Lord Byron and the Midnight Tower
Byron was dancing with a broomstick when God gave up. As he was sweeping
up dead skin and gray hairs and dust from cracked concrete sidewalks—the kind of dust
that fall off men and women as they work to make money and shake hands—the world
stopped working and that was that.
Most people thought it would be more exciting.
They said Earth would be hit by a stray rock from a broken ring of Saturn or
consumed by fire when the sun blew up. Hippies and whatever political party wasn’t in
power said it would be nuclear holocaust, that those in power would destroy those too
weak to defend themselves with a phone call and the push of a button. Those not wiped
out by bloated mushroom clouds would die screaming and starving in an endless winter.
The Mayans said it would be the setting of the fifth sun, the end of the last world and the
final coming of Hunahpu and Quetzalcoatl. Astrologists said it was simply fate; Miss
Cleo said it was written in the stars. The religious said it would be divine retribution for
countless eons of sin and decadence. Humanity would fall under the Four Horsemen,
their arrival heralded with blood, decay and desolation.
Instead, it just sort of gave up. Lights out. Game over.
Byron worked from midnight to eight in the morning as a janitor for a law firm on
the 33rd floor of a filing cabinet for young professionals in New York City. It was the
kind of place with no natural light, just fluorescent hyper-reality—no shading, just
varying degrees of pale. It made everyone’s skin look watery and their teeth look yellow
and exaggerated their second chin or their veiny arms or their balding head.
He hated going to work because the fluorescent lights reminded him of everything
boring and frustrating in his life. Like those huge, multi-purpose department stores that
have a hundred aisles and a thousand sales but never what you are looking for. Like
overcrowded, dingy deli restaurants where everyone screams and pushes and demands
more ketchup but never says please or thank you. Like lying in a reclined chair in the
dentist’s office with a tube dangling from your mouth, lonely and embarrassed by your
bad breath, waiting for some grinning hygienist with picture perfect teeth to come back
and tell you that “yes, you have three new cavities” and “no, your insurance will not
cover it.” Bryon had just finished wiping off the mirrors in the men’s bathroom and was
trying to clean up all the grimy gray dirt off of a hundred people’s shoes under a rust red,
imitation Persian rug when all the lights in the building winked out.
The bulb in the overhead light in the hallway burned a ripe orange for a few
seconds after the electricity died—it reminded him of the old, single-use flash bulbs the
paparazzi used to carry in old films set in the twenties. It looked like sighing right before
you fall asleep.
“Yo! ... Hey, what the fuck? I’m still in here you pricks,” he shouted as his
broom clattered on the floor.
He pawed his way along the wall in the darkness until he found the light switches
but none of them worked. He knew it couldn’t have been a blown circuit because the
building had an emergency battery generator, so some jackass must have thought he was
being funny leaving Byron lost in the dark. He grabbed a flashlight from his rolling cart
of cleaning supplies and cursed and kicked a bucket full of dirty mop water for effect.
Byron walked out into the main hallway, followed by the echoes of his own
“hello?”s and “is anyone there?”s. He checked each office, poked his head into every
supply closet, craned his neck around the side of every secretary’s cubicle. He checked
the women’s bathroom and all of the rooms that he had already cleaned. He even looked
under a couple of desk, just in case. After half an hour he decided he was the butt of
some cataclysmic joke so he kicked off his shoes and smoked cigarettes while walking
the halls. Eventually he got mad so he took a piss in the bottom drawer of his boss’s
At about 3:30 in the morning he gave up and tried to clock out but the punch box
wasn’t working. The hands of the clock were stuck on 1:11 and when he tapped the glass
they went in reverse.
Outside it was pretty much the same story. No lights, no cars, no people, no
noise. The whole city seemed to be holding its breath. There wasn’t even the dull hum
of machinery or the muffled, distant screech of subway cars. Byron started to think that
maybe he was dreaming, or that he had died. He read in a book once that coma survivors
often awoke with an altered perception of reality because their brains created a private
world while they were out and when they woke up they had trouble readjusting. Tiny
electrical synapses and the delicate dance between neurons made it hard for them to
figure out when they were awake and when they were dreaming.
It was called “When We Dream in Color.” It was Oprah’s November pick for
Book of the Month.
He walked along the sidewalk for a while, and then ran down the middle of the
road, pretending that the double yellow line was a balance beam. He started dancing in
intersections under black traffic lights and rolling manhole covers down the street like big
black quarters. Maybe he was dead, maybe he had gone crazy, maybe he had slept
through the announcement that the city had been evacuated due to an outbreak of the
bubonic plague in Greenwich Village, but he didn’t really care.
Byron still hadn’t seen a single soul for hours so he took a piece of broken
concrete and smashed in the window of a Lincoln Town Car to set off the alarm and see
if anyone came running. No one gives two shits about a crazy fuck dancing in the streets
but when he starts breaking your stuff they really light up. But, the alarm didn’t go off so
he threw another brick through the display window of an electronics store on the corner
of Forty-Sixth and Second and stole a big screen TV and came back later for a matching
set of speakers.
He had never been able to experience “The Lord of the Rings” in all of its
intended glory because he didn’t have Dolby Digital Surround 5.1.
After stealing the speakers he thought he heard a dog barking so he ran as fast as
he could back to his apartment with the 50 pound box in his arms.
Byron had to move out of his single bedroom bachelor pad when Ms. Weatherly’s
ivory bathtub fell through the ceiling and smashed his kitchen table. He was sitting in his
favorite chair reading a book about how to grow your own garden in a window box when
he heard the boards creak. At first he thought that it was someone moving around and he
started to run for the door but just as his feet hit the kitchen tile the ceiling caved and the
tub fell through. Both the tub and the kitchen table shattered, littering the whole
apartment with shards of stained yellow ivory and cheap pine. Byron thought that it
looked a little like trail mix.
The broken pipes emptied rusty brown water on the floor but stopped after a few
minutes. He couldn’t drink the water anyway.
That afternoon he moved out and became the first ever owner of the Brooklyn
Bridge. He made a sign:
King and Owner
BEWARE THE TROLL!!!
and hung it on a suspension beam in the median. He
brought along his three-month-old big screen TV, even though the screen had collapsed
and a batch of wild sunflowers were growing inside. He brought the speakers too, and
glued them all together to make a chair with armrest and a high back. He called it his
throne since he was the proud new owner of the Brooklyn Bridge. He took a bunch of
big gold rings and a diamond tiara from Tiffany’s so he would feel like a king. At night,
he slept in the empty shell of an old Cadillac on a bed of fur coats and throw pillows from
He ate wild potatoes and pumpkins that grew in the engine well of a Volkswagen
bus and drank water from a broken fire hydrant that never seemed to run dry.
The sun seldom set in the west anymore, if it set at all. Sometimes it just swam in
the sky in lazy circles or would turn red and angry and fill up half the sky. Then it would
duck behind a cloud and disappear. Time had come unstuck. Sometimes it would race
by and Byron could actually watch grass grow and mountains crumble. Sometimes it
would sit still or even run backwards or in six different directions at once.
From his throne Byron watched the city of New York rot in a month. He watched
the Empire State Building lean over like that famous tower in that famous Italian city
until it was so slanted you could walk up the side. He watched the buildings groan and
collapse and bury one another with rubble. He watched the glass on the Trump Tower
melt and pool at the bottom, leaving a skeleton of metal beams that reminded him of the
first girl he ever had sex with. He wouldn’t let her turn the lights off so she stood in the
room naked and shivering and about to cry.
About a week after the Statue of Liberty fell into the sea and floated up the
Hudson he met a young lady named Meredith. It was the first person that Byron had seen
since reality came unhinged, but it didn’t surprise him. Century old buildings were
collapsing in days, rivers flowed backwards and he was the undisputed king of the
Brooklyn Bridge. Stranger things have happened than a woman walking alone down the
She was short and thin like those Ethiopian children Byron used to see on late
night TV, cradled in Sally Struthers fat, flabby arms. Her belly bulged out in a perfect
orb like she had swallowed a basketball. Her hair was stringy and greasy and tied up
with long pieces of grass and silver-colored tinsel. She came sulking onto the bridge,
wide-eyed and nearly toothless and she asked to speak with the king. They held counsel
and he decried that she could take respite in the over-turned tractor trailer truck that was
filled with bars of Ivory soap.
They fell in love quickly.
They talked about the way things were before the lights went out. They talked
about how the sun always used to set in the west and how the moon didn’t feel so far
away. They talked about reruns of the America’s Funniest Home Videos and Blind Date
and laughed at how silly everyone on Saved by the Bell acted.
Her favorite episode was the one where Jesse got addicted to caffeine pills from
trying to stay up all night studying and ended up crying on Zach’s shoulder after singing
a shuddering, sob-filled variation of “I’m So Excited.”
Meredith told Byron about how she was riding in the subway when the world
died. The subway engine shut down and everyone else on the train disappeared, just sort
of faded into black like all the lights. The train drifted to a stop and she had to use a
thick, old briefcase that a businessman in a blue suit had left behind to break the glass and
get out. She said that when she was wandering through the tunnels looking for a way out
she felt like Jennifer Connelly in “The Labyrinth,” only she was lost because someone
had left out the blue, Scottish guide worm.
After a few days she met a woman who collected garbage and called herself the
Rubbish Queen and showed Meredith the way out. She gave Meredith a dress that a
bride once wore and a music box and that played “Sympathy for the Devil” backwards.
One night while they were laying in the bed of a pick-up truck with no wheels,
watching the stars fall into the sea one at a time, Byron asked Meredith if she would like
to get married. He gave her a necklace made out of sea gull feathers and the biggest sun
flower from his TV set. He said he would have given her one of his rings, but they had
all turned to dust—all he had left was his crown and if he gave that up he wouldn’t be
king anymore. She said yes anyway and they took their honeymoon in Central Park.
They found a goat eating dried leaves near the lake and decided to take him home and
name him Billy because neither of them was very creative. Byron let him sleep in the
tractor trailer truck that used to be Meredith’s room.
Two weeks later the Brooklyn Bridge fell into the river while Byron was walking
the goat and Meredith drowned. Byron held a little funeral in her honor, reading out of
the closest thing to a Bible that he could find, “God: For Dummies.”
It reminded him of the time that his gold fish died because he fed it too much. It
swelled and floated to the top of the water and his mother had flushed it down the toilet
while his little brother played “Taps” on his electric keyboard. Byron drew a picture of
the fish on a paper plate and wrote R.I.P. across the top and then taped it over the toilet
with a Band-Aid.
In honor of Meredith, he made a sign:
Last Queen of Brooklyn Bridge
Flushed down a toilet…
and hung it on top of a rusted sign
for I-95. He never cried but he thought about it.
After the funeral, Byron and Billy set out for greener pastures.
Byron was so hungry that he thought about eating Billy before an old man with an
eye patch taught him how to fish with a shaft of bamboo. If time still worked, Byron
would have said that he and Billy walked around for about a year before they set foot on
the white beaches of Lake Michigan. They’d been eating roots and berries and even
leaves as they walked along an abandoned highway littered with vacant cars and
shattered bridges. When they first reached Lake Michigan, Byron thought he had run
into another ocean, but then Billy started to drink the water and didn’t get sick and Byron
knew that it must be fresh water. He once saw a documentary on the Great Lakes where
a man with enormous, quivering eyebrows and an English accent said most days it was
impossible to see across the lake to the other side. Byron had never seen the lakes or
believed the man until he stood in the sands and gave himself a headache by squinting his
eyes, trying to see the other shore.
One night while he was falling sleep on the beach under a moon the color of a
bruised peach, Byron saw a man with a white beard dragging driftwood out of the water.
The old man said he used to be a fisherman and showed Byron his home, a millionaire’s
yacht sitting in the middle of the freeway. The man called himself Ishmael because he
couldn’t remember his name but did remember reading once about a fisherman named
Ishmael that he could really relate to. He gave Byron a pair of black rubber waders
because his old shoes had fallen apart.
Byron learned how to fish and lived with Ishmael on his yacht. Ishmael gave him
the captain’s quarters because Byron used to be a king.
Ishmael had been living in Maine the day the world died. He was unloading
lobsters out of a cage when he heard a giant squeal and looked up to see two fishing
barges crash into one another. He watched as they teetered like a pair of broken tops,
pitching side to side at sickening obtuse angles before one folded like a piece of paper
and sunk into the sea. The other broke into a hundred chunks of metal and floated away.
No alarms sounded on the boat, no desperate sailors leapt over the sides, no
emergency rafts came paddling to shore. A few hours later a pair of thick rubber gloves
washed up and Ishmael stole them to use while he cleaned fish.
One night Ishmael died in his sleep so Byron built himself a boat out of a car
door, a construction barrel, ten empty Jolly Green Giant cans and a Confederate flag. He
took Ishmael’s eye patch and set off to sail Lake Michigan. He named the boat the S.S.
Minnow and appointed Billy as his first mate.
Byron drifted to shore in Chicago, right beside a Ferris wheel that had rolled
halfway into the water. An entire flock of ravens had filled up all of the seats above
water with quarters, silver thimbles, rings and broken mirrors. They perched on the
shafts and screeched at him as he dragged Billy out of his boat and marched down the
street toward the Sears Tower.
The Sears Tower was the tallest building that Byron had seen left standing. It
swayed a bit in the wind and had turned from black into a dull purple but still stood. It
reminded Byron of his father—tall, stubborn and empty. His father used to stand in the
kitchen of their apartment when Byron was a teenager and lean against the family photo
waiting for Byron to come home late. Sometimes he would fall asleep that way but
whenever Byron shut the front door he would slowly open his eyes, look at Byron like he
had just kicked a puppy and then walk to bed, his joints popping and groaning.
The Sears Tower sounded a lot like his father, too, so Byron moved into the
bottom three floors, declaring the entire lower level his official War Room/Stable, where
he would meet with foreign dignitaries and feed Billy. He couldn’t move into the top
because the glass had melted and a strong gust of wind on the 99th floor would sweep you
out the window.
Gravity was still a constant.
He built a wall around the tower out of old of scrap metal and broken rubble and
turned the car door from his boat into a gate. He filled the tower with books and
paintings and jewelry and shiny things and screeched at anything that came too close. He
dug through the rubble of the Art Institute and stole an original Salvador Dali painting of
a man holding an egg. Later he went back for a full suit of Japanese Samurai armor.
He made a sign:
Master of the Midnight Tower
Please DO NOT feed the Royal Goat!
and hung it from a piece of rope over the Royal Gate.
After a while, Byron got a visitor. He put on his waders and tiara and Ishmael’s
eye patch and the vest from his Samurai armor and rolled down the car door window to
see what the visitor requested of the king. It was a man dressed in furs that were dyed
completely white. He said he was part of a tribe from the south called the Choughs and
that he was sent to the Sears Tower to take the trial. He said that he was to climb to the
99th floor of the tower and leap from the window and if the wind carried him all the way
to the Great Water of Lake Michigan then he would rise from the dead and bring order
back to the world. He said he was chosen because he had gone into the Tower of
Monkeys—what they used to call the John Hancock Tower before the animals from the
zoo had taken it over—and emerged with a white feather.
Sing Glory Hallelujah, Hosanna in the Highest.
Byron told the boy to bring an offering to the great king of the Midnight Tower
and a bag of cabbage to feed the Royal Goat. The boy brought him a battery operated
flashlight that still worked and said it was a scepter fit for a king. Then he flew from the
99th floor and splattered all over the pavement of Michigan Avenue.
The Choughs started to call Byron the Gatekeeper and built fires in honor of his
wisdom and beauty. Byron built himself a new throne out of old pizza boxes and a road
sign that said “Bump.” He wore all of the offerings of the aspiring Messiahs as he
marched around his tower and took Billy for long walks.
He wore a pair of pink tassels from a girl’s bicycle handlebars tucked under his
tiara. He wore a dark blue bandana tied around his neck. He carried an oar reputed to
have been used by the first Chough to brave the Tower of Monkeys. He wore a gold-
rimmed monocle with no glass and a long tarnished chain draped over his armor. He
wore a vest that once belonged to Private Garcia who died in the Vietnam War. He wore
a fur-lined cape that the Queen of England left in her hotel room when she visited
England, the Choughs told him, had turned into an island of cannibals after the
world came unglued, but they all died out shortly afterwards because of poor dental
Many came before the Gatekeeper, all dressed entirely in white, and all fell to
their death on the streets of Chicago.
He made a sign:
What do you get when a Chough
Tries to become God?
A BIG FUCKING MESS!!!
and ordered a young Chough named Devon to hang it
beside a window overlooking Lake Michigan on the 99th floor of the Midnight Tower.
Devon didn’t make it far at all—he landed right on top of Byron’s wall, a few feet to the
left of the gate. Billy ate his snow white moccasins.
One day a Chough named Prometheus brought the Gatekeeper a necklace made
out of monkey teeth and a white feather and then jumped out of the Midnight Tower and
landed 300 feet offshore in Lake Michigan. He had torn down Byron’s sign and used it
as a miniature hang glider. They washed up on shore together.
After that Byron left his tower and walked his goat, wearing just his waders, his
tiara and the white feather necklace. He left all of his pretty shining things strewn across
the floor and the car door gate wide open. He sat down in the middle of the street in
Michigan Avenue and cried for a few hours while the sun set in the north.
He went back to his tower and dragged his throne out onto Lakeshore drive and
watched the sun rise again in the same place it had just set. He pulled out a piece of
chalk given to him by a Chough named Adam and started to play a game of tic-tac-toe
with himself, not knowing if he was X’s or O’s, while he watched Billy eat the
foundation of the Tower of Monkeys—waiting for the polar ice caps to melt.