In the seventh episode of the second season, Cal “Wild Survivor” Chessler drinks his own urine. No filtration, no saran wrapped solar still, used one time in the first season. He drinks it from a plastic dish, the camera zooms in, and it’s dark yellow.
Chessler’s in the desert. The Sonora, one of the weaker deserts, I think. It’s no Gobi. No Kalahari. But it’s a brutally American desert, and as Chessler climbs over every scrubland hill, you get the sense he might come across a parking lot or a taco truck or some crystal suburban swimming pool.
He swallows his urine then lunges forward in this huge motion, so overstated you couldn’t miss it if you were in the middle of something and watching with only half your attention. He gags, then turns to the camera and smiles. It’s such an easy beat to fake, with lemon-lime gatorade maybe, and when he flashes that hooked little smile, I am flooded with the relief that he hasn’t actually swallowed his own urine.
Near the end of the episode, they get this great shot of Chessler emerging from a slot canyon and walking–actually stumbling, staggering–into the desert as this fat red sun falls off the rim of the earth. He’s a cowboy who’s lost his horse. A title card tells us he’s survived successfully. Then, the show’s over. Then, he sets out into some green wetland for the eighth episode.
Wild Survivor only aired two seasons, and none of the streaming services picked it up, but you can find whole, watermarked episodes online. In the comments, people—real idiots actually—write, “Thank you for the tips, Cal! This could save someone’s life someday.”
I watch Wild Survivor on my phone with complete attention, lying along the rim of my neighbor Mark’s swimming pool. He got it rechlorinated yesterday. Dead leaves wheel on the surface. Dead frogs lie around the drain. The water’s green, but it’s hot enough that I wish I could swim in it. An early summer heat that isn’t comparable in any meaningful way to how hot it gets later in the season. It’s June, and I eat frozen blueberries out of the bag.
This morning, I saw a video of a woman who lost forty pounds eating cottage cheese and fruit every day, and I don’t like cottage cheese, but I went to the Food Lion and bought every type of fruit I could find. Grapes, cherries, peaches, apples, berries, fresh, frozen, all of it, and I didn’t realize how expensive they were until the cashier gave me this lazy-eyed look that said I hope you can pay for these. I improvised a little prayer in my head. Ben’s debit card didn’t decline. I almost walked across the strip mall to buy a new disposable vape. All three blue plastic Food Lion bags almost split open in the parking lot, which burned hot like our electric cooktops.
At the pool, my back soaks up the heat of the pavement, all the way through my towel, which is patterned with less hostile yellow suns. My fingertips purple with melted blueberries. The fruit becomes smaller and more sour the deeper I go into the bag.
Beyond the phone screen, dark clouds verge on the tops of trees, and a dark wind blows. Wild Survivor spears a frog with a two-pronged gig he fashioned from a thorn bush. I mostly hate the eighth episode’s whole swampy green backdrop. I shut it off.
My eyes itch from looking at my phone for so long. I dip my feet into the green water until they also start itching. I try not to think about those drowned frogs rotting. Microbes shedding from their flabby bodies, into that green water, floating in between my toes.
I’m grateful Mark lets me use the pool during the summer. During the days, he works some unknowable office job on the other side of town. He velcroed a home surveillance camera to his shed, and I don’t think he knows that I know the light blinks green when he looks at the stream from his little cubicle. The other day, I took a closer look at the unblinking camera and realized it’s actually a trail cam, for deer season.
I take my bong from the lawn chair, and the lighter won’t light in the wind. When it does, I finish the bowl, only cough once. The weed is old and turning brown. Ben is intent on setting up a hydroponic system in the closet, and he’s failed three times. The pH slid towards the pink end, the water clouded with mold, the light went out, and the whole ordeal has given me a new appreciation for our plug and his skittish little eighteen-year-old runner, who wears a different pair of shoes every time I see him. I gave him thirty dollars last week as a graduation present.
The money came from the last of my last paycheck, and Ben would probably yell at me or at least look disappointed if he knew. For a few months, I worked an office job, in comms for this textbook publishing company. I tried. There was a small rack of pretzels and granola bars in the break room, and according to my supervisor Andrea, “Coffee’s free. They say you should pay for the snacks. Honor system. Sometimes, I’m really bad and take some without paying.” I quit after three weeks.
Ben graduated with a visual arts degree and did a year of Peace Corps. Now, he works as a server at a Greek place downtown, and it’s okay to hate him. He paints with shitty acrylic, and he doesn’t paint much anymore. The passenger seat of his little sedan rattles with empty whippet canisters. He listens to artists with grooming accusations without any guilty conscience about it. He calls himself a nihilist at parties, which is embarrassing for me. He gets very quiet when he’s high.
I stand up and realize I’ve crossed that old threshold of being high. My toes curl over the lip of the pool deck. That same dark wind blows, and I figure I should go check on Ben, who I mostly forgot about. I gather everything I brought to Mark’s pool, then unlatch the gate, and leave before his green trail cam light starts blinking again.
Last night, in the middle of the night, an angelic horse-thing fell into our backyard. This storm front hadn’t moved in yet. The night was clear and even a little cool. The first summer cicadas stopped their chittering. Something shut them up. A huge, bright light. A screaming, then a crying, like if a horse-thing was crying. Sadder than you’d think, like if the child of this horse-thing had been stolen away by some malicious agent, or if it had broken its leg or something. I don’t know. I never saw it, but Ben stepped into the dark to check it out with this little twenty-two he keeps around because he doesn’t subscribe to those politics, politics in general, and really, he would like to think of himself as a gun-toting cowboy. An important moment when he bought it. An estate sale.
I open the screen door and track some scummy pool water into the house, and Ben sits in the TV room, exactly where I left him. Still wide-eyed. Still red-eyed like he’s been crying, or like he hasn’t been blinking. It’s dark in the ranch-style, so I take off my sunglasses—big things with plastic rhinestones around the rim. I have to pull my shirt on because the AC’s almost chilly. I put the bong on the formica, next to a bowl of apple cider vinegar, a few fruit flies floating in it. I ask Ben if he wants any blueberries. He doesn’t answer.
Our ranch-style echoes faintly with the sound of the TV, which I’d turned on to this show called High Jinks before leaving. In the show, a panel of hosts and usually one celebrity guest commentate on video submissions of people injuring or otherwise humiliating themselves. Most of the time, it’s horrific. You just have to trust they wouldn’t broadcast footage of people actually dying in these myriad horrific but admittedly funny ways. And it’s miraculous all this is on video. And all the hosts are very high the whole time.
When I left for the pool, the celebrity guest was an Olympic snowboarder. Now, it’s this unrecognizable guy, and their short-lived conversations between clips don’t reveal anything insightful. He starts freestyling, and the performance seems more horrific than anything from the preceding clips—lots of dirt bike collisions. Ben doesn’t react to any of it, even a video of this girl miscalculating her rope swing trajectory, falling, dragging her body through the mud. Probably breaking a few bones.
When the horse-thing fell through the night, Ben took his gun and a flashlight into the backyard and only came back with the gun. I never heard it go off, but the muzzle smoked faintly in the porch light. He stumbled through the screen door with this freakish wide-eyed look. At this point, only halfway catatonic. He sat in the chair by the TV and said “harbinger,” then, “like a horse and an angel.”
I guessed it was a “BE NOT AFRAID” situation. A visitation.
Ben spoke about the harbinger, and it took the form of this long story that collapsed and fell all over itself: “a second flash”; “lying in the gully”; “I fell down the slope”; “mostly gravel all run through by erosion”; “on my ass”; “afterglowing blues and reds”; “eyeshine”; “resonance”; “the gun went off without me firing it”; “and my teeth, they chattered like machine-gun fire”; “fiery sound”; “then, this kind of throbbing arrhythmic speech all the way though my organs”; “and more stars than I’ve ever seen.” He takes one breath. “Lo”; “the angel-horse”; “there”; “caught in the pricker bushes that make our gully”; “opening”; “more like unfolding”; “more like unenveloping”; “six fingers on every hand”; “rings”; “blood like milk from ten thousand wounds”; “leaking, glowing, love-like”; “a lot like my mom”; “I went to touch it”; “tongue to the battery”; “visions of water”; “a lot of it.”
“And, eastwards”; “a holy city on a hill”; “we can always be rescued”; “if the horse-like lord sees fit.”
He falls silent, and the early summer cicadas resume their nighttime chitter.
Then, the first of what turned out to be a series of dark winds began to blow against the low walls of the ranch-style.
I took him, almost carried him, and sat him in the big chair by the TV. He stared at the ceiling. Finally, importantly, and almost lucidly, he said, “The world might end tomorrow.”
In the morning? Do we have a trying few hours left? What will it feel like?
I sort of thought, “Well, what am I supposed to do?” Actually, I thought, “I wish I had one of those plastic disposable vapes,” even though I hadn’t had any nicotine in a year and a half.
One time, we went to a house party, and I wanted to leave. I kicked around the porch with this nameless guy, and inside, Ben did a line of something that was probably ketamine. It took him three hours to pull himself from that total emptiness. When he did pull himself out, he still wanted to drive us the twenty dark minutes home. I remember sitting on this horrible plaid couch, wondering if he was ever going to wake up, wondering if I was going to have to take care of him until one day I don’t, and he chokes on some corn slurry I didn’t mix enough, and nobody says anything. This is like that. After the ket, he was listless and mostly empty the whole next day. And it made sense the world was going to end like this, without making any real contact with us. Passing us by. We ate fruit in the morning.
The High Jinks hosts welcome a third celebrity guest, and I don’t stick around long enough to hear who they are. I take a shower, but the water pressure is lower than usual. When the power goes out, the ranch-style stops echoing with the really obnoxious laughter of the hosts. I think about the certainty of the word “might.” I take my time in that shower in the dark in the afternoon.
Getting out of the shower feels like waking up. I start coming down from my high. And I almost slip on the bathmat, which is furry and populated with mildew. Ben still hasn’t moved in the TV room, and I walk through every room of the ranch-style in my bathrobe until it becomes something you could call praying.
The rain starts falling. A hard rain, hitting the ranch-style like twenty-two pellets, which are really like beebees or small rocks. The big arc of the sky stones us, and we only know why in a smaller, voiceless part of ourselves. A reptilian area of the brain that sticks around like a guy who never knows when to leave the party.
I drink a RedBull very slowly. Mark might be heading home soon. Our other neighbor is this woman Asia, and she yells at us sometimes, but after her house, there’s a guy named Ron, and he owns a canoe. That same small part of me says, “A canoe might come in handy if you want to make it out of here.” I think about it until the drink corrodes my teeth and decide suddenly—surprisingly—I do want to make it out of here.
So I put on a shirt and find an old umbrella, which doesn’t end up helping. The canoe hangs on a rack in Ron’s backyard. I climb the fence and unlock the gate and drag the thing behind me because, even though it isn’t as heavy as I thought, it’s too heavy to move any other way. Nobody sees me take it. For the shortest second, I wonder if there’s anyone left .
When I get back to the house, Ben sits on the roof in the rain, looking outwards. The ranch-style roof isn’t high enough to see anything meaningful, but he keeps looking. I stow the canoe away in the TV room. Then, I pack another bowl into the bong and smoke it before going to try to get Ben down from the roof.
A couple years ago, I came to the sudden conclusion that smoking at least a few bowls every night from my resin-clouded bong probably had some consequences for my health, so I tried to get off it. I had a different, more beautiful bong then that I eventually broke, knocked it off a dresser. My roommate—this girl named Jana—said she got off weed in high school by replacing it, temporarily, with those menthols in turquoise boxes. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have trusted her because she often joined me in those evening sessions and, with some reliability, lit her menthols. But I tried her method, and I never kicked weed, and it took me six months to kick the vape, which I was eventually very proud of.
The rain calms itself briefly before starting back up again. I manage to pull Ben down, and he comes loosely, as if inflated with air.
The sun sets fully, undramatically, and we can’t really see it behind this storm front. We can’t see the moon. The ranch-style pools uneasily with rainwater. When I was a little, crisis-filled teenager, I used to suffer from horrible insomnia. Real misery. But tonight, I sleep easily and dreamlessly in our bed.
The floodwaters wake me in the middle of the night. They’re higher than our bed, which doesn’t mean much because we don’t own a frame or box spring. The power is still out, and I wade through the ranch-style, and all the fruit I bought yesterday has rotted. The canoe floats in the TV room like it’s waiting for a pilot and her passenger.
And I guess we’re headed east. I guess we’re paddling towards a hill, mostly we’re just paddling out of here.
A new sadness. Many uncertainties tonight. Many memories of times fallen far behind me. I push the canoe into new silent streets. Ben reels between its two walls.
In high school, my best friend’s brother got drunk and smashed his car against the interstate guardrail. My uncle got torn up by throat cancer. Three guys I knew in college killed themselves, one month after another in a particularly brutal winter.
I first loved this guy named John, who wrote sappy poetry with lots of fruit metaphors, but when he wrote about me, he dropped the fruit and talked about the moon. I was a glowing, sliver-like, mostly nocturnal thing. Always the second most lovely thing in his life. You can say whatever you want about Ben, his shitty paintings, and whippet intake, but I’ve always been the most beautiful thing he has ever come across. I’ve always pulled the waters out from under him.
I might never see anyone named John until the end of days, which might be tonight. John might drown among these floodwaters or starve or get shot through by raiders all adorned with human skins—these guys who should appear on the scene any second now. I might survive, and what if I do? What if I swim through the waters and eat and hide from those raiders? And, god, what if I have to drink my own urine? Frog-eaters, piss-drinkers, guys in human skin regalia.
The water sits with a strange stillness, but above us, dark clouds slide across the night, and thunder yawns open, and lightning shoots out just quickly enough to light up all this water.
Ben has this story from Peace Corps. He was commissioned to the Philippines but knew this African guy named Joni, like Joni Mitchell. He said the game warden at this park in Africa saw how well the elephants were doing, so they relocated a bunch of the older ones to a different park across the continent. Mostly mom and dad elephants. Everything’s fine for a while. Then, the bodies of rhinos start piling up. Soon, the wardens realize they haven’t been killed by poachers, who use these huge, high-caliber rifles. All these rhinos have been gored in the belly. The killers: young parentless bull elephants. When Ben tells the story, he plays up the bloodiness. He goes on for too long about the stand-off between the game warden and the elephants at night, on these golden plains, at the edge of the world. His telling is really overstated. It’s a bad story, and I don’t think he even gets it.
What if this is the edge of the world? What if we fall off the rim into still darker waters? Tonight. These waters.
When my grandma on my mom’s side was around, my family would pile into the minivan and go to church every Sunday, then just Christmas and Easter, and then not really at all. I never knew what the pastor—a round-bellied man who I always imagined as god when I prayed—meant when he said, the firmament.
But if the moon was more visible, it might give me some direction. Shining signs of movement off the water. I have miles to go before I sleep. Many miles to go before I sleep.