The citizens of Plainfield, Texas, have had it with the broke-down United States. So they vote to secede, rename themselves America in memory of their former country, and happily set themselves up to receive tourists from their closest neighbor: America. Couldn’t happen? Well, it might, and so it goes in the thirteen stories in Matthew Baker’s brilliantly illuminating, incisive, and heartbreaking collection Why Visit America—available now from Henry Holt & Co.
We’re pleased to share an excerpt from “The Tour” below!
Professionally she worked under the name of The Master, but he knew her birth name from monitoring fan sites online. Born under the name of Zoe Abbott, The Master had been raised in Georgia, where she was rumored to have taken her first gig at a backwater brothel in the mountains, the type of enterprise with musty sheets flung over bare mattresses and empty light sockets in the halls, where she had soon developed a cult following, due partly to the hype surrounding her quirk of insisting that only paying customers be allowed to see her face. After working there exactly two years, she had disappeared, just straight-up vanished, without a trace. Two years later she had reappeared with scarred hands and a hooded cloak at a harbor on the coast, claiming to have mastered all of the arts of touch: massage, chiropractic, shiatsu, ashiatsu, and the manifold genres of sex. She had done her first indie gigs for journalists and bloggers, who had quickly spread the word that she was, as claimed, a master. Since then she’d been on one long never-ending tour of the country. She appeared only in continental cities, one town per week, one gig per town.There were no known photos of her face. When spotted in public, she always wore that same black hooded cloak, identified only by the scars on her hands and the presence of her bodyguards, a pair of bald giants who accompanied her everywhere. Her abilities were legendary.
Kaveh had crossed paths with her thirteen times on the road—Seattle, Portland, Dallas, Tulsa, Birmingham, Louisville, Manchester, Hartford, Philadelphia, Richmond, Fargo, Tucson, Cheyenne—and each time he had entered the lottery for a chance to buy the ticket, and each time he had gotten an automated email saying that he hadn’t been selected.
“All those towns are huge compared to here,” Rachel said.
“The odds are still one in a thousand,” Kaveh said.
“But not everybody who lives here will enter,” Rachel said.
Rachel was lying next to him on the bed as doves cooed in the field out the window. Her hair was dyed pale lavender. Her eyelids were dusted with glitter. Her skin had a deep tan. She was wearing the same perfume she always wore, a honeyed scent, almost like marzipan. She had been working at the brothel a year now, and claimed to be twenty, but looked younger than that, with a naive pretty face that seemed to glow in the light of the dawn. Drops of his come were drying around her mouth.
“But then you’ve got the people willing to travel here from different cities. Buffalo, Casper. Even from different states. Montana, Nebraska. You’re going to have people entering the lottery from all over the place,” Kaveh said.
“Damn, you’re right,” Rachel said, frowning.
The Master had just announced her schedule for that fall. In a month she was going to be coming through Wyoming. She was going to do a gig right there in Sundance.
“The odds are still fucked,” Kaveh said.
Rachel gazed up at the canopy of the bed with a look of wonder. “I’d do anything for that ticket. To spend a night in a room with her. To get to study her techniques.” She glanced over with a grin. “She’s my hero, you know?” She turned back toward the ceiling. “I’m going to be famous someday too. Tour the country, do gigs at all the best venues. Just like her.”
Kaveh felt a sudden grip of panic as the curtains around the win.dow swelled with a breeze.
“Let’s enter together, the same time,” Rachel said.
And so he entered the lottery for the ticket at the exact same moment that she did, each hunched over a glowing phone, pressing the buttons to register simultaneously. After getting dressed again, he handed her a wrinkled hundred-dollar bill, she gave him a pat on the ass, and then he slipped out the door as she whispered goodbye. In the hall, a pair of prostitutes in silk robes were standing in opposite doorways, murmuring together, and glanced at him as he passed.
“Kaveh,” Imani said, nodding.
“Kaveh,” Penelope said, smiling.
Then he stepped out of the brothel, onto the rickety porch of the old ranch, where the sunrise was casting pink-orange light onto the massive hills on the horizon, and fluffy seeds were floating down softly from the giant cottonwoods in the distance, and the sagebrush and the cheatgrass in the meadow around the brothel were swaying gently with the wind, and as the ancient floorboards creaked under his boots that feeling of panic that was gripping his body burst into an all-out roar of fear and terror and imminent danger. He bit his cheeks to suppress the feeling and got into his truck and drove back into town, where some idiot was torching a heap of garbage that reeked of burning plastic in the alley behind the motel, and some moron in a crosswalk was holding up the traffic begging for hard-earned money with a bent cardboard sign, and some jackass in sunglasses was blast.ing rap over the stereo of a pickup at a volume so ludicrous that he could feel the beat of the bass in his chest, and the rage in his heart was so powerful that his hands trembled on the wheel. He went home. By noon he was showered and packed and back on the road, with a thermos of coffee in the cupholder next to the gearshift. He spent the next couple of weeks driving.
* * *
Kaveh worked as a trucker. He was named after his grandfather, an immigrant refugee who’d herded cattle. Instead of cows, he drove freight. He had a vintage rig with a sink and a fridge and a narrow bed at the back of the cab. He delivered all manner of merchandise. A shipment of cheese graters that could glow in the dark. A shipment of air fresheners infused with the scent of cigars. A shipment of alarm clocks shaped like puckering assholes. A shipment of plungers that dual-functioned as umbrellas. The inscrutable creations produced by the logic of a capitalist marketplace. Because he was a patriot, and because patriotism in his country meant an unquestioning faith in the greatness of capitalism, he treated these products with the reverence with which a humble monk would treat the mysteries of God. He had a reputation for performing miracles. No matter how bad the traffic was, no matter how bad the weather was, no matter if billowing clouds of smoke burst from the hood of the truck a hundred miles from the nearest town, he never delivered a shipment late. American flag decals were stuck to the windows of the cab. He was lean and solid and hardy, with dark buzzed hair and sharp facial features. He’d been driving almost a decade, ever since he’d come back stateside. He could live on the rig for months at a time.
At gas stations and rest areas, he sometimes crossed paths with traveling artists. Musicians with dreadlocks and topknots smoking blunts in a charter bus crammed with electric guitars and synthesizer keyboards and phosphorescent props, dancers in warmups and sweat.suits alighting limberly from the shining staircase of a grand coach with miniature cans of diet soda, comedians with bowl cuts and nose rings performing impromptu monologues about the rusted nail that blew a tire on a van, prostitutes in trench coats and designer aviators flipping through glossy fashion magazines in the plush leather lounge of a stretch limousine. On tour, crossing back and forth across the country just like him.
Technically he lived in Sundance, at the cabin he’d bought a couple years before. Aside from a foldout couch in the living room, a heap of dirty pots in the kitchen sink, a mangled tube of toothpaste on the bathroom sink, and a pair of boots by the door, the rooms were empty. The walls were bare. The counters were bare. He was never there. He spent money on nothing except necessities. Fuel, meals, alcohol, and sex.
Kaveh knew other truckers who used dating apps to get laid by random strangers, or even used the old-school method of hooking up with random strangers from bars, but to him sex with a stranger seemed unnecessarily risky, and was generally disappointing, too. He preferred to eat at establishments that were regulated by health inspectors, he preferred to drink at establishments that were regulated by health inspectors, and he preferred to have sex with somebody who had the paperwork to prove that they were free of venereal diseases, and who required the same paperwork from you. A professional, who wasn’t going to fake an orgasm under you with pitifully unconvincing moans, or fumble drunkenly through some sloppy foreplay before using you for a quickie. Somebody with reviews. When he was home, he went to the brothel at the ranch every couple of days. While he was out on the road, he typically visited a new brothel after each delivery. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the contemporary brothel scene. The Master had fascinated him for half a decade. He had exactly one hundred thousand dollars set aside in an account at the bank. The price of a ticket to see The Master.
He asked about her during those next couple of weeks on the road. In brewpubs, in taprooms, he met people who’d seen her. A geologist who’d spotted her and her bodyguards wandering the ghost town near Missoula; a ranger who’d spotted her and her bodyguards entering the pictograph cave near Billings; both times she had been wearing the hooded cloak, and neither the geologist nor the ranger had been able to catch a glimpse of her face. He met a tattooed bar.tender in Flagstaff who swore to have served a pair of old-fashioneds to her bodyguards, and at a cantina in Reno he met a rodeo star wear.ing a denim jacket over a rhinestone bra who claimed to have actually spent a night with her the year before.
“It was the most profound experience of my life,” the rodeo star said, gazing into a glass of bourbon with a pensive look, but when Kaveh asked what The Master looked like, she only smiled and then drifted away into the crowd.
A known vegetarian, The Master was rumored to be lactose intolerant. She was suspected to have an interest in voodoo. She was believed to have an aversion to incense. Her astrological signs were a mystery. Although the name of the school that she had attended was unknown, online there existed a scanned image of a blurred photocopy of a tattered report card for a student by the name of Zoe Abbott, which, if the same Zoe Abbott, revealed that in school she had struggled with dyslexia, had often fallen asleep in mathematics, and had excelled at art, history, psychology, and gym. She’d been an only child. She’d been a teenaged orphan. In the absence of any supporting evidence whatsoever, a rumor persisted that she’d been a weeaboo when she was young. Her bodyguards, who otherwise had never shown any signs of possessing a sense of humor, had once told a reporter that her favorite colors were infrared and ultraviolet.Video clips of her signing autographs, sometimes with markers, sometimes with pens, confirmed that she was ambidextrous. Nobody knew the story behind the scars on her hands. Whatever her motives were, she didn’t seem to be in the game for money. She was a multimillionaire, the wealthiest prostitute in the world, and owned no property.
Sometimes while he was driving on a highway, he would glance over to find an automated semi in the lane next to him, coasting along the road with an empty cab. Prototypes, steered by algorithms and sensors, with no need for human drivers. He could tug the pull cord for the air horn, but the automated trucks never honked back.
He felt a connection with her in that way. A decade of legalization had produced a renaissance in her profession, and within a decade his profession would be replaced by computers. He was going to be out of a job.
In Omaha, leaving a convenience store he spotted a couple of teenagers spray-painting a war monument.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Kaveh shouted.
The teenagers bolted down the street.
“Huh?” Kaveh shouted, chasing after the teenagers with a rusted pipe from the gutter.
He spent a night with a prostitute named Beatriz in a wood-paneled brothel in El Paso. He spent a night with a prostitute named Nyala in a velvet-walled brothel in Sioux Falls. He spent a night at a brothel in Tombstone with a set of identical triplets, one with a bun, one with a bob, one with box braids, all double-jointed, who worked under the name Sibling Rivalry. He spent a night in Denver at a brothel called the Mile High Club, having a spontaneous orgy with an impromptu ensemble, Anastasia, Guadalupe, Bryndis, Brandon, Rhett, and Chastity, as a pink-green aurora shimmered above the Rockies. He delivered a shipment of suicide-bomber bobbleheads to a warehouse in Santa Monica, and then went to The Playhouse, a hip bordello on Venice Beach, where he spent the morning with an up-and-coming prostitute who worked under the name Goddess Of The Sun And The Sea, who could do tricks with her tongue like he’d never seen.
“Porn actors, cam stars, strippers, prostitutes, we’re all performers,” said the Goddess Of The Sun And The Sea, feeding grapes to him afterward as the dazzling light sparkling on the waves beyond the balcony twinkled across her face and her body and the sheet on the bed, which she’d soaked when she’d squirted. “Anybody working in this industry has my complete respect. But being a porn actor is the easiest, because you’re being filmed, you can do retakes, you can make mistakes, and afterward the director can always just edit out any weird noises or expressions that you made. I was a porn actor a while. I did the cam star thing too. Being a cam star, that’s not as easy, because then you’re live, and it’s even interactive, but still, you’ve got a camera between you and the audience, so you have a lot of control over the show.” She had curly golden hair twisted into an updo, with a loose strand hanging down around the freckles on her nose. “Stripping, now, that’s some hard work, because then not only are you performing live, but the audience is right there with you, in the room. Still, with stripping what you’re doing is mostly choreographed, you’re just doing a set routine, and you usually don’t have to touch anybody. It’s not that interactive.” She kicked her feet back and forth in the air, playfully. “But this, this here. This is what’s the hardest. Prostitution. There’s no cameras, it’s totally interactive, you’re doing a live performance, and the audience is literally in the room with you, and isn’t going to look away from you even once.” She reached into the bowl on the nightstand, twisting a grape from the vine. “To perform under conditions like that, to achieve some level of artistry, that’s the ultimate challenge.”
She fed him another grape as palm trees swayed with a breeze beyond the balcony.
“Not all dancing is art. Not all movies are art. Sometimes a dance or a movie is just entertainment. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. Young Baby Elvis, this other hooker who’s doing a run here, yesterday he said that the difference between art and entertainment is emotion. That art has an emotional component, beyond just your basic animal feelings like excitement or arousal. I mean, fuck, it’s true. Even a squirrel can get excited. Even a possum can get aroused. But to touch another human emotionally, like only another human can be, that’s fucking art,” said the Goddess Of The Sun And The Sea.
A couple of seagulls squawked out on the balcony as she fed him another grape.
“I think that’s why what we do is so valuable. Other performing arts, like ballet or theater, can basically be reproduced. But not what we do. Like a painting, or a sculpture, each fuck is absolutely unique. Irreproducible. A distinct work of art. What just happened in here was as much you as me,” said the Goddess Of The Sun And The Sea.
She popped a grape into her mouth, rolling the grape around on her tongue for a while before chewing and swallowing with obvious pleasure.
“The Master is doing a gig in my town next week,” Kaveh said.
She froze. A look of awe, almost even of fear, came over her face. The look gave him a chill. He had expected her to know the name, but he hadn’t expected a reaction that intense. The very mention of the name seemed to have shaken her. She turned toward the balcony.
“Nobody else can do what she does,” murmured the Goddess Of The Sun And The Sea.
That night he awoke suddenly on the bed in the cab with his heart pounding, his chest damp with sweat, his skin crawling with terror. He sat naked in the moonlight on the edge of the mattress with his face in his hands, breathing, and then once his pulse had calmed he washed his face with a splash of water from the sink. Midnight. He couldn’t remember the nightmare.
He reached for the phone glowing on the counter. He’d gotten an automated email an hour earlier. He hadn’t won the lottery for the ticket. He laughed, bitterly. He couldn’t even win with a home-court advantage.
Rachel had called him. Kaveh called her back. She didn’t say any.thing when the phones connected. He could hear owls hooting in the background.
“I got the email too,” Kaveh said.
“I didn’t get that email,” Rachel said.
Her voice held a barely contained spark.
“You won?” Kaveh said.
He could hear the giddy smile in her voice as she rambled,“I tried calling you right away, I just needed to tell somebody, I’ve never won anything before in my life, and then, with odds like that, I win this?” She burst out laughing. “This is so crazy. I’m such an idiot. I can’t even go. I can’t afford it. I’ve got like a hundred dollars in the bank. I’m going to have to turn the ticket down.” She exhaled. “I just keep sitting here, just staring at the email, in just like total disbelief. I only entered my name out of principle. I never thought my name would get drawn.” She suddenly sounded wistful. “Still, though, there’s some.thing amazing about all of it. Like, even if we’ll never meet each other, now she’s at least read my name.”
Kaveh jerked at the sound of glass smashing nearby. He peered out the windshield. Some fuckers in hoodies, probably unemployed, on unemployment, were throwing beer bottles against a garbage bin for fun. At fucking midnight, in the parking lot of a packed truck stop, while people with actual jobs were trying to sleep. Patriotism meant loving the traditions and the values of the country and hating most of the people who lived there. Not her though. He thought about the way she had looked in bed that night that she had talked about The Master, lying there in her bedroom with that shiny lavender hair and that smooth tan skin, her eyes glowing with ambition. He didn’t know anybody else with a dream like that. He believed in her. She could be famous someday. She deserved to be famous. And this ticket, getting to spend a night with her hero, might make all the difference in her career.
“Are you still there?” Rachel said.
“I’ll pay for you.”
He heard a clatter as she dropped the phone, and then a moment later she was back again, breathless.
“Is this a joke?” Rachel said.
“I’ve got the cash.”
Her voice was suddenly low and urgent. “Kaveh, if you do this for me, I swear, you’ll never pay to see me again.”
“I’ll be back in town again tomorrow. I’ll transfer the money to you then.”
“Omigod.” She squealed in excitement.“I can’t believe this is happening.” She laughed. “I’d give you the biggest kiss if you were here.”
After hanging up he lay back down on the bed in the cab, picturing her sitting at the vanity in her bedroom as stars glittered above the meadow. Maybe someday when she was a celebrity she would hire him as a bodyguard. Maybe that was what he would do when the computers took over the roads.
Excerpted from Why Visit America, copyright © 2020 by Matthew Baker.