Seven o’clock in the evening. A hot and moth-populated mountain night. Gasteneau sat alone in a rundown motel on the outskirts of town, a cheap room that he’d rented for this reason, because it was cheap, and because he could have it by the day or by the week, and because it was spacious and commanded a view of the outlying plains.
Outside, it was not dark yet, but all his shades were pulled. He sat in a corner of the room upon an old sofa. He sat fully dressed and with his hair combed back, as if he was going somewhere, but he did not move and had not moved for some time. On the arm of the sofa lay a black cigarette lighter and a pair of pliers. He appeared lost in his thoughts, his face haggard and ill-at-ease. An iron band of pain tightened around his head. He was sure now that he had not been imagining things after all, his old sickness was indeed lurking there, just beneath the surface, pulling at him persistently, and it was only with a great concentration of will that he could fend it off.
He had been sitting in the room the entire day, growing more and more uneasy. He had trained himself to wait in this way, motionless, hour after hour, like a prisoner. But something else was happening as well: an old injury to the big toe of his left foot had begun reasserting itself, nothing serious at first, a minor ache, but building and building until at this moment his toe was pounding away with each beat of his heart. It was a running injury caused from his toes banging repeatedly against the tops of his tennis shoes—except this time, as had happened once before, when he was in the army, in addition to the bruising, the toe itself had become infected, so that blood could freely flow in but could not escape. Periungual hematoma. The words kept running through the corridors of his brain, volleying, it felt to him, around the acoustical concavities of his skull.
Half an hour passed, one hour. A moth landed on his face, its touch light and dry. He did not brush it away. The room grew dark. The walls were filled with shadows. Finally, he reached up and snapped on the overhead light. He leaned forward and removed his shoes. He sat barefoot. His big toe, feeling to him now rather like an epicenter from which great waves of pain ceaselessly and concentrically pulsed, had become turgid and huge, the nail obsidian-black.
“Jesus,” he said aloud. He’d been afraid to look, and now he grew frightened.
At that moment, his gaze, shifting to the right, saw reflected in the dead cyclopean eye of the television screen a white envelope as it was being slid beneath his door. He gasped, turned his head.
He stared for thirty seconds, almost afraid to move. Had he not been paying attention, he may very well have missed it; for it had been pushed beneath the door in such a way as to slide under a nearby dresser, where it might have gone unnoticed, perhaps for years.
But he was paying attention, he was always paying attention.
He stood up and hobbled over to the door. He opened it a crack and peered out.
It was very dark. Still, he thought he caught the tailend of a long coat flapping once in the breeze; then it disappeared around the corner of the open hallway. Upon second thought, he was not sure. His palm, still clutching the doorknob, felt clammy. In the east, the moon was hovering, pared so thinly now and with the earthshine so bright that the moon itself looked like silver pincers delicately holding up a large gray ball.
Joel’s head swam. He did not trust his vision. All day long, in fact, he had been watching multicolored planets orbit in front of his eyes and then explode without a sound. His toe was a live scorpion hanging off the end of his foot. It even occurred to him that maybe the envelope was not there after all.
He bent down to look.
There the envelope lay, peeking out from beneath the dresser. He closed the door, dead-bolted and chain-locked it. He reached down. He placed his fingernail on the corner of the envelope and eased it out. The carpet had cigarette burns here and there across it. His head as he bent over throbbed in unison with his toe. He slit the envelope open with his pinky. A small note on thick paper fell out into his hand. It said:
God is dead.
You are going to die.
His body went cold. His scalp numbed. He felt as if he might lose consciousness at any moment. He looked down again at the note in his hand. He reread it:
I learned a few things that might interest you.
Coffee at The Clear Sky, 11:00 AM?
He squished his eyes shut and rubbed his eyes. After several minutes, he read the note a third time:
God is dead.
You are going to die.
What the hell was going on? He tried to think; he could not think; he could not process anything. Greatly perturbed, he set the envelope and the note on the dresser and went for the pliers. He reached up and removed a framed seascape from the wall and then wiggled out the thin nail that the picture had been hanging upon. He sat back down on the sofa and, holding the end of the nail with the pliers, ran a lighter flame all along the nail-tip. His brows were deeply knitted.
In the army, they had fixed his toe roughly this same way, years ago.
In no time, he had the thin metal pulsing hot-pink. Large beads of sweat stood out along his forehead and along his upper lip, and the flame was reflected individually in each bead. His brow glowed like expensive wood.
He dropped the cigarette lighter onto the floor and leaned forward. Blood poured into his head. Sweat dripped onto the carpet. He looked once more at his toe: from the swelling, the skin was stretched out so taut that the whole top part of the toe glinted dully, the color of lead, a leaden ball. Another peristaltic wave of lightheadedness coursed through him. He closed his eyes, waiting for it to knock him over or to pass. It passed. He opened his eyes slowly. Concentrate, he thought, you’ve got to stay focused. He squeezed the pliers as tightly as he was able, and then without further reflection he jammed the molten metal through the top of his toenail and down into the flesh, extracted it. It took three seconds. A tiny geyser of infected pus and blood erupted, the engorged tissue squealing thinly, like a hog fetus, and then a blinding flash of white-hot light filled his vision, and after that all he saw was black.
Editor’s note: That was excerpted from Chapter 9 of this book:
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