“The End of the End of Everything,” by Dale Bailey, is an sf/horror story about a long-married couple invited by an old friend to an exclusive artists’ colony. The inhabitants of the colony indulge in suicide parties as the world teeters on the brink of extinction, worn away by some weird entropy.
Like some other stories published on Tor.com, “The End of the End of Everything” contains scenes and situations some readers will find upsetting and/or repellent. [—The Editors]
This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by consulting editor Ellen Datlow.
The last time Ben and Lois Devine saw Veronica Glass, the noted mutilation artist, was at a suicide party in Cerulean Cliffs, an artist’s colony far beyond their means. That they happened to be there at all was a simple matter of chance. Stan Miles, for whom Ben had twice served as best man, had invited them to his beach house to see things through with his new wife, MacKenzie, and her nine-year-old daughter Cecilia. Though the Devines had no great enthusiasm for the new wife—Stan had traded up, was how Lois put it—they still loved Stan and had resolved to put the best face on the thing. Besides, the prospect of watching ruin engulf the world among such glittering company was, for Ben at least, irresistible. He made his living on the college circuit as a poet, albeit a minor one, so when Stan said they would fit right in, his statement was not entirely without truth.
They drove down on a Sunday, to the muted strains of a Mozart piano concerto on the surround sound. Ruin had lately devoured most of the city and it encroached on either side of the abandoned interstate: derelict cars rusting back to the elements, skeletal trees stark against a gray horizon, an ashen, baked-looking landscape, though no fire had burned there. In some places the road was all but impassable. They made poor time. It was late when they finally pulled into the beach house’s weedy gravel driveway and climbed out, stretching.
This was a still-living place. They could hear the distant sigh of breakers beyond the house, an enormous edifice of stacked stone with single-story wings sweeping back to either side of the driveway. The sharp tang of the ocean leavened the air. Gulls screamed in the distance and it was summer and it was evening, and in the cool dusk the declining sun made red splashes on the narrow windows of the house.
“I thought you’d never get here,” Stan bellowed from the porch as they retrieved their luggage. “Come up here and let me give you a kiss, you two!” Stan—bearded, stout, hirsute as a bear—was as good as his promise. He delivered to each of them a scratchy wet smooch square on the lips, pounded Ben’s back, and relieved Lois of her suitcase with one blunt-fingered hand. Ghostlike in the gloom, and surprisingly graceful for such a large man, he swept them inside on a tide of loose flowing white silk, his shirt unbuttoned at the neck to reveal corkscrews of gray hair.
He dumped their baggage in an untidy pile just inside the door, and ushered them into a blazing three-story glass atrium. It leaned rakishly over the dark, heaving water, more sensed than seen, and Ben, as always, felt a brief wave of vertigo, a premonition that the whole house might any moment slide over the cliff and plummet to the rocky white beach below. Ceiling fans whispered far above them. Two Oscars for Production Design stood on the mantle, over a fireplace big enough to roast a boar.
Stan collapsed into a low white sofa, and waved them into adjoining seats. “So the last days are upon us,” he announced jovially. “I’m glad you’ve come.”
“We’re glad to be here,” Ben said.
“Any word from Abby?” Stan asked.
Abby was Stan’s ex-wife—Ben’s first stint as best man—and just hearing her name sent a spasm through Ben’s heart. When the dust from the divorce settled, Stan had gotten the beach house. Abby had ended up with the house in the city. But the last of the city was succumbing to ruin even as they spoke. A gust of sorrow shook Ben. He didn’t like to think of Abby.
“Ruined,” Lois said. “She’s ruined.”
“Ah, I knew it. I’m sorry.” Stan sighed. “It’s just a matter of time, isn’t it?” Stan shook his head. “I am glad you decided to come. Really. I’ve missed you both.”
“And how’s MacKenzie?” Lois asked.
“She’ll be down any minute. She and Cecy are upstairs getting ready for the party.”
“Every night there’s a party. You’ll enjoy it, you’ll see.”
A moment later, MacKenzie—that was the only name she had, or admitted to—descended the backless risers that curved down from an upstairs gallery. She was a lithe blonde, high breasted, her face as pale and cool and unexpressive as a marble bust. She wore the same shimmering silks as her husband; and nine-year-old Cecy, trailing behind her, lovely beyond her years, wore them as well.
Ben got to his feet.
Lois pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders as she stood. “MacKenzie,” she said, “it’s been too long.”
“It’s so good to see you both again,” MacKenzie said.
She brushed glossy lips against Ben’s cheek.
Lois submitted to a brief embrace. Afterward, she knelt to draw Cecy into her arms. “How are you, dear?” she asked, and Ben, though he despised cliché, uttered the first thing that came into his head.
“My how you’ve grown,” he said.
Yet his life had in some respects been a cliché. His poetry, while not without merit, had broken no new ground—though perhaps there was no new ground to break, as he sometimes told audiences at the small colleges that sought his services. Poetry was an exhausted art, readers a dying breed in a dying age, and he’d never broken through anyway. His verse was the stifled prosody of the little magazine, his life the incestuous circuit of the MFA program, and he had occasionally succumbed to the vices such an existence proffered: the passing infidelity, the weakness for drink and drug.
His marriage had weathered storms of its own. If Ben did not entirely approve of Stan’s decision—he had loved Abby, and missed her—he could understand the allure of novelty, and he was not immune to the appeal of MacKenzie’s beauty. Perhaps this accounted for the tension in their suite as he and Lois dressed for the party, and when they departed, descending the cliff-side steps to the beach, sensing her discontent, Ben reached out to take her hand.
Down here, that salty tang was stronger and a cool wind poured in off the water. The sea gleamed like the rippling hide of some living behemoth in the moonlight. The sand seemed to glow beneath their feet. Everything was precious, lovely in its impermanence, for what was not now imperiled? And an image came to Ben of the gray towers in the once-bustling city, of men and women in their millions but blackened effigies, shedding ashen debris in the unforgiving wind.
Yet it was nothing to brood upon, this slow doom that the earth or fate or the God Ben did not believe in had inflicted upon them. Not now anyway, not with another set of precipitous steps to ascend or another house of glass set back a hundred yards from the brink of cliff-side annihilation, great windows printing flickering panels of light upon the still-succulent grass, and pouring forth the dissonant, tremulous notes then in fashion. Inside, in the darkness, the intersecting beams of digital projectors cast violent images upon every available surface—upon walls and windows and the faces of the people who danced and drank there. “This is Bruno Vinnizi’s place—you know, the director,” Stan shouted over the music, passing Ben a drink, but he needn’t have said anything at all. The movies spoke for themselves, half a dozen stylized art-house sensations that Ben had seen in the last decade and a half.
Somehow, in the chaos, Ben lost Lois—he caught glimpses of her now and then through the crowd—and found himself talking drunkenly to Vinnizi himself. A blisteringly bloody gunfight unfolded across Vinnizi’s fashionably stubbled cheeks. “I have been making movies about ruin for years,” Vinnizi pronounced. “Even before there was a ruin, no?” and Ben saw how true it was. “So you are a poet,” Vinnizi said, and Ben answered something, he didn’t know what, and then, without transition, he found himself in the bathroom with Gabrielle Abbruzzese, the sonic sculptor, chewing jagged crystals of prime. After that the party took on a hectic, impressionistic quality. A kind of wild exhilaration seized him. He saw Lois across the room, sipping wine and talking to the front man of some slam band or other—Ben had seen him on television—and stumbled once again into Stan’s ursine embrace. “Having fun yet?” the big man yelled—and then, abruptly, Ben was squiring Cecy giggling across the dance floor.
Finally, exhausted, he reeled outside to piss. He unzipped, sighed, and let flow a long arc. A husky, female voice, deeply amused, said, “Something wrong with the bathrooms?”
Ben stepped back in dismay, tucking himself away.
A tall angular woman with razor-edged cheekbones and a cap of close-shorn blonde hair stood in the shadows. She was smoking a joint. He could smell its faint sweetish scent. When she passed it to him he felt the effects of the prime recede a little.
“I know you,” he said.
“You’re the artist—”
She took a hit off the joint. Exhaling, she said, “This place is lousy with artists.”
“No”—slurring his words—“the humiliation artist. Victoria— Victoria—”
In a stray reflection from the house, a car screeched across one of those exquisite cheekbones.
“Victoria Glass,” he announced, but she was already gone.
The party climaxed at dawn, when the rising sun revealed how closely ruin had encroached upon the house, and Vinnizi hurled himself over the cliff onto the rocks below.
It was accounted a triumph by all.
They slept late and joined Stan and MacKenzie on the verandah for drinks at eleven. Piano and saxophone burbled over the sound system. Stan paced, sucking down mimosas like water. MacKenzie reclined in an Adirondack chair, her long legs flung out before her. She sipped her drink, watching Cecy at some solitary game she’d improvised with a half-deflated soccer ball.
“Did you have a good time at the party?” Mackenzie asked.
“Of course they had a good time,” Stan said, clapping Ben on the shoulder, and Ben supposed he had, but the night itself came back to him only in flashes: blue smoke adrift in the intersecting beams of the projectors; the taste of prime sour on his tongue; the tall angular woman who’d caught him cock in hand outside the house. Her name came to him, he’d seen a piece on her in The New Yorker—Veronica Glass, the mutilation artist—and he felt mortified for reasons that he could only vaguely recall. All this and more: the headachy regret that comes after any bacchanal; the image of Vinnizi leaping off the cliff onto the jagged rocks below. No sight for a little girl, he thought, and he recalled swinging Cecy drunkenly across the dance floor.
Lois must have been thinking the same thing. “Do you really want Cecy to see things like that?” she asked MacKenzie, and Ben could sense her struggling to reserve judgment, or anyway the appearance of judgment.
MacKenzie waved a languid hand.
“What does it matter anymore?” Stan said, and Ben thought of Abby, built like a fireplug, with none of MacKenzie’s lissome beauty. Abby wouldn’t have approved, but then she wouldn’t have approved of MacKenzie either, even if the other woman hadn’t stolen away her husband on the set of a failed summer blockbuster where her blank mien actually played to her advantage. Skill was a handicap in such a role; MacKenzie’d been little more than eye-candy on the arm of the star, an aging action hero long since ruined himself.
A wind off the ocean lifted Ben’s hair. He leaned over to peer through the telescope mounted on the railing. Near at hand, white-capped breakers rolled toward shore. Farther out—he adjusted the focus—the waves gave way to the cracked, black mirror of dead water. Moldering fish turned their ashen bellies to the sky.
“How long, you think?” he asked Stan.
“Not long now.”
“It doesn’t matter. No child should have to see a man throw himself over a cliff,” Lois said.
“She’s not your child,” MacKenzie responded drily, and Ben straightened up in time to see Lois shoot him a look of disgust—with MacKenzie and with Stan for marrying her, and with Ben most of all, for standing beside the groom and collaborating in the disposal of Abby like a used tissue, and this after more than twenty years of marriage.
But what was he to do? He and Stan had been friends since their freshman year at Columbia, when they’d been thrown together by the vagaries of admissions counselors on the basis of a vapid form with questions like: “Do you sleep late or get up early?” He slept late and so did Stan. And they’d had the same taste for girls (as many as possible, as often as possible, and no need to be choosy) and for drugs (ditto). It had been a match made in heaven. Sometimes Ben wondered why Lois had ever been attracted to him in the first place. He supposed she’d wanted to save him. The same was probably true of Abby and Stan. But old habits die hard and in his peripatetic days, reading indifferent poems to indifferent audiences, Ben had fallen into his former ways: banging nubile English majors and chewing prime. At home one man, on the road another: Jekyll and Hyde. Last night Hyde had been in the ascension. And why not? Nero fiddled as Rome burned, but what else could he do, break out impotent buckets against the conflagration?
All this in the space of an instant.
“Here,” he said to Lois, “why don’t you have a look?”
“I’ve seen all I want to see,” she said, but she strode over and gazed through the telescope all the same. She’d thickened in middle age, and Ben found himself studying MacKenzie, suddenly envious of Stan, who’d had the courage to throw it all aside. A sudden hunger for MacKenzie’s raw sexuality—she seemed to glow with lascivious potential—possessed him. What had Stan said, when he’d called to tell Ben that he and Abby were done? “She’s a fucking tiger in the sack, Ben.”
Stan shoved another drink into his hand—they’d moved to chilled vodka, it seemed—and Ben felt his headache retreat before the onslaught of the alcohol.
MacKenzie lit a cigarette. He could smell its acrid bite.
“It’s not like I’m going to die of lung cancer, sweetie,” MacKenzie called, and Ben thought, no, none of us is going to die of lung cancer.
“You mind if I have one of those?” he said.
MacKenzie held the pack silently over her shoulder. Ben shook one out and struck it alight, inhaled deeply. Smoke drifted in twin blue streams through his nostrils. He’d smoked in college, but Lois had convinced him to give it up; it had become another vice of the road, indulged in frenetic after-reading parties. Playing the role of the dissolute poet, he used to think. That’s what they wanted to see. Yet he wondered who he really was—if the persona hadn’t become the person or if the persona hadn’t been the person all along.
Lois looked up from the telescope. “It’s terrifying,” she said.
Stan shrugged. “It just is, that’s all.”
“It’s terrifying all the same.”
She set her unfinished mimosa on the railing. “I’m going in to make a sandwich. Anyone else want one?”
“Sure,” Stan said.
And Ben, “Why not?”
She didn’t bother asking MacKenzie, who, by the look of her, hadn’t had a sandwich—or maybe any food—in years, if ever. The door clapped shut behind her.
Ben ground out his cigarette in MacKenzie’s ashtray. “I’ve always wondered,” he said. “What’s your real name?
Stan laughed without humor and downed his drink.
“MacKenzie,” MacKenzie said.
“No. I mean the name you were born with. I thought you’d adopted MacKenzie as a stage name. You know, like Bono, or Madonna.”
“My name is MacKenzie,” she said without looking at him.
Stan laughed again.
“Her name is Melissa Baranski,” he said.
“My name is MacKenzie,” her voice flat, without emotion.
Wishing he’d never asked, Ben descended to the lawn. “Throw me the ball,” he called to Cecy, and for a while they played together by some rules Ben could never quite decipher. “Stand here,” Cecy would say, or “Throw me the ball,” and between sips from his drink, he would stand there or toss her the ball.
“I win,” she announced suddenly.
“Sure, you win,” he said, ruffling her hair.
They climbed the steps to the verandah together. By then Lois had returned with a tray of sandwiches for everyone.
Later, he and Lois made love in their suite. Before he came, Ben closed his eyes. A blur of faces passed through his mind: the features of an especially memorable undergraduate, and then MacKenzie’s affectless face, and the woman on the lawn last of all, Veronica Glass, the mutilation artist, kneeling before him to take him into her mouth. He felt something break and release inside him. He cried out and drew Lois to him, whispering “I love you, I love you,” uncertain whom he was speaking to, or why, and afterward, as she pillowed her head on his shoulder, that headachy sense of regret once again swept through him.
Later, they walked by the sea, waves foaming far down the beach. At high tide, the water would hurl its force against the stony cliff itself, undercutting it in a million timeless surges. It leaned over them like doom, unveiling the faint blue tinge that gave the colony its name.
He took Lois’s hand and drew her into an embrace. “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” he said, as if by the force of language itself he could redeem the fallen world. But Ben had long since lost his faith in poetry. Words were but paltry things, frail hedges against the night. Ruin would consume them.
And it was to ruin that they came at last. They stopped at its edge, a ragged frontier where the beach turned as black and barren as burned-over soil, baked into a thousand jagged cracks, and the surf grew still, swallowed up by the same ashen surface. Digging their toes in the sand, they stood in the shadow of Bruno Vinnizi’s ruined beach stair and gazed out across the devastation. Vinnizi’s shattered corpse lay among the rocks, arms outflung, one charred hand lifted in mute supplication to the sky. As they stood there, the wind picked up and his outstretched fingers crumbled into dust and blew away, and the sea, where it still washed the shore, retreated down the naked shingles of the world.
As ruin spread, Cerulean Cliffs retreated. On the second night, Ben stood on the verandah and counted lights like a strand of Christmas bulbs strung along the coastline; in the days that followed they began to wink out. One afternoon, he and Stan hiked inland to the edge of the destruction: half a mile down the gravel driveway, and two more miles after that, along the narrow two-lane state road until it intersected with the expressway. In the distance, a soaring overpass had given way, its support pylons jutting from the earth like broken teeth. The pavement Ben and Lois had driven in upon was cracked and heaved, as if it had endured the ice of a thousand years. Businesses that had been thriving mere days ago had decayed into rubble. The arms of corroding gas pumps snaked across blistered asphalt. The roof of the Bar-B-Cue Diner had buckled, and the shards of its plate glass windows threw back their sooty reflections.
“Abby and I celebrated our fourteenth anniversary there,” Stan said.
“We used to go there every time we came down,” Ben said. “Best barbecue I ever had.”
“It was shitty barbeque, and you know it. The company made it great.”
Laughing, Stan unclipped a flask of bourbon from his belt. He took a long pull and handed it to Ben. The liquor suffused Ben with warmth, and he recalled his first liquor drunk—he’d been with a girl, he couldn’t remember her name, only that she’d held his head as he puked into the toilet at some high school revel. After that, he’d vowed never to drink whiskey again. You had to learn to love your vices.
As they turned and started back, he snorted, thinking of Cecy and her soccer ball and her mysterious games upon the grass.
“What?” Stan said.
“She’s a good kid.”
“The best,” Ben said, taking another swig of whiskey. He handed the flask back to Stan. They passed it back and forth as they walked. The blasted land fell behind them. The day brightened. The sky arced over them, fathomless and blue. Ben took out a cigarette and lit it and blew a stream of smoke into the clear air.
“You ever wish you’d had children?” he asked.
“I have Cecilia.”
“You know what I mean.”
“I had a career.”
“What about Abby?”
“What about her?” Stan said.
“Did she want children?”
Stan was silent for a time.
“Ah, it was my fault,” he said at last.
“You know. The whole goddamn mess.” He took a slug of whiskey. “We had a miscarriage once. I never told you. After that—” He shrugged. “She never forgave me you know.”
“For a miscarriage? Stan, she couldn’t have blamed you—”
“Not that. Cecilia, I mean. She could forgive the infidelity. God knows she had in the past. She never forgave me Cecilia.” He looked up. “She always thought that was driving the whole thing: MacKenzie had the child she could never have.”
“And was it?”
“No.” Stan laughed. “It was lust, that’s all. Simple lust.” He shook his head in dismal self-regard. “I envy you, you know. Holding things together the way you have.”
They turned into the driveway. Ben kicked a stone. A wind came down to comb the weeds. Somewhere in the trees a bird burst into song. The faint sound of the ocean came to him. Envy was a blade that cut two ways.
“What about you?” Stan said.
“What about me?”
Ben finished his cigarette.
“It never crossed my mind,” he lied. “I wish it had.”
They’d reached the house by then. Ben went to his suite and lay down to sleep off the whiskey before the party. When he woke, the sun was red in his window, and Lois was reading in the chair by the side of the bed. They walked out onto the balcony and gazed at the ocean. The dead water had crept closer. He’d lost track of time. It all blurred together, the liquor and the prime and the multi-hued tabs of ecstasy spilled helter-skelter across the butcher block of a financier who’d filled her house with priceless paintings. Her taste had run toward the baroque—Bosch, Goya—and over the course of the party she’d slashed them to ribbons one by one. At dawn she’d walked out onto the lawn, doused herself with gasoline, and set herself on fire.
“Did you know Abby had a miscarriage?” Ben asked.
“Of course, I did,” Lois said, and they stood there in silence until the first faint stars broke out in the dark void where ruin had not yet eaten up the sky.
The parties were Ben’s solace and his consolation: the photographer whose prints adorned the walls of her house, the painter whose canvases did not, the novelist who’d won a Pulitzer. Ben had met her once before, a lean scarecrow of a woman with a thatch of pink hair and a heart-shaped pinkie ring on her left hand: a brief introduction by a friend of a friend at a Book Expo party. “What are you working on?” he’d asked as she paused. “I subscribe to the tea-kettle theory of art,” she’d responded. “Open the valve and the energy escapes.”
Ben had nodded, taking a long drink of his gin and tonic. He leaned against the wall, trying to pretend he wasn’t alone. He’d come for the free drinks—he always did—but he knew that nothing was ever free; you paid the price in the coin of humiliation. And that reminded him of his fleeting encounter with Veronica Glass, the “humiliation artist,” as he’d called her. He’d seen her flitting through the crowds occasionally, tall and gamine with her cap of blonde hair, but mostly she lingered in corners. If it bothered her to be alone, Ben could not discern it. She observed everything with an air of bemused fascination, the expression of an anthropologist faced with a curious custom she had not seen before.
Once or twice, they’d even talked briefly.
“Hello, again,” he’d said, as he squeezed past her in the scrum around the bar, and briefly he felt her taut body glide against his sagging middle aged one.
Another time, she appeared ghostlike at his side, and handed him a joint. “I’ve had my eye on you,” she said.
“You have?” he said.
“Are you surprised?”
She smiled, remote and amused, the way you’d smile at a child. “Outsiders interest me.”
“What do you mean?”
“In Cerulean Cliffs, you’re either a rich artist, or you’re just plain rich.”
Ben thought of the financier who’d torched herself on her lawn, staggering about in screaming agony until she collapsed and the flames consumed her.
“You don’t seem to be either,” Veronica Glass said.
“I’m a poet,” he said.
“But not a successful one.”
“I make a living. That’s more than most poets can say.”
“But is it a good living? Does anyone know your name?”
“It offers me a certain freedom.”
The freedom to write mediocre verse, he thought.
“Is that enough?” she said, “I mean for you,” and of course it wasn’t. He coveted the trappings of fame: the New Yorker profile, the Oscars on Stan’s mantel, the trophy wives. In the night, as Lois slept at his side, he thought of Stan, stout and hairy, running his thick fingers down MacKenzie’s long body.
He couldn’t say these things to Veronica Glass, couldn’t say them to anyone at all if you got to the heart of the matter, so he settled for, “It’s what I have.”
And then the lights blinked twice. Veronica Glass—that was how Ben thought of her—laughed and pinched off the joint. She handed it to him as the novelist announced that there would be an hour of readings—twenty minutes of her novel in progress (so much for the tea-kettle theory, Ben thought), followed by a young woman much admired for her jewel-like short stories, and a poet last of all. The poet, when he took the mic looked the part. He had a head of dark hair that swept back to his collarbones in perfectly sculpted waves, a voice that rang out across the crowd, a National Book Award. He was twenty-seven.
The lights came up.
“Do you envy him?” Veronica Glass asked.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” she said.
“Art pour l'art.”
“Art moves me,” he said.
And again she asked, “Is that enough?”
“Tell me,” he said, “where do you get the subjects for your art?”
“They volunteer. I have more volunteers than I can possibly use.” She gave him an appraising look. “Are you interested?”
Before he could answer, he saw Lois across the room.
“Is that your wife?”
“What does she do?”
“She was an accountant in the unruined age,” he did not say. He did not say that she read good books—books that moved her and said something true about the world—and that she loved him and forgave him his trespasses, which were many, and that that was enough. He merely smiled at her through the thump of music, the crush on the dance floor, the smell of sweat in the air. Veronica Glass lifted a hand to her in some kind of ambiguous greeting, but she was gone before Lois could wend her way to them through the crowd.
“That was Veronica Glass, the mutilation artist,” he said. “You’ve read about her.”
“I know who it was,” she said.
Ben wanted to ask her to dance but they were too old for the bass pounding from the speakers; they’d lost their way. Sometime in the deepest trench of the night, a cry arose from the master bathroom. The music died. They all trooped up to look at the novelist. She was dead in the blood-splashed tub, naked, her arms flung out, slit from wrist to elbow as neatly as a pair of whitened gills. Her sagging breasts seemed deflated somehow, empty of life. Her pale face was at peace.
MacKenzie laughed hysterically, her knuckles to her mouth, her eyes bright with an almost sexual excitement. Cecy began to cry and Lois took her into her arms and hurried her home. Ben lingered as the party wound down. He watched the sun rise with Stan and MacKenzie. Afterward, they looked out over the wretched ruin that had already begun to engulf the writer’s grounds. It crept toward them, turning the soil to ash. Flowers withered to dust. The guesthouse sagged. They descended to the beach and walked home.
Cecy was sleeping. Lois had waited up.
Stan and MacKenzie went off to their bedroom. Ben and Lois heard MacKenzie cry out after a time. They wandered outside and sat on the edge of the verandah, legs dangling. Ben dug out the crumpled joint and lit it, and they looked out over the sea and smoked it together. Ben spoke of Veronica Glass, and Lois held a finger to his lips.
“I don’t want to hear about her, okay?” she said.
They went into their dim bedroom. The sun cast narrow bars of light through the blinds as they made love. When Ben finished he thought of Veronica Glass; when he slept, he dreamed of her.
He dreamed of her awake and sleeping both. One more party, two, another passing encounter. She didn’t always show up. He asked Stan about her. “She lives six houses down,” Stan said, gesturing. “Crazy bitch.”
“The things she does. You call that art?”
The last picture Stan had worked on had been a slasher flick. The usual: a bunch of kids at some summer camp, screwing and smoking dope; a crazed killer; various implements of destruction, the more imaginative the better. The virtuous survived. There would be no Oscars for this formulaic trash, Ben reminded him. And didn’t it trade upon our worst impulses?
“It trades upon imagination,” Stan said. “There’s a difference between special effects and the genuine item.”
He was right, of course, demonstrably so, yet—
Maybe not, Ben thought. Maybe special effects were worse. People thrilled to the mayhem on screen; they identified with the killers, turned them into folk heroes. No one thrilled to the work of Veronica Glass. Horror and fascination, sure—how could you do such things to a human being, and why? What had she said? “I have more volunteers than I could possibly use.” And worse yet: “Are you interested?”
And he was. The whole phenomenon interested him.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Keats had said.
Was there some terrible beauty here? Or worse yet, some terrible truth?
Or maybe Veronica had been right. How had she put it? Art pour l'art.
Art for art’s sake.
Perhaps it was these questions that led Ben to stray down the beach one day toward her house. Perhaps it was the woman herself—that blonde hair, those high cheekbones. Perhaps it was chance. (It was not chance.) Yet that’s what he told himself as he mounted the stair to her house—a house like every other house along the cliff side: gray-stained shingles and acres of windows that threw back the afternoon light, blinding him, and suddenly he didn’t know what he was doing there, what was his intent?
Ben started to turn away—might have done so had a voice not hailed him from the verandah. “The poet takes courage,” she called, and now he saw her, leaning toward him, elbows on the railing. “Come up.”
He crossed the lawn, climbed a set of winding stairs. She had turned to greet him, her back to the railing, clad in a sheer white dress. She held a clear glass with a lime wedge floating among the ice, and she laughed when she saw him. She brushed her lips first against one cheek and then another; they were moist and cool from the drink.
“So we meet by daylight, Ben Devine.”
“How did you know my name?”
“It’s no great mystery, is it? You’re a guest of Stan Miles—and MacKenzie, of course. Dear, poor MacKenzie, and that lost child of hers. Who doesn’t know you, those of us who remain, a weed sprung up among the roses?”
“Is that how you think of me, a weed?”
“Is that how you think of yourself?”
How was he to answer that question? How indeed did he perceive himself among the glittering multitude of Cerulean Cliffs? Stan had said they would fit right in—he and Lois—but did they? Ben had his doubts.
He opted for silence.
If Veronica—and when had that shift occurred exactly, when had she come to be Veronica in his mind?—expected an answer she did not say. Nor did she ask him if he wanted a drink. She simply put one together for him at a bar tucked discreetly into the shadows. He brought it to his lips: the tickle of tonic, the woodsy bite of juniper and lime. At first he thought that she didn’t care about his response to her question, but then—
“Do you think the poet that read the other night—the one with the beautiful hair—was any better than you are?”
“He has the National Book Award to prove it.”
“Is that the measure of success?”
“So it would seem. Here in Cerulean Cliffs anyway.”
“What do you believe, Ben?”
“What’s an artist without an audience?”
“I have an audience. They mostly despise me, but they can’t look away. I have a raft of awards. Does that make me an artist?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what you are.”
“And yet you’re drawn to me.”
“You show up at my home without invitation.”
“It was you who spoke to me first.”
Ben turned and rested his elbows on the railing. He finished his drink and studied the horizon. Ruin had crept still closer, ashen and gray, enveloping the sea. For some reason, tears sprang to his eyes. For the first time in months, he found himself wanting to write, to set down lines in tribute to the lost world—yet even this aspiration exceeded his meager talent, and he grieved that, too: that the poems in his mind slipped through his fingers like rain. He grieved the hollowness at the heart of the enterprise. Nothing lasted. Not marble, nor the gilded monuments of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme. Except that the rhyme too came to ruin in the end.
Veronica handed him another drink.
“It won’t be much longer now, will it?” she said.
“What spectacular suicide have you devised?”
“None. I suppose I’ll see it through.”
“Perhaps suicide too is an art.”
“That’s the premise of your work, isn’t it?”
“Art pour l’art.”
“Do you believe that?”
“I don’t know. I suppose there is truth in what I do. The truth of ruin and death.”
“You sound like Vinnizi.”
“Is that what he told you? Poor Vinnizi. He was a fool. He made films about gunfights and car chases, that’s all. The most artistic thing he ever did was hurl himself over that cliff.” She paused. “Have you seen my work?”
“Then you have not seen it.”
“I’m not sure I want to.”
Yet he did. In some secret chamber of his heart he yearned for nothing more, and when she turned away from him and started into the house, Ben followed, all too aware of the lines of her body beneath her dress. She turned to smile at him.
The door swung shut at his back. The air smelled of lavender. A whisper of air conditioning caressed his skin. The floor plan was open, airy, the sparse furniture upholstered in white leather, and he was struck suddenly by the similarity to Stan’s house—the similarity to all the ruined houses he had fled in the light of dawn. Only here and there stood white pedestals, and on the pedestals—Ben felt his stomach clench—Veronica Glass’s art. A woman’s arm, severed at the shoulder and bent at the elbow, segmented into thin discs laid in order, an inch between, as though the wounds had never been inflicted, the hand alone still whole, palm up, like Vinnizi’s, in supplication. The flesh had been preserved somehow, encased in a thin clear coat of silicone; he could see the white bone, the pinkish muscle, the neatly sundered nexus of artery and vein. A detail from the New Yorker profile came to him: how she strapped her subjects down and worked her way up to the final amputation, sans anesthesia, applying the first thin layer of silicone at every cut to keep the volunteer from bleeding out. A collaboration, she called her work, and the horror of it came to him afresh: in the leg flayed and tacked open from hip to toe to reveal the long muscles within; the severed penis, quartered from head to scrotum, and pinned back like a terrible flower; and, dear God, the ultimate volunteer, the shaven head mounted on a waist-high pedestal, a once-handsome man, lips sewn shut with heavy black cord, small spikes driven into his eyes.
The room seemed suddenly appalling.
Ben flung himself away and staggered outside to the verandah. Downing his drink, he stared out at the sea and the encroaching ruin, and saw for himself the absurdity of Vinnizi’s claim that all along he’d been making films about the end of everything. This was ruin and horror, this the art of final things. Then she touched his shoulder and Ben turned and she pressed her lips to his and dear God, his cock was like a spike he was so hard—
Ben thrust her away and stumbled down the spiral stair to the lawn. When he turned at cliff side to look back, she was still there, standing against the railing, watching him. Her sheer dress blew back in some vagary of the wind, exposing her body so that he could see the weight of her breasts and the dark triangle of her sex. Another jolt of desire convulsed him and once again he turned away. He clambered down the stair to the beach, tore off his clothes and waded into the ocean, but no matter how long he scrubbed himself in the clear water that had not yet succumbed to ruin, he could not wash himself clean.
He told Stan of it; he told Lois.
His cigarette trembled as he described it. He drank off two glasses of scotch as he spoke and poured another. The bottle chattered against the rim of the glass. He had known the nature of her work, had seen the photos, had read the profile. Yet nothing had prepared him for the way its cold reality shook him. What had Dickinson written? “I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.” And had any poet in his ken written a poem so true as Veronica Glass’s work—so icy that it shivered him, so fiery that it burned? Was this not art, and did not his own work—the work of any poet or novelist, sculptor or composer—pale in comparison?
Ruin closed inexorably upon them. The parties became ever more frenetic. Suicides came in clusters now. One night, flying on heroin and prime, Gabrielle Abbruzzese slit her own throat at the stroke of midnight. The vast house rang with her otherworldly sonic landscapes, and she twirled as she died, her white ball gown blooming around her. Blood sprayed the revelers. Finally she collapsed, one leg folding under her like a broken doll’s. Someone else seized the blade from her still warm hand, and then another, and another until the floor was littered with corpses. Ben and Lois watched from the gallery above. Looking up from the slaughter, Ben locked gazes with Veronica Glass, on the other side of the great circular balcony. She gave him an enigmatic smile and vanished into the crowd. The revel continued until dawn. Dancers twirled among the bloody corpses until ruin withered the privet and shattered the lawn; they made their escape as the land burned black behind them.
So passed the nights. The days passed in a haze of sun and sleep and alcohol. One boozy afternoon, Ben found himself alone with MacKenzie, watching Cecy in the yard. He made MacKenzie a vodka tonic and slumped beside her in her Adirondack chair.
“Have you given up poetry?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, and he thought of his impulse to set down some record of the dying world in lines, knowing how useless it was, how it too would come to ruin, and no one would survive to read it. He admired her body. She wore a bikini, and he could not help imagining the tan lines as Stan stripped it away and carried her off to bed.
“Why bother?” he said. “Who will survive to read it?”
“Perhaps the value of it is in the doing of the thing itself.”
“Is it? Then why did you give up acting?”
“I was never really an actor,” she said. “I’m not delusional.”
She had been the star of a popular sitcom before her single disastrous attempt to break into film: the fading action star, the failed movie.
“I never really made it,” she said. “Or if I did, I never was up to the challenge of real acting. I posed for the camera. The money didn’t matter, not as a measure of artistry anyway. I was a poseur.”
“That’s more than I ever achieved. I was a poseur, too.”
MacKenzie looked at him for the first time, really looked at him, and he saw a bright intelligence in her eyes, a self-knowledge that he had not known was there. It had been there all along, of course, but he’d been too blind to see it.
“I never read your poetry,” she said.
They laughed, and he felt that desire for her quicken within him.
Cecy cried out on the lawn. Her ball had plunged over the cliff. Ben retrieved it. When he returned, MacKenzie had moved to a towel. She lay on her stomach. She had undone the back of her bikini top, and he could see the swell of her breast.
“Why do you let Cecy attend the parties?” he said.
“I’m not a bad parent,” she told him. “Her father—he was a bad parent.”
“But you didn’t answer the question.”
She propped herself on her elbows, and he could see her entire breast in profile, the areola of one brown nipple. She looked at him, and he wrenched his gaze away. He met her eyes.
“I will not hide the truth from her.”
“And in ruin is truth?”
“You know there is.”
She lay back down, and he looked out to the sea, and even that was not eternal. “Do you want another drink?” he said.
“I’m positively parched,” she said. So he made them drinks, and they drank until his face grew not unpleasantly numb and they watched Cecilia in the splendor of the grass.
Stan joined them as the shadows grew long and fell across the yard. Then Lois. The four of them drank in companionable silence through the afternoon. MacKenzie said again, “I’m not a bad parent. She has to face it the same as we do.”
Lois nodded. “Perhaps you’re right.”
At the party that night—a sculptor’s—Ben spoke with Veronica Glass.
“Are you ready yet?” she asked.
“I will never be ready.”
“We’ll see,” she said, and drifted off into the crowd. Afterwards he sought out Lois, and they watched together as the sculptor put a sawed-off shotgun in his mouth and blew out the back of his head. A spray of blood and brain and bone adorned the wall behind him; if you stared at it long enough, you could discern a meaning that was not there.
They walked home at dawn.
Stan drifted ahead along the rocky white beach with Lois and Cecilia. Ben and MacKenzie fell back.
“Let’s swim,” she said.
“The water’s icy,” Ben said, but she slipped out of her clothes all the same. With a twinge in his breast, he watched the muscular flex of her ass as she ran into the water. She swam far out to the edge of ruin—he feared for her—before she flipped like a seal and returned. When she emerged from the foaming breakers, crystalline bubbles clung to her pubic hair. Her brown nipples were erect. She leaned into him.
“I’m so cold,” she said. She turned her face to his and they kissed for a long time. He broke away at last and they walked home along the beach. By the time they reached the house and MacKenzie had showered and Cecilia had been seen safely to bed, Stan had laid out lines of cocaine on the kitchen table. The drug blasted out the cobwebs in Ben’s brain. He felt a bright light pervade him, energy and clarity and a sense of absolute invulnerability. Somewhere in the conversation that followed, Stan proposed a change of partners.
“Yes, let’s,” Lois said, and that cool longing for MacKenzie possessed Ben. Then he thought of Veronica Glass, and he said, “I don’t think I can do that, Stan.” They went off to bed soon after. Lois had never seemed so desirable or his stamina so prolonged, and when he made love to her in their bright morning bedroom, he made love to her alone.
One by one, the Christmas lights along the coastline blinked out. The revelers dwindled, the parties became more intimate. Ben spoke with the poet, and they agreed that poetry was a dead art. Yet Ben was flattered when he learned that the younger man had read his work.
“You’re just being kind,” he said.
“No,” the poet—his name was Rosenthal—said, reeling off the titles of Ben’s three books. They had been published by university presses—small university presses, at that—but Rosenthal, who had been published by Little, Brown before Little, Brown decayed into rubble and his editor was ruined, quoted back a line or two of Ben’s. Ben forgave him the National Book Award and his perfect hair, as well. It was all ruined now anyway, meaningless. Maybe it always had been.
That’s what Rosenthal said anyway, and whether he meant it or not, it was true: as meaningless as Stan’s Oscars or the dead novelist’s Pulitzer or any other prize or accolade.
“And do you still write?”
“Every day,” Rosenthal said.
Ben thought of Veronica Glass’s dictum: art for art’s sake. He proposed the tautology, knowing as he did so that even she did not believe it—that her’s was the aesthetic of ruination and destruction and final things.
Rosenthal looked at him askance. “I write the truth as I see and understand it.”
“And will you continue to write?”
“To the very end,” Rosenthal said.
But the end was closer than he perhaps thought: the very next night, he and five others slipped into the black waves and under a full moon swam out to the ruin and ruin took them. As they pulled themselves onto the surface of the dead water, where the moldering fish had blackened into nothing, they became burned effigies of themselves, ashen. Over the next day or so the wind would disintegrate them too into nothing.
That was the night Ben saw Lois slip away into a spare bedroom with the front man of the slam band, and whether she did it for revenge or out of despair or for some reason beyond his knowing, he could not say—only that he too had had his infidelities, and his was not to judge.
“And what will you do now that she has betrayed you?” Veronica Glass said at his shoulder. “Are you ready?”
“She has not betrayed me,” he said. He said, “I am not ready, nor will I ever be.”
They leaned against the bar, sipping scotch. She slipped him a handful of prime and they smoked a joint together, and the party degenerated into strobic flashes of wanton frenzy: he stumbled into an unlocked bathroom and saw MacKenzie going down on the architect who’d designed the Sony tower in Tokyo, long since ruined. He shot up with Stan in the kitchen. He found himself alone with Veronica on the verandah, looking out at the ruined ocean.
“Did you ever want a family?” he said.
She said, “Hostages to fortune,” and he tried to explain that Bacon had meant something entirely different than what she was trying to say.
“No, that’s what I mean exactly,” she told him, and then he was lying on his back in the grass with Cecy, pointing out the constellations that ruin had not yet devoured. A great wave of grief swept over him, grief for her and grief for all lost things, and as he watched Rosenthal and his companions swim out to meet their ruin, he grieved for them, as well.
Afterwards, Ben threw up on the beach. Someone lay a cool hand upon his neck. He looked up and it was MacKenzie. No, it was Veronica Glass. No, it was Lois. He scraped sand over his vomit, staggered into the icy waves, and fell to his knees, lifting cupped handfuls of water to rinse his mouth until it felt clean and salty. He did not remember coming home, but Lois was in bed beside him when awareness returned. He whispered her awake. They wandered out into the vast glassed-in rooms, in search of drinks and cigarettes.
Stan and MacKenzie still slept.
Ben mixed gimlets and they sat out in the Adirondack chairs, their eyes closed, nursing their hangovers. Their lives had by then become an endless round of revelry and recovery, midnight suicides and daylight drinks on the verandah, grilled steaks, liquor and iced beer in the long afternoons, sex, drugs. Cecilia joined them for a while and then wandered off to the other end of the verandah to play some game of her own invention. She had the virtues and the vices of the only child—she was both intensely independent, playing solo games of her own devising, and profoundly dependent. She had been too early inducted into the mysteries of adult life and she had not yet the emotional maturity to understand them. She was prone to tantrums, and for inexplicable reasons, Ben alone had the ability to soothe her.
But today she was calm.
Ben turned his face to the sunlight. He held a sip of gimlet in his mouth and wondered when he’d last been completely sober—or when Lois had last been sober, for that matter. She’d gradually slipped into the world he lived in on the road, whether out of despair or some other more complex reasons of her own, he did not know. And regardless of what he’d said to Veronica, he did feel in some degree betrayed. But his feelings were more complicated than that. He felt too a renewed sense of physical desire for her. If she did not possess the beauty of MacKenzie—or Veronica Glass’s aura of sexual intensity—she possessed the virtue of familiarity: he knew how to please her; she knew how to please him. Yes, and love, love most of all.
He reached out for her.
“Did you ever want children?” he asked.
She squeezed his hand. “It’s sweet of you to ask. I used to, but—”
“But I wasn’t the best candidate for fatherhood.”
“No, you weren’t. But you’re a good man, Ben. I always believed that. I knew it, but it’s a little late now, don’t you think?”
“Stan and I were talking about it, that day we walked inland.”
“And what did you see?”
“Ruin,” he said. “Ruin and devastation.”
“Yes. And any child we’d had, she would be ruined by now.” Lois looked the length of the verandah. Cecy pushed along a miniature truck. She sang softly to herself. “That sweet child will be ruined soon enough. And think of the things she has seen.”
“Sometimes—sometimes I think she’s more equipped to see them than we are. It’s part of her reality, that’s all. She barely knows the world before.”
“Do you think we’re the last ones, Ben?”
“Does it matter? Someone somewhere will be. It’s only a matter of time.”
“And nothing will survive.”
“No, I think I’m glad we’ve been childless. We are sufficient unto ourselves. We always have been.”
Ben heaved himself to his feet, went to the bar, and made them fresh drinks.
He stood at the rail and lit a cigarette. He recalled MacKenzie running naked into the moon-washed water and felt once again a surge of desire. The flesh forever betrayed you. He felt headachy and regretful and even now he could recall the shape of her body in almost pornographic detail. Yes, and Lois, too, slipping into the empty bedroom with the tattooed front man of the slam band—Roadkill, that had been its name, and it too was ruined. And her hand upon his neck.
“I’m sorry, Ben.”
“No. I wanted you to know that I’m not jealous. I want to be. I should be. But the rules seem to have changed somehow.”
He drew on the cigarette, sipped his drink.
“Yes, the rules have changed,” she said. “There’s a kind of terrible freedom to it, isn’t there?”
“Your hand upon my neck. It felt so cool.” He turned to look at her. “How did I make it home?”
“Stan and I practically carried you.”
“And the stairs?”
“The stairs, my love, were an absolute bitch.”
He laughed humorlessly.
“I remember opening a bathroom door to see MacKenzie—”
“You needn’t bother. Last night became something of an orgy, I’m afraid.”
“New rules,” he said.
“Or perhaps no rules at all.”
No rules at all. And what did that mean but ruin?
He thought of Rosenthal, writing every day, imposing a discipline of his own upon the world until even that collapsed into despair. Was not his own resistance of MacKenzie—or of Veronica Glass—a kind of discipline, a kind of personal rule, newly instituted. Maybe that was all you had in the end: the autonomy of the individual will.
“No,” he said, “I have my rules still. Maybe for the first time I have them.”
He ground out his cigarette in MacKenzie’s ashtray.
“Is that why you wouldn’t trade spouses with Stan the other night?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t thought it through. It just seemed wrong, that’s all.”
“Surely you want MacKenzie. I saw you kissing her.”
He laughed. “I’ve wanted MacKenzie since the day I met her.”
“Then why not take the opportunity? I wouldn’t have minded.”
“Maybe that’s it. You wouldn’t have minded. There was a time you would have.”
She stood and came to him and cupped his face in both hands. She gazed into his eyes, and for the first time in years, he noticed how deeply green hers were, and kind.
“What a sweet man you’ve become, Ben Devine.”
“I only love you,” he said.
“And I you,” she said. She said, “I’m sorry about last night. I didn’t know.”
“Didn’t know what?” Stan said, pushing his way out onto the verandah. MacKenzie followed.
“What a capacity for drink you had, you old fool,” Lois said with a sparkling laugh.
Stan dropped into a chair with a thud. He groaned and pressed a beer to his forehead. “Bullshit,” he said. “You’ve known that as long as you’ve known me.” He shot them a glance and shook his head. “Lovebirds, you.”
“Lovebirds are entirely monogamous,” MacKenzie said from the bar.
“Then you are no lovebird.”
“Nor you, my dear.”
“Nor any of us,” said Lois, “except for Ben, monogamous in ruin.”
“What’s wrong with you, Ben?” Stan said.
Ben said, “I’ve always been monogamous in my heart.”
“Your heart’s not where it matters,” Stan said.
“It’s the only place that matters,” Lois said. They were silent after that. Wind came in off the water. The last gulls screamed, and the red sun dropped behind the roofline of the great house. “Come play with me, Mommy,” Cecy called from the grass. MacKenzie went down. They played a complex game involving the shrunken soccer ball. Ben could never decipher the rules, if there were any, but their laughter lifted into the air like birdsong, and that was enough. Waves washed the rocky shore; the sound of them was music. Stan broke out a joint and the three of them shared it as the summer day drew toward dusk. The air tasted more sweet then, and the beauty of all things grew sharper and more clear in its transience.
“So what shall we do tonight?” MacKenzie said when she joined them.
“Tonight Veronica Glass is our hostess,” Stan said.
Carpe diem, thought Ben. He wondered what beautiful and grotesque death Veronica Glass had concocted for herself, and he took Lois’s hand and held it tight. There was so little time left to seize.
As they climbed to Veronica Glass’s cliff-side home that evening, they could hear the steady thump of music. The great windows pulsed with light and shadow. Wheeling scalpels of purple and red carved the dark. Reluctantly, Ben followed the others inside. He blundered through the crowd in revulsion, trying not to see the white pedestals with their grisly human freight. But he could not avoid them: colored lasers slashed the dance floor, and each bloodless piece had been illuminated by a blaze of clear light that exposed every detail in stunning clarity—every white knob of bone and gristle, every tendon, every severed artery, root-like and blue. The supplicating hand might have been begging him for mercy, the amputated head might have been his own.
Yet Ben felt something else as well, an almost sexual arousal that he could neither deny nor sate. He stumbled into the kitchen with Stan, where they snorted lines of coke and heroin that had been laid out on the counter-top. He poured himself a slug of eighteen-year-old Macallan and drank it off like water; he smoked a flash-laced joint with a short, heavy-set woman he had not seen before, a memory sculptor whose work had gone for millions before ruin took it all. Back in the enormous glassed-in atrium, he looked for Lois—for Stan or MacKenzie or even Cecy—but they’d all disappeared into the mob. He opened a door in search of the toilet, to find himself in a dim bedroom. Two couples—no three—writhed inside, on the bed, on the floor, against the wall. Someone—was it Stan?—held out an inviting hand. Ben reeled away instead, stumbled blindly through the orgiastic throng, and slammed outside.
He staggered down to the yard and stood cliff side, looking at the ocean.
Veronica Glass said, “It’s quite the party, isn’t it?”
“It’s that all right. What madness have you prepared for tonight?”
“You started this, Ben,” she said. “We chanced to meet on Vinnizi’s lawn, nothing more. You’re the one that wanted to talk about my work. You’re the one that showed up uninvited at my door.”
The wheeling lasers painted her face in shifting arcs of green and red. They illuminated the sheer material of her dress, exposing the shadows of her hips and breasts. Against his will, he found himself aroused all over again, by her or by her work, he could not say for sure. Probably both, and as if to deny this truth about himself—and what else was art to do if it didn’t strip away our masks and expose us raw and naked to the world?—as if to deny this truth, he took a step toward her.
“It’s anatomy, nothing more,” he said. “It’s cruelty.”
“The world is a cruel place,” she said. “Perhaps you’ve noticed.”
An image of the sectioned arm possessed him, its imploring hand lifted in adjuration like Vinizzi’s hand. An image of the flayed leg, the head on its pedestal, its mouth sewn shut against a scream. An image, most of all, of the ruined and dying world.
His hand lashed out against his will. The blow rocked her. She wiped blood from her lip and held it up for him to see. “You prove my thesis,” she said. And turning, “You could have had me, Ben. You saw the truth and you could have possessed it. It was within your grasp. Beauty is truth, truth beauty. Isn’t that what you believe? Let me show you the beauty that lies at the heart of ugliness. Let me show you the heart of ruin. Let me show you truth.”
She didn’t wait to see if he would follow. But he did, helpless not to. Up the stairs. Across the verandah. Into the great glassed-in room. She touched a switch. The music died. The lasers ceased to sculpt the dark. The lights came up.
“It’s time,” she announced to the silent crowd.
She led them murmuring through a cleverly disguised door, and down a broad stairway. A cold amphitheater lay at the bottom. Enormous flat-panel screens had been mounted overhead, at an angle facing the audience. On the floor below them, gently sloping toward a central drain, Veronica had readied the tools of her trade: an x-shaped surgical table, upholstered in black; bone saws and scalpels and anatomical needles for pinning back flesh; rolls of clear silicon.
Even as Veronica began to speak, Ben knew with a sick certainty what she planned to do. “The body is my canvas,” she said, “the scalpel my brush.” Her audience mesmerized looked on. “I sculpt the living human flesh in ways that unveil to the unseeing eye both our fragility and our strength, our capacity for love and our capacity for cruelty. As ruin closes in upon us, let my art unfold on the canvas of your flesh: the glorious art of death—prolonged, painful, beautiful to behold.”
“I have a friend”—and here she fixed Ben, in the third row from the bottom, with her gaze—“I have a friend who equates beauty with truth, who believes that art serves something other than its own ends. I did not always countenance this, but my friend convinced me otherwise. For there is beauty in pain and in our capacity, our courage, to bear it. There is beauty in death, and in that beauty lies a truth, as well—the truth of the ruin that every day engulfs us, that has awaited us from the moment we came screaming from the womb, when we were hurled into a world indifferent to our suffering. In these, the last days of Cerulean Cliffs, we have seen our little assays in the art of death. I propose that you transcend these small attempts. We are all artists here. I challenge you to pass from this world as you have lived in it, to make your death itself your final masterpiece.”
Silence fell over the amphitheater, an undersea silence fathoms deep, the silence of breath suspended, of heartbeats held in abeyance. Ben scanned the crowd, searching for Lois—for Stan and MacKenzie, for Cecy—Cecy who had been born into a world of ruin and death. There. There. There and there. He feared for them every one, but he feared for Cecy most of all.
Someone stirred and coughed. A chorus of murmurs echoed in the chamber. A man shifted, braced his hands upon his armrests, and subsided into his seat. Veronica Glass stood silent and unmoved. Another moment passed, and then, because Cerulean Cliffs had long since plunged into desperation and despair, and most of all perhaps because ruination and devastation would soon overwhelm them every one, a woman—lean and hungry and mad—stood abruptly and said, “I will stand your challenge.”
She walked down to the arena floor. Her heels rang hollow in the silence. When she reached Veronica Glass, they exchanged words too quiet to make out, like the wings of moths whispering in the corners of the room. The woman disrobed, letting her clothes fall untended around her feet. Her flesh was blue and pale in the chill air, her breasts flat, her shanks thin and flaccid. Silent tears coursed down her narrow face as she turned to face them. Veronica strapped her to the table, winching the bands cruelly tight: at wrist and elbow, ankle and knee; across her shoulders and the mound of her sex. Her head she harnessed in a mask of leather straps, fastened snugly under the headrest.
“What you do here, you do of your own will,” Veronica said.
“And once begun, you resolve not to turn back.”
“Yes,” the woman said. “I want to die.”
The screens lit up with an image of the woman strapped to the table. Veronica turned to face the audience. She donned gloves and goggles, a white leather apron—and began. Using a scalpel, she drew a thin bead of blood between the woman’s breasts, from sternum to pubis, and then, with a delicate intersecting X, she pulled back each quarter of flesh—there was an agonizing tearing sound—to unveil the pink musculature beneath. The woman arched her back, moaning, and Cecy—Cecy who had known nothing but ruin in her short life—Cecy screamed.
Ben, startled from a kind of entranced horror, held Veronica Glass’s gaze for a moment. What he saw there was madness and in the madness something worse: a kind of truth. And then he tore himself away. Lurching to his feet, he shoved his way through the seated masses to scoop Cecy up. He clutched her against his breast, soothing her into a snarl of hiccupping sobs. Together, his arms aching, they stumbled to the aisle.
“You have to walk now,” he said, setting her on her feet. “You have to walk.” Cecy took his hand and together they began to climb the steps of the arena.
There was a rustle of movement in the stands. Ben looked around.
MacKenzie, weeping, had begun to make her way to join them, Lois too, and Stan.
They were almost to the cliff side when the screaming began.
So ended the last suicide party at Cerulean Cliffs—or at least the last such party attended by Ben and his companions. Over the next few days they gradually shifted back to a diurnal schedule. Stan dug up an old bicycle pump to inflate Cecy’s soccer ball, and they spent most afternoons on the lawn, playing her incomprehensible games. There was no more talk of trading partners. Their drinking and drug use dwindled: a beer or two after dinner, the occasional joint as twilight lengthened its blue shadows over the grass.
Late one morning, Ben and Stan made another pilgrimage inland. They traded off carrying a small cooler and when they reached the edge of the devastation—they didn’t have far to go—they stretched out against the trunk of a fallen tree and drank beer. Ruin had made deep inroads into the driveway by then. The weeds on the shoulders of the rutted lane had crumbled, and the gravel had melted into slag. Scorched-looking trees had turned into charred spikes, shedding their denuded branches in slow streamers of dust. Ben finished his beer and pitched his bottle out onto the baked and fractured earth. Ruin took it. It blackened and cracked as if he’d hurled it into a fire and began to dissolve into ash.
“It won’t be long now,” Stan said.
“It will be long enough,” Ben said, twisting open a fresh beer.
They toasted one another in silence, and walked home along the winding sun-dappled road under trees that would not see another autumn. Ben and Lois made slow, languorous love when he got back, and as he drowsed afterward, Ben found himself thinking of Veronica Glass and whether she had fallen to ruin at last. And he found himself thinking too of the poet, Rosenthal, who’d chosen ruin over discipline in the end, who’d surrendered up his art to death. “I write the truth as I see it,” he’d said, or something like that, and if there was no ultimate truth here in the twilight of all things—or if there never had been—there were at least small truths: small moments worthy of preservation in rhyme, even if it too would fall to ruin, and soon: Cecy’s cries of joy; and the sound of breakers on a dying beach and the gentle touch of another human’s skin. Art for art’s sake, after all.
“Maybe I’ve been wasting my time,” he told Lois.
“Of course you have,” she said, and that afternoon he sat at a sunlit table in the kitchen, licked the tip of his pencil, and began.
“The End of the End of Everything” copyright © 2014 by Dale Bailey
Art copyright © 2014 by Victo Ngai