PART 1 - The Gates of Paradise
A soldier named Nobushige came to Hakuin, and asked: "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"
"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.
"I am a samurai," the warrior replied.
"You, a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin. "What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar."
Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head."
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!"
At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
"Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.
For the stubborn, every morning was a kick to the groin, a fall to one knee, and a shitting yourself out of pain, frustration, and sheer, sharp memory. Where the Stragglers camped, there was no more transportation for the highways, no more faith in progress or complexity, no more standards for sane or for balanced (unless you considered sane those who gave in and finally made the decision to free themselves of their individual minds – always an option, and always maddeningly easy), and even the animals and insects were missing their tendency to innocently let themselves be something other than desperate. Dogs no longer fucked in the streets; they fought, and the losers got themselves eaten. It wasn’t necessary, but the dogs were so godbedamned confused all the time that they were compelled to assert the precedence of their primary instinct, to survive, over the more high-minded creative force that usually drove them. You couldn’t even look a flea in the eye with impunity – they would try and bash themselves against the sensitive meat of your eyeball, feeding from your pain and annoyance, delighting in your misery and defeat. At least that’s how it felt. Where there were Stragglers...the world’s finest, most noble Procrastinators...there was decay, torment, and horror. There might have even been a causal relationship.
Here, in the heart of what used to be a city....something long forgotten...something hated and despised by what was now the vast majority of the human population, a lonely building squatted petulantly in a brown dirt field. It was the tallest thing around for what seemed to be miles. The air was so clean and silent that it was difficult to judge distance: one was always second guessing. The dirt surrounding the building matched exactly the color of the building itself, and it seemed that instead of the building being built, the ground had merely bunched itself together to give birth to something with ambition. A low chain link fence surrounded the entire plot of land, but somebody had stripped off the razor-wire that had once topped it and used the razor-wire to make razors for shaving. This gave the top of the fence the appropriate appearance of being chewed.
William Principe loved the morning, because every morning brought with it further fuel for his suspicion that there was no longer any such entity as God, so there was no way this could all possibly be Hell. He was always the first to show up on the steps of the brown dirt building, smoking a cigarette and watching the sun put itself into its marks for its daily marathon across the sky. To the Stragglers, he was the closest thing around to justice, and he took his job as seriously as anybody took anything anymore. The persistent conviction was that there wasn’t very much time left at all – if you were a Straggler, you would soon give in or die anyway, so the elimination of justice was just one more perverse facet on a diamond made of shit. But Bill Principe still had hope vibrating around in his chest, and he still had his sense of humor. It was infectious...memetically inspirational...so it was never too long before somebody else joined him on the steps of the building, and the day’s activities got rolling right straight royally along.
“I need a strong crew today,” said Bill to the man who presented himself first. The man wore his moustache curly and waxed, and for some reason had on a pith helmet. Commodus Toad. He reeked of marijuana, but his eyes were focused, and his hands were steady.
“I need someone who can shoot, someone who can watch, and someone who can count. I need four, so if you feel like you can do all three - shoot, count, and watch – just tell me what you can do best,” he shouted for all to hear, calling them out to work. “As you know, I will handle distribution of our wares, but the acquisition of plunder gets harder every time we go out. I need four, or we may not get to eat today.”
Bleary and broken, people began to arrive, filling up the building’s yard. These were city-folk – fiercely independent, overly-specialized, not capable of much that didn’t require abstraction at some level. It was only once a day that they could stand the sight of one another and still have time for tending to their own misery, and Bill took advantage of the opportunity to conduct business, open problems up for discussion, and to take care of the situations that had grown hair overnight. The Stragglers often managed to avoid total catastrophe, and Bill was satisfied with cheerful damage control and pragmatic coping.
The man with the pith helmet stood at wooden attention. Long ago, Commodus had seen movies of soldiers being inspected in parade formation, and had always since treated Bill like the commander of a huge invisible army. It was irritating, but Bill put up with it because no one else on the planet had such a massive grasp of guerilla pharmaceutical chemistry and agriculture. Commodus Toad was entirely responsible for both Bill’s cigarettes and his total monopoly of the free world’s illicit drug market.
“Looks like trouble, sir,” said Commodus, bristling his stache. “Getting four is going to be tricky, tricky, tricky. Especially that shooter. Two shooters? Why two shooters? Is there another shooter?”
“Quiet, Toad,” said Bill, “ I think I know what I am doing. We had some fresh blood come in yesterday, and I don’t want them to know I’m the only one resistant to conditioning who isn’t afraid to fight. Mary can shoot, but she never will. Just in case, I want to make us seem like a bunch of badasses. They may be hiding out, sizing us up.”
“Tricky, tricky, tricky,” repeated Commodus. “I recognize everyone here so far, though. The Catholic owes you a favor. She’s sharp, too. You’ll have to pressure her a bit though, sir. If you want my advice.”
“Duly noted,” said Bill, thinking to himself how easy it was to give advice if you were so valuable you transcended the modern standards of universal expendability. The Toad was smug, but must be stroked.
“I’m game to count today, Billy,” said a cloaked figure in a husky voice. “My ankle is still turned wrong, but I can stay calm. I will stay calm. I need more books, too, and I know you have a tendency to ignore them when they present themselves as items of opportunity.”
Bill nodded, flipping the peace sign to the hidden, billowing entitity. The Paranoid Grip had a perfect record as far as counting was concerned. He never, ever let his mind wander for an instant as far as anybody could tell. It was uncanny – unnatural – but too useful to let slip by whenever The Grip volunteered.
“Got any insights for us today, Grip?”
The Grip was silent.
“Nothing? Nothing going on under that cowl?” teased Bill.
The Grip sighed. “I wonder if it is really the raft that floats on top of the ocean, or if rather the ocean ripples and has waves because the raft never sits still.”
“Fair enough,” said Billy. The Paranoid Grip was one of his favorites. That guy would never submit. He was good to have around. “I still need a watcher and a shooter.”
“You know you are the only one who can – “ The Grip began. He stopped when he saw the look in Bill’s eyes. “Right,” said The Grip.
“How are those two things mutually exclusive, Grip? Can’t the raft both float and make waves?” asked Toad.
The Grip was already gone.
The yard now had something like twenty people standing around, various levels of wretched apostasis uniting them. A little boy wearing nothing but Captain Planet underwear was chasing around a golden retriever who had stolen his breakfast - what looked to be a can of tuna fish. He was shrieking, and flailing his thin sunburnt arms. The boy’s father, slick-black hair, a slick-black suit, a slick-black goatee, slick-black shoes, and slick-black eyes, watched him, calling out advice to the boy and fanning himself with a paper plate. A nun in full habit sat Indian-style leading a group of two in the Lord’s prayer, one a young girl with close cropped red hair and a saggy sleeveless t-shirt, and the other a tall, thin bald man in a black turtleneck. The man had white greasepaint covering his face, and a black beanie in his hands that, if it wasn’t for his present reverence, would ordinarily perch jauntily atop his pate. His face was done up in a constant smile. He was only mouthing the prayer, but his expression, barring the painted smile, was one of intense, painful piety.
“I hear we got some new people in last night,” said the slick-black suit, folding his paper plate into a paper airplane and launching it. It did a loop and hit the ground hard.
“You are absolutely correct, but I don’t see them here yet.,” said Bill. “Has anybody seen or spoken with them, or are we just assuming they somehow instinctively know where the elite meet to deny their defeat? What kind of people are they? Are we talking about potential problems?”
“Well, whoever they are, we are obligated to make them welcome,” said the nun, sternly crossing herself. “I have let you chase off too many decent souls with your invective and psychotic cowboy image, William. We must be better than the United States, or what is the point of separating ourselves at all?”
“Teresa, I know you want to be a martyr, and that’s cool – but the rest of us want to keep what we’ve got, and stay protected. That’s what we’ve got to focus on. And we aren’t cowboys. We’re pirates. Argh!” The little naked boy stopped chasing the dog and ran over to Bill. Bill hooked his hands behind his knees and made the most menacing grimace he could. “Argh, matey!”
“ARGH!” screamed the little boy, bending over, slapping his ass to make pretend helicopter noises, and then doing a somersault.
“And that includes you, Teresa. You’re like my sexy little parrot. How’s about saving my life this afternoon, and playing angel?”
“William, I can handle the fact that you don’t respect me, but I demand that if you must use me in your game, you will respect yourself. If I come today and help, you must promise that you will not stoop to violence, and you will be moderately ethical in your business dealings.”
“You know you love it, Tareese. Sure, I’ll stay nice. But not for you. I’ll stay nice because I am nice. If you can think of another way to get us food and medicine and clothes and all the other crap we need to survive, let me hear it. And don’t bring up education...none of us have the patience for that kind of undertaking. Nor would we last long enough to figure out how to rotate crops or weave overalls or whatever. We’d starve to death first. We’ve been through all this. You weren’t here before...when we were all trying to find creative ways to kill ourselves and go out like poets. But we could go back to that anytime, baby.”
The greasepainted man put his beanie on and began to mime a person loading a gun, walking ten paces, and then blowing his brains out. He fell down in slow motion, spasming and pinwheeling with painstaking comic precision. You could hear his silent death throes.
Commodus and slick-black-mustache-suit cracked up, giving each other a high five. Toad presented a joint to the mime, and the three began to smoke.
The nun glared at the mime, but he was no longer paying any attention.
“Just let me know when you are ready to leave, William,” said Teresa.
Teresa and the red-haired girl both stood up.
“I sawer the people come in, when they did,” said the red-haired girl. “It was two of ‘em, and one of ‘em was all cutted up and bleeding and hurting. I couldn’t tell if the cutted up one was a guy or a girl, but I know t’ other one was a girl. She looked tough, and she could handle the hurting and bleeding, so I know she weren’t a State.”
“The cut up was a dude,” said Slick Black, sagely. “They were in the same building my boy and I were in last night. I know because he couldn’t stop screaming – screaming like he was going to explode. I guess maybe he did. He stopped screaming right around 3 AM. I figure he is gone to the moon. Out of orbit. Kaboom, kapow, solid-fuel-rocket-human-man. Drugs or death or coma. Aufwiedersehen. Tschuss. Hey...is it true you two are lesbian lovers, Virgin Mary Mary? This here miming mime is silent on the subject, but he always gets our imaginations higher than eagles in eagling flight.”
“Blow me, Professor,” said the nun. “I’d tell you to be ashamed of yourself, but that would imply that you had a conscience to trigger shame, which you have systematically shown not to be the case.” She straightened her wimple, and cleared her throat. “All those interested in making the most of the day, I extend to you the invitation to improve yourselves with learning, as usual. Today we will be studying Aquinas at the church. You must be sober to attend. Have a good day, ladies and gentlemen.”
The red-haired girl...Mary...silently matched her complexion to her scalp, staring at the ground. Teresa grabbed her arm, and marched her away. The mime raised his beanie to the assembled crowd, bowed low, and followed guiltily, blowing out a heavy stream of smoke as punctuation.
“ARGH,” screamed the little boy again.
People began to peel away in twos and threes, dispersing...ashamed to have even showed and eager to remove their faces from the appearance of solidarity. They had lives to wrap up and stasis to reach and couldn’t be bothered any longer with Bill’s stubborn insistence on rebellious organization.
“You hear something, Bill?” asked Commodus, dropping to one knee and cupping his wiry white-haired ears with wiry white-haired hands.
“Nah, Toad. I don’t hear nothing.”
“I think I hear somebody crying, sir.”
“Dr. Black, what do you make of the fact that one of the refugees was cut-up? That’s violence of a sort somewhat rare, isn’t it?” Bill was nervous, and used to ignoring the fits and starts of the permafried Toad.
“It’s coming from Twelth Street, I think, sir. It’s been a long time since I heard crying around here.”
“I hear it too, Billy-bill,” said Black. “A lilting soprano...quite charming.”
Bill shut his eyes and focused. He could barely make out feminine sobbing at the very limit of his available register.
“All right, dammit, you stoned-ass bastards are right for once. We better check it out.”
“It’s getting louder, sir. I think it is on the move. It’s more angry, now.”
A piercing, desperate wail began to echo off of the brown-dirt building. The boy and the dog both stopped fighting. The golden retriever began to whine, covering its face with its paws.
“It’s more of a piercing, desperate wail now, sir.”
“Shut up, Toad. Try to look dangerous.”
Everybody froze as they suddenly took in what came around the corner. At a quick pace, a sobbing woman in red gym shorts, lace-up jackboots, and shoulder-length blond hair was dragging along Sister Teresa, a huge silver pistol in her tapered fingers shoved right up against Teresa’s neck. She had an almost transparent complexion, and you could tell her eyes were ordinarily ridiculously blue because they were right now ridiculously red. Tears made twin salty jowls that hung from her cheeks and fell behind her as she stomped toward Bill, Black, Toad and the boy.
“I want everybody to get down on to the ground and lay down and don’t move,” she screamed. “I shot the fucking mime, and I’ll shoot fucking you too, anybody doesn’t just do what I say right fucking now.”
Toad and Black hit the ground like broken pinatas. Bill dropped to one knee and put his hands in the air. As soon as he realized his son wasn’t moving, Black crawled over and grabbed him, forcing him down too, and shielding him with his body.
“She shot at the mime, Bill. She missed him and he ran off.” Teresa was droll and calm, almost bored sounding. “It was point-blank. She missed intentionally. There’s no way she’s broken her conditioning. I think she’s just scared enough to consider herself dangerous.”
“Shut the fuck up, bitch...I don’t know what the fuck you are talking about...who the fuck you people are...or why the fuck everybody I know and care about can’t see me anymore, and why to me they move like fucking green-toed sloths. But I am going to get some answers, or I am going to start killing little kids and nuns.”
Bill dropped his hands and stood up. Now this he could handle. A unique meet-cute...rarely did folks find the Stragglers with blood in their eyes and a dominant emotion other than total stupefying confusion...but he knew a fresh new prospect when he saw one. Anybody with the eggs to stick a gun to nun was a friend of his.
“So you have no idea where you are, huh?”
He began to walk towards her, slowly.
“I will shoot you in the face, you motherfucker. Stand still. Lay down.”
“Try it,”said Bill. “For you, it is impossible. You think you can do it, but you can’t. Simple as that. Just give it a try.”
He reached into his pocket for a cigarette. Toad hesitantly raised his head.
She let Teresa go, grabbing the pistol with both hands in a classic marksman position. Her hands began to shake.
“Steady now, lady. Aim for my chest. Don’t miss now.”
She squeezed the trigger. A cloud of dirt bloomed out of the ground 20 yards to Bill’s right.
“Here I come, to save the day,” sang Bill.
Bill broke into a trot, stopping himself five yards away from her, and taking a deep drag.
“You’re just scared is all, honey. We were all once where you are now. But you can’t shoot me rainyface. You ought not to be wasting any of those bullets neither. Just let it go, and start breathing again. My, that is a pretty piece though.”
Her hands and arms began to shake. She took a step closer to Bill, almost stabbing at him with the silver sidearm. She began to scream.
Bill extended an index finger and placed it casually into the barrel of the gun. She fell to her knees. Her hair fell into her eyes. She cried in huge, sucking bleats now, holding onto the gun like it was her only lifeline into a reality she alone could see. Bill plucked it away, and she collapsed, curling into a most unflattering fetal position. Toad craned his neck around, trying to see up her shorts. Teresa glared at him, and he coughed and looked at the sky.
“No more United States for you, Princess,” said Bill sympathetically.
“Good morning, good morning, good morning,” cheered Dr. Black, jumping to his feet and tossing his son in the air. “Now you’re cured, gunny-gun-gun. Awake. ENNNNlightened. Loony-tunes like pitted prunes. Rejoice! It was all just a United State of mind. The misty fog clears...and you have to see Old Ugly Bill Principe and Ugly Old Sister Teresa the Popesmoker standing there laughing at you? Who wouldn’t feel like wanting to engage in a little improvisational extermination?”
Dr. Black took his suitjacket off and twirled it around his head, hooting and laughing at his own little jokes.
And then Bill shot the dog.
Everyone but Bill and the boy began to puke their guts out, shocked and involuntarily rendered fully physically worthless. Dr. Black was pissed off. He got steaming splashback all over his jacket.
It was a good shot. The dog just fell over dead. A can of tuna fish rolled by, spilling spongy grey meat onto the ground.
“And as far as anybody knows, I’m the only one without my conditioning still effective, Princess.”
“The jury is still out on his heart,” said Teresa, still green and wiping her mouth. She knelt down as if to console the whimpering lass.
Bill ignored her. “Which puts me squarely 100% in charge.”
“You should have seen things before he showed up,” said Toad.
“And the first thing we are going to do is have us a little chat. Caring and sharing time. You first. Why don’t we go inside?” He pocketed the gun.
“ARGH,” shouted the little boy, staring at the dead dog. The boy rubbed his stomach ruefully. And then out it came. Gnarly yellow chunks of prepubescent putresecence.
“Argh,” said Bill.