The rain drove us into the church–our refuge, our strength, our only dry place…Limerick gained a reputation for piety, but we knew it was only the rain.

— Frank McCourt, Angela’s Ashes

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Occupy

The family will be poor, poor, poor. So poor that they will have to hang upside down at night from an awning because they won’t be able to afford any ground space in the city. They will ask their poor friends if they know anywhere better to go, but their poor friends will answer that if they knew anywhere better to go they would already be there. Then they will try to ask their friends that have already found somewhere better, but they won’t be able to, because those friends will already be gone.

The family will be so poor that the children will go to school in order to have a roof to sleep under. Their teachers will threaten to fail them if they don’t stay awake during class, but that won’t work because the children’s whole plan will be to stay enrolled in school as long as possible. Then they will discover that if you cause a little trouble you can stay extra hours at school, and if you cause a lot of trouble you get a whole classroom to yourself. Soon they will begin to dream of growing up and robbing a bank or telling the press about government misdeeds and getting free housing for life.

The family won’t beg, but passers-by will sometimes throw them money. Or rather: some people will not give money and feel guilty, some people will throw a dollar and feel proud of themselves, and some people will not give money and think to themselves that they don’t want to subsidize a culture of dependency and feel even prouder of themselves.

The father will be perpetually gone, from the crack of dawn to well after dark, every day. Whether he is working, or drinking, or working and then spending all the money he earned on drinking, no one will know. The mother will dedicate herself with saint-like devotion to her children’s welfare, but this will be extra-hard because she will have been dead for several years. it will take her several hours every night to haunt, terrify or inspire with occult messages any food-carrying passers-by into letting slip, dropping in a fright or handing over in a mystic trance a decent amount food for the children.

Honestly, they surely will not have been able to survive this long without the covert intervention of their minder. While sitting in a chair most of the day, at the school or on the street under a street lamp near where they sleep, performing his duties of taking note of any suspicious behavior, he will have often left sandwiches or a pizza out where the children could find it, with a note in the feigned wavering, spectral hand of their mother, or in the (on some evenings) even wavering-er hand of their father. He will remain quite attentive to whether they made any politically controversial statements while they eat, though.

Their only truly predictable companions will be a German Shepard, a pug, and an old tabby cat who, not having been granted through the gift of language with the knowledge that they are supposed to ostracize the poor, will stop by every evening. Who knows if they would show up without the nightly prospect of food, but with them there the children can feel that, though they don’t have a house, they at least have a kind of household.

The first-born, Adam, will be 21–well, who knows if he will have been born 21 years before, but that’s what the only ID that he possesses, which bought off someone under the Mass. Ave. bridge, will say. He will have recently started resorting to crime. He will have recently started resorting to criminal activity because the minder who will have so often provided for the family will have been recently reassigned after 13 years of continual surveillance of them without observing any evidence of criminal activity. Adam will start by shoplifting but then move on to breaking and entering. A friend of his will recommend he interview for some jobs, and he will realize they are right–that would be an excellent way to case office buildings.

Adam will wake up one morning and see that the street lamps will be still lit. He will need to find breakfast for his brother and sister. He will go to the water, find his usual spot on the Weeks Bridge, and let down a line. He will cast a long look at a passing barge, but finally decide to aim at something smaller.

Finally he will have something decent-sized on the line; he will start to reel it in, but just as he lifts it from the water he will see a hand with scissors reach out from under the bridge, grab the fish, snip the line and splash away. But with the hook gone, if he doesn’t recover it he will probably have to settle for looking for a bent nail of the right shape sticking out of a house to use. He will rush to the other side of the bridge and look down. He will see the family’s auditor below.

Ever since the passing of the law demanding a flat $50,000 tax from everyone this man will have been hanging around, snatching scraps off their table when they have one, all in the name of “servicing the debt.” Usually he will wait to demand a fish until it’s been caught. This day will represent an escalation. Adam can’t fall upon him then, but he can follow him to find out where he lives. Maybe he will even be able to skip a job interview this week. He will see the auditor climb out of the water and up the bank. The auditor will look back at Adam. He will hold up the fish. It will look big and flat, maybe a flounder. “$40 closer!” he will shout with a thumbs-up. Then he will turn on his heel casually, even letting the fish tail brush along the ground. Adam will wait a minute and then follow him, ducking under the bridge parapet, then slipping behind tree trunks and bushes. Evidently the auditor won’t care, he won’t look back, he will know he is safe from the likes of them. Five minutes later he will stop on the curb, and Adam will realize that in addition to a thief he is an even more suspicious character– a bus rider. Adam will not have bus fare.

He will run up to the back of the bus and start beating and clawing at the windows, trying to sneak on somehow that way. Finally he will grab a handful of mud from the gutter and jam it into the bus exhaust pipe. When the bus tries to take off, the engine will stall out. Fortunately there will be no cars behind the bus. Probably because they will have already long since veered around it in order to maintain double-digit mph. And this wasn’t even one of the clean-running buses with sails lifted overhead.

Soon enough, something that stinks of fish is descending from the bus. He will start ambling towards Harvard Square. Adam will follow him, but his internal voices will be above him, lurking around in the tops of trees, making it hard for him to maintain covert anonymity. Sometimes they will keep him company on nights in the country, singing beautifully under the autumn moon. At other times they will fly over his head in a black V at midday, not leaving him alone but letting the world in on his secrets. One time he will spend a whole day trying to chase down a racist thought. He will try to coax it with grain, he will even throw one of his shoes at it, but it will flutter out of range, settling on a telephone wire, where it will croak its message over and over and try to shit on anyone passing below. Finally he will leave it be and wander off, where fortunately it won’t follow him. Nevertheless, he will be happy for their presence, because they were all to fly away and abandon him, his motives would remain a total mystery to him.

The Kennedy School will be off to his left, with its general appearance of a sidewalk risen to life. This will be the site of his first love. No, not the place where he will have had sex or kissed for the first time, or even saw the first girl he loved. No, this will be the place where his first feelings of love will wander into traffic after he is dumped by her, then staggers back to the park missing a sizable portion of its left leg, and expire under an oak tree. The groundskeepers will consider removing it, except that it will still be so young as to be quite small, almost a baby, so it will be no trouble to dig a little hole in the ground for it where it can, on a summer day, soak up through the soil an inspiring Kennedy phrase from the granite slabs nearby.

Adam will pull back into a doorway to let the auditor get further up the street. Then he will become aware of a conversation around the corner of the building to his left.

“He still hasn’t showed?”

“What are you asking me for? Can’t you see for yourself?”

“Maybe you’ve got a better vantage.”

“Why would he show up now? After all this time, don’t you think that probably means he’s not coming?”

“So why are we still waiting?”

“Do you want to leave after all this wait?”

“So when you talked to Boris, what exactly did he say?”

“I never talked to him directly. I was just told he was somebody we should talk to, and that he would come by in a few.”

“And they said to wait by the park?”

“No, I asked where I should go, and then they hung up, so I figured I should just stay where I already was.”

Adam will know this man talking to himself: Boris the mumbler. He will not even really be homeless. One day several months before he will have come to the square during his lunch hour and talked with the derelicts, as he will have often done before, and then just stopped and stayed, mumbling like this to himself.

Walking down the viper skin of the brick sidewalk, Adam will be passing First Parish. The reverend standing out front, who he will recognize as one handing out bread on Saturdays sometimes in the square, will step forward and try to take his arm.

“Ah, greetings, it’s so good to see you now that you’ve joined the kingdom. I can see clearly how deeply you’ve taken the Word into your heart!”

The reverend, will always be trying to convince people that they’ve already converted.

“You should join in our march this week in support of the homeless rights bill. It was passed in the Assembly only last week!”

He will also march only in support of causes that have already been decided.

“We always neglect the causes that have been and gone,” he will like to say. “We turn our back on them.”

“Come in, come in,” he will say to Adam and start dragging him into the church, and Adam, struggling to excuse himself in a way that doesn’t implicate him in a plan to rob a government official, will allow himself to be hauled inside. “Come inside,” the pastor will say. “The service was very sparsely attended last week. I guess maybe to those without a home my display of solidarity with them was not very appealing. And there was a lot of lightning. Anyway, I’ll make it up to all of you. Would you like something to eat?”

Adam will have heard that in these places they only need one drop of water to have a hold on you for life. On the other hand, maybe he really will think he’s converted. And anyway, he will need to think of how to feed his brother and sister. He will go inside with the pastor.

“I’ve lost my identity,” the pastor will say.

“Wait, what? Like, someone stole your bank card?”

“No, I’ve ceased to be who I am.”

“What are you talking about? Did you lose a job, or have a stroke?”

“No, you don’t understand. My body and my mind are not me, and what is me operates somewhere else. I have to read the news for word of what I’ve beyond the confines of my mind and my body: a home robbed, a gallery dedicated, a game lost and won at the same time. This is my ministry now: to roam the earth, trying to correct the misdeeds I might have done.

I’ve been having poor luck recently. It’s like everyone’s heard the Word and turned their back on it. If you ask me why I fight for causes that have already been decided, and why I try to spread the Word among the tombstones of the unbaptized dead, it’s because I believe the Church may be best able to do good works in the past. The people seem more redeemable there.”

“The flesh and blood of Christ, it’s true, has provided our sustenance for two thousand years and more through the ceremony known as the Holy Eucharist. But I didn’t stop with the body of our Savior. I’d given him the body of both my parents, my darling wife, and one of my children. And in return he gives me one body which is inexhaustible and doesn’t even give any signs of ever having been alive. I wondered, is this the exchange I’m to make until the end of my days? To give away those I love and receive in return the memory of a dethroned messiah? But then I realized what the Resurrection means, and how it redeems us even though we haven’t all become free of sin. It has ripped open the flow of time, and made it go backwards as well as forwards, so that I can now dream of my loved ones being born in to my life at the moment I miss them most, and of disappearing from it precisely at the second I no longer even know them.”

“Anyway, I need to go look for food. I have nothing for my brother and sister to eat. I had a fish stolen from me and I haven’t found anything else yet.”

“I’m really sorry, I wish there was something I could do. If only I had any food on me myself.”

“Don’t you have a whole pantry of food donations?”

“Oh, that’s not mine, I could ask, but you’d probably have a better shot at it yourself.”

“Well, I know you didn’t buy it, but you’re the pastor there, you can decide what to do with it.”

“No, no I’m not. I only go in there the same way you do.”

“Well, where’s your church then?”

“The streets are my church, and my home. I haven’t been able to offer a soul shelter indoors in quite some time.”

“Really? What happened to you?”

“About five years ago when my wife was getting really sick, and our kids were off in different states and couldn’t be reached, my family was falling apart in every direction, and I didn’t know what to do with myself, I felt my my ministry starting to fall off. I could tell because it got brittle and itchy. Finally it became so loose that I was able to pull my eyes out,” the pastor will say.

“What?”

“I took them out and and turned them around. I had always wanted to see my face. Everyone thinks they’ve seen their own, but they’re only seen their reflection in a mirror, and I was suspicious of mirrors and didn’t want to take their accuracy on faith. Nor did I believe that a reflected image could ever be the equal of reality. But I was afraid that if I looked at myself for too long I might go blind. And I also thought that maybe looking back at the place from which my sight originated might not just reverse the object of vision but its nature. Maybe looking at myself wouldn’t be seeing in the opposite direction but the opposite of seeing, anti-sight. But finally I did it anyway, and what I saw was very different from the face I was used to seeing. It seemed to lack personality. I mean, I could see the openings where light and words and air and so forth went in and out, but I could no longer tell how the face felt about them. Though I guess that was partly because it had no eyes.”

“Did everything look the same when you put them back in?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you did put your eyes back in the socket, right?”

“No, are you crazy? You don’t just remove your eyes and then return them later like a library book. My eyes are blue.”

“No, your eyes are green.”

“Yeah, these are. But these are somebody else’s.”

“So…can you see at all then?”

“In a way. But imprinted on these eyes is the last image they ever saw alive.”

“And what was that?”

“Me.”

“What, did you…what happened? Did you kill them?”

“No, of course not. I was still a minister, and I had to attend to the last rites. And also…”

“What?”

“No, it’s nothing. I can’t talk about it.”

“Who was it?”

“My wife.”

Arise, Wanderer

There wasn’t enough electricity and paper in the capital, so there were no newspapers or web connectivity, hence there was also a shortage of bad news. Some people believed that the moral decrepitude of the times had spread to the sub-atomic level and that electricity was lacking because the charges had started acting on their attraction to the same instead of the opposite charge. Other people were quietly discovering the easiest, the most natural form of heroism, which is, against disaster and the fear of war, to remain the same. Negotiations between Colorado and Utah had broken down and re-started yet again. Feeling the need to agree on something to show for their efforts, they’d decided to draft a pair of joint non-binding resolutions entitled “Things We Can All Agree Are Cool” and “Things We Can All Agree Are Lame,” and had just finished up the second list with the concluding item “Names that end in Roman numerals.’” It took the Mormon delegates especially long to peruse since they insisted on reading them through glasses with stone lenses. But after they finished, then what?

At least both sides had an interest in maintaining the peace. The Mormons found it difficult to keep a fighting force in the field, when their best soldiers were continually being raptured up to heaven at such a rate that a squadron could vaporize before a bullet was fired. The army was becoming so short of soldiers that recruiting officers had started staking out hospitals, drumming their fingers in the waiting room and cheering on surgeries and births in the operating room. At least, having banned TVs long ago as a form of satanic propaganda, Utah had avoided the ill effects when the broadcast networks in the now hostile foreign metropolises of New York and Los Angeles simply began broadcasting irradiating waves, which had reduced much of the Coloradan population to lurching, catatonic zombies. For this the countless herbal doctors, as they did for everything, prescribed medical marijuana, which failed to revive the population’s lost dynamism. Both sides needed a miracle. The Mormons prayed to God for one, while many Coloradans performed yoga exercises to become more centered, figuring it couldn’t hurt.

Clearly survival, though a simple goal, demanded convoluted tactics. But spring had come again, or at least the three months of oscillation between winter and summer which passes by the name there. The year was one of drought; farmers feared they might not have a harvest of grain, the vintners feared they might not have a harvest of grapes, and, with the rivers at a trickle and no hydraulic power, the light rail conductors feared they might be able to operate their silently advancing trains and gather their harvest of distracted pedestrians.

The Supreme Elder of Utah was busy confusing and frightening a lot of people. First he’d gone to war against Las Vegas and burned it to the ground, consistent with his age-old hatred of casinos and all the sins they represented. But then he had declared war on Colorado, and still no one knew exactly why. Then he had declared peace just as abruptly two years later. Confused analysts attempting to divine a logic, though, did not know how much he loved to sign his name. Every order that he signed–troops sent into battle, troops withdrawn from the battle they had just arbitrarily provoked, import duties raised, then lowered, dueling statements from the ruler fondly supporting and fiercely opposing the same position–provided the set-up for a counter-order negating it and a second chance to sign his name, doubling his pleasure. Sometimes when a document included space for the signatures of all his ministers, he signed his own name in every space. He loved everything about signing a document: the heavy scratching sound, the firmness of the paper, the aggressive curls of his name posturing and threatening the last paragraph of the document.

The President of Colorado, meanwhile, was preparing to launch an operation which he hoped would give him a stronger hand in the negotiations. He had raised the subject in his council meeting with the circumspection befitting a highly secret mission: “I want to launch a black op deep in Utahan territory.” “You mean an African-American op?” his chief of staff asked. “Alright, fine, we need to launch an African-American op of the highest risk.” “Is it African-American because it’s so dangerous?” asked the Director of Public Relations bitterly. “No, it’s dangerous because it’s a black op–” “African-American op” said the chief of staff. “Whatever. The point is, they’re dangerous by definition.” “I see,” said the Director of Public Relations.

When the operation had been agreed and the councillors were leaving, the chief of the army and the legal counsel conferred. “With what the President is asking of us, I’m becoming worried about him.” “Or her,” said the legal counsel. “No,” said the chief of the army, “it’s a him.” “Could be a her.” “No it couldn’t, the President is a man.” “Doesn’t have to be.” “Of course it does! Were you not just talking to him?” “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you meant this President, upper-case p, is a man. I thought you meant that the president in general, lower-case p, is rightfully a man.”

And so the African-American op was launched. To lead it the government did not choose a heroic, many-talented special forces soldier, a crafty master of ruse and infiltration, or even an unstable hothead with some mysterious personal animus. They probably wouldn’t even trust one of those type of characters out of fear they would run over the mission budget. Instead, they chose the head of the Department of Mystifying Public Art, charged with ensuring that new monuments not veer far from the standard set by the demonic horse out by the airport or those ethereal animate Q-Tips dancing behind the convention center or the mysterious giant blue bear peering in through the window in front of it. And they chose the rest of his department to carry it out. In fact, the director, whose name was Anton, had tried convince his superiors that his department was fully capable of performing any task up to and including high-grade military operations, as a way of expanding his budget. But that was not the reason he had been selected. In fact, his superiors were fairly confident he and his underlings knew nothing about tactical military matters. They had had selected him for the African-American op because it was so high-grade that if the team in charge of it did understand what they were doing and how to do it, they would know too much.

As it happened, the inexpertise of his department for this task was even greater than might have been expected because he had managed to insert his entire family onto the payroll, including his five-year-old daughter, whose role was defined as “educational.” Actually, they constituted the whole of the department. This was possible as privacy laws in Colorado were such that no private information about any government employee could be requested, including their name, unless they were suspected of wrongdoing. Which was somewhat hard to arrive at when no one’s name was known.

Kata, his wife, was very upset to learn that she and her entire family had been drafted into an off-book military run. She commenced to inflict a sex strike on him. However, he did not know this until she announced it a week later.

“Oh,” he said. “Then what have you been protesting the last six months?”

Anyway, he had no control of the situation now. She needed to find a way to get at the powers that be. However, she soon learned you could only evade an order, not defy it. At first she planned to pass her children off as a pack of German Shepherds and herself as a minimalist armoire.

“But none of you look anything like those,” objected her husband.

“Even better,” she said. “So they won’t even be able to draft us into service in that capacity.”

“I was just going to try to bribe my commanding officers.”

However, these orders came from the highest levels, and power has a dividing line, like a tree line, above which bribery is just a tribute.

“Can’t you hire some new employees and send them?”

“We have no budget to afford anyone–at least not since you went to Cherry Creek on Saturday.”

“Can’t you just turn it down?”

“Are you kidding? For me to know about this kind of thing and refuse to serve it would be considered treasonous.”

“Well, there’s no way in hell the children are going, government officials or not,” she said, while packing juice boxes into big army backpacks. She had promised the kids that they were going to stay with their grandparents in South Park.

“Are you going to tell them differently now?” she had asked.

They had met for the first time in the summer after a rain. He saw her standing atop a marble railing in Civic Park, with the sun upon her, wreathing her head like a halo, and he mistook her for a statue. He’d just started working at the Dept. for the Mystification of Public Art, and the fact that this statue had gone up without its knowledge or participation was less disturbing than that the statue definitely seemed to conflict with the department’s mandate. But a moment passed, and he saw more clearly through the sun’s glare, and then she moved.

She was not the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen, but she did seem to make Denver a slightly smaller city. Even if only by a couple of master planned subdivisions and maybe that mountain with the weird “M” on it in Golden. She was standing on one leg, both arms plunged shoulder deep up into the sky. For some reason he felt his position gave him pretext to talk to her.

“Why are you standing like that?” he asked

“What? On one leg?” she said. “I’m just one leg away from levitation.”

“I could just take you up a mountain. Wouldn’t that be faster?” This was before the war.

“I don’t like mountains.”

“Do you come here often?”

“Sometimes. I’m taking a break.”

“From what?”

“Children.”

“From having them?”

“No, from taking care of them.”

“You have children, then?”

“I wish. Then I could tell them what to do.”

“So you’re nannying?”

“Not at the moment. Though I have no idea what the parents do if they need a turkey sandwich when I’m not on call. Maybe they call 911.”

“Why don’t you get some sleep?”

“There’ll be time. The youngest is already 10.”

Her eyes nonetheless did droop as she stood there and almost closed, but the rest of her body stayed perfectly upright. He wondered if this was the position of her body at rest, the position it would take in zero gravity or underwater.

“Do you come here often?” he asked.

A bum walked up to him. “My name is Jake,” he said. “What’s yours?”

“Anton.”

“Cool. Now that we’re friends, can I borrow some money?”

Anton pulled a five out of his wallet. As he was handing it over, he noticed it was actually a 20. Still, there was no losing by it: Jake was happy, and the girl must be impressed. If she thought 20 was a lot for him, it meant he was generous, and if it was very little for him, it meant he was wealthy. Win-win.

I wonder if he’s buying drugs from that guy, she thought.

She had gotten bored with the conversation, so she asked: “Would you like to meet me again?”

Not that night, but before the month was out, they had switched skins. One night they both unbuttoned, from nose to crotch, took them off and swapped them. The whole of the penis, balls, breasts and birth canal all the way up to the ovaries detached with the rest. They wound up doing that many more times in the coming years. Until it got confusing.

Now they were driving West again, as their ancestors had, as maybe they never should have stopped doing. Kata stared out the window with unfocused eyes at the still-standing telephone lines passing by, swooping down and curving up from pole to pole like a very languid heart monitor. She imagined the birds perched upon them, pulling them tight then rubbing their feet to produce notes, plucking the wires from time to time with their claws. She could imagine, when they sang, the seeds they had ingested flying out again through their beaks and up onto the tree branches, where they would burst into flower. At times, she saw refugees leaving the high country with flowers in their beards as well. In many fields crops of money plants had been sown, but the drought was such that much of the fruit had wilted while still tiny pennies and dimes, well before they’d ripened into quarters, much less blossomed into paper money.

Once they entered the mountains, they saw less people streaming East, and greatly more bears. They’d heard tell that those that refused to leave their homes even when they were burned and destroyed in the war often took to the trees and streams, or wandered between the peaks at night, where they turned into great brown and black bears, many of whom got shot by soldiers on both sides anyway. 

The rule of Colorado law came to an end among tundra bushes and marmots on Loveland Pass . When they crossed it, Anton decided he needed a gun. When they reached Breckenridge they asked the first suspicious character they saw where they might find guns, but he became suspicious of them. The second suspicious character they talked to was addled, and the third claimed not to understand their accents. Finally they found someone who directed them to the last right turn in town. As they reached it a couple of fighter jets came roaring overhead. They weren’t strafing or dropping payloads, but that’s not to say they wouldn’t. The street instantly cleared. Anton veered off Main Street onto the road just as they passed over. Utah? Colorado? Predatory third parties? Who knew? In front of them lay the shells of a few ruined hotels, and they found a low cavernous building with an intact side entrance. They stopped the car and walked up to It. A sign over the door read “SKI LESSONS.” Kata looked down at the threshold and saw a large red smear where it looked like a body had been dragged in the door. Just like how she remembered ski school.

“My prayers go with you,” she said.

“But you’re an atheist.”

“I may not know who to send a prayer to, but I do know who to send it for.”

Upon entering, Anton saw a room stacked with army equipment. Piles of automatic rifles, and not the restrictive models for civilian use imported from the East Coast which would only fire after you’d tried to verbally resolve your dispute. These were real military-issue. This place must have been a small-arms depot during the war– and perhaps the site of some final standoff as well.

Near the far wall sat a bearded survivalist-looking type, and he did not have the look of a man engaged in a service profession. In addition to the many guns piled up around him, he had a desk, under cover of whose air of respectability he probably had a couple more concealed. A taxidermied owl head mounted on a plaque hung on the wall behind his head.

Anton was wondering how he was going to broach the subject of buying a gun, without being immediately relieved of the money he planned to buy it with.

“I’m looking for a weapon.”

The guy got up. He was wearing very bright red sport shoes. It was hard to tell from this distance whether it was because he was a man of leisure with unscuffed shoes or because they came straight off the foreign aid pile. He pointed towards a pile of guns. “Like this?” he asked. Then he picked up a little stone from the ground and a rubber band from his desk. He made a slingshot out of it. “Or this?”

“Whichever one has greater range.”

“Depends what type you choose.”

“Well, I already have a rifle–I just need a back-up.”

“Yeah? What type is that?”

“I’m not sure exactly, I got it second hand.”

“Want to produce it? We’ll soon see.”

“I don’t have it on me–it’s outside.”

“You could go get it.”

“What are you so eager to see it for?” He felt that outflanking inquiry with general paranoid distrustfulness ought be a familiar and relatable stance for a gun dealer.

“So you want me to find you a match for a gun you don’t know the make of and which you also won’t show me. Why shouldn’t I just rob you instead?”

“Because I have a gun!”

“Well, it’s not here now, is it? Alright, I’ll give you a gun. But you better not say that your money is elsewhere too, or I’ll take something off of you that you can’t help but know when it’s gone as payment.”

“I won’t. I only have Colorado money, though.”

“That’s fine. As far as I’m concerned this will always be Colorado territory, even if the border runs around the four walls of this building. How much do you have?”

“450.”

“Come on, you think I’m just going to accept 90% of whatever you brought just because I have piles of these and I’m trying to unload them before the final treaty?”

“No, I think you’ll take it because we’re heading west where there will be even bigger piles with less takers.”

“Alright, I’ll do it, only because you’ll need it if you’re going that way.”

Anton handed over 400, all brand new bills he had gotten for the mission.

“Course, that one’s currently lacking a clip,” the guy said as soon as he had the money in hand. Then he pulled open a drawer and drew out a long chrome-plated pistol. “But this one isn’t, and if I want to make Colorado’s claim to this store more than a personal opinion, I’ll be needing the services of it and all the rest of these weapons.” He pointed the pistol at Anton. “You should go back where your laws as well as your currency are accepted. Your feet or your car or your donkey has led you too far west.”

Anton turned around and left the store. He turned right from the exit and picked up the rifle that was still sitting on the chair near the entrance where he must have abandoned during the fly-over and then forgotten it. It even had a clip sitting next to it, which was something. There was also a grease rag and a cleaning brush, but he left those, just as a reminder that no one gets by without trust.

When Anton’s wife saw him, he had a rifle in hand and showed no signs of being pursued. That would have to serve as a solid enough foundation for faith. Perhaps the god she’d prayed to had come through, despite the notable handicap of not existing.

As they approached the Utah border they saw a blast wall laid across the highway, with a single desk and a man in a black suit and porkpie hat sitting behind it, flanked by two armed guards.

Anton stopped the car before the wall, and he and his wife got out.

“What is this?” he asked the man, not even bothering to gesture.

“Judgment,” said the man.

“Oh. I thought this was Utah.”

“It is. But we can’t let just anyone in, in these times especially.”

“What if we just go around you that way?” This time he did gesture, to the mountains to the north, with a palm-up waiter-bearing-a-tray gesture.

“You think you can skirt judgment off to the right? It will find you wherever you are, one way or another. Might as well stick to the road and find it here.”

Anton thought for a moment. “Hey, by the way, what do you do about this desk and papers when it rains?”

“Oh, it doesn’t rain on us here. We’re not that kind of station.”

“And on what basis will you plan judge us? You don’t know us.”

“But you know me, which is a good start.”

“How?”

“Well, you knew someone would be waiting at the end of the road.”

“I thought maybe to welcome me.”

“Maybe someone will. Now, shall we begin? Name?”

“Anton–”

“Sorry, I don’t mean your name. I mean your nation or tribe.”

“We belong to none anymore.”

Suddenly a gust of wind from west lifted up the man’s hat and hurled it towards Anton.

“My justice hat!” he cried.

Both of his guards whipped out pistols and shot at the hat as it sailed towards Anton. Only one of them connected. Like a firing squad, no one would ever know the actual shooter. The hat fell like a dead bird before Anton’s feet.

“Thanks,” said the inquisitor.

At that moment a host came thundering out of the distance to the south. The line of it grew lighter and longer as it approached. It was enveloped in dust. The guards, already with guns drawn, stared suspiciously towards it, but unable to see clearly who approached they refrained from firing. Suddenly several gunshots caught both of them in the neck. A bunch also missed them entirely, and a couple winged them in the shoulders, but nobody cared about those. The inquisitor jumped to his feet. Anton and his wife retreated to the car. Several howling maniacs in war paint emerged from the dust and one of them beheaded him at one stroke with what looked liked a croupier stick made of steel and sharpened to an edge. Then the whole raiding party surrounded the car. They lowered their weapons and one of them motioned to roll down the car window. Anton lowered his a crack.

“We’re not connected with them and are only trying to leave this land peacefully. Who are you?”

“Historical reenactors,” said the warrior.

“Historical reenactors?”

“Yes. We had this idea, instead of just replaying the original battles, which our tribe always lost, we should see if we could get the best of them this time.”

“I think that makes you insurgents.”

“No, we’re redoing history, correcting it.”

“What difference does that make for us?”

“Well, we’d probably kill you instead of letting you leave our territory.”

“You killed those guys,” with a gesture towards the bodies like dropping something softly.

“But we’re letting you leave.”

“Suits me. That’s all we want to do.”

The circle of warriors did not move.

“Sooo….” Anton murmured, releasing the brake and letting the car coast forward slowly.

“I think you misunderstand us. We claim all this land outside the circle. I only said you were free to leave our land. That leaves only the area within it.”

“That’s not justice. Is this even your ancestral land?”

“No. It’s several days’ ride south. Very desolate, but still we were able to operate a couple casinos and live decently, until the Mormons came during the war. You know how they feel about gaming establishments. Look what they did to Las Vegas. So you see what we do to them in return.”

Kata and her daughter were the only women in the company. So far their captors had restrained themselves beyond what one could reasonably expect from marauders on horseback, but she didn’t know if they were just deferring. Or maybe they just lacked warm blood. The greater part of the troupe were actual skeletons, their clothes mere ossuaries into which which they packed their skinless bones with gauze and bubble wrap. Because not all the members of the tribe had escaped the casino where they’d lived before the Mormons set the torch to it. To see them now was like seeing its ruins, broken columns and charred I-beams, raised up to ride again in vengeance.

It soon became clear the horsemen were headed in one particular direction. It became clear they were headed in one particular direction because they kept going in many directions chaotically. Or more precisely, they kept striking off in a direction, then stopping, then huddling, then muttering, then backtracking, then striking off again in a slightly different direction.

They had seen smoke rising beyond a ridge that they were climbing, and as they crested it they saw a parched valley and a village below them. When they reached its outskirts they saw seven or eight women among the sparse trees, hanging laundry on lines strung between the trees. They all seemed to have children hanging on them or running around in a frenzy. It must be washing day for the village housewives. Then one of them looked up, saw the warriors and shrieked. The rest then raised their heads and similarly descended into hysteria. They snatched up the children and then all ran into the same house.

When Anton and Kata reached the courtyard, warriors were chasing the women around in a frenzy. The chief though seemed more fascinated by the children. He was turning a screaming baby around in front of him, inspecting its little sweater closely, looking up at it from below. After a minute he asked:

“Who says his words for him?”

He thought for a few minutes, perhaps contemplating the treasures that could be looted from the village. “We need bed sheets,” he said.

Nonetheless, he would not allow raping, though he did permit as much plundering as the tribe wanted. Anton later asked him why.

“Because the land and all its fruits belong to us by right, but not the people on it.”

One house in the village was considerably larger than the others. It was covered in a bulging layer of flesh and skin. The warriors began to cut long strips out of it. They cut cleanly with their croupier sticks and there was little blood. Underneath the flesh the house looked to be made of white stone rather than wood. When they had collected about enough meat to grow another house with, they decided to move on.

Unbeknownst to them, word had reached the negotiating governments in Denver of a border post overrun and villages put to the sack. Both sides put aside the their ongoing negotiations to join together for the urgent task of pinning the blame on each other. The Colorado military intelligence unit probably could have helped but, after the top-secret African-American op had been compromised, and unable to find Anton, the department had shut itself down, as the director was not able to be certain that even he himself hadn’t turned.

Finally, after desperately scouring every possible alternative, the two sides decided to cooperate. As the tribe was last seen near Green River, it was decided that Utah would supply the troops, since they were closer, and Colorado would pay for them. The Colorado Minister of War then gave a rousing speech exhorting the nation’s prostitutes to make an extra patriotic financial sacrifice in aid of their new Mormon brothers and sisters. The Utah government, outraged to learn this would be the source of their support, angrily returned the money.

Meanwhile, the tribe was pushing through the San Rafael Swell on their way to get around at Salt Lake City via the lake, which the chief regarded as an extremely crafty strategy, and also because he’d never gone sailing before.

Whatever sensations he hoped to experience from taking to the waves, however, the endless ragged sandstone upthrusts on the way to them produced near the opposite. This route had its advantages when the Utah army decided to follow its new motto of safety first (which helped to protect its fragile troop numbers but hadn’t exactly set the recruiting trail afire), by sending its first wave of pursuers to give chase in tanks, which stalled out at the first ridge line.

The defenses in the town of Tooele, in a valley just beyond the south end of the lake,rude to a wild burst of overly wildly imaginative counter-strategic thinking, had actually been designed to guard against a secret attack across the lake, but those whoring degenerates in Las Vegas had never pulled together sufficiently to undertake such an operation before their city was burned to the ground. Now the fortress, entangled with and gown out of the old army depot, just obstructed the town, and weeds had grown all over the gun emplacements like little illegitimate gardens.

The commander of the fortress didn’t know from whence the threat to watch out for lay, but he did know that the Bonneville salt flats lay not far away–trouble could arrive in a hurry. Of course, he spent almost every leave day prospecting in the hills, and he always brought the girl that secretaried for him along, for all the phone-answering and visitor-receiving at the dig site.

He wanted to control an army of prospectors to scour the hills for him. He already controlled an army, so he just needed to make prospectors of them. Most days he had the whole garrison off in the hills, swinging pick axes. For a while they took to stripping off their uniforms to work under the desert sun, but this he soon forbade, because without their uniforms they quickly got confused and started to forget who outranked who.

The Indian band had turned the corner and begun riding north up the Tooele Valley. The chief had to be talked out of riding over to the salt flats to see if his horse would gallop faster there. At night he sometimes talked to Anton and Kata because they were not in duty bound to respect him.

“Ruling the desert, there aren’t enough people to take prisoner. We are mostly proclaiming our might to the lizards and the owls.”

“But there have also been no soldiers to contest your claim,” said Kata.

“Why would they want to stymie our progress? They probably think we are going to throw ourselves in the lake.”

“I thought that was the plan.”

“Nonsense. You’re going to enter the nearest town to it as our pale faces and purchase us a yacht or two. See if they make longships anymore. That would set the right note.”

That night, as the chief lay in his tent, expecting to sail into battle the next day, an apparition visited him. The chief took him for an angel or an ancestor, standing as he did outside the fire, not illuminated but somehow clearly visible, not shimmery but rather indistinct, as if a concentration of the colors around him. Tattoos were etched into bas reliefs on his arms, swirls and hoofs and extremely detailed hand prints.

“Who are you?” asked the chief.

“A representative of the heavenly army,” replied the specter.

“Have you come to join the fight with us?”

“No, we just wanted to wish you a happy birthday. We didn’t know you were fighting. Who’s the foe?”

“Salt Lake City.”

“Ooh, that’s serious, you must watch for the angels guarding the Temple. There are a lot of them, because the Church takes in a lot of revenue, they pay their angels quite well. We very much enjoy the virgins that you sacrifice to us, but you know, it also wouldn’t kill you to pour us out a real drink once in a while.”

The next morning, as they made their way through the hills due west of town to avoid being seen, they ran right into the pack of soldiers from the fort prospecting for their commander in the hills. Hardly any of them had weapons besides their shovels and picks, but they still wore uniforms to avoid confusion, so the tribe, surprised and frightened and thinking themselves ambushed, fell upon them at once.

The tribe began to rain bullets and arrows onto the army party. A couple of Utah soldiers sustained arrows to the eye. They really had no way of fighting back except one or two that discovered a talent for hurling a pickax end over end like a dagger. They ran up the rocky slopes where horses couldn’t follow. Several of them tried to roll boulders down on the tribe. When groups of them fled in different directions, detachments from the tribe rode after them until they fell. Finally the main body of them collected on the other side of a high ridge. The rear guard protecting the ridge’s front side was composed only of dead bodies.

And then a white flag went up above the ridge. Blood prints and mud stained it in spots. It looked like a soiled bed sheet. Maybe they had made off with one of the tribe’s. Then the figure holding it appeared, slightly shielded by a pinyon pine. He raised his right hand high for silence and called out:

“Best two out of three?”

“My people and ours have already fought a match or too,” the chief answered. “But I will tell you what I will do. I will allow all your troops to leave, if you go straight West from here and don’t return for any reason to the town. We will be there, and leave the lights on to warn away any stray travelers.”

As it turned out, there were no yachts on the lake to pilot. Or longships, or dingies, or anything except for a couple little boats with outboard motors. Several of the tribe were able to fall back on remedial boat-making skills, a few went to go pillaging in the town, and a couple even started looking for logs to float. A huge soldier named Dennis started lifting giant boulders and heaving them into the water.

“What in God’s name are you doing?” asked the chief.

“I’ve heard that at least one kind of rock floats,” he said. “And so I guess I’ll test them all until I find it.”

Anton paddled the canoe that he and Kata were floating in such a way as to stay near the pack while keeping a little behind and off to the right side, as if to try to present the possibility, to anyone watching on the shore, that they were not actually part of the raiding party, that they were just sort of doing their own thing nearby.

As they approached the shore, the chief began brandishing his rifle wildly at the city before them. Then a sudden gale kicked up, ripping it out of his hand and sending it into the water. Without hesitating he ripped a twig off the log he was riding and brandished that in its place. Dennis plucked the rifle out with one hand as his pumice boulder floated by.

The wind soon blew up into a chinook off the Wasatch. “Cover your nose and mouth!” shouted the chief. He feared it might be a coversionary wind. He had seen whole armies during the war marching into battle, decimated in a matter of minutes by that cursed wind, suddenly ready to join the Mormon side and celebrate at the victory banquet with apple juice.

When they reached a dock, the chief ordered that all the vessels be tied up neatly. All except the huge pumice stone. That Dennis picked up and, seeing a nearby boathouse, hurled the rock at it, staving in half the roof.

“Well, when were we going to start acting like invaders?” he asked.

It was a very quiet summer evening. In the orchestra hall in the city an audience in jackets and evening wear were listening to the nightly performance of crickets. The night was dark and the shore was miles distant from the city. Though the tribe might well have the element of surprise, they could hardly fight while swallowed by the darkness, which hindered their movement as much as having their arms and legs all plunged in different alligators’ mouths. They would have to find a steady light to burn it off and allow them fight themselves free again.

As they approached the center of the city, smoke was rising out of holes in some buildings, and blasts had eaten away at many of them. The chief called a halt to the party and addressed them all.

“We know this battle well. So don’t disgrace yourself, no survivors, and we will all meet again a month ago.”

To Kata the warriors had come appeal through the chief’s perpetual reference of events to a certain code of conscience, so the command to leave no survivors seemed a harsh jolt. And that was it for inspiration? Except for the bit about going back, which just made no fucking sense.

“What do you mean by meeting a month ago?” she asked.

“Well, you will soon discover, but when we die as we are all like to do, we can all go back to the start of this ride. Heaven is way overbooked with holy warriors, as you might guess, since it was never built to very big dimensions. So none of the dead get to move on, they all just get booted back in time. But we have found it has made our kingdom on earth invincible. It’s a thousand miles wide and a month long, and within its boundaries we haven’t yet been defeated or overthrown. Or rather when we are, we start again from where we began.”

“So when you say no survivors, you mean yourselves?”

“Of course, not that this will be difficult to abide by.”

“There’s really no chance of prevailing?” asked Anton.

“We’ve come this road a number of times already, and never even come close against their numbers and weapons. So then all there is is to die.”

“Because I can say now that I’ve deputized by my government in Colorado to fulfill one piece of a greater plan, and we’ve been riding with you all this time in hopes of seeing it fulfilled. And now if this mission is doomed to fail, I don’t know what will become of the whole.”

“And what is this secret task you’ve been given?”

“To destroy this city.”

“And who was to help you accomplish this.”

“Oh, it’s just us two.”

“And what were the other prongs of this grand strategy.”

“Well, they were going to string along the negotiations to distract them until we got it done.”

As they approached the temple they saw what appeared to be a battle raging. But both sides were wearing the same uniforms.

“Wait a minute, this is where our final stand is supposed to take place,” the chief said.

“What is going on here?” he shouted as he entered the square. “This is our fight!”

Officers on both sides signaled to their men and everyone stopped. One of them detached himself from the enemy who he had in a headlock but whom he seemed to be having an exceptionally long time deciding to finish off. “We decided to preenact your battle,” he said.” The real thing– much too violent. The ground, though littered with bodies, was in fact spotlessly clean of blood.

“How did you know we would attack?” asked the chief.

“Do you see that restricted area over there?” The officer pointed to a large warehouse-looking building on the other side of the square with a heavy fence around it topped with barbed wire. On the gate leading in hung a sign on which was written in some kind of sans serif font: Caution: Spoiler Alert. “Someone accidentally got in there.”

“Why have you done this?It’s our right to lay our lives down in the service of eternity.”

” No, there’s been too much war already. There will be no violence in this square.”

“You can’t stymie us by occupying the square,” said the chief, drawing his long croupier blade. “You all will learn to fight for your lives, if you won’t take ours by choice.”

He rushed at the officer, who leaped back and took off running. “First you’ve got to catch us,” he called over his shoulder.

Then the chief went plunging into the crowd of soldiers hacking and slashing into a crowd of soldiers but they ran dodging and leaping and ducking and evading every whichaway. Finally, exhausted, standing into an emptied-out circle of men, he drew his bow and arrow. But then an officer called “Riot squad!” and sure enough a platoon in armor, helmets and shields pushed their way to the front of the circle surrounding him. He stood defeated, but then he noticed opposite the spoiler zone what looked to be a construction site. The crowd parted for him as he approached he saw a huge cement mixer inside. He broke the lock with his croupier blade, raced inside, raised himself over the edge of the trough and burrowed in. He wriggled out a minute later, covered in cement down to mid-shin. “I’ll have to commemorate myself the old-fashioned way,” he shouted, then staggered back towards the temple. He climbed the first two steps, tried to strike a heroic pose and then stuffed the handful of concrete he’d scooped out of the mixer into his mouth.

The Church of Latter-Day Sinners

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Pandas, the Gospels, and adult films in 3D

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When looking for a job is the wrong plan

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Downwards into the mountains

The baby was screaming right in Allan’s ear. He made a face. Its mother said to him:

“Don’t worry, she’s okay. She’s just a little hungry and tired.”

The alleged worrier was not worrying. He was even a little excited that his face could appear so much more compassionate than his heart at the moment. Maybe he had finally found his superpower. But let the story of the people on this subway car be a cautionary tale. Take the drunk with the dreadlocks, the unordained sandwich-board preacher roving up and down, and whatever that was scratching itself on the bench outside on the platform like a restless, ambulant staph infection. Shouting in the metro has a major downward career trajectory.

His girlfriend had told him to come disguised as an assailant. She told him if she recognized him or if he entered her apartment via the orthodox method she would bar his way. Of course it occurred to him that if he came in through the fire escape unrecognizably disguised as a home invader she would also probably try to repel him–her apartment wasn’t exactly located in a low-crime neighborhood. This would not have been his largest clothing mishap though. There was the first day he went to work at a law firm and found out that the suit he was wearing was in the colors of the rival firm they were feuding with. He thought that for a pack of beefing lawyers to claim navy blue as their color was a much too sweepingly ecumenical gesture. They could have at least gone for charcoal.

He hadn’t talked to his girlfriend in weeks. They had realized at some point that the only code that couldn’t be broken was silence, and the only real source of mystery was the void. He was sad not to see her nonetheless. It was a sincere emotion wearing slightly ridiculous clothes. He felt a a lack of spiritual resolution that probably came from spending too much of his life sitting on sofas and un-ergonomic chairs. He could have benefited from the heady rush of constant activity that comes from not accomplishing tasks quickly. People trying to catch fish with their hands, for example.

He thought she was seeing her therapist today. Perhaps that’s why she wanted to be taken roughly in hand by a felon later on. He really did not understand the continuing reallocation of wealth towards the psychiatric profession, but perhaps for a certain kind of person there wasn’t really anything better available, barring some major technological breakthrough in the mirror industry, their main competitor. Personally he preferred the spiritual ancestor of the psychiatrist’s office, the confessional booth. Both are founded on the knowledge that people are fucked up, but he liked that, unlike psychiatrists, confessors make people apologize for that fact.

Anyway, he was not going to visit his girlfriend. He was going to see a married woman named Christine who conveniently lived on the same stop, which allowed him to not be en route to cheating the instant he left the house. It can be a form of courtesy to seduce someone, to spare them the self-knowledge that they were out looking themselves. He and Christine had dueling outside relationships, but since hers was legally binding she beat him out for the privilege. But this whole realm of etiquette and ethics was abandoned by God. If only there were some charity right at hand that offered more of a guarantee of absolution than that leering bum holding the cup, who his bad conscience was probably going to just get drunk, or rather keep drunk.

When a pack of planes roared into view, strafing the church he was passing in front of, his intensity of movement increased greatly, while its conscious tactical direction more or less vanished. After diving into the alley next to it he looked back the way he came and saw bodies and webs of blood connecting them before everything disappeared in smoke. He dove into a doorway of the building across from the church and covered his head. The missile blast was pretty much straight on the front of the church, so only a few stones crashed into the alley.

When he finally emerged and rushed forth to save his womenfolk he realized, within his general cloud of fear, that he could not go to both of them at once. That did slacken his pace a bit. Obviously Christine’s husband was not home or he wouldn’t have been going to see her, but he could at least hope that the man would soon be back to look after her. As it turned out, and contrary to his previously stated beliefs, when the moment came Allan didn’t want the husband to be obliterated by air strike. He could try to give Christine a call, though he didn’t think the odds of the wireless network weathering military attack were good. On the other hand maybe they had finally found their hour to shine.

Somehow the network was still operating, and she did pick up and remained unharmed. She had talked to her husband, who would be arriving home shortly, and she agreed that Allan’s presence there would be highly strange when he did, circumstances notwithstanding. Apparently her husband was the first person she called. Maybe they do have a future together, thought Allan. Another call having verified the safety of his girlfriend, he was a little freer to look about him. Way down the avenue and across the river he could see smoke going up and little swarms like hornets trying to tear the whole city down.

So there would be more bodies. He had seen some along the way, the blood creeping out from beneath them like shame-faced transgressors. And that was the image that remained in his mind in the days and weeks that followed, as a strange silence continued to envelop the origins of the attack. No one could find anything out about it, as if the planes were a horde of Mongols descending on a forest village and all forms of communication with the outside world were merely divining rods held by sorcerers.

One morning a few weeks later he was watching an aerobic enthusiast jog down his road with the gait of a Greek god–the one working the forge, granted. It seemed to him a sign that normalcy with all of its questionable pursuits was returning. That was the day the infantry arrived. They came from the north but didn’t talk, so it was difficult to say where they were from. They were all almost inhumanly tall. The ground defense forces that had been hurried out to stop them when word of their arrival hit had not been able to participate in more than a mostly bloodless checkmate. The advancing soldiers were not particularly rapacious, though. In fact they seemed strangely uninterested in sinking malevolent fangs into a defenseless populace.

When he next visited his girlfriend she was all for mounting a heroic resistance, but she was confused. “These soldiers don’t plunder or pillage, they’re obviously not a bunch of out-of-control sadists, I really don’t see what motivates them,” she said.

“Well, they’re all eight feet tall and interfere with radio signals when they pass in front of buildings. They might be robots,” said Allan.

“You know, you might be right. I guess maybe this was to be expected at some point. Things have sort of been heading this way ever since soldiers started caring about how they make their beds. What are we going to do? Surely it won’t take much to achieve superiority over them in the field of personal charisma. If you weren’t so fixated on the general shiftlessness of existence you might make yourself a decent flagpole for the cause.”

He agreed and went outside right away to begin making plans. For him 90% of the work of organizing a revolution was a matter of hammering out details with Christine. After that the seed should more or less be planted. In the following days he did actually try to procure a large number of guns, but the back-alley merchant who promised to get a crate of them produced instead a crate of light bulbs. Not having received his guns, Allan was not in a position to do anything about this, so he went back to see if his girlfriend had any money.

He himself had nothing. Part of the reason for his difficulty getting a hold of guns was that they were proliferating all over the city, to the point where guns were becoming both the currency and the object of trade. It was becoming an all gun-based economy. If you wanted guns you needed guns to pay for them. Guns were being exchanged for guns, or, if the transaction went south, bullets were being exchanged for bullets. The city streets were in a constant state of war-mongering.

One day the supply of milk into the city ended. Allan shed a lot of tears that day. He went to his girlfriend seething with insurrectionist fervor. He found her with the phone he’d left a couple of days ago where she’d be sure to find it.

“I see what this is. You think I’m always away like some absent phantom of parental indifference. I’m not there for you enough so you seek outside sources. I must say I never thought I’d have to battle someone named Christine for anything.” She was thinking: this ought to baffle him enough about his own motives. With any luck he’ll start mistrusting his own subconscious and think he really did leave it here on purpose.

This moment kind of made Allan like her more, since she had disappointed his hopes of cutting free. This was what he dreamed relationships would be: a bunch of dreams that ran into each other, jumbled and piled up in big stacks forming all together the shape of a city. He felt they would have to leave the city, though. Head west to the mountains and form a resistance there. He did not see how he would choose between his women. Leave one and leave with one, there was no way around that. Unless he were to get married, that might smooth things over so they could all leave in one company…

                                           *     *     *

The peaks that Allan could see were fully framed by the window, as if they had been delivered in handheld portions.

The exam time was finished. He took a key and unlocked his desk, where next to a rather sizable loaded black pistol he kept a whistle. He took out the whistle and blew it. The exam papers snaked up from desk to desk to the front of the room, then were shoved over the edge into the pit separating the students from his desk.

He’d come to the school originally with some belief in its basic function, being for teachers to come and disburden themselves on younger bodies of all the useless knowledge and insane prejudices they’d been saddled with from childhood on. But the job brought on fresh piles that had to be evacuated on a daily basis. The end of this first term was time for a major re-evaluation. If he wasn’t careful he might be done with all of this soon. Whereas it had been his intent to get stuck on some snag in life for as long as possible to avoid being swept away.

Suddenly the loudspeaker started shrieking down on the hordes in corridors and classrooms. Its voice amplification was more heat than light:

“Hi Araunt, I was just wondering what you were doing later today. Get in touch. Love you.”

It was often a little hard to tell when one of these personal intercom messages was directed at you, although he didn’t know of any other Araunts at the school. Of course he was not one himself, but he felt it was a message coming through several layers of indirection to him from out there. Or maybe he heard the message from the crackling speaker wrong and it was his name. So, as he saw coming the other way a strange-looking teacher of lying and posture whom he recognized and who didn’t seem to have ever entirely learned how to walk correctly, he threw a couple of punches at the man’s face. He didn’t really know how to communicate back to a spirit talking through a voice on an intercom. This was just a guess.

The teacher of lying and posture was confused as well, as he frequently was. He wasn’t sure whether his job was actually to teach deceit or a recumbent position, and this state of ambiguity had begun to wear on his mind. So after being punched in the face he wasn’t sure whether one falls to the ground or begins telling some ridiculous falsehood. He too hazarded a guess and began describing the canonization of his mother, who apparently performed a miracle by being made a saint.

The teacher of lying and posture was trying to apologize to him for having played a part in an act of violence. Allan just walked away. His attempted communication had been unsuccessful. Well, there would be other chances. A girl had also told him she loved him just last week, and he believed that was a message from the beyond as well. It had happened right in the middle of their performance of a play when, right in the middle of a particularly heavy scene, his co-star had burst out to him with those words: “I love you.” As she was expected to do, since it was written into the script.

When he got outside he came upon a fellow teacher in the department of theoretical attractiveness. His name might be Steven, although Allan doubted it. Probably-not-Steven was gainfully employed at the school, but he was one of the teachers who had never really fully committed to going inside. He felt that inside you were continually being subjected to the unexpected. Out in the open you couldn’t be set upon unawares. Allan remembered him as a sort of potatoey mass that would occasionally thrust forth a memorable eyebrow or suit-and-tie color combination, but that might just be the way his memory worked.

“Everyone worships God due to His being continually absent. I have a job at this school despite never having done it or been paid for it, which isn’t quite as good, but on the other hand, I have no malicious band of perverts spreading my name across the earth.”

“Did you know I was a highly legislative infant? And very symmetrical as well. I once lived inside a woman’s vagina. All forms of societal organization since have been failures.”

This was not a conversation. Probably-not-Steven was talking on a phone, and Allan was muttering in his own ear. Probably-not-Steven pranced tragically away.

“Heaven gets described with the most brightly colored profanities these days. That’s what comes of leaving the gates open too long. A torrent of unspeakables came tumbling to earth and mixed up with mud. At the end of days people aren’t getting swept up into the sky, but their language will be, their words will be taken away from them. The Word was the origin of everything, and all its shattered fragments will be gathered up together once again, and the mute creatures left behind, lacking that which used to make their seethings and rumblings seem almost reasonable, will hack and pound.”

Allan often forgot what he was doing, and found himself performing other people’s actions and his words being uttered by someone else. Emerging from his meditation, he now found himself on the open highway, bearing down upon a crossroads at sunset, where a huge shadowy form waited, like a storm cloud connected to the earth with stable jointed lightning bolts. These were made of what looked like human arms and legs stitched or fused together, and above them a huge face with each of its two eyes made of a woman’s face.

“You have stolen from my eyes,” it said to him in a voice like a rotting valley of sugarcane. “They speak with their sight and see with their smell. They see too much.”

“You’re very much mistaken if you think my goal is to escape from your sight,” he said. “Don’t you know this road was only built to provide work for rebellious peasants? It doesn’t go anywhere. I didn’t come along it to get to its end.” His voice barely held.

“But that you’re here, then, says something about how you feel about the company you keep. Or how they feel about you. You meant to go unseen by anyone out here, except perhaps the eyes of the Lord. You can’t improve the beauty of a face by carving off the less beautiful elements and leaving the rest behind. You must appreciate things in their totality. It’s a great privilege for wind to blow or snow to dump on you when in the presence of the right companion.”

He was beginning to suspect that it was speaking a different language, concealed in the same words and syntax as his own.

“Have I no claim on you?” said the monster. “Shall I tell you a thing that binds us tight? I know you entirely. I know you’re surprised every time you get paid for doing work. I know you believe yourself to be the center of a universe that doesn’t exist. In the days when hordes of pirates would sweep down and ravage cities to the ground armed with an arsenal of chair legs and sacks of russet potatoes, you followed a pillaging life. That was your only real qualification for becoming a teacher. I believe I had some very different points to make, but my words have shifted around inside me.”

Doubtless wishing to convey a less ambiguous judgment, the monster began waving a claw, which was formed of several clenched right hands holding knives, and what looked like a rabbit’s foot, in Allan’s direction. But since at least three of the hands had dropped their knives and begun making obscene hand gestures, this message was not entirely understood.

Allan seized one of the knives and brandished it at arm’s length. He saw this as a gesture of reconciliation though. He would make a few more stabbing passes at handing the knife back, and if the paw still hadn’t stopped moving he would just have to bury the blade in the creature’s abdomen in order to return it. And yet it had begun to flicker in and out of sight.

“I know you see in me those that you know well,” said the monster, “but you can’t know who it is as a whole that you’re striking.”

Having slowly and stealthily angled himself throughout the course of this back-and-forth within reach of the gold ring on the beautiful female hand that he indeed knew very, very well on one of the other front paws of the creature, he seized hold of it, cut off the ring with the finger it was on and rushed from the crossroads. The whole sky had gone almost dark.

When Allan returned to town, he couldn’t understand why on the sidewalks everyone seemed to be speaking using the bottoms of their feet, or why the air was mewing like a cat. He felt the finger with the ring still on it in his pocket. The monster was wrong: it was less mutilated now than in its previous state, though considerably more so than when he first put the ring on it so long ago.

Ghosts are always unseemly. Not being somewhere after one has left it seems like a natural decorum of life, but maybe they never learned it. It can be hard sometimes looking back after having passed through love, he thought, to tell if one woman, let alone two, was friend or foe. And he had feared having to choose between them, to leave one behind. But still, to see the two made one, to see them become… It was as if they had not been lost but rather unmade, and his love consequently had lost not its objects but its backbone. The miseries of the elect, he thought. Only in hell, not in heaven, can one’s spiritual merit continually increase…

Happy Vacuous Cliché Day!

In a new episode of the podcast we discuss the State of the Union speech and the Tupac Shakur Effect. “Obama overlooked one critical factor, which is that for Americans to value science and technology we have to be in mortal fear of Russians.” Listen now for much more!

Now Iranian scientists can finally get around to finishing their nuke assignment

“[The Danish cartoonist's drawing], a turban in the shape of a bomb? Instantly recognizable. Some sports team should adopt that as their logo. It would be better than an adjective, or a noun of indefinite quantity, like the Avalanche, or the Minnesota Wild.” Hear about this and much more on a long-overdue new podcast!

Whipping Wednesdays and fembot politicians

“It’s going to be very easy for [Roger Ebert] to die doing what he loves. It would be a lot harder for a sex addict or an American Gladiator.” Hear about this and much more on a new episode of the podcast!

Sally has gone to Lucy

My cat Sally died yesterday and will be missed. She was perhaps too smart to fully immerse herself in the usual cat hobbies such as suspicious investigation of pieces of furniture that have always been there and reenactments of the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon every time an unfamiliar person enters the house. I often caught her staring bemusedly at her own front paws, probably thinking that she could accomplish a lot more if they weren’t so evolutionarily retrograde. She was overweight most of her life, which is probably why she developed diabetes at 14, though she managed to wobble on to 18 and a half. In a way though I think she figured life out. Having come to understand early on that food and shelter were guaranteed in perpetuity, she decided to nap through most of the rest of existence. As opposed to my dim-witted younger cat, who stampedes like a maniac at the merest puff of wind. Sometimes life really is simpler when you’re smart.