I sit staring into the single cyclops eye that glows bright green in the dark. What is this creature? Who is this robotic, alien being? Her Martian stare speaks of future life forms and her sleek chrome body looks capable of interstellar flight.
It’s the night of March 19, 2003, nine days after my 14th birthday, and I’m sitting on the hardwood floor of my bedroom in Atlanta. Baseball trophies, Scarface poster, Baltic Birch closet doors. Seven thousand miles away a storm of Tomahawk cruise missiles are laying waste to Baghdad. I had to get away from the TV, away from the gleeful declarations of our President who brags that we are “… in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.”
The sound of explosions and gunfire filters up from downstairs and through the open door.
I had to get away from the TV. Now I’m sitting in my room gazing into the cryptic face of my alien visitor, whose timing cannot be coincidental. She has something to tell me, something to show me. I can see that from the way she’s looking at me. She is about to change me, to alter the path of my future. But not with any undiscovered knowledge. She’s going to change my future with a message from the past.
Her name is Crosley. She tells me she has two stories of the apocalypse that I need to hear.
“Two versions of the same story,” as she puts it.
“So the world ends no matter what we do?” I ask.
“That’s right,” says Crosley.
“So what’s the point to living? How are we supposed to exist if we only have a few years left on earth?”
Crosley winks her single eye, twinkling green like a neon Kool cigarette sign in a bodega window.
“Sit back and listen,” she says. “It’s time for you to hear the first story.” She opens her wide mouth and I feed her the only thing in the house she’s agreed to eat. Out of the weathered plastic, out of the crinkly paper, I remove the thirty-year-old sustenance. Crosley swallows the black disc whole and smiles. Then she begins:
Pushing through the market square, so many mothers sighing
News had just come over, we had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us, earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet, then I knew he was not lying…
“Crosley, this is so sad. What are you trying to tell me?” I look at her, searching for a clue. She just looks back, as if to say, you haven’t heard the whole story.
She’s right. Things takes a turn. Now there’s hope. Scene three of the story begins and it’s rocking my room. Compelled by the waves of energy Crosley is firing off, I jump to my feet. I’m dancing now, whirling around, striking poses, and giving my best air guitar accompaniment.
I’m an alligator, I’m a mama papa comin’ for you
I’m the space invader, I’ll be a rock ‘n rollin’ bitch for you
Now I’m flying around the room, banging into the bed and closet door. I nearly knock a painting of a stone Buddha in the jungle off the wall. It swings dangerously on its nail and I lunge forward, catching the painting and smashing my toe into the baseboard in my haste. But the pain can’t stop me now.
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
And let all the children boogie
Then silence. I slump to the floor, out of breath. Crosley clears her throat.
“Ahem, so, what do you think so far? The end of the world is not so black and wh—“
“—Sshhh! Quiet Crosley, someone’s coming!”
Knock-knock-knock. Silhouette outside my door. It’s my Pops.
“Come in!” I holler, the sound of my own voice surprising me. He opens the door and surveys the scene. Then he smiles.
“Aha, I see you’ve found an old favorite,” he says, pointing at the wrapping of Crosley’s dinner. “You know, that was the second one I ever bought.”
Then he sees the Buddha hanging at an exaggerated tilt. His demeanor changes. He crosses the room in four long strides and reaches for the wooden frame, gently righting the painting.
Anger takes over, “Five Years” and exploding Buddhas are making my brain hurt.
“You should be more careful with this artwork. Our friend Don Cooper painted it.”
“Sure, whatever. It’s just a picture of a Buddha, we have like nine other paintings that are exactly the same. Did he ever paint anything besides Buddhas?”
“Do you even know why he painted Buddhas? He was in Vietnam. He saw the brutality of the war over there. It was a mess,” he says, and pauses for a long breath. The sound of explosions and gunfire filters up from downstairs and through the open door. He nods his head toward the sound. “That sort of violence that we’re seeing today, that’s what Don witnessed. The only peaceful thing he saw were the Buddhas. They’re all over Vietnam. He painted them to show a side of Vietnam most Americans don’t care to know about.”
He awkwardly pats my shoulder and goes downstairs. Suddenly, Crosley’s first story of the apocalypse comes rushing back to me. The room is silent but the words are pounding around my head.
We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes
Five years, what a surprise
We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot
Five years, that’s all we’ve got
The words are deafening. That last verse consumes me, the voice getting louder and more desperate with each repetition. I’m standing now, pacing circles around the room. I look at the painting. The Buddha looks back with sad eyes, eyes of understanding. Then it hits me, Don painted the Buddhas before they were destroyed, in order to preserve them. What are we going to destroy in Iraq? Will we wipe out a whole culture this time?
A rat-tat-tat of gunfire breaks through my thoughts. It’s the TV downstairs. It’s the war, only just begun, already reaching inside our home. A voice crackles through the speakers, telling us what’s being bombed: a barracks, a munitions center, a museum?
We’re doing this again, and there’s no one there to paint the Buddhas.
Anger takes over, “Five Years” and exploding Buddhas are making my brain hurt. Wolf Blitzer is talking about the museum that is now on fire, because it was “in the blast zone.” Earth was really dying. We’re doing this again, and there’s no one there to paint the Buddhas. This is what the end of the world feels like.
“Listen Asa, let me tell you something.” It’s Crosley. She’s looking at me with that look again, at once reproachful and smiling. “This isn’t the end, you’re being dramatic.”
“How do you know? How can you be so calm?”
“Because I’ve seen it all before. The fear, the pride, the fall… but it’s what comes after the fall, that’s what you need to understand. Now it’s time for the second story of the apocalypse.”