"In the war," my grandfather says, "we'd of made men out of two pissants like you."
"What war?" asks Erik.
"Oh, some war or other. I think I was a sergeant, but don't hold me to that, and I drove one of those jeeps, like on M*A*S*H, and it was pretty fucking boring. I gambled a lot, had relations with the nurses. Drank soda pop."
My step-mother is preparing dinner in the kitchen. Aaron is somewhere. I'm sitting next to Erik on the couch, across from my grandfather who is sprawled in his easy-chair.
"Did you kill people?" I ask.
"Oh, I killed lots of things. I think I killed a water-buffalo."
"It's like this. Everything that's alive dies and so it's no big deal to kill a thing because it's natural. People don't kill things directly so they think killing is evil, but I think every person should kill something, it should start in elementary school. If I were President, I'd mandate that each kindergartener slaughter a live chicken on the first fucking day of school, and then every year thereafter, on the first day of school, the American student would slaughter a larger animal. Rabbits, cats, mountain goats, all the way up to senior year and a healthy goddamn bovine. This would take some planning and maybe you just have one fucking cow per home-room. I don't know, but
Aaron steps into the family-room. "I have to go," he says.
"I have a meeting downtown. I'll pick you up later."
"Can I come?" Erik says.
"What's your cell-phone number?" I ask. "What if I need to call you? I can't call you if I don't have your cell. Tell me your number. Please tell me."
"Here." Aaron hands me his business card.
In the corner of the card there is a line-drawing. The line-drawing seems very mysterious and abstract and I can't imagine what form it's supposed to represent, and I want the form to be a living thing like a beetle or a kitten or an antelope, but it's none of these. "What's this for?" I say, pointing at the drawing. I trace the drawing with my pinky and I watch my pinky move with the lines and my pinky moves in a jerky fashion.
"That's a W. That's my company's symbol, for my last name, Westphal." Aaron looks at Erik. "Are you ready?"
I follow Aaron and Erik to the front-door and open the front-door and watch Aaron and Erik move steadily along the walkway to Aaron's Lexus. It is evening. The sky is clear. There is snow on the grass but the snow on the road has melted and everywhere there is dirt and dirty slush, and the houses in the neighborhood have many lights and the lights are many colors and the many-colored lights are bright and blinking and moving and the night is a cold, empty cavity with only colored lights and a thin, tragic wind.
"How are you, really?" my grandfather asks. His hand is on my shoulder.
"I'm a cavity."
"Happy fucking birthday to me."
"Oh, to be young," my grandfather says. "I was young and then I was old. No big difference. Everything basically the same, except my knees, which hurt all the time. I think more now. No, that's wrong. Now, I watch more television. I like the news. Watch the news every day, five times a day. The world's going to end sometime and I'll figure it out first."
I follow my grandfather into the family-room. We sit on the sofa.
"Do you know about the apocalypse?" my grandfather asks.
"It's all bullshit, but it's comforting bullshit." My grandfather groans and adjusts his legs with his hands. "I like to imagine a nuclear holocaust because a nuclear holocaust is probably the best kind of apocalypse. Nuclear holocausts have the most drama. There is the initial explosion, you know, mushroom cloud, extreme heat, gaudy casualty numbers. Then round two, radiation sickness. The news-media panicking over wind direction, government response, etc… People die trying to escape cities, which would seem, then, to be nuclear death-traps. The inevitable retaliation, with the same two rounds of death and panic in other countries. Radiation burns. Radiation sickness. More bombs, more dead, more radiation, more panic. Praying and stuff. People become religious. Mass graves. Bodies burned. A very melodramatic end, I think."
"That doesn't sound very comforting."
"Well." My grandfather watches television for a while. "I think it's comforting to know that most things have an end, small scale, lives etc…, and also large scale, world, universe. It's good to know that things end. If things go on perpetually, it's impossible to imagine and makes people anxious and fearful. If a television show never ended it would be creepy, scary, people wouldn't know what to do. Maybe destroy televisions, maybe urban rioting. So to with the world, I think."
"That's kind of sad."
My step-mother calls from the kitchen. Dinner's ready. Roast beef, mashed-potatoes.
"What about time?" I ask.
"That's exactly it," my grandfather says.
We are walking to the kitchen.
"It's nice to know that even time has an end."
We sit at the kitchen-table, forming an equilateral triangle, I think, and my step-mother has arranged the plates and cutlery into their proper places. Steam rises from the sliced meat and the sliced meat glistens a little in the light and reflects the light and the kitchen feels like a slick and slimy place. "What do you think about the apocalypse?" I say to my step-mother.
"Your sister is here," she answers. "She's cleaning up, just arrived."
"I called her and told her to come. It's your birthday after all."
My grandfather chuckles quietly. "It's not the end of the world," he says. "Watch out for that beef though. It's irradiated beef.
"Got it at a discount from this guy in a white van. He was driving through the neighborhood with this truckload of beef, one of these cut-rate, 'somebody ordered it but they died' deals. Round steaks, T-bones, chuck steak, cube steak, flank steak, filet mignon, sirloin steak, ground beef, rib-eye steak, spare-ribs, everything. I asked him why it's so cheap and he says, 'radiation poisoning' and I say, 'I'm old anyway' so I bought it all for fifty bucks. Probably a whole cow in the freezer."
"Oh stop it," my step-mother says. She looks toward the hallway. "Here she is," she says.
My sister steps into the room and she is Merna. Merna's holding her hands in front of her stomach and her hair is like my hair but short and her eyes are like my eyes but large and round and her jeans are very tight and stylish and Merna's mouth is smiling a wide smile and I can see her teeth which are large and white and even. She moves in a slow-shuffling way and she sits between my step-mother and me. I move away a little and we are a trapezoid-family.
"Trapezoid," I say.
"What?" my sister says.
"Don't," Merna says.
"It's the same," I say.
There is meat between my sister and me.
"Everything is probably the same," Merna says.
"Come upstairs with me," Merna says.
We're sitting at the kitchen-table. Dinner is finished and the plates are streaked with dirt and grease and there is a smell like eaten or digested food.
"Come up on the roof with me. We'll sit on the roof. It's beautiful there."
"You're my little sister, right?"
"I guess." My mouth and Merna's mouth are the same mouth and my hair and Merna's hair are the same hair. When we were very young, I was Merna's miniature copy. A model: Merna at age five, then seven, then nine.
"Isn't it natural then, that you'd do something for me if I asked? It's okay though, if you don't want to."
"I know." I look at Merna's mouth and Merna's mouth moves and there is saliva, teeth, other things. I turn my body away from Merna. The air feels dense and long, somehow, and I think birthday thoughts. My grandfather is napping on the sofa. My step-mother is throwing dishes one by one into the trash compacter and laughing quietly alone.
"You're still pretty," Merna says. "Sometimes I imagine that you're doing very pretty very smart things, studying to be a marine biologist, a physicist or something, sculpting important 'politically-charged' sculptures, collage-sculpting, from toy and food fragments. You create a new art movement called collage-sculpting, the cover of Time Magazine, art shows, minor critical success, some kind of website."
"That's detailed," I say.
"Come on the roof so we can look at the constellations."
"I'm really really sorry," I say. "I should've been more diligent. I should've called sometime. I thought about calling you but didn't call and usually watched television or something else instead."
"Don't worry about that." Merna stands and walks toward the stairs. "Come on," she says over her shoulder. "I'm going out on the roof."
I follow Merna up the stairs and out her bedroom window. The roof is slippery and cold but we lay a thick fleece blanket over the snow. The sky is clear and black and distant, and the stars are cold and strange. I try to find the constellations and I think, 'How can you tell a constellation from anything else?' I arrange the stars in different combinations. "What do you think about apocalypses?" I say to Merna. "Grandpa thinks apocalypses are comforting."
"I don't know," Merna says. Merna touches my hair. "I think it's beautiful for an apocalypse to happen, probably proof of god."
I think about the apocalypse, nuclear holocaust, general havoc and destruction, and I feel all at once like my grandfather is correct. 'It is comforting to know that things end,' I think. "But what about human suffering?" I ask. "Or at least physical pain?" I think about massive physical pain in each dying human during a worldwide apocalypse and try to quantify it, but it's not quantifiable, and instead I imagine slaughtering a small white kitten, a dozen white kittens, carefully cutting small kitten-pieces and placing the kitten-pieces in a large silver bowl, a billion kitten-pieces from a million kittens, and I think, 'Worldwide human suffering must be like that, incremental and ongoing.'
"I don't know," Merna says. "If I was god I'd arrange a beautiful apocalypse with rivers of blood and fire, evenly spaced explosions, and from a great height, I'd arrange the human corpses into complicated patterns, chaotic and touching patterns, familial, and every dead body would touch another dead body, and it would cover everything up and then it would snow for a while, I think."
"Snow," I say.
We don't talk for a while after that.
When I was five years old, on Saturdays, Merna and I played the apocalypse-game. We searched the house for every doll and stuffed-bear, every toy animal, dolphins, smurfs, my little cabbage-patch girl, and scattered them, each one touching another one, radiating around a central point as though a bomb had tossed their toy-bodies randomly but with purpose and we sat carefully between the bodies and lamented the toy-bodies and made sad faces and little boring fake tears.
"It's sad," Merna said.
"It's sad but it's just stuff that happens," I said. "The animals die and I saw it before on TV and I heard about it at school." I searched for more stuffed-animals to arrange in the blast zone. I threw pillows among them like concrete shrapnel and used old toys and I toppled tables and nightstands and my little plastic lamp. We pretended we were paramedics and tried and failed to resuscitate. I applied chest compressions to the smurfs. Merna pronounced time of death, then helped me gather and remove the bodies from the bomb-site. Merna said a little sermon in my bedroom. I sat in the audience and then I was the grave-digger. I buried the dead beneath red and gray fleece-blankets.
"Do you ever want to eat yourself?" I ask.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know exactly. Sometimes I'm hungry, but not hungry and I think it I should slowly eat myself and disappear inside myself and I think about starting with my abdomen. Making a little cavity with a kitchen-knife or a potato-peeler or a melon-baller and baking my little abdomen balls in garlic or something, or maybe a soup, a nice me soup with parsley."
"No, I've never thought that."
"Yeah?" I hold my cell-phone and open my cell-phone and scroll through my cell-phone address-book. I text-message Erik. I type, 'Apocalypse death warrant.'
"What are you doing?" my sister asks.
"Nothing." I text-message Aaron. I type, 'I eat myself, self, I'm all teeth and stuff.' I say, "Just texting Aaron and Erik, my boring little lovers." I want Aaron and Erik to text me back and to come and pick me up and to drive around for a while and then kill me and roast me in a barrel-fire and serve my roast-body to lonely homeless men. But Aaron and Erik don't text me back and I put my cell-phone slowly away. Snow falls in a loose and dangly way and there is space between each snowflake and I avoid the snowflakes near my face. I think, 'I could remain untouched by snow, if I wanted.'
"Do you remember that little dog, Ana, from the neighbors?"
"No." But I do remember her and I can see her little black eyes in her little narrow face and her thin brown shoulders and her black spiked collar with its jingling name-tag.
"We used to take her for walks to the park and fetch and stuff in the street."
"Little Ana died,' my sister says. "I hit her with my car."
"On the way here," Merna says. "She's in my trunk right now."
My cell-phone plays a little song.
"I'm sorry," I say. I answer my cell-phone.