by Derick Varn
continued from part I
“This may be the generation that will face Armageddon.”
–Ronald Reagan, People Magazine
At eight-years old, I had no idea how to respond to a Protestant service. My mind had long since adjusted to both Catechism and Dharma, but had little patience for the passionate yelling of a Southern Baptist. My mother held my hand as Brother Doug read from Revelations, Chapter 20: “Then I saw an angel come down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the abyss and a heavy chain. He seized the dragon, the ancient serpent, which is the Devil, and tied it up for a thousand years and threw it into the abyss, which he locked over it and sealed, so it could no longer lead the nations astray.”
His voice trailed off as I struggled to lift my ever-heavy eyes. The pastor’s face was beet-red, and his eyes were etched with resolve that penetrated his nervous system causing him to convulse as he spoke.
I heard “Ronald Reagan” and my eyes turned towards the pulpit. I knew the President’s name; he had been in office since just after my birth. I knew my Catholic mother didn’t approve of him, but she was in the minority here. Bother Doug was almost ecstatic as he chanted, “Even our great President knows that the time is nigh and our battle with the Evil Empire is near.”
“We have an actor for a President, sweetheart,” She whispered to me later that night as we watched the news with my stepfather.
In the pew that day, I asked my mother who was the Evil Empire. She whispered, “Either Satan and his legions or Mikhail Gorbachev and the Red Army. It depends on who’s talking about it.”
“Yes, mom,” I tried focusing on the pastor who was calling poor sinners to the front if they felt the spirit move them. “Is Gorbachev that guy with the red thing on his head?”
“Hush, sweetheart.” She squeezed my hand. I sat quietly until we sang “Blessed Be the Glory.” As we walked out of church my mother said that I should ignore most of what the pastor said about the end times.
“Son, some people have passion for the Lord, but they don’t use the brains that the Lord blessed them with. Remember that St. Paul reminds us always to be rational and live life like Jesus would return tomorrow. These people, well, Chris, they see the last part, but ignore the first.” My mother seemed unusually quiet when we got into the blue mini-van where my brothers huddled, just out of the children’s service.
“Why don’t we go to Mass anymore, mom?”
“Because there is no Cathedral nearby. Anyway, we live in a small town now and this is the proper thing to do.”
“The Center Cannot Hold.”
Judy and Sandoz wrapped themselves around me. Winter of 1997 was particularly harsh in South Atlanta. Judy’s hair rubbed against my face, each strand sharpened to blue points. It was amazing, the power of wood-glue. Judy had not seen a shower in a week. The two girls had tiny frames; neither of them weighed more than 95 pounds. They both smelled of sweat and rain. Their grip around me was tight, since I was the largest and by default the warmest.
“Get up, we got to go. We don’t need any fuckin’ pigs moving us with night sticks,” Germ said as he kicked my knee with his worn Doc Martin’s he claimed to have stolen. Germ’s mohawk was bright orange from two packs of Kool-Aid. When he had access to water, he’d shave his head with a straight razor he hid in his pocket. Judy called him “King of the Gutter Punks.” When I had interviewed with him the day before, he had reminded me that, “People who weekend on the streets are gutter punks. We live on trash scores and ground scores, shit you pick up from the waste.”
Germ was conviction; he watched over us. Spange was more or less his toadie, a guitarist in a punk band in Macon. He commuted to Little Five for weeks at a time to live with Germ, the gutter punks, the junkies, and the rest of the Little Five squatters. Ultimately, he was suburban, and, if any of us had non-pandered money, it was him. Spange was so named because he did most of our spanging–i.e. begging in the street corners. Either way, he was our bank. Spange and Judy had brought me into this roofless world.
“When the system ain’t givin’ us anything, we got to opt out man,” Spange talked as if he had rehearsed these lines for years. His mouth slowed his words as he threw out rhetoric tinged with slang.
“That’s communism, Spange,” I replied over a Big Mac as we sat in a hospital McDonald’s.
“No, dude, we got to fuckin’ rebel. We can’t win if we play by their rules. I mean ‘the center can’t hold’ and all that.”
“Spange, where’d you get that?” I said taking a bite of my Big Mac and trying to gag down the chunks of secret sauce.
“I don’t know, man.”
“You got it from William Butler Yeats.” I stared at Judy as she sat silent beside Spange. Two months ago, she converted in a Pentecostal church and had seven demons released from her body after full emersion in water. Each one corresponded to a sin she had committed, the strongest sin was that of homosexuality. This demon she had described as latching onto her spine as the Pastor pulled it out with all the power Christ could muster. She said the pastor’s face was blistered red as the demon let go its hold on her soul. Now, she was sleeping with Spange and Sandoz. Later, when we were staring out at the lights above Atlanta and eating cold-cut subs while we carefully picked out mold, she whispered, “Chris, this makes me feel dirty.”
That day I watched Judy’s hands as she nibbled on her fries. Her cuticles were ragged and her hands yellowed and slightly leathery. I could tell that while the skin of her arms and legs were tender, those hands would not feel pinpricks. Spange’s palms were soft, but the guitar strings afforded him calluses on the tips of his fingers. My hands were hardening, but had no leathery patches.
I agreed after two hours of Spange’s heckling. It was my senior year of high school. Between Advance Placement English and studying Mahayana Buddhism intently, I had been writing a ‘zine that I printed on photocopier. It was my world. Spange knew this and so Germ knew this, thus I was invited to stay with the Little Five squatters for as long as I wanted. The deal was simple, in exchange for an interview, I’d helped them fight off the local skinheads and steal trash for food. It would be my chance to relive the gonzo journalism of Steinbeck and Hunter S. Thompson. Eating stew with hobos, jumping train cars with Okies, zooming through the Nevada desert on mescaline, and living in hotels under false names. I would write my experiences of total freedom, then return to my suburban life and warm bed.
“Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can’t teach God anything.
God asks me what I remember.
I remember everything.”
--Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
The first time I saw David Fincher’s adaptation of Fight Club, I was visiting a friend at Georgia Tech. In a run-down conference hall, the movie was projected from video onto a large draped sheet. The left end of the movie was cut off and its omnicolor glory danced on a whitewashed brick wall. Brad Pitt and Edward Norton seemed to bring Project Mayhem into focus—a sexy nihilistic nightmare. From making soap from human fat to blowing up credit unions, the ethos seemed eerily familiar. The one-liners were out of sync with the picture, but the ambience seemed to add something.
“What’d you think, Chris,” a friend asked as we walked across Tech campus to her room. My visit there had been planned for months and the whole time, she had begged me to see Fight Club since its theatrical release.
“It’s a little too familiar,” I shivered in the autumn breeze as we walked past a fountain. Water misted our arms, making goose bumps jump on our skin. She held my hand to guide me back to her room. I noticed how smooth her fingers were against my palm.
“Fuck Armageddon, This is Hell.”
–Bad Religion, “Fuck Armageddon, This is Hell.”
Sandoz kissed Judy lightly as we ran through North Atlanta. Little Five was a business district on the outskirts of ideal neighborhoods for younger professionals. The irony of it was, fashion in the mid-90's made distinguishing a squatter from a hipster solely a matter of smell. Hip shops brought all sorts to Atlanta’s answer to Seattle. Euclid Avenue was lined with both over-priced and thrift vintage clothing shops, The Point hosted all sorts of concerts, and the gardens around Inman Park, while beautiful, were host to all varieties of vagrants and yuppies. From hash to bondage pants to imported henna, it all could be found in Little Five. It was a panhandler’s wet dream.
In the interview, Germ reacted violently to my mentioning of the tourist industry. “They don’t know what it’s all about,” Germ’s voice registered almost an octave higher, “They’re a bunch of yuppie kinds trying to rebel and they’re making us look bad by running away and buying shitty punk albums.”
You’re wearing a Bad Religion shirt.” I responded, scrawling down what he said as fast as I could write. My notebook was warped from rain and it made writing all the more difficult. The pencil marks faded almost as quickly as they were put to paper. Spange pissed in the corner nearby. I could hear it splash against the wall and became nauseous.
“That’s hardcore man, not this new pussy punk shit. They need to take their Green Day and Rancid back to fuckin’ Suburbia.” Germ spat as he talked. “We got to fight off crackheads, the cops, and Nazis. We got to take their world down, it’s got to fall.”
“You sound like a bible thumper, Germ. You must know that. All this talk of the end of our system of living.” I omitted my response from the shorthand. Germ took out his boot knife, fingered it for a second, slipping it back under the tongue of his shoe.
“Fuck Armageddon, man. This is Hell.”
“So why conserve anything if judgment day is at hand?”
–Gore Vidal, “Armageddon?,” The Observer, 1997.
Late August of 2002, I reread an article by Gore Vidal that was reprinted in his collection of essays, At Home. I was reflecting on Penton’s article and trying to form a rebuttal after two months of silence on the subject. His accusation of irresponsibility related to the political fatalism and Sharon’s maxim, “Anyone can be an Anti-Christ,” still rang fresh in my ears.
Reading Vidal muse on the Reagan administration’s relationship to both the arms race, Scofield’s Millennialism, and Christian Zionism hit a nerve. Jon was right about fatalism’s laziness and the dangers of just saying it would all be over soon. According to Vidal, the arms race and the possibility of mutually assured destruction did not faze Reagan’s administration because it didn’t matter. The world was ending: red menace or no, nuclear warhead or no. There was no need to worry about it, because the Millennium was near and so was the assembly of nations that would meet at Armageddon, signifying the end of days.
I felt my pulse rise. “Anyone can be an Anti-Christ” ran through my head as I continued to read through Vidal’s conspiratorial webbing that had nodes that linked everything from Western New Rich to Zionists to the 700 Club. My mouth became a desert. I set down the book and took a shower.
“That was about economics?” I scrubbed my body as hard as I could with a sponge. Sharon’s face morphed into the battered blonde and again into the haunting familiar face of the girl with spiked hair. The water seemed warm and almost sticky. I quickly finished bathing, wrapped myself in a towel, and looked out the window. The sky was a grotesque gray-blue. I grabbed a Sam Adams from the fridge.
“What are you doing drinking this early in the day?” Sarah laughs as she sees me dripping on the tile with a beer in my hand.
“I was trying to write an article for Jon.”
. “I’ve got this epic problem. This epic problem is not a problem for me.”
--Fugazi, “Epic Problem”
Germ drank out of a fountain in the Marta station. The subway security was looming, so we moved quickly, stopping to talk once we got on a train. It was almost all of our change to get the tokens. “We are taking the South bound to downtown.”
“Why?” Judy asked. Her eyes were lined with veins and dark circles grew under them. “We could have slept in Inman Park. It’s safer there. Less junkies.”
“And more cops,” Germ picked food from his teeth. “The pigs know there are more squatters in Little Five because we police our own. I’d rather deal with crack fiends than cops.”
I eyed a security guard. She seemed to pass our bench every few minutes as we waited for the southbound train. Sandoz washed her face in the public restroom. As she walked over to us with a wet face, Germ glared at her.
“Why do they call you Germ?” I glanced over my shoulder for the security guard.
“Man, I got that name because of chicks. I pick up chicks like most people pick up germs. I bounce from chick to chick like a germ.”
“How noble.” Sandoz dried her face with her shirt. The sweat in her hair was causing dye to run down the back of her neck. “Don’t listen to him.”
“What do you think, Chris?” Judy grabbed my shoulder to get my attention. “This is freedom, right?”
“Well. Poverty does lead to independence from the petty wants of the world. It can bring Enlightenment.”
“Don’t give me that Buddhist guru shit of yours.” Germ and Spange shot up as the train pulled into the station, brakes squealing as it came to a stop. Judy and I looked at each other. She sighed.
To be continued...
Derick Varn is a poet and longstanding contributor to Unlikely Stories. Check out his literary works at this site.