“But I have a million other things to tell you, it all fits into the picture, a great canvas of disintegration and sheer horror. Right across the street from here there’s an amusement center—see it there?’ he pointed eagerly. “It’s called the Nickel-O, see the big sign?—and there you have, at around four in the morning, the final scenes of disintegrative decay: old drunks, whores, queers, all kinds of characters, hoods, junkies, all the castoffs of bourgeois society milling in there, with nothing to do really but just stay there, sheltered from the darkness as it were.
“You see how bright the lights are?—they have those horrible bluish neons that illuminate every pore of your skin, your whole soul finally, and when you go in there among all the children of the sad American paradise, you can only stare at them, in a Benzedrine depression, don t you see, or with that sightless stare that comes from too much horror. All faces are blue and greenish and sickly livid. In the end, everyone looks like a Zombie, you realize that everyone is dead, locked up in the sad psychoses of themselves. It goes on all night, everyone milling around uncertainly among the ruins of bourgeois civilization, seeking each other, don’t you see, but so stultified by their upbringings somehow, or by the disease of the age, that they can only stumble about and stare indignantly at one another.”
“A mad description of the Nickel-O if I ever heard one,” remarked Junkey with approval.
“But there’s more to it than that!” cried Levinsky, almost jumping up and down. ‘Under the bluish lights you’re able to see all the defects of the skin they all look as though they’re falling apart.” He giggled here. “Really! You see monstrous blemishes or great hairs sticking out of moles or peeling scars—they take on a greenish tint under the lights and look really frightful. Everybody looks like a geek!”
“The drunkards or addicts or whatnot who eat the heads off live chickens at carnivals…didn’t you ever hear about geeks Oh, the whole point’s there!” he cried happily. ‘Everybody in the world has come to feel like a geek…can’t you see it? Can’t you sense what’s going on around you? All the neurosis and the restrictive morality and the scatological repressions and the suppressed aggressiveness has finally gained the upper hand on humanity—everyone is becoming a geek! Everyone feels like a Zombie, and somewhere at the ends of the night, the great magician, the great Dracula-figure of modern disintegration and madness, the wise genius behind it all, the Devil if you will, is running the whole thing with his string of oaths and his hexes.”
“l don t know,” said Peter. ‘l don’t believe I feel like a geek yet, I don’t think I’ll buy that.”
“Oh, come, come! Then why do you have to mention it, why do you have to deny it?” grinned Levinsky slyly. “Really, now, I know you, I can tell that you have horrible guilt-feelings, it’s written all over you, and you’re confused by it, you don’t know what it is. Admit it at least. As a matter of fact you told me once yourself.”
“That you feel guilty of something, you feel unclean, almost diseased, you have nightmares, you have occasional visions of horror, feelings of spiritual geekishness—Don’t you see, everybody feels like that now.’
“l have a feeling like that,” stammered Peter, almost blushing, “that is of being guilty, but I don’t know, it’s the war and everything, think, the guys I knew who got killed, things like that. And well, hell!—things aren’t like they used to be before the war.” For a moment he was almost afraid that there was some truth in Levinsky’s insane idea, certainly he had never felt so useless and foolish and sorrowful before in his life.
“It’s more than that,” pursued Levinsky with a long, indulgent, sarcastic smile. “You yourself have just admitted it now. I’ve been making a little research of my own, I find that everybody has it. Some hate to admit it, but they finally reveal
that they have it. He-he! And it’s amazing who discovered this disease—”
At this, Levinsky and Junkey exchanged secret smiles, and turned them upon the bewildered Peter. “It’s the great molecular comedown. Of course that’s only my own whimsical name for it at the moment, it’s really an atomic disease, you see. But I’ll have to explain it to you so you’ I know, at least, It’s death finally reclaiming life, the scurvy of the soul at last: a kind of universal cancer. It’s got a real medieval ghastliness, like the plague, only this time it will ruin everything, don’t you see?”
“No, I don’t see. ”
“You will eventually. Everybody is going to fall apart, disintegrate, all character-structures based on tradition and uprightness and so-called morality will slowly rot away, people will get the hives right on their hearts, great crabs will cling to their brains…their lungs will crumble. But now we only have the early symptoms, the disease isn’t really underway yet—Virus X only.”
“Are you serious?” laughed Peter.
“Perfectly serious. I’m positive about the disease, the real physical disease. We all have it!”
“Everybody—Junkey and me, and all the cats, more than that, everybody, you, Kenny, Waldo, Dennison. Listen! You know about molecules, they’re made up according to a number of atoms arranged just so around a proton or something. Well, the ‘just-so’ is falling apart. The molecule will suddenly collapse, leaving just atoms, smashed atoms of people, nothing at all…as it all was in the beginning of the world. Don’t you see, it’s just the beginning of the end of the Geneseean world. It’s certainly the beginning of the end of the world as we know it now, and then there’ll be a non-Geneseean world without all that truck about sin and the sweat of your brow. He-he! It’s great! Whatever it is, I’m all for it. It may be a carnival of horror at first—but something strange will come of it, I’m convinced. But these are my own ideas and I’m deviating from the conception we’ve all reached about the atomic disease.” He mused with perfect seriousness.
“Listen, Leon, why don’t you go back to becoming a radical labor leader,’ laughed Peter.
“Oh, it all ties in. But wait, I wasn’t finished. The Nickel-O has become a great symbol among all of us, it’s the place where the atomic disease was first noticed and from which it will spread, slowly and insidiously, that place there across the street!” he cried gleefully. “But that doesn’t matter, you’ll begin to see it yourself, now that you’re back.
“Everybody’s radioactive and don’t know it.” And with this he rushed off eagerly.