Thursday, November 21, 2013

First Impressions



First Impressions
I tell Tristan to expect the worst, but I can tell that he is shocked. His mouth hangs open just enough to make his handsome face look stupid. I can see it through his eyes. The old dryer, sitting in the yard with a rust hole as big as a cannon ball rotting in its side. Diesel's old tricycle, twisted into otherworldly shapes, blackened with firework soot. The massive chain that lies suspended and taut over much of the refuse, its beginning and end undetectable, my favorite "relic" (which is what I call all the junk littering our yard). I usually tell guests that we have a really big dog, and it's always fun to see their eyes grow as large as dinner plates, but I don't tell Tristan this. I let him soak it in. "Why?" he seems to ask silently. Garbage, cans, broken bottles, clothes, dead appliances. Flat tires. Multiple dog houses. Enough plastic to choke every fish on the planet. There are craters spread through the junk, and I consider explaining that there aren't any landmines out there, but I can't say this with one-hundred percent conviction. God knows what my brothers have done.
            "You want to come inside?" I ask, pointing at the faded white double-wide that lies beyond. I don't think he's even seen it. He's the first boy I've brought home. I guess this is a test.
            "Yeah, sure," he says, trying to muster up some enthusiasm.
            "My mom likes to collect things," I tell him. He doesn't understand; he thinks I'm talking about the yard. I get out of his car and take him by the hand and together we make the walk. The junk doesn't bother me that much (it's kind of a statement, really). It's not that we produce more garbage than anyone else; it's that we put it on display. We don't truck it off and hide it in a landfill where it is out of sight and mind. Most of this stuff won't decay for thousands of years. Having our trash visible before us may act as a catalyst, encouraging us to consume less, although one look at my mother and one is liable to reach another conclusion.
            We reach the door and I pull it open and let him enter first. The insides of the double wide aren't really that wide, especially when there are boxes and clothes and packaged food lining the walls like an art project. There is a smell too, I am told, though I guess I am too used to it to notice. Tristan's nostrils are quivering; I guess the odor is rather pungent. If I had to guess, I'd say the trailer smells like an enormously fat woman: damp, musky, fungal. There is a closet to the right of the doorway, though you'd never be able to tell, since there's a seven foot tall heap of clothing blocking it. Tristan turns back to me, exasperation on his face. He doesn't know what to do or where to go. I squeeze past him and navigate through the labyrinth, deftly twisting my body around protruding clutter, moving like an eel. My short, slender physique was born out of developing in this environment. Maybe evolution knew the direction my mother would pursue as I gestated in her body and reacted accordingly. Tristan's clumsily running into things, making a racket. I tell him to be quiet and act a little more civilly.
            Mother is where I expected her to be. She's sitting on the couch, looking like a beached cetacean. Her arms are little vestigial things, flipper-like, dangling uselessly from her meaty shoulders. Mother is wearing one of her many muumuus, this one whitish (I say "whitish" because there are stains of many colors adorning this dress). There is a box of Cheetos next to her, and there is orange on her hands and around her mouth. This is the woman that birthed me, I whisper to Tristan, and he looks at me, amazement on his face. She is obviously the fattest human being he has ever seen.
            "Hey mom," I say. My mother turns suddenly, her baby face erupting into a smile. She's got strawberry colored hair, long and stringy, greasy and unwashed. I feel so many things looking at her that I have to turn away and regain my composure.
            "Who've you brought over, honey?" says my mom. She has a sweet voice.
            "This is Tristan," I tell her, but Tristan has left my side suddenly and gone over to her. He's tall and blonde and wide-shouldered, in the prime of life, and this perfect looking man/boy is standing over my monstrously fat mother, and they don't even look like they are of the same species. He introduces himself, extends a hand, and my mother is extremely pleased by his manners, his courtesy, and I feel sick inside, not knowing how to interpret this interaction. Her sausage fingers grip his long, lean ones, leaving orange dust on his pristine flesh, and I have a horrible premonition of Tristan as my mother, his high cheek bones encased in a gelatinous circle of blubber, his sleek form bulbous, rotund, and bloated with excess. But it doesn't spread like that, I think, examining my own skinny hands. Although it could be that I am immune.
            Mother is trying to get up off of the couch for some reason; she keeps rocking her torso back and forth, trying to build up enough momentum to defeat gravity and stand on her own two legs. Tristan watches her with the same kind of detachment one might wear while witnessing an overturned turtle struggling to right itself. I can't help Mom, because she's killing me right now. Finally, she gets onto her feet, panting, the effort having exhausted her.
            "You kids want something to eat?" she hollers. Tristan gives her a wide berth, but she can't help grazing him with her hip as she turns around and heads to the kitchen. He exaggerates and quietly stumbles into some stacked boxes, his limbs askew, his eyes closed. I don't laugh and move to the couch, but I don't sit down. My mother's left a crater where she sat; the upholstery is damp and smelling of ass sweat.   
            "I got Twizzlers, Hostess donuts, some Oreos," yells my mother, rummaging through the cupboard.
            "We'll have them all," says Tristan, moving beside me. He's looking at the sweat crater, wrinkling his nose. I know she stinks; he doesn't have to tell me. I want to go to my room, but guilt is keeping me by this couch, waiting for my mother.
            My baby brother Tripp materializes out of an alcove, a seven year-old boy clad solely in a diaper, and sprints past us, in the process smacking Tristan on the calf before hiding behind the couch.
            "What the fuck?" says Tristan.
            "He does that to everyone new," I explain. "Diesel wore a diaper till he was ten." I don't know why I volunteer this information, but I do.
            "That's weird," he says. Well, no shit, Tristan. Of course it's weird.
            My mom lumbers toward us with a plate full of junk food, grimacing because she's diabetic and her feet are always hurting. Tripp peeks out from the couch, a mischievous grin on his face, and I could just beat him to death right now, the little gargoyle.
            "Here you go, kids," she says, offering the sugary treats. Oreos are spread out in a ring, with a big handful of crumbled Doritos rising from the center like the ruins of a mountain. Tristan looks at me as if to say How can we eat this stuff? so I grab three Oreos in one hand and the Doritos crumbs in the other and stuff everything into my mouth. I chew noisily, my lips peeled back, revealing a Halloween smile of orange, black, and white. The stuff tastes awful mixed together; the urge to vomit starts coming up my throat, yet I push it back and swallow my cud. He's looking at me differently now; perhaps he sees the pretty little thing my mother once was before she succumbed to gluttony and sloth. My mother seems to think this is a stunt, some new dating tactic, for she's smiling, her blubbery lips resembling pale pink worms. Tripp lets out a howl he learned from a cartoon and jumps out in front of everyone and starts wagging his diapered ass around suggestively, and I can tell he's been watching MTV, since he imitates everything he sees. Mom's fat lips turn into a frown, and she's up and chasing the little devil as best as she can; he is, of course, far too agile and lean to be caught by my mother, and he knows his way around the litter of our lives better than any one of us. He darts and weaves behind a stack of cardboard boxes, making animal sounds as my mother reaches helplessly for him, his taunting gyrations eliciting threats of corporal punishment from her. Tristan is trying to suppress his laughter and failing. He thinks I've brought him here to laugh at my family; he thinks I've brought him to a comedy show or a zoo. Maybe I have unknowingly. It's hard for me to know anything with absolute certainty, and I can't see how that will ever change.







Saturday, November 16, 2013

Faith



Faith
At night they come for us. We hide in the tunnels, in maintenance shafts, in holes carved out of concrete. We pull pieces of plywood over us as we squat and listen to the scrape of their claws, the rattle of their fangs, and their wheezing breath. They howl and grunt and speak in violent tongues as we cover our mouths with rags to muffle our exhalations. When they leave there are always a few dead. We take the remains and pile them up in great bonfires, basking in the heat and light. No one has seen the surface in fifty years. My brother's eyes are as big and white as mother's fine china, and he does not have to squint in the darkness. My hands are my gift. My fingers are long and taper into claws, and I can feel minute differences between textures, between sand and grain and dirt and stone. I know what is radioactive and what is safe to eat. It does not have to glow for me to know.
            Rupert claims that they were once rats before the fallout. He says they grew tired of eating our scraps and decided to eat us. Jeremiah says that they were dogs without homes, and that they were once our very best friends. He says we cuddled them and doled out kindnesses like they were our children, precious and loving. He says that they just wish to love us but they've forgotten how in their hunger and their torment. Little is left for them up there, he says. There is no oxygen and no vegetation and therefore little meat, so they come down into our subway system to see what their former masters have for them. We have nothing, so they eat us. He says we should have taken them with us into the tunnels instead of leaving them up top to die. They are ghosts, he insists, though this is not true, for we have killed them with firearms and blunt objects. I know what he means, though.
My mother had a dog named Fluffy. I can just remember her. She was Yorkshire terrier, and mother paid four-hundred dollars for her. I used to carry her around when I was a child. I had to be very careful with Fluffy because she was fragile. I couldn't drop her or toss her around like a stuffed toy. When the sirens went off we left her in the living room. Mother cried and cried. Father said they didn't allow dogs because oxygen and rations were limited, but still Mother wanted to hide her in her purse. I think we left a twenty-pound bag of dog food opened on the floor, the kibble spilling out. Fluffy yipped at us when we went out the door.
            I wonder if Fluffy devoured Levi Stevens, leaving nothing but the head for us to burn. That dog food wouldn't have lasted forever. More than likely, Fluffy was eaten by a larger animal. That's what I like to think, at least.
            I tell Rupert that it wouldn't be so bad to be eaten. I tell him that they probably kill you quickly, seeing how their claws and teeth are so large and sharp. Animals don't mess around, I say. They go straight for the jugular, and you probably pass out without feeling a thing. He always shakes his head and spits when I tell him that. He says they keep you alive as long as possible because they like their meat living and warm. I tell him he's full of shit, which he is. This is a shantytown, I say. We cover ourselves in rags and shit in the corner. We cough and wheeze in the smoke. What light we have is produced by the burning of dead flesh. What food we eat is scavenged. We are victims, I say, and we are consumed as such. They have no reason to make us suffer further.
            Rupert, sunny optimist that he is, claims that there are other cities out there below the earth. It's mathematics, he says, and I don't know what he means. He means to set out someday to look for others. He wants to steal a gun from the armory as well as some canned food, a gas mask, and a headlamp, and map out the subway. I tell him he wouldn't last a minute. Rupert is fresh meat, weak meat, and he's quiet and slow, easy prey for any monster. Rupert says he's a man, and that after he maps out the subway, he'll return and make me marry him. I laugh at him when he says this, for I can't see why he'd want to marry me or anyone else. I am old and mutated, though less than most, and my desire has long ago faded with my memories of the surface. I don't know if I can have children, and I don't want to try. I wouldn't want to bring anyone into a world of tunnels and darkness.
            Jeremiah says he saw his dead wife the last time they came. He took up a position in the battery, and as they fired at the monsters his wife walked unharmed, beautiful and clad in a white dress. Her hair was as black as obsidian, he says, and her eyes as green as the ooze which flows through the splintered cracks of our foundation. He stopped firing when he saw her. The monsters moved around her, foaming at the mouth, but his wife lingered oblivious. She was an angel, he says, and he regrets that he did not join her. No monster would have touched him, he says. No bullet would have pierced his flesh.
            No one wants to talk about it, but I see what's happening. They are changing. I saw my mother amongst them. She was happy and smiling, wearing that apron she always used to wear when she did work around the house. She had a feather duster in her right hand, and she was using it on the railway. I didn't say anything, but I look at others and know that they see the same. They see their loved ones when the monsters come.        
            Are they ghosts? Are they hallucinations born of the radioactive fallout? Are they projections created by the monsters? Have they tapped into our memories to use them against us?
            I was afraid that they would shoot Rupert when he tried to break into the armory, so I told the station chief of his plans. They arrested him and threw him in a cell. He won't talk to me anymore, but at least he's alive. I know he draws pictures with chalk on his prison walls. He sings old hymns and talks like the future never came to pass. He shall be released, he says. He has faith.
            I don't know why Rupert is like he is. He has grey skin like an elephant, cracking and covered in sores, and his teeth are almost all gone, yet he pretends he's a human being. I ask him about the ghosts and he doesn't respond. I think faith requires a certain disconnection from reality. It requires an imagination.
            The next time they come I do not hide and cower in a hole. I stand in the tunnel, a bright light before me, and I watch as they pass. They cannot see me; they will not touch me, and I feel the heat of their enormous bodies as they lumber toward the station, looking for food. I want to reach out and touch one, but here comes Fluffy, hairless, vertebrae protruding like spikes from her back. It's the eyes that let me know that it's her. The eyes are heartbroken—they ask "Why did you leave me?" and I start blabbering about oxygen and rations and government rules while the monster crawls up to me, shaking in the light. "I was a child, Fluffy," I say. "I couldn't do anything but follow everyone else." The eyes tell me that my explanation is not good enough. I didn't think a few words would excuse a deformed lifetime. But hell, what else was I to say?