Calamity People

by Tom LASKOW
 

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.

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