Tuesday, December 4, 2012

THE WATCHFUL EYE OF SOL INVICTUS


           People love the Sun. It’s understandable. It’s etched into their DNA. The earth started as a primordial jambalaya of disparate molecules. Then the Sun started kicking those molecules into one another until the simplest little lifeforms poofed into blissfully unconscious existence. The flora still rely on the Sun for their sustenance. Which means the fauna rely on the Sun for their sustenance. Which means humans rely on It for theirs. Maybe that’s why they keep farting into the mouth of the ozone. Their eyes are bigger than their stomachs. I guess you could argue that I should feel a particular devotion to that great incandescent teat in the sky too. If you can draw a straight line from the Sun to the plants to the beasts to Man, then you can certainly slot me into that next leg of the relay.
            But I’m the City. The Sun doesn’t agree with me.
            I was created for large swaths of the population to live together in one centralized location. That’s a big word, “together.” It’s tethered inexorably to that weird vestigial reflex of humans’ to amalgamate into a community. That’s another big word. I’m community writ large. Literally. In me the community’s become so gargantuan it now defeats its own purpose, like some gluttonous mastodon that’s gorged itself stupid and lies prone on the ground paralyzed under its own weight. You hear about it all the time, stories about people crushed lonely amidst the teeming masses. It’s all about the affects of energy, and what’s the Sun but a whole lot of concentrated energy? Some of it spills onto the earth, and the affects are not always positive. I’m sure that far, far away from me, wherever agriculture still happens, the positive affects are more obvious. But within me, the City, they’re evasive to the point of doubtful.
            People order their civilizations around the Sun. Each morning it punctures the horizon like a newborn chick punching through the shell of its egg and life springs to life. Slowly the streets fill with each man and woman’s conveyance of choice until they’re enmeshed in a swamp of gridlock. Each car, bus, truck, train, and trolley belches its gaseous affront to the olfactory with arrogant impunity. Their fumes collaborate with the ascending heat of the rising Giver of Life to thicken the air and fan the tempers of the ones who breathe it. The bleats and barks of those machines echo through my steel and concrete extremities. Computers and cell phones spit invisible waves so enigmatic their users don’t even understand how they’re poisoning themselves. But even if they did, they would still have trapped themselves in the sepulchral society of their own making. That’s the tempo, tone, and timbre they’ve defined for themselves. They set out every day as the morning’s rays first fall upon the backs of their heads and make their way to their places of employment, each one of them with the best of intentions. The ones who drive try to obscure the surrounding vicissitudes and ignore the omnipresent threat of reckless motorists with the becalming soundtrack of their choice, whatever they feel will best ready them for the gauntlet they’ve committed themselves to running. But there’s a logjam ahead, and if they’re late for work their immediate supervisor will be only too happy to exorcise his own tortures at their expense. The pedestrians are forced to keep pace in a veritable Pomplona of slaves to the market place. They know at any second they could plant their expensive new shoes into a thoughtlessly discarded puddle of freshly chewed gum, gong their already taxed knees into a fire hydrant unseen in the throng, or unwittingly walk into a rising wall of rainwater spewed onto their trousers by a passing taxi. All they can do is blot out their conscious mind. They lose themselves in either unattainable fantasy or the labyrinths of their very real miseries. Their eyes cloud over and soon they resemble livestock more than they’d care to admit. Overworked, underpaid, and completely devalued throughout the course of their day, they find momentary respite only in the toxic embrace of the occasional cigarette or an inflated sojourn to the lavatory. But the only hope they dare entertain is that once they’ve clocked out and made their barely navigable trek in reverse, they’ll have the liberty of dropping their guard within the familiar and customized confines of hearth and home. Is it any wonder I’m so often loathed and derided by the poor people who trudge through my streets, enduring the judging eye of the Unconquerable Sun?
            But the City at night – that’s a horse of a different color.
             I’m still the same City, still the same collection of fears and desires, ambitions and vices. It’s not so shallow as a change in cosmetics. It’s the Sun. The earth, abundant with existence, knows the Sun can’t shine ceaselessly. That the life It bestows would be maddeningly short-lived under It’s unblinking glare. So the earth wisely turns away to shield us, hide us, and grants us a view of the pastoral Moon.
            If the City under the Sun is an electric guitar rippling with distortion, the City beneath the Moon is a tenor saxophone, a plaintive mating call across an anesthetic ocean. At night my pulse drops to an adagio lullaby. The Sun requires a shielding of the eyes, averting them from the great wrathful god. But the Moon, closest to us of all the heavenly bodies, beckons us to look upon it and lose ourselves in Its coolly defined contours.
            My streets don’t choke on vehicles at night. Cars still litter the streets. They still erode my asphalt skin. But the air swirls between their steel heads and tails. I can breathe. I’m wrapped within a plain black canvas. Only the sweeping headlights of the passing cars and the gentle peck of the street lamps cast away the pervading darkness. We lose ourselves in those ensorcelling pools. Suddenly those pockets of urban squalor take on the mien of man’s glory illuminated. The glowing windows of our skyscrapers draw our eyes heavenward, the whole being a spire of slumbering fireflies. The worker bees may be buzzing behind those windows, but they beat their wings at their own speed, humming the tune of their choice. On the streets below, men and women young and old drape themselves in their most inspiring finery and set out to meet that certain soul whose madness can match their own. Every one calls out in prayer with each clack of heel on cobblestone, each clink of ice against glass. Every hour of our daylit lives are manacled to the apparatus of our own devising. Gears, motors, wires, and coils hobble our instincts and reflexes, our unconscious wisps of omniscience. Like beasts of burden worn raw and then discarded, we’re flogged ever forward through an endless storm of circuitry, driven on without pause or variation. We pray with every jest, every compliment, every show of gratitude, to find someone with whom we can share our defeats and our victories. Someone with whom we can vanquish the clocks and computers and conquer our addictive modernity.
            It’s a prayer the City can answer at night.
            But that prayer, however timely it’s answered, however fortuitous its answer may be, is little more than cold comfort. We know the Sun will always rise to coldly brush aside the blanket of night. Every morning the Sun will crest over the horizon, a border rendered porous beneath the unifying Moon. Waves of Hunnish light will sweep over us and mercilessly exterminate the wills of pauper, princeps, and all of us in between. Our hearts, once vibrant and fecund, will shrivel and expire in the inferno of day. Our carcasses will shuffle from point to point like the re-animated dead. We’ll drink in a Sun-scarred world through empty uncomprehending eyes without passion or purpose. We’ll never pray again. Then, only after several billion more years, will Sol Invictus, like a scientist who’s gleamed all he can from his cruel experiment, gorge himself on everything in sight, finally granting us the deliverance we’d prayed for.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

TAKING ONE FOR THE TEAM

"Now, man, that alto man last night had 'IT' - held it once he found it: I've never seen a guy who could hold so long. I wanted to know what 'IT' meant.
                                                                                                           - Jack Kerouac
         
       Loathe as I am to parrot the sociopathic stylings of Ayn Rand the Objectivist Bear, I have to call Shenanigans on the concept of altruism. Yes, I’m one of those people. Our goals may serve a true and universal good, but our motives are rooted in self-interest. Even our sacrifices tend to be little more than temporarily inconvenient trade-ups. When we take one for the team, it’s only for our own enjoyment of the game, and my readiness to take one for the team at the northernmost edge of the contiguous United States was pure selfishness.
In my early twenties I smoked Brobdingnagian amounts of marijuana. Enough to make sense of a Jodorowsky flick. Being a music fan I did the lion’s share of my smoking to an ever expanding soundtrack. I smoked to John Coltane (duh), Electric Wizard (very duh), Yes (yes – Yes), too many to mention. And then there was Phish. It took a little while for me to get it, but once I took the plunge into those limpid, phatty waters, my lips locked onto a hydroponic regulator and I never wanted to come up for air. When the band’s whalesong (yeah, I know – eat me) trumpeted a new festival in August, 2003, my friends and I set sail.
I’m done with aquatic metaphors.
The IT Festival, dubbed so after the Kerouac quote that opened this opus, was being held on the decommissioned Loring Air Force Base at the northernmost tip of Maine, a beautifully verdant state so sparsely populated it has town named after Battleship positions (“14F?” “You sunk my commonwealth!”) My one friend, Bloodvessel, lived in Boston and was responsible for getting the rental car and camping gear. Fucktoad lived in Los Angeles and was only responsible for getting himself to the East Coast. Having only to drive from Philadelphia to Boston it was my responsibility to procure the herbal refreshment. I bought half an ounce, figuring that would be plenty even with the three of us being the three of us at a weekend-long Phestival.
The ride to the festival was smooth until about five miles out, when the traffic suddenly became a parking lot. I shrugged and thought, Well, that’s to be expected. Phish’s previous festivals had drawn sixty thousand or more, and IT was not going to be an exception. What I didn’t expect was to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for SIXTEEN HOURS. 
Fucktoad, being six kinds of douche, curled up on the backseat and absconded with Morpheus the Dream King while Bloodvessel and I inched along through the night, making the best of it. We listened to Phish’s hour-long soundcheck, which they generously broadcast over the radio for the benefit of those of us trapped in our cars. Bloodvessel and I talked about the band, speculated on what they would play that weekend. We grabbed snacks from a convenience store we passed for an hour and watered the roadside. As high as my ire grew throughout the night, it all became worth it a little after five o’ clock in he morning. Bloodvessel and I smoked a bowl and watched the rising burgundy sun paint the sky over the forests of Maine as we listened to Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” 
Of course the full weekend of live, unencumbered Phish helped make it tolerable too. I won’t wax poetic about the music itself. Nothing I write will turn you into a fan if the music can’t do it. But what made the entire weekend something approaching a transcendental experience was the harmonic convergence of seventy thousand strangers. Seventy thousand people from divergent walks of life and contrary points of view congregated peaceably with a common purpose. Everyone endured the lines for the sinks and the bathrooms with grace and humor. People who had never met helped one another pitch their tents or hand out leaflets warning you to steer clear of the bad acid. The merchants compromised with the customers who just a little shy the price of that spiffy glass pipe or vegan enchilada. You could make someone’s day simply by acknowledging that their tank top was an exact replica of Kurt Russell’s in Big Trouble in Little China. To have something as trivial as a rock band bring out the best in seventy thousand otherwise disconnected souls may sound silly, but after experiencing it, the word “miraculous” doesn’t feel like hyperbole.
So, Tony, when do you get all selfish and take one for the team already?
Don’t interrupt.
We had set up our tent amidst all the others, but kept our valuables locked in the car until we needed them. As show time drew closer each day, we retrieved our valuables (the ganja, the bowl… and that’s it) and headed to the stage area. The stage stood at the bottom of a small valley on the northern edge of the Air Force base. Before the stage was a four hundred-yard penumbra of closely cropped grass surrounded by a fifty-yard ring of dirt. Wait – did I say, “ring of dirt?” I meant, a swamp of mud. It had rained heavily the previous two days and turned the dirt into a viscous morass of brown. Fucktoad, Bloodvessel, and I found a patch of grass about a hundred yards from the stage, close enough to see the band clearly and far enough away to enjoy Chris Kuroda’s light show in full effect. That was generally our spot for the two days of Phish. Both days were the clearest explanation of why I love Phish, but it was on Day Two that I took one for the team.
See? Here we go.
During the day’s second set break, before the last set of the weekend, the three of us looked at how much pot we had on us and thought we might benefit from having a little more. You know, just in case. Not a problem: there’s plenty back in the car. Problem: who’s going to get it? We looked back at the mob we would have to trudge through. Let’s say it was fifty thousand deep. Then there was the quarter-mile walk back to the car, then the walk back. Plus, we were facing a ticking clock. The band was going to retake the stage in about ten minutes, and none of us wanted to miss a note.
Fuck it, I said. I’ll go.
I set off through the jungle of audience. In the middle of the night, with little illumination beyond the flame of a lighter being brought to bare on the THC conveyance of choice, I dodged through swaying, dreadlocked branches and various inebriated trees that weaved and threatened to topple. The going became more Sisyphean when I felt my feet sink into the mud. I was now struggling not to just to get to the car and get back before the band returned but also to not fall into anyone. I don’t know if you’ve ever done it, but walking in sandals that are freshly caked in mud is a wee bit hazardous. I finally emerged at the perimeter of the crowd, and as I tried to speed-walk to the car across the asphalt drives of the old base, briefly wondered if the concertgoers on the perimeter were at all embittered. Soon I heard the crowd roar behind me and the band launch into “46 Days.” I turned to look – why, I don’t know since they were well out of sight at this point – lost my footing and fell hands first into the asphalt, cutting up my palms. They weren’t quite like paper dolls after a kiddie-scissors class (bonus aquatic metaphor!), but they still hurt. I moved on, cursing out loud since no one was around to hear me, and finally reached the car. I reached into my pocket and –
Where are the keys?
Fucktoad has the keys.
God. Damn. It.
I hung my head for about three seconds before heading back. I took better care to watch my footing until I plunged back into the crowd, the entirety of which, now that the music had resumed, was dancing or whatever you want to call a Phishhead’s mid-song gyrations. That was when I first thought, How am I going to find them? I knew basically where they were from our perspective of the stage, but that was all I had to go by. The music blared and the lights swirled as my legs were whipped by flowing skirts of, I guess, paper mache and potato sack. My face was slapped by flailing arms and dreads. Halfway across the quagmire my right sandal came off in the dark mud, and I had to blindly fish for it with my foot.
During my trek back I entertained the idea that Fucktoad would feel bad about having the keys on him, making me go through all that for nothing, that he would go get the weed this time. Nope. He just handed me the keys with the silent smile that only comes from six kinds of douche. I dove back into the patchouli gauntlet, this time abandoning both my sandals in the mud and walking across the asphalt in bare feet so that my soles matched my palms, giving little consideration to what items and fluids I might be traipsing through. Health update: I’m clean as a whistle. 
So… I got the weed and got back to Bloodvessel and Fucktoad just in time to catch the last five minutes of Phish’s forty-minute rendition of “46 Days.” I didn’t rant at my friends about my arduous journey through the shrooming Sargasso, or not giving me the keys, or losing my sandals, or my cut-up extremities. I just packed a bowl, fired away, and enjoyed the rest of the show.
On any other occasion I would’ve likely let my anger get the best of me and proceeded to scorch the earth, but in this instance I didn’t. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to ruin the weekend for my friends, or because I volunteered to undertake the Quest for Fire in the first place, or anything so frustratingly rational. No. Earlier that weekend Phish had ordered you – meaning, me – to enjoy myself – meaning, us, the crowd, not the band. I mean, they told me to enjoy myself, but they said you, but they meant… fuck it – they played “You Enjoy Myself” and I had intended to.
I’d taken one for the team, and time has proven it to be a temporarily inconvenient trade-up for my team of one. Every obstacle we negotiated has proven to be a sparkling baguette in the jeweled crown that was that weekend. I had a fantastic time, but I would not have enjoyed myself had I not been sharing the experience with two of my best friends. To be able to turn to Bloodvessel and share the thrill of a particularly blistering solo of Trey’s. To lock eyes with Fucktoad in mutual appreciation of where the band had taken the jam. And to look around and realize that the three of us where just a thread in a web of seventy thousand swirling around in the same musical holism. An isolated experience would be no comparison.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A BRIEF HISTORY OF HILLFIELD (Pt. 7)


7 - Vote for Goat

  In 1860 the United States teetered on the precipice of civil war. The states were sharpening their long knives in preparation for the inevitably violent dissolution of the country. The only hope for peace seemed to lie in the approaching presidential election in the form of Democratic nominee Senator Stephen Douglas, the rhetorical colossus in the body of a dwarf. Douglas championed the philosophy of “popular sovereignty” -- that each state and territory should have the right to decide the fate of slavery within its own borders. 
  Enter H. Grubbly Arrears. Born in Hillfield in 1818, Arrears began working at Linus Braggart’s Crippled Bear Farms at the age of nine. By seventeen he had saved his money -- and allegedly pilfered more from the increasingly prone-to-drink Braggart -- and used it to purchase his own small plot of farm land. By the age of twenty-one he had successfully ostracized Braggart’s children and convinced their now-alcoholically catatonic father to will his farm to the only young man with the old buzzard’s best interests at heart. Coincidentally, Braggart was dead within the year. Like Hugh Giggley before, Arrears began investing in extra-agrarian enterprises and gradually built an imposing fortune. Over time he gained a controlling interest in two manufacturers through means too byzantine and potentially homicidal to detail here: Broomward Clothiers in Newark and Cawley Canneries in the nearby metropolis-in-the-making Madsen. Arrears was a steely-eyed barrel of a man who, as Hillfieldologist Mark Krasker has awkwardly written, “sought to crush his enemies with his icy stare like a snail under hoof.” 
  By 1860 Arrears had vertically integrated his farming and canning, but Broomward Clothiers was by far his most profitable and highest-earning business. Broomward sold staggering volumes of its wares to the Southern plantation lords who clothed their slaves in cheap, practical scraps of cloth. Arrears was all too aware of the hit  his income would take with the outbreak of civil war -- no Southern slave owner was going to outfit his slaves with Yankee apparel! -- and resolved that the diminutive fire-breather Douglas must become President, not the popular Republican lawyer from Bumfuck, Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.
  Arrears was not the only industrialist indirectly profiting from slavery who conspired to undermine Lincoln. He was, however, the only one who, for whatever reason, did not resort to outright bribery. He could not have had an ethical objection to the practice -- it was, after all, instrumental, in his own rise to power -- and he may simply have deemed it more expensive than necessary. Instead, he poured his money into assassinating Lincoln’s character. His modus operandi was to paint Lincoln as a harbinger of doom, as the instrument of the nation’s destruction. Arrears commissioned numerous political cartoons and attack ads that literally painted Lincoln as the Antichrist stabbing at the American flag or the Mason-Dixon line with a pitchfork, replete with hooves and goat’s horns. Arrears then began verbally attacking Lincoln as, “a goat,” simultaneously scapegoating him for the impending civil strife and implying a lecherous and villainous personality masquerading behind the Honest Abe-persona. 
  New Jersey’s Republicans, however, fought back, accusing the state’s manufacturing interests of fear-mongering, corrupting the electoral process, and making fun of them. In July of 1860 several dozen Republicans (or, at least, several dozen roughnecks hired by them) gathered outside the Broomward factory in Newark and confronted H. Grubbly Arrears as he emerged from the factory. During the confrontation Arrears is reported to have barked, “Do you want an animal for President? He looks like a goat!” This off-the-cuff insult is believed to have inspired Arrears’ following salvo: a series of ads featuring a realistic portrait of the Republican candidate juxtaposed against a picture of a goat, highlighting Lincoln’s caprine resemblance. The state’s Republicans, not to be outdone, embraced the accusation and turned it on its ear, adopting the call “Vote for Goat,” and sporting hand-held signs and sandwich boards trumpeting the absurd battle cry. It is unclear if this tactic originated within Lincoln’s campaign, the only circumstantial evidence supporting the claim being Lincoln’s sardonic goat’s bleat in answer to a question regarding Arrears’ attack ads. 
  Ultimately H. Grubbly Arrears won the battle for the New Jersey electorate but lost the war. The state was one of only two to vote for Douglas, and Lincoln’s subsequent election led to the secession of the Southern states. Arrears doubled down on the election of 1864, backing General George McClellan as the Democratic candidate. McClellan, however, openly repudiated the party’s official platform of negotiating a peaceful settlement with the Confederacy. His campaign never gained traction, and Arrears’ attacks were now seen for the desperate and transparent sops that they were, specifically his insinuation that Lincoln enjoyed the remote woods of Illinois because he liked having sex with trees. McClellan was trounced and Arrears never again enjoyed such material wealth or political influence. 

Next:
The Jughandle From Hell

Thursday, September 27, 2012

THE SIREN'S CALL OF BAKED GOODS


            “I swear to God, I’m at a point where all I want in someone is a pulse.”
            “Don’t get down on yourself.”
            “I’m serious. Yesterday I tried flirting with a crossing guard.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “I’m at a red light down the street from an elementary school, and there’s a crossing guard at the corner waiting for the school to let out.”
            “Was she hot?”
            “She was at least sixty.”
            “What was your intro?”
            “ ‘If necessary, would you have to take a car for a kid?’ ”
            “I’m guessing she wasn’t receptive?
            “She said, ‘Have you ever heard of Megan’s Law?’ ”
            “Well, that’s uncalled-for.”
            “That’s what I said!”
            “Of course bringing up her mortality may not have been the savviest icebreaker.”
            “The icebreaker’s always been my problem. I’m like a golfer who can’t get off the tee.”
            “You should try an online dating service.”
            “Eh…”
            “No, seriously. My friend Mark met his fiancĂ©e on JDate.”
            “Mark’s Jewish?”
            “No.”
            “I don’t know, man.”
            “I’m telling you, it’s all about confidence. You just be yourself – not obnoxiously, but unapologetically – and people will gravitate.”
            “Easy for you to say. You’ve never had a problem.”
            “It’s not about quantity. I had to sift through a lot of rough to finally find a diamond.”
            “How are things with Meredith?”
            “Good! She’s a lot more comfortable around the family now. In fact my mother invited her down to the shore with us this summer, and she said yes. She even wants to meet you and the guys.”
            “Fantastic.”
            “Yeah, she’s really let a lot of her guard down. She’s started telling me more about where she’s coming from, her parents and college and all that.”
            “Is it that bad?”
            “I mean, I don’t think so. But I can see how she got scarred and why she’s gun-shy about opening up. I’ll go into details with you one day. But right now she’s just coming out of her shell and she trusts me, and…”
            “Don’t worry about it. When we’re friendly enough, she can tell me.”
            “I appreciate that, man.”
            “But let me ask you. How is she with you drinking?”
            “She’s fine with it. But I limit myself to one out of consideration for her.”
            “That’s downright chivalrous of you.”
            “I think so.”
            “Have you guys talked more about the A.A.?”
            “A little, yeah. She’s actually in a good place where she can talk about it and she’s rarely tempted. And when she is, she immediately calls her sponsor and then she’s fine again.”
            “What are those meetings like?”
            “I don’t know. I’ve never been to one.”
            “But what does she say about them?”
            “Mostly generalities. She takes the Anonymous part seriously, so she keeps the specifics confined to her.”
            “You know, I heard something recently about A.A. I heard for your fifth year of sobriety they give you a cake.”
            “I don’t know. She’s not there yet.”
            “Yeah, apparently they make a big to-do of it.”
            “Really?”
            “Yeah, they wheel the cake out on a cart and they sing and clap and chant or something.”
            “Chant?”
            “Well, not like some Druidic rite or anything. But the cake is supposed to be outrageous.”
            “ ‘Outrageous?’ ”
            “Yeah, it’s supposed to be this secret A.A. recipe that gets passed down by word-of-mouth. Like it’s not written anywhere.”
            “What?”
            “It’s supposed to be so delicious that everyone comes to the meeting even if they don’t attend religiously anymore. I’ve heard people who were in the program but fell off the wagon will even abstain for as long as possible beforehand. That way they can go into the meeting with a clean conscience and enjoy the cake. And if they catch a drunk there, all of A.A., wherever he goes, will ostracize him from that point on. But first they tie him to a chair and make him watch as they feast on the delectable cake.”
            “What the hell are you talking about?”
            “I’m talking about A.A. cake.”
            “Who cares about cake?”
            “It’s really good cake. This one guy on a message board called it, quote, ‘the culinary equivalent of a threesome with Helen of Troy and a thousand-dollar bill.’ ”
            “You believe everything you read on the internet?”
            “Everything about A.A. cake.”
            “Stop calling it ‘A.A. cake.’ ”
            “What would you call it?”
            “I wouldn’t call it anything because I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about cake, be it A.A. cake, N.A. cake, or KKKake!”
            “Can you get Meredith to get me some cake?”
            “Are you crazy?”
            “Why?”
            “I’m not asking her to get you cake.”
            “Please?”
            “No!”
            “Well, can she get me into a meeting?”
            “NO!”
            “Why not?”
            “Because I’m not asking the woman I love to sneak you into Alcoholics Anonymous so you can steal some goddamn cake!”
            “You got to help me get some of that cake. I need that cake!”
            “Why?”
            “Are you my friend?”
            “Don’t pull that on me.”
            “I’m not, I’m not. As my friend, can I confide in you?”
            “Yeah.”
            “I have met someone through the internet.”
            “Really? Where?”
            “Yeast explosion dot com.”
            “What the hell is that?”
            “It’s a website for baked goods.”
            “You sure it wasn’t, yeast infection dot com?”
            “Yeah, I’m sure. Anyway, I was on yeast explosion dot com – ”
            “What were doing on a website for baked goods?”
            “It doesn’t matter.”
            “What were you doing there?”
            “I thought it was yeast infection dot com.”
            “Ugh.”
            “ANYWAY… I was there and I started chatting with this guy who’s looking to take his bakery to the next level. He started talking about how great it would be for him if he could get his hands on the recipe for A.A. cake. So I told him I knew someone in A.A.”
            “And?”
            “And I told him I’d try to get the recipe or at least a sample – ”
            “No. I mean why are you trying to seduce a guy?”
            “Not him! We made a deal: I give him the A.A. cake, he gives me his daughter.”
            “HIS DAUGHTER!?!”
            “Yeah.”
            “I’ll ask again: are – you – crazy!?!”
            “What? It’s on the up-and-up.”
            “No it’s not! He’s pimping his daughter!”
            “It’s fine. He says she’s very slow and stammers like Claudius. So if you think about it, what I’m doing is straight-up benevolent.”
            “Does she have a say in this?”
            “He says as long as I take her once a week to McDonald’s and let her go in the playground, she won’t even notice.”
            “Oh my God, I don’t think I can be friends with you anymore.”
            “Don’t judge me! When you’re a lost cause, you take what you can get!”
            “I told you, if you have confidence – ”
            “I will have confidence if you get me some A.A. cake.”
            “I want you to listen to me very carefully. I will never betray the woman I am going to marry so that you can infiltrate a group of people whose health depends on anonymity, steal some fabled pastry with spurious properties, and use it to barter with an unscrupulous scumbag you met on the internet in exchange for a retarded girl who may or may not be his daughter!”
            “You only care about yourself.”

Thursday, August 2, 2012

FLECKS OF TOURMALINE


            I spent almost forty minutes circling the aviary. Forty minutes it took to descend to nesting level. What’s the longest you’ve ever spent around a griffon? Ten, fifteen minutes? And I’ll bet you all the gold in the Augur’s Sanctum you were praying for a head cold by that point just so the stench would go away. Try forty minutes in a ten-tiered carousel of molt stink. You’ve got griffons calling to one another, trying to mate with one another, riders who think they don’t have to wait their turn. It’s pandemonium. They used to have all the nesting mouths open all the time. You never had to wait. But since the guilds took over inter-provincial travel, they’ll only pay to keep a handful of mouths open at a time. The guilds cut down on their overhead and we keep flying no matter how intolerable it gets.
            Remember when you were a kid, the first time your dad took you for a ride on a griffon? Remember when you first got to the aviary? You’d never seen a building that disappeared into the clouds before. It was like you were being shown proof that there’s something bigger than you out there. You walked into the office and the building could be hundreds of years old – it could’ve been built before the Chyrodian Purge – it still had that smell of freshly cut ipe and teak. All those bas reliefs blanketing the walls sprung to life in the torchlight, like you were watching a myth play out in front of you. And that lift ride up to the nests, the ropes crackling and the winch creaking, made you tremble like you were running to the hearth on High Winter’s morning. Then that giant cavernous room opened up and you couldn’t even understand the awe that overtook you in at that moment. You looked up and you thought the building rose and rose into the sky forever. I swear, to this day I remember not being able to see the ceiling even though it’s clear as day when I go in there now. Do you remember the odor? I don’t. It had to have been there, but I honestly don’t remember it from back then. And I don’t remember Dad acting like there was an odor either. He took me around, showed me all the griffons so I could pick which one we would ride, but he never wrinkled up his nose or complained about any kind of smell. That first time we rode this beautiful gray bronze-beak, my dad picked me up and put me in the booster saddle. I’ll tell you, the only other time I’ve ever felt that weird mix of excitement and terror was when I lost my virginity. Even with the saddle between me and the griffon I could feel its every muscle twitch, every feather ruffle. Dad never told me how strong those things are. I thought I was going to get thrown before we took off. But when we did, that palpable rush of freedom and power as you sail through the troposphere, doing something the gods didn’t give us the ability to do, looking at the mite-sized realm below. That was one of those moments, I think, that makes childhood sacred.
You never get that feeling again as an adult.
            Today I was going to take a carriage from the aviary to the Market but they had raised the fares again. So I walked. The streets right now are like the world’s most nauseating obstacle course. There are piles of garbage tall as the Spires of Dronumede in front of every house. The smell’s worse than in the queue to get into the aviary. The air in the city’s this gauze of flies and you’ve got rotworms sprouting out of the trash heaps. As you walk your steps make a crunching sound because you’re walking on the pulverized remains of their egg sacs. I asked a constable what was going on and he said the wastemen are striking again and the Congress of Barons won’t negotiate. Never mind the fact that all the garbage and effluent is a total health hazard, which is obvious to everyone with eyes to see the lines around the block for the hospital and the throngs in front of the Temple of Veydu. The Congress doesn’t care. They know nobody’s going to leave the city with Lord Garun’s ShadowCorps still on the loose. You could feel this pall over the city. There’s this tension that you can’t put your finger on, like you’re feeling your way through a dense fog and any second you expect to come face to face with something out of the Catacombs. And there I am, going to the Market.
            Actually it made me remember the first time I went there. It was right after Amarost’s coronation and the city was practically vibrating. Everyone still thought that he was going to be the Deathless Star and you couldn’t help getting sucked into the enthusiasm. Granddad took me. He had arthritis by this point, so we went by cart. He was old-world, a man of few words, there’s a way to do things. You know what I mean. Great guy though. Always smiling, praised you when you did well. And I didn’t realize this until I got older: he had a straight-up scatological sense of humor. The forgebeast that pulled the cart he had named Swinefelch. I didn’t know what that meant back then, so I’d ask him, “Granddad, why’d you name him Swinefelch?” He never told me. Every time I’d ask him, he’d say, “If I tell you, your mother will never let me take you anywhere again,” and he was right. She wouldn’t have.
So we’re walking through the Market, Granddad’s telling me how to tell a chiseler from a legitimate merchant. All of the sudden we hear two loud voices barking in the crowd up ahead of us. Granddad grabs my hand – because, you know, it’s the Market and I’m a kid. We get a little closer and it’s these two vendors. One’s dealing in scientists, the other’s in sorcerers, and they are screaming at each other. I can’t tell what they’re screaming about because it’s all in Old Tongue, but it had to have been entertaining, because in the crowd that’s watching all this all the old people who understand O.T. are chuckling. Then the Science Vendor spits right in the Sorcerer Vendor’s face. Now the crowd braces itself for a duel, spreading out so the blades that come out don’t cut them. Sorcerer Vendor spits back. Hits the dude right in the eye. Science Vendor reaches under his table, pulls out a spittoon, puts his hand in, pulls out a handful of offal and flings it right at Sorcerer Vendor’s head. Sorcerer Vendor retaliates in kind and now you’ve got two guys hurling gobs of purple glowing ectoplasmic feces at each other. People are doubled over and turning blue as they’re watching this scene. Everyone’s laughing – even the vendors’ merchandise! This one archmage is floating shoulder to shoulder with Nicopontys the Younger and they’re exchanging these knowing looks with each other, both trying not to laugh. How’s that for irony? The fellow merchants are ready to kill each other while the bitter ontological rivals are sharing a laugh. Granddad wouldn’t tell me what the beef was, but I’m glad he didn’t. It’s a better story without a context.
            You know, historians would say that incident took place during the same age we’re in now. But the thing is that would never happen at the Market today. The thing about the Modern Age is that everything is so antiseptic and impersonal. There’s no character to anything. It’s like when you go to the Amphitheatre now: they want everything to appeal to everybody so they dilute it and de-saturate it until it appeals to nobody. When’s the last time you actively wanted to see a show? Nobody does. We just go because that’s what you’re supposed to do when the rites come to town. You ask someone why it matters, and they’ll tell you that it’s tradition. And if that doesn’t work, then it’s for the sake of public morale. But it’s just an empty ritual at this point. We don’t have any emotional investment in it. They put on the same shows they’ve been doing for the last fifty years or so but with more sex and blood. Granddad used to tell me how when he was a kid everybody waited on pins and needles for the next production to roll around. People cared about it back then. Adults, kids, nobility, laborers, men, women, even inhumans. And if you missed it you had to endure everybody else rhapsodizing for the next month about what a kick it all was. Granddad said that you felt like you had done something wrong if you hadn’t made it, like you’d neglected a sacrament and you were poorer for it.
            That’s the thing I loved about the Market when I was growing up. I would cross the threshold and feel like I was being ferried into the Hills of Mists and I would float out the other side and be five hundred years in the past. The world still looked like the world but it was unsullied and uncorrupted. It was like the world had just been born and nothing calamitous had happened yet. There were these tents everywhere I looked, all of them different colors and designs, emblazoned with these wild-looking sigils that swept me off to worlds I’d only known from schoolbooks. And they all looked strong and durable. You could’ve told me they’d been standing there for epochs, completely impervious to erosion, and I would’ve believed it. The vendors all spoke the Old Tongue and if I did hear one speak the Common it was in this lilting sing-songy accent. Even the horses clomping over the cobblestones – the ones with the flecks of tourmaline that are only in the streets of the Soul Herder’s Market – there was a melody to it. Vendors calling out to shoppers, coins clinking together as they changed hands. It sounds like it would be a cacophony. But walking through it and hearing it with my own ears, it was all in perfect harmony.
            And you got to go home with someone’s soul.
            I always liked to see what generals and high commanders were for sale. You’d walk up to this or that tent and see these men and women who’d made and saved the realm and there they were. Strong, stoic, proud, they actually looked more like all their monuments than they did actual people. Translucent statues floating over the ground. One day this bent-over tumor-faced crag of a vendor was selling General Magyus. THE Magyus. Right in front of me, the dude who held the Fractal Gates with half a battalion and drove off the Azeraax Horde! Every time a customer came up to inspect him he snapped to attention like he was addressing Ucheros II. He’d say, “How can I be of assistance, my liege?” To the customer. He even acknowledged me. I mean, he didn’t address me. The soul of General Magyus isn’t going to risk exorcism speaking to a child. But he looked at me and bowed his head and gave this warm smile. The vendor wasn’t making him do that. That was just him. When’s the last time you encountered a public servant who was that honorable?
            Now…
Want to know what today’s trip to the Market was like? First my mother starts barking that I have to go get an artisan for the Day of Bladesmen. I’m like, “What kind of artisan?”
            “Just an artisan!” she screams.
            I’m like, “Mom, I know you have some kind of artisan in mind. Tell me what you want, because I don’t want to get back here and have you tell me I got the wrong soul.”
            Now she’s getting impatient so she huffs and starts over-enunciating her words. “Get – me – an – Erullean – sculptor - please.”
            I grab some coins and I leave before I have a meltdown. Has she always been this insufferable, or has she degenerated since Dad died? I don’t know.
I already told you about the flight so I won’t regale you with anymore of that catastrophe. I told you about the filth in the streets. I get to the Market and go up to the first artisan’s tent I see, which mercifully is only a few spots beyond the entrance and that’s the last spot of luck I have for the day. I see the vendor. He’s cursed by Ajda. Awesome. I have to look the guy in his eyes while putrescence is seeping out of them. But I have to honor the social contract so I can’t reel back from the stench of his eye snot and throw the guy a handkerchief or set his face on fire or anything. I go, “Do you have any Erullean sculptors?”
            He puts his finger to his cheek and goes, “Ummmmmmmmmmmm,” for a good thirty seconds. Just a ceaseless drone of, “Um.” That’s it. Finally he goes, “Yes, I do.”
            Then he stands there. Just stands there looking at me with brown-green rivers rushing out of his tear ducts. I’m like, “Well, may I see what you have?”
            More silence while he just stares at me like I’m the one whose eyes are cursed. Then he disappears into the tent without a word. No explanation. Okay, Common’s probably not his first language so there’s a barrier I’m just going to have to deal with. Not the case, which I find out ten minutes later. Why ten minutes later? Because that’s how long I’m standing at his table waiting for him. The tent is fifteen by fifteen at the most. What the hell’s he doing back there? I don’t hear any voices, no noises like he’s rooting through merch, nothing. What’s going on? People are walking by and looking at me like, Who’s this idiot standing at an abandoned tent for no reason.
            Finally, he comes back out, all smiles, and says, “Okay.”
            “ ‘Okay,’ what?”
            He’s goes, “No problem.”
            I go, “You’re sure about that?”
            “Yes. Absolutely.”
            So I say, “Okay. Where is it?”
            “Excuse me?”
            “Where is it?”
            “Where’s what?”
            “The sculptor,” I say.
            “You never asked for a sculptor.”
He said that.
            I’m like, “Uh, I most certainly did. It was the first thing I said to you: ‘Do you have any Erullean sculptors?’ “
            His face straight as a board, he says, “You never said that.”
            Now I’m starting to lose it. I’m like, “Don’t tell me what I did and didn’t say! I left the house and came here this morning with a specific purchase to make. I’m not just browsing willy-nilly. My sole objective in coming to the Soul Herders Market today was to acquire an Erullean sculptor.”
            “You didn’t ask for an Erullean sculptor, sir.”
            Now I’m starting to think, This is what this guy does. This is his sales technique. Fine. I go, “What exactly did I ask for?”
            He says, “Excuse me?”
            I go, “No, no, no. Don’t say, ‘Excuse me,’ like you didn’t hear me. Answer my question.”
            “I’m sorry, sir. I honestly did not hear you.”
            I’m back to screaming: “Yes, you did!”
            “I’m sorry, but I didn’t, sir.”
            I’m ready to slap the snot out of this hayseed’s eyes at this point. “You’re insisting that I did not specifically ask for a sculptor,” I say. “Then what did I ask for?”
            “You didn’t specify.”
            “So you went back into your tent for ten minutes for no reason whatsoever?”
            He goes, “Not at all, sir.”
            “Well then, why’d you go into the tent?”
            He says, “With all due respect, sir, it’s really none of your business.”
            I go, “Yes, it is! I’m a paying customer!”
            “Not yet.”
            I’m like, “Oh! Now you’re going to play hardball with me?”
            “No, sir. But technically you’re not a paying customer until coin has changed hands and it hasn’t yet.”
            “Yeah, because you refuse to bring me an Erullean sculptor!”
            “You never asked me for one, sir.”
            “Fine,” I say. “I didn’t ask for one. I DID, but fine. You win. But you still haven’t told me what I did ask for.”
            Now this whole time, Old Man Rheumatism is completely unperturbed by all my carrying-on. “As I’ve said, sir, you didn’t specify.”
            “What then did I say?”
            “Nothing.”
            I’m stunned. Now it’s my turn to say, “Excuse me?”
            “Nothing, sir.”
            “So I came up here, said absolutely nothing, and we just gazed longingly into each other’s eyes until you went into the tent?”
            He goes, “That depends on how you look at it.”
            “WHAT?”
            I know. Why don’t I walk away at this point? Because I have to know what’s going on with this guy. I know I’m only going to get more and more aggravated the longer this goes on, and I’m probably not going to get an Erullean sculptor out of it, but I don’t care. I don’t care if I have to vault over the table, storm into the tent, and end up getting thrown into the dungeons. I am getting to the bottom of this.
            He goes, “Well it’s all about your point of view. From your point of view it probably looked like I was just staring at you, but what I was really doing was ascertaining what you wanted.”
            I say, “You could’ve asked me what I wanted.”
            “But you see it’s not what you say. It’s what I hear.”
            I go, “Could you try hearing what I say – especially when it pertains to Erullean sculptors?”
            “No, I can’t do that.”
            I’m like, “Why not?”
            “Because it’s not always what you say. Usually it’s what you don’t say.”
            “Okay, I’ll bite. What didn’t I say?”
            “For one thing, you didn’t say you wanted an Erullean sculptor.”
            “Yes, I did!”
            “But that’s not what I heard.”
            Now my hand is inching toward my dagger. I’m on the verge of drawing blood at this point.
            He says, “What I heard was that you didn’t need an artisan. You wanted an artisan but you didn’t need one. What you needed was a reason to celebrate the holiday.”
            “You just said I didn’t say anything.”
            He goes on. “You needed a reason to believe our holiday has any significance in these insignificant times, that the Day of Bladesmen can still bring hope when men with blades spill more and more blood every day.”
             “Total silence and you heard all that?”
            “That’s why the last thing you need is an Erullean sculptor. What you need, sir, is a painter of the Ittalycite school, and I happen to have the finest in the realm right here.”
            Do I even need to finish the story? I think you can see where this is going. Well, needless to say, not only did I get an earful from my mother when I got home, I got an earful from the painter’s soul on the way. The whole ride all he did was accuse me of having no eye for composition and smelling like dwarf dick.
            That’s where my beloved Market is now. That’s what age has done to it. Don’t tell me it’s my fault for falling for his con. “He’s a salesman. That’s what he does.” No! It didn’t used to be like that. You went to the Market, found the soul you were looking for, you haggled over the price, and you either made the deal or you walked away. The incorruptible has been corrupted. Yeah, it still looks the same, but everything wonderful and special about it’s been eroded. Is this what happens? Does everything get eaten away piece by piece every time a grain of sand falls?
            You know, on the way home I kept thinking about this one trip there when I was eleven. Equinox was coming up and my mother, for whatever reason, decided she wanted to do it right that year. So me, Dad, and Granddad get dispatched to the Market to pick up a pontiff. As soon as we’re out the door Dad goes, “Let’s take an arachknight.”
            Granddad starts giggling. I go, “Dad, Mom will kill you if you spend that much.”
            He’s like, “Don’t worry. We’ll make it up at the Market.”
            “What do you mean?”
            He’s like, “You just watch me when we get there.”
            That was the only time, to this day, I’ve ridden an arachknight. The only other time Dad rode one was on his wedding day, and Granddad had never been on one. On the way to the corral he had this expectant smirk on his face like a kid whose parents are taking him to a toy store. Dad would look at him and then smile at me, like he was happy to give his old man an experience he never had before.
We turned a corner and saw it, that ten-story tall spider, and we were just gobsmacked. We got to the corral and Granddad was suddenly possessed by some extremely gregarious poltergeist, asking the keepers how the day was finding them, how they kept the arachknight in place, what it ate, everything. Dad pays for the trip, we go up the ramp and climb into the hollowed-out thorax. There were a couple other laborers there, but for the most part we took our seats among all these hoity-toity merchants and nobles. I know it’s shallow but it was kind of cool, getting to pretend like we weren’t the hoi-poloi for a few minutes. The doors close and – tops – ten seconds later, “We hope you enjoyed the ride.” That thing went over five miles in one leap and I didn’t feel a takeoff or landing. Whoever figured out how to turn an arachknight into mass transit should be Heralded.
The thorax opens up and there we are just outside the city. We cross the Beytheos Bridge, through the gates. I start to go left toward the Market, when Dad grabs my arm and says, “Let’s go get some breakfast first.”
He takes us to the Tumuli ShroomaRoom.
Have you ever been to the Tumuli ShroomaRoom? Everything you ever heard about it is true. It’s this giant hollowed-out toadstool and inside they’ve set up tables and chairs. All the chairs are smaller toadstools that mold themselves to fit your body when you sit down, so it’s the most comfortable seat you’ve ever been in. The food is all mushroom-based, and I know it doesn’t sound like it, but it is delicious. The staff is entirely composed of prairie gnomes, so they’re naturally impelled to provide great service. And I’m telling you right now, the rumors about the cuisine have to be true, because two minutes after we started eating, all three of us got swept up in this wave of euphoria. There wasn’t any kind of hallucinations or anything like that, but it was like I could sense this faint little halo around their bodies and I knew they were sensing one around me too. Dad, Granddad, and I would look at each other, the silliest ear-to-ear smiles slapped across our faces, and start conversing without opening our mouths. At one point Dad looked at me and, even though he had a mouthful of food and didn’t actually say anything, he asked me, “Good day, huh?” Dad told me he loved me, Granddad told Dad how happy he was to see how his son turned out, Dad told me of how Granddad once stood up to his crooked commanding officer in the navy and that he was proud to be his father’s son. I don’t know what was with him that day. Maybe it was the holiday mood or that he was there with his old man and his little boy. I don’t know. But he really wanted us to enjoy that day.
We go to the Market and Dad insists on making a circuit of the whole place, checking every pontiff tent before we even talk to a vendor. Granddad’s putting his two cents in at every stop – “You’re looking at Post-Restitution pontiffs? No, you can’t buy from a mountain troll,” – and Dad just smiles.
Then Dad leads us to the third or fourth vendor we passed. He marches up to the vendor, this swarthy Eastlander with a dolly on his left foot, points to the back right corner of the tent and declares, “Him.”
He wants Draendl IV. My father thinks he’s walking away from this tent with Draendl IV – and with enough coin left over to convince my mother we didn’t take an arachknight there or eat at the ShroomaRoom. No way. Not going to happen.
I watched my old man operate, I was proud to call myself his son. He had this vendor convinced he wasn’t going to sell another pontiff all day if he didn’t sell to us. He actually trolled this guy down to twelve and three. I’ve never witnessed haggling like that since. It was insane. Dad turns to me as the vendor’s pulling his pants back up and tells me to take Draendl over to the locksteps and get him ready to go home.
I take him over and as I’m fastening his flagella to the lockstep, Draendl looks down at me. He says, “Are you having a good day?”
I’m speechless. Did Draendl IV just speak to me? A kid? Out in public?
I never understood what was so dangerous about a soul talking to a kid, let alone why it’s illegal. They say it’s a matter of keeping the souls in their place, whatever that means, and that souls can’t be allowed to impart any information to the young and impressionable. But, alive or dead, this is Draendl IV. If the man’s got something to say he should be heard, right? But I’m so stunned I don’t say anything back. So he arches his eyebrows and give me a smile, like he’s saying, It’s okay, go ahead. Finally I’m just like, “Uh-huh.”
He does that kneeling-down motion that souls do so he’s eye level with me. He goes, “Enjoy this time, my son, while this is the only time you know.”
I’m like, “Okay.”
He smiles and straightens up. I didn’t know what he was talking about but who cares. Draendl IV risked exorcism to speak to me.
I don’t think I really got what Draendl was talking about until today. I’m sitting here pining for a world that doesn’t exist anymore, most of which I never got to experience in the first place. I’m lamenting the loss of a culture that was far superior to the one I have to deal with. But I never did that when I was eleven. Remember Nicopontys’s Fourth Stanza: Every being experiences time subjectively? Well when I was eleven I basically didn’t have a past. I was like an animal where the only sense of time I understand is the now, no concept of past or future. Maybe Draendl was telling me it’s better to not have perspective like an ignorance-is-bliss kind of thing. Maybe the older you get – the further away from that past ideal you got – everything just gets exponentially worse.
Kind of bleak, isn’t it? I mean, I still have a lot more years ahead of me than behind. How much worse can it get? Maybe that’s really why they don’t want souls talking to the young and impressionable. It’s the responsibility of the living to keep the kingdom going, keep the fires fueling the economy burning and always entertain the fiction that things just keep improving. Any problems like the wastemen’s strike or the greed of the guilds or Lord Garun’s armies are just hiccups in the natural respiration of the system. They’re just cosmetic blemishes on the ageless visage of a monument to Magyus or the other greats that have defined who we’ve thought we are all these years. But maybe they’re not. Maybe Magyus and Nicopontys and Draendl are the cosmetics hiding the entropy. That it’s the entropy that’s really the natural order. What if the beginning is as good as it gets?