The Mirror on the Threshold of Obsolescence
by Patrick W. Gallagher
Karen’s husband threw himself down in an empty chair, two seats away from her, far enough away to betray a lack of intimacy between them but not far enough away to make a bold statement. They were the only two people sitting at a table, in the middle of a ballroom, with 12 chairs around it, but that was the seat that he had chosen—as though he had wanted to save a seat for her actual husband and had not wanted to sit right next to him, either.
“I had a dream,” he said. “I dreamed that I was in an alternate universe, where the only movies that win Oscars are Christmas-themed movies. Not war movies or historical costume dramas—Christmas movies.”
Because it was the first complete paragraph that she had heard him utter for what seemed like a whole, foul era, she trained her eyes on him and said nothing, which she hoped would visually signify that she was reserving her right to make a full response at the time of her choosing. But as far as the content of his statement was concerned, it made perfect sense that he pulled out his phone and started tapping it with his thumb immediately, all but guaranteeing that any response she did eventually choose to make would either be ignored or unheard.
They had been married for 25 years, and for almost all of that time it had seemed like he did not need distraction. He had been very good about preventing his hair from flailing away from his scalp like rocks shooting away from one another in the wake of a collision between meteorites and of not sleeping in his clothes. He had slept at night beside her, just like her, instead of tapping his phone with his thumb in pursuit of distraction. But, distraction from what? That was the part of the problem that flummoxed her the most, for if distraction was now all that his life consisted of, then she didn’t see how he had any life left to be distracted from.
It was as though Karen’s husband was so totally distracted, so totally removed from involvement in his own life by his constant attention to the most meaningless possible information, that he no longer even needed a name. For her part, Karen wasn’t sure if he even wanted one.
But it didn’t matter because she was equally absorbed in her phone and wanted to get back to it right away. Someone had posted a video of her online in just the last few minutes, and she wanted to figure out who it was as soon as possible.
It wasn’t that the video cast her in an unflattering light, exactly. It showed her moving gracefully through this ballroom, greeting men and women in tailored suits and glittering dresses, throwing her head back and laughing in slow motion, showing off her own long, black gown with a series of curtsies and theatrical pirouettes, winding her way between the hundreds of round tables, making eye contact with every last person whose path she crossed. But the music that accompanied the video was slow, melancholy jazz, and the title of the video was “The Karen Era.” The subtext was clear: history remembered Karen’s time as a light-hearted moment, a veritable age of innocence, that from the vantage point of the present looked quaint, tragically so. The way that Karen viewed the combination of slow motion, sad jazz on the soundtrack, and the unmistakable whiff of past tense in that title—“The Karen Era”—she could only read it as an elegy for her and a downright nostalgic one at that.
The problem was that the video did not depict the past at all: it had clearly been shot, edited, soundtracked, and posted in just the last five minutes. Karen was the Administrator-in-Chief of the Hourglass, a free-enterprise zone that had been established in the Lower East Side and parts of Williamsburg and Bedford-Stuyvesant, after both areas had been devastated by the onslaught of Ultrastorm Ursula, in order to attract private investment to the rebuilding effort. Based on economist Thomas Piketty’s insight that great periods of economic growth only occur in capitalist systems by dint of rebuilding in the wake of massive catastrophes—such as World War I or II—Karen had proposed to the Empire State Development Corporation that a special zone be established, effectively abandoning the area to nature in the expectation that investors seeking big profits would pick up the slack for the absent state. At first, the project had been an enormous failure, and the only people who showed any interest in the Hourglass were artists and anarchists looking for places to squat. For years, Karen had presided over a wasteland of abandoned office buildings and housing stock rotting away, strange new invasive species of mutant plants bursting through the sidewalks, wrapping around streetlights like tentacles and ripping them down, while in the dwindling number of indoor spaces the unwashed hordes of free thinkers waged endless meetings over vapid abstractions. But recently, as the value of the land under the Hourglass had hit rock bottom, high-end real estate companies had begun to construct condos and Karen’s wisdom had begun to be vindicated.
She had put together this gala, aboard a cruise ship circling the island of Manhattan, as a way for the Hourglass’s wealthiest new inhabitants to contribute to providing food and clothing for the impoverished artists and anarchists of the zone, whose situation had grown increasingly dire as Karen’s own had improved. So to be treated online as though she were the symbol of a bygone era would still have severely disturbed her, even if the events of her era that the video had singled out for wistful nostalgia were still taking place in the present at the time that the video was made available for public view.
Karen put her phone down and gazed toward the front of the ballroom, where a trio of androgynous dancers covered in fluorescent makeup of many colors danced in front of a DJ spinning upbeat, future-oriented electronic dance music. She realized that she did not know who they were, where they had come from, or who from Karen’s staff had hired them, and it crossed her mind that rather than attempting to entertain her and her guests the dancers might actually have been protesting them. She saw dancers on the cracked streets of the Hourglass every night, sometimes by themselves and sometimes in groups of all different sizes, hopping and twirling under the grotesquely huge leaves of giant mutant weeds. When she met with representatives of their community, they told her that their primary objective was not to protest anything in particular, but instead to create a cultural basis for protest that could ground anything that they did in a shared sense of community identity.
Was that what the dancers here were trying to do? Extend their culture to include Karen and the rich people in their shared sense of community identity? Or were they just dancing? Karen didn’t know and it bothered her.
She wanted to call her friend Alice, the private detective, but she was scared she didn’t have time. If even one of the guests on the boat suspected that the party was a thing of the past, it could have a pernicious effect on the outcome of the fundraiser. At the other end of the room, she spotted Bettina, her right-hand woman. Bettina would know who the dancers were, Karen would have bet the farm on that. And what was more, Bettina had no love for anarchists—she never stopped talking about how she had only gotten into free-enterprise-zone-management because the sexism of the men in her old collective had driven her out of newslettering.
Karen’s husband continued to tap his phone with his thumb, his mouth ajar and his eyes glassy, as she departed the table and sprinted to the other side of the ballroom.
Karen’s husband felt a tug on his forehead, as though someone had yanked on a piece of string that was embedded there, and he looked up. Standing in front of him, almost eight feet tall, Karen’s husband beheld a man in a bright blue leotard, a green cape hanging from his shoulders, his face painted bright red. In his mind, Karen’s husband heard the word “superhero,” but couldn’t think of his name, if he had one.
In order to celebrate the look and feel of the Hourglass as a continually evolving ecosystem, Bettina had taken great care to position large, unwieldy plants with the biggest possible leaves and longest imaginable fronds, in sufficient number that they would spill out of their planters and drape the ballroom carpet like huge, overfull plates of spaghetti. It had been Bettina’s pet project to make sure that the planters were positioned just so, and all through the last hours in the run-up to the party one could see her circulating through the ballroom, nudging the plants so that they caught either a little bit more or a little bit less of a particular light source, over and over again.
But when Karen found Bettina now she sat slumped in a chair next to a man wearing a white tuxedo jacket with what looked like a big ketchup stain on his left lapel, while she tugged urgently at a cigarette, ashing it in a styrofoam cup filled with water. She and the man both looked exhausted, but only Bettina looked actively demoralized, her eyes hooded as though she had stayed too late at a party where, rather than drinking too much, she had not drunk nearly enough.
Karen stood at the table for a few seconds, awaiting some kind of acknowledgement, but when Bettina provided none she lunged down into the chair beside her.
It was like she had entered an opium den. When Karen said, “Bettina, I need you to tell me about those dancers,” her cherished longtime colleague and supporter only nodded and made a soundless pursing gesture with her lips.
Karen was actually worried about Bettina at this point. “Bettina!” she whispered into her ear. “Bettina!”
Bettina turned her head slowly toward Karen, said “Karen?” while her eyes widened with growing confusion, and Karen hoisted her up out of her seat by the shoulders.
With sufficient speed that she hoped no one would notice, Karen dragged Bettina to the kitchen at the rear of the ballroom, where few guests congregated due to the small number of giant unruly plants constellated there. Once in the kitchen, Karen made right for the sink. She turned on the faucet, cupped her hands underneath, and lobbed the cold water into Bettina’s face.
Bettina shouted as though she had just wakened from a nightmare and recoiled back, her hands shaking as water fell in bell-shaped drops from the sharp, shiny points of her curly locks of black hair. She stepped back from Karen with her posture slouched, one hand pawing around her waist as though she were looking for a pocket to put it in, until it went still, drooping at her side, the other one too. Her eyes had a weary look, but—Karen recognized—from boredom rather than exertion. Bettina looked at Karen as though she recognized her, but as a person who Karen herself did not.
Karen’s husband followed the apparent superhero down a staircase that led below decks, where the decorations ended and their footsteps echoed like PA announcements on the metal steps. They entered a bright, empty room with white walls and a white linoleum floor and strips of humming fluorescent lights behind translucent plastic covers lining the ceiling.
Four rows of four superheroes each stood throughout the room, each one spaced evenly from the other. They all had in common that, like the superhero who had brought Karen’s husband to the room to begin with, they all seemed utterly off-brand: the man standing at the front of the row farthest to Karen’s husband’s left, for example, wore a black leotard, cape, and cowl that reminded Karen’s husband of Batman, but there were no pointy ears nor symbol on display. There was nothing whatsoever to indicate who he was or what he stood for—he only stood, in total silence, like a mannequin awaiting customers in a department store.
On cautious step at a time, Karen’s husband ventured into their ranks, gazing at them, sniffing at them as they stood. He saw a woman in a red uniform—a leotard, but with a short, pointy skirt protruding from the waist—holding what appeared to be a red pitchfork, there was a man wearing a bright yellow mask with matching bright yellow business suit and fedora, and a hulking ten-foot monster with purple skin and octopus tentacles drooping from his huge chin.
Sticky with some clear substance that glistened like rubber cement and smelled like aged bleu cheese, the giant’s head tentacles—quivering and flexing just noticeably—were by far the most energetic presences in the room. The superheroes themselves were either too stoic or too brain-dead to respond to anything that Karen’s husband did, even as he poked and prodded them in an effort to determine who they were.
Karen and Bettina sat on the floor of the kitchen, their backs against the cupboards beneath the sink and their knees touching, as Bettina scrolled through her iPad.
“This is the roster of dancers that the dance firm and I had agreed upon,” Bettina said.
There were three black-and-white headshots of young people who looked mean, two male and one female.
Their cheeks were so soft, and yet all three faces wore the same pursed expression in their lips with a vague but unmistakable air of militancy, that Karen could not tell if they were children or war-hardened adults. What was more, their heads all seemed slightly oblate in shape, almost like lemons, and the slight sepia hue in the headshots made it look like the photos could have been taken a long time ago, possibly in the middle of the Great Depression.
Karen remembered something someone had once told her, she thought it might have been Bettina, about how meaningless the phrase “the Great Depression” had become. There were a lot of people who had only known one depression, the one that was happening to them in the present, and any effort to convince them that the earlier depression had been in some way bigger-D than this one would only meet with at best incomprehension and at worst indignation.
For that matter, one of the two boys depicted in the headshots wore what appeared to be denim overalls, based on the straps over his shoulders, and the other boy clearly had a piece of straw protruding from between his clenched teeth.
The girl’s look was the creepiest of all: with her relentlessly teased blond hair, grasping eyelashes, and what appeared in the sepia-hued black-and-white of her headshot to be pitch-black lipstick, she looked like a performance artist doing a tasteless vaudevillian take on a grownup JonBenet Ramsey, pure, violent nihilism embodied and determined to extract its vengeance from the combined flesh of the entire human race.
Karen shook her head, struggled to regain her critical faculties. She moved her knee away from Bettina’s and asked, “Can you verify that these are the three people under the makeup?”
“No,” Bettina said. “I can verify that I hired these three, but I have never seen the dancers in there without their makeup on.”
“So they could be different people,” Karen said.
Karen’s phone vibrated. She glanced at the screen: another video had been uploaded to all social media, this time the entire film Howard the Duck with a still photo of Karen’s face spliced over the head of the actress Lea Thompson, the female lead, who wore an angular mane of extravagantly crafted, stereotypically 80’s-style hair throughout the entire story that, though much more competently executed than the film as a whole, still had looked dated even before the film was released. From the beginning of the film to the end, Karen’s head would bob up and down and laterally before anyone’s eyes who had the stomach to watch the entire thing—and the most insidious part of it was that it meant Karen now had her very own page on the Internet Movie Database, with just one listing, that happened to be one of the most notorious, least popular films in the history of the medium.
Bettina leaned back, tilted her head toward the ceiling, and closed her eyes. She swooned into the past as she had off and on all day, not so much remembering as sinking her entire head below a surface of liquid pastness that distorted all of her senses. The dark of the loft at night, when everyone was gone but she, the smell of sawdust, and the quiet when she finally stopped typing—she saw at last how much time and energy she had wasted writing all those newsletters, every day a different newsletter about a different man’s crafting objectives, when all along newslettering had been the prime-most craft of them all, and she could have been writing newsletters about herself. Newsletters about herself and other newsletterers. The stomp of her boots on the loft floor as she stormed out, never to return—she missed the sound of those boots, and the woman who had worn them.
Karen sank her black fingernail into her thumb, savored the sting like a bump of cocaine, and stood up. The ass of her skirt was damp with water from the floor, she realized.
She talked down to Bettina, who still sat on the floor, staring into the space in front of her. “The mystery is fascinating,” Karen said. “Is this happening because of the dancers? I mean, it could be that there’s no relationship at all . . .”
“Is what happening,” Bettina sighed.
“You mean, you really don’t know,” Karen said. She folded her arms. “The way you’ve been I thought you were experiencing it yourself—the unmistakable feeling that this party is extinct, that it has already come and gone before it even had a chance to legitimately take place!”
Bettina said nothing, only breathed and continued to stare into space, as though she had just emerged physically unscathed but psychologically pulverized from a horrific car accident.
Karen pushed through the swinging doors that separated the kitchen and the ballroom convinced that the dancers had deployed to the party in order to foment a strong feeling of community and solidarity between the new wealthy residents of the Hourglass and the bohemian mob that had squatted and volunteered in artists’ sweatshops there in the years before, but their efforts had backfired—and that they had instead only given rise to a feeling of obsolescence that seemed to have crushed Bettina’s spirit completely. The party guests themselves had then posted the videos—promoting the notion that the party was not only over, but had concluded in a distant epoch foreign to contemporary sensibilities—the dissemination of which had set a vicious cycle in motion by making the party seem all the more ancient and decrepit, thus giving rise to more videos, etc.
But as she weaved between the tables searching for tablets and phones that looked like they were uploading videos, she was disappointed—the only guests with devices in their hands seemed to be using them only as reflective surfaces, with which to probe their faces for some sense of where all the time that they had lost had gone. All over the room, they had already loosened their ties, taken their hair down out of their buns, cast off their high heels, kicked them across the floor, and abandoned them without a further thought.
One of the guests who Karen had been most excited about was an old, bald man who had promised her that he would open up a high-end art gallery in the Hourglass, and not only had he shown up on the boat wearing a red velvet tuxedo, but he was also known for making snappy, funny remarks all the time. When Karen saw him slumped in his chair, slackjawed, mesmerized by his own image in the glass of his escort’s compact, pulling on his wrinkled skin as though there were a younger self to be found buried somewhere underneath it, she felt truly shocked for the first time since the boat had left dock.
Karen’s husband pressed his fingers against his cheeks as he listened to a long series of single drops of water loudly resonating against the thick nautical metal somewhere in the hull of boat.
He stared up into the face of the tall man standing in front of him. He wore a red helmet with a purple stripe down the middle, a red cape, and a skin-tight leotard, that emphasized his enormous pectoral muscles, made out of a rubber-like material that kicked back a bright glare from the white overhead lights.
No matter the will that Karen’s husband tried to project through his squinty-eyed staring into the tall, red-caped man’s eyes, the man never made any indication of noticing him. He acted just like a statue, though Karen’s husband could see his nostrils flaring as he breathed.
The plummeting of the single drops of water in the metal cavity picked up speed, as though counting down to some unbelievably crazy development, but Karen’s husband barely noticed it, so intense was his focus on the face of the red-caped man.
This one was different than the others, Karen’s husband was convinced—he had a name and a brand, Karen’s husband just knew he did, and though he could not remember the sound he could almost form his tongue around the way he remembered it feeling in his throat.
So he continued to stare into the red-caped man’s eyes, in hopes that he would eventually intimidate him into saying his name himself.
Karen felt exhausted when she finally reached the front of the ballroom. It felt like a massive open-plan debtors’ prison from the nineteenth century, the clothes disintegrating off of the guests’ slouching bodies, immersing them all under a tide of shared intimacy that none of them did anything to fight, their privacy vanishing, their self-respect already gone.
The dancers twisted and writhed like underwater plants on the dais, the colors on their faces contorted around each other in camouflage patterns, so vibrant that the hues of thick makeup paste themselves almost looked to be dancing around kaleidoscopically, on the surfaces of the three short androgynous figures’ skin, in time to the music. She gazed at them with a mix of indignation and awe as they continued—she believed—to cast this miserable spell until an idea struck her and she ran to a nearby janitorial closet.
She returned at a running pace, dragging a mobile hose unit behind her, turned the squirt setting to maximum, trained the hose on the dais, and squirted the dancers at full blast.
While sparks showered out of the amps and speakers, the dancers hit the floor crying and waving their fists. One by one, Karen scoured the makeup off of their faces, and, once they were completely clean, hurled the hose down on the floor and screamed, “Security! Security!” as loud as she could.
She knelt down so that her face was on the same plane as their prostrated bodies; it was clear that two of them were the same people as she had seen on Bettina’s iPad, but one of them was different.
“Who are you?” Karen hissed. “Who are you?”
Karen’s husband’s concentration on the red-caped man’s name hardened into anger. He took a step backward and a deep breath involuntarily, his body overwhelmed by the stress.
He put the palm of one hand under his chin, and the palm of another on top of his head. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a strip of bright blue, so vivid that it was like a brushstroke painted directly onto his cornea.
The dancers, wiggling like worms and yawning like tired dogs, still lying on their stomachs, seemed incapable of understanding English, let alone providing Karen with the detailed answers that she craved.
She stood up straight, climbed onto the dais in two big steps, and surveyed the room—not only were there no Security personnel approaching from any direction, but she was the only person out of hundreds in the giant room who was even standing up. The quiet in the room was so complete, she wondered if anyone else in the room was so much as awake, or if they had all bored themselves to the point of slumber with their rueful gazing into their own unfamiliar reflections.
The videos, the dancers, the sense of obsolescence, the illusory feeling of belonging to a true community—none of it mattered anymore, Karen decided. It was a moot point—whatever else was going on, the one sure thing was that the party now belonged to the past completely.
Karen’s husband approached the blue stripe, rubbing the blur out of his eyes, his heart beat beginning to accelerate. The figure wore a blue cape, a blue leotard, and tall, blue boots, and he recognized her face without even having to think about it—it was Karen’s, he could tell right away, but her mouth was a straight line and her eyes were as impassive as those of the red-caped man or any of the other ciphers in this basement superhero warehouse.
Karen felt compelled to leave the depleted specimens of humanity behind inside the clammy-aired boat and bask in the sun and breeze above decks. The wind smelled rich with a bouquet of aloes, a more florid aroma than she had ever insufflated.
The smell of the air only grew more complex and full-bodied as she approached the edge of the deck, so much so that she needed to clutch the rails just to steady her knees.
The smell was so intense that it foamed up Karen’s eyes with visions of fluorescent colors that made the makeup that the dancers had worn look bland by comparison.
When Karen closed her nostrils with her thumb and forefinger, she could stand upright once again and cast her eyes on the city beyond the water. Nothing could have prepared her for what she saw and experienced in that moment, to look at what had once been her city, to witness a change of such colossal magnitude, and to feel such loneliness as she had never imagined possible, in the moments that followed.
“Karen,” Karen’s husband said to the still face of the woman with the blue cape, her name almost too big to squeeze out of his throat. “Karen . . . Karen . . .”
Patrick W. Gallagher‘s stories and essays have appeared in Gawker Review of Books, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, n+1, The Adirondack Review, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, The New York Times, and elsewhere, and he is curator and host of The Farm Reading Series, NYC’s destination for the newest and best satirical and/or critical writing in any genre. He also holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from NYU and is author of the novel POLLEN, which Shader author Daniel Nester calls “smart, dyspeptic, dystopic fiction” and of which The Bed Moved author Rebecca Schiff says that “pee-your-pants laughing” is “an inevitable side effect”.