Johnny America


Calami­ty People


Mr. X and I jour­neyed to the moon. The ground glowed; I could­n’t look down with­out squint­ing. I took a gi­ant leap and dou­ble flipped above our mag­ic car, while Mr. X smoked a space-cig­a­rette.  He was bald and pale, so I’d thought he’d look at home on the moon, but the bright­ness of every­thing made him look sick­ly. I told Mr. X that I was glad to be there, but he just shrugged and brushed ash off his black turtle­neck. I guess he had seen bet­ter.  Any­way, a moon mon­ster at­tacked and broke the silence.

Be­fore me, Mr. X had a su­per-in­tel­li­gent orang­utan named Hopewell. He turned su­per-in­tel­li­gent af­ter eat­ing a ra­dioac­tive Pez. A black and white pho­to­graph of Hopewell hangs out­side Mr. X’s of­fice. The print was poor­ly treat­ed, so the shad­ows have turned gold. Hopewell stands on a street of fea­ture­less white build­ings. He wears a Hawai­ian shirt and grips a Kalash­nikov.  Mr. X says Hopewell was the on­ly per­son who could make him laugh.

I start­ed in the cir­cus, per­form­ing as “The In­de­struc­tible Boy.”  My act was sim­ple and hu­mil­i­at­ing.  First , I swam through a tub of sul­fu­ric acid — breast­stroke, back­stroke, but­ter­fly.  The chem­i­cals dis­solved my swim-trunks, which meant I had to climb out naked. Next I back flipped in­to a cage of wolves.  The wolves looked trav­el-worn, but could lob me sev­en or eight feet af­ter giv­ing my tor­so a hope­less shake. I en­joyed the dogs, but I hat­ed the fi­nale. My man­ag­er forced a slen­der Ger­man hand grenade down my throat. I could have with­stood the ex­plo­sion with my mouth shut, but the au­di­ences want­ed to see, so I had to gape at the canopy un­til the fire came.

Out­side the show I was ig­nored. The cir­cus folks could­n’t re­late to an in­vin­ci­ble boy. Every show­man had a bust­ed joint, if not a miss­ing limb.

I thought Mr. X was a new act the first I saw him. He wore black, and sat cross-legged in the ad­min­is­tra­tive tent. My man­ag­er of­fi­cial­ly be­gan our meet­ing by pulling a re­volver from his desk and fir­ing at my heart.  The force knocked me over my chair, and back near the en­trance flap. My man­ag­er of­fered the re­volver to Mr. X, but he pooh-poohed the weapon and came over to me.

Some ash fell as he looked down at my splayed form. His face showed no com­pas­sion, but his cheek twitched with con­cern. Like a mangy cir­cus wolf, my heart jumped for that morsel.

Mr. X’s cig­a­rette dan­gled from his lip as he felt my neck, lis­tened to my chest, and test­ed my re­flex­es. His touch was gen­tle and me­thod­ic, but touch had been so rare that his hands de­light­ed me as if they were a pair of fledg­lings flap­ping against my skin.

“Hu­mans love pan­ic. If a me­te­or is­n’t hur­dling to­wards them,  they’ll in­vent gi­gan­tic lizards to lev­el their own cities,” Mr. X explained.

He pro­duced a sy­ringe and pre­pared to draw blood.

“Al­though it sounds nice, sav­ing the world is most­ly cer­e­mo­ny, a futile — ”

The nee­dle snapped as he pressed it against my arm.

“Well you’re a tough one,” Mr. X said curtly.

“Noth­ing can hurt me,” I muttered.

“You have blood don’t you — spinal flu­id, lymph nodes?”

I shrugged.

Mr. X leaned back to ash his cig­a­rette and gave a shal­low sigh.

These days it’s just me, Mr. X, and the re­an­i­mat­ed woman, but I don’t see the re­an­i­mat­ed woman very much be­cause she scares eas­i­ly.  Mr. X stays in his of­fice most days, takes his food through a dog­gy door, and sleeps in a ham­mock above his desk. His on­ly tele­phone is red and the pres­i­dent us­es it to call for help.  I pop in now and again to ask a ques­tion about alien war­fare, or para­psy­chol­o­gy. There is a mu­tu­al un­der­stand­ing that he owes me these in­tru­sions.  He rarely builds fan­tas­tic ma­chines any more, in­stead he reads the pa­per and com­plains like any oth­er old person.

I fill my days will ex­er­cise, com­plet­ing count­less push-ups, sit-ups, and pull-ups. At least twice a day I jog through all as twelve of the sub­base­ments. My foot­steps echo in the cav­ernous halls — a sound metal­lic and malev­o­lent. I race against the alien skele­tons, mys­ti­cal ar­ti­facts, and once-ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies that crowd the walls, but more spec­i­mens al­ways wait around the cor­ner. They are al­ways ahead of me.

Some­times the re­an­i­mat­ed woman asks me to make a big break­fast, and then force us all to sit down to­geth­er.  We nev­er have much to talk about, and Mr. X of­ten ends up sprin­kling sug­ar on­to the ta­ble and con­tem­plat­ing the crys­tals un­der a mag­ni­fy­ing glass.

“Do you know what hu­man be­ings need — ”

The re­an­i­mat­ed woman usu­al­ly cuts him off with a song, some­thing cheer­ful.  On­ly she can nev­er re­mem­ber the words, and her voice gets fran­tic when she re­al­izes how much she has forgotten.

A few days ago, the pres­i­dent called about a gi­ant worm that had de­voured a sub­way train.  I wore the wrong shoes, so as Mr. X and I scaled down the mon­ster’s pit, loose shale scuffed up my sneak­ers. I aimed my flash­light straight in­to the void and the dark­ness seemed to push against the light.

Mr. X sub­dued the worm with a de­vice he did­n’t both­er ex­plain­ing to me. It looked like a met­al lunch pale with a cock­tail um­brel­la spin­ning on top.  I head­ed along the wor­m’s flank, which was glis­ten­ing ma­roon, and high­er than a freight ship’s hull.  I took out my pock­et-knife, picked an ar­bi­trary point, and slipped in the blade. The flesh was so thick I had to saw. When the wound was big enough, I zipped up my track-suit against the cold and climbed inside.

In the pit, my el­bows had scraped ge­o­log­i­cal earth, hard, crum­bling, and min­er­al; in the worm, my hands sank in­to psy­cho­log­i­cal earth, soft, cold, noc­tur­nal — a place where the dead float­ed like fish. This was Mr. X talk­ing. I nev­er used to think this way.

I crawled over hills of di­gest­ed dirt. I stum­bled up­on a pig corpse, a bi­cy­cle, and a car­ni­val booth, be­fore I fi­nal­ly found the light­less train cars. I re­mem­bered why I was there, and knew that one of two things had hap­pened. Ei­ther I had reached the pas­sen­gers in time, or I hadn’t.

Mr. X has stud­ied dreams. He has used sci­ence galax­ies-ahead of that known to oth­er hu­mans, and un­cov­ered the true na­ture of sleep. He calls it a mi­gra­tion, be­cause just as worms bur­row down to the heat of the earth, dreams wrig­gle down to an­i­mals dur­ing sleep.  Each dream is drawn to the one mind that can sus­tain it.

The dreams that reach me are all fire and wa­ter. On the coast, the hous­es burn. The peo­ple run from doors, clutch­ing be­long­ings, but the fire chas­es them. Like a dog, the flames snap at their an­kles. On the sea, the wa­ter churns. Hun­dreds of boats are sink­ing, but thou­sands have al­ready sunk. I move freely over the wreck­age, bound along the shore, and walk across the waves. I try to save the vic­tims, but their bod­ies are oiled — the hard­er I hold them, the faster they slip from my grasp.

I am sure it is a mes­sage, sent by a world in per­il.  But I haven’t told Mr. X.  I don’t want him to know I keep failing.

I swept my flash­light over the sub­way train, and in a dark pool of win­dow, found a boy star­ing out.  He squint­ed in the light. Then a man rose out of the dark­ness and lift­ed the child up. Alive.

A straight face is crit­i­cal when sav­ing some­one. I used to smile, but no one wants a smile when a death-ray has just evap­o­rat­ed their home. As the sur­vivors strug­gled out of the train car, I stared ahead somber­ly. The flash­light grazed each face, just enough for me to see the eyes, to re­mem­ber them if the dream returned.

A woman tripped as we climbed over the soft dirt, and my jack­et jerked against my neck as she gripped me.  She gave an apolo­getic look as she stead­ied her­self. For a sec­ond I held her bare wrist.

Out­side, we found Mr. X blow­ing smoke-ring. He waved us past aloofly as the gi­ant worm shift­ed, and rocks rained around us. He re­moved his cig­a­rette, squint­ed at a di­al, and cursed softly.

Mr. X’s pro­pos­al for man sits on a shelf un­der the cook­ie-tin where the re­an­i­mat­ed woman saves en­velopes.  The pro­pos­al is forty-sev­en pages with il­lus­tra­tions.  The pro­pos­als main idea is six­ty-four white cubes, arranged in grid — though the pa­per it­self has turned yel­low.  I did­n’t un­der­stand the six­ty-four cubes at first, and that irked Mr. X. What could be more ob­vi­ous? But he was will­ing to explain.

“Pan back over all the scenes of your life.  What was most important?”

I thought of a stranger’s hand graz­ing my own in a crowd, but Mr. X an­swered for me.

“Life it­self. The ab­stract flow of ex­is­tence. That is primary.”

He paused for ef­fect and leaned back.

“And if you were a sci­en­tist — a chemist — what atoms would you say com­posed the mol­e­cule of life?”

I was about to answer.

“Wa­ter. Air. Food. Com­mu­ni­ty. Shelter.”

He made five black dots on a piece of paper.

“Do you know why crys­tals are so pure?”

I was still think­ing about hands.

“No, they prob­a­bly don’t teach that in the cir­cus. In a crys­tal the mol­e­cules are strict­ly or­ga­nized. Each sta­bi­lizes its neighbor.”

He drew lines be­tween the dots.

“I pro­pose we arrange the life of each hu­man, so that it sta­bi­lizes the life of his fel­low. We crys­tal­lize hu­man­i­ty in­to life modules.”

I stared blankly at the doughy flesh of Mr. X’s ear.

“We live in cubes.”

Some nights I pre­tend I am on guard du­ty. Once I found a gar­den­er snake that had man­aged to get past our bomb-proof se­cu­ri­ty door. I took the el­e­va­tor out of the sub­base­ments and re­leased him on the grass. Re­cent­ly, I heard rum­mag­ing in the kitchen, and found the re­an­i­mat­ed woman stand­ing at the re­frig­er­a­tor.  She opened the door slight­ly, reached a hand in, with­drew the hand, and shut the door. Then she opened the door again, and repeated.

“What do you want Ophelia?”

“Juice, but it’s in the back.”

She had this fear that the food would spoil if she held the door open for more than a second.

“It’s safe,” I said, jerk­ing the door wide.  Cold light poured out and touched my hand. I count­ed to ten to prove my point, then hand­ed her the juice.

“I know,” she said, “but what if I let go of the door, and for­get it’s open. Then what would we eat?”

She cra­dled the juice bot­tle, un­sure for a mo­ment if she had fin­ished speak­ing, then she turned, and wan­dered out in­to the lab­o­ra­to­ry’s depths.

I barged in­to Mr. X’s of­fice, ready to tell him my dream about wa­ter and fire.  He had stud­ied dreams, and he could sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly de­code the message.

“Damn it,” said Mr. X, clutch­ing his hand.

He had been clean­ing the grit off a rock­et scoot­er from the sec­ond world war. The sharp tool he was us­ing had skipped and punc­tured his palm.

“Sor­ry,” I said, and turned away.

“Where are you go­ing?” He snapped. “I’m go­ing to teach you something.”

He hand­ed me a rag, and open his hand to ex­pose a black pool.

“This is blood. The an­cients be­lieved blood was the soul it­self.  Then physi­cians said it was one of four hu­mors, which must be bal­anced — ap­ply pressure.”

I pressed light­ly on the rag, afraid I would break a bone. But he pressed my thumbs down hard­er with his healthy hand.

“Blood cor­re­spond­ed to fire.  But for a mod­ern, blood could al­so mean wa­ter, the black wa­ter of the un­con­scious, blue chan­nels be­neath the skin. Burn­ing wa­ter, this is a con­tra­dic­tion, but hu­man­i­ty is a con­tra­dic­tion. Are you listening?”

I pressed hard­er than I in­tend­ed.  I want­ed him to ask me to stop.

“A dream keeps com­ing to me. The peo­ple bleed, I can’t help them,” I said.

“Why should you, of all peo­ple, be afraid of blood?”

“I think it’s a lost plan­et’s cry from help.”

Mr. X scoffed and reached for his cigarettes.

“You think I am stupid.”

“No, boy, I think you are innocent.”


In the sev­en­ties, an African re­pub­lic agreed to show­case Mr. X’s per­fect city.  A grid of six­teen enor­mous cubes was con­struct un­der Mr. X’s su­per­vi­sion, and a hun­dred thou­sand cit­i­zens resided in the fin­ished build­ings.  So­ci­ol­o­gists, ar­chi­tects, and re­porters have writ­ten the rest.  Chil­dren formed gangs to fill their hours in the hu­mor­less con­crete streets, moth­ers had to walk un­god­ly dis­tances to reach the one gro­cery store, and no one could find a com­fort­able place for two peo­ple to sit and talk. Dis­sen­sion spread, and the fa­cil­i­ty de­clined fur­ther. Mos­qui­toes breed in the bro­ken air-ducts, and crim­i­nals fought for aban­doned apartments.

Hopewell led a bat­tal­ion of gov­ern­ment sol­diers in­to the grid to sta­bi­lize the sit­u­a­tion, but the troops changed sides, and skew­ered the bril­liant orang­utan.  Mr. X says the sol­diers killed Hopewell be­cause they were scared of progress.  The so­ci­ety reached pu­ber­ty, but was­n’t ready to grow-up.

I say the peo­ple were promised a per­fect city, and giv­en a con­crete box. They were sick of bor­ders, sick of lone­li­ness. So they crowd­ed to­geth­er in the tight­est crowds the could. Limbs pressed on limbs, and sweat mixed with sweat.  Then want­ed  out of the whole god­damn sit­u­a­tion, and in the course of things they killed a monkey.

Filed under Fiction on January 18th, 2010

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