ANGELS: Shock & Awe

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Chapter 14

I often find myself wondering, what would Mom think?

Mom died almost two years ago, thereby missing out on all the apocalyptic fun. Cancer. Or more accurately, cancers, plural. One after another. She fought them to a standstill for years, with a tenacity that never ceased to amaze me, and a courage that left all of us in awe. Her mother had died of cancer when Mom was still a little girl, and she took her own disease as a personal affront. She talked about Cancer as if it were an evil entity, coming back to claim her, too. (Ironically, she didn’t believe in ‘evil,’ per se. But she claimed that personifying cancer made it easier to focus on fighting it.) She never gave up, not even after multiple rounds of radiation and chemo, when everybody else in her condition had been wheeled off to a hospice to drown in morphine.

Toward the end it broke my heart to look at her. In her prime she had been a force of nature; six feet tall in her bare feet, casually beautiful, the undisputed smartest person in the room (and the room was often full of very smart people indeed), the sort of person who always had the last word, and deserved to. She was reduced to a scant hundred pounds by the time she took to her bed—her own bed, in her own home; she’d have it no other way—for the last time. Her gorgeous red hair, gone; her hands now like claws, black and blue, her skin like old paper, she looked like the victim of a Nazi death camp. Somehow, her eyes remained fiercely beautiful to the end, and so it is, thankfully, that it is her eyes that I remember most clearly.

She had an astonishing strength of will; off the scale, really. Always had. We learned that the hard way: By the time Gareth and I were teenagers it was becoming obvious, to us at least, that Mom had a “drinking problem.” Finally, we were bold enough to call her on it, one morning as she was brazenly pouring scotch into her coffee. She looked at both of us like something she’d just scraped off her shoe, then abruptly picked up her coffee cup, marched over to the kitchen sink, and poured it down the drain. And with a smile that would freeze a flame, she said, “Happy?”

That evening, she quietly declined when Dad asked if she wanted a cocktail. “I’m on the wagon. Seems the boys are concerned I’m drinking too much.” She said this innocently enough, but the look in those beautiful eyes spoke volumes. Dad had been subtly trying to curtail her consumption for years, so he looked over at us with something like respect and said, “You know what? I’ll join you. Be good for us.” Of course Dad barely drank at all—he’d put a thimbleful of rum in a glass of Coke once or twice a week at most; maybe have a beer with his pizza. But Mom accepted his gesture of solidarity, and the Great Cold-Turkey Debacle was underway.

It was a terrible few weeks. Mom had an epic temper at the best of times. Now it was like living in a constant state of human Russian roulette; from one encounter to the next, we never knew when she might go off. It was hell on the dishes. All us boys, Dad included, found excuses to stay out of the house more than was strictly necessary. Dad even joined Al-Anon for a while.

Finally, Gareth screwed up his courage (to the point of foolhardiness) and asked Mom why she didn’t join AA herself. He certainly should have known better; I suppose it was coming from a good place, reflecting his real concern for her, but he plainly hadn’t really thought it out first.

We were sitting at the dining room table working on a jigsaw puzzle, a Sunday afternoon tradition. Dad was napping on the living room sofa, enjoying his own tradition. In the den, the football game was on, but none of us really watched it. Just another Sunday at the Kristopolous house.

“Who are you?” she said between clenched teeth. “Really, who are you? How can you have known me your entire life and ask me that?” Gareth was not easily cowed; in fact I’m sure only Mom has ever had that power over him. He stammered out something about how it was supposed to help people get through this kind of thing. “Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?” she said harshly.

Shut up, Gare; she’s about to squash you like a bug. Maybe there’s something to the twin-telepathy thing; he glanced over at me, then turned back to Mom and said, “I guess not. Sorry.” But it was too late; it didn’t matter what Gareth said now after all. Mom was bound to blow anyway.

Suddenly she stood up, almost knocking her chair over. She went into the kitchen, flung open the coupon drawer and violently shuffled through it. She slammed it shut, came back to the table and slapped a thin sheaf of papers on top of the puzzle in front of Gareth.

“There,” she ordered. “Pick it up.” Ever so reluctantly, he did. “Read the so-called twelve steps.” Gareth hesitated. Mom raised an eyebrow. “Well?” Gareth found the page, started looking over it. Mom exhaled sharply through her nose, never a good sign. “Out loud,” she hissed.

Quietly, Gareth read: “’One. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.’”

“So, Gareth, sweetie,” she said, still barely controlling her rage, “is that what you think? That I’m powerless over alcohol?”

Gareth sighed and very quietly said, “No.”

“You’re damn right, no.” Mom could swear like a longshoreman, blister the ears off of statues, but she rarely swore at us kids. “Is there so much as a drop of booze in this house?” Not since she’d made such a show about three days into this of pouring every last ounce down the drain, right down to the never-before-opened bottle of cooking sherry that had been in the cabinet since Nixon was in office. Hell, she’d even thrown out the Nyquil. “What in the billy blue blazes have I been doing the past few weeks if not proving that every goddamn day?”

Even Gareth recognized that this was a rhetorical question. He buttoned his lip. “Read on,” Mom demanded. “Step Two.”

Gareth had no choice: “‘Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.’”

Now here was the crux of the matter. Our mother was an adamant atheist. Not one of those pseudo-intellectual cocktail party agnostic semi-atheists, mind you (a breed that she held in special contempt, claiming she had more respect for every ignorant peon in Christendom than for these hypocritical gasbags), no, Mom believed with a certainty tantamount to faith that there was no God, no Greater Power, no spiritual world, period. She was, first, last, and always, a scientist, and if a doctrine or theory or what-have-you couldn’t stand up to the scientific method, then to hell with it. So to speak.

“‘A Power greater than ourselves’…” She let that hang for a few seconds. Gareth was starting to squirm. “‘Could restore us to sanity.’ So I’m too weak or stupid or inadequate next to some mythical construct to give up my so-called addiction to alcohol, is that right? And somewhere I missed the medical memo that equated alcoholism with insanity.”

She swept the loose papers and half the puzzle off the table as she leaned over to look Gareth in the eye from just a few inches away. “Do I look insane to you?” she said in a tone right out of Mommie Dearest, her eyes flaring. Now she was just baiting him. Poor Gareth must have bitten his tongue bloody to keep from shouting, “Yes! You look absolutely bat-shit looney-toons crazy as a pit-bull on acid!” But he held on somehow.

She straightened up, folded her arms and said, “Number Three.”

Poor Gareth still held the list. But he’d had enough; he tossed the page back onto the table. “Never mind, Mom. I get it. A Greater Power is all bullshit. I forgot…” Now he stood up. This time his chair did fall over, making a huge racket. “You bend the world to your will. And to think I was worried about you.”

Rudely awakened by the falling chair, Dad hollered from the living room: “Somebody break something? Everything all right in there?”

Mom and Gareth just stood there staring at each other. I picked up the chair, and hollered back, “Everything’s fine, Dad. Sorry to bother you.”

No doubt sensing when to leave well enough alone, Dad called out, “Alrighty then. Carry on.”

Gareth still held Mom’s gaze as he said quietly, “Yeah. Sorry to bother you.” Then he turned and stomped through the kitchen and out the back door.

“Be back in time for supper!” Mom called out in her best June Cleaver voice, as if nothing had just happened. The back door slammed, but to be fair to Gareth, no more than usual. After a long, quiet moment—I remember hearing the kitchen wall-clock ticking—Mom knelt and started picking up puzzle pieces.

I came around the table to help. While we worked, she said in a mild tone, “Worried about me, my left hind foot. He just wanted to pack me off to AA so they’d work their voodoo on me and I’d stop being such a four-star bitch.” She looked up at me, and there just might have been the faintest trace of tears in her eyes.

Now if I had said something sappy at this point, she would have slapped me cross-eyed. So I said, “Well, that depends. Are you talking four-stars out of four? Or five?”

She smiled. “Four, of course.” She reached over and gave me a little shove. “When did you get to be such a smart-aleck?”

When Gareth came back an hour or so later, he sat right back down at the table and helped us finish the puzzle; the Grand Canyon I think. Nobody ever mentioned AA again. And Mom was stronger than her addiction—she never touched another drop.

Between Christianity in its myriad ways, Judaism, Islam, all the eastern religions, all the twelve-step programs, even all the casual undefined believers-in-Something out there in the world, it seems most people believe in a Higher Power. A “power greater than ourselves.” As long as it remains in the abstract, a remote, intangible Higher Power, for most of us—with the exception of my Mom’s ilk—that’s something we can acknowledge, accept, even embrace. But now that a race of undeniably superior beings have—I try to find a better word than “invaded,” but all the alternatives I can muster seem worse somehow: “conquered”? “reclaimed”? “descended upon”?—now that a power far greater than ourselves has taken control of our world, many of those same folks are having a terrible time accepting it.

Including me. In those first few weeks with Eloi I was constantly humbled by the association. My tenure as his personal tutor on human affairs was short-lived; in fact, I was learning more about other non-American cultures from him than I was offering in return. His intellect was astonishing; his learning curve was immeasurable. Within hours on our first day together, the weird dichotomy between his telepathic and his physical voice was gone. Within days, he was speaking English with a depth of vocabulary and a command of subtle meanings far beyond my meager skills. One day I was amused to realize that however he might have surpassed my abilities, he sounded exactly like me—tone, timbre, pitch, inflection, accent, whatever, all mine.

The routine was simple: Every day we would study in the Gray. For a few hours I was given over to their technological marvels and turned into a living translation machine between the Angels’ “language”—their name for which, ironically enough, translated in my mind as “Communion”—and several human languages. I think that for them, that’s all I amounted to, a piece of wetware. My headache became more or less permanent, and often for about an hour after these cram sessions I was essentially useless.

Lunch would arrive just I was starting to feel human again, always delivered by the same individual, or so it seemed. He wore clothing similar to mine, and never spoke a word. At first I thought he was just a particularly stoic Angel; another who, like Eloi, opted not to sport wings. (Eloi had explained that the wings were a kind of bio-tech marvel that most of his kind adopted sooner or later, but as his predecessor had always eschewed them, he had so far followed suit.)

But that first day, I was particularly addled. Obviously, no Angel was likely to hand-deliver my lunch. I hadn’t gotten a very good look; it might have been a fellow human, but if so he was uncommonly large. Some sort of butler? After he left, I asked Eloi. “Ishim,” he said dismissively, as if that was sufficient explanation, and left me alone with my food. I don’t know where he went in these intervals; if he zapped off to some Angels-Only buffeteria, I never heard about it. The Angels may very well eat and drink, but I’ve never seen them at it.

For a week or so, I thought of “Ishim” as a name, but as my language skills expanded, I realized it was a classification. My mind finally translated it as “sub-Angel.” Over time, I managed to eke out a bit now and then from Eloi: the Ishim served Angels, as servants, couriers, for all I know as janitors and groundskeepers, should the Angels have any grounds that needed keeping, but especially as soldiers. When I asked if it was the same Ishim delivering lunch every day, Eloi frowned as he answered, “I don’t know.” I wouldn’t hear that very often. As was frequently the case, ultimately I was left with more questions than answers.

After lunch, Eloi would return and we’d spend the afternoons chatting. I often find myself wishing I had the transcripts—“Conversations with a Young God.” Be bigger than The DaVinci Code, if there was such a thing as a publisher anymore.

For example, one afternoon early on, he started the afternoon session with “Explain sex.” Just a day or two earlier he might have said “Explain sexual relations/ copulation/carnal knowledge” or whatever, but he had refined his English skills past the need for the constantly flipping verbal rolodex/thesaurus. I found I missed it. By now, he was choosing his words deliberately, and he almost always meant exactly what he said.

Now, I was perfectly well aware that he was up to speed on human physiology and fairly well acquainted with our various sexual mores. But his understanding was purely academic; the Angels have no distinct sexual identity. I had gotten into the habit of thinking of them in terms of masculine pronouns (he, him, his), but that isn’t really the case. They are truly asexual, reproducing only by cloning. It has been their tradition now for many millennia. But their primitive ancestors had been male and female, and they were still capable of taking on either role through more of their biotechnological magic. I gathered, however, that such dalliances were currently frowned upon.

No, Eloi understood what “sex” meant; after all, he had said “explain,” not “define.” Which was too bad, because “define” was easy; “explain,” not so much. Finally I said, “You want to know about the birds and the bees.”

He responded almost immediately by singing! “‘Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it’…”

I nearly fell off my little gray hassock laughing. It felt good. I wiped the tears from my eyes, and realized as I looked at Eloi that he had known that I would laugh; maybe Angels could acquire some sense of humor after all. Once I settled down, he went on: “No. You romantically anthropomorphize reproduction behavior in animals in order to introduce your children to human courtship rituals and restrictions. I am not interested in elementary biology...”

“But that wonderful old song isn’t what I meant by ‘birds and bees.’ It’s an old expression—older even than the song—that we use as a euphemism for explaining sexuality to our young people. Sometimes we say ‘facts of life’ the same way.” Afraid he might burst into the Facts of Life theme song, I hurried on: “But the point of it all is to explain that we both are and aren’t animals—that animals follow sexual imperatives for purely reproductive purposes, but as humans we learn to channel these urges. Most of our cultures have put a great deal of effort in trying to elevate sex above animal lust and define it as the ultimate expression of romantic love. But it’s a constant struggle. We’re very schizophrenic about it. ‘Make love’ means the same thing as ‘fuck,’ but the one expression makes us smile, the other makes us wince. I can tell you that, and know that it’s true, but I can’t explain it.

“So you say ‘Explain sex.’ You might as well say ‘Explain war,’ or ‘Explain politics.’ Or better yet, ‘Explain human nature.’ But please don’t.”

My new silver suit allowed me to remain clothed through Transitions. It was obviously more than a simple garment, or perhaps it was the “harness” providing the magic. In any case, Transitions were much smoother now, and almost instantaneous, with only a trace of the old tumble-through-the-rabbit-hole effect I had come to expect. Of course, all my travel these days was between the endless Gray and the gingerbread masterpiece that was Walt’s hideaway.

Every “evening” I was sent back to the apartment, where there was a meal waiting for me. I’d eat, take a shower (Gareth, fond of spoonerisms, invariably said “shake a tower”; funny I should think of that just now), then crawl into my red velvet bed and pass out till “morning.” Breakfast was ready when I woke up. A few minutes later, I was whisked off again to the Gray, and it all began again. It had a timeless quality beyond the routine repetition.

Eloi and I seemed to be on the same time track as Disneyland, but it was impossible to tell, really; it was light or dark outside for days on end, and I hadn’t yet learned to correlate the conflicting clocks. I tried to step outside and check on things in the park several times, but I was always locked in. When I asked Eloi about it, he shook his head, but he offered no explanation. Still more questions, still less answers.

It was unbelievably exhausting. Usually, headache notwithstanding, I slept like a corpse. But one night the noise outside on Main Street was loud enough to wake me up. I tried to dismiss it and go back to sleep, but it was impossible. Eventually, I staggered over to the window and looked out. The good citizens of Disneyland were rioting.

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