Terrain.org recently asked a number of writers what the “apocalypse” means to them, how the idea of impending global disaster factors into their work, what weight the impending end-of-life-as-we-know-it adds to their daily lives. We asked for a comment on the situation, for reactions, suggestions, and artistic engagements. How should we respond to the fact that today we’re confronted with the very possible demise not just of our culture, but our world? Where can we go from here? How should we proceed? Are we hopeful—or are we just waiting for the other shoe to drop? What happens when it does?
As part of our “Thoughts on the Apocalypse” series, over the next few months writers’ responses to our inquiry will be posted here, on Terrain.org’s blog.
Black-and-white photographs by Dan Kempner.
Angels and demons at the most infamous dive in the city.
The Buffet of years past very much resembles hell: hence the attraction. Less a defined circle, as that great student of angelology, Dante, might have configured. More like the upper floor of some ancient side-shaft, leading straight down:
—Doors open at 6 a.m.
—Manichean haze so smoke-choked it’s hard to decipher the other side of the J-shaped bar, leading to either/or interpretations of malevolence and benevolence.
—Graffiti in all-over brilliance up to the ceiling, signs of good wishes and the reverse, a place where someone seeking a message could find pretty much any answer.
—Jukebox filled with the laments of many, including that patron saint of tormented souls, Hank Williams.
So one night I’m at the bar late, talking with three members of the local Native American tribe, the Tohono O’odham. Two guys around my age—thirty—and a woman about twenty. With a soft round face and long black hair, she laughs and seems to be having a good time. We all seem to be having a good time.
When the lights switch on at Last Call, the glare sends us to my house for an after-party. Sarah—let’s say that’s her name—stays in the cab of their beat-up truck and I don’t think much about it. I want her to come in but she doesn’t. Without her, and lacking the underground haze of the Buffet, it’s soon apparent we’re just three wasted guys having an extra drink in a too-bright adobe.
Before long one of the guys begins acting a little unfriendly, weirdly focusing on my pronunciation of the “O’odham” part of his tribe’s name. Why, I don’t know. It’s actually sort of hard to say—like a quick blend of O-ah-dom—and people in Tucson constantly fuck it up. So things head from bad to worse. I can’t do it. I just can’t. In that cloudless space that allows no misconceptions, my mouth refuses to comply. And then the guardian angels in the room, those blessed creatures who’ve already worked long overtime hours at the Buffet, suddenly flutter to attention because now there’s something else in that room, too. What I’m feeling is the threat of violence, but to a guardian angel I think that something would have to be a demon.
So the guy leans over me as I sit on the couch and he’s giving a speech, and his threat is so historical that the weight does not allow reply. This is our land (which is correct, the Spanish stole it from them three hundred years ago and then we bought/stole that same land from the Mexican government), the river is right down there (correct again, though I’m not sure of the relevance, except that the tribe irrigated its fields with water from that river long before the Spanish arrived), and you goddamn better say it right or I’m going to kick your ass (also correct, and I must say the most compelling argument for proper elocution of all the offered phrases).
Now my old house sits on an abandoned graveyard, peopled by bodies relocated from an earlier graveyard downtown. When the railroad came through in 1880, the city moved the bodies from the old frontier cemetery here, only to dig them up again a generation later and transfer the disheveled corpses to a larger cemetery on Oracle Road. (That’s right, Oracle Road, just north of Miracle Mile) . . . some of the bodies, that is; hundreds more were never exhumed that second time—generally those forgotten and neglected, those without markers, those without families to look after them in death. The result is that neighborhood residents, while planting trees or just digging down, occasionally strike rotten coffins filled with dry bones. Which is all to say that this particular landed history makes a fertile place for a demon to materialize from the disturbed ground and cause trouble—“to lead astray, do violence, make desolate” as the phrase goes in The Book of the Watchers, that most ancient of apocalypses.
Some music plays in the background (“All Along the Watchtower”—Jimi Hendrix’s rendition, I distinctly remember that song), and finally I guess I get the name right or I’m close enough. Or maybe—just maybe—the angels and demon in the room cut some kind of a deal. Who knows? We all finish our drinks and the Indians eventually take off in their truck. Sarah waves goodbye from the window and I wave back.
So that’s a Saturday night, and some days later I see the guy with the pronunciation fixation at the Buffet. It’s afternoon, and he explains very quietly that Sarah has committed suicide. He doesn’t seem drunk though he’s been drinking heavily; you can tell that by his eyes. “She hanged herself,” he said. And it takes a while, but the ground opens up beneath me and I’m falling right through. A black hole in which, descending, I wait for my own jolt, my own voltage of regret and air, an end that never comes and so I keep going.
It’s hard to describe because I don’t know her, because I’ve nothing to hold onto except her presence. The hard fact of her being there and then the casualness of her leaving. A glancing violence I can’t compute. No cause and effect but a compression of time—a lifetime of time—squeezed into the forever images of a woman laughing in a bar, a hand waving goodbye, a body dangling.
I’ve been thinking about Sarah recently because I’ve been thinking about apocalypse. Like Sarah, or the myth of Sarah, the compressed images of the past keep falling all around us. “Time contracted itself,” Saint Paul said, “ . . . for passing away is the figure of this world.” That’s Giorgio Agamben’s translation from First Corinthians, and the idea is that things speed up as the world hurtles to an end point. Not just the felt pace of life and communication, but time itself speeds up as the significant signs of the past crash into the present. Typology and Recapitulation. Old Testament and New Testament. Like you’re swinging from a rope and your whole life flies before you—all the figures of your life, your culture, even history itself—all the signs of the past fire by and then it’s over. And after that someone you don’t know tells a story about it: about you, about the world, about the end of the world . . . but finally that’s not much of a story because the whole thing happened too fast.
Header photo by Simmons B. Buntin.