Hank talked compulsively out of nerves.
“I need to tell you a story.”
“No. I can’t… do…” Red’s weak voice stopped at a loss for words.
“You can do this. You don’t have a choice.”
“Gas gave me dam…brain…brain…damage.”
Poisonous gas had filled the small area of the mine that wasn’t caved in. Hank and Red were able to make it to the safe room.
“Look, as soon as we get out of here, you’ll be able to make a full recovery. I saw a show on this guy. They took out half his brain, and he’s still able to dance and read and talk. He’s fully functional. But my wife. You gotta hear this story. Say OK,” said Hank.
“O,” said Red.
“Now say K.”
“Perfect,” said Hank. “So I was at this wedding reception. This was about twenty-years ago. It was in one of those century-old southern ballrooms. Can you say ballroom?” Hank waited ten seconds for a reply.
“No, ballroom. Oh. Ha-ha! Mr. Rogers. I see what you did. On the show he’s like, ‘Can you say ballroom? Good.’ I get it. You’ll be just fine, cocksucker. So, we’re in this beautiful ballroom. I’m with my friends. Like, ten of us. We’re in a circle. This girl joins us. She looked just like Tanya Tucker. Just like Tanya Tucker. She looked so good topless. Oh, God. Oh, fuck. I can’t…” Hank continued. “So anyway, one of my friends talked about being from Indianapolis. She got excited and said, ‘Minneapolis?‘ My friend said no. I looked at her and said, ‘I’m from Minneapolis.’ She smiled and said, ‘Really?’ I shook my head, smiled, and said, ‘Nah. Nah,” She smiled back at me. We’ve been together ever since.”
Red started to convulse. Hank slapped him until the convulsions stopped. Hank checked Red’s pulse. “So when I was a kid my friend had this monkey. Say monkey.”
“That’s good enough. This monkey loved to bite people. It was adorable. Just liked to bite. And it hurt. My friend must have been immune to the monkey bites. He would actually rile up the monkey into biting him. It was worth it though. He would place both his hands by the monkey’s head and move them back and forth. The monkey would do a little dance. It didn’t know which hand to bite, so it moved it’s little monkey body back and forth. I think my friend got sick of the monkey bites, because the monkey got trapped in his washing machine and drowned. He said it was an accident.”
Hank checked Red’s pulse. Nothing. Hank sat down on the ground. “It wasn’t a monkey. It was a ferret.” Hank sat motionless and silent for five minutes.
“There once was this king. He lived alone in his castle. One day, he realized everyone in his kingdom was gone. He was probably going to die.” Hank cried a deep, hollow cry. He stopped crying as quickly as it started. Hank’s eyes were half closed, but intensely focused. His eyebrows were sharply slanted. He sat motionless for a few minutes. Then he continued telling his story out loud.
“The king was so scared. His mind was breaking. He had to keep talking in order to keep his sanity. But the king hated talking. He rarely talked. He had nothing to say. He rarely knew the right things to say. He was just a bullshit, redneck king. But he had no choice. So he just said the first things that came to mind. The dragon of injustice swept through the kingdom and up into the castle. The king stared at the dragon’s eyes. It had no pupils. It saw nothing. It sensed everything. The king said to the dragon, ‘I’ve been trying to avoid you.’ The dragon smiled. ‘Good luck. I am all there is. All there ever was. Even Satan hates me.’ The king couldn’t believe his situation. ‘Where is God?‘ asked the king. The dragon laughed and said, ‘There are bigger disasters in the universe than the one you’re going through. He’s in Detroit.’” Hank laughed hard at his own joke. He continued to talk out loud.
“Nations of solitude embark upon ignorance facing the peril of being poor. Is it that bad to be poor? Of course it is. Look at me. Look at me. That’s all there is. When the universe cracks open, and swallows up the planet, people will instinctively reach for their wallets. And I, time god, will laugh. The suffering will calm me. It will calm my instinct to be happy. To be alive. Thrust upon the earth in a dalliance of cautious joy. This is my fate now. I hope my father enjoyed his orgasm. I am pain. Hot, burning, tiresome. Constantly recalibrating itself in order to challenge the brain into feeling it anew. And pain always feels new. The End.”
A large, bright figure burst through the doorway. Hank lunged at it with all of his might. Hank then saw himself place his hands on the figure’s head smacking it to the ground and then smashing it repeatedly until it stopped moving. This was all in Hank’s head. In reality Hank took one step and fell on the floor. The figure was met by others.
The light of day felt like it hit Hank through his eyelids to the back of his brain. The sound of helicopters dominated his ears at first. He was then slowly able to make out the underlying sound of screeching sirens then screeching humans.
Hank was numb. He tried to talk to people. The first thing his wife told him was that everyone thought he was dead. “Everyone is dead,” he whispered. He then smiled. He wanted to laugh, but he knew not to. His wife’s eyes widened.
Hank was held for days and given countless tests. Hank answered every question as if the world wasn’t about to be destroyed by monsters. He kept that to himself. He thought it was almost fun to know something no one else did. One final interview with a panel of psychiatrists, and they would let him go. He had already put on a little weight and showed no damage from the gas. “Were you scared?,” one of the psychiatrist’s asked.
“At first,” said Hank, “then it became all about survival.” Hank forced a smile and a little laugh. “It’s good to be back,” Hank lied. When the doctors said they would release him he grabbed his knees and looked to the sky with a fake smile.
The next few days went by fast. Hank wanted to go to the army surplus store to buy training manuals, but he knew he would be found out right away. Hank forced himself to act happy whenever his wife was around. With his wife he tried to act like the man he was before the mine collapsed. Hank whispered in her ear and kissed it. His wife knew something was different, but decided to give Hank time to heal.
Hank did his best to hide his fear of the sudden destruction of society. He tried not to cringe during moments when he expected to see waves of fire move up the horizon. That happened so often that Hank got used to it.
Hank’s wife told him he would be a guest on the Stan Thompson’s television talk show. As soon as she said this Hank thought about how Stan Thompson was pure evil based on what he had heard about Stan’s private life on the news. “Sounds great, honey!” said Hank with a fake smile.
“Are you sure?” Hank’s wife said.
“Sure I’m sure. That guy’s hilarious.”
Hank had it all planned out. The dagger would be made of wood so he could easily get it passed security if need be. He would put the dagger in the back of his pants and cover it with his shirt. When Hank came out on the set he would pull out the dagger and stab Stan Thompson in the chest. And when the evil poured out of him people would see the reality of their situation. The war would begin. That would be enough to give people the feeling that good could win. And that’s all that Hank could hope for.
Hank watched Stan’s monologue on a monitor from the couch in the green room at the television studio. Hank thought to himself, ‘Stan Thompson, you will die. Die for what you’ve done.’
Hank reached into his bag for his knife. A dog entered the green room followed by its trainer. It was a happy looking golden retriever. Hank stopped looking for his knife. The dog walked near Hank. He pet the dog. He looked deep into the dog’s eyes. Hank cried. It was a deep, hollow cry. The stage manager stopped by and saw Hank crying.
“You don’t have to do this,” said the stage manager.
“I think I’ll be okay,” said Hank.
Hank walked out and was greeted by Stan Thompson. He was no longer crying. He answered Stan’s questions about how he survived. Hank said he just talked about nothing like Stan does. The audience laughed.
Dan Shapiro is a writer and comedian. He is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago. He is currently working on his first novel which is a memoir. He is also working on a sketch comedy show that is also a reading series with his friend Mason Johnson. He’d like to thank Mason for helping with the editing. He’d also like to thank Abby Sheaffer and Chicago Literati for their years of unwavering support. He is also grateful for all the great writing teachers he had at Columbia.