[Author’s note: After being seriously ill for a while, I’ve only just gotten strength back enough to exercise again, if mildly. I’m still far behind on my deadlines, but did want to offer some treat for my long absence. The following story first appeared in “Dark Recesses Press” Issue #7, quite a while back. I reproduce it here for your reading please.]
“The End of Her World”
(A soldier stationed in Germany didn’t want to tell me about his time downrange. So, he told me about all the deep thoughts he had while he was stationed here. He heard I was a writer, and he wanted me to hear his story, to write it down, and to tell the world about him and his life on this earth before he went back downrange to die. He was drunk. He was hitting on me. Of course he was drunk, and hitting on me. He was a soldier stationed in Germany talking to a young, American writer about the end of the world.
He smoked, too. And he was ugly.
And, I loved him too much to tell you his name.)
I don’t think the world will end with the weapons I’m guarding. I don’t think this empty stretch of damp concrete adumbrates the future of the cities when the war machines level the buildings and all the towers fall into a rubble of concertina wire and dying men in isolation suits and nuclear winter.
I’m in front of the dangerous weapons, watching storm clouds tumble all over each other like lovers wrapped in gray pillows frantically rolling into the moment of the rain.
I think that the end of the world will come when the people choose to leave the cities for the wild places.
Someday people will forget why soldiers and healthcare and schools matter. We’ll just walk away into the green hills like African Bushmen. It happens everyday somewhere, when men and women decide to walk away from homes and civilization and become bums or survivalists. It happens en masse in Africa, Canada, China, South America, and the Pacific Islands. People just collectively stand up, and walk into the wilderness with nothing but a knife and a vague sense of primitive purpose.
And some folks will try to hold on to civilization. We’ll be guarding these places like soldiers until no one knows why – not even us. And cults will form around these sacred spots. And radiation poisoning will claim any who defile the temple. And civilization will start over around these forbidden places.
I tell my fellow guard about how Bacchus made the pirates into dolphins, and they swam away, joyfully into the sea, with a freedom the children of Athena – like us – will never know.
He tells me I should read the Bible and give up all these false mythologies for the love of Jesus Christ. He tells me that he’d love to pray with me.
After duty, I got on a bus downtown, and thought about how the buses of Germany have signs prohibiting the wearing of roller skates, and the eating of ice cream. I got off, and I was thinking about death, and I was thinking about death, and I was thinking about all death.
Then, I see the dark woman.
I can tell she came from Russia, originally, because of the way she stands in darkness and the way she looks at the world in darkness and the wonderful Russian syrup in her accent. Now she smokes cigarettes in the Mainz marketplace beside a man with a llama’s bridle in one hand and a coin can in the other. She smokes with one hand and gracefully runs her other hand’s fingertips, with her long, red nails, across the llama’s long neck.
When she sees me looking at her, she puts the cigarette in her mouth. She grabs the lapels of my jacket. She says something wonderful in German. I have no idea what she says. Then she says something in Russian. I still don’t understand.
I drop a single Euro into the llama man’s can. I take her arm. She leads me into an alley between a clothing store and a travel agency. We take an elevator up to the top floor. She leads me to a single room apartment with one window. I lean out the window, and the bustling city moves with the anonymous kind of love that happens in any neighborhood – that general sense of well-being while people who recognize each other say hello.
She has an electric pot – no stove in sight – sitting on a table covered with bunched up clothes and receipts and a cereal bowl that had become an ash tray and bits of fruit loops and dried up milk slept beneath this loamy ash from foreign cigarettes and broken, lipstick-stained, cigarette butts curled erotically around cigarette butts with no lipstick stains at all.
I sit down on the bed. It’s the only place to sit. I could reach out and touch her long, black hair. You stand near the table, waiting for the tea to boil, and you light up a new cigarette.
The room stinks of cigarettes and something else I can’t place, but familiar.
The pot screams when it boils. Hot steam runs up the wall, and I notice how the white paint next to the teapot has curdled and bubbled like a second-degree sunburn.
(“That reminded me of when I rubbed lotion into your back in St. Louis in our puny motel room after we had spent all day walking around and you had forgotten that this one spot on your shoulders was exposed to the sun in this normal, t-shirt when that spot wasn’t exposed in your usual uniform. You had this little line, like a collar of bubbles on your shoulders. I had to be so careful when I put the lotion on you, and it was disgusting to feel all those fluids moving just under your skin.”)
She gets my attention with a snap of her fingers. She hands me a cup of peppery tea.
She, apparently, speaks a little bit of English. She says “Drink” with the throaty femme fatale way that has warmed a thousand cinema screens. She points at body parts and lists escalating amounts of money.
I give her everything in my pockets, and it’s almost enough for everything I want from her.
When we pretend to move with love, the tea on the table cools while we warm to each other’s touch. When we pretend to strip naked we keep the pleasure masks of our commerce between us, so we do not open up our faces, really, in intimacy. When we pretend to scrape at each other’s skins ravenously, she speaks one small word that could have been German for ‘there’, or Russian for ‘yes’.
Da… Da… Da… Da… Da…
And maybe it’s English, too, and I push that out of my head because I don’t want to think about what her father would think about this thing we’re doing.
I just want one thing from her, and I get it, and she has those soulful, pained eyes and she will never have what she truly desires in life so she will always be beautiful. Besides her beauty, all she’ll ever have is money.
Afterwards, she lets me rest in her bed while she smokes another cigarette and watches a reality television show dubbed from Dutch to Deutsch about a whole neighborhood block that has become a walled city and all the people inside lose contact with the outside world, lose all their privacy, and do not know exactly what will keep them in the city or get them voted out.
The show simulates the outbreak of a dangerous plague, and not enough medicine exists to keep the population alive.
It’s the end of the world.
Each week fans watch the show and cruise the many dedicated websites with all these life stories that didn’t fit into the one hour time slot. Fans vote to give their favorite people the weekly medicine or to let them be carted off.
Each week these people in the show watch the men in yellow isolation suits appear, take half of them by the arm, and lead them away to who knows where off-screen. The rest get a bottle of pills for the week – placebos, I assume.
With the language barrier and the horrible quality of the picture in the hidden cameras, I couldn’t tell if these people knew this was only a television show. I couldn’t tell if it wasn’t real, either.
One night a city block had gone to bed. The next morning concertina wire separated them from the civilized world. Men in terrifying isolation suits handed out placebos and cut off all communication with the outside world, blaming the plague. Each week, half their number got no medicine and they were led away to their imminent doom in a hospital bed.
Men in their spacesuits handed out placebos every week to the ones that had gotten enough votes to survive. They could do whatever they wanted with the pills, and if they didn’t take them they were led away as if they had been voted off. They could give them away if they wanted.
A certain Russian prostitute never seemed to die, though everyone seemed to hate her. She kept finding someone to give her a placebo in exchange for one, long night that European television showed in sensual blips that – the advertisements assured us – had extended into various adult websites available for subscription.
The girl in the bed with me pointed at the girl on the screen. “Schwester,” she said, “Sister, ja?”
I nodded, sadly. I saw the resemblance in a flash. I rubbed her shoulders.
She pushed me away. She looked at me like she was disgusted that I had touched her.
I put my clothes back on.
On the show, the prostitute earned her life in a horrible apocalypse among people that wanted to feel joy even if it meant death.
Just like as if it were a real epidemic, the very old and very young died fast. By the time I had my foot out the door, there were only beautiful young women, and men with quick tongues and chiseled abs. They fell in and out of love recklessly, tears streaming down their faces as their friends and families died.
In the real world, I left her there, while she rooted for her sister and let the door open and close without saying good-bye to me at all. I left behind a pack of cigarettes, like a placebo from her sister’s TV show, but mine were deadly.
Halfway down the hall, I heard her scream in agony. I knew it wasn’t on account of me. Her sister had been led away by the men in isolation suits and left television and returned to the marketplace and smoked cigarettes and lived the kind of life where people don’t look twice and when the icy fingers of death really did spread across her face she would only be a smell of perfume and smoke – like burning gardens – and when the men like me smelled her, we would – alas – remember nothing.
(I finished my highball glass of absinthe. I carried the soldier’s words over continents, over oceans, and over electrons. Now, I’ve given them to you.
I’ve done all I can.)