Saturday, December 13, 2008

Family Reunion

-i-

John Shepard was driving to his sister’s house for Thanksgiving. He and his ex-wife broke up before having any kids of their own. It was a bitter divorce, so he celebrated Thanksgiving with his sister and her current boyfriend Daryl. Or was it Darin?

It was a clear, sunny day. Shepard’s mind drifted as the car radio droned. He didn’t notice when a big-rig in the opposing lane began to cross the median. By the time he saw that hulking thing bear down on him at 90 miles per hour, it was too late to avert a head-on collision. Or so it seemed. He blacked out.

After he came to, he found himself on the side of the road. The car was undamaged. How he avoided the collision was a mystery.

He pulled back onto the road and continued his journey. The landscape was oddly deserted. And, except for the occasional car, coming or going, the highway was oddly deserted.

Was he lost? How could he be lost? It had to be the very same road. He hadn’t made a wrong turn—or any turn at all.

Was he going in the wrong direction? But his internal compass told he that he was headed in the same direction.

In this no man’s land, all he could do was to keep driving until he saw a cafe or gas station. After hours of driving, the traffic began to bunch up as he approached a checkpoint. It resembled a border crossing—which made no sense. He was nowhere near the border.

There was an express lane for drivers with an E-ZPass tag, but he didn’t have one of those. Instead, a border guard motioned him into a parking lot. From there, signs directed him to a spacious waiting room. There he was handed a clipboard.

This all seemed surreal. Maybe he had been injured in the accident. He didn’t look like he’d been injured in the accident. He didn’t feel like he’d been injured in the accident. But maybe that was an effect of the accident. An effect of head trauma. Perhaps, right now, he was really lying on a hospital bed, in a coma—with tubes coming out of him.

Still, it seemed real enough. He didn’t want anyone there to think he was crazy, especially since the border guards were well-armed, so he might as well play along with the situation, even if it was a figment of his delirium.

Assuming he was delirious. He just couldn’t tell. After all, if he really were delirious, he’d be the last man to know, right?

After he filled out the application form, they took his picture and issued him a passport. From there he continued his journey. After a few more miles he saw a metropolis on the horizon. It was overshadowed by a thick, clingy layer of smog. The gilded sunlight gave way to slate-gray daylight.

-ii-

John Shepard had been living in the Underground, as locals called it, for about two months now. As we speak, he was having lunch at the hamburger joint on the first floor of his apartment complex. Outside, it was...gray.

A slatternly waitress took his order. Coffee, black, and a hamburger, hold the mustard. He always ordered the same thing, and the hamburger was always burned.

The Underground was a bit like living in Havana under the Castro regime—but without the sunshine, palm trees, or beaches. You had that damn smog hanging over the city every single day.

Most of the cars were relicts from the Eisenhower era. Newcomers brought newer cars, but if you left a new car parked overnight on the street, by morning it was stripped down to the axel rods for spare parts—as Shepard found out on his first night in the Underground.

The air inside the hamburger joint was heavy with cigarette smoke. A jukebox was playing in the background. It only played one song.

Nothing worked in the Underground. Like the vending machine, which only dispensed Tijuana Smalls.

The ceiling in his apartment was leaky. And when the ceiling wasn’t adrip, the faucet was. The wallpaper was peeling. The dog in the next-door apartment was constantly barking. And with a three-headed dog, it made quite a racket.

At first, Shepard tried to complain to the landlord, but the management was an absentee landlord. He sent a guy around every month to collect the rent—a tall, beefy dude with bad breath, brass knuckles, and glowing red eyes.

It was a serious letdown. Not that Shepard ever expected to find himself standing at the pearly gates. He was never that pious. But he was hoping that the alternative would be a wee bit more interesting. Something out of those Gustave Doré illustrations in his parents family Bible—with vast caverns lit by flickering flames. Majestic! An orgy of naked bodies. Thrilling! Sorry to say, the grim reality didn’t measure up to the glossy ads.

Upstairs, his TV—the old-fashioned kind with rabbit-ears, only played reruns from the “Golden Age” of television—Lassie, Flipper, Lawrence Welk, Bewitched, Romper Room, Room 222, Peyton Place, the Brady Bunch, the Patty Duke Show, Mr. Ed, the Monkees, the Mickey Mouse Club, the Flying Nun.

As a diversion, Shepard would take weekend furloughs to see his old stomping grounds. At first, he didn’t think that was allowed. Once you made it here, there was no way out, right?

But as his neighbor explained—the neighbor with the noisy canine—ghosts and demons were free to frequent the land of the living—until the Day of Judgment, after which the exits would all be welded shut.

Even then, Shepard didn’t find it much a relief to watch his sister change the flowers on his grave. And it wasn’t long before she got tired of making the weekly rounds, and stuck some plastic flowers in his vase.

The landlord also made trips outside the Metro—on a Harley-Davidson, license plate NED666—to check on all his loyal employees at the New York Times.

At this point, Shepard was sorry that when his parents took him to church as a kid, he paid so little attention to the preacher and so much attention to the pretty girl in the front row. The Underground was a place where everyone regretted something, but repented of nothing.

But it was too late to learn from his mistakes—unless, of course, he really was in a hospital bed, waiting to wake up some day.

Assuming they wouldn’t pull the plug, in which case...

-iii-

John Shepard was driving to his sister’s house for Thanksgiving. He and his ex-wife...

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