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After the End of the End of the World

By Matthew Cheney From Issue No. 6

She was born to a father who wanted to take his anger out on the world, and in every story there is to tell about her, she escaped him, and the consequences were terrible, and she ends somewhere cold, somewhere north, on a glacier perhaps, a frozen place in an ever-warming world.

It is not too much to say that her father destroyed her life. Who is to blame, though, for destruction? Who is to blame for life?

I return always to the moment where she finds out what happened. Or, more accurately, I return to the moments before, then the moment where she is notified, and then the moment after. This is what compels me in the story: the moment a life changes forever. The cleaving.

(Let’s call her Jane.)

There are only a few ways it could happen, this change of life for Jane. The most dramatic has the FBI approach her just as she is answering a phone call from a friend who has seen something on the television. How much would Jane know then? Enough, I expect. She would know it was her father. How could she not? Who else would it be? She would have repressed a lot of knowledge over the years, repressed a lot of fear, and in that moment it would flood forth and she would know.

Or would she know?

It depends who she is.

Often, when I imagine her, she is a woman with a radical past, though her radicalism is the opposite sort of radicalism to her father’s.

Often, when I imagine her, she came of age during the 1980s and went to Nicaragua as a Yankee Sandinista, and her eventual husband was a young journalist who traveled down to cover the Sandinistas and introduced her to what would become her vocation, or else he was another radical who traveled down to join them and she introduced him to journalism, or else he was not a journalist, just a traveler, someone who would do something different eventually. Perhaps, whether a journalist or not, he ultimately proved himself more of a true believer than she would ever be. Or perhaps he aged into the dull conservatism of someone aching to escape sympathies, empathies, memories; someone who just wants to get on with his days.

No matter who the husband was or what he became, the story I imagine in the end is always the same, because he was young when he met Jane, and the one constant to his character is a youthful tendency to roam.

He was a bit less monogamous in love than Jane was, and he ended up leaving her for another woman, a Nicaraguan, shortly after Jane became pregnant. In all of the versions of this story, Jane and her husband had split up by the time their son was born, and her husband required a divorce so that he could marry the Nicaraguan woman, whose Catholic family insisted that she marry this man if she was going to have anything more to do with him, so Jane said fine, and she let him go, and she had a baby, a boy she named, let’s say, Steven. She returned to los Estados Unidos, worked in the leftwing press for a while, never made a lot of money, but had a pretty good life, traveled a lot, established a bit of a name for herself, perhaps, at least within certain circles. She struggled, of course, when the newspapers couldn’t compete with the internet, and she lost jobs, lost health insurance, did her best to live as a freelancer, bummed rooms and food and conversation from friends. A hard life, but a committed one.

(Given all her radical connections, all her political writing, can we really say she would have thought immediately of her father, and not herself or one of her friends or colleagues, when she saw the FBI approach? Might it be possible that she wondered if the feds had finally caught up with her? Could she have been surprised, even relieved, when she found out they wanted to know about her father, not her or one of her friends?)

Sometimes in the story I imagine, Jane is not this Jane. Sometimes she has been less successful at getting away from her family and her past. Sometimes she is more conspicuously damaged, an alcoholic, even a drug addict, someone living on the fringes somewhere (probably somewhere deeply rural, or at least somewhere less expensive and overwhelming than a big city). She was married once, yes, and had a son, yes, but they’re gone now, husband and son, somewhere far off, and she hasn’t heard from them in ages. She’s kept in touch with her father, even though he hates her. Or does he? Perhaps he is just disappointed. Certainly, he is disappointed. She’s afraid of him and she loves him. He wouldn’t have talked with her about his plans, certainly not. She’s too wild, too unstable, too unpredictable. He would be careful.

It would take some time for the FBI to find her, even though it was a priority. She would not have a cell phone, she would not have any friend or boss or neighbor to call her. The FBI would drive up a driveway and find her in a shack or at best a ragged, rusty mobile home. They would approach with guns drawn, because you never know what you’ll find in a place like this, a situation like this. There could be booby traps. There could be escape routes. There could be an ambush. But there wouldn’t be. She would be alone, probably sleeping, as this Jane doesn’t wake up before noon on even the best days, and today wouldn’t be one of the best days, would it? Perhaps, for the sake of contrast, it would. A day when she felt some vigor and some hope, a late spring day when she did, in fact, wake early, and when she sat outside in a folding chair, a cup of steaming coffee in her hands, and thought about how she would change her life, how she would make something of herself, and just at that moment the sunshine-bleached morning would shatter into a SWAT team pointing rifles at her, FBI agents crackling her name through a bullhorn, the worst day of her life.

(No, too much irony in the tale of the perfect day ruined. Too easy, too obvious.)

(It would just be an ordinary bad day, and then it would turn awful.)

Her ex-husband renounced the life they led together long ago, whatever it was, and in many versions of the story he became successful, rich, powerful. She calls him a sell-out, and sometimes he thinks she’s right about that. More often, he thinks he came to his senses and gave up the blind enthusiasms of youth. Maria, his second wife, was happier once he stopped being a radical or stopped drinking so much or doing drugs and hanging out with people whose lives had never been good and were always getting worse. He had a son to raise, after all. Jane would always hold his life against him, and she would always think he had stolen their son, even as she knew the life her ex-husband gave to Steven was beyond anything she could have given him, but still: he was her son, too.

Is that what her father felt? The loss of his daughter to whatever she was lost to?

No, it was different. Affection that becomes distance—love that becomes fear—is not the same as a life led distantly, a life where one parent is a hypothesis or a dream. Steven always had Maria, too, and Jane had never had anyone else after her mother died when Jane was four or six or, at most, fourteen or fifteen. It was an entirely different situation.

“What’s happened?” she said to the FBI agent who approached her.

In one version of the story, she added: “Is it my father?”

They would check her name and driver’s license before they told her anything. They would want to make sure they had the right woman, the right daughter. She might have seen something on TV, though no names would be used until families were notified, so she would not have heard her father’s name spoken by an announcer, but once the sirens were not those of the television, she would quickly make the connection and she would quickly think of her father and it would quickly all make terrible sense.

“Ma’am, you’ll need to come with us.”

Yes, they would call her ma’am. They always do in every version of the story, because talking that way highlights their seriousness and power. At first, the agents would be wary of her: she might be an accomplice, especially if she lives somewhere rural, on the fringes, in a shack or ragged, rusty mobile home. Even if they found her in New York or Seattle, wherever she ended up as a freelancer, they would still be wary, because the FBI is wary of the press, especially the leftwing press. She could easily be thought of as the enemy. But she always stops being the enemy soon enough.

(Soon enough for what? Soon enough.)

(And this because she is white and unreligious. Were her skin darker, were she known to be a Muslim, she would likely be locked up forever, or, just as likely, dead.)

And then they, or at least some of them, these agents of the government, start to feel sorry for her. The more imaginative and empathetic of the agents pity her, because they know she did not want to be connected to anything like this, and she did not want to share a name with a man like that, and now even if she changes her name she cannot change the knowledge that what was once her name is now a hated name, a loathsome name, and these few imaginative, empathetic agents think about what it must be like for your father’s life to so determine your own life simply because, no matter what you do or what you desire, you are your father’s daughter.

But most of the agents would not think about this at all.

Soon, the television reporters and the newspaper reporters and everyone else everywhere knows the name Ray Draper and the name Jane Draper.

(Draper, my paternal grandmother’s maiden name, my own father’s middle name. Is this homage or revenge?)

Jane Draper is the daughter of a murderer.

Jane Draper is the daughter of a bomber.

Jane Draper is the daughter of a terrorist.

Despite the efforts of the agents, not only does her name become known, but her face, too. What does she think when she first sees a picture of herself on a television screen? The first pictures would be ones that sat previously in other contexts. Official pictures that accompanied her newspaper articles or her driver’s license or her passport. But then other pictures would surface. Snapshots from somewhere, provided, perhaps, by friends or family she hadn’t spoken to in a long time, people who hoped to be helpful or hankered for some moment of fame for themselves, or who wanted to emphasize their virtue against hers, or who were susceptible to an offer of money. One would be a picture of herself when she was ten or eleven years old, posing with her father and a rifle. “What kind of man gives a child a rifle?” people would say, people who had never held a rifle, people who would see it as a further sign of her father’s pathology to know that she had shot rifles and pistols when she was much younger even. When she was growing up, so long ago, kids would bring their rifles to school during hunting season and leave them in the office with the secretary because they had been out hunting before they came to school, or they would go out hunting after. Everybody had guns when she was growing up. Her father just had more than most, and he liked guns other than hunting rifles. She shot her first machine gun when she was eight. None of it seemed strange until she went to college in a city where none of her friends knew anything about shooting except what they saw in movies. They would ask her again and again to talk about her life because it was an alien life. She never told them everything. They probably thought she was making most of it up, anyway, and telling them more would not help her.

“Your father is Raymond Draper?”

“Yes. What has happened?”

“There has been an incident.”

“What kind of incident? What happened?”

“I’m afraid your father is dead, Ms. Draper.”

“What happened? Please tell me.”

“Did you see the news?”

“There was something, but then you came and—a bombing, I saw, in D.C., a café and a Supreme Court justice, but that couldn’t be him, I don’t believe that was him, there must be something wrong.”

“Yes, there was a bombing. A Supreme Court justice is among the dead. What else do you know?”

“Nothing, nothing.”

“Why do you say it could not be your father?”

“He’s never hurt anyone.”

“What are your father’s political views?”

“Please, why do you think he was there—he’s never been to Washington in his life, he hates cities—”

“Why do you say he hates cities?”

“Because he’s said so a billion times. ‘I hate cities,’ he says. The crowds, the confusion, the traffic, I guess. Please, can I call my father, please just let me call him and—”

“When did you last speak with him?”

“Months ago. Maybe a year.”

“You aren’t close, personally.”

“No, we don’t really get along. But he’s my father and I’m sure that—”

“We found his car. He mailed notes to the Post and the Times. We found his body.”

“His body.”


(They would not, of course, tell her what they found of his body. To call it a body was not a precise statement. It had been a body, but it was not a body when they found it. What they found were scraps. Enough for an identification and little more.)

She cannot understand this information in any complexity, but she does not reject the knowledge that her father is dead. She has known from the moment the FBI came for her. The bomb, the dead people, the Supreme Court justice, all that will take much more time to think through, but she knows her father is dead and she knows her life now has two parts, a before and after. She cannot imagine the after.

The Jane who is a journalist soon wants more information.

The Jane whose life has been mostly struggle immediately wants a drink and a cigarette.

There could be other Janes.

Who else might result from that childhood?

A Jane who is a teacher, perhaps. She would have stayed in New Hampshire, close to her family, and she would have sought escape from what she grew up with by trying to help kids or adolescents make their way in the world. A high school teacher, probably, the last chance to influence kids before they harden into who they will be. She would teach history, because her father had loved history, but his was the history of someone who didn’t do well in school, who had felt brushed aside, and he hadn’t gone to college, hadn’t even considered going to college, and so had taught himself history through paperback books he bought from drugstore newsstands and from television documentaries and from popular magazines. The danger of such a history was that it only provided him what he knew he wanted to know, and he assessed its worth based on how well it fit in the puzzle he imagined for himself. Her own schooling would teach her that history is more complex than that, more filled with paradoxes, messes, and mysteries than anyone really wants to admit, and she would be attracted to the contradictions within the histories she learned, as well as the systems for thinking around those contradictions, because even as she recognized the flaws and partialities in any system seeking to reconcile the infinite facts of reality with the limited capacity of human consciousness, the quest itself would remain thrilling, and the thrill would fuel her passion for teaching. She wanted to find the students who were like her father, the students who hung out in the back of the room, who skipped class whenever they could, who said it was all boring and irrelevant and stupid, who nursed grudges and resentments because grudgeful resentment gave them some way to think of themselves in relation to the world. She would do what she could for these students, try to help them toward some curiosity about something other than what they already knew, or thought they knew, try to nudge them away from the sense of expendability that shaped their days, and to open even a tiny crack for them to look through so that they might see how wide, how vast is the world beyond what we know, and how exciting—how humbling—it can be simply to glimpse the vastness.

Imagine this Jane in an FBI interrogation room. It would be the end of everything for her. “I’m afraid your father is dead, Ms. Draper.” (That would be the first blow, but not the one that destroyed her.) “We found his car. He mailed notes to the Post and the Times. We found his body.” What would destroy her would be what was in those notes to the Washington Post and the New York Times: a rant, a manifesto. Hatred, yes, of all the politicians and corrupt judges who had destroyed everything good in America—but Jane would see something else, too, a different hatred: the self-hatred of the man who had never been able to be the person he thought he should be, and she would see, because she knew, the resentment that pushed his self-hatred outward so that anyone else was to blame. Blame, that’s what she would see, the great, aching desire to have someone to blame, someone to pin a life of rotted hopes on, and eventually (after all the anger and pain petrified into purpose) someone to kill. She had seen it in her father all her life, fled from it, built a career trying to save others from it, and now this was what her efforts had brought her to: this: here: a small, windowless room with a buzzing fluorescent light and a metal table with nothing on it and a metal chair that screamed against the floor, and, rising above the lingering scent of bleach and cleaning products, suffusing it all: the inevitable, soaked-in stench of previous interrogations, of loss and fear, of lives obliterated.

(No, there is nothing we can learn from that story. Do not imagine that Jane.)

They would not detain her for long. (A white woman, not Muslim.) She could only tell them what they already knew or what confirmed their suspicions: her father was a man who owned many weapons, who certainly had the knowledge to build a bomb of the type that had blown up the café, who had been filled with anger for as long as she could remember, who lived alone and had few friends, who felt that all the failures of his life could be explained by the successes of other people. She told them that though he was a lifelong resident of New Hampshire who rarely left the state, he hung a picture of Robert E. Lee in his living room and flew a Confederate flag in the yard. She’d asked him once about this, and he said his allegiance was to anyone who fought against big, oppressive government. “And for owning people?” she said, and he said, “Don’t give me any of your liberal bullshit, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

In the letters he sent to the newspapers (not just the Post and the Times, but also New Hampshire’s daily Union Leader), he said he was making his stand. He didn’t describe his plan in detail, though he did say his target was at least one Supreme Court justice, because the Court needed a new justice, one who would follow the Constitution and not make things up, a justice who would interpret narrowly, not impose broadly. When the FBI raided his home, the two-bedroom log cabin that Jane had grown up in, they found all his preliminary notes. He had been traveling to Washington, D.C. for almost two years, following various potential targets. The most liberal Supreme Court justice frequently went to a particular café for a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin. Once he discovered this pattern, the plan was easy enough to enact. He had a shelf of Army field manuals, a chemistry textbook, and a book about the Algerian war. His workshop was filled with various bomb parts, and remnants of test bombs rested throughout the five hundred acres of woods behind the house. It took the bomb squad days to declare the property safe. By then, the house had been almost completely dismantled, its floors and walls and ceilings sliced, torn, shattered in the search for what might have been hidden there.

The newspapers would print pictures of the house and diagrams pointing to stashes of guns, stockpiles of ammunition, and the workshop where the bomb was constructed. Only then would Jane think about the house. She hadn’t been back inside since she was eighteen.

(Who was Jane’s mother? I’ve never been able to imagine her sharply. She was a woman who loved too young and hurt too long—a woman who, perhaps, found some way to escape, but who, no matter what, died early, before Jane became the Jane we know. She was not the gravity Jane sought to escape, but the voice Jane heard whisper amidst coyote howls in the wind of black, cold, winter nights.)

She fled the press, the publicity. She fled her friends, their compassion.

Books are written, but she does not read them, and after selling well at first, they’re dumped in remainder bins, and they go out of print.

Jane makes her way north. She wants to go somewhere cold, somewhere barren. She runs out of money and survives by charity, odd jobs, luck. She’s too old for prostitution, though she wonders how she might accomplish it if she could find someone willing—it’s not the act that scares her, but the words and nods and glances that convey information, the whole code of the commodified body, and she doesn’t know the key to that code.

She isn’t always lucky. She goes hungry. She breaks into houses that look empty, she steals clothes, cookies, shampoo, a bit of warmth, some moments of rest. Now and then she encounters people who see her as something less than human, something able to be spat upon, laughed at, a toy to boost their own sense of themselves, and she lets them if they’ll give her a ride or a meal, if they’ll get her closer to the glaciers and the tundra.

She thinks of her son.

In some of the stories, Steven goes to school at New York University to study film. He wants to make documentaries that show people truths and help to change the world. He joins an environmental group and protests corporations. He almost gets arrested during a demonstration outside a skyscraper. He falls in love with the leader of the group, a young man named Julian who is a year ahead of him at the university and studying literature or philosophy or something else that will annoy his rich and eminently practical family. Julian loves having an acolyte; Steven loves having sex. They lie naked together in the apartment Julian’s father rents for him on 6th Street, and they fantasize about the terrible things they would like to do to the men who are raping the Earth, and they say that if they had a terminal disease they would strap bombs to their bodies and dive off of giant dams and ignite themselves to crack the dam’s wall and let the water out—and this fantasy is so luscious that they can’t resist imagining both having a terminal disease, truly terminal, with only weeks or even days to live, and imagining how they would stand on the edge of the dam, the security officers screaming behind them, the sound of police and military helicopters scrambling the air above, and they promise each other here and now in this bed in this apartment on 6th Street that they would jump together (hands together, lips together) just before some Marine sniper’s bullet could kill them, and together they would plunge together and they would explode together and the rivers would flow free.

Eventually, Julian grows tired of Steven or Steven grows tired of Julian. They yell. They weep. They console themselves with the friends who were always only their friends alone. They can’t bear to even look at the other person from across a crowded street. Julian will break up with environmental activism around the same time he breaks up with Steven, who will do the same. Julian will go on to do a law degree and please his parents. Steven will stick with film.

In some versions of this story, Steven finds his way to Hollywood, where he gets one break after another, until he directs a successful small-budget movie that both makes a profit and earns awards nominations, which gets him hired to direct a big-budget movie, and though the big-budget movie does not get nominated for awards, and, indeed, the critics say nothing good about it whatsoever, it stays in the top ten throughout the summer and makes Steven enough money to buy multiple houses and to finance his own production company. His father is proud of him. (I’ve never liked this version of the story.)

In some versions of the story, Steven starts making a movie about himself, his feelings and frustrations, and this leads him to ask questions about his family, and soon the project is no longer quite so narcissistic, and he begins to imagine a world before himself and beyond himself. His father does not lie to him, Maria does not lie to him, Jane does not lie to him.

In some of the stories, he interviews Ray before Ray goes to Washington, D.C. He is haunted by Ray’s hatreds and paranoia, but also charmed by his humanity. He turns the camera on himself one night and says, “The words he speaks terrify me, but every time I leave his house, I always make sure to give him a hug, an honest hug, and to tell him I love him, because, I guess, I do.”

In most versions of the story, Steven goes to Nicaragua to see what his parents saw. It’s futile, of course, because what his parents saw disappeared long ago, but the journey is worthwhile, nonetheless, because Steven discovers he likes the tropics and he likes traveling, so he makes his way to Argentina and to Tierra del Fuego, because that’s what the characters do in one of his favorite movies, Happy Together. He has all sorts of adventures that are outside the scope of this story, but all we need is to see him down there at the bottom of South America, standing on rocks that lead to the ocean, his bare feet washed by waves, a lighthouse towering behind him. He has a little camera with him, and he films a couple of people far off, a silhouette, they could be anybody—two men, two women, a man and a woman, anybody, any age, any race, anything—and he films them as the sun goes down and their own story continues elsewhere, while his is just beginning.

In one version of the story, Steven doesn’t know his mother is Jane. He thinks he was adopted. He never finds out otherwise. In this version of the story, Ray does not complete his plan. He goes to the café and he sees the Supreme Court justice, but he’s just not a killer at heart. He’s disappointed in himself because of this. He feels like a failure. He leaves D.C. and goes off in search of the house he grew up in, somewhere in central New Hampshire, still a rural place but far less remote than his own current house. He finds the place. The house is dilapidated, but the young family living there, two men and their daughter, is optimistic. One of the men is a doctor working at a small clinic, the other is Steven, now a filmmaker who has given up working as a TV cameraman to take care of their daughter and, on the side, to make a documentary about the clinic and the neighborhood. He asks to interview Ray, who then tells a story about being happy as a kid, playing with his sister in the neighborhood. It’s a nice story, but it doesn’t seem to have much of a point, and Ray knows this, and he’s tired, so he thanks the men and says goodbye and drives home toward the dark.

In all of the versions of this story, Jane finds her way to a glacier. She stands on it and listens as it cracks and rumbles. The air is warmer than it should be. The world is warming up. The glacier is melting. Soon, the seas will rise and the cities will drown. She won’t live to see it, but she knows it is the only possible future. Misery, suffering, death. She wonders where Steven is. She wonders what he has made of himself. She wonders how he will live in the ruining world.

She is alone. Her father is dead. She has not seen her husband in many years, nor her son in at least a few. She wonders if this is her fault. Yes, she thinks, it is. She wishes it were not so, but it is. And it is her father’s fault, too, yes, and the fault of his father before him, and his father before him, and all the way back to the colonial settlers who brought disease and murder with them, and then all the way farther back, back to caves and mastodons, to the very first fire, the very first man and woman who uttered a child into the world, a suffering being among other suffering beings, alone together from first to last, birth to death, primordial ooze to the end of entropy. Tell whatever story you want, it will always end up the same.

(The people we love destroy us.)

(The people we fail to love destroy us just as much.)

In the end, Jane stands on the slowly melting glacier and looks out at the world as light slips away and the air turns to ice against her skin. She doesn’t know what day it is, what time, but if she did she would know she had reached the end of another day and the beginning of a new one. She might shed one tear for the world below, and the tear would turn to crystal against her cold cheek. She might, in these moments, see all the way to the other side of the globe, where a young man captures the image of two people against a bright sky, and she might smile a brief and tiny smile for all three of them and wonder what stories they could tell.

About Matthew Cheney More From Issue No. 6