The Great Excuse

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Image Credit: Pukete School Library

I wish I had died without seeing those things. Then it would’ve been simple: there I’d be, just another homeless drunk, stiff in some alley somewhere. I could handle the dull remorse in those last moments, and the knowledge that I had wasted my life.

The tragedy would’ve been a local one. Long forgotten by whatever family remained, my passing would make the most marginal of ripples. The bums of Los Angeles (those who weren’t mad or fried beyond coherence) would mutter about it almost as a footnote, then head to the library or the streets with their cardboard signs and their cups. We die all the time, and that’s the procedure.

There would be Rosie, of course-assuming she outlived me. I hope she’d cry at least a time or two; I hope she’d sleep alone for at least a couple nights in our ramshackle tent beneath the Silver Lake Boulevard exit on the 101. But then she’d get loaded and fall asleep. Maybe it would hit her when she woke up with the needle still in her arm. No matter how drunk I was, I always used to take the needle out; I didn’t want her rolling over and breaking it off.

But these are just idle speculations, footsteps echoing down the path I did not take. I am witness to a horror. It has wrenched me from my stupor (decades-long) of apathy and selfishness. I can’t be silent. I’m compelled to sound some note of warning before mankind is swallowed up.

And maybe it’s for nothing. I’m not a competent man: I can’t tell you what to do, only what I’ve seen. Maybe someone unlike me (someone strong, whose hope hasn’t atrophied) could find some means to stay the coming darkness. Then again, maybe not. At least I said something-I can die without that on my conscience.

It began in the library.

Not all bums are fools. But intelligence, of course, doesn’t translate to success. By and large, we’re lacking what you might call a “citizen’s temperament.” Whatever it is that makes you want to worm your way up the ranks, acquiring status and capital and stability, we don’t have it. For the record: when I say “bum,” I mean those of us who make a career out of it, not the folks who’ve caught some breeze of misfortune. The unlucky may wind up homeless, but, almost without exception, their state is temporary. Rosie and I were bums.

But not all bums are fools. I’d always told myself that I was a writer. I read like one and drank like one, but this is the first time in years I’ve put words on a page. Rosie got the bug for classics in high school, and studied Latin for a year at some university before she discovered junk. If we weren’t hustling or panhandling, we’d be in the library. We’d huddle close between seldom-visited shelves, snickering at the bad taste of our destitute compatriots: usually pop-fiction or self-help. One guy, though, read those romance novels with the soft-porn covers, rubbing himself under the table. He was banned soon enough. Rosie and I fancied ourselves elitists. We’d read for hours, then head outside to roll cigarettes and talk over Plutarch or Milton.

It was a good time (and it was free) but there was always a bitterness creeping in: books were written by (and about) those with the temperament we lacked. There was something absent in us, a design flaw, which the works of the masters served to highlight. It was a disappointment, a perpetual reminder of our nature; unpleasant, but familiar as morning breath. There was a warped comfort there, too, a confirmation of our brokenness.

Initiation into true bumhood comes when you find The Great Excuse. The Great Excuse is the bum’s Holy Grail-hold it up to justify your wrecked life. Favorites included the government, childhood abuse, or whatever drug had its hooks in you. Don’t think I’m turning up my nose: we are all, rich or poor, slaves to our disposition.

The library was our Great Excuse. There we found volumes of proof that we were unfixably fucked. We could cite passage after passage, chapter and verse, on how it was better not to try. And our Great Excuse (unlike “Daddy touched me” or “I got screwed by Uncle Sam”) lent our state-indisputably, it was as pathetic as any bum’s-a kind of romance, let us entertain the lie that we were special.

I’m sure it sounds sentimental, but I look at those times as a kind of Eden from which we were expelled. Sure, you’d call it ugly: panhandling, performing sexual favors to feed a habit and waking up every morning a little sicker, a little more resigned to not waking up at all. Maybe it wasn’t the kind of life you’d want-hell, it wasn’t the kind of life that we’d want-but, with all those books and Rosie as my only judge, we felt like we lived in a world we could understand. One day, though, Crawford Tillinghast arrived, and he shattered that petty illusion.

The library we frequented had these giveaways every Saturday. There would be a couple racks of books, stuff no one wanted: self-published religious crap, old magazines, Minutes of the Echo Park Ladies’ Bridge Club (1948-52), etc. We’d usually stop and survey the titles for a laugh.

Tillinghast was there one Saturday. He was impossibly gaunt, leaning against the steel frame of the double doors, with that ratty tangle of white hair (bowl-cut) and those thick glasses. He glanced absently at the pages of a book: the thing was arcane-looking, though cardboard-bound, and seemed to carry a strange gravity.

We were, of course, instantly curious. But he spoke first.

“It’s my great-grandfather’s,” he said. It was the first time I saw that half-smirk, and that look I took, initially, for affectation. His eyes cut into Rosie, and her shoulders opened to him. I didn’t mind-if he wanted her and he paid we’d be set for a day or two.

“Was he tall like you?” Rosie asked, and bit her lip.

But Tillinghast bristled as if she’d spoken a blasphemy.

“He was serious,” he said, “and so am I.”

When Tillinghast stood upright, his neck stooped forward and his forehead blocked the light, casting sickle-shaped shadows from his eyes to his ears.

“Imagine a ground spider,” he said, “as it scuttles along. It has many eyes, and is, without doubt, convinced that the world it senses is the world-that it understands the realm through which it moves. It sees a shape-immense, in soft focus-beside it. The shape moves, and, in its movement, the ground spider recognizes both a surface and a threat-but that is all. How could it know that it stares at a man’s pant leg, and his shoe? Imagine it had language, and could listen to some lecture about human beings, and their clothes, and their civilization. Imagine its bafflement-it would no longer be a spider but something else, a kind of bridge between spider and man. We are chained, as men and as mortals, to the bounds delimited by our nature. We are slaves, every one, to our disposition. The ground spider sees only a surface and a threat, and is blind to the revulsion rising in the man after the man notices it scuttling along. Revulsion-what an alien sentiment it must be to the ground spider! Were it granted some key, some access to the knowledge of this man and his revulsion, the ground spider would elect, in all likelihood, not to cross his path. But, as it stands, this wretched thing has only base instinct for a guide. Naturally, it is crushed!”

With that, Tillinghast slammed the volume shut, walked past us and out of the library. Rosie laughed in his face as he passed, though now I wish she hadn’t. Now I wish I’d followed him, and killed him when I had the chance.

We laughed that night in our ramshackle tent. We laughed so hard that we shook the walls. We slurred our words like dopes. We took turns doing bad impressions of that lanky creep from the library.

On Sundays they’d give out soup downtown, so in the morning we made our way by bus. Scores of bums were sitting on sidewalks with their backs against buildings or crowding in alleys along Los Angeles Street. Tillinghast stood, bent forward but still a head taller, in a suit and tie among a dozen or so homeless.

He had one of them in his arms, a batty old wino who called himself St. John Miracle. St. John had hair and a beard that hadn’t been washed or trimmed since the Reagan era-it was piss-yellow and gray and stiff with stink. Around three in the morning you’d hear him yelling insanity about how Jesus Christ himself drank orange juice, or how the angel Gabriel had drilled a hole in his left eye and hid diamonds there.

But Tillinghast pulled him close like a lover. He whispered to St. John, combing his fingers through that awful mane. The little cluster of bums looked silently on, and soon a black car pulled up to the curb. He led St. John to the car, opened the passenger door, and helped buckle him in. Tillinghast cracked the rear door and put one long leg inside. He stopped and looked back at the rest of us.

“All who are willing shall become a bridge,” he said.

Rosie laughed again, and whispered, “What the fuck?”

Then the car drove off and they were gone.

A few days later there was talk of a man in a white robe, bald and clean-shaven, who walked the streets barefoot and went around preaching to bums. Apparently, they were listening: he’d gathered a following. We heard he was giving a sermon in Echo Park. Rosie and I, starved for shits and giggles, decided to attend.

Echo Park was newly renovated. The town, also called Echo Park, was in the throes of gentrification. Between downtown and Silver Lake (which all the trust-fund hipster twats called home) you’d find an ungainly amalgam of lower and upper classes. Immigrant families would gather at the picnic tables with a dozen or so children, while twenty-somethings in high-end vintage duds would sit beneath trees with guitars.

Although it was a Saturday afternoon, lazy and cloudless and temperate, there were only bums in the park. There must have been a hundred of them, fixed on the picnic tables like barnacles or choking the city’s grass with their lazy backsides. A few police cars were parked across the street, and cops looked on with their arms folded.

St. John Miracle stood (barefoot, white-robed) atop a picnic table. Every neck was craned in his direction. He was unrecognizable: he’d lost the beard and the mane and looked younger by ten years. His eyes, distended with a zealous heat, seemed ready to burst.

I guess the sight scared all the normal folks off. I don’t blame them. We stood across the street, just far enough from the cops to avoid interest. St. John started talking.

He said, “You are slaves to you-know-not-what. But I know. This knowledge, a bleak comfort, humbles rather than elevates. I stand before you a changed man. You knew me as mad: a deranged casualty of myself, my disposition. It is a cross, I assure you, that I still bear. I have found no new strength, no means to carry it as a hero’s burden. On the contrary, now I am utterly defeated: I march toward my Calvary with indifference, neither exultant nor sorrowful. I know a foul fate awaits me, and that it is not something I am fit to meet. And so I promise you no religion, nosalvation. Yet I implore you-come, O wretched children, and follow me. In my embrace there lies an abyss of fear and ineffable blackness.Come, O wretched children, and follow me. Should you hold, still, some grain of hope, I bid you brush it from your hand. You shall be made new, so that none who have striven for and gained the good life-the companionship and shelter and sobriety you lack-could evermore kindle your envy. Your surrender, your failure shall be your crown. You shall know that human ambition stands as a feeble affront to the omnipotent and hateful All, which authors matter only that atom might be rent from atom. It is true that every knee shall bow, but you shall precede most: you shall sing its praises in howls of entropy. You shall become a bridge between man and the yawning deep.”

Rosie and I had come across a little weed (tobacco-tasting shake, the kind a high-schooler might sell) and smoked it in preparation for the sermon. Since we were far enough away from the action, Rosie felt safe giggling at first. But there was a dread in the air that struck me dumb, so I just stood and listened. Rosie felt it, too, and got quiet.

While he was talking, five jet-black buses (drivers sunglassed and suited) pulled to the curb. The cops did nothing—were they awed? Were they in on it? By the end of St. John Miracle’s bleak soliloquy, all the bums were on their feet. They walked, without so much as a murmur, to the buses. The doors opened and each bum got in.

Then the vans trundled off like swollen hearses.

The streets were lonely for three or four days, the library half-empty. But we crawled from our tent one morning to find St. John and about fifteen disciples standing in a crescent around it. They were robed in white and their feet were bare and even the women had their heads shaved. Each eye swelled with that same zealous fire, and they hardly blinked.

They just trained their unhomely stares our way. “How long have they been waiting here?” Rosie asked, in a whisper.

That’s when I noticed the van, stalling behind them with its hazard lights on and its side door open. Rumbling-did it yawn? The rows of empty black seats stood like rotten teeth.

“Go on,” said St. John Miracle. He didn’t gesture at the bus. He didn’t move; he didn’t have to. We felt, both of us, seduced by the resignation (immense, knowing) behind their eyes. They looked spacey, sure-but they looked satisfied. It wasn’t the smiling denial of the newly born-again, or the sated stupor of a junkie when stoned. I’ve never seen anything like it. Rosie and I didn’t have to ask, because we both knew: they’d found a Great Excuse to trump all Great Excuses, an Excuse so Great that it wasn’t even an excuse. It wasn’t a lie they had to tell themselves to justify their failure-it was some ultimate truth, and in its face their failure was not merely justified, but a mark of election.

You want to know how scared we were. Yeah, we were scared. But when you’re a bum, you’re always scared: you’re always cold or you’re always hot and you’re always filthy and you always need to brush your teeth and your feet are always hurting and there’s always something looking infected. You file these discomforts away in the same place you put all your promises to clean up. You bitch about everything, but, to feed a habit, you’ll endure like a Christian in the Coliseum. Rosie had sold herself for baggies of mystery-powder so many times that she didn’t bother to grit her teeth and pray the junk was good. I’d swallowed swimming pools worth of mouthwash when I didn’t have the coin for bottom-shelf vodka, braving blindness or gastrointestinal bleeding or whatever else they warned you about on the back label. So the sight of our destitute compatriots, bald and white-robed and looking brainwashed, hardly sent us into a panic. I wish it had.

I wish we’d run—maybe they wouldn’t have followed us, or maybe we could have outrun them if they had. Or, better yet, maybe they’d have killed us. But their eyes (hollow, unblinking, utterly sated) exerted a terrible draw, and we got in the van without protest.

St. John Miracle handed us two burlap sacks, and we slipped them over our heads. The door was shut; a soft push as the van moved forward. We rode in silence. I can’t speak for Rosie, but I felt an overwhelming helplessness, a surrender.

You can see it on nature shows: that gazelle will run and run, but, when the lion finally has it by the throat, there’s an unmistakable relief in its dull black eyes. It’s glad (can you blame it?) to be done with the routine of grazing and panicking and narrowly escaping only to graze and panic again.

I don’t know how long it was, but we drove for a while. Then we stopped. We were told we could remove the sacks and, when we did, we saw Crawford Tillinghast standing before the unmarked door of a warehouse.

He looked even thinner-his suit seemed about to fall off him. His eyes were sunken, haloed in red. He grinned, laugh lines fissure-deep in his cheeks, as he strode toward us. He opened the door, still grinning.

It was dark in there; it was damp and cool. Wires covered everything: they bulged, snaking along the floor and the walls; they twisted around each other like roots; they hummed loud and deep. The sound shook our bones.

The space was massive, maybe the size of a supermarket. A single light shone, a few hundred yards away, on two empty metal chairs. Tillinghast stood between us and took our hands. We let him. Solemnly, he led us to the chairs. Rosie and I sat.

“Now,” he said, “if you will, recall our conversation about the spider, and its limited capacity. Recall my proposition: that if there were some means to widen its horizon, this lowly creature might transcend its own nature-it might become a bridge. This means is available: I shall provide it. My grandfather, whose name I bear, made the most revolutionary (and most destructive) scientific advance since the discovery of fire. For his efforts, the gods saw that he died young and forgotten. I, however, have perfected his research: I have struck depths that even his mind, immense though it was, could not picture; I have summoned daemons from distant stars, and they have borne me beyond the bounds of infinity. There are Shadows that stride from world to world, sewing death and madness . . . he, too, harnessed them. But he grew arrogant. He wished to raise his throne above the stars, to be the master of his masters. But I know that I am the master of nothing, and that even my masters are slaves!”

If it weren’t for the immense apparatus behind Tillinghast-that terrible machine into which the forest of wires fed-we might’ve mistaken his unblinking conviction for charlatanry. He shook and howled and spat and stuttered through that whole silly monologue; his voice cracked. He was the image in your mind when you think the words “Mad Scientist.” It was the kind of chest-pumping affect you’d expect in psoriatic hackers. You’d think that if the genuine item existed, it wouldn’t talk like that. But standing before us was the real thing, a cliché made flesh.

Naturally, Rosie burst out laughing. Tillinghast grinned weakly and shrugged with a half-blush. Her laughter withered, ending with a gasp, dry and ashamed. His faint smile, his shrug, the pink dewing his cheeks: there was (frighteningly, unmistakably) something humble in them-as in his embrace of St. John Miracle, reckless of the bum’s filth and status as utter anathema, untouchable even to other bums-that rooted our defensive superiority.

“Let’s forget all that for a while,” he said, and something glowed in him. “What I shall presently reveal,” Tillinghast continued, “confirms a platitude so trite that men, in our age, have ceased to believe it: we are all equal. But do not expect theophany-no, nothing of the kind. On the contrary, beyond that veil of wrath and tears (which we call ‘the sensible world’) looms but the horror of the shade. Ah, but what a shade!”

But now his grin was hardly meek: it was sharp, the edges of his lips whittled with malice. Tillinghast moved toward the apparatus and started fiddling. I heard a switch flip, and soon . . .

Let’s assume, for a second, that you found yourself walking down Sunset Boulevard one day: not the part they named the Billy Wilder picture after, but east of it where things turn into a kind of hipster-muck (the seeds of gentrification planted) before Sunset turns into to Cesar E. Chavez Avenue where it’s an utterly charmless shithole, a bum-Mecca of skyscrapers and barred windows-and you encounter yours truly, now bald as a baby and robed in white, unblinking and muttering like the nut you undoubtedly think I am. Say you didn’t turn away (you were brave enough, or just curious) from my fire-pregnant eyes.

I’d rattle off some cryptic aphorism with my hand open; you’d nod or grunt and hand me a dollar (or not) and be on your way. But let’s assume, for one mad second, that I told you what I was really thinking. Let’s say I grabbed your face and kissed it and wept and screamed with a sympathy unsolicited that we were bastard brothers, slave-children of an alien race (who never gave a damn about our petty feelings and never read the poet who claimed his soul was unconquerable) long absent but due back any day to use us like livestock because that’s all we were ever created to be-livestock, and nothing more. I could slip your briefcase from your hand so gently and loosen your tie and tell you to cast your cares at my filthy bare feet because I have proof (and I do) that all your toil is idiot shadow play.

Really, what would you do? You’d shit your pants or punch me or both, but you wouldn’t listen. Whatever else a bum says is prelude or coda to the inevitable moment when they ask you for money, or (especially if they don’t ask) it’s just schizophrenic garble from someone probably high and possibly dangerous. But, just hypothetically, let’s assume you believed my every word-let’s assume that you took a knee and begged me to lead you to Tillinghast’s godawful machine. Let’s assume that I did, and he planted you in that metal chair, flipped the switch, and peeled your reality like an onion.

Would it do you any good? Hardly. You’d be robbed of your citizen’s temperament: that thin social membrane keeping you productive and hopeful, and the one invaluable accessory for any non-bum. In its place would be a bottomless hollow, The Great Excuse, crippling and indelible. So, in gratitude for your patronage all these years, for every bill you placed (with looks self-satisfied or self-righteous or at times resentful, all of which I’ll remember, for now, as beatific smiles) in scavenged cups or between fingers unwashed and unashamed, I’ll keep my mouth shut.

I’ll keep my mouth shut, but I can’t stay silent. I’ve written this. I’ll have it printed and cheaply bound and I’ll place it myself in the giveaway rack at the old library in the hope (yes, I find myself now suddenly hoping) that someone capable might find it and believe.

Capable of what? Even now, I can’t say.

 . . . to stay the coming darkness? I know I wrote that, but what a laugh. The darkness is immanent and ubiquitous, our author and finisher. In the quiet I still myself and find it indwelling. I have found the Great Excuse to trump all Great Excuses-but I am heartbroken, restless. Of late, I’ve started praying.

But not to them-Tillinghast demands no loyalty from us, nor do the cosmic monstrosities he serves. Despite our dress and shaved heads and cracked sermons, we seek no converts (though we find them) and peddle no dogma. The new wardrobe and accompanying bad attitude are, believe it or not, entirely voluntary. They are signs by which we know one another: we, who (wretches, every one) were justly deemed untouchable now groan beneath the weight of epiphany (hidden from the wise and prudent, revealed unto bums) so bleak it belied our potpourri of Great Excuses as skin-thin self-justification, our longing for surrender as half-assed; we, who (career-losers, every one) were slapped with revelation so hateful as to prove our failure and entitlement and general piss-on-the-world affect the appropriate response, now despise the validation so bitterly won; we, who (most depraved among men) found at last (and too late) that hope hidden within us all along, too deep for any vice to choke, for some beneficent force to heal and redeem us now stand beyond the rent veil of wrath and tears to behold not shade but horrors ineffable, which render all creation (atom, animal, profligate, saint) unredeemable.

But still I hope. I can speak for no one else, and fan my frail ember in secret-not even Rosie knows. I can barely admit it to myself, for it rests on the simplest deduction: having seen through one veil, I wonder if there might not be another. There is, of course, no reason to suppose that anything but evil crouches in the veil behind the veil. Still, though, I hope. I am mad enough and cannot bear to end my life, so I hope.

We’ve all quit: I quit drinking and Rosie quit junk and everyone’s quit everything. Tillinghast had rooms for us: an unspecified location where there were doctors and nurses (and him) to nurture us through our withdrawals. Not a single relapse.

Head south on the 101, and just before the Silver Lake Blvd exit (beneath which is smuggled our ramshackle tent) you’ll find a big, flat building crowned with a neon sign reading “WESTERN EXTERMINATOR COMPANY.” Now, on the wall of this building there’s a pretty huge mural, bizarre (and bad, and old) enough to worm its way into your subconscious and become iconic if you live here:

A man in a top-hat (looking suspiciously like a certain tycoon from a certain board game), donning a tux, holds a gigantic mallet behind him while brandishing an index finger at some petrified mouse. We know he’s about to smack its bones to smoothie consistency and make the world more pleasant for all of us.

But look closely: are those sunglasses blackening his eyes, or a sleeping mask? Why can’t he be wearing a monocle? You can’t see his eyes . . .

Drunk, I puzzled and chortled and mused over this. But I don’t drink anymore. I see them, and they are enough: panhandling on Hollywood boulevard, I stiffen as arachnoid star-spawn march unnoticed through a throng of tourists; in the soup-line on Los Angeles Street, I see monstrosities pale and vile and elephantine lurch along, trunk-legs passing through cars like ghosts . . .

But there is a statue, an idol of a creature more foul than all this unholy horde, slumped like Rodin’s thinker on that neon crown: its octopod head downcast (jawline broken by tentacles hanging limp), its several eyes shut in a grimace; two great wings line its back, closed; its hands (fat, leathery, amphibian) folded and still, hang like an inverted steeple. Is it mourning?

No one can see it but us. I’ve sat for whole days watching those nightmare things making pilgrimage. They bray awful prayers and dance and writhe in orgy-primal, hungry.

Every night, around the witching hour, St. John Miracle fissures the quiet with howls so alien, so hammeringly loud that echoes roll beyond the veil. Sometimes others howl in answer, barking a dark liturgy. The cry is always the same:

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

I sleep when I can, which is almost never. If I nod off in our tent or on the bus or on a metro bench, that terrible graven image is always before my eyes.

And a great dread rises in me, for I know that Cthulhu does not mourn, but dreams: he is bent in slumber, waiting.

end article

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Jacob Michael King

About Jacob Michael King

Jacob Michael King lives in Southern California. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Shroud Quarterly, Permafrost Magazine, Buffalo Almanack and Cactus Heart. His novelette, “Postmortem,” is available from Onyx Neon Press.