The Culture Bunker
by William Ham
illustration by Dave Coscia
Gabby-gabby-hayes, post-pubescent poltroons. Don’t be alarmed if you catch a slight chill between the lines of my usually insouciant drooling this time ’round – just feeling the cold hand of death on my spine. See, as I’m scrawling this screed, your pitiful prose-packer is poised to slip neurotically into that netherworld known as his late 20s. (Please observe the flashing “NO HORRIFIED GASPING” sign over your seats.) For those of you not yet acquainted with this state of young-menopause, lemme tell you that it’s worse than the afternoon chat shows let on. As I stand, taking inventory of the newly-sprouted hairs and deepening divots on my trembling phiz, I am becoming ever more aware of a ticking sound that cannot be attributed to the incendiary devices my Sinn Fein-trained landlady usually attaches to the plumbing just to keep me on my toes. That’s right – my sociological clock is ticking. I am running out of time to write the Great American Youth-Angst Novel. But I am a man of action, at least when there isn’t a really good CHiPs rerun on the tube. So, utilizing the last of my fading resolve, a large bottle of picante-flavored Snapple and a letter of encouragement from Doomed Teen magazine, I put all of my protruding organs to their respective grindstones and herewith present for your consideration my entry for the Spokesman For A Generation of the Year competition, the first draft of my burning modern classic-to-be, Eighteen Going On Zilch. Tolerate!
I. STASIS QUO
Call me Izzy. That’s my name, you see. This is my second consecutive freshman year here at Major American University, majoring in thinly veiled autobiography, with a minor in advanced futility. But academia is far from my mind at this moment, standing in front of my dorm-room window, staring out at the late-November New England snow they specially imported here to California for purposes of atmosphere. I was just ruminating on the state of my life. I’m required to by the terms of my scholarship. I came out here expecting my life to become something of a cross between Less Than Zero and Catcher in the Rye, but after four semesters and a couple of the less-romantic STDs, I find that all I can muster is a cross between The Rules of Attraction and the Cliff Notes for Beowulf. Still, I suppose I should feel lucky – there’s a guy down the hall who was living like a cross between Story of My Life and a used copy of Little Women. They eventually had to take him to the infirmary. Oh, the inanity.
I thought about last summer, when Tipp, Star, and I sat on the beach while it was still under construction, just us, the sun, our thoughts, and that horseshoe crab that had gotten into my Speedos. We talked about our hopes and dreams, or how we had each applied to receive hopes and dreams in monthly increments, but we all knew there was something else there, something unspoken, something bigger and less photogenic than the three of us, something that would change us forever. I wish we’d figured out what it was.
The door opened. How typical of it. Into the room came that familiar figure, that elegantly-tousled facial hair, those mirrored contact lenses, that hump all the girls love. I couldn’t say I was surprised to see him, what with the synchonicitous nature of the universe and the message he left 30 minutes ago saying he’d be here in half an hour. Tipp had returned.
“Knock-knock,” Tipp said. Tipp was always something of an impish prankster back at Perpetually High School. He had a knack for japery – he made it to the State Fart Joke Finals sophomore year, and they still talk about his classic piranha-at-the-swim-meet gag the year we graduated. Yet I seemed to be the only one who saw beneath the happy-go-lucky façade to the morose-go-unfortunate soul underneath. For that reason we were always the closest of friends. That and the regular cash bribes.
“Knock-knock,” Tipp said. But all that remains consistent is change, as Kierkegaard once said (Zeke Kierkegaard, my fifth-period typing instructor, that is). We had made each other a solemn pledge never to grow apart, but after I shot up six inches last summer while he could only manage two-and-a-half even with the help of his NordicRack home self-torture equipment, a chasm had formed between us.
Suddenly, I noticed subtle changes in our attitudes toward each other. Nothing most outsiders could notice – an awkward pause here, a minor concussion with a tire iron there – but enough to show that things had irrevocably changed between us. I made a mental note to laugh ruefully later on that week.
“Knock-knock,” Tipp said.
I had no desire to empower him, but I felt I owed it to him. “Who’s there?” I asked.
Tipp’s lip trembled. “I don’t know, man.” He took a long drag from his chive cigarette and passed out on the floor. This isn’t like high school. To think, we may never have hall monitors again, I thought, as I picked up the phone to call the custodial staff to drag him away.
III. YOU SAY TOMATO, I SAY FUCK OFF
I saw her again. Bobb and Erique and I were at the Phlegm Trench concert and she was there. She walked by me and threw the slightest glance and her half-empty Corona in my direction. Without the downers, I know she would have sent bolts through my heart. She may have been a dream, an apparition, like a muse sent from heaven or that girl in the Fritos commercial. I wanted to call to her, stop her, but would she hear? Would I even be calling? Do either of us exist? I wish I was still bisexual.
Bobb noticed the glycerine deposits in my eyes and turned to me. “It can be that way, Izzy. You would have been unhappy with a nihilist, anyway.”
“She’s a nihilist?”
“You saw her hairstyle, didn’t you?”
At that moment, I experienced an epiphany, the likes of which had occurred only when I had accidentally ingested a quart of creme rinse in junior high. There we were, gathered together, but oh-so-alone. So alone I knew we couldn’t be a fire hazard. Grasping, seeking, never satisfied. This revelation wasn’t really of much practical use, but I was sure I could use it to beef up my essay for remedial theology class, “Is There an Afterlife, and if so, is there Free Parking?” We are, all of us, lost. And somebody spilled coffee on the directions.
Just then, my reverie was broken when Pall tapped me on the shoulder. I gazed into his eyes. Both of them. He seemed deeply troubled. He used to be the picture of happiness, but that was before the frame cracked. Now he had all but fallen off the wall. And no number of hinges and reinforced wires were going to keep him there. “Hey, man,” he mumbled, “I just got laid.” He burst into tears. “Oh, life.”
IV. CODA PENDANT
The snow has started to fall again. Either that, or the faculty biplanes are dumping paraquat on the pot fields the kids in delinquent agriculture have planted. I know I should probably go to class, eat something, or catch up on my co-ed stalking, but I can’t take my eyes off the snow. There they are – off-white flecks dropping to Earth to join together in unity, only to melt in the sun. The parallels to my life are so obvious that I feel tears well up in my eyes. I have learned all there is to know about the crying game, and I must tell you, the halftime show really sucks.
What would my old friends say if they could see me now? Probably something about putting my pants back on before I caught a cold. They always looked out for me that way. Star would have been amused at the state I’m in – but, of course, that was when she could still say no to nutmeg. I desperately want to move, to do something, to make a difference, but I know that to do so would provide this story with a plot and ruin the whole lost-and-aimless-youth motif characteristic of the genre. No, it’s better that I should stand here at the window and fill up the remaining space with idle, solipsistic philosophizing. How the reason we are all so thin is because we are hollow. How all we have done, seen, and felt amounts, ultimately, to nothing. I know the truth now, or at least I know a really dumb analogy that would pass for the truth to the average undergrad. The truth is that I am wearing someone else’s Green Day T-shirt. And it’s the wrong size.