From the collection Cafe Phryque
Steven is hiking Big Basin when he spots a woodpecker and tracks it with his vidcam. Problem is, the zoom isn’t strong enough; every time he gets close enough for a decent shot, the bird spooks. His seventh attempt sends his prey into the high canopy, and Steven finds that he is far off the trail.
He sees a flash of color and pursues, thinking it’s a Steller’s jay, and finds a redwood tree, painted top to bottom in navy blue, a shard of night sky fallen to earth. When he touches the bark, a light pings at the height of a basketball hoop and a door slides open.
The mirrored interior creates a thousand Stevens in all directions. To the right of the door stands a single blue button, framed by a golden star. Steven presses it and hears a low whirring. His body feels heavy, as if his limbs have been cast in bronze.
A minute later, the doors slide open to reveal a hotel lobby, textured walls of ochre and sienna, a carpet of interwoven golds and scarlets. He finds a service bell on the counter and gives it a ring. When it fails to bring a response, he wanders to a window presenting an odd landscape: a field of ash, serrated gray mountains, a full earth.
A man in a blue suit, wire-thin, a name badge reading Sergei. He stops, hands on hips.
“The blue redwood?”
Sergei chews on a knuckle. He has small, dark eyes that flit around as he thinks.
“We have got to work out the bugs. Oh well, follow me.”
He trails Sergei down a long, narrow hall. The carpet tends more to the scarlet, a braid of gold running the center. Sergei opens a door to the left and waves him inside. They board a small escalator along the wall and descend to a carpeted pit piled with a hundred cushions in cool colors: lavender, teal, chartreuse, periwinkle, kelly, hunter, midnight.
“Have a seat,” says Sergei.
Steven spots a burgundy armchair at the center and kicks a trail through the cushions.
“Would you like a beverage?”
Steven thinks of his hike and says, “A beer?”
Sergei runs a thumb under his chin. “Let’s get you a nice hefeweizen.”
He pulls out a remote and aims it at a brass post next to the chair. A pint glass rises to the top, a slice of lemon notched on the rim. Steven takes a sip and sighs.
“Drop it,” says Sergei.
“Let go of the glass.”
Steven loosens his grip. The glass hovers.
Sergei lets out a cackle. “Sorry. I never tire of that.” He laces his hands, trying to regain his cool exterior. “You are a lucky man, Steven Hertz. You have managed to stumble into the world’s first intergalactic bordello. The girls of Jefferson Seven cannot bear the gravity of Earth, so we keep them here, where they perform their ministrations in the gentler pull of the lunar surface. We are prepared to offer you, for your troubles, a session with one of our best, absolutely gratis. And why, you may ask, would we be so generous? Because, a full-length session with a J-7 is so intense that it sucks the short-term memory right out of you. And that, in effect, solves our problem.”
At this point, Steven suspects he’s involved in some elaborate prank. But still, he’s worried.
“Do I… Do I have a choice?”
Sergei smiles. “Oh! Americans. I don’t know why you would want a choice, but… no. You don’t have a choice.”
He hits the remote and Steven rises in his chair, a sudden lift that takes his breath away.
“Oh, and I might add, even though you won’t remember this, you will feel fantastic. Ah, Hortense! I’ve heard good things.”
A cloud of yellow smoke descends from the ceiling, peppered with points of light that scramble and spark like fireflies.
Steven grips his chair. “I don’t quite understand.”
Sergei takes a lunar leap to the escalator and begins his diagonal ascent. “Hortense is a gaseous being.”
“How do you know she’s… female?”
Sergei laughs. “In a few seconds, I doubt that you will care.”
The door clicks shut. The yellow cloud expands and contracts, takes the form of a small galaxy and begings to rotate. It appears that Hortense is dancing for him. She settles over his body like a blanket. The points of light spark at his skin, producing bursts of pleasure that are almost unbearable. He is overwhelmed with the taste and scent of vanilla, and he feels himself rising into the air.
Steven wakes in bright sunlight on Buzzard’s Roost, a sandstone promontory atop the Santa Cruz Mountains. He feels incredibly light, as if his limbs were carved from balsa wood. He runs all the way to the valley floor, and spends five minutes drinking from the camp fountain. He’s peering at a slice of redwood inscribed with a timeline – this ring for Columbus, this for the birth of Christ – when he reaches into his shirt pocket and discovers a pillow mint.
Photo by MJV