ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010







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Copyright © 2010

Phillip Neel

The Crushing




The DMV was crowded in a crushing way. Four of the five desks were open, but people were lined up to the door. Most of them stood quietly, some fiddled with the chained-down pens or played with the variously colored forms; others decided that they’d escape the oppressive heat and tedium of the room if they sat down on the tile floor. But this only made them tired and dirty, and the floor, although appearing cool, was in fact warm and almost wet.

“Next,” called the woman behind one of the desks. At first glance, she was a corpulent monstrosity. At second glance, she was still a corpulent monstrosity, but now she was also garishly clothed, fish-eyed, and covered in a smooth sheen of grease. Her nose made a wheezing, whistling sound when she breathed, and she breathed heavily. An almost poisonous cloud of cheap perfume surrounded her, seeming to waft upwards from the deepest crevices of her painful existence. Her nametag read “Joanne.”

A tiny, sickly looking man squeezed his way through the haze of sweat and boredom, quivering toward the desk. He shook and his starched white shirt was soaking wet with perspiration. It dripped from the edges of his garments onto the greasy tile floor, creating a sequence of small, salty pools in his wake. A loose mass of ruddy hair hung around his skull like an earthy halo and his eyes gaped wide like black holes. He wore no nametag.

The pools of sweat marked his progress toward the desk. As he neared, they spilt into one another, creating miniature river systems complete with tributaries and alpine reservoirs. He stopped and leaned forward on the counter. A minor sea began to form around his feet, fed by regular precipitation and by two salty waterfalls cascading from his elbows.

When Joanne opened her mouth to ask if the man was feeling well, he heaved and coated her in a greasy spurt of vomit. The first thing she felt was the weight of the vomit clinging to her hair. Then she smelled it—the sour rankness of bile mixed with cheap perfume and overpriced shampoo. She rose, spitting out the vomit which had filled her open mouth. At the same time, her lungs released a bizarre, spontaneous howl. It sounded something like the piercing scream of a cougar mixed with the mechanical oscillation of an engine. It was an involuntary sound, and she was somewhat frightened of it.

The man again heaved and vomited, this time with greater force and in greater quantity. The spray drenched Joanne a second time, again filling her open mouth. Some of the vomit even forced its way down her throat. Now her body, confused as to the proper course of action, compressed its capillaries and starved the brain of oxygen. She collapsed into a sweaty pile of sick corpulence, and her coworkers eventually dragged her to safety.

The man did not stop vomiting. In fact, each subsequent spurt grew in both size and power. His black eyes gaped terribly, and with each convulsion veins popped out on his limbs and neck. His skin was slowly whitening and his stomach, strange though it seemed, was getting larger.

An ambulance was called, but it could not arrive in time. The man’s bile quickly overtook the DMV, forcing everyone out onto the street and ensuring that any safety worker sent into the building would be promptly drowned by the putrid torrent. A crowd gathered to watch the miraculous flood. They pointed out particularly interesting portions of the vomit to their friends. The local police were assembled, but it became apparent that they were not in a position to do much of anything, so they engaged in the same games as the onlookers, noting especially disgusting or unique mounds floating in the greasy deluge. The vomit, meanwhile, kept flowing.

. . .

The next day, news crews arrived by the hundreds to document the inexplicable event. By this time the DMV was completely submerged, and the revolting fluid was flooding the nearby streets and sewers. Several artists’ depictions of the man (based on eyewitness accounts) were displayed, but each was markedly different. In some of the images he was Caucasian, with no facial hair. In others he was of mixed ethnicity, with either a mustache or a full beard. Once these images reached the Internet they proliferated and the differences only increased. Hundreds of faces and back stories were invented for the mysterious man, ranging the whole breadth of American creativity.

And soon it was apparent that it was not just vomit flowing from the abandoned DMV. Gradually, the discharge developed clear strains of blood, and then feces. After the second day, it looked as if these were the only two materials being expunged by the now submerged man. Government scientists tested the solution and verified that it was, indeed, mostly blood and feces now, with minor traces of bile. They tested for the man’s blood type and DNA, but each sample gave a different result. And soon the tests showed that mud was also growing predominant in the mixture, although it was becoming difficult to differentiate between what materials were coming from “ground zero” and what had been mixed in elsewhere.

The town was evacuated as the putrescence slowly invaded miles of tract housing and big box department stores. The military organized the evacuation, but could do little else. A government helicopter was sent to monitor the stream every afternoon, checking for an increase in any new substances. The DMV was almost entirely buried now, but the mud continued to flow, forming an intermittent geyser from the building’s submerged door.

Top experts were brought in. Some declared it to be a natural phenomenon. They filed a number of official reports stating that an earthquake must have opened a fissure beneath the DMV, possibly releasing toxic gasses (accounting for the “hallucination” experienced by the witnesses) and then flooding the town with mud (and possibly sulfur) from an underground reservoir. They compared the phenomenon to an active mud volcano in Indonesia.

These experts were attacked by other experts who, in their official reports, cited the early evidence of bile, blood and feces, as well as the lack of any seismological evidence, to argue that this was some creative new method of warfare being waged by International Terrorists. International Terrorist groups quickly sided with these experts, hundreds of organizations claiming credit for the “attack.”

There was also a third group of experts who, after meticulously studying the event, filed no reports, gave up the title of experts entirely, and decided to live as religious ascetics. Some of these former experts set up mobile villages on the edge of the flood zone where they could worship the supernatural marvel and bathe in its effluence. As they washed in the liquid, they were known to chant: “I know nothing. I know nothing. I know nothing,” repeatedly and in unison.

Changes began to occur. At first, it looked like the flood had merely overtaken some landfill and reincorporated the components. Differentiation was becoming increasingly difficult. It was as if the rising tide had raised all flotsam to the same level, creating a vile, egalitarian stew. Helicopter observations proved that the geyser was now spewing pure garbage, its contents as myriad as the best of landfills. Thousands of tons were being poured out weekly, and the flow had a kind of sequential consistency. One day it would be mostly torn up designer clothing, then product packaging, then gutted electronics. On a particularly memorable morning the geyser had spewed a mountain of green polypropylene grocery bags.

Some academics claimed that the man—reduced now to a vague agent of some supernatural intelligence—was sending messages through his vomit. Cultural analysts presented papers detailing the exact sequence of the montage of trash, arguing that a certain intended message could be read in the distortion between expulsed objects. Why had the wave of soiled Braveheart DVDs given way to copies of Mein Kampf and Mein Kampf to Twilight paraphernalia? The analysts explained that it was much like reading unconscious messages within the texture of a dream.

This thesis became popularly accepted when, one afternoon, the man vomited nothing but soggy Gideon Bibles. The next day it was the Qur’an, then the Vedas and the Tantras and the Tibetan and Egyptian Books of the Dead. A whole slew of holy texts followed, from Hesiod’s Theogony to surprising replicas of Ojibwe birch-bark scrolls. Upon study, it was surmised that every religious tradition was here represented, including ancient, indecipherable hieroglyphs said to belong to long lost language families. As a result, religious figureheads flew in from across the globe to discuss the theological implications of this development. Some declared it the holiest event in modern history, comparing it to the Great Deluge found in mythologies worldwide. Others proclaimed that it was a terrible sacrilege, perpetrated by the worldly hand of evil (which accounted for the ubiquity of mud and feces). The interpretation usually depended on which book was bubbling up from the mysterious depths.

Once religion was involved, a great number of holy men and self-designated healers considered themselves destined to stop the flow. Most marched out into a waist-deep section of the flood and began silently praying, loudly preaching, or calmly meditating. Most gave up quickly, conceding to themselves, “I know nothing.” Others drowned.

Joanne, the DMV clerk, became an international spiritual celebrity, touring the world to tell people about her experience. She was greeted warmly on morning talkshows and her personal website was getting millions of visitors per day. She claimed that the event had been life-altering, and had started her on a new path. She’d lost an admirable amount of weight and had begun to eat healthy. She was also pregnant, claiming that the vomit she swallowed had fertilized her.

Meanwhile, no one could find out who the man had been. Once the flood became a real threat he was mostly forgotten. All attention was focused on his constant stream of waste. He who had once been given hundreds of faces and thousands of backgrounds now became faceless and bereft of history—a mere vector for some unnatural inpouring of cataclysm.

As the idea of the man as any kind of intelligent agency began to fade, the contents of the stream fluctuated even more wildly, often changing by the hour. Sometimes the components were relatively harmless. For two days the geyser had spouted pure glacial runoff, and for several hours one morning it had overflowed with high fructose corn syrup. But the flood was not consistent. It had shifted to toxic waste in a matter of minutes. The toxic waste soon became bovine-growth hormone and then ground beef. Bile, blood and feces all worked their way back into the mix, alongside granite, sand, and salt. The flow became an avalanche.

As the flood kept growing, it seeped into major rivers and water supplies, forcing the reluctant government to go on the offensive. The Army Corps of Engineers contracted Raytheon to build a series of containment dams, but the work could not be done fast enough. The flow was increasing at an almost exponential level. The National Guard was called in and contract soldiers were hired to protect evacuated high-value neighborhoods from looting. In many areas this program was incredibly effective. The soldiers were able to guard all private property right up to the point where it was submerged in the endless, ever-growing flood.

Even though official statements labeled the flood as a natural disaster, covert missions were launched to capture or kill the supposed man who was its source. A number of high-tech submarines were lost as surprise spurts of napalm or magma spewed from the geyser. As a last resort, explosives were set off above “ground zero” in increasing intensity. But rather than stop the flood, this only created small tidal waves and ignited flammable materials, causing an even quicker and more destructive expansion.

The government gave up, reluctantly shrugging and mumbling, “I know nothing.”

Now thousands were building their own miniature arks (most of which collapsed at the first touch of liquid), and large corporations were offering exclusive deals on “flood-ready” yachts, all resembling makeshift bomb-shelters. Briefly, boat tours were offered to international tourists and, for a while, the flood was mined for raw materials, mostly petroleum (which appeared to be in ample supply). But even the Free Market failed to stem the tide.

. . .

In the end, suburban families could be seen atop converted boats and the shells of old Sport Utility Vehicles, spearing for some sort of sustenance underneath the churning mass of vomit. Fathers skewered housecats and half-rotten vegetables on the ends of metal antennae harvested from radio towers. Mothers pulled clothes and dishware from the mass in large nets, constructing filthy shelters and repairing the ever-leaking arks. Across the entire continent starving children screamed for food and entertainment. Their listless, sunburnt bodies stood out darkly against the surface of the rafts. Aside from complaint, they spoke infrequently and ate what was offered. Some, lured by an enticing object or maybe by the simple magnetism of death, jumped from the sides of the arks and were crushed. And the sound of their crushing was swallowed by the throat of the flood.