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PRINT April 2022

EXCERPT: THE TRUTH ABOUT THE END OF THE WORLD

Nan Goldin, Red sky from my window, 2000, ink-jet print, 31 3⁄4 × 46 7⁄8".

AMONG THE EIGHT previously uncollected works in Semiotext(e)’s reissue of Cookie Mueller’s starry Walking Through Clear Water in a Pool Painted Black is “The Truth About the End of the World,” a mordant doomsday dispatch from the stygian 1980s, somewhere on New York City’s Lower East Side. Here it turns out the real catastrophe is that there isn’t one—no flash, no flare, just disappointment and the inevitable comedown.

Until recently, it had been a long time since I thought about nuclear war. Now it’s all over the news again, reigniting that swiftly tilting feeling that our world’s destruction could occur in an instant instead of being dragged out over years or decades. No plagues, no escalating climate disasters, just some man and a button. And I sympathize with Joanna, Mueller’s protagonist, high and earnestly examining her maps, hoping to just put a pin in it somewhere, to get it right; hoping that in so doing she can take her life’s last seconds back into her own tired hands.

Mueller was an acronical muse, beatified by those greats with special night vision: Nan Goldin, Gary Indiana, John Waters. But her gifts radiated beyond her image, and the essays and stories in Walking, out this month, effuse Mueller’s hard-boiled charm, her eerie way of transmuting the apocalypses of the moment into timeless fable.

David Velasco

LATE ONE NIGHT after Joanna put her two kids to bed, she sat down at the kitchen table with a bottle of Rémy Martin, the Bible, an ephemeris, an atlas, a calculator, and seven grams of cocaine. By eleven in the morning, after endless exhaustive calculations, deciphering, deducing, and reading, she came to the conclusion that by the date September 2 of that year, only two days away, the world would come to an end. Very few people would survive. Civilization would be destroyed. Most of the planet would be under rubble or water. There were just a few places to go to escape the inevitable end.

It was all there in the ephemeris, the book of the chartings of the moon and planets. It was also there in the Bible in Revelations and then, too, calculators don’t lie. In her atlas, she had circled points on the map of the Earth where it would be safe to go when the cataclysm began. She had used the longitudinal and latitudinal numbers correctly, she knew. She then drew lines intersecting each point of safety on the map, and these lines formed symbols and images that further proved that her discovery was correct.

It wasn’t the occult. It was real, there it was in black-and-white. Scientists and physicists working on problems like these would have done no better, she prided herself.

There was no doubt at all. Truth was truth. There was no escaping it. She had overlooked nothing in her vast research.

She would have to act quickly, she hadn’t much time. Her two roommates, who were just waking up, had to be warned, and her children who were watching Saturday-morning cartoons would have to go through a strict training period to steel themselves for the rigors ahead. She would call the news services, the papers, and the radio stations and TV. She would naturally provide all the conclusive evidence.

She sensed that other people had been feeling it too. It was in the air, the feeling of impending doom. Everyone was sensing it, she had realized. Even her dog and cat, the psychic barometers, had been experiencing uneasiness for the past week or so. Animals are more psychically aware, she had read many years ago. They always know about an impending disaster before it happens. Look at the way they act before a storm, when birds fly lower and cows in pastures lie down. She knew it had to do with the air pressure. It was denser. Well, the same type of vibration pressure had been weighing on her mind. She had had a picture in her mind every day for the past week. It came into her head every day until she couldn’t stand it anymore, and that was when she sat down at the kitchen table and figured it all out . . .

One of the roommates came into the kitchen. “You look a little wiped out, Joanna.”

“What do you mean, Alex?” she asked, rather on pins.

“Well . . . sort of wild eyed. Have you been up all night snorting that stuff again?” He pointed to the folded snow seal that now contained five and a half grams of cocaine.

“I couldn’t sleep . . . but it’s not the cocaine. I’m in shock, Alex.”

“What is it, Joanna?” Alex asked, concerned.

“I’ve just figured something out.” Joanna’s voice shook.

Alex felt the weight of the sentence, was floored by the intensity of her eyes, so he was speechless. Joanna stared at him, her eyes burning into his Foster Grant light-sensitive glasses. When he regained his composure, he said, “What is it? What’s happened?”

“This is going to be a shock, Alex. You better prepare yourself. You better sit down and have a drink.”

He poured himself a tall one. Actually, Alex never needed any encouragement when it came to drinking.

Joanna at first wondered if Alex would believe her, but she dismissed this thought as rapidly as it had fired across her brainpan. Of course he would believe.

She sensed that other people had been feeling it too. It was in the air, the feeling of impending doom.

She wondered if he would comprehend the complexities intellectually. Or would he be bowled over by the enormity of the crisis? He had always been a sensitive sort and very optimistic about humankind. But then she remembered that he was an astrology buff and she relaxed a bit. Yes, he would understand the ephemeris, at the very least.

So she told him slowly, evading the real point, setting up the figure first. Intermittently, he swallowed his brandy and took snorts of cocaine. By the time she had gotten to the point, Alex had done a half gram. He picked up the ephemeris and pored over it. He inspected the map, checked the Bible, and used the calculator. Then he sadly shook his head.

“Yes, Joanna. It’s true. I can’t believe it . . . but it’s true.” He was pale and the pupils of his eyes were very large, the way pupils look when someone takes too much LSD.

They talked for another hour or two, did some more of the cocaine.

Calculations and facts kept falling into place, lining up perfectly, fitting like keys into specially made locks.

Joanna’s kids came into the kitchen.

“Where’s dinner, Mom?” the fattest one asked.

“No dinner tonight. Peanut butter and jelly are in the fridge,” she said, thinking that in a few days health wouldn’t matter. We’re all going to slide, slide, slide. At a time like this, how could she make hamburgers and broccoli?

Alex and Joanna studied the world map, trying to choose a place where they should go to be safe. They looked at the places circled: the Azores (where Atlantis must have been), the site of the great pyramid in Egypt, Stonehenge, Peru at the Nazar land scrawlings, the Tower of Babel site, St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the Bermuda Triangle, Easter Island, and Newark, New Jersey.

“Why Newark, New Jersey?” Alex asked.

“I don’t really know, but I’m sure my calculator isn’t wrong. Newark might have some kind of odd force we don’t know about.” Joanna was sure there must be some messiah growing up in Newark. There must be some explanation. Newark? Somehow it just wasn’t anything like all those other places.

“Well, then we have to go there as soon as possible,” Alex said with determination.

“Today.” Joanna was relieved that it was only about an hour’s drive away.

The other roommate came into the kitchen at this point and looked at both of them. Her name was Laura.

“What are you two guys doing in here for so long? Boy, you both look like you’ve seen a ghost or something.” She poured herself a glass of orange juice. Joanna wondered how Laura could even think of drinking orange juice at a time like this.

“We’re going to Newark, New Jersey, right this minute. We’ll explain on the way. Get in the car, Laura, and don’t ask questions,” Alex said and got up to get his car keys.

“Don’t forget to bring the cocaine,” he said to Joanna.

“What’s all this about?” Laura asked.

“I’ll get the kids ready,” Joanna said and got up.

They all went to Newark and checked into a room at the Ramada Inn. There they waited it out. Laura left and went back to New York when she found out what was going on.

“You’re both crazy. It’s the cocaine. Don’t you see that?” She laughed and told them she would see them back on the Lower East Side when the cocaine ran out.

A few minutes after midnight on September 3, Alex, Joanna, the two kids, the dog, and the cats got into the car and headed back to New York. All the cocaine had been gone for seven hours and the world looked to them like it was going to go on for another few million years. Looking at the lights of Newark, New Jersey, through world-weary eyes, Alex and Joanna were incredibly depressed.

Cookie Mueller