Hellward In A Handbasket
by Flynn Washburne, July 20, 2016
It was one of those days. No, not one of those. Those are spoken of, and occur, often enough that we may as well just refer to them as “days.” I may have even mentioned days like that a time or two myself, if memory serves. Certainly I’ve experienced a more-than-generous allotment of hard-luck, pissed-on, eight-ball-behind days, but those are not the ones of which I speak. I’m talking about the other end of the spectrum, the days when one awakens feeling privileged to be breathing the sweetly perfumed air of a benevolent and hospitable planet, Days of pleasure, potential and possibility which feel crafted to one's own personal specifications. Yeah, they happen. It's not like they're being distributed Willy-nilly like pizza coupons, but on occasion, if you just quit acting like a dick for five minutes, you may be fortunate enough to deserve and receive one.
I don't know what I did to merit such a splendiferous morning, but I woke well-rested, pain-free, and bristling with natural pep. No hangover, no bone-deep aches, no existential ennui nor mortal despond, no shrieking joints or throbbing head or any of the other impediments to salubrity which typically plague my mornings. From crown to tootsies I pulsed with vigor. I leapt from my bed, the song in my heart making its merry way to my lips as I whistled a cheery tune. A sunbeam of exceptional radiance spilled onto the floor, in whose purview lolled my cat Annabel, clearly experiencing the same sort of morning I was. She blinked lazily at me as I assayed a couple of graceful balletic figures around her recumbent form, then rose to follow as I headed to the kitchen to see about coffee and breakfast.
With the aplomb of a chop-house maitre d' I rattled a goodly portion of Eukanuba into her bowl, which she set to with gusto. For myself, I set the pot to brewing and dove into a bowl of Raisin Bran.
“Annabel,” I said, once fortified with a cup of the blackest, “this is the sort of day that could make one's whole year. It's an anything-is-possible kind of day, a happy, scrappy, snappy day. A singular day among days unending that will be forever enshrined in the Days Hall of Fame. We mustn't waste the potential of this magnificent morning, but venture out into the metaphorical oyster to make it our bitch. Well, I’ll do the venturing. You may explore the backyard and attend to what killing as needs done.”
I threw up the sash and took a deep draught of lilac-scented air amid a swirl of avian twitter. “Do you know, young Bella, what kind of world it is? I’ll tell you: a wonderful one. That Satchmo had it right on the button. And as to this amazing race I claim membership in, this diverse and widespread human family? What an extraordinary bunch! That Lizard King was, as usual, way off base. People aren't strange, they're grand, every blessed one of 'em, it's an honor and a privilege to bear the standard of Homo sapiens sapiens on this big beautiful marble on this exceptional day, and now, if you'll care to join me, I shall repair to the salon to watch the morning news which will doubtless provide further incontrovertible proof that everything is, in fact, awesome.”
I'd never before noticed eye-rolling as a part of Annabel's repertoire of facial expressions, but it certainly looked as if that was what she was doing. Absurd, I thought. Although— if ever there were an animal capable of cynicism, it would be the common housecat. Pfah! Surely I’m anthro-whatevering. She's sweeter than spun sugar.
I switched on the box and the first thing out of the mouths of those finely crafted automatons disgorging their data was the current sanguinary condition of our local roads and byways. To hear them, it was all twisted metal and dismembered bodies out there as fleeing felons jumped medians into oncoming traffic, drunken teenagers going up in spectacular flames as they plowed into busloads of seniors on gambling junkets, and amphetamine-crazed truckers scattering vehicles before them like ninepins in their mad rush to get their avocados to market before they got soft. Pedestrians were being run down like dogs at intersections throughout the city, lingering shots of lone sneakers in the road serving to illustrate the force of the impacts. Bicyclists became one with their machines as pizza delivery processionals hurtled through the night trying to maintain the integrity of their 30-minute windows. The gutters were running red with the blood of innocents that day.
On to the parade of child molesters. Behind every bush lurked a slavering pederast ready to snatch your child the moment your attention wavered. And it wasn't as if they were safe under the auspices of the various institutions entrusted with their socialization; their teachers, coaches, clergymen, scout leaders, dancing masters, choir directors, piano instructors, and senseis are all just trying to get into their little pants too. “Goodness,” I said, stroking Annabel reassuringly. “It's a lucky thing we don't have any children.”
The focus shifted to the world beat, and planes were being blown out of the sky like ducks in season. ISIS was lopping off heads as casually as I'd crown broccoli stalks for an omelet. Terrorists the world over were exploding in crowded cafes and nightclubs. Territorial disputes erupted into scenes of wholesale bloodshed as megalomaniacal despots attempted to reestablish borders delineated by ancient conquests. “Heavens,” I said. “Good thing we live right here in the US of A.”
Back to the home front. Heavily armed children were voting with bullets in their prom court elections. Marauding gangs roamed the streets in search of civilians to kill to make their bones. Teenagers under the influence of new and exciting designer drugs were killing and dying in new and exciting ways. Viruses were mutating beyond the reach of the human immune system and available antibiotics. Rapes, riots, robberies, murder, mischief, mayhem, battery, burning, and bunco — and security cameras captured it all in gritty detail. “Oh, my,” I said. “Bel, I had it all wrong. It's not a wonderful world at all, it's a terrifying, violent, turbulent mess and there's no way in hell we're going out there. How could I have been so blind?”
Looking smug was absolutely part of Annabel's expressive catalog, and she employed it to full effect now.
“I'm an ignorant Pollyanna, is all I am. It just goes to show you the folly of trusting your own eyes and ears and feelings and inclinations and instincts. I was a fool to think I knew anything about the world and its dangers. So glad I consulted with learned professionals before making a fatal mistake.”
I shivered, thinking of how narrowly I'd escaped being set on fire by a horde of wilding crackheads or kidnapped and delivered by black-market organ hustlers posing as UPS men. Really, the number of possible gory fates awaiting me beyond my front door was limited only by my own imagination.
“Meow,” went Annnabel, stationed at the back door and looking expectantly over her shoulder, ready to go out and begin depopulating the local birds. “Oh no you don't, Missy. You're an indoor cat from now on. Do you know how many Satanic cults are out there snatching up cats for use in their demonic rituals? Me neither, but I bet it's some. We're playing it safe from here on out. I'm going to go find some tools to start nailing all the windows shut and see about building a moat. Find a ball of yarn or something to play with.”
I know that cats can't help but show their ass when they trot off with their tail upraised, but I couldn't help feeling that there was some intent behind it.
The phone rang and I experienced a feeling of intense dread. Oh, no. Who was dead? My whole family, probably, slain by Cypriot separatists.
It was my boss. Shit! I'd forgotten I even had a job! I couldn't stay in the house forever! I had responsibilities! “Hey,” he said. “I'm gonna need you to come in today, Bert called in sick.” Oh god the virus is here. “Okay, be there as soon as I can.”
Damn. Well, you gotta do what you gotta do. I looked out the window. My car was roughly 40 yards away. 1 could probably make it, if I hurried and was properly armed.
I donned the Kevlar body armor I'd won at the county fair for guessing how many hot dogs it took to create the life-size simulacrum of actor John Goodman, locked and loaded my Street Sweeper semiauto shotgun with incendiary slugs. Today I'd be shooting to kill. After sealing all the windows, putting together a makeshift gas mask in case of chemical attack, and admonishing Annabel about making her presence known, I stepped gingerly outside. The sun was still shining, the birds yet sang, and all appeared normal and quiet. I must have come out during a lull in the carnage. Lucky break. My neighbor was blithely pruning his rosebushes. Fool, I thought. “Top 'o the mornin', neighbor!” he chirped. I swung the barrel of my weapon around in his direction.
“What!” I screamed. “Back off, mister!” He scuttled back into his house, presumably to arm himself. Better make myself scarce. I sprinted to the street and started the car, which didn't explode. Another stroke of luck. Out into the big, scary, dangerous world I made my tentative way, keeping a sharp eye out for flaming airplane parts and ululating jihadists. All seemed in order, but surely it was only a matter of moments before tragedy struck and the entire infrastructure collapsed in a pile of flaming bodies and twisted wreckage.
I drove on, each block looking less and less like a crime scene and more like the world I'd allowed myself to imagine before being set straight by those eminently attractive and trustworthy news professionals. What people I saw strolled unconcernedly down the sidewalk, some with children and dogs in their wake.
I switched on the car radio and scanned for a news station. After five minutes of listening it appeared that the handbasket we were in was definitely racing inexorably hellward as the announcer breathlessly recounted tragedy after tragedy. My mind split into warring factions of terror and unconcern, and, unable to concentrate on the road anymore, I pulled over to the nearest curb. As it happened, I landed on the verge of a large public park, and I thought I had better get out and clear my head with a stroll and some fresh air, if it hadn't yet been compromised with Sarin gas or something.
The park was various lush shades of green all over, studded here and there with floral displays in all the rainbow's hues. Lovers canoodled at the bases of majestic oak trees as their dogs scampered and sported about the grounds. Children shrieked and laughed merrily, chasing one another hither and yon without a single molester in pursuit that I could clock. Huskers sang, the ducks on the pond paddled and quacked cheerfully, and squirrels raced up and down the trees in their usual fashion. In short, a typical lovely spring day in the park. More than a little confused, I got back in the car and headed to work.
When I got home that evening, Annabel meowed angrily at me, clearly upset at having been cooped up all day. “Bel, I've been thinking,” I said. “Could it possibly be that the media have a vested interest in keeping the public terrified all the time? Do you think maybe they carefully choose the stories which will most effectively tap into people's innermost fears? I ran some numbers, and it turns out that I have, at any given time, about a .00000000001% chance of dying violently. Crime rates are down, and the molester ratio remains pretty much constant. So I’m thinking: shouldn't I maybe begin each day with the expectation of awesomeness and not of a grisly demise? Isn't it a hell of a lot more likely that I get laid than have an airplane fall on me?
I know that it is not within a cat's vocal range to say the word “duh,” but from the way she shook her head on the way out the door, she may as well have.