after Clifford D. Simak
This obstreperous philharmonic effrontery derogating an audience, this persiflage trained between wines — each and every member providing an adequately sophisticated tease — struggled under a conductor lost below his mane. He bore dubious flare, teetering, skeletal, in Merlick’s periphery. Merlick, catatonic last chair, more tuxedo than paycheck, performed with exactly the effort needed to remain a small part of the semi-greater whole.
Patrons celebrated themselves by sleepwalking through text after text, pondering the architecture instead. Any firmament structuring the air with a better practiced effort would do. There were joggers in the audience, organic and toned, afflicted one salad at a time. A miracle virus drove the hypothalamus. Healthy living infected the hormones, hijacked the pituitary gland, blood pressure spiking till workouts became a waking apnea. The once-fit turned bedridden. They lived heartily awhile, then dropped, wheezing, drooling, every emotion stormed through a knobbed husk. Men and women swelled into wrestlers acting out promos. Gigantic children terrified their embalmers.
Bernice, a plump co-worker Merlick drifted in and out of, took up jogging, pounds replaced by lithe outages. Before the sickness, fellow instrumentalists may have gossiped. Now they frowned, deemed it Jogger’s Blight. So many of that contagion took to their sweats, plague sporting allegro about the brawn. Merlick dealt out the lowest amount of participation Bernice allowed. She focused harder when ignored. It was of little importance to him that that physique came from a virus spiraling the neurons of her limbic system. He prided about the star of their orchestra, lusty for her body’s sabotaged chemistry. She fucked him flat for some level of relief, began hurting the chords at work, easily rivaling their best, cracking a slow portal in the wood that ruined its cry. He blinked through the funeral, imagining himself lodged between those abs. She had troubled away her hair. Her muscles weighted the coffin heavier than the unaffected pallbearers could muster. They had to recruit others with the same sickness to put her to rest. Merlick was sad the way you hear of innocents caught in a drive-by.
He found himself auditioning for Bernice’s role. He was playing meaner, despite himself. His pinky stretched high on the E. The note brought ecstasy before the rambling eighths returned. He held strong, tuned deep, enhanced. Paganini used to be confounding. He slung the bow, rifle at his side, and tucked the violin in his armpit. He had interrupted his own lifelong nap. The conductor seemed more constipated than usual. Business women, forgettable charity-goers one and all, sat nearby, poking screens. They thanked each other in a row. Schartzman did a Scriabin, massively struggling. Most musicians needled about for a natural ability. Merlick stopped pampering himself with employability, masturbation and TV not usurping the clock. He felt his talent grind him from the grid.
Hospitals were stuffed, cemeteries overran. Millions joined the rigor mortis squat thrust. Healthy rioters carried ambulances away. The police ran amok in their own Olympics, hurtling the dead over fences. When neurotransmitters hit dark spots within their brains, they raged and cried and sang and giggled individual operas. Twice Merlick called hotlines to discover the origin and heard laughter. What difference did a plague matter to the devout? He glimpsed a pack of dogs tearing through trash. Survivors chatted online, while electricity lasted.
Latches flipped, showing bow, rosin, hairs ran across amber, Paganini erected in strings: the plume he unleashed scared the dogs, or set them humping. Verging on oblivion, he found a truer chat, harmonizing, breastfed by the instrument. Baying sirens couldn’t compete, full octaves scaling up, down, centrifugal. Placing the bow on the couch like it might use him in return, Merlick fainted. He was just skin measured by rhythm.
Merlick mourned with Teresa Carreno, String Quartet in b minor. The year he hurt himself melodically present, there were few ears available, scant players. They struggled to recruit sufficient taste and skill from the citizenry. The beauty of the piece was assaulted by the viola player, clearly fevered. He jerked about, ripping strings. It should be swayed, not bayoneted. “Dursa! Slow!” huffed Merlick. Dursa wrestled with his fingers. Softer music hailed. The cellist inched her chair away. Together they stomped to the end of the movement. Merlick tapped the stand. Everyone but Dursa stopped. He played a full three measures. The cellist shouldered her instrument.
“How about coffee?” Merlick lovingly cased his violin. They practiced in a dead gym. Merlick was going to have to get another viola. Dursa was freaked with fever, on his way to abdominal distortion, a sheared scalp, crybaby heart trouble. Another involuntary function would soon peak. Somewhere between milestones, his ability to piece anything together vanished. Every few starts he needed to be told. The more others contorted, the better Merlick played. He suffered their crumbs, found his voice in the world’s close. He used to pretend before too wide of an audience.
“Is he axed yet?” Lynn sipped. She was the last hot Korean cellist. “You know he’s going to come in here and jog on our fucking heads.” She remained expressionless.
“I’d like to give him a couple more practices.”
“You’d like to avoid pissing him off.”
He hated dismissively correct women. She placed her empty cup in the trash, pointless not to litter. “We’re our worst audience. Brilliant futility.” Dursa wasn’t infectious. It was as if the disease paused for Merlick. Dursa crouched atop his viola, posture forced, silent thrusting.
“You land the notes. Great timing. But no emotion…or too much of one emotion.”
Merlick craned to catch his gaze. Dursa’s biceps broke his clothing.
“I know music.”
Merlick shifted. “You know it has to come out dynamically felt.”
“I know!” Dursa shot the words deep, stranding the viola. “I miss you half-assing last chair.” Merlick couldn’t remember when music wasn’t getting him through. “You don’t love music. You love yourself for changing. I love music!” They drew down like the end of a Puccini opera. Dursa raised the viola high, brought it to the chair back. He was left the neck, the shattered body hanging, scroll stuck loose, a stake. He eased toward Merlick, red and shining, enhanced reflexes.
“How’s it feel to finally have passion. Not from talent, but because of some fucking disease?”
Dursa fell back in his chair, hugging his hands. No rehearsal could match those sobs. Merlick remembered being an ever-expanding dichotomy of averages, springboard for dilettantes. The universe used to be a bowel voiding him to and fro. He was no longer towed along by horizons.
Lynn went jogging while he slept. He tried not to adjust to her in bed. Dursa’s hissy fit stirred them into union. They fucked nightly to Rachmaninoff. She inhabited his home piecemeal, a sly shift he came to like. The landlord jogged off, weeks back, after throwing energy drinks at the ceiling. Merlick tolerated Lynn for sex, gifting her his privacy, and woke up in love. That’s when she got sick. He initially ignored her improvements as general maintenance. When she zipped off to jog twice in a row, sobbing occurred. Months into the symptoms, he had had significant exposure. Her fluids tasted good enough for a couple’s burial, he reckoned, but nothing buff happened.
Neophyte romantic, he overindulged her, connected hard. She fluttered in his thoughts. He felt high schoolish, pedestaled every motion. She lost her smell, formulated mannish ridges, slight tummy receding, split by muscle. He experienced nausea, not at her alteration — the prospect of loss. Music might fossilize them shinier. They could book the same funeral. Merlick street-performed. Passing joggers heckled. He serenaded looters. Someone kicked him and he played faster. Rioters set up base in health food stores, pumping and twisting through the blueprints of a siege. Ultimately, their vigorous routines obviated a revolution. Two caskets per corpse. Pachebell’s canon was a mainstay. Sexy and trite auctions on the virtues of patience. He panhandled for recognition. The quarters amused him. A passing jogger, attenuated by the spine, kinesthetic malformations redefining grace, syncopated with Merlick before swelling crowds. Merlick didn’t hear the police until he was being beaten. “We joined the third world with our eyes closed,” someone on the news declared.
“I’m showering again.” Lynn would try to scald herself smaller. She faced the stream, skin near raw. Her breasts were wearing oblate. She was five feet tall. He could no longer lift her. “You’re not the one doing the fucking,” he lied. They screened gore flicks on the roof. Anyone else’s trauma helped. Tentatively playing Duetto a Violino e Violoncello by Giardini Felice together, he watched her die in his mind.
He knew heaven held his place but dreamed of better men. The same calamitous town always conveyed itself ahead. Her muscles ached. Sitting, she strained the belt. They met Earl in New Mexico. He aimed to catch some tundra. This ex-marine commanded a truck of guns and towed a mare: Jellie Girl. Lynn caressed the mane, issued damaged little girl squeals. Earl whiskey-snored to their music. They set a fire, solicited the drama at its center. He woke screaming into screams. Lynn rolled through scrub, ripped by dogs. Merlick snatched the gun, scattering rounds. She choked a dog out between her thighs, trying not to break its neck, and got her pussy torn for the kindness. Teeth and half the tongue smashed to plumes in meat. Firelight silhouettes switched a bloodier shade. Fainting, he wanted in her wounds. She’d disappeared with no supplies. After a daylong concert by the road and the burial of her cello, he moved through quicksand, if at all.
Perhaps he was in the midst of a cadence called humanity. Hubs sat humming in their locales, untouched by human response. People reported to unmaintained bunkers. The yearly collapse doubled its toll. Police dwindled, tried to bolster their ranks with volunteers. They were military gangs, an arbitrary force, clumsily damaging more than the disease. Makeshift juntas tumbled into office. A slow dirge confounded the globe.
Staying fed became a process. Food was scarce in some forms, infinitely abundant in others. “We were survived by our candies.” Occasionally, someone big and ill crossed at a distance. He roamed the country in search of music lovers. Never any audience worth pleasing. Taking what he pleased from the ruins for services rendered, scarce holdouts relinquishing processed crap, Merlick favored ditches, played to a handful of pinwheel stars.
Animals scuttled over roofs. Urine vapor overtook the street. Packs fought packs. They were howling louder each storm. The asthma of their dander divvied seasons. It was as if the dogs he saw everywhere were trying to dig themselves even further from the moon. Merlick responded with frightening music. They’d play dead to kill a vulture, lost teeth in cans. Merlick maced whatever charged him, then decided whether or not to shoot it. Mostly he decided yes. Something might damage his hands, sprain an elbow. He’d welcome death before being deprived of his instrument.
Storefronts wore inward, bursting with useless goods. A coupling duo whimpered mid-coitus, fastened together in malnourishment. The bitch died of shock, rolling into a rigor mortis so pronounced Merlick shot the mate for mercy. He lived behind a fence of their skeletons awhile, began shooting them if they barked. The air itself was turning postmortem. Feral hounds abandoned mannequins to chase him. They swarmed the muzzle of his gun with a bravado hitherto unforeseen. Dreams, he understood, never relied on someone present to see you win them.
Some cities fell to their own predestined plagues before the disease. Tombstone skyscrapers leaned inconceivably. Midtown had zebras. He stomped the brakes. A jogger’s arms scraped cement, an escaped action figure, jaw ridiculously square, hair chewed. Merlick sent the window down and sniped a pursuing Rottweiler. His sufficiency with weapons was born of a will to continue playing. He indulged, at times, a lesser, more fatalistic melody. Dogs haunted Merlick, nosed items over for an offering. They wanted the cat guts in his violin. He landed every shot. Bullets broke their beaks. They leapt further than he thought possible with that much steel inside their heads.
Merlick dollied paintings from museums, jacked an undamaged Degas. Joggers sprayed canvases black, slit the Renaissance wing, snapped frames for kindling. Merlick clichéd himself fondling “The Violinist and the Young Woman.” He conferenced with his remaining fellow masters. Muscular babies lay flayed inside cribs, canine fangs for a mobile. Headboards peacocked with the brains of suicides in every other house. Drunk, he wasted entire clips being accosted by Picasso.
“Shoot me out your head or ask a question.”
“What good did your paintings do your ghost?”
“Art’s a kind of bender no one wants. A hangover that can’t be treated — which is why, without listeners, you’ve perfected your sound. I heard a story once about a Koto player. He had a loving friend, his biggest fan. That was their way: one played, the other beheld. Together they were complete. When the friend died, in his grief, the Koto player sliced the strings of his instrument. Asked why, he replied ‘without someone to listen, I have no reason to play.’ This story is about friendship. Not art. Fucking Buddhists.”
Merlick bent to vomit. “We’re not friends.”
“That’s right. I don’t know you. I was just trying to find a bigger bathroom to haunt.”
Dogs surrounded the establishment. He poured them drinks, lit one, tossed fire. They head-butted the Humvee’s door, shrieking, snagged under charging wheels. Blood and charred fur fanned the pavement. Miles out, he ripped a soggy tail from the axel.
Up and down the highway, churches, liquor stores, gun shops, portending salvations. He stopped at the first adult bookstore. No better place to sleep, pillowed lusciously. In a rage, he’d named them — these caught, glossy ectoplasms long exercised to funerals. He could smell the overarching staleness of past recipients. The world took billions of years to reach humility via mankind. He snored, unscathed by nature. Who he was meant a coupling nothing. He held the webbed antenna of a brain dammed by its own awareness. Each trickling thought tested the ground for any individuality. Who he presumed to be was an illusion from a limited bit of consciousness patterned to him, a neural fusing. The same great hum behind every inspired harmony, where he threw his lot.
He was in the rain, somehow, pretending it was his. Behind him, footsteps plashed through grass. He beat the jogger in a rush to the porn door by being that much smaller. The metal thundered human shapes. A voice octaves too low began purring. “The big bad wolf asked me to eat you out of house and pussy.”
“Think you can die from having too much of a shadow?” Merlick yelled.
“We’re a long way from practice.” Something worse than coincidence had propelled Dursa here.
“How are you not dead? How is the only other surviving sicky a co-worker?”
They rigged a fire of fake tits. Dursa saddled his elephantine bulk across stacks of girls. “Whatever twisted me from who I was is mean enough to sustain itself for such an insufferable duration that it can twice perform its anomalous horror on dogs. All I know is pain. But they can operate unscathed, an updated biology. Mind them and their tastes.”
“I got a lot of rolled up newspapers, freak.”
“It seems the virus can contribute information between patients, a psychic, airborne DNA, a pool we’re tapped into, barely paddling. But these beasts share a madness far beyond our own. Be tender with it.”
Merlick refused to sleep near Dursa. The next morning, as far as they could see, the road was lined with geometric rows of dogs sitting very still.
“Why’d you find me?” Merlick was taking aim.
“To perfect our English. And your tunes amuse. We want you to play, as specified. Lull the pack.”
“I am speaking with a thousand dogs at the moment? Through this muscled husk?”
“We will feed you well.”
“I’ve already accepted a position elsewhere, unfortunately.”
“Me, alone.” Merlick sawed Dursa’s body in half. It took two clips. They rushed him. Snout-chunk flecked the curb. Merlick fired until they had to scale a hill of themselves. They kept converging. A pitbull fused with his calf. He garroted it, using the bow kept on him at all times, and continued firing, prone. A Doberman’s dropping corpse knocked the gun from his hands. A screaming gauntlet shut around him. They tugged him standing with their teeth.
The pack leader, gigantic, frothing, approached on two wobbling feet. “Reconsider. Your art will continue inside friendlier heads. It’s the only form we struggle to perfect. Big treats await you.”
“In hell, they do.” Merlick spat. “Alongside every other bastard genius who never compromised his fucking squeak toy.”
When they tugged off his clothes, Merlick’s flesh, enamored of its movement, fled carelessly, gouged from the world, digested, but never deciphered. This was the final note heard by human ears: a splendid pizzicato G plucked from a 1875 Heiderline Rosewood violin by the teeth of the pack leader just before she tore into the throat of Jonathan Merlick and ended the once confused species.
Pack gatherings lent a combined scent to ceremony. They marked their territory: earth. Howls echoed of eons stomached, old songs of past masters. The leader stood high upon an outcropping and nosed her keen to the assembly. If there had been any of the old palettes available they would have recognized within the combined baying, this galvanizing artistry, magnetic and chortling, some notes of Paganini.
“…didn’t need him after all.”