The Writers Voice
Barry N. Rodgers
The church edifice, constructed in the early nineteen hundreds, had long since fallen prey to urban blight, seemingly abandoned. Stress cracks covered the fašade like varicose veins. The once pristine white plaster had turned a putrid, moldy gray, stained by the elements and the pollution of industrialization. Its once majestic flying buttresses were dwarfed and concealed by modern skyscrapers, like bookends on either side of the church. The ornate front portal was less inviting than foreboding; the ten-foot high double oak-wood doors were kept shut and locked. The Neo-Gothic stained glass windows were covered with a veneer of grime; wrought iron burglar bars obscured any attempt to scrutinize them.
The Carmelite order of Priests and Nuns cloistered inside the church rarely ventured out into the city surrounding them. They interpreted being in the world, but not of the world in a very literal fashion. The sinful world was Phil's domain, a nether world of smog-filled air, grimy city streets, dark alleyways, gloomy underpasses, and apathetic pedestrians.
The flow of pedestrian traffic continued unimpeded by the bumptious derelict apparent, Phil. Feet together, arms flailing, eyes pinched shut, rocking back and forth in syncopation with his speech, Phil spewed forth his broken message to any who might attend. Three pigeons perched on a newspaper rack observed him. He canted without deference for his audience, or lack thereof.
"The days grow shorter, the nights longer, and staying alive gets harder every day - twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four - everyday everyday everyday... sanctified in the hot red fluid from the open wound of Jesus Christ - twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven. . ." Phil's voice cracked and his mind ached as each word sputtered from his lips. His thoughts waged war for domination of his mind, the prize.
Phil's erratic discourse, his demeanor, and his mismatched thrift-shop attire defined his position in society - an outcast, a rabid dog, a pimple on the butt of the world, a raving lunatic, Phil. He was a threat to all civilized, decent human beings.
It was chaos inside Phil's head, like an automated multi-media show gone amuck: pictures, sounds, questions, commands, half-baked schemes and ideas, obsessive thoughts that drove compulsive actions, spontaneous and nonsensical smells and tastes, and body movements and gestures without rhyme or reason. Phil's mind was disheveled, but not entirely without purpose, or moments of lucidity.
His cognitive activity was confused, distorted, and disjointed. He received and transmitted information when he was able, but typically his mind was caught in a maelstrom of neurochemical and synaptic disorder, and he behaved accordingly. Phil received messages - to the neural networked, bio-, electrical-, hard-wired receiver in his brain - from far and near, and they were often piggybacked; multiple signals - a hodgepodge of images and verbal messages - received simultaneously.
Frequently Phil transmitted messages - a combination of thoughts and spoken words - to those whom he believed brought him to the city. He reported his observations, thoughts, interpretations, and frustrations to whomever might be listening; but specifically he was fulfilling his perceived mission, reconnaissance of Necropolis, the city that imprisoned him. His fractured delivery of messages, the result of the confusion within his psyche.
Phil's brain frequently overloaded, short-circuited, from too much information too fast, and he was rendered catatonic. This stimulus overload sent him spiraling into the heart of the maelstrom, and eventually he found a bizarre kind of peace in the eye of the storm. Like trying to pour water through a funnel too fast, watching the overflow, helpless to compensate for the spillage; such was Phil's problem in receiving and assimilating the world around him, and inside him.
During those rare moments when he was not receiving, transmitting, or catatonic, Phil's mind hovered in a semi-normal state. His thoughts rarely were what one would call organized during these bouts of sanity, but they were less confusing to him, and he knew they were his thoughts.
Normal was not a state of mind Phil was accustomed to experiencing, and he was often overcome with fear, left cowering in some dark, quiet place. Phil's mind was volatile, and he feared episodes of near-lucidity. Reality checking was not a common exercise in his life, nor had it been for some time. Since he was unable to account for most of his time he assumed that some greater force was controlling him. His intermittent moments of consciousness were like smoke breaks, recess periods of sorts. But Phil hadn't always been such a mental wreck of a human being; that is, he wasn't born crazy.
On November 11, 1949, in the Lackland Air Force Base Hospital, Phil was born to Major Morris Stearns and his wife Lauren. Major Stearns was not present for the birth of his only child, as he was flying ground support sorties in Korea. He was a decorated veteran of W. W. II, a career soldier, and committed to excising the cancerous communist threat from the face of the Earth.
The major had been shot down three times, once during W. W. II, and two times in Korea. He was five-feet-eleven - a comfortable fit for the cockpit of his F-80 Sabre - with graying wavy hair, oak-brown eyes, and a confident, strident gait that suggested his inflated pilot's ego. Lt. Col. Morris "Hatchet-man" Stearns was the epitome of the forties and fifties conception of a war hero - a John Wayne, all guts, kill-or-be-killed man's man with no time nor tolerance for weakness.
"No excuses. Just complete the mission," he used to tell his squadron before a sortie. "There's no room for weak minds, cowards, candy-assess or mama's boys in this Air Corps. The President and the folks back home want to see us win this damn 'conflict,' and come home with our heads held high and our balls intact."
In 1953 his fighter was hit by friendly fire, and Major Morris Stearns became another unsavory military statistic. His F-80 disintegrated in mid-air, and his body was never recovered. His coffin was empty, draped with an American flag, and he received a funeral with full military honors; but this did little to comfort or console his widow. Phil was four years old, and barely knew his war hero father, having only seen him five times during his first four years of life; and each time less than two weeks in duration. Still, Phil perceived his mother's anguish, and this caused an empathic sense of loss.
Eighteen months later Lauren Stearns remarried, and this time she chose a non military husband, Oscar Dawson, a certified public accountant who held a secure position with the Internal Revenue Service. Oscar was not a remarkable man, husband, or stepfather, but he was there, and this counted for a lot with Lauren and young Philip. Oscar was quiet, diminutive, but stable, and home every night by six o'clock. Phil felt no real love for Oscar, but over time he became accustomed to, and even attached to him. Lauren told her son of his father's military exploits and achievements, and she told him of Major Morris Stearns' dedication to God and country. What she did not tell him was whether or not he loved his son, and this is what Phil heard loudest among the things his mother told him; this omission of commitment to fatherhood, to Phil.
Phil showed extraordinary potential for academic achievement, although he rarely elected to perform at a level equal to his potential. He scored in the upper ten percentile on I.Q. tests, which was a source of great aggravation to his teachers, who grew frustrated early on with Phil, and his seeming disinterest in learning. He possessed a voracious appetite for reading, however, and this served as an incentive to all who were faced with imparting knowledge to Phil. He read books, magazines, newspapers, cereal boxes, whatever printed word he could lay his hands on, and then he would search frantically for something else to read.
Between books Phil was often moody, almost melancholy, so he never allowed much time to lapse before finding another book to satiate his hunger for reading, for learning. In spite of the public school system, Phil learned. He learned what he wanted to learn, at his own pace, without regard for lesson plans or teacher's demands. His obstinate refusal to do schoolwork, homework, or to take tests resulted in low grades, and numerous trips to the principal's office; but eventually, by the eighth grade, he learned to play their game, and his grades leapt from failing to excellent. By the end of the ninth grade Phil was on the honor roll, in spite of his apathy toward such an accomplishment.
His peers rarely acknowledged his presence, but when they did it was usually to point and make fun of him, for he was an ungainly tall, unkempt young boy.
At the urging of his stepfather, Phil tried out for football in the tenth grade. He not only made the team, he made the first string. He started in the first game as a halfback, scoring two touchdowns, and acquiring sixty-five yards offensively for his team; but this was his last appearance in uniform, as it did nothing for him to display such athletic prowess. Football was a meaningless pursuit, as were all such organized activities, in Phil's opinion. He preferred to set his own pace without depending on, or being depended on by, others. Phil was not meant to be a team player, so he refused to engage in any further team-oriented activities.
By this time in his life Phil had read most
of the major and minor philosophical writings. He loved philosophy for its
purity, its inherent inquisitiveness, and its inherent transcendence of all
things material. Phil also loved music, particularly rock 'n' roll and the
blues. Music and philosophy were his major pursuits in life, and he
excelled in both. He played guitar and wrote his own music, although he
could never seem to stick with a group long enough to truly exhibit his talent.
The thing that made him a good musician, and a good student of philosophy, also
conspired to keep him in isolation from his peers.
It was, but not because it provided anything so mentally stimulating or difficult that Phil could not comprehend, cogently criticize, or elaborate; rather, graduate school coincided with Phil's period of greatest mental demise. He continued to take LSD, smoke marijuana, take mescaline, but it was heroin that finally overtook him, pushing his faculties over the edge.
He began hearing voices, seeing things that weren't there, and he grew more paranoid with each sunset. Days and weeks were spent in total isolation, and much of this time Phil spent squatted in the corner of his dingy, dank, sparsely furnished one-room apartment. He cried, shouted, cursed, and punched holes in the walls until his knuckles bled. When thoughts crowded his mind, and mental chaos ensued, he retreated to catatonia. The end of his academic career came when he assaulted two of the five professors who sat on his dissertation committee, leaving one of the men unconscious in a pool of his own blood. Phil was arrested and sentenced to undergo psychiatric evaluation and treatment at the state mental institution - the Farm.
Phil was twenty-four years old when his mind betrayed him. His mother, Lauren, died when he was nineteen, and his step-father, Oscar, grew so despondent that he drove his Buick Roadmaster into a bridge abutment - suicide, but not so apparent to the highway patrol. Once admitted into the pell-mell system of mental health, Phil quickly adapted and eventually found anonymity among the masses of other mentally, emotionally, and physically abnormal.
"I'm an old young man with visions of what might have been had the world listened to me long ago."
The city's my home, he thought to himself, and the people who live out here are my family. "I'm the chosen one, the rejected one, the loved one, the hated one!"
A quick glance told Phil no one was watching, or listening. As he perused the world around him he saw gloom. The sun was shining, but he saw gray sky, diffuse light painted everything in a neutral, monochromatic dullness. Nondescript beings trod past as he spoke, their eyes dim, their faces grimacing with the frustration and angst of modern society.
"I'm the future, I'm the past. I'm an enemy of the system, and of anyone who follows the system's distorted reality. I'm the prince of the exiled and the demons that torment me have come from all over the universe; come together out here for the sole purpose of destroying the human race and me. We're the last human beings on the face of this world," he yelled into the ashen face of a rotund businessman as he scurried along the sidewalk trying to escape the madman, Phil.
"We're the last hold outs of a once proud race of people. We're the future of this planet. For every one of our numbers who dies, there are thousands of future generations that will never exist. The souls of the dead are never far from me, and their bloody forms manifest themselves to me to remind of their torment. We are entombed in this ... this Necropolis! The sins of the father, mother, sons of the one who brought us forth from the desert of a thousand hills in the time of great conflict arose a man who wept and wept and wept for those whom he had no idea about the whereabouts of his oldest most treasured friend and. . ."
Phil's fruit-bowl oration came to an abrupt end when one of Necropolis' finest yelled from his police car, "Move it, reverend! You can't preach without a permit!" The squad car pulled away, slowly disappearing into the smog-gray haze and the endless stream of exhaust-spewing vehicles. Phil ceased immediately, and without reluctance. This is the way of the street. Oppression heaped upon oppression.
"Bastards," he mumbled contemptuously under his breath. It was time to return to the Family's temporary encampment anyway. "Eat shit and die, clone... pig! Your time will come," he growled as he cowered away. The pigeons took flight, one of them leaving a contribution striking Phil on the head. He wiped the fecal offense from his matted hair, undaunted, continuing onward.
The family - Phil's street family - consisted of a group of life's offal. Their number varied, but a few had remained loyal over the years: Digger, Slicker, Blue, Moses, Eric, Stacks, Angie, Marbles, Clara, Pilgrim, and Yancee. The latter three had abandoned the group in favor of life on their own several months previous; but they would return, eventually.
Layered in tattered clothing, dirty, bearded, and reeking of the stench of the city's refuse, Phil shuffled along the sidewalk. Some pushed him aside, but most cut a wide path around him, as if he were contagious. Phil kept his head down, watching his feet, willing them to take each step, and trying to ignore the mutterings and muted curses of those around him. The weight was almost unbearable. Gravity pulls hardest among the masses. It is the weight of the world. It is the weight of grief. When Phil was not talking aloud, he was thinking. His mind surged forward, ever forward. He had to find the family before it was too late.
Slicker and Blue were an oddity among oddities, an inseparable pair - except for when Slicker sought satisfaction for his carnal desires with the prostitutes on Mulberry Street. Blue was frightened by the ladies of the evening. Slicker - his full street name being "Slicker 'n' Shit" - was street smart, and Blue - naive - was like a bird dog; loyal - "True-Blue" - lovable, with a copious sense for impending change but not gifted with an abundance of intelligence. Each possessed qualities necessary to survival in the city.
Together, they were a formidable opponent of the elements, and the city; apart, they were hopelessly, fatally lost in the chaos. Slicker and Blue took care of each other, as they had done for the past ten years. They were integral members of the Family with talents of food gathering and scouting - they could find the best places to bed down for the night.
Digger, Phil's mentor and the Family's unofficial leader, was cut during the night. His body lay in state under the I-35 overpass, the Family's current encampment site, watched over by those who cared about him - his family. Phil crouched next to Digger, where Blue had been, and began pondering the situation. His shoes are gone. Losing your shoes is a sure sign of death; you're either dead, or soon to be dead, once you've lost your shoes. Skin's all gray... and his eyes won't close. He probably wants to see what's going on.
"Close your eyes, dammit!" he shouted.
There's nothing in this world you need to be looking at any more. I hope
you're safe and happy wherever you are... wherever your soul is.
Phil would have to scrounge for butts in the street like everyone else now. He could go to the Clinic, get some meds, and some cigarettes; but they'd send him to the Farm again. He did not want to go in again, not now. If he really wanted cigarettes, Phil could go see Handout. He would give Phil cigarettes, food, clothes, a place to live; he would do anything he could to help Phil, if Phil would allow him. Why? he wondered. Why does Handout give a damn about me, or any of us out here? We're not worth the hassle.
Angie went to the Clinic several weeks ago and had not been seen since. Phil was certain they had taken her to the Farm. Slicker and Blue said they saw Angie being put into an ambulance the day she went to the Clinic. These bits of evidence could mean only one thing... the Farm.
Angie loads up occasionally, like most other people out here. If you go to the Clinic loaded up, they send you to detox, and then you go to the Farm. "Loading up is a way of life out here. You load up to get away from the stench, the loneliness," he explained to no one.
Drugs and alcohol fueled Phil's vehicle to purgatory, Necropolis, but his addiction abated over the years. His brain produced its own kind of narcotic now. He had no need for the synthetic feculence pushed on the street. There was nothing moralistic about his cessation of drug use. It was a pragmatic, thoughtless non-decision. He simply woke up one day and did not need drugs. Or if he did, his brain had been anesthetized, apathetic, disregarding his body's lust for externally produced chemicals. In fact he had attained the ultimate high, insanity. However, he still drank and smoked weed whenever he could, booze and marijuana could always be obtained from someone on the street.
Digger stayed loaded. Loading up makes you an easy target for scum-sucking cutters, like the ones who cut Digger. Zombies like them will cut you for no reason. They don't need a reason. They've been dead for so long they cut just to see the blood flow.
Digger should have known, he should have stayed with the Family last night. He should have known better than to wander off alone. "Now look at him, just laying there in a pool of blood." Phil wondered if Digger felt the blade when they cut him he was so stoned. He was stupid, and being stupid is terminal out here. One mistake, one little slip up and you're meat. Digger knew this.
Maybe he wanted to die, Phil speculated as he stared at Digger's weathered face. He was old and tired of living outside. Maybe he was tired of just surviving from one day to the next. Maybe Digger laid down there last night expecting to get cut. It happens sometimes. Phil thought about quitting a few times, but it would require more forethought, more advanced planning than he was capable of. Besides, he couldn't quit. He had to survive. He had to witness everything; keep transmitting messages about these people, and this place.
"I'm not really supposed to be here, but
until they come back for me, I have to keep
Phil continued speaking, struggling with opposing thoughts - often-violent mental conflict. He had no way of filtering or suppressing what his mind produced. The thoughts came into his consciousness at their choosing, not his. His eyes bounced about in their sockets, never quite focusing on any intended target, creating a fog of blurred movements.
Those who sent him were listening and they were the only ones that mattered. However, speaking aloud afforded the advantage of being heard by the other inhabitants of Necropolis, for what that was worth to Phil. This was why he labored over every word, desperately trying to vocalize it, and desperately trying to discern whether his words were taking flight from his lips or remaining trapped inside his mind. Phil sucked on his cigarette - a butt he found next to Digger's body - until it was reduced down to the filter, burning his lips. Nothing was wasted on the streets of Necropolis, except for the people.
"I miss my family, my friends, my old life. I've made new friends here, though. Hell... these people are like family to me. They need me, and I guess I need them. That's what family means, people needing each other. Anyway, I'm here for now and I guess I'll have to make the best of it." Phil's eyes remained glued to Digger's corpse as he communicated with the airwaves. "That's why they picked me for this job; I'm adaptable, adjustable, adroit, adventurous and... acceptable. I know how to survive the game. I am Phil. I have the answers. I can save them. Trust in me and all will be made well. Unless I kill myself, no, but I could kill myself and leave them to themselves. Serve them right. Serve me right. Serve somebody right. I know how to stay alive, to be alive, to live for a little while longer. Suicide, homicide, genocide, patricide, Phil-icide... I can't make them laugh, and I can't make them see or feel. I'll miss Digger.
"Am I the new leader?" he asked, rising to his feet. He turned on his heels, facing the rag-tag gathering he knew as his family. "I am the new philosopher king!" he proclaimed.
Blue clapped his hands and shouted, "Whoooweee!" But no one else paid much attention to Phil, or to Blue's festive outburst.
As night descended the Family gathered amid the squalor under the overpass. There was talk of moving before sunrise, but it was decided to wait until morning. Phil contributed nothing to the palaver or the subsequent decision and no one expected him to. His talent was of a metaphysical nature. Phil was the Family's Shaman. He sat outside the circle of discussion keeping vigil over Digger's shell. Visions, frightening visions, inundated his mind and consumed his thoughts; but he said nothing. When relieved by Blue, Phil went to his makeshift bed of old rags, newspapers, and the remnant of a sleeping bag and tried to sleep.
Overhead the thunderous roar of semi-trucks and cars made such a din that no normal living thing could possibly sleep. Phil was unaffected by the highway juggernauts and the constant clackity-clackity of the tires crossing seams in the bridge overhead. It was a conflict of faith, of belief, that kept him from peaceful slumber.
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