This Crisis Brought to You by Me

Jennifer Bannan

This was during the time I was selling the hurricane sponsorships. My job, like my love life, was all about disasters, natural and unnatural.

With the churning of the season’s third storm in the Atlantic, I had ClearChannel, Citigroup and Costco on the short list for the storm’s naming rights, and the negotiation room was hot, palm trees blowing around happily outside like they could never fathom a storm, fiery glances around the gleaming conference room table. They wanted the storm, they were willing to pay big money, but their lawyers shot a question a minute. There was no good formula yet for gauging the brand benefits against the liability. I had a strong team for winging it, but we had no idea who would put forth the best offer in the end.

Complicating matters, my hippie boyfriend Clark, whose “C” name was hardly lost on me right now, was vibrating the sensation out of my hip, madly texting me messages, hoping I’d send money. He and some friends were stuck in a Native American reservation located in a canyon where they’d just helicopter-lifted down hundreds of trees for planting. They were done with the project now, but they couldn’t get out and the budget was gone. One of them had mouthed off, saying something rude about the work ethic of the Native Americans and the unlikelihood of any of the trees surviving, and he was stuck down there—they could give no indication of when there would be another chopper. His messages had gotten more and more frantic; now he was out of favors, didn’t know where he would sleep that night. “Coyotes are no joke, babe,” was the latest.

I excused myself from the negotiating—it was time for the technical discussion where I was no use anyway—and headed through the high gloss hallways of our offices, out into the Miami sun, the wind whipping around the concrete sides of the buildings. Out on the sidewalk, I paced and checked voicemails, kicking aside the shed skin of the palms like discarded wrapping paper, the dented coconuts looking prepubescent with that sparse hair.

The idea was mine—that hurricanes could be named for corporations instead of random girls or boys. My boss jumped on it—made it hers—and transformed her little marketing firm into something much bigger. I guess at the time I didn’t care because I didn’t think it could ever really work, and always kind of hoped I’d get out of this marketing racket anyway so more power to those who actually cared, and was distracted by fucking the hippie boy whenever I had five extra minutes. Somehow in four short months, the same amount of time I’d known Clark, she had made this entire operation fly. I had to hand it to her—she had serious determination.

In time for the season’s break, the Natural Disasters Marketing Association (NDMA) was formed and I at least had the distinction of being its top sales person. It didn’t have much to do with me anymore except that I was in charge of pulling together these intense auction-type meetings where I’d get a bunch of major corporations to bid against each other in terms of the amount and type of aid they would offer. No doubt I was making some nice bonuses.

There was early disbelief that any corporation’s marketing would go so edgy, but when the world saw what it did for Alcoa’s stock price, when they watched Alcoa hit the Florida Eastern Coast at #4 intensity and when those aluminum window coverings were flashing and glinting amongst the sheets of rain off rooftops, all over every news station in America, well, resistance was blown away.

“Seth really sick. Lost without him,” came a new text. Clark’s friend Seth was the one who had connected a team to the fruit tree group, and his bout of the flu made any kind of productive direction impossible. I’d only really heard about Seth from Clark, knew that Clark admired Seth and thought him a bit nuts in his earnestness. Seth made things happen in the environmental activism world, yet often had nowhere to sleep, so he pitched a tent wherever he could find a flat spot. Clark had stories of Seth getting entire communities to install rain barrels just by talking at town meetings, of Seth writing a computer program under review by oceanic boards specific to solving the plastics in the Pacific problem, of Seth miraculously showing up at sit-ins where things had been unraveling and somehow spurring everyone in the right direction.

Clark wasn’t exactly Seth’s friend, just his occasional follower, and my sexual needs fulfiller, and a skilled consumer of crap. A more truthful woman would have laid all of that out for him.

Right before he left for the canyon trip with his buddies, we’d had a talk. “I’ve been seeing other people,” I told him.

“Yeah, I think it’s really lame that you checked your dating site ten minutes after we were finished making love,” he retorted, shaking his long curls.

“I know. I can’t keep doing that, it’s unkind.”

“So quit it.”

“The thing is you’re not doing any of the stuff you said you would do. The paperwork’s not done for Cameroon.”

“What? You know I’m busy with the trees! That’s important too!”

“All you have to do is show up! Your friend Seth set up the whole thing!”

It wasn’t the first time I’d dated an unemployed, irresponsible boy with unusual and improbable dreams, happy to let me pay for everything. And it wasn’t that I minded that in the short term—the more questionable my daily work became, the more I needed the sweethearted dreamer to enforce that people cared about meaning with no monetary strings. It was the long term that killed me—I couldn’t bear the prospect of financially supporting someone who should be able to do it himself, particularly with deadlines slipping on what he claimed he most wanted. Clark lived with his mother, was trying to finish a bachelor’s degree at thirty-six and was barely passing, selling pot for pocket change when he could. His dream of an internship in Cameroon to study gorillas was revealing itself to me as just talk—despite my promise to commit half the travel costs, he had raised no other money, he had tackled no other logistics, always an excuse, always a promise that it would get done right away.

He looked at me with those warm, amber-colored eyes. “I think it’s bullshit. I think you’re in love with me but you don’t know how to admit it. You think this is all about money, because I don’t have any. Listen, I don’t want your money!”

And it was true that he did not want my money until later, when he would want to go out for a four dollar latte and an eight dollar gourmet burrito from the hippie stand. When it came to denial, he could live in the moment like no one else.

“Money doesn’t matter to me,” he insisted.

“I earn money, so it has some meaning to me.”

“Oh, here we go, where you insult me. You’re always insulting me! What about how I’m a good looking, fun-loving, intelligent guy who is turning his life around for the better? How about the bravery it takes to be an adult student working toward a degree that will get him a great job doing something he loves? Those are values, baby! I love you despite your money and your insidious way of making it, you know? I know that you are just doing this as a means to an end! And so I tolerate it the way you should tolerate my few man-child quirks.” He tossed his head for emphasis.

A last favor—this stint to free him from the canyon—might be just the thing to get him to let me go, no calls, no more texts, a clean break. I’d been looking for just this opportunity—only his distracting body and world peace enthusiasm had stopped me.

“There you are!” My assistant, Angela, was clicking down the sidewalk toward me. “We just got a massive offer from Caterpillar, a fifty percent increase from the current highest bidder.”

“But the deal is a short list,” I said. “There were deadlines. Where was Caterpillar then? What are we going to tell the other C’s up there?”

Angela was cute, the way the little bangs of her black page boy always caught her eyelashes. “There’s a loophole specific to unreasonable negotiation cycles. I already ran it past legal. I think we should at least tell the gang about the Caterpillar situation.”

“Don’t they make, like, bulldozers?”

“Yeah, it’s not like hurricanes are bad for their business.”

Another text: “There’s a natural disaster HERE, Sue!! THIS is a nat disast!!” I read it, sighed, and gave Angela a grim smile.

“The storm’s coordinates are 300 miles off the Cayman Islands—we have a little time at least. Until end of day to make the decision. The printers are ready, the tchotchke and T-shirt people know a rush job’s coming, the weather service people are the only ones getting hysterical, but we’ve seen that before. They really want that name.”

We were walking back, the surf in the distance just a mild swelling and receding.

“They’re all brutes in there,” she said. “I say we bring in fresh blood. Give it to Caterpillar and screw those guys.”

• •

Back at the big meeting, the numbers guy, Darren, was going over the algorithm with the group again: there was risk, for sure, if this was anything like the Andrews or Katrinas of days gone by. But the visibility went up with the devastation: you had to factor that in. The logo placement on everything was a huge incentive in and of itself—meal packets, countless websites, and then of course the word of mouth marketing. There simply wasn’t any replacement for people saying your name constantly, reinforcing your brand, possibly for years to come, likely as a matter of historical record. It was worth the millions.

“Listen, people,” I said, taking command of the table, full of some new confidence that maybe the fresh air had provided. “We’ve reached the stalled negotiations portion of our event here, and if you look at your contract you’ll notice there’s some language about that. You see,” I sat at the table, spread my hands across it flat—it was a good surface, unlike so many conference tables that showed off fingerprints, “we’ve received a much better offer.”

There was some yelling, finger pointing across the table, frantic flipping through the contracts, all the while my hip vibrating with my lover’s S.O.S. I watched their behaviors through this process, trying to pick out the guy with the most easy-come-easy-go attitude. That would be my target: the one like me, who couldn’t get hung up on the details.

I settled on Steve from Costco, who had the sleekness and confidence and big laugh of someone who knew the reinforcements were coming and the supplies stockpiled. He waved his arm at it all and gathered up his manila folders, sliding them into his briefcase.

Angela and Darren could handle these guys. I followed Steve.

“Hey there,” I called out. “I think I have another opportunity you might like.”

He turned, that smile still all over his big face.

“It’s better, I think, than what we were talking about in there.”

And I told him about the trees in hammocks being airlifted down into the canyon, the young kids (never mind Clark’s being near forty) working side by side with the Native Americans, the fruit that would yield year to year, and the promise this brought for keeping these people nourished. “So, but there’s an issue right now in that the crew can’t get back,” I sprung it.

“What’s that?” he asked, still looking at my iPhone with the photos of the reservation and its people.

“They need a chopper. And that costs money. So they need a sponsor.”

His face lit up. It was dog-in-a-bun done.

“It’s a one-time thing with few repercussions,” I said.

“Yes, much more contained,” he mused.

“Lots of photo opp and broadcast material. And I’ve ordered choppers before. They’re cheaper than you think. A few thousand and you’re good.”

“Yeah, I see it. I’m in, just give me a few hours to clear it.”

• •

Twelve hours later and Caterpillar was just off the coast of Cuba, and had reached a Category Four. The sponsor’s representative let me know that they would do nothing regarding aid to the Cubans, with the exception of the children. There were loopholes in the contract I hadn’t realized.

It was a bad time for anyone to be loading crap on me. I was busy with Steve negotiating the rescue of Clark and his team.

“There’s nothing about the islands in this contract,” he said.

“It speaks of victims of the storm,” I replied. “At least the logoed meal packs—at least we airlift a hundred thousand of those.”

“They won’t be broadcasting any of that in Cuba,” said Caterpillar guy. “I’m sure they’ll eat them, but they’re Communists and that will keep them from promoting corporate sponsorships. What’s the point?”

I huffed. “I’ll check with legal,” I said and hung up.

“When r they GETTING here?” Clark’s text flashed on my cell.

It was ridiculous. How did I end up with Clark anyway? How was I working my ass off to free him from this jam when his most realized contribution to society was posting Facebook tips on how to achieve high scores on World of Warcraft?

I wasn’t sure how my ex, Patrick, had managed to find himself a normal divorcée for a wife with a little boy in grade school and a decent hospital administration job. He was no prize, with his addiction problems, but maybe with all her healthcare work she’d been inured to the idea of nursing a sick fool.

Maybe, unlike Patrick, I’d thought I was too busy for a real relationship. I’d taken Clark home from a bar after putting in a twelve-hour day. He told me about the gorilla dream and it charmed me, though I thought it sounded far-fetched. Still, over the months I had pursued a fantasy that seemed more lifestyle-change than falling-in-love. I pictured myself with him in Africa, patting together a vague grain into delicious pancakes, cooking them on a flat iron, moving around the jungle with our child strapped to me in a rough cloth the color of sand, finding Clark there with his notebook, as he told me the exciting news about a developmental milestone he’d seen the baby gorilla display. During my most recent foray into that daydream, I’d looked up from my business magazine to see him turn to me from his video game, nodding crazily as he’d killed another alien. Enough fantasy. Whatever Clark might have taught me about my longing for meaning and depth, I was not required to be completely irrational by waiting for him to be someone else entirely.

• •

My Key Biscayne apartment was too dangerous a place to stay. I was with my mom and dad in their West Miami ranch home, built in the fifties to withstand hurricanes. It had already been through at least four big ones without much damage. We were battened down, taped up, fully secured.

In the boredom, I’d told her way too much about the Clark situation.

“But when are you going to have someone take care of you?” my mother asked, her voice a notch higher than usual. The wind howled around us, the house shook. We lay around with light blankets and pillows in the hallway, close to the bathroom and its ultimate containment in case we needed it. Caterpillar was no small menace. There could be significant damage.

“This is exactly what it will always be with this boy: you taking care of him instead of him taking care of you. You don’t need this long-suffering role.”

The only answer was the swirl of weather. When I pictured us from above, I saw a huge drain that was sucking us all downward.

A transformer exploded outside, the shower of sparks lighting up the glass block in the bathroom.

“I mean, how much harder does the two-by-four from the sky have to hit you?” she said, pulling her blanket more tightly around her.

“She’s doing great. Let her figure out her own way,” my dad mumbled. His approval ratings of me were closely tied to my salary.

“Harry, she’s got this high-powered job that will probably give her a coronary without this punk’s help. She named a Category 5 hurricane that the entire world is watching! And he’s got her working triple time trying to pull him out of a canyon! How in hell does this happen?”

I had to be honest. I wanted to break up with him but I had left it vague on his departure because I hadn’t found anything better, because I was terrified of a dry spell—one of those could be so tough in these high libido times of the late thirties. He’d gotten into his cab that Saturday night five days ago with his duffel bag over his shoulder and his earbuds hooked in, my two hundred bucks in his pocket for travel expenses. It was true I had given up on his gorilla stories. And that was sad. So for consolation I could have those supple muscles, ripped from kayaking, that soft smooth skin, delicious to the touch.

Now in the dark hallway there was enough light to occasionally catch my mother’s or father’s eyes, a wet gleam. Eerie, and yet comforting. Like little forest glen animals, they emanated innocence and cuddliness when at one time they’d been only power and force to me.

“Maybe I’m just taking what I can get now,” I said. “Maybe I was burned too many times,” I said.

“Such a surprise,” my mother said, her head a moving shadow of remorse. She’d loved Patrick, my former husband, and I could tell she was privately reminiscing. Somehow she’d never understood the depth of our problems. She seemed to blame me and I felt like giving her something worth hating.

“I guess I’m old enough to admit to you I’ve been carrying on a purely sexual relationship.”

A subtle throat-clearing from my dad.

“You can get emotionally hooked in those things, despite your best intentions,” mom said.

She had me there. I’d certainly had glimmers of falling for Clark, but it had already come full circle. I’d already given up and begun thinking of him as my boy-toy again.

“I don’t think so. I mean, I have the means to get him out the canyon, sure, but I have no feeling for him. I just like the sex.”

“OK, I’m right here and got nowhere else to go,” my dad pleaded, so I stopped.

• •

I slept. The house shook around us in the wet frenzy and yet my dreams were dry, deep, red, rocky. A paradise of wasteland, clayey cliffsides, dust and scrub, a trickle of a stream running through. I woke just as the eye’s passage was complete. The howling revved up. “Your father went outside while the eye passed. He says we’re getting the worst of it. The neighbors’ houses are destroyed.”

“Are the neighbors OK?” I asked, but immediately I knew mom was talking about extensive damage, not leveling of structures. My parents were full of hyperbole when it came to home maintenance.

“They probably took shelter elsewhere,” she said. “You know your father battens down better than most.”

My dad appeared at the hallway. “Looks like we’ll be in the bathroom soon,” he said.

Fifteen minutes later one of the storm windows ripped off—sounding like a car crash on your shoulder. The windows in the living room burst in. My parents and I retreated into that smallest, most secure room. Dad barricaded the door with a chair, just like in cartoons. Mom and I sat in the bathtub, towels comforting our butts, taking the edge off the porcelain’s chill.

Dad, sitting on the toilet, held a flashlight to his chin, his face taking on saucers of shadow under every feature, his skin glowing red. “Once upon a time there was a terrible storm,” he said.

We smiled and waited.

“The end.” The flashlight switched off.

“You can break it off,” my mother said. “You should end it now before he gets even more involved.”

“Mom, why don’t you worry about your house? Why don’t you think about what torment lies behind that door?”

In a flash of lightning I saw her shrug. “It’s easier to worry about you.”

• •

In the morning’s aftermath, I drove two hours north to find some ice—an assignment from my father, who was in his element now, starting up generators, breaking out lumber and tools, ready to perform during the crisis. He was the ideal sort to have around in these times and when he threw out a chore you jumped without question. I still had no cell phone coverage. I landed in a bar in Delray Beach, and decided to have a beer after they sold me one rationed bag of ice and I’d thrown it in the cooler in my trunk. I thought about calling Clark from a pay phone, if I could find one, but couldn’t bear to somehow. It was a pleasure to revel incognito, no one to reach me or bother me. He was probably fine, basking in his fifteen minutes of fame.

The bar TV though, told a different story, for suddenly the chopper with the Costco logo appeared on CNN.

“Can you turn up the sound?” I called to the bartender, who was happy in this emptiness to oblige.

“ . . . having trouble with the harness,” the correspondent was saying. I knew that Steve from Costco couldn’t be more thrilled with this media coverage, more than we’d expected.

Then the speck appeared in the clay and the dust, and I saw that Clark was on a harness, attached by a rope to the helicopter. I wondered what the thinking had been there. The Native Americans had not used harnesses except for the trees—the people sat inside the cab just like any chopper.

It could only be for the purpose of adding to the visuals. The camera zoomed in on Clark, his curly long hair flying, terrified but giving the thumbs up.

My blood pumped and rushed, my hands gripped the beer so hard a thinner glass would have shattered.

I suppose the agreement had been written up hastily. For sure there was a ton of room for interpretation. But I hadn’t expected this; it didn’t look particularly safe.

“That’s some crazy shit,” the bartender said. “A bunch of hippies giving trees to the Indians. I want trees, you know, and you can just push one off a truck to me. You don’t need to use a helicopter or nothing!”

The screen cut away from the coverage and onto a special report on Caterpillar’s damage. And despite my feelings of disconnectedness—my boyfriend’s event witnessed through TV screen, my big ideas appropriated by a boss on constant vacation, no cell phone service—I had a brief moment of pride, felt slightly like a God, that the day’s two breaking stories had my fingerprint on them, however vaguely. Shouldn’t someone be coming up to me and asking for my autograph?

It was torture to sit through the additional shots of Caterpillar’s fallen trees, downed lines, caved-in rooftops with rafters splintered. I had just driven through hours of that and knew it all too well. What I needed to know about was Clark.

The bartender brought me another beer and I gulped at it aggressively.

CNN moved back to the footage, and Clark was getting closer to the top of the canyon, but the chopper was having trouble; there was something faulty in its handling. I had been hasty maybe in checking the pilot references. In other words, I’d assigned it to Angela and moved on, never even circling back to learn what she’d found out about references and credentials.

Coverage cut to an interview with the group leader of the Trees for Sustenance Foundation, whose hair was blowing back, showing patches of his scalp, and who sounded like he was reading off a teleprompter, “We’re very thankful to Costco. You know, once we get our buddies Clark and Seth back up here, we can deem this a successful mission. Costco is all about supplies, and so they are really supportive of this project that is also about supplies—“ while he spoke the imagery cut to the chopper lowering giant cases of MiracleGro into the canyon, fodder from an earlier taping. It was tough being distracted by that when my boyfriend hung from a rope, but I’d had no idea that MiracleGro could impact more than a houseplant. That extra bit of sponsorship I’d never even heard about. “We’re supplying these people with the fruit trees that will keep them healthy and self-supporting.”

The footage switched back to Clark, hanging precariously, the rope an impossible length away from the chopper itself. There was so much the CNN announcers didn’t know, couldn’t say about Clark. Like that he was not a victim exactly, but a product of the fact that there’s no contest between consumer culture and weak character. That he had a dog who loved him like crazy even if his mother had to remember to buy the food.

Back on the screen Clark was there again, the chopper just about to lower him to the ground of the canyon’s edge, when it all suddenly jerked downward and sideways. The chopper came close to a cliffside and righted itself only at the last minute, dangling him near the team in a fury unbuckling him. Released, he fell to the ground and was fine. Up again, he made his high fives.

“I know those people!” I cried out, exhilarated, to the bartender.

“No kidding?”

I managed a glance at him; his expression was one of complete doubt, a look I’d never seen quite so pure before.

The chopper swooped and careened and was back down into the canyon for the last of Clark’s crew, Seth, whose illness could likely make the rescue more complicated.

The footage shot by CNN couldn’t divulge much but the speck of the helicopter and people moving around it on the ground. There were cuts to Clark’s team up above, Clark pulling a bandana around his head, opening his cell phone, nudging people to look, probably at the score of a game or some new app, all the while his mouth moving with incessant chatter. I hated him now for how he couldn’t pay attention when here it was: the moment when the world gave something back to Seth, who from yurts, public libraries, and borrowed living rooms around the country, repeatedly got people involved in unique projects like the fruit trees, who put himself out there for beliefs instead of cheap thrills. Clark missed it, but my pride was real, that I was responsible for the helicopter, that maybe I was making a difference for someone who’d spent his life trying to live right.

The helicopter rose with the lifeless body of Seth, barely hanging on, giving just a weak lift of the head from time to time. The commentator seemed to know about Seth’s condition and reported that a medic would be waiting at the top of the canyon to administer treatment. But just as the chopper reached the top of the canyon it was caught by a massive rush of wind. Seth was thrown against the canyon wall; his body flopped limply from the harness, blood sheeting off his head.

“Whoa!” the bartender and I shouted at the same time.

The chopper deposited him next to the group with sudden grace. The camera zoomed in and the medics were at his side, unharnessing him, enveloping him; there was no seeing him now. The newscaster said something about there being an emergency and the need for a commercial break; the standard Costco thirty-second spot came on and then several others.

“You OK?” the bartender asked.

“Oh Christ! Oh holy shit! I was the one who found a way to get them a chopper and oh shit I can’t believe this is happening.”

Back on screen the coverage resumed: “We’re hearing that the weather conditions were simply not conducive to a chopper flight out of that canyon, and we have the Bureau of Indian Affairs deputy secretary to comment.”

The talking head appeared, longish black hair and bolo tie: “The tribal leaders who are fully accustomed to working with helicopters to get in and out of their canyon have confirmed that they refused the return trip at this time to the tree-planting crew specifically because of high winds. Somewhere along the way the tree-planters came to believe that they were being refused for other reasons, and they went around the tribal leaders to find alternate measures. They chartered a corporate-sponsored helicopter with pilots not as well-trained for these very specific and challenging conditions.”

“What the hell? Why are they telling us now? Why haven’t I heard this before?”

“That’s some crazy shit,” the bartender offered.

Footage cut back to Seth on the ground and they were fitting him into a gurney with a neck brace. Another medical chopper, much larger, now appeared and lo and behold they put him in the cab of the machine, where he belonged.

My phone came alive in my pocket, service now restored—the beeps coming through in quick succession told me that I had twelve messages, thirty texts and an incoming from Costco Steve, who I’d prefer to never speak to again if that was at all possible.

“And to add insult to injury,” I told the bartender, “I was the reason that he had a chopper with the Costco logo. I sold them the rights to the rescue.”

The bartender suspended his doubt long enough to argue basic logic. “You can’t sell shit like that!”

“Who says?”

“It’s whaddyacallit—” he snapped his fingers—“unethical!”

I gasped for something to say. I felt tears coming up, felt threatened, cornered. “They were stuck down there without the chopper. Corporate sponsorship made their exit possible.”

“Looks like it was a damned bad idea,” he said and shrugged.

Even with Seth injured, I couldn’t bite back my spin mechanism. “But the other guys made it back unharmed.”

• •

I headed home, checking my messages, sobbing over the ones from Clark. What a debacle, what a scheme: how little Mr. Irresponsible Consumer had begged the help of Ms. Corporate Funding. How someone real, standing for something real, had been caught in the middle.

The phone rang and it was him, blubbering, “Seth! Babe! Seth! How could this happen? Why did you help if this was how you were going to do it?”

I raged. “What the fuck, Clark? Who was begging me to do something? Who was putting everything on me to fix this, to take care of the details?”

“Yeah, but I thought you knew how to do it right! I guess you misrepresented—always acting like the world is your little chessboard.”

“Easy to say now. And you’re welcome that you’re not stuck in that fucking canyon anymore, asshole. I have to go, Costco’s on the other line.”

“He’s in the hospital, man. I hope he makes it,” Clark was saying as I switched over to Steve, who asked me to visit Seth, explaining that I was the best person as a representative, the one who was involved but hadn’t actually signed off on any line items. It was an important gesture, in case anyone needed to track these things later.

I was relieved when the cell service cut out again.

One more bag of ice in the cooler and heading home to my folks, I realized going to see Seth could be good for me. Maybe I could look it in the face: the crazy way I manipulated, even exploited, and the way Clark and his kind of person just sat and waited for the next helping. Maybe seeing Seth in this condition would help illuminate the secret to what was real.

And so I went, the next day.

Somehow I had a general sense of hope upon landing in Arizona, seeing how everything had moved smoothly, how things were in their proper place—buckets for shoes and laptops, safety protocols demonstrated by unobserved flight attendants, light touches of wheels to the runway by this massive but controlled aircraft. I could hope.

I rented the car and drove the forty miles out to the small Colorado town where I knew Seth lay in a hospital bed in critical condition, and though I should not have had cell phone coverage in this stretch of scrub and Joshua trees, my phone went off.

It was Costco Steve again. His voice had a quality I couldn’t place but it only took a few words to know why.

“I guess you’ve probably heard. The one who was injured has died.”

I pulled over.

Steve kept talking.

“Listen, it was a novel thing, you know?” he continued. “A wild experiment. I’m not in any trouble, thank God. There are corporate events with risk, and this was one. You know, it’s not like Nascar sponsors are frowned upon if there is a terrible accident.”

All around me was the scrub, the faraway mountains that seemed to have their backs turned, an unfinished feeling to this dustiness and its random sprinklings of life.

“There are risks,” I somehow mumbled. “There are always risks when you try using crisis.”

Steve had another call.

The car was still running. I could leave it on, run out of gas, walk to the point of hunger, pass the weathered skulls on the side of the road, morality play my way into a new life. Or I could return to building the artifice higher, exploiting mercilessly until the casualties meant nothing. I knew which would be easier, where the hideous churn of my mind was most likely to go. I’d been ready for illumination but it hadn’t come. I could fight for it this time, if only I knew better its value.

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