Norman Prentiss

Excerpts from The Apocalypse-a-Day Desk Calendar

Lava Scape

December 31

New Year’s Eve

 

As this dreadful year comes to a close, you realize that everything in this Apocalypse-a-Day calendar is a metaphor. It is all true.

For example, the apocalypse of monstrous childbirth represents all your failed dreams. The apocalypse of terrorism forces you to confront your cultural and racial prejudices, which you unsuccessfully attempt to deny. The apocalypse of aging reenacts your own fears that life fades with each breath, passing faster than you could have ever imagined.

And on and on.

You realize that next year there will be another calendar like this one. As with most calendars, the dates and entries will repeat the previous year’s bleak, relentless patterns.

 

 

December 30

“Dear Apocalypse”

[The Advice Column for our Troubled Times]

 

Dear Apocalypse,

 

I was wondering if you could give me advice about a property dispute I’m having with my current neighbor.

Remember during big snowstorms, when city people had to clear out their own parking spaces on the street?  All that effort, but then you’d have to go to the store or to work, and you didn’t want somebody just to swoop in and take the space after you drove off.  So you’d put a lawn chair in the cleared space, which meant it was yours for the duration of the storm.  You’d earned it, through a kind of sweat equity.

Different day, different storm — right?

See, I’ve put a lot of effort into improving the home I’m occupying now.  The gates are reinforced with locks and chains I scavenged from the hardware store.  I’m the one who gathered boards and nails and metal bars, and used them to secure the doors and ground floor windows.  I also figured out how to make two of the fireplaces work, and set up a generator to power the  stainless-steel kitchen appliances.

Granted the house was pretty nice to begin with — during the initial crisis, I claimed the best place I could find.  But I’ve been a good homeowner.  I made some real improvements to the property.

Imagine my surprise when this guy shows up and starts yelling through the front gate.  He says he’s the son of the former occupant, and demands that I vacate his family home.

Well, as I told him, things don’t work that way anymore.  There’s no point to land surveyors or property deeds.  Possession has gone from 9/10ths to 100 per cent of the law — if we had laws, that is, or police to reinforce them.

I’ve got my locks and keys, but this guy — let’s call him Dwayne — moved into a fallen down carriage house across the street and keeps glowering at me.  The minute I leave, I think he’s going to try to crowbar his way into the house I renovated — not respecting the figurative lawn chair I’ve placed in the parking space I’ve shoveled out.

I was thinking, Apocalypse, maybe you could knock some sense into him.  Print my letter, and add your own response to help this Dwayne guy listen to reason.

What do you say?

 

Signed,

Homeowner in Hartford

 

 

* * *

 

Dear Homeowner,

 

What planet do you think you’re living on?  If there’s no law and order, there’s no law and order.  Any guy who wants to kick over your lawn chair and ram his car in your space, he’s got my blessing.

And you can respond however you like.  Be an animal or be a gracious loser.  Your choice.

Or maybe, just maybe, recognize that Dwayne has his own claim to the property, as valid (or more so) than your own.  If that’s true, you might consider a mutually beneficial compromise — for example, share the property and work together to improve it further.

But that kind of solution might be beyond human abilities at this point.

 

Signed,

The Apocalypse

 

#

December 29

No Interruptions Day (Last Work Day of the Year)

 

Sometimes Pitkin’s boss gave him hard and firm deadlines, and those were easy to meet.  But the self-imposed deadlines, the things Pitkin simply wanted to get done — that, for some emotional reason, he needed to cross off his “To Do” list — those tasks always seemed to sneak up on him.

Pitkin knew the divisions of days and weeks were artificial.  A job not finished by close of business on Friday could be taken home over the weekend, or could be approached with fresh vigor on Monday morning.  But Pitkin liked to have his mind clear over the weekend.  He liked to have a fresh start each Monday.

Which meant, always, that on Friday afternoon Pitkin was a whirlwind of activity.  His fingers flew across computer keys, giving final answers to neglected emails or filling spreadsheet columns before clicking the “Total” button.  Pages coughed out of his laser printer, to be stacked stapled and then pushed into folders for the “resolved cases” drawer.  Pitkin’s breathy sigh often rose from his cubicle on these afternoons, along with the rustle of crumpled paper, the frantic drag of an eraser across the page, an angry jostle of the paperclip tray as metal links deliberately refused to uncouple.

“He practically bit my head off,” a new employee might say, but would never again make the mistake again of disturbing Pitkin on Friday afternoon.

Worst of all, though, was the day sometimes referred to as “No Interruptions Day.”  This was the final workday of the year — the most powerful of all Pitkin’s artifical deadlines.    His “To Do” list loomed over his soul, those tasks carried over unfinished from week to week, and now the year threatens to end with lingering, unmet goals.  “I’ve got to finish X before I leave,” he’d say.  “I really need to finish Y.”  Then, “I’ll just die if I don’t finish Z.”

Sharp whispers broadcast these ambitionss from his cubicle.  His co-workers knew to stay away.

When the Emergency Alert bleated on their phones and flashed across their computer screens, Pitkin’s co-workers began to cry and hug each other, made frantic calls to their families, began to rush for the elevators or safer stairwells.

Out of habit, they didn’t interrupt Pitkin.   If they thought of him at all, they probabaly expected he’d hear the Alert on his own.

But nobody saw him in the elevator or in the stairwell.

As the Alert bleated through the nearly emptied office, keys clicked in Plitkin’s cubicle and his printer continued to cough out pages.  “Just a few minutes more,” he said to himself, “and I’ll be done.”

 

#

December 28

1973 – Endangered Species Act (U.S.)

 

“Sadly, the Dodo and the Dinosaurs were extinct long before government regulations could adjust their ecosystems.  In more recent times, however, the Bald Eagle and the Grizzly Bear are among many species that benefited from being placed on an Endangered Species list.  Such lists help raise public awareness, and encourage policy adjustments to improve conditions for species with dwindling populations.

“Policy intervention, such as that provided by the Endangered Species Act — signed into U.S. law on December 28, 1974 — has contributed to the survival of many animals who might otherwise have disappeared from our planet.

“To be granted entry into the List, several criteria must be met, as outlined in section 4(a)(1) of the Act.  The species currently under review seems to qualify in categories 1 and 5:

“The first category refers to ‘the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment of [a species’] habitat.’  It would be difficult to overstate the far-reaching effect of recent events on the habitat of the species in question.

“The fifth category refers to ‘manmade factors affecting [a species’] continued existence.’  Here, as with many previous endangered species, we again see the negative consequences of human behavior.

“It’s beside the point that this time, however, the negative behavior is self-directed.  I hereby petition that Humans be added to the current Endangered Species List.

“The Hawaiian Goose increased in number from roughly 400 in 1980, to an impressive 1,275 in 2003, prompting removal from the Endangered List.  We can only pray that our own numbers follow a similarly impressive pattern.”

December 27

All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

 

Mason endured a harangue from the latest indignant passerby, a librarian-faced woman with a fake leather coat pulled tight over her stick-thin torso.  She shivered with anger, rather than from the cold, as she accused his sidewalk booth of exploiting other people’s tragedy, declared that his merchandise was crude and offensive and probably illegal as well.

The stack of T-shirts had set her off, particularly the “I Survived The Apocalypse &…” designs.  Good thing she didn’t notice the bumper stickers.

“Don’t like it, then don’t buy it.  Move along.”  Clearly she wasn’t a potential customer, so he didn’t need to be polite to her.

“People died, you know.”

“Oh really?  I hadn’t realized.”

Cath almost snorted at Mason’s mock-innocent delivery.  She put her hand over her mouth and faked a cough.

“You should be ashamed.  You should both be ashamed.”  At this the woman finally decided to give up, and she huffed away down the sidewalk.

“Have a nice day,” he said.

Cath smiled.  “All the crazies latch onto you,” she said, and he knew his girlfriend got a kick out of watching them yell at him.  Whenever people had complaints, they went straight to Mason, assuming he was the guy in charge and that the whole sick thing was his idea.  Well, they were mostly right about that, even if it was kind of a sexist assumption.  Cath got to sit back and wait out each impromptu protest; but whenever there were sales, the payment usually got handed to her.

Mason refused to feel guilty.  Sure, the T-shirts and mugs and stuff were in bad taste — but you could say the same about a lot of humor.  People don’t want to wear slogans like “A Penny Saved is a Penny Earned” or “Every Cloud has a Silver Lining” or other boring crap.  Even before the Apocalypse hit, his best sellers were rude shirts proclaiming “My Kid Beat Up Your Honor Roll Kid” or “Jesus Loves You, But He Thinks You’re Ugly.”  The more outrageous the better — and what could be more outrageous than selling joke shirts about the Apocalypse, a few days after it actually happened.

Somebody had to do it.  The first guy to market always did the best business, and Mason already had an established “Sidewalk Sale” routine.  He had an inventory of bulk T-shirts from the Save Lots, a cheap cotton blend, and he printed out heat-transfer designs on his home inkjet.  The image would start to fade after a dozen washings, but by then the novelty would be over — or civilization itself, if the weather and radiation trends continued as expected.

All last night, he and Cath took turns, one person sweating over the ironing board with a Sunbeam set on steam, while the other person scoured the Internet for images and slogans to repurpose with some apocalyptic twist.  The “Nuclear Family” design, with skeleton or mutant variations, was already a top-seller.  A “Keep Calm” shirt was also popular, complete with a stenciled handprint — bloody and six-fingered, of course.  A simple outline of the state, with a mushroom cloud superimposed over it, and fallout shelter icons marking the larger cities, did better than Mason expected.  It wasn’t their most elegant design, slapped together at the last-minute.  But people really liked t-shirts that mentioned where they lived.

A college kid was rushing past the display, but he stopped himself once one of the shirt designs caught his eye.  His school-mascot windbreaker was unzipped, and Mason noticed he wore a competitor’s faded T-shirt underneath:  the image and slogan weren’t quite imaginative or offensive enough to have come from Mason’s table.

“Hey, that one’s pretty good.”  The student pointed at a shirt that parodied a popular TV comedy, all the friendly cast members turned to ash in their favorite coffee shop.  The potential customer bounced on his feet like an athlete anxious for the next pass, or someone needing to find a restroom.

Or, running away from something terrible.

The guy waved a hand over Mason’s merchandise table, leaned forward and said, “You might want to add a few zombie items.  Just sayin’.”

Mason raised an eyebrow.

“Reports are just coming in,” the guy said.  “It’s apparently pretty bad.  Happening everywhere.  Catch you later.”  And he ran off.

Cath raised a hand over her mouth — not to stifle a laugh this time.  She looked around at other casual pedestrians.  Some of them were running.  In the distance, a few of them were shambling.

Mason got an idea for a new shirt.  He scribbled a quick image and slogan on the back of an order sheet, then held it up for Cath to see.

 

#

December 26

National Thank-You Note Day

 

To a Kind Stranger,

 

I know “Thank You” notes have become a rare formality in this day and age.

People fell into the habit of making a quick phone call or sending a text, didn’t they?

The only time I imagined I’d be sending Thank You cards would be to show appreciation for my wedding gifts.  But I never got married.  I don’t imagine that’s ever going to happen now.

Some organization or other, probably the greeting card folks, decided to designate December 26 as National Thank-You Note Day.  The idea was to thank all the people who gave you Christmas gifts — or gifts for whatever seasonal holiday you practiced.

I didn’t get any holiday gifts this year.

Still, in the spirit of the season, I’m writing you this note.  I decided what you’ve done for me needs a proper, old-fashioned acknowledgement.

You might be surprised.  You might be asking yourself, Who’s writing me this letter?  Or thinking, I don’t remember giving a gift or doing anybody any favors!

Well, things might make a little more sense once you look around.  But I’ll give you a few hints here.

First off, thanks for not locking your front window.  It makes it so much easier to get inside while you’re away.

Thanks, also, for leaving your medications in a predictable upstairs cabinet.  You might have been saving those antibiotics for yourself or your kids, but I promise I’ll make good use of them — and the pain pills — over the next couple weeks.

Thanks for the blankets and woolen coats in your downstairs closet, and the suitcase to store them in.  The winds are bitter cold, especially at night, and I’m looking forward to feeling warm again.

Thanks for the generous supply of water and non-perishable food.  I took as many bottles and cans and sealed pouches as I could fit into your wheeled cart (also mine now).  Unfortunately, I didn’t leave many provisions for you and your family, but I’m thinking…wherever you got the supplies to begin with, you could try getting more from the same place, right?

As a way to repay your unsuspecting generosity, I’ve written this Thank You note to tell you what I did, and how I did it.  Maybe you’ll take better precautions in the future.

 

Yours,

A Grateful Friend

 

P.S.  Don’t try to find me.  I also took your sharpest kitchen knives, along with the guns and ammo you thought you’d hidden so well behind the sweaters on the top shelf of your bedroom closet.

December 25

Christmas Day

 

“In this season of giving, we celebrate the birth of God’s only Son.”

You fidget uncomfortably in the wooden pew.  The priest has only been speaking for a few minutes, but it’s clear he’s just getting warmed up.

“But what is the true meaning of Christmas? There are several ways we can attempt to answer that question.  The first — ”

The sigh escapes your mouth before you have a chance to stifle it.   Two rows up, a family turns their heads in unison to locate the source of the disrespectful sound.  The priest pauses in his address, as if he’s heard it, too.

Your parents sit on either side of you.  Your mother, you know, is mortified.  Your father puts his hand on your knee and squeezes hard.

“First, we can consider the spiritual message of Christmas.  This is the most obvious meaning of this important day, but it can sometimes be the easiest to forget…”

You wonder how we could possibly forget. You’re only eleven years old, and you’ve heard the religious message each year, in the same words and phrases.  Your parents insist on attending church on Christmas morning, before the family gets to open presents.

“Next, we can consider Christmas as a community gathering.  I’m reminded of a story…”

You glance through the printed bulletin and see all the sections still remaining after the sermon. Three hymns, The Lord’s Prayer, three more hymns.  Communion.  The offering, the hymn of the offering, special prayers.  Three more hymns.

“Finally, the giving I mentioned at the start. The gifts we shop for all month, then exchange with each other. What would Christmas be without gifts?”  The priest stepped to the side of the podium, leaving his prepared words behind.  In your experience, this move usually meant the sermon was drawing to a close.  But during Christmas sermons, the move often signaled a lengthy, extended analogy.

You look at your watch and estimate at least ten more minutes to the sermon, thirty more for the remainder of the service.

“We’re all familiar with the cartoon monster who steals the presents and decorations from a small town.  In that story, the religious meaning, and the sense of community, all survive despite the loss of the gifts.  The gifts aren’t important: that’s the lesson of the little cartoon.”

He points down the aisle to the back of the church.  Two ushers move to the exit doors and stand before them with their arms crossed.

“Because honestly, “the priest says, “would it really be the end of the world if we never got to open our presents?”

The priest closes his eyes and lifts his head to the ceiling.  Outside, a thick cloud seems to pass over the sun.  Colorful light fades from stained glass windows, and the church grows dark except for candlelight.  A strange gust of wind whistles low through the church, extinguishing the candles.  The priest’s eyes glow red in the dark.

You wonder what you would have gotten this year.

 

December 24

Christmas Eve

 

“You’ve been talking to your friends, haven’t you?”

Pammy shakes her head back and forth, the covers pulled up tight to her chin.  You’ve already turned off the bedside lamp, and the glowworm nightlight casts soft shadows over your daughter’s face.  She always looks so innocent at bedtime, once the day’s opportunities for mischief  have passed.  You’ve learned not to underestimate her, however:  even a five-year-old can find clever excuses to stay up late or, at this time of year, negotiate some variation to long-held holiday traditions.

Your daughter wants her Christmas presents early.

“It doesn’t matter if Benton’s family shares their gifts the night before,”  you say, trying to keep the irritation from your voice even though you’re repeating an argument you’ve made countless times before.  “In our family, the proper time is Christmas morning.  The anticipation makes the day even more special.  You’ll see.”

“That’s not what I mean,” Pammy says, her lower lip pressing out in a slight pout.  Other nights she might have kicked her feet beneath the blanket, but she knows better than to stage a tantrum on Christmas Eve.  Jolly Saint Nick is still watching.  He still has time to put her on the “Naughty” list.

The thought of Santa offers the easiest strategy to refute your daughter’s request.  “Santa’s not even here yet,” you tell her.  “You can’t open presents until he brings them.”

“Are you sure?”  Pammy’s eyes flash, searching the glow-lit room as if she could see through the walls and down the stairs to the living room where their decorated tree awaits — and the tray of cookies Pammy left out, which Gene usually nibbles at while arranging foil-wrapped packages.  “Can you check right now, and come back to tell me?”

“No, Pammy.  Santa never arrives this early.”

“When he does come,” Pammy says, “you must wake me.  We’ll open presents then.”

She’s tricked you once again — hoping to turn your own logic against you.  You have to resort to the I-said-so tactic:  “Tomorrow morning.  Not a minute sooner.”

And now an expression of authentic sadness spreads across her face.  This is more than a spoiled child hoping to get her way.  Pammy seems really worried.

Although you’re determined not to change family traditions, you can at least sympathize with your daughter’s distress.  You recall your own fears as a small child, back when you believed in holiday myths.  One Christmas night, you dreamed of Santa’s sleigh colliding with an airplane:  the reindeer killed instantly; presents falling from the sky like giant sparkling hailstones; and a jolly man’s body plummeting to Earth, no screams of “Ho, ho, ho!” before tumbling bone-snapped and lifeless down an unsuspecting family’s chimney.

“Santa’s going to be fine.”  You reach out and offer a comforting pat to your daughter’s head.  “He’s magical.  Nothing can hurt him.”

“I know Santa will be fine.  But what about us?”

Most children have an uncanny ability to ambush their parents with surprising questions, but you’ve always thought Pammy had special skill in that department.  Even so, this latest comment strikes you as particularly strange:  not just the question itself, but the honesty with which Pammy delivered it.

Honesty.  And wisdom.

“Sweetheart, is there something you’re not telling me?”

Your daughter’s eyes flutter around the room, avoiding you.  She whispers a confession, so soft you have to lean close to hear.  “I told a lie earlier.”

You wait, letting Pammy continue at her own pace.

“I told you I hadn’t talked with my friends,” she said.  “I have.  But not really about presents.”

The room seems darker now — not a child’s comforting night-lit bedroom, but more like a cave of whispered, terrifying secrets.

“Benton’s father,” she continues.  “He works with the government.  I’m not supposed to know, but they think something terrible will happen tomorrow.  That’s the real reason they’re opening presents early this year.  They may not get another chance.”

Your daughter sniffs, then wipes at her nose.  A single tear falls down her cheek.

You wonder which of the foil-wrapped packages downstairs might cheer her up — the dollhouse, the miniature tea set, the teddy bear — thinking, like all parents, that you want your child to be happy, you want to distract her from things that might frighten her.  You want to see her face light up with joy, even if it might be for the last time.

 

December 23

Holiday Specials

 

Even though the world’s ended, some people try to keep their sense of humor.

For most of the jokes, you want to tsk, tsk, say “Too Soon.”

For instance, some amateur comedian found a poster for a once-popular holiday movie, and taped it up in the town square.  Stuck it right on the side of the fallen monument.  With a bold black marker, the clown changed the verb tense of the title:  It Was a Wonderful Life.  He’d drawn a large X over Jimmy Stewart’s face, and Donna Reed got the same treatment.  Cartoon skulls covered each of the children’s heads.

You used to love watching that movie with your family.  It had such a beautiful message about the human spirit.

A bit too optimistic, as it turns out.

People couldn’t possibly find this humorous.  You consider tearing down the poster, but decide it’s not your place.

Free speech.  Maybe free speech is all we have left.

Later in the day, you find a second movie poster taped to the monument, and the style of artwork indicates a different culprit.  This film’s title has been altered to Mushroom Cloud on 34th Street.  In a black-and-white photo, a young girl sits on Santa’s lap, and through the department store window a large radioactive explosion appears in a skillful blend of red and orange pastels.

The girl reminds you of the daughter you lost.  The mushroom cloud reminds you of something recent, too, but you’d rather not think about it.

You stop by later in the evening, and find that more “comedians” have struck.  Some people chose to alter actual posters, salvaged from one of the Holiday Village displays in the area’s ransacked pawn shops or chain stores.  Others made their own signs from scratch, ranging in quality from block letters and stick figures, to stencils and collages and impressionistic water colors.

You shiver as you look at the once proud monument, now fallen and plastered with disrespectful, broadsides:

 

The Deaths Before Christmas

The 99 Years Without a Santa Claus

Frost-Eaten the Snowman

Rudolph, the Plague-Nosed Reindeer

 

Tsk, tsk.  The jokes are all terrible.  Terribly unfunny.

You shiver again as you reach beneath your overcoat to retrieve a rolled up sheet of posterboard and a few loose strips of tape.  Unrolling your creation, which you’ve been working on all afternoon, you step forward to add it to the growing display.

 

#

 

December 22

Whistleblower Dreams

 

The Whistleblower prepares his notes for the next public hearing.  He will stand in front of the microphone and address the crowded auditorium.  He will tell them the truth about the facility where he works, warning them about the dark smoke that billows into the air from tall chimneys.

He knows they won’t listen.

 

#

 

Every night, he dreams about being wakened by sirens.

He pulls aside the bedroom curtain, puts his forehead against the window and cups his hands on either side of his face.  In the cone of light beneath the corner street lamp, tiny swirls of black and gray ash drift toward the ground.  Puffs of other colors float through the light, green and orange and blue specks with white fuzz like the mold on bread or cheese.

On the street itself, cars sit motionless on the main highway past their house, a late-night traffic jam worse than a city rush hour.  Were there really this many cars in their little town?

Angry blasts ripple from automobile horns.  Police and ambulance sirens wail at impotent intervals.  The vehicles aren’t going anywhere.

How does it feel to be trapped?

Several of the car doors open, and people run out as if they’re being chased.  All those people who wouldn’t listen, and now they’re screaming, or holding their hands over gagging mouths, or waving their arms as if to shake off flames, or stopping to peel off layers of skin falling from them like crepe-paper streamers.

Even with the window closed, he can hear a hiss like the sizzle of acid, the drip of hamburger over hot charcoal.

His wife is sleeping, her body turned away from the window.  He grabs his feather pillow and presses it to his nose and mouth and leans over the bed to shake her shoulder.  She doesn’t make a sound, and he shakes harder.  The strap to her pajama top slides off her shoulder.  He brushes aside her hair and touches the nape of her neck, the skin soft with a thin layer of down that glows white in the light from the window.  White, like the fuzz of mold on bread or cheese.

She turns her head, finally awake, and her face is covered with ash and thick, pollen-like spores.  A clump of purple mold flutters beneath her nose as she breathes.  His wife opens her mouth to talk, but produces only a muffled gasp, something like a washrag wrapped around her tongue, white and soaking through with dark clots of blood.

He’s in the same room, breathes the same air, and realizes she must be his mirror.  Is he pushing the pillow tighter to his face, or is something suffocating him from within?

 

#

 

The Whistleblower knows the worst that can happen.  He dreams about it every night.

 

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