Saturday, October 29, 2016

Angel Fire: Science-Fiction(ish) story

To get your mind off the horrors of this election cycle, here's another sci-fi/speculative story, originally published in 

It's about a rich man and his shadows.
It's about people lighting fires to draw down apocalyptic angels.
It's about... 

I take it back. It probably won't take your mind off the current horrors after all.

And Happy Halloween.

 Angel Fire

Every angel is terrifying.
Duino Elegies

1. Newark to St. Louis

35,000 feet over Pennsylvania and we’re finally above the brown film of smog that enshrouds the east coast. To the west, billowing up out of the white horizon, I can see a thousand-armed dancing Nataraja, braiding his hands into a slow-turning column; a cumulo-castle thousands of yards wide.
           I am that thousand-armed shape-shifter. My wealth has been created out of thin air – hedge funds, arbitrage, global macro strategies; jargon and numbers in the ether. My kind doesn’t actually do anything. There’s no product: no violin crafted, no corn grown, no poem created, no pipes plumbed, no cement foundations poured. The stupid bastards back in the cheap seats haven’t a clue.
           We pass over a place where the cloud cover is thin and the black-green world suddenly appears below. Earth: strange vision, dream. The ground is unreal from up here. Cities so small they look like they’ve already returned to dust. Unreal, yes, unless the sun starts melting the wax that holds your flimsy wings together, and you begin to fall.
           The climb to the heavens probably started with Icarus. What made him ascend so high? Fascination with fire? Insidious ambition? 

2. St. Louis to Denver 

More ethereal white cloud cities; blue in the chasms between; and the illusion of geometric farms beneath. It’s the same geometry that keeps me alive up here in this plastic and metal box. Da Vinci drafted a bat-winged contraption out of the desire to spread his arms and defy the Icarus myth – only this time he intended to live to tell the tale. How many hours did he spend in his studio, pulling at the tip of a duck wing, spreading the feathers open, studying the pattern, the paper-light vocabulary of bone, trying to trick the secret from the space between the feathers?  
           Of course, that’s just more bullshit that people want to believe: the genius trying to uncover the mysteries of nature. Da Vinci was probably trying to craft a war machine. There’s always money in war. Both world wars were fought for Krupp and Standard Oil. Eight or nine years after World War II the allies handed the largest armaments manufacturer in Hitler’s Germany – Alfied Krupp – the keys back to his business. By 1960 he was the richest man in Europe. 
           There’s no actual competition up here in the stratosphere. Never has been. We are the new angels, the final angels, pure and refined – almost abstract – handed everything on a golden plate, taking what we want when we want it. Fuck up the economy, engage in illegal shenanigans? Everyone bows down in awe, says: “Here, have some more money.”
           The stewardess looks tired. Dark circles beneath her eyes. Ten years ago I would have flirted, pursued her. I’m too tired now. Like me, the world has become ancient, boring. Too much illusion and nothingness: numbers and cars, numbers and houses, numbers and wives, numbers and children, numbers and grandchildren; numbers that add up to nothing. 
           I want out.

3. Denver to Sacramento

My second wife, Jean, inquired whether there were really executives who believed that idiotic bumper sticker slogan: “The one who has the most toys in the end wins.” And I said, yes, they do. They wouldn’t put it that way – there would be more statistics and supply-side crap and pooled investment vehicle mumbo-jumbo to back up the position, but yes, the fundamental belief is there. She said that it was a snotty prep school boy’s view of the world.
           Still, I had so wanted her to be more than briefly appalled. I had wanted her to be horrified that her lifestyle came from a man who participated in a system designed by snotty adolescent boys. Did I want her to hate me? Maybe. It might have been the only way I could have actually loved her. 
           The Great Salt Lake and its sand-edges are rust, brown-white. Fingers of ochre paint dipped in black ink, surrounded by what look like the mountains of the moon. What of the men slung-shot to the moon? What was that really about? Back then, when I was young, I found the race to the moon exhilarating. Space was a stand-in for an ambition with no limits.
           At the eastern edge of the lake, there’s a peninsula that looks like the great western devil. Satan. Pan. Peter Pan. My first wife, Suzanne, believed I had Peter Pan Syndrome, believed my feet were never touching the ground, that I was a man desperate to always be in the air. Puer Eternas, she called me. The eternal boy. Commitment issues, she said. She was wrong. If anyone in the family has Peter Pan Syndrome, it’s my son, Jesse. When he was a boy all he wanted was flying lessons, flying lessons, flying lessons. He wanted to be an aircraft carrier pilot. I paid for the flying lessons, but it came to nothing. All he really wanted to do was float high up here in the rarefied air. Now he fights ‘corporate greed’ in Marin County with his hippie wife, two kids, and a nanny, living off his stock portfolio.
           I think he wants to actually be an angel.
           The rich are worthless.  
           Beyond the lake, the Nevada basin and range stretches out. God, to be down there on the desert floor, to touch the stone, to feel the heat of the stone; to close my eyes and lift my face to the sun, alone…

4. The Hollow Men

I found Rafael by the Sacramento bus station. He was pushing a shopping cart full of plastic bags filled with clothes, newspapers, cans, cigarette butts. At first I thought the intense urine smell was coming from him, but then it became clear it was rising with the heat off the pavement. The sun in this city is merciless, boiling every stain back up into the pale brown sky. Back in the day, there used to be shade trees lining every street. What happened to them all?
           I bought him soup at a Panera, then asked him to take me to his camp. I want to see all aspects of his life. It has nothing to do with looking for something more real than my world of faux-angel wings. I’m not fool enough to believe that Rafael’s world is more real than mine simply because it’s more uncomfortable and desperate. I think I just want to see how far someone can slip off the edge of the earth in this society. And, more importantly, I want to find out why, if they have nothing to lose, what in hell keeps them from fighting back?
           He leads me south, down 3rd Street, toward the confluence of the two major highways that flow through Sacramento – 5 and 80. I buy us some water and a bottle of tequila at a corner store. The tequila is meant to loosen Rafael’s tongue.
           As we walk, the sun burns a hole through my head and I wonder aloud how Rafael can stand the heat with all the layers of clothes he’s wearing, the plastic bags wrapped around his feet? He drinks and drinks, says nothing.
           We pass through neighbourhoods that are completely devoid of human life – open windows like black empty sockets; no faces anywhere, no music, nothing except the echo of the cans rattling in Rafael’s cart. It sounds like the end of the world. It brings to mind T. S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men: This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” I change it slightly and recite it out loud to Rafael: “This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but an echo.”  
          He is more impressed with the tequila. Eventually he stops handing the bottle back to me.

5.  Beneath the Highway

The camp is on a concrete apron, buckled and broken by grass, weeds; surrounded by huge concrete columns holding up Route 80 and Route 5. The noise from the trucks overhead is deafening. There are four mattresses arranged around a fire pit.
           “You live with other people?” I ask Rafael.
           He nods, takes a final swig from the bottle of tequila, throws it across the concrete apron. The sound of breaking glass is lost to the highway noise above us.
           Two men and a woman wander into camp. They have been out scavenging food. The woman is the obvious leader, introduces herself to me as Grace, the other two as Gideon and Vito. They spread the day’s find out on one of the mattresses: day old doughnuts, two plastic milk jugs filled with water, a few apples, and a bag of burgers from a sympathetic McDonald’s employee downtown. Rafael looks down at the food and moans, starts punching one of the concrete columns. Smack, smack, his fists bloody. The other men wrestle him to the ground, sit on top of him, and wait for him to calm down. It’s obvious they’ve been through this routine many times before.
            Grace’s eyes burn into me. “We don’t have alcohol in this camp,” she says. “You see what it does to him.” Then she begins a sermon about staying pure for the angels.
           Angels? Is she kidding? What angels?
           Rafael eventually stops moaning and struggling and Gideon and Vito get off him, lead him over to the mattress with the food. Grace intones a long prayer about angels and Jesus and mercy and heaven. When she’s finished, Rafael begins pawing at the burgers with his bloody knuckles, which immediately puts me off the food. I sit back, watch everyone eat, and think of my wife, Lou-Ann. What would she say if she saw me sitting under this highway with these people, my head swimming with the intense heat, shit stink and piss wafting up from the concrete all around. I could take a series of images with my phone, send them to her, but I decide against it. I know that she’ll look at the images and go blank because the images don’t fit into her world.
           She’s a Texan. They only believe what suits them.

6. Angel Fire

The flames of the bonfire shoot three stories into the air, consuming ply boards, couches, newspaper, chairs, cardboard boxes, tree branches, you name it. A man wearing two down coats, one over the other in this infernal heat, shouts above the roar of the fire, confessing his sins to the crowd. It’s the usual litany of the sinner: gambling, “laying down with whores,” selling drugs. The crowd punctuates his confession with gospel shouts of “Tell it!” and “Live in the Lord!” and “Draw the angels down!” I get the feeling that the more the crowd responds, the more sins he finds to confess, making things up just for the attention. But I’m cynical that way. When he finishes, he strips both coats off and tosses them into the flames. The crowd goes wild. Others rush up to the bonfire, shout out their confessions, and toss more valuables into the flames.
           These people have lit a fire in order to draw apocalyptic angels down to the earth, bring an end to their misery. Grace has informed me that these fires are happening everywhere, in every city, across the earth. The time is nigh, she said. How could I have missed this? Why hasn’t it been on the news?
           Grace and Gideon stand near the front, shout their “amen’s” and “hallelujah’s” along with everyone else. Their eyes burn – fierce, almost angry – reflecting the firelight. All the other faces look the same – on the verge of erupting into violence. Sadly, the violence is completely contained in this act of confession, in what they toss into the fire. Strange to be here firsthand and know that probably some marketing department genius on Madison Avenue thought all this up.
            But for what reason? The usual: distraction.
            I move toward the front, shout out my own sermon. I want the people in this crowd to know that they are monstrously poor so that a few can be insanely rich. I tell them that the angels are just a marketing ploy to keep them in their place, that they need to be burning down banks, battling it out in the streets. They boo me down. On cue, cop cars and fire trucks arrive. The cops, in full riot gear, clear a path with their truncheons for the firemen and hoses. Everyone scatters.

7. The American River
Running from the cops last night was the most fun I’ve had in years, maybe in decades. The thrill of the chase and all that: blue and red lights flashing, sirens howling; chaos, beautiful chaos, everywhere. I followed a group down here to the bank of the American River. If you were on a boat drifting by, you’d never know how many homeless camps there are along this river, all hidden by a thick growth of trees and wild brush.
           My phone was full of voice messages and texts this morning, mostly from Lou-Ann and my business partner, Ivan. All asking the same question: where are you, where are you, and where the fuck are you? Lou-Ann is worried, angry. Ivan spewed his usual anxiety and rage, calling my no-show with the investment team at Procure this morning ‘a fucking clichĂ©.’ There were also a few voice mail messages from Procure. I was supposed to give them the usual voodoo: “In order to manage risk appropriately blah-blah risks bottom-up manager evaluation blah-blah top-down macro outlook...” How does anyone believe in that shit? Make money from it, yes indeed. Con the masses with it, sure. But believe it?
           My third wife, Dezzy, accused me of hating everything and everyone, of believing in nothing. “You don’t even believe in the financial system you work for,” she said.
            I agreed and that shocked her. “Belief is the problem,” I told her. “Belief is about clinging to someone or something to maintain your own worth.”
           After she left me, she found Jesus. Not the more famous flaming sword, death-to-you-all Jesus, but the gentle one, meek and mild. I thought for years that her conversion was about revenge against my lack of belief.
           She became a Methodist, maybe a Presbyterian – some sterile wing of the protestant church. On the rare occasions when we spoke after the divorce she would invariably use the word Agape. It was some new ideal for her. Agape this, Agape that: the love of one’s fellow men through the love of God. She insisted that I would never be able to understand what she was talking about. One of the last things she ever said to me was: “You’re missing something…inside.”
           I normally would have told her that, unlike her, I had remained whole – because I never gave myself over to a belief or to someone else – but she looked so smug and silly and ignorant, puffed up with her shallow insight into my condition, that all I could do was smile and let her wallow in her new found illusions.
           I should throw the phone into the water, but I’m not quite ready for that yet.

8. Nevada Ghosts

The heat was too much for me in Sacramento so I rented a car, slipped south of the Sierras, out of the smog, across the Owens Valley. I followed The Daylight Pass east into Nevada, and found a ridiculous ghost town called Rhyolite in the middle of the desert, named after the volcanic stone found in the area. There are little placards everywhere, put up by the Park Service, explaining the town’s brief history. Apparently it was a boom town in 1904, gone by 1911. Someone got rich and got out before the going got rough. Everyone else became a ghost.
            Sound familiar?
            There are a few gutted buildings, scattered among desert brush, and a house made of refuse bottles, re-built by some film company in 1925. Apparently, a few long forgotten films were made here. It’s the American way: the economic system squeezes the town dry, turns it into a ghost, and then Hollywood turns the ghost into a money-making spectacle. It’s the glorious man-made weather-cycle of money.
            Last but not least, some artist has put up a life size sculpture mimicking Da Vinci’s Last Supper at the edge of the town. The gestures are the same as in the painting, but these bodies are encased in shrouds.  I suppose they’re meant to look like ghosts, convening after the apocalypse. 
            What is this fascination with ruins? Is it titillation, the kind you get watching a horror movie, the great and holy fear of death drawing us in? For some reason, ruins give me a sense of relief. An acknowledgement that this is where we’re all heading. Maybe part of the relief comes from the fact that no one is exempt. Even the sun’s not forever.
            Angels and ruins.  
            I get out of the car, watch cloud shadows move across the land for a while, listen to the wind. I’ve finally achieved the solitude I’ve been craving for so long.
            I open my mouth and I scream. It’s surprising how the sound is immediately swallowed in this vast space.
            I scream again, louder.
            I scream at Lou-Ann and her sureness. I scream at my son, who can’t make up his fucking mind as to what he wants to be in this world. I scream at my third wife, Dezzy, with her fucking self-righteous smile and her Agape and her lucrative divorce settlement. I scream at my mother, my holier-than-thou mother, praying to the angels and saints for my soul; my mother who would have tossed her last shoes into an angel fire if she were still alive; my mother, bowing and scraping across the church floor, through the stations of the cross, then wiping the asses of the rich with that sanctified smile of hers; my mother, who took it all lying down, because it meant she was surely going to heaven – how could she not when she had served and served and served with such beauteous humility?
           And what did it get her? Cancer. She gave everything away to them – always to them, forever to them – thinking that she was serving god.
           I scream and scream.
        Someone screams back.

9. The Riddle

I hold my breath, listen: nothing but wind. Was it an auditory hallucination? I scream again and there it is again – the echo. It sounds as if it is coming from the other side of the ramshackle mercantile store.
            How is that even possible? There is no other car in sight.
            I move towards the store. The escape from the police in Sacramento has done my knees in, so the going is slow. When I reach it, I stop and listen again. There is only the wind. I let go another scream, and once again, someone screams back. This time there is no mistake, the scream is definitely coming from the other side of the store. I rush around the corner of the crumbling building and almost run into a man wrapped in a ragged brown horse blanket.
            His eyes pop open wide. He’s terrified. I’m angry. I feel robbed, thinking I was alone. I scream at him: “Where the fuck is your car?”
            He looks me up and down, dubious. “Are you an angel?”
            Down at his feet there’s a little pile of kindling. I ask him if he’s making a fucking angel fire and he lifts his arms, turns in a slow circle. The blanket slips off his shoulders, falls to the ground. He’s naked.
           “This is the place they’re most likely to come down, man,” he says. “It’s pure out here.”
            He’s exactly what I’d come out here to avoid. I demand to know how he had come to arrive here. “I was there and now I’m here,” is his idiotic answer. “Cause and effect,” he says, “time and space, hot and cold, liquid and got a match?”
            Seriously? He’s come out here to light an angel fire without matches, a lighter, nothing? 
            “Where are your clothes?” I ask him.
            He looks confused for a second, then glances down at his naked belly. “Gave ‘em up,” he says. “I been angel-firing-it since Phoenix.”
            “Wonder if they don’t come?” I say.
            He stares at me, uncomprehending. What could be passing through that broken mind of his?
            I tell him that I’m leaving, offer to give him a lift to Beatty, the closest town. He doesn’t respond, keeps staring through me, lost in his angel stupor. What can I do? I turn around, march back to the rental car, and take off. I imagine him still standing where I left him days from now, waiting for his addled brain to solve the riddle of the angels, slowly turning into one of the shrouds at the Rhyolite Last Supper.

10. Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix was nothing but malls and brilliant sun glare off car chrome – and angel fires. There were so many columns of smoke rising from the city that I just kept going, headed south into the emptiness of Pinal County.
            Has the world gone mad? Yes, but it was already mad. Belief, all this belief...what will it get them?
            They’ve got to fight, to look it all in the eye and not blink, and, most importantly, to out con the con men, to strip the false angels of their wax wings, melt them down, see just how sad and tawdry we really are...
            Then, and only then, will they see.

11. The End of the Road

Stars, wind, so cold. But I won’t light a fire. Last night, a skinny apparition in a horse blanket appeared out of the darkness, asked for my clothes, but I would not give them up. I told him that that was his way to the call the angels, not mine. It’s the mistake his kind have made, again and again. Why do they always presume to know what angels want?
            “You believe that all the angels want the same thing,” I said. “That all the angels respond to the same thing.” I snickered at my great joke in the dark. “Don’t you realize that every angel is different?” I said. “You fucking moron, every angel has its own tastes, its own personal desires.”
            Some like fire; some enfold themselves lovingly in the dark. There is one who is waiting patiently, right now, not far off, for me to say the right word, the magic word, in order to appear.     Agape, arbitrage, Peter Pan, emptiness
            “You’ve got to appeal to their individuality,” I say. “Give them something they truly want.” I laugh out loud at this and the sound startles me for a second.
            I stop moving, listen. Something rustles in the brush to my left.
            “What is it you truly want?” I whisper.
            Shadows sway, change shape. I see a figure in front of me, several yards off: tall, hulking, ponderous. And there’s a smell: of dog fur, cheeseburgers, piss, cologne.
            The angel is approaching. I do not believe in angels and still an angel is approaching.         
            “What do you want?” I ask, but deep down, I know. I have always known.
            Any angel of my creation has only one desire: to devour me. 


If you liked that, you can find another story, called "Tribute," on this blog here.

And then some. 


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