The World Didn’t End, Things Just Got Blurry

"There and There and There and There" by Alexander Lumans, recommended by Brandon Taylor

INTRODUCTION BY BRANDON TAYLOR

There was a time when reading fiction set in a world torn apart by climate catastrophe and capitalism gave me an eerie feeling of near recognition—it’s the vertigo we feel when we encounter a fable, that weightless reorientation of the moral imagination. But these days, the end of the world feels less like some hypothetical big-bang and more like an ever unfolding now: a series of small actions, the choices made in individual lives and by individual governments. We are all world killers. Which is to say, I’m hungry for fiction that gets in the weeds and gets personal, cheek to jowl, with our common fate.

Alexander Lumans has written such a story in “There and There and There and There.” In many ways, it is a simple story. Our narrator arrives at the trading post seeking a blanket. What do the women at the trading post want in exchange for the blanket? Art, they say. At the end of the world, art still has some value. It is a touching thought in a story that has heart but isn’t sentimental about itself. The world has been unmade. A dense fog hangs low over everything. There are cannibals. Wild animals. She must make her trek to the museum.

There is a plot, certainly, a simple, direct one, as direct as the route from the trading post to the museum can be in such dense conditions, but the engine of this story is language. Lumans is a heady, philosophical writer of ropey, taut sentences. His narrator struggles with a kind of aphasia—words go missing on her, seeming to dissolve mid-thought—that is perhaps an effect of the fog, and this struggle results in sentences that veer into strange, unexpected directions. There is a kind of physicality to the language in this story, not merely its capacity for concrete description, but in a more sculptural way as some of the words seem to fade right out of the text.

To say the world is ending doesn’t complete the picture. Instead, do as Lumans asks: feel for this person stumbling through fog and cold in search of beauty so that she might be warm again.

Brandon Taylor
Senior Editor, Recommended Reading 

The World Didn’t End, Things Just Got Blurry

“There and There and There and There”
by Alexander Lumans

All the quality blankets: gone. They hadn’t vanished in some magical boom of smoke; everyone from our camp simply reached the wall by sunrise, commenced their trading with the women there, and now look who’s appearing out of the noon-time fog: me. The last wave to wash upon the shore of opportunity, aka really, really late. Yes, I really wanted a quality blanket over a current blanket. Current blanket: just, fuck. Bad wool, surprise, was badder than anyone realized. As comfortable as pine needles and as warm as a dead dog. Those earlybirds to the trade lot got to upgrade. One of us now had a nice wolverine fur blanket. And one of us now had a nice ermine fur blanket. And one of us now had a nice possum fur blanket with sleeves. And one of us now had a very nice snow leopard fur blanket, and most of us hadn’t even known of leopards’ existence in snowy climes or that their spotted fur looked like bread mold, felt like soft hope.

Winter had come early with the stalling cold and with the fog nowhere near gone. I couldn’t remember words to describe what the fog did, but what had fog ever really done? It blanketed, yes, but also, too obvious. It clouded? It devoured? It enshadowed without prejudice? It blurred, what, lines or nightmares or wants or cannibals? What I knew: the fog made day feel colder than all night combined. In our bivouac camp we’d already burned everything. Dictionaries lasted the longest. We all agreed on this as the fire died down and we crawled under current blankets. Even before we burned all the dictionaries, words were disappearing. It once took me an entire day to remember the name for those deep openings in the earth—no, not valleys or volcanoes—that’s it, crevasse. Meanwhile, I could no longer distinguish between types of makeup applicators and farm machinery; they all sounded frightening and the same. Blemish sorter? Closed-cell wedge? I at least still knew the small difference between blanket and casket.

The women at the wall then made an announcement to those of us at the trade lot. They had one quality blanket left: pony fur. A miniature pony, at that. But the blanket wasn’t miniature. Didn’t know how that worked. A gray area. Maybe two ponies? Probably four? But who had four miniature ponies with which to make one quality blanket? Miniature used to mean cute and rare; now it meant less getting lesser. All to say: still a very, very expensive quality blanket. Because what was money anymore, besides whatever someone else wanted it to be? Yes, even poison oak leaves could have been money. Or not. Think about it. Pony fur. And I know what you’re thinking: Pony fur? But it was important for me to want something when all I did was needneedneed. Want = choice. And my choice was to have the skins of four miniature ponies circling my shivering body all winter day. I had little extra money. I had little extra humanity.

No one else wanted—needed—the pony fur blanket. They just left for camp with their furry grails shimmering down their shoulders, leaving me at the wall alone, in need, a little in hope, a little afraid of it.

The women at the wall told me, “Hell no,” when I tried to barter what I had for the pony fur blanket. I offered them many sunglasses. I’d scavenged them from a hut in a mall that had already been very scavenged except for the hut. At the time I’d thought to call it luck; I didn’t realize it was better called my luck. A large gray area. Still, that was the day I thought my future was becoming much clearer. Many sunglasses would solve everything. My ticket to warmth and whatever else I could want after warmth. Then the women at the wall said, “What good are sunglasses when—” and they gesticulated in every direction including up.

The fog. There and there and there and there. Like it was becoming bigger. More getting more. Desperation was the only thing in the world not getting smaller. For that I’d been trying to compensate.

It was important for me to want something when all I did was needneedneed. Want = choice.

One of them tried on a pair of the sunglasses from my backpack full of many sunglasses. She looked directly at me like I was something bright. I felt colder and less in control of my life, of which I did not feel very much in control that day after sleeping in. She tugged the pair halfway down her nose and said, “You know these are prescription lenses, right?”

“Of course,” I lied, thinking, Me = Idiot. And yes, that was the word, finally: lenses. In my head I’d been calling them eye-windows or nothing at all.

The women at the wall said, “We want guns,” saying it like I didn’t know what that word meant. I almost didn’t anymore. “Guns and art,” they told me.

I gave them my only handgun from my backpack. No bullets. “More than enough,” I said.

“It’s half-enough,” they said. “Now bring us the other half. The art-half.”

“Sunglasses are art,” I said, thinking, Me = Prescription Idiot.

“If sunglasses are art,” they said, “then the world should have ended right before their invention.”

“The world didn’t end,” I said extra-despondently, craving seller’s pity. “Things just got…blurry.”

“Blurry, hazy, deathly, disappearing—whatever,” they said. “The walls inside our wall are gray and boring. We’re most afraid of the cannibals in the city. Plus, you know, the fog,” like the fog was a very, very ugly neighbor who had just moved in across the street and liked to mow the lawn at midnight. A nightmare inside a nightmare.

This happened to be my worst nightmare: falling into a hole inside one you already fell through.

I said, “At least you have walls,” and then decided that the world ended differently for different people, sometimes not at all, and that was okay as long as it didn’t guarantee a cold-related death for me.

“Original art,” they said. “Not some shower curtain Starry Night. Can you say Target clearance rack?”

“I need more than that,” I said, meaning hints on general survival or at least on material satisfaction.

“A Duchamp,” they said. “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” they said. “You know,” they said, beginning to shimmer. They retreated inside the wall with the pony fur blanket, drew up their drawbridge. It looked like the lid of an eye closing but not exactly because this one closed up instead of down and it was not shaped like an eye and I couldn’t remember if the word was eyelid or something else and what was wrong with me?

This was the problem with people saying “you know.” No one ever actually knew. I certainly didn’t know art. But I didn’t say I didn’t. No matter what, couldn’t help deeming this strange—not strange because why would someone want good original art at a time like this, but strange in that the crux of their value system seemed to hold the once mostly unimportant artistic field now as a warm and lonely jewel deeply vital to survival, even happiness. A lot like saying frisbees had become the gold standard and weren’t we lucky to be queens of our own suffering. Wanted more advice than “you know” but I hated asking questions. It seemed like, since the fog, answers always complicated more than they did the opposite.

Are there cannibals out there in the urban sprawl?

Will I die before I am ready—I mean, will I die before, I don’t know, before I’m forty-two?

Why did I ask stupid questions in times that called for smart ones?

Where does loneliness come from?

There.

I left the wall and I walked toward the nearest city and I knew I couldn’t come back to camp with anything that wasn’t a quality blanket. Social suicide.

In walking, I stuck to non-major roadways siphoning into downtown. Cannibals liked major roadways. And eating people. Two things I did know. I knew also that even though the cannibals avoided the mall and the campus and the cemetery and the amphitheater, I needed to avoid these places too; the ones back in camp who’d been raped but survived their near-fatal predations warned the rest of us where these men lived and frequented.

To keep my mind off the cold—that is, to keep myself extra vigilant and extra-extra sharp while the fog kept dulling every sense and every surface into a rock-smooth gray—I tried to remember words. I discovered many gray areas that inspired more. If someone dies, are they still a “person”? If not, and if we eat a dead “non-person,” are we still cannibals? If we’re still cannibals, can we still go to the big church on Sunday and take delicious Communion? If we are eating of Christ’s body, doesn’t that make everyone who’s a Christian also already a cannibal?

Downtown. Walking through the fog, then momentarily out of it, but really only in it much, much more than I could tell. The museum was somewhere. I was somewhere other than that somewhere. I kept on walking. Crossed some railroad tracks without realizing it until I looked back; in so much gray there appeared farther down the tracks a grayer gray thing. A boxcar, all by itself. No other railcars or moldering engine or spray of dead cattle or stray prophet extolling the world’s new end. Everyone used to tell each other that you could be anything you wanted—just try. Tell that to trains. Tell that to the coldest person.

The railcar’s sliding door hung half-open, baring this thin strip of abyss. I went closer to it, thinking: blankets? before I backed away from it, thinking: mystery, miseries, mini-series, my story. Because I could read the railcar’s graffiti above the sliding door: There are definitely not some cannibals in here.

I didn’t like the sound of that but I was also confused. Complete sentence, prepositional phrase, punctuation, the whole gauntlet. Cannibals ≠ grammarians.

Once far enough back, I threw a rock. At the height of its arc: regret. I knew the rock would go far, bong the railcar’s side, and for a second there’d be something like peace on earth—then, immediately, a hundred-plus cannibals would come streaming out of the railcar because There are definitely not some cannibals in here. was definitely what some in-here cannibals would graffiti on the side of their sneak attack site.

I ran; not ashamed to say so.

While running, I lost a shoe; felt differently about that.

Once hidden behind a bridge, I waited to hear the cattledoor slide fully open before the pounding of cannibal feet. Thought I smelled smoke, heard birds. I badly wanted to hear birds, nothing else. Why did I always throw rocks—that is, why did I throw rocks at the most dangerous parts of the world?

No noise. I was safe. Also not: my shoe, left, back there. I pictured the cannibals coming upon it before yelling into the fog: “This better not be the shoe of the failure who threw a rock at our sneak attack site!”

Yeah: way more shame. No way would I continue on like this. Plus, nowadays, tetanus (behind cannibals and cold and cluelessness) was the number four killer. So I crept back toward the railcar.

There the shoe was. And there, also, a bird as black as sunglasses—Crow. Vulture. Ostrich. Hellspawn.—whatever it was was trying to yank out my shoelace and mostly succeeding. I tried to sound smart: crow.

With no gun, what else to do; I threw a rock. To all my surprises and also to the crow’s, the rock thunked the bird perfectly off my shoe. Dead. Whoa, I thought, maybe I should throw more rocks at more things. I slid on my shoe and also considered kicking the crow. Were cannibals and crows friends? Allies? Did they just hang out? Was that a stupid question or a smart one? I was about to kick it when it ca-cawed or whatever the word. I looked anywhere for a rock. I stared through the fog in the direction of the railcar like that would change anything about fog. Then I knew I heard birds. Instead of cannibals, hundreds of in-here crows came streaming out of the railcar’s door. They filled the sky like nothing I could name. They came for me.

Birds.

I ran, thankful for two shoes and fog and a near-constant state of corporeal hypervigilance but not the consequences of returning anywhere emptyhanded.

I lost them while I got more lost. Kept on running. “Sound smart,” my mother used to say, “and everyone will believe you are.” I believed her until I didn’t. Now I was only interested in further being what I was. Everything except cold, shoeless, in danger of others’ predations, preparing to be eaten. To become anything I wasn’t already? That invited shame into the picture. And shame, like cannibals, ate the heart first. Some words needed to disappear so that no one remembered their old meanings or their new executions. Some of these words = mall, = campus, = cemetery, = amphitheater. Other words = shame, = need , = corporeal hypervigilance, = failure. I couldn’t tell my mother any of this. I kept running somewhere.

That’s how I found the city art museum.  

It slowly appeared out of the fog. And here it was again, the word problem, what the fuck did fog do? Let’s say this: it acted the way a large wave acted upon a shore, taking it for its own gain. Let’s say it wrapped the building like a shawl belonging to the apprehensive elderly. None of this was right. Through broken windows the fog engaged the rooms. Every corner it suffused, if that was the right word. Suffuse = word? Whether the world had ended or not, someone needed to not torch all the dictionaries for warmth. They’re like bridges. Burning them was always a good idea.

Until you did.

The museum: had a bad feeling here. But: pony fur. So: my luck versus my, what?

In the lobby, a tall and plastic red ostrich guarded the staircase. It had no eyes. Or rather, it had eyes, but no pupils or anything that looked like an eye. Not good art. Not art, even. I shuddered, thinking I suddenly needed another rock to throw. Also: looked fucking heavy.

Had one of the women said she preferred tall portraits or sculptures of iron? Wished I‘d paid more attention but had been busy running my fingers over the pony fur blanket before slipping into a reverie in which I destroyed a lot of malls, grew weary from individualized destruction, and bedded down for the day in a pile of miniature ponies. They were all headless.

As I decided the red ostrich looked stupid and not dangerous in the fog, some other part of me decided I only had one chance at a quality blanket trade with the women at the wall. After that, I’d just be Oh, her. Same as Christmas. Back when someone would give me a shitty gift, I knew they’d give me a shitty gift the next year too. “Oh,” I’d say, “an aquarium shaped like a TV. That’s…an invention.” And next December I’d be saying the same: “Oh, a TV shaped like an aquarium. That’s…something?”

The first-floor gallery sign read “New Landscapes.” Yes: boring. All I wanted—needed—: grainy Kelvin-filtered photos of some abandoned drive-in theater with a title like Facile Disseminations of Humanity’s Plutarchy (I). I didn’t need to visit art museums to know that landscapes endured gladly without our approval.

Before I did the next inevitable thing in my life, I visited the gift shop. Feeling like I owed myself something positive for just getting here alive, I ate a bag of astronaut ice cream. Neapolitan. It tasted like you would think, like it was missing something fundamental. Also, I found in the shop a small but heavy bookend. The back half of a horse. Thanks to whomever took the front. My luck. Sometimes I felt headless. Still: the back half of a horse bookend could become a positive weapon to bring down on a cannibal’s head before the others chased, caught, ate, etc.  

Upstairs most of the art was already scavenged or destroyed. The contemporary wing was bare.

However, in one far corner, a silent video was still showing. The title card read Snow Monkeys in Texas. The snow monkeys were inspecting a pile of snow the artist had shipped from the Arctic Circle and dumped in a prairie outside Lubbock. Snow monkeys, unlike snow leopards, were not real. No way. Not in Texas. Plus, their wiry gray fur did not look pertinent to the—what?—of a quality blanket or humanity.

Hope was walking into a foggy museum in search of good art without a gun.

In the video the snow monkeys looked at the snow. They played with the snow. They ate the snow. They let the snow sift through their prehensible fingers. Then they wouldn’t leave the snow alone. They wrestled over handfuls of snow. They attacked each other savagely for the snow. They killed each other for the snow. The snow grew redder and redder with snow monkey blood. The last four snow monkeys grew desperate. They circled the snow like cowboys protecting their wagon from attacking Indians. They made a peace pact to protect the snow no matter what. Then the snow monkeys killed each other some more. Finally, one snow monkey remained, surrounded by snow and other snow monkey bodies. That’s what happened when you got exactly what you wanted: you were alone. The lone snow monkey looked at the snow. While it was looking, the snow melted away completely under the fatal Texas sun. That’s also what happened when you got exactly what you wanted: you were even more alone. The lone snow monkey then looked directly at the camera with a snow monkey face that said, Fuuuuuuuuck. The video ended. The video began again. Snow Monkeys in Texas = art? Yes, lots of gray areas here. No clues.

I left the contemporary wing for the “Western Art” gallery and thought maybe, maybe.

Right away, this one painting, still there, miraculously, dim through the fog. It was called The Stagecoach. That word, yes, familiar, but it felt like a bridge to no meaning—was I getting worse?

I got up close to the painting and squinted at its large image and it just got blurrier. Hope was walking into a foggy museum in search of good art without a gun. The more it grew, the more desperation grew alongside it—until you couldn’t tell the difference.

In the painting, a stagecoach was driven by cowboys across a bridge over a crevasse. The stagecoach was being attacked by horse-riding Indians in front of a large golden bluff that looked more like a wave than a rock. The painting looked expensive—would fetch a million frisbees. And Rockwell: definitely a good name. I wanted—needed—it. Death, color, clear and present brushstrokes, some horses = perfect.

The painting stretched as wide as my arms and the frame looked maybe a little awkward with its weird—degree? pedigree? filigree? debauchery? Still tried to lift it from the wall. Did so successfully. But, very heavy. It slipped. Tried to catch it. It landed on the floor against my knee. I pushed it off, looked at the thing, and tried to quickly scheme a way out of my current problems.

I said “against my knee” but the right words were: “my knee went completely through it.”

The mesa bluff remained the hue of melted butter. The horses still looked as wild in the eye as the few alive today. But where the arrow-wracked stagecoach had been rolling across the desert bridge: now a hole. As if the canvas had been shot through by a miniature cannon. I thought of this painting as my one chance. I thought of this painting as my only chance. Those were not the same thing. Chance was suffused with suffering, yes? Stupid knee. I imagined the four miniature ponies all running away from me in different directions, yelling, “Ooooooooo, we’re so warm!” but it took a while because their legs weren’t as long as medium ponies’, so I watched until there and there and there and there they disappeared without me.

Why was I alone, I wondered in the museum of fog, and where were all my dead friends now?

I left that gallery for the lobby. No pony fur blanket for me—this felt like a new hole in the painting that was my life, and, very likely, that life now included cannibals waiting outside the museum with crows and a miniature cannon, so, some preparations were necessary to meet them head on, but no gun (the stupid half-trade still burned in me like a bridge to nowhere), and it was now clear my future had tiptoed into grimness without my notice. I announced my arrival and my departure: “I’m smart!” heading for death and the exit.

The red ostrich’s foot tripped me onto all fours. One day I might point to this spot on the lobby floor and tell the surrounding crowd, “Right there is where the offending bird tripped me and thusly changed everything,” to which everyone there would respond by saying, “Are you real?”

Why was I alone, I wondered in the museum of fog, and where were all my dead friends now?

Shame felt like warmth until you realized you were still—shimmering? shivering? silvering? suffering?

Needing this next moment to go better because I had never handled embarrassment well, I reached into my backpack. I pulled out the half-horse bookend. I brought it down hard on the red ostrich’s head.

The head caved in. No throwing rock needed. The ostrich was hollow. The ostrich was empty. The gray area between calling something hollow and calling something empty was so miniature as to be the kind of thing that melted away under squinting scrutiny. I didn’t need another lesson about the nature of the world. It was empty and hollow, yes—that’s why I’d been trying, however I could, to fill it.

Don’t go, I thought.

Stay longer, I thought.

Those were not the same thing.

Then, there: the gallery sign for “New Landscapes.”

I didn’t need another lesson about the nature of the world. It was empty and hollow, yes—that’s why I’d been trying, however I could, to fill it.

I imagined. Epics of carbonated waterfalls. One lone ship lost at bladed sea. Something like a river but negative and silver and caught disappearing on glossy paper. None of that sounded good. If I showed up at the wall with anything less than perfect, the women would take one look at my barter—say, cropfield-plus-treeline-plus-half-clouded-sky in watercolor—and they’d say, “Oh, good, I’m so glad you brought us motel art. We didn’t know if we could be more bored. What do you call this? Is it Loneliness with Wheat?”

The exhibit’s glass doors: I looked right through them and realized they were intact. No fog inside, no scavengers. I waited like there was something worth waiting for, there, on the other side of now. I waited more. I began to half-feel like a miniature pony, pre-slaughter and still shivering with my own fastidious thoughts. Was it strange to only have children and miniature adults ride you down the trail? Did evolution just give up at some point? Did that explain snow monkeys in Texas? Wasn’t a miniature pony just a small horse? This could have gone on. Did miniature ponies want something—say, to be more? Did something miniature even know that it was miniature in comparison to the rest of the shrinking world? Did miniature also mean vulnerable and vulnerable also weak and weak also doomed to die by the age of forty-two? Or was it one of those things no one talked about anymore because it was too difficult to remember life without it, like abject loneliness and current blankets?

Like that, stupefied into action, in I went. Of course, bad feelings abounded.

“This is stupid,” I said, thinking, Me = Miniature Idiot with Wheat.

The first corner revealed a room covered in giant black and white photographs all called: Untitled (Swamp). The photographs looked more like closeups of receding hairlines. No wonder the world ended.

In the next room, I found the photograph of a gray dress draped over a dead tree in some snowy forest that could have been someone’s backyard and someone else’s rejected bridesmaid’s attire. I shimmered. Loneliness with Wheat sounded better and better. I kept wandering toward an expected exit.

On one long wall hung a series of small photographs of the same ghost town. Small = not heavy = very promising = miniature pony fur blanket here I come. But all the photos felt like the drive-in theater idea. Very promising but very obvious. Like here I was, scavenging landscape art and absconding from cannibals and living in hard times with tremendous fog that did something all while being a cold woman who was afraid of doing stupid things even when no one was there and alive to watch. Wished I could call myself the synonyms for “smart,” but when I stepped back from it all, wordless, I only saw myself disappear.

Four of the framed photos had gone askew: a wig shop, a fountain, a teriyaki place, a small blast furnace. If these were my very last chances, I was going to hurt somebody with a half-horse bookend.

Leaving “New Landscapes,” coming to stand next to the headless red ostrich, not tripping, I squinted out the museum’s entrance into the fat wave of fog, expecting to catch the confirming glint of a bone knife. I could see nothing. I could see everything. Those were the same thing.

I realized I had not seen actual landscape in some time. Barely a field or a treeline or clouds in the shape of a flightless bird, let alone a horizon beyond which other things mattered differently than here. A place where Need never tripped up the likes of Want or Hope or Words or Warmth. Over that there grassy hill, snow leopards and frisbees for all.

So, I went back and stole the four photographs. Piled them in my backpack next to the half-horse bookend on top of the many sunglasses. However, instead of buoyed, my confidence felt punctured by something I could no longer name and then dropped into a crevasse inside a larger crevasse—I watched it disappear from the edge. Thought of the last snow monkey. How it watched the snow melt away for good between the bodies of the others, then thought, what? I feared the next shame more.

I know what you’re thinking. But I would not be trading the photographs for a quality blanket. I would not be trading humanity for miniature versions of it. I know what you’re still thinking.

Of course, the cold. Of course, a miniature pony fur blanket did amazing things to cold, depending on remaining dictionaries. Of course and of course, desperate people committed desperate acts, just as comfortable people committed desperate acts commiserate with their comfort level. Did not count myself in either camp. I was tired of being attacked, not attacking. See: snow monkeys. See: cowboys. See: crows and ostriches. See: gray areas. Me = ready to become the thing I already was.

With no beautiful reluctance, I walked out of the art museum and into the fog that would do whatever it did for as long as it needed—wanted—to, a kind of suffusing I had begun to understand.

I disappeared from my previous vantage point. I would be doing this a lot now. I wasn’t so much walking into a painting of my life as I was walking into a painting of some blurry landscape, one with a person-shaped hole in its corner. I already fit that hole. Perfectly. Still, as the fog blanketed me, I tried to look through it. I did not see the empty and hollow future—wig shop, fountain, teriyaki place, small blast furnace. Whatever I did see, it was right there, clear inside the nightmare, as blinding as         .

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