The end of the world is never as bad as you’d think it would be.
Take Robert, for instance. He still has his library, and his lover, Tom, is still alive. His mother, Amanda, however, is dead.
It could have been worse, and it could have been better; Robert is satisfied with this justice.
He reads a dictionary while Tom solves a crossword.
“What is Greek for ‘I was king’?” Tom asks. He knows the answer, of course — he wrote the crossword yesterday — but he also knows that it would please Robert if he demonstrated that he knows the answer.
“Ebasileuon,” Robert answers. “It also means, ‘They were king.’”
Robert found that out a few days ago, when he came across a Greek primer he had never noticed before in the library. It must have been his mother’s. He had never studied Greek, and it was a serious gap in his education he had always regretted not to have filled. So it was serendipitous, really, to have found the primer, especially since now he would have the time to study it.
Published in Boston in 1895, the book was intended for young men hoping to join the New England clergy. Robert was not a young man hoping to join the New England clergy, but perhaps this gap, too, would one day serendipitously be filled. If Robert were to become the last Greek-speaking man on Earth, he would likely have to join and reinvent the New England clergy. And if that were to be the case, he would have to know Greek pretty well.
Robert flipped through the book, and his eye immediately spotted the verb “basileuo.” I am king. He was impressed by the word’s imperially raised eyebrow; he decided to tell Tom.
“Tom!” he called.
“What?” Tom answered from the dining room, puzzling over his fresh crossword hints.
“Do you know how to say ‘I am king’ in Greek?”
“No,” said Tom. “Do you?”
“Yes,” answered Robert. “It’s, ‘basileuo.’”
“Ah,” said Tom. And he returned to his crossword. He decided then and there to make a hint out of the verb, which he would then ask Robert about, so as to please him. He’d make it harder, of course; he’d have to sneak another look at the primer he’d left out the other day. Look up the perfect past tense of the word — after all, there are no more kings. However, as a result of the decimation of all royalty everywhere, Robert and Tom automatically became royalty. So perhaps the imperfect would be best.
“Thanks,” says Tom.
Robert flips on to the M’s. He is indeed pleased by Tom’s thoughtfulness. He will return the favor, he decides, by learning more Greek. Perhaps, he reasons, he should switch over to a Greek dictionary. But no, the time will come for that.
He comes across the word “moth,” meaning, “an insect with broad wings covered in microscopic scales, typically drably coloured [sic] and held flat when at rest.” Alternatively, moths can be “clothes moths.”
Tomorrow, Robert will return to the dictionary he is currently reading, and he will revise every definition as he sees fit. For instance, “moths” will be updated as a thing of the past, as will “mothers;” likewise with clothes moths, and likewise with clothes mothers.
They could all do with some revising; some of the definitions were drolly out of touch with reality. “Law,” for instance. Law is not “the system of rules which a particular country or community recognizes as regulating the actions of its members and which it may enforce by the imposition of penalties.” For one thing, given the end of the world, laws and countries no longer exist and nor do most of their former members. As a result, the use of the present tense stands in error (Robert will be certain to fix that tomorrow). For another thing, on what authority did the dictionary ever grant the “country or community” permission to enforce “the system of rules” by the “imposition of penalties”? What say does a dictionary have in Law and Penalties? And were, as the dictionary boldly claims, the laws already “regulating the actions of [the country’s or community’s] members” before they “recognize[d]” them? And how can a country or a community, famously abstract concepts, recognize anything at all, let alone an equally intangible (and yet regulating!) system of rules?
These kinds of definitions have Robert in stitches.
Robert looks intently at his page until it throbs in time with the pounding in his head. He was king. No, not quite. He now has the dictionary, and what is king if not the last man alive with the last dictionary on earth. The power is incredible. The dictionary becomes infinite without an intelligent readership: Schrödinger’s dictionary, every page both all-knowing and empty. But in the hands of a single human, in a world in which the definitions are obsolete, in which, very soon, he, to the extent of his knowledge, will be the only one left able to decipher it, the dictionary becomes a handbook to survival, a codified Bible of things that are and are not. And Robert decides what is or is not, because he owns the book.
No matter — in four days, there will be no more food. In seven days, no more water. In eleven days, Robert will die. In twelve days, Tom will resist the urge to eat Robert, and in thirteen, Tom will die, too.
So it really is not all that different from before, you see. Robert and Tom both die. The dictionary, however, will be, at that point, totally revised, and, finally, infinite.
The end of the world is never as bad as you’d think it would be.
Maya was at her wits’ end the day before. She had gone to the market early that morning, to the grocery store, a Walmart, and she was expecting it to be empty, so that she could quickly stock up for the week and be back home in time for the rest of her day. Needless to say, it was packed. One would think they knew that the world was about to end. Of course, they didn’t, but Maya would laugh about it in hindsight every now and then.
She shoved her way past a customer deliberating between two brands of toothpaste and an old lady patting every melon; she finally got to the back, to the cold cuts, to the slices of turkey. There was a line, but only of two men. It was therefore acceptable to her.
The first man ahead of her ordered half of the remaining turkey, the second man, the second half. She left with a pound of veal.
She was initially disappointed, but as she weighed the calf in her hand, she grew energized at the prospect of a whole new project. Veal — that takes two days to cook, if it’s stewed properly. She’d need vegetables for the broth (vegetables live at the other end of the market), but the oil, she already had. Carrots, potatoes, and onions, for sure, and maybe even celery if it was that kind of day. She fought through a crowd of shoppers: three meth heads choosing the largest jug of milk $5 will buy, two teenagers piling chips and salsa (red and green) into their cart, two women — doubtlessly friends through a church choir — picking bag after bag of marshmallows, one man in a suit unable to tell the difference between margarine and butter, one housewife tapping her foot in front of the fish counter, a little kid reaching for paper towels, and a group of Boy Scouts looking for the marshmallows.
Maya eventually attained and purchased the vegetables, but at that time it was already noon and she was running late for her therapy appointment.
She parked around the corner from her therapist’s two-story house. Five minutes late, she told her therapist about her frustration vis-à-vis finding a job, her loneliness and lack of purpose, and her dream in which she strangled her childhood friend and copulated with the body.
She rushed home, worked the meat, ran it through flour, sautéed the vegetables, added wine, added water, placed in the meat, and the next day, the world ended.
She had fallen asleep on her couch, bottle of gin askew on the opposite pillow. The first thing she thought of was her bottle of gin. How did you get there? she asked. Then she looked outside. Around her. Then she thought about the veal.
It was burnt.
My characters came alive last night. Maya, in particular. I had named her after the Hindu concept of illusion. She told me that was pretentious. Then she lit a cigarette and leaned against my table to look out at the East River.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” I said.
“There’s a lot of things you don’t know about me,” she said. “Like what I want or how I feel.”
“That’s not fair. I know a lot of things about you.”
“Bullshit. You don’t know or want to know anything about me. I’m a repository for your um, banality?”
“Yes,” I admitted. “My banality.”
“It’s a little bit ‘done-before,’ don’t we think.”
“You’re a little bit done-before.”
“You should be a writer.”
“I don’t understand why you’re so mad at me. I made you.”
“No no that’s not it, is it, that’s not it at all!” She threw her mostly burnt-up cigarette against the upholstery. Thankfully, it tumbled and extinguished itself in its ash.
I was only half-paying attention to her when she said how she was like a statue hidden in a block of marble and how I just came at her like a blind man wielding a chisel. “I’m special!” she was saying. “I’m different, and you don’t even know or care how!”
She was done. She patted her pockets swiftly and produced another cigarette, which she lit in the same smooth motion in which she drew it out of thin air. She huffed at her cigarette while I thought about what she had said.
“How are you different?” I asked after a short pause.
She thought for a while, long enough to have to light another cigarette.
“I’m angry,” she said at long last. It was a reach, and I could sense that she felt like she was losing her credibility. “I’m angrier than anyone you’ve ever met, did you know that about me? I hate that I can feel how much I hate how much I feel, and that makes me angry.”
“That’s not different,” I said. “Everyone feels like that.”
“No they don’t,” she said, “listen carefully.”
“Do you hate your life and are you much too smart to pretend like you don’t?”
“I said, listen carefully!” she shouted. “Every day I know there’s a vast treasure in my stomach and it’s going to absolute waste and we have to eliminate waste and we therefore have to eliminate treasure. I feel hunger, cavernous grotto-like hunger because of the waste inside of me and no matter how hard I try to stuff it in or shove it out it’s always there, and not just there, but actually here, actually the single most immediate thing in my life, and it’s immediate precisely because it’s not like anger and sadness and it doesn’t come from the outside-in — it starts right here and reaches out of my mouth and spine.
“I have Baba Yaga’s servants, dismembered hands, folding out the lining of my stomach and patting down the walls of my cave and it is constant and whenever they clap the noise is deafening.” She looked off somewhere past me, somewhere just behind the back tip of my skull. “Do you understand me?”
“No,” I said. “I don’t understand you.”
She grabbed a letter opener from the table; she sliced open my belly and took out a coral-like fist of gold. So it was true, and so I understood.