The Purging Pond:
An Aquatic Odyssey
I was profusely sweating. Severely dehydrated. Wholly depleted of energy. Hiking for over an hour in the southwestern desert at midday in August will do that.
No, I am not a masochist. I do not enjoy pain and suffering. Just the opposite: I am a dyed-in-the-wool hedonist.
So what was I doing in such a hellish place? many of you are wondering.
Believe me, upon my awakening this morning, I didn’t plop my feet on the floor and yawn and stretch and say, “I think I’ll traipse through the desert today until I roast to death.” Like I said, pleasure was “my thing,” to quote a phrase from the late 1960s. (Although I was born in 1979, the sixties seemed like a fabulous time to live, what with the plethora of free sex, drugs, love-ins, great pop music, etc.) But upon opening my eyes, the six words Your fate lies in the desert! had resounded in my brain.
“Am I going crazy?” I had concernedly said.
Your fate lies in the desert! cried the chorus of voices.
I leapt out of bed, shut my eyes, grabbed my head.
Your fate lies in the desert!
“Be gone!” I had vociferated.
Your fate lies in the desert!
“I said be gone!!”
Surprisingly, magically, the words stopped.
For a short time, they stayed away.
But then, as I was dressing in my bedroom, I heard those six words outside my head!
“Oh man,” I had muttered. “I really have lost it.”
The singular baritone voice was that of a man. He sounded like a town crier.
This time, I was not able to verbally expunge the words away.
“Who are you?” I’d bellowed, throwing up my hands. “What do you want of me?”
“Come to the desert and find out,” the town crier had replied.
“I have to go to work; I have no time to wander aimlessly through the desert.”
“Then you will be plagued for the rest of your life, day and night, by my voice.”
I drew a deep, slow breath through my nose. “You said my fate lies there.”
“That is correct.”
“What is the nature of this fate?”
“You must go there to find out.”
“Go where? The desert’s a big place.”
“Drive to the end of Cobbs Lane,” I was told, “park in the lot of the dune buggy shop, and walk through the unlocked white gate, to your destiny.”
The fact that I’m presently trekking through the desert with the sun beating fulgently, mercilessly, upon me means that I listened to the town crier. Do you blame me? I didn’t want him to plague me for the rest of my life—I truly believe he would have made good on his promise—and I was inordinately impelled to discover what my fate was.
Before I proceed with my story, I need to tell you a little about myself.
I am the vilest of men. I lie without compunction. I steal without guilt. I care not about human or animal suffering in this stinking world. I’ve bedded down hundreds of women in my forty-two years, many of them married. I’ve bilked individuals and companies of close to fifty million dollars. I will ruefully gaze at you as I warmly squeeze your hand, tell you how badly I feel of your destitute condition, while slipping your wallet out of your back pocket with my free hand—and this while I have a wad of hundred-dollar bills in the pocket of my two-thousand-dollar tailor-made suit.
Need I say more? I think not.
My name is David Joseph Bennett.
It should. I’m CEO of a retail company that markets subliminal CDs of my own creation— CDs which break the cycle of behavior, be it positive or negative. No doubt a goodly number of you reading this have purchased something from my company. (How could you not? It’s a great company, and I’m an enthusiastic spokesman.) But would you have done so if you knew the scoundrel who ran it? And that there are no subliminal messages in any of my CDs? I think the answer is obvious. (At the risk of sounding immodest, I do have quite a mellifluous voice, don’t you think, ladies?)
Now, why on earth would a person want to expunge good behavior? (Not that my CDs would do that; they were useless.) Because even good behavior can cause problems for certain individuals. For instance, most of you have known kindhearted, gullible, generous people. On the surface this is a good thing, yes? But what if said person gave so much money to charities, homeless and animal shelters, and moochers in his social circle that he had trouble paying his mortgage? Buying food? Filling his gas tank? Unless this cycle was somehow broken, said individual would eventually become impoverished. And that was the snake oil I sold to them. Are we clear? Have I sufficiently enlightened you? If not, then you shouldn’t be reading my story. (If I sound like a wiseass, it’s because I am.)
Back to the desert….
I should tell you that I’m the sole human being in this torrid wasteland. I mean, not even boisterous, shirtless male teens had ventured out here in their dune buggies when the temperature in the shade was 109 degrees Fahrenheit!
I drained the last drops from my water bottle. I checked the time: 12:17 p.m. (The town crier had last spoken to me seventy-three minutes ago.) I fell to my knees, panting. “I’m dying.”
I estimated that I had trekked three miles. And if the town crier was perchance a by-product of my malfunctioning brain, I really was going to die here, for I’d never make the return journey (that’s what it felt like) without water.
Whereupon I was struck with a frightening possibility I’d not hitherto considered: I was destined to die in this godforsaken place for some unknown reason, and something in the universe had manufactured the voice outside my head in order to get me here!
“That something,” said the baritone voice, “was me.”
I raised my head. “You are real, then.”
“As real as you are.”
“Well, no matter how I got here, if I don’t get water soon, I’m going to pass out and die and become carrion for the coyotes.”
“That is not your fate, David.”
“Get real!” I protested. “I couldn’t care less about atonement!”
“You have done horrible things to good people. That is a given.”
“I freely admit that.” Then: “If that’s the reason you brought me here, I’m splitting.”
“It’s not that simple,” the town crier rejoined. “Once you passed through the white gate, you triggered an unstoppable chain of events that must be played out according to the rules.”
“What kind of rules?”
“I will shortly expound.” He then asked me how I felt about all the terrible things I did.
“Great. In fact, if I don’t die out here, I plan to go back, and lie and cheat and lust and steal and connive and enrich myself as much as possible.”
“This ties in to why you are out here.”
“Because I’m going to die?”
“It is all up to you.”
I manipulated my mouth, tried to work up some saliva, but could not. “Water. I need water.”
“All that you require is up ahead.”
I languidly rose, shielded my eyes from the blinding sun. “There’s nothing there.”
But then, a moment later, a circular, white granite wall materialized before me!
“Where on earth did that come from?”
“It was there all the time; you just didn’t see it,” the town crier answered.
“What’s behind it?”
I trudged up to the wall, ran my hands over the cool, smooth surface.
“Step through it, David.”
“There’s no opening.”
“Step through it.”
I obeyed, walked through the wall as if it wasn’t there, and beheld a sizeable pond on the other side! It was perfectly circular, crystal clear, and appeared to be bottomless.
“Therein lies your fate, David.”
“I don’t give a lick about my destiny,” I retorted. “I just want water.”
I stared at the still, crystal clear water; it was devoid of all life forms.
“It seems to be beckoning me….”
“It is,” the town crier related. “Something special awaits you.”
I thoughtfully gnawed my lower lip, then ambled up to the waters’ edge.
“Go. Sate yourself.”
Thereon I partook of the most delicious water I ever tasted. As I was doing so, I was suddenly, inexplicably, sucked into the pond, and propelled violently downward.
“Keep holding your breath,” the town crier exhorted. “Don’t panic.”
Strangely, despite my being submerged, his loud voice was as lucid as it was above water.
“You will see a series of seven houses encapsulated in a transparent shell at the bottom of the pond. Each bubble-house bears a large orange number with a word that describes a cyclic behavior you must extinguish. I have ranked these seven behaviors which I feel are most important to you. They are: avarice, salacity, dissembling, swindling, gambling, disloyalty, and narcissism.”
I continued to be pulled downward. And I must be honest, folks, it’s kind of scary not knowing when you’ll be able to breathe. Why the heck didn’t the town crier provide me with scuba gear?
“You will have—you guessed it—seven twelve-hour ‘days.’ You will obviously enter bubble one first—you will be able to breathe—then proceed to the others in numerical order. Once inside the bubble, you must step inside the house. You will have exactly seventy-seven minutes—the digital time will be displayed in the wall—to discover what is hidden for you: a PDA (Portable Data Assistant). The PDA in each bubble-house will have three questions; you must correctly answer two of three. Each set of questions will be particular to the ‘bad’ trait you must eliminate and will become increasingly more difficult each successive day. If you correctly answer two questions, you will be permitted to exit the structure and proceed to the next bubble-house. Air, food, and water will be provided if you successfully answer the questions.
“The following day, the time will reappear on the walls and start ticking away your existence. If you fail at any time to correctly answer two out of three questions, you will be permanently sealed in the house, and no substance provided, and eventually you will expire.”
Upon arriving at the bottom—I was so relieved, I can’t tell you!—I saw the seven bubble-houses the town crier had described—all lined up, as neatly as you please, with big orange numbers on them. I discerned no openings, however. But I remained calm, and walked along the sandy bottom over to bubble-house #1. (I was supernaturally weighted down.)
“Touch it,” the town crier directed, “and you will be sucked inside.”
I did so, and was.
The interior of the bubble was furnished with a small bed, sans a frame; a one-piece chair; a desk; a three-shelf bookcase (with books); a sink; an open toilet; and a compact refrigerator. The temperature I estimated to be 70 degrees. I heard a faint humming in the background. The digital clock in the wall showed the current time: 00:03:00.
“No time to waste,” I muttered. “I need to find that PDA.”
I diligently searched for it for what seemed like hours, but failed to locate it.
The clock said: 00:57:00.
A subconscious tick-tock echoed in my brain like the “Tell-Tale Heart.”
“Where is it?” I desperately cried.
I was hyperventilating, now.
Then, I tripped on a slightly loose “floorboard.” (It, like the rest of the house, was composed of a white material I didn’t recognize.) I pulled up the board; and to my prodigious relief, I perceived the PDA nestled in the crevice of the floor!
I glanced at the clock: 00:59:00.
I picked up the PDA—my mouth was bone-dry—and the first question appeared.
“I hope this is multiple choice, because I don’t have time to complete an essay.”
“It is, David,” the town crier said.
I closed my eyes.
“But make haste: you only have seventeen minutes.”
I sat down in the chair, gathered some air, read the following.
Question #1: How much money do you need to be happy?
The choices were as follows:
(a) Over $1 million.
(b) Less than $1 million.
(c) No amount of money would make me happy.
I answered it incorrectly, and profoundly sighed.
“Relax, David,” the town crier said. “You have two more tries.”
I gathered some more air, corrected my erroneous thinking. Then, after correctly answering the next two questions, I found myself outside bubble-house #2, and was again sucked inside.
The interior was furnished exactly like bubble-house #1. The clock in the wall said:
I have twelve hours to relax, I thought.
I spent the day reading, dozing, thinking.
When the clock went from 11:59:00 to 00:00:00, some small new items appeared, one of them being a peculiar flowerpot.
Wasting no time, I examined it, and the PDA was inside! And I saw the following:
Question #1: How much sex do you need to be satisfied?
(a) As much as I can get.
(b) I shouldn’t have sex unless I’m married.
(c) It doesn’t matter, as long as I care for the woman.
I swiftly pushed the “b” button, which was correct.
The next two questions I also answered properly, and forthwith found myself inside bubble-house #3.
“Two down, five to go.”
I breezed through the questions in the next four bubble-houses; and on the seventh day, in the seventh bubble-house, I was violently quavering, for time was running out, and I couldn’t locate the PDA.
But…there was a grand mahogany desk I hadn’t explored.
“It has to be in there,” I reasoned. “All the other desks were white.”
Upon inspecting it, I discovered a hidden panel in the back of the center drawer. Inside was a large wooden puzzle box. I love these things. You slide one piece of wood in a certain direction and another piece in another direction, and continue sliding pieces until you solve it, and then—voilà!—it opens, revealing its hidden treasure. I also possessed expert Rubik’s cube skills, so this should be simple for me.
It was much more challenging than I ever imagined, and when it finally opened and revealed the last PDA, I had merely eight minutes to correctly answer two out of three questions.
Sweat covered my brow. My heart was pounding.
“I’m finished,” I dreaded. “I’m not gonna make it.”
“Clear your brain,” the town crier exhorted. “Forget about the time and the fact that you will be sealed in this house and eventually die.”
“Easy for you to say, bud.”
I glanced at all three questions.
“They’re deliberately ambiguous!” I growled. “Do you want me to fail? Do you want me to remain imprisoned down here forever?”
“On the contrary: I want you to break your malevolent, cyclic behavior.”
To my relief and astonishment, I quickly answered the first two questions correctly. And all that lay between me and my Great Escape was the following:
Question #3: How great do you really think you are?
(a) It’s not for me to say.
(b) I think I have outstanding talents and skills.
(c) Some days I feel like I can conquer the world.
My eyes went to the clock: 01:15:00.
“Two minutes left.” I swallowed. “Here goes nothing.”
Sweat dripped into my eyes. I wiped it out of them. Paused. Drew a massive breath.
Then, I pressed the “a” button, shut my eyes, and stopped breathing.
Miraculously, I shot to the top of the pond, and was expelled onto the sandy bank.
I filled my lungs, faced the pond.
It was gone; in its place was a shimmering light that projected upwards, with holographic stairs that beckoned me.
I walked over to it, placed my foot on the bottom step—and up, and away I went!