It was the tediously cyclical nature of the Fourth of July riot that led to my first revelation. I was on a rooftop on Norfolk Street with some comrades and anarchists just a few hours before, watching fireworks explode and them drink because they only had beer and I don’t drink beer. The fireworks were bright and loud but far off, on the far end of the tar beach and water tower horizon. Avijut’s cologne preceded him by a second as he sauntered up to me in a neatly-pressed purple shirt, his longneck like a girlfriend on his arm.
“So, comrade” he said, rolling his r’s, the birdy accent the last remnant of his claim to authenticity. “Doesn’t this remind you of the battle of Stalingrad?”
Though he was in the ISO with me and thus was bound to our theories of state capitalism and our related refusal to defend the Soviet Union, Avijut had cut his teeth in about half-a-dozen different Stalinist parties back home in Bangladesh and was still a bit of a tankie. And it was the fifty-year anniversary of the end of the Second World War, so everyone, even the far left, was taking credit for the win.
I tsked at him. “Didn’t you read SW?” That was Socialist Worker, our paper. “We’re about resistance movements, not fucking Stalin!” At least it was better than debating Deleuze and Guattari with him. He had never even read Deleuze and Guattari. I was ready to end it early and drop the G-bomb, gulag, but he was interested so I mentioned France and then dived into Greece and ELAS and Stalin’s betrayal of them in order to keep the British happy and then this woman whose name I have forgotten—though I remember she was tall and stood like a transgendered rooster when she talked, and she was supposedly an Edison heir who wrote the checks that kept the local anarchist bookstore in what they all unironically called “business”—interrupted to denounce me as a petit nationalist since I’m Greek and told us it was really all about the Spanish Civil War and where was Trotsky then and no POUM didn’t count so don’t even start and then Marina walked up to us with her boyfriend Roy and offered everyone more beers and smiled apologetically at me for not having anything but tap water for me to drink.
Marina was a comrade, and Roy a sleepy grad student anarchist she had tried to recruit but instead ended up moving in with. She was a short woman with high cheekbones, the kind men liked to talk to, which is why she sold so many SWs on our Saturday afternoon paper sales. Roy stood next to her and ran his fingers through his hair constantly, leaving it to stick up. Throw enough basketballs through a toilet lid and you could have won Roy at a carnival. He mumbled something about sectarianism, which is really all he ever did as far as I could tell. Even the fridge downstairs in the apartment he shared with Marina was covered in the Post-it Notes they left for one another; on them they slowly but surely debated the need for a revolutionary party and also reminded one another to get dishwasher fluid. They never did resolve the party question, and the sink was full of dirty dishes.
The fireworks ended, and the political disagreements over who’d round up and kill whom after the revolution were drowned in El Presidente, so we moved downstairs to the apartment. I found myself by the fridge, smirking, instead of “talking to people,” which I put in quotes because talking to people at a party of political sorts meant speaking to anarchists about the ISO and trying to win them over.
“Why aren’t you talking to people?” Marina asked me. She opened the fridge slowly, so as not to interrupt my reading, and pulled out a small plastic jar of hummus or something equally noxious and vegetarian that everyone but me would be sure to love as a dip for the crazy blue organic barley chips I didn’t like either. I feared for the fate of pretzels and normal potato chips after the revolution. Not really, but I used to tell people that, to test them for humanity.
“I disagree with the perspective; we shouldn’t be trying to win rich grad school anarchists. They’re committed to their own thing already. See?” I ran my fingers against the curved edges of the aging Post-it Notes.
“Well, disagree with it or not, we all agreed to it,” she said.
I rolled my eyes, “I can see why you’re not winning Roy over, if that’s your argument.”
She sniffed at the contents of the container, and her nose twitched dramatically. “This isn’t what I thought it was.”
I pointed to another Post-it Note; a shopping list. “Did you lose the hummus argument too?”
She smiled and said, “The hummus argument is the most important argument facing the working class today.” I laughed because Marina rarely joked, and I wanted to encourage her. In the other room, the phone rang and Roy picked it up. He walked past the kitchen’s doorway and into the dark hallway by the apartment door to get away from the chatter and the Brazilian guitar music that filled the book-laden living room. Seconds later he was in the kitchen, grabbing up the empty beer bottles with a wide sweep of his arms and calling out to his friends, “The squatters took back C squat and the cops are attacking.” The transgendered rooster sprang to her feet and snatched up the handles to two paper bags of empty bottles outside the kitchen, and behind Roy the entire anarchist contingent left without a word, sneakers and old boots slapping the bowed slabs of marble steps that led down to the building entrance.
“What was that?” said Nathan, swinging into view in the kitchen doorway. “Where did the anarchists go?” His eyes were wide and extra white against flushed bronze skin and recently he had adopted a silly pointed goatee: half Che, half billy goat.
“Oh, they’re just very middle-class and eager to recycle stuff,” I told him. Nathan almost finished nodding before he got the joke.
“You think they’ll use those bottles as weapons?” asked Marina, and then before I could say something sarcastic she said “Everyone in here, please.” The anarchists just stormed off, but we were socialists. We needed to vote.
Nathan stepped in, and behind him were Avijut and Delphine, who looked very curious, since she was new and only a contact—she had probably thought the party was a real party.
Do we intervene in the riot? All hands up, the ayes had it. Unanimous. Should we bring leaflets for the next branch meeting? To a riot? It was ridiculous, but it couldn’t hurt. All hands up, the ayes had it. Unanimous.
We shuffled behind Marina, who slipped a scarf hanging from a peg by the door around her neck. “All-weather scarf?” I asked.
She pulled the scarf, white fabric decorated with blue, over her mouth and nose to show me, then slipped it back down again with a wink. Intifada kitsch. Marina was Jewish and had taught at some progressive Hebrew daycare center once, so she always made an extra show of solidarity and unconditional but critical support of the Palestinians.
Things moved quickly after that. We didn’t arm ourselves except for the leaflet, but Nathan was itching to fight the pigs; he did imitation kung-fu moves and let out Bruce Lee “Whattah!” yelps for five blocks before I called for a stop.
“Don’t fuck around,” I said. “If this is going to be a riot, we have to be careful.”
“Cops are the class enemy,” said Nathan, excited.
“Yes, but if we end up beaten up or arrested, it should be on purpose,” said Marina. I was glad for her back up. “Stay together, and try to stay in sight of each other if you can’t stay close. Talk to people if you can, fight if you have to; try to win people through example, and if you can give ‘em a leaflet, give ‘em a leaflet.” They looked sad, the sheaf of them drooping in her hand as she handed them out. Delphine, the contact, blushed and refused to take any because she didn’t “want to be confused for a member.”
“But you’re coming to the riot?” Nathan asked her. It was love.
“Oh yes,” Delphine said. “We riot in France all the time. Students do it every weekend. That’s why my parents sent me to grad school in America.” She walked on with Marina, the pair of them stylish and invincible thanks to lawyer parents and pockets full of credit cards with balances they’d never have to pay. Behind them Nathan straggled on like a puppy—he had no parents who could help him out of prison, but he also didn’t have parents or a job to worry about and so had nothing to lose by spending a few days in central holding in the Tombs.
Avijut and I both let the others walk ahead a bit, then threw our flyers into the trash. On that, we were agreed. We walked on, and when we hit East Thirteenth and Avenue C things started happening very fast.
It was bright, thanks partially to spotlights from the three cop copters circling the block and to the flaming Dumpster. The crowded street was thick with white people, mostly guys in T-shirts but with more than a few women as well. Some had sticks and bottles, but the weapon of choice was drums, some improvised from trash cans, others fairly pricey-looking. One would thump out a beat, and the others would take it up; the drumless stamped their feet or chanted in time, “Whose streets? Our streets!” On the sidewalks, behind linked-together bike racks, stood lines of cops, helmeted and with their riot shields sort of leisurely held up and balanced against the edges of the cordons. They all had plenty of plastic Flexi-Cuffs hanging from their belts, and the extra long, double-thick riot batons at the ready.
The conflict had begun two months ago, when the squatters were evicted following a court battle. Giuliani wasn’t going to play nice like the Democrats had, and on May 25th a squad of cops, backed by an armored personnel carrier, smashed through their hasty barricades, battered down their shoddily reinforced doors, and dragged all the squatters out into the street. Barstool meetings for the street kids and CC’ed e-mails among the students had been secretly planning a response ever since. Now, tonight, the squatters had snuck along the rooftops and broken back into their house, then launched a few bottle rockets at the pair of cops who had been stuck with empty-building guard duty. Then they unrolled a banner with the circled N logo of squat defense spray painted on it, and another one that read, “FUCK THE TANK.”
They shouted, “Independence Day, pigs!” as they set off their fireworks.
Well, the cops called in for lots and lots of back-up, including the tank that rumbled loudly a few blocks away on Thirteenth and A. I could hear it over the drums, the shouting, the whirlywhip of the copters, and everything else. I could feel it in my shins. It was hot and we all smelled, but I got a chill.
For a second I thought I should take off my shirt, turn it inside out, and put it back on. Marina had given it to me after a British comrade she had been dating left it at her house; it had the logos of the Anti-Nazi League and the TV series Red Dwarf by the shoulders, and was emblazoned with the slogan, “NAZIS ARE SMEGHEADS.” The cops, I could tell, were waiting for a signal to kick over the bike racks and charge. They were eyeing us for weak spots—knots of girls and the skinny, crusty kind of punks that would fall right over if nudged with a riot shield. I didn’t feel like wearing a bull’s-eye. I was also worried that one of the stupider anarchists might take the shirt as a pro-Nazi statement, since the ANL logo was pretty small. It would be difficult to explain the etymology and usage of the word smeghead to a boot. I saw Avijut walk off, gawking like he was at a mall, and had already lost track of everyone else when there was a shout and then a swelling push of limbs. Charge!
I linked arms with the people closest me; they were nobody I knew, but they had the look of experience. A long line of us rushed the oncoming shields, and at the last moment we shifted to the left and led with our shoulders, trying to squeeze into the slim spaces between cops, to wedge past the flexible edges of the shields. No pig wants to be caught with a man behind it, not when one arm is strapped to a heavy riot shield and the other is hefting a stick too long for infighting. We hit the wall hard and I stumbled backwards, leaving a lungful of breath where I’d been standing, but enough of us broke through the line to make the cops double-step back and reform. I kept to my feet and moved back to the sidewalk for the stand off. The drumming and chanting began again, and this time the cops charged to hurt, not push, their truncheons held high like knights. We broke and ran down C, screaming and hollering, while some of the drummers shouted “Hold the line! Hold the line!”
I darted to the right edge of Avenue C to avoid a beer bottle someone had tossed over his shoulder while he ran, and managed to walk right into a Snapple bottle instead. Those bastards are thick. You can drop them on the sidewalk and they won’t shatter or even chip. My scalp? Not so much. Blood flooded my glasses, which were slipping down my nose from sweat, and my head hurt like failure—a distant, steaming pain.
I stumbled onto the sidewalk, where slow rioters mixed with neighborhood gawkers and tried to blend in. I caught a glimpse of a crowded deli—the Indian brothers who owned the place were plastered against the glass door, holding it shut, and some workers and a few customers peered out over their shoulders. I nudged the door but they held it fast, and then—and I blame the head injury for my thinking this would be a good idea—I pulled a crumpled dollar from my pocket and waved it at the man who held the door shut. “I’m a customer, see?”
His brother reached behind his back and leveled a gun at me through the glass. I put up my hands and stepped back saying sorry sorry sorry like it was falling out of my mouth.
A rioter, a thick woman with a bandana around her head, saw the gun and bellowed “Call the police!”
I pointed up at the sweeping spotlights with one hand and at the triple-thick trotting lines of riot cops coming up behind us with the other and shouted back, “They’re already here!” She ran back off into the riot and I cut the corner on East Eleventh.
Halfway down the block a bicyclist tore off the sidewalk and cut me off in the middle of the street. He was black, too large for his bike, sweating like a steam pipe, and too conversational. “Hey, brother,” he said. “I gotta ask you something.” He held his bike in front of him like a sawhorse to block my way.
I touched my bloody forehead. “What?”
“Wanna buy some?” He reached into the pocket of his shorts and pulled out three small baggies of white powder. “Five dollars.”
“No thanks, Officer!” I moved past him, thinking that everyone knows smack is ten bucks a baggie, not five, and slowly made my way across the East Village and into the West, where I lived with two roommates on a fifth-floor walkup railroad apartment. By First Avenue, the riot was muted by several blocks of solid row houses. By the time I reached the Bowery, it was a memory. I got home to West Twelfth Street, a quiet cobblestone block, and rested at each landing on my way up. It was 2:30 AM when I hit my room. It was empty, my roommates either sleeping behind papery plaster walls or still out celebrating independence. I swung, groggy, onto the loft bed’s ladder as the floor fell away from me.
Pulling myself up, I lay down on the mattress, my head throbbing and two feet from the ceiling that a previous roommate had decorated with little glow-in-the-dark stars and crescent moons, probably to help shake off the claustrophobia that comes when you try and sleep with your nose scraping plaster. They looked far off and fuzzier than usual thanks to my head, which felt like it was leaking hot lava. Like the ceiling had fallen away, and I was staring into a swirling Van Gogh night.
It was then that I realized my life was being controlled by forces beyond human understanding. Eyes blurred and watery, head cracked wide, I was open to this starry wisdom. The fungous buzzing Mi-Go, peering down from fabled Yuggoth in the darkest corner of this solar system, had turned their blasphemous sensory stalks toward me. It was like that old college freshman thought experiment in reverse: instead of contemplating the possibility that I was the only being with free will on Earth, and everyone else was a shadow play pawn, I realized that I was the pawn. Everyone had free will except for me—a billion billion pincers and points prodded and pushed me from the womb to the slab upon which I finally received this eye-opening communication. Friends, family, powerful strangers in dark suits: they were all real people. Real people, slash alien crustaceans splashing forth from the paranoid inks of Weird Tales. Every choice I’ve ever made—grad school in New York, the furious celibacy of a crowded apartment, street fighting nights and days dedicated to the labor theory of value and endless term papers on Maya Deren and the whipcrack of her cinema voodoo—it was all in preparation for my ultimate dissection and the introduction of my cerebrum into the confines of a silvery brain canister to be followed by hyperspatial transport to their blasphemous, necrophagus tenth planet, far beyond Pluto. There was no escape, I knew that now too. There was nothing now but the horror of knowing the true course of history, the Marxist nightmare of an unending cosmic materialism beyond our muscles and machines. I slept then, but not well.
I was up at five, nauseated and dry as sand. I wanted to stay in bed, to stare at the plastic stars and demand more from them, but my status as a no-collar, non-union prole under late capitalism had other plans. Mi-Go or no, I still had to pay my rent, which was now five days late. Soon my roommates would be frowning and threatening me (“How about we just throw your shit down the shaft?”), no matter how impressive the knot on my head was. Luckily, I worked an early morning shift at my bullshit day job, so I had an excuse to be gone before my roomies even woke up. It was part-time and generally enough to pay my bills, provided I stuck to chick peas and rice and held off on cable and electricity till the final notices showed up.
I had no money, so I walked to work in the morning twilight, straight up Eighth Avenue to the McGraw-Hill Building on West Forty-Second. I hadn’t changed clothes at all, and I looked bad enough that the morning whores, just coming off from their blowjob nights, didn’t even bother with their usual friendly hellos as I walked by.
Nobody who has lived in the city for more than five minutes ever looks up, but I did that morning. The sky was a roiling purple, and heat waves rose like a thousand spectral fingers from the flat roofs of the Village, and Chelsea.
I worked at Video Monitoring Services. My job was to watch the morning news shows and make notes of any businesses or logos that appeared in them, so that the agglomerated information could be marketed and sold to corporate clients. That morning, I saw footage of Marina being shoved into a paddy wagon, of cops perched on rooftops and crowds twisting like snakes on the streets, and sour-faced pigs grunting ballsy talk into their microphones. Now I knew their voices were artificial, the result of alien surgery on vegetable lungs. The inhumanity of television personalities suddenly made sense—their extrahumanity, in fact, full of careful elocutions designed to persuade and opiate. In my cubicle’s monitor I saw streets covered in twinkling glass like snow, and a partially caved-in, Snapple-branded fridge from a bodega laying on its side in the middle of Avenue C.
Terence Benoit, my supervisor, whose name I’ve since cannibalized for one of my stories, hovered over me. His jaw chattered like a mandible. “Nick,” he said. Then he said it again, to perfect it: “Nick?” I looked at him and slipped my headset off my ears. “Would you like to go home?” It was shaped like a question, and indeed, Terence was shaped like a sawed-off little human. But he wasn’t curious, and the question was a false one.
“You don’t look good at all. You’re pale, gray”—not the bright pink of the shelled Mi-Go—”and your shirt is all messed up. Plus, you’re covered in puke or something.”
I looked down at my lap. So I was. There had been nothing I could stomach at the party, so the vomit crusting on my jeans was light and only sticky. I was still working faster than any of my co-workers, and they were too busy staring at their own monitors and listening to their own headsets to notice my condition, so I wasn’t disrupting work that way either. What was he up to?
“You’ll still be paid for the day,” Benoit said. “It’s okay, Nick.”
Benoit was a minor phalange of the managerial caste—his life was given toward increasing the exploitation of his subordinates with speed-ups and threats of firing, not to send people home to freshen up. And yet he was standing before me, his sloping remnant of a chin trying to jut out manfully, telling me to go home. As if for my benefit.
I shrugged off my headset, stood up—a bit wobbly, true—and said, “I was in that riot yesterday.”
Benoit did an approximation of a shrug, as if his skin was just stretched over an alien exoskeleton; it was a twitch, rendered slow and dubious.
“Thanks for letting me go home,” I said.
“I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Of course you will,” he said. “I mean, good.” Benoit was one of the few men I’ve met who was actually shorter than me, but he didn’t act the same way I do around taller guys. I stand off to the side, keeping my eyes on their torsos and shoulders, looking down at my own hands and cracking my knuckles—anything to avoid looking up at them like I was a child. Benoit craved this though; he took a step forward and invaded my space, practically resting his jaw against my chest. “Yes, I will see you tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” I said. “Hale and healthy.” I touched my head. “And whole. Especially whole.”
“Whole,” Benoit said, nodding.
Or was it hole?
On the way home, I realized I was hungry and then smelled fresh pizza. Only—was that what really happened? Or did I smell the pizza first, which triggered a series of complex sensory and autonomic responses that just read like hunger? My head throbbed, then stopped when I thought about the throbbing—like the darting look away when a stranger catches you staring on the subway. And that happened to me too, on the train.
I waited for the A, C, or E back downtown because I found a token in my back pocket, and I swear it hadn’t been there when I left for work. When it pulled up and I stepped inside, some old woman held the door open and shouted to me that this train, the one I was on, was the wrong one. Three MTA bing-bong notification bells later, a passing subway cop escorted her away. Only she was right; the C started heading even farther uptown. I took it one stop north and hopped off. I walked to the wrong side of the platform and took the wrong C train, which got me back down to the West Village in time for more sleep under the dull daytime stars of my crouching ceiling.
That afternoon, Marina called. She had been unarrested soon after being shoved into the paddy wagon. “And that’s totally illegal,” she said. “So,” I said. “You’d rather have stayed arrested?” She moved on to asking after me, and when I told her about the bottle she suggested I go to the speak-out that night at Tompkins Square Park and tell my story of pig-violence victimization. The anarchists were organizing it, she said, but Roy could get me some time.
“But the anarchists are the ones who threw the bottle at me!”
She had little to say after that.
The second revelation came soon afterward, when I learned that the Mi-Go had not infiltrated just the NYPD, and New York’s tiny, far-left groupuscles, but even my own roommates. I had originally moved into the cramped railroad apartment with two women but the leaseholder, Kerry, left to move in with her boyfriend in an attempt to stop breaking up with him every other week, and the other one, Gretchen, left for cheaper digs in the East Village a month later. Kerry found a guy named John, who insisted on being called “Big Gus,” to take over the lease. Gus, in turn, found Pablo to fill Gretchen’s room. And with Pablo came Andrew, his friend who slept on the floor next to his bed three nights a week. The other four nights were reserved for Pablo’s girlfriend, Margarita, who fucked so quietly I once thought Pablo had smothered her with a pillow.
A few nights after the riot, Andrew was staying over and I heard him say, from Pablo’s room, “Man, I gotta piss.”
Pablo said, “So go piss.”
“What about that guy?” He meant me. The place was a railroad, like I said, so to get to the bathroom from Pablo’s room you had to walk through my room, and then through the kitchen. Big Gus lived in the room past Pablo’s, and he had his own entrance. When he wanted to piss in the middle of the night, he could just walk down the fifth floor hallway to the kitchen entrance. But he never, ever did.
“Nick doesn’t care. He’s a Communist. He’s all about letting people use his stuff. Plus if you gotta go, you gotta go.” Pablo giggled like a girl, and Andrew joined him.
“When I was a kid,” Andrew said, “I was afraid to go at night. I used to whip it out and piss all over the rug in my room.”
“Fucking gross!” The walls were thin, but not that thin. They had been out drinking, I realized in another burst of clarity: loud mouths, and full bladders. It all made sense.
“Yeah, and it got all yellow and crystallized and shit. My mother never knew what was up, even though the whole room smelled like piss.”
Pablo said, “Great. Now I have to piss.” He got up, opened the door between our rooms, and tried to creep past me with heavy, drunken feet. He stumbled through the dark kitchen and into the bathroom. There, he yanked too hard on the chain light switch, nearly bringing the whole fixture down. It seemed like a drunken accident at the time, but the next morning I figured out that it was nothing less than Pablo’s attempt to kill me, all the better to harvest my brain for his alien masters, the Mi-Go. I realized this when I reached for a towel hanging on the shower rod, and became paralyzed by a bolt of blue lightening.
The old bathroom had a tin ceiling. It was once tasteful but had, over the decades, sunk and pooched out like a belly. The shower rod, aluminum, was connected to the tin ceiling by another metal rod. I was soaking wet in the bath and my right foot was placed, through a complex series of minute factors that the Mi-Go had carefully arranged—water temperature and swirl, the design of the old, narrow tub and its alien claw feet, my mood and exhaustion from the night of the riot and the subsequent night of seemingly mindless chatter, the exact position of the bump on my head which partially closed my left eye—directly over the iron drain.
Just above the ceiling a live wire, loosened from the light fixture thanks to Pablo’s skillful, late-night yank, had come to rest on the tin. The circuit completed itself with my body, ceiling to rod to arm to leg to drain. My fingers clenched the bar tight in a deadly, involuntary grip, and sparks jumped from filling to filling in my mouth. My brain—I could feel it, rising atop my boiling spine. The crack in my head spread wide as the world around me dilated, flooded with the white light of hell; from across the inky void of space, the Mi-Go reached for my fleshy mind, all too happy to leave my body behind, just an empty skin, burned and pruny and without brain. Who would care? The police, slaves of the Mi-Go themselves? Terence Benoit, who sent me home yesterday in order to further the machinations of his alien masters? I was probably already replaced; turnover was so high that he ran the ad for my exact position in every week’s Village Voice.
Somehow, I managed to move my foot from the drain, discovering in the process that every thesis contains within it its own antithesis. As the drain was blocked by my foot, the water that made me so conductive had nowhere to go but into the minute and momentary spaces between flesh and iron, spaces caused not by conscious thought but by my uncontrollable electro-spasms. When enough water rushed under my foot to break the deadly suction and allow me to pull my heel from the drain, I managed to simultaneously regain control of my arm and let go of the shower rod, thus breaking the deadly circuit. My fillings throbbed, the spit in my mouth heated to scalding.
I was on the couch in the kitchen, watching television and waiting, when Big Gus walked in from the hallway to get ready for his Internet date that night, already in his robe, a towel over his shoulders like a boxer before the fight and his clothes, pressed and folded by the Chinese laundry around the corner, held under one arm. I was on the couch because that’s all we had, no table and chairs for the kitchen, just the couch and a tiny coffee table. I didn’t know anyone in Manhattan who actually had a table in their kitchen. “Hullo,” he said, and without waiting for my response he ducked into the bathroom.
I heard a grunt, then the toilet flush, then, a few seconds later, the water in the tub started running. He turned on the showerhead and I raised the volume on the television, only half-ready to accept the truth. My forehead felt like someone had welded a desk safe to it.
Big Gus always hummed in the shower, mostly old AOR hits. It was Bachman-Turner Overdrive tonight. He was taking care of business when I heard a high-pitched squeal—the plaintive screaming of a lobster in a pot, normally beyond the range of human hearing, followed by a massive thump against the bathroom door. The door flew open and Gus fell out, limbs flailing, his belly as white as the underside of fungi from a glacial methane planet, his close-cropped blond hair suddenly frizzled and peachy, the bathroom’s hook-lock tearing free from the cheap wood of the door to fly past my head and smack against the far wall.
Gus lay on the kitchen floor, his wet skin smearing and smudging the fine layer of grayish dirt that our linoleum always seemed to attract so easily, without speaking. He didn’t even let loose one of the lengthy, Dopplering “fuuuucks” he uttered every time he saw the phone bill, or sports scores on the news, or rain spattering against the window, or any other aspect of human life unknown to the Mi-Go.
I got up and stood over him. “What happened?” I asked innocently. Dazed, he slipped and told me the truth: the trillion year-war against Hastur; Yuggoth long ago stripped of the precious metals it needed to fuel its own fleet of impossible war machines; their mental secret to folding space and the ongoing invasion of Earth; the mining of the Vermont hills and the seizure of certain sensitive brains in shiny, new cylinders; Lovecraft being right, as were all the dreary pastiches that presented the author as a character who stumbled upon the true nature of the world; the morning flapping of rooftop pigeons wasn’t the sound of natural birds of all, but of the awkward Mi-Go, still struggling to adapt to our atmosphere; everyone I knew had already been turned, though most of them were as ignorant as plastic pans; and how did I escape the shower, anyway, he asked.
Sheer luck, I told him, the same sheer luck that gave my brain whatever attributes it needed to gain the attention of the Mi-Go. And with that John Gustafson melted into the floor, waxen flesh joining the dirty water and rendering it sizzling at my feet. In the core of the mess writhed what looked like an undercooked pink lobster, with finny wings and a stalk-sprouted mushroom for a head.
In the absence of irrefutable evidence, there is always some doubt, even among true believers. I believed in getting up early on Saturdays to sell socialist newspapers and argue against wars and invasions that even all the New York liberals believed in, such as Haiti, for example, and the Balkans, operations they relished like giggling hyenas breaking bones for marrow, but I always wondered along the way, What if I’m wrong? When I saw the truth in the stars, I wondered then too. Concussions are strange things, after all. But when the less-evil of my two roommates decomposed into pinkish sludge before me, when the kitchen filled with the fecund stink of steaming compost and the dissolved flesh of his man-costume, there was no more room for doubt. I didn’t wait for Pablo, I didn’t call the cops or my landlord, I just packed my things and left. One of the advantages of puny rooms in tiny Manhattan shares is this: you don’t collect a lot of extraneous crap.
I kept the small blanket I used to hang on the back of that kitchen couch. It still smells like rotten orchids.
Ten years passed, and I kept moving around. Just after I left my old place, I found a cramped studio apartment on the Lower East Side, across the street from another quasi-legal squat, ABC No Rio. Every Sunday, after the punk rock matinee, I stepped out onto the pavement and over puddles of punk rock urine to get my groceries and do laundry. My landlords were insane. They demanded the tenants leave cash, not checks, in a red plastic box nailed to the outside of their door. At 5:00 AM on the first of every month they showed up, all stomping feet and pounding fists, waking the entire building if even a single tenant didn’t leave his or her envelope in the mail drop. Dog shit littered the halls, and most of the other apartment doors, all of them gray steel, were festooned with useless medallions and pictures of the Virgin Mary, superstitious attempts to keep the grasping claws of the Mi-Go away. I lasted in that apartment for eight months despite the rats, the carbon monoxide from the electric heater, the tub in the kitchen that would fill with sewage in the rain, the faulty wiring, and the locked window guards. My landlords held the keys to the window guards, and they refused to give them to me.
Then it was over the river to Jersey City, which had the dual advantages of being extremely close to Manhattan and utterly foreign to any New York City resident. I even dared tell people that I lived in New Jersey and smirked as they marveled at my ability to cross the river with mere rail technology. I lived with a wonderful girl who read tarot cards and counted the seconds till the next minute each time she caught a glance at the clock radio. We never left the house. I started working from home, writing résumés, letters, personal statements, and model term papers for immigrants and ESL students. I’d type up the papers and print them out on a greasy old printer, then walk four blocks down to an office where I’d slip them under the door. Out from under the door would come a small envelope, full of cash and the next day’s work.
Everything was great until my girl started manifesting new personalities: sweet children, neurotic men who’d emerge to bite my ears and claw at my chest during sex, that kind of thing. She kept finding The Tower and The Moon in my spreads. Then she left one day, crying and shrieking. The apartment was dead without her. When I started getting junk mail at my new address, I knew it was time to move.
I couldn’t trust landlords anymore, not after I caught my last one shoving pennies into the fuse boxes of the building we shared. “They never burn out this way,” he told me excitedly when I caught him. “All the power we need will flow.” Power needed for what, that was my question, so I got my own place. I also went into business for myself, buying houses and then quickly selling them back to their previous owners, earning money from equity and slovenly tenants who were happy to live in dank basements, ankle-deep in Chinese food and pornography. The children began to avoid my house at Halloween but I got a dog anyway, and I trained her to growl and snap at anyone who didn’t smell exactly like me. Some women wonder why I refuse to bathe before sex. For your own good! I tell them, and it’s only half a lie. They’re safe from my half-mad guard dog, but sometimes I dream that when the Mi-Go come, they will corner a spinster ex with their pincer hands and sterile cylinders by mistake, and leave me be.
I started writing fiction and after a couple of years sold a story. The local weekly paper interviewed me—Jersey City really is two miles and two hundred years away from Manhattan. A local writer is still news. I begged them not to run my picture and they didn’t, not until Northern Gothic was nominated for a minor literary award, thanks to the intervention of a nameless, faceless Additions Jury of specially selected madmen. I retreated from the world almost entirely, but the dot com thing was on, and homely shut-ins of the day before yesterday became the minor celebrities of the moment. My picture showed up in the Village Voice, then Silicon Alley Reporter and Artbyte. My little checks from writing went up from fifty dollars to three hundred, from three hundred to a thousand—for a moment I dared to dream. I even entered protest politics again, after the victories at Seattle and Genoa. I wore the orange shoes from my week-long stint in prison for civil disobedience as morning slippers for a year, before they disintegrated on my feet.
Then the two towers fell, and the aliens regained the initiative. They missed me though—even supernatural intellects who can navigate the lightless wastes of N’Kai have trouble zeroing in on Jersey City. My backyard became littered with business memos, half-burnt folders, and computer print-outs that had fluttered over the river to Jersey. I kept them in a plastic trash bag and waited for men in dark suits to come and claim them, but they were busy elsewhere planting evidence, imprisoning journalists and discontented foreigners, and undermining the coherence and political efficacy of the “reality-based community.” The Mi-Go were sealing off the planet through their endless supply of mindless servitors; they still are. Or maybe it’s done already.
The markets for what I laughingly called “non-fiction” dried up, so I redoubled the attention I paid to fiction, hoping that, like Lovecraft who told his story of the Mi-Go based on shadowy reports embedded in the Brattleboro Reformer newspaper, I could somehow sneak a few hints about the true nature of the world into the public consciousness.
Last year I moved to California, after one of my houses was inexplicably stripped of all its copper one April night. The police said it was “Gee Dees,” which they claimed stood for “juvenile delinquents,” who were to have stolen the copper to sell as scrap in order to buy drugs, but I knew that not even the pigs were so stupid as to spell the word “juvenile” with a “G.” It was a warning shot, or a slightly misplayed hand by the Mi-Go. Could the precious metal they sought under the Vermont hills seventy-five years ago really be simple copper? I doubt it. They were taunting me.
In Berkeley I lived much as I did before. I never left the house, and I prodded and cajoled my dog to yap at every passer-by and stalled bus she saw from my bedroom window. Let your animals howl all night, for all I care. A friendly word of advice: the Mi-Go fear claw and fang, just as any other crustacean with an easy-to-crush armor plating and a mealy fungal viscera would.
Of course, there aren’t any other crustaceans like that… that I know of.
No one believed I’d last in California, and I’m not ashamed to admit that they were right. An inexplicable housing bubble, again defying all bourgeois economics, drained my resources. Gangs of liberals in five hundred dollar hippie dresses—a disguise no true human would ever fall for—came to my door to demand I prove my radical credentials by voting for their kill-crazed imperialist candidate, John Kerry. But I never meant for my stay on the West Coast to be permanent. All I wanted was a year of sunshine, golden sunshine clear and pure and warm, without any of the slushy miseries of winter. There’ll be winters enough where I’m going: first Brattleboro, Vermont, then, unless I am very fortunate indeed, the caverns of Yuggoth, the dark planet of the Mi-Go where even on the surface our sun registers as nothing but a silver pinprick in the middle of their endless night, like a distant bottle rocket flashing in Manhattan’s humid sky.
Yes, I go to Brattleboro, where decades ago the Mi-Go first revealed themselves only to be explained away as the superstitious hallucinations of excitable bumpkins, and the fever dreams of a certain closeted homosexual, slash racist. And it’s not because I choose to relocate, either. There are an infinite number of causes for any one effect, and choice has precious little to do with any of them. For what drove some guy—just out of college, and with zero editorial experience—to start another science fiction webzine, and to solicit this essay (which he’ll label a fiction, and I’ll let him, because he pays more for “lies”) from me at 12:09 AM on July 9th, 2005—ten years to the day from the revelations in my West Village kitchen? And why did a grammar school librarian press a volume of Heinlein—and not a “safer” book—into his hands ten years before that, and how did she decide to become a librarian, and from whence does a society that needs librarians come about? And from where do our alphabets and pictographs originate, if not the frenzied scratches of our hominid ancestors who desperately tried to describe their encounters with the Elder Gods on the bioluminescent, lichen—stained walls of the twisting caverns they called home? It was a warning, just like this is not a warning.
And Jeremiah Sturgill’s solicitation: the near-promise of quick money just as I need it to get out of the Bay Area, just as I was sitting by my computer on a Saturday night, trying to wring out an idea for a marketable tale—that was the final revelation. This, dear reader, is it.
What Lovecraft misunderstood, and what I now comprehend perfectly, is that attempting to warn humanity is futile. Not because they won’t listen to the reason of seeming unreason, not because the flickering human mind would collapse into babbling madness if it attempted to correlate the contents of such a warning, but because there are no human minds left! There are no more people on this Earth, not even you, gentle reader. And the Mi-Go victory is so complete that you don’t even realize you’re all play-toy simulacra at the end of some etheric, tentacular tether. There are no more real people except for me, Nick Mamatas. The rest of you are all real people slash fungi from Yuggoth. Your brains have already been seized and transported, and your braincases filled with sentient muck secreted from the back of Tsathoggua. Oh yes, everyone has free will but me, but the free will you have isn’t yours. It is of those beyond.
No need to take my word for it. What exists can be perceived, if not by our senses then by inference, by observing the actual, perceivable impact a presence has on the cosmos. We’re still all just matter in motion after all, no matter how many alien intelligences live inside twisted dimensions beyond our seeing. But when I said slash, I meant it. Go to your bathroom. Don’t worry, nothing’s electrified there that shouldn’t be. Just go to your bathroom, and stare in the mirror. Look as long as it takes. Soon enough you’ll forget your own face, and see yourself for who you really are. Those human features you’ve been beguiled into thinking you retain will fall away and soon, in color spectra even the most profound synesthesiac could not dream of, you’ll perceive the globular masses of sensory stalks that you once called your heads. Your shoulder blades will stretch and tingle, and you will have finally regained your awkward, shell-hard wings. You are the Mi-Go. Every one of you.
And if the sight of your true form drives you insane, the way the true sight of you all drove me insane, then I daresay I wouldn’t mind at all if you snatched up a razor blade and took it to your face, to cut through the carapace and the potato meat underneath in a vain attempt to find your sentimental old noses. There’d be nothing for you to find, but at this late date if all I get from this story is five cents a word and a third-hand recounting of the sting of cutting lacerations, I’ll take it.
I’m done, and that is why I’m packing up my books and computer again and moving, just days from now, away from Berkeley and up to Brattleboro. A copy editor of my acquaintance, with great fellow—feeling despite her obvious fungal origins, assisted me in finding an apartment. I know that my fate is on Yuggoth, along with all the rest of you, but as I am the last of us I’ll go as a man, not as a mass of compressed gray matter inside a steely jar. There are caves in the hills in the north of Windham County, rocky and witch-haunted, and in these caverns are hidden, interior worlds: blue-litten K’n-yan, red-litten Yoth, and black, lightless N’kai. And from there, through twists of crystalline rock, superdense and radioactive, which in their subtle movements slice the subtlest of tears into space—time, I will squeeze through, left—shoulder leading like at the ’95 riot, and this time I’ll make it: I will charge my way through to Yuggoth where, amidst the haphazardly—stacked flasks of dead, enslaved humanity that rest upon its black methane shores, I will stand as the last man in the cosmos. To Yuggoth, where I will freeze, crack, and shatter.