People Who Love People (Chapter Two)

bird s eye view of city buildings during sunset
Photo by Aleksejs Bergmanis on

You know how they say that when you die your whole life flashes before your eyes? That’s not true, and I should know. Right when you die you see the one thing you wanted more than anything else in the world. It’s just as cruel as being forced to watch yourself fuck up your life all over again, but it takes less time. Ah look, there you are with the one that got away, ain’t it a shame to be you. See, like that. Here’s what the suspects in the case of Roger Knox’s untimely demise saw right when they died:

Jackson Miller finally completed his cinematic masterpiece of maritime erotica. This time there was no one else to compromise his vision. He cast his star performer, and shot the whole thing while inspired by the sublime, dreamlike imagery of Cocteau, using a harsh black-and-white stock, and crafting a menacing mise-en-scène in each and every shot, clashing with the serene images to create a poignancy that harkens back to Dreyer, his salacious dialogue and shocking subject matter reminding one of the irreverent audacity of a post-Dali Buñuel, his wait a minute.

What am I saying? I have no idea what people see before they die. Hell, I’ve never died for anyone else before, have I? How did I even come to that conclusion? Why would it even matter what the hack or anyone else in this whole case wanted anyway, they’re all scum, good riddance to all of them. I don’t even know what a mise-en-scène is. And this, this is just bizarre. And that’s coming from a guy who was rescued from a homicidal rabbit in a bowler hat by his Samoan bodyguard disguised as another rabbit who was actually his best friend’s thought-to-be-deceased father. There’s Jackie in some sort of beefcake magazine pose, what’s probably some other guy with Jackie’s face superimposed on it, I guess you can do that in films nowadays. Mermaids all over the whole island, how did they even get to the sand if they’ve got fins on them, not to mention tits that could sink a life buoy, let alone a mermaid, and… what the, they’re all the beat. A whole harem of Baxter-mermaids. How the hell do you fuck a merBaxter anyway? Now who’s this, another Tom of Finland fellow, this one with an octopus on his head. An octopus that sort of suggests the general visage of the beat, a Baxteresque so to speak… Jesus, those tentacles are long. And now he’s… Huh. I guess you can put them anywhere there’s a hole. Do people go to the arthouses for this? I mean sticking to your vision is all very well and good, but isn’t the whole point of art to share your vision with other people so that they can see the way you see, feel the way you, ah forget it. You’ll just have to put up with the fact that I can see and am compelled to reveal the deep desires of some otherwise useless people for a few more paragraphs or so, won’t you?

Stanley Tannenbaum discovered he had finally gained the Midas touch. He awoke one morning wondering why his back ached so much after sleeping on what was once the most comfortable bed in Orange Island, only to discover the bed had turned into solid gold. He propped himself up on his bed, placing a hand on his pillow, only to find himself bracing his hand on a solid gold pillow-shaped nugget. He went to his office and laid a hand on his statues, and with glee realized he had turned his once-only-dipped statues gold on the inside as well as out. He then skipped through the Tannenbaum Tower in his gold slippers and solid bedrobe and turned everything he could lay his fingers on into gold: trees, chairs, tables, desks, pens, papers, lamps, and so on, until the entire Tower shined a bright yellow sheen. A few employees and hotel hands poked an inquisitive head out of their normal duties to wonder what the hubbub was all about, and Stan, not content with his statues on the penthouse floor, shook hands with his employees and made himself a few hundred more. The myth was meant to be a cautionary tale, of course, but this was something Stan had wanted for years. The Midas of old realized he got a raw deal when his food turned to gold, but Stan eventually got used to the hard, mineral taste that came with his steaks and red wines. After a while, when all the gold mastication left him with little to no teeth left, he figured out a way to grind up his golden food into a mealy sparkling mush. Best of all, Stan eventually came into possession of not one, but two great gilded Morgan Wednesday statues. He didn’t mind that the love of his life was a lifeless replica, or that he had one more than he knew what to do with. He would drill holes into the appropriate places and soon enough she’d be just as good as the real thing. The only problem was, sometimes he’d have a hard time keeping track of which was the real Morgan and which one was supposed to decorate his office. He’d rise up from his bed with a sheepish shrug as he’d realize he’d been humping a statue, while poor Morgan was locked away for the night in his office. Still, such mixups only happened on occasion, and if Morgan ever minded she never said as much to him the next morning, over golden bacon and eggs. Soon enough Tannenbaum was able to hop and skip around the whole town and touch every single last sidewalk, street lamp, and building on the Island, effectively ending any and all of Tannenbaum Arbor, Inc.’s  competition. A host of seven million solid gold subjects ready to do his bidding. And so he reigns to this day, the golden king of all assholes.

Baxter McCullough stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled. Him, that is, and every poor sap the beat ever souplined in his life. There’s the banker he got five thousand dollars for, whipping the splintered masts with his tentacles and pulling himself closer. There’s the socialite from last month crawling closer on her pseudopods, the cab driver who couldn’t break a twenty so the beat gave himself a free ride, now snapping away with crab pincers hoping to snatch back his fare, some entrepreneur or other he must have souplined with the hack, his long giraffe neck swaying in the storm, and there’s none other than Johnny Cosmo himself leading the pack. Meanwhile the flames rolled on, but he would not go without his father’s word. And then he appeared. Descending from the sky in peals of light and thunder, with two wings to cover his feet, two to cover his mask, and two to keep himself aloft, he stretches a hand to the beat. Maybe he can finally give old Baxter a normal life, one free from the shackles of serving the purple god of death, free from having to balance the world around him. The beat grasps the angel’s hand with one hand, then pulls him down and grasps the man’s mask tubes with the other. He falls to the burning deck and sucks in the air. It’s hard to say what he transforms into, because the nasties on board immediately swarm and tackle the man, creating a chaotic mass of borscht-given mutations. Sure it was his own father, and his only ticket off the wrecked ship. But, so the beat consoled himself as the magazine blew and the ship sank to the ocean floor, blood is no excuse for relenting from the great equalizing work. If he could brazenly soupline his own sire, then he could achieve the balance he had been striving for his whole life, where all are truly one and the same before the good and holy destroying borscht. And besides, imagine how big of a score he would be. He’d look forward to cashing the check in the morning.

Wally Lamb found himself back at his idyllic hometown in Kansas, back to the mom and pop livestock feed store the Lambs had kept running even during the Dust Bowl days (animals still have to eat, his pop would say), and away from the purple madness out East, which was now so long ago and remote it seemed as though those days were nothing but a nightmare more bizarre than usual. He looked forward to waking up extra early in the morning to open the store and help his folks with chores, and from there go to school, where he would do alright, not so much in the top of his class but at least he’d make good marks, good enough for his folks anyway. He’d play football and track, and he’d be decent at it, not good enough to go pro, but at least he’d make varsity during senior year. And the girl he left behind to go to that weird Eastern nightmare, the one he’d never leave behind from here on out, she was something special, really something else, you see. On homecoming, her parents wouldn’t let her out because she was grounded, but she would come out to see him, see dear Wally marching out on the field, and then that night they’d go out to the big bonfire. She would say she’s cold, and the kid would let her wear his letterman jacket. They’d sneak out to the football field later that night, and just lie there on the grass, totally alone, and stare up at the stars, her head resting on his belly. They’ll hold hands for what seems like hours, and then maybe he’d screw up the courage to ask if he could steal a kiss from her…

Hm. Even when he’s dead the kid’s not very interesting, is he?

And as for good old Julian Paisley, what posthumous boons does he get? Why nothing other than the gift of omniscient narration. I guess if you’re a glass is half full kind of fellow you could call it profound empathy. Gee whiz, I get to see, hear and feel everything that everyone else does, everyone, as it just so happens, that I particularly hate. If we’re talking the one thing we wanted most of all, then I’ve got a little more than a bum deal if you ask me. Well, let’s roll along with it, what do you say? Since I wager it’ll be a few more decades before it becomes an unbearable cliché, let’s round up some flutes and oboes and strings and strike up that tune from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, No. 1, Op. 46, as the sun rises and the yellow stuff wafts over Orange Island. The yellow offers an invitation to the purple and they both start an elegant ballroom dance, then as quickly as the dance starts it ends and they both clear out. Nasties that scamper and scurry along the alleyways let the yellow into their multiple sets of nostrils and slowly transform back into filthy, naked, ordinary bums. The nasties banging on the hermetically-sealed doors suddenly lose their extra limbs and stop their unearthly shrieking, and those behind the doors see the transformations and slowly figure what the hell, open the doors up and let them inside. A squad of soldiers train their rifles on a nasty, and just before pulling the trigger the yellow comes down and they find a regular Joe facing down the business end of their guns. They stand around dumbly and wonder what to do as the filthy former nasty meekly excuses himself and looks to finding some clothes and a cup to start begging for change. Meanwhile, another emancipated nasty isn’t so lucky, as one of the foolhardy National Guardsmen accidentally shoots his rifle off right between the initial nastiness and the complete transformation. Oops. And all the while scores of tuxes and gowns stop in the middle of the streets, wave their hands around like they’re expecting rain, find a distinct lack of purple in front of them, take off their masks and look at the sun with their own eyes for the first time in a while. Some of them laugh and cheer and skip through the streets. Others grumble and retreat back to their hotels, climb back into their cars and head toward whichever plane or copter they stowed away upon, or throw their masks onto the pavement, with an indignant I just bought the damn things yesterday! The military presence starts fading away just as quickly as the purple, and soon enough one standing along the docks on the island shore can hear himself think for once, for the lack of the copters circling around the city.

And even on the cusp of profound social upheaval, some things never change. Back at the former Knox estate, and before anyone else, the tabloids arrive. Sixty-four people were found dead that morning, and they expected not to give a damn about sixty-three of them; until they saw the damn things, that is. In a town where all the nasties found themselves back to normal, the most freakish-looking things on Orange Island were at Roger’s place. After about an hour or so the gnats with cameras are shooed away by the representatives of what’s left of Knox Enterprises, led by one J.R. Updike, Senior Executive of Quality Control. Already a little more than miffed by some random stranger knocking him over the head with a blackjack and taking his clothes and credentials the day before, he seems none too pleased with what he has waiting for him. A whole bunch of stiffs who never made it out of the party greet him upon immediately entering the premises, and then up the stairs and into the library he finds four more. Two of them have weird arm growths and teeth where they’re not supposed to be, and one has a gold-plated putter also not anywhere it’s supposed to be.  And there’s a kid, completely disemboweled, his gooey pink plumbing stinking up the whole place, and for all that he died from a shot to the head. They keep going, and find, oddly enough, Updike’s old suit, soggy amid a bubbling, viscous mess on the floor. He picks up his old bowler hat and pokes two fingers through some curious holes cut through the top. Meanwhile some Dapper Men find a big black crate, with WEDNESDAY in great gilded letters on the side. After a bit of doing they break the locks off, thanks to a handy crowbar that just so happened to be lying nearby, and find the still, suffocated body of Morgan Wednesday. Just to be sure, a Dapper Man places two fingers by her neck and gets nothing in response, must have been in there for a week, he concludes to himself. Updike lets out a sigh and lights up a smoke, noting to himself how curious it is he can finally do so for once. A Dapper Man taps him on the shoulder, sir, you should take a look at this. He lets out a cloud of smoke, figuring he very well probably doesn’t have to take a look at this, and lets the Dapper Man lead on anyhow.

Deep in Timothy Knox’s office, amid a slew of knocked-over trophies and stuffed safari animals from years ago, lies a stuffed animal the likes of which neither in the room has ever seen. The body of what was once Roger Knox, and the body of some other guy in a crummy white suit. Two bodies, mind you, and yet only one head. The head of Roger and Jules enmeshed together, their features even in death fighting over each other, neither one quite coming out on top. Well there he is, the Company Man grumbles to himself. His thorough investigation of the premises eventually led him to the following conclusion:

—Who knows? Who the hell cares? Tag ‘em and bag ‘em!

It takes a few Knox hands each to dispose of all the malformed corpses. Teams of two Dapper Men each snap off the excess arms of the beat and the hack like wishbones, while another Dapper Man braces the remains of the late Stan Tannenbaum as two others pull the putter from him in an awkward game of tug of war. It takes about three of them to sort of roll Wally into a bag, guts and all, and three more to carry the whole thing down the stairs and out the door. Compared to all that, getting the former Roger and Jules out is a cinch. One holds down the black suit, another the white, as a third Knox hand procures a hacksaw and deftly bisects the monstrous head, if not back to its original form, then at the very least to its original proportions. And all the meanwhile no one mourns for those unfortunate misshapen stiffs, no one save a lone cab driver, haggard, unshaven, so emaciated you could pick him up and swing him like a baseball bat, who breaks through the crowds of black vests and jackets and catches a final glimpse of that shabby white suit just as a Dapper Man finishes separating him from Roger’s head and right before zipping him up.

—Ah, no! It’s him! That’s the guy, that’s the suit he was wearing! My fare! I musta been out there for three weeks! Oh Jesus Mary and Joseph, the fare I coulda gotten from him!  Everyone else’s satisfied here, ain’t they?! The Company knows what’s happened to their man, everyone gets to leave the Island, revenge is gotten all around, everything’s put to rights, everyone’s satisfied! I’m the only one comes outta this with nothing! My fare! Ah Jesus! My fare…

And at that, just like the unlucky man said, Stan Tannenbaum, Jackson Miller, Baxter McCullough, Wally Lamb, Morgan Wednesday, Roger Knox, and Julian Paisley all found themselves en route away from Orange Island, at long last. I guess we did a good thing, Roger and I, cleaning up the air around here. But I don’t feel like a great humanitarian. All I really wanted to do was kill the man, and I did, in a way. And I suppose I could have done without all that happening to my mortal remains. But what can you do? At least I’m off the Island. Funny how things work out. Except I’m not really off the Island, am I? You see, folks, I never really can leave if I want to, just like how I’m not really dead after all, just hacked up in the head with a bit of Roger’s nose and eyebrow and whatnot and tucked away in a bag somewhere. The truth is, I am alive, and I will be forever, whether I want to be or not. That’s my punishment. Most people see their life flash before their eyes just before they die, but only once. Then the beast wraps his tail around you and you get one punishment or another, sometimes you have to run around in circles for eternity, or walk on hot coals, or spend it as a bleeding tree, or what have you. With me they got it all backwards. Since I loved the Island and its people so much, and since I myself was such an upstanding citizen thereupon, it is now my honor and privilege to be able to relive my life on the Island over and over again. But not just randomly, mind you. No, reader, I am punished every time you want to hear the story. Every single time a curious mind wonders what happened, and anytime anyone who heard the story once wants to hear it again. It’s all up to me, I have to tell you no matter what. Gather around everyone, let me tell you about the town I grew up in, the town that made me the man I am today. Go ahead and stick a bookmark inside if you’ve got other things to do, I’m happy to pick up where you left off, at that one part where I kill the only girl I ever loved for my wounded pride. Can’t wait to get to that one part at the end, can you, where my best friend and I ruin each other’s lives? Are you finished? Go ahead and pick it back up, be sure to tell all your friends about the town that snuffs out anything good it can find. Come on down, stay in Orange Island for one more day. The air’s clean, and the people are all real friendly. How could we not be? We’re people who love people.

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