When Ray Tanton announced his retirement, it shocked the nation, or at least the many who read his column in the New Yorker. He had just published his most popular book to date, Everyone is Going to Die: Navigating the Imminent Gigadeath through Guided Meditation. The book, as he pitched it, was a roadmap to reconciling with grief and anxiety in the face of a warming planet. It was backed by cutting-edge research into feedback loops, points of no return, and ocean health, and informed by Socratic thought, Zen Buddhism, and his own proprietary musings.
Despite concerns from publishers about the book’s ominous thesis, audiences proved hungry for a dose of the apocalypse. The book’s sales, as well as the commission from the subsequent book tour, rewarded Tanton handsomely. This is not to imply that he was greedy, or that his book’s admittedly eye-catching title was motivated by the lucrative potential of appealing an already-widespread anxiety. The book was based on real science. He may have only been a journalist, but he had listened to real researchers—researchers who were themselves anxious. It was time to put away the denial and the optimism, Tanton thought, and get real. The end is coming. For me, for you, for everyone and everything. Let’s use what little time we have left and turn ourselves to philosophy; to art; to the self-negating glory of Zen meditation. “You must be terrific fun at parties!” his detractors often quipped. If only they saw things the way he did. Then they would be no fun either.
But Tanton’s family and friends knew him as warm and attentive. He was, at heart, a family man. Even as he prepared his new book, The End of Happiness: Learning to be Content with Everything and Everyone You Care About Dying or Being Incinerated in Rather Short Order, he managed to find time to attend his son’s college football games, and support his wife’s career as an artisial knitter.
So when he announced his sudden retirement from journalism, shock quickly gave way to understanding. While his book would remain unfinished, it was clear to both his publishers and his readers that he was doing so to enjoy his family’s company in the latter years of his—and the Earth’s—existence. Then, he made his second announcement: he was moving to a remote cabin in the Yukon Territory to write poetry and die in solitude. His family would not be invited, either to live with him or speak to him. He would leave them the bulk of his savings and keep the remainder for himself, enough to guarantee their wellbeing, and enough to ensure his short-term survival.
His decision was not well-received, but Ray Tanton did not feel the need to be understood. There were bigger things at stake. It was a serious time and he needed to get serious. No more fluffy non-fiction, no more easy analogies, no more writing for the masses. He would end his days with poetry. He would seal himself in a freezing cabin and squeeze out the poems his mind had silently formed throughout his adult life. Then, having finished his collection, In the Silence of Quiet Spaces, he would promptly shoot himself, if he had not already died of hypothermia or starvation. His possessions would be few. A typewriter and a stack of blank paper. A sack of lentils and a fifth of whiskey. A revolver. A portable turntable and Bach’s greatest, most somber, most epic, most blisteringly human Cello Suite—his Fifth. His final days would be simple, his swan song epic, and having died seriously in serious times, his mission on the doomed Earth would be complete.
He arrived at the cabin in midwinter. He left his Chevrolet at the bottom of the long driveway, parked sideways, blocking entry, as a symbol of his divorce from the human world. It took him several minutes of awkward wrangling to achieve this, but as he looked back at it from behind the broad windows of the cabin, he felt satisfied with the gesture. He unpacked his few things. In the kitchenette, he ate unseasoned lentils. A shot of whiskey burned his throat. A wooden chair creaked under his weight, and he began to write.
Ray Tanton had never written poetry before. He had spent a great deal of his career thinking about himself writing poetry, typically in scenes like this. At times, had even considered what those poems might look and sound like. He liked the idea of using spare language to celebrate natural spaces. He liked the idea of writing a collection of poetry that used the word silence and also the word quiet. Hence: In the Silence of Quiet Spaces. Most of all, Ray Tanton liked the idea of a cold journalist with no creative accomplishments sitting down one day and writing a masterpiece. This masterpiece would not roll from under the presses of a big publisher, at least in his lifetime. It would take the form of an unassuming manuscript, left on his desk and discovered after his death. A coda for his corpse.
So here he was. Sitting in front of his typewriter. About to write a masterpiece. A quiet epic. The wind in the trees. A cloudless sky. All of the ingredients were there; surely the poems would write themselves. He laid his fingers on the keys. Which letter would he press first? A? E? S? What about Q? How many poems began with the letter Q? Maybe he should look one up. But, he reminded himself, this is the whole exercise! The whole point! A remote cabin, in the faraway Yukon. A swan song, entirely free, and authentically uninformed. Childlike. Children. His son. His son who is now a sophomore at Tufts and, last he heard, had done well in his football tryouts. Who might play in varsity. Who might be on TV. The chair creaked again. His throat burned again.
Back into the chair again, running his fingertips over the plastic keys. He pressed a few. The word The appeared on the page. A noble, if conventional choice. Many great poems had begun with The. Could he remember the titles or authors of any? No, but surely such poems existed. Maybe he should’ve brought a collection of poems with him. Elizabeth Bishop, maybe. But no. This was the whole point, the whole exercise! To be alone, write poetry, to die seriously in serious times with serious poetry. Chair creek. Throat burn.
By this time, the floor swayed beneath him and the writing became mercifully easier. Reaching the second page, he found it easier to push away his intrusive thoughts. Evening came, and he had filled five full pages. He trudged around the tall pines and thought somber thoughts. Another glass. Bedtime.
He awoke the next morning to find that the latter half of his five full pages, rather than being what one would conventionally describe as “poetry,” had turned out as a breathless, Joycean affair with an abundance of words and virtually no punctuation.
It was not a complete disaster. It could still be salvaged and reorganised into poetry. But to summon the courage to violate a core artistic principle—no revisions, no rewrites—and to allay his pounding headache, he would need to eat first, and consume what he, in college, had referred to as the hair of the dog. So a handful of lentils, and another drink.
By the end of that second day, Tanton felt confident. He had tamed the unruly jungle of his unrestrained consciousness into simple, bountiful farmland through a bold slash-and-burn. (He had developed a penchant for metaphor. Precocious in a man of his inexperience!) What had once been:
The wind coasts through the trees in a silent waltz taking place
simultaneously all through the world and that too is ending as the
heat ever rises it is a vengeful God a salacious devil denuding the
Earth of all Sacred things O Man! Oh Bountiful Lord! Did I fuck up
when I didn’t tell my family where I am I feel like if a legal matter
were to come up it’s my name on the mortgage still Oh god if they
default on the mortgage they’re going to try to find me and
Was trimmed to:
The Wind coasts through the trees
In a silent waltz.
And through the smoke of the hearth,
The temperatures rise,
Denuding Paradise, O Bountiful Lord!
We have defaulted on our heavenly Mortgage.
The Death Pledge is breached
The Creditor, Creator, is here to collect!
Flee, Debtor, you cannot!
He rolled the paper out of the typewriter and held it in his hands. Evil thoughts crept into his mind. It’s shit, he thought. I have written irremediable garbage. Worse than derivative, it seemed almost parodic. He imagined children laughing at it. Who was going to read it? Who would be left alive in one hundred years to appreciate the bathos that was his poetic oeuvre? No, Ray. He needed to close his mind and do this. He needed to be the poet in the moonlit shack, who left everyone he knew to be alone and die. It was required to justify ever having taken joy in his brief life. As a young man all he had ever wanted was to be a poet. At night he would lie awake in drafty dorm rooms and dream of scrawling words so intelligent and so devastating that anything else he had ever done in life—anything unremarkable, skevy, or just plain wrong—would be forgotten, not expunged from the law or forgiven by heaven, but simply erased from common memory.
As he left this reverie and set down his work from that day, he turned his attention to the portable turntable sitting against a wall. He had brought with him a 10” vinyl of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5. The Rostropovich recording. He loved Rostropovich’s rendition. He loved its grinding slowness, its honesty, and its seriousness. The vinyl left the slip and the needle fell. He poured himself a glass and laid down on the floor, readying himself for a grave intellectual ordeal. But the first notes emitted by the turntable’s small speaker were not the arresting bellows of Rostroprovich’s Prelude but the soft beat of drums. A flute whispered a familiar tune. An orchestra breathed to life. This wasn’t Cello Suite No. 5. This wasn’t even Bach. It was Ravel. It was fucking Bolero. He bolted up and found the slip. Someone put fucking Bolero in the Bach slip. Bolero! Ravel himself had called it a “piece for orchestra without music.”
Tanton stamped around the cabin. Bullshit, he yelled aloud. This whole exercise, this whole mission, an absolute joke! He imagined hidden cameras, strategically placed around the cabin, broadcasting his miseries live across the nation. He imagined himself on SNL. He imagined Jimmy Kimmel, sipping a cup of coffee, almost losing it while a clip of his escapades played for a live audience. The bottle was now in his hand. Bolero grew louder and louder. The more he drank, the angrier he became. A chair crashed to the floor, a lamp shattered against a wall, and as Ravel’s music without music reached its climax he tore the record from the turntable, waltzed into the snow, and threw the vinyl like a frisbee into the trees. He used the typewriter to smash the turntable to pieces. Then he used the floor to smash the typewriter to pieces. But Bolero, impossibly, still played. From hidden speakers, adjoined to the cameras, that same melody, that same idiotic dance screamed and shook the cabin and Tanton flung the empty whisky bottle against the floor and collapsed into a chair, weeping, nose running, as the brass of the neverending Bolero crashed and deafened him. He squeezed his hands against his ears, drew his knees in close, and fell mercifully to sleep.
If you made a cocktail of all the miseries Ray Tanton felt the next afternoon when he awoke, it would call for equal parts physical pain and humiliation, vigorously shaken so as to be indistinguishable. The floor was a starry sky of broken things. He was afraid to put his bare feet on the floor. When he had made it to the kitchenette, he peeled a letter E off the bottom of his foot. The typewriter, he thought. I broke the typewriter. And you know what? I didn’t even bring a pencil.
He cooked the last of his lentils. Out of instinct, his hand reached for the bottle, a bottle now distributed throughout the cabin. He drank water instead. It is all over then, he thought. Today is the day of lasts. Last bowl of lentils. Last gaze into the snowy woods. Last breath of cold Yukon air. Last thought of his family. He would never again hear the somber chords of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5.
He tiptoed around the cabin and gathered together his five full pages of poetry. With a piece of string, he carefully bound them together and lay the stack in the center of the table. In The Silence of Quiet Spaces. His legacy. His coda. On the upside, he would never have to write poetry ever again. He would rather kill himself than write another word. Fortunately, this was an option. Today was the day of lasts.
After trudging through the snow and thinking a few last, serious thoughts, Tanton returned inside and cleared a space on the floor. When he had pictured this moment, he imagined it as a steely ritual, with cascading snow behind a broad window and Bach’s Cello Suite serenading in the background. He had neither. It was a sunny day, and the record he had thought was Bach was now somewhere in the forest. In any event, these were the conditions he was faced with, and now he felt more motivated than ever to get the thing over with and forget that any of this had ever happened. He lifted the revolver from the drawer. He walked over and sat criss-cross in his clean area. A whispered goodbye echoed minutely in the cold cabin. Goodbye wife. Goodbye son. Goodbye world. Goodbye me. He raised the barrel to his temple. His eyes pressed shut, his heart pounded; he stopped thinking and squeezed the trigger.
A full moment passed before Tanton realized he was still alive. His eyes opened and he burst into tears. Confused, angry, relieved, humiliated, he dropped the revolver and pounced over the debris-strewn floor to the cabinet. He held the box of ammunition to his face. Blanks. Blank rounds. You fucking idiot, Ray, you bought blank rounds. He felt something drip onto his shoulder. It occurred to him that he could not hear in his right ear. Well I’m fixing this right fucking now, he heard himself say in his left ear. He burst out of the front door into the snow, tramped down the long driveway, threw himself behind the steering wheel and, for the next ten minutes, haphazardly dislodged his car from his now-aborted gesture of finality. He raced down the road, windows rolled down, the icy air pushing his tears past his face. At the sight of the first Guns Guns Guns sign he came across he whipped the car off the road and clamoured out of it, throwing open a pair of glass doors and striding up to the bearded man at the counter.
“Ammunition,” he said, “where can I find ammunition for a revolver?”
“Sir, are you feeling okay?” His eyes glanced downward. It occurred to Tanton that he had forgotten to put on pants.
“I’m fine, I’m in a hurry, I’m stressed and I need ammunition right now.”
“Okay then, what caliber?”
“What? I don’t know… It’s just a regular revolver. Regular caliber.”
“Sir, you know your ear is bleeding?”
“Yes, I know. I’m on my way to the doctor, that’s why I need ammunition. Now can I please have some fucking regular revolver caliber ammunition?”
“Can I see some ID?”
“You need an ID to buy ammunition,” he said, with a little huff that was almost, not quite, a laugh.
“You need a… I have my passport at home.”
“A Canadian passport?”
“No, you fucking fatass. I’m an American.”
“Well then, I can’t sell you any ammunition.”
“Well then—I’m going home!”
“Drive safe, sir.”
He didn’t. He raced back home, awkwardly manoeuvred his Chevrolet so as to block entrance, and trudged up the driveway to the cabin. Depositing himself in the same clean section of floor where an hour earlier he had intended to die, he resolved that within twenty-four hours his life would be over.
Short of burning down the cabin with himself inside, he tried everything. By the early morning, he had been burned, gashed, lacerated, half-drowned, hanged both right-side-up and up-side-down. He had even tried to run himself over with his own car, an effort that ended in Tanton yet again wrangling the vehicle so as to block entrance to the driveway.
In one, last-ditch effort to terminate his existence, he dislodged his car and drove to the nearest grocery store. He piled as much ground beef into his shopping cart as its little wheels could muster and ignored genuinely concerned questions about his health when he reached the checkout isle. “I’m fine,” he said, “and yes, I need bags.” After what he prayed was the last time he would need to inject his car across the driveway’s entrance, he carried the beef to the bathroom and emptied the plastic containers into the bathtub. When the tub was nearly filled with beef, he disrobed and leapt in. The next several minutes were surprisingly exciting. Had he not been expecting an imminent death, he might have recommended such a beef bath to friends and family. He left the bathroom as bloody and pulpy as the moment he had been born and, opening his front door, ran into the forest and fell onto his face. If hypothermia does not kill me, he reasoned, then a wild animal would finish the job. He shortly fell asleep.
He woke up almost frozen solid. A wild animal had not eaten him, and how he was covered in ground-up, frozen beef. He shuffled back to the cabin like a dejected hamburger patty, ruled unsafe for consumption. A bath, a change of clothes, and a glass of water. He was still deaf in his right ear, and somehow, in yesterday’s innumerable travails, he has lost use of his left eye as well. Perhaps during the ordeal with the car. Or the electrocution. Or a combination of both. None of his other senses seemed to work. The tips of his fingers had been burned away in an outlandish attempt at self-immolation involving the stovetop and several feet of wire. A diet of hard liquor had inflamed his tongue. The freezing air left his nose congested. His body was weak and wracked with pain. He no longer had the energy to want to die, and was satisfied to live, if he could just lie down for a while and not think about anything.
He returned to his clean area of the floor and laid his concussed head against the hardwood. This was the fool-proof, the surefire way to end his life: to do nothing at all. It was a very Zen revelation, he thought. Very appropriate, given that he had spent so much of his life offering solutions to the public’s anxieties in the form of just let it happen. Here he was, just letting it happen.
He became talented at waiting. Contrary to intuition, it is a practicable skill. You get better at it over time. And time becomes more flexible. It seemed that his time in the cabin had begun several months ago, when he had really only been there for four days. But now, things seemed to speed up—or rather, events were crammed into a more compact form. He looked out the window to find a green, summer day. Then he exhaled, and it was winter again. He paused to go outside and look at the stars. He went in to rest, and by the time he came back out, the stars had completely shifted, and then shifted back again. He went back inside and saw a shroud of black smoke trailing across the window facing opposite. An enormous fire blackened the forest surrounding him, sparing his wooden cabin by a familiar turn of luck. By the time the trees and grass had begun to regrow, fire returned. The stars shifted more and more, and eventually the forest did not come back. The surrounding landscape resembled dry savannah more than the big, cold forest. The summers were long and hot, and the winters short and snowless. Different animals resided here, crickets lulled him to sleep each night, and mosquitoes hounded him during the day.
Around this time, he began forgetting that he was alive at all. It shocked him to touch a brass doorknob and found it colder than the surrounding air. This was one of the few things he could still distinctly feel. He would forget to feel and forget how to think. He had no idea what would happen to him during these episodes, but they grew longer and longer, and soon his mind only revisited the plane of the living in select, voluntary moments. He was on a long road trip, and still needed to make pit stops. But the distance between these pit stops was widening, and perhaps, he was getting stronger. First, he would get out and stretch his legs. Then he would simply take his foot off the pedal. Now, he started down the long road and did not foresee ever having to stop again.
He heard a knock at the door. He stayed perfectly still. The knocking persisted and eventually the door swung open. A man, about thirty years old, stood in front of him, waving a hand in his face.
“Hello? Are you alright?”
He returned to consciousness. The windows were broken, the ceiling was sagging, and the chair beneath him had warped under his now-modest weight. A thin, young man was standing in front of him.
“Are you alive?” the young man asked.
He looked up with his one working eye. “Yes,” he said in a voice he had not used in some time. “I think I am.”
“Do you know where you are?”
“I’m in Canada.”
“Do you know what day it is?”
“Do you know what year it is?”
“One of the ones after 2020.”
“Unbelievable,” he laughed. “You still use the old system. You must be fantastically old! Hold on, let me do a quick conversion.” He pulls a piece of paper out of his pocket and taps his finger against it. “2020 corresponds to, holy shit, 23-9. Your brain must be diseased, or you’re just lying. That was two-hundred years ago! The husk of a car I found outside was at least that old, but there’s no way it belonged to you.”
Tanton said nothing. Instead, he waved a hand in the direction of the manuscript. “Well, what’s this then?” the young man asked, looking it over, evidently afraid to pick it up. “Real paper, and real ink,” he marveled, “and this string is nearly falling apart. Are you saying that you wrote this?”
“In the Silence,” Tanton recited, “of Quiet Spaces.”
The other man laughed and repeated the title to himself. “Would you mind if I read it?” he asked excitedly. “As it happens, I am a lyceum instructor. I know you won’t believe the coincidence, but my specialty is the poetry of the early twenty-first century. In fact I’ve developed a number of influential instructional modules on the topic, not to toot my own horn,” he said, adding a chuckle.
Tanton waved him through like a traffic conductor. The string fell away from the papers like ash, and as each page fell face-down onto the table, the man reading would shriek in delight. “Brilliant!” he would say. When he had finished the last page, he gathered them again into a stack and said, “you have to let me take some pictures and show them to my students, these are simply brilliant. This is satire of the highest order and I am astonished to be discovering it only now, in these circumstances! But oh, I should explain why I’m here before I confuse you any further. I am your great-great-great-great grandson. At least, I think I am, if you are who I think you are, and I’m fairly convinced that you are. I was looking at my family records, just out of curiosity, when I came across some archived newspaper columns mentioning that you had gone away to live as a hermit. Of course, I’d already read all of your works. Brilliant, absolutely uproarious comedic works. The way you used yet-uncertain scientific research to play on real, widespread anxiety was, frankly, without precedent, and the gesture was executed perfectly, as I argue in my doctoral thesis. Not that I’m a celebrity or anything. I’m really nobody.”
“But when I read about your departure to this region, I had a feeling that I would find something here, something original and worth sharing with the world. And evidently,” he said, gesturing toward the manuscript, “I was correct!”
Tanton was quiet for a moment. He appeared to be in serious thought. “Satire?” he asked.
The man paused. “Well of course. It’s as plain as day. You took the most sickly, fatalistic poetry of your day and force-fed it pseudo-Miltonian bathos until it bled pure comedy. It’s genius!”
Oh my god, he thought. Satire. It’s funny. He wants to laugh at it. He wants to show it to his students, so they can laugh at it together. He almost started crying, wailing, and beating his frail hands against the punctilious pseudointellectual who stood there slandering the most honest thing he had ever created, the thing that was to justify his existence, that excused, for all time, every instance in which he had ever been a disappointment. But when he looked back up at him, the smile he saw was so undeniably happy, so plainly overjoyed at having read these private words, that Tanton’s own stiff face broke into a smile.
“Please do one thing for me,” he said, still smiling. “My turntable is in pieces all around us. But you have a car here, right? Some kind of speaker? Could you play Bach’s Cello Suite No. 5? The Rostropovich version? I know it’s a long shot to even assume—”
“Well of course, I’d be thrilled to!” the man said, taking the piece of paper from his pocket. He lightly tapped it again, and all around them, the walls and the floor and the sagging ceiling, everything began to sing Bach’s aching chords. They listened in wonder as the narrative expanded and assumed an ever-more-dire character before arriving at one, unbearable moment, and then: “The dance begins!” the standing man exclaimed, pushing away the debris and broken furniture around them, making a clear space. “It begins in the grips of the most perilous drama, and then he turns to dance!” he said, taking Tanton’s withered hand.
“What are you talking about?” Tanton had no clue what this man was getting at. But the man ignored him and hoisted his ancestor’s nearly-weightless body up and away, across the impromptu dance floor, and into a practiced step which circled and circled around the sagging chair, swaying to the sharp cuts of the everpresent cello, twirling and laughing, being completely silly, until finally the old man relaxed into his partner’s embrace and died.
The other man was unsure what to do with his remains. He searched the cabin for personal effects, but only found a passport for a country that had ceased to exist. He buried the stateless remains in the dry grass outside. As he coasted home over the fields, he took the frail manuscript in his hands and began to read again. He laughed the entire trip home.
Cyrus Multhauf is a writer living in Chicago, IL. His interests include words, deeds, and thoughts. If you have a job, please give it to him, as he is likely to fall into a life of petty crime without gainful employment.