PREVIOUSLY: The siege of the Little Institute for Advanced Study and Noah’s Park Paviolion. Witchy subversion cuts through staid puritanism, rocketing via rail from the Old World to some hazily glimpsed New one, dangling just out of reach, just past the absolute threshold of our feeble vision. Atonwa, fresh out of a mysterious subterranean operating room, leaves the Institute employing a preternatural sense that says he’s at the center, or at least somewhere within the central iris, of a sinister frame-up. No onkwehonwe colonist distrust, Atonwa is clearly onto something or other—or are they just smelling his native cig butts as they litter the backroad? And anyways, didn’t he just do time in the most uncanny of holding cells? things starting to run together and congeal amnesi- and paranoiac as he drives north under assumed surveillance and is at length captured by ADAM, some acronymed tendril thereof, when he crosses state lines into Alabama. State apparati do what they will, and sometimes all you can do is laugh like a mental patient.
Up in New York some hours prior, day’s golden end piercing a certain crystal glint that seems already to suggest some logical underside yet to announce itself, Arthur Yagoda gazes into reflective lobby glass and jerks gums this way and that, sucks his teeth, sends a finger in, hands smoothing the black necktie that’d hung dopily outside his buttoned dinner jacket the whole walk over, that’d knocked askew into once-sharp-now-dulled lapels and made, reflection seems to say, a mess of things. Wherefore, why a tie with a tuxedo, the real question he’d been mulling--by definition no tuxedo at all, no form of suit known to modern man, kind of closer, in point of fact, to the plain fact of disorder, to nothing. He thinks of the guests upstairs, pictures his entrance, can already feel polite glances masking less generous judgments. He’d been careful until now, pretty solidly attendant to the vagaries of get-together fashion, a dedicated follower thereof. And then this happens.
Which means he’s staying down here till Georgia arrives, at the very least, late though he is, for Georgia’s late too, later; almost sunset, but he’ll wait and offset his own false steps by entering on her shoulder way he’d previously intended and we’ll see what the glances are saying then. Necktie, Christ, but just what’d come over him? This Arthur here being a guy who truly and quite openly thinks himself a pro, no sarcasm but actual, if boastful, sincerity when he speaks about parties, fancying around, looking like a million. Because he knows himself to be of the generation took ‘Unpleasantness’ as its cultural aspiration, he’s resolutely defined himself as Classically Cool, meaning here the light hi-hat taps and polished Oxfords, basically the hepcat rug-cutting sense. Accent on ‘Class,’ like. He’s tried to listen seriously to boring big band jazz. Actually flirted with British inflections, elements of style, the letter “u” and other orthographic cues. Eschewed excessive drink, casual fun, save when it’s allowed him to better cultivate this avatar, enrich its expansion, develop its idiosyncrasies. Make it real. Which meant ordering something harsh and straining to withhold the ensuing grimace. Or dillydallying at home before a party so that he could arrive hurriedly at the last second, apologizing but see, he’d had trouble extricating himself from this vague prior engagement.
So that’s that, then, still eyeing his reflection. Not an error at all, this stupid tie, but an elegant idiosyncrasy: scoundrel Yagoda’s patent twist on the old favorite, his giving it a new shake. You know the guy, he can’t help but look cool. It’s the best he can do on short notice to rationalize what he hopes no one’ll realize is just your bog standard fuckup. The offending issue straightened out in both the figurative and literal senses, and a commensurate calm coming over his features, Arthur allows himself a moment of quiet composition, twinkles a little wink at his reflection, decides the hell with Georgia Klay and heads down the short hallway to the elevator, buoyed confident and ready.
Upstairs, Ritchie Ra’s in his rooms, one story beneath the gathering, bolt upright on a shabby plastic mat, focus sort of coming and going. His small apartment, adjoint quarters to the workspace above--in all, the full top two floors of an eight story warehouse he’s been renting for twenty two years--and the atmosphere down here, down in this specific, tiny room spare by design, so that, with nothing much to focus on, a sort of defocalization--the necessary sort--comes settling over him natural as a nap. Loosening his gaze, the empty egg cartons pasted overhead to line the shared ceiling spool readily into infinite repetition, distant projections, blurring into space. Put there for soundproofing, tonight a little leaks in from upstairs anyways, noise pollution through the mosaicked cartons, unwelcome but ignored easily enough. Dirty cinderblocks, stained smoky red from the building’s formative industrial years, stack cleanly out, running the edge of the bare room, no art hanging. Spare by design. Ritchie’s hands lay themselves flat against the floor’s coldness, his brain noting this bit of disconnect, by which it means to say he can’t feel it. Knows it’s cold, but can’t feel a thing. Can’t even remember the sensation.
More mineral than man, if a man’s got that somatosensory hookup, Ritchie’s been here for he doesn’t remember how long, straining through dissociation to stay 100% present, to let focus emanate but finding instead that it’s all caved inward, every level down to the minutest ending on top with these vaulted ceilings that, with no counterresistance, lower, terribly, each time he looks up at them. Messing with his private mental map. His home disappearing, this home he’s loved, in which he’s lived out so much, rooms wherein he once slept, worked, ate, loved but which now figure only as his summoning grounds, all memory, all life dropping out of view for long stretches, ugly and nightmarish when a glimpse is afforded, through his lens of truth out over the perverted mirror world, the Looking-glass House he used to think of as his own. It once necessitated a fatal break in concentration but now he’s learnt enough he can put a hand out to the glass all gone to gauze, smiling through, and note his faroff mirrorworld counterpart’s expression without losing control, without faltering. His Will holds fast.
In fact, at this point he barely has to try. Already the air in front of his forehead begins to flutter, steam off a hot road in his steadfast attention’s headlights. Details begin to delineate themselves: teeth, nostrils, brittle links of hair. A hand, soon a body. Ritchie breathes deep, resolve locked on the shimmering figure before him. That thrillingest act, invocation.
“O Shadow O Radiance usher command me signal ATAPAO ODIO O.” A voice he swears rings out verifiable. A prompt for direction, for command, voice prone in submission, cadence shaped by a tide Ritchie can’t quite see yet but which he detects in the recitative, low and slow as a creaking, tilting prow on very old waters.
He’s had a hard time, these last few months, extricating himself from these exercises. A certain notion of imminent revelation hinting, baiting, bolting him in place, he’s got little patience for the outside world, safe in the assumption that to live publicly at a time like this, to engage in some crass pantomime of life as usual, would be plain wasteful. No, it’s this private realm and its exhilarating promise, this hint of mystical ascent that’s compelling, that demands further investigation.
In becoming sick, in examining his sickness, he’s really started to work at this piety wholesale. Busy days, made to wallow in the quotidian, he dreams of the moment he’ll be able to return to this seat, surrender in worship, keel and list on the tide, usher up a guide with whom to confer, some entity from that realm of fullness, a being who’ll speak to his symptoms, who’ll illustrate what they hold, Ritchie’s real goal being--in a frail human way that, no matter his ever-strengthening will, he can’t shake--to prepare, to be ready for what’s next.
Somehow, Venus and her orbit, ordained forever ago, have become swept up in all of it. The planet’s appearance, the deliberate passage across the face of the setting summer sun, mythical analog to the tumor spreading over his brain, will cement his newfound telic perspective, set the entirety of this feeling, its incidental moments and cosmic flashes, onto the short road to terminus. This day will be some kind of last one.
But in a final concession to the Ritchie Ra the world once knew, he’s put together a party. Certain though he is that before the evening’s out he’ll return to this room and confer, he’ll just as surely do his social animal thing, run out the intervening hours in the company of those few whom he likes and those many whom he tolerates.
Though the mirror, as we’ve seen, no longer projects for him any stale one-to-one expression, Ritchie’s roughly aware of how he looks to others. Handsome at the outset, hardly dead, not even within spitting distance. Fifty-nine, and mockingly vital. Closer inspection reveals those telltales; left pupil a little larger than his right, pronounced hood forming on the lid. A world of details conspiring to form subtler facial asymmetry, but the way he’s been wearing it, no one seems to’ve detected a thing.
Indisputable, though, on his inside. Just a month ago--only a month, Christ--on another clement Cape morning indistinguishable at its start from all the others, thing’s’d woken up dizzy. Ritchie’d stood, confused (as all waking moments are shapeless, hazy and uncertain as their preceding sleep) rocked boatlike, tried walking across the room on marshmallow feet and actually fallen over. At that moment, he swears, his mind shot flashforward to that portentous diagnosis. Could his body have known, detected the encroachment? Which element had done the reporting—the invader itself? A spirit, invoked unknowingly? Had one already whispered a kernel of the truth to him, and so soon?
No matter; doctors exist to shout down such whispers, and did, urged caution and lack of imagination and left him mumbling something about mild labyrinthitis, Dramamine to taste, nothing to worry about. Try and get some new work done, Ritchie, mean how long’s it been? But, without family or other easy distractions, he began to dream, began to dwell. Those nights he slept through, he’d awake to an awful mortal recall, having, during those few merciful hours, forgotten everything. Waking life now held all the familiar promise of nightmare--like he was living out some reverse childhood, a symmetric tapering off at life’s end--and made good on this hallucinatory potential. Visitations, wherein he’d walk into a seemingly empty room and without ever looking know, know utterly beyond doubt, that he wasn’t alone. Nights drifting, those immortal moments at the border of wakeful- and sleepfulness, when he’d be startled horribly at that sudden drop felt or scream heard, the moment every kid tries futilely to train him or herself to expect at bedtime.
It was only natural, you’ll agree, to impute an ironclad connection between the thoughtforms he’d been learning to conjure--but couldn’t, not fully, not yet--and the growing cancerous mass behind his eyes. Surprise no longer entered into things, just this Uncanny, this expectation. He found himself reveling in it, hoping to get sicker and sicker, knowing he’d soon cross the threshold and receive a genuine magical communion. What thoughts, then, flashed in Ritchie’s head as the first seizure announced itself, and did so, as promised, right alongside that bonafide invocation, impossible simultaneity, the light there in the corner, shifting, turning, an experience he’s recalled ten thousand times since, an aura which propelled him upward into terror as the moment mounted, allowing himself to turn around, finally, to face this occupant, hazarding the long-avoided look behind and seeing, in a moment of searing culmination, its face, ancient and incalculable, staring him right back... then, as he buckled under confirmation, what question did he ask? Was it what this all was, or whether this, finally, was it? He can’t remember. He came back to himself, sprawled on the floor, tongue flopped in a puddle of vomit. In his account (which naturally he’s kept to himself) the seizure was a fulfillment. Likewise for the second such episode, the subsequent waiting room, and the neurologist carrying the MRI scans, shuffling slow down the hallway toward him and staring at the floor, steeling himself against eye contact. Little fulfillments, checkpoints headed up to the border, the big one. Which now lies just ahead, and who-knows-what there waiting on the other end.
Okay, so, has Ritchie allowed himself to grieve, to be afraid, or just opted for this communion as substitute? A mirror world question, one with which he needn’t bother. Not so much plainly irrelevant as moot, too debatable to spill over into pertinence, and at any rate, it’s his private rejection of such banalities that constitutes this last half-proud rebellion and he’ll be damned if he’s to acquiesce now. Ritchie is either woefully stoic or just plain stoked. He honestly regards mortality as a goof. His aloofhood can, by now, hold the whole world in its sights with nary a blink, and beyond--so that if, say, the imminent transit of Venus is to be the last one anybody ever sees, it’s no skin off his elbow.
No goofy kid’s nihilism, Ritchie’s outlook is hard-won and confirmed at great length. He’s found a kind of contentment, here living in the space between two apocalypses. Wish him well, though he doesn’t have long. We should all be so lucky.
“Seen Georgia?” people want to know.
“Uh, um,” or something, Arthur’ll stammer, and they’ll slide without much trouble into talking about what they’ve evidently wanted to all along, invariably some work of hers that they admire. Making things difficult for Arthur, eager to shift focus onto his own stuff.
“Yeah, she and I’re actually thinking about collaborating on something, the two of us,” some patron saint of the segue smiling upon him, “see, I’ve got a new one I’m working on, some of the same characters from Intermission, but in a whole new context.” This girl, some artworld hanger-on, party type and as it just so happens an attractive young filly, may or may not know who Arthur is, what he’s talking about, any of it. Instead smiles pleasantly, says nothing, lets it fade slow while they just stand there. “You know,” Arthur with an eye toward keeping things in motion, “a little more minimalist, not so constrained by—”
“No shit?” she says, interrupting, and loud. “Yeah, cause, Ritchie and Edgar, Edgar O’Nubb?,” referring here to the downtown instrumentalist, arranger, composer, producer whom Arthur’d met a handful of times but with whom, as she’d guessed, he couldn’t claim a first-name-based relationship, “couple parties ago they were talking about like new work she was gonna be doing, Georgia, something with that flower painter, like, it just I don’t know didn’t seem like something she was going to be like working with anybody else or, I don’t know it’s just that was my impression. Seemed kind of like, you know, something personal.” She mouths something, shyly but kinda emphatical.
In a barely audible whisper: “Something vaginal.”
Arthur swallows. “You, uh, check out the bar yet?”
The top floor of Ritchie’s South St. warehouse--built in 1830 to house hardware, machinery, dry goods, dry enough they provided ample fuel for the Lower Manhattan fire five years later that marred the redbrick facade, left it black and shabby ever since--retains that spartan downstairs layout, smaller rooms fringing the blueprint and this huge open central hall, dozens, maybe hundreds of sweaty folks here already attesting to the space’s haughty railway terminal grandeur. A welcome breeze snakes between the gaptoothed brick windowsills which arch high, stretching floor to ceiling with sooty stone gargoyles peering out from on top, and cools off the already stinky coteries. In between the windows are blotchy gray cement interstices, new wall put up as the building’s skeletal foundation got grimier and grimier. Ritchie, who moved in in 1980 and liked the place way it was, had had a mind to fight any and all ensuing renovations, but nothing, not even appeals to the Landmarks Conservancy, seemed to draw the slumlord owner’s eyes off the property prize, so he just gave up. Huge canvases, leftovers from the last opening, cover these walls so that folks are afforded a chance to see some paintings instead--though no one really spends much time looking, preferring to sit around, crashed out on these couches circling the ad hoc, cinderblock-built bar, and shoot the shit.
Over at that bar, as a matter of fact, aforementioned Mr. O’Nubb and William Thwock Morton, virtuosic pianist, unrepentant hedonist, and incorrigible punnographer, have been drinking and discussing the latter’s latest project, a series of piano sonatas entitled Ticklin’ the Ovaries.
“Eventually we go orchestral with it, recording on, you know, on a large scale,” the ‘it’ in that sentence referring to Thwock Morton’s nascent venture, the creation and dissemination of what he’s taken to calling Modern Erotic Composition, “and our interests converge.” O’Nubb, who’s always had unorthodox ideas of his own and is of late a professional studio engineer, is, it’s safe to say, on board. A permateenager, weird-tall and lanky in t-shirt, sneakers, unkempt dark hair worn shaggily though gone partway gray, his pretty much universally agreed-upon reputation is of a good guy who’s managed to stave off uncoolness well into middle age. Possesses enthusiasm, the brand borne of youthful positivity, not that phony stuff, and has been in the game long enough that it all seems rather miraculous at this point. Doesn’t coast on ‘Did seminal work in multiple musical outfits,’ ‘Has appeared to retain some degree of artistic credibility for some thirty-odd years,’ ‘Influenced all the non-notational music being produced today that’s worth listening to,’ anything else the gossipy types around him are right now whispering to those who confess embarrassedly not to be familiar with the man, because, oh yeah, he ain’t rich and famous neither. Sure, you do the research, read your liner notes, you’ll find his name’s relatively ubiquitous; meet the kids, maybe, who never heard a guitar the same way after the tenth or twelfth listen; if you’d like, track down a recording of one of those first New York shows and judge for yourself. O’Nubb’ll still be working for a living, careful not to price his services out of the realm of the interesting music, wherein the good musicians, the real freaks, can afford to enlist them. Which means none of this mansion stuff.
But more than enough, anyway, to occupy his attention. O’Nubb runs a label/distribution firm, writes columns for friends’ magazines or introductions for friends’ books, plays in bands, tours, for Pete’s sake, in addition to the studio day job. And is fundamentally hard to angle, since by rights he ought to be bitter, angry at the musical mainstream, the record conglomerates, the plumb-stupid American consumer, but isn’t. He doesn’t partake of that kind of harshness. No political ire to raise, even. He’s peaceful, concerned with fun, and thus constitutes, for most, an unsolvable mystery.
Thwock Morton, who’s fat and wears an obscene mustache, is the opposite. Warlike, bellicose, he philosophizes and labors over his musical output, is serious, in fact, as a heart attack on that score. A reflection of his notational upbringing, perhaps. Something of the rote in the way his art functions, those same dilettantes, heartless manipulators, flibbertigibbets’ll tell you. Unlike his compatriot, he harbors actual hate for them, for the terms based in fashion and fascism, all those ossified taxonomies. He, who won’t brook the hierarchical, confronts it. And so he creates this music that descends, pestilential and quite nastily, upon its mores.
Now, make no mistake, he can play Liszt, grow his hair out, crack his knuckles, sit down to an étude would make your head spin. Has been known to. The establishment is not to be sloppily conflated with the enemy; leave that to the credibility-obsessed, the desperate-to-please, that younger, desperater generation. Thwock Morton laughed, for instance, when he heard Haydn’s little ‘Surprise Symphony,’ that kind of classical cuteness a prototypical iteration of the type of audities he’s sought to present in his own work (not to mention the wealth of jokes that sprang from the composer’s name—‘Why couldn’t Beethoven find his teacher?’ and the like). Clean fun has its place. And so for the other sort: he’d worshipped Otto Mühl and the Viennese Actionists (in honor of whom he submitted his first symphony under the pseudonym ‘I.P. Freely’), thumbed well that inimitably bawdy French literary tradition, spent his collegiate years developing and virulently defending theses on specific porno films, less-than-noteworthy ones whose admittedly straightforward efforts at titillation he was happy to resituate (“A Cross-Theoretical Analysis of Rhizomatic Tropes in Amazon Ass Splitters”, A-). Had it begun as a goof, the fulfillment of that universal prerequisite that says Throw It in Their Face If You’re Young? He’d parse the question some: it had begun as youth itself, which is unconcerned with Their Face save for when They interfere with the progress that youth strives to engender. Being young, eager, and talented, he’d been offered for perusal the breadth of artistic possibility; this portal slid open, he’d moved to prevent its narrowing. Genre, Vocation, these epithets, for him, had failed to fix, and even as he aged, intrinsicness and categorization meant nothing, a freshness of perspective that he shared with all good artists and all small children.
Which has led to this commingling, one such new synthesis and the formal debut on the horizon for its typifying piece. The porno sonatas promise--or maybe it’s just their composer doing so on their behalf--to confuse, arouse, then maybe if they’re lucky outrage. Really anything but adoration, which would catalyze some serious reconsiderations; selbstlob stinkt, as the Germans say about praise. No, horror would be these works’ rightful reception. Same goes for their composer’s stand on parties, more than one of which has ended for him in a decided lack of clothing. But work before play, and see if it all doesn’t start to sort of run together anyways--“Your psychoacoustical expertise, Edgar,” Thwock Morton by now lubricated enough he’ll talk flip about art, “is what’ll really induce a physical reaction,” leaning in queerly close, “if you know. What. I mean.”
Talk drifts, drinks drunk. Arthur Yagoda insinuates himself into what conversations he can but sits hesitant a few feet from O’Nubb’s turned back, glances over cautious now and again. A figure in a darkened corner holding a saxophone piques something in him, may as well call it interest. But where’s Georgia? His new gal here, who’d claimed personal friendships with every noteworthy guest, is similarly shifty, seems to be working on getting sufficiently blottoed so’s the laughs at Yagoda’s jokes come a little easier before she grabs the errant necktie and leans in close. Something gets whispered that, despite the distorting effect of her dusty cig-voice, makes drunken Arthur--who knew the tie’d be good for something--perk up, and they head, hand in hand, for one of the other rooms.
The filly’s pulling him down a hallway, fingers slipping playful against his, leading, grasping the tip of just one or two, doing their dance: first brush, then joining, then the letting go. “Come on,” and he does, around a corner where she, ahead, almost topples over onto an oncoming figure, turns on him with indignation but opts just to chuckle slurry.
“Hey, come on,” Arthur making the connection, “that’s J.R.” Yeah it is, he of the pallidness, the weak protein-thin hair dribbling and coming loose on top, J.R. Shrapnel, military heir. Boasted a, call it ‘tenuous’ familiarity with most of the other invitees, though Yagoda’s not really one to talk.
“Hey bud,” Arthur feeling it out. “Been a while.”
“Yeah,” J.R. forcing some species of smile but neglecting to cover up this sad strain around the eyes, “how--”
They’d known each other. In high school they’d all known each other, two and one but hardly ever three. Yagoda the latecomer’d never achieved comparable closeness.
“She’s not here? I’ve been looking--” J.R. is dressed far worse than he, thankfully, crappily patterned waistcoat and pocket square and nauseous pants that don’t fit. Some middle ground twixt ‘try’ and ‘give up,’ ‘don’t care,’ all that sloppy that Arthur abhors. A whole air of half-heartedness, in fact, is palpable in this figure’s presence. Though young, he’s sunken and beat.
The name doesn’t ring a bell for the filly, who admits it openly and introduces herself to J.R. (and to Arthur, procuratically, for he hasn’t caught her name) as Fiona Snuzen, of the Upper West Side Snuzens, and making full use of that simultaneously loud-quiet cadence reserved only for the inebriate, wonders mightn’t their parents know one another?
See, but it’s complicated. J.R.’s father is Benjamin Shrapnel, who, notably reclusive on account of the sensitive nature of his government work, still managed a decades-spanning friendship with Ritchie Ra, lasting until their respective recent tumbles into corporeal catastrophe. Between the two men had held the kind of true feeling which, artless and beneficent, confounded outside understanding, and so most of Ritchie’s friends spoke around it, while others, revealing in themselves the coarseness which grows, weedian, out of another’s success, indulged in furtive partygoer whispers. J.R., who’d known Ritchie his whole life, didn’t, not really, was locked out same as everyone else. Add this further wrinkle, awkwardness, perhaps resentment from the others on account of his father’s status, goes some way toward explaining the body language he’s displayed thus far tonight.
“You might’ve known his Pop once, maybe, but not lately,” Arthur driving in some weird wedge. Their history a muddled one, seems he’s elected to assert himself nastily five years on, this girl a buoy at his side. “How is he, anyways?”
J.R. means to just leave, but Fiona, for whom a switch has flipped, touches his arm, sighs, asks what happened. He looks up, eyes somehow narrowed on both of them simultaneously. “Excuse me,” and a move to creep away.
“Well, I’m just,” the brazenness kind of throwing Arthur, “I was just asking, like, I mean no one’s seen you,” turning to Fiona in an effort to usher her toward him, “no one’s seen him in years.” She acquiesces, and he smiles at J.R., back in control, “There’ve been stories about you, like, that you’d get a kick out of.”
No matter how long Arthur waits, J.R.’s gaze won’t meet his again. Is it possible that he actually doesn’t care about this stuff?
“I mean did you get lost someplace?”
J.R. starts in laughing at this, a nasty dry laugh, and spiteful. Arthur’s feelings harden instantly. Arm around Fiona, who doesn’t resist. “Well I guess I’ll just sort of see you, around, maybe,” trying to sound like he’s not even trying to hide the disdain as he sort of pushes her down the hallway, follows, marches. A second later he thinks to call out something else but upon turning back for the sidelong glance there’s no J.R. there to take it. Where’d he go?
He’s actually just now sidling up to that aforementioned bar, where, though it’s easy to loose petty Arthur’s hold, he’s not quite as casual about tonight as he may’ve let on. He doesn’t sweat the guests, doesn’t care a whit for the digs of his peers, if Arthur even qualifies. But look, he can’t put too fine a point on this matter of Georgia Klay. He’s come today to see her, a goal borne not of hope or desire or anything like that; though he hadn’t much wanted to, he knew he couldn’t let himself flake, something like that. His will, this internal obstinacy. Even the worst thing that could happen here, tonight, well, it’s preferable to the brown study he might’ve lowered himself into had he not shown. Because he can sail past a lot of it (take Arthur Yagoda, see above), but the things that bother, do, and dreadfully; J.R. has presided, in his time, over some real festering of feeling, spells of dark in which all life is drained. He copes via low expectations--counting as a sure thing that he’ll be back there, in that heady zone, anyday soon--and in the meantime sees the beast crop up in this more manageable form as, say, anxiety over a girl whom he hasn’t seen in some years.
Georgia. Now she’s abandoned him, as he abandoned her. This symmetry, see-saw link between them, tilting this way and that over the years, the connection unseverable but played out in feints or by proxy, defined by its own negative space. Which somehow suits J.R., cipher, just fine.
Meantime Arthur’s in a half-darkened sideroom with Fiona, this early evening party kind of throwing off the tried-and-true go-in-a-room-turn-off-the-lights-let-it-happen thing on account it’s still bright enough, Manhattan turning under the sun, terminator line approaching, skewed off-axis this phase of the ecliptic, to see everything--see Fiona, her every expression, her energy somehow fucking with his hookup-equilibrium. Not supposed to go like this, force him to face a truth from which he’d rather look away. Should he feel weird about it? Is there something to it? This pesky light preventing him from banishing thoughts of J.R. back there, unimpressed, making him feel, oh, spooky doubt all of the sudden, an eldritch landscape mapping in his head, illuminating hidden thoughts wherein their possessor is, I don’t know, some kind of phony? Gah, get that shit out of here--
“I gotta,” separating from the girl, lifting her hands off and tossing them out of the way, making a move for the outside.
“You’re joking,” Fiona having expected a certain professionalism, should’ve taken a hint from the sartorial goof.
“No, because,” craven Yagoda pawning off everything, “they’re all going up to the roof, is, hear that?...” The sounds of footsteps are corroborating this, it isn’t pure nonsense. People are headed upstairs. The transit of Venus.
“Who cares?” as she eyes him, upturned and keen. Christ, what does he do at a moment like this? The light’s still streaming in dusty through drawn blinds; there’ll be no avoiding it. A voice has hold of him, is yelling emphatic “No”s. And yet a promise, so simple, and Arthur a red-blooded American male who, thanks very much, never turns down a chance. Thinking it over for a second. Yeah.
A wrinkle, though: Ritchie Ra, one story below, in private conference with one or more of those otherworldly representatives, has in fact been right beneath this very room, and had Arthur more of an eye toward the bigger picture he might have seen the actual cause for his sudden faltering, not any trick of the light but, in an unforeseen bit of collateral damage, a real-deal unholy miasma, a thought given form, a spirit, folks, conjured maybe a little laxly in the discipline department by the relative neophyte downstairs and now lo, reaching up for Arthur through the floor. Arthur, who’s read his Yeats but has no idea the man practiced Golden Dawn magick, Arthur who thinks of himself as learned enough he needn’t allow for the existence of such forces at all, is by going ahead with Fiona nonetheless entering into a tacit arrangement with them, a tenet of which says he’s going to have to make restitution for this offense. Proud youth who go against their instincts often run such a risk.
But not J.R. Shrapnel. Standing there at the bar, outwardly alert but actually paying no attention at all, he drinks something and observes, altogether passive, interested--at least theoretically--in being drawn up in some sort of feeling but for the nonce just detached.
Guests have begun to file upstairs for the astronomical portion of the evening, which frankly seems like it’ll be a world of trouble, poseurs having drunk to drunkenness, looking for those vague cosmic implications, coming up with some horseshit upon which to expostulate--the situation reels forward thusly in J.R.’s calculation, a safe one, he thinks, conservative.
But surely it’s better than not trying at all? Well, yeah, he guesses, looking around, it’s a party’s got some actual thinking folks and maybe he should be a little kinder. But, cynics, check out this stratification: little gatherings cluster constellational around those guests of note, some hotshit actors, publishers and book agents, art critics, this guy in the corner miming along on a saxophone, a couple of, jeez, fashion models, each sporting their own eager-faced detachment. Mustn’t these celebrated personages know that the flunkies just want things from them? Mustn’t the flunkies know that they know? How long can the game go on? Exactly who’s the sucker in all of it? Ugh, zoom back camera! It’s too exhausting.
“J.R....” He knows the voice, has known it since childhood, summers out on the Cape, that weighty thing, memory lurking under the thin topsoil of the present, its interactions, years welling up over dams and levees to crash through and swallow, see, for it’s Ritchie Ra himself, warm but looking maybe a little beat up. Just engaging this mutual moment, peaceful and boundless, nothing much to say. They look at one another for a few seconds before walking, side by side, to the stairs and onto the roof.
Everyone up here’s walking that fine line J.R. prophesied, arranging themselves much the same as downstairs, this jazz guy over in the corner, this major record label A&R asshole, their respective corteges. The sun, beating thick across the river, tilting over New Jersey, engages the odd onlooker, puts a momentary damper on appearance-keeping-up; Venus’ tiny disk appears on its edge.
“That’s it?” when someone points it out. “I can’t hardly see anything.”
So, no orations, no jubilations? ‘That’s it?’ Just this unabashed voidfulness that leaves J.R. vindicated but bummed, being he doesn’t see it either. His mythological digression, in which he’s equipped to handle the mysteries of the universe better than any of these flim-flam artists, falls apart. Venus sits there mocking.
Ritchie waves J.R. over to where he’s lounging on rusty deck chairs with O’Nubb, who’s migrated up here without Thwock Morton. Formal introductions are made, but J.R. doesn’t know music real well and so doesn’t start in swooning or anything like that. O’Nubb, who’s drinking a soda and grinning, is completely fine with this. “Nice to meet you, man,” and J.R., all of the sudden, is driven to an uncharacteristic openness.
“...I’ve been trying to get it,” pointing over solar way.
O’Nubb knows instantly what he’s talking about. “No real trick to speak of. Conversation, I once thought, but,” taking a sip, “when you get right down to it, there’s no way it’s going to appreciate what you have to say, is there?”
“Sure there is,” Ritchie looking over. Past them--past the alarmingly asymmetric stare, the façade which, like that of his building, has got close to nothing left--expression says he’s been trying to get it, too. “I just mean that’s the least we can do, is praise it, Him.”
O’Nubb laughs. “‘The Sun is God,’ something I heard somewhere.”
“Yeah?” For J.R., all pretense melts. He wants to know something, he asks.
“He’s being cute,” says Ritchie, “Turner, those were his last words, it’s said.”
“Cute on account of ‘Ra,’” O’Nubb obliging some background.
“Right, but it’s got to be true,” J.R. stumbling over sitting rapt and talking at the same time, “if it was ever worth worshipping... well, then now it must be all the more.” Some of that kid’s pantheism. He barely knows what he’s rattling about, but the words come quickly, feel natural in the saying.
Ritchie nods, hazards another look. He wants to become available, put out feelers, open to it. “Pat and Billy,” here referring to the constituents of a seminal Seminole punk outfit called NMF in whose development and promotion Ritchie and Edgar’ve had a hand, “they’ve a song on their new record talks about it.”
“In their charming roundabout way.” O’Nubb meaning sloppy, loud, drunken, honest. Earmarks of, you know, rock and roll.
Ritchie Ra has spent his life ‘talking about it,’ too, in his wise. When he hit his stride, did his best work, he was creating out in repossessed territories, one of a handful of white men allowed on the land of Red Indian traditionals. “Instead of an abuse of nature,” they’d written in 1974, when Ritchie was twenty-one, Ganienkeh’s resettlers, the people of the Flint pitching tent for a return--centuries-old Haudenosaunee shade over the vast woods all the prefab shelter necessary--“let there be an appreciation of nature.” And some years later he’d come out and tried, shrugged off what he knew, what we all know, deep down, to be false and degenerate, set himself straight, sought sanctuary beneath the Tree. Painted, built, fought. Took shots at the passing helicopters night in, night out. Fell in love, lived loss. And what else: whiled away a universe in blissful submission, began to accept the bad for having spotted, though faint and far-flung, some of the good. Lived a life that seemed defensible, that seemed, in the face of what he’d left behind, survivable.
But not exactly sustainable; idyll waning and well of goodwill dripping dry, he left. On his return to New York City the cynical and shitty art establishment opened its arms wide for its reformed rebel; representation, shows, a good amount of money followed. Ritchie, who at that time would draw as soon as breathe, tried to stay excited, keep an unerring eye on the movement of the spirit of survivance that he’d observed, that hint of the sublime that’d once invigorated his plans. Tried to stay enthused, to cast himself steady and unhesitating toward new ideas, above all else to keep on working. He’d returned, he thought, in order to curate exhibitions, to foster collaborative publishing plans, to sit back cozy in a well-defined collective of friends with few ulterior motives and even less politicking, to live out the spill into middle age with the surefooted aplomb garnered from eight years away from deadening urban life, eight years in the woods. Well, he’s managed to squeeze some of these projects out, find new ones, achieve a degree of notoriety whose emergence he’s treated with what grace has been manageable, he hopes. He’s traveled the world, spoken to vast audiences, talked on TV, once in French. Proud experiences on paper, but ones impossible to quantify genuinely--now he’s doing his final tally--save as “time wasted.”
For it’s those years in Ganienkeh, naturally, which he pinpoints--or did, at least, until recent spiritual concerns superseded them--as his most thrilling, the time to which he’s since sought return. So that years’ worth of sharpened memories, dispatches from the past, are caught reflective when here, dying, Ritchie Ra looks at the fading face of the summer sun. Catching its light unawares, he might become paralyzed, but letting it in carefully, staying with it, he is filled up. Love, suspended miraculous in time’s invisible crosshairs--through to transfiguration, and glory. “I think,” voice unsteady, “think I’ll head downstairs.”
“Really?” O’Nubb pointing. “It just started; mean, we got another half hour of viewing at least.”
“I need a break.” Ritchie’s alight, vibrating, wants to be in his rooms alone. “J.R., have a good time. Edgar.”
Edgar O’Nubb takes a look at his friend of two and a half decades. “Alright Ritch. See you.”
So does O’Nubb know Ritchie’s sick, really? How about J.R. Shrapnel, who still figures in Ritchie’s conceptions as a clueless kid? This tendency to withhold, a quality Ritchie long ago consigned to ineradicability, has dictated his disclosure strategy to the last. People find things out their own way, like, if they’re meant to be made privy... but he’s human, after all, and mightn’t his last days be less lonely if only he’d share a little? Mightn’t he be underestimating his friends, their empathic capacities? He admits that he can’t say for sure--and anyway, when lucid, he can reflect on the way in which, having been human, he’s given up on some things. Heavenly minded, he’s no earthly good. No big deal when it’s all tabulated, but this decision, fatally followed through, does mean that personal fulfillment will not come for him in warm friendship’s guise; no lover’s comfort will usher him into the next world. He’s an artist and so he aims always to exalt in life’s transcendent mysteries, but his body is a man’s and it’ll die plain and unadorned.
A note here on illness: his brain tumor is of the type designated glioblastoma multiforme, nothing with which to fuck, the proto-cancer, alpha and omega, impossible exponential cell growth, unfazeable. It’ll scrap, in fact, fight radiation and chemotherapy and render it all of it moot if you don’t care about the extra month or two. The best dent you can hope to make, if you want to call it one, is the knocking off of a hundredth or so in surgery and a subsequent regimen of radio- and chemotherapy to march through, salt the earth with innocent tissues chalked up as collateral damage and the whole affair meanwhile taking on absurd, comical shades of misery. Ritchie has undergone no medical treatment, cannot be said to be “battling” his illness, “a real fighter,” any of that.
But he’s taken an interest, anyway. His second seizure--in which he felt himself, finally, begin to ascend, intuited a hint of the treasure behind the curtain--quite naturally raised the discourse to eschatological heights, ones cruelly defined by absences and almosts: would the next one take him all the way across, to a full and brutal perception of the glory of the Throne? Or--the splintering proposition he’d been forced, by his seizures, to consider--was he being tricked, descending into simple delusion, nonsense, hokey hippie horseshit? Too far gone, he couldn’t really engage, could only hope never to know for sure. Ritchie, considering these seizures, began to harbor a secret wish for another, a final transfiguring assault, one on whose wings he could lift off, survey his surroundings, gain dizzying altitude, give up the ghost. Some kind of absolving achievement, let him know he was right to play things the way he did--close, so goddamned close to the vest, wasn’t it? A personal transit of Venus, wherein the unknowable object might cross, purposeful and with grace, the cracked orb of his damaged left eye...
The viewing party proceeding apace, those that’ve stuck around find themselves stumbling, literally in the case of the ever-more-deeply-intoxicated William Thwock Morton, onto ways of understanding, of not pretending. He’s dragged his sizable carriage upstairs in search of a figure spotted earlier out of the corner of a red-rimmed eye, is presently hectoring the other guests for confirmation--hadn’t they seen it too? His quarry’s identifying characteristics come out garbled, confused, results in no one quite knows who or what he’s talking about, despite the urgency indicated by his tone, most deciding instead to inch tentatively away, turn backs and drift outward to roof’s edge, hugging the peripheries of the peelt metal fire escapes. The hectoring rings out unabated, though, flirtations with belligerence giving way to a talking-to from O’Nubb and subsequent comedown, a gentle reframing of the narrative, so that Thwock Morton’s left here sitting ‘cool older dude’ style, leaning forward into a turned-round wooden school chair in the center of a group of lounging kids, expounding in storytelling mode, no longer haranguing, just a spot of warm relation, a fire-escape-side chat. Soon he’s surrounded by yet more acolytes alternately enthralled and bemused.
On the subject of the transit, he adapts the countercultural creation myth, likely apocryphal, that’d been recounted often in the autumn of his years by the once-vicious dodecaphonic rebel Pierre Boulez. The story is of a conversation between Brahms and Mahler held along the Danube’s Vienna banks, wherein the former, decrying the state of contemporary composition, lamented for the lost spirits of Mozart and Beethoven and the long-gone golden age. In response to this, the story has der Mahler merely pointing to the river, noting it was impressive, sure, but that its flow ensured new waters for every consequent glance, so that one could never greet the same river twice. “The sun forges those new atoms faster than we can ever hope to get to know all the old ones, being, see, awful fucking big,” Thwock Morton well in the bag by now and fighting to stay on track, “but it changes, is the crux, renews itself. The sun that’ll see Venus off, won’t, will not, be the same sun who welcomed her, or, you know, as Heraclitus had it,” belching, “‘the river is never the same river, nor the man the same man.’”
Freshly-hexed Arthur Yagoda, whose tryst’s concluded rather disappointingly, can be seen hiding on the outskirts of Thwock Morton’s detachment, listening intently. Times during the speech he laughs a little, at appropriate points. Nothing to do with his hands, he picks someone else’s drink up off the floor, holds it but doesn’t sip, eyes for detectable germs. Peers to and fro for Georgia, for Fiona Snuzen, for the nightmare vision of the two in conversation with one another. Off his game, ’s what he’d been, and really no one needs to know about it, least of all she.
Handily distracting, Thwock Morton keeps on talking, equating the movement of the celestial spheres with the inexorable march of government totalitarianism, offering a jeremiad on the role of the artist in such hopeless times. Invokes the ghosts of Richard Strauss, poor comrade Shostakovich, Sibelius, mere men, mere Europeans, rendered anxious and assbackwards by manners and mores and idiotic pride, made pawns, collaborators, their gorgeous outputs sullied with all manner of political slime and their characters consequently consigned to that sorrowful realm. And comes to rest on this sellout trend’s latest contemptuous torch-carrier, the one whose mention hits home for those guests in the know as he entreats finally for the release of a concentrated solar flare “to strike fiercely, and mercilessly, and penetrate the black heart of Alfonso Heliotrope.”
The very name, its saying, darkens the moment. A hush come over the rabble. “His representative is here. That beast of his, Renfro Vale. The monstrous pandrogyne. Here tonight, spying, and I’ve seen it.” This being the identity of the mysterious personage, spotted from afar, “And why shouldn’t he have sent someone? Why is any of you surprised to hear it?” Thwock Morton starts railing and Yagoda, confused, looks over at Edgar O’Nubb, who’s got this faint outcropping of concern, and at, ugh, of all the--of course it’s J.R. there alongside, whose very presence, very gaze, does Arthur offense. Can’t say whether eye contact was made, but resolving not to chance being seen a pussyfooter, Arthur Yagoda inhales sharply and walks over to Thwock Morton to introduce himself.
“Hey man, just want to say it’s real special meeting you and—”
“Yeah, special, sure,” Thwock Morton, unbeholden to those dumbshit niceties, can just let loose, “Special ed, special olympics...” actually turns away from Yagoda here, looking for something else, never bothers finishing the thought.
Arthur for his part laughs, nods, calms his twitchy hands and wipes them on his jacket. Takes a second to steel himself and then goes for it: “You haven’t seen Georgia Klay around, have you?”
And he looks up! Is J.R. still watching?--Arthur doesn’t dare check. “No Georgia, man, she never showed,” comes the response, still heavy on the insouciance.
“Huh,” foot’s in the door just stay cool, “well, maybe she might’ve told you about me, she and I like, us having done some work together; Arthur Yagoda?”
“As in the bathroom?” Thwock Morton, tall, wide, just sort of dimensional, really spreads out in this question’s asking.
“Where?” offered as naturally.
“Where, what?,” Arthur’s drinksmanship not as advanced as this situation requires.
“Where do you mean? Here?”
“Where... where do we work together? Wait what,” doing his best under the circumstances, but sinking fast.
Thwock Morton’s a different story, has in fact rarely been prouder, ergo straightens up to deliver the following: “Yagoda the bathroom here, here and now?”
Okay, so the punnee detects it, but, bowled, he can only play it straight: “Uh. Yeah.”
“Yagoda the bathroom,” giggling, mostly harmless. He really can’t help it; Thwock Morton, austere art hero, has this lamentable dick-around habit that he will not, cannot break. Let one of these pregnant vocables go in his presence, he’ll deliver it of all manner of gaiety. Sees playing with words as a bona fide component of his transgressive duty, one from which he won’t allow himself to shrink. Not that the other elements go neglected, though, don’t worry; he’s a workhorse and can juggle various brands of confrontation at once, a trait to which his present behavior attests: having tired of the Yagoda pun parade, Thwock Morton slowly, deliberately, methodically (if slovenlily), undoes his belt, reaches into his pants, actually pulls it out, and, looking square in the eyes a beneficiary chosen at random (a balding publicist with a cummerbund and a neck tat), commences pissing.
“Yagoda the bathroom,” he slurps, “where and when you wanna.” But his target’s disappeared back into the crowd, and few are left lounging around to laugh.
Jeez, but what must Arthur be thinking? Nothing, really; he’s wrecked. Wants little anymore and expects even less. This party, this encroaching nightfall, these wraiths tittering and him powerless, at their mercy, with no ferryman, no guide. Georgia. He considers the depth of his mercy toward her, the wanton fullness of that mercy’s betrayal. He’s often thought, in shaky efforts to assuage ill feeling, of how similar they are, how inarguable, underneath all the pretense, was their case for companionship. Somehow he still trusts in it, some far-flung future he’d be unsurprised to wake into wherein it’s all worked out exactly right. But then these moments, all of that feeling turned, spleen overpowering, venom discomfiting so that Arthur can only watch, from outside, as the night happens to him.
All the transit talk’s just reinforced he revolves around her. His orbit steadfast, undecaying, would never enable him to just move on to something new. A sufficient catalyst would have to be something truly calamitous, truly revealing. Did Georgia feel as strongly? Could she ever do? Arthur can’t see a way out of the labyrinth, his every day beginning so heavy with expectation and ending heavier still, its burden left unclaimed. He has thousands of wishes, all variants on the one says they’re together and there’s nobody else with whom to bother.
How did it get so serious? Arthur, prankster himself, wasn’t always like this. His private persona once synched neatly with the public; in school society he did pretty goddamn well thanks; sure, held some vague envy for those around Georgia, for her gifts, for J.R. Shrapnel and his stalwart elements of refusal, but yeah, suffered not from want or however that goes. He was the kind of kid, after all, for whom that life’s made: liked to have a good time, could impress easily enough, pull one over on anyone and everyone, teachers as easy marks as were girls. Wasn’t so polished, hadn’t perfected his game but still stood way out ahead of the pack, and knew so. Say what you want, Arthur’s awareness has always been sharp—he embraced the artifice early, had no qualms about fakery, networking, getting ahead. That this recognition informed his writing is indisputable.
About that writing, then. Well, the less said about his earliest plays, names like La Danse macabre and Chiaroscuro, the better. An omnivorous reader, he grasped some, ripped off more. Young as he was, it could hardly be called an offense, and questions of integrity went out the window, anyway, in light of his philosophy that said it all justified itself if he could just do well. At some point or another it became his defining characteristic, the pursuit of this Arthurian legend--well, that and the Georgia Klay side of the equation. Her becoming a fixed point in his universe lined up nicely with the expansion of this playwriting thing, on account of the overlap, cause she could write, man, and effortlessly, not like Arthur who’d sit pulling teeth late nights pounding out shitty work he just hated, three bad pages for every good one, who’d dishearten, who’d feel more and more a victim of cosmic castigation, a fingerwag at his pride swooped from above. Not so with Georgia, a fact that just fascinated.
Her situation was complicated, by the standard of those immature days. She’d struck Arthur as being somehow outside the desperate vying that so seizes young people, that so colors their relationships. She didn’t spurn it, as surly J.R. did, but seemed for her part to good-naturedly brush it aside, the implication being she’d lived and found fulfillment in the real world, outside of this circus, had never succumbed to it, and was thus impossibly adult. That she would never be his, not ever, but cared not for the inflated status that might otherwise attend such a haughty pose. Georgia intimidated other girls, it was said, though never on purpose, or for any reason besides she could talk to anyone with ease and never seemed to need, or to risk, anything. Arthur, who in those days was always risking, always needed, and couldn’t write for shit, had to fight to play it cool.
He placed himself constantly in her proximity, tried to balance being genuine with that unflappability but something would always give the whole game away. Georgia, funnier, would let him know she knew it but put him at ease all the same, joking with him--they would often drink together--calling him names. He’d never felt ashamed to so brazenly bask in the attention.
That it didn’t bother Arthur not to have progressed beyond this stage in their relationship spoke perhaps to the superficiality of the whole operation. It was enough, back then, to be attended on, to meet on the goof-around plane and never rise above. He could continue his empty pursuits of other girls, seek status, play the picaro, long as he was getting this on the side. It may even have had some depth to it, her ability to see through his bullshit somehow giving license by, say, cutting him down to periodic size. Indeed, he came to rely on this penance, his mockery at her hands, to get through those flirtations with soullessness that otherwise threatened to consume. Anchored, he stayed somehow decent.
Until, separated by the cold northeast winter and the colder Ivy League--in four years she never came to visit him there--he saw the arrangement’s breakdown. To remember Georgia at that distance ceased to mean remembering times shared or conversations held, but meant rather to recall the sensation of being near to her; of holding on to her when, drunker, she’d stumbled; of how small she’d felt. Lush, oppressive corporeality usurped what had been platonic, secular, and in the same instant, what he sought overtook what he could reasonably expect to receive. He was, all of a sudden, the selfsame pathète against whose emergence he’d organized his whole life--what the fuck? He had been merciful, hadn’t he? in getting the callous treatment and not turning away, in doing his time, at her side, waiting, the better part of a decade. But he’s here anyway, floating through the throngs like a ghoul, alone, every detail of his environs testifying to that deep Colossal Bummer. The cruelty of the circumstances flabbergasts.
He’d sought a temporary stopgap in the rendezvous with Fiona, whose gritty cigarette whisper had been reverberating hauntingly ever since. He’d fumbled the J.R. putdown. Gotten nothing from Thwock Morton, O’Nubb, Georgia’s peers. What next? Promise an increasingly rare thing up here, this dark-suited figure with the saxophone he’s been seeing all evening seizes attention and Arthur hazards an approach, following the instrument’s glint and wading into yet another retinue, where befalls a final ignominy: “Hey man--” these new friends give a start, look up spooked and droopy-eyed as Arthur sees it’s actually a bong, no reed just a mouthpiece and a bowl sitting inside its bell which, when lit, reflects and colors the shiny plastic beacon, this instrument he’s been following absentmindedly for hours, a smeared patina on the paraphernalium that, to his untrained eye, had made the dopesmoker appear a jazzmaster.
“You wanna hit this?”
A distant yell goes up in William Thwock Morton’s recognizable timbre somewhere behind, with what sounds like Fiona’s scratchy cackle sounding in response. Pulling at his tie, feeling like an idiot, Arthur accepts as, outstretched lazily, they offer him forgetfulness.
The dark sees summer’s violence alight, raw on hot southerly winds, a change stretching the capacity for explication in those observers who, just outside of their sphere of comprehension, detect a little something missing. What’s been taken away, now that sun’s set and city lights once again smother and snuff those of the stars? What’s abandoned these souls? Certainty, pretty much--maybe faith, another name for the same thing. The comfort that informs any interaction between bodies human and astral, that says the very fact of the latter’s existence, its overpowering presence at any degree of remoteness, its utter exceptionality, means the former can safely surrender, knowing that nothing that can befall a life, neither death nor war nor the most grievous of lies, will ever constitute a real threat, not while living gods knock about the solar system, circling indefatigable, even servile moons and small bodies persisting beyond all comprehension. This, J.R. thinks, might be a sensible stand on things; that, in effect, earthly doubt’s of no consequence in the face of celestial riches simultaneously inconceivable in their scale and yet irrefutable in their verity. A truth that’s surely self-evident to any who’re made privy to a legitimate astronomical phenomenon, the jaded, the proud, the idiotic, whoever. And since the category’s such a resplendent one, near anything can qualify as an adequate reminder, a stand-in for more sumptuous metaphysical treasures and pleasures waiting for us, we hope, at the end of everything. Anything to keep us humble would do the trick, to just wink back at us in knowing solidarity--and yeah man, it hits J.R. of a sudden, that’s what it is, something is missing: ain’t no moon out. That’s what’s left them hanging, its vacuum filling up with uneasiness, dark emotions scooting down the pressure gradient with no nightlight to deny them, to embarrass. What’s worse, the absence of any hint of the cosmic order means that the night’s won for the ersatz, these mangy man-made trinkets, smog and tall buildings, civilizational junk blotting the rest out, proclaiming its note as if it were worthy of any, and getting away with it, too, on this night with no counterpole to hang there, solicitous and warm and vital.
So where’d She go? Waning gibbous a mere two nights since full flower, there’s no excuse for this desertion. Further questions seize; is the polarization of emotion J.R.’s here identified among associates an effect of their being astrally jilted or some kind of cause of it? Which is the symptom, which the ill?
By way of illustration: William Thwock Morton, seriously hammered, in and out of crowds of guests, just won’t calm down, and having now, sure enough, gone ahead and disrobed, commences blustering his way around, shouting for this spy in their midst to reveal his or herself, running up to people and trying for that bodily contact. Edgar O’Nubb keeps an eye on his progress, periodically runs interference on his increasingly combative nude friend so innocent souls have a chance to escape. Yeah, it’s mere containment that seems to be of paramount importance to O’Nubb, so it’s a bit of a surprise when he reappears at J.R.’s side wearing an expression that lends the boorishness some credence.
“I believe him.” In response J.R. looks up, says something quiet that doesn’t catch, that neither hears, all attention now focused on the rooftop population, which, though thin and still thinning, constitutes all the same a faceless swirling mass on whose fringes Thwock Morton’s prey might be hiding. “Renfro Vale!” guests actually cringing to see things go this far, “Mark me! Take this to your master! Tell Heliotrope!” Thwock Morton summoning, demanding a trial be assembled even as guests begin to flee downstairs, “the coward!” the voice becoming lost in the increasingly panicked retreat’s general hubbub, even O’Nubb hesitantly packing it in as Thwock Morton launches into Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Siegfried stabbed by Hagen, “pointing to the ravens, right? ‘Errätst du auch dieser Raben Geraun?’” his voice being drowned out as he begins sputtering the names of sellouts, hypocrites and opportunists, traitors and informants, “your compatriots--Vidkun Quisling!--La Malinche!--” bodies pushing past--“Ronald Reagan!--Alcibiades!--Lord Haw-Haw!--” palpable anger above the din--“J. Edgar Hoover!--Jacques-Louis David!--Talleyrand, the preacher who didn’t believe in God!--Fouché!--Henry Kissinger!--” a space now cleared for the home stretch--“Elia Kazan!--Boris Yeltsin!--Delilah!--Rudolph Giuliani!--Bob Dylan!--” and in a moment designed just for straggler J.R., backed up as he is against the roof’s very edge, the quintessence of that reliably unreliable party timing when all extant sound drops out and the night condenses into singularity so that he can hear uttered, crystalline and unambiguous, the name of Benjamin Shrapnel. Whereupon his insides turn to steam.
The fact was, it was all true. The pandrogyne henchperson of recording impresario Alfonso Heliotrope, one Renfro Vale, had been there, just moments ago, and though not too keen on being seen or joining in had nevertheless had some places to see, some people to go. Thwock Morton’s revery is right on the money, and it’s overwhelmed him.
He’s haunted by Heliotrope, a mortal all at once in cahoots with the present’s hidden immortalities, a revealer of patterns and a participant in their perpetuation, a snake oil salesman and one all the more dangerous for knowing even a little of his larger role. Not for representing, he embodies; not for rationalizing, he acts.
His present incarnation just a mask, understand, he’ll still saddle up for the triumphal procession, a small parade in the larger Roman pageant. “Remember that you too will die,” William Thwock Morton dreams, has long dreamt, of whispering into his ear as was done in those days, but that’s just it, it doesn’t matter. He’ll die, but not really, not in the way that death connotes consequence. Heliotrope’s but a stand-in for a much larger program. Take it off if you want, but behind the mask, see, there’s something even worse.
Thwock Morton, prostrate on the roof in a puddle of this or that, looks over and sees at building’s edge, indeed cantilevered perilously out over the busy street below, someone that looks an awful lot like Ritchie Ra, some doppelgänger thereof, younger, less fierce but as angry. As sick, in the way that certain people are always sick, in exquisite private torment, a distended shadow draping over them from too far away for its source to be pinpointed, winds snapping cold breath at their backs, rattles of bone unavoidable as fate and non-transferable as nightmare, the storm of progress blowing down the angel of history. The figure looks over, locks attention, and Thwock Morton lifts a discombobulated forearm to reach out, somehow affect a rescue, but it won’t take, and anyways, he’s much too late; Renfro Vale has come and gone, and this is just J.R.; Ritchie Ra lies dead in his rooms two floors below.
So. Things go muddley. The people seem content to characterize themselves, or be characterized by the night, as mere masses benignly opiated by their night of frivolity and so politely conceded to shifting and shunting and ending up nowhere at all, only really important for the jostle and confusion they wreak on those persons worth mentioning, in turn, by dint of their having been able to separate themselves in the first place. And jostle and confuse they do, and so make it impossible to establish any continuous account of the rest of the night’s events. Law enforcement arrived, stood around. At some point or another Edgar O’Nubb was back in the fray, wearing an expression said to be uncharacteristically severe. Arthur Yagoda might’ve floated around a while longer, stoned and on the lookout for either of two female companions, one of whom had of course never showed, the other having long melded into the rabble.
And the standoff on the roof? Hard to say, really, whether or not it found resolution in dutiful J.R. Shrapnel’s acquisition of some greater knowledge of father Benjamin’s activities. How much he’d yet had, what’d been waiting there for augmentation. Whether familial fiat had plucked him for deposit into some frozen snapshot of an earlier age, doomed to await the long arm of the thaw reaching back, detritus from an explosion that hasn’t yet occurred. Whether his past staggered up into the night, steadied itself against the dogged wind, `nodded a flicker of hello at pale future. Whether the government operation that goes by the heiroglyphed name of ADAM came up at all. These being, after all, the sorts of singular insight that outside observation, however spirited, will never yield.
NEXT: Georgia Klay.
MARK IOSIFESCU, 2011