an extract from
by Rachel Nagelberg
The Fifth Wall
forthcoming May 15, 2017 from Black Sparrow Books / David R. Godine
The air is dry and dusty, with wind flapping violently through open windows, the sun baking the truck’s hot black metal and steel. The highway opens onto a wide expanse of desert sagebrush, barrel cacti, and dogweed. Joshua trees poke their thick, stubby fingers from the parched, reddish earth. Smoke from Adam’s cigarette mixes with the desert’s fresh, dead scent, the radio crackling as we zoom forward into the vastness of the deep Mojave under a clear blue sky.
Adam holds the wheel with a comfortable carelessness, his body gradually loosening as we penetrate deeper into the desert’s landscape. He grew up in this kind of terrain, he tells me, and often feels constricted by the vertical pollution of the city, how it offers much less room for the mind and body to move. I observe a slight drop in his shoulders, a giddiness to his temperament. He takes a swig from a flask and passes it to me. The sharp whiskey burns and soothes. We are driving to a remote location where a group of men will gather to launch objects into the upper atmosphere. Adam met them years ago right before their first launch at a bar in Lancaster, a small town bordering the California side of the Mojave, where he’d stopped during a drive home from his mother’s house in Joshua Tree. He’d followed them out to a large expanse and witnessed the initial trials of this bizarre activity. Since then they’d gained a larger following and had created a website with an email list announcing new launch dates and other special local events.
The truck zooms through the lingering breeze of mid morning, just a few hours before the inevitable sweltering heat. We woke up at dawn to get a move on, having spent all of Sunday hung over in bed, watching movies, eating Vietnamese takeout, and fucking in a blur. On the highway, driving itself feels like a practice of amnesia, the speed of the truck along the straight road warping the landscape around us. I take another swig and feel a welcoming haziness, the road seeming to stretch forever towards a fated central point. The service bars on my iPhone vanish as we thrust inside the scene.
We approach a massive stretch of bright crimson ground, as we penetrate acres of blooming poppies basking in the sunlight. A sign reads antelope valley california poppy reserve. I reach my arms out of the window as if to touch them, my fingers rippling in the warm air above the red. Adam turns off the road just beyond the reserve—the one reference point in the directions we’ve been looking for. We drive down a long, bumpy road towards a fading backdrop of snowcapped Sierras.
The plateau is hard and wide, a dusty golden yellow. Slamming the truck door, I drop my sunglasses down from my forehead to shield the sun’s oncoming blindness, and am immediately confronted by a large cactus—a tiny brown lizard crawls in-between thin spikes along the massive succulent’s protruding arms, raised up to me as if in surrender.
Adam and I approach a group of about a dozen men ranging from a hypothesized age range of late-thirties to mid-fifties, all dressed pretty gruffly in dirty jeans and faded button-down tees. Adam’s black western boots click satisfyingly on the desert’s hardened dirt, his tight black jeans and also tight black v-neck forming a silhouette of himself on the flat, shade-less ground. I roll up my sleeves to catch some light on my pale, freckled skin.
I’d asked Adam what these men could possibly want to shoot up into space. He said he believed it’s less about the actual propelled object than the act of propelling it. He remembered lucky baseballs, a few desert rocks, a glass paperweight with some sort of insect carcass embedded inside. He joked about once wanting to shoot up his dissertation, how great it would have felt to watch it blast out of sight and watch hundreds of its teeny tiny remains fall and scatter like ashes over vast distances of desert and light.
Adam, too, has romances about the destruction of things.
A hefty, sunburned man wearing a floppy cowboy hat greets Adam with a masculine one-armed hug and a slap on the back. He introduces himself as Charlie, and welcomes us to the group by popping open two cold cans of Budweiser from a cooler. Sipping the welcome of cold, I follow Charlie to a little station he’s created for himself, where he demonstrates how they actually launch the items—a mechanism they developed by using a large helium balloon with a chemical component, which travels up for roughly an hour and a half to two hours until it bursts, the objects reaching anywhere up to about ninety thousand feet. He says he’s seen people at NASA who use tracking systems and altitude recorders and tiny little cameras to transmit all the data of the objects for analysis—usually to launch some sort of satellite—like we need any more machines watching our every move.
“You know satellites will outlive us,” says Adam.
“And all of humanity,” I add.
“A ring of machines orbiting the earth, sending signals to no one.”
Charlie brushes dust off of the mechanism. “Well that’s a scary thought.” He turns it around in his hands. “We boys of the desert like to do it in what I called the old school way—just plain shooting regular old objects up into that great and beautiful unknown.”
I watch Charlie and a few of the other guys mount what look like metal devices securing their objects to the swollen helium balloons. I identify a silver necklace, an arrowhead, and an empty half-size box of Pringles. Adam downs his beer, crushes it in his hand, and tosses it behind him. He removes two earplugs from his pocket and fits them into his ears.
“Having this kind of power—,” he speaks loudly to me now with the earplugs, “—makes you have to believe that creatures like us were sent here to destroy all this.” He opens out his arms and breathes in the arid, dusty air. “Our evolution has been fixed since the beginning. The biggest feat for us to realize is that we’re the enemies.”
“On your mark, get set, FIRE!” Charlie and two other men launch the balloons up into the sky. I shove my fingers in my ears to block out the noise. For a split second my head feels swallowed by a deep sound, like being plunged under water. The ground rumbles beneath us. The objects shoot up with tremendous force. Baritone voices around us cheer.
Adam, laughing, hands me another Budweiser and toasts to the launch. I ask him about his earplugs—nobody else seems to be wearing them. Plus it feels unnatural for Adam, who subsists on two packs of smokes a day and a handle of whiskey, to be taking such physical precautions.
“I have tinnitus,” he says.
“Tinnitus. It’s the medical term for chronic ear ringing. I played in hardcore bands all throughout high school and college.”
“What do you mean by ear ringing?” I have never heard of such a thing.
“It’s like a constant high-pitched frequency buzzing in my ears—mostly my left. I’ve had it for years.”
“And you hear this all the time?” I am shocked.
A few vehicles arrive, and a handful of others head towards us, carrying coolers, lawn chairs, and their own launching equipment. A hawk glides effortlessly through the lurid blue sky. The brightness, even beneath my sunglasses, feels excruciating. I ask Adam for his flask. Charlie asks if I have anything to launch, and I feel like I’m blanking—I search my pockets, feel my wrists and neck for jewelry—nothing—and the scrounge through my dusty backpack. I pull out The Birth of Tragedy, knowing I’ll never read it, and hand it to Charlie. Adam assures me he has a copy somewhere on his shelf at home. A constant high-pitched ringing in his ears for every second of every day of his life? Charlie examines the cover and shrugs.
As Charlie instructs me how to mount the rifled book into the launching device, I think about the Oracle, and Mal’s almost secretive affection for it—this intimate venue of communicating with forces unknown. And here, this launching up into space—this almost dire method of physical interaction—literally bypassing the Earth’s atmosphere into the vastness of the unknown. Then there’s Caleb who ingests a combination of plants that thrust him up into similar spaces, where he claims to be able to converse with DNA, perceive auras, and communicate with spirits and the dead. I try to imagine myself hearing a sharp piercing consistently for the rest of my life, but I can’t—it’s too painful. Adam had explained that it’s processed in his brain like an external noise, but really it is coming from within—a lack of hearing processed in the brain as sound. A ghost in his machinery.
I prop up the launching device with both hands, angling my face away from the piercing sun as Charlie counts down from five. Adam’s fingers brush my lower back. Four. All these times when I think the only sound between us is the intensity communicated between our eyes and bodies—three—it is there, the sound. Two. Invisibly present and silent to everyone but him. One.
Rachel Nagelberg is an American novelist, poet, and conceptual artist living in Los Angeles. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco and has had poems and stories published in numerous journals. The Fifth Wall is her debut novel.