ometimes I cannot believe that Harley is my own flesh and blood brother. Certain things which he thinks are funny I just do not find the humor in at all. For example, he is really getting a kick out of the fact that the two astronomers who discovered the comet will not permit anyone to name it after them. They are prepared to go to court to prevent this from happening. What's so funny about this? If I were one of those two men of science I wouldn't want my name attached to such a destructive thing either. Harley says what difference does it make? Once that comet collides with the earth there won't be anybody around to give a damn what it's called.
Speaking of naming the comet, the Clarion sponsored a contest last week to do just that. The results came out in this morning's paper. I didn't enter, by the way. I do not think it is right to for us to be sitting around, trying to think up silly or clever names for the instrument of our annihilation. I use this phrase "instrument of our annihilation" because this is the name which took second place in the contest. I believe that all of the words were joined by hyphens like jack-in-the-pulpit. The name which won first place and a one year's subscription to the Clarion was "Armageddon." Boyd was going to enter "Z46-XR7" but missed the deadline. He says the letter and numbers have significance, but wouldn't explain.
I went to the library to get a book on comets last week but they were all checked out. That figures.
At my birthday dinner last night Aunt Love said she saw a poll on the evening news which said that thirty-two percent of Americans still believe the comet to be either a hoax or some sort of international conspiracy. Aunt Love used to think it was a hoax, but now she believes that the end of the world is truly at hand. She says that Mary, the mother of Jesus, came to her in a hallowed dream about a week ago and told her that everything she'd been hearing on the news about the comet was the gospel truth, the world was definitely going to end in twenty-seven years, and that she should spend these last days doing good works and preparing to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Aunt Love said that even though she isn't Catholic and would have preferred to be told this sort of thing by Jesus himself, she didn't really mind the encounter, as Mary had a soft and soothing voice not unlike Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis's, and at one point even allowed Aunt Love to touch her soft, almost velour-like raiments.
I mention Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis because she also has come to Aunt Love in at least two different dreams, first to take Aunt Love on a tour of the White House and then to put on a hygienist's jacket and clean her teeth.
It was a nice birthday dinner, by the way, even with Harley and Deneen there. Deneen did not eat any of the hamburgers or hot dogs which Daddy took the time to grill, though (which was not an easy task as the temperature outside last night was in the upper twenties not perfect weather for a cookout if you ask me). Nor did Deneen, Deneen, the Vegetarian Queen eat any of Aunt Love's flavorful (vegetarian) macaroni salad. She did, however, wolf down three large pieces of my birthday cake, including the slice with Snoopy on it. Mama and Daddy were not at all pleased that Harley had brought her along because we had agreed to limit the party to family members only, or else I would have asked Boyd and Mariette and Tawnie to come, as they are my best friends.
Eighteen, by the way, feels no different from seventeen. There are a few more things I can do now, such as vote and get married in certain states without my parent's consent. (Here in Mississippi I would have to wait until I was 21. I do not quite understand this: you can drive a tractor in this state by the time you reach the third grade, but you've got to wait until you're 21 to elope.) I'm supposed to feel like an adult now, but I can't really tell any difference.
When the comet strikes, I will be forty-five. That is Mama's age. It is weird to think that the age Mama is now is the same age I will be when my life stops. That all the days she will experience from now on will be days of which I will be robbed. It is more than weird. It is sad, and it also makes me angry.
We watched the ball drop on TV and Daddy poured everybody champagne, and while we were festively welcoming in the New Year Aunt Love fell backwards out of her chair and right into the Christmas Tree, although only one ornament broke, and it was one that we didn't really care for all that much. She was not hurt, only stunned. We can laugh about it now, but at the time it was upsetting to everyone but Harley who said Aunt Love looked like a beetle turned on its back. He said it was a priceless comic moment.
Aunt Love, by the way, does not appear all that distressed over the fact that the world is supposed to end in twenty-seven years. Daddy says this is because she probably won't live to see this happen due to her thinning blood and digestive troubles.
I have decided to devote part of this diary to jotting down certain observations about our world on the eve of its destruction by the Armageddon Comet. (I truly do not like this name and will not again use it.) I have been wondering lately if life on earth during these next twenty-seven years will get better or worse. There are two directions things could go if you want my opinion: either people will begin to treat each other with extra special care and kindness to prepare themselves for entering the Kingdom of Heaven, or they will turn inward and spend their last days thinking only of themselves. Then, I believe, things will be difficult. I would imagine that we will see some of both. Which is exactly the way things on this earth have always been, if you ask me.
The latest poll says that twenty-five percent of Americans still do not believe that the arrival of the comet is a sure thing. In the face of all the scientific data, I believe that this twenty-five percent is made up of retarded people or people who have lost portions of their brains in bad traffic accidents.
I am still having nightmares. Mama and Daddy are very concerned, and have asked me if I would like to see Dr. Crawley. Remembering that Mama's friend Ruth Blench went to Dr. Crawley for hives, I said, "Now what do I need to see a dermatologist for?"
"He isn't a dermatologist," Daddy said. "He's a psychologist, and he will help you get over the nightmares."
"Everybody's having nightmares these days, Daddy," I said. "I don't think mine are any worse that anybody else's."
But Daddy and Mama are still worried. They are overly fond of me, I am afraid. I haven't done anything I can think of to make them love me so much. My guess is that they took some of their love for Harley who has disappointed them at every turn, and bestowed it upon me.
In one of my dreams the comet hits the earth and the earth explodes into millions of pieces and we are all flung out into space, and float like garbage in a dirty harbor. And this is the end of our beautiful planet little pieces of people and dogs and cats and pear trees and church pews and car steering wheels and toasters and gravestones and teacups all floating silently in the dark until the end of time. I wake up from this dream with a sick, hollow feeling which is hard to describe. Sometimes I get a similar feeling when I think about there maybe not being a God and our souls dying with us when our bodies die. I get very depressed when I think about life stopping and there not being anything after.
I do not understand why if there is a God He would allow this comet to hit the earth. Have we as some of the TV preachers are saying displeased Him so much? But then I have to ask: Have the cute sea otters and muskrats and baby lion cubs and all the other cuddly animals of the land and sea displeased Him too?
I don't buy it.
This well-known scientist who has made numerous appearances on television recently says that when all the dust has settled, earth will be a barren, thin-aired wasteland. But he does not think that all life on this planet will be destroyed. He believes that there will be some species of small microscopic creatures, perhaps even a few insects, that will be able to survive in the new harsh environment. He believes that the evolutionary process will begin all over again, and after a few billion years earth will once again support various forms of life just like it does now but that they will not be creatures we would recognize due to their having to adapt to a planet that isn't lush and green anymore.
Reverend Woods does not agree with this theory. He is one of many Christian ministers who believes that the coming of the comet marks the end of the earth and the day of holy judgment. He says that the book of Revelation is very clear on this. Frankly, I've never known Revelation to be clear on anything, but I am keeping an open mind and continuing to go to church.
I got four valentines today: one from Aunt Love (a frilly, old fashioned one which she must have taken from her mother's scrapbook. Aunt Love, is, by the way, giving away all sorts of family heirlooms. She says she wants as many people as can to enjoy them before we all go to Heaven.) I got one from Grandmother Wicker (nothing special, just a check inside for $15.27 some day someone should tell Grandmother Wicker that you're not supposed to give a person money on Valentine's Day, especially checks for amounts which make absolutely no sense). I got a box of candy from Mama and Daddy my favorite: Turtles. And guess what? A beautiful rose hologram valentine came from Boyd. He wrote very sweetly inside, "Since kindergarten you've been my only true valentine. Best wishes on this special day." Which isn't altogether correct when you remember that Boyd dated Gudith Volari all the way through our sophomore year at Jackson.
Boyd. Boyd. Lately, I've been thinking about him a lot. I know it's because lately I've been thinking about marriage a lot. I don't want to wait too long to get married. I can sort of picture myself married to Boyd. It's not a terrible picture, just not the one I've always fantasized about. He makes me laugh, though. And he doesn't have an unkind thought in his head. He's really very sweet, and sort of cute in a premature balding kind of way.
Boyd. Boyd. I just remembered that I didn't get him a valentine. I hope the drug store's still open.
The nightmares are over. Dr. Crawley gave me a few exercises to help me control my subconscious when I am asleep. It is the most amazing thing. Last night I dreamed I was at Panama City playing in the surf and having a good time. And then I got out of the water and went to sit on a beach blanket with Mama and Daddy and Aunt Love and somebody who looked like a cross between Heather Locklear and Beverly D'Angelo. And I remember saying to my mother, "This sun is uncomfortably hot. I believe I will wake up now." Which I promptly did. Isn't that the most incredible thing?
The latest poll says that twenty percent of Americans still do not believe that the doomsday comet is on its trajectory of death. The newspaper compared these findings to polls recently taken in other countries: only five percent of Russians doubt that the comet will hit. Only eighteen percent of the French and fifteen percent of the Germans. The Japanese are a little more skeptical: they are at twenty-eight percent, although the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are at only one percent.
Boyd says he has never seen business so good over at the sporting goods store. He says that people are buying everything in stock. I suppose if the comet were going to hit, let's say, next week, people would have no interest in sporting goods, but since the E.T.A. ("estimated time of arrival" the press uses this phrase a lot) is still over twenty-six and two-thirds years away, it's a whole different matter. People, it seems, are getting very recreationally-minded. Boyd has even sold all of his lacrosse sticks which he was positive were just going to sit on the shelves and gather dust until some tribe of young Indian braves came through town.
I have noticed an interesting thing: people are in very good moods these days. I guess the shock has worn off and now they are ready to get on with their lives and try to make the best of the next few years. There are a few people like my friend Mariette who still bursts into tears when she sees a beautiful sunset, but usually if Boyd is around he'll say something like "How do you know the sunsets won't be twice as pretty once the comet has left a trillion tons of dust in the atmosphere?"
(Boyd is not a cruel person. He just likes to get tearful people into better spirits. He does this with humor.)
I have, by the way, taken the bold step of asking Boyd if he will take me to my senior prom. I know that it is against the rules to ask a person who does not go to Jackson to be your date for the prom, but I got Mr. Ramey to agree to let me ask Boyd, because, after all, it wasn't Boyd's fault that he had to drop out of school to work at the store full time. If anyone is to blame it is Boyd's dad, who walked out on him and his mother and his three brothers two and a half years ago halfway through the Miss America Pageant. Boyd said his father just got up from his recliner during the talent competition and said, "I can't take this shit anymore. I'm going to cut some trees." Then he walked out the front door and hasn't been seen since. Boyd says his mother has gotten a few letters from various logging camps in British Columbia, but none of them includes any money.
Boyd, incidentally, said yes he would be happy and honored to take me to the prom. Boyd has taken to letting his hair grow long in the front to cover his bald spot, and if I am not mistakened, is wearing more tasteful clothes these days. I'm sure I won't be ashamed to be seen with him.
I am in a quandary about whether to go to college. I was, as you know, accepted at Nicholson-Paige and offered an academic scholarship which will pay for all of my tuition. Mama and Daddy were thrilled, and are encouraging me to go, but I'm not so sure I want to spend the next four years with my head buried in books. Besides, the only thing I've ever wanted to be is a teacher, and now that they're predicting the birth rate in this country to drop to almost zero over the next few years, there will be a lot less of a need for new teachers. In fact, within about ten years most of the schools will be closing their doors altogether.
Boyd is not being much help although he is saying that he would prefer that I stay here in Huckle and be his steady girlfriend (after all, he says, it's about time we made it official), he also thinks there will be need in a few years for college-trained nuclear scientists to assist with the top secret atomic blaster project which he is convinced is presently in an early stage of development. He says that by year 17 BC there will be thousands of scientists and mathematicians and astronomers working around the clock to develop a nuclear warhead strong enough to blast the comet right out of the cosmos, or at least alter its trajectory. Although I am gifted in math, I'm not sure I could be much help to such a project, but I have to tell you this: for the first time in weeks, I slept through the night without waking up once, and when morning came, I was the most rested I've been in I don't know how long, due, I think, to the remote possibility that we might all be able to survive this comet.
This morning I went for a long walk in the woods. I decided to leave the path, which I know is not always wise, since this is the time of year when the snakes awake from their hibernation and look hungrily about for their breakfast. (I am not one of these people, by the way, who fear snakes, but I do possess a healthy respect for them, which is something I'm not ashamed to admit.) I wandered quite a ways into the dark part of the woods. It smelled a little wet and musty from last night's rain. I could hear songbirds perched high above me in the treetops. I found a few salamanders near a mud pond and tadpoles and a few thousand-leggers, and I examined some interesting yellowish-green moss on the exposed roots of one of the old oak trees which I hadn't seen before. And just as I began to play a game with myself pretending like I was the only human being who'd ever walked through this part of the woods before, I found where somebody had carved these words into the bark of a big, scruffy elm tree: "when the comet." That's all. Just: "when the comet." I pondered this for quite a while, but could not make any sense of it. I wondered whether I should ask Daddy's opinion. Or Boyd's. Or Mariette's. But I finally decided to keep it my own private secret. I have a theory that whoever carved these words will return at some point to finish the sentence. If not, it will forever remain a mystery.
Harley and Deneen are back together again. And Mama and Daddy are not at all happy about THAT! We had gotten so used to not having Deneen around popping her gum and popping her hip and making sideways compliments about the way Mama cooks and the way I decorate my room. It was also good that she and Harley weren't seeing each other because that meant that Harley was hanging out with his biker friends instead of coming around and pestering Daddy for money.
Now Deneen is back in his life, and they're plopping themselves down at our dinner table just about every night for the free meal. This irks Daddy to no end, but he doesn't usually say anything. He usually just sits there and eats in sullen silence while Mama tries to make conversation with two of the most unsociable people I've ever met in my life. Deneen will sometimes accomodate Mama in her attempts at small talk with strange responses like, "I wouldn't, but a dog would," and "Tell it to the Marines." Whatever that means. And Mama usually just smiles and nods and keeps right on going. (Mama, in my opinion, is too sweet to Deneen. I know it's because she thinks Deneen might buck this zero population trend thing and give her a grandchild some day and she wants to stay on good terms so she'll have proper grandparental access. But I don't know what kind of reptile-child could come from the union of my brother and this girl. I don't even want to imagine it, and especially would not want auntly access to it.)
Daddy broke his silence with Harley tonight. After watching my boar of a brother scarf down about half of the tuna casserole, including almost all of the top crust of crunchy chow mein noodles, Daddy just threw down his napkin in disgust and said, "Is this how you plan to spend the next twenty-six years working as little as you can get away with at the catfish farm, biking up and down I-55 bursting out people's eardrums, and sponging off your parents every opportunity you get? Is this why God put you on earth? Is it?"
Then Harley said, "I thought God put me on earth to eat Deneen's ****." (I am sorry. I cannot write the word that Harley said.)
After Harley said this, he started laughing so hard he got food stuck in his windpipe. Daddy stormed away from the table angrier than I'd ever seen him.
"I believe you should go now," Mama said to Harley and Deneen, trying to hold her temper.
In response to this, Harley just kind of shrugged as if to say, "Hey, is there a problem here?" Deneen started nudging him, and eventually, having made the point that Harley Cuyler (real name Cleron Cuyler) only leaves a place when he's good and ready, he got up and went on out to his bike, with Deneen a few steps behind.
Mama sat for a while with a look of minor shock on her face, much like the time she witnessed a terrible collision on the access ramp of I-55 in which we later learned two beautiful young local girls were tragically disfigured (although I understand a series of operations has restored some of their former beauty). Then she silently began to gather up the dinner dishes and take them into the kitchen. I helped her and offered to wash. (It was actually Daddy's turn, but he was upstairs sulking.) Mama said no, she just wanted to be alone with a steamy sink of dishes and Wynonna on her kitchen tape deck.
I decided I would go for a walk and maybe end up at the Happy Sportsman; if I timed it right I could get there just as Boyd was closing up, and maybe the two of us could go for hot chocolate. I walked out onto the front porch and there Deneen was, sitting on the porch swing, popping her bubble gum and staring off into the night like she had something more important to occupy her thoughts than where she was going to get her next beer. I could tell when she looked over at me that she wanted to talk, but I was so mad at both her and Harley for making Mama and Daddy so upset, that I just walked straight past her without stopping, and down the front steps.
I didn't go to the Happy Sportsman. I spent the next hour wandering around the neighborhood, thinking about how I would have the perfect family it wasn't for Harley, and wondering how Harley got to be the way he is, and finally wishing I had gone on to see Boyd who knows how to make me smile.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dunn. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author.