By Heather Altfeld
for Rod Serling
O, handsome apocalypse,
master of the unexplained,
purveyor of bodies electric!
My mother dressed for you a little
even though you aired
while her feet still hurt after work;
she did not remove the pantyhose
or run to terrycloth her tush
until the entirety of the broadcast had run,
two episodes she could name after a sentence
of the opening, an anonymous competitor
in a more finite version of Name That Tune.
She is old enough to have seen television
as a curtain, or a doorway,
a thin pane of glass between the air
and the waves that brought you to us,
both impossible and very near,
as though she could reach into the distance
of it and pull out a Milky Way bar, or an amulet,
or an elegant husband.
And while we watched, she ate;
Frosted Flakes, her first meal of the day—
eating after noon, she believed, was less fattening.
And when you came on the air, leaning against a wall,
or a streetlight, to smoke a long cigarette
because your knees didn’t work after the war—
your wife, it was said, became inured to the sound of you
falling down the stairs at night
did you ask us to believe in these other worlds
with the surety of your narratives,
or did your presence
merely make them possible?
In the calculus of the design of Heather,
you were mitosis and meiosis;
my very cells bred to learn the universe
as a place where things turned on their heads
were often facing just the right direction.
The earth could move closer to the sun and find us desperate and burning in a sixth-floor walkup.
Or the earth could move closer to Pluto and leave us freezing in a well of darkness.
Or the dead and disappeared could ring you through a powerline downed in the cemetery
or the mannequins in the store really lived on the ninth floor with the thimbles
or even Shatner could lose his mind on a wintery continental flight
and shouted-at children could escape through a hole in their Hollywood pool
and maybe if you could just climb one hundred yards over the rim
you would see one hundred years from now
where nuclear war was an annihilation
we had barely begun to imagine—
Witness Henry Bemis, from the fraternity of dreamers,
a bookish little man you began, speaking of the one literate man
at the bank who only wants to read Copperfield in peace,
tricked by the terrible irony of God and greed
to find his glasses broken in the end-vault of the world;
my first exposure to utter fuckery.
Even in the weeds of Dachau,
years after the war, in the episode
I could not watch but watched each time it aired—
(maybe you’ll sleep better at night knowing
that sometimes justice can be served), my mother said,
as though in fact you, Mr. Serling, could make it so—
Mr. Schmidt, recently arrived in a small Bavarian village
a picturesque, delightful little spot onetime known for its scenery
but more recently related to other events
having to do with the less positive pursuits of man:
human slaughter, torture, misery and anguish.
Some seventeen years ago, his name was Gunther Lutze,
a black-uniformed strutting animal
whose function in life was to give pain—
and like his colleagues of the time he shared the one affliction
most common amongst that breed known as Nazis:
he walked the Earth without a heart.
And now former S.S. Captain Lutze will revisit his old haunts,
satisfied perhaps that all that is awaiting him
in the ruins on the hill is an element of nostalgia.
What my mother meant, as a lullaby,
in lieu of reading me the Eichmann trials at bedtime
was that I must allow for the possibility
that the bodies of the monsters in men
could live to be tried and tortured
by a room full of ghosts.
From you, the sheer evils of conformity.
From you, that people are alike from Topeka to Mars.
From you, that that hate is not a figmentary departure
from sofa to screen, but a contagion
you find most often in the mirror.
The year before you died, I was four,
and you found my red sweater on the floor at our synagogue
–you slipped it on my small arms and patted me
on the shoulders. This is how I too began to dress
just before you appeared on the screen,
so you could see that I was a cute improbable in training,
an expectation for the unexpected,
a dreamer for whom the magic of the world was still waiting.
For without you, would I need to depart daily
into the strange? Without you,
isn’t it possible I would love my mother
just a little less? How else would I have learned
to adore the grace of a smart man
who knew that the impossible was as near to us
as truth? How do we know, after all,
no matter what side of the screen we are on
that death is not just around the corner
waiting for us—as a train stop somewhere
between July 1888 and heaven, a place
where the sweetest bits we imagine of the past
lie just beyond the tracks, waiting?
Or that death may very well be
the tender hand of Robert Redford
knocking at the door just now?
For here he is, in the coldest morning of winter,
handsomely bedecked in an angel’s coat,
gesturing me to come with him,
asking me to gently take his hand—
yes, he says, come—and you beckon with him,
Mr. Serling, convincing me that it is time to leave
the condemned tenement of my all-too-possible life,
to bundle up and walk with him arm in arm
out to the street, off the screen,
and into the dusty, uncertain light.