Readings — From the July 2011 issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
An excerpt from the novel Zone One, which was published in October 2011 by Doubleday.
On Last Night, the sprinkler had pivoted and dispensed in its prescribed arc on Mark Spitz’s lawn. The floor lamp next to the living-room television beamed its reassuring cone through the powder-blue curtains, as it had for decades. Mark Spitz was not a loser of keys and had twenty-year-old front-door keys in his hand. When he fled the house minutes later, he would not stop to lock the door behind himself.
He and his friend Kyle had spent a few nights in Atlantic City at one of the new boutique casinos, adrift among the dazzling surfaces. Inside the enclosure, they imagined themselves libertines at the trough, snout-deep and rooting. The banks of machines trilled and dinged and whooped in a regional dialect of money. At the hold ’em tables, they visualized the hand rankings from their poker bibles and nervously joked about the guys who were overly chummy with the dealers, the local sharks on their nocturnal feed. They tipped the waitresses with chips, deducting these from their night’s tally in the spirit of thorough accounting, and slid their fingers around the dice in superstitious motions before launch in the craps arena. They were heroes to strangers for a time, ticker-taped during sporadic rushes. On barstools they ogled the bachelorettes in the club and discussed their chances, recalling near-conquests from previous visits. In the buffet lines they foraged from the steam trays, and impaled and then swirled wasabi around tiny ceramic saucers, tinting soy sauce. After thirty-six hours they realized, according to custom, that they hadn’t yet left the premises, and submitted happily to the artificial habitat that is the modern casino. They did not want. It was all inside. Their brains fogged over as possibility and failure enthralled them in a perpetual and tantalizing loop.
The casino was emptier than it had been on their earlier missions. The fresh casinos burst from the gaping, rebar-studded lots where the past-prime establishments had stood, and perhaps that explained it, they thought, the law of competition and the lure of the latest bauble. Everyone was at the new place they hadn’t yet heard of. Fewer people milled about the tables, there were subdued shrieks at the craps, roulette stands shrouded in plastic, although it should be noted that the slots maintained their sturdy population of glassy-eyed defectives, the protohumans with their sleepless claws. Their favorite blackjack dealer, Jackie, a weather-beaten broad who dispensed smiles from beneath a slumping orange beehive, was out sick, and the creature in her place kept fucking up the deal, but they decided against complaining to the pit boss after consideration of his imposing, deflecting mien. To be sure, this trip’s pod of bachelorettes was a trifle depleted, running through their pantomime of excess with weary affect and listlessly brandishing the rubber penises on the dance floor. It occurred to them more than once that this trip would not live up to their lore, and they mourned over sips of subsidized liquor. Maybe they had outgrown these enthusiasms. Maybe those times were dead and they were only now aware of their new circumstances.
They did not watch the news, nor receive news from the outside.
They were up past dawn, crashed, were granted absolution in its secular manifestation of late checkout. They inserted themselves into the Sunday northbound stream and devoured the undercarbonated colas and turkey wraps purchased at the turnpike conveniences. The wraps were sealed, according to the label, in a plastic that degraded into eco-friendly vapor in thirty days. The traffic was atrocious and shaming, of that pantheon of traffic encountered when one is late to a wedding or other monumental event of fleeting import. Surely an accident unraveled its miserable inevitabilities ahead and now all was fouled, decelerated, the vehicles syllables in an incantation of misfortune. Drivers and their passengers misbehaved, steering onto the shoulder and jetting past the stalled unlucky, seeming even to abandon their vehicles. Figures lurched through the median. Fire trucks and police cars galloped past in their standard hysteria. Kyle and Mark Spitz traded playlists, which were broadcast from their digital music devices to the car radio. The traffic did not cease when they emerged from the tunnel, the Long Island Expressway a disgrace in either direction.
“Big game tonight or a concert,” Kyle said.
“They need to chill,” Mark Spitz said. The Monday vise clenched. Here was that end-of-weekend despair, the death of amusement and the winnowing of the reprieve. Everyone on the expressways and turnpikes felt it, he was sure, this evaporation of prospects. What impotent rebellion they enacted, feebly tapping the facsimile leather of their horns and spitting the top-shelf profanities. In retrospect, perhaps the intensity of that moment, the pressure he felt, was the immensity of the farewell, for this was the goodbye traffic, the last latenesses and their attendant excuses, the final inconveniences of an expiring world.
They finally arrived at Mark Spitz’s corner. A small group of boys played basketball at the other end of the street. The game was breaking up, it had been too dark to play for a while now, and he tried to identify the players but they didn’t seem to be part of the block’s pool of well-bred teens. Were they playing basketball? There was a small round shape on the pavement and they bent into a huddle. He didn’t recognize their faces, only that deflated curl of the shoulders that marked Sunday night’s recurring epidemic: Back to work.
Mark Spitz said goodbye to his childhood friend for the last time and walked up the pavestone path, the fruit of a recently completed replacement of the brick walkway that had skinned his knees many times. Except for college, and brief, doomed stints here and there—a botched adventure in California pursuing a girl he hadn’t believed when she professed to prefer girls, a season on a couch in Brooklyn—he had lived in this house his entire life. Technically, he lived in the basement, his childhood room having long been converted into his mother’s home office, but his father’s subterranean renovation—an undertaking that had kept him afloat when so many of his peers had been capsized by midlife’s squall—made plausible Mark Spitz’s explanation that he had moved down to the “Rec Room.” This was no mere basement, what with its touchscreen climate controls and programmed-lighting routines, but a space capsule he piloted to the planet of his life’s next stage.
The house looked normal from the outside. The shades were pulled and the lights were out save for the aforementioned glow of the floor lamp by the media center in the living room, that dependable illumination that had greeted him for years. His mother had been feeling “not so red-hot,” in her mom parlance, and he surmised that they were half asleep in front of the upstairs digital video recorder as the final fifteen minutes of last week’s episode droned before them: the verdict of the judge and the expulsion of the latest scapegoat; the obscure precedents cited by the assistant district attorney; the reenactors of real crimes in their shabby thespianship. His parents often retreated to their old honeymoon nest after dinner, ceding to their son the living room, with its high-definition enhancements and twin leather recliners equipped with beverage holsters. The Rec Room was a marvel in every respect except for its television, a rare impulse purchase on the part of his father, who consulted the roundups on the Internet with dedication, often contributing his two- and three-star verdicts to the rabble chorus. The set was an off-brand mistake lately afflicted with a black bloom of dead pixels. Its sorry conjurations gave the family an excuse to enjoy the big television spectacles together upstairs, the ones that periodically reunited the riven nation, albeit in staggered broadcasts in the cascade of time zones.
He scowled at the mail on the hall credenza, speculating anew over what opt-in had birthed, among other bastards, his identification as a member of the opposite political party. (In the catastrophe, the demonic mailing lists were struck. One was free to choose a fresh affiliation from the rubbled platforms.) He decided to crow about his winnings. He moved up the stairs and was startled by the sound of his sneakers on the naked planks. The pavestone renovation had been part of a larger project that embraced, in its broad manifest, the retiling of the kitchen’s hexagonal expanse and the removal of the stairway carpet. This was a foot-level campaign. They worked on the house constantly, his parents. The projects took time. Although they were relatively young (young got younger and younger as the gatekeepers of media contemplated their mortality earlier and earlier), their makeover schemes betrayed an attempt to outwit death: who had ever died during the installation of a backyard water feature, one that might dribble joy from polyvinyl chloride tubing? In bed, they thumbed Post-its into the margins of catalogue pages and exchanged them like hostages over the sheets. Every room, every reconsidered and gussied square foot was an encroachment into immortality’s lot line. The blueprints, the specs, the back-of-the-envelope estimates. It would sustain them. The guest bathroom was next.
Exhausted by the transformations, his parents were between renovation projects. Perhaps if it had been otherwise, they would still be alive.
When he was six, he walked in on his mother giving his father a blowjob. A public-television program about the precariousness of life in the Serengeti, glimpsed in passing, had introduced him to dread, and it had been eating at him the previous few nights. Bad dreams. The hyenas and their keening. He needed to slip into his parents’ king-size bed, as he had when he was very young, before he had been banished to his own big-boy bed in accordance with the latest child-rearing philosophies. It was forbidden, but he decided to visit his parents. He padded down the hall, past the green eye of the carbon-monoxide detector, that ever-vigilant protector against invisible evil, and the bathroom and the linen closet. He opened the door to the master bedroom and there she was, gobbling up his father. His father ceased his unsettling growls and shouted for his son to leave. The incident was never referred to again, and it became the first occupant of the corner in his brain’s attic that he reserved for the great mortifications. The first occupant, but not the last.
It was, naturally, to that night his thoughts fled when on his return from Atlantic City he opened the door of his parents’ bedroom and witnessed his mother’s grisly ministrations to his father. She was hunched over him, gnawing away with ecstatic fervor on a flap of his intestine, which, in the flicker of the television, adopted a phallic aspect. He thought immediately of when he was six, not only because of the similar tableau before him, but that tendency of the human mind, in periods of duress, to seek refuge in more peaceful times, such as a childhood experience, as a barricade against horror.
That was the start of his Last Night story. Everybody had one.
More from Colson Whitehead: