“Guess we both got the hat memo,” he grinned at me. We were alone in the waiting room. We both had on hats. That’s enough for some people. “Kind of a funny day outside.” That part was true. All day it had rained in ten-minute shifts, with sticky humidity between. “Of course, I’ve seen funnier. Most old men have. You’ll see yours too, in time.” I fed him a tight smile, the coiled kind that says you’re feeling solitary.
He surveyed a painting on the wall. “Hmm,” he said, “I guess I don’t get why a dentist needs to see the Siege of Yorktown every morning. Do you?” I smiled again and looked at my hands. I should have just picked up GQ. I could have learned about sweaters, and influence. I was trying to be nice. “The British were hamstrung by malaria. The Americans were used to it. Bit silly, isn’t it? To win a war by being good at getting sick. Sort of a technicality.”
He cleared his throat, chuckled, tapped his foot. He was picking up steam. I winced in advance. I could have read all about aftershave.
“Well, I guess I’ll tell you, I wasn’t born here in America,” he continued. He unknotted his legs; he knotted them again the other way. “Sure sound like it, don’t I? No, I was born in a town called Göttingen. I wonder whether you’ve heard of it.” He didn’t ask it as a question; I didn’t answer it as one. On the little table beside me, a magazine vowed to disclose where Simon Cowell had eaten lunch. I ached to know this.
“No reason you would have, really. College town. Lot of mathematicians and things. I can’t say I know it well. I was a baby when we left. Hard to imagine this bag of bones was ever a baby, eh?” he chuckled again.
“My memories are here, that’s my point. And this is a young country. Young and mighty. In Germany you
can walk through the ruins of castles.”
I took out my phone. Anxiously I searched ‘Orlando Bloom.’ He did a war movie with Clint Eastwood’s son; it was praised for its ‘respectful depiction of the soldiers.’
This soothed me. I breathed in through my nose, out through my mouth.
“My parents were never officially party members. Not many were, I don’t think - I used to know the percentages, I used to know all the numbers and the names by heart, but I got older, and my parents passed, and I was living here instead of there, and I thought, oh, I can let this go, I don’t need to know this anymore.”
The solace ebbed. I needed more.
I read which anabolics got John Krasinski in Benghazi shape. I studied up on Jessica Chastain’s role in Operation Neptune Spear. I watched Brie Larson dogfight insurgents in an F-16 Viper. These things entered me and from within me I felt their talismanic glow.
“I remember about my parents because they were mine, of course, and because they put such emphasis on the distinction. They were so often indeterminate - oh, we might have voted with the Nazis in this election or that one, we don’t remember, it was all so long ago, but maybe they promised to do this and that for the economy, maybe that was it, and after all who doesn’t want to help the economy? But to the end of their lives they remembered with clarity that they’d never formally joined the Nazi Party.”
For Aloha Emma Stone practiced firing missiles at Laotians. When Iron Man 2 wrapped, each cast member got to take home an M4 Carbine as a gift. Roger Goodell has announced that Marine enlistment is now required to activate the NFL Mobile app.
“They were warm people. Gentle. I never heard my father raise his voice. They had a nice nature, which is different from a good one.”
My hands shook. I was sweating.
When Bradley Cooper held the plastic baby in American Sniper something in him broke open and he knew then that he would never put that baby down. He raised the plastic baby into a plastic man, and the plastic man grew strong and unyielding, a pugilist and a captain of industry. The plastic man is old now, and he doesn’t have much time left. Cooper is long dead, and the plastic man tells People that if he could ask his father anything, he would ask only why he had created him, and he would weep - ‘not at the answer,’ he dishes over candied eggplant, ‘but at having had the strength to ask.’
I was calm and impervious. I was safe and everlasting and correct.
“I sometimes wonder if, when Hitler went to prison, people thought the threat had passed,” he said. He was looking at the painting again for some reason. “Some must have. Don’t you think? Or else just forgot. Maybe the putsch felt distant to them. Something happening over their heads, a story in the paper, that was all.”
I was on the verge of tears when a dental assistant entered. She called a name. He rose and crossed the room.
As he passed me, I tried to ask him why he’d told me all that. But my throat was snarled. Only a useless hiss came out.
“Nice and dry in here,” he told her, beaming.
It was raining again. I took off my hat, then put it back on. I opened one of the magazines, but everything I read was overwhelming. I set it down. I leaned back in my chair and tried to recover. I closed my eyes and imagined the sound of fanfare.
I: We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture
At night she takes what’s left of her son to the lake to watch the birds die. She carries him on trips, and when she’s found a spot along the water’s obsidian rim she reassembles him. The fuschia soot rises from the water in plump tufts, and beside her she feels him shiver with excitement. Soon the black surface of the water will rupture, and the smog tide of birds will roar upwards, vomiting steel wool and nickels. For their few seconds of life they will pirouette madly and shriek in distress. Her son will giggle and clap until the motion proves too much for his tumbledown body. The birds will shudder and end, and the onlookers will scrabble for retched-up coins, and in trips again she will carry him home over the plain of ash.
For now he is intact and the water calm. She watches the pink brume climb towards them, and waits for the birds to begin.
II: The danger is still present in your time as it was in ours
The searchers find the house too late like always. It was low in the surf this time, buried by high tide, and the prisoners sat silent under the waves and prayed the windows would hold against the ocean. They wouldn’t, and they knew that even then, and now their twenty bodies bob in the aftertides and glow with fungal light. Every day it is like this: the prisoners, waking up in the house they fear to leave, waiting for its defenses to fail them. Some days a wrath of waves roils far above their heads; other days the house is nestled in a field, and a swell of toxic pollen seeps in through the air ducts. Tomorrow they’ll wake up in their customary beds, remembering everything.
The searchers used to take the bodies in, examine them, dress them. The city spurned them: the great towers sloughed their metals, and from within their bowels emerged the moths. The searchers buried the prisoners as if they had once been people, and the moths seethed, and when the city siloes were bare of rice and cereals the searchers learned contrition. The searchers undressed them once more and piled them back inside the house like offal, and the moths were pacified.
The searchers leave the bodies bobbing, and go home to eat stewed burdock root and cowpeas. Tomorrow they’ll start earlier. They’ll find the house in time.
III: The form of the danger is an emanation of energy
In the bodies of the dogs he hunts for treasure. In one the action of a gun and a lesser Mondrian; in another a shearing knife and a book without pages. There was a time a stack of hounds like this would yield its cost back three times or more. Those were the chimera days when the facts of every animal were intermingled, and he had cut himself open to find fox blood dripping from his fingers, and all his daughters were turning into anglerfish. Those days had closed, and now he could cut and cut until he sawed bone, but still no blood would emerge. These are the artifact times. The lungs of his last dog are choked with Aral dust.
He sluices the viscera. In the colon he finds a staircase with a great metal door at its apex. He begins to climb the stairs, but outside it’s getting light out, and the men he answers to will be here soon to collect the best of his takings. He climbs quickly; the stairs are slick with the slimes of the body, and he falls again and again.
The door opens before he can knock on it, and from it emerges a moth the size of a horse. There is nothing here that you want, it tells him. It has a Milwaukee accent, and it trembles with rage. Or - you know what - how should I even know what you want. I don’t. I don’t. Take whatever you can carry. Burn it to the ground. What do I even care anymore. And the moth returns inside.
He follows. Inside he finds a hoard of limbs. Briefly he peruses mismatched ulnae. Further up he can hear the moth keening like a marmot. He follows upwards. Spare toes crunch underfoot.
We had everything wails the moth, standing on the bluff above, and the man joins him. Below them he sees the sweeps of an orchard of boys. From its trees dangle arms, legs, hands missing fingers, here and there a less desirable head, an appendix, a gallbladder, a heap of tongues. He could see that these had been complete boys once, and that pieces had been taken from them over time. Whole units, available in packs of three, six, or twelve. A wide variety of flavors to choose from. Fast delivery and discounts on recurring orders the moth said, inconsolable.
They don’t grow back? asks the man.
Not fast enough, says the moth, and it gestures to the horizon.
The man shields his eyes with his hand and squints. At its northern terminus the orchard yields to an endless plain of ash. As he watches, men emerge from the ash, covered in fuchsia dust. They lumber into the orchard, and their eyes adjust to the light and their lungs to the air, and when they see where they have gotten to, their hands curl into claws and start closing on whatever they can reach.
IV: This place is a message
He dreams the dogs are chasing him again. He knows it’s a dream because his ankles don’t collapse as he runs, because his ribs don’t come spilling out when he leaps across the shallow stream and thrashes through the chest-high grass. When he wakes up, he will drag himself in trips out to the light and piece himself together, joint by joint. When he stops he will wake up, and when he wakes up he will not want to go on living. He keeps running.
Around them lie black basalt slabs the size of houses. The dogs are made of these, and new dogs leap from every slab he passes. He isn’t fast or strong. They bite and bite at him. His calves are quickly bitten down to bone. They do not bleed.
Ahead there is a boom gate stuck half-raised. Beyond it the grass gives way to empty streets of shattered rock and sheet metal. He runs beyond it and the sound of panting fades. He risks a glance: the dogs have stopped before the boom gate. They watch him a while and then sulkily return to their stones.
Here the air grows acrid. His eyes water, and blue splotches spread across his body. When he exhales, something more than air comes out. He knows that he is dying, and that dying will wake him up the same as stopping. He has walked for hours along these streets when he comes upon the house.
It consists of a single room, and its outside comprises more window than wall. Inside sit twenty people on twenty beds, and they watch him approach the house without reaction. His skin bubbles and weeps. He thinks he must be pitiful to them, or else abhorrent. Their bodies are whole, uninterrupted.
There is a single door to the house, and they watch him go to it. Finally one meets his eye and signals: do you want to come in? and he nods.
The prisoner comes to the door and opens it, and he goes inside, and when the door closes behind him he finds the house is larger than it looked from outside, and there are not twenty beds but twenty-one.
Gently he lays his ruined body down in bed and goes to sleep.
Evander Lang is a writer and filmmaker based in Chicago. His work has appeared in The Satirist, Five on the Fifth, Willows Wept Review, and now, Danse Macabre. You can find him on Twitter @evander_lang.
Bienvenue au Danse, Evander.