The Ninety-Eighth Conduit


Highway 98 will guide you along the emerald coast, out of one thriving condo-city into another, past the wealth and splendor of Destin all the way to a beat-down corner of Jack’s hometown where it changes its name to 15th Street, as if ashamed of what is has become. I’m in the back seat, trying to be invisible. Jack, who has recently become a case worthy of my objective analysis, is sitting in the passenger seat with his hands resting lifeless on his runner’s thighs. Elsa—blonde, beautiful, blue-eyed, intelligent—is our designated driver because the car belongs to her parents.

We are heading east and nearing the threshold of Destin, the only city I’ve ever known to capitalize on creation and still achieve a utopian equilibrium. You can’t say anything bad about Destin. To pass through it without stopping, you almost have to plug your ears and blindfold your eyes like you were sailing past the isle of sirens.

“So,” Jack says to Elsa, “are we done? You and me?”

I don’t blame him for bringing it up. It’s been like waiting for water to boil since we pulled out of the condo at Blue Sands. Jack’s been itching for her to say something because, after all, she is the one whose fire has cooled. Like any killer, she is the type to let things die without asking if they’re really dead. Jack, the more sensitive one, has a harder time letting things go.

“I don’t know,” she says. The sadness in her voice makes me wonder if she isn’t as much a victim of her habits as anybody.

Jack smiles. “You don’t know?” He laughs softly, warmly. “That means it’s over.”

Yes, Jack. You’ve come to it at last.

A month ago I had warned him that it would come to this or worse. Two weeks ago she had lain in his arms as a supple body of delicate warmth; often he had latched to her like a newborn to its mother, as perverse as that must sound. So, I wasn’t surprised when he finally told me that he didn’t care what I said—that he was tired of being lonely. “How do you think I feel?” I had wanted to say, but I just kept silent. Now that the moment has arrived, I find that I cannot pity him.

“I’m sorry,” Elsa says. Her cheeks are streaked with real tears, and so I do pity her. She knows what she has done, but it’s not entirely her fault.

We halt at a red-light just as we’re passing the Destin shopping outlets. I take this opportunity to float up, out of the car, and hover for a moment over the face of oblivion: it’s a parking lot, but from where I float it looks like a circuit-board with electrons in a constant, orderly state of flux. One electron almost bumps into another, and the two sit like two shock-frozen insects for a good thirty seconds before finally starting up again. To the south, I hear the waves breathing. I think: only human beings would imprison themselves on the fringes of heaven. Remembering my charge—the boy Jack—I return to the ninety-eighth conduit, into the electron-capsule where Elsa is still crying and Jack is staring coldly out at nothing. I get there just as the light turns green.

“Please don’t cry,” Jack tells her. “You’re not the one who’s to blame.”

So he knows the deal, at least. He knows that he must bear the consequences of risk as any sober-minded man ought. I resist the impulse to shake my head, fearing to give up my invisibility. It’s the situation that’s pitiable.

“I’m sorry I hurt you,” she says. Her tearful eyes follow the curve of the road.

“I let myself be hurt,” he says. “I just wish you would have told me it was over. You owed me that much.”

“I was afraid,” she says. “I didn’t know what to say.”

“I know,” he says, “and it’s all right. It’s done and that’s all that matters.”

Yes, it is done, but whether for the last time remains uncertain. Perhaps now Jack will learn that what he really needs is already his, and that all he has to do is ask for it. But who can say? At the moment, I’m still invisible, hardly a consideration in his plan for self-reconstruction. He is still thinking in terms of the conduit, of his most recent failure as a signpost on the “inescapable” highway.

Looking at the GPS screen beneath the dashboard, I see a multicolored outlay of the coast. It shows our position in the conduit, to the left of a green margin, to the left of a blue margin—highway 98, the coast, the Gulf of Mexico.

Heaven is less than a mile south of us, and all it takes to get there is a right-hand turn off of the road most traveled. I’ve been telling Jack this since he was a baby, and so I don’t bother to tell him now. I am confident that his wounds will heal, and that he’ll remember me soon enough. So I stop, let the car pass through me, and watch Jack and Elsa fade into the distance. I know Jack by the distinct, blazing color of his heart—it is all I’ve ever seen in him since the dawn of time.

In need of a little free air, I decide to float up high enough to get the same view I had on the GPS screen. Far beneath me, the electrons are channeling through the conduit like blood platelets in an artery, coagulating in places and bleeding out in others. Condos, like fortresses, line the white sands that mark the threshold of my kingdom. Again I realize what I’ve known for a long time: that most people aren’t really looking for heaven. They’d rather fight for parking spaces outside the gates.

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