The Phoenicia (fiction, dedicated to M.P.)

 “Something something something.”

A dark-complected man at the corner of Scottsdale and Indian School made an utterance more or less to me; I smiled tensely, assuming he was a street person asking for spare change. He took a step toward me, and I prepared myself to say, “Sorry, no.” Or maybe I would give him a buck? Probably not; probably just some half-hearted rejection, a lie about not having any money (not that I had much, but I did have some). I tried to look at him but not directly; I’m not sure why, but I think that’s the proper social form. Of course, I could be wildly wrong; I often am.

“It’s too hot,” he said. Surprised, I looked toward him, and noticed he had a rough beard and was wearing a short-sleeve, button-down polyester shirt. “It never cools down,” he said, somewhere between a matter-of-fact statement and a complaint. “It just stays hot all the time!” I’m not sure if the exclamation point is correct, here. It usually implies a leap in volume, which really wasn’t the case. It was more of a sharply deepening emotion that I’m trying to relay. Or, maybe better put, portray.

I couldn’t agree with him more! (And that exclamation point is for volume, going along with emotion, in this case.) I had been in Phoenix for just about eight months, and thought it was wonderful, at first. What a wonderful winter! I had spent the last five years in a sort of southern Alaska, or east Siberia, a small town in southwestern Washington that has long, wet, dark, bone-chilling winters. So, Phoenix from November through February was fine; no, blissful, really. March, April – warming, quite warm indeed, but nothing to kill yourself over.

May: A cool patch, for nearly a week.

June: The chaos begins. In the mid-day, one sees the sun out; one isn’t stupid, one fully expects that cloudless sky to pour down heat. And it does, so that one can barely breathe. Well, that’s not true, of course, but short breaths through the nose work best. The night, though, will surely bring relief? One opens the door to one’s apartment at 9:30, let’s say 10:30 at night, expecting a refreshing breath of cool air.

No. Leaving the air-conditioned apartment, even late at night, feels like walking out of an orbiting spaceship into airless space. Without a spacesuit.

And now it was July. Which, sadly enough, made me pine for the relative cool of June.

And yet I had been doing my best, my level best, to ignore this. Until this dark, ironically cool-looking man, who complained to me of the heat. “How long have you lived here?” I asked him, and I think now looking back on it, I was attempting to gauge how accustomed he was to this madness. “Two and a half years,” he said, as if he was expecting me to ask. “Too long.”

As I was walking away, I gave him some sort of tepid counsel about this just being a temporary condition, soon enough it would be over. Was I talking about mortality? I wonder, now. And an even newer thought lands on me, like a bird dropping from above: He was an Angel. He put the thought of death in my mind. He was warning me. As such, what, precisely, was the heat he was discussing?

A chill ran up my spine, but it only made if half-way, before melting.

In any case, whoever he was and whatever his mission was, my senses suddenly opened. The denial in which I was living snapped open like alligator jaws.

As I made my way, first west on Indian School, then north on Marshall Way toward the galleries, I took a good look at the people walking toward me. Good God! Their faces were melting right off their skulls! Not dramatically, granted; and by tilting their heads back just so, or positioning a hand underneath the chin, true, they were able to keep their skin from sliding right off.  But still . . . As I walked around Old Town Scottsdale more, it seemed to me that everyone’s faces were melting off their skulls. Some, I hypothesized, had a strong mental capability of being able to “catch” their faces from sliding away, without the use of their hands. Others seemed to dive into air-conditioned stores or cars in just the nick of time.

Or maybe faces weren’t melting off skulls. It’s quite possible that my brain was boiling inside my own skull, causing me to misinterpret signs, or simply impacting my vision. But I really don’t think it was that; or, better put, my brain may have been boiling inside my own skull, and my sense of the physical world may have been askew, and yet these astonishing things, these faces partially melting off skulls, still could have been happening.

It wasn’t just the faces. Or the fellow I took as a signatory of sorts. There were other strange, horrible things happening. A man was arrested for lighting his wife on fire. He was released, after pleading he merely was making love to her, when she erupted in spontaneous combustion; when the woman, who was not seriously injured, backed up her husband’s story, police released – but not without a stern warning. “You could kill her, next time! And what are you thinking, having sex in this heat?!” Hat in hand, he staggered out of the police station, muttering an apology and a stoic promise to never do it again.

Similarly, a group of tourists who went out for a short, 2-mile hike in the lovely desert foothills surrounding Scottsdale were less than halfway into the hike when every one of them collapsed from heat exhaustion; only quick action by a park ranger and a medical helicopter evacuation saved their lives, though each of them was scolded for having the audacity to hike in the Phoenix summer heat. “We didn’t know,” one of them pleaded to a reporter. “We started the hike at 5 a.m. How were we to know that it would be 120 by sunrise?”

Foolishly, I succumbed to the television news-hyped hopes that “monsoon” showers in mid-July would “cool things down and get us back into our comfort range.” The rains came, the winds, the lightning . . . At first, it was magnificent, what a show! And then, just another horrid display of Nature, just another example of Hope getting kicked in the crotch. The rain fell . . . hit the ground with a sizzle, and quickly evaporated. There was a sickening smell of electric burn; that might have been the ferocious lightning, frying the midnight air; or the boiling water, coming in contact with electric lines over-heated both externally (from the relentless temperature) and internally (from the desperate demands to power air conditioners); or both.

There was the sad case of a young boy playing on the swings. He gleefully jumped off, landing in the mushy, soft rubber material designed to eliminate head and other injuries. His feet instantly melted in place, and, shortly after, he expired. “He was so brave, he didn’t even yell for help,” his mother said. “Which actually would have been nice, because we were just over at the pond, and could have come and saved him.” A controversial statue was erected on the site. Its original title was The Brave Boy Who Melted In Place, but this was changed to a more generic, less offensive, The Brave Little Boy: Beware.

Well-toned Phoenix women, notorious for wearing skimpy black dresses that barely covered their private parts, suddenly stopped wearing clothing at all. The outbreak of public nudity shocked the city . . . for about an hour. As one Conservative told a newspaper reporter, “Sure, it’s wrong. But it’s just too damned hot to get outraged over anything.”

The Phoenix Police Department issued a warning, directing: “Unless absolutely necessary, everyone should stay at home. Including us.”

The President of the United States of America was on the verge of issuing a State of Emergency, but withdrew it at the last moment, when he was told he would have to come here to give a speech. “I’m sure they’ll be fine,” he said, before turning his attention to the medical insurance crisis.

I had a horrible dream where I was standing on the sidewalk, watching waves of heat rise off the road. A car stopped, and the driver rolled down his window, asking me directions to Atlantic City. “In New Jersey, you mean?” I said, scratching my head. “No,” the driver, a tanned young man with long hair, looking very dapper in a bow tie and bathing suit. “The other one – the one around here somewhere.” I shrugged, then watched in terror as the car’s tires became one with the asphalt, and then the entire new automobile quickly became a boiling liquid. I looked up and noted the man was still strapped into the driver’s seat,  but there was no car; he was bobbing and swirling around in the melted steel, rubber and liquid asphalt mix. “Ah, here it is,” he said, closing his eyes in meditation. The man, of course, was my Angel, or at least that’s what he became (he had a different look, as the dream started). The worst part is that he opened his eyes and stared at me. “Drink,” he said. “Drink what?” I said, feigning ignorance though I knew precisely what he wanted. “Come on,” he repeated, tiredly. “I don’t have all day.” Ashamed, I scooped down my hands and brought as much of the bubbling steel-rubber-asphalt mixture up to my mouth as possible. It scalded my tongue, of course, and then turned my throat into a sort of saxophone. “Play,” my Angel said, with a very unenthusiastic tone, and so I attempted to conjure up some sort of jazz standard. I failed miserably and this humiliation, more than the intense physical pain, made me wake up sweating.

I sat up and longed to go outside, into the cool summer nights of the Pittsburgh of my youth, to the fresh pre-dawn air of the San Franciscos and Seattles and even Los Angeleses, where I had later lived. But I knew exactly how it would be. Opening the door and plunging out in the darkness would be like shoving my head into the lion’s mouth; or the pizza-maker’s oven. Depressed, I lay back down and, my eyes adjusting to the darkness, watched the ceiling fan go round and round. This was even more depressing, and I figured I would just end it all by standing on the bed and being decapitated. But the ceiling fan wasn’t nearly fast enough to take my head off, it only knocked me off the bed onto the sad brown carpet.

I started to pray.

“Good God,” I mumbled, “please deliver me from evil. Get me out of this hell!”

Instantaneously, I heard unsympathetic, even slightly mocking laughter. “Hell? Seriously? If this was hell, you wouldn’t be praying: Your lips would be on fire, and the very tears falling from your melting eyes would be as gasoline to fuel the fire of your lips. That being said, I’m not heartless. You’re an O.K. guy, and I’ll get you out of here.”

But he didn’t say when. I went to the Greyhound bus station, or, at least, went toward it; six blocks away, I hit a mass of people as thick as flies on a dead horse. “What’s going on?” I asked an old lady, as I was afraid of all the other desperate looking younger people. “We’re all just trying to get out of here,” she said. A rat-faced young man turned to us and laughed ridiculously. “We’ll never make it,” he said, rather gleefully. “I heard all the busses are booked for the whole summer!” What about the planes?, I wondered aloud, stupidly as I could barely afford a bus ticket, let alone an airplane seat. The rat-man almost spat in my face. “Don’t you watch the news, dummie? Planes started exploding on takeoff cause a the heat, they’re only flying special little jets for the richies.”

I didn’t feel like standing around being insulted by him for no good reason, especially since people were starting to faint from the heat, so I went home; or, at least, toward home.

Air conditioning was being rationed around the city, and there were strict orders against setting the thermostat lower than 105. That led to some dangerous situations, with older folks dying so rapidly that they were being given numbers and encouraged to wait their turn to pass away, else they would have to decompose in their homes until an undertaker could get to them.

And a city-wide warning went out to have toddlers sleep on their bellies, after one young kid apparently drowned in his own perspiration. I can’t say with confidence that is 100 percent truthful, there were all sorts of rumors swirling around Phoenix then, and as a newcomer I tended to faithfully swallow everything told to me.

In any case, like I said I started walking toward home, without much energy as I didn’t feel like sitting around my living room in a pool of my own sweat again. So when I peered up past my soggy hat and saw a big H across the street, I figured I would cheat and try to sneak in to the Emergency Room. It proved to be another in a long line of bad decisions. Sure, it was cooler in there; at first, the cool air made my lungs hurt. “It must be 95 in here,” I involuntarily said. “Actually it’s 92.3,” said a worried-looking man that I sat down next to. The seat opened when a little woman he was with who was writhing in agony was taken away for apparent treatment. I felt a certain social obligation, as the seat was still warm from her body, so I asked the man what was wrong with his woman. “She’s pregnant,” he said with a sigh, “only her breast milk is starting to boil.”

It was crowded, and a man with two stumps for hands wrapped in bloody bandages came over and asked in a rather demanding sort of way if he could have my seat. “Why, what’s wrong with you?” I defensively asked. He went into some horrible story about how his car had been out in the sun all afternoon, he’d been drinking and without thinking turned the car on and gripped the steering wheel to drive away, but his hands instantly melted to the steering wheel. I didn’t believe a word he said, and even if his story was true, what an idiot! But I didn’t feel like arguing with him, after all he had two bloody stumps and there was absolutely nothing wrong with me, and I could sense the whole room staring at me, so I reluctantly got to my feet. “OK,” I said, in a whining sort of tone, “but my doctor said I have pretty bad heat exhaustion . . .”

“Who doesn’t?” cackled a beautiful young woman with a hatchet sticking out of her skull a couple of seats down from where I originally landed. “Do you think I tried to chop my head off for laughs?” I whispered an apology and, coming closer, asked if I could pull the axe out of her head for her. “Oh I bet you’d love that your perv,” she hissed, snapping her head away from me and spraying me with hot blood. A mixture of rage and disgust came over me, as I was wearing a white shirt and Little Miss Hatched Head had completely ruined it! I shot her a severe look and hoped that she would stay like that for the rest of her life, and have to marry a lumberjack; and that her children would be born with little cleavers stuck in their heads, and that she would always regret that a sweaty knight had volunteered to service her, but that she rejected my Arthurian advance and therefore was doomed to having a sword forever plunged in her stonehead!

Almost instantly, I regretted my thoughts, and was on the verge of apologizing for them when I realized they were just that, thoughts, and that she hadn’t heard them. In any case, she was flirting with a striking male nurse, so I decided on a private prayer of penance. No sooner had I closed my eyes than my nostrils were filled with an exotic scent, soothing yet scintillating. “Sir, what are you doing?” I heard a buttery smooth voice whisper in my right ear.

I opened my eyes and saw it was the male nurse, who looked like a shorter, darker version of Errol Flynn. He even had the pencil-thin mustache, which looks ridiculous on most people, including me (Lord knows I’ve tried!). “I’m sorry . . .,” I apologized, out of habit. “You weren’t praying, were you?” he said, with just a touch of a leer, if not an outright taunt. “Uhhhh, no,” I lied, again out of habit; and prayed a quick apology to God for denying Him (again). “Because we’re a secular hospital, we don’t allow prayer due to funding and so forth,” the nurse said, shooting me a wink that suggested he was making the whole thing up, possibly even the part about being a nurse. “So what brings you here, handsome?” he said, and I instantly recognized two things: 1) that my reluctant Guinevere was shooting me looks as sharp as her hatchet; and 2) that the nurse was a pathological liar and/or hustler, as I am far from handsome, especially in hot, bright hospital lighting. Even so, I blushed.

“To be honest,” I started, but then felt a little weak in the knees and interrupted myself. “Can I ask you: What’s that amazing smell?” I asked, looking around and sniffing slightly. “Do you mean my cologne?” the swash-buckling nurse said, with a chuckle that put me at ease, somehow. “It’s called Jesus Scent. A little frankincense, a little myrrh . . .”

For some reason, this gave me the confidence to say in a normal tone and volume of voice that I wasn’t sick in the least, that I was free-loading in the ER for the AC. “Hmmm,” he said, looking around with feigned (I would later deduce) worry. “Is that bad?” I said, already leaning toward the door.

Suddenly, the worried look left his face, and he casually tossed his left arm around my shoulder and in a graceful movement, softly but firmly pulled my right ear to his lips. “Want an ice bath?” he whispered.

I shivered, I really did, partly at what he was suggesting, and partly at what he may have been suggesting. I pulled away, slightly, and said, without looking at him, “I’m sorry, but I’m not gay.”

He slapped me across the face. “I’m not gay, either,” he hissed.

“Oh, really?” I said, rubbing my stinging cheek. “Then why did you slap me, instead of punching me?”

He laughed; it was fake, but a pretty good fake laugh. “You got me there, cowboy,” he said. “OK, so I’m a little gay. You want the ice bath?”

“No,” I said firmly.

“Because I’m gay?” he asked, in a challenging way.

“No, because you’re a pathological liar,” I snapped, surprising myself at my cool, Sherlock Holmes delivery; it actually cooled down my body temperature. “And, quite possibly, a serial killer.”

“You can’t prove that,” he said, matter-of-factly, which in retrospect disappointed my, as I would have preferred a Moriatian response. “And since when does a series of accidental deaths make a dedicated health professional a ‘serial killer.’”

Fortunately, at just that moment six people engulfed in flames came screaming (literally) into the ER, and Nurse Flynn had to get to work. Before dashing off, he leered at me, with a finger to his lips; what was I to keep quiet about?

I decided this hospital was no place for me, and with a last look at Little Miss Hatched Head, who pretended not to give me a jealous look, I went through the still-smoking doors and plunged into the heat, gasping for breath at the first step. Somehow, I made it home, though a lot of good that did me . . .

Ironically enough, within two weeks I was back in that same hospital, this time in desperate need of medical attention. A kindly, older doctor with a raspy cough looked me over as I lay shirtless on my front. The doctor gave a sad, clucking of his tongue. “I haven’t seen this since the Great Heat Wave of Nineteen Seventy-Five,” he said, and I felt both doomed and flattered. “What is it?” I asked, before I could stop myself. “It’s . . . hmmm, the name’s on the tip of my tongue,” he said. “But anyway, whatever it’s called, it boils down to that you’ve had too much moisture on your back.”

“I’ve been sweating!” I whined.

“Of course you have, of course you have – we all have,” the good doctor said, soothingly, even patting my back, in a symbolic fashion (not daring to actually pat my back). “But what’s happened is your back hasn’t dried off in who knows how long, so basically it has created its own environment, or culture, if you will. There’s all sorts of micro-organisms living in there, under the magnifier I’m seeing some really beautiful molds that look like sunflowers, I even see a school of tiny shrimp . . . Are you feverish, by the way?”

“No,” I answered. “I don’t think – I mean, I’m hot.” And I passed out.

I was in a sort of heat coma for several weeks. When I came to, I was almost recovered. The good doctor had died of natural causes, but he had diagnosed me well and left instructions on my treatment in his meticulous will. In my last days of healing, I dared to ask one of the nurses about the Errol Flynn type. She shook her head firmly, and definitively said, “We’re not allowed to talk about him.” I didn’t really care, one way or another, I was just passing the time.

The truth is, I was afraid to be released back into Dante’s city; I faked a cough and a sniffle, swore I could feel my fever on the verge of returning, hinting that I felt things squirming around on my back. But they had seen and heard it all, these Phoenix medicos, and without sympathy or scorn they wrote up my release papers, stuffed the bill in my pocket and showed me the door.

I braced myself, hesitated as the motion-detector doors slid open, and finally stepped out into that feared outdoors . ..  But you know what? It wasn’t so bad. The sun was bright as ever, but it was barely 95 degrees.

It was October. My fever had broken, and so had summer.

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