Worse Things than Catastrophe and Death

Stephen Beachy

Ed. note: the following piece is an excerpt from a novel-in-progress.


Jared is taking Melvin on an endless journey through New York to see Ground Zero. A descent into the underground, warring tribes and incomprehensible languages, all crushed beneath the mechanical functioning of an invisible empire—the subway's an old movie.

It's like an experience he's already had, countless times, and yet he totally hasn't.

Come on, Jared says. This is our stop.

It's 2006. Before he knows it, it'll be 2007. Melvin just can't quite get a handle on this business of time. Is it real or an illusion or what?

Up above Jared says, Stick with me. Trust me, you don't wanna get lost around here.

Where are we anyway?

It's a grid. You just have to orient yourself to the grid … There's the Avenues and the Streets …

Melvin tunes him out. A grid, no thank you. Utilities are for other people, along with schedules, personality tests, the weather. Scientists are holed up in their laboratories even now, breeding storms—among other suffering embryos. Melvin remembers a meadow once, with a storm threatening, the sky blue with black clouds towering into the upper atmosphere. The electricity in the air and the heightened visual field—it was all speaking to him. It was speaking about future life forms.

Jared wants to be the know-it-all in any case, so it's like Melvin's doing him a favor. Jared can be knowledgeable and virtuous, a martyr to the basic facts, and Melvin can get hopelessly lost. They've been playing the game since middle school.

… and the streets go from east to west …

Some burly little guy is blocking Melvin's way.

Hey baby, he says.

Baby?

The guy wiggles his eyebrows.

Share the wealth, baby.

Melvin feels smarter just walking these streets, but still not smart enough. Everything is open to interpretation.

You want … money?

Just let me have a taste, says the man.

He darts his tongue in and out of his mouth.

Okay, well maybe another time, says Melvin and steps around the man to catch up with Jared who has crossed his arms in exasperation.

I can't keep track of you every minute.

That dude totally wanted to rape me.

Jared rolls his eyes.

You're such a homophobe.

That's just stupid, Melvin says.

Jared walks on ahead, like he's too busy for this conversation. Too busy getting to a destination that doesn't matter anyway.

The only important question is how to feel as intense as existing already is. Sex is the easiest answer, after drugs, plus it's always on Melvin's mind anyway. The coolest thing about New York, Melvin thinks—other than the clouds, which are often silver, like the metallic ghosts that haunt the future—is that everybody here seems like a potential rapist. Really, they're all just so fervent.

Straight guys all think that every gay man in the world wants their ass, Jared says.

Was that guy gay?

We're in the West Village, dummy. Open your eyes. Look around.

Jared's doing that thing, where he pretends that his own highly specialized and recently acquired knowledge has elevated him into an intellectual sphere that renders Melvin relatively retarded. New York—as if he was born here, as if he's a genius at navigation because he knows the name of the neighborhood.

I'm not a homophobe, says Melvin. You oughta know that if anyone.

And just how should I know that?

Oh, come on.

Jared actually has his hands on his hips.

Getting your dick sucked doesn't make you some sort of champion of human rights. A lot of the biggest homophobes are total closet cases.

I'm not a closet case.

Oh, really? Then why are you here?

It's a detour, Melvin says.

Oh, nice.

You know what I mean. I don't know, there might even be a warrant. I'm on the lam.

So you're using me. Really nice.

He walks on ahead, without even looking back. This lasts for blocks. Melvin weighs the truth of the charges. Is he a closet case? No way. Is he using Jared? Possibly. Is he a homophobe?

I'm not using you, Melvin insists, when he finally catches up with him at a traffic light. And if I'm such a closet case …

The light changes.

OK, so you're gay, great, finally, says Jared. Just like your little brother.

Don't talk about my little brother.

You two have both got the gay gene. Got it from your mom.

Oh, says Melvin, and you don't?

I'm not totally gay like you, Jared explains. I wasn't born gay, I just got molested and it confused my natural instincts.

For the rest of the journey, which is ridiculous, Melvin's picking through the evidence in his mind. He wonders if he was molested. He's heard that sometimes you could repress the memory—it comes back in dreams or in vague feelings or just unconventional desires. Bingo. It occurs to Melvin that he's living with a false idea of himself. The idea he has of himself is based on the idea of himself he imagines in the minds of everyone who knows him. It's not exactly belief but a kind of hazy background noise, the idea that people are walking around out there thinking about him with this particular data feed that's more or less true, but mostly just in the good ways, the essence of Melvin burnished into an affectionate haze and composed of his life story, the same story he tells himself, a story everyone's memorized. Minus the porn he watches and the Sex Offenders he used to stalk and a few actual sex acts he's kept to himself and the bed wetting that started up after his mom's wedding. He could probably get rich if he could come up with a way to sell this fantasy to other people—some sort of program or website that would help everyone imagine that a blurry haze of friends was imagining them all the time. Sick.

More to the point is … intensity? And awareness of intensity. Melvin is real, it's true. Slaves exist, working to make him tennis shoes. The shadow of a tree on a brick wall. A sense of stillness in the midst of all this commotion. A sense of motion, always, within the stillness. The sound of weeping from deep underground.

Look, Jared says. We're here.

Or maybe there is no point. The point is that there isn't one? Ground Zero is real. Chain link fences and stalled construction, the beginnings of some sort of foundation. Melvin's not into foundations, in general. Terror exists and zero. Zero exists. Nothing exists, or doesn't it? It's crazy. It's madness. Pink clouds and helicopters and forms and in the middle of the forms, an idea: the letter Q.

The Q stands for Questioning, right? I told you I was Straight but Questioning, so how can I be closeted? I'm all up in the acronym.

Yes, says Jared. Words are a lot of fun, aren't they?

And I love my little brother, even if he is gay, so …

I think the Q stands for Queer.

Totally wrong. You don't even know your own acronym.

And you're way too old to be Questioning. Who hasn't figured out what they want sexually by the time they're like fifteen?

No way. You're never too old to be Questioning.

Shhh, says Jared. Show some respect.

Jared stays all quiet, like he's just in awe or something. There's a bulldozer that isn't doing anything and some bald workers having lunch. Metal rods sticking up out of the earth. Melvin isn't feeling anything special. Ground Zero. He likes the phrase more than the location.

There's worse things in the universe than catastrophe and death, Melvin says.

Really? says Jared. Like what?

Melvin supposes that once something's immortal, it'll change the way it thinks, the reasons it has to think.

Stasis. Stasis is totally worse.

People died here, Melvin. They're dead.

People died everywhere.

You can't overthink it like that.

Melvin's pretty sure this is a conversation he can win.

You have to feel it, says Jared. It's intense.

I can do whatever I want with my thoughts and my feelings, says Melvin. I mean, why's it intense? Hypothetically or devil's advocate or whatever? Dead, dead, dead, how many? Ten thousand or something?

A lot, says Jared.

OK, so death is intense. It's like number three after drugs and sex …

Number one. It's number one.

Fine, but why is ten thousand more intense than one? Why is this spot more holy than the In-N-Out Burger parking lot where my dad toppled over dead? Does something special happen when that many people die at one time? Does the membrane between life and death kind of waver with that many people passing through, does the portal open wider?

I can't even talk to you, says Jared. You're like … evil.

Membranes shimmering in the mist, in the breeze, clouds edged pink, and consciousness enters the clouds.

Evil, right. I'm like the opposite of evil.

That would be good. Are you good?

This world is totally like The Matrix, Melvin says. All our reactions, all the music and shit, they're all produced by the parent corporation. I'm not supposed to be sad, unless somebody wants me to be sad. Remember how everybody in Mrs. Shumway's class was acting all shocked and emotional and all those girls started crying and it was so fake! Everybody said so. You said so.

I was just a kid then. I didn't understand.

Why should Melvin weep? Somebody's already weeping, it or everything, a weeping underground. All the time. It just always is.

Anyway. Don't you think this country … should be attacked?

You're sick.

It took thousands of years to get rid of the kings. Finally we had to chop off their heads, right? So how long will it take to get rid of Walmart and Applebee's?

Some places still have kings. And queens and beautiful princesses and handsome princes.

You're missing my point here.

Your stupid, evil point is just your privilege talking. What do you know about real violence.

Melvin says, Nigga please.

Jared rolls his eyes.

You learn that in California? What's with the thuggy pajamas anyway?

Give me a break. I'm Mexican, it's like my culture.

Mormon pajamas are your culture, but I don't see you wearing that shit.

Don't be a dumbass. Everything is real violence anyway. The threat of violence is exactly what violence is. Being born is violent, dying is violent, sex is—

Sex is not violent! It just isn't. It doesn't have to be, unless—

And don't forget about the hostage thing!

Once, when he was a kid, Melvin was researching the Emperor Penguin at the library in Salt Lake City, but a man with a bomb took hostages. A kindly librarian—she looked kind of like a man—led Melvin and several other kids into a secret room. The room was carpeted and the kids collapsed onto the brightly-colored floor as if they'd been traveling for hours. One little boy was whimpering. Melvin didn't whimper but he didn't blame the kid for whimpering, but another older boy elbowed Melvin and pointed at the whimpering boy and giggled and then Melvin giggled back. When what he really wanted to do was hug the little boy and tell him it would all be all right—which was true, although he didn't really know that yet. It was exciting that somebody wanted to kill them, somebody so crazy that he was forcing the world to play by his rules, for a minute, rules that didn't make any sense. You thought there was one kind of world on TV and another one at the library, but it turned out they were one and the same. When the time was right, the librarian led them out the back door to freedom. There were police and a lot of other people and the other people cheered. Eventually, they shot the crazy guy, who had started to draw straws for which hostage he'd kill first.

You need to get over how supposedly oppressed you are because you're a Mexican or a Latino or a Hispanic or whatever.

Everybody's wearing this, it's just the style. And I'll get over my ethnic heritage just as soon as you get over your gay pain, how's that. And the molest, whatever that was about.

Oh, OK, I forget, you win. You're a closet case and the only Mexican Mormon in the world and your dad died and you wreak havoc wherever you go and you got a nasty case of PTSD from your little hostage incident and there's your undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder. Just saying. And everybody wants to have sex with you, which is just so sad, isn't it? So compared to all those people who had the building fall on top of them, you've suffered really a lot. Am I right?

A woman in a shawl is staring at them. Melvin's afraid she's been listening in.

They're dead. That's the difference. I'm still here.

Yeah, too bad.

And fuck that Bipolar shit. It's called moods. Human beings have them. Sometimes I'm happy and sometimes I'm sad. I'm an intense person, that's all.

You do all this stupid crazy shit, you call me out of the blue and fly across the country like a chicken with its head cut off. You tell me how much you want to see me and all that and how it feels so cosmically right for you to be with me and blah blah blah. OK, fine. Then when you get here you just sleep or sit around jerking off to that weird porn you like so much so that you don't have to think about your life.

How do you know what I jerk off to.

It's my computer, asshole.

And sleeping isn't a mental illness! It's called jet lag.

It's been the same since sixth grade, says Jared. Exactly the same.

Then you take the pill. You take it. You can live in their little medicated robot world all you want. And when did you ever cut the head off a chicken anyway? You've probably never even seen a chicken. I'll tell you about some real violence. Debbie used to butcher them right there in my kitchen, and you know what?

Debbie? Who's Debbie?

The shawl woman taps Melvin on the shoulder.

To escape the motion of their time, she says, we'll have to journey through a house of mirrors, a grotesque carnival spectacle, the machines that create the illusions of empire.

Excuse me?

Just remember, she says. It's the masters who are driven crazy by the dreams of the slaves.

Melvin says, That's a good point.

If this was your dream, what would it mean? That's the question.

She hands him a flyer full of 9-11 conspiracy theories. She smiles, a bit enigmatically for Melvin's taste.

I'll think about that. Thank you, ma'am.


On the way back to the other, less New Yorkish zone that Jared lives in, Jared ignores Melvin, messing around with his phone. Melvin peeks over.

Are you sending guys pictures of your ass again?

I've got a couple of them really going.

Hey, I wanna see, send it to me.

You've seen my ass, whatta you need a picture for?

A picture's different, right? Two different things. Ass and a picture of ass. I want the picture.

I thought your phone was out of minutes.

I've got just enough left for the ass. Come on Jared—show me the ass.

Isn't that a little tame for you? Just a peaceful little ass?

Melvin starts chanting it: Show me the ASS, show me the ASS. Jared blushes and gives Melvin a little shove and it's a relief after all that bickering.

Jared says, You're the most cuddly terrorist in the world, you know that?

Melvin says, Do you think my little brother might have been molested? You suppose that's why he's turned out so gay?

I'm not sure he's turned out yet, Melvin. What is he, five?

You're the one who said he's a fag.

You don't get to use that word around me. He's gay. Or pre-gay or whatever.

Yeah, yeah, I know.

He's totally being oppressed, says Jared. That's what you should worry about—all the heteronormative assumptions he's being bombarded with. All the closeted Mormon bullshit.

The parent corporation, says Melvin. You see what I'm saying?

Of course I see what you're saying, says Jared and it makes Melvin so happy that he gives him a hug.

Back at the little room Jared lives in, behind the copy shop and the psychic's storefront, however, Jared calls Melvin a cock-teaser. The room has one window and a mattress and new carpet of the most inhuman texture. Squishy, grayish, smells like embalming chemicals. Jared's stuff: lumpy, twinkling piles of laundry, overly flesh-colored, two books, posters of guys in their underwear, a mushy chair. He calls Melvin withholding, a sadist, cold, evil, and so on, like all he's been thinking this whole time they were out in the silvery light, contemplating historic catastrophes, is a list of horrible things to call Melvin. He keeps on and on like this until Melvin just pulls his dick out and says, OK, I'm sorry, I didn't know it meant that much to you.

Jared's always going on about what an amazing cocksucker he is, but his teeth are too sharp and Melvin keeps grimacing. Jared's getting all huffy. You don't even look at me, he says. Melvin says, Is that what you're supposed to do? Jared's sighing and pouting and Melvin decides to just gaze at him kind of dreamily and see what happens next. He starts up again and Melvin keeps gazing. But at the same time he wonders if he's doing this because Jared made him feel bad or if he actually enjoys it. What is sex for, anyway? To look at somebody so hard they become disgusting and then forgive them for that? He gets distracted by his own texture, his earth tones, this smooth plane of flesh, this firm mammalian thing that could totally arouse him if he forgets it's himself. Sticky and male and bejeweled. Jared's head bobbing on top of it, frantically looking up to remind himself, probably, that it's attached to Melvin. Aren't gays supposed to be different? Jared wants to pretend that there's nothing in Melvin's head except Jared, but Melvin's like: What could I be thinking about him? He likes Coldplay and Radiohead and the White Stripes, his mom still loves him even though he's gay but his dad's just an asshole like everybody else's except stricter: no Cokes except diet. Jared was always an aggressive Monopoly player during family night, he had a real knack for owning property. All Melvin ever wanted was a Get Out of Jail Free card.