David Hancock has received two OBIE awards for playwriting (The Convention of Cartography and The Race of the Ark Tattoo), both presented by the Foundry Theatre. His other plays include Deviant Craft, Our Lot (with Kristin Newbom), The Puzzle Locker and The Incubus Archives. Mr. Hancock is the recipient of numerous national writing awards including a Whiting Writers' Award, a Creative Capital grant, The CalArts/Alpert Award in Theatre, and the Hodder Fellowship at Princeton. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Euphony, Interim, and Permafrost, and he recently completed a novel with Spencer Golub entitled The Journal of Metaphysical Tradecraft. His essays on playwriting have appeared in American Theatre and other journals and he wrote the preface to Popular Forms for a Radical Theatre (editied by Caridad Svitch and Sarah Ruhl). Hancock's play The Race of the Ark Tattoo is currently enjoying a French language revival in Paris, and will be performed at the Du Rififi aux Batignolles festival in September. He has taught playwriting or held master classes at The University of Iowa, Brown University, The University of Cincinnati, California State Fullerton, The University of Nevada Las Vegas, Bucknell University, and California Institute for the Arts. Mr. Hancock lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with his wife and two sons.
I work at the recycling center. Sorting bodies. Shoveling lime. Jewelry in plastics tubs. Unscrew artificial hips. They leach heavy metals. Wear rubber gloves with the chain saw. Watch for parasites. The big, jelly ones crawl right up your leg. And be sure to check for dentures. Those can clog the exhaust fans.
The stench is crippling. Physically and emotionally. You never get used to it. I wear a Motörhead T-shirt around my nose and mouth. Borrowed it from a putrefied biker. I soak the T-shirt in gasoline. Fumes block the odor. Numb my feelings. The dead stare me down.
Keep your filthy hands off me.
Yellow glaze to their skin. Caustic excretions. Lymph nodes inflamed. Bellies full of pus. Water on the brain. Leaking brown fluid from the ears and eyes. I use a garden hose to bathe them.
Always disinfect before you burn!
That's a sign above the main roaster. Scrubbing the flesh with insecticide prevents the bug from going airborne. Or so they claim. CDC leaflets dropped from helicopters. Five languages. Diagrams. Protecting the water supply. Where to locate a mass grave. Survivalist basics. How to find true north. Which mushrooms are safe to eat. I'm immune to whatever it is. Fragment missing from chromosome #12. Luck of the Irish. My father's ancestors. A defect brought over from the old country. Along with Parkinson's disease.
The epidemic came like a thief in the night. Sure, rumors here and there. Whispers. "Resistant strain." "Flu-like symptoms." But the news reports were mostly ignored. Concerned medical professionals at podiums. Wash your hands. Keep infants and the elderly away from crowded locations like zoos and shopping malls.
Fifteen dead. Middle school in suburban Detroit. Unknown illness.
Background noise. TV at a sports bar. Sound turned down. Closed-captioned. Just another false alarm.
Don't you worry. They'll come up with a vaccine.
Convenience store. Radio behind the counter.
Apartment building in Duluth. Quarantine. Maybe smallpox. Turning now to sports…
Buying milk and toilet paper. $3.95 a gallon for regular. Powerball at 200 million.
Jesus, if I win I promise to give it all away.
Thursday morning. Cash machine. $324.96 in the checking account. Misty rain. Commuter traffic. Daughter singing ABBA song in the shower. Cat scratching in the litter pan. Sending a dried turd flying into my coffee cup.
Did you see that? What are the odds?
I clutch at these tiny signs of life. The sweat on my wife's forehead as she weeds the garden. The pile of junk mail on the table. The crooked grin on Crazy Charlie's face after the MILF gave him a blow job watching Titanic at the drive-in.
I'm as happy a clam. Ask me why.
Met Crazy Charlie at my Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Right after I got disbarred. Staring up at rock bottom. Crazy Charlie waltzed up to me. Asked me if I had any coke.
Chill, man. I was kidding. The look on your face. Have another doughnut.
Crazy Charlie told the story over and over. How he was bagging groceries at Stop & Shop. Retrieving carts in the parking lot. How the MILF pulled up in a black Mercedes SUV. Asked Charlie for his number.
Way out of my league, you understand. Perfect teeth and nails. Must have waxed her tongue. Like she was from Tinseltown.
Not sure what the attraction was. Crazy Charlie had dark black hair covering the backs of his hands and neck. Smelled musky. Like an earthworm. His favorite trick was to pick out his ear wax, roll it into a ball, and flick it at you. Crazy Charlie called it "preening."
I got a raw, animal magnetism. Women find it irresistible.
Later I came to understand that the MILF's desire for Crazy Charlie was an autonomic response to the impending extinction. End-times were fast approaching. People understood this fact intuitively, like some dogs sense an epileptic seizure coming on. Human beings were starting to pair off. One last attempt to propagate, I suppose. Or maybe we were just scared. Strangers discovered in each other's arms. Hugging. Grasping. Scientists claimed it was a symptom of the disease. After the fever ran its course, core temperatures fell. The sick and the dying searched for warmth. Many died in hot tubs. Or inside tanning beds. Or with their heads shoved in clothes dryers and dishwashers. Space heater burns. Matches stuck between their fingers and toes. Packs of commuters discovered on the freeway. Clumped together in huge balls. Limbs intertwined. Soaking up the heat of the pavement. Struggling to get to the center of the bundle.
The MILF's husband was a real badass. Ex-Marine. Rotting away in Leavenworth. Killed a superior officer. Over some bogus orders. But that was just a smoke screen. Crazy Charlie said the husband worked security at a secret underground research facility. Out in the Mojave.
He saw something sinister. Tried to leak top secret information to the press. Real cloak and dagger stuff.
Classified documents left inside designated books at the public library.
That's why they locked him away. The guy saw what was happening.
What's happening, Charlie?
The purge, man. The cleansing. Martial law. I'm getting out while I can.
Should have taken his advice. Run off somewhere. Just the kids and me. The wife if she'd come. You could live well in the backcountry. Hunting. Tents. Coleman stoves.
And I heard some islands were safe. You could find a sailboat. Stock it with canned goods. I mean, how hard can navigation be? Stars won't die, will they?
Back at the recycling center. Crazy Charlie's voice rattling around inside my head. I'm never lonely. Thousands of new friends. Stacking corpses like cordwood. The dead often speak to me. Some whisper secrets and fading dreams. Regrets. Advice. Mostly it's chatter.
Did you see my car keys?
How many times have I told you—wear your retainer.
I want a divorce.
Please unload the dishwasher before I get home.
We need soy milk.
I taste what they tasted. I digest their unfinished food. French fries. Cornflakes. Stale lipstick on grandma's mouth. Bland tomato soup. Grape Jello. Low-sodium diets. Thanksgiving Day football. Trips to Dairy Queen. Babies loaded into car seats.
The ovens are coated with lament. Joy to ash. Hope to dust. The regrets rise up out of the smoke stacks and fall as acid rain. Days wasted in a cube. Unnecessary conflict. Lost summer nights. A dog barks. Sound of lawn mower. Somewhere, in the distance, a little girl hears her name called for dinner for the last time.
Don't torch me before supper, mister. I don't want to enter Heaven on an empty stomach.
In the weeks before this madness. Riding the bus. Minding my own business. Gimpy priest hobbles over to me. Clutching a shoe box. Completely wrapped in green duct tape.
Can I borrow this seat?
Priest says he sees something inside my soul. Something dark and uncertain. Wants to make sure I'm not at risk.
You ever been confined?
I don't know what you mean.
You will. You will.
His breath smells like sour mash.
You want me to call your people?
He shakes his head. Vigorously. Like he's got ear mites. He smells of ammonia. Got a nasty infection on his legs. Can't stop scratching himself. His nails are too long. Yellow. Brown gunk under them. Like he's been digging an underground bunker with his bare hands. The priest also has a cheap, glass eyeball. It's a very obvious handicap and I can't help but stare. When the priest sees what I'm looking at, he plucks the eyeball out with his fingernails. Puts the eyeball in the palm of my hand. Closes my fingers around it.
It's all part of your screening.
Eyeball feels cold and dead. Like a marble or a hailstone.
That's what God uses to digest His food. Fake eyes of false prophets stored inside the gizzard of Mary.
I hand him back the eyeball. He wipes it on his sleeve. Pops it back into the empty socket.
We're part of the same family, you know. No shame in that.
I go back to reading my book. Some zombie pulp I found at the plasma center.
I used to be a lawyer, but now I sell bodily fluids. Just to get by.
Priest starts stroking the shoe box. Talking in a soft whisper to whatever he's got stored inside there. I notice there are air holes. Poked in the top. About the circumference of a ballpoint pen. There's also dirt on the box. Like it was recently dug up from the ground.
I stare out the window. I imagine at that very moment, all over the world, thousands of people are clutching similar shoe boxes. Half green. Half red. Like two parts of epoxy glue. Resin and hardener. Compound and activator. Virus and catalyst.
What's in the shoe box?
The gimpy priest blinks at me. Like I suddenly woke him from a good bad dream. He seems real agitated. Starts rocking back and forth. Clutching the shoe box tighter and tighter against his chest. Like he's protecting a lost soul.
It's a waxed chipmunk. Now get lost.
"Waxed chipmunk." I'd heard that expression before. It was a secret code phrase. Nobody knew exactly what it meant. It was spray painted everywhere. You saw it in alleys and on billboards. On dumpsters and telephone poles. There was a stenciled icon of a woodland creature that went along with it. Nobody knew who was responsible for the graffiti, or what it meant, but Crazy Charlie had his theories.
"Waxed chipmunk" is the delivery system. It's how the virus is being deployed. Chipmunks, squirrels, and pigeons. They were going to use bees, but mammals are better vectors.
Why do they call it a waxed chipmunk?
That's what the critter's eyes look like when it's infected.
Glazed over. Hazy. No focus. Like cataracts.
Same thing goes for human beings when they're carriers.
In time, people began marking their front doors with the sign of the waxed chipmunk. Prayed the angels who brought the sickness would pass over their houses. That Section 8 family living down the street from us painted one on their front porch. Used some kind of blood. Maybe their dog's. Pit bull went missing one day. Just stopped barking. Corpse found in a trash can. Drained of life. Maybe it was the kid who was responsible, the smelly one with the insane forehead. Jutted out over his eyes. My wife called him "Lurch." Convinced he was mentally disabled. Lurch rode around on a homemade skateboard. Basically a piece of plywood attached to a pair of roller skates. Perpetual disappointment in his eyes. Kid got really upset one night. Climbed up on the roof. Kitchen knife in his hand. Like he wanted to escape something. Screaming. Threatening to jump. We all gathered around. The entire neighborhood. Nobody helped. We were frozen. Gawking. Lurch's old man finally climbed up on the roof after him. But he wasn't acting right. Milky stare. Like he wasn't there anymore. Aggressive and sweaty. Stage 3, I later found out. When they start spitting out teeth. Poking out their own eardrums with a stick to get rid of the humming sound. Like standing too close to an electrical transformer. Old man knocked the knife out of the kid's hand and picked him up over his head. Threw him off the roof and onto the driveway. Swear the kid flapped his arms going down. Trying to fly. Expression of dumbfounded sadness on his face.
But you're my father. Why would you do this to me?
Broke the kid's back. Turned out he was one of the lucky ones.
Rest doesn't come easy for me. Recalling such dark events. I stay up all night, staring out at the highway. Waiting for help that will never arrive. No more National Guard. No more CDC. No more commuter lanes. My motel room is an efficiency. I have a hot plate and a microwave. Thousands of empty mansions to chose from, but I like to be confined. I like the feel of the walls pressing against my soul, the limitation of space and time. Maybe loss doesn't feel as great in a tiny room. No empty bunk beds. No chocolate milk-stained Sesame Street pajamas. No stainless steel refrigerator with moldy lobster gnocchi. Bloody fingerprints on the ice cube trays, trying to cool down a fever that will never end.
Thought you said core temperatures decreased.
Shortly after martial law was declared. I'm standing outside the church, smoking a cigarette. Crazy Charlie starts doing this dumb-ass jig. It's raining and colder than shit and I figure he's just trying to keep warm. He rubs his hands together. He makes a fist and blows on that.
It's a complicated fucking disease, all right? Hits people differently. That's why it's so difficult to diagnose.
Crazy Charlie's wearing a Cal Tech hoodie. It's about two sizes too big.
Where'd you get the sweatshirt, Charlie?
Goodwill. Wanted to look educated for my interview.
Crazy Charlie's got an interview down at the courthouse. Need to get his passport renewed.
They gave me one of those yellow ones with the psychological limitations.
Crazy Charlie gives me a slap on the back and asks me how in the hell I've been.
I'm fine, Charlie. What can I do you for?
Actually, skipper, I need some assistance with a legal matter.
Sorry, Charlie. I gave up that racket some time ago.
Rat race, huh?
Actually, I got wasted and threatened a judge.
Child support hearing.
Crazy Charlie nods his head vigorously, like he knows exactly what I'm getting at. Like he and I are part of the same club, the school of hard knocks, sticking it to the man. Then he starts going off on one of those paranoid rants of his. Says he needs to get down to Florida as soon as possible. Evidently, the MILF's got connections in the military. Like an underground railway.
There's a submarine waiting in the Keys. Bought it off a Soviet admiral. Gonna take us to a safe haven. Some island off the coast of Patagonia.
Troopers won't let him cross the Panhandle without papers though. He needs a special visa to get past the roadblocks. Next morning I'm feeling guilty. So I drive over to Charlie's apartment to see if there's something I can do for him. I've still got some friends down at the courthouse and maybe I can pull some strings. When I get there, the front door is ajar. The apartment is empty. There's nothing in the kitchen cabinets except a single can of baked beans. The bed's been stripped. Just a cable sticking out of the wall and the smell of urine. It's like Crazy Charlie has vanished into thin air.
That's what it felt like with my wife and kids. One moment they were there. The next moment they'd disappeared. My daughter was the last to die. She and I tried to hole up after her mother and little brother went, but she finally succumbed to the sickness as well.
Bury me with a pillow, Daddy. And please paint my nails.
Nails go brown, you see. Fall off. Extremities lose feeling. Fingers rot. Down to pencil stubs. When she dies, I polish her fingers and toes. Make her dainty. She's got a waxed chipmunk on her belly. My wife put it there. As a last resort. Used a can of red enamel Rust-Oleum from the garage. Last applied to my daughter's tricycle. I wash the tattoo off with gasoline. Wrap her in a cotton sheet. Lift her tiny body into the tree house. More gasoline. Newspapers. Set it ablaze.
Somewhere in Florida. A lifetime later. Crazy Charlie sits on the beach, waiting for a submarine that will never come. He hums a lament. An old Partridge Family tune.
I can feel your heartbeat.
Charlie's MILF has died on the road and all Charlie has left to love is a shoe box. He stores his totems in there. Some bottle caps. Gummy bear necklace, hardened and inedible. A pair of his MILF's panties. Lace. Tiny, tiny roses. Crazy Charlie uses the panties to blow his nose. It seems like a sacrilege, but to him it's a form of Holy Communion. Mixing her DNA with his.
One morning, Charlie wakes up with an ache in his heart. He's dreamed that the MILF's panties have come to life spontaneously in a tidal pool, evolved, and crawled away into the Everglades, leaving him there on the beach to die alone.
Sometimes on my way to the recycling center I'll stop at a park and just sit at one of the picnic tables. There's a swing and a statue of Paul Revere. There's a fountain. Nobody throws pennies in there anymore. The few wishes we had left were shot into space on the last probe, along with the tomato seeds, the abacus, and the DVD of Gone with the Wind.
I visit the empty houses sometimes. Their unkempt state tugs at me. I have the urge to mow the lawn. Fill the flower beds with mulch. Clean out the gutters. Return things to normalcy. I wear a new pair of sneakers every day. There's a shoe store down the street from the motel with thousands of sneakers in the back room. New sneakers squeak. I like that sound. Reminds me of crowded schools. Happy children. Running in the gym on a freshly waxed floor.