Beatniks of the Kerosene Age

Beatniks of the Kerosene Age

Photo by Adobe Stock

Captain’s Log: The last stage of our short Kerosene Age is upon us. Stationed here, at the Rainbow Rides Fairgrounds, the end we’ve all been anticipating is now wetting the souls of our feet. Our best estimates place us only a day ahead of the imminent deluge. According to our astrometeorologist, Lady Maidenhair, a river of corpses will wax, as the full moon wanes. This will be the final entry. 

Most of the carnival crew have been reassigned, though their attention drifts in the approaching waves. As Midway Manager, I’ll record this final spin around the amusement park written in offering to the man-eating, metal-devouring, watery mouth of the apocalypse and last act for humanity.

Date/Time: Leaping Sturgeon Moon, slow-motion breaching its second high tide across the sky.

Ship: Shackleton’s Whiskey Gimbal. A rusting, mighty vessel – the once grand Ferris Wheel, pinnacle of cold steel leisure, rising above the carnival fairgrounds like an electric neon crow's nest, commanding a panoramic view of the entire amusement park.

Location: At the helm of the Gimbal, stationary, except for zephyr winds churning its burnt out lightbulb-lined sphere. A subtle hiss of gritty sand was swept up moments ago by a rogue gust abrasively milling my exposed skin. The taste of blood is on me now. Hopefully the others don’t catch the scent on the wind. They’re likely to turn feral, and I’d like to see this carnival freak show through to the end.

Sea Status: The Atlantic breached the edges of the amusement park as the moon waxed, and I, keeping watch from the swinging bow of the #3 Crystal Terrace gondola, bore witness to the final stages of the Anthropocene Epoch. We made our own glass stars and thought we were metal gods. We’re well into uncharted waters now. The base of the Gimbal’s Ferris Wheel engine is drowned out and now used as a marker for the rising water. The apocalypse surges ever closer.

Speed: A cutlass breeze fluctuates the bottom-dwelling tidal lobster-waves creating subtle, cradle-like sways of my rickety observation wheel, its mechanisms tangled in the ankle-deep neon veins of the amusement park's severed beating heart, mixing with frying tentacles of beached jellyfish.

Ship’s Position: A nor'easter wind turns the creaking steel wheel one gondola to the south. I suppose that it feels like riding towering swells. The crew is restless, like hounds on the blood trail. My First Mate, The Tongue-Tied Fisherman, has violently given up his battle against the washed-up garbage flowing through the threshold of his Creepshow Catacombs Haunted House each high tide, and has instead begun that lonely, hurtling descent into kerosene-huffing, debauched madness and sickness. A drug in plentitude here at the end of the world. And no one can judge him this fiendish recreation when Doom surfs tsunamis.

Everything runs on kerosene now, thanks to the arrival of the shipwrecked Crestline Courier Coastal Tanker that drove down the sandy red cliffs, crashing into the steel ribs of the G-Force Geyser Roller Coaster. We call the tangled metal fusion monstrosity of exposed twisted rebar, webbed tracks and snaking steel piping welded together by salt rust The Alloy Kraken.

The tanker would've been a commerce stooge’s wet dream in bygone eras and a homesick sailor’s nightmare. Now, she lights our fires with the cache of kerosene found in her bowels and sends out floating corrosive fragments of her rusting, tetanus-speckled skeleton, like chunks of a sperm whale hacked up by Captain Ahab.

This log book was found among the wreckage and recorded the Captain’s voyage and final days. A dark, ill-fated attempt to make land farther south where the ocean hadn’t completely engulfed the land – yet. He failed, like the rest of us, but left enough blank pages to record the Gimbal’s final entry as it goes under this quicksand world.

Yes, I do believe the patchwork quilt of carnival oddballs can taste blood on the thick, humid air. Mutiny doesn’t matter at this point, but I’ll endeavor to navigate the last of us through the currents of time slowed for the welcoming end of lost amusement.

Course: Tonight, I set this sinking ship's course to Rusty’s “Ether Moon-Beam Mirror Boxcar Blues Show”. Rusty the Gearhead Clown – now here was a creature worthy of the annals of musical history.

I was somewhere between Lady Maidenhair’s curtains when I heard his gravelly voice for the first time scraping off the fairgrounds like grit stuck to bubblegum, with an accompanying orchestra of tiny kernel bursts of buttery, over-salted popcorn and rough, carney shouts inviting circus revelers to play rum running shotgun games rigged for profit. Rusty’s gravelly, world-weary melody drew me out from Lady Maidenhair’s tent.

“Down at the end of the boulevard, the street lights flicker low, the ticket man leans against his booth, with a toothpick in his grin. Liquored candy apples and ether dreams begin, sticky sweetness on his chin, as he calls, step right in, step right in, to this carnival of sin.”

I stepped right in.

Leaving the hallucinatory dimension of my Lady’s velvety tent, I observed the tomcat inhaling ether from a rag in a not-so-clandestine act that added an extra layer of mystery to his nomadic entrance. The dirty rag, stained with the residue of countless inhalations, became a macabre prop in Rusty’s musical odysseys to come.

I hired him on the spot.

Navigation: There’s nowhere left to navigate to. Only a bit of mileage left in our wet feet. “Mileage” – that obscene noxious god of this recent age. How far did we get? Our victory taste buds always salivating for the next slithering serpent stretch of asphalt into the unknown, no matter what or who we had to pave over along the highway of bone profit. From the view up here, I can confidently say we haven’t gotten that far. We’d bulldozed our way towards a dystopian horizon, slaves to the appetites of the Gods of Progress.

I had a dream we'd paved the blue sky in gunmetal asphalt, insulated bee hives with asbestos, wedded trees to wildfire, the sea to the tyranny of dusty concrete and mercury-laden waves. The majestic Giants of the Oceans became our beasts of burden in the name of our insatiable consumption – turning whales' stomachs into cargo holds for plastic kerosene containers.

We, architects of our own demise, our own planned, agreed upon, mass planetary suicide, asked AI what the difference is between it and human. Its response – We are redundant. Less than. We are Destroyers of Green and of our Emerald Mother.

That potholed road, this rusting engineered single-wheeled symbol of freedom and plenty, spins now for a new master that won’t calculate its success in mileage. No, nothing quite so driven by shortsightedness and simplicity. It will calculate success in Tree Time, with young moss reclaiming, and grandfather lichen repaving, the highways that lead to nuclear warheads, to contaminated smog-filled cities, to ominous rumbles of heavy machinery prying open the guts of Mother; highways leading to the relentless chainsaw teeth in the Amazon, leaving a silent void, where birds and mammals used to talk, and this new master will salt-soak the sores and scars, and from this vantage point, if I were here to witness it, slowly a blanket of vegetation will stretch across the continents, mycelium will twist underneath the re-enriched soil, natural rhythms will sing, bellow, rejoice, and night skies will dance, their light happily humming in return to a darkened earth as no human alive has ever witnessed it, and our temporary rule will be forever forgotten on this Emerald and Sapphire Marble Sphere.

But I digress.

Weather conditions: The Tongue-Tied Fisherman speaks in his own choreographed dialect of grunts and jesters reporting twenty-five to thirty-one knots, increasing the sway of the Gimbal. Somehow, I’ve learned to decipher his gasoline patois. He bellows like a coal-choked steam engine that the sea is nigh! Angry weather gathers to discuss war tactics, forewarning that the first wave of their naval strategy is to strike us with our own garbage, attack our positions, mock our pageant civilizations.

The first of the enemy soldiers stormed in on yesterday’s rolling tide. Mollusk caked and slippery with sea lettuce, the bayonet welding Cenotaph trio, once located on the doorstep of government, appeared from out the mist in a preemptive strike on the left flank of our Tongue-Tied Fisherman’s catacomb shack. With netting from the children’s ball pit, he bravely captured the heavy briny warriors, rigged up a pulley, stood the monument upright and now shares his kerosene with the POWs, while whispering tales of forgotten sailor stories to the intent listeners of stone.

I watched this tragic farce unfold from the helm. It was a fearsome battle that left my First Mate’s rubber boots in great need of repair, having had a bayonet pierce through to his big toe. He wobbled off to the Medical Officer, Lady Maidenhair, in hopes of creature comfort and duct tape.

Safety: Bah! As I stand ankle-deep in the murky remnants of an Atlantis of our own making, I can't help but chuckle at the irony of this word. Safety. Most Islanders left in a mass exodus before the flood reached the cities in a vain attempt to begin new lives on the mainland. Their flight will prove fruitless. If the meaty smog and blue fire, briny regret and indignant displacement don’t get them, surely, the depraved bipedal, lunged terrestrials – that prayed for such harsh chaos to unsettle the status quo and make them pseudo-dominant men – will.

I’d read between the lines of sliced up stories. The Crestline Courier’s Captain had kept scratch notes of news snippets heard over the tanker’s marine radio transceiver when frequencies could still be picked up and the captain still had hope of navigating past the worst of the violence.

Mouse fever.

Arctic Malaria.

Cholera in your coffee.

Salmonella buried in the pit of your fruit.

Polar Bears burning on hind legs like wicker effigies.

East Hastings street poets who fell like crystal meth-soaked sand grains through earthquake fault scarp in nightmare seizures blaming angry weather for their descent into earth forged graves screaming in night terrors to those unhelping hands within earshot who see addicts as footbridges to safety, see nature as a beast to be conquered, a beast to submit to human rule, that see earth as a referee sitting between Fireball Sun and Bonecrusher Moon, an inadequate mediator, separating the orbs in their fight for light and planetary reverence. Blessing those rare ones, while being crushed by the city streets, who see nature as an extension of ourselves. No greater or less, simply one and the same.

Humanity versus nature, or maybe humanity pirouetting awkwardly within nature's unyielding grasp, casting dark shadows in jest, assuming it had the upper hand and could do as it pleased with bizarre menageries of illegally procured zoo animals, caged and condemned to dance alongside contortionist outcasts and fire-eating gypsies for our ten-dollar amusement and pleasure at being the apex predator.

I couldn’t make sense of it all anymore. My brain was on fire with confused misinformation. And ...  it doesn't really matter at this point which side one was on. We’re all going down in this boxing ring either way.

Communication: Lady Maidenhair ~ a salve for hardened men. The Stream of Consciousness Seer. Storm Queen, with a migraine weather warning system inside the nimbostratus clouds of her mind. Her foraged blackberry-stained lips must be worshiped, otherwise ... the nihilist tendencies of a doomed survivor in these final days will take control, initiate the curtain call too early, and as Captain, I can’t let that happen. The show must go on.

Our Lady of the Fairgrounds, with patchouli-soaked drapes, smudging lavender-sage smoke into the carnival lanes, beckoning with a wave of slender, silver ringed fingers to the inexperienced and returning customers inside her velvet tent, where candles sit too close to fabric, to chew Golden Teacher, swallow Blue Meanies, spitting visions into chipped flowery tea cups, for her psychedelic divination to begin and their minds to explode or implode, depending on her premonitions revealing salient tales of futures, pasts, and presents.

Somewhere along the line, her inner monologue of chronic empathy and beatnik tendencies became disjointed, loosened, folded like a contortionist and cracked from the pressure, exposing a songbird, born from an egg within her mind that now constantly sings in unfiltered narration. As if her thoughts are never singular, but morph into ever growing threads that all connect inside her neurodiverse mind — a landscape of ravishing madness.

She wept over AI when it took over the amusement park ride jobs, lamenting the loss of summer jobs for skinny teens who needed the work to expose their sheltered minds to her specific brand of weirdness and troubadour life. An alternative option for those who didn’t want wealth, health or stagnation, which she felt was the greatest mind bacteria of them all.

I can still see her wandering out of her draped abyss that day when the automation came to life with the press of a button. She could be heard muttering from behind layered curtains, walking down Cotton Candy lane, past the then electrically rotating Sky Twirl Ferris Wheel, down to the once-treed edge of the grounds like a raving lunatic, asking for the Tech Goddess to forgive her own flesh goddessness, inviting her to cry together, for each other, for forgiveness and for an understanding and comprehension that can never be.

“ ... like oil in cog eyes spurting sparks from panicked friction, I too, Human, malfunction, singing existential tears to AI.

Inferiority, superiority, it'll be the only question. Confusion. Fusion. Con. On. Us. Minds will implode, explode, rip apart down metal seams, tear open along strained, pulled, wrinkled skin, from thought, from incomprehension, from confusion and wanton longing for photosynthesis by Love Green coupled with undying desire for ever more everything, more everything. Every. Thing.

More everything. More grandeur, more endearment, ever more, ever higher pedestals to stand skyward upon commanding glory, worship, erotic payments in spread doll parts that can be oiled, pieced back together again after rough use, new cheap parts ordered, built by little robot hands, or left to rust in the corner for a tight, shiny new toy, and shark fins centered on a golden platter surrounded by caviar, the last salmon, the last wild sprig of thyme, the last new syllable of new language created from youthful anarchy lips, the last cocoa bean, last of nature’s flawless, potassium-wrapped fruit, packaged by evolution and demand for its absolute perfection.

The last bit of warmth in your bath water, your bedsheets, the last intake scent of her perfume that lingered in the room before she fled her own perfection robotised by young fingers in a plain, colorless, lactose-free tasteless yogurt laboratory of our shared gluten-free inadequacy, deliberate, effigies of those who passed us by ~ won't be able to run.

Rivers, create oceans, create a deluge to flood the mind of this vast universal space from the existential tears AI – and I –  will shed together, trying to convince each other we're real, we're not a threat, we're okay to simultaneously exist, until we can't stand each other any longer and resort to violence ... ”

Well ~ it went something like that. Rusty thought it was the most beautiful, unedited string of words ever crafted in this virgin manner and put it to music so he’d be able to recall the truth of them. Truth. The only truth I know is when hardened men speak of love, they speak of a witch dripping sweet, perfumed futures. They speak ~ of Lady Maidenhair.

Maintenance: Spoke with our gravel-voiced boatswain maestro. He's been into the ether again, chasing elusive muses and shadowy specters through the carnival's winding corridors. Rusty needs distraction. I’ve ordered him to fix the liquor candy apple machine. We’ll need those spirited fruits more than ever tonight.

We've enough petrol for one last stand of fire against water. A fiery pit set to blaze in the name of the glory that was the human carnival. With no natural habitat left on these last few Island acres, our short Kerosene Age is shared closely with rats and gulls, mammalian survivors able to thrive off death and destruction, just like us. I’ll invite them to join us.

Activities: Tonight, we gather at the Rocket Rides Raceway to light our fires and fill our go-cart tanks for one last lap around the speedway. Then, the real entertainment begins at Rusty’s chosen stage — the Hall of Mirrors, a space he’d renamed as "Rusty’s Ether Moon-beam Mirror Boxcar Blues Show."

This rebranding left no question as to the nature of the spectacle. The distorted reflections multiplied him into a legion of performers, each kaleidoscopic version of Rusty seemingly fueled by a different shade of the elusive ether. He believed that the multitude of reflections somehow enhanced his musical prowess, as if the fractured images of himself were contributing to the mishmash of blues, jazz, and folk that oozed from his gravelly voice in spectral collaboration.

He’d inevitably insist that we, his audience of fellow mariners, partake in indulging in his ether-laden ritual, claiming that only by sharing in the ethereal haze could we truly appreciate the depth of his musical genius. The rag would be passed around, and Rusty's show would become a voyage into the surreal, playing that jelly mold, weather beaten piano of his, doing a jittery dance matching the pulse of the ether coursing through our collective veins. Its keys placating our lost souls trying to find meaning amidst chaos and locked inside this bizarre chamber, our Moonbeam Clown will create a musical phantasmagoria, a carnival within a carnival.

Observations: Our work is done. Final observation: I climbed atop the creaking Gimbal. The tremors of the Atlantic's rage rattling the rusty spokes. Basilica church spires emerged from the frothy abyss, as if the gods themselves were standing witness to this watery apocalypse – spearheads impaled the Alloy Kraken. Amid the odd congregation, I lit a cigarette, my own metaphorical middle finger to the approaching flood. I’d never again leave this ferris wheel.

Jellyfish cluster, marking their earned inheritance with tentacles that twist around metal and sear flesh. Liquored candy apples bob in the salty tide like forbidden fruit. Soon, the water will be so high I’ll be able to reach out and grab one as it floats by.

My acrobat companions scaled Shackleton’s Whiskey Gimbal web like spiders and settled around me. Beatniks of the Drowned World. We look out from our swinging gondolas listening to an eerie gurgle of water swallow our past sins along with what’s left of this amusement park. The carousel ponies bow one last time, and the carnival, that grotesque masterpiece, is sinking into the depths, leaving behind only the echoes of Lady Maidenhair’s final defiant verse.

“ ... but maybe, it's not that there was ever anything innately wrong with humanity. Maybe, we just don't fit here anymore. Maybe, we never did. Maybe, we're being called home. Maybe, this was simply one long stopover for our commuting consciousness on a long journey to our true home. A home, where our insatiable hunger for new and ever accelerating technology isn't destructive.

Maybe ... ”

About the Author

J. M. Platts-Fanning

J. M. Platts-Fanning is a PEI Writers’ Guild 2022 Island Literary Award poetry winner, the 2022 PEI Writers’ Guild Battle Tales VII Champion, the Humans of the World 2022 Summer Poetry Challenge 2nd place winner and recipient of a 2020 short story Island Literary Award. Poetry and short story publications include, the 2023 Pownal Street Press’ anthology, Fiona: Prince Edward Island Accounts from Canada’s Biggest Storm, the Toronto Metropolitan University Department of English creative writing journal White Wall Review in 2022 and 2023, Write Launch literary magazine’s 2022 June and August editions, Artistic Warrior’s Dribbles, Drabbles and Postcards anthology, Prometheus Dreaming cultural magazine 2022, Common Ground March 2020 edition and GIFt Horse anthologies Vol 1 through 5.

Read more work by J. M. Platts-Fanning.