The International Writers Magazine
: Dreamscapes

The Disaster Addict
Spencer Dew

Checkpoints appear at the edges of everything owned, at the borders between the town and the wilderness. Rumors circulate, as do state troopers, then a fleet of unmarked but nonetheless identifiable sedans, windows tinted an almost total black, said to contain specialists, experts.

Chains go up across the trailheads. Metal notice signs are nailed to trees, warnings to potential hikers: prosecution, violation, trespassing, government domain. New inspection stations erect themselves along the highways leading into town. Semis are stopped, sometimes vans as well, private cars.

People, the sort that talk in bars and cafés, offering their own more or less anonymous testimonials, tell stories of sleepless nights spent out there, in damp concrete cells, cut off from communication, abandoned for hours, as, supposedly, their vehicles are examined, searched, disassembled, put back together again. It is said, as well, in a whisper, that there are men in the mountains. Agents or troops. Men with heavy packs, night-vision goggles. Stories pass themselves around, polished up along the way. Disease labs, either ours or theirs. Insurgency and counterinsurgency. Field trials. Secret camps. Survival training. Some minister starts standing outside the grocery store, afternoons, handing out faded pamphlets on how to survive certain kinds of blasts. A little pink chart on the back calculates damage and health risk by megaton, tells which sorts of foods can last, what sort of container might best resist contamination.

A front moves through, or hovers. The air takes on a drier aspect of itself, fine and clear, though a little too thin, fragile, or seeming so, with a taste like brittle, yellowed paper. Theories are cultivated about how, owing to the altitude, the town is more vulnerable to air-born forms of attack. Trailers with blank, silver sides are stationed outside the hospital, and narratives are constructed concerning their origin, contents, hypothetical or eventual purpose. The names of various strains worm their way into conversations, the measurements at which they pose a risk, the dosages at which they prove lethal. The newspaper prints a special pullout guide, complete with a glossary, a bulleted list of symptoms, a branching chart of all the sub-genres of professionals who might one day try to save us, swabbing samples from our throats. But the sky stays clear and still. Formations of fighter planes from the air stations to the north slash it with contrails that linger in place, refusing to dissipate, waning down slowly to threads, traces.

I check my mail five or six times a day. At home, I sit by the phone, answer it when it rings, taking many political and market research surveys. I answer questions about household appliances and about the war, about local zoning regulations and school board resolutions. I am asked about my usage of gas stations and name-brand detergents, potential Supreme Court nominees. Once, I am asked about my genitals, though that caller lets out a quick gasp, hangs up before I can reply. The mail in my box is addressed mainly Our Friend or Our Neighbor or Resident. I receive fliers from grocery stores, both gray and in color, all on newsprint. Pamphlets from extension courses and night school classes and computer training. Postcards from dry cleaners and pizza delivery services. Menus of Thai and Chinese restaurants. Offers for cruises and tour packages. Shoe catalogues. Singles ads. Time-share condo deals. Mass mailings regarding major birth defects and world hunger. Pleas for my conversion to this or that religion, or for the adoption of a new bank account, the purchase of a gym membership.

At work I keep a little radio on my cubicle’s shelf, volume twisted down to a murmur. It’s not what they’re saying or singing or playing that I care about. What I want to hear, what I wait for, the sudden break, the change in tone, the one-note blast that signals a splicing-in of emergency. All day long I’m tuned to barely audible smooth jazz or light rock, fingers crossed for that moment of interruption, that voice of panic going live under the sirens and screams. I long for the monstrous. I long for an anchor’s professionally practiced, transparently false calm. My lungs go empty, light. I bite my lower lip, move the dial again.

Nights I stay awake till three, four, scanning low on the am dial. I hold my breath against the static. I listen in on discussions of abductions, hauntings. Failed drills in major cities. Intelligence gaps. Holes in our borders. Races living under the ground, in fortified bases. Blight and famine.

Widespread architectural vulnerability. Ancient Egyptian astronomical observations. Practical domestic spells. The worldwide shortage of vaccines and antidotes. Up and down the band, hoping against hope, heart racing. When I sleep, it’s in shifts, waking with my hand arching toward the radio, all my consciousness concentrated in that one fraction of a silent second before the switch clicks and the power feeds and the sound comes. Let it not be smooth jazz, I pray. Let the smooth jazz be gone. Let chaos reign. This is my addiction. The idea of disaster. The grand drama of it all. Spectacle. Catharsis. Heroism. Grief.

One summer night, finally, a porch collapses, mid-party, half a block away. I stand in the street, watching firemen and paramedics pick corpses from the rubble, corpses and bloodied, tangled, moaning kids, college age, smelling of beer and broken open skin. Most of them are on cell phones. One girl keeps picking at her forearm, an exposed bone. Then the yellow tape comes up, and apart from a few reporters and the mound of snapped beams and floorboards, the whole thing is done. Show over. Catastrophe closed. Such a letdown. So small in scope. A miniature tragedy. A horror hors d’oeuvre.

I go back home to my radio. The ownership of heavenly bodies, United Nations treaties to that regard. Callers express a generalized outrage, a sense of secrets, betrayal. Strategic military value. We may just need some place to escape to one day. During a commercial breaks, an ad runs, some company in Chicago marketing a new way to remember your loved ones. Pressure per square millimeter. Compressing cremation ashes into diamonds, arranging them with other symbolic gems in a keepsake broach. Or as a pendant. After that it’s a coven of Scottish witches petitioning the government to use vegetable oil as a fuel source, but the questions come in on a delay, lingering, caller after caller, hours later, baffled or irate, asking why no one owns the moon. I drift off to sleep amid the relentless lulling of soft rock, dream of something massive, a shuddering of the earth. In my pleasant nightmare, a newscaster repeats himself: the creature is heading west, the creature is heading toward the center of town. And then I am awake and it is soft rock, unceasing, or smooth jazz, or commercial jingles for gelled shoe liners, massaging bath bubbles, or prescription mood medicine.
© Spencer Dew July 2005
Chicago, IL 

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