“Can they imagine the darkness
That will fall from on high
When men will beg God to kill them
And they won’t be able to die.”
Bob Dylan, “Precious Angel”
The Buddha Will Smile and Death Shall Flee
They called their cave ToraToraTora, after the battle cry of “kamikazes” back in some long forgotten war, before even the Terror Wars, making it either a precursor or pointless, depending upon your point of view. But there were no more wars now. Indeed, one was tempted to say, ‘war is history’, except that there was no longer a need for history either. No cataloguing of ferocious events, no heroes or villains, no more “need” for historical progress, no more squabbles over dialectical materialism, liberty, or campaign contribution reforms. Everybody had what they most desired. And then some.
Well, maybe not everybody; not yet. Not the five denizens of ToraToraTora, who were wise, in a way, and wizened, but not yet accomplished in their mission; they weren’t even sure what “mission accomplished” would look like, such was the ruthless inscrutability of pure chance. However, Bud and Buddi, and the three Mitochondriacs, formed a little cell of catalytic conversion, and as they sat in the dimmed space, and studied the 3D wall of holographic images moving before them, images of people and places, they saw not the equilibrium and homeostasis they had expected, although there was stability and order, but a kind of malady or madness, which made Buddi and the Mitochondriacs gloomy, their souls filled with shadow dances. The Mitochondriacs knew what must be done. But Buddi was not as sure. While he trusted the three holy oracles implicitly, the 3Ms, as he called them, he still believed, as another old wise man once said, that what you observed was to some extent changed by the observation itself.
‘Your caution is noble,’ said the Mitochondriac named Messala from a secluded place beneath his hooded robe. ‘However, you need to consider that you may be giving into sentimentality in this instance.’
‘Are you saying the observed is not changed by the observation? Is that wise observation wrong?’ asked Buddi, conscious that he was slipping on his own banana peel of irony.
‘No, of course not, Buddi,’ said Mehmet, his nose in the light creating a sundial-like shadow on the table before him. ‘But Buddi you were born there — a long time ago –‘
‘A long time ago,’ chimed in Moises, the most volatile of the three and the most prone to wisecracking.
‘So, maybe your emotional separation is incomplete,’ Mehmet continued. ‘Maybe it would do you some good to come into the physical presence of some your syngenes.’
‘Maybe,’ said Buddi. ‘But, look, don’t get me wrong. I mean, I know how stoma work and I believe in the processes of photosynthesis, but it would be good to hold in my hand the leaf one more time before I draw final conclusions about the tree.’
Bud had sat there listening, allowing the others to sort out an understanding in their own way; he knew what would have to happen, and just to speed things along, he said to Buddi, ‘Just go. Your closest syngene match is in Sydney. Go there, Buddi, and decide. We must be unanimous on this. So Mehmet, Moises and Messala, you head to the Dome of the Clock and be ready. And just remember, Buddi, sometimes you can’t always see the forest for the tree.’
A silence of reasonable assent fell over the cell. Buddi looked across the table at Bud, with a deep love born of unmitigated trust. When Buddi had been a small child the 3Ms had, in a moment of profound compassion, rescued him from the conclusion of the Terror Wars and brought him back to ToraToraTora. Bud (not his real name) had taken Buddi (not his real name) under his wing, raised and nurtured him, and at a certain stage of Buddi’s development had manipulated his genes, implanted him with triangulators that altered his perceptions and sensations, and Bud had grafted onto him a plasma pod that had nurtured him and filled him with the green slime of near-immortality. Buddi was aging, but very slowly. Nevertheless, even years later, he felt a small, but significant gravitational pull toward the world of his origins, humanity. On the other hand, the 3Ms felt no such stirrings, having started life in a petri dish and then brought to their current fruition by the masterful hands of Bud. And given the mission they were assigned to accomplish, they were either angels or terrorists, or something beyond all that, depending on your point of view.
At a bar on the promenade looking out at the harbour, not far from the opera house, they could hear the yodels of yabbos and hoonies priming their lungs for The Show. Brentfield and Viola sat at a table, musing toward the sky, where solar drones flitted back and forth in great waves, like swifts or swallows switching this way and that, performing their tasks – personal satellites, corporate messengers, cloud routers, Eyes™, whatever. The couple sat there disaffected and bored, nursing their alcohol-free Dramamine-based cocktails – Bullet-to-the-Temple, as the news service Some Pundits Are Calling It ironically referred to the drink, without humour. But everyone was bored, and everybody was stricken with a kind of vomitus seasickness; it had become a permanent condition since the onset of the pandemic – The Great Nausea, as Some Pundits Are Calling It had nicknamed it — so many moons before. It wasn’t a lethal pandemic (there were none of those anymore); it was just profoundly boring. And all you could do was drink your grog and mind your own business and try not to think about it.
You wouldn’t have known it from the way Brentfield and Viola carried on with each other in public, with the rude yawns and twisted expressions they sometimes taunted each other with, but they were, in fact, deeply in love and had the battle scars to prove it. The night before, Brentfield had solidly cold-cocked Viola, sending his partner sliding across the sensory linoleum, which lit up, on her impact and slide, to ask if an ambulance was needed. It was in such moments of raw affection that she realized how much he still cared for her, and the growing shiner she now tenderly pressed was far more precious to her than any glowy finger mineral. And she had risen from the floor and returned the favour, gliding up to him and biting a small chunk off his ear, pressing into his doughy cheek with the sharpened fingernails of her right hand, being careful not to give into the aching impulse to rip at his face, ever-cognizant that they were reaching the monthly limits of their healthcare coverage for such “lovesickness”, as Some Pundits Are Calling It were calling the condition.
‘Well, Viola, aren’t you the high-strung one,’ he had snarled like a pussy cat through gritted teeth, as he held her claw grip against his face.
‘And you, dear, are my resin de etre,’ she’d punned back, her loving desire to hurt him flashing like barbed wire stars in the firmament of her deep blue eyes.
But they could hardly be blamed, such impulses built from kindles to bonfires in the phases leading up to The Show, and affected nearly everyone to some degree, and by the time the Day arrived the digi-stim of the social media was so intense that it was all the average person could do to keep his or her fingers from gouging the eyes or throttling the throat of the nearest passer-by. Thank heavens for insurance limits! People thought twice before acting. It was unseemly to go out in public showing off the battle scars of love. Brentfield and Viola weren’t so very different from the hooligans ululating outside the opera house, and they knew it. But they liked to put on airs; it was something to do; a way of warding off some boredom for a while, and they had a lot of whiles to go before they’d sleep.
Noisy news from the bar’s widescreen shook Brentfield and Viola from their empty reveries. They gave each other angry smiles and then turned to watch the report. They were showing the festivities outside the opera house. The camera shot was from an old-fashioned ‘blimp’, looking down at the crowd, the zoomed-out figures moving around in the video frame like bacteria viewed through a microscope. There was an organic quality to the crowd’s movement that was oceanic and aesthetic, and which the couple found both mesmerizing and repulsive.
‘Jackson Pollack puked up his Dramamine dream, that’s what it would like, I reckon,’ said Viola, the more loquacious of the two.
‘You do so have a way with words,’ he snarled and, sharply pinching her ear, added, ‘And I’m sorely tempted to have my way with you, right here, right now.’
They locked leers for a moment. She was what Some Pundits Are Calling It referred to as a Classic Beauty, the black hair and blue eyes of the Elizabeth Taylor Persona™ she was wearing suited her to a tee. And he with his complementary Burton – well, people stole peeks at them walking hand-in-hand , and smiled, knowing there was some serious bruising going on underneath it all that make-up could not always hide. And who could blame them if an obsolete pang of jealousy briefly swept through them? After all, not every couple had been so lucky with their random hexa-love profile match-up; some couples were drearily compatible. But no one felt sorry for long, realizing as they did that such insufferability could easily visit upon them at the next random match-up at the end of The Show. But everywhere in the world on this day of days, this Show day, people were decked out in their Persona™ best, and nothing could subdue the excitement of the good times to come. Nothing.
On the television they were showing the opera house from overhead, the blimp moving around in a circle.
‘If I’ve said it once…,’ she began the Common Meme.
‘I’ve said it a thousand times,’ he finished, and they laughed.
‘The opera house doesn’t look so much like sails as it does a lotus opening, silent, still,’ she waxed, with a wistful poesy she’d picked up somewhere she could not remember.
‘Why opening? Why not closing?’ he asked, rather facetiously.
‘Maybe I’m a glass half-full kind of gal, and maybe you’re a glass half-empty.’
‘Maybe. Although I’d be inclined to say that I’m somewhat more than half so.’
She was moved by this candour and gave him a hard slap to the face that brought tears of pain to face and a smile of gratitude.
‘Ahem,’ began the waiter who had seemingly appeared out of nowhere and who was now hovering over their table. ‘May I get you another drink before we close for The Show?’
The waiter was tall, lean, green and pony-tailed, and his name tag read, ‘Buddi.’
‘No, thanks,’ said Brentfield. ‘I suppose we should get going.’ And, indeed, they could hear the distant voice of the emcee inside the opera house firing up the microphone, calling out ‘1-2-3, testing,’ which further roused the crowd.
‘Okay, I’ll get your check then,’ said Buddi, and was just about to move off when Viola thought to have some fun.
‘Say, Buddi,’ she said. ‘Has anyone ever told you that you look like Ben Kingsley, or Osama bin Laden, one of those old-time actors, playing Gandhi?’
‘Why, yes, just yesterday,’ Buddi snarked.
‘And the day before that, right?’ laughed Brentfield.
‘And the day before that,’ Viola howled.
‘If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times,’ the couple laughed together.
‘No, I mean, are you really a Buddi, underneath all that green greasepaint, you know, or are you just a terrorist dressed in words?’ Viola teased, flirted. She was playing with the fact that “Buddi” was a generic name assigned by Some Pundits Are Calling It to a long-ago sect who yearned for nothingness and tried to escape from the cycle of what they called reincarnation by killing off desire and putting an end to suffering.
But before he could answer the couple broke into a monkey chant. ‘Om mani padme hum.’
‘If I’ve said it once… ’ laughed Viola and slapped Brentfield hard again.
‘In deed,’ muttered Buddi and walked off. At the swinging door to the kitchen, Buddi turned and gave a long, absorbent look at Brentfield, to whom he was genetically related somewhere along the great chain of double-helixal events.
On the television they were showing people pouring into the opera house, noisily taking their seats, eyes keened with excitement, as if they were about to attend the finals of a football match. Brentfield sat there, the gathering spectacle on the widescreen and the widening gyre of near-hysteria building up from the mob outside the opera house, and he felt a pang not felt much anymore, a kind of regret that he could not put his finger on, as if it did not quite belong to him, and which made him seem pensive. When Viola looked over and saw his lost and searching expression her immediate reaction was jealousy. Most people relied on others to get their fix of sweet sorrow, but Brentfield seemed to have a small inner reservoir he could drink from occasionally, like what they used to call a poet in the old days. It was a pity, she thought, because he’ll probably lose it at the Hex Exchange at the end of The Show, when everyone had to turn in their Persona™ for a fresh one. He looked over at her and shook himself loose from his bracketed state.
‘Viola, do you rememer when we first met at all?’
‘Vaguely,’ she said. ‘My memery is not what it used to be. It’s become clouded and cluttered and clotted with time.’
‘With time?’ They looked at each other and laughed. ‘Well, that’s an interesting slip, dear.’
‘What I mean is: When we first met, do you rememer how structured and composed and understood everything felt between us?’
‘Yes, like two symphonies merging.’
‘Yes, how lovely. But two clashing symphonies. I was Stravinsky to your Mozart, as I rememer.’
‘Such sweet discord. Your percussion practically raped my string session.’
‘Yes,’ she smiled, and then paused as if she almost rememered something else, something important. ‘And yet, at the same time, even with all that wonderful cacophony, there was already the sense of something diabolically dialectical at work, something beyond the sounds themselves, something relational, mathematical, that worked to – ‘
‘Yes,’ he said pensively, and this time he so moved her with his look that she reached across the table and pinched his cheek hard enough to bring blood. A murderous look flashed in his eyes, but he continued. ‘And then, suddenly we started to bore each other; there was all that ennui and indifference. I started to feel like I didn’t care if another man beat the living shit out of you.’
‘But, you know, Viola, there was something else. Some shard of – ‘
‘No, not memery. Something unique and mine, a feeling.’
‘Shh!’ Viola was suddenly terrified, but in a way that brought no joy to Brentfield. ‘That word “unique” is in the Threat Disposition database. If they hear you! Oh love, do you want to see us stuck with each other another 10 years?!’
‘Certainly not,’ he said, ‘you couldn’t be any more boring if you were a hydraulic drill.’
‘Yes, well, better luck Hex time,’ she smiled, and slammed her fist down on his right hand.
Buddi was in the kitchen alone, as all the other barkeeps and help had run off to The Show, leaving him to close up shop. The closer it got to Show Time the more Buddi became ill, his green skin draining of its lively colour and turning yellowed, jaundiced even, and he had a look of sag about him that made him seem both limp and sad. And, indeed, standing there, leaning against the deep freeze door, he did not think he’d ever felt so sad. He remembered when he was young, so very green, but ‘a cut above the rest,’ as his brother/father, Bud, was fond of saying, albeit not without self-interest, and he had vivid dreams that were like dark forests of midnight mysteries or like living, breathing jungles of energy and animation, fields, plains, densities of desire promiscuously alive and forever becoming anew in themselves, the destined otherness of their own raw being. So, yes, he wept, or rather glistened in sappy distress, to see it all now accounted for by the disposition matrices, engineered by the fuck-knuckles who couldn’t leave well enough alone, and, in his growing rage, rising in his consciousness like a quick time-elapsed Sahara sun, he snapped off the pinky of his left hand and threw it in the Fry-o-lator, where it sizzled, grease bubbles swarming, and quickly lost its colour and form. Driblets of green sap glaciered into the palm of his mutilated hand. That was the problem with Buddi: He was always so emotional, so serious about such things, so human-all-too-human.
To restore his flagging confidence he decided to talk with Bud, who was always as cool as a cucumber, even in times like this, even in this approaching moment of do-or-die decision-making. He made a gesture with his right hand and his holo-phone appeared before him, his thought-ping autodialling Bud, who appeared almost without delay. The holograph that emerged from thin air displayed a frame at the centre of which Bud sat forward on a stationary bike, pedalling away, while behind him the Wall of Shadows displayed televised images of The Show, and its lead-up, being broadcast across the Some Pundits Are Calling It global network.
‘Buddi, are you alright?’ asked Bud, glancing over at the camera, still pedalling.
‘Just having that “black petals of the ancient rose” kind of feeling; just a little dark that’s all; a little nauseous,” said Buddi.
Bud stopped pedalling and the Wall of Shadows lost its images and turned grey. ‘Oh, brother, you always get that way when you’re among the Same-Same,’ said Bud, calling his fellow, though fallow, human mates by their dispositional matrices label. ‘Will you be able to go through with it?’
‘Yeah, look,’ Buddi started, but Brentfield was at the swinging door, wearing a smirk, and shaking his thumb and index finger together, as if ringing a tiny bell. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Ringy. Ringy,’ said Brentfield. ‘The Show waits for no man. You got our tab, so we can go?’
‘Right. Sure,’ said Buddi, immediately shepherding the smirk back toward the bar. ‘I’ll be right back, Bud,’ said Buddi to his brother, leaving the hologram lit up as he went with Brentfield back to his table.
‘Wow, what was that awful smell in the kitchen?’ asked Brentfield. ‘Smelled like burnt spinach.’
‘Oh that, yes,’ said Buddi. ‘Yes, that was burnt spinach. Overcooked my lunch.’
Brentfield was about to respond, when they passed a table on the way to sidewalk area and heard muffled screaming and a serious physical altercation taking place. Buddi went over to the table and lifted up the tablecloth and saw two hetero lovers biting and scratching and punching each other with gay abandonment. He was dressed, clearly, as Humphrey Bogart, and she was apparently intended to be Lauren Bacall.
‘Stop it, you two,’ said Buddi crossly. ‘Save it for The Show. It’s unbecoming to behave that way in public – oh, and I see you’ve gashed each other pretty good too, so now you’ve broken the law, too.’ Buddi was about to draw a look of commiseration from Brentfield, who stood their gawking at the couple, when he saw that Brentfield had a tiny rivulet of blood snaking its way down his cheek. ‘You, too? Okay, all of you out of here, get thee hence, and take these with you,’ he said, throwing a wad of napkins at the three. He looked over at Viola, who was standing there with a vicious grin on her face, pretending to claw the air like a cat. ‘More flirting,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘Look,’ he told the group, ‘They have started. The Royal Philvagina Chora are singing the global anthem.’ And, indeed, on the widescreen you could see dozens of hovering drone marionettes mechanically tugging strings attached to the very large 3D vaginas, printed out just minutes before The Show began, that were seated primly before the crowd, their labial manifolds crooning, shrill and shrieky, ‘If I’ve sang it once, I’ve…’ The crowd almost beside themselves with nails-on-chalkboard ecstasy.
He shooed the group off and watched them walk away, the four of them, picking up their pace, clearly excited, as they neared the opera house. He could hear Viola drolly chanting, ‘Om mani padme hum,’ looking back at him a couple of times with a girlish laugh. When they were almost at the opera house, Humphrey Bogart lurched toward the harbour and dry-heaved. ‘Nerves,’ Buddi said. There were no more people passing by, and with a sigh, he dropped into the seat recently occupied by Brentfield and, looking out at the harbour, he made a wrist gesture and transferred the holograph call with Bud to his current locale. His brother seemed to emerge out of the harbour view.
‘Everything all right there, Buddi,’ said Bud intently, but without much emotion.
‘Yeah, sure, just some celebrants getting carried away early.’
‘Right. So listen, Buddi, tell me about this darkness. Is it –’
‘—Yes, Bud, it’s the same. Same as always. I watch them. I see them. I am them or, at least, one of them, and you can see behind it all this kind of yearning. Yearning.’
‘And you get caught up. Is that it?’
‘Yes. I get caught up. I do. I see this condition and I want to reach out and shake them and show them what we know.’
‘But – ‘
‘I know. I know, Bud. It’s no use. It’s just that I pity them sometimes –’
‘You mustn’t pity, brother. It could undo all the work we’ve done. All the work to come.’
‘Yes, I know. But sometimes I forget. I mean, literally, I look on them and lose my memories and a Now creeps in unlike any others, a Now full of fathomless unstillness.’
‘I understand,’ said Bud, and then paused, almost grim, for a moment. ‘But you must remember, brother, because you have a decision to make, soon, and it is the most important one you will ever make. The 3Ms are waiting. Let me send you something that will help. A memory. One you cherish more than all others.’
‘The Smiling Buddha?’
‘In deed,’ said Bud. ‘The Smiling Buddha.’
And even before the memory had reached him, even in that flash of light speed, Buddi’s face lit up in a smile and his teary eyes ran, like twin chalices overflowing with the nectar of joy.
Coming out of a reverie as profound as the Smiling Buddha was exceptionally difficult for Buddi to do, mostly because he didn’t want to come out. It was a state, he’d read, that only some old Confucian monks in the grasp of an opium vision could relate to; it wasn’t like your Self dreaming, but rather your being, naked, without the clothing of selfhood, and yet, as a contemplative moment, still a product of consciousness and the senses, for rising out of Buddi’s bowels and rising to fill his chest cavity was a sensation, a kind of paralyzing ecstasy, that he would stay with forever if he could. But, as always, he did come back to consciousness, the endless puzzles of his species urging him on with its suffocating yearning and restlessness. He opened his eyes and looked out at the harbour. The memory had only been with him seconds and yet he felt its energizing light; there was buoyancy in his spirits, a bounce in his gait as he made his way toward the opera house.
As he came in the presence of the celebrating crowd he felt a sudden pull back toward dark spirits. It wasn’t just the small puddles of blood here and there, and signs of maiming and uncontrol, but the sensation of appetency that seemed to sweep through the closely-packed throng. The camera shots from the blimp mesmerized you with a kind of design at work, as if you were looking at the splashes and daubs of some kind of animate abstract expressionist painting. But up close, the unicyclists, and clowns on stilts, and all the assorted nutty-eyed revellers wearing costumes were like crazy-quilt tribes out of psychedelic jungle stories. Their smells and voices raced through his brain; their collective energy filled him with a tension that an ancient poet once aptly described as being ‘like a madman shaking a dead geranium.’ He pushed aside the carnivalesque vibrations, the giddy laughter on the edge of hysteria, and panned to locate the 3Ms hovering in 3D holography over by the huge outdoor screen where they’d said they be. Michael saw him first and raised his right fist, which delivered a location ping to Buddi’s implant. Had it not been for the distracting busy bodies every which way before him Buddi would have recognized them immediately, as they were garbed in monks’ robes with hoods, and their stillness amidst the ocean of human movement stood out blatantly. Moises held up his arms, as if to say, ‘What’s your decision? How hard can it be? Look around.’ But Buddi did look around, and still he could not decide.
On the big screen the Royal Philvagina Chorus was into their third or fourth song and people were starting to get restless, letting loose catcalls (one guy actually threw a cat toward the singers.) Overhead, the blimp updates from its news ticker. A groan went up as a statistic rolled across, indicating that life expectancy had risen .03% in the last quarter. Then people oohed and aahed as stocks for companies with carcinogenic products went up and down, not it seemed, to most of them, that it really mattered, although it was worth the effort they supposed. And then the festive mood was all but destroyed when the ticker told everyone that six elites had ‘successfully committed suicide.’
‘It’s like they live just to give us the middle finger before dying,’ observed a woman dressed as Little Red Riding Hood to her mate dressed as the Wolfman.
Buddi was tempted to watch the rest of The Show on the large screen, joining the overflow crowd outside the opera house, but he felt he had to see the acts without the mediation of a camera. Plus Bud had gone through some trouble to procure a ticket to the event for him. So he gently pushed his way through the crowd, presented his ticket, and was, moments later, standing in the doorway, looking down at the stage, perhaps 25 meters away. There was an electric buzz inside the opera house, as they knew nothing about the blimp data bits and so had no break in their collective passion. The chora had stopped singing and sat there on stage slightly steaming in the chilly air. There was a sense of great anticipation, such as it must have been at a Roman coliseum just before they rolled out the main event, “The Christians meet the Lions”.
Finally, just as the crowd began to stamp their feet (and each other’s), the emcee came onstage to uproarious applause and went directly to the microphone. ‘People,’ he began, ‘we start off tonight with one Victor Fennel.’ He waited for the oohs to settle down. ‘Now Victor comes to us from the not-so-ancient past of the 1990s – 1997 to be precise – when he had himself cryogenically stilled, hoping to come back when there was a cure for his peculiar heart valve malady that threatened to cut his life short.’ Wild laughter broke out in the crowd. ‘Some Pundits Are Calling It says we should refer to him as The Ice Man Cometh Yet Again.’ More laughter. ‘Well, Victor,’ the emcee snarled comically, ‘If I thawed you once…’ He held out the mike to the crowd, who responded with, ‘I thawed you a thousand times.’ Two orderlies wheeled Victor out on a gurney. He was strapped down and gagged and he held a book, The Forest People. Victor was stout, had grey hair and wore glasses. He was astonished and bewildered. Though he’d been brought back to the living with his heart ailment fixed shortly thereafter, and had spent a few days working his mind through the ramifications of waking into the future, he was now clearly rather puzzled and maybe a little terrified to find himself bound, gagged and being wheeled before a sea of hungry faces staring up at him from the dimmed interior of the opera house.
‘People, some of you may recall, although I doubt it, that ten years ago at the last Show our cryogenic guest was a playwright and poet, and, by goof, did he not entertain us with his lines of verse and verve?’ There was a smattering of applause, as most people could barely recall anything clear so long back as ten years. ‘Well, no matter. Tonight we have before you a cultural anthropologist!’ There was an even slighter applause, as the crowd looked puzzled. ‘Victor’s going to tell us what he got himself up to before he got himself ice-cubed.’ The emcee made a gesture to the orderlies and they removed Victor’s straps and ungagged him, and, standing him up, they nodded to indicate that he should go stand by the emcee, which he did with fear and trepidation.
‘So, tell us, Victor,’ started the emcee, but was interrupted by a catcaller.
‘Reckon your name should be Loser, Victor!’ hollered the reveller to wild applause.
‘So, tell us, Victor, what’s your last decent memory?’ asked the emcee, and the crowd grew suddenly quiet. Victor looked bewildered; he’d been warned what to expect, but was still, nevertheless, unprepared for the corrosive energy he felt all around him. He’d expected a warmer reception, outpourings of surprise and curiosity and enthusiasm, but there was none of that. He felt frightened.
‘Well,’ he began, almost whispering, ‘I’m a cultural anthropologist by profession.’ This brought on more catcalls. ‘And my last place of study was in the Congo. I was among the Mbuti pygmies; they had invited me to study their traditions, their ways. I’d been to Turkey the year before, at Catal Hoyuk. They were matrilineal, you see. And peaceful. And I’d read things about the Mbuti, things about their communitarian practices, and their relative peacefulness, and, naturally, I was curious about how the two separate human ecosystems were able –‘
‘Oh, Jayzuz, mate, that’s not painful; that’s just boring,’ yelled another man from the crowd. ‘We don’t want to hear about a bunch of fackin pygmies.’ The crowd roared, and the man’s girlfriend gave him a quick piercing pinch of approval. ‘Bone him!’ the man continued, and his cry was repeated by the crowd, who stamped their feet (and each other’s) in growing indignation.
‘Very well,’ said the emcee, clicking his fingers. Two hooded figures grabbed hold of the anthropologist and dragged him toward a gleaming contraption.
‘But I just got here. I’ve just returned. You’ve just now brought me back to life,’ said the man, partly pleading, partly contorting with incomprehension.
‘He’ll learn!’ someone yelled.
‘Take him! Take him! Take him!’ screamed the crowd, now a tightly packed lynch mob, and the two hooded men picked up Victor flung him into a vat-like device and turned it on. Victor screamed for a few seconds, rather like a wild elephant, then went silent. The crowd grew quiet, waiting, anticipating. Finally, the emcee held up a lab jar to a spigot on the side of the vat and turned it. Out flowed a small portion of blood and body fluids. The emcee held it up to the crowd’s roaring approval. Then he lifted up the cover of the vat, reached in and pulled out Victor’s bones, to which the crowd roared louder. He twisted off the skull and held it up. ‘Alas,’ he began, and the crowd continued, ‘Poor Victor, we hardly knew him!’ And the emcee tossed the skull into the crowd and it made its way around. They were delirious.
‘Next up,’ said the emcee into the mike, ‘the main event. The highlight of this evening’s entertainment.’ The crowd hushed again. The skull had passed to Viola, and as with musical chairs when the music stops, she was obliged to hold onto the skull and she placed it in her lap. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, loosely speaking, to get us ready for this event, we’ll begin by reading from the Book of KSM. As you may recall,’ he began, waiting for the laughter caused by this remark to subside, for they did not recall at all, ‘KSM is the ancient martyr who was waterboarded by angels 183 times during the great Terror Wars and the torture was so exquisite, so…inspiring, that he ended up writing 83 sonnets to his tormenter’s wife. And they say the sonnet is a dead form. Well, how wonderful is that?!’
The crowd roared its approval. Someone even yelled, ‘Why won’t someone waterboard me? I’m not so bad, once you get to gnarl me. Plus I got a real bad case of writers block.’ This was met with laughter and good-natured jeers.
‘Tonight we are privileged to have in our crowd the world renowned poetry reciter, Professor Brentfield Turner, polymath and litterateur these past 10 years, who will entertain us with a reading of Sonnet number 66 by KSM.’ And the emcee motioned for Brentfield to come up on the stage and recite the poem. Brentfield seemed hesitant and unwilling, although he had been ‘advised’ by authorities that he might be called upon. However, in all his studies these past 10 years he could find no reference to KSM, and he was reasonably certain, but couldn’t swear to it, that the KSM collection was just a compilation of various poets and their dark-themed verses. But hesitancy was not allowed; not today, Show day. He was practically pulled out of his seat by his hair and thrust forward toward the stage, Viola’s foot slammed against his rump accelerating his forward propulsion. He climbed up the stage and rather nervously approached the mike, the emcee smiling sadistically and handing him the poem to read. Brentfield read:
Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’er throw me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthral me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
Brentfield was no sooner finished reading when the second movement of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra resounded majestically, and out on stage, to much clappy ravishment, danced The Tortured Man, in an elaborate choreographed routine, all smiles and poses and high-hat salutes, blowing kisses to the crowd, who howled their approval and drew blood rivulets from their mates. Brentfield, who’d climbed from the stage and was about to return to his seat, looked over at Viola, who sat transfixed by the arrival of the Tortured Man; in a very real sense he no longer existed for her; indeed, he might never have been. He decided not to re-join her (their relationship would be over soon anyway, with the Hex realignment coming), and he slowly made his way to toward the exit, the only unhappy face in the house. The Tortured Man comically threw himself down on a specialized ordeal table and he was strapped in with much histrionics, like a ‘victim’ at a magic show. Then his table was raised slightly so that he could look out at the crowd and they could observe his face and its paroxysms and screams to come. The cameras of the As Some Pundits Are Calling It network covering him from every angle, as at a football match. There would even be a kind of play-by-play as they moved from torture to torture.
And they tortured him every which way they knew – waterboarding, trussing, shock treatments, razor slices, sluicing, strangulation, decibels, acids on the tongue, beatings, sleep deprivation, mind-altering nightmare, and on it went for hours. The Tortured Man braving it at first, telling little jokes to mock the pain. The crowd weeping as one in ecstasy. And then he began to crumble under the duress, as he must, and by the time they began to flay him he was crying out for his mother, begging the emcee – anyone – to kill him. And at that point hamartia influenced the crowd and their weeping began to be in sorrow and empathy.
Finally they came to the last torture: castration. By now The Tortured Man was in virtually unbearable pain and no longer calmly humorous, as his body refused any more abuse, even as some deep secret source of masochism kept him pressing on. The harlequin clown crew ripped off his pants to great fanfare (the opening chords of Also Sprach Zarathustra now blaring), exposing his nakedness underneath. Then out of the crowd and up to the stage sprung his mum, red lipstick, a perm, a dopey housecoat. She turned once to face the crowd with a wide grin and lapped up their enthrallment. ‘Who killed cock robin?’ came a shouted question that delighted the crowd. She turned and faced her ‘son’. The Tortured Man implored her with his eyes to be rescued and she removed her teeth and then took a few hyperbolized ballet steps toward him, slid on her knees in front of him, and commenced to perform fellatio, until he got an enormous red erection. This was one part of the act The Tortured Man had not foreseen, and he recoiled in horror, and when he saw his erection with the lipstick he went quite mad.
‘No. No. No,’ he screamed, and began to fall into cardiac arrest, his body twitching, like a shorted electric wire.
‘Oh no you don’t,’ yelled a doctor on stage. ‘Not yet.’ And he dragged a defibrillator machine over to The Tortured Man, had some sexy nurses hook him up, and zapped him back to just enough consciousness to allow him to finish his routine.
Then the emcee held up a pair of golden ceremonial shears, the crowd gone wild, with some members fainting as at an old time gospel revival. Still wearing a cartoon smile, he went over to The Tortured Man and proceeded to cut off his balls and penis.
‘Sing it!’ the crowd screamed. ‘Sing it!’
In one last excruciating cry of black humour, The Tortured Man sang meekly (but they turned up the mike), ‘Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be / There’s a shadow hanging over me…’ Then he collapsed and flat-lined. The crowd almost at the very edge of berserk, began punching and biting and pinching each other. O happy days!
Brentfield was not even looking back. He passed Buddi at the exit without noticing and continued on his way out of the opera house and out into the open air, where the revellers were all turned to the large screen watching the ceremony inside, but just as orgiastic. On the stage, the emcee could be seen pointing in the distance, to one of the exits, and the cameras panned to take in the entry of Victor, new head, new flesh and bone, new lease on life – in fact, now in possession of the shared knowledge, the only knowledge which mattered, that none of them could die. Except the elites, of course, the oligarchs and kleptocrats, the captains of industry and generals of misery. Victor was not looking particularly gratified by such news; in fact, his face showed bleak. And to top it off, they were piping in an ancient, ancient Hank Williams song to celebrate the ironical resurrection, ‘I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.’
‘Don’t worry about it, mate,’ yelled someone from the outdoor crowd. ‘You’ll get used to it.’ But this time no one laughed or assented.
Buddi slowly approached Brentfield, his syngene relative, who had moved away from the crowd and had wandered over to look out at the harbour. From the side, and still at some distance, he could see Brentfield’s expression. For a moment he seemed to Buddi like some Galileo who had had his literally world-changing views banned – or, rather, Buddi thought better, a would-be Galileo who would never a chance to be banned. Brentfield began to dry heave violently, nausea overtaking him. His immeasurable despair seemed to Buddi quite inconsolable.
‘You know,’ said Buddi. ‘An old-time philosopher once observed that we should be careful about choosing to look into the abyss, for the abyss also looks into us.’
Brentfield did not turn to look at Buddi, but continued staring straight ahead at the motion of the water, but he recognized the voice of the bartender. ‘Yes,’ said Brentfield, ‘same guy said there are some things we should not want to know.’ Buddi did not reply, but kept the silence with Brentfield.
‘And so, dear ladies and gents, that concludes the proceedings,’ said the emcee on the outdoor screen behind them, but then paused, ‘well, almost,’ he added, and you could hear the start of peculiar music offstage growing in volume, getting closer to the stage. The tune was the all-too-familiar, ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ and a weirdly-dressed man was marching onstage.
‘Lycergius!’ the crowd roared.
Lycergius was a jesture – part mime, part clown — wearing a kind of box around his waist. In fact, he looked exactly like a Jack-in-the-Box and he was turning a large handle coming out of his right pocket, which continued playing ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’ with its plunky sound of rubber plucking metal keys.
‘Do it! Do it! Do it!’ the crowd screamed hysterically.
‘Batter my heart, baby, screeched Viola and turned to pluck the eye of her neighbour out.
Lycergius teased them, then gave the crank one last turn through the tune. And then at ‘pop’, out sprang through his trousers a huge spiralling penis and it began shooting off a stream of paper pieces with sperm-like shapes or yin/yang symbols (depending upon your point of view), on one side, and the all-important first four lines of Hexagrams on the other side. The people grabbed at the pieces madly, trying to procure one they thought they liked. Already, Viola had forgotten Brentfield – indeed, everyone was already forgetting who’d they’d arrived with. This was like New Year’s Day. Their new assignments blasted out to them by Lycergius. They would soon be joined with new partners in new configurations after matching up their Persona™ online and regenerating their RAM. New discordant symphonies, an eternal recurrence, a kind of reincarnation, a gleaming new cycle of exquisite pain. (‘And if you act now, we’ll throw in these steak knives,’ as Viola had once joked with Brentfield.) Ten years with someone new until the next ceremony, until The Show of the next generation.
A change began to come over Brentfield. He slowly began to lose his sadness and despair, and his memory was about to be wiped, but seemed to know what was happening and fought it. But in a few moments Brentfield would be a tabula rasa again, and because he’d not grabbed a piece of Hexagram paper, as they snowed from the blimp, he would be assigned a random Persona™ for the next cycle. He would always bear a vein of melancholy wonder; it was a flaw in his genetic structure that was sometimes disguised better by some masks than others. It is what it is, As Some Pundits Are Calling It would say, and it all depends on what your definition of is is. The blimp ticker revealed that another elite had successfully killed himself, but no one was paying attention now, as they were dispersing with their new assignments or, as many were doing, opening their iPhones and plugging in the requisite code to their Mate™ app to generate a profile of their next partner.
Maybe it was ultimately selfish, but Brentfield’s plight moved him, even more than the general spectacle of carnal squalor and pointlessness he saw all around him. Buddi made his decision. He holo-summoned the Mitochondriacs, who were waiting at the great central global server called the Dome of the Clock (Moises drummed his fingers on a server panel) and gave the signal, a thumbs down. Messala took out his iPhone and tapped a few times and the digital regeneration apparatus stopped, and like a system shutting down one service after another terminated, physical bodies – human and otherwise — began to fracture and disintegrate, a hole in the wall of the world appeared and grew larger, the world as they knew it ended, turning to a silvery dust, the landscape a near wasteland of vampired resources. Looking out at the harbour, Brentfield had a brief moment when he understood what was happening, and his eyes were lit up with the work of Smiling Buddha.
Bud made the long trek up from the cavernous bowels of ToraToraTora and finally stepped out into the barren landscape, the tabula rasa Earth. Everywhere he scanned, in all directions, he saw nothing there but ash, or, rather what he saw was the sand of a completed mandala re-dispersed to the winds, all that and a new beginning. He stepped forward slowly but deliberately, waiting for some tragic consequence to kick in, something he had overlooked, the inscrutable whimsy of chance to bring its surprise, as has so often happened in human events before. He felt nothing; not the nothing of emptiness, but rather of fullness, of his own completion. He spread his arms wide and breathed in the sun, feeling as though he were alone with god, a favourite son, but without desire, and without loneliness. He began to walk.
He grabbed the green pinky of his left hand and broke it off with a clean, painless snap, and held it up to the sun for a moment, feeling its energy pulse through. Taking a few steps further, he bent down and planted the finger in the sand and watched as it already started to take root and slowly grow. And his pinky was regenerating. He looked out again at the horizon and now could picture a future, a bright green future, a future without endless negotiations with alterity, a veritable garden of his selves, which included the 3Ms and Buddi, an overgrown complex of simplicities. And, stepping ever onward, this thought made him smile like a time-elapsed lotus opening on a still pond in a clearing deep in the forest of eternity.
Coma by the Sea
He wakes to a voice in his head that says, “Don’t be nasty, Bea.” His eyes shift up: a nurse’s smile is lit up like a harvest moon. She speaks, her words near and far, like a conch shell ocean, a white-noised nothingness. They roll him onto a gurney, then left through whispering wards, left down echoing corridors, pass, left again, under the hum of fluorescent lights that pulse like slow-motion strobes, his ears filled with the lagan and derelict of hospital chatter, elevator dings, rustling smocks, shoe squeaks and the sexy end bits of doctors being paged overhead. He smells the rose lavender body spray of the nurse pushing from behind, notes her asymmetrical nostrils seen between her shifting breasts, a haywire of auburn hair, and he drifts into a Dali-esque vision of her bush and labial line swaying, as she walks, like a flowering jacaranda, all lavender, rose, and seeks harbour in her humid fragrance. Then brief blue sky, a blatant sun. They slide him into the ambulance, like a stuffed bird into his mother’s oven. Two cops, sunglasses, laugh like cricket mates, their twangs—one, a taut nasal tenor, the other, a beefed-up bass—coming at him like the colloquial chamber music of the mad. Slammed doors, a siren shrike, a short gauzy ride through honking morning traffic to the state facility. Doors swing open, two paramedics smile down like stoned cathedral creatures, and slide him out of the oven, alcohol, perspiration and urine pulling away from him, like olfactory ghosts. Left, down a dark corridor, left, into a dim room, more Doppler laughter from the dayroom, an old familiar nurse peers down and sneers, “You.had. your.chance,” then more darkness, and no lavender, the steep descent into a Trazodone sleep.
Out of the dark energies of his night came all the rhythms and possibilities of his day. But on this day there came no whirling dervishes of thought, no Lohengrin grails of desire. In his tiny windowless office, he had opened up space with Rodin plasters, fresh hyacinth in a Greek vase, Pollock prints, and an assortment of bric-a-bracs that conversed with each other in the symbols and tongues of Babel ephemera. Very softly, in the background, as a soothing white noise, his stereo played Justorum Animae on a loop. He sat at his desk, case files piled high like a jungle of housing projects, high-risen compartments of despair, slowly slashing, with his golden pen, prognosis after prognosis, page upon page, slowly, like a graffiti rebel caught red-handed merely going through the motions.
“Doctor,” some familiar voice rose up, the doctor gazed down, as if from the belfry of a mile high cathedral, and hears the quiet, plain j’accuse: “You had your chance.”
“Don’t be nasty, Bea,” he pleads. And then down went the handfuls of Clozapine, the promised peace, falling, and in clanked the gurney, the slide, the slam, the disintegration of laughter into tiny bells, past fugal mateship concertos, past gleaming children building towering cathedrals of sand in the sun,—one of whom was he, Dr. Dante—left, down new corridors of slow strobing light, left, through darkening wards, left, into an operating theatre, where old nurses chant, like gorgons, “You had your chance,” and, as he starts to turn to quiet stone, another voice, the Sartrian violin virtuoso of his social circles, cries out, like Luther, “If you want to think new thoughts, you must break the bones in your head,” and with that crumbles the cathedral—down come the arches, buttresses, painted ceiling, creatures, stained glass, pews, altars, statues, Madonna frescoes, bells, crosses, priests and organ pipes, until there’s nothing left but a skeletal, charnel pile of ancient doubts. And then the endless labyrinth of nothingness breaks open like the branches of a flowering jacaranda tree. And sleep is a sea shell. A conch roaring, bringing the ocean of infinite desire. And, he, at last, he will become that conch, he will become that sea. Yes, but for the burgeoning fragrance, the coming-into-consciousness, like some inertial diffusion of lavender and rose, where he must become yet again, and be.
“What our age lacks, however, is not reflection but passion. Hence in a sense our age is too tenacious of life to die, for dying is one of the most remarkable leaps, and a little verse of a poet has always attracted me much, because, after having expressed prettily and simply in five or six preceding lines his wish for good things in life, he concludes thus: Ein selige Sprung in die Ewigkeit.”
-Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling
“If the flow is slow enough and you have a good bicycle, or a horse, it is possible to bathe twice (or even three times, should your personal hygiene require) in the same river”
The chauffeur creeps through his petty paces on a guardrail of the bridge high above the Mystic River. Poised like a tightrope walker, he resists the temptations of vertigo and the bully push of animate winds. Oh, he wants to jump, don’t you worry, but all in his own good time. Decked out in his driver’s uniform, including patent leather shoes that reflect the crescent moon, black leather gloves, his cap and dark glasses, he could be mistaken for Hamlet before the treachery and treason, or the Maltese Falcon after all is said and done and dreams are dashed. He pauses now, chin out, like Byron’s Manfred looking o’er an endless chain of snow-capped mountains toward the fjords of Beauty, then struts across his blustery stage, the unrequited lover of Being, one step beyond: the monster void. He thinks, I am the Knight of Infinite Resignation. He performs a kind of bourée and stops, index finger pointing skyward. He thinks, Ein Selige Sprung in die Ewigkeit. He steps, he stops, he gazes down from his cantilever perch, like Septus the river god, or some Cathedral anime, as if to see if there is anyone down there, out there who understands, who seeks. He lets rip a monologue:
Artists, like dreamers, share a humbling illiteracy before
their creations. They blaze across the star-splashed night
in chaotic flights of inspiration only to drop like a stone
into the blinking day, where poetry expires with the dawn.
Perhaps he has stared too long into the abyss and now the abyss is staring back into him?
But he has no time to solve this riddle: A siren is heard, urgent and nearing. He turns briefly toward the traffic moving in the fog like the forlorn eyes of ghosts, as it seems to him, slowing now at the toll booths to toss their tithes into the hungry wishing well before disappearing again into the forgetfulness of the urban Purgatoire.
Suddenly there is a chopper overhead and a spotlight. Cops arrive, but hang back, their bubblegum blue lights blazing. Gregory Milano, a local paramedic and sometimes opera buff, appears out of the headlighted mist. The ghosts come to a stop and apprehend.
“What’s up, bro? Wutchoo doin’ up here all alone on Christmas Eve?” begins the paramedic with studied cool, trying to sound all whiteboy hiphop, a regular Dylan Screed.
For a moment, the chauffeur recalls a Philip Roth story he’d read as a kid, “The Conversion of the Jews.” In it, the teenaged Ozzie Freeman, rebelling against the unanswered questions of orthodox Jewry, locks himself on the roof of a synagogue and torments his rescuers below by sprinting left, then right across the edge of the roof, the rescue blanket moving in slapstick panic to keep up. But the chauffeur was no Jew and this was no conversion. And there was nothing funny, in his mind, about the plight of artists, all the shooting stars of unrequited love.
“You got a name, guy?”
It was easy for Kierkegaard to take the leap of faith, he thinks, after all, his first name was Sören. He chuckles at his own pun.
“You wanna share the joke? I like a laugh,” says Gregory, trying to connect, as they trained him, inching toward his desperado.
Sören wasn’t standing on a bridge overlooking the Oily, he says to himself, referring to the local nickname for the Mystic River, which was heavily polluted with untreated sewerage, shopping carts, sludge from the nearby oil refineries, and, some said, assorted mobster body parts. Whatever you found on the bottom of the Oily it sure as fuck wasn’t going to be faith. The chauffeur turns and looks down at the water below. Feteo, ergo sum.
“Don’t do it, buddy. We’ve all been there,” the paramedic continues, almost able to reach out and nab his hovering darkclad nutjob and send him on his way to the Cha-Cha Hall, as he likes to call the public psychiatric facility, overcrowded, underfunded and corporatized by Big Pharma.
Below, the roiling waters of shit, lit up by the chopper’s beam, seem to smile up at him—the ripples forming kisses: inviting, voracious, and forever becoming and disappearing, like hope. Heraclitus may not have been able to step into the same river twice, he muses, but he wouldn’t have stepped into the Oily even once.
A young state trooper in gallant riding boots is just about to ratchet up the tentative hold he has on the chauffeur’s legs when old Aeolus, seemingly tired of the teetering and the tottering, comes along and gives the chauffeur a swift kick in the tookus, lifting him up out of the heavily-armed Samaritan’s hold and into a grand jete – up, up into the wilderness of the night, toward the spraypainted spiral of the Milky Way, up past the endless glowy cluster clouds of dialectical material (O, atoms in the eve!), to the very grasp of the Singularity, and then, suddenly, the forceful yank back down by the ankles, the headlong hurtle into the abyss, toward the stretched out arms of Mickey Sullivan, the snitch, rooted to the river bed, swaying like a colon polyp that’s been strangled.
“Name of God,” spouts the paramedic, and double crosses himself.
Siamo contenti? Son dio, ho fatto questa caricatura, laughs the fallen one.
But Gregory Milano hears instead the closing line of the opera Pagliacci, “La commedia é finita!” and sees a Fellini moment in the leaper’s shades, wherein he seems to watch himself recede and fall with the stranger, an eyeball tarantella, a mise en abyme.
The paramedic pulls back, nods knowingly at the dopplered exclamation from the poet, falling like a star toward the dark suck-swirl of filth and water, toward the interpenetration of being and nothingness, and the final submersion he so seemingly desires. Gregory feels a non so più rising up from his solar plexus, but by the time he turns to face the ghosts and his partner, Tracy, the vibe is gone; he shrugs and simply says, “Shit, we lost another one.” And the toll baskets start their gurgle again.
In my end is my beginning. Right?
When news broke that a maxim-making chauffeur had thrown himself off the Tobin Bridge, the Triad knew and came together, as soon as Mrs. Steele had gone to work, to commiserate and remember him, Felix A. Culp. The Triad consisted of two 16 year old boys, Jim B. Crowe (JB) and Richy Steele, and the latter’s 16 year old half-sister, Cindy. They all had known Felix in their several ways and drew on memories now assisted by the romance of sorrow. The heat pipes in the living room of the housing project apartment clanged and hissed and radiated so fiercely that the Triad often hung around in just their underwear and kept the windows open, even, as now, in winter. This proved extremely stressful most times for JB, who had a major crush on Cindy, and spent their sessions with a couch cushion crushed into his lap. He avoided gazing, as she lounged loosely in a stuffed chair opposite him, her black frilly underwear and bra and red lipstick making his metabolism gallop, a proverbial horse hot to trot, but even looking away he had pornographic flashes that made him want to do some serious populating. If Richy knew of the sexual tension between the two, he didn’t write it to his face to read.
Richy: I first met Felix up by the Bunker Hill Monument, where he used to live before they chased him out. I used to help the milkman deliver milk in those glass jars door to door. It was my first job. I would love the way, in the right light, the milk would seem to glimmer and glow, and it was always so quiet that early in the morning, all those parallel dreams at work. One morning I came upon the bare-chested Felix gleaming in the morning sun, washing his Lincoln limo, pressing his pecs against the glass like the boobilacious Lucille in Cool Hand Luke (nobody can eat 50 eggs), all suds and sinfulness. He had wild blond hair (a classic Teuton bob) and blue eyes and his car, his ve-hi-cool, was so black. I yearned. He waved. We exchanged numbers.
JB: The first time I ever saw Felix was when he pulled up in front of the high school and you, Richy, powered down the window and said, Get in, and Felix got out of the car, looking at that time, as I recall, like Bruce Lee from The Green Hornet; and he opened the back door of the limo, and stood there smiling, you know, in an Oriental ‘welcome’ way that said, ‘Here, have some dim sum, but don’t you fuck with me.‘ I said, Hi, and he said, Hiyeeee. School had just been let out for the day and students were teeming from the factory. And when they saw you and they saw Felix and they saw the limo, and me heading for it, they started in with the catcalls and japes, like a prison yard full of sharks and snakes. Richy Steele, someone yelled to jeers, we always knew you were a faggot. And look at BJ Crowe. And homo eructum in black. You guys a ménage a trois? And then some mothers took note, alarmed, writing down his plate number, exchanging actionable glances, thumb texting madly like kalimbas de chora. And our classmates taunted us with salty chanson:
Chauffeur, the gofer with limousine
Buggering wiggly boys with Vaseline.
And I got into the car—now I had to get away—and we drove off, and Cato looked at me in the rear view mirror and asked through designer shades, JB, have you ever been to Avalon?
Cindy: Actually, Richy, your memory fails you. I was in the back of the limo that day, watching Felix wash the car, saw you with the milk and the look of desire, but there was no exchange of eyebeams or numbers betwixt you. That was wishful thinking. But I determined that you should meet him; I could see a mutual attraction you might share. Right after you left, he got into the back of the limo with me, all wet and dripping black, like the Inkman Cometh. I pointed out the window and said, Look, the Monument looks like a giant white cock. Yes, he laughed, the British probably dropped their muskets and ran for the harbor when they saw this new Master Narrative extended 200 feet into the clouds. I believe it’s made of marble. Oh, he says, I guess I just took it for granite. And we sat in the 9 O’Cock shadow of the Master Narrative, me giving the master’s narrative a handjob, while he read Monique Wittig’s Les Guérillères in passionate French cadenzas, which I did not understand, although I was inspired by its strident musicality, the same way Brecht can get up your spine. As I ducked away from his bliss blast, I mentioned you, Richy, and how you should hook up, and he said I should bring you by the bus station, where he usually picked up boys, and so we set a date. Then he told me to get dressed and sent me on my way, handing me a Simone de Beauvoir tome to read, and saying, You mustn’t fuck and suck your way to the top. You must take a rock to that glass ceiling. And just then, I shit you not, the Rolling Stones’ “Shattered” came on the radio. Trippy synchronicity. But I forgot my bra and my breasts did the mambo all day.
Felix: Well, I’m not ‘there’ to challenge or clarify, but because their separate accounts are not entirely accurate or reliable, I sit there in their minds, as all falsity must, in the form of self-doubt, a logical rather than moral itch. It is a fact that I did not meet Cindy until many years later. She had given up her university teaching position (literary studies) after radical feminists rose to power in the School and turned post-modernism studies into a misanthropy crusade. PMS has taken hold, she said. So, she started a literary magazine, or rather she re-vamped Fuck You magazine (calling it Fuck You II), a Sixties lit sheet full of collages and cubes and psilocybin-influenced polemics—in short, all the fun stuff she claimed was there in post-modernism before the feminists hijacquelined the engine. Yes, we did meet briefly in the back of my limo one time, where she interviewed me: Expound on new epistemologies and the tyranny of all texts, she said, and so I did. But no handjobs or advice or monuments (does she not realize the monuments came many years after the British stopped polishing each others’ helmets and were rebuffed, not before?). And while it’s true that I met Richy for the first time, not with Donne-like visual dialectics in the shadow of the stiffy obelisk, but at the Greyhound bus station, where he came on his own initiative, like all the boys, all the little hustlers looking to roll a fag for his money or get a free blowjob. What JB says is largely true: I met him for the first time in front of his school, and my arrival was met with the jeers and derisions of guttersnipes forming gauntlets. Hiyeeee.
Where I live, in a one square mile tract of land, in the shadow of the Tobin Bridge, along the Mystic River, we are ruled by the parochial and small. Where I live, Catholic self-righteousness marries hypocrisy and engenders vigilantism. Where I live, young men jump into the Oily to prove their manhood. Where I live, ‘faggots’ and ‘niggers’ and ‘uppity bitches’ are not tolerated. Where I live, we dream of doing violence to our heteroglossic neighbours. Where I live, we make shit up and then the Other disappears. Where I live, we teach our children to jeer and hate at an early age and turn them into lifelong moral retards. Where I live, we hurl red bricks at yellow buses full of black kids, then wave green shamrocks. Where I live, love is tied to control and submission. Where I live, people mistake democracy for liberty and slander for free speech. Where they live, chauffeurs who pick up kids with long black limousines are paedophiles needing to be whacked like on the Sopranos. [All together, in the style of Brecht]: Where we live, we die early and live long late lives of longevity.
Scene: [A toilet stall in the Greyhound bus station. Richy has arranged to meet the chauffeur here, after his sister’s urging, and sits with pants down to his ankles waiting for a signal that the chauffeur has arrived.] I’m sitting there thinking that someone should do a graphological study of public toilet postings. All those telephone numbers and promises; all the political invective and personal libel; the various sketches of circumcised penises and clammy vaginas circumscribing the walls of the tiny cubicle; the fonts and colors and symbols; all the degrees and kinds of urgency expressed; and when I saw “Nietzsche is peachy” crossed out and replaced with “Nietzsche is Lychee” and “the little poet opens the shutters of his hairy heart”—well, I knew some crafty post-modernist had been here positing (was the lack of toilet paper indicative?). When you closed the door to a public toilet cubicle you were locking yourself into an interactive fart gallery. I pondered contributing my own aphorism, my bum puffing up like Satchmo’s cheeks before the trumpet blast (I remember my Grandpa would fart, then say: ‘but don’t quote me’), when I heard tapping and tapping and looked down and could see a black patent leather shoe next door going up and down in time. The shoe might have been tapping out the Ninth’s “Ode to Joy” or it could have been “Rock the Casbah,” but before I could figure it out a voice said, Are you ready, my little hustler? And I said back, My sister said you’d take me there. Meet me out front in 5, the black limo, and then he flushes and leaves, and I pull up, praying I’ve caught no germs, note a caricature cock shooting pinyin hyperbole, flush and follow, self-conscious, pre-ashamed, the loudspeaker calling out departures, Chicago Gate 5, everyone looking at me leave, thinking, I’m sure, the little perv. But don’t quote me.
Scene: [Inside the chauffeur’s Lincoln limo. The driver sits with Richy in the back of the limo, seated beside him, legs spread wide, hands across his crotch, rap gangster style. But it’s clear he’s just being ironic.] Do you always wear shades in the privacy of your own car? The better to see you with. Nevertheless, I’d like to see your eyes, gaze into them, and maybe get a sense. [Felix removes his cap and sun glasses to reveal a long mane of honey hair and lapis lazuli eyes] My god, I’m startled cream. You are so beautiful to look at: Adonis, McConaughey, Brad Pitt as Achilles, but more than all that, you’re David Bowie singing “Blue Jeans” or all-so-soulful in The Man Who Fell to Earth, oh-h-h. How much will you pay me to have your way? That depends. [Richy swoons] Where is the there you’ll take me to? Why Avalon, of course. Can we bring my friend JB? He likes adventures. Sure, but the woods are dark and deep. I promise to keep it to myself, don’t worry. [Felix puts his shades and cap back on, exits back of limo, moments later his face shows up in the rear view mirror, eyes two Rayban abymes ] Now which high school was that? I’ll plug the coordinates into my trusty GPS.
Scene: [Out front of Charlestown High as school is getting out for the day. Out of the streams of anarchy and noise Richy spots his friend, JB, powers down his tinted window and calls out. ] Yo, JB! Come for a ride. Don’t look so surprised. Hop in. Don’t mind those jeers. Pass through that gauntlet and come. See, the chauffeur opens the door for you. Come for a ride. [JB climbs into the limo, as the window powers up and shuts out someone shouting, “Get on, you fags. Bring your ménage trois somewhere else.” The chauffeur addresses the boys through the rear view mirror.] So you are JB. Richy’s told me so little about you. Right, and you must be The Chauffeur: the whole community’s told me about you. You’re a—JB, have you ever been in the woods, lost? The snowy evening ones or the Red Riding ones? Oh, I do like the way you think. Well, JB, that’s for you to decide. Are you ready? Where are we going? He’s to take us to Avalon? Avalon? Why then we’re off!
If you drive up on the expressway to the Tobin Bridge you climb past the U.S.S. Constitution in dry dock, climb over the lower end of Charlestown, over the public housing project, over the Oily, over the Navy shipyard, over the Exxon refinery and distribution center, over the Chelsea Yacht Club, and climb up the four-lane Route 1, past the garden supply outlets, past the batting cages, past the soft serve joints, past the assorted steakhouses and saloons and strip malls and ATMs, past all the motels with names like Shangri-La, Erewon, Utopia Village, New Horizon, until you come to the turn-off for Avalon. Situated in 10 acres of wooded area, Avalon is a motel complex that features simulacra cabins spread out ‘in the woods’ to effect ‘privacy’. If you wanted to, you could tune out the screams of children in Cabin 5 and the women wailing in Cabins 7 and 31, ignore the general squalor, the out of town plates, the drug dealing out behind cabin 26, the general pervasive threat of malignant dark forces at work. Ignore them all, and they would return the favour.
And so the sheeny shimmy limn-o-scene pulls up blithely in front of Avalon cabin number 38 late of an August day, the tired air conditioner emitting a little clack as the motor thrums off. (Was that a whippoorwill?) The trio emerges from the limo, the chauffeur expressionless, goes right to the door, unlocks it, ushers in the boys—the one with a look of airy anticipation, the other with a look of foreboding, feeling for his pocket knife, thumbing its rose-leaf escutcheon. Inside, the door snugly shut, the room is lit, a yellow wan, and reveals a one-room tableau, with bathroom. It is old, with a faded red carpet, old TV chained to the wall, generic dresser, kitchenette, pine chairs, small square table and assorted brickabrackery. And an ancient queen-sized bed with a synthetic cover spread, design from the Seventies. The chauffeur plops on it, lays his cap aside, shades off, long blond strands roll down his shoulders, like the first dawn on the river Jordan, Richy thinks. You want to see something? He drops a quarter in a bedside box and the bed begins to shake, rattle and roll. He thwacks the spot next to him. Ho-kay. Who’s on first? He looks left, right, stops and stares at Richy. Oh, you didn’t tell him what we came here for, did you? JB stares, too, at Richy, who turns red as the last dawn on the river Jordan, as JB sees it. Never mind. You go in there, JB, and wait. Here, you’ll probably want something to read. The Chauffeur thrusts a book into JB’s hands and nudges him into the bathroom and closes the door with a click. JB turns on the light. Looking in the mirror he sees he is afraid and then he sees himself seeing himself afraid, and on and on it goes. He looks at the book. It is Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Representation. He puts it in the sink and turns on the faucet (cold) as if to drown the World. There is a long stretch of silence outside the bathroom. JB turns off the tap and picks up the wet book with his thumb and index, then opens it at a random page, and reads:
Truth is no prostitute, that throws herself away upon those who
do not desire her; she is rather so coy a beauty that he who sacri-
fices everything to her cannot even then be sure of her favour.
He puts the book back in the sink. Richy, you alright? He goes to open the door. You stay in there. A snarl. JB hears whispering, doesn’t like it, turns off the bathroom light, opens the door a crack, and sniffs. The room is lit only by a tiny red night light near the bed. JB makes out two amorphous figures, and, as his eyes adjust, he sees the chauffeur sitting at the end of the bed, legs spread wide, Richy on his knees before him. But then JB sees the chauffeur’s black net stockings and red lipstick that transfix him. His mind swirls; he retreats, pulls the sink plug. And then it’s over. The chauffeur calls him out, hands JB a $5 note and a $10 note to Richy. They’re back in the limo, driving out of the dark, screaming woods, heading home. The chauffeur seems ebullient, luck struck. Moons at the boys through the mirror, the three of them squeezed together in the frame as in some Erich Heckel portrait.
My little Dionysius and junior Apollo. [He pauses, smiles like Jack Nicholson in The Witches of Eastwick.] So then, what was your take on Schopenhauer, JB?
Well, I’m still trying to process what happened back there. But you know…What did you say your name was?
Culp. Felix A. Culp. Call me Felix.
It struck me, Felix, that Truth seems to be pictured as a femme fatale an awful lot of the time.
Indeed, but what is a femme fatale, JB, if not a siren to our deepest desires?
Yes, but I suspect the lady doth protest too little.
Nonsense. Ravish the little lady and she’ll sing all the truth you’ll ever want to hear. Right, Felicity?
They exchange looks.
Anybody got a piece of gum?
The chauffeur smiles back. Doublemint or Juicy Fruit, Richy Rich?
And so it began that summer. After picking up his “rich and powerful” clients and shuffling them back and forth between the airport and their brokering places and hotels, the chauffeur picked up his two ‘unwashed’ boys, two or three times a week all that summer. We waited for him on a park bench near the Boston Common, the tourists snapping digital pics of the famous duck boats, all daffy with forced delight. I would be reading some tome Felix had loaned me (forced on me, really), and Richy would keep an eye out for vice cops, and wave to the ones he knew. Then Felix would pull up curb-side on Arlington St. and beckon us to the limo, and in we’d hop, and off we’d go to Avalon. And a few hours later, after all was done and said, we’d come south again, over the bridge, through the tolls, and Felix would drop us off at the edge of the Town and we’d walk home, stopping off at the convenience store with our new funds to buy Twinkies or Fritos and a couple of cans of Coke, the booty of our lust and learning.
The rides up over the bridge were always the most exciting. Always Felix was provocative, titillating, original. One time he’d dress up like a handsome Cossack, but made up like Edgar Allan Poe in black, then say, My name is Ivan Nevermoresky, and we’d spend the next couple of hours comparing Dostoyevsky’s tortured Underground Man to the tortures of the Pit and the Pendulum, and, of course, Das Kapital would raise its ugly head, so off it had to go. Or another time he’d leer at us, decked out as Batman, and have us play out how the role might develop in a Michael Haneke version of the caped crusader. With tight shorts. Another time he came costumed like Darth Vader, breathing heavy behind the mask, lay on the back seat between us, the back of his head in my lap, and assign us the roles of Freud and Jung–Analyze me, he’d say, and Richy would put a cigar out in my face, figuratively speaking, and I would crown him back with a barbed archetype that wiped away his superior smile. Or the chauffeur’d come all Vincent Price-like, Dr. Phibes, and tell us he was the Mainstream Media and ask us to consider how truth could be dangerous and propaganda useful, then had us write a faux piece for the New York Times and defend its value to the public. Pretend I’m a potential subscriber, he’d say. One time we spent an hour considering Heraclitus’ famous fragment about not entering the same river twice, and then, when we seemed sufficiently perplexed, he’d read a passage from Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, wherein the young river boat pilot, having spent an exhausting nerve-wracked day learning the language of the river, discovers he must begin his learning of the ever-changing river anew the next day and every day, forever, like some Sisyphus of the tides. O, Route 1 was our river! (With tight shorts.)
Then we’d arrive in Avalon at the cabin, and I’d sit in the back of the limo, while Richy and the chauffeur went inside and enacted their love—albeit for cash. The ride home was always quiet, serene, each of us pensive, self-absorbed, original. Though none of us smoked, the limo always seemed to be filled with unctuous French clouds gesturing upward in complex undulations, cigareuse. Richy clearly got more of what he needed out of Felix through their mutual physicality, while I preferred the stimulus of his stellar intellect; he was brilliant, and I Ioved him. I don’t know what Felix got from us, save, perhaps, the freedom of molding new ideas each day—we, his turning clay–, or like some visionary artist throwing himself at the blank canvas, knowing the energy is fleeting, the result always ultimately false, that it’s not really about representation but about being. But don’t quote me.
Then JB decided to bang my sister.
I did not bang your sister. Or rather, I did, but it wasn’t as crude as that.
Man, you were up to your sinuses in quim jam. You positively reeked of her. Not crude? OPEC wants to talk terms with you.
When you went off to the store to buy some Twinkies, she came out of her room in that black silk dress looking like a Chivas Regal ad. She had nothing on underneath but fish net stockings and she wore that violent red lipstick. I’m thinking: Liza Minnelli, Cabaret. And then she jumped me. It was all I could do, and so on. We stayed friends and smile.
And then one day Charles Stuart was being chased by the police and jumped from the Tobin Bridge to escape them, and then Felix came one last time as The Knight of Infinite Resignation, dressed in tight shorts, as I recall, and then disappeared until Christmas Eve, when we heard on the news that a man fitting his description had jumped from the Tobin Bridge spouting the final lines from Pagliacci. And then we grieved and went our separate ways, toward Fuck You magazines, Genet-ic theatre and post-modern Academe. But the river, the Oily, remains the same.
A voice calls him back from the edge of the universe, where he’d gone to look for a window into other realms or possibilities; slowly he zooms out, returns to a consciousness of the present, as in that first episode of Carl Sagan’s TV series Cosmos, which rapidly compresses time, from the Big Bang to the Now of 1974, in a matter of minutes. He’s got the news on in his dim-lit room and the female impersonator of public virtues is telling her viewers:
StillnosignofabodyafteramanleapedfromtheTobinBridgeonChristmasEveanddisappearedintothefrigidwatersoftheMysticRiver.JimO’BrienisstandingliveonthesouthbounddeckoftheTobinBridge.Jim,what’sthelatest?Well,Pam,policestillhavenotidentifiedtheman.Theysaythemanwasdroppedoffbyalimousinedrivenby whatsomewitnessesdescribeasawomanwithlipstick.Policearereviewingvideofootage,but,Pam,theysayitwasextremelyfoggyChristmasEveandtheydoubtthetapeswillrevealanythingnew.Theysaytheonlycluetheyhavetotheman’sidentityarethecrypticwordsheshoutedataparamedicashewasfalling.Telluswhathesaid,Jim.Well,Pam,itwassomethinginItalian:“Lacommediaéfinita!”IhopeourItalian-Americanviewerswillforgivemybadpronunciation [he and Pam pretend to laugh]. Anyway,apparentlyitisalinefrom theoperaPagliacci,andmeans:Thecomedyisover.Isthattheonewiththeclowns,Jim?Well,Idon’tknow,Pam,haha,I’mnotanoperafan.Oh,Jim,you’reblushing–butpolicesaytheyarehopingthewords mightprovideavaluableclue.SoessentiallypolicearelookingforanyonemissinganItalianoperalovinglovedonewhomighthavehad theholidaybluesandhasn’tbeenheardfromsinceChristmasEve?Is thataboutright,Jim?That’saboutit,Pam.Andsofar,ifyou’llexcuse thepun,noonehasforwardtosing.Here’sanumbertocallifanymemberofthepublichasifanyonecanhelpussolvethemysteryoftheleapingchauffeur. [a telephone number glows seriously] Sosad, isn’t,Jim?almostanironictakeonIt’sAWonderfulLife.Yes,Pam,weliveinironicaltimesforsure.MakesyouwonderwhatJimmyStewartwouldmakeofallthis,ifhewerealive.Verysad.Alright,we’llhavetoleaveitthere.Thankyou,Jim.Youbet,Pam.100101110110110001100100111000111101101110101000110101010100001….
Felix sits up in his bed. No, no, no, it wasn’t Pagliacci, you clown. I said: ‘Siamo contenti? Son dio, ho fatto questa caricature.’ Nietzsche, not Pagliacci. But he waved it off. It was inconsequential. His muse was summoning him and he must not keep her waiting. And besides, there were new boys waiting, waiting to come back to the woods–not to Avalon now, but Camelot.
Outside the Camelot Office he drops his postcard in the box. It is addressed to the Triad. It has a picture of a tightrope walker and a stamp with “Love” and pink hearts. On the card he has penned: Versteh’? Or have I come too soon again? And, below, his signature: a graffiti-like falling star.
In my beginning is my end. Left?
I’m sitting in the emergency room of Royal Children’s Hospital, my daughter, Amelia, fast asleep in my arms. Normally boisterous with joy, she attacks the hallway at home like some wild banshee on horseback, but now she lies listless and hot, the smell of her latest upchuck rising from the synthetic fur of the Humphrey B. Bear doll she clutches.
I’m trying not to look up, because when I do there’s a boy Amelia’s age happily riding a plastic tricycle in front of me. The whole right side of his face is one huge pizza scab. Looking at him circling, I can’t help but think of the two-faced Roman god Janus. I’m ashamed for trying to read the boy’s parents, who are sitting some distance from each other, their stone still faces averted and sculpted in grief.
Beyond them, the emergency room opens like an airport terminus, with parents queuing at the registrar’s counter, children in tow – some squalling or kicking, others, like Amelia, scarily silent. We’ve been waiting over an hour, put on a segmented waiting list that prioritises emergencies the way an airline divides its seats by class.
On the telly there’s a news report on China’s response to NATO’s bombing of their Belgrade embassy, and I’m straining to follow it. But Barbara, the woman sitting two seats away, won’t stop talking. Worry, I suppose. Sam, her nine-year-old boy, sits vacantly beside her, his left arm in a sling, his right hand shovelling French fries into his mouth from a McDonald’s bag she holds for him.
Barbara’s from Cape Town, South Africa; husband’s a history professor at a local uni. They migrated to Oz in 1990, she says, the year Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years. This reference interests me. I recall Mandela’s world-wide tour following his release. I went to one rally. Quarter million people. Skateboarders wearing tie-dyed T-shirts. Cumulus clouds of cannabis. A sign that read: End APART-HATE Now! “No Woman No Cry” coming from the loudspeakers. And then Mandela jaunting onstage, fists dancing to the Bob Marley tune, smiling that smile, as people stood and roared and the music changed to “One Love”. And then that absolute hush as he spoke of courage, hope, and freedom.
That’s not what Barbara’s going on about though. “Stupid. You had people vastly different from one another by virtue of culture, religion, language, economic levels and race, yet the whole world expected them to live harmoniously together overnight,” she sighs. “But whites lost heavily. Dispossessed, really. In the end, we feared we’d be necklaced and ran for our lives.”
A nurse carrying a clipboard squeaky-shoes into the waiting area and calls out, “Abdullah Hassan?”
Barbara goes on, “See, wogs first. That’s the whole problem with this so-called multiculturalism. There’s a hidden agenda. And no one wants to talk about it.” She looks at me for a second and adds, “But I suppose you’re a multiculturalist?”
I’m trying hard not to picture Barbara rolling down the road necklaced in a burning tire, a wheel on fire. All I really want to do is catch the China report on the telly, but I don’t want to be rude. “Aw, look, to tell you the truth, “I say, “I’m not sure I know what a multiculturalist is, or what the suffix –ist is all about. At the end of the day, the world’s made up of many, many cultures, whether you care to believe it or not. Mostly, it’s just the same old story of learning to tolerate people you may not understand very well or like very much once you do.”
“Well, that’s an improvement over a lot of the claptrap I hear,” she answers. “Some people seem to think we should all be striving to live together in happy Christian brotherhood.”
She says this with such pique that I’m physically startled. Her son seems deaf to it, as he munches down the fries. I’m thinking, broken arms may be the least of his worries growing up. I’m normally garrulous, but all I want to do now is sit here quietly absorbing my daughter’s pain by psychical osmosis until the nurse calls us in. I don’t need this wall of white noise.
“Where’s your wife?” asks Barbara, with a look of couched suspicion.
“Working,” I shrug. She pauses to read me, eyes traversing my healthy (if not particularly fit) body. I’m hoping she’ll leave it at that, but Barbara persists.
“What do you do?” she asks.
Now I’m ready to bloody clock her. In my most clipped tone I tell her I write commentaries on popular culture for local newspapers. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, such an admission would bore the bejeezuz out of anyone. But with Barbara I want to make sure, so add, “Yeah, maybe you saw my piece in the Age last year on Bob Dylan and the Sixties counterculture.” This is not a question, but a statement meant to close off further conversation. It seems to work. Though a barbed-wire sparkle plays in her eyes and her lips purse into a swastika smile, she pauses and turns away.
On the telly, images of student protesters in a regimented rage outside the American embassy in Beijing. China is calling for an immediate halt to the NATO “aggression” in Serbia, a talking head says. China calls the embassy bombing deliberate. President Clinton says it was a “tragic accident”, and blames it on poorly updated CIA records. China is talking about catastrophic consequences. The US responds that China is overreacting for political advantage. Clinton vows the bombing of Serbia will continue until Milosevic cries “Uncle Sam.”
The desk nurse comes out again and calls, “Ben Solowji?”
That turns out to be Janus. The nurse helps him off the tricycle and leads him away, his parents shuffling behind like tattered unstitched shadows from Never Never Land. The nurse coos something comforting to the child, and he looks up and gives her his half-moon smile. Out of the corner of my eye I see Barbara studying me, building a dossier. Amelia shifts slightly, but stays asleep.
“He could con Jesus off the cross,” says Barbara.
“Who?” I just about shout. “Clinton?”
“No, Bob Dylan,” she says without a trace of humour. “He’s been busy re-inventing himself for years, hasn’t he? It’s what the Jews do. Bad Jew to Good Jew in one generation. Now he’s selling Volkswagens. A Jew selling Volkswagens.” She shakes her head, Sam mimicking her.
Apparently, she’s referring to the television car ad that uses “The Times They Are A-Changin’…” as a soundtrack. The ad features a tinted-glass VW sedan ruggedly making its way from a lush rainforest paradise toward a post-apocalyptic urban jungle. It’s an inane allusion, and I do my best to block her out.
I’m thinking it’s ironical that almost exactly ten years after the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations Chinese students are now shouting pro-government slogans. Lots of people like to remember 1989 for the pleasing images of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, with Vaclav Havel going from the playwright-prisoner to president. And then, later that year, Pink Floyd jamming at the crumbled remnants of the Berlin Wall. Democracy in action, pretty heady stuff. But the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4 was the other side of the coin. Hundreds killed, thousands taken away to prisons.
On the telly, they’re showing a picture of present day Tiananmen Square. It’s empty and encircled by a grey panel fence on the outside of which are painted red flags of the People’s Republic. The sequence of images vaguely suggests the inside of an empty Andy Warhol tin of tomato soup.
“Misha Kulkami?” cries the duty nurse.
The television imagery switches to 1989. I’m thinking, whatever became of that man with a satchel who stared down a whole column of tanks? Talk about profiles in courage. Wang Weilin was the name attributed to him by the media a few days later, but he hasn’t been seen since. And no one seems to have inquired of his whereabouts. He’s just disappeared. This bothers me. His raw reality buried beneath a copyrighted image of freedom.
“Do you think they bombed the embassy on purpose?” Barbara asks. I’m almost certain she’s trying to pull my chain.
I smirk, and say, “No, the CIA just bungled it.” And for a moment I believe this. After all, they’re the same lot who provided the flawed maps to the US Navy pilots who struck a gondola cable in Italy, causing 20 skiers to plummet to their deaths. They’re the same goofs who once tried to feed Fidel Castro a drink to make his beard fall out, hoping to cause him to “lose face” with his people and instigate a counter-revolution in Cuba. Still, they’re a sinister lot, too, having given the world Pinochet, Suharto and Saddam Hussein. But I add, “No way.”
“You’re naïve,” says Barbara.
“Mmm, you are. Don’t you realize it’s their 50th anniversary?”
“What? NATO?” I say. “What does NATO’s birthday have to do with the bombing of an embassy?”
I’m getting frantic. Here I am, waiting interminably in an emergency room with my sick daughter, trafficking in second-hand didactics with some motor-mouthed nutter. A memory from my year teaching EFL in South Korea flashes. First week in, a student comes up after class and tells, me, ominously, that foreigners don’t last long in Korea, can’t cope with the culture. He re-tells the story of an American expat who goes “dicky Tao” one day and runs off down the main boulevard of Seoul, naked, and screaming, “Get me out of here!” Dicky, meaning malfunctioning. Tao, the balance of yin and yang, the synergetic life principles. Dicky Tao. In short, el tropo, fucked in the head.
I look over at Barbara, and mutter, “Dicky Tao,” with a delivery so toothsome that Amelia pops one lid open and eyes me for a moment.
“No, no, not NATO. China,” she says, not skipping a beat. “China is celebrating its 50th year of communism. Fifty years. But that’s nothing, because China hasn’t changed in its essentials in 2500 years, and probably never will.”
I’m having trouble seeing what this has to do with the embassy bombing, even if it were true, but I follow anyway. “Oh, come on, of course China is changing. What about Tiananmen Square? That’s a start. No one thought the Berlin Wall would ever fall either, but now they make key chains out of it for tourists.”
Barbara snorts. “The Berlin Wall? Let me tell you something about walls. The only wall in this whole world that matters is the Great Wall. 2400 kilometres long. It would stretch from Melbourne to Brisbane. The largest structure ever built by human hands. ‘Beside it,’ said Voltaire, ‘the pyramids of Egypt are only puerile and useless masses.’ It was built to keep out Attila and the Huns. And when the Huns couldn’t get past it, they changed direction and pounced on Europe. Rome fell, and Western civilization entered the Dark Age, because China built that wall. You want inscrutable? Try fathoming the depth of Confucian introversion that conceived that wall.”
At uni I wrote my thesis on Candide, and I’m just bowled out to hear the name Voltaire uttered by such hateful lips. I barely eke out, “What does any of that have to do with the bombing of the embassy?”
“Don’t you see?” she says. “The Americans, with their store-bought freedom this and freedom that, are little more than barbarians to the Chinese. Latter day Huns trying to crack the Wall. Bombing the embassy was a loud Yank knock on the door. ‘Open up’, they yell, ‘We got some dang toasters fer ya’ But they won’t get in, and when they can’t get in they’ll destroy themselves, because this time the Huns and Rome are one and the same.”
I’m slack-jawed and astonished by so much encyclopaedic trivia wrapped in paranoia and hatred. But her spontaneous combustion seems to have burned Barbara out, and for the first time in more than an hour she’s truly quiet. I look down at Amelia and she’s mouthing “baw-baw.”
“She wants her bottle,” says Sam.
It’s then that I realize in my haste to get Amelia to the hospital I’ve broken rule number one of toddler traveling: bring a bottle. “Shit,” I bark.
“There’s a McDonald’s on the other side of the hospital,” says Sam, with a look that conjures up Ginger Meggs. “I can show you.”
Amelia’s mewling becomes more insistent. I say, “That’s okay. Just tell me how to get there.” He does, and off we go.
Getting to McDonald’s is like finding my way through the minotaur’s maze – switchbacks, ramps, swinging doors, misleading signs. Carrying 15 kilos of suffering, writhing baby thirst is no fun either. Finally, we pass an information desk, and there it is, the glowy golden arches, the soporific lighting, the vague sizzle of meat and warm smell of fries. A community of strangers taking succor in the cathedral of consumption.
We queue up. To the left of the counter, in a kind of apse, is a life-sized plastic effigy of Ronald McDonald, moulded into a seated position, like Santa Claus, or some boffo Buddha. For a moment I feel like a kid again waiting in line at Mass for communion. Because of – and despite – Barbara, I find myself thinking about Voltaire again. Regarding the human condition, he once observed, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” How true, I’m thinking. But looking over at the candy-coloured clown-Christ of capitalism (“Billions and billions served”), I’m wondering if Ronald is the best we can do.
“May I take your order, sir?” asks the uniformed teen behind the register. Her broad Filipino smile is so lovely I’m ashamed it must be wasted, in service, on me.
“Just some milk, please,” I say.
“Oh, I’m sorry, sir,” she apologises, so solemnly I think she actually is sorry, “we don’t have any milk.” She looks at Amelia, and adds, “Would you like to try a Happy Meal? We’ve got a special on?’
“No,” I say, “just a cheeseburger” (for this is the body) “and a Coke” (for this is the blood). A transubstantiation paid for in nihilist dollars.
I think again of Wang Weilin. And wonder what’s become of him? Was he now wasting away in some provincial prison sweatshop in Manchuria – maybe handing piecework on to the tank driver who had dared to blink a decade ago? Was he in a secret hold of some modern slave ship bound for the garment district of Sydney, London or New York? How do you just disappear like that?
“Here you go,” says the girl, her innocence lighting up her plastic smile.
I shift Amelia to one arm and fumble for my wallet. I pay for the food and we make our way back toward the emergency room, Amelia gently tugging Coke through the straw. Sure enough, when we get there Barbara is gesturing, waving us toward the registrar’s desk.
“They called your name,” her son hollers, grinning.
After a hurried exchange with a harried nurse we’re shown into another room full of curtained exam cubicles and told to wait in one for the next available doctor. He comes presently, a tall Brit with coffee nerves. He examines Amelia briefly. “Looks like she’s picked up a wog,” he says pleasantly, peering into her cochlea with a pen torch. “Her ear’s all red and swollen.” He jots off a prescription for antibiotics and hands it to me. “Good luck,” he says, and steps off toward another cubicle.
Back in the emergency room, I carry Amelia toward a bank of telephones and pick up the direct line to a taxi company. As I’m doing so, Humphrey B. Bear tumbles out of Amelia’s arms to the floor. I stoop and pick it up. For some reason, I look at the label. Made in China. No surprise.
There’s no real avoiding Chinese goods, I tell myself. If you’re a capitalist manufacturer, China’s cheap labour is a welcome margin booster. If you’re a consumer, you buy what you can afford. But there’s something wrong with the equation. For all I know, Wang Weilin stitched together the jeans I’m wearing.
“Of course, the ideologies of some Jewish intellectuals are not necessarily in the interests of the wider community,” Barbara is telling her next victim, a saried Indian woman rocking a swaddled infant. “To back ‘good Jews’ regardless of the crimes they do is part and parcel of these ideologies. They think everyone has had to fend off genocide, which includes my forebears and yours.”
“Daddy,” my daughter is pleading.
And I have this picture in my head. Tiananmen again, but no tanks, just empty. And Wang Weilen, naked, running in circles in the square under swirls of a Van Gogh sky. “Dicky Tao,” he screams, Munch-like, in the opium haze of a Kafkaesque dream. But zooming in on his far away face, I see not Wang, but Janus.
“Daddy,” my daughter says. “Daddy. Humphrey. Mine.”
I stuff the bear back in Amelia’s arms and we wait outside for the cab to come. One day, I tell myself, I will explain walls and clowns and wogs to her – and Voltaire’s lovely gardens, too.