T.C. Boyle's "Chicxulub" in the New Yorker

I've been writing up events for the April 2005 edition of 805Living magazine and I came across the fact that Santa Barbara author, T.C. Boyle, will be reading his own story Chicxulub at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara on April 18. I was even told he's one of the few writers who actually does a superb job at this. Which lead me to look the story up and give it a read. It's the kind of thing that makes a writer cry. First, because it's so moving, you'd have to be a clump of clay not to cry and Second, because it's so rich and real and f'ing brilliant! I'm including here for you to read - even though it highlights what a crap writer I am ESPECIALLY in comparison - and including the New Yorker link. Every month they include a short story that you can print out and read offline. Damn nice of them, don't you think.To read Chicxulub now, click on the Read More. To go to the New Yorker click on the title.

February 28, 2005 home

Issue of 2004-03-01Posted 2004-02-23
My daughter is walking along the roadside late at night—too late, really, for a seventeen-year-old to be out alone, even in a town as safe as this—and it is raining, the first rain of the season, the streets slick with a fine immiscible glaze of water and petrochemicals, so that even a driver in full possession of her faculties, a driver who hadn’t consumed two apple Martinis and three glasses of Hitching Post pinot noir before she got behind the wheel of her car, would have trouble keeping the thing out of the gutters and the shrubbery, off the sidewalk and the highway median, for Christ’s sake. . . . But that’s not really what I want to talk about, or not yet, anyway.
Have you heard of Tunguska? In Russia?
This was the site of the last known large-body impact on the Earth’s surface, nearly a hundred years ago. Or that’s not strictly accurate—the meteor, which was an estimated sixty yards across, never actually touched down. The force of its entry—the compression and superheating of the air beneath it—caused it to explode some twenty-five thousand feet above the ground, but then the term “explode” hardly does justice to the event. There was a detonation—a flash, a thunderclap—with the combustive power of eight hundred Hiroshima bombs. Thirty miles away, reindeer in their loping herds were struck dead by the blast wave, and the clothes of a hunter another thirty miles beyond that burst into flame even as he was poleaxed to the ground. Seven hundred square miles of Siberian forest were levelled in an instant. If the meteor had struck just five hours later, it would have exploded over St. Petersburg and annihilated every living thing in that glorious, baroque city. And this was only a rock. And it was only sixty yards across.
My point? You’d better get down on your knees and pray to your gods, because each year this big spinning globe we ride intersects the orbits of some twenty million asteroids, at least a thousand of which are more than half a mile in diameter.
But my daughter. She’s out there in the dark and the rain, walking home. Maureen and I bought her a car, a Honda Civic, the safest thing on four wheels, but the car was used—pre-owned, in dealerspeak—and as it happens it’s in the shop with transmission problems and, because she just had to see her friends and gossip and giggle and balance slick multicolored clumps of raw fish and pickled ginger on conjoined chopsticks at the mall, Kimberly picked her up and Kimberly will bring her home. Maddy has a cell phone and theoretically she could have called us, but she didn’t—or that’s how it appears. And so she’s walking. In the rain. And Alice K. Petermann, of 16 Briar Lane, white, divorced, a Realtor with Hyperion, who has picked at a salad and left her glasses on the bar, loses control of her vehicle.
It is just past midnight. I am in bed with a book, naked, and hardly able to focus on the clustered words and rigid descending paragraphs, because Maureen is in the bathroom slipping into the sheer black negligee I bought her at Victoria’s Secret for her birthday, and her every sound—the creak of the medicine cabinet on its hinges, the tap running, the susurrus of the brush at her teeth—electrifies me. I’ve lit a candle and am waiting for Maureen to step into the room so that I can flick off the light. We had cocktails earlier, and a bottle of wine with dinner, and we sat close on the couch and shared a joint in front of the fire, because our daughter was out and we could do that with no one the wiser. I listen to the little sounds from the bathroom, seductive sounds, maddening. I am ready. More than ready. “Hey,” I call, pitching my voice low, “are you coming or not? You don’t expect me to wait all night, do you?”
Her face appears in the doorway, the pale lobes of her breasts and the dark nipples visible through the clinging black silk. “Oh, are you waiting for me?” she says, making a game of it. She hovers at the door, and I can see the smile creep across her lips, the pleasure of the moment, drawing it out. “Because I thought I might go down and work in the garden for a while—it won’t take long, a couple hours, maybe. You know, spread a little manure, bank up some of the mulch on the roses. You’ll wait for me, won’t you?”
Then the phone rings.
We stare blankly at each other through the first two rings and then Maureen says, “I’d better get it,” and I say, “No, no, forget it—it’s nothing. It’s nobody.”
But she’s already moving.
“Forget it!” I shout, and her voice drifts back to me—“What if it’s Maddy?”—then I watch her put her lips to the receiver and whisper, “Hello?”
The night of the Tunguska explosion the skies were unnaturally bright across Europe—as far away as London people strolled in the parks past midnight and read novels out of doors while the sheep kept right on grazing and the birds stirred uneasily in the trees. There were no stars visible, no moon—just a pale, quivering light, as if all the color had been bleached out of the sky. But, of course, that midnight glow and the fate of those unhappy Siberian reindeer were nothing at all compared to what would have happened if a larger object had invaded the Earth’s atmosphere. On average, objects greater than a hundred yards in diameter strike the planet once every five thousand years, and asteroids half a mile across thunder down at intervals of three hundred thousand years. Three hundred thousand years is a long time in anybody’s book. But if—when—such a collision occurs, the explosion will be in the million-megaton range and will cloak the atmosphere in dust, thrusting the entire planet into a deep freeze and effectively stifling all plant growth for a period of a year or more. There will be no crops. No forage. No sun.
There has been an accident, that is what the voice on the other end of the line is telling my wife, and the victim is Madeline Biehn, of 1337 Laurel Drive, according to the I.D. the paramedics found in her purse. (The purse, with a silver clasp that has been driven half an inch into the flesh under her arm by the force of the impact, is a little thing, no bigger than a hardcover book, with a ribbon-thin strap, the same purse all the girls carry, as if it were part of a uniform.) Is this her parent or guardian speaking?
I hear my wife say, “This is her mother.” And then, the bottom dropping out of her voice, “Is she—?”
Is she?They don’t answer such questions, don’t volunteer information, not over the phone. The next ten seconds are thunderous, cataclysmic, my wife standing there numbly with the phone in her hand as if it were some unidentifiable object she’d found in the street while I fumble out of bed to search for my pants—and my shoes, where are my shoes? The car keys? My wallet? This is the true panic, the loss of faith and control, the punch to the heart, and the struggle for breath. I say the only thing I can think to say, just to hear my own voice, just to get things straight: “She was in an accident. Is that what they said?”
“She was hit by a car. She’s—they don’t know. In surgery.”
“What hospital? Did they say what hospital?”
My wife is in motion now, too, the negligee ridiculous, unequal to the task, and she jerks it over her head and flings it to the floor even as she snatches up a blouse, shorts, flip-flops—anything, anything to cover her nakedness and get her out the door. The dog is whining in the kitchen. There is the sound of rain on the roof, intensifying, hammering at the gutters. I don’t bother with shoes—there are no shoes, shoes do not exist—and my shirt hangs limply from my shoulders, misbuttoned, sagging, tails hanging loose, and we’re in the car now and the driver’s-side wiper is beating out of synch and the night closing on us like a fist.
And then there’s Chicxulub. Sixty-five million years ago, an asteroid (or perhaps a comet—no one is quite certain) collided with the Earth on what is now the Yucatán Peninsula. Judging from the impact crater, which is a hundred and twenty miles wide, the object—this big flaming ball—was some six miles across. When it came down, day became night and that night extended so far into the future that at least seventy-five per cent of all known species were extinguished, including the dinosaurs in nearly all their forms and array and some ninety per cent of the oceans’ plankton, which in turn devastated the pelagic food chain. How fast was it travelling? The nearest estimates put it at fifty-four thousand miles an hour, more than sixty times the speed of a bullet. Astrophysicists call such objects “civilization enders,” and calculate the chances that a disaster of this magnitude will occur during any individual’s lifetime at roughly one in ten thousand, the same odds as dying in an auto accident in the next six months—or, more tellingly, living to be a hundred in the company of your spouse.
All I see is windows, an endless grid of lit windows climbing one above the other into the night, as the car shoots into the Emergency Vehicles Onlylane and slides in hard against the curb. Both doors fling open simultaneously. Maureen is already out on the sidewalk, already slamming the door behind her and breaking into a trot, and I’m right on her heels, the keys still in the ignition and the lights stabbing at the pale underbelly of a diagonally parked ambulance—and they can have the car, anybody can have it and keep it forever, if they’ll just tell me that my daughter is all right. “Just tell me,”Imutter, out of breath, “just tell me and it’s yours,”and this is a prayer, the first in a long discontinuous string, addressed to whoever or whatever may be listening. Overhead, the sky is having a seizure, black above, quicksilver below, the rain coming down in windblown arcs, and I wouldn’t even notice but for the fact that we are suddenly—instantly—wet, our hair knotted and clinging and our clothes stuck like flypaper to the slick tegument of our skin.
In we come, side by side, through the doors that jolt back from us in alarm, and all I can think is that the hospital is a death factory and that we have come to it like the walking dead, haggard, sallow, shoeless. “My daughter,” I say to the nurse at the admittance desk, “she’s—they called. You called. She’s been in an accident.”
Maureen is at my side, tugging at the fingers of one hand as if she were trying to remove an invisible glove. “A car. A car accident.”
“Name?” the nurse asks. About this nurse: she’s young, Filipina, with opaque eyes and the bone structure of a cadaver; every day she sees death and it blinds her. She doesn’t see us. She sees a computer screen; she sees the TV monitor mounted in the corner and the shadows that pass there; she sees the walls, the floor, the naked light of the fluorescent tube. But not us. Not us.
For one resounding moment that thumps in my ears and then thumps again, I can’t remember my daughter’s name—I can picture her leaning into the mound of textbooks spread out on the dining-room table, the glow of the overhead light making a nimbus of her hair as she glances up at me with a glum look and half a rueful smile, as if to say, It’s all in a day’s work for a teen-ager, Dad, and you’re lucky you’re not in high school anymore, but her name is gone.
“Maddy,” my wife says. “Madeline Biehn.”
I watch, mesmerized, as the nurse’s fleshless fingers maneuver the mouse, her eyes locked on the screen before her. A click. Another click. The eyes lift to take us in, even as they dodge away again. “She’s still in surgery,” she says.
“Where is it?” I demand. “What room? Where do we go?”
Maureen’s voice cuts in then, elemental, chilling, and it’s not a question she’s posing, not a statement or demand, but a plea: “What’s wrong with her?”
Another click, but this one is just for show, and the eyes never move from the screen. “There was an accident,” the nurse says. “She was brought in by the paramedics. That’s all I can tell you.”
It is then that I become aware that we are not alone, that there are others milling around the room—other zombies like us, hurriedly dressed and streaming water till the beige carpet is black with it—and why, I wonder, do I despise this nurse more than any human being I’ve ever encountered, this young woman not much older than my daughter, with her hair pulled back in a bun and a white cap like a party favor perched atop it, who is just doing her job? Why do I want to reach across the counter that separates us and awaken her to a swift, sure knowledge of hate and fear and pain? Why?
“Ted,” Maureen says, and I feel her grip at my elbow, and then we’re moving again—hurrying, sweeping, practically running—out of this place, down a corridor under the glare of the lights that are a kind of death in themselves, and into a worse place, a far worse place.
The thing that disturbs me about Chicxulub, aside from the fact that it erased the dinosaurs and wrought catastrophic and irreversible change, is the deeper implication that we, and all our works and worries and attachments, are so utterly inconsequential. Death cancels our individuality, we know that, yes, but ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, and the kind goes on, human life and culture succeed us. That, in the absence of God, is what allows us to accept the death of the individual. But when you throw Chicxulub into the mix—or the next Chicxulub, the Chicxulub that could come howling down to obliterate all and everything even as your eyes skim the lines of this page—where does that leave us?
"You’re the parents?” We are in another room, gone deeper now, the loudspeakers murmuring their eternal incantations—Dr. Chandrasoma to Emergency, Dr. Bell, Paging Dr. Bell—and here is another nurse, grimmer, older, with lines like the strings of a tobacco pouch pulled tight around her lips. She’s addressing us, me and my wife, but I have nothing to say, either in denial or affirmation. If I claim Maddy as my own—and I’m making deals again—then I’m sure to jinx her, because those powers that might or might not be, those gods of the infinite and the minute, will see how desperately I love her and they’ll take her away just to spite me for refusing to believe in them. Voodoo, Hoodoo, Santería, Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Ihear Maureen’s voice, emerging from a locked vault, the single whispered monosyllable, and then: “Is she going to be all right?”
“I don’t have that information,” the nurse says, and her voice is neutral, robotic even. This is not her daughter. Her daughter’s at home, asleep in a pile of Teddy bears, pink sheets, fluffy pillows, the night-light glowing like the all-seeing eye of a sentinel.
I can’t help myself. It’s that neutrality, that maddening clinical neutrality, and can’t anybody take any responsibility for anything? “What information do you have?” I say, and maybe I’m too loud, maybe I am. “Isn’t that your job, for Christ’s sake—to know what’s going on here? You call us up in the middle of the night—our daughter’s hurt, she’s been in an accident, and you tell me you don’t have any fucking information?”
People turn their heads, eyes burn into us. They’re slouched in orange plastic chairs, stretched out on the floor, praying, pacing, their lips moving in silence. They want information, too. We all want information. We want news, good news: it was all a mistake, minor cuts and bruises—contusions, that’s the word—and your daughter, son, husband, grandmother, first cousin twice removed will be walking through that door over there any minute. . . .
The nurse drills me with a look, and then she’s coming out from behind the desk, a short woman, dumpy—almost a dwarf—and striding briskly to a door, which swings open on another room, deeper yet. “If you’ll just follow me, please,” she says.
Suddenly sheepish, I duck my head and comply, two steps behind Maureen. This room is smaller, an examining room, with a set of scales and charts on the walls and its slab of a table covered with a sheet of antiseptic paper. “Wait here,” the nurse tells us, already shifting her weight to make her escape. “The doctor will be in in a minute.”
“What doctor?” I want to know. “What for? What does he want?”
But the door has already drawn closed.
I turn to Maureen. She’s standing there in the middle of the room, afraid to touch anything or to sit down or even to move for fear of breaking the spell. She’s listening for footsteps, her eyes fixed on the door. I hear myself murmur her name, and then she’s in my arms, sobbing, and I know I should hold her, know that we both need it, the human contact, the love and support, but all I feel is the burden of her—there is nothing and no one that can make this better, can’t she see that? I don’t want to console or be consoled. I don’t want to be touched. I just want my daughter back.
Maureen’s voice comes from so deep in her throat I can barely make out what she’s saying. It takes a second to register, even as she pulls away from me, her face crumpled and red, and this is her prayer, whispered aloud: “She’s going to be all right, isn’t she?”
“Sure,” I say, “sure she is. She’ll be fine. She’ll have some bruises, that’s for sure, maybe a couple broken bones even . . . ” and I trail off, trying to picture it, the crutches, the cast, the Band-Aids, the gauze: our daughter returned to us in a halo of shimmering light.
“Maybe she broke her arm—she could break her arm. That would— Or her leg, even her leg. But why would she be in surgery? Why would she be in surgery so long? Why? Why would that be?”
I don’t have an answer to that. I don’t want to have an answer.
“It was a car,” Maureen says. “A car, Ted. A car hit her.”
The room seems to tick and buzz with the fading energy of the larger edifice, and I can’t help thinking of the congeries of wires strung inside the walls, the cables bringing power to the X-ray lab, the EKG and EEG machines, the life-support systems, and of the myriad pipes and the fluids that they drain.
A car. Three thousand pounds of steel, chrome, glass, iron.
“What was she even doing walking like that? She knows better than that.”
My wife nods, the wet ropes of her hair beating at her shoulders like the flails of the penitents. “She probably had a fight with Kimberly—I’ll bet that’s it. I’ll bet anything.”
“Where is the son of a bitch?” I snarl. “This doctor—where is he?”
We are in that room, in that purgatory of a room, for a good hour or more. Twice I thrust my head out the door to give the nurse an annihilating look, but there is no news, no doctor, nothing. And then, at quarter past two, the inner door swings open, and there he is, a man too young to be a doctor, an infant with a smooth bland face and hair that rides a wave up off his brow, and he doesn’t have to say a thing, not a word, because I can see what he’s bringing us and my heart seizes with the shock of it. He looks to Maureen, looks to me, then drops his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says.
When it comes, the meteor will punch through the atmosphere and strike the Earth in the space of a single second, vaporizing on impact and creating a fireball that will in that moment achieve temperatures of sixty thousand degrees Kelvin, or ten times the surface reading of the sun. If it is Chicxulub-size and it hits one of our landmasses, some two hundred thousand cubic kilometres of the Earth’s surface will be thrust up into the atmosphere, even as the thermal radiation of the blast sets fire to the Earth’s cities and forests. This will be succeeded by seismic and volcanic activity on a scale unknown in human history, and then the dark night of cosmic winter. If it should land in the sea, as the Chicxulub meteor did, it would spew superheated water into the atmosphere, instead, extinguishing the light of the sun and triggering the same scenario of seismic catastrophe and eternal winter, while simultaneously sending out a rippling ring of water three miles high to rock the continents as if they were saucers in a dishpan.
So what does it matter? What does anything matter? We are powerless. We are bereft. And the gods—all the gods of all the ages combined—are nothing but a rumor.
The gurney is the focal point in a room of gurneys, people laid out as if there’d been a war, the beaked noses of the victims poking up out of the maze of sheets like a series of topographic blips on a glaciated plain. These people are alive still, fluids dripping into their veins, machines monitoring their vital signs, nurses hovering over them like ghouls, but they’ll be dead soon, all of them. That much is clear. But the gurney, the one against the back wall with the sheet pulled up over the impossibly small and reduced form—this is all that matters. The doctor leads us across the room, speaking in a low voice of internal injuries, a ruptured spleen, trauma, the brain stem, and I can barely control my feet.
Can I tell you how hard it is to lift this sheet? Thin percale, and it might as well be made of lead, iron, iridium, might as well be the repository of all the dark matter in the universe. The doctor steps back, hands folded before him. The entire room or triage ward or whatever it is holds its breath. Maureen moves in beside me till our shoulders are touching, till I can feel the flesh and the heat of her pressing into me, and I think of this child we made together, this thing under the sheet, and the hand clenches at the end of my arm, the fingers there, prehensile, taking hold. The sheet draws back millimetre by millimetre, the slow striptease of death—and I can’t do this, I can’t—until Maureen lunges forward and jerks the thing off in a single violent motion.
It takes us a moment—the shock of the bloated and discolored flesh, the crusted mat of blood at the temple and the rag of the hair, this obscene violation of everything we know and expect and love—before the surge of joy hits us. Maddy is a redhead, like her mother, and though she’s seventeen, she’s as rangy and thin as a child, with oversized hands and feet, and she never did pierce that smooth sweet run of flesh beneath her lower lip. I can’t speak. I’m rushing still with the euphoria of this new mainline drug I’ve discovered, soaring over the room, the hospital, the whole planet. Maureen says it for me: “This is not our daughter.”
Our daughter is not in the hospital. Our daughter is asleep in her room beneath the benevolent gaze of the posters on the wall—Britney and Brad and Justin—her things scattered around her as if laid out for a rummage sale. Our daughter has in fact gone to Hana Sushi at the mall, as planned, and Kimberly has driven her home. Our daughter has, unbeknownst to us or anyone else, fudged the rules a bit—the smallest thing in the world, nothing really, the sort of thing every teen-ager does without thinking twice. She has loaned her I.D. to her second-best friend, Kristi Cherwin, because Kristi is sixteen and Kristi wants to see—is dying to see—the movie at the Cineplex with Brad Pitt in it, the one rated NC-17. Our daughter doesn’t know that we’ve been to the hospital, doesn’t know about Alice K. Petermann and the pinot noir and the glasses left on the bar, doesn’t know that even now the phone is ringing at the Cherwins’.
I am sitting on the couch with a drink, staring into the ashes of the fire. Maureen is in the kitchen with a mug of Ovaltine, gazing vacantly out the window where the first streaks of light have begun to limn the trunks of the trees. I try to picture the Cherwins—they’ve been to the house a few times, Ed and Lucinda—and I draw a blank until a backlit scene from the past presents itself, a cookout at their place, the adults gathered around the grill with gin-and-tonics, the radio playing some forgotten song, the children, our daughters, riding their bikes up and down the cobbled drive, making a game of it, spinning, dodging, lifting the front wheels from the ground even as their hair fans out behind them and the sun crashes through the trees. Flip a coin ten times and it could turn up heads ten times in a row—or not once. The rock is coming, the new Chicxulub, hurtling through the dark and the cold to remake our fate. But not tonight. Not for me.
For the Cherwins, it’s already here.

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