“The Cannonball Run”: Andrew vs. The Collective #1
This is the first of six stories in “Andrew vs. The Collective.” It’s also available as a PDF here: Story 1-The Cannonball Run (much prettier, trust me). In this HTML version, what look like links are actually the submissions from the project’s backers. Roll over them to see who submitted what.
I was in the passenger seat of a 1976 Pontiac Trans Am and there was Burt Reynolds, driving. I want to be clear here: I am not Burt Reynolds. Burt Reynolds was Burt Reynolds, in the stretching but somehow ageless flesh himself. His famous leaden foot was deployed. The speedometer was at 93 mph. “This is a 1976 Pontiac Trans Am,” he said.
“I noticed,” I responded.
He turned to me and grinned. That megawatt smile of his outshone the glare of the setting sun behind him like I was in some sort of dream. His mustache was perfect. “Welcome back to the Cannonball Run.”
Was I dreaming? “Is this a dream?”
Burt’s eyes crinkled up in a smile as he turned his attention back to the road. “Son, that red-eye flight has knocked you senseless.” Burt Reynolds was right, it took four Ambien to sleep from Macau to Atlanta and I was still beyond groggy. I tried to focus my eyes on the Georgia kudzu whipping by, a carpet of creeping green draped upon a topography of hills, trees and roadside ditches. He continued, “Protocol is, last year’s winner gets a personal escort from old Burt Reynolds himself. You’re not going to have an ‘And then he woke up and realized, it had all just been a dream’ moment. Burt Reynolds promises you that.”
Last year’s winner. That was me. The white-knuckled, white-haired banshee of overland long distance speed. I took the Cannonball 2016 with two hours over my nearest competitor. I found the only café in that last Patagonian town and sat sipping Malbec just waiting for anyone to make a footrace out of the final twenty feet.
“How old are you, son?”
I drifted back into the present. “How old are you, Burt Reynolds?”
“Son, I’m always 39.” He bared those teeth of his again. “I don’t mean to pry. It’s just that you got more white up top than the Rockies in winter.”
“That’s why they call me Mont Blanc,” I said. “It’s premature gray.”
“Ah,” Burt said, thoughtfully stroking his mustache. “These days you just can’t tell.” His smile broke for a second. Not the smile itself, that remained. Its enthusiasm, that Burt Reynolds élan behind the smile, disappeared like a wink. I’d lost him. He was in some private Burt Reynolds space now.
I studied the side of his face. It was amazing, his youth. If I had to guess I would have put his natural age in the 80s. Even in the 90s. But time seemed to have stopped for Burt Reynolds. Like so many of his generation and those that came after, Burt was a lucky beneficiary of the gene therapy advances of the last decade. His middle age suddenly stretched long and luxurious, sprawling over the years like an odalisque in triumphant display.
“I love it back here,” Burt said, arising out of Burt’s World. “The quiet highways. I was from down here, you know?”
“Hell yeah, boy. Played football at FSU. Go Noles.” His hand was raised from the steering wheel in a half-hearted Indian chop. His eyes were distant. “I like these roads because they seem long and endless, but you always know where you’re going. You know how long it’ll take you to get there.”
I looked at him to respond but realized we weren’t having a conversation. This was just Burt Reynolds talking. Like I was the camera and this was his monologue.
“Life used to be like that, you know? Long stretches of pure blacktop like they could go on forever, but you always knew where you were headed. You always knew how far it was you had left.” He paused. His voice was quiet, scratchy. “Not anymore, man. I tell you what.” He turned to me. “I mean, how many more times can you win the Cannonball in the next 100 years, my man?”
I didn’t know what to say. Inexplicably, agelessness was giving Burt Reynolds an existential crisis and the roads of Georgia were only making it worse.
By the time the car swung into the gravel driveway in Jacksonville, Georgia, the unassailably cool façade of Burt Reynolds had returned. He gave me a little punch in the arm as we got out of the car. “Go get ‘em tiger.”
My Italian cowboy style boots crunched in the gravel beneath me as I took in the parking lot of Boone’s Saloon. Encircling a brick and aluminum shack were at least two-dozen pickup trucks, some at their god-given normal height and others jacked higher than a man could take his seat without a girlish hop. Each truck was an island of smokers, most populated with baseball-capped young men and the jean-shorted and halter-topped young women that clung to them.
Amongst this archipelago of American-made machinery sat the occasional sports car. Some were flashy, obviously expensive, flagrant. But there were the others too, the ones I could tell with nary a glance under the hood that they were machines with some real muscle. These cars, so foreign to this gravel parking lot and its Friday night Bud-swilling crowd; these were the cars of my compatriots. The cars of the Cannonball Run.
It was my fifth year in the race. My first race was from sea to shining sea. But then the 50 states weren’t enough. Cross-Atlantic in 2014. Island hopping Cross-Pacific in 2015. Last year was an All-Americas Alaska to Patagonia. And last year I won it. Alone. That was the only way I raced.
I swung the bar door open and a wave of stale beer, disinfectant and Hank Williams, Jr. washed over me. It was Raoul who saw me first. “Fuck! Fuck!” he yelled, the Tourette’s getting to his tongue before my name could. He waved his single ghostly white arm high above the crowd, reaching toward the back of the room like it was one of the basketballs he was paid to palm by the Ukrainian National League. “Ever’ body! It’s Mont Blanc! He’s here!”
Mont Blanc. Let me explain. In this room Raoul was the only one taller than me. And he is a freak of height (as well as other things: albinism, Tourette’s, arm loss, etc.). I’m 6’10”, rail thin and my hair went white at 24. I rise above the foothills of my peers like a solitary snow-capped Alp. Hence the signature name derived from my signature pen: Mont Blanc. The White Mountain. (It sounds much better in French.)
I raised my hand in humble salute as a cheer went up around the room. They were all here: Celia Escobar, Jayce ‘Martini’ Mullis, Jake Black, Baby Girl Kelly, Raoul, and of course: Don Franco. He parted the crowd like Moses to get to me first. It was his duty as race master to greet the defending champion and it was his right as the revered Don Franco to have first crack at warmly pumping my hand.
“Mont Blanc,” he said, looking up with eyes alive with excitement and cognac, his giant hand wrapped around mine. He turned to the room, my hand still gripped in his and called above the crowd: “MONT BLANC!” They cheered.
I tried to make my way through in Don Franco’s wake, but the crowd closed around me with backslaps and handshakes. Jayce Mullis was the first to grasp my hand. A man as small as I was a mountain, he’d made his fortune with an afterhours Chicago nightclub known for ‘the best martinis after 3am.’ He traveled with his own martini glasses, closed up in a felt case like pool cues. He drove with a hand grasped around one of these and almost never finished a race. Rarely a challenge, but always present. His eyes were narrowed at mine in challenge.
At Mullis’ side was Baby Girl Kelly, the voice behind the R&B chart-topper “Get Steppin’”. Well, the voice behind the autotune behind the chart topper. There was a moment, not but a few years before, that she couldn’t walk into a place like Boone’s without being mobbed by college-aged fans. That was a time since passed. She towered over Jayce Mullis and, it was rumored, lived off his money. She gave me a hot-breathed kiss on my cheek.
Next to her I noticed an unfamiliar face: a mute and mysterious mustachioed man. He didn’t offer his hand, only his glare, but that was quickly interrupted by the boisterous handshake of Jake Black. Jake’s net worth was more than the sum of all of our money with millionaire Don Franco as an exponent. He was an unapologetic, unrepentant inventor of financial derivatives, the same instruments that dethroned the United States from its place of global economic prominence in the aughts. He was a heavy drinker but generally tolerated. “It’s great to see you!” he all but yelled in my ear. “It’s been a long year! Hell my liver hasn’t been this pickled since the New Orleans Saints won their first Super Bowl in oh-ten!” He spun away from me, already dizzy from drink, and his elbow connected with the nacho plate of a tall brunette in a silver bodysuit.
“You’re lucky I have this hot dog in my purse, otherwise you’d meet a fate worse than leprosy,” growled Celia Escobar, pulling more food from the handbag draped over her shoulder. She and her lover Miriam Atwater were the next to offer me their greetings. They had met at a Renaissance Faire, two tall thin awkward teenaged girl elves and had formed a bond that proved inseparable in the years since. They trained animals, Celia large dogs and Miriam wild circus cats. Together they drove like the animals of their work. Last year they’d been two miles ahead of me in the Amazon when their Lamborghini was spiked by the detritus of an accidental aerial defenestration. A single pen (no, not a Mont Blanc) flew clean through their engine block. A lucky break for me and a yearlong grudge for them. They greeted me with ice-cold handshakes and steely eyes.
“Before we begin,” Don Franco was calling ahead of me, “a drink! One for the White Mountain and one for me: a perspiring, beseeching, ambrosial libation for Don Franco!”
Before long I was on the rickety wooden stage with Don Franco. Behind us a Dixie flag was scrawled with the words “The South Will Rise Again”. In my hand was a cool bottle of Mexican beer. I sat on a chair facing out at the crowd, cheering and raucous as Don Franco built them up. Against the door, Burt Reynolds held up a can in salute.
“You are the greatest of racers!” Don Franco cried. “You are the gasoline that fuels the fires of legend! You, my friends, you are the Cannonball!”
They exploded in rapturous adulation.
“Let’s talk details folks. Last year was a fine overland race. My dear friend Mont Blanc here towered above the competition.”
Some applause, some joking boos at the pun.
“So this year we go above the mountains. This year we combine all of our routes, our overland, our ocean racers, and our aerial bests for the very first Air-Land-Sea Cannonball! This year we go clear to the other side of the world! This year…we race to China!”
Applause exploded through the room.
“Our final destination will be Jining, on the edge of the Gobi Desert. A deserted city surrounded by desert. You can take whatever direction you prefer; whatever routes suit your fancy, with one condition. As Captain Floyd taught us over the Atlantic…” all eyes turned to Captain Floyd, a dour ex-astronaut and Cannonball winner “…all one needs do to get around the world is shoot into orbit, wait a few seconds for the Earth to spin and then drop back down.” Laughter. “So along the way you must check in at three points. There is a list online. You’ve got one hour, gather your teams and finalize your strategies.” Groups were already huddling around their phones in tight groups of two or three. Don Franco was smiling. He lived for this. “Let’s have some entertainment!” he called.
I descended from the stage passing a lithe young girl in a straw cowboy hat and denim skirt. I needed to find a dark corner to go through the way stations. Everyone had known it was an air-sea-land race this year and I’m sure they’d spent months on their amphibious aerial vehicles. I had my own plan, a simple one: it was an American Express Black Card. After Patagonia I took my winnings and I flew to Macau. I made money on blackjack until they wouldn’t pay me in cash anymore. It only took Amex seventh months to find me. Between that card and my signature pen, I was set. Let my compatriots figure out how to put wings on their favorite Mustangs.
I found a lonely stool in a dark corner, illuminated only by the neon of a Pabst sign. As the click and buzz of an instrument plugging into the PA sounded from the stage, I was thumbing through a hacked-together travel program on my phone. The long, jangled strain of an electric guitar chord draped itself over the barroom. I was booking a car service back to the Atlanta airport from a disreputable-looking vendor I thought could be bribed into driving over 100mph.
The music, when it began, was hard charging and angry, chord after quickly changing chord of electric angst. I stole a look at the denim-skirted girl with the guitar slung across her, attacking it furiously. Her hair flew about her face like a cloud of bees. She began to sing.
I drive a mini-van and a Ford pickup / a Lava Red / Fuel Injected / Custom Harley / and you shall know me / for I am a Recovering Pharisee.
It was an impressive performance. Her energy pulled the Cannonballers away from their ministrations, attracted their eyes.
I’ve enjoyed the Caribbean and the Irish Sea / The Pacific, The Atlantic / their waters all baptized me / and you shall know me / For I am a recovering Pharisee.
A hand grasped my arm. “Mont Blanc,” a woman’s voice whispered in my ear. “What a pleasure.” Alice.
I was brought up from ashes raised from dust / Born at night, not last night / And you can trust / that you’ll know me / For I am a recovering Pharisee.
Alice. My last love. The belle of the ball. I’d met her at 23, after a modeling career, a jock husband, and two children all abandoned. When I’d met her she’d moved through life like a wrecking ball. A juggernaut that stopped for no emotion, even if it was the broken heart of a White Mountain. “Why, hello,” I said.
“That’s it? I was expecting something a little more vituperative.”
I have it all, the life the wife / but it’s all a loss to the Rugged Cross and what I learned at its feet. / Take it from me / it’s plain to see / when you’re a recovering Pharisee. WHEN YOU’RE A RECOVERING PHARISEE.
“She’s yours, isn’t she?” I murmured.
Alice’s blue eyes were electric. “All mine. Her name’s Elsa.”
“She a little intense,” I ventured.
“She’s a true believer,” Alice said, watching her lover convulse on stage. “Not that you’d know anything about that.”
Alice had cast me aside as her last foray into the world of men before she became a connoisseur of the finer sex. She liked wild young things. “What are you up to now, Alice? What are you doing here?”
Now she was looking at me. “Same old,” she smiled.
“You mean you’re NOT spying for the US government?”
Elsa, on stage, was a flurry of final chords.
“That’s correct. NOT spying.”
“And so how does NOT spying bring you to the Cannonball starting line?”
“I’m racing.” This was a first. Alice looked down on the Cannonball, had derided my passion for it. “And I’m racing with you.”
I laughed. “Alice,” I began, my hands out. “I race alone. It’s what I…” I noticed her hand protruding from her purse. In it was a small black pistol.
“There’s money in it for you, but I figured this would be more direct.”
“And Mont Blanc, at the lead of a surprising team of three!” Don Franco held my timecard extended, a grin behind it. “I’ll see you in China,” he said. I took it, gave a shy wave to the cheering crowd of contestants and bemused Boone’s regulars and then I climbed into the black town car idling next to me.
In the back sat Alice and Elsa, in the front our driver. “Atlanta Hartsfield, no less than a hundred the whole way,” I said, the steel of competition suddenly the composition of my voice. I noticed Alice’s hand was still in her purse, gripping her pistol. She needn’t worry, I thought. I never could say no to Alice. And besides, now I was all race. Every atom of my being was competition.
Our first waypoint was Washington where we were to meet with our designated timecard stamper Captain Floyd, former NASA astronaut and now NASA bureaucrat. On the plane, once Alice and my arguments over our itinerary faded to a muted contrition (I accepted we’d go St. Petersburg instead of Bishkek for our last stop) we began to catch up.
I had done much of nothing. Won the Cannonball. Moved to Macau. She’d done little she could discuss. Except Elsa, who was asleep on the cushions in the back of the plane. “I met her on a Friday,” she said. “In a Jewish Community Center in San Francisco. In the women’s bathroom.”
“You’re really the classy one aren’t you?”
“I was taking a dance class. Salsa. For an assignment. That bathroom always put me on edge. There was a hinge loose on the door and it never quite shut properly. I was washing my face when Elsa walked in. She just stared at me in the mirror, right in the eyes. We could hear children being led in Shabbat songs. But we were silent. Then she said to me, ‘I’ve always thought something should happen in this bathroom.’”
“And then something happened,” I said.
“I got her number, that was all.” Alice leaned over her seat and looked back to Elsa, enjoying the view. “I tell you, the moment I knew I loved her was the first time I ever saw her sing. She’s a creature that cannot stop. That devours the time before her like Kronos, like there’s a real end to life and it’s soon. Watching her on that stage in San Francisco I knew. In the windswept browtightened focus of her terrible inertia, her inabilities shed as rumors from the confident – she moved ever forward, a ravenous pattern filling gulfs of wary thought, the flux of her environment echoing the Schröodingeric implications of radical internal shift, parts melding and exchanging, unstable form, neon force blinding as what once were feet – now a referential grounding – quaked eras through the gathering blur of behindness, repetition and all that was left by this surge of pastself atomic coalescence, nothing for the history but a hypokeimenic smear on what this quest would leave unrazed.”
“Jesus, you love this girl.”
“And she loves Jesus.”
I rented a car at Reagan National; positive I saw the swaying platinum blonde extensions of Baby Girl Kelly high above her two companions in the snow-delayed crowds. We tore down the Beltway and through the empty snow-swept streets to the drab gray stones of Captain Floyd’s office.
He was inside, in the lobby, with a newspaper.
“Paper says it’s snowing today,” was his greeting.
“Yep, sure is, Captain Floyd,” I said, anxious.
“Haven’t seen snow like that since Mars.”
He stood, a tall thin man whose gray temples were beginning to wrap around the back of his head. He had the pallor of a man exiled to the District of Columbia. A tint of skin tone that seemed to infect his soul.
He pointed to a photograph. “The Coca-Cola Mars mission of 2015. That’s me, right there on the top of Mons Olympus.” It was grainy, there was no way to tell who was inside that bulky spacesuit bedecked with the famous Coca Cola cursive, but I believed it was he. And all around him was what looked like snow.
“It snows on Mars?” I asked, momentarily distracted from my heart-pounding desire to get the hell out of there and off the continent.
“Carbon dioxide. It’s not really snow like we know it. Can’t stick your tongue out under it. But hell it sure looks like it, don’t it?” His eyes went wistful. “It’s a totally different world, Mars. I mean that literally and figuratively of course.” He pointed at another spacesuit to the left of his. “That was Falk. Ben Falk. Great kid, but never came home. Right after this picture. He was trying to bag a sample and the zipper snagged. Tore through his whole damned suit. All we had was duct tape. Like Mars cares about duct tape. Last of the corporate missions because of that kid.”
I got the feeling that life stretched long and endless for Captain Floyd these days. I didn’t envy him. He reminded me of Burt Reynolds.
He took my time card from me, checked his watch and began to sign it. But then he stopped and looked up, eyes misty and distant. “If they can make ridiculous products like glue out of horses…why can’t they make something logical, like duct tape out of ducks? Sorry. Morbid. You should get going.” He collapsed on his lobby bench again, out of reach of the hug that my heart demanded I wrap him in. I settled for a handshake, closing my hand atop his and squeezing it hard. Captain Floyd: Cannonball winner to bureaucrat zombie. I had to get out of there.
“It was almost the same thing Burt Reynolds was saying,” I was telling Alice. Elsa sat next to her in her white halter-top, her bare shoulders freckled and hunched over a plate of cheese and grapes, which she shoved between her teeth.
“You think Captain Floyd feels old?” Alice asked, bringing my eyes back to her.
“Not old. But that life is too long.”
“There was a study that said depression in seniors is on the rise since gene technology.”
“Right, what to do with your life when the timeline of the whole thing shifts?”
Elsa’s voice surprised me. “It’s not my place to say, but this is what happens when man tries to slap the hand of God. Man finds himself unmoored from the things that have given him identity, given him a reason for being. Extending your life to be closer in age to the Lord, to see from the Lord’s perspective, this comes with consequences.” She burst a grape between two canines. “Though any of us could be hit by a truck tomorrow, so it’s bullshit anyway.”
Alice’s eyes, meeting mine, seemed to say Isn’t she the cutest?
Our contact in Geneva was another former Cannonball winner. Or two rather: The Prezbylewski Twins. They were brilliant Renaissance men of science: engineers, geneticists, mathematicians and more. In the Cannonball across the Pacific they’d designed a submersible vessel outfitted with a jet engine.
We met them at a building that sat on the shore of Lake Geneva, glittering in the crisp light of the sun, the mountains’ reflections extending into another underwater range in mirror.
The Prezbylewski Twins were Canadian by nationality, completely unfathomable by ethnicity. Somehow they were identical, but one of them, Tick, was white while his brother, Tack, was black. We were walking through the foyer of what looked like a laboratory facility and they were telling Elsa the story of their improbable birth. It was their favorite story. Tick was speaking: “Presented with the infant fetuses, the mother and the father were completely flummoxed. The Doctor told the troubled parents, ‘The odds of a mixed race couple conceiving fraternal twins are low; lower still are the odds that the fetuses would exhibit such widely disparate complexions, with one child phenotypically white and the other child phenotypically black; but, my God, for the fetuses to display such overt hostility toward one another while in utero, even going so far as to subdivide the uterus… I’m afraid I’ve never seen anything like this before – this is prenatal apartheid.’”
Tack began to laugh. “These infants, bitter rivals in the womb, soon realized the potential of partnership and drew up an agreement to share in accolades and honors.”
The brothers grinned in unison, a mirrored expression across two hues of skin.
Tack spoke to Alice, “You’ve been writing?” The last they’d met her she’d been undercover as a blogger specializing in South Asian politics.
“No, working on a research project. Combing back issues of Siriththiran magazine looking for the crippling flaw in the Tamil Tigers’ cultural strategy.” Alice’s ability to lie on the spot was as superhuman as her ability to exude confidence while doing so.
Tick shook his head. “I’ve never been much for separatist politics. While I’ll admit to occasionally looking in on your linguistic shenanigans, I hardly know what I could add to any such posts.”
Before us, Tack pulled open a heavy iron door. We passed through the portal and I found myself almost bending in half. Knowing the brothers’ penchant for submersibles I was unsurprised to glance through a window to our side and see a fish flit by.
I normally would have been hopping from foot to foot in maddened anxiety at the slightest delay, but my competitive steel was itself competing with a new inexplicable ennui. I kept hearing Burt Reynolds’s words in my head, deep in my heart: “How many more Cannonballs can you win?” It was dulling my edge.
While Tack searched for a pen, Tick stooped to pet a small black mongrel of a dog. “Cute dog,” Alice said. I could hear in her voice that she had the anxiety to leave that I lacked.
“This is Blackie,” Tick explained.
“Blackie the dog,” mused Alice.
“Blackie the dog was not actually a dog,” Tack interjected. “Before last year.” From her place looking out at the fish, I could see Elsa grimace with distaste.
Tick, his fingers behind Blackie’s ear, scratching furiously, cooed, “You’re a good kitty, good kitty. We’re all kitties here, aren’t we? Aren’t we?”
“That’s what you’ve been working on?” Alice said. “Pet-mixing?”
The twins smiled wryly, just the right and left halves of their mouths, respectively. “Mammal-mixing,” Tack said, returning with a pen. “Sea monkeys are not primates after all. But yes, genetic experiments.” He sighed, signing my timecard. “Life stretches long, dear.”
We landed at a private airstrip on the frigid outskirts of St. Petersburg, Russia and Alice produced passports for each of us, emblazoned with the crest of the European Union.
“When we meet Kasparov,” she said, “you let me do the talking.”
So this was why she was along. Garry Kasparov, chess legend turned Russia’s only opposition leader, was our St. Petersburg waypoint. I’d never known he was involved in the Cannonball, but Alice must have known ahead of time.
Our limo was bedecked with a flashing blue light and high-pitched siren and tore through the snow-lined streets. My head up against the cool pane of the window, I did something I rarely did in a race: I thought. I hadn’t been able to stop thinking, really. Thinking about Burt Reynolds and life. I was barely into my thirties. When I was a child and I thought about long life, I imagined it stretching to 100. When you’re a child and you imagine 100 years in which to accomplish the things a man must, you divide it into quarters. What will I accomplish in each of my four sets of 25 years? But now, medicine had intervened. Now I had more than four sets of 25. My math was all off.
Alice’s voice shattered my reverie. “Here,” she said. It was her all-business voice. She opened the door hard and wide, almost knocking a sleeping transient from a snow pile.
Garry Kasparov was in a red bathrobe when he opened the door to his flat. His thick gray hair strived to point in every possible direction away from his head, his eyes were crusted over in sleep; he wiped at both with little effect. “You are the Cannonballers,” he said in heavily accented English as he walked from us toward the kitchen. “Let me find my pen.”
Alice gave me a stern look and then darted around the apartment, checking the undersides of tables, lamps, and the backs of chairs. For what, exactly? As Kasparov walked back toward us with a cup of cloudy tap water, she strode toward an old stereo and flipped it on. The music was classical. I believe it was Shostakovich. She turned it high. The flutes, when they entered, made me wince.
“Kasparov,” she hissed. “We don’t have long.”
Kasparov’s eyes tightened as he watched her approach. He took a sip of water.
“Now is the time. You will run for President of Russia again. The US will support you in secret. We will get you elected. Putin is finally weak.”
Kasparov shook his head. Standing there in his bathrobe, he looked like a tired, tired old man. He walked away from Alice, flicked a switch on the stereo and Shostakovich disappeared in a sudden and surprising silence. It was Kasparov’s growl that filled it.
“You foolish American spies. How many times can you offer me this same false promise? Let the hidden microphones listen, I don’t care.”
Alice’s eyebrows rose in surprise. This was not in the plan.
“You know this used to be Shostakovich’s apartment?” he asked, rhetorically. “During the siege, during the war. He would lie in that bedroom, in my bedroom, and whisper against Stalin. As if Stalin were really the problem. In the weeks before he wrote the Leningrad Symphony he considered turning. Offering the city up to the Germans and the Finns with himself as mayor. But one morning he found something that changed his mind. About that and about a lot of things. Clipped to his bike, he found a strip of yellowed graph paper with neat handwritten text that fit between the small grid lines, “Οὔ με πείσεις, κάν με πείσεις.” Ancient Greek: “even if you convince me, you’ll never convince me.” He believed it was from the city. Maybe from Mother Russia herself. Some Russian intelligence deeper, more insidious than Stalin, than the Communist Party and the Politburo, something before even the Tsars. That’s really what the Leningrad Symphony is about: the Mother in Mother Russia.
Kasparov walked to the window, drew aside the curtain, and looked out into the dim light. “And why would I want to be President of this horrid country, anyway. It has been eating away at its own insides since Yeltsin. Food is always scarce, too expensive. Street violence is out of control, even here in St. Petersburg.” He turned to us, his face a portrait of exhaustion. “I never knew, until now, that watching a nearly dead hooker foam at the mouth could be considered a sport. It’s disgusting, this city.”
He walked to me. “You are Mont Blanc. It’s unmistakable based on your description. Let me use that famous pen of yours and then you can take your foolish friends away. I will stay here, kept alive by the scientists of Mother Russia to live in eternal opposition, my life stretching long and endless before me.”
Alice, her eyes stoked cinders, turned and said, “Elsa, Mont Blanc, wait outside please.”
I generously took her to mean outside the door where it was warm and not outside the building where it was below freezing. Elsa and I leaned against the banister waiting and listening to the steady clump of a resident’s ascension as it neared us.
The man, when he appeared, was preceded by a white-tipped cane. His head was drooped as if he were studying the floor through his dark black glasses. He would have been if was not so obviously blind. “Did I hear Shostakovich?” he asked us by way of introduction. His accent was Western, possibly American.
“A few minutes ago, yes.”
“Ah, he’s a favorite. Sometimes you have to play something other than ‘Oklahoma’. Even if they’re paying you for it.”
“Anything from Broadway. It’s what pays the bills.” He had angled his face up to mine now, though his eyes would have been pointed at my chin behind those glasses. “You’re here about the television, I assume? To install my cable?”
“No, just passing through.” I looked at Elsa who had fixed her bored, distracted gaze on the back of the piano player’s head.
“Passing through,” the man muttered as if turning over something in his mind. “Right, right.” He touched me on the arm and began to speak fast and otherworldly like some sort of daykeeper: “You’re about to give up on something. An award of some kind. You’re looking for an answer. You’ll find it in the snows.”
The man didn’t reply; he swung his cane out and rounded the banister to continue his climb. Before I could call out another question the door swung open in front of us. Alice’s hair was askew, her eyes were intense and her lips were tight.
“Svalbard,” she said.
“You don’t know!” Kasparov yelled from behind her. “It’s the most powerful computer on Earth! Trust me, I’ve battled the worst!”
“We’re making a Svalbard Run,” Alice continued.
It was just outside that the mute, mustachioed man attacked us with the knife. He leapt from behind a snowdrift and would have been wrist deep in my spleen but for the surprisingly quick karate chop of Elsa. I had been protesting to Alice that there wasn’t a charter service in the world that was going to fly us from St. Petersburg to Svalbard in the year’s waning months. Her response, post-karate chop, was to discharge two bullets into the coat of the mustachioed man, using his own girth to muffle the report. “This one’s with Baby Girl Kelly and Jayce Mullis,” she said. “Whatever transportation they’re using, it’ll be ours.”
“We’re going into the Global Seed Vault,” Alice was telling me. “Can you handle a gun?” I shrugged. “Of course you can.” She pressed a small, cold lump of metal into my palm. “Just don’t use it to shoot me.” She smiled. I forgot that Alice enjoyed times like this. She turned to Elsa, who was up against the railing. “We’ll need one for you too, sweetheart.”
Elsa’s face was different. Still impassive, still impenetrable, but no longer distant. Elsa was alert. She was here with us now, and her hand was emerging from her coat pocket with something. “No, dear. I have a gun.” Her Southern lilt was gone, replaced with something undeniably Russian. “I cannot let you near the Svalbard Vaults.”
Alice hissed, “You’re a double agent! You bitch!” She leapt at her, feline in the air as Elsa squeezed off a shot that went wide, missing Alice’s now airborne golden mane by a centimeter. Then Elsa’s hand was down, slapped against the railing once, twice, and her gun clattered away. Alice had her firmly in her grip. The things she wanted to say did not match any words she knew of – not in English, not in any language – and yet she felt compelled to vocalize them, and so she said: “I love you.” And then she hefted her over the side.
Elsa’s body fell somewhere in St. Petersburg.
Baby Girl Kelly and Jayce Mullis had outfitted their airship well. It had a full bedroom/bathroom suite. A kitchen, or galley, I suppose. They had stored bottle after bottle of Cristal, filled the freezers with frozen steaks, even stocked the cupboards with tiny cans of Vienna Sausages. They packed lemons and pemmican against scurvy. They’d also stuffed the closets with every type of outerwear imaginable, and Alice and I donned all of it.
Above decks the sky had turned to the darkest of cloudless nights. The sun was gone from here not for the night but for the next few months. We flew by GPS as I tacked through squalls and gusts, eyes squinting behind thick snow-skiers’ goggles.
With this diversion I knew we’d given up the race. We wouldn’t beat anyone to Jining, China even if we managed to survive Svalbard. And somehow, I found myself not caring. I’d slipped into an emotional torpor. About the Cannonball, about my life of racing, about my life at all. My soul felt as black as the night around us.
After a few hours, Alice waved to me from the foredeck. Off in the distance through a haze akin to that of a nuclear winter she could just make out the seemingly lifeless body of a child. Upon closer inspection, circling above, we saw it was a bear cub, dead from the elements. He’d been clawing at an iron door as if it were a cave he could find warmth in.
We were here: The Global Seed Vault of Svalbard, Norway.
As Kasparov had told Alice, the Russian government wasn’t run by Vladimir Putin, ageless strongman though he seemed. It was run by the greatest chess-playing computer ever built. When Kasparov himself had been defeated by Deep Blue, the Kremlin decided computers had come of age and were finally ready to rule over man. While the world was depositing its seeds into the Svalbard vaults, Russia secretly moved in its newly finished computer. A place unassailable by military force according to treaty and a place so secure it was intended to survive multiple possible apocalypses. Which reminded me, how were we going to break into this place?
“We’re going in the front door,” Alice said matter-of-factly over the roar of the wind.
And in we went, snowflakes curling around our feet in the airlock as we stepped through, guns drawn and ready.
“Who are we expecting?” I whispered.
“Russian agents disguised as Norwegian UN guards,” Alice hissed back.
I sighed. This was so typical Alice.
Before us a giant steel door swung open to reveal a cavernous halogen-lit space with smooth, rounded concrete walls. I crept forward but Alice rushed past me, her blond hair fluttering behind her. “No time,” she called. “It’s got to know we’re here by now!”
It’s got to know? Was Alice convinced this thing was sentient? Some sort of sentient supercomputer running Russia for the last two decades? I rushed to catch up, following her deeper into tighter concrete tunnels past brushed steel doors and, somehow, not another single soul.
Alice disappeared around another corner but as I followed, I didn’t find her, I just found a blank wall. A tunnel as yet undug. The rare rough patch of rock wall. Where was Alice? I turned. A shot rang out and a spark of pain set my shoulder on fire. I spun and hit the concrete floor.
And then I was walking through one of the steel doors. It opened onto a living room. A living room with a window to the outside. But strangely not the outside I knew lurked dark and freezing in Svalbard, somewhere different. Somewhere warm and sunny. Before the window, on a faded floral couch sat a young olive-skinned man in a white undershirt. He had thick black hair and on his lap he held a copy of Gravity’s Rainbow. He smiled as I walked in. “Want some pizza?” he asked.
“Who are you?” I asked. “Are you the computer?”
He laughed. “I’m Nicholas J. Pony.” His smile was boyish. He flipped open the cardboard box on the couch next to him, exposing a few remaining slices of cheese pizza in offering. “Have one,” he insisted.
I sat down next to him and took a piece. It felt good in my hands, still warm.
“You ever read this book?” he asked, brandishing the Pynchon.
“No,” I said, biting off the tip of my slice. It was delicious.
“It’s stupid. I just got to a chapter that’s all in German. I swear I’ll throw this book out this window.”
“You should quit reading it,” I said.
“I never give up,” he replied, still smiling.
“Me neither,” I replied, taking a second bite of the pizza. How could I have been so ravenously hungry without realizing it?
“Sure you do,” he said. “What about this race?”
He was right. I stopped mid-chew. Something was wrong with me. I was not myself, I was not Mont Blanc. I was quitting the Cannonball. “How many times can you win the Cannonball?” I murmured.
Nicholas J. Pony laughed. “Man, you could win it so many times.”
I lowered my pizza to my lap and looked up to him. His eyes were bright with excitement, but his head backlit by the sunny window. I had to squint to look at him. “But to what end?”
“It’s all about pizza,” he said. “Not pizza the noun, though that’s an important part of it. It’s about pizza the adjective.” I knitted my eyebrows in confusion. “When I say pizza, I say it with an exclamation point. It means awesome. More awesome than awesome.” He pointed across the room to a black Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. It only had three strings. “I play that guitar and that’s totally pizza. I turn it all the way up, I put the amp in the window, and I really blast the neighbors until I can’t catch my breath. You’re too worried about living. You’ve got to worry about pizza. As the adjective.”
Then Alice was shaking me awake.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” she said, breathless. “You can’t just sleep on the floor.” I heard a distant explosion. An alarm.
I grabbed at my shoulder expecting a mess of blood. My hand came back dry.
“Pizza,” I muttered.
“You want a pizza right now?” she asked, incredulous.
“No, pizza, as an adjective. I’m expressing my elation. We’ve got to move. I can get that airship to China in time to win this thing.”
As it happens, we didn’t quite win The Cannonball. To our credit, the detour to the Arctic Circle put us only an hour behind the winners: Raoul and a parrot-perched seagull he’d acquired in the Azores. They stood at the center of the crowd gathered in the sun-drenched empty street surrounded by tables of liquor and kegs of beer organized by Don Franco’s people. Drooley was not a fastidious seagull; Raoul said he was always encroaching on his personal space, hopping and pecking for a lagniappe of any sort. It didn’t seem to help that Raoul was letting him sip from his cup of potato vodka.
The city of Jining, as promised, was deserted and surrounded by desert. The Gobi’s sands drifted past us, lazily encroaching where civilization once held sway.
Plenty of people had yet to arrive. Baby Girl Kelly and Jayce Mullis (as we could have guessed) were among the absent. When asked if we knew where any of the strays had gotten off to, Alice responded innocently “Perhaps there are some in Kathmandu?” Then we both laughed.
Don Franco was in rare form, making his way through the racers with his bottle of champagne. He approached us as we stood talking with Celia Escobar. She and Miriam had spent the night in the coffin-shaped cabin of their homemade rocket crossing the Pacific with only six granola bars and a DVD player. “I stayed up til 4 a.m. watching Zabriskie Point and I think it broke my brain,” she told us.
“Antonioni!” cried Don Franco, shaking a point-making finger in the air. “The Italians they made the best films!” He filled our flutes to overflowing.
I had my arm around Alice’s thin waist and it felt good. I wasn’t kidding myself. I knew that after today, after we flew off in the “Get Steppin’”, after we dumped it in the Pacific and chartered a yacht back to Macau, that Alice and I wouldn’t last. She’d disappear from my life again. But it didn’t matter, it was all pizza.
Raoul cried out from the center of the crowd, his single arm raised to the yellow sky, “You know what this party needs? We need to get some fried chicken and get into a fight!”
Ah The Cannonball. It was all pizza. Pizza, the adjective.