguely amateurish look to it: the typeface isn’t quite right, and the cover photo is a picture of the Grand Canyon for some reason.
I think you can use this, she said. Just don’t read it until you get there. It won’t make any sense before then.
But now that you are actually in Quartzsite, you flip through the book, looking for a map, coordinates, anything like that. But there is no map, and your mind is too fuzzed to focus on the words long enough to parse them properly. You toss the book back onto the passenger’s seat and hoist yourself up on top of your car, so you can better scan the dessicated landscape around you: the town of Quartzsite is in front of you, to the north, little more than a cluster of low-profile boxes painted to blend into the terrain. You cup your hand over your eyes and squint real damn hard, but alas, no pyramid tips poking over any of the buildings.
You check your phone, but it is no help: to be in Quartzsite is to be out of range.
So you hop down and climb back into your seven-year-old Ford Escape and drive toward those buildings, and for a while—call it twenty minutes—you just tool around, making last-second turns at random intervals because the town is only so big; the pyramids must be nearby somewhere.
But you don’t find them. They aren’t behind the self-storage place or the liquor store or the gun store. They aren’t over by the library. They aren’t wedged into that empty lot between the equipment rental place and the tire yard.
Suddenly the energy just drains from you, and you have to pull over. You feel weak, dizzy, shaky. Is it the insomnia? Low blood sugar? The late afternoon desert sun? Could be any or all of those, really. You haven’t eaten since Las Cruces, and you haven’t really slept in … well, let’s just say it’s been a while.
You wonder, and not for the first time, if you can actually die from insomnia. Your doctor said no, it’s not possible. It’s certainly not good for you, he added, and then he started freestyling on all the ways insomnia can fuck you up good: weight gain, loss of cognition, high blood pressure, early onset dementia, diabetes, memory loss, depression, projectile incontinence—but no no, he reassured you, it can’t kill you.
The Internet says different, though.
There is an article on a semi-reputable but well-known news site about a man who died after going without sleep for eleven days. This, of course, is actually a bit less than the world’s record for consecutive hours spent awake, the provenance of said record being somewhat murky thanks to the major record-keeping bureaus’ reluctance to encourage such behavior in pursuit of fame, or at least notoriety and endorsement deals.
On Wikipedia you found the story of an Egyptian man who died after not sleeping for seven months. Seven months. His brain slowly atrophied until it withered into something resembling a dried-out peach. Wikipedia actually describes his condition as “fatal insomnia.” Fatal. The word’s right there in the name, so clearly your doctor doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
But that’s par for the course with him anyway. He always tells you you’re fine, or how it’s all in your head, or how you really need to stop reading WebMD. Which is, of course, easy for him to say. He’s not the one suffering, is he?
Still, you’re probably in the clear, more or less. Technically, you are rarely awake for more than thirty hours at a time; usually your body will simply go into standby mode for an hour, possibly two, so you are getting some sleep. But it’s always that fragile, surface-level sleep, and never for longer than a couple hours, never more than just enough to tease you with a cruel reminder of what you’re missing.
So it probably won’t kill you. But you never really know, do you?
Just then you notice a small sign by the side of the road that reads Ham Fest—this way! Your stomach rumbles. A nice ham sandwich sounds like just the thing, actually.
After a few minutes of driving around, you find the Ham Fest at the local Expo Hall, which is little more than an oversize garage at the far end of the town’s main drag. The parking lot is crammed full of RVs and campers. The event itself turns out to be something other than what you expected. There are no smokers, no honey glaze, not even any sandwiches. It is actually a convention of ham radio operators, a motley collection of random neckbeards and jittery survivalists engaging in a hobby whose continued existence in the age of the Internet makes no sense at all.
Some people are just committed to doing things the hard way. It’s a common enough point of pride for certain personality types.
But they seem friendly enough as you amble from booth to booth. Or at least, not overtly hostile, which is good enough. You wonder if it’s because you look like you’re one of them.
You really hope that’s not it.
Hey, you say to an overweight man at one of the booths. He sits in a cheap folding lawn chair, from which he has greeted everyone who has passed by in the two minutes you’ve been watching him.
Hey yourself, he says. How can I help you?
You know much about this town?
Well I would hope so, he says. I haven’t missed a Ham Fest in fourteen years.
You know about the pyramids?
Pardon me? he asks. Pyramids? What pyramids you mean?
The ones here in Quartzsite, you say. They’re out by a trailer park somewhere, I think. But I can’t find ‘em.
I’m sorry, he says. I’m afraid I don’t get the joke.
Forget it, you say, and you turn to walk away.
Then you remember: the guidebook. Here, you say. I can show you. And you hand him the book. He takes it from you and leafs through the pages.
What the hell is this supposed to be? he asks you.
Exactly what it says, you say. He shakes his head.
Ronnie! he yells out. In a booth across the concourse, a short, lean man with a shaved head turns, eyebrows raised. The fat man waves him over. You ever seen this before? he asks Ronnie, and gives him the book. Ronnie’s a local, the man explains.
Wow, where’d you get this? Ronnie asks.
You’ve seen it before? you ask.
Not for a long ass time. There was some woman printed up a bunch of these back in the day. Used to hand ‘em out in the parking lot at the Sav-Mor. Nobody really knew why. She was probably touched in the head or something.
Sounds like too much peyote, the fat guy says.
Yeah, maybe, Ronnie says with a laugh. Sounds about right.
You remember her name? you ask him. Where she lived?
She had a trailer out in the desert, he says. Don’t remember her name. She was mostly just a low-grade nutcase until the state came and took her kid away, I remember that.
So there’s no pyramids then, you ask.
No, there’s no pyramids. Shit, man, you read any of this thing?
A little, you say.
Okay then, Ronnie says, and he hands you back the book.
Okay, you say. Thanks anyway.
Back in the car, you realize you still have not eaten all day. Thwarted in your quest for ham, you contemplate returning to the Burger King.
There is no shame in that. It is a perfectly serviceable Burger King. Try the chicken sandwich.
You actually tried reading the guidebook two nights ago, after you ran out of gas on the western edge of Texas hill country, which is to say the middle of fucking nowhere. The upside to that little miscalculation—you thought you had enough gas to make Fort Stockton with ease, but you didn’t factor the hills into that equation—was the gift of a suddenly abbreviated driving day, like that time when Kenny, out of the blue, just gave you the afternoon off for no reason. And clocking out early is always nice. The downside, of course, was spending the night in your car—no phone reception out there—by the side of the road, and the strong possibility of dying before sunrise, most likely falling victim to a coyote or psycho hitchhiker. Or a psycho hitchhiker with a pet coyote. At the very least, you’d probably die of exposure, whatever that is.
Gave you the afternoon off. That’s not bad. You always have had a way with euphemism.
After two hours only a handful of cars had passed. None of them stopped.
Might be here a while.
Maybe you could read a book to kill the time.
She said you should wait, though. Said it wouldn’t make any sense until you get to Quartzsite.
But books don’t really work that way, do they? They either make sense or they don’t.
You opened it to a random page. It was dense with text, two columns full of old typewriter font running the length of each facing page, scarcely a paragraph break to be found. The next page was exactly the same, as were most of the rest. It looked nothing like the Lonely Planet guides you’re used to, that’s for sure.
You squinted at the page and tried to follow along, but the light was fading and there was so little space between the lines and you just couldn’t hold the words in your head for more than a few seconds, you’re so tired. A few random phrases popped out at you: Shadows of the equinox … tertiary binary subduction wave … interdimensional trans-subsidence portal …
You gave up and tossed it back onto the passenger’s seat. Guess she was right.
Or maybe Ronnie was right. None of this book makes any goddamn sense. It’s either complete gibberish or science far too deep for you to grasp.
But even if you don’t understand what it says, you do understand what it is.
This is a test.
She meant for you to have those pyramids because they will let you sleep.
But you have to find them first.
So tonight, the sand is upon you, in your hair, your shoes, your socks, the folds of your underwear, out here in the desert just west of Quartzsite, near a long-abandoned doublewide. The sand runs through your hands with each scoop cast over your shoulder and swirls around your head with every gust of wind. It works its way into your mouth and eyes. It slowly lays its claim to you, so slowly you don’t notice it, so slowly you can’t stop it.
On that future night when you do finally sleep for real—and that night will come, eventually—you may dream of this moment. You may wonder how you escaped the creeping sands; you will have no memory of it. Over time, the lines between dream and memory will blur, and eventually you will start to think of this night, this night right now, the night you tried to unearth the lost pyramids of Quartzsite with your own bare hands, as the former.
It’s not, though.
You are here. You are working. Any minute now, you expect to feel your knuckles knock against something hard, just below the surface of the sand.
Any minute now.
Maybe it will glint in the moonlight.
Maybe it will be made of silver.
You’ve got all night to find out.
|Spencer Fleury has worked as a sailor, copywriter, economics professor and record store clerk, among other disreputable professions. He was born in the Detroit suburbs, spent most of his life in Florida, and now lives in San Francisco. His first novel, How I’m Spending My Afterlife, was published in October 2017, and he is hard at work on a second.|