“I can’t believe there’s a Houston.”
“As we lay here, I can’t believe there’s a Houston.”
“Why? Why not?”
“No.” She reached, somewhat laboriously, to her left; that gesture you see in movies. The arm very awkwardly crosses the body to bring the bedside lamp to life in the wee hours. There is a small grunting or wheezing from the actor, a smallish effort to sit upright, and a notable absence of expensively written dialogue for several seconds. Dead air. The darkened screen is momentarily preoccupied with only this silent gesture and so the viewer knows, and sees, that this dead screen time portends something. The lamp blazes and in the sudden blare of light we see her with her hand under the shade. She fluffs and then reclines against her pillow
“I can’t believe there’s a Houston. It’s not solipsism, or whatever.”
“It sure sounds like it,” I said. “I think it is that. Isn’t that solipsism?”
Signs and portents, of course. Tooled metal things, not quite machines, falling out of the sky but not catching fire, which is troubling. You found that thing in the garden after a freaked night of whistling crashes and tearing sounds and bright lights and hot fog. That tearing sound, oh god. That was the worst. What did you find, what is it? Bigger than a breadbox? Machined metal, possibly of mysterious provenance, but we don’t know from machined stuff, so who can say? Some of it looks quite…domestic. Building pieces? Bits of fans and things. But a built thing fallen into the garden from the sky is news. We were sure we were dead. The next morning at dawn that thing with the little flame. I guess it doesn’t have to mean anything.
A cataclysm unfolding in pieces, or acts. Is that what this is? Are we gonna be forced into a corner and made to burn with Auden’s affirming flame? No, I hope. But. We can bet there will be velocities and powers of ten and all the numbing awfulness of macro-scale inertia at its most terrible. Worlds in space are only rocks, but they bend the space around them and when they lean in to kiss there is much preparatory mayhem. In that case let’s hunker down. Think of a movie spool for the last 50 minutes of this epoch. Draw the curtains. There will be both Mickey Rooney and Howard Keel. Freddy Bartholomew and Russ Tamblyn. Yes, and Deanna Durbin. Tony Bennett will reach that inappropriate hollering high note and Ella Fitzgerald will sweat through her cocktail dress. Edith Piaf will gesture with her little upraised hands in a damning follow-spot, frozen sparrow smile beseeching. Yes, now’s the time for that.
Meanwhile the birds flutter in from parts on high, from somewhere generally overhead, from space. In the moments before the ghoulish Accident (as much one of mathematics as of any failure of endeavor or faith), all is calm, all is bright. An outsized string section sweeps along like gently eddying, jasmine-scented smoke; Mancini’s unspeakably lush Lujon at high volume. Turn it up, WAY up. It won’t hurt. Sunshine dumps down in a single shining sheet through a cloudless and hospitable firmament, glinting off the moving river of glassy colored metal, a state freeway lined with smoke-offended trees and shrubs. Like garden-variety idiots the birds do indeed come spinning down from the dumb blue dome to alight on buildings and street signs and highway overpasses, to flutter and swarm and undulate in flocks, flirting shamelessly with the inanimate and animate alike, everywhere caressing cornices, flattering high voltage lines with their attentions. Why do we venerate these dimwits? These most enviable of the Nobles don’t know a twig from an aerial. And yet their grouped and anxious travel suggests purpose and music, compels revery. Poets are mad for these fools. In real time they spatter us with their crap and eat worms without irony, as do most of our muses on closer inspection. Some of us know better.
The accident itself will be quick. A car wreck, say, but such a car wreck as made the oceans. And it is a car wreck that will herald the explosive ruin of this epoch and the burnt basement that will begin the next. It’s unavoidable, both in the realm of physics, I suppose, and in the realm of evolutionary biology. Jefferson’s recommended Occasional Overthrow. And what good are we? The eternal question.
Our skeletons are uselessly in-built, the hardened and strangely resilient, ostentatiously jointed bones exist only as a stupidly fancy framework on which to hang our defenseless pulpy guts, if you can imagine. The life force is in the guts, but in the event of an attack the primary guts are standing more or less in front of or alongside the skeletal fortress and not behind it. In a machined calamity or industrial accident (never mind a world-wrecking cataclysm) that doesn’t even pretend to make sense. Clearly the startled natural mechanism that decides how best to adapt us to our environment didn’t foresee this post-industrial miasma of death options, so that simple and low-speed car collisions and bicycle mishaps wreak absolute havoc on our softened, old-fashioned little bodies. Surely after several hundred millennia of driving cars and crashing, the glacially sluggish Inventor of physical expedience will see fit to give us exoskeletons, the better to protect us in the inevitable dashing of bodies against runaway machinery. But these things take time. The Mechanism in its torpor will just begin to rouse to the need some several hundred thousand years after the last freeway disaster. The human culture has advanced to the point that our technological stupidities outstrip God’s ability to protect us from them. So here comes another little smudge now. Something like this:
In the morning after a hurried breakfast something was falling from the sky and we saw it there and it filled us with an indescribable dread, and we jumped in the car, didn’t we? I was watching it, you were driving, I and thousands of others craning necks to look up though filthy windshields at this dawdling and horrific little harbinger. We were all watching it then, all of us on the freeway, the busy interstate became a parking lot as this thing captured the collective attention and imagination and all eyes looked up. We’re always looking up! Even in the end! People were in flight, driving away from the city in planless droves. We deserve this, driving in panic away from our big dumb cities. We collectively sensed an end. How?
The thing anyway wasn’t burning or glowing or incandescing in that vaguely familiar space-age turbulence we’ve come to associate with brief news clips of things tearing loose and falling from low earth orbit, those killing chunks of progress fallen down, our shuttles being picked apart, a burnt helmet half-filled with highly trained human tissue found in a field in Texas.. This falling thing was not exhibiting the characteristics of a low orbit plummeter. It wasn’t even falling. That became sickeningly evident. Like, right away. It was a coldish object not falling but drifting, lifting, soundlessly, through scudding balls of cotton. I almost couldn’t take my eyes off it.
Vanity rears its head and empires go jitterbugging into oblivion, alongside personal histories and love stories and the smaller emotional architectures. This Drifting Thing, though, is not the proximate cause of the harum-skarum ruin that is soon to announce itself. It adds a note of flavor, though. It’s a small effect.
All this movement. From low earth orbit the movement is Brownian, or bacterial. Swarming specks, indistinct, vibrating, the nonsensical convocation of anxious and purposeless mineral life. Each utterly nondescript speck, though, (and here’s the thing) is possessed of its own heraldry, just as invisible in close-up, actually, as from this orbital distance; its own parentage, bloodline, favorite films, culinary distastes, and fear of being a speck. We are mostly joined at the speck terror. Catastrophe strikes invisibly, and of course sometimes very visibly.
Again, Mancini’s Lujon. Turn it up, I say. It’s the soundtrack of the end of the species, all species. Dear Hank wouldn’t have guessed that while composing it. He and Mercer put together Moon River in a hotel ballroom in the space of an hour and likely didn’t know Audrey would be felled by wildly multiplying cell armies, that Peppard would later star in The A Team. We can’t anticipate tragedy, its hidden omnipresence seems only to compel us to more beautiful music.
The speck ahead of me in traffic, in close-up an articulated dreamer with all the qualifications of the Living and Dear, whose bones will momentarily be partially reduced to wet, course powder, is named Sven, though I can’t know that. His parents are John and Susan, and I can’t know that either. They named him Sven in the glow of a late-sixties bonhomie that might more likely have conferred Starlite or Wowie upon him, but Sven is a character from the Flintstones episode John and Susan were delighted to have found a common childhood memory when first they met, a stone-aged house painter with a Swedish name and outrageous sing-song accent.
Ahead of me, the Porsche Carrera’s driver sideview mirror frames Sven. In my purposeful and generally wounded view, he is at this moment a giddy jackass holding court. Sven. I can see the Raybanned head jerking fitfully and enthusiastically about, showily wearing that strenuous grimace that passes for a smile with this gang. Sven is a-jitter with the exuberance and wisdom of the tanned eternals, his audience the stitched, leather-bound dashboard he probably haggled expertly to have thrown in for a song. This is the much-vaunted ‘secret to success’. Not talent. Nor intelligence, eloquence, emotional nuance, or even ambition as it is commonly defined; but a tanned and clean- shaven jawbone, flapping, flapping, yammering excitedly to no-one, an expensively-coiffed head tossing about, typifying the awful inertia of self-congratulation that for many of our number is sufficient to propel one into the higher reaches of prestige and liquidity; the monied stratum to which everyone ostensibly attains, but which only bewilders and destroys, one hopes. It’s the same numb initiative that obliges an unlovely weed to push through a sidewalk with evident explosive force, crumbs of wrecked cement surrounding the plucky little stem. It doesn’t know it is pushing but simply obeys a code that commands Reach! Reach! Reach! Tora! Tora! Tora! Reach with all your will, you sonofabitch! No real cognition or pleasure attends this race to the heights. It’s a deliciously blank-eyed religion, a religion of only Reaching. Its acolytes, novices, proselytizers and Keepers of the Flame are not preachers, but Reachers. The devotees just climb. That’s it. This is galling to those of us who do not, or will not, Reach, who believe that career immobility, beautiful thinking and a deep-field appreciation of the commonplace should be rewarded with fetes, parades and silent awed respect; our heart-wounding belief that spiritual prescience and workaday warmth should be the coin of the realm. Such is not the case. Sven, then.
In the seconds before the appearance of the drifting thing and the planet-ending embrace it heralds one wonders, adrift; the synapses bonfire around set pieces and warming rushes of idea and sudden scalp-prickling emotion. One sees what one wants to see; those things that have energized and refreshed us in these darkling days. You think of Steve Lawrence, for instance, perched on a prop ladder in some black and white t.v. variety show, of that era when the commercials were dancers dressed as tubes of toothpaste. Lawrence is warbling in that slightly scratchy tenor. He’s wearing a v-neck sweater and stove pipe trousers and smiling while he sings, emoting through those Kennedeyesque jowls of his. And now he can been seen or imagined shuffling uncertainly around some trophy room in the Nevada desert, as I’ve said, alone amidst his framed accolades, Edyie in another part of the house. Edyie Gorme! Dead! While for us Lawrence appears only now and again like the bobbing plastic truth teller in an upturned eight ball, now emerging from the murk, now gone, the fact is he has lived all the minutes and hours of his life, whether or not we’ve been thinking of him. For all these decades he has bought groceries and made love and visited the dentist and gone for walks. And now he nears the end of something, this sweatered statue, and is doddering around his trophy room in Nevada or Arizona, desert sun pouring in, orange and full of meaning, pouring in at a meaningful angle at dusk. Steve Lawrence at Dusk! This informs our theme. Now, the curtain.
The birds have landed. Not the dimwits I just disparaged, a more stately and quiescent group. Not the iconic Movie Birds, squatting and barking and preening filthily on telephone wires, but white and gray city birds in now decorous flocks. The catastrophe has brought them to ground and there are tens of thousands of birds sitting atop our parked cars, as far as the eye can see, as they say. They anticipate earthquakes with a flocked, frenzied leave-taking but this brings them in for a massive landing. Very awful and as heart-seizing as the drifting thing. We’re not going to feel this. The assembled End-Birds are as gray and black as a beautiful monochrome vision of nuns in excited conference, as multi-colored as a kid’s bag of marbles, they’re for once intermingling; finches and robins and swallows, gulls in from the coast to share the moment. Crows. For once not yelling. All the birds wheeling downward in bleached sunlight, slanting downward into the steeples and towers and complicated glassware of this very large, sprawling and inconceivably various city, down onto our cars, covering the shoulder of the freeway like a gaudy moving carpet. wtf.
The tippity-tops of cityscapes are a steepled riot of spires and poles and lime-encrusted metal boxes, and all sorts of interesting and often unrecognizable structures, and these are lifting away without difficulty from their bolted seats. They don’t lavish the same care on the roof of a skyscraper as they do on its main entry. In its junk-heap glory up there the contrast seems such that the dichotomy is architecturally deliberate. These neglected skyscraping rooftops are the first to yield up their glories, and the nondescript machined bits float upward, like carbonation, all over the city, a city otherwise anchored by untold tons of ugly bolted metal drilled down into bedrock. Our touching gesture of permanence, these embarrassed bolts.
Stop the car. Let’s run home. Back to the garden, ha!
“Get out of your car!” I yell at the nameless Sven before you yank my hand and we’re off. The poor Success Story jerks his head around and it’s stirring to see a suggestion of water falling down his face from behind his shades.
It’s a half-mile back to the house and we sprint without tiring, the parked freeway cars a final cinema show as we run past, hand in hand. In the garden, of one mind, we squat behind the rose terrace. Fight or flight. Neither. This is the anthropology-trumping end of the line. Is this what the dinosaurs saw? They didn’t have the wherewithal to hide behind a rose terrace. We’ll show them.
The sky is filled with floating junk, it’s a moving sight. We’ve always been moved by things, sentiment and happenstance. What good was it? Light on a window, light on water. Light floating upward like a vapor from the many-terraced city at night, backlit living room curtains billowing gently out from open arcadia doors, out into the darkness of an evening, all these evenings. All these evenings!
Hold my hand as tightly as you can, hold my hands as tightly as you can, both now, please please please don’t let go of my hand. Please please please, I don’t want to hurt, I don’t want to feel this, I don’t want to feel this, I don’t want to hurt, please hold onto my hand. I’ll hold onto your hand, both hands I promise. I don’t want Sven to feel this. The surface of the world is delaminating, the dome of Heaven is filling up with 7 billion years worth of junk. Thornton Wilder, guide us through this! Goodbye Marlon Brando in your t-shirt at the bottom of the stairs, goodbye cups of coffee, Eva Marie Saint, number two pencils and Cat jumping into Audrey’s arms. Oh god how that always killed me. Maybe we had something after all. In my quickened mind’s eye a steaming sunlit sidewalk in a light rain. What a place this has been. Whoa! Did you–? Hold my hand hold my hand harder harder harder! Here it comes, a sound like wind but it’s not a wind. Do not let go of my hand.