You open the front door to grab your newspaper off the porch. You see him on the sidewalk in front of your house. Your neighbor, Joe. He walks with a cane, a three-point shuffle. You wave but he doesn't see you. His eyes scan the street fronting your house. You know he'll be getting out his broom to sweep up that pebble he sees. Despite being terminally ill, Joe cleans the street every morning. Mornings are the best for Joe. Mornings when the sun rises.
But you hate mornings. You wake up grumpy. You teach in a junior high school.
You've never taught current events before, but you have to teach it this year. Your students whine and moan: "Why should we study current events, Mr. Prest? It's boring! We got better things to do."
Sure they do. So do you. You've got a wife, a baby.
While you eat cold cereal, you scan newspaper headlines—gotta stay a step ahead of your students. Terrorism in the middle east. Threat of strike from city workers. Mad cow disease in the United Kingdom. Your students will like that—"Mad" cows. Charlie Pottman can moo like he does. That will be Charlie's contribution to the class discussion.
You rinse your cereal bowl, brush your teeth, then gather up your briefcase and bagged lunch. You go into your bedroom where Jill is lying in bed nursing baby Maria. Jill smiles, a ray of sunshine, and says, "Have a good day."
You kiss Jill. You kiss your baby. Then a glance at the alarm clock sends you hurrying out the front door to be elsewhere.
Joe's still on the sidewalk, standing by your car, leaning on his broom, scanning the street. He's not supposed to exert himself. Doctor's orders. But he does it all the time, in the morning before you're even fully awake.
Joe turns to you as you jog down your front walk, his movements stiff. His illness (Is it Hodgkin's disease. . .? Jill knows) is taking a toll on him. His illness and all the morphine he's on. Morphine to dull the pain so that he can sweep the street. You're hoping to get away with a quick good morning. But Joe's feeling no pain today.
"Good morning, Steve. It's a beautiful day."
"Yes, Joe. Beautiful."
You stand by your car, keys in hand. You have a parent meeting this morning. With Mrs. Pottman. Her son, Charlie, does no work in school; he makes strange noises from the back of the room when you're trying to teach. He's flunking current events. The psych report you read yesterday says he has Asperger's Syndrome. What the hell is Asperger's Syndrome? You need to get to school to prepare for your meeting.
But Joe wants to talk. "I prayed this morning. I prayed for you, Steve. For all my neighbors. The good Lord has kept me alive so that I can pray for you."
"That's great, Joe. Thanks."
You've strolled around to the driver's door. You unlock it. You hope Joe can take the hint.
"The good Lord has kept me alive all these years, because he wants me to witness to as many people as I can before I die. '. . . and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone. By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths.' The end is coming, Steve. A great battle. Armageddon. It's coming soon."
"Well, let's hope it comes before report card time." You force a chuckle.
The stroke Joe had two years ago pulls the left half of his face into a permanent melting-frown. The right half remains bland. "I pray for you, Steve. The only salvation is through our Lord Jesus Christ."
"I know that, Joe. Jill found a nice church that meets in the community center. We go every Sunday."
That's a lie—Jill and Maria go to church. You sleep in on Sundays.
You say, "Listen, I'm late for a meeting. You have a good day, now. Enjoy the sunshine."
You escape into the driver's seat. You wave at Joe as you pull away from the curb.
But Joe is looking at the street where your car was parked. He holds his broom like a lance. The end of the world is coming, and Joe is defending the neighborhood against street-pebbles.
Months pass. Autumn to winter and too much snow.
Joe is awake early every morning. He shovels your walk for you. Jill gives you heck for it. "He's too sick for that, Steve."
"I know. I've told him he doesn't have to do it. But he enjoys it. It gives him purpose. A man has nothing if he has no purpose."
She frowns at you, says you should be shoveling Joe's walk. You protest. Hell, you've barely got time to keep up with current events!
The morning Herald talks about President Bill Clinton's impending impeachment. Most Republicans say he should resign. Clinton admits he lied—to his wife and to the country—about his sexual indiscretions, but he's sorry. He says the American people don't want him to step down. He says it would be best for the United States and the world if he stayed president. A lying fornicator as president—that's best for the world.
How will you explain it to your students? You'll talk about politics, about worldwide economics and the balance of power.
Will any of your students understand or care? Not many. Not Charlie Pottman, for sure.
You're late this morning. The electricity went out sometime last night and killed your alarm clock. You hurry to your car. Joe is nowhere near. Thank God!
Then you see that he's not only shoveled your walk, but also his. As you drive away, you realize that something about his shoveling is not quite right. Then it hits you. He's shoveled a walkway down the middle of his front lawn where no walkway exists. His walkway should run parallel to his house.
You shake your head.
When you get home that evening, you see that Joe has rectified the walkway problem. He's filled in the mistaken walkway and shoveled the proper one. He's standing on the sidewalk in front of your house, leaning on his cane, covered in a light sprinkling of snow. He wears a coal-dark pair of sunglasses. He's a snowman. He's Frosty with a half-frozen face.
You've just come from a budget meeting. Your principal has told you that cutbacks mean you won't be getting the classroom aide you need. You're pretty sure Charlie Pottman was masturbating in his desk at the back of the classroom today.
You pull your briefcase out of the car and suck cold breath. "Hi, Joe."
"Hey, Steve. I prayed for you. 'And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.' The Apocalypse, Steve. It will come with fire and cleanse the earth."
"Well, last time it was a flood. Maybe fire will be better."
Joe stares at you with black, blank sunglass-eyes. "They've put me on a new medication," he says. "The doctors are amazed that I'm still alive. They don't understand—I've got a mission. I pray for you, Steve."
"Thank you, Joe."
You hurry up the walkway.
Jill greets you. "You blew him off. I was watching through the window."
Your cheeks flush. "I haven't got time for Joe's rambling."
She kisses you. "He's terminal, you know. The doctors give him only months."
"That's what they told him five years ago."
"It's in his eyes now. He'll be going in for surgery."
"So that's what the sunglasses are all about; I'm sorry to hear that."
But you're really thinking about the anecdotal report you have to write concerning Charlie Pottman. What will you write? And what will you tell his mother? He beats off while we discuss current events, Mrs. Pottman. . . .
Baby Maria toddles up to you and gloms onto your leg. You sit with Jill right there in the hallway and tickle laughter from your daughter. For a few brief moments, you forget to worry about all the day-to-day teacher stuff.
Then the phone rings. Jill answers and passes it to you. It's your principal. She says she just had a call from a parent. You had wanted to impress upon your students the importance of current events, so today you stood like Joe in front of your class. You told your students about "overkill". You told them that their exists in the world enough nuclear weapons to annihilate all life on planet Earth fifty times over. "The end of the world just might be coming real soon," you said. Your intention was to scare them into paying attention when you talked about current events. Apparently, you did a good job. Your principal wants to meet with you tomorrow to talk about it.
You take aspirin and go to bed early. Jill says she's worried about you. She says you should take a mental health day. You say you'll think about it.
The next morning's headlines scream "Baghdad Bombed!" Yesterday afternoon, President Bill Clinton detonated millions of dollars' worth of cruise missiles in Saddam Hussein's back yard. The fornicator bombed the butcher. The United Nations is in an uproar. Russia and China have censured the action, have pulled their diplomats off American soil. President Clinton says he did the bombing to back U.N. inspectors who have been prevented from monitoring Iraq's efforts at creating weapons of mass destruction.
You'll have to talk to your students today about The Gulf War. It happened when they were just little kids. You'll have to explain that American forces won a decisive victory against a tyrant, then let that tyrant continue to rule. Why? Because of the price of crude oil.
It's politics, you'll say. Politics and Power.
Then maybe you'll explain to your students that President Bill Clinton might have staged yesterday's attack to distract the American public from his own transgressions. A woman named Monica Lewinsky gave the president a blow job in the Oval Office, and he got caught. Dozens of Iraqi people may have been killed because of a presidential blow job.
You shake your head. You can show today's newspaper to your principal. You can say, "I scared the kids yesterday because the real world is a scary place."
Joe is sweeping a sprinkling of sidewalk snow when you leave for work. You hurry down your walkway, jam your key in the car's door lock, trying to maintain momentum. If you're moving quick, you might get away easy.
But Joe lays a gloved hand on the hood of your car.
He gazes at you with his sunglass-black, polarized eyes. For an awkward moment, you stand there staring over your car back at him.
You blink. Joe's sunglasses don't.
You say, "Well, Joe, gotta get to work."
You dive into your car, start it, and take off without letting it warm up. Joe stands there, broom hanging limp, looking at snow that's blown off your car and onto the sidewalk.
The day goes better than you thought it would. The principal is too busy to have a sit-down talk with you. She tells you in passing to be careful, to tone it down a bit. You smile and assure her you will.
But first period you plan to show your students a documentary on The Gulf War. You haven't seen this video in years; hopefully, it's just footage of Iraqi soldiers surrendering. Is it the video that shows Saddam Hussein's political rivals being executed? Oh, well, there's no time to plan for anything else. And this group of kids is not about to let you just wing it. Gotta keep them focused. Worksheets, lectures, and videos.
And you gotta keep an eye on Charlie Pottman. He sits in a special desk right next to your own now. Charlie's got the best seat for the Gulf War video. His eyes burn bright with Kuwaiti oil well flames.
When you get home, Joe is standing on the sidewalk. Jill will be watching out the window. You tell yourself you'll give Joe at least five minutes of your time.
He leans on his cane, trains his sunglasses on you. You can't see his eyes, but you get the impression he's looking through you. Then he stands straight, half-smiles and says, "Hey, Sam. What's cookin'?"
"Joe. . . it's me. Steve. Your neighbour."
Joe licks dry lips.
"Listen, Joe, I'd love to stay and chat, but I've got to get inside. Lots of marking to do."
Joe says, "Okay, Sam. . . ." then confusion lends symmetry to his palsied face. You leave him standing on the sidewalk.
Jill says, "I saw that" when you walk through the door.
"He called me 'Sam'."
Jill nods. "He came by today and we talked. He thought I was Christina, his daughter. She died three years ago."
"I remember; you went to the funeral. So how did you deal with him?"
"I played along with it. He went home happy."
You take her into an embrace. "So what did I do right to deserve a saint for a wife?"
Maria hollers from where she's been napping in her crib. Jill jokes, "You' ve got good genes. That's all I've ever wanted from you—pretty babies. How was your day?"
You tell her it was fine, just fine. But you're not so sure it was. Someone lit a fire in the boys' washroom garbage can at lunch time.
As Jill makes her way down the hall to Maria, you ask, "So who's Sam?"
The next morning, Jill wakes you. She's been up with a teething Maria since five o'clock. "Steve, you've got to come see. It's on every channel. . . hurry!"
You sleep-stumble into the living room. Maria squeals, "Dada!"
You scoop her up, then sit on the couch to view the TV. A mushroom cloud fills the screen, blasting sleep dust out of your head. The announcer tells you this cloud blossomed out of Baghdad. Saddam Hussein is accusing the Americans of launching a nuclear strike against him. The Americans are saying Saddam nuked his capital city himself and is blaming the Americans. The TV cuts to a satellite view of the Persian Gulf; the camera zooms through light cloud cover to show a roiling sea. Saddam has retaliated with his own hidden nukes. He's surprised everyone, including Bill Clinton, by blasting the American fleet out of the water.
Jill asks, "What does it mean, Steve?"
You shake your head, your palms going cold against Maria's baby-warm skin. You continue the morning routine, except breakfast newspaper headlines are already out of date. Jill doesn't want you to go into work. A phone call to the school gets you the principal. She says it's business as usual.
You arrive at school to find the hallways abuzz. In the staff room, a TV has been set up and teachers gather around, their faces grim. In the time it took you to drive to school, Israel has been nuked, and Tehran. Wulf Blitzer comes on the screen to report that Russian ground forces stationed in Afghanistan have just been incinerated by a twenty kiloton bomb. Iraq says it was the Americans. Bill Clinton blames Saddam Hussein. The Russians don't know who to believe—a quick flash to a reporter in Moscow shows crowd-chaos in Red Square.
You step into the hall. Charlie Pottman is skipping past, waving his arms over his head; he's chanting "Ring Around the Rosie". His fly is down.
You decide right there—school is canceled for today. You rush down the hall past the principal (her face is pale; she doesn't even acknowledge you) and out the school's front door. You're into your car and the first teacher out of the parking lot. Students are swarming out the doors now. They fill the street behind you; some are smiling and laughing, throwing snowballs. Others—the ones who get good marks in current events—
are crying, their faces shiny and tear-streaked with terror you've taught them.
Your route home takes you against a flood of vehicles jamming the streets out of downtown. Cars are swerving into your lane. Everyone is honking. You tune the radio to an all-news station. The president has declared a state of National Emergency. All members of the National Guard are told to report in. The announcer speculates that martial law will soon be imposed.
Your radio crackles, cuts out for a moment. The announcer again, apologizing for the disruption. In the background you hear, "What the hell was that?"
From the south, twenty miles distant where Gratham Base has been put on full alert, thunder pounds a clear sky, shaking the ground right up through the frame of your car. You count the seconds until the lightning flash, a habit from childhood. At the count of eight, the streets and buildings at the nether edges of your neighborhood blaze into sudden, snow-brilliant negative-image relief.
You shield your eyes and swerve onto the curb, then back down onto the road to yank the steering wheel and your vehicle slip-sliding on ice into an alleyway. In the street directly behind, cars crunch together and horns blare.
Your lungs are in your throat, your temples pound. You think only of Jill and Maria. Why the hell did you go into school today? Why?
Out of the alley and you're on a side street four blocks from your house. You're struck by the figure of a man, hair-tousled from sleeping late, briefcase under arm, hurrying through snowdrifts to catch the bus.
A fish-tailing turn around a corner and you pull in front of your house. Joe is on the sidewalk.
You see the front door of your house open. Jill is standing there with Maria in her arms. You leap from your car to run past Joe.
But Joe grabs you around the biceps, spins you so that you're looking at your horror-struck reflection in his sunglasses. Joe's eyes are hidden, dark and deep.
Jill calls to you. Maria is crying.
You try to jerk your arm away from Joe, but he's been getting regular exercise shoveling your walkway—his grip is like iron.
He's smiling with his half-face. He says, "I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam-I-Am. . . ."
Jill calls again. You say to Joe, "I don't have time for this—"
Ground zero flashes behind Joe, x-raying you through Joe's sunglasses, into Joe's skull.
And on to oblivion. . . .