If you want to understand how the disorder spread from the Lloyd Center Mall to the rest of the city of Portland, how the blood in our Orange Juliuses became a radioactive haze in the streets, you should start with what didn’t happen.
Nobody got hurt; like reverse neutron bombs, the blasts only destroyed the architecture. Sure, people died in the riots, people were trampled to death, there were gunshot wounds, lacerations from broken glass, and heart attacks, but the explosions themselves didn’t produce even one casualty. There was absolutely no destruction of organic life at all. Even the moss on Portland’s sidewalks, the planted oak trees and pines, the weeds and grasses in vacant lots, were spared.
Death was missing and so was smoke. There was no smoke. Somehow Portland burned without it.
I was hung over. I’d been hung over all day. It was closing time at the Look City Clothes outlet, about nine o’clock on a Friday night, and it still hurt when I moved. My stomach was a pit and my mouth tasted of stomach acid. I’d gotten drunk in order to spite Sadie, my girlfriend, or partner, or whatever you call it when two people sleep and live together but don’t marry. We’d been stilted and edgy, fighting without words, for weeks, and I wanted to bring it out in the open, to kill the conflict. More than that, I wanted to win, and I knew that, if I was going to end up on top after perpetually responding to her demands with silence, I’d have to abandon logic and reason. I’d gotten drunk for strategic reasons.
In any case, I was sick, my head pounding, when I first encountered the shredder. I’d stacked the plain cardboard spiral notebooks on the rusted display table, hung the faux gas station overalls back on the pipes that ran along the concrete walls, turned off the Lava lamp displays, and was ready to punch out, and there on a table was an old tube radio with a crank attached to its side and a cardboard sign hanging across the front:
“Implied Promises Kept.” The words were printed in large stenciled letters, and in smaller print, underneath, were the words “advertisements as myths.”
“What’s with the old radio?” I asked my manager Brad.
He stopped, grabbed a Look City flyer from one of the rusted display tables, and fed the sheet into the machine. He turned the crank and strips of paper snaked out of the slots in the radio’s speaker. “It’s a shredder. Some sort of art piece,” Brad said. “The central office in Chicago sent it to us. Some sort of new campaign.”
I stood there for a moment watching him shred one promotional pamphlet after another, watching thin strips of Look City material spill to the concrete floor. The process was strangely compelling.
Sadie and I had been arguing about a baby. She wanted to have a baby and had stopped taking her pills and I wouldn’t sleep with her anymore. I wouldn’t even touch her, or let her touch me. This had been going on for a couple of weeks, maybe a month. I didn’t want to talk about it, there wasn’t anything to talk about, but Sadie kept trying to draw me out. She’d even marked a time for it in my daily planner, penciled it in, and so I’d bought a case of beer and a pint of whiskey and drunk myself into a stupor.
“Lock up for me tonight, will you, Miles?” Brad asked when he ran out of brochures to shred. I nodded a yes, but I wasn’t really present. I was too busy wondering if I’d find my apartment empty when I got off work. I finished up the cleaning, put all the overpriced pairs of torn jeans where they belonged, but when I went to punch out for the night something had gone wrong.
I couldn’t find the exit. The aisle was longer than it should have been. The Lava lamp display was yards and yards away from its usual spot. I looked around, then, finally getting out of my head and noticing the transformation that had taken place since the first shredding.
Look City Clothes was a ruin.
In 1986, when Look City expanded into a national chain, the board hired the architectural firm 2001 BC to redesign the interior of every Look City outlet.
2001 BC uses what’s called selective demolition to create their distinctive postmodern aesthetic. Blasting old Walgreens or U.S. Bank buildings in order to expose steel support beams, heating ducts, and insulation. The firm calls this “revealed urban history,” but it looks like what you’d find after a terrorist attack. In the case of the Look City at the Lloyd Center, the “urban history” had to be simulated. Heating ducts were shipped in and splattered with perma-dust, support structures were put up that didn’t quite reach the ceiling, and crumbled concrete facades were erected.
After my boss shredded the Look City promotional brochures, I couldn’t find the exit. I couldn’t find anything very easily because the concrete facades, the heating ducts, the other bits of simulated refuse, were now truly damaged and scattered in pieces around the store. The false support beams were bent at strange angles.
The store had changed. It seemed bigger and darker, truly blasted out and ruined. I tripped in a pothole in the concrete floor and fumbled past the shredder. A promotional pamphlet for 2001 BC sat on the lip of the paper feed, and I paused to read the pamphlet’s title. “Fractured decor!” the pamphlet read. Brad had shredded hundreds of leaflets extolling Look City’s architectural style. I kicked at the pile of paper strands absently, and then glanced around at the real destruction throughout the store.
I opened the machine, the shredder. I detached the back panel, because I wanted to see inside. I wanted to see the gears, but it was empty. There were no radio tubes, no gears, no blades for shredding; it was just a shell. What I found inside was a thin booklet made out of photocopy paper. It was the instruction manual:
Step One: Insert artifact into paper feed.
Step Two: Grab crank handle firmly in left or right hand.
Step Three: Turn crank counterclockwise until artifact manifests as shreds from “radio” speakers.
Step Four: Repeat.
Background: In order to understand the operating principle behind the Implied Promise Keeper, it is important to remember that the institutions of civilization brought “humanity” into existence.
Culture came first.
I paused . . . read the last sentence again.
Culture came first.
I closed my eyes and let myself fade. I tried not to think about Sadie, about what it would mean to give in to her. I didn’t want to think about that, wasn’t ready. I imagined my body as a collection of comic books and Pez dispensers, tried to imagine that culture came first, that I was literally made of culture.
I opened my eyes and jerked to my senses again when I started to succeed.
Sadie worked for Hot Dog on a Stick. She wore the mandatory yellow, red, white, and blue striped uniform, along with the striped chef hat, despite the fact that she held a master’s degree in political philosophy. Overeducated and underemployed, she was thirty-three years old, seven years my senior.
She was sincere, loving, militant in her politics, and she made me uncomfortable. She was always pushing the envelope, taking things too far.
“I want to have a child,” Sadie said. “More than that, I want to have your child.”
“That’s crazy,” I told her. “That’s completely insane. I can’t even pay my cable bill on time.”
Sadie smiled, but as she smiled she folded her arms across her chest and waited.
“Any kid born today has fools for parents, heartless fools,” I said. “The species probably doesn’t even have fifty years left. How could we have a kid?”
I’d first met Sadie five years earlier, in 1991, at an antiwar demonstration, around the time that President Bush dubbed Portland “Little Beirut” because of the protesting, the drumming, the screaming dissent that he encountered here. There were about thirty thousand of us at Pioneer Square the day I first spotted Sadie . . . the day war broke out in Iraq.
I was marching right down the middle of the street, following the broken yellow line through the rain, and chanting along with the rest, when I spotted Sadie.
She didn’t have an umbrella and so she kept drifting onto the sidewalks to find shelter under awnings. She ended up confronting the pedestrians.
“Did you hear there’s a war on?” she asked a passerby who wasn’t with the march. “It’s not even a war, it’s a slaughter,” Sadie told the woman in the red dress and trench coat as she hurried away with her shopping bags. Sadie was militant and righteous. Listening to her shout, watching her shake her fist to the beat of the chants, I was embarrassed for her.
“You’re making a fool of yourself,” I said. “You’re like a parody of a protester.”
“I make you uncomfortable?” she asked.
I told her that yes, she made me uncomfortable.
“Good. Nobody should feel comfortable at a protest rally. A person shouldn’t want to feel comfortable,” she said.
Five years later, Sadie had changed her mind; she wanted comfort and security.
“I want to feel connected to the world,” Sadie told me. “I can’t stand going on like this, without something to ground me, without any real relationships.”
“It won’t be any better, having a kid with me won’t solve anything,” I told her. “The world will still be just a gob of pain, no matter what.”
But Sadie wanted to be comfortable. She didn’t want her whole life to be a protest; she didn’t want to stand outside of the world, to act against the world. She wanted a family.
Years earlier, on our first date, Sadie had taken me to the 24 Hour Church of Elvis — a street level “art” gallery with computerized window displays that accepted quarters. There were three coin-operated exhibits: the Elvis Exhibit, the Psychic Friend, and the Marriage/Divorce Machine.
Even after six months in Portland, I was still new to town in Sadie’s eyes, and she thought the Church of Elvis was one of the city’s big attractions.
“You won’t know Portland, won’t understand it, until it understands you,” she explained. “You should let the city look into your soul.”
“What? Is Portland a vending machine?” I asked.
“Yes, but it’s been redesigned for a new purpose.”
I put a quarter into the Psychic Friend machine, pressed the button labeled Past Life Regression, and watched the monitor spring to life. Green words on a black screen:
“You were once a Big Mac with Fries. You were a lovely princess. You were a dog. You were a lapsed insurance policy. You were a roadie for the Ice Capades,” the monitor read. An electronic voice repeated the information and I received a printout that said the same thing.
“Try again,” she said. “Get your daily horoscope.”
“It’s starting to rain,” I said.
“Try again,” Sadie said.
I put a coin in the slot and pressed the button.
“You will discover that it’s hip to be square. You will wear sunglasses at night. You will end up pumping gas at a Quickstop. This is what you really look like.”
Instead of a printout I received a Polaroid photograph from the slot. This was a picture of my soul, according to Sadie: a small stucco house with a Cadillac in the driveway. There were no people in the photograph.
The first time in bed with Sadie I almost gave up on the relationship. As soon as she took off her clothes, as soon as she pushed the newspapers off my futon to lie down, she became recalcitrant. Her legs clasped together, staring up at the only window in my basement apartment; she was obviously less than committed to the prospect of our coupling. We’d discussed it, it had seemed a good idea on the street, but something had changed.
I went ahead and took off my jeans, pulled off my hooded sweatshirt, and then I stopped. In boxers and a T-shirt I stood there until my feet grew icy on the painted concrete floor. Then I sat on the edge of the mattress and stroked her leg.
Sadie didn’t answer, but pulled up the comforter. “It’s cold,” she said. “I’m covered in goose pimples.”
I sat and watched her, traced the outline of her body under the quilted blue fabric with my thumb.
“I couldn’t take you everywhere I wanted today,” she said. She was still looking up at the window. “There are parts of Portland we can’t visit anymore.”
“Parts are gone. Redeveloped or destroyed,” she said. “I wish you could’ve seen Quality Pie or Casa Bonita. Have you ever seen cliff diving?”
“Cliff diving? I think so. On television.”
“They used to have cliff divers at Casa Bonita,” she said. “It was a huge Mexican restaurant in St. John’s, almost a theme park, and they had cliff divers, and Moroccan bands, and there were these fake caves with purple and green and red spotlights trained on the plaster stalagmites,” she said.
“You liked it?”
“Yeah. I mean, the food was bad, but when I was four or five years old the place overwhelmed me.”
I scooted underneath the blanket next to her, took off my boxers, and looped my arm under her head. We both stared up at the tiny window, at the streaked dirt on the pane.
“There was a well in the middle of it all, downstairs near the stage. They had rows of benches set up in front, and behind the benches there was a wishing well with a face in it, a green or gray face that shimmered across the water. It moved. It looked like a ghost or genie was in there. And he would talk to you.”
“What did he say?”
“The same thing over and over again. He asked you to drop a coin in the well, then he told you your wish would come true, and then he asked you to drop a coin again. Over and over. But, the first time I looked into the well, the first time I ever saw the man in the water, I couldn’t hear him. The men in sombreros were miked and amped and they were shaking maracas and playing guitar. I tried to listen to what he said, put my hand to my ear, but all I could hear were the drums and maracas and Spanish love songs.”
She turned to me. She pushed the covers back and turned over on her side.
“He was obviously trying to tell me something important. Obviously it was some sort of magic, he was magic, and he was talking to me,” Sadie said. She put her arms around me, but we just sort of bumped into each other, off each other.
“The thing is that he wasn’t talking to me. I found that out after the song ended, after the excitement died down. It was just a machine down there in the water. A machine programmed, driven, to say the same thing over and over again.”
“Do you want to do this?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” She put her hands on my back, moved her hands to my groin. “Do you want to?” she asked. She smiled as she found that I was already erect.
She kissed me, put her tongue in my mouth, and wrapped her legs around me. “It didn’t have anything to do with me,” she said. “It never does.”
After the first shredding, the security gates at the entrance of Look City Clothes went missing. Instead, where the metal loops of the detectors used to be there were two men dressed like astronauts, wearing radiation suits made of thick yellow rubber. Arriving at work the next day I was immediately manhandled into a corner by these two men and given a quick screening. The Geiger counters chirped and buzzed, but I must not have been too hot because they let me in. They shoved me forward, nearly knocking over a display of red metallic drinking cups, and then they returned to their positions by the entrance.
“What’s with the guards?” I asked Brad when I found him lying on the ground next to the shredder. “Was there some kind of toxic spill?”
“It won’t shred photos,” he said. He was surrounded by strands of Look City flyers, People and Newsweek magazines, newspaper advertisements. “This machine won’t shred a simple photograph,” my boss said. He was lying on his back; awkwardly trying to stuff a Polaroid into the paper feed upside down and backwards.
“Let me try,” I said. “It’s probably a matter of positioning.” I took the photograph, a picture of a gawky woman in cat-eye glasses at a Christmas party, and I pushed the Polaroid towards the slot, but it wouldn’t fit. I kneeled down and stared into the slot. There was plenty of space, and I tried again. This time I saw that I’d turned the picture so that it wouldn’t fit. I tried again, and again. I fumbled each time, and eventually I dropped it. The Polaroid spiraled to the ground.
“It will shred magazines, leaflets, market reports, glamour photographs, but it won’t shred a candid picture. It won’t shred a blank sheet of paper, or a page of line doodles,” he said.
I grabbed a flyer, stuffed it into the paper feed, and turned the crank. Shreds of paper snaked out of the machine’s speaker.
I wrote my name on a blank sheet of notebook paper, and tried to push it into the shredder, but I couldn’t quite line the paper up with the feed. I took a picture of Sadie out of my wallet and wrote the words “Look City Clothes” on the back. I tried to make my handwriting look like the lettering from the actual logo. I fed the photo into the Promise Keeper and got back shreds.
“It only takes ads,” my boss said.
On break I saw the transformation, the destruction, start to spread. I watched the Look City aesthetic spread to the food court.
It started next to the McDonald’s. The sign for the restrooms — the arrow and the word “restrooms” itself — grew speckled and dingy. And the arrow tilted down to point at the floor.
It started with the restroom sign. Then it spread to the McDonald’s itself. The uniforms on the employees were darker — they’d transmogrified from cotton to polyester — and the collars widened. A customer was grousing that his burger was covered with dust, and one of the men in the McDonald’s uniforms, the McDonald’s manager possibly, exclaimed that all of the soda was flat.
“What did you do?” this McDonald’s boss asked the kid at the cash register. “What did you do?”
The kid responded by looking at his shirt, pulling at his ever-widening collar, but he didn’t say a thing.
There was something waiting for me when I got home from work, a creature out of focus, chaotic and blurry. After I stepped inside the front room, once I got a closer view, I figured out that it was Sadie.
There was something wrong with her, really wrong. Her face, for instance, was in flux. Instead of two sparkling green eyes she had three or four, and her slightly upturned nose was on her chin. All of Sadie’s physical characteristics, her pretty mouth, her delicate hands and feet, were spiraling around an abstraction. She was nearly impossible to look at head-on. She’d lost cohesion.
“What’s happening?” Sadie asked. A hand reached out for me, emerging from a swirl of bright white smiles, blonde hair. One of her mouths, this one with cherry red lips, hovered next to her hand, ready to bite.
“Don’t touch,” I said.
“Can you see me?”
“You’ve been shredded.”
It was my fault. I’d shredded her. I’d run her photograph through the Promise Keeper.
“What’s happened to me?” Sadie asked. She was standing in the bathroom and trying to find herself in the mirror. “What the fuck did you do?”
We broke into the Look City outlet to retrieve her photograph, and I thought she’d give us away — Sadie was still in a state of noisy flux, a whirl of wrinkled brows and clapping hands — but I needn’t have worried. The electronic surveillance system had disappeared along with the track lighting.
I grabbed a replica World’s Fair flashlight as we made our way down the main aisle, and pointed it towards the Implied Promise Keeper; the machine was nearly buried in paper shreds. I had two feet of flyers and magazines and advertising copy to sift through.
“Find me,” Sadie said.
The remains of Sadie’s photo were clumped together, intertwined with the shreds of a promotion for Look City’s special “Death” brand of cigarettes. I delicately plucked her image out from the from the threads of the advertisement, separating it from the Surgeon General’s warning, and set to work reassembling the snapshot.
Using masking tape on the back and translucent tape on the front, I put her face back together.
“Can you see me?” Sadie asked.
I could see her image, her Kodachrome face, but she herself was still a mass of confusion.
“Miles,” Sadie said, “do something.”
I turned away from my ruined girlfriend, couldn’t face her any longer. I turned the photo over, pulled back a piece of masking tape, and erased the Look City Clothes logo underneath.
“Miles? What did you do? Is it fixed? Am I fixed?”
Sadie came back together all at once, her slightly upturned nose and tired eyes realigned on her face. After erasing the logo I could see her clearly, but it took a while for her to be convinced that the damage had been undone.
“That’s not my face,” she said as she looked at the mirror in the employees’ bathroom. “That’s not my face. Everything is in reverse.”
Sadie called in sick to Hot Dog on a Stick, climbed into bed, and then stayed in bed for a week.
“Can you still see me?” she asked me upon waking that first morning. “Can you still see me?” she asked every morning after.
I went back to work right away, and when my manager wasn’t looking I locked the shredder in a storage closet and kept the key.
I sold faux gas station overalls, orange sneakers, Lava lamps, gigantic red metal cups. I manned the cash register, smiled at the customers, punched in and out.
Life returned to normal. The electronic security system was reinstalled.
After a week, Sadie recovered; she started to believe in herself again. We made love again, and I didn’t use a condom. How could I deny her after what had happened, after I’d shredded her? After seeing her fall apart I almost wanted a kid, her kid. I wanted something normal like that. But when the act was over, when we’d both finished pushing and straining, Sadie told me that she was taking the pill again. She told me she wasn’t interested in having a child anymore. She wanted something else. She said she’d found a different way of connecting to the world.
“We should steal it,” Sadie said.
“Steal what?” I asked.
“We could try shredding something else, something besides Look City flyers, something better.”
“Better?” I asked.
“Anything. Some advertisement that doesn’t have an apocalyptic subtext,” Sadie said.
I shrugged, not quite comprehending what she was getting at.
“Miles, it wasn’t the shredder that was destroying the store. It wasn’t the shredder that disrupted my identity. It was the aesthetic, the Look City aesthetic.”
“How do you figure?”
“The sign, ‘Implied Promises Kept,’ that’s a description of what the machine does.”
I shrugged again.
“We have to use it. How could we not use it?”
“It’s easy not to use it. You just don’t open the closet door.”
“We should at least finish what’s already been started. We should feed in some more Look City stuff. Keep this going.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s a miracle, Miles. We can fix things. We can shred the lie and find the implied truth underneath,” she said. “We have to keep it going.”
In 1993 or so an old high school friend of mine visited from the east coast. I met him at the airport and we shared a cab back to my apartment downtown. On the way he stared out the window of the taxi, sighed at the bridges and streets of Portland, and finally came to a judgement.
“You’re living in Disneyland,” he said.
“You don’t like it?”
“The streets aren’t covered in garbage, there aren’t any slums, everything is clean.”
I told him that we had slums in North Portland, and that I didn’t think a city had to look like a war zone or a ruin in order to be considered real. He told me that he didn’t expect somebody from Disneyland to understand.
My friend thought he’d pegged what was wrong with Portland, but he had it wrong. It wasn’t the parts of the city that worked that made Portland unreal, it wasn’t the light rail system or the clean streets that brought on the disorder. No, it was the parts of the city that were already broken. The parts we’d given away or sold were the parts that made the whole city vulnerable.
Sadie and I broke back into the mall so we could keep shredding Look City flyers. We were at it all night, making paper strands and confetti. The morning came, the coffee shops in the food court opened, and we were still at it. We kept shredding until we saw the flash — a light many times brighter than the sun — and heard the roar of atomic wind.
There was no heat, just light and sound. The ceramic cats rattled on their shelf, a few Magic 8 Balls rolled off the display tables and onto the ground, but that was all.
I ran out to the parking lot just in time to glimpse the first mushroom cloud, and then the next flash blinded me. Then I was deafened by the crushing sound.
I waited, stood very still as my senses slowly returned. The new mushroom cloud was rising up from the asphalt. It was maybe twenty yards away from me. I felt a hand on my back as I watched ash fall from the sky. The radioactive flakes disintegrated as they reached the earth.
“You should see what’s going on inside,” Sadie said.
The Lloyd Center was packed. A feeding frenzy was underway, with massive, chaotic lines pouring out of every shop and department store.
“Hey,” a businesswoman wearing blue sneakers with her gray skirt and white oxford-cloth shirt said. “You work at the hot dog place, don’t you?”
“Sometimes,” Sadie said.
“The lemonade is tainted. It’s full of isotopes or something,” she said. And then she downed the cup of yellow liquid she was holding without pausing to breathe.
And it went on like that. Waves of paranoid complaints circled through the crowd only to be followed by absurd displays of gluttony. And the explosions increased in number, creating a strobe effect.
“There’s no more Oxy!”
“I want fifteen double espressos and twelve lattes to go!”
“What is that strange purple mist in the penguins-wearing-sunglasses window display? Will it affect the lenses?”
A mushroom cloud and a moment of silent deafness.
“I need today’s and yesterday’s Times. The newspaper is very important to me.”
“Do you have Kelly’s canned Pork Brains in Gravy?”
A flash and then a roar.
“Where are they? Where are the Girl Power action figures?”
A massive explosion, and then another. The mall was ground zero, an endless stream of mushroom clouds. No space, no time, in between the blasts, but just a long white field of light, a deafening roar of atomic wind, without pause.
And then silence, thirty seconds of silence before the world came back.
The lines of people, the storefronts and plastic tables, all of it came back into view, and then the rioting continued. The screaming, the looting, and the violence began in earnest.
And then the Lloyd Center mall began to disintegrate. It started to burn without making smoke.
Portland erupted, transformed itself into a disconnected dystopia.
Portland became a shopping mall on fire.
Portland was destroyed by symbolic bombs.
We stole the shredder. The rioters cleared a path for us. They were too busy pushing and fighting over empty Coca-Cola bottles and disposable lighters to see us, but they moved out of the way by instinct.
By the exit ramp a woman in a polyester jumpsuit, an older lady with a bad dye job that had turned her hair purple and an insane glint behind her spectacles, was stopping traffic.
“Is this on sale?” she asked, pointing to our car as she rushed across the asphalt. She had shopping bags with her, and she screamed at us and pulled out perfume bottles from the bag in order to smash them on the hood of our car and on the asphalt. “Is this on sale?” she yelled.
There was an explosion on the other side of the river, in Southwest Portland. The KOIN tower went up in a mushroom cloud. As we crossed the Hawthorne Bridge we could hear them, the masses, scrambling for their lives in Waterfront Park.
We saw giant mutant insects, spiders mostly but a few grasshoppers too, crawl out of the Fox Theater. And the glass doors of NikeTown cracked open to let forth a geyser of blood. There were people everywhere trying to find out if they could get another latte; their designer clothes had been ripped to shreds but they themselves were fine, except that they didn’t know what to do, where to go, now that their condos were gone.
“We should do something to help,” Sadie said. She opened the car door and I had to slam on the brakes so she wouldn’t splatter on the asphalt as she stepped out onto the street. We both ended up standing on a manhole between 5th and 6th Avenues; we stood perfectly still as the city crumbled around us.
“Sit down!” Sadie shouted to the men and women running in zigzags. “You’ll be okay if you just sit down, if you don’t react.”
It was true. The buildings were falling, but the bricks and mortar weren’t hitting the ground. The explosions kept happening, the bombs kept falling from nowhere, but there wasn’t any heat. We sat in the street, Sadie in a lotus position, and it became clear.
“It’s our fault,” Sadie said to a Japanese man who, in his leather jacket and Ford truck baseball cap, sat down next to us and put his head between his knees. “We let the Look City aesthetic get out of hand,” Sadie said.
A group of mounted police were steering their horses in circles, trampling the pedestrians spilling out of the ruins of a Starbucks.
“We didn’t know how much of it, how much of the city, was made of advertising,” Sadie told the man in the baseball cap.
“I’m going to die,” he said.
“No you won’t. You’ll be fine if you stay with us.”
A man and woman in matching jogging suits crawled down the sidewalk, cutting their hands on broken glass and bouncing their heads on the concrete in anticipation of shock waves that never came. “Don’t,” Sadie said, “. . . don’t panic.” But they went on panicking, and the city went on shredding itself, and there wasn’t anything we could do to stop it or stop people reacting to it.
“We’re responsible,” Sadie said. But there wasn’t much we could do, really. When it finally stopped, all that was left was my Ford Escort. My Ford and the shredding machine on the backseat seemed to be the only man-made objects left intact.
Newport is a tourist town. It used to be a fishing town, but it’s not anymore. What it’s known for now is its toffee, its aquarium, and the Ripley’s Believe It or Not! museum.
Most of the Portland refugees went north into Washington and Canada, but thousands of us came to Newport, hundreds taking up space in Motel 6s, in the Sylvia Beach hotel, and in the Newport high school. Sadie and I were lucky; our motel room had cable television and was small enough that we had no roommates.
Sadie knows people here, waitresses mostly, and she’s found a job already. She works and I hang around our motel. Occasionally I venture out and visit the tiny library. Sadie works and I do research, but what we’re both really doing is biding our time until she decides what to shred next.
At night when we’re together in this motel room we fidget with the shredding machine. We take it apart and put it back together. We skim highbrow books. When Sadie’s not rereading the machine’s manual aloud she’s reading books by people like Roland Barthes, Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, R. D. Laing.
I tell her that I want a family now, tell her I want what she wants, but Sadie isn’t interested. She’s convinced that it was the Look City aesthetic at fault and she wants to try socialist newspapers and union pamphlets in the shredder. She thinks that the shredder could create a utopia.
“All that Soviet Realism, that dictatorship of the proletariat stuff, reeks of totalitarianism,” I say. “What about some green advertisements, something like what Exxon or Chevron designs to cover up their misdeeds? Or better yet, how about we just put the machine in a ditch, or hack it to bits, and start over?”
Sadie is disgusted by my lack of class consciousness.
But I know I’m right. Shredding, by itself, isn’t enough. The shredding machine is just one piece of the puzzle we’re living through.
“Those nuclear bombs didn’t change anything,” I tell her. “The people were the same after.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” she asks.
“You don’t get it. The machine can’t change things.”
Sadie doesn’t agree. She says the whole event was a manifestation of some new kind of consciousness. “We pulled the curtain aside once. Don’t you want to see what’s back there? Don’t you want to shred something?”
Sadie has it figured out. “It all has to go, all of it. We just have to decide what to shred next.”
It’s not that simple. It’s not merely a matter of destruction, of shredding. “We have to do more than shred things. We have to find the right promise before we act again,” I say.
“But that’s what I’m trying to do.”
“You’re not listening,” I tell her. “We have to know what it is. We have to know what it is that we want to keep.”
“Shopping at the End of the World,” by Douglas Lain, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.
If you redistribute this story, please include a link to
Douglas Lain’s fiction has appeared in such quintessential science fiction publications as Amazing Stories and in obscure literary publications such as Pif Magazine. By some oversight, he has never been detained for questioning under the Patriot Act. His favorite color is red. To contact him, send him email at email@example.com. For more on his work, see his website. His previous appearance in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.