The Pope visits me in a dream. He is riding a motorcycle. I know immediately that he is the Pope, even though he is not the current Pope. He is somewhere between twenty-eight and thirty-five years old with a five-o’clock shadow. He is wearing a leather jacket. He is straddling his black bike and taking his futuristic black helmet off and running a hand through his wavy black hair. He smiles at me and nods, a knowing nod that means he understands me.
Then he drives away, riding his Harley with no hands.
The first thing I do when I wake up is buy a motorcycle. It seems like the logical thing to do. I am at a point in my life where I am looking for a guiding sign of any sort, and I hope this is it. I am not a particularly spiritual or superstitious person, but I do not think the Pope just visits people in their dreams for no reason. Also, the Pope is very successful in an ancient hierarchical organization that resembles my beloved United States Marine Corps in many ways. I would be foolish not to follow his example.
It is emotional, driving my ’99 Civic out the base gate one last time. I have to sell it to help offset the cost of my motorcycle. The Civic has taken me lots of places. We even crossed the country together, the Civic and I, when I drove from my first duty station in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to Twentynine Palms, California. I have some fond memories from that road trip, like when I had my picture taken in front of the Nebraska State Capitol. It is the second-tallest state capitol building, behind only Louisiana.
I also have some not-so-fond memories from that road trip. Like when I got a phone call from the unit I was joining to tell me we would be deploying to Japan instead of Afghanistan. The government had signed a peace deal. I was going to miss the war.
I cried for most of New Mexico, because I wanted to go to Afghanistan. This is why: I used to be a little bit of a loser, before I enlisted. First, I flunked out of college. Then I got a job at the supermarket, but I got fired because I yelled at some customers who took stuff from the shelves I was stocking. Then I started driving for Uber, but I had a two out of five star rating because I kept on grilling passengers about where they were going, why they were going there, whether there was any real point in them going there, what they thought would be different after they went there, and so on. People eventually stopped accepting rides from me.
I was in big trouble. I did not have any money saved up to keep paying off my student loans. I did some research on how to get out of debt and the internet said that if I enlisted, the collections company would have to cap the interest on my payments for as long as I was on active duty. It seemed like a good way to get my head above water.
I chose communications as my specialty because my recruiter said it would set me up for some good civilian jobs. My plan was to do four years, learn to use a bunch of radios, and get out.
But then I realized I like being a United States Marine. Because there are so many little rules to follow, there are a million chances to do the right thing every day. A million chances to be good at something. I am good at getting a haircut every Sunday. I am good at shaving twice a day. I am good at doing lots of pull-ups. I am good at looking like an upside-down triangle when I wear my tight green skivvy shirts. I am good at counting radios and I am good at standing to attention and shouting OORAH, GOOD MORNING SIR! every time an officer walks by. I am not used to being any good at anything. It is nice, being so good at so many things.
But I know deep down that none of the little things matter unless I can prove I am good at the Big Thing: war. It is an obvious fact that the United States Marine Corps exists for the sole purpose of waging war on our nation’s enemies. If I do not get to wage war on our nation’s enemies, then I am never going to be a good United States Marine. It feels very cruel to finally figure out what my purpose is, only to find out that I am never going to live up to that purpose. I feel dusty and forgotten, like a hammer that sits in a drawer forever instead of hammering lots and lots of nails the way it was meant to do.
That feeling is my least favorite feeling.
Because I think the Pope is trying to help me not feel dusty and forgotten anymore, I make the five-minute drive from the base gate to Kickin’ Al’s Big Fast Motorcycle and ATV Emporium. Everybody knows about Kickin’ Al’s low, low prices because he has a series of billboards along the road leading out of base. There is nothing else to look at in that particular stretch of desert except for abandoned homesteads and scrub brush and a whole lot of sand.
Kickin’ Al’s Big Fast Motorcycle and ATV Emporium is a glass dome next to a sprawling parking lot. Kickin’ Al is a black belt in karate, and he celebrates sales by kicking a bell eight feet off the ground. He is closing a sale as I walk into the air-conditioned dome. I see him line up the kick, his body shaped like a sideways T, right leg reaching straight up into the sky. And then DING, he delivers a spinning heel kick and turns back around to shake another United States Marine’s hand. The United States Marine (I can tell because of the high and tight haircut) hops on his brand-new electric blue Yamaha and rides off the lot. I step up and introduce myself to Kickin’ Al.
“Oorah, Kickin’ Al. My name is Jeffrey Miller and I would like to buy a motorcycle.” I do not mention the Pope because it would be immoral to manipulate his religious sentiment to get a discount. I am already assuming he will give me at least five or ten percent off because I am a United States Marine. Actually, I am really hoping for a discount because I am strapped for cash. I trust the Pope thought of this before visiting me. I trust he is able to view bank account balances and check outstanding student loan debts and do the math to see one barely covers the other month to month. I trust he would not let me go to Kickin’ Al’s if it was not the right thing to do.
“Hullo, Jeffrey. Pleasure to meet you.” Kickin’ Al has a salt-and-pepper goatee, thinning hair, and more of a belly than I would expect from a guy who can kick a bell eight feet off the ground. He squeezes my hand so hard my knuckles roll against one another. I pretend it does not hurt.
I have a pretty clear sense of the bike I want, and I tell Kickin’ Al as much. It is the same one the Pope rides. I do a good job describing it, because Kickin’ Al takes me to the back corner of the lot outside and bam there it is. A sleek black Harley with high handlebars, its exhaust pipe swept back in a way that suggests speed even when the bike is standing still. The seat fits my butt perfectly.
After I sign the paperwork, Kickin’ Al offers to keep my Civic on the lot, and if anyone buys it, he will split the profit with me. This sounds very fair. Kickin’ Al shakes my hand again. This time I am ready, and I squeeze his hand back. He pretends it does not hurt. Kickin’ Al shows me where the throttle is and where the brake is. Then he kicks the bell (DING!) and walks away to greet another customer.
I realize Kickin’ Al did not give me a discount. I hope the Pope has a plan for me to make my motorcycle payments.
I ride back to base slowly. I do not really know what I am doing. I feel very exposed, being so close to the asphalt.
I am lucky that it is a straight shot down Adobe Road.
I am lucky there are no traffic lights in this town.
When a United States Marine purchases a motorcycle while stationed aboard the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, they are required by base order to attend a riding safety class. I sign myself up. My command does not even have to tell me to do it. I am what they call a “fire and forget weapon system.” My platoon commander says I can take Friday morning off to attend the class. I am very grateful for this, even if it means I have to miss our weekly comm check matrix. Radio check. Radio check. Radio check. Over and over again until we have tested every radio in the battalion. It is the only time we get to talk on the radios, instead of just counting them over and over again. I like it when I get to do my job.
The motorcycle safety class takes place in the parking lot out by the rifle range. No one else is signed up for the class that morning. The other individual I saw at Kickin’ Al’s is conspicuously absent. I suspect he is shirking this safety requirement. I wish I knew his name so I could inform his First Sergeant.
My instructor’s name is Mike. His skin looks like the brown leather jacket he wears and his eyelashes have been bleached white by the sun. Mike served for thirty years with First Tank Battalion in Twentynine Palms and then took over as the base motorcycle instructor the day he retired. It is called double-dipping, getting a pension and a salary at the same time. It is a good deal. It is a surefire way to ensure financial security for oneself. I should look into it.
Mike shouts all of this at me. It is the only way to be heard over the constant sound of gunshots from the range next to us. Mike does not have any hair on his head or face except for his eyelashes. It feels like a raisin is screaming at me.
I get enough of what Mike is saying to learn how to mount the bike, how to manipulate the throttle and the brake and the clutch, how to turn, how to shift gears, how to put the bike down in an emergency. By the time I get it all figured out, we have been in the parking lot for nearly six hours. I have a headache. I am very hot in the leather riding clothes I ordered from Amazon. The sun is beating down on the top of my head and rising up from the pavement, like I am stuck in an oven that is broiling and baking me at the same time.
But then Mike hands me my motorcycle safety card and my headache goes away. I am now authorized to ride my motorcycle on base. I am now confident I can ride my motorcycle anywhere. I swing by the Five Guys next to the commissary for lunch, and when I am done with my peanuts, it is time to hit the open road.
I roll out of the base gate blasting “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf because it seems like the right thing to do. I do not know any other good motorcycle songs, so I just play that one over and over again while I ride the twenty minutes to Joshua Tree National Park. Big mountains that look like piles of pebbles rise up from the desert next to the park’s east entrance. I do not have to pay an admissions fee because I am active-duty military.
I have been to Joshua Tree National Park once before, on a “mandatory fun” unit camping trip. It was 7 March 2021. I remember the date because it was exactly four years after I started boot camp, which meant I was authorized to wear a service stripe on the sleeve of my Service Dress Alpha uniform. A service stripe and no deployment ribbons. Not a good combination.
I dropped my uniform off with the base tailor before driving my Civic to the park. Our campground was set back in a cove of sand surrounded by huge boulders on three sides. By the time I showed up at four p.m., the wooden picnic table in the middle of our site was already covered with empty handles of Jack Daniel’s and crushed cans of beer.
I got very drunk. We all did. The battalion commander got so drunk he threw up in some bushes and punched my platoon commander in the face when my platoon commander said he was looking forward to snorkeling in Okinawa. This was shocking: The battalion commander is in charge of my platoon commander, and my platoon commander is in charge of me. It was like seeing my grandfather punch my father.
My platoon commander said, “Ouch, sir. What the fuck was that for, sir?” while holding his bloody nose.
The chaplain had to separate the two because he was the only sober one there. Then everyone went to bed on the ground. One second people were fighting and then we just lay down on the sand and went to sleep. We were too drunk to do anything but fight and sleep. It was a very Marine Corps situation.
When we woke up the next morning, the battalion commander gathered us in a school circle so he could apologize. He had not shaved yet, and the bags beneath his eyes were even bigger than normal.
At first, he just talked while pacing in the sand. He said he did not want to go sit around and play pretend in Japan. He said he got divorced from his wife so he could come to Twentynine Palms and go to Afghanistan again. Feel like God again. He said ever since he got back from Sangin ten years earlier, everything in his life had felt like a fucking joke. He said it was impossible to give a shit about anything after he had been to the mountaintop of adrenaline and excitement and purpose and life and death. Which was why, he said, it pissed him off so much that my platoon commander, who had not deployed at all yet, wanted to go snorkeling like a little bitch. The battalion commander said he did not give a fuck about snorkeling. He said that after you have been to war, there is nothing else for you in this world.
“I mean, what the fuck else is there? You tell me, Miller.” He pointed right at me. He must have seen me nodding along. “What the fuck else is there?”
I jumped up from where I sat cross-legged in the sand. I snapped to attention, my clenched fists tight to the seam of my jeans.
“Oorah, good morning sir! There is nothing else, sir!”
I thought to myself, I know there is nothing else, but what is there?
“You hear that, gents?” the battalion commander asked the crowd, finally standing still. “Nothing fuckin’ else.” He took a deep breath and his shoulders shuddered. “Still, I’m sorry for punching that lieutenant. It was unprofessional of me. I’m the senior man here and I can’t be doing shit like that. Won’t happen again.”
I fly past the campsite where that all happened. This time is different. I am on my bike now. I understand why the Pope likes riding. It is a very holy experience, feeling the wind in my face and watching the desert landscape roll by. Tufted Joshua trees ripple out from the road, covered and aligned like they are in formation.
I am having a really good time, even though sand sometimes pings off my cheeks and leaves small red welts. I almost run over a tourist in a floppy hat who is standing in the middle of the road to take a picture of a rock formation. It is, admittedly, a very interesting rock formation, shaped like a skull with two sunken, eroded eye sockets set in a bulging limestone cranium.
I pop out the southern end of the park an hour later, merge onto I-10, and loop back around to base on Highway 62. The whole thing takes me three hours, not counting a long lunch break at S&G’s Diner, where I eat a big greasy Reuben and stain my leather riding pants with a glob of Russian dressing. The Reuben is very filling, which allows me to skip dinner and save several dollars, partially offsetting the half tank of gas I used.
I ride again on Sunday, going east from base toward Amboy Crater. The desert looks different out here. There are no Joshua trees. There are no tourists in floppy hats. There is no sound except for the wind, and the vista is so big I can only tell I am making progress from watching the two-lane road’s dashed center line reel past my wheels. All around me there is a very haunting emptiness, but I guess the whole reason the emptiness is haunting is that it might not be so empty, after all. I turn off “Born to be Wild” so I can focus.
When I first got to Twentynine Palms, some older guys in my unit told me Amboy Crater was a portal to hell. They told me The Hills Have Eyes was filmed there, based on a true story. They said they were going to take me out there and use me as a human sacrifice to appease the devil and then leave my body for the cannibals to eat. I was very nervous.
Then they told me just kidding! That was a prank they pull on all of the new guys. I told them pranks are prejudicial to good order and discipline. They did not care. They pulled the same prank on another guy who showed up after I did. The newer new guy got very upset. He got the chaplain involved. The chaplain said he could not countenance the presence of Satanists in our ranks. The chaplain got the battalion commander involved. The battalion commander threatened to have anyone who participated in Satanist rituals sent to the brig. No one does that prank anymore.
I am curious to see what Amboy Crater is really like. I pull off the cracked asphalt and carefully walk my bike across the gravel parking lot to the trailhead. The wind is so hot it feels like there is a hair dryer in my face. I can see Amboy Crater looming above me. It is a black volcanic mound. The sand around it is also black, burnt by a long-ago eruption. I understand why people think it is a portal to hell.
I decide to hike up. A small kiosk at the trailhead has a sign explaining that young men of the Cahuilla and Serrano tribes used to come to the crater for vision quests. They would climb to the top and lie in the sun, fasting and keeping themselves awake by singing war songs, until they encountered a higher plane of spiritual reality. Then they would come down as men.
I want to go on a vision quest to figure out what I am supposed to do instead of Afghanistan. To see if I can have another purpose. To learn why the Pope visited me in my dream.
Next to the vision quest sign is another sign that warns me not to proceed any further without at least two liters of drinking water. I only have one liter of drinking water. I consider disobeying the sign.
Then I remind myself that the United States Marine Corps defines discipline as instant and willing obedience to orders. Good Marines are disciplined. I chastise myself for almost being undisciplined.
I get on my bike and ride back to base.
After three weeks riding every evening after work and all day Saturday and Sunday, I still have no idea what the Pope expects me to be doing. I go to bed each night hoping the Pope will visit me again and give me some coordinating instructions. But I wake up every morning still confused, staring at my barracks room’s cinderblock ceiling, steeling myself for another day counting and recounting radios that will only ever be used in training.
I tell myself that the motorcycle is a worthwhile investment because I enjoy riding and it is good to have hobbies. But the fact is I put myself in a hole to get that bike. I had enough money saved up to make two monthly payments, and I have already made one, which means I have enough for one more. To afford gas, I am only eating one meal a day (a big lunch of steamed chicken, white bread, and bean salad in the chow hall). Kickin’ Al still has not sold my Civic. Or he sold it and has not paid me; he is not returning my calls, so I am not sure. If I am going to sell the bike, I should do it sooner rather than later, because it is just depreciating in value the longer I ride it. This makes me very sad. I feel myself depreciating in value, too, even though I am only twenty-six years old.
Before I go to bed that night, I make it clear in my head that if the Pope wants me to keep riding he better come visit me again and tell me what to do.
I fall asleep.
I have a dream that I develop a British accent I cannot get rid of.
I have a dream that I am in a coffee shop somewhere (my mind says Chicago but I have never been to Chicago) and I am helping the shopkeeper string up Christmas lights (it must be Christmastime in this dream). The lights will not stick to the wall (I am under the impression they are supposed to). Then I try to hammer nails in the wall to build a trellis for the lights, but the nails will not go in the wall.
I wake up.
It is a nice September morning in Twentynine Palms. The first morning of the year when I do not start sweating the moment I step outside. It is time to sell my bike. I decide to do one big loop through Joshua Tree and then go back to Kickin’ Al and see what he will give me for the motorcycle. Maybe he will let me trade it for my Honda. Maybe the best I can hope for is winding up back where I started.
I am in the middle of the park, somewhere near Lost Horse Mine, when I come flying around a bend and see a car upside down next to the road. Smoke is pouring out of the wreck and I can hear people screaming inside. I ditch my bike on the shoulder and sprint over to them.
When I reach the car, I squat down so I can look through a hole in the shattered windshield. My stained leather pants bunch up and pinch the skin around my knees. I can see a mother and a father and a baby inside the car. They are all strapped in and hanging upside down, like a family of bats.
“HELP US, PLEASE!” the father screams. He is very hysterical. The mother has her eyes closed and her face looks calm. It seems like she is doing some type of upside-down meditation. The baby is crying and wriggling around in his car seat, like he is trying to get out of the red onesie he is wearing.
I pull the father out first, through the driver’s side window, mostly so he will be quiet. Snot and tears are running down his face and coating the hairs of his bristly mustache. He is screaming “HELP! HELP! HELP!” even though I have already dragged him out of the car. I wipe his mouth on my sleeve and then I go back for the mother.
I lean through the passenger window, across her upside-down lap. I undo her seatbelt and she falls into my arms. As I drag her away from the car, her heels dig twin grooves into the sand. She gives me a gentle pat on the hand and says, “Thank you.” When she looks up at me to say “Thank you,” I notice she is very pretty. She has full lips and cheekbones that remind me of a wolf. I can already tell the gash on her forehead is going to heal into a scar that will only make her prettier. I can see the splintered end of her collarbone sticking out through her skin. I admire her coolness under pressure.
I go back for the baby last. Not because I am the sort of bad person who would leave a baby for last, but because the way the car was crushed, I had to pull the parents out of the front seat before I could crawl under the console and reach the baby. Unfortunately there is no way for me to explain this to the baby, who probably thinks I forgot about him. Even after I unclip his car seat and push it through the windshield (leaving him in the car seat so he will not get cut on the glass), the baby is crying a lot.
But he goes quiet when I pick him up out of the car seat and hold him in my arms. He looks up at me with green eyes and smiles a gap-toothed smile. He kicks his limbs around spastically, like he is doing a silly little disco dance in the air. I give him a kiss on the forehead and enjoy his milky baby smell. As far as I can see in every direction, Joshua trees reach their limbs into the sky. They shimmer in the heat radiating up from the asphalt, wiggling like the baby.
I hand the baby to the mother. She cradles him in the crook of her good arm. The father tells me he swerved because a desert tortoise tried to cross the road in front of him. Desert tortoises are very endangered, and he is very environmentally conscious. He had not intended to flip the car over, though. That was an accident.
I know there is no such thing as an accident. I know the Pope had something to do with that tortoise. He works in mysterious ways. Sometimes bushes burn. Sometimes tortoises crawl. The result is the same.
And then I have my vision, right there on the side of the road. I understand the dream and the tortoise. I understand what the Pope meant when he nodded at me. I understand that he was nodding in the mirror, and I understand that I was too.
I start talking very quickly about how excited I am for my future. I am trying to confide in the family that I am a little bit worried about the demands of Popehood. I am trying to explain to them that it is something like relief, realizing there is a place for me in the world after all. I am trying to help them realize there is a layer of happiness beneath the thing we call happiness, that many of us spend our lives drinking watered-down happiness juice when we should be mainlining straight-up happiness concentrate, which only comes from identifying and fulfilling one’s Pope-given purpose.
But it does not seem like the mother or the father or the baby understand any of the things I am saying. I stop talking and we stand in silence until the car’s gas tank explodes. The flames turn the sand black. Then an ambulance shows up and takes the family away.
At work the next day, the battalion commander calls me into his office. He has on a pair of glasses that make him look even older than his thinning hair and blotchy skin normally do. It is two p.m. and he has a half-empty bottle of Wild Turkey on his desk.
He offers me a shot and says, “Son, I just got a call from a lady who says you saved her fuckin’ family. Savin’ good guys is almost as good as killin’ bad guys. We’re gonna give you a medal.”
I take the shot of whiskey. It feels warm in my chest.
The day of the medal ceremony, my battalion has a big formation. There are five hundred United States Marines there, standing at attention on the general’s lawn. A big square of people dressed in green, on a bigger square of green grass. There are a lot of people in the bleachers whom I have never seen before. Local reporters and some retired folks, I think. They wear pastel shirts and straw hats.
The family I saved is there, in the front row. They wave to me. I wave back. The mother smiles to me. Her arm is in a sling. I smile back.
I take my place at the head of the formation. The battalion commander reads my award citation out loud. The family walks up and the mother pins the medal on my chest with one hand while the father holds the baby. The only sound is the American flag’s halyards snapping against the flagpole overhead.
Then the battalion commander hands me the microphone and offers me the opportunity to say a few words to the crowd. I am normally a little bit nervous about public speaking. This time I am not nervous at all.
I start by saying Oorah, ladies and gentlemen. Then I say I have enjoyed my time in the United States Marine Corps and I am grateful to my command for getting me this medal. But the whole experience, I explain, has shown me a new path. I have been afforded a vision of my future self, which is a rare and glorious thing.
In that vision, I am no longer tied to material concerns like money and debt and enlistment contracts and motorcycle payments. I am no longer tied to dreams of violence. I no longer think of other people as vessels for my desires.
I must make that vision a reality. And that means the time for me to be a United States Marine has ended. Soon white smoke will rise from the Vatican. And then I will ride my motorcycle and time travel through different dimensions to visit people in their dreams, and do the other things that Popes do.
The people in the bleachers and the United States Marines in formation are murmuring to one another, but their voices seem very quiet to me. The battalion commander is saying Son, what you’re talking about is a felony called desertion and the Mother is saying Jeffrey, this really doesn’t seem sensible and the baby is saying wah wah wah and the Father is saying That’s not how becoming the Pope works, Jeffrey. That’s not even what the Pope does.
I hand the battalion commander back his microphone, but before I can turn toward the parking lot, he grips my arm tight. I know he is not going to let go. The family looks very upset and the United States Marines in formation are laughing.
I wonder if maybe my vision was just a dream, nothing more than my own brain folding in on itself and misfiring while I slept.
Whatever happens, I hope I get to ride my motorcycle again. I do not know what I am going to do if I lose the motorcycle.