The Life and Times of Climax Johnson
Climax Johnson never regretted being named Climax Johnson—Johnson after who his father was—and Climax after what his father did. In his brief two dozen trips around the Sun in, of all things, the Sunshine State, he had lived several lifetimes.
He had been a POW during the War on Drugs, serving four years at a Federal Camp in Florida for trafficking cocaine. Although the amount confiscated had been less than the 28 grams that would have made him eligible for just a diversion program, the integrity of his contraband was judged to be pure enough that nothing else but cutting it and redistributing it in diluted amounts could be the intended purpose. A gotcha! moment for the prosecutor.
Off he went.
For the better part of forty-one months he made twelve cents an hour by day, weed-whacking the U.S. Navy base in Pensacola. For the better part of four years, back at the dorm, he never saw the stars at night because the light pollution, designed to keep the camera eyes within f-stop tolerances, washed them out totally in search of any inmate indiscretions. Like always, he never really thought about the stars.
Out of sight, out of mind.
One day he was watching the only national news someone had decreed would be the one to watch—and this hadn’t changed in years—when two particular reports pricked his interest. The first was a report that there had been an explosion at the Santa Rosa county jail in Millville. This was the place where inmates were sent if they committed any infractions. It caught his attention because he had people from his cubicle there. The TV was of the cathode ray variety, hanging heavily and dangerously in the rec room in one corner, with five rows of pews placed in front of it, the congregation half filling them. The story was local, but because it involved inmates, it made the national news. On Robin Meade and Friends, the CNN breakfast and breaking news/entertainment hybrid, Robin Meade reported it straight into the ears of Climax Johnson. She offered her vanilla report with beauty-pageant sparkle, reporting that two inmates had been killed in the explosion, but then emphasized her relief that, “Thank God none of them escaped.”
“Looks like two of ’em did,” Climax said out loud, answered by a smattering of grunts around him.
The other report was that there would be something called a conjunction that night, that Jupiter, Mars, and Venus would share a small patch of sky at the same time.
“I think I’d like to see this conjunction thing,” he said to his buddy to his right. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen three planets at once. Hell, not even another planet. I’d like to see that.”
“Four planets,” his buddy said.
“No, three,” Climax reaffirmed, sure of what he had heard.
“Four,” again from his buddy.
“I don’t feel ya,” Climax said.
“If ya catch the Earth’s horizon out the corner of ya eye at the same time that ya see the other three, then ya seeing four—ya understandin’ what I’m sayin’? Ya follow?”
“Oh,” Climax said. “Yea. That’s something. Yea, I’d like to see that. Now why wouldn’t they tell us that?” His fellow viewers laughed. News—even cosmic news—traveled slowly in the justice system.
Climax didn’t get to see his three- or four-planet conjunction. The same problem, the camp’s light pollution, kept any stars or planets invisible the entire time he was there, notwithstanding conjunctions. On the night before his release, he once again looked up and saw the false lights of the camp. No stars. Not here, f’sure, he thought. Sure wished I’d stopped to look at ’em before. I guess I missed a whole lot o’things before.
“Tomorrow night. I’ll see y’all tomorrow night,” he promised, waving his finger into the sky.
On the bus out the next day, he found himself trapped in his fixation on the stars. That and the sound of the marble rolling back and forth on the luggage rack overhead with each lurch and braking of the bus. Sixteen hours later, back in the Miami area. he disembarked. It was getting dark and he felt that he had to see the stars that night--desperately. He was not one to enjoy metaphors, but nevertheless he knew seeing them would officially declare his jump from incarceration to freedom. So on his first night of freedom, he chose a knoll, sat on it, and looked up. He waited for his eyes to adjust to the dark. How strange it was for him: no false daylight glare drowning out his night.
He kept looking deeper and deeper into the skies for anything. He had never actually just sat to stargaze; the stars had never been a part of his world, although he knew they were there before he had gone to prison. He had never cared about them before and, in fact, he couldn’t ever remember watching for them. In Climax’s serengeti, he always had to keep his eyes level with the terrain in his neighborhood, always focused on a sweep of 60° but with peripheral vision always on the alert to any movement. That was just survival. When he was older and began his sexual athletics, he was only in it for the skin rides, which squandered any romance like gazing dreamily at starry skies. Older than that put him into urban glare.
His knoll was still far away enough from the Miami light pollution such that he should easily see the swath of the Milky Way and everything with it, but he saw only black. The Gulf had conspired to throw the leading edge of a low over him, a solid layer of cloud separating him--still--from the stars.
He soul-searched. He bobbed for epiphanies. He attempted self-analysis. He waxed contemplative. Without knowing it, he plugged himself into the Maslow pyramid toward self-actualization, but his pyramid had only the first two tiers. He introspected. He reminisced.
The blackness of his sky segued to nostalgia, transporting his mind to his childhood. Before they each had been shot, his two older brothers would take him to the matinee on Saturdays to see blaxploitation movies. His sister went with them, but usually hung out by the ticket kiosk to cherry pick desperately oversexed boys from the cafeteria line passing in revue. His little brother was still in his momma’s belly at the time, the belly of his only known parent. He would never meet his little brother. Everybody important to him was gone.
Everybody and everything, including the stars. God’a’mighty punishing me, he thought. Had it comin’, I guess.
He had been released months early with his accrued good time. He returned to his old neighborhood in Miami and to all of its temptations, which quickly relieved him of his $700 of weed-whacking earnings, a good portion of it, ironically, spent on weed. When he found he needed more money, the mockery of his freedom was that after he had paid his debt to society his felony had branded him a pariah. This reduced his employment prospects to only things that had created his debt to society in the first place. The likelihood was that if he stayed in Miami, his freedom would be nothing more than an entr’acte between the previous and the next incarceration. In Miami, his likely recidivism meant there was little sense in investing any time in seeking gainful employment.
He needed to move on. There was no moss to gather in Miami. Also, he didn’t want to fight the Feds again on any level. They fight dirty. He knew he was dirty, too, but their kind of dirty fighting was the kind you couldn’t fight. He cut his ties with his fellow drug dealers and became a conscientious objector in the War on Drugs.
He landed in Tampa, hung out at clubs, assisted the DJs at their mixing consoles, mingled with the roadies, and had sex with women who thought he was with the crew. He thought that DJ’ing could make him an honest living, get him laid, and—bonus—didn’t even require a background check. And he could spin music. How leet was that? But Climax had no equipment and such gear was never loaned out to the likes of him.
His new fixation was music. He searched any and all jobs that had anything to do with music, but since he actually played no instruments, he had to filter the search down to playing the music of people who actually did play. Then he saw the ad on the city bus advert:
Wanted: groovy and fab guy to play sweet sounds for WEMD. Inquire at studio.
He had learned that the blaxploitation movies were right about white people, so he generally steered clear of them. Groovy and fab—these were white words.
I’m groovy and fab, he thought. F’sure groovy and fab enough for this white job. He wrote down the address, got off of the bus, and walked until he reached the building that housed the radio station. The address was a three-story slot of brownstone between two other brownstones. He entered the main entrance into the foyer and read the placard:
Vlad’s Tattoo and Piercing, first floor; Madame Kismét, Seer and Psychic Surgeon, second floor; WEMD Radio, third floor.
The place smelled like what was inside a vacuum cleaner bag. He took short, shallow breaths and began to wind his way up squeaky stairs that had a rickety bannister. He didn’t even notice Vlad’s on the first floor, but on the second he stopped to consider Madame Kismét.
She was a woman.
Her door was open. He peaked in and there was Madame Kismét herself, bundled on a sofa, knees up high, painting her toenails. She had her foot perched on the edge of a coffee table that had a sugar bowl, a pot, a coffee cup, and a steak knife. She had little cotton balls stuffed between each toe. She was overweight and Climax noticed this was posing some difficulty for her. She looked up.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“I was wondering if I could help you,” he said. “I could finish the last few toes.” She looked him up and down. “I like women’s feet,” he added.
“Really?” she asked suspiciously.
“A lot,” he answered. She hesitated a moment, then smiled.
“Come on in,” she offered. She was white and fat, he noted, but fat, white women were the best, so he entered. He sniffed cautiously. The vacuum bag smell was overwhelmed by the waft and ebb of patchouli. She held out the small bottle of nail polish and brush and he took them.
“Bible Black, huh?” he said. Then he looked at her toes again. He regarded her three unpainted ones. “They were red before. Why black now?”
“I like my nails like I like my men,” she added matter-of-factly.
“You liked red men before?” he asked.
She put her feet down and reached over the coffee table to pour some hot coffee into the cup. She plopped in two sugar cubes and then reached for the steak knife to stir it. “I like my coffee black, too.” She paused to look back up at Climax and smiled a peculiar smile. “I like my coffee like I like my men,” she said, continuing to stir the cup with the knife. “Black with a knife in ’em.” Climax let it go. “Want some coffee yourself?” she offered. He saw grounds floating on top of the coffee in her cup.
“Nah, it’s all good.”
“Hope you didn’t mind me having some.”
“It’s your place,” he said as she put her unfinished set of toes back up on the coffee table edge and waved them at Climax. The little cotton balls were hanging in there.
“Now go to it. Paint.”
Climax hunched down over the small table from the other side and began on her middle toe on her right foot, continuing in her initial direction. He moved on to the fourth toe and finally her pinkie. He pushed the brush all the way into the bottle and screwed its cap on tightly. Madame Kismét inspected the work and seemed satisfied.
“Nice lacquerin’,” she said, almost warmly. “I’m Madame Kismét.”
“Kiz-mā? I thought it was Kiz-met,” he said. “I read the sign.”
“No,” she insisted. “Kiz- mā,” although she had never actually been to France. “It’s l’accent aigu. Aigu, aigu.”
“G’bless ya,” he said. “Johnson. Climax Johnson,” he announced, like there was nothing unusual about his name.
She snorted in a backwards laugh like some people do and she was one of them.
“Thank you,” she said to him. She waved her toes, allowing the cotton balls to drop.
“Yea, man, it’s all cool.” He stood up and she looked him up and down again.
“Tell you what…to thank you, y’understand…what would you rather do?” she asked, “have your fortune told…or hit this?” She opened her legs by flopping her knees apart and pointed to her crotch, which he could easily see. She didn’t have to point.
“Can I get my fortune told and then see how that goes?”
“I knew you were going to say that,” she told him.
“How did you know I was gonna say that?”
“Because I’m a psychic, that’s how.”
“Oh, yea. O.K. What do I do?”
She lifted herself up and stood, then walked over to a folding table disguised as something better because of its tablecloth. She sat down and opened her hands to him.
“Come here. Sit,” she instructed. Climax walked over to her wobbly table and sat down on its other chair, a bit wobbly as well. She dealt out five cards, face down. She took his hands and placed them atop the cards spread out on the tabletop. She closed her eyes, although her eyelids fluttered a bit, which was her attempt to look entranced but came off as petite mal epilepsy. Climax reconsidered his choice.
“What? Do you see anything?” He lifted a hand to curl up one of the cards.
“Shh,” she silenced him, and slapped his hand without even looking. and she continued to flutter for another moment. Then, “Ah, yes.”
“Yes. Definitely yes,” she said.
“I see you now.”
“I’m right here, though.
“No, Mr. Johnson, I mean in my mind’s eye.”
“Call me Climax, please.”
“No, Mr. Johnson. I’d rather not.”
“And I see you wandering, searching…”
“For what? What am I searching for?”
“You are searching for relevance.”
“They all gone. Haven’t seen any of them since I was a l’il shitling.”
“Not relatives,” she corrected him, “relevance.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You are searching, Mr. Johnson.” She put her hands over her face and eyes.
“Yea, we both know that. And what?” She removed her hands and smiled, and when she opened her eyes, the irises were white—zombie movie white.
“Whoa!” he started. “You got them crazy sleepwalker eyes. How’d they get crazy like that?” He started to get up, but she grasped an arm and stopped him. She closed her eyes again.
“You will be in a horrifying accident soon, Mr. Johnson. You may even die.”
“Didn’t need that. Is it too late to change my mind? I think I want to hit that, instead,” he said, pointing to her crotch.
“You are searching for the meaning of your life. Some reason for why you’re important. And considering your immediate future, just in time.”
“Yea, and hittin’ that would be a good meaning for my life. And just in time, too,” he said. “And keep them voodoo eyes closed.”
“But you won’t find that, I’m sorry to say.”
“Let’s just get back on that sofa. I’ll find it.”
“You won’t find the meaning and importance of your life that you’re searching for, I mean.”
“Why? Why won’t I find why I’m important?”
“Because you’re not,” she answered.
“Didn’t need that, either.”
She re-opened her eyes and after he flinched in anticipation of what he might see in them, he saw they were back to normal.
“That’ll be twenty-five dollars,” she said.
“I gave you three toes, bitch. Fuck you, Jack, I’m movin’ on,” he told her, got up out of the chair, walked out, and didn’t look back.
“Don’t you want to know why you’re not important?” she called after him.
“No, ho,” he answered back over his shoulder, “it’s probably not important either. Bitch.”
He climbed the stairs to the third floor, mumbling angrily the entire way. There it was, WEMD. “Country by day,” the sign read, but didn’t go on to say anything about the night.
Get a grip, ma man, Climax thought to himself. Can’t be goin’ in here all jacked up. Chill. This is for a job. Fuck that bitch. Be nice. White man’s world. Be professional.
Park Bott was the Station Manager and Program Director. He was a loser with a job, which allowed him to outrank Climax in the world of losers. He was white, so Climax ran station managers through his blaxploitation barometer. There were no cross references.
Bott wore a pocket protector, but it held lollipops instead of pens. When offered, Climax shook his soft hand with a hesitant semi-firmness. He eyed the pocket protector and lollipops and all he could think was how he’d get the shit kicked out of him if had worn such a thing in the old neighborhood.
“Why do you want to work here at WEMD, Climax? By the way, do you mind if I call you Max?”
“You can call me anything you want if you hire me.”
Mr. Bott smiled at him. He wore a dark blue tie and a dress shirt tucked into his black Sansabelt slacks. He had a little American flag tie tack. He had a baby-face and a sad attempt at a thin mustache.
“But why? Why here?” he asked. “What is it about this job that appeals to you?”
“Because, ma man, I’m looking for some meaning in my life,” he answered, doling out the first thing that popped into his head. Madame Kismét’s jibber-jabber was fresh in his mind. “I want to know I’m important in the world in some way. Ya follow what I’m sayin’?” Mr. Bott was shorter than Climax, so he tried to look him in the eye but only made it as high as his nose.
“Yes, Max, I do. Fulfillment, Max. I perfectly understand, and I applaud you for your uprightness.”
“My what? I don’t have any uprightness right now.” Bott didn’t understand Climax’s misunderstanding, but depending on what Bott said next, Climax might walk right on out.
“Fulfillment, Max,” Bott repeated. “That’s sentiment enough to tell me all I need to know about you. I like you already. You have your priorities straight.”
“My what?” Climax asked.
“Your priorities.” Befuddled, Climax let it go. Perhaps priorities meant life’s meaning and being important. Mr. Bott smiled at his nose and said, “You’re hired, Max. I need a good man for the 42-for-you slot from 2 to 6. I have an instinct for good men. I don’t think I even need to do a background check.”
“No, ma man, I wouldn’t think you needed to do that either.” Climax looked at the clock on the wall. “You said 2 o’clock to 6? It’s already 3.”
“No, Max, 2 to 6—in the morning, after midnight.”
“Go catch a nap and be back here for 1:30 AM. I’ll tell you what to do.”
Climax left the third floor, engaging his tunnel vision as he passed Madame Kismét’s establishment on the second.
“You owe me twenty-five bucks, asshole,” she called out from behind her half open door.
“You have ugly feet and they smell bad,” he called back to her.
He quickened his pace, but was stopped abruptly, bumping into a long-haired gaunt man on the first floor landing that opened into the foyer. The man had what seemed at least his own body weight’s worth of metal sticking in and out of his face, nose, lips, eyebrows, ears, and forehead. When he and Climax bumped into each other, all the hardware clinked, even from places not visible.
“Hey, watch where you’re goin, ma man,” Climax said.
“Oh, sorry, man,” the man said. “Hi. You were coming down from three. Are you the new disk jockey?”
“Yea, ma man, I be spinnin’ from 2 to 6.”
“Vlad,” the man said.
“Johnson. Climax Johnson.”
“Cool. And I thought I had a weird name.”
“No, I like Vlad. It’s sick.”
“No, man, Climax is sick.”
“They both be sick, ma man.”
“Thanks, Climax,” Vlad said, and he liked saying Climax. He reached up and cupped Climax’s face in his hands.
“If there’s one thing I can’t stand, Climax, it’s the unbroken continuity of someone’s skin, glistening wantonly in its intactness, begging to be breached.” Climax removed Vlad’s hands.
“Not today,” Vlad.
“No hole is too large or too small, Climax. I use beveled needles for your comfort and role-playing techniques for your mind.”
“Not today, Vlad, I said.”
“Do you have any fistulas I can use? There’s a discount for those.”
“I’ve been sterilizing my equipment since 2002.”
“Later, ma man.” Climax turned and walked out of the main door.
On his first night at WEMD, Climax learned what played at night after its “country by day.” It was a strange music he couldn’t understand—something called classic rock. It was stuff that had never played in the ghetto market, far removed from the hard wiring of whatever music appreciation had been instilled into his developing brain as a youth. Music, it seemed, was like language. If the engrams were not laid down at the beginning, a particular genre of music might as well be Chinese.
The “42-for-you” survey was a list of 42 songs the Program Director felt were representative of what era or genre was important to feature that day. Actually, however, it was based on the fee-per-play royalties and the budget for the month.
The music appreciation engrams of Climax Johnson’s brain, neuronal synapses of solid state forged in the ghetto furnaces of rap, hip hop, and urban R&B, began to erode and loosen a bit. His mind opened a crack.
That’s when he heard it. The song that would make him love his work.
It was called In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by a group called Iron Butterfly. In that Louie Louie manner, the title was a corruption of “in the garden of Eden,” although he understood it perfectly via pidgin instinct.
Kingsmenesque linguistics aside, the real beauty of the song, to Climax, was that it was seventeen minutes long. The first half minute of it wasn’t bad, he felt, even though he had no idea how the rest of it sounded, because the seventeen minutes gave him a chance to hit the stairwell for a smoke, visit the men's room for a smoke and other things, or even get laid, either in the men's room or in the stairwell. During the 2 AM to 6 AM slot, he could play it several times, for this time slot might as well have been in another dimension to the geriatric population that normally listened to this station by day.
Country by day.
Climax went on several seventeen-minute breaks. No one noticed. The Program Director wasn’t staying up to check on him, that was certain. All went well, as long as he was back in seventeen minutes.
One night it was a slow night at an ER in town. After the house favorite’s signal had been crippled by FCC after-dark power mandates, the search for another station involved sweeping the dial on the old radio. The intern there happened to anchor into the signal of WEMD when he caught the iconic opening riff of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida during his AM sweep. The song brought back nostalgic memories of pre-employment devil-may-care foolishness for the nurses and doctors there.
Before seventeen minutes had passed, things in the ER had picked up and never abated. No one had a chance to change the station by the time In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida came on for the fifth time. Even the patients complained.
“Please end that shit!” shouted a disheveled druggie in slot number eighteen.
A psychiatrist, consulted to see a woman with black toenails who claimed she saw stars in the sky that were sending her private messages of national importance, looked up the station’s telephone number in an ancient telephone book with questionable stains. Climax had no phone in his broadcast room. All calls went straight to the Program Director.
As long as he was back in seventeen minutes.
On this particular night, he returned in nineteen, only to find the Program Director waiting for him.
"Climax?" the weasel most program directors were, fumed. In his peripheral vision he spotted an underage black girl spin around and escape back toward the stairwell.
"Yea, ma man?" he answered, buttoning up his trousers low under his hips.
Park Bott was befuddled, unable to choose which injudiciousness to address first. He watched the girl exit through the stairwell door and turned back around to Climax.
"You played In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida for seventeen minutes, and then it ended.”
“They usually do end at the end, ma man.”
“No, Max, it ended. It just ended. There was nothing. In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida for seventeen minutes, and then there was dead air for two. And I haven’t even started to talk about how many times you played it. How many times, Max?"
Dead air, for those who have never worked radio before, is that mortal sin from which there is no recovery. It is the Shame of Marconi. Air's final electromagnetic entropy. The type of soundless sound that noise reduction headphones would turn into din. The Program Director raised his eyebrows, demanding an explanation.
“I said, how many times, Max?”
“Um, lemme see,” Climax said, running his fingers through his hair. “At least once, maybe twice, I guess. Yea, twice. At least twice.”
“The man on the phone told me five, Max. Five! And he was a doctor. Doctors don’t lie, Max. Eighty-five minutes of Iron Butterfly, Max.”
“That’s better’n the other three hours of crap you make me play, ma man.”
“Hey, ma man, I’m talkin’ Humphrey’s Hermits, the Dave Clark—Five, is it? And what’s that shit, the Moody Blue? Ya follow what I’m sayin’?”
“Herman’s Hermits, Max. You were right about the five, but it’s the Moody Bluezzzz. There’s not just one Blue.”
“O.K., so they’re all moody. It’s your station, ma man, so I’ll play anything you want. But In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida was on the list, so I played it. Played the shit out of it.”
“Again and again and again and again. Oh, and again.” Bott said it as he emphatically slapped the fingers of his right hand into his left hand for each again.
“I getcha, ma man. I feel ya. O.K., I don’t be playin’ it more than a coupla times my shift from now on.”
“You don’t be playing it at all.”
“You’re taking it off the list?”
“Forget about In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. Dead air, Max.”
"Don't you think the audience needs a coupla minutes to recover after an oopus like that?"
"You mean opus, Max and no. Seventeen minutes of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and two of dead air. What is your explanation?"
"Chillin’. Seventeen to shuck and jive, two to chill. They’re all just minutes. Seventeen of Iron Buddafly and two of dead air, ma man, I mean, what's the diff'rence?"
"Oh, I suppose…your employment."
“O.K., then, take it off the list. I don’t have to play that.”
“No, I’m taking you off the list.”
“Say again? What list you talkin’ about?”
And so it went. Climax had been fired for dead air. The Kardashians had made a career of it; even his man, Kanye, knew that. Climax was conflicted, but laughed himself out of his funk when he realized he was good at dead air. Really good.
Exceptional, in fact.
Now that he thought about it, he had been broadcasting dead air his whole life. His beginnings in this world had been dead air. His mother used to tell him that when he was born…“nothin’.” He didn’t cry, didn’t move, just laid there, blue, so the doctor had to “beat it out of ’im.” She said that the first thing she said to him in the delivery room when she finally heard him cry was, “I hear ya, ya li'l bastid.” For Climax she had little prenatal care. She had chain-smoked the entire time until, at one of her rare prenatal visits, her obstetrician read her the riot act on smoking.
“What do you want? You want your baby to be stupid?” he asked in what he thought would be a sobering warning and call to action.
“That don’t concern me none, ’cause he’s gonna be stupid anyway.” Her doctor had no answer for that. Dead air.
She dealt drugs in between her two tours as a POW herself in the War on Drugs and between each of her five—or was it six?—pregnancies. Then she never came back and that was on purpose, her whereabouts currently unknown. Climax couldn’t even remember what she looked like. Dead air.
He didn’t know his father except for his last name and what he had done. Two of his three brothers were dead, the other one just plain missing and that wasn’t on purpose. His sister had married her pimp in a pregnancy love story that would have made a memorable dramedy.
His whole family before he had left home was dead air.
The only thing he was good for, he figured, was just seventeen minutes at a time. In fact, that’s how long his job at the Dollar General had lasted. Al’s Second Hand Tires even shorter. Burger King wouldn’t even consider him because he was a filthy, dirty felon, the default party line on felons. But that wouldn’t have lasted, anyway, because it takes over seventeen minutes to cook fries.
And so in the wee hours of the morning of his radio station shift cut short, before the sun rose, he walked toward the city bus stop and looked up into the sky, darkest before the dawn. Climax Johnson was an empty man with a missing vocation in a hollow society under a starless sky.
Madame Kismét was right. He was not important at all. And she was right about another thing.
On the other hand, importance was everything that Keith Mills was about. This new character in Climax’s story commuted either by limo, helicopter, or private jet. On the day that Climax Johnson crossed paths with him, each of them on opposite journeys through life, Mills was lounging unbuckled in the back of his limo with a Jack-and-Coke in hand. The limousine was moving at a considerable speed to catch a pre-dawn flight in Mills’ private jet when an eco-friendly hybrid vehicle, weighed down considerably with a ballast of batteries, ran the red light and T-boned it slightly off-center. There were several spins of the limo, Keith Mills ricocheting inside like a pinball until he was flung through the separator window between the front seat and the rest of the limo and then out through the front windshield altogether, striking the driver on the way out who would have gone with him had he not been stopped by his seatbelt and an airbag. Meanwhile Climax Johnson, minding his own unimportance, was battered by the front hood on one of two-axle limo’s triple Axels and then was impaled by a human projectile, the very important Keith Mills.
It was impossible to tell who had impaled whom.
“We’re going to have to take them together,” said the EMS respondent several minutes later. A crowd had gathered and was gawking. This was no ordinary gawk fodder. It was no ordinary traffic accident. Cars were stopped in four directions at the intersection. Even in this early hour additional ambulances had to sidewind their way through bike lanes, sidewalks, and stopped cars to reach Climax and Keith Mills.
“One guy’s white and the other’s black, and I still can’t tell where one begins and the other ends,” said the other EMS respondent, astonished.
“Guys?” asked a policeman. “You can tell they’re guys?”
“Like I said, we’re going to have to take them together. C’mon, let’s get ’em in.” After straight-boarding them securely, which took ingenious papooses in four different geometric planes, it took eight firemen to lift the entangled duo into the ambulance; two of them followed them in to secure them for the ride. One of them knocked on the glass to the driver.
“All secured. Let’s move.” The driver knocked back in acknowledgement and the ambulance began moving slowly through the cars and crowd, replete with warbling sirens, booming sound bursts of a lower register, and rapid chirps. Its lights tried to make sense of any type of rhythm, the reflections on the buildings providing an even more confusing visual backbeat.
“Wha- hoppen…?” Climax asked Mills, their faces only an inch from each other.
“Don- know…who are…y—?” Mills tried to reply, but then passed out.
The two firemen held on to them as best as they could for the intertwined mass of people they were. In and out Climax went, but Mills didn’t regain consciousness the rest of the ride. On the way, an IV had been placed into each of them and they had been sedated.
Upon arrival to the ramp of the ER, a forewarned, forearmed group of doctors, nurses, and ancillary others met the ambulance with their IVs, catheters, syringes, and stethoscopes. They huddled at the back door. One of the two firemen inside opened it and as the door swung wide open, there was a collective gasp. One of the nurses vomited.
“We need two gurneys strapped together,” hollered an intern. Shortly after, three nurses rolled the double gurney toward them, joined at their matching handrails with knotted rubber tourniquets.
“Oh, my God!” said someone.
“Holy shit,” said another simultaneously.
“Mother of God,” said yet another simultaneously, so it sounded like, “Holy shit of my Godmother.”
“C’mon, on three,” announced one of the firemen. “One…two…umph!” Up went Climax and Mills. Climax had just come to again and wailed out in pain. The same nurse who had vomited, having returned after regaining her composure, only vomited again. The double patient landed on the jerry-rigged double gurney. Climax wailed again and Mills was still unconscious.
Luckily it wasn’t busy for the ER crew there that day, just like the night they had suffered through In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida five times.
An interesting collection of observations:
Madame Kismét had foretold that Climax would be in a horrible accident soon. In his brave foray into the phalanx of fate, Climax had played the aforementioned In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida five times—eighty-five minutes of Iron Butterfly, not counting the two minutes of dead air—initiating a series of events that would culminate in mayhem and calamity. The ER crew that was tuned in to WEMD heard the seventeen-minute opus repeatedly including the five insufferable guitar, organ and—especially drum—solos, until the psychiatrist, unknowingly involved in an astronomically unlikely coincidence consulting on the woman who had predicted it all, called the station to complain, which was the phone Park Bott had answered. This had provoked a philosophical dialogue about dead air that ended in Climax’s termination an hour before his shift would normally end. Climax spent an exact number of minutes ruminating about his life of dead air. Had there been either fewer or more minutes in the reverie of his specious life pageantry or had there been an extra red light for the limo, or had the Prius not stopped at the Starbucks for a Café Latte Espresso, an entirely different drama would have ensued. Again, however, in persistent defiance of Madame Kismét’s premonition, Climax began walking and at an intersection someone very important (his importance purposely vague in this narrative due to irrelevance) flew out of a limo that not only had struck Climax once, but had jettisoned this important man, Mills, into the very space occupied by Climax. This space was a tight fit and resulted in an ingenious fusion. Their combined medical triage took place at the hospital whose ER had originally called in the complaint about the excessive Iron Butterfly play, thereby setting into motion this entire mortality play. One could say it was Madame Kismét’s fault or the fault of the Mills’ limo driver or the fact that Mills had spurned his seat restraint; or Park Bott’s impatience and zero tolerance for dead air or even the old green Prius that had run the red light and, still drivable, had fled, leaving a trail of battery hazmat.
But who could say for sure?
It used to be that one could say such things were written in the stars, but things written in the stars had to be rewritten every time a star fell out of the sky and self-immolated in a swansong through our atmosphere. For Climax Johnson there would be no such celestial script today, no que sera in this starlessness of the early morning’s overcast, its darkest hour before the dawn. This morning, everyone was on their own. The sky above offered only dead air.
Keith Mills regained consciousness just in time to hear the intern present him and Climax to the attending staff physician.
“Here we have these two gentlemen, a Mr. Keith Mills and an unknown black man who—”
“Johnson,” Climax eked out.
“Johnson…Climax Johnson,” he said feebly.
“Mr. Ajax Johnson and Mr. Keith Mills.” Climax let it go. “Mr. Johnson was a pedestrian and Mr. Mills was in a limousine when a third car, in a Prius, so probably a Democrat—”
“No editorial comment, doctor,” the attending reprimanded him.
“—when a third car became involved with both Mr. Mills’ limo and the pedestrian Johnson.”
“I see,” the attending said, looking puzzled as he inspected them. “What the hell?”
“Well,” explained the intern, “it seems that Mr. Johnson has suffered a compound fracture and that the better part of an entire femur has penetrated Mr. Mill’s chest, just under his pericardium.”
“So,” the attending surmised, “into his descending aorta.”
“It appears so, yes. As you might imagine, although this is probably just an orthopedic situation for Johnson, removing his femur from Mr. Mills would result in an instant exsanguination.”
“Of Mills,” the attending clarified.
“Oh, yes, I see.” The attending’s mind began to anticipate a dead end. Even if they were to get them into an OR—stocked, instruments opened and ready—there was no way they could prevent Mills’ death upon removal of Johnson’s leg from his chest. They would have to remove the leg, crack his chest, and then operate—carefully—all taking way too long. He’d be dead even before the heart-lung machine had been set up. The doctor looked for the rest of Johnson’s leg—his tibia and fibula—and was unable to explain how they were actually behind Mills.
“What’s that?” the attending asked, pointing to a round piece of glass sticking out of Mills’ skull.
“I believe that’s a piece of a cocktail glass.”
“Ah.” They both stood there silently, medically thinking medical thoughts that had never been thought before.
“Where should we go with this now?” the intern asked the attending.
“Room Seven,” he answered. The intern sighed, prompting the attending to explain. “Even though Mr. Johnson’s leg is tamponading Mr. Mills’ aorta very nicely, the aorta’s still leaking. Also, his spleen and liver are bleeding, too, and they will keep doing that, well, until. Has either of them been transfused?”
“No,” answered the intern. “But they’re both typed and matched. And if you don’t mind me saying, sir, if we’re going to Room Seven, it would seem to be a waste of good blood. But if you want to, they’re both A-positive, even though we’re still waiting to see if Mr. Johnson has sickle trait. In a way, Mr. Mills is being transfused, because Mr. Johnson’s leg is bleeding into his aorta.” He waited for some last heroic suggestion which didn’t arrive. “So,” he concluded with a single clap, “Room Seven?”
Room Seven, go to Heaven, was the saying. Room Seven was where a patient was parked until he died a death deemed inevitable. Gunshot-to-the-head victims, people who were drowned for over twenty minutes, human railroad roadkill who still had a pulse, and casualties who were still alive but were human Jenga games, like Mr. Mills, were extradited to Room Seven. The room was dark, quiet, and undisturbed, except for a stealthy medical assistant sneaking some vital signs from time to time, appraising the mortality countdown.
Climax opened his eyes. Mercifully, he had a considerable amount of morphine on board. He looked around. He had to strain to see past Mills, whose head was almost touching his. They were still conjoined on their double gurney.
Am I dead? he wondered. He looked at Mills, and wondered if he was taking one last ride with his fellow victim to the afterlife. Then he would pass out again.
He came to once when the aide was taking his blood pressure.
“Am I dead?” he asked her.
“No sir, you’re not dead. But that guy,” she pointed to Keith Mills, “is gonna be real soon. As soon as that happens, we’re gonna pull you out of him and fix you up. You can thank your lucky stars.”
Mills stirred. He opened his eyes. Climax’s own eyes had adjusted to the dark, so he could see Mills very well. The man groaned.
“Hey, ma man,” Climax greeted him with some effort.
“What—what’s going on?” Mills asked. “What place is this? What happened? Am I dead?”
“No,” Climax answered, “but they said you would be really soon.”
“Well,” Mills sighed, “at least I’m not dead yet.” He splinted his body in pain. “At least I have time to make peace with God.”
“Were you in a fight with him?”
“No, just an expression.” He paused to groan again. “Hi, I’m Keith. I’d shake your hand, but I don’t know where anything is.”
“Johnson, Climax Johnson.”
Climax could feel wet warmth surrounding the leg that had skewered Mr. Mills. No one had been able to even say which leg it was, but they knew it was his, because it was an African-American leg. They usually came in pairs, and there was another African-American one connected to Climax at some impossible angle.
“So, you believe in God?” Climax asked.
“Yes, I do.”
Climax paused to groan. “Kinda, ma man,” he answered. “Say, where’s your family?”
“I don’t have any family.”
“Oh, sorry…Climax, is it?” said Mills. Climax nodded, but then groaned. “I’m sure,” Mills continued with some groans of his own, “mine have to move appointments, change plans, arrange for pet care, things like that to get down here to me. It would be nice to be able to tell my wife goodbye. I guess I don’t have anyone, either.”
“You got me, ma man,” and Climax managed something close to a smile. “I’m staying with you to the end.”
“Ain’t nothin’. Don’t have much of a choice.” He pointed down. Mills tried to look down at his chest, but stopped when he saw he had someone’s leg coming out of it. “That’s not supposed to be there, Keith, ma man.”
“What’s this in my head?” Mills asked, feeling the piece of glass with his fingers, cutting one of them. “Ow!” he said, and put the bleeding finger into his mouth.
“When it rains, it pours, ma man,” Climax said.
“It’s getting cold. Is it getting cold?” Mills asked. Then he laughed. “What a cliché.”
“What’s a cliché?” Climax asked.
“Like, oh, “death and taxes.’ Guess I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”
“Both of them,” Mills laughed, which initiated a series of coughs that sprayed Climax’s face with blood. “Sorry, Climax,” he said.
“No worries, ma man.” He looked at Mills’ face. “You important? You a big shot?”
“Used to be,” Mills answered. “Doesn’t matter.”
“Sure it does. You did stuff. Look at me. I ain’t done shit with my life.”
“Are you going to be dead, too, really soon like me? Did they say?”
“Nah. They said once you wrapped they was gonna yank me out of you and fix me up.”
“I see. So I’m holding you up.”
“No worries, ma man.”
“Yes, I guess you could say I accomplished a lot of things in my life. Had a lot of things. Big house. Big cars. Money. Was very important,” he said with an ironic smile. I think I can say I was fulfilled. Maybe even helped some people. But I guess I mainly helped myself, which is why I have to make my peace.”
“Ma man! Compared to me, you—”
“Stop,” Mills said. “Doesn’t matter. Who’s important or unimportant—doesn’t matter.”
“Because we all go out with a whimper. You later and me now, we all go out with a whimper.” He clenched his jaw in pain, then relaxed again. “Had a check up with my doctor last month. Had to put me on blood pressure medicine. Wow.”
“Wow?” Climaxed wondered.
“Lately I had been doing a lot of thinking. Took some inventory. We all think we’ll live forever, but I sensed my mortality. I became aware of being very vulnerable—guess that’s where I became aware of my mortality. I was going to begin wearing seat belts as a New Year’s resolution. Pretty funny, eh? My wife and kids noticed and said I was overreacting, getting weird. Truth be told, Climax, I was just getting ready for today, it seems. Cramming for finals.”
“Yea,” said Climax, “I keep having a dream about taking finals, except in my dream I skipped all the classes and forgot to study. Of course, it was just trade school, so fuck it.”
“Oh, yes, I had that dream many times.”
“Were you in your underwear walking to the test?”
“Y’know, Climax, the other day I asked my granddaughter if she knew who Bob Hope was. Muhammad Ali, too. Forget that!”
“Who’s Bob Hope?”
“Doesn’t matter who you are, who you were. We all go out with a whimper. Like we were never here.”
“Like the stars,” Climax said.
“The stars?” Mills asked.
“Like dead air.”
“Dead air? What’s dead air?”
“The stuff that sounds good after classic rock.”
“Oh, dead air—like on the radio. I see. Well, I suppose, yes,” Mills said. “Going out in a whimper is like playing dead air. Here, anyway. But not where we’re going, Climax.”
“What’s this we’re?”
“Eventually, kind sir,” Mills said.
“Actually, I can see it now.”
“You can? See what?”
“Yes, and it’s beautiful! And you know what?” he said, cries of pain becoming cries of joy, “everyone’s important there. Everyone.”
“Even people like me?”
“Especially people like you.”
“You mean black people?”
“No, Climax, that’s not what I meant. People…like you.”
“Tell me what you see, please, I wanna know.”
“It is just lovely. Lots of light. Lots of beautiful flowers and waterfalls. And I see my mother, Climax. She’s waiting for me. I’m not afraid.”
“My momma,” Climax blurted emotionally. “I would love to see my momma. I miss my momma. I know she misses me.”
“And the women! What beautiful women!”
“Wait, momma. What about these women, Keith?”
“And my God,” he added with a Bowmanesque flare, “it’s filled with stars.”
“Shit, ma man, forget the stars. Never missed ’em anyway. Tell me about the women. I might be ready myself.”
“You’ll see, Climax. I’m there now. I’m in it.”
“In what? In where? Are the women with you? I gotta know.”
“Yes, Climax. Yes, yes.”
“In the garden of Eden, Climax,” Mills said, but he was drifting, so he slurred the words terribly. And then he closed his eyes for the last time.
Kate knew she was crazy. She had been crazy since her first year of high school when the strangers began visiting her and told her what to do. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, she had done well on her medications and currently was functional in her clerical employment. The visitors came less frequently but their disembodied voices still called to her. When she had the right prescription she could defy them and refuse their bidding. There had been no office episodes at work nor any public psychotic breaks, but she well knew of what she was capable. Her pills were so important: take some in the morning, some at night, some on a full stomach, some on an empty stomach; and the regimen worked so much better when she had a good night's sleep.
She lived alone in a one bedroom apartment that sat over an elderly man’s unattached garage. She liked that. She could pace. She could clomp around as much as she needed and there would be no one below to complain. She could play music as loud as she pleased, except that she hated loud music and found it unpleasing. But if she wanted, she could, and that was what mattered. A garage filled with the memorabilia of another person’s life buffered her from the rest of the world. One would have to slog through his entire life’s story to reach her. Hopefully, her visitors would be exhausted by the time they got to her.
What this really meant--what was important to her--was that she could scream and no one would hear it. One might think if a scream were necessary, it would be a bad thing if no one could hear it. In her case, however, it was a good thing because it happened so often. Whenever the screaming increased in frequency, she knew it was time for a change of prescription.
When she saw the ghost she was not troubled. It had been a long time since a stranger had come to visit, so she figured it might just be time for a new medication. She hoped the people who made medicine would keep inventing the new ones as quickly as the old ones stopped working. She ignored her ghost which was particularly gruesome. It appeared gouged about its head and was bloody everywhere. There was drool.
It tried to get her attention. She would turn and it would slip back in front of her. She would turn again and it would repeat the maneuver. She looked into the mirror and it was in the reflection behind her. She had seen all of these tricks before. She continued to ignore it.
She wanted to get ready for bed. She had had a very busy day and was tired. She didn’t appreciate that someone or something was trying to keep her from her night’s sleep, which was so important in balancing her medications. She walked to the window of her bedroom and pulled the curtains back. It suddenly appeared outside her window as if it had climbed a magic ladder. How many times, she wondered, had it spied on her? It was all she could do to stare defiantly right through it. The stars twinkled brightly and clearly in the new Moon dark sky.
“Beautiful night,” she said out loud to no one, rudely ignoring her visitor. “Not a cloud in the sky.” This had broken the seal, for her voices never initiated conversation, only responding with their counter-arguments that urged her on to bad choices.
“You know I'm here, Kate." She tossed the curtains together abruptly. "Did you hear me, Kate?” She turned around sharply and there it stood, again in front of her. “I said that you know I'm here. How rude, Kate. Don't ignore me. That won't work this time." She finally fixed her eyes on it and took in the full impact of its appearance. This one was a very troubling sight, indeed. It appeared pleased to get her attention.
She refused to scream. It still would take way more than this, she vowed, to make her scream. Not even the smell of the rot that accompanied her visitor. Or even the aftersmell of vomited rice. No solitary ghost ever could compete with some of the bizarre things her diseased brain had conjured up for her in the past. Things that fed from the deepest troughs of her mind. Terrible things. Horrifying images and morbid tableaus. Things that brought out her most excellent screams. She had made great strides, however, even to the point where she could not only suppress her screams, but actually argue with her hallucinations.
“I know you’re not real,” she told the ghost finally. It was fuzzy, semi-transparent, and wore a face of mischief through its disfiguring facial gore.
“Just how do you know I’m not real, Kate?” it asked her. Its voice was deep and tremulous. The reverb, she felt, was a bit of a cliché and over the top.
“How do I know? Well, first of all, seeing ghosts is just plain crazy, and crazy is not reality. If ghosts were reality, I'd be carpooling with some every day to work. And there are a lot of crazy people to keep ghosts popping up in what folks hear. Even people not as crazy as me say they see ghosts. There's even a TV show about it."
"Ah," said the ghost, "a reality show. What was that you were saying now?"
"Seeing ghosts is not reality. Shadows, sneaky reflections, sounds from the attic, creepy feelings. I’m not buying it. I’m not falling for it. It’s just the buried crazy part that comes out when someone sees one. And another good reason I know you're not real is because I’m already crazy to start with. Crazier than most people who say they've seen ghosts. My crazy ain't buried so deep you see, so I’m liable to see anything. Don’t feel so special.”
“But you are up to date on your meds, aren’t you? Have you missed a dose, perhaps?”
“No. I’m good at taking my medicine. But then there's you,” Kate said timidly, her voice fading to a frightened whisper.
“If you’ve been taking all your medicine, then you’re well. It’s not because you’re crazy, is it, that I’m here? You’re being treated. I must be the real deal.”
“Seeing ghosts is still crazy, crazy ghost. Even with my meds going good. There ain’t no such things as ghosts, anyway. Haven’t you heard?”
“Oh, I’ve heard. But now I’m not buying it.” The ghost patted itself briskly up and down, tufts of dust and wafts of malodor erupting with each slap. “I’m here. Plain as day. Just like you, Kate. A phantom, a wraith, true, but real as you and troubled by unfinished business.”
“Then you’re dead if you’re a ghost.”
“Well, you said it, not me. What’s your unfinished business, ghost.”
“Tell me, Kate, have you seen the stars tonight?”
“Yes. You know I did. You were right out there in the window when I did.”
“No, Kate, they’re gone.”
“Oh, they’re there,” she insisted.”
“No, Kate, they’re gone. Take another look.” She walked back over the window, and when she parted the curtains again the sky was ink black. Again the ghost appeared outside her window, looking in at her. He raised a mangled hand to point up. She followed his aim to a starless sky.
“It’s overcast,” she said, “and they’re above the clouds.”
“No, Kate. They're not above the clouds. There are no clouds. Not tonight. You said so yourself.” She strained to look, but saw no stars at all. Were they really gone or just part of the hallucination that had ferried her ghost to her?
“No stars is crazy, too,” she said.
“No, Kate, they are no longer shining in the sky for you. But they're around, trust me. They're just hiding.”
“Kate, you know where. They’re in the place no one dares to look.”
“Riddles and games. I don’t know what you’re talking about, ghost.”
“Those deepest places where your deepest thoughts are. Your scary thoughts, Kate. Ugly thoughts. Dangerous thoughts. Things you want to do but know you must not.”
Kate waited. She did not like what the ghost was saying. These things were hurtful things, for she had seen her deepest thoughts. She had heard her deepest voices. Thoughts and voices about scary things, ugly things, and dangerous things. Things she used the rest of her mind to suppress.
“You need to leave, ghost,” she said.
“But if I go, who will remind you of your deepest thoughts? They are you, aren’t they? Don’t you want to be yourself? Most people go through life trying to find themselves, but you live to deny your true self. Don't you need to be you? Self-actualization, Kate. What would Maslow say?”
“I don't know any Maslow, and I don't want to be the real me. No. I want to be someone else.”
“Who, Kate? Who else do you want to be?”
“The person I should have been all along, before my sickness.”
“That’s not you, Kate. You need to be your real person. How dare they tell you not to be you? You can show them, Kate. Show ’em good.”
“Stop, crazy ghost. Leave me. Go away.”
“Do you want me to go where the stars went? Do you want to go where the stars are?”
The thought of that gave Kate a strange sense of comfort. “Yes,” she muttered to herself, “that would be nice. That would be normal. Like everything used to be.” She was thankful that the stars had always been there for all of us--for her. It didn't matter where they were. They promised the same world the next day, day after day, in a universe that remained constant and familiar. A stable universe. Something she could wake up to each morning. Home. Reality. The ghost spotted the hearth burning warmly in her eyes.
“Ah, then, yes, Kate. Very good. Join me there. You see, the stars are our innermost thoughts. The thoughts that you think it is good to suppress, but it’s not good to do that. They are what are normal, what we all are. And when we bury our real selves that deep, we’re not ourselves anymore. The stars are like the canary in the mine. Do you see, Kate?”
“Yes,” Kate replied. “I do.” She paused. She reflected. A troubled look of conflict passed over her face. This is how they always trick me, she thought.
“Don’t think, Kate. Do. Act on your impulses.”
“No, crazy ghost. I'm better than that.”
“Better than your real self?”
“We were born with Original Sin, ghost. We’re better than that now. Our real selves were the sinners. The original sinners. We can do better. I can do better. I know better.”
“That’s religion talking, Kate. That went away with the stars.”
“Yes, ghost. The canary died. We’ve been warned not to go back to being our real selves. Our deepest selves.”
“Oh, Kate, you’re being foolish. When you deny your real self, you’re denying what God has made you.”
“God? You? Like God has anything to do with you. You bring up God? Now, how dare you?”
“God’s with the stars, Kate. Our deepest ugliest, scariest thoughts created him. Created religion. Santa Claus, magic, and luck. It’s all make-believe.”
“And you, ghost, are you real? Or make-believe?”
The ghost paused now. “That is a trick question, Kate.”
“Is it now? God’s not real but you are? You come from my deepest thoughts and fears, too, ghost. You can’t have it both ways. Now I’m going to tell you this just one more time.”
“Leave. Go back into my deepest thoughts and fears and worries. Stay there. And then I’ll throw away the key.” The ghost pouted.
“Eve was a great woman, Kate. Even she took the apple—why can’t you?”
“Goodbye,” Kate told the ghost.
“I’ll go. But I’ll be back. You’ll see.”
“Perhaps,” Kate replied. “I take every day one day at a time. Just like my medicine.”
“You and your goddamned medicine! Fool! You killed your own canary! You!”
“Goodbye. And really, don’t come back.”
“You wish!” said the fuzzy, transparent shade, becoming more transparent and fuzzier the angrier he became, its mischievous face replaced by one of vindictiveness. “I will come back,” it promised. “You know I will.” It seethed.
“You usually do,” she replied, and then the specter faded away altogether.
Kate turned to draw her bath and looked forward to the renewal the water would bring. After that, she planned to retire for the night. The next morning she would take her daily medicine. She felt good. A day without screaming.
It had been another good day.
She always liked how I did her laundry. Truth be told, I liked doing her laundry, too. I would guess at what she was doing by her laundry. I would look at the grass stains, the caked-on mud, and the mysterious bodily fluids and fantasize scenarios about what she did to get such soiling. She was busy. Always creating dirty laundry.
I would always smell her laundry, as much a part of the process as detergent or setting the length of the spin cycle. Ah, the spin cycle.
Even the nefarious stains, each with their own tell-tale olfactory clues, could not mask away her own womanly scent. How would I describe it? Her scent is she. As real as the train approaching when you’ve been tied down to the tracks, yet as elusive as a unicorn. As much to do with the real world as a cloud, yet when I smell she, I smell life on Earth—evolution, foraging, mating, and natural selection. I smell the intangible of joy. Like the tesseract, it cannot be categorized within the limitations of mere human sensorium. It is victory, submission, defiance, conquest, and surrender all rolled into one.
It is she.
I lift one of her very personal items to my face and inhale deeply. I am with her when I do this. I am lifted; I leave, out-of-body, coasting on the pleasure of my forebrain. The second cranial nerve has allowed me to appreciate her beauty. The eighth cranial nerve has allowed me to harmonize to her song. But my first cranial nerve is a gift from God. Pheromones blow me into a singularity, all places and one simultaneously. I am drunk with her scent.
She. Just the word, with its digraphical phoneme…
Pheromones and phonemes. She. With its unvoiced fricative, my vocal chords don’t even vibrate until I get to the long ē. But it is worth the wait. It is when the angels join the chorus of my pleasure.
I sit atop the washer, sorting and smelling, separating and sniffing. When I think I have exhausted all of the odorifics contained thereon, I let it slip through the open door to join the others. The t-shirt with its musky tale of mammalian exertions. The scarf, sure to be ruined by the machine, with the alchemy of its man-made perfume concocting with the fragrance of she a bouquet of marriage between her and the rest of the world and all its wonders, not the least of which is the wonder of herself.
On second thought, I reach back in to retrieve the previous olfaction delight. I have not exhausted it, and I bask one more time in the fragrance of lovely, of feminine, and of implied symbiosis with me.
I appraise her other clothing, piece by piece. The bend of her knee here, the flex of her elbow there. Pivots that separate her sinews and pumping muscles. Rhythmic tightening and relaxations, glistening with the thinnest layer of moisture that sparkles magically on her faint hair. Bodily functions contained within a working model of woman, sculpted from fulfillment. I dream of these sinews and pumping muscles atop myself, and both of us atop this very washing machine. Machinations and machines come together today because it is wash day.
I reach for a towel. It is a heavy towel and it is not even dirty. It will conflict with the delicates; it will upset the balance of the rotation. It is on purpose: I want an uneven load. I place a detergent packet into the machine, to wipe the slate clean, to start over, to deliver to me the next generation of sensory enchantments. I push the right buttons.
The machine is an old one. It is not level, again, on purpose. I can feel the warmth on my bare buttocks as it begins its cycle of operation. I become aroused. If she were to walk in now, she would see it plainly.
She knows the game. She enters and feigns surprise, then outrage. She approaches me tenuously, testing each step as she does. Her livid expression undergoes devolution into one of lust. The machine is rumbling in its excitement. My arousal becomes stronger, crying for help. She disrobes, letting her things drop methodically and silently to the floor, staring into my eyes the entire time. Sex isn’t with genitals, it is with the brain.
It is with the soul.
She wants to join me during the machine’s excitation phase. Nude, a word that only portrays beauty, is not correct; she is naked, the better word, because it is the name that promises action. She steps up on a footstool and then throws one leg over my lap. Next she is sitting on top of me, insertion completed in one fell swoop. Deftly. I am surprised at her moisture. Again, the wrong word. She is wet, the name for love.
In the next phase of the machine’s cycle, there is a plateau during which it maintains a continued churning agitation. My anticipation builds, as we await the next phase. The thin layer of moisture on each of us is now the only thing between us. Alternating movements and alternating current both conspire to initiate in each of us the next phase of the cycle. The machine pauses. It is a spinal pause in us, as well, like that one moment on the roller coaster where the chain that drags the cars up the first and highest hill disengages in preparation for the headlong rush into the lake of adrenaline below. Chink, chink, chink, chink…then… the moment for which I have waited.
The spin cycle.
My friend, the heavy towel, creates the uneven load. The bespoke footpads, upon which the machine sits unevenly, partner with the towel. If the water-filling of the machine was the excitement and the agitation the plateau, the spin cycle is our climax. Woman and man and machine are one, as centripetal battles centrifugal and undulation and reciprocal pumping become cohorts. And that smell, she, wafts up to engulf us. Not just she, however, but us.
The spin reaches its peak as do we, and once again I am submerged within muscles and sinews and soul.The machine is frantic, the woman is ravenous, and the man is desperate. The sum greater than the addition of the parts.
There is a physiological reckoning in us when the machine now experiences its final phase, its spin down. It is a resolution, as we collapse in our own spindown. When all of the torque is spent, so are we. All is quiet—woman and man and machine.
I look down to regard the clothing she had removed before. I look back up toward her and she smiles.
“Very dirty clothes,” I say to her. They promise another laundry day.
It seemed that dying was not such a dreadful thing anymore, because David Bowie had died. She was not supposed to outlive Bowie. He was too important to her to go first. She claimed she had been to every live performance over five decades. She even claimed she had had sex with him in her groupie days. She had every one of his albums. Actually, she had two copies of each one, one to play, another shrink-wrapped virgin vinyl, unopened, she was keeping to pass on to her children and grandchildren. She didn't have any progeny, however. Being obsessed with Bowie meant that venturing into other social interactions was simply not on her list. She had recorded every TV performance, now collected on a shelf of VHS tapes she could only play on an obsolete machine she finally had found at Good Will.
Anna could see herself going out, fading away, with Bowie. It lent a romantic respite from the toxic melancholy that had tormented her since she had heard her diagnosis. A diagnosis like his. Coincidence? Their connection was strong. Among her phases of denial, anger, pleading, and acceptance, romance sneaked in right at the end, courtesy of her absentee man who had sold the world. Yes, I can go out with my David, she mused. When she ate, drank, slept, and breathed her disease and mortality every waking and sleeping moment since her bad news, it was easy, even comforting to imagine that the disappearance of Bowie had a fateful relationship with her own pending disappearance. Let the world do without the both of us, she thought. A small black Pug jumped onto her lap.
“I won’t leave you, though” she promised the small dog. “No, we’re a package deal, huh?” She continued her conversation with the Pug who barked his responses. “I should have named you Diamond, right, Elvis?” she said to Elvis, what she had really named him. “Or Major Tom, or even…Ziggy! Yes, Ziggy!” Elvis yipped in agreement to the happy chirpy sounds of her voice. “So, what do you think about all these ch-ch-changes to my health?" she asked, and laughed, and Elvis laughed with her. "Did you even know who David Bowie was? I guess not, sweetie.” She made exaggerated smooching noises all around his head as Elvis licked her face.
“I guess I should feel deserted,” she said to him. “My life is leaving me now but my David has left me first. He was unfaithful.” Elvis jammed his snout firmly into her belly and snorted and sniffed rapidly. He could smell her disease, her scary monster. He had smelled it long before any biopsies, scans, or even suspicions had hinted of it. “But you’re not leaving me. Not you. You would never do that, would you?”
She knew that to Elvis, she was his Bowie, his ultimate destination, his million points of light. She was his hopes and dreams, even when his time was to come, his own eternal rest, because dogs were not supposed to outlive their masters. He had never heard Bowie, even as often as it played throughout the house, because he never listened any further than Anna's voice. He had never even seen the stars because he had never looked any higher than her face. Just as Man had reached for the stars, Elvis had reached for her. His small canine brain saw himself as much a part of her as her own arms and legs and tumor. When she suffered, he suffered. When she would grab her lower abdomen and groan in pain, Elvis would slink toward her, his legs all double-jointed and his tail down. It did not matter to Elvis that Bowie was gone; it only mattered to him that Anna was still here. But as small as his mind was, it sensed her coming departure from his world.
She thought of it often, but she never spoke of it with him. She knew some things dogs understand without knowing any words except for treat, vet, bath or his name. Anna was fond of saying that dogs were a gift from God, and truly their dedication—total, loving, even ridiculous—could only have come from God.
She also had a cat that she seldom saw. It was an outside cat, living a cat people life that was interrupted only for a visit to the milk bowl on her step. She knew that the cat knew there were no more Bowie, but that it simply didn’t care. Cats knew almost everything, but cared about almost none of it. They were survivors and would do just fine dealing with the loss of Bowie or anything else. But she also knew a cat would have no clue of the rot inside her that doomed her and threatened the milk supply.
Elvis knew that no dog should outlive his master. It just wasn't allowed. It was just the way it was. A law. His small canine mind couldn’t use a vocabulary to put it into words, but somewhere among his simple synapses he could sense the train wreck coming and that his stars, his ultimate destination, and his million points of light would soon be gone. He knew, then, that he would be gone soon, too, and first, according to the law.
He cried at night, even if Anna didn’t know why. He cried for both of them, even if Anna didn't know how.
She labeled Elvis her comfort dog, insisting he accompany her to the grocery, to the mall, even to her doctor’s office. Old Dr. Burgess saw her in his office when she had kept her follow-up appointment. She sat in a chair and settled in, as he looked with disapproval of the dog on her lap. He raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t even start. He’s my comfort animal.”
“Comfort, hmmm…You shouldn’t have canceled your chemotherapy appointments or refused your radiation if you wanted comfort. In fact, you have refused to discuss further any remedy at all.”
“Remedy? Is that what those things are? They’re remedies? They will fix me?”
“Anna, you know what I mean. I agree that the survival rate—”
“My rate? I’m going to have a rate of survival?” Elvis picked up on the sarcasm and yipped a high-pitched bark that hurt Dr. Burgess’ ears. The doctor flinched.
“Enough to make you deaf!” he complained.
"Deaf-er, you mean."
“No reconsideration, Anna?” She sighed.
“No, not for me.”
“Why do you keep refusing?” he asked.
“Again, you ask me? Again, Dr. B., I ask you back, did you know that Bowie was gone?”
“Oh, that. Yes, I have. And again I ask, how does that figure into a decision to not do what’s best for you?”
“Dr. B., I've had radiation all my life. Cosmic rays, X-rays, gamma rays—all from the stars. And the day Bowie left us is the day you gave me my diagnosis. Advanced this or advanced that.”
“Advanced mixed muellerian carcinosarcoma.”
“If you say so.”
“Well, then,” he said with a mischievous smile, “maybe all that radiation kept your cancer away. More reason to consider it now since you’re on your own.”
“Funny, Doc, real funny,” she said. “A 10% survival rate with your man-made radiation?”
“Yea, I know.” He understood. She knew he understood. “You have to try,” he urged her, having to try.
“No, I really don’t. Look, all I know is that I came from dust and to dust I will return. With or without radiation.”
“You came from the dust of stars,” Dr. Burgess added. "Just like all the radiation you were talking about. And the the iron that sits in your hemoglobin, even though you're anemic; the oxygen you breathe, even though you're short of breath; the stuff that makes your bacteria—both the good and the bad, although in you the bad seem to be overpowering the good. The hydrogen, the nitrogen, the magnesium, the sodium, the potassium—all of these things came from the stars. You came from them."
“I stand corrected,” she said. "Not dust to dust. Stardust to stardust." She laughed to herself, but then suddenly became sad. "My dust—my dust is supposed to go back into the stars, but I guess that's impossible right now because it has to go into the Earth first, and it won't be back into the stars until the Earth falls into the stars. When will that happen, Dr. B.?"
"Not for another five billion years or so."
"Oh, I'll be long gone by then. But I guess I'll finally be home. But for now, my dust will be parked. It will be worthless. It will be wasted.”
"What about David Bowie's dust? Is that wasted?" he asked.
"Oh, Dr. B., that is good dust."
“Well, don’t throw away your dust just yet, Anna. It’s good dust, too.” He paused. "David would have thought so." He paused again. "Ziggy would have thought so."
“Shame,” she said with a sincere smile that in some way expressed some finality. As she began to rise from the chair, Elvis jumped down. She left with Elvis prancing behind her. To a dog, life was good.
There weren't many days left for her--for them--but during the few they shared, Anna and Elvis were happy. Even when Anna was more sarcoma than she was Anna. No dog should outlive his master, Elvis kept gestalting in his limited dog brain way, without words. So when Anna finally left Elvis' world, he felt very un-dogly about himself. She had deserted him. She had been unfaithful to the law. To him. She had Bowied him in infidelity.
It was against the law.
There was a celebration of life at her house the evening of the funeral. Dr. Burgess was there. The pastor who presided over the burial was there, too. It wasn't important to Elvis that there was no one else present, because dogs do not keep score. They only count to two, and now he had an equation with no sum. He left the kitchen through the doggy door and walked into the backyard. The feral cat hissed at him, but he didn't care. He saw her on the fence, and she was stunned that he didn't care. His eyes didn't stop there. He continued to look up, and he reached a point where he could see twinkling, sparkly dots of light strewn across the sky. He listened to the music coming out of the house. It was Bowie. He knew the words by heart.
Oh no love! You're not alone
You're watching yourself but you're too unfair
You got your head all tangled up
But if I could only make you care
Oh no love! You're not alone
She was mouthing the words of a song as she came out of the hospital bathroom, a sad song that hardly sailed with enough billow to be heard. A whisper, really. A secret told to only herself.
...the angels replied:
Oh, your baby has gone down the plug hole.
Oh, your baby has gone down the plug.
The poor little thing was so skinny and thin,
He should have been washed in a jug, in a jug.
Your baby is perfectly happy;
He won't need a bath anymore.
He's a-muckin' about with the angels above,
Not lost but gone before.
"Please, stop," I asked. I didn't like her song. She looked at me with disapproval, then caught herself. She stood there--totally alone--even though I was but two feet away.
“I had a cousin once,” she said out of the blue, with a rambling-on unfocused look in her tired eyes. She walked toward the bed and before she sat next to me I was able to shove away the wheeled platform that had held the tray of her unfinished breakfast. “I was just a little girl when it happened, of course.” She paused again, her aimless gaze drifting in one untargeted direction to another. “She had this baby,” she continued. “Everything was normal—a beautiful little boy baby."
"Oh, Abby, do you really think this will help?" I asked.
"And then he got sick in the nursery, so they had to put him in a special nursery for sick babies. I think they had to put him on oxygen or something. It wasn't anything serious. I mean the baby did just fine and all. It’s just that, well, the point is that my cousin was discharged from the hospital before her baby was.”
“I don’t understand,” I said to her. “How is that the point? That happens.”
“The point, Ralph, is that she had to leave that hospital without a baby."
"Without her baby."
"Without any baby. And I remember thinking at the time, what a strange feeling that must be—to go and be pregnant all of that time. Remember that I was very little back then, and because of that her pregnancy seemed to go on forever. Anyway, to go and be pregnant all of that time, and then to go and have the baby for goodness sake, and then to have to leave with nothin’. Really strange.”
I only listened; silence was the appropriate response. This was grim territory, and it was all hers.
“And I guess I remember this so well,” she continued, “about how strange that must have been for her only because she bitched and bitched about it. And when her baby did come home, about a week later, all of the fanfare had already fizzled. No glory. Just a beautiful baby. And I remember I was sympathetic with her frustration at wanting her baby to come home with her and not having it that way. She missed the relatives’ welcoming the two of them into the house. She missed the drop-ins of all of the people she’d show the baby off to. The little envelopes with the folded cash in them. She missed all of that. The show must go on, right? But for an empty house. The fickle audience had already found another trending event to shower with their fifteen minutes. She felt so gypped. Like when a mother’s only daughter elopes, robbing her out of the glory of the wedding she herself had always wanted.”
“Yea, I guess that’s kind of weird,” I agreed, just out of politeness, but I was wrong. She wasn’t sympathizing with her cousin.
“Well wasn’t that all just too damn bad!” Abby said angrily. “She did have her baby to raise--the important part--but she was all upset over stupid crap like that. A beautiful baby like that and she's furious over some maternalistic inconvenience. I loved her back then for her inconvenience." Her eyes regrouped a focus on me, fire burning the tears out of them. "I so hate her now, though. She should’ve known what it was like to leave the hospital without your baby because he’s stone cold dead!”
The poor cousin was really catching it now. I didn’t say anything else. I let her have these sentiments all to herself. She suffered privately, as I just stared at the ground. She was beyond any help I could offer. Mrs. Humpty Dumpty.
“Ready?” I finally asked her, hoping to break her melancholy. "Got all your things?"
“Yea,” she sighed, then said, “the kid ended up being a bum, anyway. Got involved with drugs. Had a kid he never saw." Abby laughed, but it was a snarky laugh. "Caused her nothing but pain her whole life. She blew raising him.”
"The important part."
"Right, the important part."
"Are you saying good for her?"
"Oh, no, of course not," she said, re-engaging those parts of the brain that keep the reptile in check. But after a pause, admitted, "Well, yea, I guess I am." Sometimes the reptile means well.
Footprints in the Sand--the Rest of the Story
We held each other more tightly as we felt an ill wind upon us. It began to blow so hard that we could hardly catch our breath. When we finally did, this ambiance had a definite odor, a bad odor, not unlike the bodily fluid stain that had marked the parking place of our stolen truck. It was like rotting flesh, which I could smell with my nose; it was like rotting souls, which I could smell with my breaking heart.
The malodorous perception became increasingly foul, especially standing out from the sensory deprivation that cradled us. Her face flinched with mine as the stench became painful. My forehead burned from the fetor, and we suddenly experienced nausea. She vomited first with bile and dry heaves, myself following suit. Our eyes watered from the nausea, but a blurred vision only delayed any perspective in this abyss.
Gradually the stench began to be less intense, not from subsidence, but due to desensitization from olfactory overload. The null rush abated, but we still lay floating in the vacuum that both buoyed us and pinned us. But it was not motionless. We were still being jettisoned very rapidly toward the source of the ill wind.
I’d feared that source before, that place furthest removed from goodness and sense, where even God’s presence did not ebb.
I tried to tell her, “I think we’re in Hell,” but the deceptively unnoticeable speed now garbled my syllables into echoes of backward utterances which collided in vacillating falsettos against deeply pitched phonetics.
Almost imperceptibly at first, but then quite noticeably, a flickering in our ocean of emptiness occurred. The flickers then began playing against each other—white versus void versus white and so on. Next came some grays with whites, then colors. We were definitely slowing down.
Our quivering that had signified our moving through the layers, for a great while a tranquil respite courtesy of our great speed, now returned with the deceleration. We held each other more tightly than ever as we progressively shook more wildly. I hoped to never again know what it feels like to shake not only on the outside but also to feel my organs and gut rattle and slam around inside my body, too.
And then someone hit the brakes hard. We tumbled together—and with a sudden onset of pain, I might add. We were together, inseparable, and I could feel why. Although there was the natural incentive to hang on to each other for dear life, I also felt for her deeply, and therefore felt the adhesive of our love. We were anchored together all the way down to our deepest depths. The landing, on the other hand, was an extended and confused struggle to lock onto something stable. The series of bumps and blows ultimately ended in a thud for us collectively, as we lay winded and welded on a flat surface; we were bruised, disheveled, and smelling of vomit.
We held still for a moment, on our backs, looking straight up at a grey sky. Not a cloud was seen. It was hot and steamy. We were both breathing rapidly to re-oxygenate before we could muster the energy to get up. We rolled our heads from side to side to see where we were.
We were on a beach. The surf intermittently would crash, but it smelled strange—chemical-like. There was no seaweed washed up that I could see. That was the way things looked out toward the water. When she rolled in the opposite direction, she gasped.
“What?” I asked. She was speechless.
I finally sat up and looked, slowly because I had strained my abdominal muscles from our landing. Strewn all over the beach as far as I could see were dead bodies in various stages of decomposition. There were skeletons, bloaters, fresh ones, and well, they were all certainly dead. There were men and women and, most horrifying, children. We were up at last, feeling our aches.
“Ohhh, this hurts,” she said, rubbing the small of her back.
“Wait till tomorrow; it’s going to get worse,” I said numbly, still astonished and repulsed by what I was looking at.
“I don’t think anything at all can get any worse,” she said, looking down to avoid further surveying. We began walking, often circuitously to keep as much distance from the bodies as possible.
“No insects,” I said.
“No insects. You’d expect flies and...”
“Stop,” she urged me.
The beach separated the body of water from a high levee which gave us no choice but to walk along it. The levee had walkways leading from the beach. They led to it and over it, and certainly over it to the other side.
“Where are we going?” she asked me.
“I don’t know,” I said dejectedly, “I was kind of walking with you.” The aimless wandering plan worked for both of us. We kept on.
She refused, but I began to look at the bodies. They all seemed to have died traumatically: knives, explosives (probably), jumps (possibly). Guns, of course, were a popular motif. I realized that we could feel like sole survivors here. “No one gets out of this life alive” is the phrase that came to mind as I realized that we may have done just that.
By the time I was beginning to numb to the carnage, I spotted one body in the distance that frightened me. It seemed to have something over it—an unfamiliar mammal of some sort. It was like a small mongrel dog, and it seemed to be feeding on the body like a scavenger. I half-wittedly guided us toward it to get a better look, drawn like my hand on a Ouija board, in some strangely morbid manner. I grew increasingly afraid of a premonition that warned me of what I might see. She slowed her pace in hesitation because of the alien sight, but it was not refusal. As we approached and saw the swollen, dead figure and the sunken, dark eyes I screamed.
What I saw—what made me scream my most fearful sounds—caused me to bury my face into her. She was also rattled, but more by my reaction and panic. She couldn’t see what I saw, because I was jammed into her, trying to jump into her to escape. She knew she couldn’t comfort me in this unmanageable condition, but did her best by allowing her body to swallow me in. The ravenous dog-like creature went rigid with my outburst, hissing and spitting in our direction and showing its teeth. Its matted brown and dark-spotted hair bristled in clumps.
“What! What!” she shouted, the same tone reserved for when one’s shirt is on fire. She pried me away so she could see for herself, but I resisted her effort.
“No, don’t! Don’t look!” I shouted at her, but she succeeded nevertheless. Now knowing what I had seen, she slammed me back into her, her hold firm.
It was me! I swear it! A dead me! All swollen and dead and half rotten and half eaten and—Oh my God! I could feel the pain of the decay when I looked at it, a mind-boggle of sudden suicidal depression.
No, this was worse. This was physical. This was the excruciation of rotting and being fed upon.
“Let me go,” I told her, “I’m going to look.”
“Yes. It hurts so bad. I’ve got to overcome it. My mind has got to overcome it.”
I popped loose. Ignoring the threatening mammal, I began to stare down my own death and saw the gun in the dead hand, the old bullet hole in the head. This me had succeeded where, at my lowest point of my life, I had had the good fortune to click a hammer on an empty chamber.
But my strength was not enough. The pain still inundated me. And what was worse, I now began thinking more rationally, figuring that if Fido from Hell liked the rotting me, he’d certainly love me fresh. Suddenly she shrieked, spying her own counterpart. Apparently our four-legged friend had visited her, too. She collapsed in agony. I myself was such a whimpering mess that I wasn’t much support. I turned and saw the successful suicide that was the her that she saw, a tableaux of what might have been had she not been thwarted at the lowest point of her own life.
I pulled her along with me to distance ourselves from the pain. As we gained more ground, we became better able to compose ourselves. The decomposing, on the other hand, went on in those others around us who were not as bothersome as the two in particular we had just seen.
All of these corpses had been suicides, I concluded. She agreed. We continued to walk along an expanse in the most hopeless, senseless, and sorrowful place in the universe. All of these corpses had been those who had given up everything, which of course includes the soul. They had left themselves hollow, withering on many different levels, empty hulls like the carcass-ashes of the insects on a window sill of a third-rate burger joint.
This was it, the last stop, a most terrible and final layer—this layer where the carnage of the hopeless lay self-victimized in their submissions, in their ultimate self-indulgence.
I spotted a folded piece of paper sticking out of my soiled, damp shoe. I reached down and retrieved it, opened it. It had my name on it, with the word, "Apprais-it," typed under it.
"What's that?" she asked.
"I don't know. An appraisal? From where?"
"I don't think you should read it," she cautioned.
"Oh, right." As if. I unfolded the rest of it and read it to myself. She just turned away. Knowing who I was here--on this "apprais-it," or whatever, I felt, would help me know where I was. It was horrible grammar and diction, replete with misspellings. But this wasn't the crayon blotches of some ignoramus. It was neatly typed and followed a template. It was official. I didn't know where, but somewhere.
The pachent, it read, ish a 252-month-old white vagiphile, ranked in for the looking at his. The pros got none any reason to therap his, cause peeps who’d give up on peepselves arnt woth any sweat or trubble.
Impression: Him feels of worthless deserved.
Forced Forecast: Let this one go off and wrap it up as planned by hisself. OK with pros.
I refolded the report carefully, then I crumpled it up angrily: the hopeless giving up on the hopeless; unreasonable people have no reason to people unreasonable worlds.
Just the fact that there was ink on paper meant technology. Over that levee must be the viable, the living of this place. Here on the beach must be the natural resolution to life over that high, green, continuous hill.
I had no desire to go over that hill. If we were at some end-point, I could only imagine how terrible it would be to be among the living human beings there.
I was convinced that this layer was as close to Godlessness as one could get. I was convinced this was Hell. What endeavor would a civilization be involved in for the GNP of Hell? No thanks, I’d take my chances among the carnage that was our beach party.
Except of course that food and water can be a strong incentive to venture. After all day we had survived fairly comfortably. Oh, I was a little hungry, and she was a little thirsty. Terrified, we knew the next day of hunger and thirst would bring us closer to the levee for passage over.
The small forager with the eerie blood-dripping canine fangs was the only one of its kind seen. As night fell, having put some distance between us and it, we could hear its strange call, like a child’s croupy cough. Suddenly we heard hundreds of calls from apparently innumerable animals. The darkness gave us insecurity; the surprisingly large number of them we heard gave us the creeps.
This darkness was the antithesis of the white panorama that had brought us here. It became totally black. Memories of psychiatric observation came creeping back to me. As we huddled together in the inky night, our eyes finally adjusted to the faint phosphorescent glow of the decaying bodies, apparently the work of some bioluminescent organisms. There was no moon and there were no stars. The only light that competed with the eerie lantern effect of the decay was the rim of sickly glow from over the levee that underscored the sirens, screams, and other troubled sounds of the night which described the way of life there.
The amalgamation of the croup-calls, the macabre ghost-like visions of the bodies, and the sounds over the levee unnerved us, to say the least. She held me firmly, abruptly tightening her arms around me in reaction to the realities ganging up on her.
“There can’t be any place worse than this,” she sighed.
“Yes, there could,” I said, knowing full well we could be wrong in thinking this is the worst—that it might be only the second-worst, or third-worst, or fifty-seventh worst.
“But if it is the worst...” she said.
“You’re still with me,” I offered. “It’s not the worst yet.” And with that she smiled, which this place didn't deserve.
"But if it is the worst...” she once again stated, undeterred.
“If it is the worst,” I continued for her, “then I guess we'd have nowhere else to go but better."
“Exactly,” she said. And so she rested her case with an expression that declared she was ready. “How else would we go?”
“No thanks,” I said, ending the discussion.
I couldn’t see her clearly in the murk, but I could feel her sulk by the slump I felt against me as we sat together, against each other. A particularly loud croup-bark sounded. She started.
“Oh, that was close.”
“I know,” I said, squinching myself even closer to her. We supported each other for the longest time until we began nodding as one. As we dozed, our fatigue made us forgetful of even the carnivore’s threat. Half asleep, I numbly noticed again the soft light emanating from over the levee—a city’s glow, giving notice of whatever reprobate cloisters carried on over there. An unprecedented place. How cheap must life be over there, I thought—over that levee. How senseless, how self-servingly cruel. And how easy must it be for someone over there to end up over here on carcass beach. A civilization of cavemen. I want it—I take it. I want you—I rape you. The amphibian part of brains being heard first and loud.
And then I slept hard all night until the mist-diffracted sunlight of morning raised me back up from the dead. The rest of the bodies would have needed Jesus to do that.
Jesus. What a joke that was!
Abby was hard to wake up. I shook her lightly, but she wouldn’t respond. She needed sustenance. I myself felt like I was still running well. She, however, was showing a definite decline, possibly due to illness or infection. I felt her head, and even in this heat she felt unusually warm. She was feverish and dehydrated. I had to get her some food or water. I didn’t fancy the thought of her glowing in the dark.
“You stay put,” I said, when she finally awoke. “I’ll go look for something to eat.” She looked at me like I was crazy. She jumped up to join me with sudden involvement, which was surprising to see after such a deep sleep. Then she looked confused until she really woke up. When her brain finally caught up she addressed my intentions.
“We go together. Really!”
I agreed readily, admitting to her that my going off alone was a stupid idea. I looked around at our morning mood—the dead: one half of the complete food chain on this beach.
We walked together for a couple of hours, zigzagging our way around the stiffs and the occasional four-legged vultures who would territorially ward us off convincingly. After a long distance, Abby stopped to rest, sitting in a collapsed kneel.
“Baby, this is tough.”
“I know, but we’ll find something. Beaches are desirable real estate, even here—I know it. God, I must sound so stupid saying something like that. But I’m hoping we can connect up with only an excursion of people from over the levee and not have to enter the whole way of life over there.”
“No, I mean it’s tough just being here.”
“Look, we’ll rest and it’ll get easier,” I said, trying to reassure her.
“No,” she said again, this time with alarming emphasis. “It’s tough just being, just existing, and right here.”
Despair had sparked in our team, and it might just spread like wildfire. I sat down next to her and ran the whole thing by in my head. I wondered just how much better off we were than our fellow sunbathers around us. And why weren’t we freaking out over our itinerary that had culminated in this cake walk of death. Just what were we accomplishing? What kind of survival was this? I thought about what she had said, about going anywhere would be better than staying here. Sure, that could be wrong, but I didn’t expect a Burger King here anytime soon, either.
“Let’s do it,” I said to her with a tone as competitively despairing as hers.
“Do what?” she asked. “Go over the levee?”
“I said it could always be worse,” I said. “But this is getting worse. We’re walking along a beach with no food or potable water; there are thousands of dead people—”
“O.K.,” she blurted.
“Sorry,” I said as I hugged her and she loved me right back. And in that embrace we closed our eyes and did what felt so obvious, exerting ourselves in our love. Love? Or was it a co-dependency of despair that had evolved into the vector forces of the ill wind that had brought us here.
We knew something was happening--we had gone someplace else, but only to meet resistance from further progress--a barrier of some sort, an ending.
Before I even opened my eyes, I realized this wasn't better. I knew, then, that we went from the second worst place there ever was to the worst place there ever was. We could tell by the even worse smell, even though I would have never thought that possible. We could tell by the fears that did not emanate from within, but which were bestowed upon us, somehow, from emanations that advertised for vampires. Our eyes were still closed tightly as were our arms around each other. We both had felt the cold resistance that had announced our arrival at the nadir of existence, and we both knew the score. Further efforts failed to bounce us back the other way, and this broke our hearts.
We just listened.
We heard the chemical surf. We heard and smelled the ill wind. And when we opened our eyes, we saw ourselves totally alone on a beach which a moment ago had held more dead people than the beach along the Styx. Ironically, this made it lonely. The sky was a sickly yellow, a smoggy yellow, a purulent straw-color. Apparent chemicals in the air flashed with a ghastly aurora as if impotent enzymes were attempting catalysis toward a primordial perverted life, but of course no life would ever be comfortable here. The resistance that prevented us from going any farther, that cold barrier, spilled over: it was very icy here, the ill wind berating us with an added chill factor. This was strikingly different from just the very last layer, where it was hot. We rustled ourselves together, still crouched, to generate warmth.
The levee was replaced by hills which had no roads inviting us over to the other side. For all we felt, those hills were the barbed wire on the edge of the universe.
“I need to ask,” I finally said cautiously, as if the ill wind were eavesdropping, violating my most personal concerns.
“Yes?” she responded, sharing my hopeless monotone.
“What?” she asked, prodding.
“How many times did you almost commit suicide?”
“Just once,” she answered after a moment with a laugh of regret (regret of attempting or of not succeeding?).
“Oh,” I said.
“How about you?” she asked me.
“Only once,” I answered sadly.
“Really?” she said, surprised.
“I think this dead man’s beach is reserved just for us,” I said, assessing the private accommodations.
“I think,” she said slowly, with an intense gaze right into my eyes, “that committing suicide in Hell is not a sin.”
I considered that philosophical venture. Was wanting to suicidally leave a place without God a sin against God? Would God even care? Would He even know? Did He even miss us here?
We sat quietly and mulled dark thoughts, hopeless thoughts, and Godless thoughts, as if thinking hard enough could kill us. We snuggled more firmly together. The daytime sky, an already menacingly dark color, grew darker yet, its yellow having worn away unnoticed. I closed my eyes, because I felt death near.
She began before I did. With resolve, I finally made the same decision: I invited death so that I could ambush it with my hopelessness, my Godlessness, my life. And then I heard the malevolent sky opened up, rattling my stability even further. It was just like in those movies about Christ’s crucifixion where the lightning and thunder and inclement weather roll in for deific effect—weather so bad that even a son of God looks pretty scared.
I strove to contribute to our embrace, but seemed to be unsuccessful in holding her any more tightly. In fact, the ferociousness of our enfolding seemed to be slipping away, like something so valuable that oozes from between one’s fingers the tighter the fist. And I could feel the searching terror in her grasping movements that sensed the same failings. Suddenly, she had stopped holding me altogether. I opened my eyes to find her striving for me with her own eyes. She was horrified as she realized that she could not make physical contact with me. We grabbed at each other but missed, even though it was obvious that we couldn’t miss. Our hands passed through each other with icy transections. Then our arms rushed through each other repeatedly—hysterically—our shock growing wildly like a runaway fire. We threw ourselves at each other, lunging in desperation to undo whatever it was that we had done in thinking hard enough. We were shrieking tearfully at each other—for each other—the effect all the more macabre because we could no longer hear one another except in distant echoes, our behavior becoming all the more intense as our efforts proved fruitless. I tried to scream, but I was in that nightmare where you can’t scream. As these torturous moments rushed by, she became fainter and fainter until, laboring to see her at all, I was offered her final goodbye—the fretful, regretful pallor on her face. I’m sure I offered a similar farewell as I knew I was being ripped off, even in death, by not being allowed to go with her. I closed my eyes tightly as if I could still stop this terrible scenario.
I opened them again and she was gone! Had she already succeeded in her death ahead of me? Did she go to her own beach?
I had truly nothing now. Now I was in the worst place. With my love gone, I was missing a bit of my true existence. And of course that was enough of a breach to make whole existence impossible. And wasn’t that the whole purpose of just being? Forget the gonads—don’t you love with your soul? Isn’t that why a broken heart hurts so badly, because it’s actually a broken soul? Permanent damage to an immortal being? And if a piece of my soul was gone, what was the rest for? For God? Just where in the hell was He, anyway?
For what it was worth, this probably would have been a fitting end to my worthless, miserable story.
By now any light of the sky was blotted out to a twilight-like dim glow by a wind-swept layer of debris, soot, and vile pollution overhead, fueled by the incessant howl of the even louder, cold ill wind, its rancidness thickening. The humidity was dense, and I could almost sense each misty droplet hanging in the air with a sticky stench clinging to it. It was as a fog that was insidiously hiding an indescribable threat. Visibility had now been reduced to a few yards. I began walking along the beach, now so alone without her. Without even my shadow. Just me and the frigid ill wind, through which I could hear a most dreadful dirge.
Although very strange, very haunting, I felt it to be very necessary for some inexplicable reason. I was finally able to perceive a melody, although “melody” was too kind a word for it. “Discord” seemed more appropriate, since this designated what I heard: there was dissonant harshness of blended clashing sounds, defining the lack of harmonious unity that was my life. It sent shivers down my spine, for it now dawned on me that this music was meant for me. They’re playing my song was a thought that came to mind, and I found this harrowing. If any score were to represent me as I was at this point, this certainly was the piece. I heard a cancerous counterpoint that insidiously encircled the melody that would soon eviscerate it.
The gales above were still pushing by, and the foul odor burned its way up into my nose and into my forebrain. I reflexly clasped my arms repeatedly at my side to keep warm. I thought that nothing could be worse than the sound of the ill wind whirling over and around me, but the sound of “my song” did succeed in adding a final oppression. So I put my fingers in my ears, but it wasn't coming from outside, it was coming from inside. Giving up on stopping the music, I unplugged my ears and slowly arose against the push of the gusts. As I did I came face to face with it.
It was a most terrible monster, but this was no reflection in a medicine chest mirror, no cheap shot at my sensibilities. This was quite real. It was massive—six or seven hundred pounds of humanoid repulsion.
Visibility was terrible, although we were but an inch away from each other, looking eye-to-eye. I screamed sincerely my most excellent scream at it. It snarled at me in return.
He wore only a narrow black bathing suit, most of it hidden by rolls of flesh. The scene was all the more bizarre because of his summer beachwear in the iciness. His face was distorted not only by ugliness, but also from the exaggerated obesity. In spite of this, I could tell intuitively that it was me, the worst, most deteriorated version of me that could be.
This is what I was like without my soul!
He scrounged and in fact dug up from the pit of his throat a purulent load of phlegm that he blew at my face at point blank range. It had an aftertaste of nicotine and old alcoholic vomit. “You think you can just shit me out,” he smoldered, followed by the afterwave of his breath. “I hate you to death,” he slithered at me with my own voice, but in a graveled growl that made his message redundant. And with this, he clamped his big fleshy hand behind my head, slamming it into his face.
What came next was the kiss of death.
He allowed me to rear back, but it was only so he could go for my throat. Why? I didn’t know. In some way, wasn’t this self-injury? Such thoughts could barely surface, because his raging fists and the blur of the powerful kicking from his very large legs were all that I could mind at the moment. Mass, momentum, force—all of these parameters of physics figured into the formidable attack that a seven hundred pound man can present. I fought off his attack using my forearms with propeller-like inefficiency, suffering the bruising from his torrential strikes. My rebuttals were like so much straw at cement. He, on the other hand, was frequently successful in making sufficient contact to start blood flowing from somewhere on my face.
I just couldn’t fight something this big. He could vanquish me by just sitting on me, flattening a major part of my body as he did.
But why was I fighting back or even defending myself? The thoughts attempted to surface again. Hadn’t I wanted to die? Yes, I had decided, but not at the hands of a murdering brute. If I were to die, I’d do it myself! And then I once again regarded the face of my attacker, this visage that was a me. This is what actually was happening! I was, in a way, doing it myself, by his hands, by the hands of a me, a reminder of the essence of suicide.
So I succumbed to his onslaught, trying to feel fulfilled in my masochism, but as he continued to pummel me, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find myself so fulfilled. Even when he knocked the wind out of me by his thrust elbow to just below the center of my rib cage; even when he jammed his knuckles into my bloodied eyes; even when he rapped the windpipe in my throat with something else of his. And with all of this, this bastard still could not give me what I needed!
Well if I were going to do myself in, it would have to be by my own execution—on my side of the mirror, because the worst version of me to ever live was failing. What the hell made him qualified to deliver me? This was an insult to the true me, to the total me. No, this execution must be carried out by my own volition, by my true volition—by my total volition. This massive carcass was no more important than the foodstuff that was available for scavengers a beach ago.
So I fought back. I fought for my life, for I had my own plans for it. I’d be damned if this piece of shit that was me was going to be the one to kill me for me!
I fought back, but so did he. So beaten was I to begin with that he had the decided advantage. So many hundreds of pounds less than him, I proved no real threat, even with the ferociousness of my change of intention.
So I fought back, but I was losing. As noble as my plans were, now that I had seen the dark light, perhaps it was already too late to come out of this alive enough to consider death.
I went down at his insistence—an excellent tripping maneuver combined with a right hook to my head, the whole technique potentiated by the torque only his size could muster. I landed flat on my back, winded. I watched fuzzily through the cold mist at my attacker as he lifted his huge booted foot. I knew his intention was to forcibly pound it into my skull and end his problem so that once again he’d be the fairest me of all on all my beach. My song continued to harmonize with the sound of the ill wind. I thought I’d say a prayer to God, but couldn’t see the purpose.
Just as his downward thrust was to begin, an unlikely champion leapt from nowhere and with its claws cut a swath across his face, instantly rendering him helpless. The animal and his huge victim landed on the ground next to me at the same time, and I felt the ground shake when they did. Suddenly, there was no sound from the wind, no dirge, no swansong. All was silent except the wind. But although I now didn’t have to actually “face the music” from it, I did end up face to face with my combatant.
His gargantuan physique finally presented as disadvantage, as he was puffing for his own breath. And he also was gasping fruitlessly to overcome the blow, a brisk red fountain coming from his face close enough to shower mine. And once again I smelled the breath that could itself kill. It’s only offensive competition was the ill wind, which was now also the only noise. The carnivore, too, was silent in contrast to the wind, and he now was squatting seemingly in expectation of my next move—sitting courteously for my plan. He suddenly broke his silence by celebrating his victory with a bark that was like a child’s croupy cough. I say he because he also celebrated his joy of violence with a very noticeable erection. The macabre scene was terrifying; it was paralyzing. I did nothing, panicking in uncertainty. He barked again, almost as if to prod me into some type of action. I still did nothing, lying on the beach, the sand burning my wounds. Ultimately, this frightening little beast huffed in exasperation and arose, all the while fixed on my gaze. He now was standing on all fours. I lay petrified that he may now have something planned for me! My worst fears were realized when he slowly walked around both sets of our legs, circumnavigating us as a gruesome, bloodied pair, to come closer to me.
Now he and I were face to face. He growled, showing his teeth, the long whiskers on his snout bristling, his fangs glistening with the mix of saliva and blood. I lay there quietly. I didn’t hope he wouldn’t rip my face off; I didn’t wish he’d run off; I didn’t even think. I wanted no brain activity at all, lest he might sense it as loudly as he’d hear the scream of a dying suicide.
But he didn’t rip my face off. Once again, the respectful calm of expectation mollified the distortions of fury in his features. I felt this hungry creature was offering me options. I tossed my head to look at my huge self-appointed fiend. Of the options I could consider, the option I liked best was to do this big, fat guy in.
The only reason I stood up before he did was because I could. My assailant still lay helpless with his blow, weakened by the blood loss that had by now made all of the beach under him red with surrender. I studied him but was repulsed by the introspection that resulted. I stepped over him and suddenly his corpulent arm lurched upward, his hand pouncing on my groin. His fist clenched and I cried out. I stood over him stopped dead in my tracks by his persuasion. My knees began to buckle. He seemed to summon all of his strength to this one action, hurting me badly as he did.
Forget the gonads, don’t you love with your soul? Here was the soulless at my gonads. He squeezed more and more tightly, which provided the solid contact which further drove my hate for him or any other me for that matter. Although my stride had been interrupted, I overcame my agony and raised my fisted hands over him. I was even able to raised both arms, as no other part of his body offered me any resistance: he was placing all of his bets on that one crippling grip of his.
But now it was my turn. And if I had been suicidal with him before, I was certainly homicidal with him now. After all, this wasn’t murder—it was self-improvement!
My raised arms mirrored his own threatening position before he had been struck by the creature. As I let my fists fly, suddenly there burst on once again my theme song.
I let them fly hard. My passion was determined to do this in one strike. Suicide? Murder? Just what was the difference?
And as the last stinking breaths of his smitten life waned in frequency, the music in the wind also faded away. I collapsed onto my knees. My four-legged partner, my witness, now barked one last time in applause. He then moved on, dragging the kill off with him as he did; dragging away all of the worst of my attributes as he did. For so small an animal, he was very powerful, almost magically powerful. Or it may have been that the massive bulk of the corpse was misleading—that soulless spoils really didn’t add up to much after all.
I strained all of my muscles as I stood again. I still had that horrible burning abdominal pain that radiates up from traumatized testicles. My knees were shaking and I was weak, but I stood erect. I watched the dead being carried away for quite some time before I bothered to pay attention to what I felt at my right leg. I became aware of it when I finally felt it was cold and it was moving. When I did look down I froze in terror. It wasn’t any particular danger at my calf, just a bizarre sight. There, humping at me like a horny dog was a horned salamander-type thing. It worked at me feverishly, and this unnerved me, for I wondered if this is what I looked like to the rest of nature: just another reptile, humping where I could for pleasure. I felt something wet dripping on me, becoming sticky as the creature continued rubbing against me. Appalled, I suddenly kicked it away. It went tumbling for several feet and then landed, motionless. I lifted my sight to once again see in the distance my dead, fat assassin, now a small dot, receding, courtesy of the scavenger.
Now totally alone, the ill wind my only companion, I searched for any feelings of any other presence in this, my world. I sought any feelings for her, for her presence, but felt none. And then I tried for feelings of one last possible presence. I thought I’d now say a prayer for God, but then as I had felt no such presence to receive any of my pleadings before, I felt no such presence now.
And that’s when, totally alone, naked of all worth or values, I heard that most terrible noise:
It was a noise against which the ill wind didn’t stand a chance. It was a noise whose power not only blew the ill wind back, but overwhelmed it. And this most terrible noise was a voice of rage, a howling of rejection. It was a railing against hopelessness. Deafening, it was a reaction to the absence of love, a reaction to the worst thing that could ever possibly happen—the loss of One’s child.
This most terrible noise, all-consuming even from the unfathomable distance it had traveled, was the sound heard when one witnesses how loudly God Himself can scream.
I lay on my beach, decimated, drawn, and quartered by the divine force from another realm. I lay so very alone. Without any world, without my lover, without God.
It was the emptiest place I’ve ever been to that was filled with bad things, and the bad things were all inside my head.
The hollow feeling in me was, I realized, the source of the ill wind, now quiet—like halitosis, not noticeable as one’s own. I was nothing, a collection of atoms which was battered about by the random forces of physics. My thoughts and dreams were unimportant misfirings of chemicals and millivolts. I was totally worthless.
I was soulless, and I now knew how that felt: like the pain of the paradox of being cognizant of your own oblivion; like the pain of watching yourself rot or be fed upon. I was light as a feather, that reassuring feeling of being firmly grounded to something lost and now missed. There was nothing of substance to me, and any animal that feeds on the soulless would have no trouble dragging me away, either, because I’d seen it done already.
And if losing my soul felt like this, then this is the only Hell I would ever need.
From the sandy ground of my private beach now arose a harshness of red light, as claustrophobic as any enveloping darkness. I felt it as the hateful force of a soulless world. It flashed painfully in my vision even with my eyelids shut. Its sanguine glare was so unendurable and unmerciful that it took well over an hour before I could bear to open my eyes to it. It forced me to squint, partly due to reflex, partly to protect myself from its radiant, crimson virulence. Springing from the multifaceted blood-red sand, it was accompanied by the odor which was that of vast quantities of blood—that putrid, sickeningly sweet smell that is associated with the very acts that result in vast quantities of blood, like senseless slaughters, historic holocausts, and justifiable homicides. Like the hemorrhage of children caught in the crossfire of adult senselessness, soullessness, and Godlessness. It was the saddest stuff I’ve ever seen or smelled. It was the red carpet of carrion rolled out just for me.
The morbid brightness that continued to hurt my eyes and my feelings was reflected by the microscopic edges of each bloody grain—by each raw, inflamed granulation; and in this way it was amplified in its sickly glow, not unlike what had been seen from the rotting wounds of bodies from the beach before. (Except that if those bodies had had such a powerful candlepower in their decomposition, there would have been brilliant pillars of light firing off forever into space, jousting beacons of horror to ward off the universe from the likes of Auschwitz, My Lai, the Khmer Rouge, Vlad the Impaler, the Inquisition, or the nice boy down the block who just one night blew his whole sleeping family away before turning the gun on himself.)
I finally got up, initially having trouble with my balance because the sandy ground was soggy. The force of my weight oozed the foam of blood from my compressed footprints around my shoes. I walked squeaking in the anguish I had distanced myself from in the past. My back and rear were wet with this foam from the period of time that I had spent on my back due to my recent annihilation. As I walked, this foam gurgled, making a sound as if from a great gaping blood vessel, pleading with me. But of course, being soulless, I didn’t care. The color of the sand struck me as being a red-shift, a Doppler effect that so amply demonstrates that misery never catches up with the faster self-indulgent among us.
In the cruel blinding light I could just make out the shadows of fast moving things swishing past me, over and over. I was not frightened, because I didn’t care. They were menacing and definitely sinister, but I still didn’t care. At one point, one of them brushed past me, leaving me with an icy feeling, but this feeling couldn’t spook me beyond my uncaring barrier. And whatever these things were, I knew that when the next one did more than just brush me that I would really get into it with the thing. It was a senseless hostility that would make me want to tear apart anything that had the gall to endanger me—that same confused and maldirected rage that had me finish off my fat man, that same homicidal/suicidal momentum that wanted quick work done of anything that had the audacity to do only what I deserved to do to myself. But it was, after all, a casual brush. And I took some pleasure in hoping that my depravity seemed as dangerous to my marauders as they were to me.
I found that the farther I walked from the sound of the chemically colored surf, the less frequently these shadows buzzed me. I looked into the glare with the greatest effort to see what lay in the direction that promised me some relief from the aggravation of those aggressive silhouettes, and I could barely make out hills. The closer I walked toward them, the less the stark radiance hurt my eyes, as the glare was gradually replaced by a low-hanging cloud, a thick fog. The temperature rose the farther I walked, now with only the dense opaque humidity surrounding me. I labored to look harder and, straining, I could finally see through the white of the fog. I saw that the hills were forbidding in their austerity, rocky and graveled and with no vegetation. Still totally hollow and worthless, I continued to walk toward them. What did they separate me from in this place? From other hollow, worthless beings? Was there a head hollow, worthless being in charge of all the other hallow, worthless beings over there?
And those misfirings which were my thoughts drew my collection of atoms toward these hills. It was a long, hard walk and climb through the sand, hindered by the fog, but of course I didn’t care. I was hungry, too, but I didn’t care. It really made no difference to me. I didn’t care about myself at all as I walked, which I enjoyed as my greatest selfishness. I don’t know if I cared about anything, actually. I didn’t even care if I were to proudly suffer all eternity here, or until I reached the hills, whichever came first.
Gradually, I was better able to see; I could just make out some scrawling in the sand, words scratched into the red granules as if by a stick. It read, “I Love U.”
I didn’t care. Pausing at the affection in the red sand, I may have felt the slightest waver of my nihilism. But no, I didn’t really care about anything.
Except her—yes, I unexpectedly found myself choosing to care about her, to put myself second, as I once again began making progress toward those hills. I found, as I continued even farther, that I now chose to care enough to hope she was O.K. That everyone would be O.K. I walked more, caring more, putting myself third, fourth, and so on. The closer I got to the top of the hills, the more I found I cared. It was the strangest thing: it was as if the hills were not some barrier but instead were a threshold. I ultimately cared enough to fear what was beyond the threshold, making me hesitate.
But I came to care about myself as I discovered a pass through the hills where I knew I could catch a glimpse of what lay beyond. I knew that at this pinnacle I would be able to see over the cloud I was in to the area below. I was frightened, but as I walked I was becoming caring enough to deal with whatever I would find there. I was going to be me and not some damned fool seeking permanent solutions to temporary problems. I cared about my destiny, so I knew I had to endure onward. I pushed myself through the pass, like threading a needle. With a camel.
And I cared about God, so I cared enough, and she would find me again.
Siren, a Song in Three Entr’actes
There was a taste in the air. He did taste it, although his lips were pressed firmly together in a clasped defense of wrung creases. It was that salty spray taste that could penetrate even a closed mouth accustomed to sea. He bit against himself until he tasted his blood instead.
He felt for the terror of this night with only his ears, for he also squeezed his eyes tightly so that he could experience, without distraction, the sound that the night and the salty air would carry to his unfettered ears. He thought of the music of the spheres, that harmony of cosmic order heard by Pythagoras. His most modern astrolabe was still a crude instrument, he regretted, yielding only vectors and triangulations, deaf to the blessed vibrations from above. He pivoted his head down in concentration to continue his search.
For now he hoped to hear something divine on Earth.
His balance had motion. There were the rapid forward and backward lurches which were skewed by his subtler left and right list. He flexed and relaxed his muscles and joints in urgent preparation, equilibrating his center of mass to accommodate to the waves of his body. He called upon the strange gravity that poises those who choose to live unanchored to the firm ground, a seaman’s sense that the mundane, the sensible of his time cannot feel when what they pound beneath their feet is firm and adherent and restricts them to shorelines.
His hearing had no such equilibration. His vulnerable ears—open, inviting, and en garde—heard only the nautical wind toward which he feared his heed would be erroneously diverted. His men toiled at their duties on his ship, but each was primarily fearful of their captain’s expected madness. Each knew they had gone too far to be led by a madman. But they obeyed, nevertheless, or so the story goes, when they were ordered to discard the last of the hot wax before pouring it into their captain’s ears. They obeyed, or so the story goes, when they were ordered to tie their captain to the mast as they neared Anthemusa, the island of the daughters of Melpomene. And they dutifully disobeyed, as the story goes, when he ordered them to release him so as to be willingly consumed by the Sirens who sang to him divinely.
The song was of six voices but from three.
He ordered them repeatedly as their captain, warranting the fair justice they would receive for their mutinous refusal. He pleaded with them as their victim, his own salty spray issuing forth from his gasping mouth. The wet binding cut painfully into his ankles and wrists as he flapped and thrashed impotently on the mast like the crying ropes in the wind. His ears could not believe the honored invitation—a request to rejoin the universe in glory.
The rest of the world had no importance at all! He must go, he knew.
But the mast held him fast, its firm curves dissimilar to his own, bruising the very prominences of his spine as he struggled in panic to accept a destiny no one with wax in his ears could understand. He heaved against the mast with all of his might. Its creaking added to his own as he hoped to snap it—he must snap it. He launched himself so mightily that even his men, wide-eyed with horror and amazement, thought he might succeed.
But he might just as well have been impaled.
He slumped in defeat, disgusted with his hated traitors, glaring at them, scorning them for having only wind blowing through their heads. His collapse signaled the knives that cut him away from his crucifix, several of the men lifting him upright.
A final harmony drifted through him from afar.
“Is it safe now, Captain?” they asked. They strained to hear his response through their sealed ears.
“Finally, it is!” he said, searching out each set of eyes that prayed for his good sense to return. “It is safe—for me!” he cried, each flexed elbow carrying a man with him overboard. Falling with them, it seemed so beautiful to him how their howls harmonized with the song from the island.
It was a longer way down to the frigid water than he had imagined. The concussion was his final defeat. When his crew fished him out alone, he had no remorse for his friends who had died by his attempt to reach the singers. As he lay on deck, sputtering and draining brine, he knew that their deaths and all the usual tragedies were jokes.
Neither abandoning Circe nor absence from Penelope, nor even the mixed turmoil of both torments, was a hair’s breadth compared to the miseries of the Sirens’ lure unrequited. His men stood witness to what longing can really be, amazed at how it can drive a man to kill or how it can drive a man to surrender to his inviting killers—surrender to their divine singing his body, his life, his soul—his very reason to exist. But unless one heard what he had heard, no one could conjure the shame and self-loathing that befell all who were to refuse their seduction.
Hundreds of generations ago, he and his men would out-distance their peril, but he knew even in conflict with his rational thought that he would never be whole again until he returned to their sublime melodies that never ceased ebbing in his mind. Worse, this yearning was final and immutable, to be resolved only when these Sirens were to taste of his living flesh. And from the time his mind was so seduced—so poisoned—he was doomed to forever long for this consummation.
There was a taste in the air. Orpheus did taste of it and he relished it. He searched the still, strange night with his eyes and his ears. He saw the stars above, harmonizing in their secret way with the men who toiled at ropes and sails. He heard the music of the spheres, wafting in waves, seeking musical accompaniment.
He swayed, balanced in a complex rhythm with these perceived sounds from above. He would welcome the song of the Sirens as his men readied themselves to enlist his protection. The winds had ceased and the sails were down. The masts were secured and the ship floated, buoyed, with all hands attending on deck. They stood still in relation to the world, the ship gently swaying their feet under them. Soon even the most boorish among them could feel the euphony Orpheus channeled to them from above. The celestial orchestra came around again, but still no accompaniment from the island that sat nearby. Orpheus waited with his men.
They had no fear. They had a different understanding of the Sirens than did Odysseus. There was no wax to plug their ears, only the lyre of Orpheus to stand at the ready to transform the threat into an embrace for the universe which still was playing to them from above. Orpheus understood the meaning of the music of the spheres, the power of the Sirens’ song, the connection between the two that needed a bridge to harmonize the universe.
They all waited. There was no wind. All else was dead silent, save the stars and orbs, lush in their introduction. Once again the melody came around but no one joined in. It was as if the island Anthemusa were waiting for the right moment. The strains became louder and louder to the men, who became more ebullient which each pass of the introduction. Orpheus prayed to the celestial exchange and the music became even louder. By this time the men were chanting, stomping a foot each in unison. The ship throbbed with each collective footfall. The melody came around again. The men were shouting their collaboration, and the ship swayed to the rhythm. Their participation filled the void, it appeared, so just when there seemed no more room for any further accompaniment, the song from the island entered, taking the helm of the opus with the loveliest force of lyrical radiance the world could withstand. A few at a time the men quit, dumbfounded, having no idea the ears could bring such pleasure. They felt the need for communion with the source of this divine elocution. They felt the need, and they saw the reason, for wanting to be consumed by the throats that sang this song.
Orpheus fixed his lyre on his lap and found the right key to complement both the heavens and the island. The world became connected with the stars and the planets above on that magical night. Melodies and counter-themes flowed through his lyre in both directions, the sky and the island each receiving blessings while bestowing them. The men were on their knees, weeping in happiness.
On their island three Sirens sang divinely with the voices of six.
The interposition of notes from the heavens with their own vocal renderings was an epiphany made possible by the bridge of music trafficking across the lyre at sea. The circle rounding the heavens, the lyre, the Anthemusa island, and the heavens continued until the men of the Argo began to softly glow.
Consumption wasn’t necessary after all!
Hundreds of generations ago, he and his men would outdistance the aural waves that splashed against their ears and would live to tell this tale, but they would never get the song out of their heads. Others would call them mad with this affliction, but they would all die happy, with a song in their hearts as well.
It was supposed to be a three-minute, three-chord song with a simple hook, like what could be heard churning the thick, tropical New Orleans gumbo of humidity in any of dozens of venues that evening. The words fit the measures of the song tightly as Rhea sang them over and over. She posed her petite body stiffly, an inert chameleon, the fitful lights changing her camouflage from instant to instant. She had turned her back on her keyboard to face the audience. Only her lips moved, and it was impossible to imagine the power that came from such limited animation unless one were there to hear her. The decibels were not good for anyone’s ears and her vibrato mated with the din.
Then came the familiar rest, when she stopped singing so that the instrumental hook could go around and around. It was a private annoyance among the band members as to when she might jump back in, the circular hook building momentum with each pass, the crowd getting more frenzied with each cycle. Their stomping became her metronome. Her bandmates marveled at the power she seemed to have over her audience but wondered whether it was a good thing. At this point she ran the show, and this tease was one of the two things that had gotten her kicked out of the band before.
She stood on the raised stage and slyly waited, her inanimate stance in contrast to the audience mania below.
The guitars churned out another cycle; still she didn’t jump in. This was the longest she had ever waited and her fellow musicians strummed and plucked and drummed with ever increasing intensity. Then she did what she had promised them she would never do again—the second of the two things that had gotten her kicked out of the band before. The concentration of heads in front of her was solid enough, she calculated, and she dove backwards onto the carpet of hair and hands. The undulating support for her bobbed her this way and that until, like the supernatural properties of a Ouija, she felt she was willing them to send her back to the stage.
By this time there were only a few more octaves to jump within the known limitations of the instruments, so the saxophone player began a pair of rising cords an octave lower than the finishing chords of the guitarist, and the guitarist repeated the trick, creating the sonic illusion that the rise up the frets was never ending. It was a necessity, an emergency: Rhea forced such trickery out of them. Additionally, the bass and drums began to slow down the rhythm to give them more time for their singer who seemed unconcerned. The stomping metronome agreed. The trip up the frets and the sax’s progression up the scale raised the tension of the song, awaiting the hammer blow of Rhea’s voice only her stage presence would provide. The rough mob had a gentle touch in placing her back on the stage—a hive of killer bees beneath the placid illusion of a colony’s singularity. The band, the crowd, the whole world waited for her to join the chant of strings, winds, and skins and the trickery of the never-ending cascade of octaves.
Rhea sang at last.
She belted out the blast that untied the knot that had bound the sound and crowd together. To the crowd it was worth the wait. She brought the acoustic tension crashing down to the home note that defined the song. A great weight lifted from the crowd and went somewhere unknown into the universe. It was less of a hammer blow than it was the uncocking of the hammer of the pistol, perhaps not gently enough to prevent firing. And although it had been worth the wait to the audience, it was a hard day at work for the band.
The walls of sound came crashing down and the crowd had fun. The band slipped back into an instrumental version of the refrain, which Rhea should have overrode with the home note, but instead she paused again. On the backbeat she belt out a vocal attack composed of a wavering, dissonant tritone.
She jumped back into the pit of hands and heads, but the crowd was different. This time the hands were choppy seas, tossing and jolting her. She was rolled face down and saw their eyes—she looked a singular mob right in the eye and became very frightened. This time her will was helpless to drive her back. Hands and elbows struck her in her face, throat, and mouth. At one point she bit to remove two hands at once. The fans slammed her the wrong way some distance before the bouncers ran to her rescue, making a circle of floor for her to alight. She was back on stage quickly.
The guitarist and bass player studied each other and then jumped in with a hard driving heavy metal hook that begged for Rhea. The drummer added a snare and high-hat cadence. She behaved this time, jumping in at the expected time. The place rocked, guitar chords punctuated by drum kit strikes and bass licks, but Rhea heard between the notes.
She heard an ominous musical phrase drifting through the lumineferous aether. She looked into the crowd and saw a man in the back of the room, sipping a tall, dark drink. He was dressed in a businessman’s office uniform, minus the tie and cuff links, his shirt and coat sleeves folded over his forearm the perfect one and a half times. She knew this man. He had hurt her in the past and now wanted to hurt her again. With otherworldly ears she could hear the song from within him, and it grew menacing. She heard his threatening song that brought down any other vibrant songs the world had to offer her. She couldn’t get it out of her head. She was out-of-body by this time, listening to the song from the man, while her body on stage adhered to the band.
Her body felt faint and stopped singing right after a refrain. The band covered for her beautifully, and she sat on a stool and lowered the stage mike to her mouth. She was burning up, she knew. She searched a playlist from deep past her short term memory, past her long term memory, and into her ancient DNA memory. She looked very hard to retrieve it—it was elusive, on the tip of her tongue.
She looked at her body on the stage and at the crowd and began a vocal improvisation. She was back, but she had brought her own music. The band was merely a group of catatonic musicians at this point, obedient servants to her musical will. They kept turning the musical phrase over and over, providing a latticework for her to build upon. The crowd stopped dancing but just stood, staring at the low stage blankly. Their heartbeats began synching to the rhythm from the stage.
Rhea began adding more sophistication to her singing. The song of New Orleans played perfect background voices for her as she conjured up the madness she now knew she could craft. In the background, the song that was New Orleans added a Voodoo counterpoint, and the drummer obediently added his backbeat. She didn’t know how this was going to end, but she was getting even hotter and she was fighting back—naturally, instinctively, and powerfully. The man in the back was smiling slyly, not hiding the thoughts of what he had planned for her later. She took the notes she heard and inverted them back out, and they fit.
All of the women on the floor dropped their drinks, a collapse of shattering glass and the firefly-like cigarettes that fell to the ground as well. To Rhea’s amazement, they all turned to the evil man in the back, caught like an errant child caught in the cookie jar. He was paralyzed, as were the other men in the room. Rhea took a melodic interval and began tightening it into a perfect harmonic interval. And then she sang as two women, accompanying herself, not singing with two voices at once, but singing at two times at once.
Something in the women reached critical mass and they began moving slowly toward the man. They didn’t like him, because Rhea’s song didn’t like him. In fact, her song hated him, so they hated him, too. He stood motionless, completely paralyzed, but completely entranced in the hypnotic suggestion from a song from the stage, and this song now ruled his life.
He walked in a forested area and it was night. There was no moon. Something patchy on the trees fluoresced. He was barefoot and alone. There was a rustling beyond the trees that suggested a threatening pandemonium. Within that was a pipe playing. And carried by the pipe song was panic. He felt the moist fluorescent substance dripping on the trees. It was the blood of something, and it was still warm. The rustling beyond the trees became a bustling that seemed to be moving toward him. The panic swelled. He darted this way and that, the harsh brush debris scratching and splintering into his feet.
What is this? Where am I? he thought in horror. He stooped to pull a large thorn out of his left foot, and when he stood again, there was a sudden blow to his face, slamming his nose upward against its bridge. His eyes shot open and he beheld a naked woman wild-eyed with hate. She spat on him, and then he felt the razor-like pains streak his back by the nails of another. He put out both his arms and fluttered them ineffectively, trying to ward off the razor strikes. When he opened his eyes again, there were a dozen naked women who seemed possessed, and the object of their possession, inexplicably, was his destruction. He slapped this way, punched out that way, bit hands that scratched at his face. One of them kicked in his knee, everting the knee cap, and he fell to one side. On the ground, he assumed a fetal position, balling up in false protection. The onslaught continued unabated. His teeth were displaced at their roots, his eyes were now swollen shut, he tasted blood that was flowing briskly enough to choke him as it fell down his throat. He tried to cry out, but all that he produced was an agonal guttural glottal spasm.
His soul was already in Hell, arriving before his body, which stood in the back of the room at the lounge on Toulouse St. And there, his body saw them as they crowded around him. He was powerless to escape their blows and thrashing, and there were too many of them. They shrieked in madness, shredding him with their nails, and then they proceeded to tear him apart in a Bacchic orgy of retribution. Rhea continued singing even as her temperature fell.
She felt safe. She had brought the Maenads with her tonight, lusting in their brutal assault.
The performance, dedicated especially to the man in the back, was twenty-three minutes of Phrygian fury. By the time the women were finished with him, he was nothing more than a mushy pulp and was pushed out to the courtyard and then thrown in several pieces over the brick fence onto an adjacent property, where the cockroaches fed on him all night. When all of the women were re-assembled, Rhea faded back into the band, which began catching back up with her; and the women and men slowly became animated seamlessly into the dancing that preluded the visit of the Maenads. There was glass all over the floor, and that seemed a complete mystery to everyone. And even stranger, the women wore blood all over their blouses, halters, and dress fronts.
Whatever tension remained in the song was dissipated by Rhea’s return to the home note, conspiring with the group’s telepathically choreographed quadrasonic one-point crash landing, like the beaching of a Homeric ship that had long pined for terra firma.
In my retirement, I finally got around to doing it. I stacked the uneven wedges of photo albums, binding left, binding right, so the stacks wouldn't fall. Epson V600 Photo scanner, you are my archivist now, days, weeks, months of taking each photo out of its sleeve, positioning it just so, tinkering with the contrast, saturation, and hues. Bequeathing to them 0s and 1s before the paper yellows them into only 0s.
Album "Mom Before Dad," 120 photos of a baby, little girl, posing or not, happy or not, in the mood for a snapshot or not, nevertheless, alive, her life documented. But I live it. I wasn't there, but I can be with her. Paul Simon sang, "I have a photograph. Preserve your memories--they're all that's left you." Even though they're her memories, I am with her throughout this photo album. I am more than peeking in. Since we became one, 37 years ago, we're off the number line, off the time line. I am there as she passes from girlhood to pubescence to adolescent coquette. Fun with her friends. I'm having a ball being there. Didn't they feel my presence? I am not just observing, I am visiting.
Album "Dad Before Mom," 89 photos of mostly professional poses. Me as a baby, me as a serious young man who gave the photographer fits although one couldn't tell by the little gentleman in the picture. Black and white in a black and white world. Looks like "olden times." How can that be when it was me? Like when that teenager in the parking lot told me, "Go to hell, old man!" Me? Old man? When did that happen? Photos of my family, Mom and Dad and us little shitlings, then those back a generation. Or two. Old emulsion, silver long gone. No smiles. Dressed impeccably. Every hair in place. Stares that beam straight out to me. All dead. Back then, there would only be one or three photos of someone. Now folks have thousands and thousands, with duck faces and peace signs and an outstretched arm as the vantage point of origin. Me on a bike--a big deal at the time. Me crying in the bedroom, courtesy of my Dad who took it just so that I could process the Polaroid according to a protocol that my brother wouldn't let me do minutes earlier. Set it up with a wipe, seal it with a wipe, let it dry. Photos within minutes--we thought we were living in the future then. But it was the past. My past. High school poses. Prom femmes pro temps. Girlfriends who lasted longer. Even some who met the parents. My first car, rigged with an 8-track, then a cassette player: real stereo...in a car! The girls would certainly go crazy.
Album "Wedding." That evening, on the plane to Acapulco, realizing that for the first time in my life I was truly happy. I had no idea. I liked the way it felt. Human. Earlier that day, the family poses, no less stiff than those on the old emulsion portraits. Just in color, this time. Wipe away the color and they're no different from the grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great-grandparents.
Album "Honeymoon." What the Wedding Album was really hiding behind the starch poses and generational tableaus. Poolside--casual innocence of dedicated monogamy. Quotidian sex. Anytime. The gift of expressing love physically. Every honeymoon shot, bikinis and bathing suits, underscored the fact that we had been without them moments earlier. That smirk on my face. That smile on hers. So beautiful. Lean, smooth, nubile, and willing. Sex is a beautiful surrender. No wonder it's best with unconditional love. I think of her now as she sleeps one wall away.
Next the albums by the year. The 80s, the 90s, the 21st Century. First born, second born, and on and on. Parties with the children; parties without the children. Vacations, eschewing the predictable shots of landmarks in lieu of capturing only those with life going on, framed for viewing later. The growth curves within 35 mm, and the school years, their prom dates, perhaps even one with crying in the bedroom over an insensitive sibling slight. Reliving my life by living with them in these moments. Didn't they feel my presence then? Not from my presence...then, but my looking in, now? Now duplicate photos--mine, yes, but theirs, too, in their own stack of albums on the shelves in their own homes. No longer this home, this empty nest.
Thousands of photos more for me to scan, but the stack is getting shorter. Now is the time to simplify my life, so I do not replace these photos in their sleeves, in their albums, for the shelf again, but fling them carelessly into the large box that will be their coffin in a landfill. When my life has been simplified. Decluttered, even from the joys of these shelf-wasting precious items. They'll still be mine. Digitized and safe. All fitting on one disk and backed up on a cloud somewhere. An entire life on a disk. Like the gold record sent out on the Voyagers. A disk can be given to each of the children. I suppose shelves of disks will accrue, and only the future will say how one will go about simplifying life then.
It is another late night, following my wife to bed long after she's retired. I am satisfied with the shortening of the stack my Epson and I were able to accomplish today. Sex is no longer quotidian, but it remains special. Quotidian can even be mundane, but there is nothing mundane about sex nowadays. She is asleep, face softened, brow unfurrowed, lips slightly north of a neutral smile. I observe her in the dark. The dark softens her features, like a good airbrushing. There is my young beauty again. I have walked with you today through your childhood, Acapulco--with and without the bathing suits, the births and the birthdays, and the parties and the trips where landmarks served only backgrounds for the real life going on in the expressions on our children's faces. So beautiful.
But I don't need the dark.
Age may be the great equalizer between people like us and the beautiful people in the media (the current ones I have no idea who they are), but my love for her is like the stack of photo albums. I can only see her as I have always seen her: holding my hand, dancing with me, marrying me, postcoital bathing suits for propriety's sake, proud bellies of the unborn, mother of the born, co-parenting in the joys of the indescribable amount of work known as raising children right.
In the dark, her beauty, airbrushed by how I will always see her. But the dark has met its match. She glows in the dark for me. Framed forever for viewing later. Suddenly, mortality sounds lovely.
On a tidally locked planet in the habitable zone around an average middle-aged yellow star, the locks untightened: astronomers there predicted a timeline in which rotation would begin. First there would be a wobble of the terminator, expanding it as it shimmied to a width of a kilometer. The invading dwarf planet that was approaching toward its slingshot around their star followed an arc that would last a year until it was flung, accelerated, back out into the universe to set other worlds spinning.
This dwarf trespasser would sidewind its way through the maze of worlds along its way, and as the sinusoidal vacillations of gravitation arrived, the people here would witness their terminator widen as their world rocked back and forth, until on one oscillation the momentum was enough to maintain one direction at the expense of the other.
Rotation would ensue.
For the first time light would know dark and dark would see light. The peoples of each side of their world would meet for the first time. The Grand Light of Lux addressed his people:
“My fellow companions on this historic journey, welcome. We stand here in the Babel Basin behind the wall that separates the two sides of our tidally locked world, Janus. Our side faces the light, the giver of all life, and the other side is unknown to us. Until now!”
His people cheered wildly.
Across the great wall, the Deep Umbral of Pitch addressed his people:
“My fellow companions on this historic journey, welcome. We stand here behind the wall that separates us from the people of light. Our side of Janus faces the universe, with its promises and its future, away from the blindness that stifles their view of what we are privileged to see. We have never met. Until now!”
His people ululated riotously.
Each side heard the noise of the crowds on the other side, and when they did, they were stunned into silence, until the respective leaders led the cheers again. The Terminator Clock of Lux ticked down, approaching the strike that would announce the first wobble, that increase in width of twilight from that of the ancient wall’s thickness toward a widening that would move both East and the West at the speed of anticipation.
The Grand Light of Lux addressed his people:
“The daredevil explorer and visionary, Mistun, who straddled the ancient wall, saw nothing in the darkness before he fell away from us, never to be seen again. And so, we have no knowledge, on this historic occasion, whether those who received him will be friend or foe. We can only hope his message to them was clear. Today, we will either gain from optimism or suffer from reckless endangerment. The Terminator Clock strikes soon and we'll all know. I say we embrace optimism, because we are the children of the light!”
His people again cheered.
The Deep Umbral of Pitch addressed his people:
“I have here the beast who calls itself Mistun. He came to us with two more holes in his skull, claiming to bring us greetings from the lighted side; but this beast brought us disease and misery. We keep him here, impaled, as a reminder of those who fell ill from the evil humors he brought to us. This was his gift? Nay, it was truly an invasion. But we prevailed!” More ululation erupted. “When the terminator expands, as our learned and mystics have predicted, the changes to our world will be upheavals, from the weather to our very way of life. Finally, they say, we will no longer fear the tumultuous storms that our side pulls in from the heated opposphere. But we should mistrust and fear the beasts there, like this Mistun, who know only the blinding ignorance of light—not the ambitious curiosity of those who venture into the darkness, feeling their way, hearing their way, even tasting and smelling their way. Eyes were made for beasts like Mistun and the race from which he hails. Eyes were made for light, which we have never needed before. Imagine the distraction, if you can, people of the Pitch. Our Terminator Pendulum will begin to swing soon, and we will be forced to deal with the destiny of the entire Janus. I say to you, rotation is no gift, but a curse.” The Deep Umbral of Pitch pulled the tassel to his right, which tightened the impaling fasteners that held Mistun fast.
Mistun cried out.
The Terminator Clock on Lux struck; the Pendulum of Pitch began its swing. The wall that ran North-to-South in the Babel Basin on theterminator of Janus began to tremble, along with the land beneath it. Cracks began to spread along its expanse. The people of Lux saw the crumbling of their great barrier to the mysteries of the darkness on the other side; the people of Pitch sniffed the air and heard the rumbles and smelled the dust and airborne debris from the disturbance. Both peoples of Janus witnessed their great divorce crumble into a heap of rubble, allowing them, for the first time, to face each other.
The peoples of Lux and Pitch threw a stunned silence at each other. The daredevil Mistun began to cry from the recesses where his eyes formerly sat, which was not lost on the Pitch.
“They all have them! These eyes—they all have them!” shouted the Deep Umbral. “I can smell them!”
“And we see you!” shouted back the Grand Light of Lux.
“But can you smell us?” the Deep Umbral called back over the pile of bricks and mortar that was previously their shared wall. Lest he insult the Pitch, the Grand Light offered a response of diplomacy.
“No, you do not smell,” he answered.
“Oh, woe,” muttered the daredevil Mistun, who now received the olfactory glare of the Deep Umbral. Thus, the metaphor of a handshake between peoples spoiled quickly to the rot of xenophobes.
“We? We do not smell? We smell excellently.” The previously ululaters now roared jingoistically. “You do not smell us, but by the shadows we smell you! You dare to insist we have no smell for you to smell. What is this? Is this your final statement? Your declaration of war?”
The Grand Light of Lux panicked. He saw across the heap of stones and blocks the people of the Pitch; he saw the daredevil Mistun, impaled and incarcerated. He turned to his advisors, but they were mute and paralyzed by clueless hesitancy.
“Tell us, oh Deep Umbral, what the people of Pitch require from us. Do not misunderstand our culture or our overtures.” Conversely, the advisors to the Deep Umbral were very forthcoming.
“We smell the discord and their confusion. They smell bad.”
“Then we should smite them?” the Deep Umbral asked.
“Smells like it,” one of the advisors said.
Mistun cried out, "“You do not know of what you do! I am here to show you the way. There is no wall that can separate everyone, and I am Everyman. And I forgive you. Smell me…you know I am right.”
The Deep Umbral released the tassel. The spikes receded.
“That smells good. You smell good, daredevil,” he told him.
“Olfact, my Deep Umbral, olfact! For you are great and odoriferous.” The Deep Umbral’s advisors began to quieten.
“Is their smell your smell?” he asked Mistun.
“That, and more,” he answered.
“That pleases me,” the Deep Umbral said. Then, turning to his people—the Pitch—he called out. “Let us eat their smell!”
Mistun sighed. This was either a very good thing or a very bad thing. Fragrant or foul.
The terminator continued to widen. Atmospheric shifts created and filled the vacuums that made the winds: the people of Lux smelled the people of Pitch. The Grand Light of Lux turned to one of his advisors.
“They really do smell,” he commented.
“Not so loud, my Grand Light, not so loud.”