At midnight, Harper exits the dining room of the Old Faithful Inn and greets the distant geysers with a loud, resonant fart-take that, all ye fire-breathing monsters!-then breaks into a run across the steamy, trembling ground. The moon is disarmingly bright, and Harper, still in his tux pants, shirt, bow tie and nametag, heads for the shadows, chant-whispering: I am alive, I am alive, I am the conqueror of all bad things. Hurling his body through space, he believes, will alter his chemistry, will help him rearrange and therefore maybe understand those words that, just before dawn, streamed from the sticky earpiece of the employee-dorm pay phone, as the voice on the other end-so steady, almost serene-informed Harper that his best friend, Wesley Morgan Montgomery, had not pulled through the coma—that he had died in his sleep.
Harper had spent the rest of the day working a double (somebody had to fill Wes’s shift), and as he delivered platters of dewy greens and loins of beast to people who had not died, he kept forgetting then rerealizing that Wes was dead.
Once, when he lost himself in the details of Wes’s passing—the helicopter airlifting Wes’s body from the bend in the road where the RV had struck him and where a hole in his head had opened and bled and refused to close-Harper had spilled an entire tray of huevos rancheros for a table of very disappointed midwesterners (Boilermakers, it appeared from their sweats), who shook their big sad heads at him. Harper was tempted to think that head-shaking, when placed within the context of death, should seem pathetically trivial, and that knocking these same heads together would produce a highly satisfying sound, but then, from somewhere deep in his head, he heard Wes’s voice saying, “What if you were a very hungry person with a big fat sad head, wouldn’t you be a little pissed off after being crammed into a tour bus all day, breathing the stink of your fellow man, only to have your waiter dump your food on the floor?” So Harper forgave the head-shaking, shut his eyes, took a deep breath, counted to seven and imagined what diving into Pocket Basin would feel like-that secret pool in the Firehole River where underground heat vents release bursts of warmth when feet smoosh into mucky bottom-slime, and where clouds coast overhead like skiffs ferrying light across skies that only know how to be bright bright blue, and where sometimes there is a young woman swimming with you who encourages the shucking of swimsuits-a young woman named Abby who, over the past few weeks, you have fallen into an accidental kind of love with, regardless of the fact that falling in love with your best friend’s lover isn’t the most honorable thing in the world to be doing. But then again, maybe this falling in love with your best friend’s lover is the finest tribute you can pay to a friendship, the only acceptable way to interact with a woman whose beauty and sarcasm and intellect you admired as she charmed your best friend first; a woman nobody could take their eyes off when she skipped into the employee cafeteria, her unbuttoned tux shirt exposing bellybutton ring and sports bra; a woman who’s kept every dark secret you’ve told and who wept for the comatose Wes when you didn’t have it in you; a woman who celebrates the way naked feels, whether it be in geyser steam, cotton sheets or hot pools of mineral water, because when you’re dead, who knows, maybe naked won’t feel like this.
But now Abby and all warm river places are far, far away, so to stay warm Harper must keep running, and even though his black bow tie unhinges itself and flaps away into the night, he can’t retrieve it, because that would be going back, and right now he’s interested only in moving ahead, past all these welcoming moonlit portals that would burn you alive, or, if you could stand the heat—who knows?—lead to worlds where warm life forms fuse amoeba-style, regenerating forever and ever in tireless orgasms of light.
Twenty yards ahead, an old bison moseys through steamy bacteria slime, and Harper tells himself he’s not afraid—nothing to see here, keep moving-though just last week an old bison of similar mass and mange plunged his horns into a New Jersey retiree and tossed him over a small pine tree.
This bison, however, could care less as Harper swooshes past, entering a cloud pouring from a troubled mouth in the ground, his nostrils gulping sulphur draughts as he savors the hot-wet, life-death pungencies now associated with the vocabulary of geothermals—a gurgling, plopping, whistling chorus best appreciated post-twilight because after the sun comes up, the tourists will return, emerging from tents, vans and campers to begin their daily devastations, a series of performances that wouldn’t be so unbearable if you were more like Wesley Montgomery, who’d stand among the sweaty throngs and robotic video cameras, not only watching with awe Old Faithful spewing her frothy load, but also watching with awe the watchers, a congratulatory look of you all made it, the journey’s over, old friends spread across his face, and for a moment it would look as if he might embrace someone. In Wes’s mind-as he offered to take snapshots of families posing before the plume-he really was playing gracious host to these poor souls who had saved their money for months, maybe even years and traveled for days to reach this legendary wilderness of the American Sublime, this singular, glorious, fantastic realm of—