Bali is the perfect place for Oliver. It feels like the end of the road, the end of the world, where everything stops. No pressure, no pretense. Just the waves on the beach, constant, tempting. The bars in Kuta, art in Ubud, temples, music, beer, beautiful Australians, men and women.
He’s backpacking with a guy he’d met at the hostel in Bangkok, Barry, a sour kid from Brooklyn who couldn’t wait to get out of Thailand and now can’t wait to get out of Indonesia. He wants to leave, and Oliver wants to stay, maybe forever. So go ahead, Barry, go, have a nice life. Replacing Barry with a girl, or another guy, or both, could lead to a new world of possibilities for Oliver, arousing possibilities. But Barry backs off, says he isn’t serious about leaving, and, to show there’s no hard feelings, he’s got a special treat for Oliver.
Oliver is skeptical. In Bangkok, Barry’s idea of something special was a whorehouse. Not that Oliver didn’t thoroughly enjoy himself, but that was Bangkok. Another planet.
Barry leads him to a café. It looks like all the other cafés, and bottles of Anker beer arrive, along with a menu.
“A very special menu,” Barry says.
Special, indeed: blue meanie omelets, blue meanie soup (with carrots), blue meanies sautéed with onions and garlic.
They order the omelet, to share, and, when it comes, Oliver has to make a choice. This could be a colossal mistake. He’s heard about the effects, that mushrooms are like LSD, which somehow never came his way during college, and, although he’s curious, he’s just plain scared. He wants adventure, he wants experience, but it could kill you, right? Warp your mind?
The omelet is greasy and gritty, barely edible, but that’s hardly the point. When nothing happens, Oliver recalls the first time he smoked pot, how it had no effect. Barry is disappointed, too, and they go in search of a real meal.
As they walk down the sandy street, Barry jumps over the shadow of a palm tree. Oliver sees the same shadow, but suddenly it’s writhing like a snake, and Oliver is rooted where he stands. Barry laughs and jumps back over the shadow, kicking sand onto Oliver’s feet, and then he grabs Oliver, dragging him forward. When Oliver tries to pull free, they both tumble, laughing, into the sand.
As the mushrooms take hold, they return to their inn near the beach, where Oliver hopes to ride out the trip in safety. They sit on the porch, and he grips the railing, afraid he will fall or—and this seems a real possibility—drift into the endless sky. He’s thirsty, thirstier than he has ever been in his life. A beer materializes at his side, and then it is pouring into his mouth, dribbling down his chest.
A rooster struts through the courtyard. It picks and pecks, cocky. Peck. Cock. Prick. Cocky cock. The rooster looks at him and speaks, but he’s speaking Indonesian. Whatever he’s saying, it’s hilarious, and Oliver laughs. He can’t stop. Barry pulls his dick out and pisses on the rooster, which is even funnier. The rooster cackles and leaps away. Barry runs after him, spraying piss on himself, on the rooster, all over. Oliver is laughing so hard he spills his beer, and that makes him laugh more. He falls backward onto the porch. His head lands on the hard wood with a thud.
Oliver opens his eyes. He remembers the rooster and he remembers hitting his head. He feels his head now and there is a bump. But he’s no longer at the inn. He’s on the beach. He’s wearing shorts, but he’s shirtless and barefoot. His skin burns. The sun is sinking, nearly gone.
He stands, dizzy. On the way to the inn he comes across a shop and asks for beer. His thirst is still epic. He reaches into his pocket, but his wallet is gone. He pats front and back, back and front. He runs back to the beach, anticipating the relief he will feel when he finds the wallet. But the entire beach looks like someone slept there, sand troughs and sand waves, and although he does find a spot that seems right, there is no wallet.
Did he have it when they went for the omelet? It was Barry’s treat, he knew he wouldn’t need money, so maybe it’s in the room? He runs now, with darkness deepening, and finds the inn.
The rooster still struts through the sand. Oliver jumps onto the porch. The door to their room is open, but Barry isn’t there. Barry’s backpack isn’t there, either. Oliver’s is there, though, open, disturbed. He pulls clothes from the pack, his guidebook, his journal, piling it all on the bed, until the pack is empty. His wallet is gone. The linen pouch with his passport is still there, but the travelers’ cheques are not. His camera. The tiny ruby he bargained for in Bangkok. The batik he bought in Jogjakarta. Gone.
He slumps on the porch, as close to tears as he’s been since childhood. If Barry appeared right now he might kill him. Oliver pounds his fist on the porch once—take that—and then again—take that—and again. The violence helps. He pounds the porch again. Better. He pounds the porch one more time and, when he looks up, sees that he’s being watched. In the glow of a lamp across the courtyard, two travelers, tall and blond, a man and a woman, lift bottles of beer in greeting. The man reaches into the bag by his side, pulls out another bottle, and holds it toward Oliver.
Oliver rises. The dizziness—whether from the mushrooms, or the fall, or the sun—is still with him. As he crosses the courtyard, the rooster eyes him warily and then, in a moment of clarity, runs for his life.
Clifford Garstang is the author of the novel in stories, What the Zhang Boys Know (Press 53, September 2012), and the prize-winning short story collection In an Uncharted Country (Press 53, 2009). His work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Blackbird, Virginia Quarterly Review, Cream City Review, Tampa Review, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere, and has received Distinguished Mention in the Best American Series. He won the 2006 Confluence Fiction Prize and the 2007 GSU Review Fiction Prize. He has received fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. In addition to degrees in law and public administration, he holds an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and is the co-founder and editor of Prime Number Magazine.
Read an interview with Cliff here.