After Things Fall Apart
Max E. Keele
It’s just morning; another bloody sunrise seeps into the sky with the usual sanguine promise of yet another goddamned day.
I’m all huddled up shivering and sneezing inside the cavernous entrance of Seattle’s railroad terminal, waiting for the doors to open. I’m cold and tired and damp and still more than a little bit drunk. Joe, my imaginary brother, sleeps behind a long row of rusting luggage carts with a half-empty bota bag for a pillow. He snores like an idling diesel.
For some reason whenever life gets this miserable I start thinking about my ex-wife. I look up and sure enough there she stands all decked out in purple and carnelian velvet, shaking her head slowly and her finger with passionate intensity.
“For Christ’s sake,” I say with practiced exasperation, “go haunt somebody who gives a shit.”
An archaeological dig through the ruins of my life produces a crumpled package of Player’s Navy Cut, three wooden matches and several hits of bright blue aspirin wrapped in a faded Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet. I light a cigarette and it tastes like something you might find growing in a syphilitic camel’s asshole. Compared to my mouth it tastes pretty good.
I nudge Joe’s fictitious back with the toe of my boot. “Hey Joe! Wake up, you boob. I need that wineskin.”
Joe slides the skin my way with a backstroke motion and mumbles, “Fuck off; I’m asleep.”
Sometimes I can clearly remember the days before the War. Clean sheets and coffee. Digital watches and mass transit. No dragons. I remember when reality was something more than words on a page, invented dangers, holograms and hallucinations.
I uncork the bota and wash down a few aspirins. They’ll take a while to come on and of course with all the strange shit going on these days I might not even notice so I light another smoke from the butt of the first and sit back to wait.
Joe rolls over kicking. His illusory foot strikes a luggage cart and the whole line crashes forward. Just like life, I’m thinking, one sharp, noisy little incident and all the future’s minutes slam together.
A year ago I drove to work every morning in a bright blue Datsun, got drunk every night, took powerful drugs on weekends, chased skirts through every decadent disco in L.A., watched sci-fi thrillers on Sunday TV. I remember Godzilla.
A year ago I slept in gutters filled with the decaying sewage of society, believed in reality, wished for sudden and marvelous distractions. One morning after a night of restless dreams I awoke to find that the world had turned into a large insect. There never was a war.
A year ago I graduated from high school, crashed drunkenly into a tree, woke up in traction, saw the worried face of a massive blond nurse. Morphine mixed with the pain in my head to produce an astounding effect: I married her. The pain eventually went away and so did I. Now here I sit cold and strange and all because of one fucking tree.
Joe sits up abruptly, rubs his fantasy eyes with dirty humbug knuckles. “Hey.” He yawns. “You leave me any wine?”
“Sure. Lots of aspirin left.”
“No thanks,” he says. “But we sure could use some food.”
I haven’t eaten in over four days; I suspect that food would only make me vomit. “I wish the fucking train station would open up.” I stand and stamp around to get warm.
Joe pretends to drink some wine. Purple stains drool across his make-believe polo shirt. “What are you talking about? Ain’t no more trains.”
The miracle drug creeps up my spine like sap in an April maple. “Had a weird dream,” I tell him but it’s a lie; I haven’t slept in weeks. “Dreamed I was on this roller coaster. Long bastard. I was in the very last car manning an anti-aircraft gun.”
“You’re batshit, man.”
I could deny that of course. But now my ex-wife’s back and she was never afraid to batter me with the truth. She has picked up the Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet. She reads aloud for a moment in a tone that suggests prophesy but I can’t make any sense of the sermon.
“Jesus fucking Christ!” I scream with mock desperation, “open the goddamned doors!”
The sky is a swirling paisley orange today, with high-contrast clouds projected against its two-dimensional surface: flat but colorful. Strange flying things gambol aimlessly, laughing screaming flapping and spinning, playing random games among the cardboard clouds.
I’m talking to myself again, sitting here alone on a bench outside the ruins of some sort of station or terminal. All the glass is long since broken out; weeds and trash and odd vermin crawl in and out at will through jammed-open doors. I have a drink from a bota of stale water and try to read the cover of a faded pamphlet that’s wind-pasted up-side-down against a rusted luggage cart. I can just make out Jehov… something.
I’m talking to myself again but it couldn’t possibly matter because a giant kaleidoscope chicken just landed with an astonishing thump in the middle of the street to peck and scratch at the abandoned cars. Hey, maybe I’m not talking to myself after all. Maybe I’m talking to a forty-foot pullet who’s made of colored glass and can’t tell the difference between Chevys and chicken’s feed. It could be worse. Sometimes the things I talk to talk back.
I used to be a pop philosopher on a talk-radio station in Bakersfield. “That’s all right for you,” I used to say, “you’re an idiot.” Then I would say something like: “You wouldn’t know a fiction from the truth if it kicked you in the butt with verisimilitude.” Alice, my producer, would beeline for the nearest dictionary. Finally convinced I had not uttered a fancy egg-head word meaning “shit,” she would shake her head slowly, and wave her finger. (It used to remind me of someone when she did that. I was never quite certain who.) Years later, she fired me for uttering a fancy word meaning “shit.” What I really said was: “You wouldn’t know a semiotic sign from an eschatological omen.” She heard it wrong. But there were no hard feelings; I trusted her judgement.
The sky is a flashing vermilion plaid today. I’m talking to myself again. I’m so hungry I could eat this funky chicken except even if it’s real I wouldn’t know how to go about it. Where would I get a forty-foot frying pan?
Sometimes I can clearly remember the days before the War. I used to drive a car, a bright red Datsun. I used to drive my wife to the hospital where she worked. For some reason I can’t picture her.
Well it’s always been a bizarre world. Full of surprises.
Almost no one survived. Those of us that still somehow manage to hang on I call the Loonies because we are all quite hopelessly deranged: doomed to scavenge through the ruins of reality chatting with leviathan poultry, dodging psychedelic rodents and playing tag with airborne garden vegetables, battling against murderous wind-up toys, rebuilt monsters and fellow Loonies, daring to trust nothing — particularly our own senses — and always, always praying that we wake up to find the sheets sweaty and the world sane.
A rebuilt dinosaur, a diplodocus I believe, ambles down Columbia Avenue. Its tail beats store fronts to dust and debris with every step; its stumpy feet leave Chevy-sized prints in the asphalt. A band of ragged hunters armed with golf clubs and Ginsu steak knives follows at a safe distance, darting from the cover of one footprint to the next. The scene looks rather like a swarm of desperate dung beetles chasing a constipated elephant.
Sometimes I can clearly remember the days before the War. I used to hitchhike around with a guy named Joe. We used to catch rides from nurses in convertibles.
Occasionally on days like this one the smiling face of God protrudes from the sky like a vacu-form demon and asks me to confess my sins. Maybe that’s who I’ve been talking to. They say that Saint John had his revelations after eating psychedelic bread mold. Who knows? The world is full of surprises.
Truthfully I’m a little worried that this God thing here might be the genuine article but still, I think I’d better pass. I doubt that I could stand the penance.
Sometimes I can clearly remember the days before the War. I used to teach Creative Philosophy to used-car salesmen in a cable television course. This one student, Joe, had an orange Datsun that he called Abdul. We often went for coffee together. One time I remember we were in Abdul driving through the rain to an all-night coffee shop. Strangely, I felt like a small part of my brain had slipped a few seconds into the future. “Joe,” I said, taking a hit from a huge reefer, “the next song on the radio will be ‘White Rabbit.’ I can just feel it.”
“What radio?” said Joe.
I’m sitting on an overturned newspaper rack in the doorway of a railway terminal watching it rain. I like the rain. When it rains the holograms can’t get through so you know that everything you see is real, except, of course, for hallucinations. Today the rain is falling up.
A ghostly woman has been standing square in front of me for the last several hours. I’ve never seen her before but she has this funny look like she knows me. She’s wearing some sort of scarlet and periwinkle cocktail gown and a fortune in pearls. She shakes her finger at me.
Joe was right, of course. There was no radio in Abdul. When we pulled up to a stop light, a cream convertible full of blond nurses pulled up next to us, “White Rabbit” blasting from their stereo. “Jeez,” Joe said, “that’s spooky. Do it again.”
The part of my brain that was time-slipping slipped a little farther. So I told him: “In about five minutes we’re going to get stopped by a cop.” I started eating reefers.
“The hell we will.” As soon as the light changed Joe fish-tailed off into a bowling alley’s parking lot and got out. “They got coffee in here don’t they?”
The ghost lady sits down next to me. She’s reading aloud from a bright blue pamphlet, but I’ve heard it all before.
As we walked toward the bowling alley we were stopped and searched and Joe was arrested for unpaid parking tickets. As they led him away he scowled daggers at me. All I could do was shrug.
I’m sitting on a bus bench in front of a busy railway station watching it rain. The people are acting strange. They pause to scowl at me and shake their fingers. I hate the rain. Especially this rain. I stand and walk out into it but it doesn’t make me wet. I hold out my hand and the drops seem to fall right up through it. Some lady in a red Macintosh comes over to me and tries to give me a pamphlet of some sort. “No thank you,” I say. “But I can tell you this: the next song that comes on the radio will be ‘White Rabbit.‘”
“What radio?” she asks.
A football sun crawls higher into the ruddy sky spraying the world with beneficence and wonder. I’m kicking an empty tin can down Columbia Boulevard right past the old train station. The building has crumbled badly since the War; its dark vacant stare terrifies me. I wouldn’t go near the place, not on a bet. My tin can tumbles into an odd crater about the size of a Chevy and shaped like a fleur de lys.
After a while I give up searching for the can and look up again. I see what appears to be a small woman lurking behind a rotted Datsun. She’s dressed in colorful rags and carries a huge pump shotgun. When she sees that I have noticed her she begins to edge backwards into the shadows. “Hey, come here,” I say. “I won’t hurt you. Really.”
She doesn’t say anything but she stops backing up.
“Don’t be afraid.” I take a friendly step in her direction. “I won’t hurt you.”
“Sure,” she says. “I’ve heard that before. Just keep your distance.” She raises the weapon, points it at me. She seems very comfortable with the thing.
“Okay, okay.” I raise both hands. I realize it’s a trite gesture but it seems like the thing to do. “Just talk to me for Christ’s sake. I haven’t seen an actual living soul in weeks. It’s lonely as death around here.”
“Well,” she says and raises the gun’s barrel a few inches. “Maybe for a little while. Just remember this is loaded and I know how to use it.”
I lower my hands and sit on my heels. “Right. Don’t doubt it. What’s your name? I’m John.” Of course I have no way of knowing that for sure but it seems to fit.
“My name is Alice. Let’s pretend I made that up. I’m sure it beats my old one.”
“Nice to meet you Alice. Really.” Today, the Universe seems unusually stable. I wonder why that surprises me. “So. I haven’t seen you around here; where you from?”
“Babylon.” She keeps a watchful eye on everything around her. A muscle in her neck stands tense, alert. “Up the coast a ways. I’ve been wandering around ever since the War. No place to go really.”
“Know just what you mean. I thought about leaving, but I’ve never been away from Seattle before. I’m afraid I’d miss it. Want a smoke? I’ve got plenty.”
“Sure.” She gestures with the shotgun. “Just toss it over.” She catches the pack with her left hand between two fingers. Her first puff of smoke glows neon, squirming like a hyperactive amoebae. “Thanks,” she says.
Sometimes I get clear memories of the days before the War. A year ago I ran two miles in fifteen minutes and hated the kind of people who would pollute the temple of their bodies with tobacco smoke.
I remember sitting in a busy railroad station listening to this strange Jehovah’s Witness lady and counting the crushed cigarette butts on the floor with a distaste verging on loathing. I’ve never hated anything as much as I hated smokers right then. The Witness picked up on this and told me how smokers were the spawn of the Great Beast and how the number of the Beast somehow referred to R. J. Reynolds. I picked a longish butt up off the floor, and took the habit up that very minute. Nicotine has never since let me down.
“Thanks,” Alice repeats. “You know I miss the little things most of all.” She drags the cigarette, holds in the smoke, sighs.
“I know.” I light one up myself from a fresh pack. “There’s nothing quite as good as the little things.” I cough a bit. “Have the whole pack. Really. I know where there’s usually a warehouse full of them.”
“Hey thanks John,” she says. The gun barrel relaxes a little. “Sorry I’m so cautious, but man, I just don’t know what to trust.”
“No problem. There’s a lot of weird shit going on these days. For all you really know I’m just another Loony. Or something worse. Then again maybe you’re only hallucinating me.”
I used to be a philosophy professor at a major California university. But I could never quite get the hang of existentialism and consequently I grew isolated from the tenured faculty.
“Maybe so,” she says, “but if I am you’re the first apparition that’s given me cigarettes. And none of the Loonies I’ve run into have been all that nice either.” Alice rests the butt of her shotgun on the ground. She leaves the safety off.
God’s face has reappeared in the sky. I try to ignore Him. “Have you had much trouble? The Loonies leave me alone pretty much.”
“No, not much trouble. But I got robbed in Tillamook and one time a bunch of them chased me for two days. I think they wanted to eat me.” Alice tosses the last bit of her cigarette into the pit, stands and stretches.
“Noooo,” I say making my mouth a big round crater. “I saw a dinosaur the other day.”
“Really? A real dinosaur?”
“Well, Alice, it’s hard to say for sure. Acted like a real one and I wasn’t quite curious enough to find out. That’s the only way to stay alive I think. Treat everything like it was real. You never know.”
“I guess not.” Something in the distance has caught her attention. “Hey quick, do you see that? Over there, that big squirmy thing by the MacDonald’s.”
I’m relieved. At first I thought perhaps that she had seen God, and if she sees Him as well that would make it more likely that He is real. Unless of course Alice isn’t. “No,” I tell her, “must be hallucination. What color is it?” And then, of course, I actually see it — a great oozing spineless thing struggling to squeeze through a tangle of fallen arches. “Damn! I see it! God, that’s disgusting. We better get off the street. C’mon I know a safe place just around the corner.” I extend my hand. “Look, have you eaten lately? I think I’ve got some canned stuff.”
“I don’t know, John.” Alice looks at the giant slug then back at me. “I think you’re okay, but I don’t dare trust you. It’s nothing personal.”
“I understand,” I say. God tries very hard to distract me: He winks and wrinkles His nose and sticks out His tongue. I continue ignoring Him. “Well you’ve still got your gun; I promise I won’t touch you. C’mon what do you say?”
“Well… sure, okay. I am pretty hungry.” She hefts her shotgun and follows me about five steps back. God is making fart noises with His mouth and I have to struggle to keep from laughing. It occurs to me that because He seems to have taken a direct interest in capturing my attention — assuming He is real — a significant concept is proven true. God is no existentialist.
The sky is blurring; purple strands of cloud as smooth and shiny as glass slowly lose intricacy and luminescence; crocheted bloodstains mark the wound inflicted by the sun’s sharp descent. I’m dining on a can of Doggy-Treat raviolis in a decaying train terminal and watching the sunset through the fangs of a broken window. My late brother-in-law Joe, my ex-wife and a teenaged hooker named Alice sit in a semi-circle around a bonfire of religious pamphlets. I’m ignoring them. Today, I am unusually morose — filled with a sense of dread and an intuition of impending disaster.
This morning, you see, I saw a monster, a great beast with several heads. It rose from the Sound dripping and grinning, and marched ashore. Some grazing diplodoci ran in terror, leaving automobile-sized craters in the pavement. Alice fired at the thing with her shotgun and managed to wound one of the heads but the beast was unabashed. It rumbled up Columbia Boulevard, laughing maniacally.
“What do you make of that?” Alice asked. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”
“No,” I said, uneasy.
“Who could ever fight that?”
“Who would want to?” I snapped back.
Alice and my ex-wife are discussing the old questions about the origins of the War, the falcon’s relationship to the falconer. It’s something I used to think about but now I just hope for the occasional clear memory from the time before and leave enigmas to the Sphinx. Of course for all I really know the clearest of memory is just a more subtle form of hallucination. In fact that statement sounds very familiar. I used to teach metaphysical philosophy at a South Hollywood junior high.
“What does it matter whether or not they do?” I hear my ex-wife say.
“Of course the monsters will eat you,” Alice answers. “That’s just the way it is.”
Tonight I’m riding in the back seat of a midnight blue Datsun. My feet are on the seat because an assortment of automatic rifles tangles like pick-up-sticks across the floor. Out the rear window Seattle shimmers through a greasy rain. Alice is driving and she tells me to watch for cops.
In order to survive we must reach the railroad station before the rain stops. If we miss the 11:15 to Babylon the War will be lost and when the rain is done the smiling face of God will burst through the clouds and smite us with a terrible vengeance.
I pick a rifle at random and check it for ammunition. It’s an M-16 with an infrared laser scope. Alice says something about Joe’s funeral. I can’t make out just what. Bright blue lights — fuzzy electric aspirin — appear from around a corner. They reflect a thousand-million sparks from the mirror-wet pavement.
I fire a short burst at them and it seems to slow them down. We are only a few blocks from the terminal but the night begins to clarify and the raindrops have become a fine spray. Pale light infuses an area of the sky directly overhead. That would be God. As always, right on time. The cop has been joined by others and together they’re gaining on us. I empty the M-16 at them but this time to no appreciable effect.
Whenever I’m faced with incredible danger my ex-wife enters the scene and this time is no exception. She sits in the front passenger seat shaking her head slowly and her finger with vigor. She is saying something about scatological portents.
“Tough shit,” Alice says. She raises her arm and the sawed-off 12-gauge at the end blasts my ex-wife’s head into scarlet powder. I flinch and a tiny spurt of warm piss squirts into my jeans. “Christ,” I scream. “You didn’t have to do that!”
“It was in the script,” she says.
The cops have almost caught us and the rain has stopped. “Hold on,” Alice says, “it’s a fucking roadblock.”
Ten or fifteen black and white Datsuns are stacked across the Columbia entrance to the terminal. Hundreds of cops, each burdened under superior firepower, scramble for position.
“It’s no use,” Alice says. “I’m going to ram them.”
God’s grim visage blazes through the final veil of cloud. He politely asks me to confess my sins and I can tell by His tone that this is the last time He’s going to ask. I ask Him if He knows what song is going to come on the radio next. He just laughs.
I pick up another rifle, this time one of those Russian jobs with the long and phallic clip. This weapon would be illegal in California, I think. I jack a round into the illicit firing chamber.
“Oh my God,” Alice screams. “We’re going to die!” Ahead of us cops either scramble for cover or open fire or read each other Miranda.
God’s mouth opens wide and a torrent of blazing toads pours forth followed by the traditional deluge of blood.
“Alice,” I say with some sadness, “you are the only whore I’ve ever trusted.”
“I love you too, you bastard.” A thin metal screech slashes through the gruesome eruption of blood and fire that engulfs the car. It is myself, screaming.
It’s morning still; a scarlet sunrise bleeds into the sky.
The night, long and painful, has finally eroded away — as usual I haven’t slept at all. I’m all twisted up in a sweaty sheet, lying cold and cramped in a damp corner of Seattle’s railroad terminal, waiting for the awful truths of my existence to ooze back into my mind. A stack of identical pamphlets fifty deep serves as my pillow. On every cover a prophet named Joe stares out with a grim look of filial responsibility. “BEWARE THE BEAST,” says the caption and beneath that “The End Is Nigh Brother; Repent Repent.” The bright blue of the background has begun to fade — at least on the top copy — and the wire that binds the stack has rusted. Morning light slashes crimson across my face. I wince.
I’m cold and hungry and tired and alone. Alice, my ex-wife, always predicted I’d end up like this. I can almost see her standing right there, shaking her head slowly and her finger with passionate intensity. “You lack all conviction; you’ll never amount to anything,” she would be saying, “you’ll wind up alone and shivering on a bench in some filthy train station somewhere.” Now that I think about it, Alice was right about a lot of things.
The same as every other morning I would kill for a smoke. I would die for a smoke. I would spend the rest of my life alone in the world wandering among the bleached bones of reality eating dog food and sleeping on hardwood benches for one lousy cigarette.
The sky is a deep crystal blue, but black-edged clouds skim the treetops heading this way from the Sound. Silence oppresses, save for a thin fetid wind that snivels through the hollow streets.
My mouth tastes like something you might find erupting from the undercarriage of a carcinomic house fly, but compared to the smells emanating from the sea it tastes alright. I am thinking there must be some dead things out there. Probably jellyfish, possibly something worse. Definitely dead.
Sometimes I can clearly remember the days before: days of people and noise and wondrous shiny machines, days of truth and justice, revelation and reality. Days of sanity when a person could trust the center to hold.
I remember that I used to teach the philosophy of hope to drug addicts and quadriplegics at a private sanitarium in Marin County. “If you get nothing else from this life, know one thing,” I used to say. “Know that every morning when you awake, the Universe is born anew. And know that within this vortex of chaos, you are the focus of change, and only you can choose to disbelieve it.” Of course, none of them believed me, even in the face of incontrovertible proof.
But now I must struggle on among the rotted remnants of this ruined world, turning and turning. Forced to take my humble place among the Dogs and Sorcerers and Whoremongers, Murderers and Idolaters, Seers and Poets and Lunatics. Between the curses and the plagues, the Beasts and the Burdens. Before the Sign but after the Sigil, before the Meaning but beyond the Metaphor, before the Utterance but well past the Utter.
You see, it turns out that there is a point to the Escaton after all, and that point is Epiphany. And he opened the seventh seal and inside was nothing but seal guts. Just like the others.
I remember nothing.
There was a time before, of that I am certain. But it ended. And when the last of the fallout has finally settled like a flurry of notions across an empty page, all that will be left are the lovers and writers of fiction, the tellers and occupants of lies.
I struggle to a sitting position, cough, stretch and pull my shotgun out from under the weather-eaten bench. To me it looks just like another goddamned day. Wanna go for coffee?
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?
— W. B. Yeats
Copyright © 1990 by Max E. Keele.