as performed at Speak Your Piece! 7/7/2010, Singer's
Cain never looked me straight in the eye but he always remembered me. That fellow remembered every conversation we had. On the first two occasions we spoke he was wearing a black and white jester’s hat. His girlfriend gave me the last tab of acid at the sci-fi convention when we all met, and then I found him deep in the haze of the first rave I ever attended. The hat gave him away, and his eyes wobbled when I looked at him, which seemed natural because my acid was probably kicking in. It was quite a thing to reach the end of a mile-long dance hall, seemingly in a version of hell people might like to go to, and then be welcomed by one of the devils. Raves didn’t seem like bad places. I was being given an excellent impression of drug life. It was also good to meet a person in the city who I thought talked like I did. In truth, I probably sounded decidedly, if only slightly, less educated than he but we understood each other clearly.
The third time I saw Cain was at the Anchor bar, which was so desperate for business that they had given drink coupons to all the bored nineteen and twenty-year-olds in the coffee shop across the street, meaning us. Like on a TV show set in New York, we sat at the corner of the bar by the red, white and blue neon beer sign and the glassblock window. I was grateful to hang out at a bar and have a conversation and Cain was reminding me of how we had incited a riot at the science fiction convention by finding a group of geeks dressed as Romans and chasing down Jesus Christ with them. I remembered Jesus, because he was the last thing I can remember when he pushed his way to the front of the liquor-line and I started drinking my “rocket fuel.” I know for a fact that guys dressed like Romans were around and that they were drinking, but according to my new friend Cain we and the Romans had chased Jesus Christ all over the hotel until somebody found something to hang him on and he let us. We allegedly left the downtown hotel for parties at the homes of people I didn’t think I had met until more recently. I still have no idea if any of that was true, but it was fun to believe I could black out and keep on functioning.
All I knew was I wanted to be in the city, but didn’t necessarily have anything to do there. It was simply preferable to be in a coffee shop or better yet a bar in the city than to be at a diner that didn’t like teenagers in the suburbs. The problem was meeting the people in the world who were all trying to appear mysterious, tough and aloof. Cain seemed like my kind of guy, like he’d come from the suburbs too, but had been running around town for a while already. He didn’t seem to be afraid to act like himself. Skinny like me, and about as tall, he was my african-american twin, except that he was always at rest. I didn’t know to notice back at the Anchor, but he could sit, and chill, and drink and smoke like a statue with an appetite. People would refer to him as “the black guy who talked like a white guy” when they wanted to make sure they were talking about the same person, but I thought that when he spoke truly he didn’t sound like he was from anywhere. He just sounded like Cain. I wanted to know what he knew. It seemed fun.
That spring, after the old Anchor bar became a regular bar again I embarked on a relationship, and started to get to know the city with my girlfriend. I ran into Cain a couple more times at his spot around the Mousetrap Building. He was punked out, with something like a mohawk or a rooster-tail sticking out the back of his shaved head, and living in a big one-room space where they built separate lofts for privacy and walked down the hall to the bathroom. He lived there with a guy called Izzy, and a lot other weirdos like the ones I was with would come around a lot and hang out. The space had an air of utility, but the closest looking thing to a professional area was the mirror Cain had laid flat in the back corner. He had candles on it, along with an incense burner and other items, like a wooden disk with a pentagram painted on it or a large in a cloth sack. Apparently a guy once “used” this space without Cain’s permission and he shattered it in a cold rage, like smashing his own windshield after seeing someone behind the wheel of his car. It was his altar, where he would do “magick.” I didn’t know about the “ck” in “magick” yet, so at best I could imagine Cain was sitting in a meditative position in front of the mirror, doing some visualizations and following some very careful instructions to try to make something happen in the world.
Even in high school I knew what a visualization was, so when some older, more responsible friends urged me to enact a ritual of protection I went into my room, put on some prog rock, and started to visualize huge, steel slabs, bigger than the bedroom walls that sealed me inside of an impenetrable cube.
Protection was believed to be necessary ever since the night of the vampire threat. Some Wiccans, the first non-Judeo-Christians I had ever met, had come to game night in a friend’s basement when I was in eleventh grade, but the games were forgotten once the eldest of them brought out her Tarot cards and warned us all that an “energy vampire” was outside of the basement window. Everyone seemed too shocked by this news to question it. She said it was after Tommy, which figured, because it just wouldn’t be the same if the invisible, spirit-form vampire were simply eavesdropping. We were all rapt, and the older girl commenced to read Tarot cards for all who asked, one at a time. I asked about whether or not there was another world. She interpreted that I would undoubtedly find my answer. Another one of the older girls complained of a sudden headache, and the card-reader said “Shield!” She urgently asked the game-night host how many windows were in their home, and closed her eyes in concentration as she presumably cast spells throughout the entire house to guard us. I don’t think I said two words more than the minimum to get me my Tarot reading. It was all fascinating, but I didn’t trust them any more than I trusted the kid in third grade who talked about the witch he saw in the middle of the night at his house. She had said she was his mother. A wind would sweep the playground and he’d say it was her. It really was a lot of fun.
Everyone caught magic-fever after that game-night. Later, when Thomas (not to be confused with Tommy) was off by himself happily practicing rituals from a Wiccan book, a drama ensued because everybody had to flip out. “Thomas is only after power.” My friends would warn. “Watch out for him.” I didn’t know what he was doing nor was I entirely sure there was any power to be after. I didn’t buy any books, but just remembered my Tarot reading and kept quiet; it was all the alarm that was hard to ignore. A friend who was a little older said I should envision walls of protection so I sealed myself up tight one night, to music. It must have worked, because I didn’t care about any of the foolishness that they all went on about for months afterward. “I’m a vampire, but my brother’s a werewolf.” “No, it turns out I’m something even more rare: completely human.” No one ever acknowledged what I thought was the most obvious question: How did all those magic-users account for the fact magic was widely understood not to exist? If I couldn’t see it or hear it or touch it than what the hell was I supposed to be believing? What makes this better than Jesus?
Maybe Cain didn’t say anything about magick back during those times I saw him at the Mousetrap building. He probably just let all the other geeks talk about the “do as thou wilt” guy and how they could “wage psychic warfare” and the whole deal. He just sort of hung around and laughed and passed me a little waterpipe that looked like it had come from Rite Aid. In the big hall outside of their spot I found a notepad on a dusty windowsill. I wrote a note inside to Cain, bidding him hello across time. He found it several months later and had a chance to tell me so a year or so after that.
Three-hour candles were attached to the little, thirty-five cent holders by heating up the spike and plunging it into the bottom end. Early one the mornings after I’d freed myself from the constraints of regular employment I sat dutifully mediating, stretching my mental awareness into the world around me like a hand into muddy water. At the center of a long moment of silence within, I took a breath and spoke to the stillness, striking its taut constancy with four words resounding. “Give me a sign.” I remained poised, my faculties extended, maintaining a stretch as I had once been taught, not yet recognizing the gleam of golden light that had begun to outshine the candles below until it outshone the abundant light in the windows. The yellow candle and its flame were consumed by a small sun near my right hand; my serious face crumbled into a stupefied smile as the light died down again and soon vanished. I began the day renewed.
Near a metal grate in the concrete by a large kinetic sculpture, Cain took on a solemn expression and raised the forty-ounce to chest level, and slowly made it horizontal, measuredly pouring out a large swallow. “To my homeys” he said with as little inflection as possible, and the drop of Tennessee drawl that did manage to stick to him was enough to give it resonance. “To Izzy,” being Cain’s old partner-in-crime, the only man in the city who could outdrink him. Old Izzy had been drunk on his bicycle when he was struck by a car. Cain said he was in a coma for months. He made gestures as of a stiff robot trying to play the guitar, saying Izz was trying to get it back, but that it wasn’t all there. “He just couldn’t hack it.” Cain said. “He couldn’t hack my training.” And I imagined Izzy, like Cain had said, staring down at him from the couch in their spot at the Mousetrap building, once Cain couldn’t hold on to consciousness anymore and Izzy would “just laugh and keep on drinking.” I thought Izzy tapped into a little bit of knowledge, but ironically ended up empowered first to drink more than everyone else, and didn’t ever find the desire to learn anything past that.
The night we watched Soylent Green I felt like hiding from time in my apartment, scurrying out into the street to fulfill my inalienable right to do what was necessary to maintain sanity walking to the bar, making contacts among the underground resistance.
A brisk walk would not suffice to quell my excitement so it occurred to me to take an old heavy metal trash-can with me to my house because I liked it and the world was going to end anyway. I thought we might still have the trash-can, once our lives had changed and we lived by our ability to think atypical thoughts as survivors of the psychic fallout. I wasn’t sure about living on the third floor apartment during such times. It was destined to be an imminent future. I could feel the threat. TIme was going to try to kill us first, literally or by driving us mad. I hoisted the trash-can up on my shoulder, aiming it ahead like a rectangular rocket. At home, I put it down proudly in the kitchen. We sat around the table under the room’s bright light, whose naked incandescence did nothing to embarrass the admirable foreboding we felt for what the coming years would bring.
We shared a compulsive urge to leave, which overpowered the confusion of speech. I declared we should bring water for the journey, and when I looked up to see a strange-looking fellow who’s eyes couldn’t decide on what to focus carrying a wobbly pitcher half-full of tap water in one hand, I had to wonder if it was unlike inviting upstairs the guy who bummed a cigarette in front of the liquor store.
We decided that we needed to leave, urgently. Friends were gathered on the shore of the bay, ostensibly to celebrate a cookout, though we now realized that had elected to stand together for the end of the world. We had to go. The truck was right .
The thoroughfare was screaming with cars and a police helicopter circled close above. They weren’t going to grab us yet. THey might let us run a long way first. I was nervous and fumbled with the keys, dropping them after getting the driver’s door of the truck open. Cain looked apprehensive through the other window and I darted my hand around more quickly. the helicopter was right on top of us. We had to get a move on. Cain asked me something desperately through the glass and I nodded. He backed up and kicked it in a made as if to hop into the truck but couldn’t because of all the broken glass.
“Hey!” we heard and five uniformed police officers appeared from around the corner.
Maybe I didn’t have the look of a car thief. maybe they saw my friend was black and thought maybe I was so the blond-haired officer awaited an explanation as he closed the distance between us. I guess I probably looked like I had one until he was standing right there waiting for me to show him my keys but I hadn’t managed to find them yet and a guilty grin was all I had as I heard my voice, as a reflexive response learned from farcical movie plots, begin to mutter the words “I know what this must look like” but I couldn’t make it all the way through the phrase without laughing. The blond-haired cop rolled his eyes as though his shift couldn’t end soon enough and then the others called our attention to my neighbors from across the hall, all standing on the porch to see the commotion. The woman was shaking her head as a helpful officer of the law checked the possibility of it all being a big misunderstanding. She said “I never seen him before in all my life.” and my jaw fell open the ways a child’s would when passed over for ice cream. The cops threw their hands up as if the umpire has made a bad call and we got waved to the porch to wait for them to figure things out. The blond-haired guy asked if we were just drunk. I didn’t get it; I thought I’d get pinched for attempting-to-drive-drunk so I said no, which was the truth. We were on LSD.
After a few moments on the porch in front of a bunch of confused police officers the pork choppers above ceased to be so scary. We got bored, which was more intolerable than the threat of being arrested for stealing my own truck so I said “Hey, blond-haired guy! We’re just really drunk, man I”m sorry!” and as though I’d told them to clock out for lunch they said “well okay then!” and gave themselves permission to forget about it. We kept tripping on the porch, high on our victory for a few minutes and forgot about them. Right about when we started making fun of them we realized a few were still at the corner within earshot, so again, like a cartoon character I looked around frantically and saw a young couple walking their dog and said “Hey! Bob! Hillary!” and we hopped off the porch to run down the street where the young couple in question now seemed to have suddenly vanished.
We couldn’t find any clean water. South, after the quiet, dark rowhouses and the tall, dark churches, there was a liquor store. They sold water, but the bottle was covered in dust and we had to laugh as the asian store owners stared at us with straight faces, as though it were adequate. We scoffed at the thought of wasting one more of the world’s last minutes in there and stomped out across the linoleum with thundering footsteps. Solid, enduring, and familiar reality absorbed our indignation with the jingle of a doorbell.
We hadn’t, couldn’t have made it all the way to the harbor because of the fireworks. All of the nice families who had come in from the suburbs were crowded around the planned spectacle. For once, I was glad not to be rich. Each patriarch and matriarch would be offering their kingdom for a small yacht before the night was out. The book said the world wouldn’t be ending until seven o’clock the following morning but once we crested the last hill before the harbor we saw the masses were already running. Firecrackers, mortar rounds and bouts of mass hysteria were exploding in succession. Every glance I threw into the crowd seemed to land in a dramatic instant. A round-eyed man who looked like Jesse Jackson opened up his mouth and yelled. Cars made their way slowly along the streets, filled with pedestrians who had taken over. They all knew what the nice families down at the harbor were too smart to figure out. The money didn’t matter anymore.
Like the private autonomy that develops among those still awake for the wee hours of a good party, the finals hours of the world’s existence became a universe unto themselves. Where we found ourselves at every second revealed the bit parts we played in the last pantheon, the gods of which were foreclosing on civilization with haughty, ironic chuckles. We were a part of the story, watching from the corner of two downhill streets at a scene that looked like it would inspire an imitation of itself on a soundstage in California.
I had never seen Cain sweat before. We’d always said we were brothers. Now was his chance to believe it. He was a dangerously intelligent person who knew how to throw his feet up on the principal’s desk in high school, and run a raver-drug enterprise after graduation. He learned his art alone. Tonight he had developed the tic of looking from side to side and throwing twenty dollar bills at people who kept staring at him, like the lady from whom he’d finally managed to get a bottle of clean water.
We saw a guy coming up the street and he had the same freaked out look on his face I knew we had. He saw me, too.
“Tongi” I heard him say and I felt the name vibrating from somewhere far away. “Tony!” he corrected. I had just seen his ancestor in a jungle heading toward the heart of the Congo, so maddened and overwhelmed by a world of such multitudinous stimuli that he was reduced to outright divination with broken kola nuts. I know it made more sense to be assured one’s decisions were effectively arbitrary than to go on wondering about the integrity of our influences. Tongi was with his uncle, whose wizened eyes gazed compassionately from within concentric circles of age. He bore a mole or some sort of mark on his face that looked like a spot of paint, and wore a slight and constant smile that belied his nationality. He seemed to bob a bit as he walked, like the animated silhouette of a man riding a dromedary across the horizon, a shrewd Arab trader. He would be happy to trade with us.
We were agreed, and all we had done was say “how ya doin”. Banding together determinedly against a great power had probably been inculcated through prolonged television-saturation. I felt as though Cain and I had accomplished something by finding these men. Reaching the end of an uphill block or choosing a direction was a democratic effort. Over a longer period of seconds I touched back to earth when the uncle suggested we go to the lighthouse. At that moment I may have started to sweat, squinting into my memory for the light. I had seen a sign, earlier in the day among the cards. The Hermit, the old man holding a lantern, wandering the darkness within the delicate gold bind of the St. Petersburg Tarot. What did it mean. Walking with our two new friends was beginning to feel like an adventure dictated by divination. We might be going somewhere or nowhere, and there was no time if we were going to survive until the final moments. Only now had I calmed down enough to understand that merely to survive until the end would be a legendary feat. Uncle suggested we stop by the liquor store.
Cain was uncomfortable, quiet. He understood going to the liquor store, it gave him some focus so he could know where he was for a moment. His writhing threads of thought were temporarily brought into sync by the physiological anticipation of malt liquor. We all filed in and the effect worked. It seemed like a pretty normal Saturday night under the white lights. Maybe a TV was playing or maybe it was just everyone’s head buzzing. I leaned up against the plexiglass and watched Cain, going up to the window to throw more money at somebody. I wonder if I was pissed off for some reason. Maybe the sight of him, so dutifully buying forty-ouncers for everyone irritated me, or, more likely, the thought of having been intercepted on our sacred path by a couple of clowns irritated me. Maybe anger had been feeling left out and had percolated up to the surface of my mind because when the man to my back knocked into me it was only hard enough to make me lose my balance because I wasn’t really standing on both feet. As though I’d had a real bad day I whirled around like I was ready to fight. He was older and looked like he came around to this place a lot more often than I did and he started barking. I can recall some sort of satisfaction at being so ready to bark back. That memory resides more in my body than my mind. I was ready to fight, and the first curse word to ripple out across the TV signal was uttered by me.
Where that moment split the end of the world spilled into the ghetto liquor store. A huge man who had been sitting unnoticed in the corner on our side of the bullet-proof glass had rumbled over to me and was yelling, unintelligibly, words that threatened to ball up my mind like tinfoil. Every reflex went into operation like a factory line. I apologized, I conceded, I uttered the words of diplomacy, I raised the white flag; even a herd of horses would have been more receptive. He was an avalanche. All present stood silently watching as the cap fell off the water bottle. A young asian guy kindly picked it up and handed it to me. I looked up into the dark face of the mountain as it dawned on me that he was somehow intellectually disabled and was not going to listen. The thought of the uncle, not a clown, danced around in the back of my cowering mind and touched off the right thought. Letting go of the last of my whining, verbal protests I shut my mouth, swung my left arm wide and bowed, deeply.
By the time I stood back up straight the dark mountain was smiling and shaking my hand. He said his name was Bouncer, that he was the bouncer and everything was okay. We all walked out, together, including the guy I was about to fight. I saw the asian guy through the window and he waved goodbye. I thought we were all walking off together.