[This is the last story I wrote at Clarion, unpublished anywhere but here until now.]

The Moon’s Turned Black

by Will Ludwigsen

Honesty compels me to offer only a tepid review for Earth’s final days. I’ve found the dialogue unconvincing, the situations clichéd, and the delivery melodramatic and forced. I’d never imagined that the greatest horror of the apocalypse wouldn’t be gangrenous claws or teeming pestilence but a tedious banality more plausible from the producers of Saved By the Bell than from our vengeful God. I really expected more…panache.

I’ll confess my own performance has been no better, but I have an excuse: my DNA was cultivated for wit and punditry, not for pumping shell after shell from a shotgun into hordes of looting madmen. So my own death, coming soon judging by the dwindling gin, will lack even the pathetic grandeur of a battle cry against the void.

Instead, we sit in darkness, Woollcott and Benchley and I, drinking from dusty martini glasses and awaiting the crash and clatter of hooves upon the debris-strewn Algonquin lobby.

#

Four horsemen ride on Fifty-First,
While Old Scratch hones his fork.
A Greenwich demon deals his worst;
I shrug and say, “New York.”

#

Like a Disney Broadway musical, I was resurrected from scant sources, grown in a canister by scientists, and delivered to the world with pretension. Whereas the Lion King had only to save a quarterly report, though, I was born to save New York.

When those gentlemen dumped radioactive slurry across Times Square, it wasn’t immediately obvious that they were not enacting an audacious feat of performance art. Though the ensuing convulsions and nausea seemed typical for the avant garde scene, the ten thousand subsequent deaths were not. Nor were the arch reviews from Washington, expressed largely through bombings and invasions.

The world fell to zealots. How strange that a battle of books would involve two so bloated, overwritten, and dull as the Bible and the Koran. Either would benefit from a little wry wit, a Book of Thurber or the Psalms of Sedaris.

Or so my father thought. His solution to the spread of rage and unreason? Why, the Algonquin Round Table, of course. What greater force to thwart the decline of civilization than humorists? Who better to personify an age than three people dead for over two centuries? Where else to restart human civilization than the city in which it began to unravel?

My father wasn’t a practical man.

He did, however, hire practical men. They drew Woollcott from deep within a femur’s marrow. They scooped Benchley from the pulp of an extracted wisdom tooth. They clipped me from hair follicles I’d sent to Eddie Parker before he marched off to World War I. Where the DNA decayed, they improvised. My name by their standard would be Dorgthy Parklr.

The nature mastered, Dad moved on to nurture. No one becomes an incisive cultural critic after a happy childhood; you learn to recognize shit by soaking decades of it through your skin. The fumbling performances of the parents presage those of the playwright and film director. Most parents, let’s admit, have less in common with Orson Welles than with Ed Wood. Or a second-unit director on a snuff film.

Our father did his best to abuse us, though his heart wasn’t in it. He could never hit or neglect us with any conviction, and Benchley failed to develop the necessary hatred to be truly funny. Wollcott did pick up the imperious ego of his namesake, thanks to my father’s praise, but never the fickle anger. Dad tried ignoring me, but we both found it boring.

We did our best to don the costumes of Woollcott and Benchley and Parker, though we never filled them. Woollcott wrote less funny plays, Benchley cracked less funny jokes, and I attempted suicide with none of the conviction of my genetic forebear.

We had little to say with all our latent wit and sophistication, few pithy insightful quips to reduce the world to pocket size. Of course, this problem hardly stopped our namesakes, but we had an added handicap: nobody was listening. Armed though we were with savoir faire, everyone else preferred rifles. Our few visitors seemed more interested in our liquor than our wit. Come to think of it, so were we.

“Word of mouth,” Dad told us. “People will tell tales about the new society forming from the ruins of the old, and they’ll come to see it. You just wait.”

Unfortunately, the devil came first.

#

Yes, the rivers run with gore.
And, sigh, the locusts flock.
We’ve seen these petty tricks before,
And now it’s summer stock.

#

How typical of God’s ham-fisted writing style that one apocalypse would so predictably follow another. I wish I could say I cared whether our human religious conflagration ignited the cosmic one. All I know is that the Eternal Storyteller took the advice to “raise the stakes” from His beginning screenwriting course a little too earnestly to heart.

Even Michael Bay had the class to inflict only a single Pearl Harbor on us.

We’d just gotten comfortable in our post-civility civilization when reality ripped. With the world still smoldering, the Devil’s minions smelled our weakness and swooped through the smoke to tear apart the last few people hunkered in the jagged ruins.

Benchley, Wollcott, and I watched it all from the dark Algonquin lobby, sipping crude martinis and shaking our heads at the fading shrieks of the damned.

“What would Jesus do, indeed,” Benchley would sniff.

“You’d think he’d stay inside,” Wollcott would answer.

Even with singed skeletons heaped in the streets, Dad made sure the Algonquin remained a citadel of sophistication among the feral, a salon in which motorcycle gangs could swill brandy and discuss Nietzsche. He waxed railings and swept out broken glass and polished the doorman’s bell. He tucked Matilda’s soot-streaked basket behind the counter in case she ever came back. He rested the legless Round Table upon two sawhorses. We tried to help, but our job, he said, was to quip and snicker.

That’s what we must have been busy doing, I suppose, when the claws tore him from beneath the tattered entrance awning.

Say what you will about the coming of the Antichrist, but don’t malign his special effects. While God’s busy with glowing lights and (yawn) rivers of dye, His Infernal Majesty pulls out all the stops, turning a natural tendency for melodrama into a convincing fervor. Satan wants it, and it shows on the stage.

We ran into the street, peering up into the pus-dome sky. Black triangles circled the city’s dead steel bones, two of them peeling our father between them.

Woollcott dropped to his knees on the sidewalk, jamming his plump fingers into his mouth and wailing. Benchley threw up in Matilda’s basket.

“Now really,” I said, scowling into the sky with my hands on my hips. “Surely one would have been enough.”

I wish I could say that Wollcott and Benchley still handle the apocalypse with aplomb. When he isn’t whining about having to shit in a bucket or eat another rancid can of tuna fish, Woollcott mostly shrieks and gibbers. Sometimes he’ll muster the lucidity to declare some kind of a plan to save us all, but he can never find the tools he thinks he needs to execute it.

Benchley, though I’m supposed to love him, is hardly an asset either. That fake nervous speaking schtick does us little credit when looting a Duane Reade for cough medicine or wresting a pistol from a dead police officer’s melted hand.

Hemingway would have been far more effective during an apocalypse, don’t you think? He’d skulk through the ruins like a big game hunter, taking down gazelles or vagrants or whatever else now roams Manhattan’s concrete savannah. We’d watch in silence, uncomfortably guilty that he alone has the machismo to survive.

Not that the swooping leather-winged demons wouldn’t still carry him writhing to the clouds, too.

#

Benchley claims he loves me most:
“Best girl of the season.”
All the other girls are ghosts,
So that just stands to reason.

#

I’m not upset to witness the end of the world; it had to happen sometime, and at least I’m spared the indignity of crawling from my grave all covered in dirt and wearing last season’s funerary gown.

My only regret, other than never enjoying the love of a truly glorious man or having the time to write an exquisite novel about our inevitable and torturous break up, is that I’m forced to witness all the sad cliché and banality of the end times. The screaming of tortured souls doesn’t shock as much as bore me, after awhile. Can’t one of them say something interesting before gurgling beneath the waves of blood?

My own rending will likely be as contrived and overdone. Yet the consolation remains that I’m not still clinging to an old draft of the script like so many others. This now is improv, and the least we can do is depart the stage with some wit and class. Even if it’s borrowed.

#

Deck atilting, crew gone under,
Tourists slip the rails and sink.
Now alone I can’t but wonder:
Where’s the Waiter with my drink?