In the excerpt, Vin and Alistair have just left the Temple of Joy, a wooden, church-like construction at Burning Man, the annual desert art festival held in Nevada each August. The Temple of Joy is a place where Burning Man attendees (known as burners) leave prayers on pieces of paper, hopes for the future, and remembrances for lost loved ones. They are dressed as Arabs, with long cotton gowns and a traditional headdress bound with a cord. While wandering through the temple, Alistair spotted a man wedging his paper prayer in between two pieces of wood and decides this is the man he and Vin must help. They must answer his prayer.
“Mate, hold up.” Alistair speaks as a lazy command, the right inflection to bring a stranger to a halt. He’s got that English swagger down cold.
Holy shit. Wait, wait, wait. What if I’m wrong? What if he’s really English?
“Mate,” Alistair says. “Hold up. You just left the Temple of Joy, yeah?”
The man with brown bangs turns around and acts sheepish, as if he were a shoplifter confronted by department store security. “Yes, hello.”
“Mate, thank you for stopping. We need to talk to you,” Alistair says, clearly stalling.
“Yes, hello, sahib,” I say, stepping up. “We are adventurers searching for the mighty xenoxx plant, three x’s, you see. We witnessed you in the Temple of Joy and realized at once you play an important role, critical to our success.”
“Yes, yes,” Alistair says, nodding at me. “Go on, then. Tell him.”
I shoot him a wry smile, implying he’s abandoned me to accomplish his dirty work.
“Sahib, sahiiiiiib,” I say, because I like saying this particular word. “In our quest for the mighty xenoxx plant, we receive clues through our service to others. Have you heard of the mighty xenoxx?”
“No,” our new friend says, the reluctance on his face revealing he now realizes this is some sort of game. He’s not sure if he wants to play. He thinks we might be making fun of him.
Alistair says, “Xenoxx, healer to broken hearts, balm to many ruined dreams. Healant for lost causes.”
“Plus it’s good for your hands,” I say. “Softens them but with a manly scent.”
Alistair regards me coolly. “Really? Healer of broken hearts wasn’t enough, yeah? It’s also a cologne? Did you like healant, by the way? Made that up, yeah?” I ignore him. “Sahib, we must assist your dream today. Alistair—”
“I believe you meant to call me Humphries,” he says. “From now on.”
“Yes, Humphries, the paper.”
We present his prayer to him. I’ve already memorized the words: I want to play.
He now bears a sullen expression. “Not cool, guys. That was private.”
“Sahib, sahib,” I say.
“Sahib, sahib,” Alistair adds in a pleading tone.
“Mistake not our intention. We wish to help you play. The word sahiiiiiiiib is meant in respect, a word into which you cram a lot of i’s if you say it right, elongating the vowels, so it feels like young brothers, standing tall in a row. They’re grinning.”
Alistair says, “Okay, ignore him. He’s nuts.” He steps in front of me. “Mate, we came to help. In the gift economy at Burning Man, this is our gift. We help people who need assistance. Your prayer says you want to play. How do we make this happen?”
I remove my headdress so the man sees my full face, and Alistair does the same. What the hell was I doing, going off on the word sahib when this guy doesn’t know me?
I say, “You’re right. We should not have stolen your prayer. We intend no disrespect. My friend saw you and recognized you were important. How can we serve you, my king?”
He pulls himself together. “I’m doing fine.”
He puts his hands on his hips. “Thanks, but I don’t need your help.”
Of course, he has every right to refuse us. At his insistence, we will leave. I hope Alistair knows to back off. Still, we must give him every cause to say “yes,” and only then will his “no” feel sincere.
I say, “You’re doing okay?”
“Did you come here to be okay? Or did you come to Burning Man for something magnificent? Didn’t you show up to make glorious, life-savoring memories?”
Our new friend appraises me with surprised hurt, as if I’d insulted his manhood. Glad to see Alistair leaves this part to me.
I say, “I think you came here for more than okay. You came here for more, and it’s not happening. Is this your first burn? No shame if it is, brother.”
“No,” he says coldly.
Virgin burners never bring enough water, or can’t anticipate needing shade for a week in the desert. That’s not their biggest surprise. No, they are shocked to discover the love fest—which Burning Man can be—does not happen without their active participation, their vulnerability and risk-taking. They often arrive ready to participate by watching from the sidelines. “Next year,” they tell each other. “Next year, I’ll be different.” For that reason, “burgins” are considered the lowest on the playa food chain. “It’s my second year,” he says with reluctance.
Alistair starts to say something. I silence him with a gesture.
We three stay silent. Silence will force his confession. While I stare, his eyes shift from mine to Alistair’s and finally to the sun, as if he’s afraid of cosmic eavesdroppers.
“Last year was more fun,” he says. “My group and I planned a big theme camp. Shows for audiences, twice a day. I brought my keyboard and performed a lounge show. I mean, I was the piano player for the lounge acts.” “But not this year.”
“Julie and Larry and a few other people couldn’t come. I know you don’t know those names. They organized us last year. A bunch of us came together again, so that’s fun. At times. Everyone’s off doing other stuff this year, hanging out with new groups. It’s not like last year, spending all our time together.”
We let our new friend’s words thud to the cracked desert floor, the ugliness, the loneliness. Yes, there are worse tragedies in the world than a pianoless piano player who wants to play. But his heart is breaking because he expected love and got none, and that burden, whatever the circumstances, breaks us all.
Alistair says, “That is hard, mate. Rough going.” To me, he says, “We need to find a piano for this man.”
“No,” says our piano player with extra energy. “Don’t. I don’t want to look like some pathetic loser with no friends. I have friends here. We partied two nights ago. I’m just not as good at making new friends as they are. You guys will embarrass me.”
“We would never do that,” Alistair insists.
“We are totally going to humiliate you,” I say.
“Yes, humiliate you,” Alistair says, nodding. With a hint of irritation he adds, “Because apparently this is something we kings do.”
I nod at him. “What’s your name?”
Alistair fires a hard look in my direction.
What did that mean?
I say, “John, we might humiliate you. We don’t know how we’re going to work this. In humiliating you, we’re going to connect you with a camp in need of a piano player. We’ll broker the introduction.”
“No,” he says firmly.
I make my own voice firm. “Stand here and watch the sun set. Or let us serve you and change your destiny. Your choice. Tell us to walk away and we will return your prayer to where it belongs. Unless, perhaps, your prayer happens to be right where it belongs at this second in Alistair—” “Humphries,” he says.
“Humphries’ hand. Humphries saw you first and knew you were special. Now that we’re talking to you, I see he was right.”
He shifts from one foot to the other.
Alistair says, “How good are you? On the piano?”
John looks at Alistair. “Pretty good.”
Howls fill the air around us.
Burners howl at the sunset. It’s something we do. The sun dips low enough that it doesn’t appear undecided anymore, truly ready to end this long day.
Alistair howls, so I howl. Gotta support my partner on the journey.
John attempts to howl but it’s more of a low moan he hopes nobody will notice.
To worship the sun is to worship the very king- and queenship in all of us, the never-ending fire. Lost Ones worship the sun’s rage and indiscriminate destruction. Found Ones worship the life-giving source that blesses all living creatures.
John looks from me to Alistair. “I don’t know you guys.”
I drop to one knee. “My Burning Man name is Vinicio Vanabalay, an Italian expatriate explorer in search of the elusive xenoxx plant. My real name is Vin. If you don’t like what we’re doing and you want me to stop, you use the name Vin. Everything stops. Otherwise, I am Vinicio.”
“I don’t know.”
Alistair drops to his knee. “We’re not drunk. We’re not high. This is what we do. Let us serve you, John. Let us make your night memorable.”
“I don’t want to be humiliated.” John speaks with a certain pout.
I nod. “Nobody does. Yet you must pay a price for getting what you want. The question is, John, what would you risk to create the kind of night you want?”
More burners howl. Air horns, car horns, bells, gongs…anything that can make noise will make noise, at least for the next hour. The entire city howls.
“Okay,” he says reluctantly. “But I don’t…I’m not great at acting or being weird. I can’t do this thing with fake names and stories.”
“Quiet, slave,” Alistair says, and the vehemence surprises both John and me.
Alistair unknots the golden cord around his keffiyeh and says, “Vinicio, let us bind this slave’s hands. Take him to Black Rock City where we perhaps trade him to a camp with a piano.”
Alistair demands John’s hands, which he offers, and Alistair binds them with the gold cord, not tight, but with enough loops and twists John’s hands won’t slip out. John might protest but it’s already over. It’s shady, the slavery angle, but I guess it could work. My unease is placated by the realization that Alistair now leads us. This could be interesting.
I say, “John, you okay with this? Will you trust us a bit?”
John chuckles and says, “Who are you guys? Why are you doing this?”
Alistair jerks the rope. “Come, slave. We must travel into the worst part of Black Rock City. The seedy underbelly.”
“Actually,” I say, “isn’t all of Black Rock City the seedy underbelly?”
Alistair says in a stiff English affectation, “Quite.”
I glance at the setting sun. “Wait. We should all howl one last time.”
The howling continues all around us. It never stopped. So when we join in again, our voices, neither missed nor remembered, are nevertheless essential to the sunset Burning Man chorus.
Mutant cars honk.
Burners scream and cheer.
I hear cymbals crash together.
We all beat the desert. We live another day.
Alistair bellows out a mighty howl. I follow his lead and amp mine up, bigger, louder, infusing the desperation I sometimes feel escape me.
John joins us.
This time, I hear his true voice.
King Perry, King Mai (a 2014 Lambda Literary finalist), The Butterfly King, and King John. King John takes place at Burning Man.
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