Dear Mysterious Light Source,
Sure, we’d heard stories over the years that you would appear out of the blue someday, but we’d stopped looking up long ago amidst all the dark news that had made us so weary for so long. A third of us were dead. We’d given up on our leaders, who had also given up. The local college had been converted to a hospice facility. Food was scarce, but I ate cheaply, for one, so I was lucky, even if I could barely stomach the frozen fish dinners that got delivered every Saturday (if they weren’t stolen). And then came that Saturday night, 11 p.m. July 3rd, while I disinfected my kitchen cabinets, you showed up as if the moon itself had stepped through my window. I knew by the majestic quality of your light that you had come to save us. I walked outside, phone in one hand, spray bottle in the other, and looked skyward while I called Mayor Barb.
The center of your light beamed down straight into our football stadium, like you meant to land on the 50 yard line. Do you know English? Can you read my handwriting? Maybe you’ll never see this or make sense of it. I’m 94 years-old now and ought not to be in charge of official correspondence, but who the hell else is going to explain our behavior and ask for forgiveness?
Barb answered on the first ring. We’d known each other since 9th grade when we were cheerleaders and stayed best friends for three years until Barb—well, that’s another story, but when she got elected Mayor, she asked me to chair the Tourism & Hospitality Committee, which I was happy to do. We lived in a beautiful place worth visiting, even in the winter, and our economy badly needed a big boost.
“Of course I see it,” she said. She told me everyone in her neighborhood was standing in their front yards and in the street dressed in their underwear and nightgowns (without masks), looking up in the same direction.
“Looks like your new campaign is working,” she said.
“It’s a team effort,” I said, which was true. Maybe you saw one of our spiffy new digital billboards?
“Now everyone will be descending on us,” Barb said. “The media, scientists, UFO-chasers, the President.”
“How embarrassing,” I said.
“Call your people so we can meet immediately and make a plan.”
The committee went to City Hall at once, in pajamas and nightgowns, except for Mitch McDonald, the asshole, who never left his house without a suit and tie. Barb had the conference room lit up, and we all came in talking all at once.
“We need to organize a proper greeting,” Barb said.
Lars said, “I bet their arrival is meant to coincide with our 4th of July celebration.”
“We canceled our 4th of July celebration at the last meeting,” Jill said.
It was true. Our fireworks budget had dried up, and we wanted to discourage crowds to reduce the risk of infections.
“I’m tired of your negativity,” Lars said.
“Let’s decide how we should present ourselves,” Barb said.
“That’s easy,” said Mitch McDonald, the pompous ass. Then he proposed, and the committee approved (7-2), that we call an event planner who could quickly plan a proper greeting.
“I know just the person,” Mitch said.
He meant his third wife, Elaine McDonald. His second wife was my sister (now dead), whom he was married to for ten years thirty years ago. I stopped liking him the moment she introduced me and he winked at me with those reptile eyes of his.
“Conflict of interest,” Doris Turnbull said. “Nepotism. Yet another contract awarded because of special connections that continue to privilege the rich and powerful.”
“She does good work,” Lars said. “I remember the balloon maker she brought in last year.”
“She knows the best food trucks and beer vendors,” Susan said.
“And beer vendors,” Bill said.
“I just said beer vendors,” Susan said.
“My daughter still sleeps with the Giraffe-balloon she got,” Lars said.
Mitch called Elaine, who called food truck owners, beer vendors, balloon-makers, photographers, the whole shebang. Shebang is an American word, first used by Civil War soldiers and the poet Walt Whitman, according to Google’s dictionary, and also means “rustic dwelling” or “hut,” but now means “everything.” A dictionary is a source that supplies definitions for words. Google is a computer program that provides information unrelated to the human soul. A human soul was the invisible essence (from the Greek, meaning “to breathe”) “that comprised the mental abilities of a living being: reason, character, feeling, consciousness, memory, perception, thinking, etc. (Wikipedia, via Google). Some say souls live forever, some say souls don’t exist. My grandmother (now dead), who was born in New Orleans, called me “a lost soul forever drifting.”
“Our next priority,” Mitch said, “should be ticket sales. Imagine the revenue we’ll generate by selling 80,000 tickets at five thousand dollars per.”
“Season ticket-holders should get free access,” Ron Zinker said.
“You’re saying that because you’re a season ticket-holder,” Jill said.
“I inherited them fair and square.”
“Listen,” Lars said. “I have yet to hear anyone express the very real possibility that this strange light is coming from a dangerous source such as a well-organized team of celebrities who intend to harm our children.”
“Listen,” Bob Evans said. “There’s a liability risk here. Five thousand dollars per seat could get us sued for price-gouging.”
“Listen,” Lars continued. “An entire fleet of these things could be right behind this one.”
Mitch McDonald, the reptile, said, “The free market creates a demand that we’re obliged to satisfy. This is a golden opportunity.”
“We should build a space wall,” Lars said. “We could convert the college into a space-wall plant. Supply chains would spring up everywhere, making space-wall parts.”
Barb was quiet. She’d gone to the window to look out. She was mesmerized. Everyone else was seated ten feet apart at the long table.
“With revenue from five thousand dollars a seat,” Mitch said, “we could pay a space-wall manufacturer to establish a base that would create thousands of low-paying jobs for the unemployed, who increasingly rely on handouts.”
“What we need is a bigger jail,” Bill said.
“Remember when we had schools?” Doris said.
“I’m tired of your nostalgia,” Lars said. “We have a clear and present danger.”
“It’s a liability risk,” Bob said again.
Barb turned from the window, looking radiant. “Josephine?”
Everyone looked at me. I said, “Let’s go right this second to stand beneath the light and smile and wave, show that we’re friendly.”
Mitch said, “We might avoid liability risks if we charged $2,000 a seat.” In the form of a motion, he proposed, and the committee approved (7-2), that we sell tickets for $2,000.
“Including a commemorative knickknack,” Herman said.
“Like what?” Jill said.
They argued over knickknacks: cups, pennants, hats, keychains.
“I know,” Bruce said. Then he proposed, and the committee agreed (7-2) on digging out the boxes of t-shirts we’d ordered long-ago that said, “Welcome to God’s Country,” printed inside an image of our state’s shape.
“Listen,” Barb said. “I agree with Josephine that we should proceed immediately to the light before it’s too late.”
“Listen,” Lars said, in a mocking tone. “We can’t mobilize the National Guard without the Governor’s go-ahead.”
“Has anyone called the Governor?” Jill said.
“Where are those t-shirts?” Lillian Rose said. “We could all wear one.”
“Stadium’s locked,” Bob said.
“My brother-in-law has a key,” said Mitch, the fucker. “But, listen—”
“Bad idea,” Lars said.
“Listen,” Lillian said. “We can’t greet them without a gift.”
Everyone started talking at once. Hell broke loose. There’s a phrase you won’t find in your guidebook. Hell is a place most of us are taught about as children—maybe you’ve heard stories. It’s where “bad souls” are said to spend eternity being punished for their earthly sins. Some (like Mitch McDonald) are said to have a special place reserved there. Some hope others will rot there. And it’s hot, allegedly, worse than Death Valley, CA.
Bill Schmidt crawled on the table, stood and raised his arms, shouted, “People, please!”
We grew quiet. Bill said, “I think we should greet them with…a song.” He spread his arms wide, proud of himself. He had once managed the community theatre and had starred in many musicals, but not in a long time. “Music,” he explained, “is the universal language. A song will reveal who we are. As a people,” he clarified.
“Depends on the song,” Bruce said.
“It’d have to be some kind of anthem of national significance,” Mitch said.
“The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Bruce said.
“Amazing Grace is nice,” Lillian said.
“John Phillips Sousa,” said Joe J. Weiskopf.
“That’s not a song,” Barb said.
“Philip,” said Lars. “There’s no S in Phillips. For God’s sake.”
“I have a solution,” said Mitch, the prick. He stood. Buttoned his suit coat. And started singing. He was 95 years-old, and his terrible and shaky singing voice didn’t stop him from being loud. It was probably the highlight of his career—something he’d been wanting to do forever. Doris Turnbull made a face and pushed her fingers into her ears. It was awful. He kept going. He was proud to be an American, he sang. This was a song recorded by Lee Greenwood, as played at the 1984 Republican National Convention—a silly week-long series of propagandistic displays. This is when our leader at that time, Ron Reagan (former movie actor/celebrity and anti-communist crusader of the 1950’s), ventured way out on a limb to proclaim that he himself was a proud American. Everyone went ape-shit over that song, felt a zealous fervor that topped the fervor of the 1980 convention when the Reagan party played “Born in the U.S.A.” (without permission of the author, Bruce Springsteen, to his great shame), because those were the only words they understood, words enough for an entire platform, no matter that the song was inspired by all the sorrow that came from so many Vietnamese and American deaths that kept mounting during the Vietnam War (1963-1973) that kept escalating while our leaders kept lying about death counts and how we were winning.
McDonald kept singing. He’d proudly stand up and defend her still today, he sang. Doris went to the restroom and returned looking pale while McDonald moved to his big finish. He knew all the words, the idiot. When he finished, he sat, waiting for applause. There was none.
Doris announced that the song, as well as Mr. McDonalds’ rendition of it, had made her vomit. “I have never,” she said, “been so ill.”
“Ms. Turnbull,” McDonald said, “I wonder if your diet might benefit from more moral fiber and less (sic) donuts.”
Doris said, “Let the record re-reflect that Mr. McDonald is, in fact, a biscuit-fucker.”
McDonald denied the charge (despite the leaked photo), claiming a gluten allergy.
“Mrs. Turnbull,” he said. “Though this slanderous assault against my character continues unabated, I should like to go on record saying that I would much prefer achieving intimacy with a cold biscuit than with the likes of someone as unpatriotic as yourself.”
Here followed another tense moment of silence. An important moment. We could have used the moment to save ourselves. We could have taken a breath, regrouped, re-booted. We didn’t do that. Doris approached Mitch, stared him in his cold eyes, then snatched off his toupee and tossed it to the center of the table, where it lay like a dead squirrel. A toupee is a fake piece of hair some people tape to their heads to hide baldness. In the end, this is what killed us. If you are as hairless as many of our movies have depicted you, maybe it means you’re more evolved than we. Isn’t it easier to look each other in the eye and to see what’s in there if you’re not distracted by someone’s hair, or with thoughts of how your own hair is distracting them? I’ve survived three bouts of cancer (breast, lung, breast), and can tell you that people were always kindest when I was bald. If our national leader had been bald, for example, people would have taken him more seriously. A little.
Another moment of silence followed while we sat and stared at the dead toupee. We could have used this second chance to save ourselves. To his credit, McDonald rose from his seat, again buttoned his coat (making no mention of his baldness) and mentioned something about the necessity, “Yay, the urgency,” he declared, “at this late hour, to reclaim our collective civility for the sake of our survival.” He paused, as if to let this sink in.
Someone threw a shoe at him.
It was me. The song was bad enough, but when he said this last thing, he winked at me. After he winked, he kept talking, clearly headed toward a filibuster, which I couldn’t tolerate. I suspect you have no need for this word, “filibuster.” It means winning a point by talking and talking until your colleagues’ corpses have begun to rot in their chairs. I saw no alternative.
Within seconds, hell proper emerged—my colleagues tossed water into each other’s faces. They kicked each other’s shins. Tried to stab each other with pens, pulled each other’s hair, freeing three other toupees and one wig. Canes were parried and riposted, wheelchairs toppled, all amid some of most horrid flatulence I’ve endured. Dick Gustafson, who had yet to say a word, opened his briefcase and removed the grenade his great-grandfather had given him the Christmas little Dick was a first grader being bullied for wearing a camouflaged Army helmet to school on account of his soft skull (everyone had heard the story, but little Dick told it again, slowly, even as the battle royal ensued), then he pulled the pin and dropped the grenade between his feet.
Inside the smoky room, amidst the chaos, I started choking whoever I could get my hands on. Turns out the throat belonged to Mitch McDonald, who was dead. I had a dark thought I’m not proud of: if only I’d acted sooner, I could have killed him. I ripped a cane from the cold hands of an elder statesman (Lars Katoski, as it turned out) who had whacked me in the lower torso, and I thrust the tip of the cane into his chest, which, surprise to me, resulted in the cane getting stuck there in his doughy flesh. He raised his eyes to the ceiling and sobbed. It was embarrassing.
Needless to say.
When the meeting adjourned, about midnight, all of us—except Mitch, Lars, and Dick—limped outside, me with one bare foot. Right away, in unison, we looked skyward. You were gone, of course. We stood still a second, stared at a distant and lonely star, wishing, but it was pointless. No one said anything. We lowered our heads and walked away in different directions. I abandoned my other shoe on the sidewalk.
A month later, groceries grew more scarce. My daughter and son, my five grands, and three great-grands weren’t answering their phones in California. I suspected the worse. Doris Turnbull died. Everyone else on the committee was sick. Except Barb. Barb, who was alone like me, suggested we live together, pool our resources. She apologized for stealing my boyfriend in 11th grade, and I forgave her. Her term was up in November, and she tried to persuade me to run in her place, using the same slogan she used, which was the same one her predecessor used, which was: “It’s time for a change.” We laughed all night at this. Do you know the phenomenon of human laughter? It’s a reflex triggered when reason meets madness x truth2.
But as my dear old grandmother used to say, “Sometimes, it ain’t funny, honey.”
Last Wednesday, the day after it was announced that football season had been canceled, someone blew up the stadium, which was full of dead people—even all the seats—because the college classrooms and offices and dorm rooms and cafeteria were already overcrowded with dead people. Some blame the stadium explosion on a group in our neighboring state who are fans of a rival team. There’s no evidence, but blaming them keeps us from looking too closely at ourselves, which is a comfort.
Tomorrow’s my 95th birthday. Whippee. This is the first letter I’ve written since I went away for college and got so homesick. I wrote letters every day back then, telling my parents how much I wanted to come home. It’ll be my last letter, too, which makes me feel kind of, well, kind of poetic I guess. You ever had a near-death mishap in your spaceship and plummet twenty-thousand feet in one second and start praying like you’d pray from a foxhole when tanks are rolling toward you (my brother died in a South Pacific foxhole while praying, WWII), but then your ship bounces back, and you declare it a miracle, and suddenly you’re more alive than ever and you vow that you will make your short life matter and find ways to help others, then on the way home, you get into a traffic jam while listening to the news and that feeling flies away as fast as you raise your middle finger at the asshole with a bumper sticker supporting the idiot-in-chief?
On behalf of our entire species, I apologize for scaring you off. I shouldn’t have thrown my shoe. It turns out Mitch was right, the bastard. We had a chance to reclaim civility, and I blew it. I’m trying to forgive myself.
Today, Saturday, we didn’t get a grocery delivery. We sat in my back yard beneath my two white cedars and listened to music. We discussed what song—what singer’s voice might soothe us best—what voice might lure you back. After many good ideas, we agreed to start with Ray Charles. We played his version of “America the Beautiful.” I’m not crazy about the schmaltzy sea to shining sea stuff, but if there’s a voice that would make you turn around, a voice to make you hear the longing and the hope and the immense pain of our failings and our desperate yearning for forgiveness, it’s Ray’s voice. There’s a prayer in Ray’s voice. A prayer is a solemn request for help, an earnest hope or wish. Ray makes you see what a well-lit soul looks like. In the 1960’s, he was banned from singing in the city of Atlanta because of his skin color, this in the same state where he was born. But still, he later recorded the best version of “Georgia on My Mind,” which will make you want to go there just to see the moonlight through the pines.
Then we went to Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddamn.” Such anguish and rage and grief even as Nina makes you tap your foot, which is when, around dusk, I said, “Barb, get your ass up and let’s dance.” So she did, and I did and it made our minds go quiet for awhile. Then she started coughing, and we hugged a good long while without needing to say anything.
The next morning, we went outside again, sat and played Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It was a beautiful day, but Barb’s cough was worse. Still, Nina put a spell on us, made us believe we were somehow young and beautiful. We watched the sky, thinking you might appear again, but neither of us said what we were thinking.
Then Barb said, “Oh no!”
“What now?” I said.
She pointed out that I had started coughing too, which I hadn’t noticed.
“You know,” I said, “I’m really tired of your negativity.” And we laughed. We laughed and coughed and laughed and coughed until we both fell out of our chairs. I landed on my side, pen in hand, notebook still beneath it.
“Guess what?” I said.
“What now?” she said.
“I think I broke a hip.”
And she laughed and coughed and laughed then coughed. She said, “You’re killing me. I’m dying over here.”
I said, “Me too.”
We said, “Ahhhh.”
She said, “If they come back and can’t find us, tell them to look in the freezer.”
“How are we going to get into the freezer?” I said.
“For the fish, dummy.”
There’s a few frozen Whitefish in there you’d like. One of our slogans was, “You haven’t been to God’s Country ‘till the Whitefish are swimming in your belly.”
We saw blossoms on the trees, felt a breeze drifting by. We hadn’t seen them in a long time, but from where we lay it looked like dragonflies were dancing in the sun. Butterflies—yes, butterflies—were having fun. We waited for the end of the day so we could see what the new dawn said. It would be a bold day. A day where the old world became a new world. I had a feeling we’d see you there. But wouldn’t that be nice?