Scene from Fremin

The Brothel Beneath Vauvert

 

That evening, troche after an hour or so drinking at The Mule, I excused myself from my table and went south, down Rue de la Harpe.  I’d heard the expression — “Go to the Devil of Vauvert!” many times, as if it were the home of a particular, local malevolence.  So I wondered if the whole thing weren’t just a hoax — a rude joke to get me out in the middle of the night for no good reason.

When I arrived at Vauvert, the stones glowed with a cold, gray light.  Beside them, the trail was no more than a dirt path more suitable for goats than horses.

As I turned a corner, a young man dressed in furs hurried through a small hole, which had once been some sort of secret passage.  It was no more than an average man’s height and barely wide enough for one individual to pass through at a time.

Within the blackness of the hole I could see the faint glimmer of torchlight.  Outside the moonlight was embedded in the ruins such that the stones seemed to carry more radiance than the sky.

Above the entry was an old beam that didn’t belong to the original doorway.  It was the length of two men, with long, splintering pieces tearing off from its sides.  There were markings on it which were hard to interpret.

At first they seemed merely natural and coarse, but as I looked at them, I came to realize they were text.

Everything is Permissible Below Ground.

Good Brethren, you may well imagine the alarm with which I considered this phrase once you remember the full depravity of its connotation.  It was, in fact, the welcome sign to the Devil’s playground.

I stood upon the threshold for a moment, thinking that I should leave immediately for the comfort of my home back in town.

But youth and curiosity conquered the beginnings of wisdom, and I went forward with a lump in my throat.

I walked down a long, winding corridor built of loose stone that opened up to become drier, wider and more finished.  Torches lodged in the walls illuminated every other section followed by a band of darkness, and then another sphere of torchlight.

After awhile the hall widened yet again.

I came across tables laden with objects and food, as if a feast had been interrupted and then petrified after the participants, whoever they were, had vanished.  Desiccated figs, cherries, pomegranates, chestnuts, cherries, sorb apples and damsons — some eaten, some not, were left in a condition of luxury on golden plates surrounded by a linen serving cloth.  There were meats and cheeses that looked fresh, but which on closer inspection turned out to be hard and dry.  The same was true of the tarts, flauns and frumenty.

Even the wine residue in the golden goblets smelled stale.

The corridor, with its decaying feast, broadened to reveal a stone staircase wide and green with mold, which could have been as old as Rome, itself.   At its base, a stream wove its way through the stones — water that would never see the light of day.

Beyond the stream lay a great cavern filled with people and sounds, as if an underground city were holding its version of a festival.  The music of multiple performers, each playing different songs, added to the noise and the chaos.

I was reminded of my lateness as I proceeded through a crowd of several hundred or so people who were already drinking and eating.  I wondered– Who were they?  Why had they come?  What did they expect?

The very ordinariness of their appearance is what struck me at first.  They were not, after all, demons with capes and wings.  These men and women were well fed and comfortable, dressed in the cloaks, jewels and furs that aside from the still privileged nobility, only successful lawyers and merchants could afford.

At the back of the cavern, which was the length of two Parisian blocks, I saw a wooden platform, about ten-paces square, covered on its sides by tapestries of unicorns and flowers.

A single individual dressed more like a fisherman than an actor, so simple were his clothes, stood at the center of the platform. As I walked in he began to request the crowd’s attention.  He kept yelling “About to start!… About to start!”  in an awkward,  monotone.

Not wishing to be any more intrusive, I sat on the cool, stone floor.

Scarcely had I taken my place when the event began with the slow beating of drums.

The sallow gentleman dressed like a fishmonger stumbled to the front edge of the stage.  His gawking and uncertain demeanor suggested that he had been lured into the public eye rather than volunteered.  He was someone who had stepped forward without any confidence in his abilities.

He held a long piece of paper rigidly in his hands and looked at it several times to remind himself of his lines, which caused the crowd to laugh.

Good gentlemen and ladies, too

            We have an evening planned for you

            To stir your heart and ease your mind

            With foolishness and pleasure blind…

As the performer stumbled stiffly over his script, he looked down more than once to his far right as if to gauge how well he was doing.  The clumsiness of this gesture only added to his comedy and the audience expressed its appreciation with laughter.

I soon traced the source of the actor’s attention to a cluster of people below the stage.  There, seated in black as if he were the director of the event, was Philippe Sermoyse.  He was surrounded by several fancy companions older than himself.

Sermoyse seemed to be enjoying what he must have viewed already as a success.

We’ll have three ladies and a fourth

            Whose aim it is to cause no force

            Of manly good to stay subdued

            But turn all organs into wood…

            The rhymes were false, that was my first thought.  And then, as if it followed, everything surrounding the poor performer might also be false.

I strut to the right…”  (the man did so)

And then turn ‘round

            To see what new bright

            Joys I’ve found.

At this point the man stopped and looked in all directions.

Three completely naked young ladies emerged, astonishing the ill-prepared actor and amusing the general audience.

The three women bowed and began dancing in a ring.

Clutching his script as if it were his one remaining link to dignity, the bewildered performer read:

Three Graces here from ancient time

            Sathan’s minions, yet sublime

            They come to tempt to joy and fun

            They come to engage everyone.

 

            The son of God through death and birth

            Still reigns in heaven, not on earth

            Down here we seek a separate view

            The cross we kiss on our ecus.

            At this point the performer reached into his purse and pulled out a coin, an ecu, and kissed it, obviously following instructions written on the parchment.

Dear Fathers, forgive me for presenting this blasphemy.   I do so only because it is a part of my story.   And forgive me a second time for what I must now continue to describe.

The naked dancers, who had shown great confidence and pleasure at displaying themselves, began teasing each other’s breasts and other parts, all the while moving in a ring.

The audience of men than women had taken notice of this, and there was in fact some activity occurring between the sexes at scattered points throughout the cavern.  I guessed that these weren’t husbands and wives for the most part, but more likely men and their mistresses, or paid companions from the fancier brothels.

Sermoyse turned in my direction with a look of intoxication.  Instantly his eyes caught mine.  His contemptuous face became a mask floating through the space of the cavern towards the now shaken privacy of my soul.

Once again I thought of leaving, and yet I still did not.

As you may imagine, I had become too curious about the outcome of the performance.

Brevet, Tartas, Revel, Guli

             Corp-Diable, Lapis la Zuli

             Prometheus is now unbound

            Do what you will below the ground!

The poor performer continued.

Come hither maidens of the rock

              Pull down my pants and take my cock

              Give me spittle, lick and sass

              Pull my fingers down your ass.

As the perplexed man read his lines, he paused with renewed shock at the requests he had just made.  He was probably some poor fellow barely educated enough to read, who was told he would be paid only if he could finish his lines in the face of all the distractions that followed.

The three ladies, who were quite comfortable in their public eroticism, took down the man’s pants, bared his astonished organ, and made it quickly engorge through their arts.  As they did this, the gentleman did his best to continue with his script, which made for the real source of the drama, stumbling through several quatrains of encomiums to what I know now to have been many of Joliz’s best commercial associates.

The man had become so pathetic in his breathless attempts at speaking that the final scene came almost as a relief.

And now — a maid who’s ripe and waitin’

             Spread upon a stretcher laden.

             Tied, she is, for comfort soft,

             Virgin ready to be boffed.

            A stretcher was brought out with a naked woman on it.  She had long blond ringlets and plump breasts.  The three Graces proceeded to strip the male performer, teasing his body with their tongues.  Once he was picturesquely lost to his arousal, they directed him to the girl tied to the stretcher.

At first the girls’ groans of desire mixed with fear seemed to be the only genuine thing in all of Vauvert.  She squirmed upon her stretcher made of wood and cloth, as small rings of rope held her wrists and ankles.

It was at this point that she winked, revealing her true professional status.

The three Graces lifted the hapless performer and placed him on top of the girl while he tried to continue with the script, addressing the angels and archangels of Hell.  He babbled on about the virtues of the new Kingdom of Ecus, which had superseded that of Our Lord, and his words echoed Sermoyse so closely that I wondered if Sermoyse hadn’t written them himself.

The age upon us, bright with gold

             Not humbly tearful as of old

             Will take us where our purses go

             And take us fast, where once was slow…

At this point the performer finally conceded defeat and dropped his script, devoting his full attention to the girl who, by now, was so aroused herself as to shamelessly invite him forward.

One of the three Graces, in a parody of modesty, dropped a blanket upon them to cover them during the cries of consummation.  Another picked up the script and read from what turned out to be, the last verse — written not for the drained performer in any case — but for herself.

Let’s print the coinage with its shield

             Each thrust will make a better yield

             And then for better or for worse

              Deposit coinage in each purse.

           

 The breathless wonder of the year

              With all its joy and all its fear

            Will spur a prayer between our lips

             And drive the thrill between our hips.

            With this invocation, pandemonium broke out within the cavern, bringing with it lusty actions of all kinds.

I couldn’t see Joliz, who had hidden himself.

But I saw Sermoyse.

His tiny hawk eyes were on fire. His face was drawn, angular and taut, the very ugly side of desire.

I hastened towards the exit, pursued by the covetous image of Sermoyse, a haunting bird of prey that followed me past the remains of Sathan’s feast and out into the winter’s night.

 

Scene from Northern Spy

(From Felix Andropov in a letter to his brother, Semyon.)

 

I proceeded north and then eastward through the wilderness, hunting as I went.

Instead of living from moment to moment, always assessing my health and position in the immediate scheme of things, I began to make long-range plans.  I could picture Murmansk and indulged in an odd fantasy about getting there being my salvation, as if by arriving at the top of the world I might find my freedom and safety, along with clarity and vision about Russia, itself.

But I found something else.

Upon the odd barren landscape of Murmansk, I only found a different desolation.  I approached something which I believe could pass as the center of hell.

Before me was a village that had been burned by the Bolsheviks.

It was completely annihilated.   I understood vaguely that this had to do with teaching the villagers a lesson.   Bodies were everywhere — men, women, children — all in a state of decay with a cry of despair upon their faces.

No one had been buried.   No one was left to do the burying.

It was odd to see this after coming out of the forest.   After a solitude of animals.  And now this was my first human contact after Volkov.

No doubt you must think that this is it — the third horror I promised.

But no, Semyon!

This was not the horror, although the horror was close by.

In the middle of the village I found a gathering of living souls.

The center for the gathering was a photographer. A very young man had been given camera of a professional photographer, no doubt confiscated from its original owner during the Revolution.

Even though this young man was wrestling with his apparatus, a smug, indifferent expression cramped his face.   He was about to teach another Bolshevik lesson by recording a new form of human depravity.

In front of him were several of the surviving villagers, only they hadn’t really survived in a fully human sense.   Their faces were long and drawn beneath hats made of wrapped cloth and fur. An old woman sat in a tattered, plaid dress staring down at the ground.  Her pointed nose aimed at something that it still repels me to describe.

Behind her was another woman.  I remember her eyes — squinting hard, and focused outwards.    Her expression was one of both severity and madness.

In a third tier behind her was a young man with a fur cap.  It was not clear to me if he were part of the group, or an onlooker, or perhaps a friend of the Bolshevik official in the middle.  This figure, distinguished by his long coat and proper attire, and by his youthful age — maybe twenty-one at a stretch, but more likely eighteen — sat in the middle on something too high for a normal chair.   And he had a ledger in which he posed for the photographer as if he were keeping a disapproving record of the horrid scene around him.

Beside him, to his left, was a young man, or boy, also in a tall fur cap.   The boy’s expression is the one I best remember. The mouth was open.  The lips hung desolate and guilt-ridden.  The eyes were robbed of the fire that would let them weep.  It was an expression of a face without memory or purpose.

The figure on the lower right, perhaps another woman, was ancient and despairing.  She may have lost her capacity for joy, but somehow she did not seem to have lost her mind.   Under the circumstances one must view this as an achievement.

The photographer took their picture — and now I will tell you what was before them, at their feet.

There, Semyon, were the bones of human beings strewn around like the remains of pigs after a feast.  In the middle of the pile of bones was half of a human carcass:  the legs and buttocks of some man or woman, frozen so that the knees were bent and the feet still raised high off the ground.

In other words, Semyon, these people had become cannibals to survive.

This is what the photographer had wanted to capture to teach us all a lesson.

The young man with his long coat and his stupid contempt was writing some bureaucratized description of the scene.   It was to become an example for the Bolsheviks.

A cameo.

Something like a greeting card with the caption “Horrors of the Old Regime.”

But it was not caused by the Old Regime.  It was a product of the new one.

The photographer took not just one picture, but several.

Then everyone was marched away and shot.

The only survivors of the village were now ten years old or under, and they were left to live, or more likely to die slowly, on their own.

I went towards them to try to help them, but they ran away from me in fear.

To this day, Semyon, I wonder how I might have saved them.

*

            Two days after I saw this I became convulsed with fever.

From then on I remember very little.  Somewhere I dropped my gun.

I walked towards what was obviously some regional city.   Dimly I remember deciphering the name — PETROZAVODSK.

Do you know the place, Semyon?   It is full of large boxy houses and office buildings that look like warehouses.  But there are also some old timber houses that are more charming.

I entered the city prepared to die.

I, too, expected to be executed.   It no longer seemed like such a bad thing.

In my fever, Petrozavodsk began to swirl.  It seemed to belong to a medieval scene in which everyone in the village was about to engage in a holiday dance.  I remember this commotion of people and buildings.

And then I remembered nothing except darkness.

After nights of hellish but forgotten dreams, this darkness yielded to the soft, gray eyes of a nurse.

“I am Sophie Pishkov,” they whispered to me.   “You have been very sick.  But you will get well now.” 

 

Scene from Dog

  You never know how things are going to turn

out….  (Mendel)

You never know how things are going to turn out.

Especially when something truly amazing intervenes.

For instance, I didn’t know that I was going to be reincarnated as a dog when I was tending my garden back in Pennsylvania, or writing letters to Benjamin Franklin.

Yet, as luck would have it, I became a black Lab mix. The general consensus seems to be that I have a little terrier in me as well.

*

I was found in an old house in the lake region of New Hampshire. According to the vet, I was about six months old at the time, but I don’t remember anything earlier than that as far as my canine experiences go.

I have no puppy memories whatsoever.

But the fact is, I didn’t become just a dog. I became a human being trapped inside a dog’s body. Moreover, I was a human being with some memories from my two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old past.

One might say that I was the past trapped inside the present. Once a renowned botanist—now a black Lab terrier mix—thrust into a brand new world where I could witness events with heightened levels of acuity.

For instance, dogs have better hearing than humans and can gain easy access to even the most private conversations. No one pays attention to a dog when it’s around, except to pat it on the head or remark on how cute it is. Or complain about its odor if it farts. So people say whatever they want in front of you if you’re a dog.

On the other hand, it’s a world where your communications with people are pretty much constrained to expressions of affection and distemper.

In this most peculiar way I became the ultimate witness, sometimes seeing and hearing what others did not, but never able to become an articulate actor upon the human stage. Always on the sidelines, never the main event. A chimerical Greek Chorus member wailing incoherently to an invisible audience while civilizations are destroyed and gods wreak havoc upon the world.

Or at least that’s how it seemed to me back then.

And to a large degree, that’s how it turned out.

*

I can’t say much about my ‘birth.’ When I opened my eyes from the darkness that held me I was sitting on the floor trembling, with a collar and a chain around my neck. At the other end of the chain was a book.

In that horrific moment I fell into a cellular panic in which mind and body raced to seek out each other’s boundaries, all to no avail. I quivered not from the chill, but from the sheer terror I felt for my newfound creature existence.

It was in the middle of an August thunderstorm.

Everything shook. The lightning was blinding.

Whenever I tried to move I was slowed by my collar and chain—a thin, neck-choking chain with a heavy, leather-bound book attached to it!

*

Yet just when I believed I might perish from my fears, I felt a soothing vibration surround me and a heartening voice from within myself inviting me to rise to the occasion.

As if touched by a magic wand, I calmed down and waited patiently, believing that I might soon be rescued from my desperation. For some reason, at that same moment, I also understood that the book belonged to me. That it was a tangible link to my past.

I viewed it as a clue both to my identity and to something even larger.

An indication that I belonged to a much bigger plan.

Then I observed a $100 dollar bill lying open on the floor with the face of my old friend, Benjamin Franklin staring back at me. It was my first ever look at American currency since in my prior life I had died before the Revolution.

Ben seemed cheerful, which was still more than I could say.

As I studied his smiling face, I wondered what he was thinking. No doubt he would have been curious to find out what had happened to America more than two-and-a-half centuries after its independence was won. Only now he was in heaven, while I was sitting in a room with mold swelling the walls, an old, tattered fireplace, and the fragments of a few torn rugs.

*

When Sunny Morris came in she was soaking wet from the storm. She had been out taking a walk when the weather worsened, so she ducked into this old, abandoned manor where she spotted me shaking in the corner.

She examined my collar for my name and found nothing.

I was as nameless as the manor that held me.

Nonetheless, she came over to me and took me in her arms for a moment of great comfort even if she was still wet. “You’re someone’s dog!” she proclaimed.

The idea, as logical though it was, seemed to be out of place and even a touch offensive.

Then for a while she retreated to the other side of the room, watching me with caring anticipation. “Let’s wait for your owner!” she announced. The term I would have preferred was “caretaker” or “attendant.” But I had no vehicle to express my opinion.

This limitation came most emphatically to my attention when, aside from still marveling over my new situation, I experienced a terrible urge to urinate. I tried to communicate this in a symbolic way, crouching on the floor to suggest the correct position for animals of my persuasion. Then I dragged the book and the chain to the door and began to whine—sullenly at first, but soon with a fast building fervor.

After a few torturous minutes in which I only managed to frighten my new companion, Sunny finally understood my request. She bent over me and undid the green cord that held my chain together, as if to affirm that it was a gift and not a punishment. I could feel her fingers and watch her smile, informed by a nascent love and an abounding curiosity. I responded by licking her face impulsively. Something I’d never done as a man, not even to my dearest kin.

Soon the chain was collected in a neat pile and the book was free so she could hold it comfortably in both hands.

As she petted me, she progressed from her role as ‘friendly observer,’ to the role of ‘friend,’ and began to inhabit her most caring role of owner or “Mistress” as I call her today. We became a pair, and I knew that she loved me in her way, while I embraced her as my best friend and family. In the surge of emotions I felt I wished to protect her, even if I knew that in reality I was the one most in need of care.

When she opened the door she laughed and said that I “looked worried.”

When I came back soaking wet from the rain, I still looked worried and Mistress decided that I was a “worried dog”—pointing to the persistent furrowing around my eyes. While I shook myself off from the rain she began to sing, choosing a refrain she remembered from church.

What does the Lord require of you?

What does the Lord require of you?

To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your dog.

To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with your dog.

 

The song was like a lullaby. Her exquisite voice was reassuring, all the more because she had substituted dog for god and laughed afterward.

It was precisely then that I realized we would never part.

She likes to say that I was brought to her “by an angel.But she is the one everyone calls “angelic.”

*

We spent several hours in that house together, still waiting for my past owner to show up.

No one came.

During that time I had to go out to urinate two more times.

Finally she took me to where she lived at Sarras College, and gave me my own rug where I could curl up and spend the night.

The next day she advertised in the papers with a picture of me. The picture ran for a few weeks, but no one claimed me. She concluded that my first family must have abandoned me because I had a bladder problem and left the $100 dollars with Ben Franklin’s picture on it for anticipated veterinarian bills.

After a third week had passed she decided to stop advertising and gave me the name ‘Mendel.’ She had the vet place a miniature identity chip inside my neck and christened me Mendel after Gregor Mendel, the great nineteenth century scientist whom many call “the Father of Genetics.”

For this prestigious choice I remain forever grateful.

*

People say that Sunny looks young for her age of thirty-five.

Her real name is Megan, Megan Morris, but everyone except me calls her “Sunny” because of her patient smile and sparkly blue eyes.

She teaches genetics at Sarras College on New Hampshire’s largest lake. In her work, she is helping to liberate the production of corn, or maize from monopolistic industrialization—something I found praiseworthy and joyful as an echo of my past life.

And yet for my first few months I still wondered if I were being punished.

If in some still inexplicable way I was being taught a lesson.

First of all, I had come back to earth as a dog.

But I wasn’t really a dog, or just a dog, so associating with other dogs wasn’t often much fun. Occasionally it was actually embarrassing when pack behaviors and ‘sniffing expeditions’ got out of hand.

Secondly I was discovered chained to a book that I believed I had written in my prior life. Or at least I had contributed to it in my prior life. So I had to revisit all those things I might have done differently in style or meaning.

When I tried to connect the dots—what had happened in those 250 plus years that might have led to me becoming a dog?—nothing came to mind.

I had no insights whatsoever into the afterlife.

And this left me feeling cheated.

*

Nevertheless, during those first two months my book gradually became more of a diversion than a burden. I came to see it as a way of reaching back into my past so that I might better orient myself in the present.

Very few people have this luxury.

In fact I can think of no one else.

While we have the writings of many deceased authors across the great libraries, bookstores and on-line repositories of the world, in all probability no one outside of sanitariums for the mentally disturbed can claim even one of these voices as being his or her own.

So although I still fretted over the frequent inadequacies of my earlier prose, I relished in the fact that I had such a magical fount to reconsider who I once was, and what I might now become.

These readings were all the richer (but also all the more perplexing) because this unique indulgence was multiplied by a factor of two, as there seemed to be two voices at work in the texts, not just one. One was better educated than the other, although both wrote with highly personalized spellings typical of the 18th century.

Here are a few paragraphs reflective of the Thinker.

We acquired a Modest house twelve miles outside of Philadelphia. It was just Two stories, with only one room on each floor, but I believed then that we might eXpand it over Time. And with hard work and much Luck, this Came to pass.

Now our house is an Estate.

In parallel, our garden began as a Mere few Flowers. Today the house has more than a Hundred acres of garden and farmland. In our Fields, we Celebrate yields of oats, flax and corn and Long Cucumbers. In Fruits, I have grafted Pears to apples, and Watched our apple Trees bear both apples & Pears within the Same season. The Natural Universe has opened Her arms to us with Beauty and Affection.

 

Clearly this speaks of a charmed, educated and successful life.

Now here is the other voice. One whose writing is rough and unpolished by comparison.

Like a Bird I Dreamed often of Flying from ye top of one Mountain to Another. And this Was as I Lived my Liffe. For I so Often Ventured over Peaks and Valleys, And have witnessed Many of the most Desolate, craggy Dismal places Where no Mortal before or After me had Trod.

Yet I do not Adore solitude for Itself.

Only In these Places can I Explore Nature’s Wondrous productions. I observe the Dances of ye Night Hawk and ye Bumblebees and Ye Wasps and Locusts and Tumble Turds.

 

This author, on the other hand, appears driven and perhaps even a little haunted.

So it seemed to me that this could not be the same person as the one with his fine gardens and more elegant mind. Not only was I divided between dog and man, but I also appeared to be divided between man and man in memory.

I assumed that the Thinker was the owner of enterprise, and the second voice, the Adventurer, was the owner’s right-hand man. His duties included traveling to rough spots where he might bring back samples of plant and animal life from the dangerous wilds. Both of these were fluent and successful writers, each in his own way, with what seemed to be to be two very distinct manners of speaking.

Exactly which of these I had been in the past, I couldn’t be sure.

At times I dreamed of being the owner, the Thinker, with his more lofty and elegant mind. While at others, I fancied myself as the Adventurer exploring and documenting parts of the New World never seen before by any English-speaking gentleman.

 

 

Chapter Six: Cry Wolf

Chapter Six: Cry Wolf

Tuesday, February 19th, 3 a.m.

Dan Morgan drove north toward his father’s cabin. He was going faster than ideal, but escaping from Tuscaloosa, given an awkward public engagement, a terrible murder, Beau Belvin’s politics, and Franklin Jones’s babbling, became hugely attractive.

That last Sunday night with Laura had been especially troubling. Although if he wanted to, Dan could tell himself that it had all been just fine. She had come over to his condo, as usual, spent the night, as usual, had sex with him, as usual, and then he drove her back to The Heights, which wasn’t quite so usual.

But they didn’t talk much. For the most part they avoided each other, as being engaged cast them in new roles in which neither knew quite how to behave. Before they went to bed, Laura had grown impatient with Dan, as if she wanted him to take charge, when all he wanted to do was shrink into a corner where they could both meditate silently together.

Later that night the sex was all right, because sex could be its own world. But then afterward they lay beside each other like two strangers.

Then came that terrible Monday — with its literal — not metaphorical — murders and insanities.

So after a long day at the Freeling, Dan hopped into his car and drove off to seek the refuge of his father’s cabin. By then it was nearly three a.m. and Dan was only five miles from his father’s old farmhouse. The mist was still swirling around his car and the sky had become more bizarre, while the temperature had dropped more than twenty degrees to below freezing.

At the same time, Dan heard the unseasonable rumblings of thunder in the distance. He thought of his father’s experiments with weather and its movement through time, and wondered if the two might have been connected. His father’s meteorological experiments were so far outside the norm that the elder Morgan had never published the full results, maintaining only their theoretical possibilities.

With another flash of lightning, Dan remembered Snoop, the Sman deer that came from nowhere into his father’s meteorological chamber and bounded into their living room as if it had fully expected to become the family pet. The Sman were an extinct species that had lived in Thailand until the middle of the twentieth century.

But Snoop was clearly not extinct.

The creature had thrived in the local woods, with their fairyland of waterfalls and caverns. After about eight years, Snoop just stopped coming by the house. Apparently the Sman had moved on into the forest and most likely died at a venerable old age.

Dan raced up the swirling road with its views lost in blue-and-gray shadows rearranged at whim by occasional moonbeams striking out from between the clouds.

All of a sudden a jagged spear of lightning raced downward and a thunderbolt sounded.

It seemed impossible! It wasn’t even warm. And yet the entire woods lit up.

Dan’s jaw tensed, and with that he felt a pain in his teeth as if something had happened at once to his sinuses and his bones. Suddenly he was driving through a layer of darkness as unexpected as the lightning had been just moments before. A darkness so palpable it was as if the night had become a liquid ocean.

Dan hummed something reassuringly familiar, even if it were more than a month past being seasonal. “God rest Ye merry Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay! …” As soon as he finished the line with “joy,” thunder and the lightning struck again, while at the same time large, soft flakes of snow began to obscure his vision in an abstract curtain of white.

Dan swerved into the middle of the road just in time to miss a boulder that had suddenly appeared. It was a huge, opaque gray-brown rock shaped something like an inverted acorn. He slammed on his brakes and skidded forward into more lightning. More thunder.

The road was turning in a way he didn’t remember.

And then he saw those eyes staring at him.

Animal eyes.

Wide, yellow eyes.

He wondered if it were just a big dog. Maybe a husky.

But when it opened its jaw to expose an array of teeth that were species-defining — he knew what it was.

It was a wolf.

A wolf standing there in the road like sentry in front of his car.

And it wasn’t a Southern red wolf, either.

It was a gray wolf so large that Dan knew that it couldn’t be native to Alabama or maybe to any place else in the twenty-first century. It was a lumbering European wolf belonging to those ancient forests that once spread across the steppes.

As the swirling snowflakes moved around it like fairies dancing in the night, Dan had the oddest impression that it was waiting to speak to him!

The cautious part of Dan Morgan didn’t want to hear what it had to say.

The larger part of him was curious. And that part of him wanted to stop the car, get out, sit down beside the creature, and listen to whatever it was the wolf so obviously had on its mind.

In the face of all of this, he made a quick decision to swerve away from the wolf and take his chances with the side of the road that dropped off precipitously into an uninhabited wooded valley. The wolf stood in the middle of the road like a guard protecting the entrance to another world, while he, Dan Morgan, all but shut his eyes and buried his head in dread of what was about to happen.

He felt the car slam forward into a boulder that suddenly shot up in front of him — this one bigger than the first. A rock so large that it became a wall of opacity far denser than the night. The car hit it with a force well in excess of what he had prepared for.

There was a hissing sound and for an instant Dan could swear he saw a fire. A fire from long ago. He heard voices and a strange name, not his own, calling out to him. A vowel-laden sound from another language. And yet it was suddenly familiar, like an old lullaby coming back to him from another life.

Beewoolf. Beewoolf.

He could hear voices talking and singing.

Then he saw a pair of rainbows through a pair of identical lightning flashes. And a pair of white horses. It was as if there were two worlds conjoined and he could see both of them coming together at the seams where they met. It was, he felt, a vision that mortal eyes were not meant to witness.

Wondering now if he were going blind, Dan looked for the wolf, expecting it to have vanished, or at least moved off the road.

But there it was! It hadn’t budged at all. Its eyes had never left him.

He saw it move one paw forward in his direction as if to invite him to a future face-to-face encounter. He would have looked forward to a conversation with the exotic creature. One that would have likely held the answer to a cosmic secret.

What a pity, then, to die with this intriguing mystery still unanswered.

 

 

Asking for a raise…

Asking for a raise…

On the second day after learning about his impending divorce, Rodger decided to ask for a promotion or at least a raise—which would almost invariably mean going into management at this point in his career.  Rodger knew it was a long shot.  Nevertheless – having been warned by George Bukovsky– he wanted to have the financial means to fight for WildeSide and contend more equally with Yvette should they actually divorce.

Rodger tried to approach the situation like a soldier, marching confidently into his manager’s office as if he were in full control of the situation.  His immediate manager, Charlie Laether, was hunched over his desk.  Charlie was often in a dither which, when paired with his last name, suggested a combination that Rodger chose to keep to himself.

Outside Charlie’s window were the branches of an old oak.

“Rodger!”  Charlie looked up – finally — from papers that required his review.

Rodger made a point of making eye contact.  “Charlie, I came to talk about my career at The Myriad.”

There it was.  The proverbial cat was already out of its bag.

Charlie nodded and Rodger went on trying to explain himself.

“I feel that it’s time to move ahead and try new work.  I mean, I’ve been writing speeches for more than a year.  I’ve been thinking about it a great deal and I would like to try management.”

Management!”    Charlie had never spoken in one-word exclamations before.  Why was he doing it now?

“That’s right,” Rodger enunciated the words as clearly as he could.  “Management.  I would like to have my own department.  That’s my next goal.  As I’ve defined it.”

“Well, if you’re going to be a manager, you’ve got to manage something.  Tell me – who or what is it that you want to manage?”  Charlie’s watery, gray eyes remained impenetrable, a rare accomplishment for him.

This made it harder, but even more important, for Rodger to generate self-confidence. “It isn’t so much a matter of what type of work group.  Although it might make sense to give me a department of, say, fledgling speechwriters.  But I wouldn’t turn up my nose at electronic bulletins.  Really, I’d take anything in corporate communications to show that I can do the job.”

“You’d take bulletins?”
“Yes.”

“To be a manager?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”  Charlie smiled as if he were pleased with himself for going out of his way to be stubborn.

“I think I’d be a good manager.”  Nonetheless, they both knew that management was the only root to money, promotions and a real career at The Myriad.  “I mean, it’s a separate talent, as I’m sure you’d agree.  Managing people is a thing in itself and I think I would be good at that thing.” This last sentence, Rodger realized, could have been better phrased.

“Tell me.  What contributions have you made to the corporation to justify such a move?”

This was not a good question for one’s own manager to have to ask.

Rodger thought for a moment.  Oddly enough, it was the one question he hadn’t come prepared to answer.  His work was good.  Everyone agreed on that much.  Even several quasi-illiterates liked his speeches.  So why did he even have to think of an answer now?

“Over the years, I’ve generated a few ideas that have helped the business.”  Rodger had never claimed these as his own before, even though it was in fact the case.

“What ideas?”  Charlie was suddenly quite interested.

“I wrote up a lot of scenarios about corporate restructuring two years ago that helped The Myriad adjust to a wide range of new business opportunities.”

“You wrote them in, but they were Ned Hanzel’s ideas.  They were his scenarios!”

“Actually, I made them up!”

This was true.  Rodger had created seven new cross-organizational focal areas in a first draft that lived to see the light of day without many re-writes.  He had all but named the players.

Charlie looked glum.  “In that case, you weren’t doing your job.  That was Ned Hanzel’s job, not yours.”

“Ned reviewed it.  And of course he refined it.  But they were my scenarios.

It’s just that it made sense when I was writing out the section about what we had to do – to fill it in.  We had invest to change.  This was how we had to invest to change.  I already knew most of the people pretty well, and what they were good at.  So I just filled in the blanks.”

In reliving this, Rodger realized he was treading on thin ice.  While what he was doing was good for the company, it probably did violate The Myriad’s ethic of corporate professionalism.

“What was your other good idea?  You said you had two.”  Charlie managed to flex his double chin, turning a fatty sack into something resembling a rooster with a thyroid condition.

“Six months ago we did the campaign about creating a total package for the home.  That was also my idea.  Now maybe it wasn’t a good one, but that’s what we decided to do in the end.”  Rodger remembered that the total package included a mixture of select furniture, wardrobe choices and bathroom cosmetics.  It seemed to have created a kind of “vanity-to-comfort” perfect storm that intrigued even the more sophisticated buyers.  Rodger wasn’t terribly proud of the notion being his own, but it did seem worthy of note that his idea turned out to be highly profitable.

“You just wrote that into the speech, too?”  Charlie asked the question like the straight man in a comedy routine.

“That’s right.  We needed a theme.  I put it in as a straw man idea.  But then it stayed.  And Ned Hanzel used it as if it were his own.”

“Do I detect a little jealousy here?  It seems to me that you still may have quite a lot to learn about working together in a team.”

Charlie looked grim.

But in fact Rodger never felt jealous.  At the time, his main reaction had been gratitude for not having to do another rewrite.  In retrospect he realized that perhaps he should have made more of an effort to document his unique contributions.

“I guess we can all learn to be better at teamwork.” Rodger felt a sick feeling collecting in his stomach.

“Do you think I’m good at management?”  Charlie’s lips took on an enlarged, almost infant-like fascination.

The first words that ran through Rodger’s head – were: “No.  Your brain is a merry-go-round of clichés.” But Rodger made himself say, instead, “Yes, Charlie, of course you have shown yourself to be a good manager.”

It was a duplicitous statement.  Charlie might have demonstrated good management once or twice given hundreds and thousands of opportunities.  But even if that were literally true Rodger found this act of acquiescence painful.  He wondered — is this what having a job was all about?  This kind of subservience? 

“Well then,” Charlie murmured with the hush of Mount Rushmore between his teeth.  “Listen to me!  You are an intelligent man, Rodger. You are probably even more intelligent than I am.  But at least right now in your career, I don’t think that management is in the cards.  You need to become a little more seasoned first.  You need to get a better intuitive grasp of our company’s style.”

By now Charlie was leaning forward over his desk like an athlete warming up, insofar as warming up and seeming athletic was possible for a pudgy, middle-aged man who spent most of his weekends watching sports on TV.

“I’ve done my best.” Rodger felt his throat contracting.

“But you could do better.” Charlie’s lip curled upwards.

“Anyway, I’m not brand new!”

“No, you’re not!” Charlie’s expression remained hard.

“I’ve been with this company for nearly ten years.  If I’m as intelligent as you say, don’t you think I would have caught on by now?” Rodger felt his face turning red.  He knew that he had already nailed the lid of premature professional burial onto his coffin.

Charlie leaned back with building confidence.  His visceral, bureaucratic alarm had become transformed into an effusive, cat-like complacence.  “You should have caught on by now but you didn’t.  Maybe that should tell you something.  Rodger.  You should ask yourself why no one has so far offered you this special kind of opportunity.  If you really are interested in management, maybe it’s time to pay more attention to what’s going on around you.  You have to learn to pick up more of the signals!”

Charlie smiled.  He must have known that he had succeeded in stretching his abilities for self-expression to new heights.

“So, you think I’m not paying attention?”

“To the signals, Rodger.  Listen to the signals!”  Charlie touched his tie as if that might be one of the signals Rodger should learn to interpret.

“Can you think of any specifics?”

This question perplexed Charlie Laether so much that he stopped playing with his tie and raised his chin.  “No!  No specifics exactly.  Not at this time.  I wasn’t prepared with a list, as you can imagine.  Can’t you think of any?  Of anything you might have done differently if you’d paid more attention to the signals?”

Rodger knew that winning the discussion was out of the question.  That getting a promotion into management had long since dropped into the dust.

“No.  I can’t think of any.”  The words fell mechanically from Rodger’s lips.

For a moment Charlie was stung.  But within that same moment, he made a clear decision to pass his suffering on to the man standing before him.  “That’s the point, isn’t it Rodger?  If you’d paid attention, you’d know.  You’d know!  Wouldn’t you?”  Charlie tensed up in his chair.  The victory was apparently less than he would have liked.

“Maybe.”

“Not maybe!” Charlie’s face became even redder.  “You would know.  You would!  And you wouldn’t be standing here guessing when we both have so much real work to do.”

Hearing this, Rodger launched into a reflexive counterattack.  Even before he spoke, he knew it was wrong.  It would be like reciting an embarrassingly personal dream in the middle of Grand Central Station. But he decided to go ahead with it anyway in the spirit of someone who has nothing to lose.

“I guess that I can’t entirely disagree.  It’s my impression that, in some mysterious way, I’ve never been one hundred percent with the program stylistically.  The Myriad Corporation has its own ways of doing things and it seems that Rodger Davies must have his own manner of working.  But in my view these differences are merely superficial, not matters of substance or efficiency.  At best they’re inbred habits of mind the way some old ladies make certain assumptions when they play bridge that have nothing to do with the game.  The angle of my tie isn’t quite right, maybe.  Or the patina of my shoes.  Or maybe I used a phrase from time to time that wouldn’t normally be heard in the cafeteria.

“I admit that in the matter of style I haven’t exactly meshed in the way everyone might like.  But then I believe that in this country, and in this company, we are entitled to our own personal styles.  That our democracy is founded on the right to individual difference.  And that when it comes to getting the job done, I’m as good as – if not better than – anyone else!”

Charlie thought about this.  But not long and not happily.  His eyes were bursting with indignant fires that sought to clear the room by reducing the intruder to ashes.

“But what is your job, Rodger?  Isn’t style a big part of it?  You’re a speechwriter.  It’s part of your job to make your client happy – with the style of the words you write and with the style of the clothes you wear.  Think about it!  Style is important!  And by the way, you should be careful about expressing any bigotry about old ladies here at the office.”

Fran buys a dress…

Fran buys a dress…

When the phone rang Fran felt a stinging sensation as her still waking flesh touched the cool, plastic receiver.

“Hello.  Is this Ms. Desnoes?”  It was a male voice — too polite to be anything other than a sales call.

“Yes, this is she.” Fran was curt, but she didn’t hang up on her caller.  A new level of energy required her to take on everything — and then all too often to subvert it.  Her appetites had become stronger, coarser, and more independent of herself.  As if she were becoming someone generic, whom she really didn’t know.

“Do you live at 270 Hope Street?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Do you have a United Visa Card?”

“Yes.”  Fran was relieved.  Miraculously, she already had one.  The call was superfluous.

“Good.  This call is for people who already have Citibank Visa cards.  If you didn’t have one, this call wouldn’t apply to you.  May I get the pronunciation of your last name? “Des – no – es?”

Desnoce,” Fran said.

Desnoze.” The man was courteous but he had a tin ear.  “Ms. Desnoze, do you know that one out of twenty credit card holders loses money, sometimes in the tens and even hundreds of thousands a year, due to credit card fraud?”

“No,” Fran confirmed. “I did not.”

“Don’t you believe that protection for card members from this type of fraud makes sense?”

“I suppose it might make sense.”

“We have a program where you can have insurance against such fraud free for the first ten months.  Then you pay only thirty-nine dollars a year.  What do you think?”

“It sounds reasonable.”  Fran wondered — what was she doing?  She would never have said this before.  She would have hung up within the first second.

“So will you let me sign you up right now for your first ten months of free insurance?”

The phrase “first ten months of free insurance” stuck in Fran’s mind.  The first ten months would be more than enough.

She wouldn’t need any months after that.

“Yes,” she said crisply.  “Sign me up!”

Fran had been getting gradually more depressed ever since about 1840.   Maybe it was a near fatal bout she had had with Asiatic Cholera, although she had been revived with the massaging touch of Noel’s incomparable hands. Then, if anything, life had seemed sweeter for awhile afterwards.  During this brief time she enjoyed a wave of optimism.

So, she decided, it wasn’t that particular sickness.

As absurd as it sounded, Fran now believed her recurrent depressions were fueled at least in part by the Industrial Revolution.  The odors and sensations she loved, the thoughtful rhythms of life, and all the values that came with these things were bit-by-bit being purged for something else.   It wasn’t nature against civilization.  Nature and civilization were allied against this “something else.”

Fran knew she wasn’t alone in noticing this.   The Desnoes sometimes talked about it — and then they talked about it to a degree that drove her crazy.

But she, Fran, didn’t just talk about it.

She felt it. 

She was consumed by it, much like bad air consumes the dying during a plague.

Then, during the last months Fran’s weakness had only gotten worse.

A new form of standardization was taking hold.  People were becoming more like bugs.   All they cared about was “performance.”  And everyone wanted to be measured and quantified.

During her recent years, Fran had hidden in terror from this new reality.

But that morning she entered that nightmare willingly– feeling that it was time for a reckoning—one way or the other.

Upon the hour, Fran found herself in Hartigan’s.

She had decided to clothe herself for summer.  Here it was May, with June not far behind, and she had nothing to wear.  Or actually, she had plenty to wear, but she didn’t have anything new to wear.  She decided that she needed to see herself freshly even if it were only for a few minutes.

As she rose upwards on the escalators, she saw women in all shapes and sizes, although most were plump — their overfed contours pressing outwards in pleasant lumps.  They worried about their scents.  They considered their colors.

Fran looked at their soft, white necks.  Looked at their fatty black necks.  And she regressed.  She saw them no longer as privileged consumers but as objects to be consumed— as the ultimate food

Or in other words, dressed to kill.

After Fran descended one of the escalators a heavy woman in a black dress began to spray her with perfume that smelled faintly like excrement.

“No thank you,” Fran said.

“It’s Bain d’Or.” The lady spoke in Scarsdale French. “Shower of gold.  It’s the house special.  We’re selling it for thirty percent off.”  The woman stared at Fran and Fran stared right back and the woman flinched.

Fran rose again on the escalator, realizing that she was still wearing her black evening dress — the one she had on the other morning at breakfast after she had worn it for three days solid.

She had even slept in it.

Now she wanted something a woman could die in without seeming funereal.

A poplin skirt.  Or maybe a madras dress.  A cotton jersey polo in grapefruit pink.  Or how about an oversize dress in capri that reversed to reef?  Or a nice floral tank dress?

This last made the most sense.  It was very spring-like and, it was already May.

Fran picked a salesgirl in the sporty section of the store — a young, black woman with a kind smile.  She reminded Fran of Nubian royalty with her almond eyes.

“Can I help you?” the salesgirl asked with the sun in her face.

“Yes.  Yes you can.  I’m looking for spring and summer clothes.  I’d like to start with just one outfit.  But I’m open to anything.”

“Something for the spring?”

Spring and summer.

“Something for today?

The unseasonable heat must have clued in the salesgirl to the immediacy of the situation.

Just then a man pushed against them.  He did it in a non-confrontational way, like someone who had lost his balance on a bus.

Fran knew this man many times over.  He was the generic camp follower for the wrong camp.  And now this wrong camp, devoted neither to nature nor civilization but to something else, seemed to be especially wrong.

Otherwise he wouldn’t have been such a bad man under most circumstances.

He was so used to being self-conscious that he had achieved a kind of poise.  Fran could tell all this by his gestures and by the way he stared at both of them.  He was looking at the salesgirl chiefly because he had no chance with her.

His eyes peeked in and out of Fran’s direction.  He fondled his wedding ring.

Fran knew that the one he wanted was her.

“I’m looking for a turtleneck for my friend’s wife.  It’s her birthday and she likes to go out on their boat.”  He wasn’t even a good liar.  “I want to get her something she’ll be comfortable wearing on the water.”

“Well,” the salesgirl said pleasantly. “I have a customer right now.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man nodded.

Fran noticed that he was wearing a pale blue cotton T-shirt, beige chinos and white sneakers.  He wasn’t wearing socks but he should have.

“The turtlenecks are over there if you want to look.” The salesgirl pointed.  There they were, stacked up by size in all those catalog colors — natural, white, chili, yam, wine, cactus, ink and — Fran’s favorite of the day — stone.

“I was thinking of a dress, something in a floral pattern, but I’m willing to look at anything,” Fran explained.

The first item she saw was a chiffon tee and skirt.

“Very simple, very sheer,” said the salesgirl.  “It suits you!”

Fran studied herself in the mirror.  “It makes me look like I think I’m still a teenager.”

“It does make you look incredibly young!” The salesgirl was beaming with sincerity.          In spite of herself, Fran felt flattered, but flattery was hardly the point.

“I’m sorry. It’s not what I want.”

Fran retreated into the changing room to try on a long series of things, but she already knew she would pick the floral dress with white-and-yellow daisies and a pale blue background.  It would have looked unsophisticated on an unsophisticated person but it looked fine on her.

She put on the dress, a kind of farewell treat.

Then she walked out of the changing room and into the rest of Hartigan’s.

The Nubian salesgirl sized up Fran in her new dress.

So did the middle-aged gentleman dressed in white sneakers and beige pants.

“It’s perfect!  It’s beautiful!” the Nubian said, aglow like the Nile at sunrise.

“I am not trying to look beautiful.  I am trying to die,” Fran said, but she spoke so charmingly that the Nubian only smiled.

“This will help you forget whatever your troubles are.  When you wear this you’ll feel like a new person!”

Fran noticed that the man, who was now pouring his way through a different stack of turtlenecks, was still looking at her with the kind of gaze you see in the movies heralding an encounter.   The new choice of colors chili, white, oatmeal heather, surf, yam, cactus, nut, chambray, indigo heather.  What kind of colors were those?

“What do you think my friend’s wife would like?” the man asked.  He was probably just over fifty.  He rubbed his arm against Fran.  He smelled of cheap cologne.  He wanted to be nice but he didn’t know how.  “Which color would you like if you were her?”

“But I’m not her, am I?”

“What color would you like?  If you were buying this?  That’s my only question.”

That was definitely NOT his only question.  It was barely a prelude.

Indigo heather.  That’s for me,” Fran said barely containing her laughter.  “I’ve always been a fan of indigo heather!”

The middle-aged gentleman stopped and pondered.  “Indigo heather” took some time to digest.  “Yes,” he said.  “That’s what I’ll get.  What a cheerful color!”

The Nubian squinted.  She knew she would have two sales in spite of being abused– the man had actually put his hand fleetingly on her ass.

Then he followed Fran out of the store like a dog.

Fran led him through beer mugs and corkscrews and coffee makers.  She led him through wine glasses and walking sticks with owls on top.  She led him through nifty little leather purses that looked like Pocahontas had made them while she was still in Kindergarten.  She led him to the parking lot and then to her car.

It had two doors and the seats could go back.

Get in,” she said.

The man did.

“I have a wife and a mistress,” he said out of sheer amazement.  “But I would give them both up for you!”

And then he pinched Fran on the breast.

“Where are we going?” he asked after awhile.

“Exit six,” Fran said.  “I will take you to where there is nothing.”

The man looked at her.  He seemed excited.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“We’re going to a place that’s nothing.”  Fran said definitively.

The man began to squirm in his seat.

“It’s a good place to go when you want to forget,” Fran explained.

The man repeated his proposal.  “I would give them both up for you.”

Fran could tell, he wanted her to grab his cock.  He could hardly control himself.  He stared out the window with wide, blue eyes.  He was like a child hoping to be force-fed candy.

He fondled Fran’s breast again with an incidental motion as if he were really reaching for a baseball.

“I have a lot of resources,” he suggested. “I can give you anything you want.”

This depressed Fran.  It wasn’t exactly the right tone.

Fran found the cul-de-sac where they once used to sell an odd assortment of lawn ornaments, including free standing Buddha’s, but which was now just cement.

No one was there.

“I can tell that you need to be fucked!”  The man stated as if he had just heard it as a revelation in therapy.  “I can tell that it’s been a long time for you.”

As banal as his proposition was, Fran had already decided that she would let him try to have his way — that was the whole idea.  That was why she had decided to let him follow her like a dog into the afterlife.

His wrists were very stiff.  She remembered the little tags inside his collar.  He had an erection that protruded from his trousers like an awkward tuber and he pushed up her new dress and tore off her panties and buried it into her as quickly as he could manage.

He pumped at her against the seat.

He came quickly sweating and huffing in his off-key, crooner’s voice.

Then he put his head down beside hers to catch his breath.

Fran was glad that he wouldn’t repeat these depressing acts in the future.

When she pulled her knife across his neck, she must have become incredible to behold because his eyes spread into amazed surrender.

He gasped while his arms pumped into the air and against the dashboard.  He seemed to be hurrying against time, which was always insufficient.

Always insufficient.  It was Fran’s Law of Insufficiency.

After several seconds he sank upon her shoulder like a lamb.

Fran held him.  The man’s burial, his entire future as a corporeal entity, was in her hands.  The old days of knights and martyrs were gone.  And now here was this poor, middle-aged man leaning on top of her with his spiffy clothes.

She didn’t even know his name.

Yet he, too, seemed to be waiting for her to change.  He, too, was oppressing her like her family — “Fran change!  Fran heal!  Fran get better!  We cannot move without you.”

In contrast, Fran finally saw a clear road ahead.

Fran thought of Constance and, according to George, the “Voltarian nature” of her  journalistic enterprise.

Perhaps Constance Graham would have understood her final act.

Fran walked to the side of the car, opened the gas cap and dropped a match inside.  She leaned against the car to embrace the flames as they burst into the pale, blue sky making a sea of light and pain.   And she remembered the Cathars, and their last brave deaths at the pinnacle of Montsegur.

The Brothel Beneath Vauvert

The Brothel Beneath Vauvert

That evening, after an hour or so drinking at The Mule, I excused myself from my table and went south, down Rue de la Harpe.  I’d heard the expression — “Go to the Devil of Vauvert!” many times, as if it were the home of a particular, local malevolence.  So I wondered if the whole thing weren’t just a hoax — a rude joke to get me out in the middle of the night for no good reason.

When I arrived at Vauvert, the stones glowed with a cold, gray light.  Beside them, the trail was no more than a dirt path more suitable for goats than horses.

As I turned a corner, a young man dressed in furs hurried through a small hole, which had once been some sort of secret passage.  It was no more than an average man’s height and barely wide enough for one individual to pass through at a time.

Within the blackness of the hole I could see the faint glimmer of torchlight.  Outside the moonlight was embedded in the ruins such that the stones seemed to carry more radiance than the sky.

Above the entry was an old beam that didn’t belong to the original doorway.  It was the length of two men, with long, splintering pieces tearing off from its sides.  There were markings on it which were hard to interpret.

At first they seemed merely natural and coarse, but as I looked at them, I came to realize they were text.

Everything is Permissible Below Ground.

Good Brethren, you may well imagine the alarm with which I considered this phrase once you remember the full depravity of its connotation.  It was, in fact, the welcome sign to the Devil’s playground.

I stood upon the threshold for a moment, thinking that I should leave immediately for the comfort of my home back in town.

But youth and curiosity conquered the beginnings of wisdom, and I went forward with a lump in my throat.

I walked down a long, winding corridor built of loose stone that opened up to become drier, wider and more finished.  Torches lodged in the walls illuminated every other section followed by a band of darkness, and then another sphere of torchlight.

After awhile the hall widened yet again.

I came across tables laden with objects and food, as if a feast had been interrupted and then petrified after the participants, whoever they were, had vanished.  Desiccated figs, cherries, pomegranates, chestnuts, cherries, sorb apples and damsons — some eaten, some not, were left in a condition of luxury on golden plates surrounded by a linen serving cloth.  There were meats and cheeses that looked fresh, but which on closer inspection turned out to be hard and dry.  The same was true of the tarts, flauns and frumenty.

Even the wine residue in the golden goblets smelled stale.

The corridor, with its decaying feast, broadened to reveal a stone staircase wide and green with mold, which could have been as old as Rome, itself.   At its base, a stream wove its way through the stones — water that would never see the light of day.

Beyond the stream lay a great cavern filled with people and sounds, as if an underground city were holding its version of a festival.  The music of multiple performers, each playing different songs, added to the noise and the chaos.

I was reminded of my lateness as I proceeded through a crowd of several hundred or so people who were already drinking and eating.  I wondered– Who were they?  Why had they come?  What did they expect?

The very ordinariness of their appearance is what struck me at first.  They were not, after all, demons with capes and wings.  These men and women were well fed and comfortable, dressed in the cloaks, jewels and furs that aside from the still privileged nobility, only successful lawyers and merchants could afford.

At the back of the cavern, which was the length of two Parisian blocks, I saw a wooden platform, about ten-paces square, covered on its sides by tapestries of unicorns and flowers.

A single individual dressed more like a fisherman than an actor, so simple were his clothes, stood at the center of the platform. As I walked in he began to request the crowd’s attention.  He kept yelling “About to start!… About to start!”  in an awkward,  monotone.

Not wishing to be any more intrusive, I sat on the cool, stone floor.

Scarcely had I taken my place when the event began with the slow beating of drums.

The sallow gentleman dressed like a fishmonger stumbled to the front edge of the stage.  His gawking and uncertain demeanor suggested that he had been lured into the public eye rather than volunteered.  He was someone who had stepped forward without any confidence in his abilities.

He held a long piece of paper rigidly in his hands and looked at it several times to remind himself of his lines, which caused the crowd to laugh.

Good gentlemen and ladies, too

            We have an evening planned for you

            To stir your heart and ease your mind

            With foolishness and pleasure blind…

As the performer stumbled stiffly over his script, he looked down more than once to his far right as if to gauge how well he was doing.  The clumsiness of this gesture only added to his comedy and the audience expressed its appreciation with laughter.

I soon traced the source of the actor’s attention to a cluster of people below the stage.  There, seated in black as if he were the director of the event, was Philippe Sermoyse.  He was surrounded by several fancy companions older than himself.

Sermoyse seemed to be enjoying what he must have viewed already as a success.

We’ll have three ladies and a fourth

            Whose aim it is to cause no force

            Of manly good to stay subdued

            But turn all organs into wood…

            The rhymes were false, that was my first thought.  And then, as if it followed, everything surrounding the poor performer might also be false.

I strut to the right…”  (the man did so)

And then turn ‘round

            To see what new bright

            Joys I’ve found.

At this point the man stopped and looked in all directions.

Three completely naked young ladies emerged, astonishing the ill-prepared actor and amusing the general audience.

The three women bowed and began dancing in a ring.

Clutching his script as if it were his one remaining link to dignity, the bewildered performer read:

Three Graces here from ancient time

            Sathan’s minions, yet sublime

            They come to tempt to joy and fun

            They come to engage everyone.

 

            The son of God through death and birth

            Still reigns in heaven, not on earth

            Down here we seek a separate view

            The cross we kiss on our ecus.

            At this point the performer reached into his purse and pulled out a coin, an ecu, and kissed it, obviously following instructions written on the parchment.

Dear Fathers, forgive me for presenting this blasphemy.   I do so only because it is a part of my story.   And forgive me a second time for what I must now continue to describe.

The naked dancers, who had shown great confidence and pleasure at displaying themselves, began teasing each other’s breasts and other parts, all the while moving in a ring.

The audience of men than women had taken notice of this, and there was in fact some activity occurring between the sexes at scattered points throughout the cavern.  I guessed that these weren’t husbands and wives for the most part, but more likely men and their mistresses, or paid companions from the fancier brothels.

Sermoyse turned in my direction with a look of intoxication.  Instantly his eyes caught mine.  His contemptuous face became a mask floating through the space of the cavern towards the now shaken privacy of my soul.

Once again I thought of leaving, and yet I still did not.

As you may imagine, I had become too curious about the outcome of the performance.

Brevet, Tartas, Revel, Guli

             Corp-Diable, Lapis la Zuli

             Prometheus is now unbound

            Do what you will below the ground!

The poor performer continued.

Come hither maidens of the rock

              Pull down my pants and take my cock

              Give me spittle, lick and sass

              Pull my fingers down your ass.

As the perplexed man read his lines, he paused with renewed shock at the requests he had just made.  He was probably some poor fellow barely educated enough to read, who was told he would be paid only if he could finish his lines in the face of all the distractions that followed.

The three ladies, who were quite comfortable in their public eroticism, took down the man’s pants, bared his astonished organ, and made it quickly engorge through their arts.  As they did this, the gentleman did his best to continue with his script, which made for the real source of the drama, stumbling through several quatrains of encomiums to what I know now to have been many of Joliz’s best commercial associates.

The man had become so pathetic in his breathless attempts at speaking that the final scene came almost as a relief.

And now — a maid who’s ripe and waitin’

             Spread upon a stretcher laden.

             Tied, she is, for comfort soft,

             Virgin ready to be boffed.

            A stretcher was brought out with a naked woman on it.  She had long blond ringlets and plump breasts.  The three Graces proceeded to strip the male performer, teasing his body with their tongues.  Once he was picturesquely lost to his arousal, they directed him to the girl tied to the stretcher.

At first the girls’ groans of desire mixed with fear seemed to be the only genuine thing in all of Vauvert.  She squirmed upon her stretcher made of wood and cloth, as small rings of rope held her wrists and ankles.

It was at this point that she winked, revealing her true professional status.

The three Graces lifted the hapless performer and placed him on top of the girl while he tried to continue with the script, addressing the angels and archangels of Hell.  He babbled on about the virtues of the new Kingdom of Ecus, which had superseded that of Our Lord, and his words echoed Sermoyse so closely that I wondered if Sermoyse hadn’t written them himself.

The age upon us, bright with gold

             Not humbly tearful as of old

             Will take us where our purses go

             And take us fast, where once was slow…

At this point the performer finally conceded defeat and dropped his script, devoting his full attention to the girl who, by now, was so aroused herself as to shamelessly invite him forward.

One of the three Graces, in a parody of modesty, dropped a blanket upon them to cover them during the cries of consummation.  Another picked up the script and read from what turned out to be, the last verse — written not for the drained performer in any case — but for herself.

Let’s print the coinage with its shield

             Each thrust will make a better yield

             And then for better or for worse

              Deposit coinage in each purse.

           

 The breathless wonder of the year

              With all its joy and all its fear

            Will spur a prayer between our lips

             And drive the thrill between our hips.

            With this invocation, pandemonium broke out within the cavern, bringing with it lusty actions of all kinds.

I couldn’t see Joliz, who had hidden himself.

But I saw Sermoyse.

His tiny hawk eyes were on fire. His face was drawn, angular and taut, the very ugly side of desire.

I hastened towards the exit, pursued by the covetous image of Sermoyse, a haunting bird of prey that followed me past the remains of Sathan’s feast and out into the winter’s night.

 

The Devil goes to Church

The Devil goes to Church

Here it was, two days after Christmas, and the church building stood alone and in silence, as if it were taking a quiet exhalation within its immense parking lot.  He had come to relive an adventure that had occurred on a hot summer morning in early June. 

He, of all people, to use the term loosely, never understood why the Born Agains liked huge parking lots in front of churches that were bland reprisals of rustic elementary schools with the addition of spires.  They reminded him of Mongolian temples.  Places for nature worship or for Nestorian Christians to evangelize the “heathen.”

 That sense of self-righteousness was in part why Evangelicals had become one of his favorite religious targets.  They had managed to capture the cruddy sense of entitlement that America’s robber barons enjoyed, and turned it into a brand new populist force with a born-again pedigree.  But this congregation had gone several steps further – expanding its “entitlement” to threatening doctors who performed abortions, including some literal mudslinging at anyone associated with the clinics.

That Sunday morning in June, He walked through the church doors to witness an overfed, flesh-ripe congregation near Newport, Rhode Island which had decided to expose themselves to America’s Pentecostal roots in the Deep South.

Why were they doing this?

Now that was good question.  The word ‘curiosity’ came to mind. 

And why had the snake handlers agreed to come all the way up from Oxford, Mississippi — that was another question.  But there they were with big, shit-eating grins as if God, himself, were finally smiling directly down on them as they gathered in front of the altar in a wealthy, mercantile New England church.

The three men from Mississippi all had dark hair, while two of the women were blond.  One man was rail thin and resembled Barney Fife.  He was a little better looking than his peers, and the women treated him as if he were a little prince. 

He — that unnoticed visitor who wasn’t from Mississippi — just stood in the back  grinning.  On a hunch, He wore a short-sleeved shirt.  And as it turned out He fit right in.   The place was barely air-conditioned.  Sweat was abundant.  And there was ecstasy in the air – something sensual and therefore not at all the norm for Rhode Island.

But that would not be his entrée.

 Contrary to popular superstition, excess sensuality wasn’t his preferred temptation — not even close.  His first choice was always ‘holier-than-thou’ false religiosity.

For every centigram of sensually aroused sweat in the room, there were at least ten more centigrams of egos inflated by their own, self-aggrandizing piety.

Perfect.

Or, in other words, no contest.

The minister, himself, was a different story.  Older, heavy and balding.  He also had trouble breathing.  Serving as pastor in this church was a career move—one his wife and family applauded.  But his own uncomfortable Evangelicalism was squeezed reluctantly out of a mind and soul much closer to Soren Kierkegaard than to the crowd around him. 

 To top it all off, he was the one who had first thought of inviting the snake charmers.  He had done so out of his liberal past — always seeking a reference point– something authentic, feeling inauthentic himself. 

“While we think of Pentecost as the birth of the church, Pentecost was really associated with a time of spring harvest in the Jewish tradition. It was also called ‘the Fiftieth Day,’ or ‘The Harvest Day,’ or ‘The Feast of Weeks.’ Also called ‘Shavuot,’ it occurred after seven weeks, or forty-nine days after Passover.”

The snake charmers glared at the reverend for the strong Jewish tradition reference.  This wasn’t their usual Mississippi sermon.

 The reverend must have sensed this, because after only a few more studious remarks, he opened the Bible and dove right in. “The reading for today is from Acts II —   ‘When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly a sound came from heaven like a rush of mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting.  And there appeared to them tongues, as of fire, distributed and resting on each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in tongues…”           

Then the minister read, “… And I will show wonders in the heaven above and signs on the earth beneath, blood, and fire, and the vapor of smoke; the sun shall be turned into darkness and the moon into blood.”

Now, that was Christian imagery at its best!   

This rhapsodic peak was followed by some meaningless announcements, neighborhood crap about whose mother was visiting and whose son had graduated from college.

Then there was an explanation about the snake charmers:

“And now we have a special event – I’m sure you’ve all been waiting for.   Our friends, from Oxford, Mississippi, have come to share a unique testament of faith.”   The fat minister stared out at the audience – he might have been a good emcee for some spiritual reality show in a better time and place.  “Please welcome brothers Jonathan, Bobby, Mary, Gladys, Greg and Gloria!” 

Handsome Brother Jonathan stepped forward. 

“Thank you, thank you.  We are here to share with you what we know to be a true testament to God’s presence on earth. This is how we celebrate the passion of the Lord’s fellowship in the State of Mississippi.  I hope you will find it worth your time.  Thank you for inviting us.” 

There were lots of “amens.”

And then they sang the hymn, “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus,” and the festivities began.  They had put the hymn to a kind of bluesy rhythm, so that rather than the straightforward little march it really was – it came off more as a spiritual.  No doubt in deference to the Southern guests.

At first it was like watching a magic show – Jonathan with his assistants taking the rattler, sluggish from the summer heat, out of its basket.  The black snake wove itself over Jonathan’s arm like a friendly pet.  Then Gloria, with a luscious grin, touched Jonathan’s right middle finger with her left middle finger, and a human chain began to form.

The snake gleefully wove itself from apostle to apostle, snake charmer to snake charmer.

The rest of the congregation watched with fascination. 

He could hear them all thinking, “This will make for great gossip and a few juicy e-mails as soon as we get home.”  More than a few cameras popped out, most of them violating the ‘no flash’ mandate that he’d seen posted on two of the narthex walls.

Sensing that the time was right, he moved his fingers – just a few digits. 

Then he watched about twenty coral snakes, Micruroides, which were very toxic and had no known antivenin, crawl out from beside his shoes into the rest of the congregation.  He had personally modified these reptilian guests from Arizona to be faster acting a lot more lethal.

He counted silently, “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine…” He estimated that it would take ten seconds before the initial panic broke out. 

He was wrong.

It took only seven.

First He heard one scream.  Then others.  Then general pandemonium.  The hymn continued…“Let courage rise with danger, And strength to strength oppose.”

…but not for long! 

Soon the choir stopped singing and joined the rest of the uproar. 

When the snakes bit, they hung with their hollow fangs sunk in their victims’ arms.  He watched the terrified Born Agains trying to shake them off.  One woman squirmed in disgust while one of the lively Micruroides twisted from her fat, gelatinous arm.

It was lucky for the congregation that most of their children were in Sunday School.  But He wasn’t going to remind them of this and ease their torments. 

He shook his foot again, and twenty more corals of the genus Micruroides came loose.

Some of the New Englanders actually believed they were face to face with the devil, which was true of course, only they were looking in the wrong direction.

The Mississippi group — Jonathan, Bobby, Mary, Gladys, Greg and Gloria –began to stiffen as they finally understood the growing frenzy of the congregation.  Everyone was scanning the room for an exit with panicked eyes.  As the Mississippians hurried towards the nearest door, their own black snake was taken with a new passion and began to attack them. 

At the same time, the crowd imploded upon itself, seeking to run out from inside the church in mob-like fashion. 

 He shook his ankle and unleashed no less than twenty fresh corals, which quickly assumed their new roles as carnivorous appendages to the frightened Evangelicals.  Quite a bold, new fashionable look, He thought.  Much more differentiating than jewelry or tattoos.

The apoplectic minister, long suffering in this world, tried to calm his congregation and find a way to pry open one the doors.  In the course of waving his arms like a baseball umpire at home base, he was bitten twice by the same coral, and then, in a sad moment, the good reverend was pushed down and trampled near the side entrance.  He lay there, pummeled by the shoes of his own congregation, until his wheezing finally ceased. 

Then He, who had not come from Mississippi or any single earthly place, left quietly, through a door usually reserved for the janitor. 

There, in the massive parking lot, He saw a few individuals who managed to crawl into their BMWs and drive away in a combination of epilepsy and coma. Their cars swerved this way and that – as if a bunch of drunken twelve-year-olds were playing demolition derby.   Only one car made it to the road—and that quickly hit a tree and exploded into flames.

Beyond that, He chose not to stay around as the heat had become stifling, even for him. 

And that was why He was so interested in the newspapers. 

He had always wanted closure.

 But all too often, closure was denied him.

Yet it was closure, indeed, that He got when He walked in the doors one Sunday morning seven months later in the middle of winter.  There, He saw a small group of people reading Buddhist scripture in spite of the Christmas holiday.  They rotated, wisely he thought, from one religious source to the other – the many paths to God.

It was nice to see a group of Unitarians replace the Evangelicals.

The more the merrier.  Many paths better than one. 

Contrary to popular superstition, God was a very poor communicator and just trusting one source was bound to lead to error. 

No one else knew this better than He did. 

And arguably, no one else had suffered as much because of it, either.

 

Echo of a Rumble/ Letters to Sal

Echo of a Rumble/ Letters to Sal:

One of the first cracks in the cement gates of Green Haven for Sal was an Op-ed piece published in the “New York Times” on January 29, 1975 with the title “Echo of a Rumble”– more than a year before the workshops.  I wasn’t aware of the article in the 70’s, but in retrospect it presents a rather abstract, awkward summary of Sal’s terrible childhood and his terrible crime, with a more compelling few sentences about his rehabilitation.

Here are some excerpts:

“For a boy, as I was then, with the mentality of a twelve-year-old- child, during a time of social transition, without the proper guidance, there was not much that I could have done to prevent what occurred…
“Prison has been a hard life for me, but in spite of the system that it is, I have managed to use it to my advantage and betterment.  Perhaps this is due to something that I learned while I was in the Sing Sing Prison Death Row, at the age of seventeen.

“During one of my highest spiritual moments, a time in which the soul is able to see the complete past of one’s existence or life, while facing the shadows of death, it occurred to me that one must do his best to take evil and turn it into good.”

The article generated an outpouring of public sentiment that provided a cross section of American attitudes towards those behind bars at the time.   In fact, Sal got quite a few encouraging letters ranging from those just expressing support to those seeking to help him in various ways.  Some of the more boosterish letters came from clergymen and educators.

Here are a few quotes:

“I read the piece about you in yesterday’s Times, most of it telling your story in your own words.  It surely is a poignant story, and your way of telling it was beautiful and deeply moving.”  (a clergyman)

*

“I have read your ‘Echo of a Rumble’ which appeared in The New York Times several weeks ago, and I am very favorably impressed with your case, and so are many of my students.  If you tell me what sort of books you would like, I will see what I can do towards supplying them.  I entirely agree, from the evidence at hand, that rehabilitation certainly seems to have worked in your case.”  (Chairman of a college English Department)

But not all the letters were nearly as kind or sympathetic.  Some of the examples are frankly horrific.  The letter quoted below in nearly its brief entirety was actually dated Dec. 7, 1974, nearly two months before the “New York Times” piece, and written on pink stationery in blue ink by someone who remembered the original arrest in 1959.

“Brave Cape Man,

“… You must have felt very brave stabbing two boys to death, who couldn’t fight back!  I’ll never forget the ‘wise-guy’ smirk on your face, as I saw it on T.V.

“You felt like a hero, didn’t you?!  Why didn’t you fight with your HANDS?  You came back to kill those 2 boys, with a knife!  You dirty, rotten rat!  Your helpers are as guilty as you are and they should be there with you, too.

“I hope the ghosts of the two boys you murdered will haunt you in your sleep.  Their families should tear you to pieces, you scum.   I hope you rot there until 1993!

“A citizen!”

The fourth letter below is unusual.  It’s dated January 30, 1975, and was written in direct response to Sal’s own editorial in the New York Times:”Echo of a Rumble.”  Just in case you’re wondering about the ending, this is the complete letter.  I have left out nothing except the signature.

 

“Dear Mr. Agron:

“I read with interest your letter, or should I say, excerpts from your letter, which was published in the Times on 1/29/75. And captioned ‘ECHO of a RUMBLE.’   Your letter also was the subject of one of those N.Y.C. radio shows on the above date, where the announcer makes a comment on some current matter and different people phone in and agree or disagree with his point of view.  I only listened to the show from 12 to 1: P.M. during my lunch hour, but since the announcer was critical of your letter, in that he stressed the point with regard to the victims in your case, the vast majority of people who phoned him during the short period I listened to the show thought as you do, how much time is enough and what useful purpose will society gain by further confinement, now that you are 31 years of age and have done a great deal educationalwise etc., perhaps you may have been listening to that particular radio program yourself.

“Now I had one other purpose in writing you this letter and it has to do with you or your companion in the case.  In 1965 either you or your companion were confined in the ‘Tombs,’” (a prison in New York City)  “…if I recall correctly on either the 7th or 8th floor, one evening at visiting time, two N.Y.C. so-called Correction Officers administered a brutal assault on whichever one of your were there, for  no apparent reason, these two officers after wrestling you to the floor stomped you with their feet and after you lost consciousness, one of the officers still kept kicking you about the head and neck and stopped only when all the inmates awaiting their visits started screaming.    Well, I reported this incident to the then Commissioner of Correction and went so far as to report the incident to the F.B.I. who contacted me and I made a signed and detailed statement of the incident, however, I was never called before any Grand Jury.  Did you ever file any action relative to the above incident?

“Wishing you the best of luck.”

 

 

 

Dennis will be in Portland ME at Barnes & Noble

Dennis’ Goings On:

On May 1st  Dennis will be in Portland ME at Barnes & Noble.

Dennis’ Poem of the Month:

The Hateful and the Clueless

As citizens we seek to know
What’s truest, true and true less,
And if we’re screwed we seek to vote
So politicians screw less.
But we might grumble, jeer, and scream
And altogether boo less –
If our Congress got beyond
The hateful and the clueless.

The “hateful” might be less obscene
If they could learn to gloat less.
The “clueless” might be more tuned in,
If they could learn to float less.

Our civic pride might swell and grow
If privileged coffers bloat less.
And if our “leaders” just grew up
We might vote more, not vote less.