The Last Hours of Pompeii
1st Place Prizewinner
Recognized as “Notable Story” in 2008 Million Writers Award
Nominated for Pushcart Prize
Marc Nieson is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and NYU Film School. His background includes filmmaking, children’s theatre, building construction, and a season with a one-ring circus. Excerpts from his forthcoming memoir Schoolhouse: A Year in the Heartland appeared in the Literary Review and Iowa Review, and short fiction in Great River Review and American Way. His award-winning screenplays include bottomland, the dream catcher, and recently, the speed of life (Special Jury Prize – 2007 Venice Film Festival, U.S. premiere at NYC’s 2008 Asian-American Film Festival). Currently he serves on the faculty of Chatham University in Pittsburgh, and is working on a new novel, Houdini’s Heirs.
And then the ground becomes sky. Just like that. This great gray column of rage mushrooming before our eyes. The streets riddled and swimming with rubble. Glimpses of neighbors scrambling past with pillows overhead and children under arm. Everything reduced to the next breath. The next blink. Quick, run for your lives. The sky is falling, the sky is falling!
Actually, it’s only a digital re-creation, but as my daughter and I sit on the couch watching this video on volcanoes it all seems real enough. Certainly to Amanda, who’s still shy of six. Me, I’m shifting in my seat for other reasons.
“Should I shut this off,” I say. “Amanda, honey?”
Without turning, she waves me off with a wrist flick. Her eyes stay riveted to the screen—all 21 inches wide of scattering togas and sandals, the panic spreading throughout downtown Pompeii, the very air collapsing on itself. Cut to an overhead of Vesuvius itself, bubbling.
. . .
We found this tape at the library. Every other Friday now, I pick up Amanda at school and we stop off at the local branch on our way back to my apartment. Within minutes she’ll choose enough videos to get us through the weekend. No more Dr. Seuss or Disney, though, just these nature tapes. There’s a whole series in circulation. Mammals and Skeletons, Rainforests and Butterflies, The Oceans, The Planets, Spiders, Sharks … you name it, they’ve got it. From the insides of anthills to the furthest known star.
So far, we’ve gone through a good dozen. And who can blame her? Each video is more exotic and high-tech than the last, tumbling through a virtual encyclopedia of facts and findings, crossing continents and centuries at the speed of light. One after another she soaks them up like pancake syrup. Then we’ll go out, say to the playground, where she’ll spontaneously start spouting excerpts to pure strangers. Verbatim.
“Icebergs can be the size of Belgium.”
“Scorpions are tenacious predators.”
“The hardest rock of all is the diamond.”
“Ducks never get wet. They have a gland.”
Of course she doesn’t understand the half of what she’s saying to these people, but it’s amazing nonetheless. I’ll just shrug, though inside I’m preening. And not that I’m one of those parents who’s certain their kindergartner is the next Einstein. It’s just nice to feel noticed with her again.
Only now, she’s hooked on these natural disaster tapes. Hurricanes and Earthquakes, Tornadoes, Tsunamis. Blizzards and Droughts and Exploding Nebulae. Who knew there were so many ways Mother Nature could blindside us?
On the TV today, yet more devastation—a runaway landslide crumbling row after row of houses somewhere in Colombia. The footage jumps, hand-held and grainy, but the narrator’s voice doesn’t skip a beat—flat as a newscaster’s delivering the day’s worst headlines.
“Honey, why don’t we put on the Muppets. We haven’t watched them forever.”
Okay. At least she blinked. The screen blinks too, cutting to a lush green hillside of palm trees and offshore breezes, the sunlight startling. I recognize the island even before the ukulele fades in. Amanda glances my way.
“Hey, Dad. Isn’t that Hawaii?”
I nod and leave it at that. She knows her mother and I honeymooned there, just up the road from Kona. I still remember that hiss of surf sifting in through the hotel windows. Tropical soaps in the shower and colored cocktails big as vases. Everything we touched was salty, intoxicating.
Second day out, I fell asleep on the beach and nearly burned to a crisp. My skin turned tangerine then started shedding off in chunks thick as peel. Not that it slowed us down any. Kristine said my body was like fire and she was dying to be consumed by its flames. This was how we were actually talking. Like stupid teenagers drunk on stolen fifths of rum, crashing against each other until we were bruised. I could swear we were reverting to some previous evolutionary form. Something before limbs and lungs, uncaringly tossed with the currents and melting into one another. Here was love at its most pure, I thought.
Onscreen, magma is bubbling forth from a seabed now. Underwater it looks so harmless, like budding heads of cauliflower. Cut to an image of the earth as if seen from the moon. Its spin slows to a halt, revealing a breadth of blue ocean. Ring of Fire, says the voice-over, and the globe lights up with a jagged necklace strung like red Christmas bulbs round the Pacific. Like some giant stitched wound.
Mount St. Helens, 1980.
Mount Pelée, 1902.
When they start scrolling casualty counts, I gauge Amanda for reactions. Part of me knows I should shut this off immediately, only now some scientist is being lowered by rope into a dormant crater. She’s all rigged with carabiners and a red climbing helmet. I’ve lost track of which volcano we’re seeing. They’re speaking Italian, I think.
“Dad, is she going inside that volcano?”
“Uh, yeah. That’s what it looks like.”
We both stare on as she reaches bottom and inserts thin sensors into the hissing ground. Checking temperatures and taking samples, says the calming voice-over. Meanwhile, sulfur vapors swirl up her legs.
“That’s crazy,” says Amanda, but her tone too is more confirming now than alarmed. She inches forward on the couch cushion. “Volcanology, it’s a dangerous business,” she says, and looks my way. She’s testing out a new quote, heard not five minutes ago. I wink then rest my palm against her back and feel her steady breathing. She doesn’t squirm away either, and what I’m thinking is how come I never finished that shelf in her room. How come we kept putting off that trip to Disneyworld. How come I’m only now noticing the new pair of sneakers on her feet.
. . .
I did buy this television for her, though. The VHS is built right into the bottom, so it’s like putting a slice of bread into the toaster. Amanda can do it all by herself, adjust the tracking, everything. Where did she learn to do that?
The salesman, he tried his best to steer me toward the newer models. “This one’ll be history in a few months,” he said. “DVD, that’s your future. Believe me, I’m trying to do you a favor here.” And then he put his twenty-something hand on my shoulder.
I nearly hit him. I mean, somewhere I’ve got eight-tracks that are older than him. But that’s not the point. The thing is, I had thought it out, I was looking ahead. I figured it’d be years before our library could upgrade—as it is, their funding’s getting slashed left and right. And besides, what about my whole collection of bootlegged Turner classics? Granted, the lion’s share are still in Kristine’s basement, but still. Something in this apartment has to be invested in the past. All its other furniture had to be purchased so fast—plastics and pressboard, all of it pure crap, but believe me, my back was to the wall. It was hard enough finding a two-bedroom in the same school district. Last weekend, I stripped down all the baseboard in Amanda’s room. We’d tried painting her radiator together, her favorite color even, but she didn’t have the attention span. At least for some things.
Some Sundays I’ll wake up and she’s already on the couch, empty cereal bowl in her lap, credits rolling. She’ll glance up at me in my bathrobe like I’m some movie extra who’s mistakenly stumbled onto the main set. On the pillow beside her squats the remote. Don’t blink, I think. Any minute she’ll point it at you and press eject.
. . .
Sometimes at night I’ll drive by the house. Mostly this was during those first few months; I force myself not to do it much anymore. I park down the block a ways, just past dark. Sometimes I bring binoculars. The little things, that’s what I was supposedly incapable of recognizing. The intimacies. Hopeless as a stone, was how Kristine once put it. So most nights I try to arrive in time to catch her turn on Amanda’s nightlight. That tiny glimmer just before the curtains close.
Once, I got to watch a full ten minutes of Kristine folding laundry. It must’ve been at least two loads, since there were both darks and whites. I distinctly noted an old dishtowel of ours, too, its pattern of tulips. She flattened it against her chest then stepped out of view, probably to go drain the tub or something. She was always doing at least two things at once. Covering ground. Meanwhile, Amanda came bounding into the room, all wet-haired and bouncing on the bed, and probably toppling that freshly folded pile because when Kristine returned she just stood there with her hands on her hips, that wry smile of hers slowly spreading into forgiveness.
I remember on the last night of our honeymoon, we roused ourselves from the sheets at 3 am to climb Kilauea. It was the first time we’d even left the hotel grounds. En route, our guide parked the bus near this newly hardened plain, where you could literally glimpse the blush of magma flowing beneath your feet. Kristine was thrilled, but I have to admit it made me a little nervous.
Later, the crags turned sharp and steep and soon we were climbing single file like goats, with only our flashlights to cut the dark. Finally we crested the summit, and it was like seeing double, the rising sun mirrored in the fiery crater below. I felt dizzy, ill almost—the earth’s skin thin and puckered, the ledge not to be trusted. Kristine stood beside me though, her hand in mine, her eyes utterly blue and bottomless.
Heading back down the mountain, we got separated from the group. Perhaps it was intentional. I don’t know, everything about that day seems impossible to me now. On the ground were these little pockets of flowers among the black and ropey rock; colors I couldn’t even have imagined during our ascent. Neither of us said a word. We found a relatively flat patch and collapsed into each other, only this time not hungry or huffing. Just soft and barely moving. More like children cuddling close.
That’s where we later figured Amanda was conceived.
. . .
It kills me, her saying she’s too big for my lap anymore. Or how sometimes she’ll hesitate at my front door. Let’s not even start on the holidays. Everything seems so big and overwhelming now. The span of a place mat. A section of couch.
The camera’s tracking again, through narrow alleyways of Roman ruins. Uh-oh, they’re back in Pompeii.
“Dad, what’s perserved mean?”
“Preserve, honey. Well, it sort of means to save or keep the same. They’re talking about how the lava totally buried that city, leaving things just the way they were.”
It’s me who looks away first.“Kind of like that tiny snowman we put in the fridge, remember?”
We made him during that last flurry in February. Scooped up from the sidewalk out front. He’s still in the freezer, propped up between bags of peas and fish sticks.
“Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting to bring him home,” she says.
I turn back to the screen. On the ground are what look like groveling mud statues, which in fact are skeletons they’ve plastered-over to approximate victims caught in the throes of death. Some they’ve left au naturale, their jagged bone points poking up from the dirt.
“Um, honey? Why don’t we take a break. Want some jello?”
I know I should say something. About her tone, if nothing else. But the truth is, it’s me who needs the break. Amanda’s profile is calm as a cameo’s. To her these bones just happen to be human remains, no different from the dinosaur fossils they dug up on another tape. And that’s the saving grace of these videos, and partly why I let her watch on. Everything is presented as placid and forthright as could be—maggots and cocoons, forestry, physics—all mere facts and data. In a way, I guess science is becoming a second skin for Amanda, offering watertight evidence and proofs, a world without doubts.
And yet, with these disaster tapes I can sense something else entering the picture. Amanda hasn’t yet formed the questions, but their edges are starting to buckle on her brow: why Mexico? Why Armenia? Why then and not today? Why them, why us? She’s somehow trying to process it all at once.
Just last evening she asked, “What kills the most people?”
We were walking down the frozen food aisle, looking for her favorite waffles. I glanced down at her in the rattling shopping cart, a tiny tremor along the part in her hair. I was thinking, earthquakes or viruses? War, cancer? Ignorance? Regret? I was thinking, here’s your chance. She’s giving you a window.
“I don’t know, Amanda. That’s a tough one,” I said.
. . .
Whatever you might think, I’m not doing this on purpose. Believe me, two weekends a month. Hours really, when you come right down to it, yet here I am at a total loss with her. We sit on this couch. We watch the volcanoes. Iceland and Tokyo. Santoríni and San Francisco. Martinique. All the world over, like some sick parade. Helicopters plucking victims from the flames. Pyroclastic flows overtaking SUVs fleeing at 80 mph. How can you possibly know where or when? How can you shield yourselves from the unimaginable?
Quite frankly, I’ve been having these dreams. I’m sure it’s these damn videos. We’ll be on a hike, Amanda and me, in a dense wood or crossing some bridge, or else I’m merely in the bathroom shaving while she’s playing in the next room. Wherever it is, though, she’ll suddenly start falling. Over a cliff’s edge, through a window, the sidewalk spontaneously yawning open, whatever, but I’m always one step behind. Her fingertips just out of my reach as she plummets. Classic Freudian stuff I’m sure, but that doesn’t stop me from jolting up in the dark gasping. Sometimes before I even know what I’m doing I’ve dialed 911.
“It’s my daughter. She’s not breathing.”
“How long, sir?”
“I don’t know. A minute, two?”
And then like some idiot I’ll snap to and realize it’s only Wednesday.
“Have you checked for an obstruction? Sir? Sir, we’ll need your home address.”
And what I want to say is, it’s gone. Our mailbox, the swing set, the entire cul-de-sac, swept away in a curtain of fire and ash. Nearby lakes pushed up two hundred feet. Whole forests bent at the knee. Nothing left but the scorched and the weary. Calderas of the night.
In 1902, all but two of 29,000 inhabitants were killed in St. Pierre.
The cockroach has remained unchanged for 320 million years.
Humans blink 17,000 times per day, almost a half-hour.
Did you know polar bears have double layers of fur?
If I could just place myself into the scheme of things again. The natural order and course of events. Kingdom, phylum, class… rock or mineral, invertebrate? I’m not a moron. I mean the point is I have at least a layman’s inkling of chaos and fractals. Deep down I know I’ll survive the divorce, it’s just the way it’s been unfolding, this daily expanding and contraction. What I need to know is how long. Or, more to the point, how it’s all going to play out, even if not happily-ever-after. I mean, in Cinderella the glass slipper always falls, but it never breaks. Somebody picks it up, somebody retrieves it. I mean the point is…. what is the point, that’s my point.
But Amanda. I look at her and I know. I know where and who she comes from. I know the when and the how, I now can even sense the why. What I need to do is shut off the TV. What I need to do is talk to her about love. About what’s enduring.
Across the room leans a wedding album on the bookshelf. Kristine has the original; I pieced together this one from a shoebox of proofs I uncovered during the move. I know, it sounds pathetic but I made the album for Amanda not me. For a while she explored its glossy pages often, her favorite the close-up of our clasped hands and new wedding bands. Some nights she’d choose it for her bedtime story, and we’d flip through the pages and I’d tell her all about the ceremony and our friends, about Hawaii. Sometimes, though, she’d get confused.
“You and Mommy went to kill a whale?”
“N-no, honey. To Kilauea. It’s a mountain, a volcano.”
Somewhere I’ve got photos of Pompeii, too. I was there once, though that was years before Kristine and I ever met and evidently before any of these shiny videos. All I can recall seeing there were half-unearthed walls and dusty frescoes. That and these mangy mutts, wandering around the ruins with their tongues hanging out. Everywhere else in Italy were cats—in the Coliseum, the Forum, the alleys of Venice—strays you could count by the dozen, but in Pompeii, only dogs. At the time, I figured they were the ghosts of scorched souls caught in purgatory, you know, something mystical. Years later, though, someone told me it’s just because cats are too smart. Pompeii’s out in the middle of nowhere, with no people or refuse, and hence no rodents. Only dogs are dumb enough to keep scratching at the dust.
. . .
Okay, so maybe the evidence is right in front of me. Maybe, in a biological sense, all fathers are expendable. Maybe a scientific survey of couples would prove that the more time you spend together doesn’t necessarily breed intimacy, but familiarity. And you grow so familiar that you forget to look at one another, or else when you do, you’re so fucking familiar that you can see every fault rise up to the surface like bone spurs and pus and before you know it you’re fuming at each other, noxious and insufferable. Before you know it, one of you is out on the sidewalk, stranded. So here’s my point: how could I not have seen it coming, let alone averted it.
On the screen, they’ve brought in a specialist. From Austria or somewhere—I can’t place the accent. Under his arm he’s cradling a cardboard box and trekking along a remnant side street in Pompeii. Inside the box, more bones of course, but it’s what he’s doing with them that’s of note. With the help of an ever-present colleague—his wife, or so the tape claims—they’re returning a pair of skeletons to the exact place and positions of their demise. What makes these specimens so special is that they weren’t found out in the streets scrambling to escape but lying calmly in one of the ruins’ more fortified inner chambers. Clearly a patrician’s dwelling, says the voice-over.
Cut to the interior where this scientist couple proceeds to lay out each bone in full articulation onto some sort of straw bedding. The sequence is time-lapsed, filmed from overhead so that it resembles a crime scene. Soon the two skeletons lay perpendicular to one another, one far smaller than the other—a grandfather and grandson. The wife scientist attests to this last fact, citing some prior analysis of the bones’ DNA. Ultimately, however, what they’re trying to demonstrate here has less to do with the skeletons themselves than with the precise sequence of events on that fateful day in August of 79 A.D.
In all probability, says the voice-over, these two victims survived Vesuvius’s initial eruptions and took refuge in this anteroom, hoping to wait out the rain of pumice and flame, only to be quietly suffocated by unseen gases. Later, perhaps only moments, came the horrid pyroclastic surge, racing downhill and tearing less fortunate neighbors limb from limb, burying them and their whole city like a vault in time.
Okay, fine, I think. I can buy that. But what I can’t get past is these two skeletons’ final pose itself—the wisps of their fingertips forever reaching out for each other. There’s no way to predict the future without looking at the processes of the past, says this specialist.
And then the video stages a re-enactment of the moment—a close-up of two fleshed hands in slow motion, one wrinkled and one small amidst the smoke, aching to touch.
Okay, that’s it.
“That’s it,” I say aloud, and before I even know it have wrenched the remote from Amanda’s hand and punched stop. “That’s it, goddamn it … Goddamn it …”
The screen’s gone black, and somehow I’m standing over her now too, with all of it stuck in my throat. Call it rage, call it confusion. Call it something, because my daughter’s eyes are huge and trembling. Mostly I want to tell her that everything will be all right. That Daddy’s here and once-upon-a-time and happily-ever-after. To tell her I’m so, so sorry, but it’s too late for all that now. The clock is ticking, the voice-over said. Seismic activity already confirmed and all physical data pointing to a huge underground rock plugging the main chamber of Vesuvius. An obstruction, which all but guarantees the next eruption will bring cataclysm, some experts predicting the worst in over 400 years. The question is no longer if, they say, but when.
And this is what pains me most—the foregone conclusion of it all. As if they knew for sure what goes on beneath the surface of things. As if they could draw a clear line between what is extinct and what might still only be dormant. As if there weren’t even a trickle of hope.
“Water,” I finally say, swallowing.
“Floods, Amanda, that’s what kills the most people. I just remembered, from that other video.”
She squints my way, her little brain sifting through its library of tapes, replaying cutaways to swollen arroyos and raging monsoons, the imperceptible melting of icecaps swallowing continents by the inch. And me, I’m thinking it’s true. Despite everything, people drown all the time. From lack of air, conversation. They asphyxiate from within.
I’m thinking, this is how it will be.
Amanda nods. “That’s right, not fire but water,” she says, regaining all the conviction of a voice-over. Her gaze, as steady and blue and silent as her mother’s.
Then, without blinking, she turns back to the television.
“Push play, Dad.”
I stare at the waiting screen, my reflection already ghost-like, my finger poised over the remote. Yes, my finger. My hand.
“D – A – D?!”
And what I’m wondering is what if it really were a question of hours? Mere minutes left for us to breathe? I try and imagine it. Can actually feel the first tremors thundering from below, the tongue and groove of the floor shattering open with prisms of light, the ceiling falling like eggshells. And again, that utter abandon in Amanda’s eyeballs. Would she reach for me then? Would she run for the door? Or would she, in those strangled last seconds, be clinging to some remnant of what we did have once, howsoever fleetingly. The waiting dinner table, all set for three with lit candlesticks? Or our line of snow boots dripping beside the front door? Or even that whiff of fresh laundry rising from the basement among our crinkle of newspapers and Saturday morning cartoons? Yes, despite all outer signs to the contrary, some tiny gesture that could survive in stone.