Poem of The Weak

The drive up was tense not only because of the tritely appropriate drama of the rain but also because if he got lost on the way there was no one to call to for help. No safety net. He was forbidden from square one to store the information on a device or to print the directions on paper.

*

The directions appeared one morning in an audio loop that disabled itself after ten or fifteen minutes, a loop accompained by a black screen, a loop in the form of a sonnet. He’d been chanting it to himself for forty eight hours with an eerie pride in knowing that medieval illiterates had done it in much the same way. Further back than that, too, because songs in the fog of unmetered time had been less often used as entertainment than mnemonic devices of desperate importance. Didn’t antediluvian Asians in birchbark canoes navigate the Aleutians to landfall on North America using chanted sea maps? Or something.

*

He was roughly a third of the way through the sonnet and maybe two thirds of the distance to the compound and all of the clues had worked out very smoothly. But what if they hadn’t? He’d been on the road for seven hours. His team was up for an Emmy. He had inside information that the world would end before they won it.

*

Of course he could have cheated and written the directions down but he hadn’t wanted to. He longed for that new beginning. He hungered to start afresh. No more lies or cheating. Lose weight, no television, early nights and mornings. Stop masturbating. He had less than twelve hours, driving from several states away, making rest stops to eat and/or relieve himself, to get there before the others took steps to block the old dirt access road. To make the place impenetrable. If you can’t stop cold turkey, cut back to reasonable levels, at least. He thought of a cool title: Get fit at the Apocalypse Spa.

The new kind of man he was to become was not the kind who’d find himself bashing his Amherst-enhanced brain for four days against three lines of sitcom dialogue, of this he was certain. Like a chain of hyper-haikus from the sinisterly dumb future, various versions were branded on the soft white flesh of his consciousness.

Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!

Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.

Lola Beedo: (beat) Tell me, does it come in human sizes, too?

*

He thought of a picture someone had posted on the message board in the production team’s lounge. The multi-Emmy-award-winning production team’s lounge. A photograph from 1905. The young Ludwig Wittgenstein in a class picture from his days in the Realschule in the city of Linz and there, a distance of one or two students to the upper right (a knight’s move, as Nabokov would have put it), looking resigned to his fate, is Ludwig’s classmate Adolf Hitler. The fact being that nothing Wittgenstein had subsequently done as a philosopher, no great strides in ethics or logic or the lyric aprehension of mathematics, amounted to a hill of beans compared to the contribution he could have made had he taken the opportunity to act decisively during the long walk home from school one day and crushed young Adolf’s skull with a paving stone. In other words, not only thought but direct action is required of us at certain pivotal moments. And not only action but a little prescience helps too.

*

Hamilton Gold, the head writer, always said name me what’s funnier than decapitation. But, he’d say, let’s see if the audience is there yet. He’d looked over the bit quickly on Monday, flipping the pages in that idiot-savant scan of his and immediately picked out the three lines they’d been having trouble with and shook his head, I like the bit but fat jokes are dangerous. Fat is our demographic, don’t forget. How about substitute fat with slut? Slut is funny.

*

Gold propounds a theory that sitcoms govern Congress. What people laugh at is exactly how they will vote. Americans can’t bomb a country until they’ve laughed at it a little bit first. Maybe he took the sentiment more seriously than Gold had intended but pretty soon he was feeling like J. Robert Oppenheimer in that porkpie hat hearing the phrase comedy has known sin and he’s on the internet at 3:14 in the morning, looking for absolution.

*

No one knew that he’d based the popular character of Elke Hall on his mother. He had inside information that it was the end of the world and he hadn’t even notified her.

*

Beyond the rain and the ticking of the clock, drama or any sense of a grand doomsday epic on the road itself was sorely lacking. No roadblocks or frenzied hordes or menacingly black or fluorescent sunset: just zonked-out commuters in start-and-stop traffic on the long way home from the daily deathsentence of work. Most of these people were only vaguely aware of things, if at all, and the precious few who considered the situation anything to lose sleep over had lost sleep over so many looming catastrophes of the past that this recent matter would strike them as little more than more of the same. Tonight they would go to bed after a starchy meal, vacuous television and perfunctory sex per usual. A couple of pills and out like a light. How typical to be wrong the one time it counted. The one time it counted in a thousand years, you dumbshits. You call your wife to come out on the porch to have a look and less than a second later you’re all dead.

*

What gave him a kind of vertigo when he contemplated it was how close he had come to being just like them. Before that life-changing night on the internet which fanned into a dozen online conversations, each conversation in turn fanning out into a hundred others, and all of those but the crucial one petering out…the crucial one connecting to his special contact to the man whose vision he had now irrevocably made himself a part of. Yes, thinking back on it, it was amazing…how cloaked in the ordinary it had all once seemed. How something appeared in the inbox of a personals account at a no-hoper’s dating site he’d signed up to pseudonymously because it was free and therefore relatively untraceable: a message exactly two sentence fragments long. Two months later, after visiting god-knows-how-many encrypted sites and exchanging deepcover spam mails and vital details in chatrooms he found himself paypal-ing a mindboggling sum into an account set up in a Biblical name.

Eighty acres of land and five years of provisions for twenty three people (they’d done their best to balance male with female but visionary survivalism is not, strictly speaking, a female interest, so nine females and fourteen males. But their unflinching honesty about this state of affairs reassured him). No couples or families or friends. Only loners with college degrees…professionals older than 27 and younger than 55, disgusted with mainstream politics, wary of organized religion, environmentally friendly but not averse to the occasional bar-b-que. All strangers to one another. All white.

*

Sid Caesar.

*

Radio was out of the question, in case some catchy tune came on and drove the sonnet out of his head. What he had was seven hours of motordrone and rubberhum and occasional rainfry sizzle on the roads. That and talking to himself. He supplied his own commercials. He thought of the Man from Glad, that futuristic Aryan hovering in a jetpack to shill ersatz Saranwrap to sexually frustrated newlyweds. He thought of The Beatles’ rooftop concert and George switching his amp back on in open defiance of the bobby. He thought: of course the whole thing could be a clever scam.

But the verisimilitude of the finework of paranoiac details like emailing strategies such as using spam prosodies for deepcover (mploy *black anal virgin* n subj. line & spyprgs wnt rd ur eml) had convinced him. Or how the ambiguously allusive chats he’d had with the man himself, the chats on the gratis personals site, had been regularly scheduled for 3:14 in the morning, based, he realized, on the value for pi and he wasn’t exactly sure why but that last detail had soothed him. Assuaged his fears.

*

I’m cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

*

When traffic slowed to a crawl he took the opportunity to peek into other cars. All those faces in profile, innocent with impatience or boredom. For the first time in his adult life he found himself loving humanity.

The automobile beside his to the right was a bruise-blue vintage Ford with a cream-white top, a big old iron box of a thing, perfectly preserved, its contour suggesting a jut-jawed crewcut profile and containing, as it happened, two male passengers with just that style of haircut. The driver could plausibly have been the father of the boy in the passenger seat. They both had brown hair…the guessed-brown on a vintage b&w picture tube…and they were so animated in that hatefully cheerful and perfectly postured way you’d expect in the kind of midcentury film the car and their haircuts seemed keyed to. You can’t see two males like that without automatically picturing the female that belongs with them. The bandana and the oven cleaner. The bubble bath and the shapely leg and the drawer of “female items” you aren’t even allowed to open in your mind, forbidden as the Arc of the Covenant in the cabinet under the sink.

He wondered, for a bemused moment, if he wasn’t hallucinating, or if such types in just such a car weren’t obviously time-travelers. Terrorists from the future, because that’s what they will look like, although, wait, he keeps forgetting that the future has already arrived. Would he be crossing state lines with a trunk full of firearms otherwise?

*

Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!

Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.

Lola Beedo:  (beat) Tell me, did Bill Clinton design it?

He’d never known a girl named Amanda. He’d never been slapped in the face. Why was he sad about these two facts?

In the script margin Gold had scribbled, Bill who?

*

They had a regular skit called “Poem of the Week” that was supposedly topical. In the memos Gold had taken to referring to it as Poem of the Weak and the written phrase had acquired a poignance and profundity all its own. He swears he saw Gold’s assistant-to-the-assistant wiping her eyes and sniffing furtively after reading that phrase. Honey-baked boobs out to here.

*

The dream he held both dear and sheepishly for its foolishness was the dream of the girl who is waiting for him, waiting at the compound, one of the nine, the most beautiful of the nine, the barefoot heroine in rustic clothing without whom he had been rudderless, unmated, bereft for all these years. She’ll step intuitively out onto the porch of the rambling woodframe house in order to watch him drive up, her tomboy heart quickening to the recognition. She’ll smile tentatively as he greets her with an ironic salute, lugging his trunk of munitions stiff-legged towards the front steps, winded but amused by the exertion, shrugging off her offer to help him carry the massive thing. Golden-haired, curly-haired, of solid pioneer stock. She’d say, the others are inside.

-I’m the last?

-We thought you weren’t coming. We were preparing…

-To mine the road.

-Yes.

She’d hold the door open for him. She’d search his face as he squeezed his way past the woodland aura of her health into a sort of vestibule that opened into a large, high-ceilinged room, a room with a rough, honest look to it: a gathering place for the strong, the wise, the bravely sad. Oil paintings of country life on the walls, maybe. Old bay mares. Or, no, something ironic like Victorian portraits or blue period Picasso. A dynastic sort of fire snapping twigs in the hearth. Quiet conversations here and there tapering off as he sets his clanking trunk at his feet and senses her feminine presence gather force at his side as he takes everyone in while catching his breath, the late arrival at a party in honor of the end of the fucking world. Peripherally he’d feel her delicately hawk-eye him for the subtlest reaction to everything as though her self-esteem depended on his acceptance of the new reality. As though she’s putting herself in the picture with him and hoping there’s a fit.

*

Then it hit him who She was. She was Donna Douglas aka Ellie Mae Clampett and only then did the improbability of the fantasy mock him and he leaned on the horn and spoke in the precise duration of the car’s grievance as a motorcycle cut in front of him. He realized in a fleeting panic that he couldn’t remember the name of former president Jimmy Carter’s brother; if that went, could a key line from the sonnet be far behind? He then wondered in a morphed extension of this panic if he’d left the shower on. Which extended and morphed yet again into the awful realization that he’d left all his speed in a fannypack in the gym bag on top of his bedroom dresser. How was he supposed to get through the Apocalypse without his vitamin S?

*

He considered turning back for it.

*

The howdydoody Ford lurched forward and fell behind in the maddening traffic. Lurched forward and fell behind. It caught up again in a fanfare of horns he added his note to and he saw with self-perplexing irritation that the father and son were indifferent to the agonies of the traffic jam. Just chatting away. Even their windshield wiper seemed relaxed in the offhandedness of its gesture and the two reached up all smiles and lowered their sun-shades as an errant beam levered under the lowered lid of the late-afternoon rainmass with gospel brilliance. The beam illuminated them grinsquinting at eyelevel, goop-haired and adam-appled, a hit show, monster ratings from 1957 broadcast straight into the traffic beside him.

He pictured the mom, coiffed and trim in her gown in a pensive pose smoking in the living room window, the young trees in a line in the front yard doing the Watusi and all the televisions off, the radios off, the wall clocks off, the power dead and the Frigidaire silent in the tabernacle of the kitchen. She’s awed by the roiled heavens and so moved by the glory of God’s vast hand as it shapes the wind and the waters and green leaves plucked living from the trees that she forgets to worry about her own boys on the road at the mercy of it, the mystery of life and her place in it. And the man out there, the survivalist, the comedy writer, the agnostic visionary out there in her Christian storm, a half-Jewish Noah saving the world one shaky ego at a time.

*

Lola Beedo: I just love that dress you’re wearing, darling!

Elke Hall: (warily) Why, thank you, doll.

Lola Beedo:  (beat) The perfect outfit for a decapitation!

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