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                         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
                                                                                               2


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.
                                                                                            3


        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

desk.

        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.
                                                                                           4


       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.
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        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:

                                       Byron Tellford:
                                       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
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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

Macy’s.

       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
                                                                                               7


Brooklyn Bridge. Stranger things have happened than a woman walking alone down the

street.

          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
                                                                                              8


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:
                                                                                            9


                                       Meredith Tellford:
                            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
                                                                                           10


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.
                                                                                            11


       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:

                                       Lord Byron:
                            Master of the Midnight Tower
                         Please DO NOT feed the Royal Goat!


                              and hung it from a piece of rope over the Royal Gate.
                                                                                             12


       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
                                                                                           13


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

Chicago.

       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

hygiene.

       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.
                                                                                         14


       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.

				
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