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“I never had to justify it to anyone before. Not like this. Not like this. It was something I always did. People said I was good at it, I told myself it was what I loved. But God, here I am staring at these peeling brick walls in this bomb-shelter shithole and I can’t help but wonder if they were right. Not about everything—if they were right about everything, well some world we’d live in. But about me. I just don’t know anymore.”


[Pauses.]


[The voice had the quality of a thick New England accent, and coming through the small speaker on the tape recorder it seemed to the soldier to have already acquired that historical distance artifacts often hold. But the smell and the pale, emaciated face in the bag as his comrade zipped it closed told him otherwise. In the darkness, he let it play on.]


“You know, there was a time when people could do things because they wanted to, because they needed to, and not in that phony way people need to pay the bills or do their laundry. Fuck that shit, that’s not real. That’s just motions, mechanics--you do it because you have to. But people wrote songs or painted because they were moved to. I feel like there’s a difference. At least I used to. Now I don’t know what all that means or if anyone is ever really called to do anything. Some people say you’re born with it. The artistic genius. But all that really does is put a whole lot of doubt into people who want to be artists, ‘cause the whole time they’re wondering if they’ve got it or not. I like to think it’s life experience that puts it in you. It inspires some people to play the trumpet, others to write poetry—others to work the boring, shit-job at the grocery store, then go home and peel the labels off all their soup cans and put the tomatoes in the cheese drawer.”


[Silence except for the faint static from the recorder, held between black gloved fingers. A small, nervous tapping noise punctuates the silence in the recording, probably a pen on wood. Comrade is now dragging it up the stairs and through the hatch, temporarily flooding the space with light.]


“I mean, it’s not like I never asked those questions myself. I did. Every goddamned day, my conscience wouldn’t let off. If you call that a conscience. Seemed more like the nagging voice society managed to leak into my brain, like the weak-signal station you listen to out in podunk nowhere because it’s the only freakin’ thing on the entire radio you’re so far out.  Trust me, I’ve been there. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s the pirate channel talking about conspiracies or the spanish channel or the AM home decor show—you just want human contact because you need more voices in your head than your own.”


[Sighs. Tapping continues.]


“I guess sometimes I thought I could provide those voices for people—you know, for when they’re out in the middle of podunk nowhere. Or maybe an alternate voice to all the other ones. Like that’s what society says, now here’s what I say. I don’t know.”


[Clears throat. Creaking back and forth, as of a rocking chair. Comrade returns, closing the hatch quickly, which rattles with broken bits of metal dangling from its handle—the locks they’d cut.]


“They say I should’ve quit long ago, I should’ve realized it wasn’t for me. When my first tape didn’t sell, I should’ve known it’d amount to nothing and gotten a real job, stop being a leak on society. There’s a million of you trying to be artists out there they’d say, you think your little tapes are going to make a difference somehow? Maybe they’re right. Just look at me: the world’s gone to hell and the only one who cares a damn about what I have to say is me. Nothing’s changed, really. But there’s something they’re missing, I just know it.”


[Comrade shifts on one leg slightly, standing at the bottom of the stairs, waiting. The static continues. “Sir, do you really think—“  “Shhh!”]


“I mean yeah, every artist questioned his life now and then. Every artist wondered why he was doing it or if it really mattered. That was normal. But not like this. Before this it was all in my head—I could pretend that some people cared or that it didn’t matter if they cared. It’s not my fault no radio show ever bought my tapes. A good idea is a good idea, it just takes a good mind to recognize it. But jesus, you can’t tell someone they’re worthless ‘cause they’ve got no money in the bank! It just doesn’t work that way.”


[Another pause. Comrade has taken the battery-operated lantern and is shining it slowly around the room.]


“None of that matters anymore. I’m no longer just a failed artist trying to make something of his life—I’m one of the hunted. Now my conscience is the gestapo. My insecurities are enforced by the police. They tell me what I’m no good at, what the nation doesn’t need. And they’re after my hide because someone’s after theirs. It’s always like that. They were fine with me and all the rest until things got bad, and now we’ve got to go.”


[The soldier’s black thumb shifts slightly over the play button. He adjusts his boots and settles back in the wooden chair for the long haul. He glances at his comrade who has found a stack of books.]


“OK, take this piece in The Occamist for example.”


[Paper crinkles in the recording, pages turn, they settle.]


Our nation is sick and full of half-dreamers. Our ship is flooded and sinking, and when all hands are needed on deck, half our crew are below swinging in their hamocs and spitting in cans, wishing they were boys again and life were simple. They are blind to the world around them. They lack sailor’s guts yet insist they belong on the vessel. They expect those of us who carry our own weight to carry theirs too. But when the final plank submerges, if we take the idlers to our shoulders they will drown every one of us. This is a matter of crisis. We can tolerate no dreamers in our life-boats.”


[Paper down.]


“Flood my ass. Fuck the war.”


[Click. Tape ends.]


 


[Click.]


“I guess I should date these. Not that anyone’s ever going to hear them.” [Clears throat.] “January 2nd. I don’t know how long I’ll be in here or who’ll be waiting on the other side when I get out. Not sure who I’d rather. It’s been two days since the bombs started dropping, and aside from the occasional tremors, I’ve no idea what’s going on up there. The scant provisions I stole from camp HQ won’t last long, they’ll be gone in four days tops. Can’t say much about the war ‘cause they never told us much, and what they did tell I never saw ‘cause I never read the news. But I do know it’s about oil. It’s always about oil—what little we have left. And the military’s the only one who uses it nowadays.


“Might as well give the full history. Not like I don’t have time. Elsewise I won’t keep it straight later on.


“Like I said, can’t say much about the war. But this whole Project Parasite stuff went official about five months ago. It really began four months before that when the government was trying to lift itself out of the depression with all these public service projects and such, kinda like the Civilian Conservation Corps they taught us about except geared directly at fishing out the last bits of oil from the earth and drilling deeper into water tables. So more like the opposite, if you think about it. Only they went about it all wrong—these weren’t volunteer projects, they weren’t for pay, and they weren’t optional. There was nothing else to call it but slave labor. Like everyone else, they realized they’d screwed up and grew desperate. To justify it they called it civil service, like it was your duty or something. They promised to feed and shelter you, and people were already struggling as it was to keep their houses, so I guess some people thought it was a good idea.


[Coughs.]


“An organization similar to the Selective Service was in charge of ‘recruitment’. It was simple: they’d pull numbers, and if yours came up, you’d go. They’d come to get you in their armored trucks and ship you off in their jets because you couldn’t fly on commercial airlines anymore. While the military was busy rounding up its first batch of civil workers, there was this influential underground movement called the Occamists. They started writing pamphlets about how not just anyone should have to go to these camps—that is, not the “hard-working” members of society who could prove they were contributing something valuable to the economy or that their jobs were worth something. Their agenda grew stricter with time and when unemployment was at an all-time low they managed to persuade Congress, or maybe they were already in Congress, to be more selective. That’s about the time we realized that all of us who had our numbers picked (I was one of the last) had something in common.


“The real kicker was when we figured out these camps they were shipping us to, they weren’t just labor. They were war zones; every camp was a hotspot with the local hostiles because every one was the site of a limited resource. Which meant we weren’t there just to work. In all likelihood, we’d last a couple weeks, ship off a few barrels from the fields, then get shot by enemy militants. These were the stories I heard before they found me, and that’s what got me on the road for five months. Five long months, wondering what I’d done with my life, where I went wrong, trying to come up with a reason so when they found me I could explain it all and they’d let me go. Five long months with that damn number haunting me everywhere I went.


“Well they finally caught up, and now I see the stories are true. Only they’re not bullets. They’re bombs.”


 


“I’ve been thinking about organisms lately. All kinds. It’s pretty depressing, actually. They say there’s a kind of amoeba called dictyostelium something or other (I read it in a book) that operates on the single-cell level for the first part of its life, but when food gets scarce it groups together with others to form a kind of slug thing. The stalks, or fruiting bodies, of this slug are made up of dead cells, so essentially several of the little amoeba guys sacrifice themselves to create them, just so the unit can survive.


“And there’s this thing called apoptosis the human body does where at first there are too many cells in the human fetus, and then, in order to form unique appendages like fingers and toes, surrounding cells swarm excess cells and dismantle them.


“So maybe we artists are the extra cells, the unnecessary ones that have to be eliminated because we serve no immediate purpose.


“I know that can’t be. I would never have believed something like that before. But they’re getting to me.”


 


“January 3rd. There was this joke I once heard about a priest, a doctor, and a comedian. It went like this: so you’re on a boat with a priest, a doctor, and a comedian, and the thing starts sinking but you see an island ahead. The boat can only make it to shore with two people on board, so you’ve got to choose which two to dump and who to keep around. Of course if you get to the island you’re still in the middle of nowhere and screwed, but the point is you’re still alive for a little longer, I guess. If you choose the priest he’ll convince you your afterlife won’t be so bad and so you die quickly but peacefully. If you choose the doctor he’ll keep you alive as long as possible, but it’ll be a miserable and drawn out existence. The punch line is you’re supposed to go for the comedian because, soon as you tire of his jokes you cook him and eat him—now you get to live twice as long and die in peace. I always hated that joke.


“But I guess that’s what they’ve done. They’ve killed the comedian, and now they’re going to eat him.”


 


 


 


 


“January 4th. Nothing goes exactly according to plan. If it did, life wouldn’t be worth living. Just thought of that, had to record it. It’s my new motto. Gotta have something to live by, you know?”


[Static and silence, as if there’s more to come. Click.]


 


“January 5th. I’m getting a little delirious. Lightheaded…dizzy. So bear with me here, I may talk slowly but I’ll try to be coherent. Times like these I wish there were paper so I wouldn’t have to talk so much.


“There were others with me at the camp when the alarm went off. I don’t think most of them made it, but we’d done some exploring and found all these abandoned shelters next to old dilapidated houses, probably from that war they told us about a long time ago where nobody died. I heard voices outside earlier, but when I was about to go topside to have a look around, there was gunfire and screaming so I stayed below. I know some of them had to have made it. They’re probably all sitting in their holes with locks on their hatches and bars through the handles, afraid to go out like me.


“I like to think they’re scattered all around me, in all those shelters in the fields. Comrades in arms, waiting out the storms of today for better tomorrows. And when the bombs stop and we all get out, we’ll show the world why we really matter. They’re missing something, I just know it. I just never had to justify it before.”


[Heavy breathing.]


 


“January 6th. I wish I could talk to all the other ones out there who made it to safety. But we’re blocked off. Communication failure. And even if I got through to them, what would I say? We are a group so diverse, so varied, it is difficult to find one thing to unite us. In truth, the only universal bond we share is the very reason for which we have been culled from humanity—that we are considered threats against the common interest of the state. And threats only because we do nothing tangible to help our country, nothing they can see right in front of them and say, “that’s what’ll get us through this.” So we’re the rejects of society. Is there a rallying cry in that? Is that our cause for battle—simply the will to survive? Or is there something more that sets us apart? Do we choose to accept their selection, etch our differences into our shields as emblematic of our faction; or do we reject it, and argue for the strength of our merits within the narrow confines of their public agenda, arguing instead that we do conform? There’s no easy option.


“Like I said, never had to justify it like this. Never thought I’d have to.”


 


“January 7th. Tried to make myself save the last bit of food, but it’s all gone now. Gonna have to go up soon.”


[...]


“Ever thought about how art is more like potential energy than kinetic? It’s not in motion now, doesn’t have anything useful to do yet, but it will someday. That’s kinda how I feel. It’s an investment in the future. It’s a way to think ahead, like all those science fiction writers who were right about so many things. The world just has to catch up with us is all, and then our art will mean something. It just hasn’t manifested in physical form yet. That’s how I see it anyway. Trying to stay positive.”


 


“I think it’s the 8th. Not really sure. Never could be sure—I just counted the days by how many sleep cycles I’d been through, since there’s no sunlight. But we know how well that worked for Robinson Crusoe, and he had the sun.


“Heard voices again, definitely not going up. They sound angry.


“Anyway, read about another organism that proves them all wrong. Once I get out of here they’ll have to get a load of this one. It’s a certain type of sea sponge that spawns little pods called gemmules that drift off from the parent when conditions get bad, like when the water temperature drops too low or something. These guys are durable as hell—they lie dormant for a while until things get better, often outlasting their parents, and then they either reattach themselves to their parent skeleton or else grow into an entirely new sponge.


“That’s what we are, my survivor friends out here. Little dormant pods floating in the sea, waiting for the storm to subside. Then we’ll rebuild everything.”


 


“It gets really lonely in this cramped space. I used to think I was good at being alone. After the big city life I’d had just about enough people as I could handle. Thought I could go anywhere without them and be fine for a while. I just wanted to go out on the road and experience life, and use it for inspiration in my tapes. I guess I was always a romantic that way. Also used to think art was for art’s sake. Like I didn’t have to make it for anyone—if I produced art, I was an artist, and the hell with the world. That woulda been fine for a while. But then I realized the real reason why I was making tapes in the first place, and I see it now more than ever.


“I like to think art isn’t a whole lot different from the real world, whether you’re a realist, a surrealist, or an abstract artist. It’s all the same. It’s just that art is what convinces you someone’s listening.”


 


“Can barely talk, my stomach hurts so bad. Lost track of the days, not trying anymore.


“After a while sitting down here you start to see things, your brain makes stuff up. I ignore them mostly. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t, if maybe I should pay attention to them, like some extremists a long time ago who made themselves go without food or water so they could have these intense visions and paint pictures of them. That’s not me though. I’d give anything to get out of this hellhole. Anything.”


 


[Click. Heavy breathing, slow and raspy. Coughs. Static.]


“I was wrong about trying to justify it. They never wanted justification. It’s not about what we can offer to society, it’s about what society needs from us [coughs loudly…coughs again] whether we offer it or not. How do you tell an organism it can’t do what it needs to live? They needed bodies, they got ‘em…I’m not long for this world.


“Could use the comedian right about now.”


 


[Long breath.]


“Something’s got to last. Something does, I just know it…May not be me…May not be us…But something will.”


[Static. Nothing. More static. The soldiers wait. Click.]


[Man in rocking chair clears his throat. In a thick accent he says, “Don’t tell anyone about this. Line up those paintings by the wall and put them in the truck with the rest of them. We’re going, there’s not much time.” He pockets the tape recorder, grabs his rifle, and opens the hatch.]

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The fragile excess of the mind and body hovering beyond itself; the ornamentation of expression reaching for the visceral root of itself; the tenuous, ineffable, invisible thread that sews connection among inward beings; Art—is first to go when nations and states are threatened by war, bankruptcy, rebellion, or scarcity of resources. Yet when a people truly begin to diminish (like the many tribes and languages now on the verge of extinction in the world), it is Art they embrace as the last vestige of their collective memory. Their crafts, paintings, ritual dance forms, oral histories, lore, mythologies, music, poetry, explorations, records of the human heart—what were, in isolated circumstances, once perceived as inutile luxuries—become in retrospect the vital essences, and now entrails, of the larger cultural organism that was. In short, the nation that expels, erases, or suppresses Art, eviscerates and disembowels itself.

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Re-recording of the previous record, but on a Steinway grand.

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This was recorded with my MIDI keyboard about six months ago. Since then, I've embellished a little more and it's about time I record on a real piano--for now, consider this a song sketch. I'd appreciate a listen, and any feedback you're willing to give! Thanks.

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