Category Archives: Satire Hot or Cold

Eryn; Edwina [from CITY OF AMATEURS]

tors

Eryn said get this he unzips his pants and asks is it big enough. The waitress still hadn’t fetched their drinks. Eryn gave the room an orphaned look and continued so the dirty is done and I’m combing my ‘fro in the dresser mirror. Okay? And the bathroom door is cracked open yea wide. Okay? And I kind of glimpse my new friend is doing his pee pee like literally sitting down on the toilet. The hell is that?

They were slouched at the bar in Chez Guevara, laughing so American that nearby patrons turned tolerant smiles on them. If tolerant smiles were deathrays they’d be cinders. Edwina said Eryn, my dear, don’t you know all German men pee pee sitting down?

-Ever since Hitler, said Eryn. Hitler in Berlin is never a non-sequitur.

The restaurant was full of flatscreen televisions in fractured blue strips over the bar and on the walls and mounted in the vaulted brick ceiling. Like welcome to the video age. They saw vineyards and pokerfaced newscasters shuffle typescripts of massacre and disaster. They saw the imported copshow, or was it a German ersatz, duck and shoot, shoot and run, run and jump. Steaming orders on multiple plates hovered by on the fringe of their chit chat. Several of the screens displayed ‘70s softcore from Holland, blonde boobs and a picturesque canal you could dye your jeans in. The pigtailed girl was panting shut-eyed and heave-titted but the sound was off and Eryn imagined her strapped to a gurney in a nursing home of the present reminiscing out loud about the good old days of the beaver shot. Eryn was already homesick but determined to stick it out according to the terms of her grant. You could order cheeses in this restaurant that would make a vulture puke. Eryn’s mother’s mother’s mother had coveted locusts in honey and shat near the river by starlight. Fragments of the long-dead woman had made it to the first world and were now sitting in the second, waiting for a drink.

The biggest screen, over the bar, showed a couple of North American celebrities arm in arm at some premiere or benefit or beheading or whatever, the female demonstrating her tolerant smile against a sustained bombardment of strobes intense as the fall of Saigon. The male was just listening, looking on, did he ever talk any more, worried about dinner or money or whatever run-of-the-mill medical issue is typical for a male in the autumn of his spate. The piss comes out in a trickle and you shrink from your own edges like day-old wedding cake. Celebrities are there to remind us that the body dies. Edwina winked oh look, it’s Evadolph.

-They follow me wherever I go, said Eryn.

-White people eat that shit up. Haven’t you heard? Adoption is the new slavery.

Eryn was skinny and bakelite deco black and Edwina was proud of Eryn’s attention-getting Afro, though she wouldn’t have worn one herself, though she could have if she wanted to, with professional help, being part black (a hook-dicked Alderman on her mother’s side). Edwina’s hair was straight and coarse as an Inca’s which matched her flat features. Edwina’s face looked somehow under-utilized: maybe it was the baby fat. Her eye-popping tits. She was one of those light-skinned not-really-black black women.

Edwina was not well-read. She’d never heard of Luigi Pirandello. Eryn had but had forgotten that she had and was preoccupied with fears that she’d picked up a German yeast infection. She picked up yeast infections like corduroy picks up lint. Corduroy has the word for king in it. There was a foreign quality to her discomfort. She was itching like young red ants between her legs and prayed hard for the folk cure of her Caipirinha. Her vagina would go up in flames if the waitress didn’t show up soon to douse it. Her Afro was too big to avoid touching people. Her Afro touched up to hundreds of people a day.

Edwina was married to a beefy bisexual black lawyer named Kevin Brandischauer with whom she lived in a condominium in the Marina Towers, literally overlooking the Chicago River. Kevin said if you jumped from the observation deck you would splat on the other side of the river. Edwina came to Europe on ostentatious shopping sprees not despite, but because of, the weak dollar. Eryn wasn’t sure if she considered Edwina an African-American but you could only think of her as pretty if you thought of her as black. She knew that was a ridiculous thought. She said,

-It’s not like Europeans aren’t racist. Of course they are. But the difference I’m feeling since I’ve been over here is me. Back home, some educated-looking white person gives me a dirty look, deep down I think I deserve it. Am I right?

Eryn had been over for a week, her first ever trip out of the country of her birth, her first ever six-hour sleep at an altitude higher than clouds, the sensation of making a minor appearance in the pilot’s recurrent dream.

Eryn wasn’t attracted to black men and black men were only circumstantially attracted to her, she felt, though educated white men, as a rule, were absolutely nuts on the topic. They super-tipped in her presence; they copied out unattributed poems from nostalgic textbooks while daydreaming they were leaving their wives, especially the professors who volunteered to pick her up in their litter-filled cars at regional airports. She specialized in neglected dick with tenure. Every time Eryn had tried to have a learnedly witty conversation with a man of her background about the meaning of life she’d been afflicted with a self-mocking self-consciousness that killed the topic, though she admitted it was her own fault; she admitted the problem was hers.

The late great playwright August Wilson had mentored Eryn in an innercity arts program and nicknamed her Error.

Edwina asked Eryn if she’d ever had a near-death experience. It felt like a funny thing to ask, given the circumstances. Eryn said,

-The waitress is going to have a near-death experience if we don’t get our drinks soon. Why do you ask?

-I was in a house fire the day before 9/11. I mean a ten-storey apartment building. I was living on the top floor with an awesome view of Jackson Park, deep in a dream when my boyfriend at the time starts shaking me because the bedroom is full of smoke. The smoke was floating like black milk in a fishtank and it was about three feet off the floor so you stood up it would kill your ass. Back in those days I slept on a futon mattress on a hardwood floor, you could feel the heat coming up off the floorboards. I saw flames in the cracks between the floorboards.

Edwina broke off her riveting tale to watch an arresting image on the flatscreen over the bar: a Japanese girl with no arms in a black Lycra top without armholes painting watercolour kittens in a pastiche of Hokusai with a very long brush in her mouth.

By the time I got to Chez Guevara, much later than I’d planned to, still flustered after a vicious row with my first wife, Eryn and Edwina had finally had their drinks delivered and were easing under the mellowing influence of a second round. They’d moved from the bar to a table near the bar, Eryn with her back to the view of the crowded sidewalk as I entered the restaurant through the purple curtains over the doorway. Friday night’s revelers were threading in pairs and threesomes between fashionable automobiles progressing so slowly in traffic that many of the drivers were leisurely chatting up the best-looking unattached girls on the sidewalk.

I’d be lying if I claimed I hadn’t spotted what I considered a sexual opportunity in the sight of two black female tourists of a certain age, isolated in a room full of unfriendly Germans. I didn’t know either woman, at that point, but I knew what each woman symbolized (in the slightly different contexts of home and abroad). Each had advantages and disadvantages, parceled out at birth, which anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with human psychology could exploit by setting these attributes in subtle conflict. As so-called “white” women’s sexual roles changed in the West with the advent of the revolution that took only two decades to demystify the holy of holies (the reproductive aperture of the species), black women found themselves stranded in a sexual power vacuum. It was as a man mindful of a Zeitgeist in which Billie Holiday is no longer particularly sexy to any but the hoariest of tenured academics that I approached their table and inquired if anyone would mind if I joined them.

My then-wife, a model-type raised in a suburb of northern Hamburg (a village, essentially, where every house has a four-digit telephone number), had just spent two years going through a revolution of her own in Southern California. She had managed to shed every trait (except her looks) which I had found too charming to let another week pass without proposing to her, which I did a few weeks after the moment I first saw that figure parting a crowd on a street near the harbor in Hamburg. A figure with the bearing of a Wagnerian shepherdess. A long honeymoon in San Diego became an extended visa in a hell that replaced my Wagnerian shepherdess with a name-dropping, money-mad, all-American doppelgänger who wouldn’t fuck until I successfully wheedled or bribed her. I hadn’t ejaculated within five meters of my then-wife for weeks when the pressure valve blew.

It blew in the form of a fight that climaxed with us cursing and shoving and slapping each other. I had the presence of mind to throw on a blazer and exit the flat before somebody ended up in the custody of the German police or on a stretcher with an arm dangling. We’d been dressing for dinner at Chez Guevara, a pattern we’d fallen into since returning to Berlin from our ill-fated stay in America.

Later that evening, sitting on a chair by the bed in her hotel room, I asked Eryn about her novel, which she had dropped coy allusions to in the masking hubbub of the restaurant as though speaking a code she didn’t want Edwina to pick up on. She corrected me: it wasn’t a novel, it was a play. She was in Europe on a Tubman grant to complete it. This all happened years ago and I can’t be counted on to remember my conversation with Eryn Brandischauer accurately.

-Why did you start writing plays?

-Because I could.

-What inspired you?

-I was tired of people thinking I was stupid.

-What people? Who?

-Teachers. Family. Friends.

-What did you think of working with August Wilson?

-It changed my life, but the longer I knew him, the more I developed views about his work and life I couldn’t share with anyone. They weren’t hurtful, these words about August that I had to keep secret, but they weren’t laudatory, either. An artist achieves a certain stature and anything said within earshot of the artist has to be either explicitly laudatory or implicitly laudatory, those are the rules, but I had some trouble with the fact that he spoke two languages.

-You mean he was bi-lingual?

-No, not in that sense, despite the fact he could have been, in that sense. You know his father was a German from Germany, an immigrant named Kittel.

-No, I didn’t know that.

-August spoke two languages, one that must have been true, I felt, and one I felt was false, but I could never say which was which, because it depended on who he was speaking to and also who was auditing when he was speaking to that person. But I was just some kid from Saint Paul; what did I know?

-Do you consider yourself beautiful?

-I consider myself capable of defining beauty. That’s enough.

Edwina came out of the bathroom just then and we changed the subject.

.

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Gypsies

photo by SC

Veering into the sun before his sunbrella went up was like having a frying pan in full sizzle put flat on his cheek. The bulgey curve of the station wall had a sharp collar of shade around it in which sat the gypsy with her accordion, playing the dolorous tango they all played within a laughable range of capability, from not-at-all to utter mastery. She gave him a look as he veered out into the sun because she blocked the very narrow path the shadow protected, sitting cross-legged on a collapsible chair with a shoe tip burning in light. The look she gave him contained a library of philosophical treatises, a look at once aware and detached, worldweary-yet-playful, dismissively flirtatious, seductively bored and suppler than thought itself. It took him somewhat aback. She was in the same cruel league of beauty as his obsession Margarethe, though she was just a gypsygirl and he was late for dinner.

Margarethe in a printed dress as tight as a chocolate bar’s wrapper handed him warm wine and introduced people who were milling around the room hungry and browsing her paintings, examining the work with what struck Van in some cases as almost hostile diffidence, as though the paintings were untouchable meals reserved for richer guests due to arrive much later. As he’d often said his ex-wife Margarethe was the best bad painter in the world and he thought of her near-perfect copy of van Gogh’s self-portrait in front of the easel, 1888, showing the darkling feral head and retardedly-intense blue eyes but in her version he’s smiling and hoisting a condensation-bejeweled bottle of Coke. She said,

“Van, this is Taylor and Scotty and you know…”

“Konrad.”

“Exactly,” she grinned.

A large-ish American with short shiny hair stood up from the couch and introduced himself as Bartholomew, pointedly ignoring nearby Taylor and Scotty, who were Queers from London. Fucking Heteromanic American.

The air in the flat was dense with meat. Her new husband Konrad was clearly no vegetarian but a well-built, distracted-looking German in formal attire with red hands and a peeling nose which propped up big square black-rimmed glasses. From time to time he’d nod or grunt with disgust or amusement despite the fact that no one was talking to him. He pronounced “ski” in the old German manner: she. He peeled some skin off his nose and said aprés she as he went ahead to his place at the dinner table, Margarethe rolling her eyes at his back.

She confessed with rue that one has to climb so high to find natural snow these days that one wears a Lycra space suit on the slopes. The men get tremendous hardons. The glasses Konrad was wearing may or may not have been connected, though Van had noted that Konrad sported them in the manner of the blind, face beatifically elevated in an unfinished smile.

Something sharp-toothed and furtive squealed flaming to cinders in a trap in one of the rooms under renovation and Van could see it for a moment and then he couldn’t. He blinked.

When Margarethe announced dinner with a clap of her hands they formed a pilgrim’s procession of low chatter and crossed the apartment through a long, over-lit wing of plastic sheets and scaffolding. Up some plaster-dusted stairsteps they went leaving shoe prints and Van straggled behind studying the pretentious sepia-tone images on the wall in a hallway, pictures he’d taken with the antique Hasselblad Maggie had given him their first Christmas. Gypsies of unvarying facial expression hefted arched accordions over their knees like gulls with broken backs.

Margarethe laid a hand on an arm each of Scott’s and Taylor’s as she lead the procession, walking between them, and said, “I had the most ghastly nightmare again, darlings.”

Konrad was chewing and laughing at something on the ceiling as they filed into the dining room.

Bartholomew with his wide, flat, not-fat-at-all body, waved a finger at various points around the dinner table at which Van found himself seated among the others having their chunky pork soup ladled into exquisite porcelain bowls. Van only heard what sounded like the sea in a very big conch shell as the American droned on, a prime exemplar of the effect of the loss of empire on a disoriented consciousness. The dining room felt airless lit only with candles feeding mostly on Bartholomew’s breath and Van wanted desperately to open a window but he was no longer the flat’s master. Bartholomew had no plate set before him; no knife or fork or water glass. No food.

Konrad exhibited open-eyed signs of REM.

Someone was saying, “I suppose in the latter category you’ve got the theory of Relativity and smoking will kill you and an embryo is conceived when an egg cell meets a sperm cell in the womb and so forth.”

Bartholomew was rocking in his seat.

Second course was blood pudding.

Konrad noted suspicious gas leaks in Istanbul and Crete, hundreds dead or unaccounted for.

Van recognized the spider, limbs fanning long and tenuous as internet links, in a high corner. The spider or its descendant. He’d been separated from Margarethe for over two years and divorced for a year yet every single thing about the apartment was the same as he’d left it, minus the meaty veil of odors. He recognized the faint pattern of stains on the tablecloth, the brown-tinged continents on a medieval map of the known world.

He glanced at Margarethe with her high forehead and incongruously Croatian nose and the pewter ringlets of her hair. Memory provided the glistening plum of her kissable buttocks which had in turn been provided by her superblack boy-diddling bishop of a sweet-breathed father late of an almost blackless Capetown. Due to whom she pronounced black as bleck.

Van heard, “The fear of looking stupid is what keeps the intellectual in line.”

Playfully, he imagined Bartholomew as a big blond gypsy with a ring in his ear wrestling an accordion in the shadow of the station begging for coins instead of dispensing unsolicited pontifications at the dinner table. Van edited the gypsy girl into Bartholomew’s place, seated beside him at the table, slyly embarrassed by her decadent plateful of fatty meats. He found himself hoping she’d still be on that stool at the station wall when it came time to leave but it was New Year’s so of course she’d be at the Brandenburg Dome with the others, picking pockets or playing that same hideous tango with champagne-oiled ease.

Konrad had Bartholomew’s bright hair in a knuckle-grip and jerked hard, hacking through pulpy fat neck with a serrated blade, though no one else seemed to notice.

Fingerbowls were distributed.

Margarethe was blowing kisses at someone, mouthing Kiss ma bleck aws, while Taylor indulged in the so-called New Nostalgia with the repeated use of the phrase, “The Tolerable ‘20s.”

Maragarethe was saying, behind her hand while she chewed on gristle, “It was that nightmare about Bartholomew again, I’m afraid, I hope he calls,” but Van never heard this. She was hoping to get a rise out of her insufficiently jealous husband.

She was playing the drollest of hostesses and staring into her wineglass, the bowl of the wineglass magnifying her eye into a batty black goldfish, telling Van that Taylor was a Money Artist. That is, she clarified, Taylor works in the medium of money. The national gallery has a room of his elegant displays, each display featuring a fluctuating digit synched to an enormous amount somewhere. You see he started his career with artifactual lucre… didn’t you, Taylor… crisp bundles of Euros and dollars, arranged on plinths… though his breakthrough came when he finally grasped money in its most spiritual form.

Critics call his new work cleaner.

Konrad quoted an article to the effect that the art market is the biggest money laundering operation on the planet. He told a joke in a halting cadence that ended with the punchline the sweet smell of sock sex.

After a haunting gypo film in the screening room about transvestites (Manche Mogen’s Heiss), Margarethe, rubbing her eyes like a waking child, excused herself with a cautionary remark about dessert and Van, glancing at Konrad, offered to help in the kitchen, so down a dark hall and with the vented door still swinging he lay a finger athwart her woodgrain arm and moaned how he missed being the only black couple at the opera.

He said he missed the way she kicked in her sleep and commented too mordantly and far too loud in the theater and buttered both sides of her toast or snatched at her bushy cloud of pillowed hair like a honeybear in a cloud of bees when he used to go down on her.

He pulled her towards him and she laughed offering a modicum of resistance saying don’t. She said,

-Van, your words are lovely as ever, and you’re a good Christian, truly you are, but as a woman grows older she responds less to words than to deeds, and deeds aren’t done without power, and, as you know, Konrad has an inherited seat on the Ministry of the Interior…there’s more power in one of his ash-colored eyelashes than in the whole of that big carbon dick of yours.

-Ha! That old white devil be damned.

-You’re talking about my husband, darling.

I’m your husband.

-No you’re not. Not any more you’re not.

-In the eyes of God.

The first punch stunned her and the second one brought her to her knees.

When she swept in from the kitchen with sugar-free parfaits on a tray of hammered tin from Morocco which Van, trailing behind her with half a dozen neon aperitifs, had forgotten giving her for their second anniversary, the shifty mass of her sheathed bosom as she lowered each parfait to every spot around the table was so milk-maidishly servile that it made them appear to be overdressed black help. This pleased Van perversely and he handed out the aperitifs with a shamingly servile flourish.

Scott turned to Taylor and said, not quietly enough, “I’m having that headache we talked about.”

Margarethe stamped her foot with winning petulance and said but it’s almost midnight! Her plan was to gather on the balcony after dessert and watch fireworks and greet the majestic change of centuries with upturned faces of child-like wonder.

A meth-massacre in Phuket. Konrad joked from the corner of his mouth that it takes a child to raze a village.

They sweated the proximity of the sultry night and watched animated neo-classical constellations like Diana the archer and Pegasus flapping his wings and the stars-and-cross of the Anglo-Germanian union scintillate then shatter into hundreds of jiggle-boobed goose-stepping showgirls in turn becoming great pinwheels lilting like funereal Lilies to Earth. After which, rainbow-colored cubes representing the six colors of the union rolled across the sky unfolding into crucifixes larger than any skyscraper. Crucifixes ringing the ecliptic, pulsing to Die Walküre and foreshortened towards the galactic hub.

Van was distracted by the scene he watched instead. Down there on the sidewalk, two stories below the balcony, near enough he heard their pleas for mercy. Handsome theatergoers surrounded and doused by a broken circle of gypsies and put peremptorily to the torch, dancing away from each other in flames towards opposite ends of the street trailing rich black streamers of skinsmoke. Reflections of the flames shrank curving across bubble windshields and Van was clutching his throat, suppressing the nausea, unsure of what he was seeing.

Konrad shouted U-Nasa with conclusive evidence: Asgaard settlement extinct. The others on the balcony merely oooh’d and ahhh’d with patriotic boredom at the immensity of the crucifixes stainglassing the sky.

Van knew it now. He was bewitched.

2.

He rode the near-empty train to its endstation. He gasped at the foretaste of heat that rolled under the platform’s baked awning as he stepped from the train. It pulled away as he shuffled in his bright white flapsuit and widebrimmed hat, a Pierrot in blackface shuffling to platform’s end then down the hundred stairs in his two-legged tent, the handrail untouchably hot, bracing himself to emerge from the station into the noon’s blast furnace, slower than wading through oil.

Entering Gypsytown at high noon was the only way to sneak into the city.

He pictured them snoring in dark rooms while he stalked the blinding streets, a striking lone figure, something from a dream, and he realized that he was thinking about himself again, as he often did, and the tight cap of his mossy black hair itched. He was thinking of himself as a museumpiece, a rare collection of features gathered in the vitrine of his flat-nosed face, so broad across the cheekbones and heavy in the jaw, a public monument trusted to his own irresponsible stewardship. What if a gypsy punched him in the nose, ruining something of priceless rarity?

The rare blacks allowed back on the continent had been welcomed grudgingly under the stainless-steel wing of the Church. He was thinking of Margarethe’s father, Bishop Siss, or his own great-grandfather, the influential Christian theoretician famous for Multiple-Christ Doctrine, the original Vanross Olubodon, a remote and frightening figure. Not for one moment since birth had Van…or anyone from the small colony of blackies and darkfacers in Berlin…felt welcome.

Most of them, as in the case of Margarethe’s family, had commenced immediately to exobreed out of the color with almost any whites who were mad enough to fuck them. Margarethe had nieces and nephews who were already as light as the palms on her hands, or no darker than the inner folds of her navel, but, still, there were tests you were required to take at a certain age. Forms you had to fill out. You’d get Homo sapiens africanus stamped on your license for all to see, though perhaps one might keep it a secret on all but the genobureaucratic level.

Van’s family was an oddity. Both for having been in Europa for so many generations and for breeding almost exclusively black for the duration. Many of his people were priests; Van wasn’t a priest but he was a prominent theologian. The family members who weren’t in the priesthood, who were out there in the game of life, competing for love and money, were running out of black non-relatives to mate with. And with Van’s recent loss of mostly-black Margarethe, what would he do? Write his amateurish sonnets and masturbate on whores in blackface until the end of all time?

The station was a ziggurat of limestone steps on a dusty peninsula of asphalt. Across a weedy road were the vacant lots of the western edge of Gypsytown and beyond the vacant lots, a fifteen minute walk over rubble and weeds, queued the first of the white buildings, the coated buildings like walls in a low maze, each building decorated with its check of foil, foil over all the windows, the abandoned vista of an ancient millennial film project.

Set on the very edge of the asphalt before the broken road there stood a longish tent full of stacked bundles of newspapers and a sinewy bearded troll. The tall troll was seated crosslegged, dressed in the altogether save a suet-colored loincloth and sandals and sipping from a vintage bottle in the open shade of the tent. The man had the shaggy blonde sea-burned look of the Viking about him. But he was very thin.

As Van approached the tent in order to cross the broken road behind it the Viking put down his bottle with great care and slipped into a hooded cape which hung from head to knees. The cape had weight to it and concealed a dagger no doubt. He stepped into the sunpressure towards Van wielding a newspaper and Van recognized the paper as the Cassandran Standard and formed preemptive noises in his throat, shaking his head, but there was no way the tout would be put off, for Van was probably the first non-gypsy to cross his path all day… all week, possibly. Despite being momentarily flummoxed by the impossible blackness of Van’s face, he smiled and followed across the broken road with his spiel:

“Get your Cassandran, get your Cassandran right here, your sweet Cassandran Standard, all the news you were never supposed to know, reported at great risk to all involved, no gratitude necessary… top stories: the facts are in… average life-expectancy down by thirty percent in less than a century… top stories… the Asgaard Settlement alive and well and preparing for war against Earth… top stories… fish return to the Persian Gulf… you’ll read it here first… the news you were never supposed to know… all this plus the usual tasty all-color supplement: they’re fresh, they’re female, they’re Pagan… five dollars and the truth is yours to filter as you see fit….”

But when Van gave him a stainless steel dollar in hopes he’d scurry off the tout secreted the coin in the voluminous cuntfolds of his cape and said, wonderingly, after licking his lower lip, “You’re black.”

Van stopped walking and sighed. “That’s right.”

“I’m honored. They call me Gregorius. Is it true that blacks think not in words but in pictures, Sir?”

“I can only speak for myself when I say no to that question.”

“Ah.”

Van nodded. Gregorius pointed at Gypsytown. “You are not going in there alone, are you, Sir?”

“Why shouldn’t I?” He glared from the grotto under the wide brim of his hat.

“For one thing, there are no street signs… they took every single one of them down, Sir. The gypos are dead clever. You’d find yourself hopelessly lost in minutes. In heat like this, for more than an hour, no shelter… that can mean heart failure, Sir.”

“You’re advertising your services as a guide.”

“Not just a guide. There are horrors greater than being lost…”

“Horrors.”

“Not many know that the gypsies are provided by The State to operate under their own rule of law and governance, Sir.”

“I’m well aware of that fact.”

“But do you know the tone or timbre of these Laws of theirs, Sir? The codes and statutes? Run afoul of them and it could mean your happiness, to say the least. And then there are ravenous crowpacks to deal with and bandits…”

“Alright.”

“Five steel dollars an hour. Payment on the hour.”

They shook on it and continued across the weedy terrain of the vacant lots, Gregorius just slightly ahead. What does he have in that cape, wondered Van. A telescope? A rifle?

Without turning to face Van he called out, “What are you looking for, if I may ask, Sir?”

“Who.”

“What?”

Who, not what. I’m looking for a gypsy girl. A gypsy girl I saw this New Year’s Eve just past.”

“A gypsy you saw at the Dome, was it, Sir?”

“No. Earlier that day. At the Charlottenburg Station.”

“Charlottenburg Station? Performing there or just traveling, Sir?”

“She was performing.”

“Fair or dark?”

“Dark.”

“Young?”

Van shrugged. “Not old.”

Walking backwards at Van’s pace, Gregorius stared a good long time before finally turning to point far off, lifting the edge of his cape. “That’ll mean she lives over there, on what was formerly known as Bergmann Strasse, then. The other end of Gypsytown.”

Van laughed.

“Sir?”

“The way you pronounce ‘Strasse’. ”

“Strasse.”

Van laughed again. “Strah-suh. You even talk like a gypsy. You speak it?”

“Fließend.”

“What?”

“Fluently, Sir. Fließend means ‘fluently’.”

Van was pleased. He felt he was getting his money’s worth.

Flickered shadows now and then swept them over and up they’d look to see clouds of suntorched crows tumble headlong as though hurled from an invisible mountain and Gregorius would crouch low and dip one shoulder as if ready to swing hard at whatever came at them but the shadows flew onward, falling sidelong away at great speed. The nearest tree was kilometers distant.

Van and his taciturn page (what was he brooding on?) exchanged nary a word until they were well into the city-within-a-city, with its uniform myriad six-storey flatblocks and narrow treeless immaculate streets and sidewalks. No trash or thick brushstrokes of dogshit or mosaics of smashed glass forever. Nor rusting hulks of cars or trucks or gutted refrigerators. So unlike Berlin proper. He could have licked the griddle ground and left it hissing with spit with no fear of dirt-eating.

“It’s all so clean,” marveled Van, breaking the silence at such a low volume, just slightly above the striding rustle of his garment, that breaking it was barely worth it. His unwieldy white flapsuit. He was exhausted. He longed for his sunbrella. “It’s cleaner than any street I’ve walked on!”

“Of course it is, Sir. The Gypsies waste nothing.”

“Not even merdes…”

“They make fuel with it, Sir.”

“You’re very well-spoken for a man who lives in a tent, Gregorius.”

“There was a time, long ago, I participated in the world, like you. I gave it all up to do the noble work of selling the Cassandran. It’s a hard life but I sleep well every night and my gypo wife supports me. And I don’t live in that tent, you see. We live in a flat like any other.”

“I suppose it’s a myth that they steal, as well, then, Gregorius?”

“An ugly and ignorant myth, Sir. No offense.”

Van chuckled. He said, “So if one had a peek through a gypo flat…”

“One would most of all see books, Sir. Every gypsy lives with more books than he has stories to tell…a gypsy aphorism.”

Van curled his lip. Even he couldn’t afford more than a few books, and those he kept in a vault. “Books?”

Gregorius continued, “In point of fact they make nearly all their money as infobrokers.”

“Infobrokers?”

“Spies, Sir.”

“Spies?”

“Is there anyone less visible than a gypo? All dressed alike, all playing the same…”

Van scratched at his nose and grunted. He did not believe this, nor the other thing about books. He said, “Possibly.”

“May I ask why you speak so softly, Sir?”

Van lifted his chin at the building they were just then shuffling past and said, “They sleep in the heat of the day, as you know. It’s prudent…one speaks in certain tones…”

“Another falsehood, Sir,” Gregorius said, wearily. “Ironic, too, considering that they’re all awake and been doing business for hours when the rest of Berlin is still yawning over its first bitter coffee! It is true, these buildings have no power to offset the heat, but the cellars of the buildings are dark and cool and…”

“This is astonishing news…”

“…the gypsies have connected all the cellars in a kind of underground city.” Gregorius stopped in the street and touched his bare red chest with a flourish of his cape. “And I know the safest point of entry to the system.”

“But I must,” pleaded Van, revealing his desperation suddenly, “I must find this gypsy girl! She has bewitched me!”

Gregorius pointed at the cracked black skin of the three-hundred-year-old road.

“You’ll find her there.”

Looking at the road where he had been directed to, Van watched as Gregorius’ shadow appeared to raise a long dark sword to the sky, gripping the hilt with both hands as though he might fly away on it.

There was a roaring silence as Van stared blinkless into the white skull of the sun without being conscious of ceasing to.

3.

A temperate breeze poured in over the tall grasses of the Auroran Savannah and clattered through the blinds and windchimes on the front porch and the naked prospects of the sunrooms above it and pushed open, with one polite hand, the curtains of the attic window.

The servant stooped polishing wood in the attic bedroom happened to look out the window at that moment to glimpse through the curtains the procession of secondhand government Zils coming in on the long approach paralleling the canal, like a funeral, though she knew for a fact it was only a lunch.

The master was still drowsing in his hammock on the porch. Drowsing as indolent in the summer’s long day as he was frenetic during the winter’s long night of restorative darkness, and though she felt the giddy impulse to hurry downstairs to wake him, one of the others would probably see to it, so she kept at her polishing, waltzing the soft fat cloth over the loops and whorls of the wood’s exquisitely ancient fingerprint. The chest of drawers she brought to its hard gleam predated her language; her people; the city of Aurora itself. Centuries of breath had trapped spirit-words in the microscopic chambers of the wood and she felt the furniture breathe as her palm swirled over it.

She expected at some point after lunch that the master would gather the barefoot staff in the kitchen in order to introduce them to the overfed guests, as ever, and charmingly perform his favorite trick of naming their various tribes: Aleuti, Russo Lapp, Samoyed, Swedish Tungu, Dane and Red Yankee! All living together under one roof, he would exclaim. A boast of his taste, his benevolence.

And all sharing one bed, she was always tempted to add. The two boys among them were even prettier than the black-eyed girls.

Lieutenant Governor Mey and the trade delegation from the North Atlantic States looked mortified in their youth, clustered together in the center of Stark’s library, waiting obediently for lunch. Stark was still drowsy and rumpled in his patrician, couldn’t-be-bothered way, scratching his belly through a fine garment. He knew history well enough to relish this sensation of intimidating elected officials with anything more subtle than an army. Their sincere diffidence was innocence and a luxury that wouldn’t last more than a few generations before sophistication, with the renascent persistence of evil, returned again to the world. But for now a breathing space. An Eden.

Stark drew their attention to two black heads on a recessed shelf in the wall beside the book case. The floor-to-ceiling, wall-wide case was emblematic in itself of staggering wealth, but they couldn’t begin to calculate the value of those heads.

“Very beautiful,” nodded Lieutenant Governor Mey, hands clasped behind his back because otherwise they’d be shaking. “May I ask how you got them that color?”

Stark laughed. “Jahweh gave it to them.”

“Jahweh?”

“The super-being they both believed in, while they lived. The man in the sky who created the Earth and the Heavens. In the beginning he is said to have said to let there be light, and there was light.”

The trade delegation chuckled politely.

Stark touched the male head with a collector’s awed affection. “Preserved eternally with a process that renders the flesh incorruptible without changing its natural composition. If you care to touch here… very carefully… you’ll find that it is indeed flesh, flesh like yours or mine… at room temperature. Not even particularly cold. Though they’ve been dead for centuries.”

“Anyway, it’s a lost technology. We couldn’t do anything close to it.”

With a cupped hand Stark rounded the cheek and delicate jawline of the female head, her ear bending and springing from under his touch. The gesture was so like a lover’s postcoital caress that two of the delegates flinched. The head was so beautiful, so life-like in its preservation, yet so strange in its blackness and shining shaved skull that they expected the eyes and mouth to pop open with a scream when Stark had finished fondling it.

“I call the two of them the world’s greatest love story. I also call them the gypsies, because they’ve been all over the habitable world, seeking one another in death. The facts are really quite extraordinary.”

“Before I explain how I acquired them, I’ll let you in on the amazing fact that I know quite a lot of detail about their social status, their manner of dress and eating habits and even the specific circumstances of her death. His death I know less about.”

“I inherited him, you see. I grew up in a house that counted him coyly among its treasures, though he was kept in a locked case in the attic. I didn’t get a look at him until my father died and I inherited the estate. We were doing an inventory of the art treasures and he sort of popped up. As it turns out, he was worth more than all of the other paintings and sculptures combined.”

“He’s the only known example of a fully intact head from the species Homo sapiens africanus… what they called back then, rather obviously, a black. Interestingly, the black species thought only in pictures but not in words as we do. Otherwise, they were both shockingly different and uncomfortably similar to us.”

“I only regret that in preserving the head they’ve shaved the hair off, you see, because his hair was just as unique as the rest of him… very tight little kinks, very short, rather mossy… imagine, possibly, a cross between moss and wool.”

“The female’s hair was a bit different… imagine a cross between his hair as I’ve described it and yours or mine… because she’s not purebred, you see; her mother was Homo sapiens. Look at the nose.”

“Anyway, for years I’ve had him here in my library, the guardian of my books. Then one day, on a trip through Romana, to pay my respects to the ancestors, as one does… and also because I love French sweets, and France is right across that border, as it happens…”

Stark could see he was beginning to bore them. Time to spice up the story.

“I was offered the chance to bid on her by a private collector of ill repute. Of course I couldn’t refuse… money was no object. I felt I owed it to my black Adam to provide an Eve.” The Biblical reference went over their heads but he forged on. “The broker I purchased her from informed me that she’d been quite the celebrity of her era…married to a rich, powerful official… back when those three words together weren’t oxymoronic, gentlemen… back in that barbaric era…”

“He was rich and powerful and rather psychotically jealous. It seems he beheaded her lover and fed the lover’s corpse to her guests at a dinner party! Only a few weeks later he killed her, too. Beat her to death… most luckily sparing the face. The interesting thing about all that is how little punishment he received for his crimes; I’d dare say any of you would face more bother over a parking violation than he did for double murder. He lived to be a ripe old age and dined out, no pun intended, on the legend of his atrocity.”

“It was only after bringing Eve home to Adam, and setting them beside one another on that very shelf, that I began to wonder if they might have known one another in life. I wondered if there was some connection… perhaps by a few degrees of separation at the least. I knew they were from the same part of the world… I knew they were from the same era, vaguely…”

“Peeling off the tiniest amount of flesh from the back of our Adam’s neck, a technician had his genetic numbers checked against the oldest known database.”

“You won’t believe this, gentleman…but I assure you that what I’m about to say is true. It turns out… I’m getting goosebumps as I think about it… it turns out our black Adam and Eve were once married.”

“Let that sink in for a moment.”

“They were married, divorced, met their separate deaths… were separated as artifacts by thousands of kilometers for centuries… different countries and continents… now reunited on that shelf.”

Even Lieutenant Governor Mey was obviously moved. There was a catch in his throat when he asked, pointing to a small oil painting set in the center of the book case…asking, perhaps, merely to diffuse the intensity of the moment… “Can you tell us who this is?”

Stark drew himself straight with awful pride, but spoke with self-satirizing pomp.

“This? This is Iseult Tsurak, mother of the modern nation of Romana, hero of the Gypsytown rebellion, intellectual architect of the Pax Romana and the founder of the immense fortune that nourishes the Stark family to this day, even as far north as we’ve drifted. Stark is an Arctic modernization of the name Tsurak, you see.”

“She’s my great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother.”

“What a look in those eyes, eh?”

“What a look.”

Honi Soit: A one-act Radio Play for the Internet Age

 310520104826

Setting:
a chat room

Dramatis Personae:
Ann Ominous-a recently divorced Academic (34)
O’Sirus-a bisexual serial killer with an interest in Celtic murder ballads and Egyptology (43)

OS: I like you’re profile pic

AO: To the extent that you’re willing to ‘believe’ (i.e. suspend disbelief) that the picture is A) ‘me’, B) recent and C) un-photoshopped, I thank you. What is it that you ‘like’ about the image, specifically? (And please don’t respond with, ‘your eyes,’ since we’re all aware that references to the ‘eyes’ are always coded symbols of everything *but* the eyes in the context of online transactions of desire and power). It would be refreshing, I confess, if a man, just once, were to answer the above-stated question bluntly, with, for example, ‘the size, shape, and elevation of your breasts’ or ‘your truculent, fellatio-evocative pout’, though, I’d qualify this confession by saying that a man gets ‘points’ (a currency calibrated in what units?) for somehow reconciling the ability to be ‘refreshing’ (transgressive) with some degree of elegance or suavity. That is to say, a contextually ‘hermaphroditic’ presentation interrogating the vitality of ‘male’ aggression with ‘female’ strategies of mimesis-in-play (‘play’ as equal parts ‘agon’ and performance) might prove to be a delightful synthesis. Not that I’m advocating a totalitarian approach to the aesthetics of persuasion, though Henri-Levy did, of course, once quip, “The only successful revolution of this century is totalitarianism.” However, lest your eyebrows remain raised (*emoticon of mirth*) at my referencing such a camera-ready poppinjay as BHL, I will “raise my stock” (as traded on what FTSE of sexual metaphor?) by appropriating the gravitas of Levi-Strauss instead: “If the composer withholds more than we anticipate, we experience a delicious falling sensation; we feel we have been torn from a stable point on the musical ladder and thrust into the void.” Substituting, of course, the terms “cockmaster” for “composer” and “pleasure arc of masturbatory chatting” for “musical ladder”. Not that I expect (hope?) that this last ‘revelation’ (obfuscation?) will ‘up the ante’ (referencing as this colloq. does the ‘game’ of ‘poker’ and the demotic pun it redeems) in our ‘chat’.

OS: ?

AO: 551 275 1585

James Wood vs the Gifted Amateur

There’s no question that James Wood is one of the best at what he does. The question is: what does he do? He’s a professional literary critic whose angstrom-close readings sometimes seem to be the work of a team of researchers at Bell Laboratories, yes, but what does a professional literary critic, in a modernly modern sense, do? The ‘critic’ is the Artist’s vestigial twin, and the adjective ‘professional’ is the shibboleth of modern modernity. You’re nothing these days if you’re not a professional, a judgment pertaining to the Arts as pitilessly as to the Trades, and James Wood is no nothing. As a critic he gives advice, and as a professional critic he gives his publishers, his audience and his subjects their money’s worth. The advice he gives isn’t cheap, simple, or to be confused with the efforts of a gifted amateur.

Just as today’s Professional Sports dwarf the gifted amateurism of their antecedents and lose in purity, community and grace what they gain in technology, ubiquity and spectacle, the professionalized Arts, along with such dependent trades as Arts Criticism, often lose in meaning and purpose what they gain in… professionalism. Mr. Wood’s professionalism comes at the expense of his purpose, unless his purpose is merely to give authoritarian advice to the reader who reads him about what to read and how to read it while advising the other writers his readers read and who read him what to write and how to write it.

While the amateur critics of bygone eras allowed the unreliable impulses of inspiration and passion to move them to write about books about which they were from time to time feeling enchanted, incensed or merely curious, modernly modern professionalism demands a level and consistency of output that renders such rationed, interest-motivated production impossible. Modernly modern professionalism, with any success or longevity, inevitably engenders a Brand. The gifted amateur can only offer the stumbled-upon epiphany where the modernly modern professional promises the security of the Brand.

Modern modernity mandates a scientifically maximalized, Brand-based professionalism that systematically excludes the amateur touch from every good and service that it maximalizes, with one result being that the once marginally professional Fine Arts, Entertainment and Team Sports nexus has become an epiphany-free product cluster. James Wood is emblematic of the pitfalls of applying scientifically maximalized professionalism to a field that is the natural preserve of the gifted amateur.

Scientifically maximalized Professionalism is stringently systematic, tends toward gigantism and presents a deliberately intimidating façade; this is as true of Major League Baseball as it is of the global Fast Food Chain or James Wood’s literary criticism. The deliberately intimidating façade functions as both symbol and filter: a symbol that the touch of the amateur has been filtered from the premises and a filter to the amateur’s touch. Mr. Wood’s intimidating façade is the depth, breadth and esotericism of the knowledge he employs in the literary advice it is his job to produce. The gigantism his modernly modern professionalism suffers from is exemplified in his tendency to advise against the reading and enjoyment (as well as the writing) of whole categories of novel, rather than, as would be likely in the case of a gifted amateur of Mr. Wood’s learning and sanity, producing strictures against the weaker aspects of weaker examples of work from these categories.

Wood’s famous attack on ‘Hysterical Realists’ (Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, Jonathan Franzen, et al) immediately after 9/11, exploiting the confusion in its wake for the sake of an attempted paradigmatic coup, was, in fact, an attack of his scientific professionalism upon whatever vestiges of the gifted amateur still lurk in the works of these professionalized writers. The ‘empty’ stylistic double-talk he seems to think these writers use as a smokescreen to obscure (like murders to cover a fraud) failures of intent and execution regarding his systematized definition of proper novel-writing are really nothing more sinister than manifestations of the semi-systematic, highly personal, inspiration-based signature of gifted amateurism.

Wood (who often writes like a TV critic who started as a TV repairman and can’t write a review without mentioning RCA tubes) the modernly modern professional advises his readers not merely to be skeptical of certain aspects of this ‘Hysterical Realist’ canon but to dismiss it altogether; he advises writers such as DeLillo and Franzen and Smith not merely to be wary of certain tics and tendencies on the next outing…he advises them to not be themselves at all: to stop writing, essentially. To clear the way, presumably, for far more modernly modern professional novelists who would be a tighter fit to his criticism.

What professionalized professionalism demands (that gifted amateurism is at liberty to slack on) is constant, regular output…the curse of the assembly line. The necessity of regular output minimizes the primacy of inspiration as a spur to production. Whereas the gifted amateur critic is free to write when and about what and to the extent that his or her (often capricious) passions move her/him, the professionalized professional (hereafter to be referred to as the Professionalist) critic is bound at some point to ignore or disappoint the state of his or her passion for the sake of the level of her/his output.

Further, to the extent that a Professionalist approach must polish the fingerprint of the amateurist touch from the product’s finish, Professionalist criticism often employs intimidatingly heavy, expensive equipment where the amateur most often relied on eccentric, handmade tools…with no measurable improvement in the quality of the product.

Evidence of Humor in the Obscure Works of Amis the Younger: a Thesis

evidence-of-humor

Qualos freezes before screaming. He teeters on his clogstilts like an icon of incredulity. He tells himself don’t. Don’t scream. Screaming will only serve to. The car is gone anyway. It’s long gone anyway. Fast as cars move these days the thing is a kilometer gone and screaming will only help Snatchers track him and how much is all the paper in these books worth, after all? The big book alone. 500 pages and he’s got three of them and here he is Qualos K. schlepping this royal stuff unattended. Fatty Snatchers are sub-verbal and post-culture and heartless as the useful dead (as the saying goes) and so anything of value…anything. Qualos shudders. Aware of the booming black market in azfat.

Don’t worry about the books. The books are fine. The trousers are ruined. The books (in aluminum overcoats) are no problem but the trousers are toast. Digression: Qualos’s young colleague Wahn did an etymological study on the word ‘toast’ and discovered that long long ago the word referred to a fermented beverage. The modern usage (pertaining to a thing’s utter uselessness) obviously relates to the deleterious effects of inebriation via this potent ‘toast’ drink. Anyway. What was the kunt doing offroad? 

Qualos’s one fucking good pair of trousers, his inheritance, 100 percent natural fibers. He was to be married in these ancient irreplaceable things and he only hazarded donning them in the first place on this day of all days because there was going to be this supposedly special department meeting with Chancellor Shahvez present and now look they’re oozing with cum-streaks of acid mud and wouldn’t you know it the meeting was called off (department head beheaded; El Ai for you) so… great. Might as well strip. Right down to the skinsuit. Kick the rags down a firehole and be done with it. Blend in with the tards and proles in his skinsuit until he gets home.

No, he thinks, raising his chins.

No, a scholar wears trousers.

He sloshes home with self-satirizing dignity past several garbage-ringed fireholes along the way. The trousers soon hang in strips from his waist the skinsuit shining like a lamp under the smoking tatters yet behold the chins of Qualos, so resolutely high-held. This is where his breeding comes into it. The resolute chins, the noble baldness. The shreds of the heirloom Armani.

My problem, thinks Qualos, as the rattan ginormity of Hotel 547 looms unreflected over its sludgy moat into view. Too proud to exercise my prerogatives. Could have txtd Muhreea with the car’s vassalplate and Muhreea could have txtd her dad and dad could’ve called in a personal airstrike. Two minutes tops and Mr. Sports Tank is bar-b-cue. Qualos can see it clear as day the six-wheeled chunk of metal spinning on its back like a turtle dropped on a rock by a gull and te fruit-dealing negritoe within: a guttering wick. This makes Qualos smile.

What’s the point of marrying into a Warlord’s clan if you’re too proud to indulge in the perks? Qualos shakes his head with mock-long-suffering pride in his pride. Just as he is sometimes afraid of his fear and disgusted with his disgust he is proud of his pride. Typical scholar. Muhreea says don’t smile, Qualos, it makes you look so weak but he shakes his head and he smiles. What Muhreea and the rest of her dynasty fail to grasp is how a perceived weakness cloaks an unperceived strength.

Qualos breezes in through the southeast checkpoint and gets the green flash and the strangely disparaging (and vaguely homosexual) he’s harmless from the screener chip. No one so much as glances up from their phoenbooks, frowning through loupes at all the little paradise-colored displays. The guests, the guards, the residents all hunched and loafing with their phoenbooks in the sweltering lobby. Because their rooms are shit. Most of their rooms are pure shit; are prewar toilets; are prewar toilets without toilets. How many of them have ever seen a genuine natural fiber example of what Qualos is carrying?

Digression: young Wahn the colleague informed Qualos once that way-back-when they pronounced ‘toilet’ as toy-lit.

Anyway. Paper-based books or unicorn eggs: same diff. But no one even looks up and Qualos, modeling his hissing trousers like they’re an antediluvian museum-piece of a grass skirt from the lost island of Haw-y-ee, makes a beeline for the lift. It’ll take twenty or thirty minutes to elevate to the 182nd floor (Senor Heyzeus owes him a saki and a handjob) and he wants to get this over with. So, up to the 182nd and then back down to his corner suite (in this case he must admit he indulged in a perk or two alright: he has a tubtoilet, a vertical bed, a kitchen and a closet) on the 160th. It takes longer to elevate to the penthouse (that he would ever have any business up there) than to drive to the next city. He hopes he can score a seat in the lift. Both directions. But he’ll settle for up.

As it happens, there is a free seat in the lift and it’s right next to someone Qualos knows, slightly, another scholar named Geeairmoe. Geeairmoe with the long hair and high forehead and the little mustache and mincing lips looking terribly like that guy on the Dreamervision show, the show that’s supposed to be so well-researched and so well-calibrated that it won’t even give you headaches after doing it solid for a month. Won an M.E. award.

Geeairmoe, who certainly knows his way around a paper-based book (and would recognize the aluminum protector plates as property of the Uni in any case), nods at the pile in Qualos’s lap and says, pretending to feign interest, “What you got there?” He doesn’t even mention the trousers. Geeairmoe’s tact is infinitely more wounding than a gaffe could ever have been. Lethal bastard. He’ll be a Head in no time. “Anything good?”

“Amis the Younger.”

“Ah.”

Geeairmo’s eyes twinkle with the soft reflected torchlight of the citadeled pleasures of youth. Like if Qualos had mentioned boysex or something. Saying Amis the Younger always gets this response, notes Qualos: that good old Amis twinkle. Not terribly unlike the so-called Rowling Effect, as SocPsyc Officers call it: even apeshit hammer-mad loonies go all placid (enough to tranq ’em, at least) when you chant a few paragraphs from The Potteriad. Likewise the number of times people have afforded Qualos himself the goodwill that Amis the Younger’s beloved works engender. As though Qualos were the centuries-dead Amis’s Sancho. Or his emissary. In fact Qualos often wonders if Muhreea… if even Muhreea… and so on.  He shakes his head.

“They’re all by Amis the Younger but it’s not the Little Paco series.”

“He… aha. He produced other books?”

“Quite a few, actually. Most people aren’t aware of the fact that Amis didn’t even begin the Paco until well into his seventies, which was considered an advanced age for intellectual activity back then. He first published in his early twenties, which people in those days considered rather young. Between his early twenties and his late fifties, he produced a fair amount of work, though only experts have read any of it, of course. We tend to refer to them as the minor works. The apprenticeship he had to serve, if you will…” Qualos sniffs, “in preparation for the masterpieces he’s remembered for.”

He strokes the scratched metal cover of the uppermost book. “I’m working on a Global Thesis Post (he can see that Geeairmoe is impressed, despite himself) to the effect that these so-called ‘serious’ early works…all of which Amis wrote in Old English, by the way… were intended to be every bit as comedic as Little Paco. It’s the radical difference in style and the shift from Old English when Amis made the all-important conversion of working only in Spanish (which in turn has to be converted into modern Spenglis) that throws the historians off, I believe. Not that I can’t commiserate with the clueless bastards. The ornate language of these early works can be pretty slow going. A pretty tough slog. I’ve been working on these three alone for a metric year. Trying to think of a comparison. Have you heard of a paper-based Old English book called Finnegans Wake?”

“Ah,” nods Geeairmoe, who neither truly understands nor cares.

Please Remove Your Shoes at the Door

I was utterly happy with my height…with my life…until the summer of my 18th year, in 1987. In that year, you may remember, music still sounded somewhat like music, and shoulder pads were the prosthetic of choice, and the destruction of the environment was only the concern of a rarely-fucked minority of jobless sour-grapes crackpots. Now, everyone’s worried. But that’s another story. The summer of 1987 was the summer that my mother, trying to be helpful, made the devastating remark that changed everything.

“Now you listen to me,” she said, standing in the middle of our kitchen with her hands on her wide hips…her hips were the wide base of a very tall A-frame of Scandinavian design…“you’re going to meet plenty of bloody nice girls who would be proud to have you for a boyfriend, do you hear?” Bloody…that was her word.

She was shaking with anger as she said this, and it caused me to reflect that she was taking the news of Gilda Fontaine’s decision to dump me by leaving a message on the family answering machine more seriously than I was. Those were the days when answering machines were still a relatively new feature in the well-equipped household and the outgoing messages that answering machine owners recorded on their machines in order to greet new callers could be ornate and well-rehearsed presentations. Our machine boasted a salutation in four-part harmony. It was composed and arranged by my father; a crafty ditty that stretched our last name (Smoot) into five distinct syllables, and had all four of us enunciating the terminal “t” with a clarity that bordered on being hostile. My father was the music teacher/ phys ed instructor for King of Prussia Junior High, and he probably felt pressured into coming up with something technical like that, considering his position in the community.

I remember the tune as clearly as any song by The Beatles, and sang it under my breath at Dad’s funeral the year I hit thirty, not long ago. He was a little man too, but seemed to burn up the fuel of his allotted years with the physical greed of a giant. We bought him a full sized coffin, out of respect, but I’ve always been a little disturbed by the idea of Dad rattling around in that lonely box like a little gray lozenge in an otherwise empty tin of cough drops. A little man should have a little coffin: there should be no shame in that. But I digress.

So Gilda Fontaine called that Saturday morning in 1987 and waited impatiently through our barber shop quartet of an answering machine greeting, and with cold-blooded precision delivered herself of the announcement that the plans we’d made for that evening, or any day or evening thereafter, for that matter, were off and no hard feelings ciao. I should have heard that message alone: I really wouldn’t have cared that much. I wouldn’t have made much of it. Maybe I might have kicked something but so what.

She wrapped the kiss-off up with a very reasonable sounding “I just thought you should know,” and I remember being grudgingly impressed that she’d made her little speech without faltering. She was that kind of girl, the kind of girl who could leave a message like that on an answering machine without stuttering, in 1987, when everyone else was still afraid of them, and knowing that my whole family would probably hear it, but I guess she wasn’t born with the name Gilda Fontaine for nothing.

Some people are better than their names (like my college buddy Bubba Rukeyser), and others never seem to grow into theirs, but Gilda Fontaine lived up to her labeling like something from an exclusive shop (with its own brass nameplate) that the average person isn’t allowed into; that the average person doesn’t even know exists. Mother and I alone heard Gilda’s valedictory message. Father was busy with concrete and fence posts in the back yard, and Shel was somewhere near Haverford learning to drive. Mother’s finger was still on the “play” button as I left the living room to go into the kitchen to get some apple juice and hide my shame. She followed me straight in there and erupted with the pep talk that ruined my life.

“Now you listen to me, you’re going to meet plenty of bloody nice girls who would be proud to have you for a boyfriend, do you hear?”

It never would have occurred to my ego that Gilda Fontaine’s rejection of me was anything more personal than an act of God until my mother’s rage about it showed me the truth: Gilda Fontaine was dumping me because of me, and not because of some faulty wiring in her brain…she was dumping me because I wasn’t good enough. And the only thing about me that I could isolate as noticeably different from everyone else to a degree that it could be considered some kind of defect was my height. Before that, it’s funny to say this, but I thought of myself as a perfect jewel of a young man…pretty as a girl, but well built, and sensitive as a pampered prince from ancient Persia. A musician, a poet, a wasp-waisted boy: that’s what I saw in the mirror when I checked, which was often. A gymnast, a joke-teller, a mystic, a gentleman.

I knew I was tiny, but my size back then made me feel special, and well-crafted…transistorized. And back then I had the whisperable litany of The List: Alexander the Great, Al Pacino, Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Paul Williams, Friedrich Nietzsche, Tom Cruise, Ringo Starr, David Cassidy, Michael J. Fox, Roman Polanski, Francois Truffaut, Michael Dukakis, Rudolf Valentino, Napoleon Bonaparte, Dustin Hoffman, Toulouse Lautrec, Christopher Isherwood, Gary Coleman and Jesus H. Christ.

Well, seeing the compassionate outrage on my mother’s face in the kitchen that afternoon put a stop to those perfection fantasies; I might as well have been her hare-lipped birth control accident, chained to a pole in the cellar. I suddenly saw through my mother’s own eyes that I was fucked up and runty and I’d never be a leading man in the movie of my own existence. I was doomed to be a side-kick to some tall lummox at best, just like in all of those old cartoons where the smart little mouse tells the big dumb one what to do, but it’s always the big dumb one who has to save the little smart one from the cat when they sneak out in the kitchen for cheese accompanied by xylophone music.

The main point: my new knowledge changed me over-night. I became strategic rather than generous, and competitive as opposed to Aquarian. I divided the world into the complacent tall and the aggrieved short, and gave myself the rank of general in the secret war against tallness that I vowed to prosecute. But first there was the matter of acquiring a proper uniform. The footwear, at least.

One hour and ten minutes by car from our Elm-lined grove of a street was a shoemaker’s shop that I found after searching diligently all summer, poring over the Yellow Pages like a monk caressing an illuminated text. I found this beautiful old cobbler’s place…the smell as one crossed the shop’s threshold was the olfactory equivalent of rubies.

I got there minutes before closing time, but the proprietor of the shop knew my story in one half of a glance, and so he mercifully fitted me for a special pair of shoes which then came by special delivery the day before I had to pack my things and handshake my family goodbye for a private college set on the vertiginous flatness of the heartland. The proprietor of the shoe shop was a chocolate brown old African-American guy with the euphonious moniker of Elvinius Belkins, and his shop was called “The Shoe Fits,” and Elvinius, for three hundred dollars (a lot of money back then), gave me about twenty percent of my self-esteem back, plus a two year guarantee on the heels. They fit like new feet.

Now what would make more sense for a profoundly not-tall man-boy like myself, a man-boy who could just about achieve the low end of an average height with the benefit of teetering custom-made platform shoes? To pursue romances with the tiniest and most vertically suitable beauties available, or to measure himself against the quixotic challenge of scaling the lankiest amazons on the horizon? It’s a question, as always, of what might have made more sense, versus what really happened.

The administration of Fate is a concise business, I find. It tends to get right to the point (whether you know it or not). My first night at college I saw her: Mary Ford was that blonde redwood walking into my dormitory building as I looked down from the window in the second floor lounge, and because I was looking straight down upon the pale crown of her head, and the smooth topology of her breasts and shoulders, I couldn’t quite grasp her enormity, except by the shadow she cast in the glare of the floodlight mounted above the dorm entrance, which appeared to be five miles long.

It was evening, I had finished unpacking my things and I was thinking about meeting people, hanging out in the lounge down the hall from my single. I had opted for a single rather than a double because I wanted privacy (to strap into and out of my special shoes unmonitored, for one thing), but it hit me that the concept of privacy is separated from the condition of loneliness by the hairline fracture of self-satisfaction. And I wasn’t satisfied with myself. I wanted to meet people.

Mary Ford was walking into the building with another girl, a black-haired girl, and though they were neck-and-neck in the race into the building with their armloads of books and potato chip bags and whatever, Mary’s shadow was nearly twice as long as the black-haired girl’s…their shadows laid out were an umbral mother and child. “That’s my girl,” I said, out loud, as I watched her loom below.

It didn’t slow me down a bit when I discovered, looking up at her a little later that evening, that she had the heavy jawline and protuberant brow of a man, and hands that way too. Her new friend, that black haired girl, who was exactly my height when we were both in heels, was an exquisite Persian beauty. Her face and body were a study in delicates, and subtles, and rares. Her hands were sand-colored flowers. Her eyes were amber. But still, I wanted the big one. I wanted to be inside that particular Statue of Liberty.

“Farrah,” said titanic Mary Ford, with her surprisingly squeaky voice, “this is Albert…what was your, er-”

“Smoot.”

“Smoot. Albert Smoot! Smoot?” She nodded interrogatively, got my permission, and went on, “Albert Smoot. Farrah…what-”

“Dizadji.” Farrah looked directly at me while saying it. Then she clasped her hands behind her back and looked up at the giant who seemed to be finding us both so adorable and got up on tip-toe and said “Dee-zah-JEE.” Her voice was smoke and rosewater. “Dee-zah-JEE.”

She smiled, on the verge of repeating it, when Mary said “Right!” and clapped her big hands with pleasure, a young Ford discovering some of the acrid spices of the ethnic names to be found in the World beyond her high-wasp enclave in Connecticut.

Mary, daughter of Missy and Robert, sister to Hester, Paul and Ronald, granddaughter of Robert and Susan and Winston and Hester, niece of Robert jr., Ronald, Paul, William, Bob and Susan…

There was a gathering of people in the second floor dorm lounge. The lights were low. Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians were on the stereo. There was a keg of beer at the other side of the room, hoisted up on the aluminum counter beside the sink, and bags and bags of ice had been emptied into the sink, and stacks of plastic cups towered over two big yellow bowls of stale chips. There was no real food that I could gallantly offer to cross the room and fetch for either of them, and we all already had cups of beer to fondle as props, and the music was too loud for me to say much of anything to anyone but Farrah, whose ears were damnably close to being perfectly aligned with the axis of my mouth. Mary soon enough got tired of bending over to keep tabs on our conversation, and drifted towards the only other equally tall person in the room, a hyper-thyroid case named Wolper.

“Tell me something about your friend Mary,” I said to Farrah, with the innocent rudeness natural to my age and class, “do you think she likes me?”

“Why not,” she should have said, “You’re the perfect size for a pet,” but her manners forbid it. She said, instead, “Why shouldn’t she?”

“That’s what I was thinking,” I nodded. “Because I really like her,” I gulped my beer, “a lot.”

“She wants to be an actress,” offered Farrah, “So if I were you I’d try out for something in the Drama Department.”

What I ended up getting was the lead role in a Theatre-of-the-Absurd type play called ‘Oedipus Christ,’ a never-produced text unearthed by H. Frawley Caine, the school’s controversial (and soon thereafter ‘let go’) Drama Teacher. I played the Baby Jesus to Mary Ford’s portrayal of my character’s famous mother and there were plenty…too many…opportunities for closeness between us. By the end of the six weeks of rehearsal, I had mistaken Mary’s amateur professionalism for love. I confused the one for the other like a pitifully foolish mosquito, mistaking an onion for an elbow. So when she invited me to her door room “for a quiet little get-together,” on the night before the play’s premier, I misinterpreted her intentions with self-immolating raptures of stupidity.

“Knock knock!” I called through Mary’s dorm room door, coyly, at the appointed hour. Imagine the look on my face when Wolper opened it and bade me enter, the ominous prongs of undergrad cocktail chatter meshing behind him. I made to push by Wolper but he instructed me to remove my shoes and place them in a long row of conspicuously normal-looking footwear, on the mat in the vestibule, first.

But what’s the point of trying to mislead you? This is merely my attempt at a little creative empathy. I’m not short at all; the truth is, I’m rather lanky… it’s just that I haven’t reached the point “within myself” from which I can address my actual defects directly.