American Inferno (Chapter 1)

16 May

Nearing the age of 30, I got lost in a subway tunnel, standing on the tracks themselves, unable to figure out how I got there.

It scares the hell out of me to remember because it was dirtier and darker than any subway station in New York. It had been abandoned and I was the only living creature there, besides the giant screeching rats. I’d rather be dead than go back there, but the saying must be true that there are blessings in disguise, for eventually I learned from everything terrible I saw and found myself a better man for it.

I hadn’t had a drink in years, but I must have started again somehow and then blacked out to get there. Or maybe it was a punishment for drinking again, and falling off the path of sobriety, even doing drugs. Someone must have slipped a tab of LSD in my sixth coffee of the day.

I walked down the tracks, jumping with fear whenever a rat crossed my path and eventually found that the tunnel expanded into a great space with a hill at the end. A hill illuminated with a green glow-in-the-dark radiation. I knew it was where I wanted to be even though I couldn’t make it there, not yet, but it gave me hope that if I kept on my path, I would find a way out of the darkness, both physical and spiritual. Though afraid, I was no longer terrified.

Ever since I was a kid I was fascinated by the immensity of a long drop, looking down from the Empire State building, or the World Trade Center before it was taken down. I was afraid and exhilarated knowing that one wrong move would send me hurtling down, how fragile life was, and how beautiful and powerful the world which led us to death, just like this place of the dead which was starting to become more clear as I walked forward.

After the adrenaline ceased and my heart slowed, aided by breathing I’d learned in a yoga class, I kept walking, as fast as I could up the hill, but a wildcat got in my way. Suddenly I found myself wondering if it had escaped from the New York City Zoo and I reached in my pocket for my cellphone which wasn’t there. And even if it had been, there would have been no bars, no wifi, no Long Term Evolution. I couldn’t tell if it was a jaguar or a leopard. I tried to continue on the path, but the wildcat jumped and blocked me, keeping me away from the radiant hill. What seemed to be artificial lights started to illuminate the passage as if I were in a simulation of dawn. Since I was afraid of the dark, I took this to be a good sign and rejoiced at this otherwise harmless creature, but when a Lion jumped in front of me, growling and slobbering at the mouth, this feeling of warmth and safety left me. And then suddenly there was a wolf, which looked even hungrier as I could see its bones swelling out from its tattered coat, a giant canine rat with rabies. I was reminded of the wolves in fairy tales, hiding themselves, and eating whatever they could with their insatiable appetites. I was reminded of myself and every other greedy man and woman in the city. It made me feel worthless, that I’d never become a good man with such a tarnished soul. The wolf continued to lead me away from the lighted hill and chased after me until I was able to open and close a door in the wall. An old janitor’s closet, perchance, but I found myself back in darkness.

     Then I felt I was no longer alone in this closet which had now expanded into an immense room, but it was not a room anymore. I knew I was no longer in the New York subway, not even on a long abandoned track.  I made out a figure which I knew was human or who at very least used to be human.

     “Whoever you are, please help me,” I said.

     “I’m nobody,” the voice said. “Not anymore. I used to be someone though. Someone named Walt Whitman.”

     “Walt Whitman?” I said. “I’ve read you. My name is Andrew Adams. It’s strange, we have the same birthday.”

     “I know, that’s partly why I was chosen to lead you through here.”

     “Lead you through where?”

     “Why, The American Inferno, of course.”

     “What?”

     “Yes, The American Inferno, one poet leading another through hell.”

     “I’m not a poet.” I said.

     “You aren’t?” Walt Whitman asked.

     “No, I’m mostly a writer of prose, novels and short stories mostly, but also screenplays and plays.”

     “Oh, that’s strange. I thought that I was your greatest influence and that you think of me often, that I am your muse even.”

     “Sorry, Walt,” I said. “I guess it’s just the birthday. I read a few of your poems in high school though, and you’re not bad,” and then added, “you’re really good, even!”

     “Thanks, Andrew,” he said, “Well, we are both Geminis and I guess that has to mean something.”

     “Yeah, of course,” I said, but don’t think I was very convincing.

     Walt Whitman sighed.

     “So, how do I get out of here?”

     “You have to come with me, your –, a poet to lead the writer, you have to go to hell to come back to heaven.”

     “Am I dead?”

     “Not quite,” he said. And I knew he would have had more to say, excited just as Geminis are excitable, if he had thought I was his greatest fan and posthumous protege. He settled for, “We have to get away from those beasts because they signify all the bad things in the human heart and the more you feed them the stronger they get. The only way out of here is through The American Inferno.” He sighed again. “I’ll guide you through.”

     “You mean, just as the long way out?”

     “No,” he said, “I’ve been instructed to show you everyone here in the American Inferno, so that you can learn from their mistakes, see the way they suffer, and then become a better artist and person.”

     “Okay, thanks Walt.”

     “Don’t mention it. It’s my job to do this sort of thing. I could never really get into heaven because of some things you have probably read about.”

     “I haven’t. What did you do?”

     “Forget it.” he said, “Follow me.”

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