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Excerpt from "North American Twilight"

Edward R. Boone sat in an office studded with prize animal heads on his West Texas ranch and considered how he might attain his previous levels of influence. Without prospects and expectations, he felt he might as well die. Oil had become a moribund enterprise. While there was still a remarkable demand, the tide was turning. And although it had taken decades to realize the conversion, things now would move very quickly. People were purchasing cars that required electricity at night, cars that ran on only half gas, that burned a composite of brown rice and soy beans. There would soon be no room for petroleum. The only place he could consistently export his product now was Mexico and the more indigent parts of South America, where residents still used automobiles from decades before. But his returns there were minimal. His rigs and refineries would soon have to be dismantled.

While he was now well over the age of 65 and was, as some said, criminally wealthy, a man like Boone never truly retired. His mind continued to churn, turning over past events and earlier triumphs, which triggered in him a painful yearning for the delight of conquest. He had found the pleasures of success more satisfying than the gratification offered by women. And therefore, he lived largely in his own world, the world of the mind, from which his take-over schemes had always been hatched. There, he held factual variables and moved them about like chess pieces. He computed assets like shifting beads on an abacus. And although he had made children, he had only partly engaged himself in the task, and consequently failed to transmit even a fraction of his own mental acuity.

Boone had become legendary as a corporate pirate, who led the hostile take-over of five petroleum corporations, each of whose helms he captained for only months before dividing the company assets and selling them on the open market. They called him “Hook” because, in the words of one ruined CEO, “he just slashed and eviscerated what I’d taken years to create.”

Boone was characterized in financial page cartoons as an epic figure, whose features and garb were distorted to resemble those of a maritime felon. His biceps were increased to modest peaks and displayed tattoos of anchors, hearts, and topless mermaids. Often, he was depicted with gold teeth and a patch over one eye. The real Edward Boone, by contrast, suffered from dandruff and was unable to restrain the bristly hair that crept from his ears like miniature crustaceans. His heart was larger than average, though it did not make him any more kindly. On the pericardium, a webbed net of capillaries repeatedly swelled and ruptured, causing him stupefying pain. For this, he dosed himself with Apresoline. His nose, displaying symptoms of advanced rosacea, had long since turned the color of a crushed grape, and his fingers, showing signs of progressive rheumatoid disfigurement, aimed for and missed things. It was not his eye-hand coordination that was to blame, but rather his inability to make their substance, the eroded bones and pitted cartilage, conform to his will. Since the age of 50, he had watched his fingers turn slowly outward like the skeletal armature of pterodactyl wings. In a perpetual state of shock over their deformation, he had the recurrent and illogical notion that he was undergoing an adaptation, which would allow him to experience the phenomenon of flight before he died.

Much deeper inside, he was particularly distinctive. Beyond the molecules, beyond the atoms, nuclei, and quarks of which he was ultimately composed, there were little glowing strings of energy. Each of these vibrated faster and with as much irregularity as the flickering subatomic particles of a serial killer. If you listened closely, on a quiet night, you could hear their buzzing dissonance. It was because of this that he had always found his women, at least the highly sensitive ones, gone by morning. Having lain all night hearing, on a subconscious level, the discordant opus of his physical essence, they mistook it for the song of his soul and fled.

While Boone did not project the kind of immortality political leaders sometimes did, he still wished for it in the metaphorical sense. He yearned to be recorded in historical annals as more than just an oil man. While money and purpose were important to him, historical meaning was, by far, the superior reward. He wanted to be one of the great forces in history. Lying in bed, contemplating the import of his scheme, he decided it was necessary to look for some sign that would galvanize his purpose and validate his vision. He had friends, or rather acquaintances, who knew scholars of Biblical code. And through these acquaintances, he was able to initiate three different studies of the Torah and Revelations. Each was combed for an Equidistant Lettering System whereby his name would appear in close proximity to the words ‘water’ and variations of the word ‘redeemer’. Sizable donations were tendered to the various scholarly organizations associated with those who conducted the research, and results returned within two weeks. The three studies each descended on a different passage of text containing a variation of his name and the word ‘moisture’ or, in one case, “wet”. Neither the word ‘savior’ nor any of its synonyms were found. Boone faltered for a day, feeling he had already failed. The Greatest of all Annals did not contain any substantiation of his future significance. Yet, he still believed it was there, that it might yet be found after everything was over.

A few weeks after he received the findings, a painfully thin woman with an abundant mass of frizzy hair arrived—without any obvious mode of transportation—at Boone’s ranch. It was June, and already the heat pressed on Boon’s shoulders like the weight of Atlas. When his assistant came to get him, Boone loped onto a sun porch that buzzed with circulating fans. He greeted the woman and without turning from her, ordered his assistant to concoct two mint juleps.

“No,” the woman said, holding up a thin wrist. “Thank you. I don’t drink.”

Boone raised his eyebrows and tipped his head backward to signify his somewhat incredulous comprehension of the idea.

“Well make me one, Billy. And bring the woman here a…a…”

“Water. Water is fine,” she looked in Billy’s direction. Her smile was meager and enhanced the hollowness of her face.

“Sit down,” said Boone, gesturing to a short-legged table and two wicker chairs at his left. “Well, you must know who I am, since you’re here. But I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”

“Perhaps,” she folded her hands in her lap and looked at him squarely, with an unexpected self-assurance. He waited for her to say more, but she did not. There was only silence for a long moment. She looked down at her lap, where she was spreading her fingers and—he thought—admiring her long, unpolished and deeply ridged nails. She ran a fingertip over each one on her left hand. And she then looked up at him rather suddenly.

“Have you gotten my letters?”

Boone looked at her and blinked. “No, Ma’am,” he took off his hat and smoothed his hair. “No I haven’t.”

The woman squared her shoulders. “That’s why I came,” she said. “That is why I came,” she repeated, nodding to herself.

“All right.” Boone again waited for explanation. None came.

The woman herself looked like a walking piece of unglazed china, breakable but not beautiful. He would not even have classified her as a faded beauty. Youth, he suspected, had been no more hopeful a time for her than her present middle age. She was—and undoubtedly always had been—fragile, weary-looking, and deadly plain. Her mass of unmanageable, free-floating curls made her appear frazzled and distraught. She might have been a burned out scatterbrain or an aging hippie subsisting exclusively on the sale of jewelry to tourists traveling along New Mexico’s Turquoise Trail. And, as he sipped his mint julep, she grew no better looking. Instead, Boone began to see the woman with greater clarity, an unflattering but inescapable magnification of her physical flaws: her emaciated neck, its unhealthy creases and lines, the boniness of her clavicle, the pained horizontal linearity of her undernourished trunk. Did she even have breasts? A sip of drink caught in Boone’s throat and he began coughing. This in no way alarmed her, nor did it inspire in her any inquires regarding his well-being.

Another interval of silence passed. The woman sat quietly, slowly pinching each of her distended knuckle joints as if she were only just getting used to them.

“Ma’am?” Boone leaned forward in his seat, elbows on his parted knees, droplets of condensation falling from his glass onto the painted wooden floorboards.

“You want to be the world’s new savior,” she stated flatly.

He realized it wasn’t a question. It was a declarative that fell, well shy of volley, and now lay electrically charged on the floorboards between them.

“Ma’am, I don’t know what to respond to that other than to ask what brings you here.”

“You haven’t gotten any of them?”

“Not a one. Now what’s your business with me?”

“You wanted to find your name in the Bible?” Her eyebrows raised, showing the socket behind the lid to be abnormally deep.

Boone remained silent and continued to gaze at the woman. She looked down into her lap once more, spreading her skeletal fingers across a skirt punctuated by the knife-like contours of two emaciated upper thigh bones. “You’re there,” she continued. “They haven’t located the reference, you see, and they won’t because they haven’t been looking for the right name. The name Boone isn’t what’s in the New Testament,” she paused, casting her vacant eyes up at him, “at least not in a way that has any genuine significance. But then, it’s not your real father’s surname is it?”

Boone had long ago learned to receive surprising news, whether positive or negative, with an even expression that masked whatever clockwork ticked behind it. And for a moment, he did not move. He was not certain whether to trust what she told him. Her hair had, since she had stepped onto the porch, taken on a static charge that seemed to lift this insubstantial, fuzzy haze to a new and physically unsustainable height. It set off her face with all its gaunt concavity, sunken eyes and sharp exposure of cheekbones.

“What is this biblical name then?”

“It’s not so much a matter of what as where it is.”

“Well then, ma’am, where do you believe my name appears?”

“Revelations, Chapter Six, Mr. Boone.”

Boone let out a guffaw, nearly spilling what was left of his drink. It took his second hand to keep it from slipping out of his useless fingers.

“Where’s Billy?” Boone shouted, half turning in his seat. A laugh was percolating inside him, but it was produced more by an unfamiliar mirthless chill than by any sense of amusement.

“Tell me, Mr. Boone,” the woman continued. “Do you know who your father is?”

Boone turned back towards her. “Billy!” He called to his assistant over his shoulder now.

“Ma’am. I don’t believe you offered me your name.”

“Do you? Know who your father is, Mr. Boone?” She ignored his request, speaking calmly, annunciating her words in an unsettling fashion. Her flat soulless eyes widened, intensifying their gaze in a way he did not believe was possible for anything that bore such yawning emptiness.

“Who are you, woman?”

“What you will eventually become.”

“And what’s that?” Boone asked derisively.

“You were an orphan weren’t you, Mr. Boone, with no knowledge of your genuine origins?”

“Billy!” He yelled once more for his assistant. “Tell me again why you’ve come here?” Boone set down the empty julep glass by his seat. When he again raised his head, he noticed that the woman’s face looked even more drawn, the cranio-facial bones appeared to protrude even further. And despite the heat, the woman was not sweating. Her upper lip was as dry as if it had been recently powdered. Her skin was ashen.

“I’m visiting all my partners, you see.”

“All your partners?” This time Boone craned his head forward and widened his eyes. “What project have we partnered on?” He flipped open his cell phone and began to dial Billy’s cell number.

“We haven’t yet. But we will. It’s inevitable, you see.” She extended her left arm and idly stroked it at the elbow, where a small amount of deflated flesh pulled over joint and sinew.

As Boone put the phone to his ear, the woman stood up from the wicker chair and made her way to the porch stairs. “Thank you for the hospitality, Mr. Boone. We’ll enjoy each other’s company again soon.”

Boone stood up, too, the cell phone still at his ear. It continued to ring without answer.

“Good-bye, Mr. Boone.” The woman wandered down the driveway and then cut to the adjacent farm lane. Dust swirled about her skirts. She looked back once, gave a wan, close-lipped smile, and waved. It reminded Boone of a wistful gesture that might be made by an old friend.

Boone stood on the porch, absently staring at the woman’s back as the phone continued to tone in his ear. At that exact moment, Billy stepped through the door leading to the porch.

“Jesus, boy,” Boone flipped his phone closed. “Where the hell have you been? I’ve been calling you for ten minutes! Where did that basketcase come from?” Boone pointed a long crooked index finger towards the farm lane.

“I don’t know, Sir. She just arrived at the front door and said she wanted to meet with you about an upcoming partnership. Actually, I caught her wandering into the house through the foyer entrance. She seemed very natural about it, like she knew you.”

Both men turned their attention to the woman’s retreating back. A dust devil blew a haze of reddish brown dirt upward. And in the next blink, the woman was no longer in sight.

“She didn’t look natural though,” said Billy, hanging onto the door jamb with one hand and pulling at his goatee with the other.

“No, she certainly did not.”

* * * * *

It was true that Boone did not know his parents. He knew neither the circumstances of his birth nor the reason for his abandonment. He simply appeared, like so many children born during the Depression, on the steps of a Catholic Church in Steubenville, Ohio. Little more than a month old, or so the nuns deduced, he had been swaddled in a homemade quilt that had gone stiff and brown from the absorption of a large amount of blood. However, everyone noted that he was well fed and fully developed for a child of his supposed age.

“Perhaps,” said one sister, looking down at the little boy who stretched and squirmed while succumbing to an inaudible yawn, “this was the quilt he was born on.”

“Perhaps,” said the priest, standing some distance away and keeping his own hands hygienically protected inside the wide sleeves of his red robe. It was Pentecost, and he had been preparing for early mass when the child was found.

“We’ll baptize him today, Father?”

“Clean him up first and then we’ll discuss preparations.”

But Boone was not baptized that day, or any day thereafter. The priest calmly pushed the nuns’ pleadings aside. He made excuses, offered them placating but elliptical promises. And so Boone was neither saved nor, as he would often hear during the tent revival tirades of a Pentecostal preacher his adoptive mother took him to see some years later, assured a place in the Kingdom of Heaven.

The frightening suggestion of violence intimated by his swaddling quilt was, shortly after his discovery, nearly forgotten. And the inauspicious article was quickly burned with other rectory garbage. Before igniting, its interior cotton batting (also crusted with desiccated hemoglobin) flared as if it were saturated with accelerant. It lay, crackling and snapping, in the ruined cinders of betting sheets and erotic stereoscope cards furtively cast off by the priest earlier that morning.

No one was able to say why the priest demurred to bring the boy into the church. It may have been a matter of frank dislike, a conflict of auras or a subconscious objection to the child’s native scent. Regardless of the reason, the boy was quickly dispatched from the rectory. The priest arranged for the boy’s transfer to an orphanage further into Ohio, from which he was adopted the very day that the Battle of Normandy began, a few months after his eighth birthday. Through the experience, he grew to know more spiritual and physical privation than any sort of Catholic charity. And, when he was 18, he left for Texas, became a roughneck, and commenced with the part of his life that everyone had already heard so much about. “You’re a regular character out of Charles Dickens,” said a radio host during one of Boone’s later on-air interviews.

* * * *

Of course, there was no information about the woman who came to visit him. She was not from town. No one seemed to recall ever having seen her, and certainly she was distinctive enough to have impressed herself on even the most unreliable memory.

Boone bought a Bible, for his own house did not have one, and began reading Revelations. He had not opened a bible since he was a boy, since he had worn (because there simply was nothing else) western-style, hand-me down shirts that verged on threadbare, with pearlized snaps and denim collars. He remembered being pushed in front of his adoptive mother (who sat, whenever possible, in the front row) and being offered up to the minister. Reverend Franklin Geist swayed with the congregation and shouted, punching the air with a rigid finger that had long ago been blackened by frostbite. He held Boone’ shoulder with an unyielding grip and forced him to sway along in the stiff-kneed manner of a disinclined child. Spittle flew from Geist’s lips as he shouted and sweat dripped from his brow in great profusion. He hummed, he encouraged women to “feel the fever of the Lord.” “Lift your hands up and feel the fever!” Like religion was an infectious disease.

And then there were the special instructional Sundays, his mother had taken him to. These took place in the living room of a young heifer of a woman, who inherited her family’s farm early but had yet to marry. By June, the fields still lay fallow there, and the woman opened up her house to ‘the work of the Lord,’ as she called it. The woman told the children about the intrinsic evilness of mankind and how mankind must work to be good, to follow a path of righteousness because it could never come as part of a naturally occurring disposition. “We were all inherently wicked and deserving of the insatiable hellfires,” she would say, squinting and bending at her thick waist to meet the children at eye level. She would then light a candle and hold one or another of the children’s hands over it for fifteen seconds for the purpose of educating the group on the agony of hellfire. “Yes, it does hurt. And it will hurt like that for all eternity if you don’t admit to your wickedness. You are wicked. You’re all wicked through and through.”

After that, Boone would not return to religion. He’d had religion enough to choke him.

He forged ahead with his plans, closing down two of his refineries. He auctioned what he was able to and began an exploratory study of the water resources beneath his land, questioning when the fossil layer might be reached if heavily tapped, what the true capacity of his land was. Lead geologists recommended that a major aquifer should not be constructed because its connectivity would be too uncertain. Local hydrology was too complex, water-quality would inevitably deteriorate. Yet Boone moved forward in spite of their advice because momentum had been built. And with Boone’s motivational momentum came an overwhelming inertia of reason.

Within three days, Boone began negotiating the purchase of water rights with three of his neighbors. He was, however, vague when explaining his intentions.

“I don’t know about this, Ed. What you want all this water for anyway? And why should I even sell it to you? Do I gotta pay you every time I run my own faucets? It certainly don’t sound like a good idea to me.”

“Hell no, Frank. Hell no. You sell me the rights to pump water on your land, but you use it whenever you like. You take an hour-long shower every day? You keep right on doin’ it.”

“What exactly are you gonna do with a zillion gallons of water?”

“I got some projects comin’ up on the ranch that need more than I got.”

“How do you know what you got? Ain’t nobody round here knows how much water they’re floatin’ on. What if you pump us all dry? These summers’ve been awful harsh lately, and we’re all connected.”

“I’ll give you an extra $250,000.”

There was silence for a moment. The man sitting across from Boone picked at a scab on his knuckle.

“Damn it, Ed.” He hesitated, looking away. “Well, uh, we were thinking about selling it outright. The ranch, I mean. Betty wants to go back to Louisiana. It sure would be good if you could buy the whole thing.”

“How much are you asking, Frank?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t set a price. We just started talking about it.”

“Well you let me know, and I’ll see what I can do.” Boone put on his had and left.

He ordered pumps. Great pumps that would force water from the springs beneath his land and those around him.

When The State Water Board got wind of Boone’s project, they sent out a delegation to assess the probable losses, both monetary and otherwise. A black Yukon came up the ranch’s farm lane around 1:30 in the afternoon approximately 24 hours after the board first learned of the forthcoming venture. Boone saw them from his office window, got out his bottle of Aguardiente de Orujo, and, with his blue handkerchief, wiped the water spots off five shot glasses.

“Don’t cock your pistol yet, Kevin. This is supposed to be a polite conversation,” explained one agent, glancing into the rear-view mirror at a younger one seated just behind him. The older agent had once been part of the DEA and had helped to seize nine tons of cocaine during Operation Dinero in 1994. He believed, like Thomas Jefferson, that chance preferred the prepared mind. “But no use fooling around here without being ready either.” He snapped a clip into his own gun before sliding it back into its holster.

However, after three bracing shots of Aguardiente and a friendly conversation that involved a discussion of profit sharing, a filial attitude developed between the agents and Boone. They left on extremely friendly terms, belly-laughing, backslapping terms. As they headed for their truck, not one of them seemed to notice that the earth was already belching red dust with every footfall.

* * * *

The following summer, Lubbock disintegrated to a scorched husk. Plants curled their leaves against the sun and bent over under the weight of the heat. Cattle suffered and stood around their troughs, lowing hoarsely for water. A drought left the land little more than escaping dust. The winds aided its flight by contributing gusting eddies that eroded fields and further parched the earth. In the cities, a water emergency was in effect. Local reservoirs had dipped so low that residents were encouraged to boil their water before drinking it. Boone imagined his profit margins climbing.

During one of his frequent return trips from the airport, Boone passed field upon field of the soy beans destined to power first world automobiles, to make vegan milk, to be covered with sweet and sour sauce and mixed into stir fries. His chauffer, knowing that he would be safe from speed surveillance along these agricultural stretches, took the opportunity to test the limits of his employer’s own gas-fed vehicle. No complaints ever issued from the back seat, except one morning, when the farmers were irrigating. The window between driver and passenger came down, and the smell of booze wafted into the front compartment. “Slow down, Jack. I want to see this.”

Jack slowed down to thirty-five and then to thirty. Again, the window came down. “Actually, pull over, Jack. I’m going to get out.”

A cut crystal tumbler of sour mash in one fin-like hand, Boone got out of his white limousine along Interstate 27. He looked out over the brown shag carpet of soy beans towards the line where sky met land. Disrupting this even stretch of horizon was a series of LEPA center-pivot lines that were failing to properly mist. In Lubbock, creeks had turned to rivulets, their beds cracking open and exposing the scintillating mineral deposits and dull-toned rocks beneath the soil. He knew the failure to produce the right amount of spray was no fault of the dispensing mechanisms. There was simply not enough water.

Back at his desk, Boone shook a snow globe and watched the particles of silver glitter fall at the feet of a plastic snowman. He found this cathartic. Better than a Zen garden or desk top fountain, whose relentless gurgling subliminally caused his bladder distress and also made him thirsty. It was July, 108 degrees, and his central air was not working. Little beads of sweat swelled and dibbled down his cheeks. This was no position for an old man to be in, he thought. It reminded him powerfully of the hellfires described to him in his youth. He imagined his whole body being held above the same candle flame that had burned his hand all those decades before.

He had maintained a reservoir of water in his own underground cooling tank so that, in the event of a protracted drought, he would always be insured of a fresh supply. It was fed by the purest springs on his land, and Boone felt, though he realized it was probably imagined, a slight high shortly after he drank from it. Now, however, even the emergency reservoir was failing him. It yielded a full gallon only every fifteen minutes. Watching its slow progression up the side of the lucent tank truly alarmed him. The geologists had been wrong, he was closer to the fossil layer than they had estimated, and he was using the water more rapidly than it was replenishing itself. He visited the other pump sites. “Yes,” said one foreman, “the pumps are getting loud. We’ll have to shut them down, Mr. Boone, or we’ll burn up the motors.”

Now, like everyone else, Boone wished for rain, dreamed of rain, a storm so drenching, it would force its way around the old terra cotta roof tiles. It would assail and invade, until it overran the spouting and drains, and he would be forced to distribute the buckets around his living room and kitchen. Still, no rain came. Weeks turned into months without a drop of precipitation. The pump motors did eventually burn out, and Boone, son of an indecent priest who imposed sexual favors as penance, exhausted his own cistern.

While the lower half of North America thirsted, while cattle died and buzzards fed on carrion, while water was further rationed, the Angel of Death sat writing letters in a gorgeous, lacy calligraphy she had reserved for her final documents. She refilled her fountain pen, searched for the right words. The end was near. Soon her own ride would begin. She didn’t have very long to wait. Famine would begin within weeks. Pestilence would follow. War would start soon afterward, since those who were left would invariably fight over what little resources remained. And then, on a pale horse with a protruding skeleton (not, you understand, the figurative horses of her partners), she would begin her ride. Her pace would be slow and deliberate, her swath wide. Her purpose? To bring forth the worthy and weed out the contemptible for a more protracted, metaphysical destruction.