On the day the Earth is supposed to end, Karen is entrusted to open the YMCA. An excerpt from New York Times bestseller Ruta’s new novel.
May 24, 2019
May 24, 2019
20 Min read time
On the day the Earth is supposed to end, Karen is entrusted to open the YMCA. An excerpt from New York Times bestseller Ruta’s new novel.
Last Day was an oddity on the calendar. Slightly more than one day, but not quite two, it began at some point on May 27 and ended on May 28.
Christian fundamentalists eager for Armageddon were always relatively calm on Last Day. Their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ would never pick some heathen festival for His rapture. No way in hell.
And yet these faithful lovers of Christ’s promised end times were mistakenly lumped in with another faction known as Doomsdayers. A loose confederacy of pagan fundamentalists, Doomsdayers subscribed wholesale to all apocalyptic prophecies, regardless of contradiction: the almanacs of Nostradamus, the Book of Revelations, the Mayan calendar, the underwhelming turn of the millennium, the coming of Bahá’u’lláh, the prophecy in the Book of Daniel, the Frashokereti, and many more humble, homely tales spun out of that comforting nightmare that everything comes to an end.
Karen Donovan met the criteria for a militant Doomsdayer: her passions were scattered all over the occult; she held fast to wild misinterpretations of life’s most basic systems; she was all too willing to believe any message whose messenger burned with intensity.
Like alcoholics passing for normal amid the debauchery of St. Patrick’s Day, during Last Day these apocalyptic lovers found a yearly pass to come out of their gloomy, conspiratorial hovels and party. They would take to the streets, littering city parks with their encampments, scaring away tourists with their sloppy bivouacs and homemade signs. Their children were pulled out of school, all normalcy and basic hygiene jettisoned, so that they could band together in a public display and wait for the inevitable nothing.
What they did after, when the world did not end, was almost sweet in its resilience. It never actually mattered to these people that the prophecy failed to fulfill. Their love for the end was everlasting. And so as the month of May ended, the Doomsdayers would slowly dismantle their camps, pour sand on the fire pits, fold up the tarps, pack up their vans (they were a van-driving folk), and return to whatever temporary place—in the worldly sense—they called home. They went back to normal, to their normal, in which fear and righteousness attended the mundane business of living. Standing over a sink of dirty dishes, a battered mother of three could look with tenderness toward the coming end. All those unmade beds, the children with ringworm, the bills in arrears, would eventually be obliterated. The abuse and betrayals, the longings and resentments, all the little and big failures, would be irrelevant. They simply had to wait for the next sign, the next opportunity, to give it all up again.
It was a miracle that none of these sects had yet to absorb the likes of Karen Donovan. She certainly met the criteria for a militant Doomsdayer: her passions were scattered all over the occult; she held fast to wild misinterpretations of life’s most basic systems; she was all too willing to believe any message whose messenger burned with intensity, stoking her own easily inflamed heart; and finally, as she’d been excluded from every social group in her life so far, including the most basic unit of family, she was so hungry just to belong.
But you had to be willing to rough it to be a member of a doomsday cult, carry your share of canned goods, weaponry, and bedding, and Karen hated walking almost as much as she hated carrying. She would rather wait forty-five minutes for the bus than walk the five blocks from her house to the local library. And though her mental landscape was scorched with traumas, both real and grotesquely imagined, the end of the world didn’t register high on her litany of fears.
Karen belonged to a different caste of crazy. Heavily medicated and monitored by a slew of social workers her whole, well-documented life, she had a talent for causing trouble for herself even within narrow parameters, restricted to her job at the YMCA, the Boston public library system, the counseling center where her long-suffering psychiatrist, Nora, saw her pro bono, and a group home where she was currently on very thin ice. At twenty, Karen was too old to qualify for many of the social services that had sustained her as a child, and the current administration’s refusal to fund what few programs were out there for people at strange intersections of lunacy and competency limited Karen’s options to only four group homes in the state, three of which she’d already been booted from.
Her most recent infraction had occurred at the Copley branch of the Boston Public Library, where she’d frightened little children with her totally earnest though still elementary attempts at augury. Sitting in on the library’s story hour, the only adult without a child, she noticed a little boy’s aura glowing wan and misshapen around his head and shoulders. After the story was over, she informed the child that although she wasn’t totally sure, there was a good chance he had been raped, or if not, would be soon.
“It’s okay, you can tell me. I have signed a safety contract with Nora to be always vigilant and aware of inappropriate touching,” she’d explained to the boy, who ran to ask his unsuspecting mother, “Mummy, what’s rape?” Phone calls were made, though not many. The trail back to Karen was straightforward and short. Nora was able to pull some strings and arrange for yet another relocation to her current group home at Heart House, as well as stop the library system from completely banning Karen, if she promised to switch branches and never enter the children’s section again. Nora tinkered with Karen’s regimen of antipsychotics and mood stabilizers and begged her, please, absolutely no more caffeine.
“Even Diet Coke?” Karen cried.
“Diet Coke has caffeine,” Nora sighed, tugging on the gauzy scarf knotted around her throat as if to strangle herself.
“Okay. But what about Diet Pepsi?”
Together Nora and Karen wrote another social contract, which Karen signed and dated. Karen was quickly sobered by bureaucracy. Paperwork elicited in her a solemn deference, a tool Nora utilized in their ongoing therapy. Karen promised in writing that she would no longer talk to strangers about death, monsters (even in an allegorical sense), rape, natural disasters, or anything that took place in a bathroom.
So there was no way she was going to tell anyone about the voices.
Karen promised in writing that she would no longer talk to strangers about death, monsters (even in an allegorical sense), rape, natural disasters, or anything that took place in a bathroom.
They were old, familiar. She almost welcomed their return after such a long silence. Whispers tangled into her hair, making a nest. Only at night. They sounded like lizards, and hummingbirds, and sometimes mice, speaking a heavily accented English, their patois fractured and inconsistent. No instructions so far, Karen noticed with relief. Just a pleasant hypnogogic phenomenon, they disappeared once she fell asleep.
But after a few weeks the voices began filtering into her morning, then gradually persisted throughout the day. Karen attempted to greet them cheerfully, as Nora instructed her to do with difficult people in the realm of the real, to let them pass before her without engaging in a fight. Then, on the evening of May 26, Karen heard a ghastly scene taking place under her bed: a snake was suckling the udder of a cow. She was alone in her room, waiting for her sleeping meds to kick down the door of her consciousness and carry her fireman-style over the threshold of dreams. But the sucking and slurping! It was so loud her eyes, dry and open, scarcely blinked in their vigilance. She didn’t want to report this to Nora, who would furrow her brow in such deep, empathic pain. The two of them sometimes got caught in a regressive loop of empathy, Nora tearing up at Karen’s stories of abandonment and degradation, Karen weeping at the sight of Nora’s tears, a dolorous, tissue-strewn stalemate from which there was no productive conclusion, only release when the clicking of Nora’s clock at last signaled that Karen’s fifty-minute session was over. Besides, Nora was on vacation in Mykonos for Last Day, and why should Karen be the one to ruin her trip?
She couldn’t tell the counselors at Heart House. They’d make her go to the hospital, which was what had happened the last time she’d started hallucinating. Once she was gone, they’d give her room away to someone else on the miles-long wait list. Then where would she live? Where would she go?
And besides, maybe these voices weren’t so bad. For a few years now, Karen had been trying to heighten the sensory acuity of her soul. She studied everything she could at the library: the zodiac, divination, reincarnation, Tibetan demonology, the hierarchy of Christian angels. The floor of her bedroom was stacked with spiral-bound notebooks filled with arcana. Deep inside her, Karen believed, extraordinary gifts were about to come flying out, if she could just cultivate the right conditions. It involved deeper perception, but so far, only blur and jumble led the way. Perhaps these voices were just part of the path.
Then, before the sun rose on the morning of May 27, the snake slurping ended abruptly, and in the silence that followed she heard a voice say, “Dennis.”
She got out of bed and yawned loudly. The wood floor groaned beneath her feet. She’d gained so much weight on her new meds. She stomped loudly, hoping to scare the voice away.
“Dennis,” the voice said again. The clarity of it rang like a high church bell on a cloudless day.
“Yeah, but why now?” she asked.
There was no answer. She called her friend Rosette, the only civilian outside of Karen’s company of professional help whose phone number Karen knew.
“Rose,” Karen said when her call went straight to voicemail, “does the God of your understanding concern him/her/itself with details, or just big-picture stuff? Examples off the top of my head: the exact size of a tumor, the eye color of your soulmate, the sequence of songs on a random shuffle. Because that seems like a lot, even for an omnipotent—” She was cut off.
Karen knelt before her closet and pulled out the only shoes that had laces, a pair of generic-brand sneakers bought from a discount store. She unthreaded the lace of the right shoe and slurped it down like a noodle. It burned her throat and esophagus, but a moment afterward she felt strangely peaceful: it was gone. Done.
And, Karen thought brightly, she now had an excuse to wear her good shoes today, her party shoes, those little strappy leather sandals with the kitten heels! This afforded another fun opportunity—to build a whole outfit from the bottom up! She chose her pistachio-green Easter dress, not that there were many other options that still fit her, and her tan purse, not her backpack.
More would be revealed. It always was.
Walking the two unrelenting, uphill blocks from the group home to the bus stop, her feet were already protesting. Karen had to stop midway to catch her breath. She bent down and inspected a bed of spring flowers. “Look at living things and imagine them already dead,” was one of the dictums of her extrasensory training. She gazed at the tulips and daffodils, their petals splayed open, their anthers naked and stigmas caked with powdery residue.
“Sexuality is sacred!” she yelled at the tulips, whose petals had curled so wide open that the rounded edges now tapered blade-like to points. But, no. No. Try not to view these flowers moralistically, Karen thought a moment later, squeezing her thighs together as she sat down on the bench at the bus stop. After all, who was she to pass judgment on perennials? In the not-too-distant past, Karen had rented her mouth to a homeless man in exchange for a swig of cough syrup with codeine.
Karen was not crazy to notice the profligacy of plants that spring. Pollen counts for May had already broken records. At night the silent sex of angiosperms left a golden sheath of pollen so thick it choked the grass beneath it. People were scraping it off their windshields like ice in winter, Karen noticed as she trudged the last block of her trip from the bus stop to the YMCA. In the parking lot, someone had traced the word asshole into the yellow film on the back window of a minivan. Karen wiped it away with her hands. Negative thoughts were like twigs floating by in a tiny babbling brook, Nora had told her. Even less than twigs—like ripples in the water. You weren’t supposed to get attached. Just let them pass, Karen reminded herself. But it was hard. She licked the yellow dust off her fingers, her eyes watered with the urge to vomit, then this, too, passed.
Karen was opening the YMCA by herself for the first time that morning. Her boss, Roberto, had given her a set of keys earlier in the week, entrusting her, Karen Donovan, to captain the ship in his absence. To be chosen, to be seen and selected as special enough to perform this job—it was a sign that things were moving in the right direction. The keys glittered in the morning light. Her hands shook a little with their eminence. As soon as Karen unlocked the doors, she spotted two women waddling arm in arm from the parking lot up the front steps. Myra and Marlene. They lived at the luxury retirement condos down the street, Morning Pines, a name that made no sense at all, because the building was not even adjacent to a single conifer and what did morning have to do with it? If anything, Marlene and Myra were in the twilight of their lives. They were devoted to fitness, though in their eighties, their bodies were getting worse, not better. It was their cells, Karen wanted to explain to them. All the yoga and aquacise and squats in the world could not stop cellular decay. Keeping your muscles strong was pretty much useless. But there was no arguing with these two. Marlene was a Taurus and Myra a Scorpio, Karen had discerned from their account files, where their birthdays were listed. She smiled at them as they entered. They sang hello to Karen, grabbed their towels from the pyramid Karen had stacked so neatly on the front desk the night before, and waddled with impressive speed toward the women’s locker room.
For a few years, Karen had been trying to heighten the sensory acuity of her soul. Deep inside her, she believed, extraordinary gifts were about to come flying out, if she could just cultivate the right conditions.
“You have to wait, I haven’t booted up the computer yet.”
Three more members glided past her as she hurried behind the reception desk. Where the hell was Rosette? Karen picked up the phone to call her, then remembered that Rosette had put her on restriction. She was only allowed to call her friend’s cell phone once a day, excluding emergencies, which Rosette had defined as events that involved police, fire, or ambulance personnel. If Rosette did not call her back, Karen was supposed to pray for acceptance. Those were Rosette’s rules. Karen had an 80 percent success rate in obeying them, which both women regarded as a real victory.
Karen wiped her fingers clean on the towel at the top of the pile and rearranged the remaining towels in a pyramid. A woman she’d never met before walked in. Strapped to her stomach was a large sack printed with little turtles. Karen tried to make conversation but the woman was no-nonsense, tapping some haiku of love or hate into her phone with one hand, her membership card at the ready in the other. She had brown curly hair graying at the roots, which gave her whole face a kind of silvery aura. She didn’t look at Karen, nor at the perfect pyramid of towels. Instead she grabbed one recklessly, sending the whole structure tumbling to the floor. Karen knelt to rescue them, her knees aching. By the time Karen got up, the woman had disappeared inside.
An hour passed and no word from Rosette. Karen microwaved two French bread pizzas and read the classified ads in the newspaper. She remembered there being so much free stuff in the classifieds when she was a little girl. Hardly anyone gave stuff away for free anymore. Not even kittens. Something that comes in dozens and totally by accident now cost a truckload of money, and anyway, Nora told her she had to start saving. In “Lost and Found” someone in Arlington was looking for her wedding ring. The ad offered a five-hundred-dollar reward. It was a long shot, but Karen decided to check the lost-and-found box in the ladies’ locker room. All kinds of stuff turned up there. Five hundred dollars would buy a really good kitten. Maybe a Persian or an Egyptian Mau.
Myra and Marlene were standing near the water fountain in the ladies’ locker room, wearing nothing but flip-flops. Myra lifted her arm, exposing the prickly skin underneath where a surgical incision had healed into a long purple stripe. Marlene examined the scar coolly and nodded.
“How’re your knees doing, Karen?” Myra asked. “Are you having that surgery? What did your ortho say?”
Before she had a chance to answer, the brisk, silvery woman walked in carrying a baby.
“Where did that baby come from?” Karen yelped.
“From my uterus,” the woman sniffed.
“Oh,” Karen said. The specificity of uterus threw a stick in her spokes. She sat on a bench and fished around her pockets until she found a paper clip; swiftly, furtively, she swallowed it like a pill.
Myra and Marlene exchanged looks. Did Karen-from-the-Y, as she was named by them, not know how babies were made? It was plausible that she didn’t, given the other insane things they’d heard her say. Both women filed the conversation away, to be discussed later, over Chardonnay on the patio of their retirement condo. The more compassionate YMCA members learned how to steer around Karen, restoring the gym banter back to its rightful domain of injuries, fitness goals, and weather.
“How old is she?” Myra asked the new mother.
“Two and a half months,” the mother answered.
“Oh! Brand new!” Myra wrapped a towel beneath her wrinkly arms and tickled the baby’s foot.
“Welcome to the world, little one,” Marlene cooed.
Motherhood was a coven Karen had forfeited when a faith-based group home convinced her to get a hysterectomy. She had always been indifferent to her body’s reproductive powers, and at the time had thought, What the hell, at least now I can swim whenever I want.
The mother held the baby and twisted her hips from side to side. Karen stayed planted on her bench but leaned in for a closer look. The baby’s face was hidden somewhere inside the soft yellow folds of blanket, behind the mother and the two elderly, half-naked women whispering gentle, knowledgeable things among themselves. Motherhood was a coven Karen had forfeited when a faith-based group home convinced her to get a hysterectomy at age eighteen. She had always been indifferent to her body’s reproductive powers, and at the time had thought, What the hell, at least now I can swim whenever I want and never worry about menstruation. She did not regret this decision now.
When Myra and Marlene headed off to the showers, Karen was alone with the woman and her baby. This made her nervous. She didn’t want to stay or leave, so she rummaged in the lost-and-found box and pulled out a comb. She raked it through her long, tangled hair.
“Would you mind doing me a quick favor?” the woman asked Karen. “Would you hold her for just a second?”
If you pick up a fallen hatchling and return him to his nest, his mother will smell your touch and be repulsed, Karen remembered learning. One whiff of you on its downy little feathers and the baby bird’s mother will say, You are not mine, not anymore. She will shun the entire nest you’d tainted with your smelly hands, leaving her babies there to starve, and it would be all your fault.
“Oh God,” Karen whispered, “oh God.”
The mother stood on the scale while holding her baby, then stepped off and walked toward Karen. “I just want to see how much weight she’s gained,” she said, handing the bundle over like an offering. Karen took the baby confidently in her arms. How did I know how to do that? she wondered. Then she remembered that one of her foster families had had a baby—the redheaded family in Somerville. They were all so covered in freckles it looked as if they needed to wash their faces even when they were clean, and when Karen had pointed that out, the father pulled down her pants in the middle of the kitchen and spanked her with a spatula.
Karen looked at the baby, at her small, flushed face, her short almost translucent fringe of eyelashes. Babies knew everything. Their eyes quivered with the opaque knowledge of the world. That’s why they cried so much. They were trying to tell us, and no one believed them.
“You might have come just in time for the end,” Karen whispered to her.
The mother weighed herself and frowned.
“Well, I’m not losing any weight but my baby has gained one pound.”
“We grow imperceptibly every minute of every day.”
“That’s a nice thought,” the mother said, taking her baby back from Karen.
Rosette stormed into the locker room. She’d had her hair done that morning, Karen could tell right away, the mystery of her lateness explained. Rosette was a pious Christian, but vanity was her weakness. Her hair was a gleaming auburn color with a few purple and magenta feathers tightly woven in. Her bangs cut a crisp line across her brow. Karen could see that Rosette had also hit the tanning salon recently, as the pale outline of eye goggles betrayed.
“Stay, Mr. Cox,” Rosette shouted through the open door. “Sit there, I tell you, and don’t you move.”
“Rose, did you read that article I sent you? About the pod of dolphins who killed themselves all together on that beach in England?”
Rosette looked at herself in the mirror, squared her shoulders, and turned her head from side to side. “Too terrible! I was shocked. Even the animals now are sinning against God who made them.”
“Rosie, my stomach hurts. Can I have one of Mr. Cox’s pills?”
“Hush your mouth,” Rosette scolded. She was wearing cosmetic contact lenses that made her dark brown eyes appear a shattered, reptilian blue. She nodded at the woman with the baby and rolled her eyes, the YMCA’s universal code for You know crazy Karen. Can’t believe a word she says. Rosette laid her hands on Karen’s shoulders and gave them a deep, penetrating squeeze.
“You’re too fat, babygirl. That’s the problem. You’re not doing your exercises.”
“I am. Sometimes. Sometimes I forget.”
“You have to do them every day. That’s how you change yourself.”
“A guy in India grew his muscles just by thinking about lifting weights.”
“Lord, help us all today. She’s making up stories again,” Rosette said to the mother, who packed her gym bag silently, avoiding eye contact. The woman, tired from the demands of new motherhood, felt entitled to withdraw from polite civilization. She was in no mood to connect with the human periphery, the Rosettes and Karens of the world. Not even on hallowed Last Day.
“It’s true,” Karen cried. But as usual she couldn’t prove it, the source of the story long lost in the unmapped city of her mind. The part about the guy being from India she’d made up. But it was probably true. India was one of those places where elemental shape-shifting was still possible. Karen attributed this to all the wild animals roaming the streets. She had never been there, but she’d seen pictures. What mattered most was intention. Sometimes, things are true simply because they are supposed to be.
From the novel Last Day by Domenica Ruta. Copyright © 2019 by Domenica Ruta. Published by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Help fund the next generation of Black journalists, editors, and publishers.
Boston Review’s Black Voices in the Public Sphere Fellowship is designed to address the profound lack of diversity in the media by providing aspiring Black media professionals with training, mentorship, networking opportunities, and career development workshops. The program is being funded with the generous support of Derek Schrier, chair of Boston Review’s board of advisors, the Ford Foundation, and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, but we still have $50,000 left to raise to fully fund the fellowship for the next two years. To help reach that goal, if you make a tax-deductible donation to our fellowship fund through August 31 it will be matched 1:1, up to $25,000—so please act now to double your impact. To learn more about the program and our 2021-2022 fellows, click here.
May 24, 2019
20 Min read time