Wednesday, December 12, 2018
"You have violated the terms of agreement."
That message popped up in his inbox, informing him his Facebook account had been closed. No other explanation given.
Todd Trentby knew he shouldn't be logging into social media sites while at work. But he always did.
He noted the time. 3:30 p.m. on a hazy gray Monday afternoon. Todd sat alone in his cubicle listening to keyboards clattering from within other cubicles. An entire floor of people in cubicles. Keyboards upon keyboards.
Todd had come into the office early. His work was finished by noon. What else but surfing the internet was he supposed to do with himself?
Todd Trentby was thirty-five years old, single, of medium height and middling appearance. He knew he was soft-- an out-of-shape blob on a swivel chair. Too many hours sitting in an office. Too many sodas and processed cheese snacks. He made a mental note to improve his diet and renew his gym membership. He could do the latter within three minutes on the internet. A few clicks and his card information. He needed to get on a treadmill. Todd stretched, tired at the thought.
Todd was composed, cynical, and smug.
You could call him a generic white guy. Because he was level-headed and moderately intelligent, people believed he was more intelligent-- or crafty, or devious-- than he was. Managers would stop by his cubicle to see what he thought about a project.
"I think it's a good idea," Todd would reply, even if he'd scarcely heard what was said.
The manager walked away satisfied.
Because Todd wore a blank expression, with placid, unreadable eyes, people saw in him what they wanted to see. Agreement or disagreement. Sympathy or dismissal. Modesty or arrogance. He might be thinking about an upcoming football game, or where he wanted to stop after work for a drink.
Women in particular projected qualities onto him, good or bad, that weren't necessarily there. They saw not who he was, but who they wanted him to be.
Todd's eyes scanned the floor for any friendly co-worker who might be momentarily free. He'd been down to the cafeteria for coffee twice today, and taken a ninety-minute liquid lunch at a nearby Mexican restaurant. What next?
As he considered his immediate future, another email popped into his inbox. This one from Twitter.
"You have violated the terms of agreement," the message asserted.
Shut out of his Twitter account also? Todd clicked on his Twitter tab, finding he'd indeed been bounced out, and was unable to log back in.
"What bullshit!" he muttered to himself. "Absolute bullshit."
Todd pondered what could have caused the deplatforming. Why him? He was strictly middle-of-the-road in his opinions. Properly liberal and politically correct. Supporting approved causes. At worst, a moderate. Harmless.
"The man who takes no chances," a woman said about him once.
He suddenly realized what this was about.
It had something to do no doubt with his Twitter conversations this past Friday about Jim Mackelmeier. Jim Mackelmeier! That stooge. But Todd had defended Jim. He had to defend him. To do otherwise would've been unconscionable. Cowardly.
He'd met "Mac" Mackelmeier two years ago at a business conference in Chicago. An unbelievably boring affair, at which Todd had been looking for anyone who liked to drink.
Lumbering Jim Mackelmeier. Jim stood at the center of any social situation, easily located by his height, piercing blue eyes and handlebar moustache. Absently gabbing while spilling a coffee or cocktail in his hand, constant grin on his always-red face. Bellowing above the throng. Laughing at his own jokes. Mac was the kind of large character too-ready to put his arm around you and share an opinion. To test on you, for the fun of it, this notion or that one.
To share an opinion. . . .
But, a bigot? A fascist? God, no. No way. The idea was ludicrous. Jim Mackelmeier liked everybody and was open to anybody. One of those men who love the world. His wife was Filipino, as a matter of fact. Mass-attending Catholics.
After the convention, Jim and Todd had followed each other on Facebook and Twitter, and stayed in touch via text messages and occasional phone calls. They emailed each other every time they heard a new joke. Mac loved telling jokes. Granted, some of them pushed acceptable bounds.
Last Friday, Todd Trentby had seen a tweet by someone who worked in their field calling Jim Mackelmeier a racist and fascist. The same Jim Mackelmeier, he wondered? Couldn't be. The tweeter said Mackelmeier should be unfollowed and blocked. Todd clicked on the thread.
Mackelmeier was castigated as a hater. Todd couldn't be sure about what. Few specifics were given. One account said he'd been reported. "Avoid at all costs," another put in.
"That's crazy," Todd responded on his keyboard without thinking.
Even if he'd thought about it he'd have still done the same thing.
An exchange followed, Todd trying without success to assure three separate accounts that Jim Mackelmeier was a good guy. One accusation was verbal abuse of some kind at a business function.
Verbal abuse? Speaking too loud, no doubt.
"We have freedom of association not to associate with him," one of the three said, "and to make certain no one else does."
From another, to Todd: "It's better to educate yourself and learn from your mistakes."
"Mistakes?" Todd tweeted back.
Then, what in hindsight was a final conclusion appeared in Todd's notifications, from one of the accusers.
"You're an enabler of hate."
One by one, Todd Trentby was blocked by those involved.
The next day, Todd saw that his number of Twitter followers had declined by more than 300. He shrugged it off.
"Screw 'em," he said to himself.
That was on the weekend. He'd gone out Saturday night and hadn't thought a minute more about the matter, until now.
Screw Twitter, he thought. Maybe there was a similar site he could join. He remembered there had been, but it'd been deplatformed.
He'd have to tell Krisann about the whole thing. Krisann was a woman he saw on occasion. Todd couldn't talk about the matter at work, so he texted her.
"You won't believe what happened to me," his text said.
There was no immediate response.
On his way out of the building at five he passed one of the women on his floor. She didn't see him.
The plastic company identification card in his pocket-- required to enter or exit the building-- checked him out as he passed the gray-and-black security desk. The security officer noted Todd's departure, and nodded.
Screw it all, Todd thought. He needed a beer. He drove to a country-themed saloon near the highway.
The saloon was a splash of noise and color after the controlled sterility of his workplace, with yellow lamps, gold-paneled walls and blazing green felt pool table. Todd sat at a bar made of natural wood.
"Hey there," a brassy bartender named Sherry said to him.
Sherry tossed around straight blonde locks which fell to her shoulders. She was lean, confident, and loud. Sherry did well in tips.
With a golden pint of his favorite brew in front of him, Todd took a deep breath. The world outside was becoming continuous stress.
"Relax," he told himself. "The universe is an empty glass."
He checked his phone. Krisann hadn't responded to his text.
Todd was tempted to ask Krisann to join him. He knew that was near impossible. Going out during the week was problematic for her.
Krisann was a prim, short-haired brunette who worked until 6 p.m. as a librarian. She kept her small shih-tzu dog, Pickle, in her condo all day. Pickle waited the entire day for Krisann to let him outside to do his business. Torture. When Krisann stopped for a beer, Pickle's inconvenience was compounded.
A metaphor for how women treat men, Todd thought.
Krisann wasn't his girlfriend, only a woman to know.
After another beer, Todd dialed Krisann's number anyway. He received a recorded message.
"This phone no longer accepts calls from this number," the electronic voice said.
What--? Todd tried again, thinking he'd misdialed. He received the same message. Impossible!
He sat stunned. Todd reviewed in his head his recent interactions with Krisann, wondering if he'd made any blunderous statements which might've pissed her off. We all make thoughtless statements on occasion. Everyone does. It's part of being human.
Todd tried texting Krisann again. The text didn't go through.
He could use a shot. Todd had a policy of never doing shots during the week. Instead he ordered another pint. After another he paid what he owed in cash, throwing green bills onto the bar, including an ample tip.
"Bye now," Sherry said from behind the bar as she washed beer glasses.
The sun had gone down when he stepped outside. After 8 p.m. The open sky appeared vast and indifferent. A red line shimmered at the edge of the horizon, then was gone. He found his silver-colored car, which looked exactly like other cars. The parking lot was filled with interchangeable black or silver pickup trucks and gray or silver cars. An angry bombardment of them, irritating in their sameness. We're conformists, he thought. Pods.
Todd stopped at a convenience store on his way home. As he walked up he noticed a message on the glass door. It'd always been there. He'd just never read it.
"This Is a Hate Free Safe Zone," the sign said.
Todd placed a bottle of water and two high-protein energy bars on the counter. He handed the clerk his card.
"By the way," the clerk said. "According to my screen, your card expires at midnight tonight. Just thought you'd want to know."
Todd stared at the man. He was surprised, but tried not to show it. What in hell was going on?
"Sure, thanks," he said. Then: "Wait a second. May as well buy a few more things."
Tod smiled stupidly, then grabbed a slice of pizza. a plastic-wrapped sub, and an apple. The clerk rang them up.
The over-bright lights and blue and green colors of the store confused him. With relief he reentered the enveloping darkness outside.
What a crazy day, he thought as he pulled his car into the parking lot of his apartment complex. The car stopped under a prominent light. At least Bob Benkski's car was gone.
Benkski's vehicle had sat in the lot for over a month, even though Bob had moved out. Todd had seen strange people move into Bob's apartment.
"What's up with Bob Benkski?" Todd had asked Juliana one morning out of curiosity.
Juliana was a young woman who worked for building management. She wore the company's trademark gray and blue uniform. The company owned several apartment complexes like this one.
"Bob Benkski?" she asked, blinking. "No, no. He's not here. He's gone."
She skittered away before Todd could ask her anything else.
Now he used a plastic card to enter his apartment and switched on a lamp. A green light flashed on a monitor placed near the door-- a small computer whose sole purpose was to convey information to tenants. The flashing light indicated a new notification in the inbox. The messages were invariably about trivial matters such as garbage pickup, or parking spots. He'd check it later.
His apartment was modest in size, constructed of thin drywall and filled with cheap green abstract paintings and tacky orange-brown furniture. Every object was cheap, built to be used a few years then tossed away.
Todd turned on the requisite wide-screen television-- at least that worked. He clicked on a sports station.
Voices updating scores shouted into the small room as Todd ate half the sub from the convenience store. He'd gulped down the slice of pizza on the drive.
He'd have to call his bank about his credit card-- an aggravating task. Expires at midnight? Quite a coincidence. He picked up his cell phone and noted new email messages on it.
One of the emails was from his bank. He opened it.
"You have violated the Terms of Agreement," the key sentence emphasized in bold letters.
To their credit, the bank quoted the relevant section of the terms he'd agreed to-- those fine-print clauses no one ever reads.
"This relationship can be ended by either party without notice at any time. . . ."
"Violation of terms includes hateful statements, or any other unacceptable words or behavior . . . we have a zero tolerance policy toward bigotry . . . we are free to not associate with any individuals who might potentially damage our business reputation. . . ."
Blah blah blah. He could call their general number, but knew that'd be a waste of time. The signer of the agreement-- himself-- was given limited time to withdraw any available funds before the account was closed-- permanently.
What did he have left in the account? $62.90? Something like that. Hardly anything. But worth getting.
Todd noticed another unopened email in the inbox, from his employer. He was a man walking through a pool of mud up to his neck, his legs and arms heavy. With no way out and no option but to forge ahead.
Or a zombie, clicking on the email without thinking about it. Without daring to think.
They were hitting him from all sides.
"We regret to inform you," the email began, "that we are terminating your employment with this company--"
The email went on to remind Todd he was an "at-will" employee. Upon actions considered detrimental to the company, said employee could be terminated-- fired-- without warning, notice, or severance pay. The email concluded:
"This company is a Hate Free Safe Zone."
That was it, Todd realized. He was ruined. Finished. Like that.
He snapped his fingers to indicate to himself how swiftly it occurred.
All day at work everyone had acted toward him as if he were a walking dead person, but he'd been too stupid, or arrogant, to connect the dots.
Reported! When the social media ghouls report someone they go all the way. Maybe there was a circulating list somewhere, accessible to all relevant parties. Get your name on the list, for whatever reason, and a CYA "Cover Your Ass" mentality ensured all parties dissolved ties to you. Automatically. Clinically.
Yet what had he done? Nothing! Less than nothing.
I'm a good guy, he wanted to say. I've spoken out against bigotry on many occasions-- had denounced racism and fascism on Twitter and Facebook, frequently. All the right phrases. Did that not count for anything?
If he had to do it over, he'd not have supported Jim Mackelmeier in that Twitter discussion after all. It wasn't worth this kind of blowback.
Who was Jim Mackelmeier to him, anyway?
Screw Jim Mackelmeier. He'd dragged Todd into this mess. Maybe Jim Mackelmeier truly was a closet racist, fascist, white supremacist, colonizer, whatever. All the standard accusations. He visualized Jim Mackelmeier dressed in a Nazi uniform, obediently saluting a Nazi flag in his living room, marching about in jackboots while Nazi anthems played on a stereo.
That was insanity, Todd realized. Jim Mackelmeier would mock that kind of thing. He'd howl with laughter at the very idea of it.
Out of curiosity Todd punched in Jim's number.
"This number has been disconnected."
Todd leaned back on the sofa, staring at the ceiling as the television sports channel blared. Exhausted from beer and stress, he dozed.
When he awoke it was nearly ten o'clock, according to his phone. Todd had to get to an ATM before midnight for that $62.90. He might need it.
There was a new email in his inbox. From his phone provider. The email said his cellphone service was cancelled. Service to terminate at 2200 hours local time. 10 p.m.
"YOU HAVE VIOLATED THE TERMS OF AGREEMENT!"
A few minutes later, he'd been locked out of his email account. He needn't guess why.
Minutes after that, his phone service stopped.
Panic ran through his body. He'd been cut off from means of communication with the world. This meant, in the current age, from necessary tools of survival.
Move! he told himself.
He grabbed his electronic car key and left the building.
The nearest ATM was a seven-minute drive away. Tood reached it and put his bank card into the opening.
"This Account Is Not Accessible. Please see your bank representative at your bank branch for more information."
The bank branch sat dark before him, thoroughly closed.
He'd once thought the world was predictable, orderly. Understandable. Todd Trentby saw it now as a chaos of lights, illusions and misdirections, that one walked (or more often, drove) through as if traveling in a minefield. A gray-dead battlefield full of gaping holes. Holes he kept stepping into.
When he returned to his apartment, the green light on the building management's message machine continued to flash. The green light now seemed ominous. He studied the flashing dot for several minutes. Flashing, flashing. A green dot. On and off.
Todd sat down and watched sports highlights on the blasting television for half-an-hour, his mind numb.
"Man, that's bad," he said about one of his favorite teams. "What a stupid play." Nothing going right.
The images of the play repeated themselves. The sports network's logo cascaded across the screen. "THIS IS. . . ." Electronic colors. Glimpses of plays. More talking.
Todd walked to the message machine and clicked on the inbox.
"You have violated the terms of the lease. . . ."
The disaster which had become his life no longer surprised him.
The terms quoted said that he could be asked to leave upon twelve-hour notice. The message had been posted at 8 p.m. To make sure Todd understood, the message further stated he had to depart the complex by 8 a.m., with or without belongings. At that time, his key card would be cancelled. Access to the building denied.
If he were not off the property by 8:05 a.m., local police would be contacted.
The statement concluded: "We have no tolerance for hate. Harmonious Fields is a Hate Free property."
Tell that to the couples he heard fighting among themselves every night, Todd thought.
He had until morning to be out of here. He found a can of beer in the refrigerator and popped it, downed half, then ate the rest of the sub and one of the energy bars. With beer can in hand, clutched like a lifeline, Todd sat on the sunken orange sofa and contemplated his life.
There was the money problem. What could he sell? He owned nothing of value. His laptop? The television? Even his car was leased.
More immediately: where could he go without a job, credit card or bank account?
He had a sister in Wisconsin. A long way away.
The only possible place around here was the Dead Zone-- a neighborhood near the central city. Dumping ground for the area's refuse. Criminals and transients. Where he could live cheaply, without strict regulation. Underground.
Even the police feared to enter the Dead Zone. What chance would he have there?
A transient. What he'd become in this cold universe. Portable. Disposable. Today it was the way people lived their lives. Refugees within their own country. Conform or die. Follow the program strictly or be gone. There was always someone waiting to take your place. A mass of interchangeable bodies for hire.
It wasn't fair that he of all people was in this fix. He wasn't political. He didn't vote. What were his goals? What did he think about? Not politics! Todd cared more about having a good time.
"What's your goal in life?" a woman he'd dated once asked him.
"To lie on a beach all day with a case of beer," he answered.
Todd never saw the woman again.
His dad's voice popped into his head. A person he'd not seen much of in his life. Those encounters hadn't been happy. A rigid man. Then he died.
"Son," his father's voice said to him. "You need to be squared away."
Did Todd deserve all that was happening to him-- punishment for his failings? He dismissed the idea. Todd snapped his fingers. That's what he cared for the future. But the future had hunted him down.
He thought of his sister. Last he'd heard of her she was living with her boyfriend in a trailer park.
Todd fell asleep where he sat, with the lights on. He had a crazed dream of being on an alien planet, giant red and blue machines chasing after him.
At six a.m. the television went silent. He awoke. Beer can lay empty on the floor like a dead soldier.
Todd sorted his possessions, deciding what clothes to take. A ragged super hero t-shirt? No. His favorite jeans and home team baseball cap? Yes.
He'd take enough to fill a duffel bag and a suit bag-- he needed good clothes in order to look for a job. Also his laptop and a collection of classic cd's he'd owned for two decades. They were part of him. He squeezed them into the duffel bag.
His coffee maker? No.
His phone still gave the time. The minutes rushed on.
7:30: Sixteen hours since the nightmare began. He went to the bathroom one last time.
At 7:45 Todd carried the duffel bag, suit bag, and laptop to his car, then touched the trunk symbol on his key device. Nothing. He touched it again.
The doors to the car wouldn't open either. The car wouldn't start. Todd was fucked.
He threw the useless key device across the parking lot in a moment of anger. Why the hell not? He should've seen this coming. Madness. A universe gone mad.
Reddened portents of the day appeared at the bottom of the horizon, mocking him. Time flowing. The entire universe had conspired against him. He leaned his head against the top of the car. He didn't believe in God, but said out loud, "What now, God? What now?"
Todd remembered an incident from six months ago in this lot, a man busting the windows of his own car with a crowbar, beads of glass spraying out and splashing down. Next, the man destroyed the hood and the trunk. Police cars pulled up. The man was handcuffed. Todd had laughed at the spectacle of it. Laughed!
Now he understood that man.
Todd needed to find something on this car. He'd noticed it before but had never read it. A sentence in small yellow letters.
He found the words at the bottom of the rear window. Scarcely visible, but there.
"This Vehicle Is a Hate Free Safe Zone."
Red bands of approaching sun grew larger. The sky turned a lighter shade of blue, an impressive display, but Todd didn't care. His phone showed 8:00.
Todd ran into the open doorway of his apartment ("his"), grabbed the bottle of water, apple and energy bar and slammed the fake-wood door behind him.
He decided to leave behind his suits and the laptop. Too much to haul. With them he wouldn't make it five blocks. Todd lessened the weight of the duffel bag, stacking the cd's and various clothes upon the asphalt parking lot in a neat pile.
The morning air felt cold. A ten-mile walk lay ahead, to the Dead Zone, across avenues and highways. Todd Trentby took a deep breath and picked up the green duffel bag. His phone showed 8:07. Time to go.
He began to walk.
Tuesday, May 20, 2014
EXCERPTS FROM MY UPCOMING EBOOK NOVELLA
A man observing at the edge of the crowd nodded his head and began walking toward his car.
Within minutes the area became filled with police vehicles, the air bombarded by flashing blue lights and the sound of sirens. Overhead, helicopters.
"What is it?" the well-dressed man asked.
"Don't know, Mr. Walters. Something big."
At that moment the doorman's phone began lighting up. Everyone's phone across the city, and beyond the city, overflowed with texts and calls. Those closest to the scene tweeted like mad.
In a live television feed, from a camera in a helicopter, lines of blue cars converged on downtown from all directions.
They stepped onto the blue plywood stage erected for the speech. Kathleen Kallan stood where the senator stood. Bloodstains on the painted stage appeared as dark purple splotches.
Playing on the network was video of white men in green fatigues target shooting. A militia group indigenous to the state.
"This is very good," Lilly said. "People need good guys and bad guys."
On the video, a line of automatic weapons fired as one. Black barrels emit red flame. The men who fired looked fanatical. Wild men. Neanderthals. They looked dangerous.
The man was heavy set, with a dark red goatee. A generic white radical, he would've been, except his brownish hair was too long and he had a piercing through one of his eyebrows. Anarchist?
Kathy realized the man stared not at the door, but inside himself. His left hand vibrated.
"Agitated," Kathleen noted.
She felt she looked into the fires of Hell.
"The bullet entered from a slight angle. From the left, a few degrees, as the senator stood on stage facing the audience. The shooter in the garage was positioned almost straight on, but not quite.”
"Personality is like a puzzle you look at," the psychologist said. "You never get one set answer. You get possible answers."
The lanky, neat-bearded man read to them from his own report.
"--narcissistic, schizophrenic, paranoid, persecution complex, guilt, self-hate--"
"Everyman," Rodney said.
“Pale face, like he never went outside. Very white. Strange kind of white. The ultimate white guy. Held everything at arm's length. Not a revolutionary. I can guarantee you this dude was not a revolutionary."
"I was in the explosion. In the fire. I was there. That's true. Why wasn't I killed? I should've been. My friends died. All of them. My team, interpreters, liaisons. Everybody. I was listed as one of the dead.”
The senator's funeral dominated television screens across the nation for an entire day.
"Irrationality," the aide said to himself.
The word wouldn't leave his mind. Tangible dark clouds gathered overhead, waiting outside. The moment of the shooting, the universe opened and revealed to him its irrationality.
David Chu watched an editor put pieces of footage together. They viewed a segment on a monitor: a long-distance perspective of what the plaza looked like now-- cordoned-off; empty; calm-- followed by a close-up of a woman screaming immediately after the killing.
“I put the rifle together and opened the window half way, preparing to take a comfortable position. I took a few sips of water from the water bottle.”
"I had a perfect sight picture on the target. I centered on the head. The trigger squeezed like butter.”
WATCH FOR MORE NEWS ABOUT THIS UPCOMING EBOOK!
Sunday, September 9, 2012
A POP STORY
Cynthia Stone was in a straitjacket. She sat in the chair where attendants left her, outside a gray doored office. A steady echo of voices reverberated off the ceiling and floor. Footsteps multiplied, compounding on top of each other so to become indistinct. Doctors walked back and forth in front of Cynthia as if she didn’t exist.
“Has your admittance card been filled out?” a burly black woman dressed in blue demanded of Cynthia.
Cynthia Stone didn’t reply, didn’t know the answer to the question. The woman’s crimson tinged eyes frowned at Cynthia. She shook her head and walked away. This was some kind of state hospital for the insane. The tiled walls were pale yellow. Oppressively shiny. The only windows had bars over them. People screamed in the distance. They were in this place for a reason, as was Cynthia Stone. Cynthia had tried to kill herself by drowning in her bathtub. She’d been taken to a hospital afterward, where she tried to jump out the third floor window of her room. Then she was brought here. Cynthia didn’t know why they bothered—if she wanted to kill herself that was her business, this was still a free country, wasn’t it?
A gruff-looking sheriff’s deputy with a yellow-red walrus moustache strode down the hall, glancing for a moment at Cynthia, his glance one of contempt. This was the enemy, Cynthia thought in her mind. A young storm trooper, representative of the police state. “You’re evil, you trample on the people, this isn’t a free country anymore, you’re a pawn of Big Brother, you won’t even let someone kill herself if she wants,” Cynthia said to the man. Or rather, she thought she said this to him. Her mouth opened but no words came out. The fascist cop had probably come to aid in her destruction, Cynthia believed, until she saw him stop a tall, bearded, professorial man in glasses and a white coat.
“Doctor, we need to talk,” the sheriff’s deputy said to the white-coated man.
Their conversation took place in front of her. Pieces of words fell. Cynthia abstracted the information that the deputy’s name was Rakowski and the doctor was Dr. Norman Hoppenngger, leading specialist for the hospital. Cynthia focused slowly on what the two men discussed. Words and phrases began to make sense. They debated a new program of the doctor’s—and whether a person named Parker Kirby should be entered into it.
“It’s not just the people he killed,” Deputy Rakowski told the doctor. “It’s the gruesome way he did it. I saw the results. People were dismembered. Shocking things were done to their heads, their eyes. . . . I don’t enjoy talking about it. Parker Kirby is a brutal person. He should never be put into human society. He’ll kill again. It’s easy for him. He loves to kill.”
Dr. Hoppenngger’s mouth turned down and he blinked several times in agitation. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Deputy,” he said. “Let me remind you that I’m the expert on this subject. You’re a layman who sees people at their worst, and makes no attempt to understand them.”
The doctor stared at a clipboard, making an effort to control himself, so upset he couldn’t continue. His lower lip quivered. The pencil in his hand vibrated. After several minutes he looked again at the deputy.
“I wish you would read about the new program. We have a very thorough description of it in a handout you can pick up at the front desk when you leave. Believe me, I’ve put a lot of work and research into this project. More than that, I’ve put my heart and my soul.”
“Tell me about it, then, Doctor,” Rakowski said in an arrogant way.
The very appearance of the deputy, the badge, the uniform, the gun, was oppressive. Cynthia Stone felt sympathy for Dr. Hoppenngger, who looked about to stalk off in fury. Instead he pointed a shaking finger at the smug lawman.
“This new program is intended to develop the human, artistic side of these individuals, Deputy. We can’t blame them for their actions. The way these individuals turned out is because of society. All of us, you, me, are to blame. Their environment is to blame. Change the environment and you change the person. That’s the concept behind Hoppenngger House. You should see the location. You really should. I invite you to. The trees, water, shore. We’ve taken over a large historic house overlooking the ocean, with a long, curving beach. This is where our artists will renew themselves. Quite a peaceful setting. Men and women will be reborn there. Regenerated. It’s beautiful. You should see it. You really must. I recommend you do.”
“Parker Kirby is one of your artists, I suppose,” Rakowski asked.
“Parker has special, unique qualities,” Dr. Hoppenngger said. “You’d be surprised. He has innate, precious talents that should be brought out, if for no other reason than for the good of the world. Oh, I know how you work. I know how your kind thinks. your mind is fueled by resentment and jealousy. You would destroy parker. His talents would be wasted. But we do not waste people here, Deputy. We rehabilitate them. They are not garbage, not human refuse. No, Deputy. No!”
With that Dr. Hoppenngger swiveled and marched off. His departing, angry footsteps mingled with the drum of other discordant sounds. The jumble of noises roared like waves into Cynthia Stone’s ears. The sheriff’s deputy touched the holstered revolver at his side, glanced at Cynthia in her straitjacket, laughed, then departed.
The flow of time resumed its nonsensical course. The conversation she overheard became a fragment of many disjointed sights and sounds filtering in to Cynthia’s senses. Dark-suited officials passed, doctors, a priest, other patients, no one noticing her. She was forgotten. Then round-faced orderlies surrounded her. Hands grabbed. The straitjacket was removed. She was given a shot and put into a room. A very dark room. Cynthia wondered what had been given her. She fell asleep.
The next thing Cynthia remembered, she sat in an office in a chair, not in a straitjacket. Bright daylight streamed in through a wire mesh window. Part of the light fell on her hand. Tentatively, she enjoyed it. How long had she been in a state of amnesia, she wondered? That’s what it must have been, because the last several days were a haze to her, a kaleidoscope of red, yellow, and white colors making little sense. A man with a beard, a white coat and a benign expression on his face sat at a massive square desk directly in front of her. The man didn’t say a word. His eyebrows raised, waiting for a response. Behind him a green plant stole the pleasant yellow light from the window.
“I had a nervous breakdown,” Cynthia said to Dr. Hoppenngger.
“If you wish to describe it as such that’s okay,” the doctor told her. “Actually, it was something more than a breakdown, it was a psychotic episode, but I see that your mind does not want to accept the truth of what happened so we’ll call it a nervous breakdown, yes, we can settle for that.”
The doctor flipped sheets of paper quickly on a clipboard, his voice at the same time in an unreal monotone reciting Cynthia’s schedule of medication, “. . . milligrams, Thorazine . . . twice a day, ten milligrams . . . once a day . . . Haldol . . . Darvon . . . Mellaril . . . Prozac . . .Librium . . . Limbitrol . . . five milligrams . . . yes,” were some of the more intelligible words honing in to her.
An ashtray with bevelled corners sat on the imposing desk, the ashtray’s glass angles playing with the light. Cynthia stared at the square ashtray, fascinated, transfixed. The ashtray was the level of the world she was at now. To comprehend meaning in anything more than that small object was beyond her.
A door opened. A woman whose blue plastic identity card read “Therapist” walked in and she and the doctor began to talk about Parker Kirby.
“That awful deputy is protesting Mr. Kirby’s transfer,” the prim woman informed Dr. Hoppenngger.
“Narrow minded provincial bureaucratic goon,” the doctor snorted, weakly punching a stack of forms on his desk. “I’m sick of his paperwork and delaying tactics, and his professed concern for the ‘victim.’ Parker Kirby is the victim—that’s what I can’t make that uniformed clown see. He wishes to sacrifice art because of the lives of a few insignificant insects, two or three of 300 million mediocrities and destroy the solitary artist—that’s what the sheriff’s office would have us do, Ms. Glemp. Perhaps because they see themselves in those faceless anonymities they’re so worried about?”
The doctor and therapist chuckled together at their private joke. Then the therapist was gone and the doctor faced Cynthia. He removed his heavy eyeglasses. His face took on a wry, unblinking, self-satisfied smirk.
“Uh, yes. Miss Stone. Well, now—yes. Mm huh.”
His face scrunched. A facial muscle twitched beneath his eye.
“Er, yes. I’ve been reading your file. I believe there’s hope for you. You seem to be a sensitive person. In your being there are truth-seeking qualities we need to bring out. Potential is buried beneath that untrod, mundane exterior. You have possibilities, definite possibilities, um, yes.”
Sunlight narrowed. A clock moved. Orderlies came. Cynthia left the office feeling worried. She didn’t know what the doctor had been talking about, was afraid he had expectations she’d not be able to meet. She found her gray clothed body put into a dark blue room where shadows gathered ominously in corners. Cynthia sat gently on the properly made bed, afraid to bother it. She sat without moving, waiting for something to happen.
Many days passed, or an hour. Cynthia was taken out of the dark room and put in another room and told to eat. The bright light in this new room shattered her eyes. Pieces of her eyeballs fell into her head. An artery in her brain throbbed. The top of the table she sat at was formica green. Vague fleshy items and plant materials rested on the table. Cynthia had nothing against plants. “Eat!” a voice rattled inside her ear. Her conscience? She couldn’t eat. Later she was taken back to the dark room and told to sleep. Cynthia sat in a corner on the cool floor and felt the unmoving walls. She liked this room.
Her life became a routine, one of eating and sleeping, or actually, not doing either, pretending to do both. Then she discovered the day room, which contained a television. Cynthia sat in the day room watching the television bounce interesting colors and scratchy noise off pink walls. The images made no sense. She spent all day watching television.
“I suppose that’s why they call this the day room,” she said to a red-faced man sitting next to her.
The man’s eyes stared in fright.
“Suppose? No, we don’t suppose, we can’t suppose, not here, not now, we don’t suppose anything, we can’t use that word, suppose, it’s unequivocal, it’s unsafe, it’s unsafe . . . ,” he continued, but Cynthia was again watching television.
Or affecting to. Really she was trying to figure out how to be like the other inmates. Her behavior differed in marked ways from the standard.
For instance: everyone except Cynthia tried to bum cigarettes off one another, involved in a perpetual hustle. Cynthia didn’t understand the motivation for cigarettes. Those fiery demons terrified her.
Or, other inmates told their life histories, to themselves, to the television, pointless selfish descriptions of trifles or elaborate, distorted, surrealistic other-planet tales that weren’t true, couldn’t possibly be true, could they, she wondered? The green table stared at her face. She went into her room.
Night. The hospital silent. A barred window shifted in front of her. Outside spread the ivy-covered brick wings of the hospital. The black sky plunged down, sweeping across unmoving lawns. Drops of rain fell onto the glass.
Cynthia walked down the corridor, had lost her way. The access to the last room revealed a heavy steel door covered with padlocks. Parker Kirby resided inside. This was the end of the hallway, the ultimate destination, what the world of the hospital led to. The darkest part of the soul. Distant sounds reverberated within, threats, muttering, crazed laughter, the pounding of walls, Parker slamming them with his body. Cynthia’s feet shuffled fast and she returned to her own room.
“What’s your racket?” another patient asked her one morning, a short, dark haired, thick browed man named Robert Cerano.
“What?” Cynthia Stone said.
They both sat at a small table in the coffee room. Above in the ceiling hovered dust covered yellow lights protected by iron cages. Tiny bugs scattered across the lights. A row of blue-red vending machines hummed mechanically against a wall to the side. Brown coffee belched from one of the machines, knocking a rolling wax coated paper cup onto the square tiled floor. Robert’s face pushed close.
“You know, your racket,” he said. “What are you taking up? I’m going to be a sculptor. I kind of like the idea of working with clay. I figure it might free the creative juices.”
“I don’t understand.”
Robert Cerano looked at her as if she were thoroughly dense.
“You know, the new program Doc Hopp is setting up. Hoppenngger House. You have to be an artist to get into it. I figure I can be an artist. Anything to get out of this place. Parker Kirby is leaving for the house today. They’re letting him out of his padded cell. I figure if he can go there I should be able to. After all, I didn’t kill three people—I only tried to strangle one. The Doc wants sensitive patients. Hell, I can be sensitive.”
Robert Cerano stood up.
“Better find yourself a racket if you want to get out of here,” he told Cynthia, pointing his finger. “But stay away from sculpting—that’s mine.”
Struggling noise bounced in from the corridor. The atmosphere in the coffee room tightened. Robert paused, listened.
“Here comes Kirby now,” Robert said with a malicious leer. “Going to watch?”
Robert disappeared. From down the hall came the sound of dragging feet. With curiosity Cynthia Stone stood and edged herself to the doorway. Four of the largest attendants led a straitjacketed figure, moving steadily toward Cynthia’s location. Bridled force flowed from the bound person like electrical current. Cynthia saw the face of the man: handsome, with penetrating blue eyes and a flushed complexion. Parker Kirby had yellow hair, a smiling mouth with gleaming ivory teeth and a thick neck corded with muscle. The ominous parade approached, forbidding, inevitable. Suddenly the tall presence of Dr. Hoppenngger appeared from a doorway and raised his hand, halting the procession.
“What is this?” he demanded. “Is this man to be treated like some beast? He’ll leave here freed of constraints. We liberate people here, not enslave them. Remove the straitjacket.”
The attendants looked uncertainly at one another. The doctor’s lips narrowed. The attendants did as he ordered. Their hands unbuckled straps, loosening the canvas restraint. When the straitjacket was off, Parker Kirby rubbed his wrists, flexed the muscles in his shoulders and neck, a satisfied expression over his face. Like a new man he seemed to inhale from the air and world around him. His entire being radiated power and health. He stood with a sense of triumph at his new freedom.
“Thanks, Doc,” he said.
Then he walked down the hall toward the heavy doors of the exit, attendants following behind.
The opening of the vacation house caused a flurry of excitement among the longer term residents of the hospital, which created satisfaction in Dr. Hoppenngger.
“These distressed people have no purpose in life, so I have provided it for them,” he bragged to the hospital staff.
Inmates strained their imaginations to develop interests that would attract the doctor’s attention. Cynthia Stone couldn’t think of an artistic endeavor to adopt, but was such a sensitive person the doctor discovered one for her.
“You are a writer, Miss Stone,” he told her at one of their sessions. “It’s in your nature. You have the innate qualities to be a writer, you must only bring them out. And you will. Believe me, I’m an authority on such matters.”
Every day after that Cynthia Stone sat at a table and thought of being a writer. She thought of other things also, about what led her to be placed in this institution.
Cynthia Stone was a shy young woman, twenty years old, extremely thin, with long, straight brown hair and a pale gray complexion. Her problem was that she didn’t know how to talk to other people, couldn’t make contact with them. She’d been raised by elderly grandparents and never left the house much, never developed interests or friends. In school she was the quiet child nobody noticed. Then she went away to college, with its social pressures. Her roommate, feeling sorry for her, set her up on a blind date. The evening was a disaster. So nervous she felt sick to her stomach, Cynthia was unable to make conversation, unable to look at the young man. They went to a restaurant. Cynthia didn’t touch her pricey food. The evening’s highlight came when she spilled her drink over the table and onto her date. His expression said, “How did I get talked into this?”
He found amusement about the date afterward though, because it became a topic of conversation around her dorm—Cynthia Stone the target of stories and jokes. The classrooms, halls, cafeteria—the campus—became unbearable for her. She left the school three weeks later, returning to the old house with the elderly grandparents. They were mystified at her return, and tried to get her to go back to the college. “I can’t,” she said, hiding in her room, withdrawing further from reality. Cynthia thought of drowning in water, how pleasant that’d be. A week after her return from college she tried to kill herself. That was how she ended here. At least she was lucid enough now to remember all of it.
The month after parker Kirby’s exit, Dr. Hoppenngger called Cynthia into his office and asked if she wanted to join his new program. She stared blankly at him, trying to decipher his question. To her his words were meaningless pieces of data lost amid the muddled minutiae of his office.
“You’ve improved,” the doctor told her as he tore apart his pen, his eyes looking disdainfully at the window. “You’re more in touch with the world now. You’re ready for change. I feel if we maximize your leisure time it will lead to a flowering of your talents. You need to relax, need an opportunity to build up your thoughts. A new environment will do wonders for you.”
Cynthia thought of the hospital, the shattering step it would be to leave this heavy-walled place. Life imposes impossible choices. The unassailable presence of the anointed expositor of established opinion focused upon her, dictating her answer.
“Okay,” she agreed, with a sigh. “I guess . . . I think . . . I’ll go.”
Her large, round eyes gazed around herself.
“I’m tired of these cold walls.”
The next morning a woman attendant drove Cynthia in a white state-owned van to her new residence. The reckless danger of automobiles, of speeding, mad-hurtling vehicles, of a road passing under tires—concrete and asphalt rocketing beneath the floorboards under Cynthia’s feet; all the destructive facts of civilization incensed her. She thought she must protest, instead watched the uncaring woman who casually turned while eating a sugary snack the large black steering wheel of the van.
“I don’t know how you rate,” the woman said above the whining of a motor, the rattling of windows and doors. “Get into trouble and you get to live in a big house by the ocean. Screw up and get rewarded for it. What a world!”
Cynthia didn’t respopnd, but hung onto an armrest. The winding road took them through a series of jagged cliffs, then sloped downward. Cool, fresh air seeped in through windows. Cynthia saw the blue expanse of water, beyond a shimmering orange beach. The sight was removed, as the van curved to the left past a row of tall evergreens. A pink, many-storied Victorian house swung suddenly into view, resting above the beach like a magical castle. The ocean shivered behind it. Large, gnarled trees the color of the now gray sand were next to the malformed wooden structure.
“HOPPENNGGER HOUSE,” read a newly painted white sign with black letters on a black iron fence.
The van halted at the end of a drive inside an opening in the gate. Blue painted steps led up to a burgundy door.
“This is the place,” the wide-faced driver told Cynthia. “Follow me. I’ll get you settled.”
They stepped out, Cynthia’s feet glad to be on solid ground. The attendant led Cynthia into the house and up polished wood stairs to her room.
“You’ll be on your own here,” the woman said as she opened heavy curtains to allow light into the dusty room, revealing a wood floor, tall wood furniture and a large, canopied bed. “Make your own schedule. That’s the way the doctor wants it. He must think highly of you. You’re next door to the star pupil.”
The attendant snorted, then left. Cynthia Stone stared at the patterned walls of her new home. The walls reeked of tradition and age. Her eighty year-old grandmother might’ve once lived in such a room. For the first time in her life Cynthia felt close to her grandmother. She recalled a yellowed black-and-white photograph of the woman at eighteen, a slender creature in a white dress, with dark eyes and soft, delicate skin. At that age they were much like each other, Cynthia realized, except her grandmother had possessed a core of strength, evident in her person, unmistakable even through the photograph.
Cynthia walked through the room. She touched the top of a narrow chest of drawers. The house she lived in with her grandparents was not nearly as old as this one, had been built in the nineteen-forties, yet Cynthia’s rooms in both houses, despite their differences, felt very much the same. On top of the chest of drawers in her other room, though, had rested a black-covered Bible. Atop these drawers existed nothing.
She stepped into the hallway. The door to the next room stood open. As Cynthia glanced in she saw the white-shirted back of a man working furiously at an easel, with a brush splashing shocking red splotches of color across the canvas. The mood of the picture was one of chaos, of anger. Cynthia drifted into the room, mesmerized by the lines and swirls, the emotion depicted. The message attracted her. Parker Kirby turned to face her, his eyes gleaming.
“Hello,” he said. “You must be the new inmate of this . . . asylum. I see you’re admiring my painting. Doesn’t it show the futility of existence? Doesn’t it express perfectly the absolute pointlessness of life, the awful injustice of the world? No one should have to endure such injustice. Better to escape from it. Don’t you agree?”
“S-sure,” Cynthia stammered with effort.
Cynthia said nothing more and Parker’s expression began to change from that of exuberance to one of uncertain hostility.
“I like your painting,” Cynthia told him, and Parker became happy again, turning with more forcefulness to his work.
“Not a painting. Art,” he said, sweeping a broad red line across the entirety of it, while Cynthia escaped to her room.
She soon discovered there were as yet only four permanent residents of the house: Parker, Robert Cerano, an attendant named Igor, and herself. Igor wasn’t the attendant’s real name. He’d been named Igor by Parker because of his hulking, slope shouldered appearance. The designation so fit that even Dr. Hoppenngger took to calling him that. In actuality Igor was more a servant than an attendant. Whenever Cynthia saw him he was lugging canvas and supplies up to Parker Kirby’s room.
The doctor visited his new clinic every day for several hours, to counsel his patients and to observe the overall activity of his program. Various therapists and experts were also frequently in and out of the house. This was to be Dr. Hoppenngger’s demonstration to the world that people were intrinsically good. Provide the correct setting, and evil would cease to exist.
Her first week, Cynthia Stone was unsure what to do with herself. The sessions with the doctor and the other professionals were the only thing that gave her days form. The rest of the time she spent downstairs in the kitchen nibbling carrots—Cynthia had always been the most birdlike of eaters—or upstairs staring out the window of her rosewood-smelling room. The upper levels were as Cynthia imagined they’d always been, quaint, fragile, with frilly lampshades and fringed rugs, push button lights, ornate woodwork over doorways and blue-pink pitchers of water on tables: a peaceful setting. The first floor had been remodeled into stark, utilitarian modernity, everything white and bare, particularly two large offices that were intended to be eventually used by Hoppenngger and his staff. At the back of the house—by the kitchen, where Cynthia spent most of her time—a pair of sliding glass doors had been put in. Outside, Cynthia knew, stirred the sandy beach and the ocean. Though the doors were unlocked and she was free to roam the grounds as she pleased, the world frightened her.
At night she lay awake listening to the sound of the ever-pounding surf. She heard other things—products of her imagination, she believed. A high-pitched laugh. Someone walking outside with heavy footsteps, circling the house again and again. Anxious pacing in the hallway on the other side of the door to her room. The knob handle on the door to her room turning, turning—but nothing happening. The turning would stop. The person would go away.
While in daytime bright sunlight would stream in toward her, the glow from the water and the beach, Cynthia would stay inside, away from it.
Among the projects Dr. Hoppenngger tried on his three patients was a new idea intended to “prepare them for life in the outside world,” as he put it, as if their release into society were soon to be realized. The doctor constructed mock situations for each individual, to simulate reality. With Cynthia this consisted of pretending to be in a store asking for products from a therapist playing the part of a shopgirl, while the doctor observed intently.
“I need: toothpaste,” Cynthia said tentatively. “And soap.”
“That will be two-ninety-five,” the shopgirl/therapist said.
Cynthia pretended to give the woman money and receive change in return. She put the imaginary change into her imaginary purse.
“Good, good,” Hoppenngger exclaimed, pleased with her and with himself. “You see how you can adapt to life when you put your mind to it? You’re making progress.”
The others did well at the mock situations also. Cynthia overheard Dr. Hoppenngger tell the therapist: “Parker Kirby always does fine at these examinations. It proves he’s cured. Who says he’s not ready for the outside world?”
Cynthia Stone wanted to believe she was making progress. She became so convinced of it that one morning she built up her courage and stepped out of the house. The moving blue ocean lay ahead of her. Cynthia walked to the amber colored beach and sat down, putting her hand into the warm sand. She wanted to go farther and touch the water, wanted to drown in it. She couldn’t swim and was afraid of the ocean, yet at the same time, attracted to it.
When she wandered back to the house she noticed a black and white police car parked in front. Cynthia couldn’t explain why those vehicles frightened her. Probably because they represented the impersonal, authoritarian state. Probably because she’d been taken away in one. Inside, Dr. Hoppenngger showed Rakowski, the swaggering sheriff’s deputy, around the house.
“he’s the most savage, brutal kind of animal,” Rakowski said. “When you consider the pleasure he took in what he did to his victims’ bodies after they were dead—“
They argued about Parker Kirby.
“Of course, he was out of his mind, “ the doctor said in a sarcastic tone. “But let’s not take that into consideration. Let’s not allow rationality to intrude into this discussion.”
Cynthia followed the two men as they walked upstairs. Dr. Hoppenngger took the deputy into a large room where light streamed through windows. Robert Cerano stood at a table working with clay with his hands, forming an impressive, unrecognizable blob.
“This man is sculpting,” the doctor said. “See the joy and pleasure he obtains from this, how his aggression is channeled into art?”
Robert paid no heed to his visitors, totally absorbed in his work, adopting the role of intense craftsman. To Cynthia it seemed he was fooling around.
“What’s the name of the piece,” the deputy asked Robert Cerano.
“I call it ‘Man and His Environment.’ It represents the struggle of mankind through the centuries against the forces of greed and selfishness. Notice the tension evident of the dynamic forces as they transmogrify the world, and us!”
He stepped back to admire his work. The grayish amorphous mound of clay sat mute on the newspaper covered table.
“Good, good,” the doctor said, a smile on his face.
“We have another Michaelangelo here,” Rakowski said.
He and the doctor stepped toward the next room, Cynthia trailing after from a distance. The deputy bristled, hesitating when he noticed Parker Kirby at his easel. Then he carefully followed the fearless doctor into the room.
Parker’s large chest expanded as he painted, sweat streaming down his reddened face, upon which was an arrogant smile. On the canvas in front of him glowered grotesque green and gray faces. While outside the room Rakowski’s expression had been different, now he went close to Parker, inches away, appraising the work, his attitude one of callous indifference. His hand, however, remained close to his revolver.
“Parker is truly an artist,” Dr. Hoppenngger exclaimed admiringly. “This is in oils. He works in acrylics also. He’s turned out some amazing works.”
The deputy must think them disturbing works, Cynthia thought to herself. Her foot brushed against the hard wood floor. Dr. Hoppenngger noticed her behind them and glared at her. Cynthia scampered to her place at a desk in her own room.
The voices of the doctor and Parker Kirby debating the significance of Parker’s work drifted to her.
Parker: “This work exemplifies the incapability of knowledge, the irrelevance of it in a disordered, irrational world.”
Doctor: “No, no, no, you’re wrong. What this work admits IS knowledge. Knowledge breathes through the very fiber and texture of it, the knowledge that the world is disordered and irrational, we are, after all, incapable of knowing and understanding it, the canvas shouts the difficulty of making any true statement. The knowledge of that is what we’re talking about.”
Bored with the conversation, Rakowski strolled into Cynthia’s room.
“Hi,” he nodded.
Cynthia was too shy to reply. She stared rigidly at a tablet of paper in front of her. The deputy stepped behind to see what she was working on. The tablet was blank; Cynthia couldn’t think of anything to write. She raised her eyebrows defensively. Rakowski shrugged his shoulders and whistled, a skeptical, humorous expression on his face. Cynthia remembered how much she hated police officers.
“Keep up the work,” the deputy said as he strolled from the room.
The visit of the sheriff’s deputy added an air of tension to the occupants of the house. Or rather, Cynthia Stone began to notice a tension which had always been present. The tension was expressed by the wild look in Robert Cerano’s eyes, by his sudden bursts of anger with the clay: “I hate you, I can’t take this anymore, the whole world is crazy, yes—it is—yes, ha, ha ha ha ha ha . . . ,” as he scattered clay across the room. It was expressed in Parker Kirby’s vacant stare at his own hands, in his pacing at night back and forth in his room, again and again, then his door opening, footsteps in the hallway, down the stairs, the sound of running outside on the beach. One night Cynthia built up her courage and looked out her window to the ground below, peering carefully through a thin crack in her curtains so she would not be noticed. Her hand moved the curtain slowly. Over the span of five minutes, a fraction of an inch. Her heart beat in anticipation of the sight. The moon glowed. Parker was no longer running. He stood looking up at the window to his own room, shaking his fist at it, his face contorted with furied hate.
The next day as Cynthia Stone sat in the downstairs kitchen with her tablet, four words on it-- “Cold, black, running night”—Parker Kirby came up behind her, a confident grin on his face. He wore a new gray and yellow jogging outfit. One of his hands was behind his back, as if hiding something. With his other he took Cynthia’s thin arm in his powerful grip. Cynthia realized how strong Parker was, how easily he could kill her.
“Get a look at this,” he said, his eyes sparkling.
He pulled his other arm out to reveal how he’d sharpened the wooden ends of his brushes into dangerous weapons.
“Pretty good, huh?” he said. “The doc doesn’t know. He’s not so smart. Not half as smart as he thinks he is. The great doctor! The brilliant genius! The renowned intellectual! He’s not so smart, I tell you.”
Parker paused and looked with amazement at his sharpened brushes. His grip on them unconsciously tightened. Several of the brushes crumpled and fell in pieces to the floor. Parker Kirby was the strongest person Cynthia had ever seen. Powerfully built, his insanity multiplied his natural strength several times over. Crazy indeed would be anyone who’d seek to get in his way. Parker released the hold on Cynthia’s arm. He touched her long hair and her face—his pale blue eyes studying her. He smiled, put his head back and strolled from the room, returning upstairs.
That night Cynthia Stone filled with foreboding. She twisted back and forth on the canopied bed. Furnishings—a chest of drawers, a mirror—became huge. The room zoomed in upon her. Cynthia had a dream.
She fell, deep, lost in dark purple water. Slow waves beat across her face. Her mind froze. Blood cut off to her brain; she felt the gentle disconnection. Her body dropped away from her, into an endless blue pit. Cynthia wanted it back. “Please,” she said. She looked up, toward fractured rays of light floating far on top of the surface. She peeked into one of these rays like a spy, saw the green tiled bathroom she’d tried to kill herself in. Straps tied her. Surging black water enveloped her. As dark purple color rushed over her eyes and the world became silent, her soul cried out in despair, was lost, would never come back. All that remained: nothing. Depression. Void. The world ended. Two people were talking.
Yellow light flooded into her face. Cynthia sat up, wondered what time it was, how long she’d slept. A hum of distant sounds disquieted her. Her throat was dry. She tried to wake up.
The doctor was here, in the next room. Cynthia recognized his self-important voice. He debated something with Parker Kirby. Cynthia arose and stepped into the hallway to listen.
“We understand nothing in this world,” Dr. Hoppenngger said. “And so we cannot judge anything. You ask for an opinion of this particular work and I cannot give you one. You ask me to do that which I am unable to do. I can only tell you what this chaotic collage represents to me, my subjective experience of it, which to me is a positive statement that we do not really know, knowledge is fleeting, unknowable, unrealizable. Only the knowledge that we can’t know.”
“You understand nothing,” Parker Kirby said. “You know nothing.”
The sudden verbal assault disconcerted Dr. Hoppenngger. His voice took on an attitude of scholarly offense” “Well now, yes, wel-l . . . , no, yes, well, hm . . . , no, I must say, no.”
Cynthia stepped closer, to hear better. The room came into view. The two men stood facing each other in the studio-like work area. Both glanced sideways at a large canvas covered with vomit-like paint. The picture looked intentionally ugly. Offensive. The worst of the world, life, humanity. Violent. Bleak. The doctor’s arms were folded in a condescending manner, a pinched expression on his face. Parker Kirby wore a white, paint-splattered coat. Igor was in the room also, against the other wall, glancing out the window with his hands behind his back, not understanding what the two men talked about, not caring. The door to the room was partly open, so that Cynthia could see into the light-filled room while unseen in the shadowed hallway.
“To me, this painting is an affirmation of sanity in an insane world,” the doctor said. “Your triumph against it. It accepts no reality beyond that experienced by your mind. The painting is sane, and the world is not.”
“You’re all wet,” parker told him. “you contradict yourself on a daily basis. it shows you don’t know what you’re talking about. I can prove it. If I’m still crazy you’re wrong about this painting. If I’m crazy then everything you and this house stand for is wrong. Well, I’m crazy.”
Dr. Hoppenngger blinked, confused.
“Yes, if,” he finally said. “But I know that you’re not. You know that you’re not.”
Hoppenngger said this, but looked at Parker, as if not sure. The gesture of uncertainty angered Parker Kirby.
“Where’s your faith in me, Doc?” Parker demanded. “I don’t see it.”
As she listened, Cynthia felt squeamish tension rise inside her.
“Of course I have faith in you,” the doctor insisted. “That’s why you’re here.”
“You’ve never had faith in me,” Parker said. “To you I’m not a human, not an equal. I’m a toy, a puppet. You use me. You use me and the others to show your superiority, but all you care about is yourself. You’re a parasite who feeds on people such as myself who have the power of life.”
Parker’s fists clenched. His voice choked, as if he wanted to cry.
“You drain me, Doc-tor. You drain my energy. You feed on my uniqueness, drawing talent out of my pores. I feel it. You exploit the creativity of the artist. You’re not an artist, so you live through people who are.”
“I made you an artist,” Hoppenngger said. “I can unmake you. I make the definitions. I decide what you are.”
To this Parker put his hand through the canvas they’d been talking about, ripping to shreds his masterpiece.
“If you don’t quiet down I’ll have Igor restrain you,” Dr. Hoppenngger said, visibly dismayed at what had been done to the painting.
Igor turned from the window. Parker Kirby laughed.
“I’m an artist—an artist of violence,” Parker said to the doctor in a surprisingly calm voice. “And you’re a violence groupie. You love to hang around people who’ve done violent acts. We’re your heroes, because we’ve done the things you secretly wish you could do yourself.”
Parker Kirby removed one of the sharpened brushes from under his white coat. Igor instinctively took one step toward him. Parker stabbed Igor, then wrapped his arm around the man’s head and broke his neck. The body fell into a corner like a broken doll. This took little more than a second.
“Now, come, stop this, I insist,” the doctor said. “I command you halt byour rambunctiousness this instant.”
Parker grinned and began to advance on the doctor, taking more of the long, deadly brushes from under his coat. Hoppenngger stood frozen, his eyes large behind his eyeglasses, the glasses steaming. A look of naked fear appeared on his face.
“What’s the matter, Doc?” Parker Kirby asked. “You love violence so much. Now here’s your chance. Now’s the time for some violence.”
He thrust his arm forward several times. Splashes of blood sprayed, like the splotches of Parker’s work. The black bristled tips of paintbrushes stuck out of the doctor’s head and his neck. Dr. Hoppenngger began to fall. Parker held him up, removed his eyeglasses and looked at the eyes as he withdrew from his coat one more sharpened weapon.
“So you can see clearly,” Parker said in a happy way.
Cynthia pulled herself along the halls, foun d the stairway and stumbled downstairs. The shock of vision untethered her mind. Her hands held onto walls. Robert Cerano sat in the kitchen stuffing his face with food.
“Hey, what’s the racket up there?” Robert complained as food fell out of his mouth.
Cynthia knew she should warn him, but was unable to speak. The upstairs horror distorted the world. An image of the doctor hovered near, paintbrushes sticking out of him. Cynthia bumped into glass. She hesitated, opened the sliding door and stepped with bare feet onto warm sand.
Something impelled her to try to run, a sense of danger, of urgency. She had maybe five minutes, ten at the most, perhaps less, had to gain a head start. Cynthia knew that now that Parker was killing again he’d kill everyone who came into his path. She knew Parker had wanted to kill her yesterday, when they spoke and he showed her his brushes. He knew then that soon he’d be murdering her, gained pleasure from the thought. Cynthia walked faster than she ever believed she could. She tried to run, her feet were heavy in the sand, they sunk—she stumbled, fell, cried in desperation as she pulled herself to her feet. She didn’t want to die, not like that! If only she could gain a hiding place, to be out of sight when he stepped from the house. A mile away; yes, that might do it. She glanced back at the misshapen wooden structure. Parker Kirby was inside, doing his terrible work. His art. A spot of red appeared on the sliding glass door, like paint on a canvas. Cynthia pushed herself desperately along the beach, her feet already tired. Ahead were trees, steps, a path to the road. Yes. She needed time. She knew now in her heart she definitely did not want to want to die.
A feeling brushed her hair, she looked behind, it was him, dressed in his new gray and yellow jogging costume, a distant figure moving inexorably on the beach, running forward, coming for her.
“No, please no,” Cynthia screamed.
The bright spotlight of the sun—the world—was upon her, she was exposed to him, revealed, shown in full color, every part of her displayed by the white blaze of blinding light. She had a significant lead, in no way what she wanted. Parker took pleasure in the challenge. Cynthia sensed his long strides, rapidly closing the gap. She was running now as hard as she could but it was futile, pitiful against his bounding, joyous leaps. Parker Kirby reeked with happiness. More death lay ahead!
Then he was suddenly close, she saw his eager face, the yellow stripes on his jogging sweatshirt, the gleam in his eyes, red splatters of blood on his forehead. Cynthia ran into the water, would rather drown than be dismembered, than have her limbs pulled from her body, her eyes poked out. She envisioned her death, wished it were over, thought how terrible those final moments would be. Then—his breath, bearing down upon her. His voice-- “Cynthia, I’m coming, Cynthia, I’m coming for you.” He was in the water. His superhuman energy took him in one great leap after her but he slipped and fell. Cynthia ran onto the sand.
“Cynthia,” he said, laughing, exhilarated by the chase. His mood changed in a millisecond. Naked rage appeared on his face. “Cynthia!” he cried, he was running hard now after her and a single scream of ringing terror echoed through her brain, “No, no,” she said, he should be grabbing her and crushing her existence in his hands, but something else appeared on the beach, black, wide, a round red light on its top.
A police car hurtled forward at astounding speed; even Parker was surprised by it. He turned to face the monstrous metal vehicle. The car slid on the sand and stopped. Rakowski stepped out. Parker laughed and ran at the deputy, would tear him to pieces, Rakowski struggled for his holster, his revolver, having underestimated the distance between them, the ability of Parker to make it up. Cynthia turned her head, couldn’t witness that again, only wished the nightmare was over. A shot rang out, a quick pop, sharp, dividing the air. Cynthia turned, saw Parker running forward, a crazed madman, Rakowski facing him in a crouched position, weapon in both hands, the barrel of the revolver lowering, Parker three feet away. Another shot, gray smoke, a red mark on Parker’s back, alongside another, he reached, grasped, fell, tumbling face forward onto white sand. His expression showed a combination of emotions: surprise, fear, longing, relief. He tried to rise, the muscles in his arm twitched, then ceased. His energy faded off, disappearing for good. The world balanced.
Rakowski put his revolver away, after looking at it in puzzlement, then walked toward where Cynthia lay sprawled among footprints of sand. He wanted to say something, but was unable to. He gasped with emotion, could not catch his breath. Behind him stretched a clear blue sky.
“Come on,” he finally said.
Cynthia was so weak and exhausted she wasn’t able to walk by herself, Rakowski put his arm around her to help—or maybe to steady himself—the two people inched slowly along the beach. She realized both of them were shaking.
Sunday, March 18, 2012
At night after the big game Rick Romeo stood on top of Tychon Stadium. Noises of the crowd lingered through the empty stands. The deserted field held flashback images of the intense action and colors that’d been there hours before. The field vibrated. Rick grabbed an iron bar for balance, feeling the rushing air.
The southern part of the city stretched out before him. That compressed landscape of tight streets of narrow rowhouses had once been his universe. Utterly cheap and flimsy housing built 100 years ago for a mass of immigrants. Somehow those cheap houses were still around. Other immigrants from different lands now dwelled in many of them.
Rick distinguished the checkered pattern of streets, a different ethnicity crowded on each one: black, Irish, Italian, Mexican, Vietnamese and Chinese. A colorfully loud mess.
The old city before him was slowly being overlaid by gleaming new steel venues, like the Tower or this stadium, islands of entertainment and business for the city’s fast-moving high-tech people, who could be of any ethnicity because they were a separate breed, almost a new species. Men and women like Tychon were constructing a new city for new people. The old city with its tough people, poor and working poor, was considered dangerous. Yet the new city of unleashed competitiveness offered a new kind of danger—more ruthless because it was more refined, less human.
From up here, his old neighborhood-- once as vast as the world-- looked contained. In the larger scheme, tiny. Rick saw oxidized green steeples rising up from the so-narrow streets, Catholic churches dotting the entire long neighborhood.
His family’s rowhouse had sat in the shadow of a church. Rick saw in his mind a truck selling vegetables on the corner. In summer, a rainstorm flooding the block, kids of the neighborhood splashing in the urban stream. He knew well the interiors of the houses, Roman Catholic, tiny living rooms smaller than Tychon’s office bathroom, the rooms filled with religious statues and pictures of the sacred heart of Jesus.
A bleeding heart. Other denominations, other religions raised their children to be attorneys or doctors. Catholic families once wanted one son to be a priest.
That was the ideology in which Rick Romeo had been raised. One of his aunts was a nun. The local parish priest was a dinner guest in his parents’ house. Rick himself after college had attended a seminary intending to be a priest—then left to enlist in the Marines.
As a young man Rick had sensed his own wildness. He sought order, discipline, hierarchy, direction. But the Church was no longer a force. He’d wished it were—it’d lost the interest of larger society and it’d lost credibility. The priests he met seemed weak and flabby. Some turned out to be worse.
Rick remembered a young parish priest when he was a child, Father B. Something of a social activist. One time during a sleepy mass, in the sermon Father B began suddenly to speak about racism, violence, and hate—to confront the parishioners themselves. Rick and his sisters and brothers at up in the pew to listen. They’d never heard anything like it. An exciting moment. The message of Jesus became a living fact. Father B later left the priesthood, leaving behind the timid, the corrupt, and the simple-minded.
The Church, instead of a refuge from tragedy, became itself a tragedy, good deeds swept away by bad, the flock’s innumerable victims with nowhere to turn. Children had been unprotected. They were all children adrift in an uncaring universe.
The early Church hadn’t been a sanctuary, but a jumping-off point for changing society, led by fearless men and women ready to face anything, including the lions. Where today were the saints and martyrs? Today, Tychon was the world’s church: church and pope combined. The huge stadium on which Rick stood was contemporary society’s cathedral.
Rick Romeo was a soldier—a latter-day centurion who thrived by obedience to authority. Yet, Jesus had won over centurions as well as the sick and the homeless. he’d believed that anyone—anyone, no matter how corrupted by the world—could be saved.
Rick stood next to huge letters: “TYCHON.”
Tychon represented order and hierarchy. He embodied leadership and certainty—a certainty Rick knew everyone needed. Tychon was dominance personified. He showed no doubt, no hesitation, bolstered by untold wealth and power, manipulating the city and the leaders of the city through hidden strings. Existing on a higher mental plane, seeing farther, knowing others for the fools they were and always proved to be. Yet it was all material. It could be counted and quantified. Everything was appetite. There was no love in Tychon’s philosophy, and no love in Tychon. All love had long past been squelched within the man in pursuit of his magical dreams.
Rick saw the pollution-covered spires in his old neighborhood. He knew that on Sundays the churches were half-empty, parishioners chased away by scandal and irrelevance. Many churches were closed or were on the verge of closing by a cash-strapped archdiocese imploding upon itself. The presence of the Church in the city dwindled. Proportionally it was now a small wooden structure, little more than a chapel, a lonely cross atop a leaky roof at the end of a deserted street. The Church had returned to its very beginning: scorned and neglected. Abandoned, as Jesus had been abandoned at his execution by even his disciples, except the youngest one of them and a few loyal women, while soldiers gambled for his few belongings.
The games meanwhile increased and strengthened by the day. All the games—not only the sports teams. New religions. New idols. History had been reversed, Rick realized. He couldn’t comprehend how. Pagan ROME had renewed itself, thrown off its restraints, risen from the dust and formed itself into terrible new arenas. He saw it for real in front of him. On all sides. The return of power and greed.
Would the poor and meek now be thrown to the wild beasts, sacrificed on the altar of might? Maybe it was happening and he couldn’t see it.
Rick felt himself wearing an invisible team uniform. He’d become a priest after all—for the wrong side.
The once-vibrant image of Jesus had become muddied, no longer visible, covered in filth and betrayal. An entire city of betrayal, Rick Romeo one of the betrayers. Yet in the tiny chapel in the midst of tragedy, in his mind, a small light remained, a brittle, scarcely-seen ray of hope, a way out—a personality he’d tried to follow and every time like an infant trying to walk fell down.
Rick saw the stretch of the neighborhood, of the city, up to downtown, past gray City Hall with its yellow clock up to the unfinished Tower looming gigantic behind it. Rick felt the city’s rising chaos, the struggle of ambition and pain. A conflict of ideas ran through him. The world’s continuous noise. Rick had escaped here, to the stadium’s highest point above the scoreboards, skyboxes, and video screens, seeking peace. He wished for a quiet, spiritual place.
Despite his disillusion with the Church, he still carried a rosary. It’d been years since he’d said an Our Father or Hail Mary on it. Rick took the rosary from a pocket of his wallet and looked at it, held it up before him, the black beads of a medieval relic, badly out-of-date in the hyper-modern age. He ran the beads through his fingers, then put the rosary away.
The Tower was today, was now, was the city. Rising strength. Rick saw its cruel outline against the inharmonious night.
Near its top, directly beneath the shadow of incomplete girders, shone a spot of orange light. Lara Vox broadcasting. By herself?
Low clouds parked behind the skyscraper’s summit, creating a blue-white halo effect in the night sky. The spot of light pulled at him. What was the attraction he felt? What did Lara represent? The power of ideas? Perhaps there, in that single orange light, Rick glimpsed an opening.
Fan Appreciation Day was the day after next. Rick Romeo saw the collision of opposing forces. He knew Lara Vox was behind the ill-advised protest, directly or indirectly. Maybe he could stop it. He needed to arrange a meeting with Lara Vox. He needed to see her face-to-face and hear more of her thinking.
The night sky deepened. Rick made a mental note to have Connie contact Lara’s radio station in the morning.
Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Mary Dreads walked along the boundary to the Green Zone, sipping absently from a large paper cup of hot coffee while dragging Parker on a leash along the sidewalk behind her. Parker was her scruffy little dog, a dirty pale orange animal who to onlookers sometimes appeared to be passed out. On Mary’s side of the wide avenue sat tumbling down structures, many abandoned, behind fencing, condemned. On the other side of the avenue stood restored Victorian homes that were part of the Green Zone.
The Green Zone was the university, with surrounding blocks of large houses and chain businesses which were in every way an extension of campus. The zone was “green,” i.e., environmentally conscious, yet with its extensive campus police and isolation from the greater neighborhood it was another kind of Green Zone as well—a protected enclave amid a world of poverty. The sarcastic use of the term began during the Iraq War, taken from the name of the American compound in Baghdad. The name stuck.
The Green Zone contained the area’s show dogs. Not just the designated Best. The Only. At moments in her life Mary had skirted the line. The crucial divide. Credit or debit. First class or the mass. Nobles or nowhere.
Behind its barriers the Green Zone was expanding, like a living organism gobbling up the ruined landscape then redeveloping and gentrifying it. The dividing line pushed farther and farther out.
Mary walked slowly along the busy avenue, a flood of cars streaming past. The houses of the Zone’s outer ring across the avenue were colored burnt red. This was fitting, as they always faced the sun.
Mary Dreads was a small young woman with small features and pale brown hair which she wore in dreadlocks in order to be recognizable, along with bright-colored garb. She knew she was unimpressive. Nevertheless she saw herself as a key figure in the insurgency she hoped would transform itself into revolution.
Her idol was Sofia Perovskaya, a 19th century Russian anarchist. Mary had learned about her in college. After the men fell from the forefront, Perovskaya took charge. Mary saw no less an outcome for herself. She knew the cause would have many stages. It required patience—Mary had of that virtue a warehouse. She was like a toy bulldog that once set on its path couldn’t be stopped.
She’d read and seen enough to know the weaknesses of movements. To know which individuals would be useful to the cause, and those who’d be useless.
At the African Lion one night she and Miles had written down four kinds of personalities to avoid, using scattershot input from Top Hat.
Top Hat preferred calling this category “Theorists.” Bullshit artists in late night bullshit sessions expending their activist energy on talk. Mary had known revolutionaries like this in college. They were the only kind she found there. Sure, talk was necessary. Top Hat loved to talk. But even he agreed that it needed to be focused on special moments. Talk to recruit, or to energize the cause. What Lara Vox did on the airwaves. Miles seldom talked, but was the brightest of them all. The biggest talkers never left the university. Soon enough they were at the front of classrooms, still talking.
Top Hat called them “Incrementalists.” These persons looked for any excuse to cash in a perceived gain. “Can’t we all just get along?” Uh, no, not if you want to change the world.
How do you get along with a jackboot pushing your face into the mud? Most Compromisers were professionals who didn’t want to change the current system at all. They looked for a place inside the system. Token opposition to the status quo. Their resume was important.
Top Hat and Mary had a one-word code between themselves for this kind of activist: “Liberal.”
There were fifty kinds of anarchist and 500 styles of Marxist. Are you an Anarcho-Syndicalist Trotskyite or a Green Third International Bukharin Socialist? None of these people were serious. They were ideologues. Purists. Maintaining the purity of their faction mattered most to them. The fundraising, pamphleteering, paying rent on a cheap storefront office, and the inevitable neverending internal disputes left no time or energy for anything else. Miles put it best when he said that for many people in this country, ideology was a prop. It allowed them to not think. They inhaled a ready-made set of beliefs to do their thinking for them.
For the serious revolutionary, specifics didn’t matter. Mary knew libertarians who were more dedicated radicals than many so-called leftists.
Those who joined the movement out of curiosity, who played the role on whim as a kind of hobby or entertainment, or who saw opportunity for themselves in the cause. Or maybe they just wanted to get laid.
Often these four types were four sides of the same person.
Mary’s reading of history showed that two things mattered for any revolutionary movement.
Leadership meant having a small group of dedicated activists setting an agenda that must be followed by everyone in order to have success.
This meant burning your boats. Leaving the plow behind. No turning back. This was the only acceptable mindset.
These were their stated rules. Mary’d found though that you knew instinctively who was a genuine comrade and who wasn’t. You could tell by their eyes. Bart the Bard, for instance, wore Marxist paraphernalia, but it’s not what he was about, other than to show he wanted rebellion against the existing order. He lived for rebellion.
They knew it wasn’t numbers that mattered, but the substance of those involved.
What was Mary’s background?
This question, she knew, would someday be asked in history books. Mary cringed at the thought of her family, and the dreary milieu she came from. She hoped this question wouldn’t be asked too hard.
What was the cause of her disillusion?
Mary Dreads was born disillusioned, she decided. She knew the world she was expected to conform to, with its silly social rituals and superficial idols, its condescending authority figures, wasn’t for her. She saw on every side of her only shallowness. Therefore the need to change that world.
What a coup to have Lara Vox involved! The city’s radical superhero. The further they drew Lara in and utilized her special talents, the more the cause would benefit. Mary walked to an important group meeting with Lara Vox now.
Mary heard Parker being dragged on the sidewalk behind her, zonked-out as always. Not quite a fearless attack dog. Not exactly a fitting companion for a dedicated revolutionary like herself.
She’d found Parker five years ago in an alleyway. The dog was marginally more alert at the time. Mary carried him home, cleaned him up, took him to a vet for shots, then presented him as a gift to a friend with a young daughter. The friend was a famous professor who’d had the child late in life via artificial insemination.
Mary liked the lonely little kid. The celebrated professor had a full schedule. The well-behaved dog was perfect for a well-behaved little girl.
Four years later the professor showed up at Mary’s door in the west side neighborhood where Mary now stayed. The woman had tracked down her former student.
“I’ve taken a new position,” the severe woman said, her teary-eyed daughter standing obediently behind her. “We’re moving to Wisconsin. Here’s your dog.”
Mary Dreads wasn’t sure how an active radical like herself could take care of an animal. Mary’s solution was to take Parker with her everywhere. Including her sixteen-hour a week job at a pizza shop, where Parker stayed in the back room. Parker didn’t mind. Neither did anyone else. He attended all the revolutionary meetings. Mary thought of him as part of the movement.
Mary sometimes wondered if Parker was just old, or if he was retarded. She’d decided he was no more retarded than anyone else in this stupid town.
Sunday, March 4, 2012
AT THE ORCHESTRA
The silver limousine leaving the airport cut through the vast crammed brown-and-orange neighborhoods of the southern side of the city like a sharp knife. Along the broad avenue on both sides moved desperate broken homeless people in grimy dull orange-and-brown rags layered for the chilled air. The sky shimmered cold blue. Behind the shuffling or crying people stood block after block after block of dilapidated falling-down buildings, in contrast to which the sleek clean limo was a craft from another planet.
Tychon had missed the protest, happily. It’d been handled satisfactorily, from what he’d heard and seen on TV. It’s why one employed underlings.
He’d flown in early on his private jet from his business trip solely to see a concert. To represent himself at a cultural happening. The city’s renowned orchestra, which he generously supported, was to perform this evening Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto. Less well-known than the First, but in many ways more powerful, which meant for Tychon more moving. Yes, he could be moved, not by superficial causes, nor for sentimental reasons.
Funerals for instance did nothing to him since death was an unavoidable part of life. Funerals were social occasions good for networking. He’d been unmoved by death itself. Only the largest gestures could touch Arthur Tychon. He remained puzzled that anything could. Perhaps great art transported him to a higher plane, a kind of Valhalla above ordinary human beings, a level where he felt he lived anyway. Great art mimicked his own greatness.
Tychon looked toward the front, at the rearview mirror so the driver could see his eyes. His driver noticed and picked up his rate of speed. For Tychon there was nothing worse than to be late for an anticipated concert. The limo sped ahead amid a ruined world.
If Tychon could ever be made uncomfortable, it’d be from similarities between decayed portions of the city, glimpses of helpless vulnerability, and undisclosed corners of his memory. From shows of weakness, which strength pitied yet also fed upon, so that weakness became affirmation of strength. If he could ever be made uncomfortable.
He would meet his date at the concert hall: Alexandra, an attractive Polish-descent blonde age 35 who made herself available for Arthur Tychon’s occasional nights out, as well as for other things. As the limousine efficiently pulled up outside the monstrously ugly modern hall, Tychon observed her waiting reliably for him inside the glass doors, wearing a long burgundy coat which matched her healthy coloring. He appreciated Alexandra’s punctuality.
Their box seats, he noticed as they sat in them, were too far back from the stage. Not the best seats in the house. Alexandra liked to be seen with him, preferably by as much of the audience as possible, as he enjoyed being seen with her. Concert going was also a social occasion.
The Concerto opened the program, which meant they could leave early. Recreation for Tychon was brief, aside from watching the football games, which could be excused because he owned the team.
Lights dimmed. The pianist strode onto the stage to respectful applause. He walked like a gladiator. The virtuoso was fifty years old but looked younger. He gave a short bow, more a nod than a bow, and took his seat.
The pianist struck thunderous chords, jumping out of his seat as he pounded the keyboard. Tychon enjoyed this immensely. He wanted to see only strong men at the piano, only beautiful women on the violin. The great Russian concertos required a strong man with powerful hands to do them justice. He noticed the man’s hands—as large and sinewy as the Laser’s. The pianist displayed astounding dexterity with those hands, flawless coordination. Strength combined with accuracy. As fine an athlete in his way as the Laser.
Tychon sat back and enjoyed the performance. He noted the audience demographic: 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s in age. He was one of the younger persons here. Unbelievable! Symphonic music was a dying art. In fifteen years the hall would be all but empty.
He absorbed himself in the masterful construction of the piece. Classical music at its best was perfect logic. The war between logic and passion; the mind keeping at bay the chaos of the world and the dark forces below. Not even keeping away those dark forces, those awful passions, but using them, directing them, feeding on them, so that passion and logic and darkness became one and the same.
The excellent pianist paused from his labors to allow sounds of the full orchestra to enter the space. Tychon noticed how the conductor, controlling every individual musician, every particular sound, mixed them into one piece. In the concert hall the world became comprehensible. In the same way, Tychon believed he could hold the various parts of the greater world inside his head. The individual actors in his life. He studied them, saw through them, saw each individual’s strength and weakness, knew them as thoroughly as the symphony conductor knew the members of the orchestra. Tychon believed he could control the people in his world the same way the conductor controlled his people—controlled them and created this world of sound which the audience experienced. Those occasions, or those persons, Tychon couldn’t control he’d dismissed from his head.
What did it take to create a great pianist? Much watering of the plant from an early age. Assertive parents. tutors, lessons, schools, a conservatory, with much enforced listening. No doubt some ability. The ability had to be bullied, coaxed, guided, molded, lectured, shown. It’d be an obsessive investment.
Arthur Tychon had created his own prodigy, not exactly at music. It remained to be seen if the talents of the person would ever be fully realized.
As he listened, basking in the warm colors of the polished brass and burnished violins, Tychon visualized the orchestra dressed in the football team’s colors, green blazers and blue trousers with orange stripes. There was no prestige in owning a rock band. Corporate logos were slapped on the biggest of them. They’d already been bought. But an entire symphony!—that would be an achievement. It would further meld high culture with the games, to create an inspired experience. A religious experience in its way, tribute to the gods of today. He envisioned this very orchestra playing while his football athletes took the field. The greatest music. Wagner. “Carmina Burana.” “Zarathustra.” The famous Liszt fanfare. Beethoven’s Ninth!
He’d have to buy a full team choir also, he decided. He’d move the musicians out of this ill-conceived hall—it resembled a gymnasium—donations gone to waste; modernism without grandeur, which missed the point. Only if he, Arthur Tychon, was in charge would anything in this, his adopted city, be done right.
Those who designed the concert hall wanted it to be democratic. Which meant, mediocre. By his lights democracy equaled mediocrity. Amazing, the backward thinking of those who should know the realities of society or otherwise not be hired.
This hall wasn’t about democracy! It was an expression of will, a cavern of talent, a showcase of authority. The Orchestra was a celebration of hierarchy, from the conductor down, of the eternal nature of human society—a society which in its struggles, complexities, conflicts, its designations of lows and highs was greater than any imagined symphony. Yes, millions suffered, but to be at the top was glorious.
Democracy was America’s secular religion. Powerful individuals, whatever their political persuasion, Right or Left, properly treated “democracy” the same way he supposed religious people handled their faith—something to pay lip service to but whose commandments you broke at every opportunity.
Within the dark hall the pianist resumed playing. A thrilling flow of piano keys. Alexandra swayed in her seat as if at a rock concert. At least she enjoyed herself. Be grateful for small favors.
Did the magnificent playing register on anyone else? The rest of the audience was here for Culture. They sat in their seats like stuffed prop dummies.
Tychon saw only the glowing black-and-white keys, across which the hands moved with impossible dexterity.
The pianist sweat heavily as he played, enjoying himself, caught up in the majestic sound for which he was the fulcrum, the device through which to bring genius to the audience. Tychon moved to the edge of his seat. Here it came: unmistakable signs that the climax neared, was about to be reached. Sound built inexorably like an approaching wave. Power expanded through the hall—the power of art. The crescendo. Tremendous! The pianist’s hands raised and paused with a final flourish as the last notes reverberated. An exclamation point. Order restored. Might made right. Musical victory.
Tychon stood and yelled in appreciation.