Originally published in Issue #7 of Flapperhouse Magazine
I already have the pink flamingos and the gnomes, of course, plus the red-hatted jockey holding the lamp. Even the nana bent over her invisible garden with the fluffy white bloomers, the balsa one that practically glows under its shellack of dollar-store paint.
But there’s so much more out there yet. The figurines and birdhouses and whirligigs you can’t find anywhere else, born from the guts of their corner colonial, from its basement maybe. Outside its rippling flags are in every goddamn color from the Pantone wheel and the ornaments crowd around the lawn in a diorama of misshapen plasticine. You know the place, you know its pure topographical schlock. Those are the ones. My own personal MacGuffins.
Call it whatever but don’t call it looting. I’m liberating them is what I’m doing. I’ve a damned finer destiny planned for them than their owners could ever dream. They’re gonna outlast the world that birthed them, as a vista of ugly rainbow polyptychs that’ll accompany my life into its eternal pause. My tacky, technicolor ushabtiu.
But let’s pause for a moment. Thinking back, all of this, this madness, started with a mere phrase. Temporal decay. There were others, too, just as vaguely terrifying. Prisoners of deterioration was a particularly graphic, albeit inelegant, one. Like a rejected Lovecraft title. And can’t forget UFOTU – that’s Ultimate Fate Of The Universe. Where would doomsday science be without its acronyms and scare quotes? They led off every newscast for a month, peppered between sports and stocks and weather, until the idea that time was dying became the first thing that slithered over the anchors’ lips and then soon the only thing that got out. It had erased the existence of all other events, slowly and silently, just as it was doing to life itself. Couldn’t be measured, couldn’t be seen. The skeptics barked about those last parts but we all knew it. The consensus was never spoken of much but it was inside us, that old, proverbial sinking feeling that can’t be quantified in a scholarly journal. Billions of people living their life under a crushing anxiety that soon grew into a vague sense of total, utter doom.
It wasn’t quite real for me, though, until I saw the president himself, shoulders up so far as to be around his ears. He was staring back at us through the TV in that same damn pose all his predecessors had assumed when some tragedy or crisis made society freeze in its place for a day or two to fret and mourn and look to the heavens, waiting for our frazzled nerves to be soothed by some suit who won just the right amount of swing states. On every single channel, even the local car lot show, even the golf coverage, even the Korean soap operas. That’s when I knew, there wasn’t gonna be a fix. No vaccine, no laser, no team of astronauts led by Bruce Willis, no nothing.
I’m not sure what everyone else felt at that moment, maybe they were reassured on some level, maybe bought wholesale into the pledges and promises. But me? I was just scared. He uttered that phrase – there it was again, temporal decay – three or four times in the first minute of his speech, and suddenly, I felt it. Fear. A real fear. Like your heart strangling your stomach. It was really happening. Time was dying, slowly but surely, crawling through the desert on its sand-scraped knees, a wanderer blindly rejecting its doom even as it fossilizes. That’s how I imagined it all going down. And we, us poor humans, would be stuck on its dry old bones like parched bugs, like the peeled-off sarcophagi of dumb, noisy cicadas, undying and immovable but still alive somehow, helpless in our stasis.
For the record, I was at McAdams when this all happened, sitting next to Carol, my weird, greasy-haired crush from Accounting. We were both huddled over that old darkwood bar, the one with no real edges, just scratched-up curves. We’d always had this joke between us that the place was so rotten and vile that its filth made it indestructible. It would survive not one but two apocalypses – consecutive apocalypses, supposedly, on days when we were feeling particularly cocky about its chances. It was a commanding sort of shithole. Smelled of drowned cigarettes and hot pickled breath and didn’t so much host happy hours as it did old Roman-style devotios, like everyone inside was hoping to get drunk enough to forget they were being thrown to lions.
So anyway, after the prez signed off I looked over at her and to this day I’ll never forget what she said. The exact words, and I’m not even paraphrasing here, were, “We’re all gonna be the vestiges of a dead dimension. A permanent golden hour.” And at the time, I had no idea what that meant. All I remember is that she then threw back the last of her beer in triumph and as the white flotsam ran down the sides of it she stared up at the ceiling with that sour mirth coming through her eyes. I’d never been so turned on in all my life.
“You’re taking this pretty well,” is all I could manage in reply.
“It’s funny.” She used the end of her bottle to point up at the TV, one eye squinting. “Take him, for example.” Apparently didn’t notice he was long gone. “He’ll be the last ever. Lameus duckus in perpetuum. Never another. It’s his office from now until infinity. That has to be satisfying, doesn’t it?”
“Does it matter? He’s still stuck like the rest of us.” I stared at my own drink, full to the top of its verdant neck.
“No, not just stuck,” she answered. “You don’t get stuck in the Oval Office. You get enshrined. You get bronzed. Who really gets stuck is the loser looking at what he just left in the shitter. The flusher’s out of reach forever. That’s all he’ll see.”
“Why’s it gotta be a he?”
“That’s the same question I always ask about that,” she shot back, motioning up to the TV again where I imagine she still saw that static blue of the Oval Office. Then she jumped back to her point, raising her glass and making what she probably felt was an incredibly necessary flushing sound, a wet, drunken woosh.
“Well,” I said, “maybe the loser’ll see nothing. We need time to see, don’t we?”
We need time to do anything, actually, but as we know now, it was stubbornly slipping away, almost resigned, like it was refusing to measure our measly little lives any longer, like it was an insult that we even existed within the confines of its grand dimension. Frankly, it was sick of us, and rather than tolerate us any longer it had decided to just blink the hell out.
Carol ignored me. “What’s really funny here is all the sayings we’ll have to retire.” She turned the bottle in her hands, rubbing away the corner of its soggy label with the flat of her thumb.
I laughed, believe it or not. “Like, ‘Time waits for no man’? ‘Ahead of your time’? ‘Time out’?”
“I was thinking of Gollum’s riddle in The Hobbit: ‘This thing all things devours’.”
“Oh, stop. You love that book.”
“Yeah, sure, but I didn’t immediately think of it when pondering the end of the world.”
Not the end of the world, though. The end of time. The world will stay behind like a beetle in amber. They might not’ve known exactly when it would stop but it wasn’t long before we could all feel it. More than just the dread – the physical part. The work day was getting longer, if such a thing could even be possible. Commutes became things of endurance, like Olympic cross-country, and on the drive home I felt like the Germans must’ve when they returned to Berlin, after the Russians had done their block-by-block press on it. Every day a world war. Mundane tasks were stretched to insane points, points beyond human reckoning even. Hours to turn the keys in the ignition or to tie your shoes or to get a cold, soggy lump of Cheerios from the bowl to your mouth. The most impatient, attention-starved animals on the planet suddenly found themselves, to borrow my father’s words, moving slower than molasses running uphill in the winter.
That’s when the grand Bacchanalia started. Millions of people – white collar, blue collar, golden parachutes, athletes, carnies, sex workers, you name it – just walked away from it all. Hand-in-hand giving their collective two-weeks notice (without the two weeks, of course. One was precious enough. They needed the extra time to drink and smoke and snort and fuck. The cops out there with them, dancing in their riot gear. What’s the point, if crime can’t even be quantified? I think it was Carol who asked me that. We were all amateur horologists suddenly.)
For the record, I didn’t follow any of them. To me, there’s no difference getting caught for all eternity in a black, beer-drowned dive or out on the gray highway under pillars of exhaust or up against some stranger’s ass with a needle hanging out of your arm. It’s all the same monotony. If our lives are truly ticking down into the equivalent of a dusty old wax museum then I want to be surrounded by color and light and the brashest joy available to me, all those baubles of our civilization (the same ones they’ve always said you can’t take with you, ironically enough – well, what about getting stuck with them?)
I’m not even sure how the idea occurred to me. I reason that somewhere in the back of every American’s brain there’s a muse, the Adam of our own labors, sewn together like a confluence of car ads and candybar wrappers and Internet porn and miniature Old Glories and all the other shit we revel in, and he’s driving us on towards our brilliantly stupid ideas. Segways and Snuggies and Stadium Pals, all his work. Probably looks like Bob’s Big Boy on acid. So here I am as a result. Back to the present. While everyone else is out there stumbling through the last of their days I’m in pursuit of the tacky, tawdry, and tasteless. Don Quixote looking for toy windmills. This way, when my eyes get stuck for good, I’ll be staring at something that will bring me a little grin, even if it is a silent, frozen one.
I’ve already rigged up a generator to keep the TV glowing as bright and as long as forever will be. Did the same for other gadgets, too. Tablets and phones and every little lamp, anything that can light up, really, even that tacky white miniature Christmas Tree my ex had gifted me, the porcelain one with the sky blue bulbs shaped like birds roosting on the branches. It’s sitting next to the pear-shaped angel made of resin and stone I got from the townhouse on Limeric Square and the penguin with all of its color rubbed off, just a seagull now I guess (that was old Mrs. Pineda’s), and the other fowl, naturally, like the monstrous peacock welded together from rusted lawnmower blades and handheld cultivators. All of it’s draped with pastel tree lights. The big, waterdrop-shaped ones, of course. I’ve even ripped the blinds from the balcony doors so the sun and the moon and the stars and all the streetlights could beam in and every last person spying from the outside could see it, my stern, noble, drunken monument. Rabochiy i Kolkhoznitsa as imagined by Gaudí.
I think it’s a fitting metaphor, considering that the apartment now sports an aura like a nuclear afterglow. Christmas in Chernobyl crammed into a two-bedroom. Every night I sit in the dead center of the fallout like a dazed survivor, so blinded by it all that I hardly notice the rippling, puke-beige carpet I haven’t vacuumed in three months. Distractions every which way, mosaics of color and blinking commercials and white noise from the glowing displays. Just a clumsy, exquisite circus with my stupid grin in the middle.
It’s never enough, though. At night when the street revelers are at their loudest I’m scanning my marks in the suburbs, picking up anything that’s not nailed down and cramming it into the backseat. The only thing left to stop me is the occasional dog. I return with the spoils and spend most of my mornings arranging the new additions. Everything has its place.
Something strange is happening, though – not strange according to the new, time-slowing-down standard, of course, but strange enough. Yesterday the neighbors started to gather right underneath my balcony, pointing. They didn’t say much at first. Just watched. I expected mass ridicule or an inevitable eviction but the overwhelming feeling was just anticipation, like they were waiting for some miracle to conjure from the hideous DayGlo of color in my living room. As today passes (slower than the one before, natch), they come with their offerings, like magi carrying light-up Santas and Tiki bug torches and more strings of tasteless lights and even inflatables – giant Snoopys resting their giant heads on their giant brick-red doghouses.
Eventually I can’t see anything of them but their shapes and colors. Not necessarily a bad thing. After some shuffling the crowd hooks them up by a daisy chain of surge protectors, their cords trailing out like little black tails, and all at once in the dark there’s a firework burst, a vivid, flamboyant hellfire that would make even the colorblind wince. The crowd is in the hundreds now, a thousand even, gathered along the walkway and swelling towards the road. I can see the lights the whole way back and the shape of the people’s eyes caught in the thick radiance. There’s a mild satisfaction in them now, like the sense of completion you get when you finish one of those weekend-long jigsaw puzzles, piecing it together until your neck feels permanently bent from poring over it so much. You toil until you don’t know what you toil for but then when it’s finished you step back and drink it all in and you realize it’s a thing, silly or throwaway as it might be. A real thing.
I watch the people watching me and I must have the same look in my face as them. (Guess I stole it just like I did all their lawn ornaments.) I don’t know what to do. Not one for speeches or song-and-dances. So I decide to do what I’ve always wanted – besides the shrine, of course – and next thing I know I’m calling up Carol, somehow having worked up the nerve. She says yes like she’s always been my high school sweetheart. An hour later she’s standing next to me looking out at this sea of kaleidoscopic light. It blazes in on us like a tidal surge and the mob outside watches as we’re lit in reds and yellows and blues and the whole damn color wheel.
And here’s where finally she explains the golden hour to me: When the light is perfect, she says, her voice quieter than it’s ever been. A soft aura that allows every photo taken under its reign to come out more perfect than you could ever imagine. Usually dawn or dusk. But she prefers the long way, to think of it like the opening and shutting of an eyelid. She smiles. The world we behold liquefies and coats us, she tells me, and as this immaculate, ghostly glaze drips down it fills in our scars and conceals our wrinkles and forgives every little wound that time has inflicted. The camera is seeing what we so desperately want it to, what we see out of our little pupils when the edges of our eyes are closing into dreams.
I smile back at her. Golden hour. God, I love that phrase. It’s a hell of a lot better than temporal decay. And, at the risk of hubris, it’s exactly what I’ve made here. What we’ve made here. A permanent golden hour. The world as we’d like to see it, gilded by a seamless light.
I’m not sure how much time has passed now, or rather, how little. The light is perpetual, drowning out all else, even the dawn. I’ve sat here staring at it for a century maybe, enjoying the last gasp of a cocktail party that will go on going on. Breath slips in and out of me like a slow tide, like it’s being drawn and pulled by the moon. Everything has in fact become so grand as to be geological. My eyes blinking are tectonic shifts in the earth and the fidgeting of my hands planetary revolutions. We’ve gone and supplanted the heavenly bodies, all of us. It took the death of time to finally make us gods.
But none of that matters now. Not our place, not our dominion, not even our fate. Only the light. Bathing like this in the radiance of the lawn ornaments and garish Christmas bulbs I would gladly serve, to borrow sweet, lovely Carol’s words, as the vestige of a dead dimension. Even in the face of the decay or deterioration or whatever they want to call it, whatever’s whimpering to its death, I would do it. I would stand witness to the great, eternal dissolution.