Ktismatics

The Passion of the Void

PART ONE: THE TOUR

1.

With a flick of long naked fingers the Barista snags the twenty and the five as the busboy clears the places vacated by the lawyer and his joke-telling friend. On her way to the register she scans the clientele to see who needs a refill, who’s ready to order from the menu. You take a long pull on your beer waiting for something else to happen. She pours the rest of the bottle into your glass, and when she asks if you’d like another you realize that you’ve been staring at her again. You’ll have the fried calamari appetizer please, and maybe a side spinach salad, and sure, why not, another Bass. Then you tell her, mention to her, that you were wondering whose image is displayed on her pendant.

“Her?” She takes the intaglio lightly in her fingertips, leans forward, hovers closer to you. No she doesn’t – actually she’s leaning slightly backward as she holds the chain out and away, as if trying to scrutinize the image even though all she can see of it from that angle is the verso. “She was a labor union organizer in South America somewhere,” the barista tells you. “Bolivia maybe? I don’t know for sure. A couple of graphic design students at my college came across her image on an old poster. Not the poster itself – a reproduction in a book. They liked her look.” She lets go of the pendant, places her hands on her hips, cocks her head slightly to the right, striking the pose.

“Perfect,” you tell her, though the girl’s half-smile is even more beguiling than the iconic woman’s leer. “You’ve practiced.” Did she just wink at you?

“And they liked what she stood for.”

“What did she stand for?”

“I’m not exactly sure. She worked for some mineral processing operation, lithium comes to mind for some reason.  Dangerous work, long hours, not much pay.”

“Sounds like here.”

Raising an eyebrow she cuts a quick glance toward the dining room where Rikki, the owner and hostess, is smoothing tablecloths and making slight adjustments to the silverware. “Or maybe it was coca processing,” the Barista says.

You look even more closely at the pendant hanging just below the twinned points of her sharply articulated clavicle. “The tiara?”

She reaches for the top of her own head. “It ought to be one of those derby hats the women wear down there, don’t you think?” With professional instinct she glides toward the other end of the bar where the woman with the diamond bracelet has just punctuated her last remark to her companion with the slightest tilt of the nearly empty glass of white wine she’s holding by the stem. “She was killed,” the Barista says when she returns from refilling the woman’s glass, “An industrial accident. So I suppose she became a kind of saint to the movement.”

“Why not a halo then?”

“The last shall be first, the poor will wear a crown?”

“Sounds pretty otherworldly for a labor union martyr.”

Your attention is distracted by the threesome that just stepped in from the street, their images reflected over the Barista’s shoulder in the long mirror mounted behind the bar. The archetype of this place hangs on a wall in the Courtauld gallery in London. You bought a print in the gift shop and when you got home from your trip you had it framed. It graced one wall or another in one house or another until the day that someone admired it and you took it right off the nail and gave it to her. Presumably there had been a three-dimensional version in the Folies Bergère that served as the model for Manet’s rendering. You’ve read that the Folies is still in business, and though you’ve been to Paris a number of times you’ve never sought out the place to have a look inside, perhaps even to have a bottle of ale, striking up a conversation with the lovely but world-weary young Frenchwoman who opens it and pours it out for you. Nowadays the Bass Company would have to pay good money to have its amber bottle with the red triangle logo placed so prominently in the lower right forefront of a masterpiece. On your last trip over you’d taken the morning train from Paris to Bordeaux, spending a week with American friends trying not to get on one another’s nerves in the renovated farmhouse you had rented for the week. Sitting in a white wicker chair watching the hoopoe, its flamboyant crest bobbing as it pecked the ground, you wondered how such an impossible bird had not gone extinct millions of years ago when the place was jungle.

“It looks like she’s standing in front of some modern skyscrapers,” you say, again scrutinizing the Barista’s pendant. “Surely they didn’t have buildings like that even in La Paz.”

“I don’t know if they were in the original poster. My friends might have taken liberties with the image. Maybe they even made up the story about who she was, I never really looked into it. They made stencils and posters, she was all over campus for awhile. Afterward came the pendants, like a movement that had gone underground.”

“Was it some kind of political campaign?”

“What? Oh no. I suppose you could call it an aesthetic campaign. It lasted about a month. Most of the stencils peeled off or got sprayed over. There’s still one on a sidewalk near the house I lived in my last year in school. I saw it about a week ago, and it’s almost faded out completely by now. If you didn’t know what it looked like when it was new you wouldn’t even recognize it as a picture, it just looks like a smudge. I should take a photo of her before she disappears completely.”

On your last day together in Bordeaux the four of you had taken a drive in the little rental car. Foie gras and a carafe of the local black wine for lunch in the Pilgrimage town of Cahors, then on to the caves. Mammoths, sabre tooths, aurochs: the images dated back thirty thousand years or more, each so masterfully rendered you wondered where the artists practiced their craft. You envisioned a Paleolithic France in which all of the rock faces had animals drawn on them — like tagging today, like this crowned and leering woman stenciled onto squares of sidewalk. The drawings would all wash away in a year or two, leaving no traces behind, as extinct as the animals themselves. Only those images drawn on the insides of caves survived. The images that eroded away – you wondered if the tribe attributed magical powers to them. Like homeopathic medicines – after being diluted with water again and again, nearly all the molecules of the original medicinal compound get washed away, but according to the homeopaths all of that diluting and shaking and stirring releases the spiritual essence of the medicine, intensifying its power. Maybe the rock paintings had homeopathic powers: as the drawing faded away the spirit of the depicted animal would be strengthened and released. Inside the cave you had wanted to break the rules, to place your palm over the stenciled hand of the artist, let his spirit pull you right through the wall to the other side where he is. Maybe when the last stencil of the coroneted woman fades away she will assume her rightful place as queenly matron saint of exploited working women.

“Fascinating. Hey, maybe when you get off you could show me…”

“No wait,” the Barista says, “I remember now. She was a Bolivian working in the copper mines in Chile. It was a particularly dangerous mine, a history of tunnels collapsing and so on, people getting badly hurt, sometimes killed. The government kept levying fines against the mining company for safety violations but they weren’t really serious about it, just a slap on the wrist, didn’t want to alienate the owners – this was during Pinochet. But the word got around among the miners and most of them quit, took jobs at other mines. So the company raised the pay, still not a living wage but better than the competitors were offering. Then another collapse and even another pay raise couldn’t keep the miners from leaving. So the owners decided to open the job to women.”

The young entrepreneurial type three stools down from you raises his cocktail glass, and while you wait for the Barista to fix him another Gibson you imagine how the story must go. The men would resent the women taking their jobs, even if they, the men, didn’t particularly want those particular jobs, might not have taken them had they been offered. Plus now they’d get all paternalistic, blocking the entrance to keep the women miners out, threatening to blow up that terrible mine if the owners didn’t brace up the collapsing shafts. And so it would have been the Bolivian woman, the outsider among the outcasts, the double outlier, who would have walked the thin line, trying to negotiate a compromise between the resentful men whose jobs they had taken and the disdainful men who owned the mine and hired the workers. Somebody would have gotten to her – bribed her, threatened her, sabotaged her. She would have been underground when another collapse began, this one of suspicious origin, making her a martyr to the cause. Maybe thirty thousand years from now someone will excavate that collapsed mine and will release her fierce homeopathic essence into the world. No, you remind yourself: you’re not on that path any more.

“But there’s still the matter of the skyscrapers,” you remind the Barista when she comes back.

“Maybe it was a stage play,” she suggests as she reaches into the fridge to get you another beer. “Those are the buildings near the theater.”

“Yes!” You surprise yourself with your own enthusiasm. “Off-Broadway. No – some regional theater in whatever city is home to those three buildings. Some Marxist feminist playwright, performances attended by sparse but exuberant audiences, it’s been playing for years now. The woman in the tiara is the lead actress. The poster inspiring the  medallion, the stencils? It’s the playbill.”

“That’s good,” the Barista concedes with a nod. “But maybe there’s more. What if it hasn’t been playing for years? It played for like two weeks. Those sparse but exuberant audiences aren’t enough to satisfy the theater owner.”

“So tonight is closing night. And on the sidewalks outside the theater the incensed Marxist theater-goers are picketing the theater, blocking the entrances, spraying stencils on the sidewalks and walls.”

The Barista grins. “Nice parallelism.”

“But the show must go on. The cast and crew are of one mind, one heart, one body: let’s make this final performance one for the ages. The raising of the curtain is delayed ten minutes while the cops clear out the protesters. And it proves to be a truly impassioned show the audience gets to witness on this last night of the two-week run. The lead actress, the one playing the Bolivian woman, she’s on fire. She’s coaxing howls of rage from the audience, tears of sympathy from them, the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth, the shaking of fists…”

“And now we’re getting close to the end of the show, the part where the Bolivian woman labor leader finds herself trapped in the mine collapse…”

“Alone on stage, the lights dimming and flickering, she recites the first line of her moving soliloquy for the last time…”

“No wait,” the Barista says sternly. “No soliloquy. She’s by herself, digging or wielding the pick or whatever. Dim lighting, yes. Her helmet…”

“…with the light mounted in front, on her forehead…”

The Barista presses the back of her hand to her own forehead, her cupped palm shining at you. “It’s the only lighting for the scene. She’s focused her beam on the seam of ore, so when the voice behind her starts to speak we can’t see who it is. It’s a man’s voice, we don’t recognize it. Is he labor or management?”

“She spins around, shines her light toward the source of that voice, but he’s ducked back into the shadows. She faces the ore seam again. Behind her back, in the dark, he delivers the collective judgment against her. And then…”

“He performs the execution.”

“There’s a flash and a boom and a puff of smoke, the set starts to collapse, it’s all falling in on our heroine…”

“And it collapses down. A trapdoor opens and she falls through.”

“And the stage is plunged into utter darkness.”

The Barista sags slightly, as if she’s just completed a hard job. You feel yourself relax too. Not the sort of celebratory accomplishment where you order a round for the house; just a quiet satisfaction that only the two of you would understand. Your lunch is placed before you; distractedly you sample one of the calamari as your new friend gets back to tending bar.

“Hey, wait a minute,” someone says. Reluctantly you pull your attention away from the scene that you and the Barista have just staged to consider the man two stools down, who until now had seemed absorbed in marking up a text spread out in a three-ring binder on the bar in front of him. He’s peering right at you over the top of his reading glasses. “The twist – not a coal miner but a play about a coal miner? I like it. But how about this: Her last scene, where the mine caves in and she drops through the trapdoor? There’s another short scene that follows, and of course when the play does end the lead actress comes out for her bows and curtain calls. But that last performance? The rest of the cast are already out there, facing stage left, watching expectantly for her final triumphant return, the two dozen people in the audience chanting her name. The director hops up on stage. He waves graciously into the theater, squinting into the footlights and looking a bit confused – wasn’t I supposed to come on after her? Tentatively he launches into his little speech. Half a minute into it one of the stagehands scurries out and whispers something to him. She’s gone? The director didn’t mean to say it quite so loud, but now everybody knows. Did she just walk away, overwhelmed by sadness or rage or whatever? The hand says no. Right after she dropped down through the trapdoor he had gone for her, just like every night, but she wasn’t there. Oh sure, she could have climbed out without his help, just hopped up off the mattresses and opened the door and stepped back out. But the hand came to get her just as soon as she dropped, just like every night. And she wasn’t there. Some backstage old-timer claimed that there was some secret passageway under the trap, a sublevel beneath the cellar, but nobody ever found the architect’s drawings or any sort of hatchway. A mysterious disappearance.”

“There have been rumors,” the Barista adds, setting down the bottle of red wine even before she’s filled the customer’s glass. “Somebody claims to have seen her on stage in Dayton, or maybe in Liverpool. Somebody else says they heard she was stirring up wildcat strikes at non-union coal mines in Wyoming.”

“But she never went back to her apartment,” the woman waiting for the wine chimes in. “Left all her stuff just as it was, clothes still in the closet, eggs and milk and carry-out Chinese in the fridge. Just… poof!”

“And that, my friends,” the guy two stools down says as he thumps his empty beer glass down onto the bar, “is the legend, is why she became an icon.”

You’re not persuaded, wondering aloud if this new ending isn’t just a little too Gothic, a little too Hollywood.

“You mean too mystical, too transcendent,” says the guy standing just inside the door. “Too Pilgrimage.”

“Well…”

“Hold on,” Bud interrupts. “Gerald, let me introduce Mark. Mark, Gerald, from HQ. Mark is one of our old hands.”

You rise to shake the stranger’s hand. “Gerald.”

“I was wondering,” Gerald says, “why you and your assistants…”

“Associates.”

“Why you and your associates aren’t sitting in Rik’s writing this, instead of crowding together here in your office. I mean, I’ve not seen your Rik’s yet, but I presume it is a real bar and all.”

“But it’s not the same bar,” you reply. “It’s not the same Rik’s. No mirror, no clementines…”

“No Jessa,” Gerald adds. You nod. “Have you ever met her?” You shake your head. “Would you like to?”

You pause, wondering what could be the right answer to that question when you’re talking with some guy from the Home Office of an organization that’s trying to snuff out the Insurgency. “Of course,” you acknowledge.

*  *  *

Ten minutes after the last of the hemophilia trainees have gone out the back door Sam comes down the stairs. “Kasia! I’m so glad you’re still here. And believe me, you’ll be glad too. Miguel?” He looks around: no one in the cellar bar other than this gangly young woman with the orange dreads. “Did you bring your floor?” She nods. “Well what are you waiting for? Come on up!”

Upstairs, Sam hooks Kasia by the arm as he escorts her across the dining room, nodding and smiling at friends and fans. A guitarist Kasia had never seen or heard before stands near the piano. With pencil moustache and slick black hair, the guitarist is obviously positioning himself as Djangoesque. Sam wiggles his behind on the bench, grinning slyly over his shoulder at Kasia. He spreads his fingers across the keyboard, counterpointing with the left a melody Kasia recognizes but cannot name. After four quick beats the guitarist begins a vigorous strum. Kasia sets the polished parquet onto the floor, unfolds it, clicks it into place. Nearly always she wears her taps – you never know when the mood will strike, when opportunity will knock. On the downbeat she jumps with both feet into the center of the hardwood square. Conversations stop, but she doesn’t notice; eyes turn, but she doesn’t see them. She isn’t a limelighter; she is a rhythm section, keeping intricate time, watching the other two musicians, entering into the mystic union.

Her shift over, the Barista takes off her apron and tosses it in the grey plastic bin. She takes her bag out of her locker, fishing around in it for her car key. She puts on her coat and gloves, waves goodbye to the kitchen people, and pushes through the kitchen door. She stands against the wall watching the floorshow, Kasia tapping furiously, Sam up on his feet now, accenting his pounding on the keyboard with an occasional shout, the guitarist’s calm demeanor belying the intricacy and speed of his fretwork. When the number is over the Barista passes through the appreciative diners toward the front door. She exchanges cheek kisses with Rik in the antechamber and heads for the parking garage.

On her way home she stops at the hardware store to pick up a yardstick and to get a little screw like the one she dropped behind the oven while replacing the burned-out bulb above the stove. Standing near the counter she pulls out her cell phone and taps the screen twice.

“Dude,” comes the familiar voice through the air.

“Dude, I’m at the hardware store. I was wondering what I should pick up to replace the mirror on the medicine cabinet.”

Laughter. “You called me and not your mother? You think I’ve turned into some sort of handyman now that she’s not around to fix things? Call the landlord, tell him to spend some of that rent money you’ve been overpaying him. But of course I’d be happy to discuss the symbolic meanings of looking at your own shattered reflection in a broken mirror. Maybe also what it means to see behind the image to the reality – the toothpaste, the pills, the band-aids, the razor, the hidden camera… Did you ever get your toilet fixed by the way? You know, when you were living at that ranch?”

She had laughed when her old college friend first mentioned the ranch. If it’s on the Argentinian pampas maybe, but thirty miles east of here? Not nearly far enough. Wait till you get out there, her friend told her.

Mostly she had worried about her dog. Candy could run all day, and so it seemed perfect to have a whole ranch for her to roam. But there were other dogs out there too, wary of humans apparently since they never came near. Probably each was tame on its home ground, a working dog on one of the neighboring ranches or maybe a beloved pet, but gathering together they turned into a feral pack. Though Candy kept an eager eye on that ever-shifting canine horizon, she never made any overt move to join up with them, at least not when the Barista was with her. But that dog had a crazy streak, always pulling hard at the leash when they’d lived in town, jumping with all four feet into whatever unexpected adventure might present itself, probably including the fast-flowing river at the edge of the ranch property. One night she hobbled back to the ranch house with a torn ear and a bloody flank, and after that she wouldn’t go down to the river by herself any more, would sniff the air and run back to the house, ears down, belly low.

Even if the ranch had been five thousand miles south it would not have been far enough. When the toilet wouldn’t stop running the Barista read it as a sign, as if her fears were taking liquid form. She’d called home and her father had answered. Let me get your mother, he’d said: you know she handles the toilet training in this family. Her mother told her to look behind the toilet for a little tube, probably copper, with a valve attached to it. Give the valve a quarter turn, her mother instructed her, until it’s perpendicular to the tube, and that will shut off the water. She tried it; it worked. After a couple of days of turning the water on and off by the valve she decided not to get the toilet fixed. She liked being able to decide, even about something as automatic as flushing a toilet. She wanted to control her fears like that: just twist the valve and shut them off. Instead of being inundated in the incessant flow she could deal with them in intermittent spurts.

“It’s not the fear that flows,” her father had told her when he called. “Wait: you don’t have the runs, do you? Good. No, it’s fear that shuts off the flow. And what is the fear afraid of? The flow itself.”

Oh Jesus, she had thought to herself. “Really Dad? Go with the flow? You’re actually spewing that advice to someone like me, to me? It’s how I ended up out here, don’t you remember? Went with the flow once too often, swam with the pack and found myself washed up on the shore half-drowned.”

“So now,” he was saying in her ear as she plucked a little packet of screws off the shelf, “it’s your dog that’s a metaphor for you? I have to say that’s better than seeing yourself as a toilet. Hey, you read Gravity’s Rainbow, didn’t you? Remember that part where the guy goes down into the commode? Slothrop, right? Slothrop gets down into the plumbing and he’s flowing free, slick as a fish was the phrase I recall, swimming with the crap and the toilet paper, I don’t know, maybe even a Labrador retriever dog-paddling by. But then didn’t he, didn’t Slothrop drift past some sort of valve or sluice gate or something, some passage out of there, out of the sewer, some passageway underneath the sewers, low and dry and spacious?”

“You too?” It was Gerald. “Does everybody in this place write stories about the Barista? This is another Jessa back story, isn’t it? Her girlhood adventures before she enters into her own legendary status? Why not have her be the tapdancer too, conflate Jessa with Kasia? A ranch and a dog and a dad: my, how wholesome. At least the dog’s name isn’t Lassie. Is it true?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Bud replied. “Back story, front story, alternative story…” He turned toward Adrienne. “I’m concerned though about the flow. Kind of old-school New Age, don’t you think? Opening yourself up to the primal immanent forces surging up beneath you, within you, through you? I’ve got peace like a river, joy, love, etcetera – fear too can flow like a river too, can’t it? Don’t you sometimes have to turn off the happiness too, just say no to that next hit of meth?”

“Well sure, going with the flow is the dad’s POV,” Adrienne conceded. “All of it, including the shit. But will he persuade Jessa? She doesn’t just want to flush the shit down, she wants to exert direct control over the valve. There’s a little father-daughter conflict bubbling up here about the nature of personal agency.”

“Right, sounds good. Don’t mind us, carry on.” Bud escorted Gerald out of the room and down the hall.

*  *  *

“Thanks Dude, that was helpful.”

“Sure it was.”

“No, seriously,” his daughter reassured him, the sarcastic irony of the inflection keeping the exchange from turning too corny.

“Well, good luck on getting that mirror fixed. I suppose you could leave it the way it is, might do wonders for your self-image.”

“Maybe not. Dude, I have got to go. Bye.”

So did her dad. No sooner had he taken the bottle of Chilean white, still sheathed in its narrow paper sack, out of the refrigerator than the doorbell rang. His neighbor handed him a few back issues of the Times Literary Supplement, which he tossed onto the kitchen counter before grabbing his coat and heading out of the apartment. This would be Bud’s second time participating in one of these sessions. To his surprise, last month had proven not just enjoyable but energizing. His neighbor, a retired comparative literature professor new to the complex, had caught him in midafternoon reading a novel – James M. Cain, or maybe it was Huysmans – on his back deck and struck up a conversation. And you write too? Well, not lately: in fact Bud had written nothing since that short story he’d presented to a sparse crowd of baffled but ultimately indifferent fellow writers at the local bookstore’s Open Mic session. The neighbor had insisted on reading Bud’s short story. He found it excellent. The neighbor had hand-selected a small group of lit profs who, on the first Saturday of each month, would read their writings to one another – poetry, fiction, memoir. Extended commentary would ensue, with sessions lasting into the early morning hours. Will you read us your story, Bud? The group too had liked it, discussing possible outlets for its publication over glasses of red wine. Now he would need something new, and so two weeks before the next session Bud had begun writing a novel.

Over cocktails the host of the evening’s session, a third-generation American of Cuban descent who was working on a novel of his own, sat at the kitchen counter speaking Spanish with the Dominican poet, while Bud’s neighbor discussed the virtues of Middlemarch – a novel Bud had heard of but never read – with a woman who had once been his graduate assistant. Bud looked at the spines on the bookshelves in the den, briefly discussing television shows he’d never seen with the novelist’s eleven-year-old daughter while the girl’s mother prepared the meal. When he returned to the kitchen the novelist and his wife were discussing their rental properties with Bud’s neighbor, scoffing at the young tenants who make foolish narcissistic gestures like posting on the Internet photos of themselves smoking cigarettes in the apartment, even though smoking is expressly prohibited in the lease. The eviction notice had been handed over that Wednesday afternoon, the owners gloated. Bud’s professorial neighbor laughed loudly. He rented, but he still owned half of the six-bedroom house he had left to his wife in order to move in with a girlfriend half his age. Bud rented. He and his ex had sold their house, but that was two or three years ago now. He had also quit his day job to devote himself to writing, which he hadn’t done much of lately. Now he couldn’t afford a down payment or qualify for a mortgage. He wandered back into the den.

A few minutes later the novelist entered the room. I have a daughter too, Bud told him: charming and smart, like yours. The novelist nodded approval of the compliment. You know, Bud went on, my daughter Jessa just finished her third novel last month, or maybe it was her fourth, she wrote her first at sixteen, sixty thousand words in a month while she was in high school. The novelist nodded matter-of-factly: my cousin wrote his first at sixteen, he told Bud. An agent, a publisher, good notices, good sales, a screenwriting job in Hollywood. Holy cow, Bud said, trying to keep his deflation in check: how old is he now? Sixty. The novelist pulled a book from the shelf: here’s his latest. Random House. Go ahead and borrow it, bring it back next time. No further mention was made of Bud’s daughter.

“Whoa, hold on a second there, cowboy,” Gerald said. “You’re saying that Bud is Jessa’s father? That’s not true, is it?”

“It’s true in this story,” Jason replied.

“But what you’ve got here Jason,” Bud remarked, wiping his palms down his shirtfront: “I’ve got to say it seems uncannily familiar to me, like it really could be true. You got any more?” Jason nodded; expectantly, Bud settled into an armchair.

At dinner that night Bud was seated next to his emeritus neighbor, who continued the animated Middlemarch conversation with his former understudy. The discussion remained technical, far beyond Bud’s reach, but an unmistakable note of flirtation had entered the dynamic. Even more than do her novels, Eliot’s personal correspondence reveals her as a great writer, the emeritus averred. The younger woman nodded knowingly at her former advisor, intensifying her admiring gaze. It seemed that the younger woman had discovered the older man’s annotated copy of the novel on a free used bookrack near the campus. Repeatedly she expressed admiration for his insights, which he embellished with salacious witticisms over the chicken cacciatore. Ooh, what did I say about that passage, he asked her; what phrase was “in” then for expressing the idea? With delectation she stroked his ego; she would suck him off right there under the table if she had a few more glasses of wine in her.

“Charles Dickens walks into a bar and orders a martini. The bartender asks, Olive or twist?”

The two turned on Bud the blank expressions of indulgent contempt they had no doubt perfected in their dealings with smartass students. As without pause they resumed their semi-public intercourse Bud reached across the table and forked another thigh onto his plate from the serving dish. You don’t like white meat, the cook accused him. Bud stammered something about others always preferring the white before finally saying yes, I do like the dark, thanks.

Dessert was served, then coffee. Finally, four eternal hours after the evening had begun, it was time for the main event. The five writers left cook and daughter to clear the table while they processed, wine glasses in hand, into the living room. Bud’s neighbor, the founder and acknowledged leader of the group, proposed the sequence of readings. He assigned the first slot to the evening’s host. Last time – Bud’s first time – the man in a somber lento had read a chapter from his novel-in-progress. The prose was crisp; the story, romantically macabre, reminding Bud’s neighbor and his fawning former assistant of a famous Faulkner short story Bud had never heard of. On the drive home his neighbor had told Bud that the host had been revising this same novel for years, and that the portion he’d read had been edited and refined to a razor’s edge, due in large part to the group’s technical interventions and steadfast encouragement. Tonight’s chapter was more flat and disjointed despite, or perhaps because of, its subject matter being more personally meaningful to the author. Bud asked two questions about the central character in this episode, a low-level politico representing a predominantly Cuban district in New York. The writer said that the character was based on his great uncle, though he seemed a bit impatient with the line of questioning – in all likelihood he had explained, long ago and repeatedly, his family background to the other group members. In a halting, heavily-accented English richly modulated with baritone resonance and Latinate cadence, the Dominican poet opined that this politician seemed static from one reading to the next. How does he grow, this cheap and corrupt figure, through the course of the novel? The writer’s prolonged elaboration struck Bud as both defensive and deferential.

Reading the chapter had taken half an hour; the discussion, twenty minutes. Now it was Bud’s turn. Though he had brought twenty pages of the novel with him, he decided to read only the first short chapter, secretly hoping they would want more.

“But of course,” Gerald interposed, looking up from the cell phone on which he had been texting messages, “we already know that that’s not going to happen. Those pompous asses are going to hate Bud’s chapter. Worse: they’re going to say absolutely nothing about it.”

“He even brought some visual aids with him,” Bud added. “A photo of the stencil on the sidewalk, a printed copy of the Manet.” Gerald scrutinized him quizzically. “Just guessing,” Bud mumbled. “Go on, what next?”

The chapter took about ten minutes to read. When he finished the novelist host asked him the date of the Manet painting. Early 1880s, Bud tells him – he thinks that’s right. You know it’s remarkable, the man responds, but that wasn’t long after the Paris Commune. Bud’s neighbor then remarks pithily about the ongoing Prussian occupation of Paris and Flaubert’s political views as reflected in his notebooks. A lively conversation ensued between these two pompous asses. Fine, Bud interrupted, but what about my chapter? When at last the evening’s host asked him how the main character from the first chapter was going to grow during the course of the novel, Bud began to seethe. He offered a vague reply while crafting his true response in his head. What, you’re bored already with the character, think he’s gone stagnant after five pages? How do you even know this character in chapter one really is a main character? You’re just pissed at the poet for being bored with your book and now you’re making me pay, shit flowing downhill to the new guy, the guy who isn’t a published author like your cousin or a professor like the rest of you dickwads. Bud lapsed into silence; so did the group.

“Maybe,” Bud’s neighbor offered, assuming the mantle of group leader, “the chapter is a bit confusing?” Pause.

“Yes, I did find it confusing,” his bitch chimed in.

You wouldn’t, Bud thought, if you weren’t so dim and so drunk and so eager to suck your ex-boss’s dick. “That’s the problem with reading these things aloud,” Bud said without conviction: “it’s easier to follow if you read it to yourself on the page.”

“Oh no,” the host insisted: “reading aloud is much better. Do you listen to the Saturday morning readings on NPR? Very moving. You don’t? Well you should.”

“No I shouldn’t,” Bud replied. “Look, if you people have nothing more to say then I guess I’m done here.”

“You haven’t given us time,” Bud’s neighbor insisted.

Bud glared. “Let me get this straight,” he said, a little louder now. “The main character is stagnant, the text is confusing, I should spend more time listening to the radio. What’s the point of more time?”

“Three things,” his neighbor began. “First.”

“Hold on, Professor, let me get my notebook so I can write this shit down.”

“First,” the neighbor continued, starting the count with his thumb European-style.

But Bud had stopped paying attention by now. Two days later Bud would read the first chapter to his daughter over the telephone. I have no idea what you’re talking about, Jessa would tell him with a snicker.

You want to hear confusing? Listen to the Dominican. He presents a new poem, just published, in Spanish. The host translates, but it’s on the fly, his not having previously read the piece. He’s finding the translation work very tough going, with stuttered choppy renderings of lines and phrases and individual words alternating with long pauses. He keeps correcting himself, backing up and starting the line again, trying variant renderings. He apologizes: how difficult it is to convey in English the subtle nuances of the Dominican’s sublime Spanish syntax. Bud’s neighbor and his bitch seemed enraptured; the Dominican basks in the acclaim. Bud smiles but says nothing: this is just plain gibberish. Beautiful, is the general sentiment bestowed by the room on this slaughterhouse of a poetry reading.

After a second poem has been delivered, as incomprehensible in translation as the first and as well received, a break is declared. The two Spanish speakers step outside the house and into the cold to smoke Cuban cigars, Bud’s neighbor and his bitch speak quietly to each other on the couch. Bud has to pee. He takes a wrong turn out of the bathroom, finding himself at the top of the stairway descending to the lower level. A light is on, so he goes down. A wall-mounted television set, a stereo, a foosball game, a dollhouse – the usual basement paraphernalia. Looking at the hand-painted duck decoy mounted on the wall Bud realizes that he will never write another word of his novel, will in all likelihood never write anything ever again. He wishes he hadn’t ridden with his neighbor, wishes he could just get in his car and go home right now. He doesn’t want to go back upstairs, doesn’t want to endure the last two readings and stimulating discussions. He wishes he could just sit down here by himself, but of course they would find him. He wishes there was another down staircase hidden behind the washing machine, who cares where it leads…

*  *  *

It’s not surprising that I never ate at Rik’s while it was still open, while the Pilgrimage was still up and running. This is a real city after all, not some two-café Provençal village. Still, for nearly a year I had lived a scant three blocks from the place without ever noticing it. There’s a kebab stand two doors down where the kids on bicycles tend to congregate, while up the street a self-consciously high-end resto serves undercooked chicken with resentment. Once I bought a halogen bulb from the shop directly across the street. Had I been eager to invite old friends for a visit I might have scouted out the hotel next door to Rik’s. Weaving my way through the old dark-stained tables and chairs cluttering the path between the front door and the front desk, I considered that here in this space the hotel had, during its hard-to-imagine heyday, served excellent dinners with understated pride to its guests, that perhaps even now the staff continued to lay out the obligatory morning coffee and baguettes and apricot preserves for a sparse and indiscriminate clientele. Later I wondered whether the hotelier and restaurateur had regarded Rik’s and the Station as competitors or compatriots, together summoning forth the glamour of an earlier era, or perhaps an era that had not yet arrived.

To have eaten at Rik’s – for many it would become an aspiration only after it had already been attained. I wish I could have learned the trick years ago, wanting to write a book only after I finished writing it, wanting to move to France only after I’d rented the apartment, wanting to dine at Rik’s only after I had already paid the check. First the fulfillment, then the desire. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe this is not one of the lessons I will be learning on my Pilgrimage. Or maybe I’ve already learned it in the future, and only now is the future starting to catch up to me. I do know this: I have no desire to tell you this story, and I have no idea whether you want to hear it. Perhaps when I’ve finished I will feel differently.

Gerald tapped Bud on the shoulder and the two of them continued their tour. “Who is the ‘I’ in that story, I wonder,” Gerald said. Bud shrugged: by now he didn’t feel like explaining.

2.

“So your project is…”

Your, meaning you all’s,” Bud insisted.

“So, you all’s project,” Gerald continued, “is what? Surely not to get more realistic. These stories your writers are working on – they’re no more realistic than the legends. To rehumanize? I suppose that’s it. Even Jessa has a dog and a dad and a visit to the hardware store. Even you, Bud, even the scribe of the gods himself.  You don’t transcend your own abasement, you descend into somebody else’s basement.” Gerald sighed theatrically. “So many people had such high hopes when you set this place up. Pilgrims trekked out here to the Scriptorium expecting an audience with the Oracle of Delphi. Writers took up residency hoping to become the next Moses or Isaiah, or at least an Aleister Crowley. And what did they find?” Gerald stretched out his arms and tilted his head to the side like a disillusioned Jesus. Why have you forsaken me? It is finished. “You know what brings me here, don’t you, Bud?”

Bud hadn’t received a couriered dispatch or even a phone call telling him to expect visitors, but he didn’t need any sort of astral connection to figure out what this Home Office hatchet man was doing at the Scriptorium.

“No, it’s not that,” Gerald said, squeezing Bud’s bicep in an aggressive gesture of reassurance, as if sizing up his opponent for when the negotiations broke down and push came to shove. “I’m here to offer you a promotion.”

Oh Christ, Bud thought, now what?

Gerald was right: the Scriptorium had been a magnet right from the beginning, luring all manner of earnest crackpots seeking means of communicating with the gods on their own terms. Tarot readers and table tappers, navigators of the Ouija planchette, opium dreamers and mushroom visionaries, psychotics tuned into the messages being transmitted to them through the walls – nearly all who came left disappointed. Gerald was right too about Bud wanting to retune the Scriptorium’s frequencies down toward the human end of the spectrum, despite Pilgrimage’s avowed mission of helping its clientele become more elohimic, more godlike.. Still, as the Scriptorium’s Proprietor Bud had encouraged the more plausible practitioners of theotic communication to set up shop at his Station on the Pilgrimage Trails.

The gods are unconscious, the Lacanian psychoanalyst would repeat to every new Pilgrim who sought him out at the Scriptorium, and so we must try to wake the gods up, or perhaps eavesdrop on their dreams. He would listen around the speaker’s words, trying to tap into the unintended meanings: slips of the tongue, incomplete sentences, mixed metaphors. He would listen too for the unspoken: fraught pauses, shrugs of shoulders, furrowings of brows, pacings of the floor. Of late the Lacanian had begun to adapt certain practices of the immanent swarm hermeticism promulgated by the schizoanalysts. Since the unconscious gods do not take up residence only in individuals, the Lacanian would listen to the mysterious decentered languages resounding through skylines and traffic jams or, more often out here on the desert, through owl pellets and dry wells and lightning strikes and sometimes through the contents of colleagues’ trashcans. Almost always the gods spoke of desire and its frustration. Human beings, it turned out, could serve as excellent sounding boxes for amplifying the gods’ signals. In the process the human channels would become persistent annoyances to themselves, to their fellow Pilgrims, to the Scriptorium staff, and most significantly to the Lacanian himself. He would read his own irritation in interacting with a client as a sign that his work was succeeding. When he couldn’t take any more the analyst would instruct the Courier to bestow on the increasingly conflicted analysand the golden-corded little white box containing the Nautilus shell pendant, the recognized signifier betokening the Pilgrim’s having taken another significant step upward on the theurgic journey. The newly promoted Pilgrim having decamped, the Lacanian could devote himself more fully to his real work of plugging himself into the local gossip circuitry over glasses of Bordeaux at Rik’s Café.

The Scriptorium’s resident tongues-speaker never went anywhere without the tongues-interpreter. A Pilgrim wishing to ask a question of the gods would pose it to the interpreter, in English, always orally, never by text. With practiced deliberation the interpreter would turn from the petitioner to the tongues-speaker, who would typically produce an utterance in the language of angels: Handara bara castorium tiste lebiste… Frowning, the interpreter would offer in response to what evidently had been the tongues-speaker’s request for clarification an apparent non sequitur – an observation about the shadow darkening the ceiling in the far corner of the room, for example, or perhaps a hummed bar or two from an old pop song. The tongues-speaker would nod gravely. She would cock her head in silent expectation, one eyebrow raised, a hand elevated slightly, palm forward. She would hold this pose for perhaps thirty seconds, presumably waiting for the gods to consider the question and to transmit their answer. Then, calmly and patiently, she would speak directly to the interpreter: Chanda loturiasto carindiste hemnaba satrialistiche… The interpreter would turn to the petitioner and explain: You cannot expect the laundry to turn all one color after only three wash and dry cycles; there must be time for the soiled items first to become carriers not just of dirt but also of iniquity, distortion, labor, resilience, forgetfulness; only then can the reflective surface become attuned to the deeper essence. Does not the English version seem longer than the original tongues communiqué? Yes, but of course this is not translation, it is interpretation: sometimes longer, sometimes shorter. But I asked nothing about laundry. Of course not, but the gods hear the words and understand the heart. There would be exchanges in which the tongues-speaker would apparently enter into near-catatonia or epileptic spasm; sometimes the tongues-interpreter would interpret not into English but into a series of grunts and growls and other sounds too deep for words. The Lacanian would then be called in to interpret the interpreter.

This sort of sequential messaging could be accomplished at any local Pentecostal church, except that the Scriptorium tongues-speaker and -interpreter claimed to be multilingual. Each Pilgrim was speaking not to the Christian triune God but to one or more of the multiple elohim who populated the spirit world, each of whom spoke in a different tongue. The speaker and the interpreter were also Identifiers. When the Pilgrim began to lose resistance, began to understand the deeper implications of laundry interpretations and to engage in conversations seemingly dealing with mismatched socks or wrinkled shirtsleeves but all the while nodding sagaciously at the deeper implications – began, in short, to show signs of being an Outlier – then the speaker and the interpreter would reveal to the Pilgrim the identity of the individual’s patron elohim, the one among the legion who had established the strongest channel of communication with the Pilgrim. Training would commence in cultivating the Pilgrim’s newly-identified gift of tongues, either as speaker or as interpreter, never both. When sufficient mastery had been attained and vouchsafed by both the tongues-speaker and the tongues-interpreter, then the small white box with the gold cord would be delivered and the Pilgrim would set forth toward the next Station in search of another Pilgrim with the complementary gift: if the Pilgrim had become a speaker on behalf of the identified elohim, then an interpreter for this elohim must be found, or vice versa, so that a reliable channel of communication could be established between the two realms of existence, between gods and humans. Occasionally word would arrive at the Scriptorium: a match has been found; a new speaker-interpreter pairing has set up shop at one of the other Stations positioned along the worldwide Pilgrimage Trails.

The Tantric practitioner never used words at all, communicating exclusively by means of gestures and postures, symbols and charts, scents and hues. Elaborate rituals were designed and enacted, typically involving rapid eye blinking and awkward sexual positions. Occasionally a vocalization would be uttered, but the false hope of the uninitiated would dissolve in the uninflected monosyllabic repetitions rippling through the incensed air suffusing the Tantrist’s chambers. With pen and ink the Scriptorium’s resident transcriptionist would reproduce on high-quality paper the mandalas and sigils and mathemes, would draw the nyasas and the mudras and the kamas, compiling them, with the Pilgrim’s oral commentary, into a short text documenting the Pilgrim’s Tantric ordeals under the practitioner’s guidance. The Pilgrim would then hand-copy the bespoke manuscript into a notebook, the original being stitched and bound and shelved in the library, adding it to the idiosyncratic collection of esoteric texts produced at the Scriptorium. There was also an in-house illuminator who, if commissioned by the Pilgrim, would embellish both the original and the copy of the revelatory document, be it Tantric or Lacanian or glossolalic.

Spontaneously and with no explicit endorsement from Bud, hand copying had evolved into an important praxis at the Scriptorium. Seated at carrels in the library, Pilgrims would copy word for word their predecessors’ bound manuscripts into their notebooks. They would copy books they brought with them: scriptures, poetry, meditations, essays, fictions. To reshape the words with your own hand, to curl your mind around the thinking behind the words, to merge spirits with the masters and the saints and the visionaries… Among the mystic copyists the most popular document of all was the legendary elohimic creation targum, a textual Möbius in which the gods enter into self-awareness through the written narrative of a witness, apparently human, to the beginning. A rumor, widely circulated across the Stations, held that the practice of hand-copying this document had originated in the Scriptorium, although under the nearly obsessive direction of Gene Karas the Pilgrimage’s historians traced it either to the Languedoc, to Catalonia, or, perhaps most likely, to Aragon.

There was a software engineer who, before setting up residency at the Scriptorium, had built a suite of automatic holy-poem generators that attained immediate popularity among the Pilgrims to whom he had demonstrated them over drinks along the Trails. Once he settled in at the Scriptorium the engineer quickly got to work on what he termed an old-school elohimic expert system. From interviews with theologians, gurus, cabalists, and prophets he extracted a substantial body of godly insight, which he compiled as textual aphorisms and brief enigmata that he then programmed into the system’s knowledge base. In response to fairly complex Q-and-A sessions with spiritual seekers, the elohimic expert system would automatically string together its fragmentary wisdom, spitting out multi-paragraph bursts of polytheistic revelation. It’s like a sophisticated Magic Eight Ball, the engineer scoffed as he scrapped the device, which had rapidly attracted a strong following among the Pilgrims who had beta-tested it.

Next the engineer set about building an object-oriented elohimic system, or OOES. Instead of propagating the so-called sensual properties of hierophantic loci with which votaries typically interacted – words of holy texts, pictorial images of icons, architectural and topographic layouts of sacred spaces – the OOES was designed to manipulate the withdrawn essences of these spirit-objects. Almost invariably the user interacting with the OOES would receive in response to queries neither direct answers nor oracular poetics but silence. Some Pilgrims spent weeks contemplating the system’s apophatic non-pronouncements; most of them headed on down the hallway after fifteen minutes or so.

It was the engineer’s elohimic neural network that generated the highest levels of hope, and of frustration. As first envisioned, the network would, through several layers of multiply-linked factor-analytic processors, integrate various stochastic processes – SETI static signals, Brownian motion bouncing around in the machine’s sub-bit electron level, pitch micromodulations in the vocal patterns of people interacting with the system – under the assumption that the gods would speak simultaneously at the cosmic, the subatomic, and the personal levels. The engineer made significant progress with the prototype, generating alphanumeric cascades that under certain complex constraints could be interpreted as meaningful. One day he read an output produced by the network that caused him to rethink the fundamental premise at a radical and fundamental level. “You presume that we speak subconsciously,” the network printed on the screen, “whereas in all likelihood we speak superconsciously.”

The elohimic neural network’s message, assembled bottom-up from countless seemingly random fluctuations, changed the engineer’s orientation profoundly. For machines to assemble meaning from apparently meaningless elements: isn’t this the sort of activity in which the gods themselves should be engaging? And isn’t it the sort of endeavor in which humans engage all the time, making sense out of an intrinsically senseless universe? The engineer chronicled these thoughts on the first page of a notebook the Scriptorium’s librarian had given him. It was the first actual handwriting he had produced in years.

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