In the summer of 2008 I was halfway through my culinary studies at a prominent school in upstate New York, working on a two year degree in baking and pastry, and I’d taken my required externship geographically two thirds of the way back West across the continent at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, CO, a huge, high-end resort within rock-throwing distance of Cheyenne Mountain and the NORAD stronghold housed within it (but throw a rock in that direction and see what happens, I dare you). This was a fact that I knew, but had forgotten at the time that I was there. More on my mind, regional-fact-wise, was the biography of Nicola Tesla I’d just read, and his experiments utilizing the frequent and easy occurrence of lightning near the mountains. He’d been in Colorado Springs for a six-month period at the turn of the Twentieth Century, and I wondered how he would’ve seen the place back then. No doubt, it would have been very different. I would be there for four months myself. And though the mountain – not so large of a one, though it loomed directly overhead – seemed to nag at me with some (literally) buried association, it simply never crossed my mind what in fact was inside of it: a covert city, some dark inversion of the sun-blasted, golf-happy daylight world that I was baking bread, frying doughnuts, and grilling crêpes for. I was aware of the various and several military bases surrounding the region, and was growing accustomed to the ubiquity of the religious talk of informal Bible study groups that I would run across just about any time I went out.
I lived about five miles from the hotel towards downtown, and on my time off, I would each day walk from my shared apartment to the chain-store bakery café at the nearby mall in order to get out of the overcrowded employee housing and work on my novel. Frankly, I was miserable. I was working long hours at hard work for very little money, crammed into some dismal apartment with a bunch of student caddies half my age, and wondering why I’d gone to such lengths to get myself into exactly this situation, out of all possible ones. Except for the book, my life had come to seem deeply pointless. The route I walked through the neighborhood, about a mile in each direction, took me past a Catholic church – really kind of a plain one, as far as such structures go, and perhaps something of the black sheep of the local Evangelical (and Protestant) religious community, notoriously fervid in that area. I’d had some dalliance with Catholicism, converting several years earlier, not out of any deep conviction but to show fealty to my wife-to-be and her family, but once I’d left the marriage, I found I no longer felt any attraction toward the religion either. On this hot afternoon – the 3rd of July, exactly – as I was walking back home, a sudden movement caught my eye above the church’s vast, empty parking lot, about twenty feet up in the air, to my left and less than fifty feet away. I glanced over just in time to see something that looked like some stylized graphic of a lick of flame, like a sort of living cartoon, made of gold leaf or foil, turn and fold up into itself and quickly disappear. There was no sound. It left a small puff of gray-brown smoke that lingered and drifted slowly away, dissipating into the windless air. I walked slowly along, my eyes fixed to the spot, and watched the smoke vanish. It had seemed like almost nothing, but at the same time so vivid, so creepily artificial; abstract and unlikely, yet intentional and also exact.
Much like almost everything else that I’m describing here, this small event came with its own deniability built into it: on the day before the fourth of July, in a town populated by military and religious conservatives, if fireworks are shot off, no one is surprised. If I describe a small explosion and puff of smoke in the air, obviously somebody’s been playing with bottle rockets, right? Or so it could be easily explained away by someone who hadn’t seen it. But if they had seen it, they would have noticed the perfectly contoured shape of the curving, stylized “flame”, the glint of crumpled foil in the sun that caught reflected light, and not fire itself, not a burst of gunpowder; and they would have puzzled over the odd, turning, curling motion of the shape, not expanding but imploding, or rather folding into an invisible space like a slit in the air. They would be struck by the extreme but subtle strangeness of the thing. And like other things I’ve described, particularly the Whidbey Island event, though containing its own deniability, it had also came with its own reality-test, its own verifiability, at least for my own benefit: the lingering smoke that I watched with such blank banality for several seconds as it drifted and slowly scattered. That had come from something as physically real as anything was. Aside from the traffic along the arterial street one block away, there was nobody else around at the time. The church was closed and looked to be empty. I saw no children from nearby lots, though I did look around to see if there were maybe anybody around who could have shot something off.
I was at the time only two weeks into my required 18 of study/employment, and things did not get any easier for quite a long time. Eventually my young roommates all moved out and I had the horrible little apartment to myself. I came to appreciate the region, finding the parts of it that I liked, and even felt reasonably at home after a while. The appearance of the cartoon flame had imparted something to me – it seemed to be telling me that my existence, specifically my existence right there at that time, was not some random fuckup; that there was a level of meaning somewhere just beneath the surface perhaps, that had just poked through, just enough for me to notice, to know that it was there. That was all that it showed me, insofar as I know: just that it was there. Maybe that’s all that I needed.
Perhaps as a remnant of my brief Catholicism – certainly not because I’m any sort of Bible scholar – I eventually recalled from somewhere (had I imagined this, I wondered?) a description of the descent of the Holy Ghost to the disciples of Jesus, post-crucifixion, post-resurrection, as tongues of flame. But this? This was a cartoon, for sweet fuck’s sake. It looked like a decoration on a cake.