The Node, by Tito Perdue - first two chapters
It remains only to be told how our hero grew up and died. Let it also be told about his physical person, how he drifted from one career to another and this account can quickly be brought to a close. Of his ancestors and other things, little need be said.
To begin, he was a tall man and except for one particular feature, was reasonably average in a great many ways. His legs hung down on both sides, acuminating in two feet of no particular distinction. His arms were perhaps thinner than he would have wanted, as also his neck, ankles, and his reengineered dog, a honey-colored creature purchased at great expense from a nearby biological laboratory (now shut down). But primarily it was our hero’s face (because it was pale and broad and box-shaped), that drew the little bit of attention that sometimes came his way.
In fact, it was even worse than that, resembling, as it did, that of a squid, or the fly-wheel of an old-time escrubilator, those with the several holes that had been designed almost as of set purpose to simulate a nose and shrunken mouth. Seen in full sun, it looked, that face, like a slate that had been wiped clean and then redrawn in a faint blue chalk that had mostly peeled away by now. Worse still was his profile, which had a saurian aspect centered upon a bright red tongue that was forever darting in and out. And then, too, his nostrils were so small, minuscule orifices that established a whistling noise when he breathed in and viperous aspirations when he breathed out. Not part of his face properly speaking, his hair appeared to be a bituminous product capable of independent movement and employed primarily for testing the quality of the air. Never again was he to see a face like his own, not till that day he broke open a loaf of cheese and found there imprinted the original prototype.
Of careers, he had had about twenty of them before he achieved the age of 28. Remember that in those days, when the average life endured for 120 years or more, a person could dally for a great while before settling upon his authentic vocation. Accordingly he wasted a good four of those years in putting up dry wall for the neighbors and painting over it in acrylic. He was good at this and oftentimes could be seen grinning as he worked. Which is to say until there came the day when suddenly he grew bored with the whole process and turned around and left it, returning several hours later to clean up the mess.
He was too old for college but went there anyway. Torn between Sanskrit and Real Estate, he used to come to class and, his face veiled, used to observe the modern youths who sometimes seemed more interested in each other than in what was inscribed upon the school’s armorial crest. Himself, he had hated old people when he was young, just as now he hated the people moving in and out of view and, very often, trying to get a look behind his veil. The lesson was unmistakable – that the new generation was altogether as loathsome as the old one used to be.
He studied mining technology, choosing for his specialty the then-burgeoning kaolin industry. Linguistics was next, though he soon came to doubt the theory of the Indo-European tongue as the prime source of western grammar. No, he had seen better and more elegant formulations among certain contemporary rural individuals with whom he enjoyed a personal familiarity. It was mainly for that reason that he had veered over into the study of Moabite Antiquities and then followed that up with a three-month tutorial in The Schleswig-Holstein Problem.
Exhausted before he was granted a degree, he embraced a long stay in the fog-bound purlieu of Lago Todos Los Santos in South American Chile. Here, rising late, he reveled in the good sleeping the place afforded. And yet, here too, his money soon ran out. Angered by his imperative needs, he hitch-hiked back to the residual United States and accepted a profitable assignment enforcing the European Union’s universal hate crime laws.
His second stay at the University! Chile notwithstanding, he was tempted by seismology, by Pictish numismatics and other fields of study including most pleasurably (it was to prove his favorite subject) forensic nematology. Studied meta-chemistry and graphology, hotel management and resumé construction. Briefly he worked as an oculist, an occultist, a honey producer, trapeze artist, and wrote magazine articles for a journal laudatory of a certain breed of poultry. Briefer still, he tried to be a tin monger and then, finally, set up a rocks and minerals booth in Bryson City.
It was true that he had developed a small library, though nothing certainly like what his grandfather had built. Proudest among his volumes was the variorum edition on calf skin of Cockayne’s Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft, a capacious volume that had served him more than once in dealing with his own diseases.
(Diseases: He suffered from glanders and shingles, from nose bleed and accelerated hair growth. Other inadequacies of his were focused mostly below the waist, including the two or three of them [not mentioned here] that he had inherited from his people.)
He possessed a copy of the Newe Metamorphosis of Marston together with a boxed set of the annotated A. A. Milne. The History of the World Conqueror by Juvaini was his, as also a medical dictionary, two novels by Jerome Wisdom, Mother Shipton’s Dream Book, and volume IV (only) of The Cambridge Medieval History. He had a dictionary.
By this time he had taken a certificate in Teaching English to English Speakers, thus providing himself with a rich source of money. Between this and dry wall and the few hundred-weight of strawberries he was able to produce on his 20 acres, he thrived very happily for about two years, which is to say until he ran into a girl with the sort of figure that spoke to him, never realizing until too late that she had been modernized.
“Why so uppity?” he asked. “And why so loud?”
“Oh? And how would you like it, to be a women in this testosterone hell?”
“All I ever wanted was to be a CEO!” She wept.
He had two tomes on scientific matters and in the wake of their divorce used some of his alimony to harvest volumes V and VI of the above-mentioned Cambridge set.
He had other possessions, including most especially a .357 magnum revolver that held eight shells. He used to take this out sometimes at night and play with it, yearning for someone to launch an attack on him. He knew the effect of those cartridges, if not on flesh, on watermelons and cantaloupes at any rate. He had two suits, one of them mildewed and the other obsolete. He had a third that fit real well. Had a frying pan, a pocket knife and an outboard motor. But all these fell away into entire inconsequentiality when compared to his most prominent, most expensive, and proudest article of all.
One final book he had, a thing in golden covers that he had bought for its aesthetic appeal. And although he could read no word of it, and although it were far from his “proudest possession,” (being illiterate in Persian), he used to carry this around as well. He had no further books.
His investments, to bring this to an end, were negligent but diversified. Every share of stock was hedged by a put option, and every option by some stock. He had invested equally in futures and the past. But mostly he had put his money into the so-called “moral dereliction” coupons, granting certain rights. The wisest thing he had ever done, these had quickly been folded into some of the country’s best performing mutual funds.
Funds, alimony, coupons and strawberries, he was able by age of 37 to retire to his remaining acres, six of them. Here, shut off from the business (and busyness) of the outer world, he shortly lost account of what was happening. Did they still wear trousers, new style girls, and the nineteen petroleum producing nations, had they been subdued by now? He really didn’t know.
Followed then six years in silence.
He said it was because he no longer had access to propane that he chose to come to town. The weather had been so bad, and he could not stay warm throughout the winter without indenturing himself to hearth and dwindling hoards of hardwood. He had read his books, yes, but hadn’t laid eyes upon a woman in all those years. Having eschewed television and periodicals of every sort, he still believed the country to be what once it was. And then, too, owing to those nightly bands of stragglers and southern capitulationists migrating across his and his neighbor’s land… It was too much, as finally he admitted.
Originally it had been his intention to seek out a cylinder of propane and have it delivered to his place, a scheme that might have sufficed him until June; instead, after trekking the four miles to town and finding nothing of that kind, neither propane nor occupied cottages nor even anything else, he stepped from the edge of the forest and, treading as noiselessly as he could, began to penetrate the ruined suburbs that had washed up along the southern perimeter of Nelson County, as it was denominated in those days. Anyone watching from a moderate distance or less could have seen that he carried a knapsack on his back and was dressed in a hat of some kind that came to a point and bent over and pointed to the ground. That person could also have seen that he wore moccasins on one foot and boots on the other, and that he had accustomed himself to last year’s fashion of doing without socks.
But no one could have guessed what he carried in his knapsack, save that whatever it was, it was too heavy for an individual man. One waited in disappointed expectation of seeing him finally disburden himself of the thing and open it up to view. One also noticed that he was being trailed by a dog, an animal of commensurate size with a metal collar that made somewhat of a chiming noise as the little links happened to brush against each other in time with the pace adopted by the… It chimed. The animal, yes, was old, a burnt-out case really, but endowed still with good dentition.
He said he saw bats (one of them transporting a frog on its back), circling ever so slowly about the smoke stack of one of the downtown factories. It was a period of long nights and short days, a symbiotic combination that still worked out to the usual 24 hours, more or less. Next, he crossed over into a Salvadoran neighborhood where he must tread with utmost care lest he be discovered and chased down and stomped to death or inserted into one of the glowing ovens where even now at three o’clock in the morning the local bakery was readying the next day’s wares. Pressing at the glass, he spied into upon a numerous family of a burly wife in a peasant’s skirt and some four or five children suffering, apparently, from want of vitamin D. No question about it, the odor that came from that place was praiseworthy in the extreme and included new-made pastries that could be smelt if not, however, seen. Here he lingered, aware at the same time that a lamp had come on in one of the overhead apartments. Far away he heard a radio full of static and bits and pieces of Spanish spoken at exaggerated speed. And that, of course, was when the hound, impatient to be moving, began to whine in his way, a nasal sound as annoying as a child’s.
They moved past the twice life size statue of a bearded man who had been the western hemisphere’s most admired mass murderer. Never pausing, they crossed over into a Korean district where their safety was fractionally improved, as our narrator believed. But if they were awake and active, these neighborhood people, and going about their business, one could not have detected it by obvious signs. Was he being watched by Asian eyes? Probably. And might they leap out upon him as he wandered by? He thought not, no, or not at least with any effect, not so long as he carried in his vest the .357 caliber heirloom revolver handed down to him by his fathers. And this was not even to mention the some 500 rounds of ammunition that formed so integral a part of the freight that he carried on his back.
He was old and getting older, and his footwear was old, too. In younger days he had tried to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk while at the same time keeping a conscientious score of his failings. But not now, not when such matters seemed somewhat less important than more pressing projects bearing upon his prospects and very survival indeed.
By 3:57 he had come to the heart of the downtown city, an underwater garden, as it seemed, owing to so many stalk-like buildings wavering in the breeze. Here he halted long enough to twine his scarf more snugly about his neck and then take out a cigarette and ignite it hurriedly for the warmth it might give. The stars, they were migrating back and forth – until he understood that it was but a deception caused by the motion cited above of so many tall structures weaving back and forth. He saw then a light burning yellowly in one of the upper stories, and silhouetted against it what either was a human being or item of furniture of some sort. There was no question but that the wind put on higher rates of speed as it wended among the buildings and ran off down the streets lined on both sides with commercial buildings. It was 4:07 in the morning and they still had several blocks to go.
“About four more blocks,” he said. “But what if they don’t let us in?”
He groaned, the dog, and then began searching up and down the avenue for other possible places in which a person and his dog could escape the wind. A capsized car lay in the intersection, its doors all missing and offering no sort of protection. Except for that neither man nor dog could see any sanctuary soever from the wind.
“Too late to go back now.”
“Well hell yeah it’s too late!” (He was speaking to himself in two voices.) “Should of thought of that before you started out!”
“I did. I thought about it.”
“The devil you did! I don’t know, sometimes you just...”
He stopped, distracted by an airplane toiling overhead. Many months had gone by since last he had witnessed any such thing as that, a jet-powered vehicle with, apparently, fuel enough to get where it was going. The man marveled and watched, shielding his eyes unnecessarily against the weak light of the moon. But what a poor pilot it was to steer like that, an unconfident person who changed his mind at the last moment and opted to keep on going instead of setting down.
“He’s not stopping.”
“Pretty obvious isn’t it? Jeez.”
A delicatessen came up, a narrow building squeezed in between two much larger ones. Pressing against the window, our traveler detected an illuminated glassed-in counter holding a selection of meats and cheeses together with a gallon jug of knurled pickles floating in brine. He perceived a sausage in there, too, a coiled and pudgy thing half again as long as the longer of his own two arms. They were eating well, were these people!
It was not that he intended to possess himself of any of these products, not at this time and not so long as the place held at least two CCTV cameras looking down from a corner of the room. The time was late and there was an iron grating over the window that could be folded up and pushed off to one side during operating times, an accordion-like apparatus that could by no means have been broken open save but by aid of much heavier tools than any possessed by him. Even so he marked down the location, using for that purpose the gel-point pen that he carried in his vest. Already he had circled a good number of landmarks on his street map, including the police station, the water works, and several other designations. Suddenly he ducked back under the awning, surprised that the airplane had come back and was patrolling almost exactly overhead. In the next block an individual of some kind had stepped from his doorway and was scanning up and down the road, oblivious, as it seemed, to our hero and his dog. He estimated it, the man who gave this narration, as the last day in April, 4:38 in the morning, birds circling overhead.
He arrived at his destination and bent down close to the numerals that provided the address, a four-digit combination (1647) that approximated so closely to a well-known historical date that he knew he’d be able to remember it always. He knocked once, politely, and then took off his glove and rapped a second time with greater vigor and simulated confidence. The building itself was of four stories with a frontage of perhaps a hundred feet. Each storey meanwhile had a row of windows, all of them occluded with grime or some other accumulation that effectively formed “mirrors,” as it were, that reflected what was left of the washed-out moon. Listing to one side, our man was able to perceive a very long and very narrow pennant furling atop the building, a black or possibly deep scarlet streamer that reached out over the street below and possibly a little further. He could not of course decipher the insignia all at one time, though it seemed to bear the portrait of a reptile or sea creature, or something along those lines. That was when the door came open and he found himself squinting from a distance of about six inches into the face of a wizened man, tall and thin, who wore a pained expression. His face was narrower than it should have been and in the moonlight his glasses looked as if they had been covered over in yellow paint. In those lenses our traveler could see himself, the building opposite, and an automobile working down the street.
“Peebles, is it?”
“No, I’m ----------------,” our boy said, giving his real name.
The usher checked his notebook, an inexpensive little affair with a spiral spine.
“I don’t see you on the list.”
“No, no. I was recommended.”
“Yes? And by whom if I may ask?”
He provided the name, our boy, and waited to see if it would register on the person’s face.
“Ah. Are we talking about a long-term stay? Or just for the night?”
“And the dog?”
“You weren’t followed?”
“No, no. I’m sure I wasn’t.”
The man stood back, giving entrance both to animal and man. The door, made of metal, was a good four inches thick and had a peephole in it that our hero had been loath to use while he was still in the outside world. He knew he was going to take off his heavy coat – (he had not been invited to do this) - and hang it on one of the hooks in the vestibule where right away he observed some six or seven pairs of shoes and boots and galoshes arranged in tidy fashion next to the interior door. The man stood back now and looked him over with a non-committal expression.
“Let me see if Larry is still awake.”
“Right.” He began to move into the building proper, which is to say until he was forestalled by the man. The fellow’s arm was long and thin and extruded incongruously from a sleeve that had girth enough for half a dozen men.
“If you’ll wait here.”
It gave our man time enough to seat himself, take off his own shoes and console his soles, as he liked to say. There were a number of etchings on the wall, most conspicuously of the letter “L” (for Larry?) in the Danse Macabre of Holbein. Our man moved closer, examining in detail the full horror of that scene. Perhaps it represented his own impending fate, should these people reject him and send him on his way.
He was a troubled-looking human being, this “Larry,” as could be seen in his face. Our man rose immediately and after wasting a few seconds by offering to shake with him, said:
“I ask for sanctuary.” And: “I have money.”
“So. Are you speaking of a long-term stay? Or just for the night?”
“And the animal?”
There were two facing benches in the vestibule, allowing them to sit across from each other. His interlocutor was an austere sort of person with gray hair rotting from the top and pointing off in all directions. His face meantime looked like the underside of the fibulation plate of a disassembled 2013 Husquevarna snow blower. His mouth was wide and had a better number of teeth in it than might have been expected at the start. His eyes appeared to have been made, respectively, of porcelain, agate, and jasper. And in sum he was a representative wall-eyed man, rubicund, pixilated, and portly. His handshake, which he consented at last to grant, was firm in the beginning although he very soon began struggling to get free. Behaving with conspicuous dignity, the man now plucked out his handkerchief, used it, and then began very calmly to inspect the needlework. “You come to us from…?”
“Yes. Been living out there in the countryside since 2019.”
“I should think you’d want to stay.”
“I would, yes, like to stay,” our man said. “But it’s not possible, not any longer. Can’t get propane. And too many strangers moving back and forth.”
“Flagellants, people like that. Rosicrucians. All sorts.”
“I see. Yes, we get them, too. Gilians, most of them,” he said, referring to one of the new religions. “Well, not as bad as it used to be of course.”
He acknowledged the statement, our man did, and then waited for the dialogue to pick up where it had just now broken off.
“Countryside, you say.”
“You left out the part about wives.”
“Now it comes out. How many?”
“How many wives? Or how many divorces?”
“Those two numbers ought to be about the same, no?”
“Not necessarily. For example I might still be hanging on to one of those wives, yes?”
The man put on an annoyed expression, and then drew out a pad and pencil and made a notation.
“Brought money, you say?”
He delved deeply, our pilgrim, into his knapsack, but then had to go back and release the combination lock that held together this rather protean piece of luggage that contained some forty-four pounds of highly miscellaneous contents. He had two hundred Yen and a little more, together with another sixty stowed away in a certain pocket accessible only to someone already knowledgeable about it. The man named Larry took up the bills and, wetting his thumb, proceeded to count the stuff, a slow procedure that seemed to give him a detectable pleasure that made both men blush.
“Two hundred and four Yen, all in specie.”
“Plus whatever’s in that little” – he pointed toward it – “that compartment there.”
“I brought some food, too.”
“The devil you say.”
“No, I really did! See?” He withdrew one after another some dozen little cans of sardines and processed meat, a wedge of cheese and box of powdered milk.
“No spirits, I assume.”
Our boy was pleased to be able to draw out a pint of rum and another, not quite full, of a coffee liqueur from the former Brazil.
“Gracious. And you’re prepared to donate all of this to us? What else did you bring?”
“Books! How many? Or rather, how good?”
He lay them on the table, eight separate volumes, each scarcer than the next. The man applauded his selection.
“Anything further? But no, your little green knapsack is almost empty.”
“I still have something else in there,” the narrator said. (He took out his .357 caliber revolver and 500 pieces of ordnance, well-organized objects standing, each, in a perfectly-fitting little cubicle of its own.)
“Oh gosh! We can certainly use this certainly! I think I’m going to let you into the great room, where we can talk ”
The room was great indeed, a high-ceilinged area which might almost have been a cathedral or shopping mall emporium at some period. But mostly his attention was for the fire, a robust affair in one of the largest hearths he had ever seen. They gravitated toward it naturally, man and dog, and stood at attention before the warmth. Suddenly he jumped back, surprised to find there an old man in a leather chair peering pessimistically into the flames. Outside it had begun to sleet, a commonplace occurrence these days. It formed a sound like that of grit being thrown unavailingly against the tall and very narrow windows that reached almost to the ceiling.
He was in an unusual place, an atrium really, notable for the lack of any sort of ornamentation or drapery, or art works on the wall. He was however able to make out through the gloom a heavy-laden cabinet holding as much as a hundred volumes lying sideways on the shelves instead of up and down.
“Shall we talk?”
He followed the man to the table and sat across from him. A coal-fired coffee maker took up the middle of the table, although the traveler waited until invited to do so before siphoning off a cup of the stuff for himself. The chinaware was frail and interesting-looking, and bore a pattern on it of scarabs and the sun. The coffee, too, was of almost the perfect temperature and there were good supplies of sugar and cream as well. The supervisor watched closely as our boy lifted the cup and quaffed down the contents in three or four hasty actions. And continued to watch as the boy poured out a second cup without pausing to be asked.
“You’ve come far?”
“Yes, sir. Peluria County.”
“Peluria! I thought that would be the last place. You knew that they’ve cleared Ringo County already?”
“I heard about it.”
“A few stubborn people still clinging on. They’re doomed of course.”
They looked at each other. A woman and child had come into the room and then, seeing the two men talking, turned and went out again.
“How do you feel about that?” asked the man called Larry.
“I think some of my people were in Ringo.”
“Odd business, no? We spent a thousand years putting together some advantages for ourselves, and now we’re supposed to give them all away.”
“Yeah. Everybody’s good, except us. We’re bad.”
“Precisely. Entirely appropriate that black people, yea and Asians too, should look to their interests. But don’t you try it!”
“Yeah. ‘Less you want to get ‘wedged.’”
“Just so. Is that why you’ve come?”
“I guess so.”
“To stand against this malign titration?”
“I been wanting to for a long time.”
“You’re an educated man?”
“Little bit. But I can still do things.”
“Automobile repair? We can always use that.”
“Shoot pretty good, too.”
“That’s even better. I’m already leaning toward letting you stay. Ever killed anyone?”
The boy looked down. “No, sir.” And then: My granddaddy killed a fellow.”
“Yes, but we aren’t talking about him. Our grandfathers were different kind of men.”
“Yes, sir, I agree,” our pilgrim said, after raising his hand and waiting to be called upon.
“And so we have to start all over again, no? And learn to be more like them?”
The pilgrim frowned painfully, his mind slowly coming into play. “Look out for our own interests? Instead of other people’s?”
“Precisely. Can you do that?”
The conversation proceeded smoothly, right up until the boy began to notice that the sun was coming up behind the stain glass panes in the lower sectors of the elongated windows. It illuminated the picture of a reaper sowing in a field, a blue tableau highlighted in pink. He had been wrong, quite wrong, to imagine that the place was devoid of art.
“Yes,” said the superintendent, “one of our people made that.”
Together they watched as one by one the dawn uncovered a succession of scenes showing an ancient ship floundering at sea, unicorns and insects and a layout of the daytime sky that might or might not replicate the reality that illuminated it from behind.
“We could not have created the Chinese civilization, we ‘Cauks*,’” the man said. “But nor could they ours.”
Came next the portrait of the seated Charlemagne, an aged but yet
handsome individual with a staff laying across his lap and a terrestrial
globe supported in one hand.
“Those were the days.”
The visitor, knowing little of such matters, nodded obligingly. His attention had meantime been called by the sight of some seven or eight
men, middle-aged types who had mustered in the vestibule and were preparing to depart the place, as it seemed. One wore goggles, one carried a canteen, and one had a bowie knife strapped at his side. Embarrassed by it, the chieftain tried to explain.
“We have to have some kind of income after all.”
“Try to use volunteers of course, but if that isn’t enough… Well! There’s always the lottery.”
Our boy put on a worried face. He had not come to this place in order to take up a position in the outside world. On the other hand, the seven men seemed to form an experienced group that no doubt was accustomed to coping with things. He even thought he detected a certain repressed excitement as they assisted one another with their paraphernalia. The dog, too, wanted to go, though his owner held him back. Meantime he was giving alf his attention to the stain glass portrait of a medieval cavalryman clothed in armor made of scales.
“No one works for more than 8 hours,” Larry was saying. “And if they do, why we’ll go after ‘em and bring ‘em back.”
“Where do they work actually?” the visitor asked, his mind still largely on the cavalryman etched in glass.
“Oh, the usual thing. Rolo there is in sales. The others are mostly public relations, consultancy, facilitation, etc., etc. That tall fellow there? Grief counselor. But never mind, we don’t expect people to participate in our little enterprises during their first few days.”
“I could teach.”
“Not hardly, not unless your Serbo-Croatian is a good deal better than mine.”
“I can’t speak it at all.”
“Ah. No wonder you’re here.”
The boy reached for the coffee but then changed his mind when he saw how bright the day was threatening to become. Oblivious to the law, he took instead a cigarette and ignited it with one of the outsized matches he carried always.
“You’re tired,” the man observed. “You’ve come far and you’re tired.”
He admitted it, whereupon the old man abandoned his leathern chair and, carrying his candle with him, conducted our boy down a long narrow hallway that grew yet narrower as it disappeared among the dark. Indeed it tapered so radically, that corridor, it caused the people to turn edgewise as they went on. Here were any number of little cells, mere cubicles really, that abutted upon the hall, some of them shut tight, some open to view, and some with individuals in them occupied with books or escrubilators or, in one case, a hunched man bent over a computer monitor that glowed a virid green. Here they paused, supervisor, visitor and dog, and introduced themselves.
“Herb? I want you to meet… By God, I haven’t even asked your name!”
“-----------,” our narrator said, choosing something from his recent readings.
They shook all around, Herb, the dog, and our man. He was a gloomy specimen, was this Herb, and because the computers gave so little warmth, had wrapped himself in a florescent shawl. The office itself was full of clutter, much of it on the floor, and one’s first impression was of a chaos so complicated that it had come to infatuate the rather unhealthy-looking man at the center of it all. Just now his monitor, clouded over by a fog of some kind, revealed a herd of whales roaming at high speed along the bottom of the sea. One’s attention turned then to some of the other screens that filled the wall and in two cases were suspended from the ceiling by what looked like nylon fishing cords. Among other sights, a person could see an unsteady black-and-white image of the very doorway by means of which he had entered the place.
“No one can sneak up upon us now by God,” the proctor said. “Not since Hollis here joined our ranks!”
Our boy meantime needed very urgently to piss, and if he was not soon given access to a mattress, might have to put himself on the unclean carpet and fall off to sleep in plain open view.
“Fellow needs to piss, I believe. See how he’s dancing around like that?”
“Yes, sir. And sleep, need some of that, too.”
“I see! Well you can have one of those, but not both. This is not a charity you understand.”
“Yes, sir; I understood that as soon as I handed my money over.”
In the event, his chamber, unclean also, did have bedding in it. He disrobed hurriedly and then arranged himself on a pallet barely thicker than the law required. He didn’t care. He had been traveling for fifty hours and more and was tired of reiterating in his mind all that he had done and seen during that time.
And slept well, too, which is to say until about noon when he stirred and stood up and then, assuming he was allowed to use it from time to time, began searching about for the facility. He passed an old man sitting in a cell, a bald sort of person bending over a book bound in membrane. The fellow looked up and smiled.
“You’re the new fellow.”
“Yes, sir. I guess so.”
“And your homestead? Your cozy little farm? What will happen to that?”
“I don’t know.” (Gloom came down over him.) “The government’s talking about giving it to the Cambodians.”
“So! An underrepresented group.”
“Yes, sir.” Deferring the need to piss, the boy now stepped into the constricted room and began to marvel at the array of books that covered three walls entirely and a good part of the fourth. A globe of the world, too, although it reflected a very obsolete notion of countries and continents, including the picture of a bosomy mermaid sitting on the shelf of Argentina.
“O, I see,” the man said. “You think I’m trying to escape the present by retreating into the past.”
“I would,” the boy said, “if I could.”
“Larry doesn’t like that. He thinks we still have a chance to bring back the country we used to have. Before you were born.”
“Yes, sir. I’ve heard about it.”
“You’ve heard about it, but I was there. Bathroom is down the hall and to the right.”
He slept again, this time until twilight came and pressed against the window panes. Leaving his compartment, the “boy” (he was 44 by now), stood for a time trying to understand the arrangement of the stalls and the half-dozen entryways that let in and out of the corridor. He saw a woman and child moving from one room to another and then another person of about his own general type and size carrying an ancient-looking leathern satchel with a hammer and drill sticking out. Outside he could hear cars and buses and the other expectable traffic of the city, even if the noise was muffled somewhat by the apparent density of the building. It was as if he had come to a fortress set up by bad judgment in one of the most dangerous of places, 160 miles outside Nashville, Tennessee. Suddenly just then a tightly focused ray of light broke through the window nearest the boy and loitered for a few seconds on the opposite wall.
“We need to do something about that,” said the man called Larry who had come up behind and had placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“I had my way,” he continued, “and we’d brick up these windows.”
“I could do it.”
“No, all I need from you just now is that ammunition you’ve alluded to. And street map.”
Agreeing to it, the boy returned to his cell and took out both the ammunition and the hand-drawn map, all of which he passed over to the man who stood waiting for it impatiently. His ears, the newcomer observed, were appreciably bigger than they should have been and resembled a set of little wings designed to fly his mind to higher realms. However he said nothing about it, the boy. Instead he said:
“And I have these antibiotic tablets.”
The man took them hastily and spilled them out into his paw, also larger than it ought to be. Having settled into the crux of that cup-like paw, they looked like miniature eggs in a nest of fingers.
“They’ve expired, these.”
“Yes, sir. But if you take a lot of ‘em at the same time...”
“All right, that’ll be all right. Anything else?”
“No, sir. Just personal possessions.”
“Clothes and so forth. Toothbrush.”
“Yes, but don’t I see another book” – he pointed to it – “another book in that green and formless pouch of yours?”
The boy drew it out reluctantly and then stood by as the superintendent opened ever so gingerly the faded yellow cover and scrutinized the author’s name, the title and imprint information. Continuing with it, he then turned to the text and began to read silently, his two lips fluttering in resonance with the high-grade prose. The boy waited. There was a famous scene in chapter three, if the man desired to read that far.
“Now that’s the king’s true English!” he said finally, after shutting the book and looking to heaven and then opening it again and going on with it. “And such adjectives! He must have searched the world to find those!”
They were getting along very well, it seemed to the newcomer who then tried but failed to take the book back into his own possession.
“Glad it was written when it was. Today, of course, it could never be published, not with the English-language quota down to seven per-cent.”
“Oh yes! And that applies to library collections, too.”
Outside a heavy truck had come and parked just next to the building, an armored personnel carrier as the boy at first believed. It was requisite for both men to edge away from the window, lest someone detect them in the dim. Huddled there, the man now gave back the revolver and most of the ammunition, saying:
“Ah, well; you’re just as likely to need this as any of us.”
The boy took it gratefully and waited for the book as well.
“Nowadays there’re just two sorts of Americans, my man. Those who know they’re sick, and those who don’t. Have you breakfasted?”
“No, sir. It just got dark a minute ago.”
“My wife, she keeps us in bacon and eggs, everything. Watermelon rind pickles. Fine coffee, really good; you’ll be coming back for more all night long.”
“Sounds good. I think I’ll just put that book back where it was and…”
They fought for it and then entered the main room, dodging swatches of moonlight that had leaked through the tattered drapes. He counted, the novice, some two dozen adults up and down the length of that enormous table, not including women and pets. It disturbed him somewhat that his own dog had acclimated so quickly to things, diluting the allegiance he owed to one person only. But meantime the coffee was good and brown and the boy permitted himself to splash about in it for the first several minutes, ignoring the questions coming in his direction.
“Yes?” he said finally.
“And left it of your own free will?”
“I didn’t have any choice! All these people hanging about. Couldn’t get any propane.”
“Your ancestors, they had propane?”
“No, no,” said the third man, a heavy sort of individual with an incised face whose blue lips at first glance appeared to have been positioned above, as opposed to below, his gingham nose. Known as Charles Roach, he had come to this place from a failed motel business named after himself.
“No, he had every right to leave. Who are we after all?”
“You don’t know?”
“We who have come together here to avoid those self-same interlopers who…” The man hushed, aware that he had employed one of the illegal words. Two minutes went by in a general embarrassment in which one could hear almost nothing save for the noise of diners breaking open their colored eggs and/or tossing down bits and pieces of the excessively good bacon. Far away the boy saw a bearded man raise his hand and start to speak before realizing at the final moment that he was about to rub up against the grain of the prevailing silence. He had started out to say something about “rights,” and the sort, something like:
“No, he has every right in the world!”
“OK, Clay, that’ll do it for now.” And: “Could I ask you to pass the bacon please? Good stuff, by God.”
Never before had the boy had access to as much hot coffee as he had now. Lifting the kettle in both hands, he poured out nearly a full quart of the stuff, resolved to drink all of it before the decision went against him and he was made to quit the place.
“Play chess?” asked the man in the quartzite glasses. His hair was a mess, this man’s, and offered the perfect habitat for spiderlings and things like that. Some years ago the boy had read an essay about these creatures, their great variety and sexual habits.
“I play a little bit,” said the boy. “But I’m not very good at it.”
“Glad you warned me. Nothing more tedious than…” His voice trailed off.
“But if they let me stay, maybe I could become a better player. Well! I couldn’t be much worse could I?” He laughed merrily.
“No, you said ‘they.’ If ‘they’ let me stay, you said. That’s what you said.”
He drank hurriedly, our hero, from his fourth cup of coffee.
“It’s Larry makes these decisions, Larry alone. And of course Milt.”
The man named Milt now raised his hand. He was, and no doubt is so still, an atrabilious-looking quantity with some sort of decoration pinned just next to the mandated badge that revealed his genome.
“I used to own this building,” he said in a reedy voice somewhere between an oboe and a clarinet’s. He was shy and his hair was as much of a problem as anyone’s there. “But hey, what do I need with a building, right? And then, too, Larry is a very persuasive man.”
They all looked to Larry, save only Larry himself who went on eating in the meditative style that seemed to suggest he was disquieted both by the quality of the discourse and of the people alike.
“He’s the one with the plan after all,” added Milt. “That’s what we’re counting on anyway.”
“That’s right Milt, tell this stranger here all our secrets why don’t you? Christ.”
“Don’t worry about it – the way he’s going now he’ll be completely caffeinated in another few minutes anyhow.”
It was at this juncture that the boy elected to take no further coffee at the present time. He was still young enough to have observed that the woman across from him was, 1., in a bathrobe, and 2., the robe was slightly open. How he despised these perceptual interruptions that tied his attention to the female body and its things, he who had set out to seek for intellectual guidance and a more valuable form of life. Draining the very last of the coffee, he stood along with the others and returned their little bows of courtesy, a nice action that told him the place was as civilized as could be wanted, and no one could want it more so.
“You’re the new boy,” the rector said, drawing him aside and handing off his own unfinished plate. “And so you get to slop the pigs.”
He laughed merrily, our boy, until the others also began to donate their leavings, hash brown potatoes that had not been entirely consumed and shards of bacon fat. No question, about it, the chess player was enjoying this.
“See what happens? When you don’t take the game seriously?”
It was a primitive sort of arrangement, that which had been set up for the pigs. Open to the sky, the palings enclosed perhaps some thousand square feet of space squeezed in between the barracks, the adjacent suntan salon and second-hand escrubilator lot. Entering with trepidation, our boy threaded his way among and between the hogs and the dozen or so chickens who cohabited with them in a state of peace as it seemed. At first he offered the ladle to each animal individually, meeting with refusals everywhere. The chickens especially wanted no part of him and stayed as far back as the enclosure allowed, eyeing him unsmilingly. That was when he perceived the wooden trough, a rude structure built of planks that ran around the interior of the den. “It’s here they are wont to feed,” the newcomer said, taking care not to let the chess player (watching from the window) see what he was thinking. Truth was, he was impressed by these animals, their general dignity, their stance and pertinacity. They knew what they were and had come to accept it with grace. Coming nearer and bending low, he testified that the leader of them, a robust creature with a sawed-off nose with two holes in it, possessed intelligence of a kind, one that reckoned with the outside world in ways that he himself could only guess about. The moon above, how, really, did it seem in the eye of a hog? Moving over to the adjoining animal, he saw that its face resembled the surface of a grapefruit cut in half. Here, too, he witnessed that most adroitly positioned of all the world’s noses, a dispensation that allowed the thing to pick up crucial scents a good long time before the rest of him arrived at the scene.
The third pig was more porcine than the others, his head and face a tetrahedral that came to sharp points fore and aft – the boy paid no further attention to him. It reminded him of a flounder or an ape, or a certain protozoan whose features are solely to be seen beneath a microscope, and then only from specific angles.
It was impossible for the hens to reach the trough wherefore our novice began to search about for the assumed bag of grain that could be scattered about on the cold hard ground. The third hog, as he attested now, had ears as thin as palimpsest that had been erased so many times and to such effect that actual perforations had developed in the plasma. However, he preferred not to think about it. Instead, looking skyward, he sheltered his eyes against the moon and waited for the next meteorite, confident that he would see one before very long.
“You’d do better looking more to the east.”
The boy jumped back two steps, but then managed to regain his footing before stepping into a cache of hog manure.
“I didn’t know anyone was out here,” he explained.
“No? And yet here I am.”
The two people looked at each other. If any meteorites were falling down just now, they would not be perceived by either man.
“Quite a… contraption you have there,” said the boy. “What is that, a telescope? And chair to sit in?”
“Yes indeed. Except that this is the chair. The scope’s over there.”
The boy came nearer and laid a finger on the long length of the instrument, a galvanized tube of about four feet that pointed to the eastern sky. He did not actually ask to make use of it and was not invited to do so at this time.
“You can see pretty far, I guess, with a thing like that.”
The man smiled. He was fuddling with a stack of cards and his face in the moonlight looked like a sheet on paper on which someone had etched one eye only and part of an ear.
“Yes indeed. I would have thought you might ask to see for yourself.” And then, speaking to himself in a barely audible voice: “But he didn’t!”
“I’ve been feeding these hogs.”
“Nothing wrong with that. Besides, it offers something to occupy the mind. And in that connection, how do you come to be here actually?” Suddenly he held up his hand. “No, no, nothing about propane please.”
“Migrants,” our boy said. “They were beginning to take my things.”
“No, these were one of the underrepresented groups I believe.”
“Tattoos on their elbows and cheeks?”
“Why yes. Yes, sir, that’s them all right.”
“We see them here, too. Sometimes. They’ll take a hog, if you aren’t careful. You sure you don’t want to peep through this scope of mine?”
The boy came to him from long distance, moving at first toward the chair which looked as if it belonged in a dentist’s office, so many attachments did it have. The scope itself had honed in upon a dark place in the sky, which is to say until the child had given himself time to adjust to the distance. And even then he had to wait a while.
“Looks like a… constellation. A real small one.”
“Yes, Procrustus actually. He’s in the ambit of Genevieve tonight.”
“Yes indeed. They used to laugh at us, remember?”
“I do, I do remember.”
“And there, there in the lower left quadrant, do you make out a little pinpoint of light that seems to be pulsing every few moments or so?”
The boy adjusted himself slightly and then twisted the eyepiece by a fraction in hopes of compensating for his myopia.
“I do. I see it.”
“That will be a heliotropic dwarf, as they used to call them. Never achieved fusion don’t you see, the poor thing. Now look just to the left of that – you see that very small object that looks like a hole in the sky with light pouring through?”
“I see a green thing that…”
“No, no, that’s just intervening trash of some kind. Ignore all that and keep on looking.”
The novice kept at it until his eyeball began to throb. Turning away at last, he noticed, first, how the hogs were jointly gazing at the sky. The other thing he noticed was that the astrologist had taken out a little flask from somewhere and was drawing on it. Reverting to the scope and applying his fresh eye to the opening, the novice worked to recapture the asteroid he had discovered earlier, a newly discovered body called MLK that had taken up in the orbit between Neptune and a far-away planet that hadn’t even been christened as yet. He realized that his one eye was better than the other and that the scope allowed him to make the needed adjustments for that.
“I see it.”
“Splendid! You’ll go far. That’s the innermost planet – Silenus we call it - that circulates around the dwarf.”
“Gosh. I didn’t know planets could give off light.”
“Never mind about that. Now, focus on that extremely tiny little business that sits just off the coast of Silenus. See it? That little sucker’s not much bigger than a grapefruit.”
“O, I’ll never be able…”
This was tedious and his eye, previously fresh, was beginning to burn. Turning to the man and away from the scope, he interrupted the project.
“Getting chilly out here. A little bit.”
He went on with it. He might as well be looking for lightning bugs in the night while knowing that all such flies as that had been extinct by 2009.
“I see it now.”
“No, I want the truth.”
The boy went back to it. It was almost noon (midnight) and the skies were full of an insensate activity that obtruded on the view. Turning his instrument to the moon, he detected a bad place along the rim where a fragment had fallen out, causing the planet to be “out of round,” as the expression had it. The hogs meantime had gone back into their tiny cubicle and, safe from meteorites, were lying in a pile.
End Chapter Two
Labels: apocalyptic fiction