Tuesday, November 17, 2015

11, 12 - Boomtown


              Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on Earth.


              She sat in the back of St. Patrick’s, the bad organist mangling what should have been an uplifting song, but the voices pushed it along into respectable territory.

              When she was young, St. Pats had been a purer experience, the kind of church she grew up with as a kid, hard wooden pews stretching back to forever, quiet and dark, a place you could be alone with your pain and your God and really grapple.

              Back in the nineties, they’d renovated the church. Turned it on its side, covered it in pastels, made it more “welcoming” and “community” oriented. Padded seats. Carpeted floor. Voices that used to ring out were swallowed in the soft, easy surfaces. God’s temple became God’s living room.

              She was dying. It was happening quickly, but sometimes it felt like it wasn’t quite quick enough. Every morning, she dragged herself out of sleep to find one more little betrayal – a new ache, a numb spot, a little less strength, a little more fumbling. Inch by inch, she was losing ground to her own body.

              Nobody tells you how to prepare for it, how to face the gradual shutting down, how to watch yourself die. People think it can be fought, that it can be accepted with grace, with dignity, but those people have never been forced to lie sobbing on the floor in a pool of their own filth for half a day, to be hauled up, cleaned off, dressed again, to listen to the low murmuring voices while the evidence of your total helplessness is scrubbed out of the carpet. She was never good at asking for help, but the worst part now wasn’t the asking, it was that no amount of asking would ever close the gap. No amount of help could ever give her life back to her. There was no real help. Not anymore.

              But there was an unspoken contract still, with those people, with her children, with the nurses, with the home health aides, with the doctors, that she be grateful for their trying. They tried. She knew they tried, she knew she was a difficult patient, and it’s not that she wasn’t grateful, it’s that she was violently ungrateful. She lived only by the help of others, the constant, slightly resentful, often disapproving help of others, and nothing they did gave her anything more than grim, brutal, grinding survival. She hoped to God that they never had to experience it themselves, but that was the closest thing to gratitude she could muster.

              The old church would have understood that. She believed in the God she’d been taught as a child, a God three parts condemnation and one part grudging forgiveness. A God who had required the long, agonizing death of his own child just to be convinced that the rest of humankind were worth a chance. That was the God she wanted now. That was a God she could relate to. A God who gave it to you straight. A God who would be honest with you. A God who understood pain, the giving and the taking.

              She wouldn’t find Him there. But this was as close as she could get anymore. If she closed her eyes and didn’t listen too hard (though her hearing was still perfect), she could imagine the church’s old bones, she could hear the voices bounding between the plaster roof and the cold hard pews. But only for a moment, and it was always worse when she opened her eyes and saw all that goddamned pastel.

              The service ended. The priest, Father Darrow, told them all to go forth in peace. She sat, waiting.

              “All set, mom?”

              “Yeah,” she said. Amy grabbed the handles of her wheelchair, unlocked the brake, and wheeled her down the ramp, to the side door of the church, and outside, to go forth in peace.


I’m alive.

              That sounds really melodramatic, but seriously, I wasn’t sure I would make it. But I’m here now. I’m back in Owego.

              Okay, more like, outside Owego. There’s a fence now. A serious fence. There are guards, and a gate.

              The bus dropped us off about a mile outside town, and by outside town I mean in the middle of 17C, at a jerry-rigged “bus stop” that looked like a refugee camp.

              I knew there was a fence, but I guess I thought it was around the village of Owego, the downtown part inside the crook of the Susquehanna River, with the shops, and the big courthouse, and all that. But the fence extends around the town, which is like a big indeterminate splotch that bleeds out from the village heart. The fence cuts through woods, through farmland, across streams. Twisty little backroads to nowhere all have giant, armed gates cutting them off at the Owego border.

              People are camped up against the fence. It’s like humanity’s lint screen. You can only get to the other side if you have an invite. But the upper limit on a visit is two weeks. If you don’t live there already, you don’t get to stay.

              There are a couple exceptions – marriage is the big, obvious one that a lot of people try to exploit. It’s like a green card marriage on steroids. The other big one is inheritance: a parent dies, leaves the house to their kid, the kid can move in.

              I know what you’re thinking. That’s not why I’m here. Safest place on earth or not, this isn’t my home. I’m here, I’ll do whatever Mom needs me to do, and I’m back to San Francisco. I might even pay some crazy to fly me back. Anything would be better than that train ride, risky or not.

              I mean, even before the meteors started, Owego was a hell of a lot safer than San Francisco. My parents literally didn’t have a lock on their front door when I was growing up. You could tell an out-of-towner because they’d lock their car when they got out. I once got mugged in San Francisco while I was already being mugged. Safety’s not enough. I gotta have a life.

              But I’m here now, and my name is on the list. I get a “passport”, and a stamp saying when I arrived and when I have to go, and they warn me to have it on me at all times.

              “Even in the shower?”

              “It’s waterproof.”

              I thought I was being funny. I guess some people manage to beat the fence, so they run a lot of patrols in town. Most of the patrollers are locals, and Owego’s not that big a place. They spot new faces.

              And, I’m in. I’m home. Or “home,” anyway.