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…