Of course we won, that goes without saying, or else I’d be telling this little yarn in German or ending it all with a domo arigato for listening, but that didn’t stop someone from giving Orange Island a consolation prize anyhow. Could have been some kooky Jap out for one last banzai for emperor and country, some resentful Nazi overlooked by Mossad and hiding out somewhere in Brazil, maybe one of the Reds, part of a five-year plan to bring the Revolution stateside. Who knows, who the hell cares now. For all I know it could have been a mob of subterranean rabbits, scores of the furry vegetable-nibbling bastards in cute fascist uniforms with the holes cut out for their long ears and bushy tails, bustling about in their underground bunkers and missile silos, the leader of them picks up the war phone and yells fire in rabbitese, wait a minute.
I do that sometimes. I’m working on some toons for Archie and I let myself get carried away. What was I talking about?
Orange Island. The gas hovers just below the streetlights and just above everyone else, gas and lights in concert giving the town a dull purple glow. See them, those folks in nice suits and bright red and lavender dresses and gas masks on their face? They’re late for their reservation as they jaywalk across the street, dodging the Cadillacs pumping other gases into the air because at this point why not? The National Guard marches by in formation, letting everyone know about one thing or another they don’t know for sure but heard through hearsay, the otherwise loud military cadences muffled through their masks. None of them look into the alleyways, obscured by shadow and the purple gas, the faint screeches and belches drowned out by the drilling soldiers and ever-pressing drive to make the dinner date.
One of them pounces onto a debutante, a nasty thing about four feet tall, limbs sticking out of the wrong places, too many eyes, and I could have sworn I saw some tentacles or something (the nasty by the way, not the debutante). The nasty tackles her to the ground, latches onto her face with the tentacles and rips off her mask. The soldiers hear the ruckus and march up to the double date, guns at the ready, but they’re too late. The nasty thing scampers back into the alleys and the lady sucks up the air.
Here we go. Her skin cracks, and then it grows reptile scales or something. She doesn’t grow extra eyes like the other one, but the two she’s got blow up and bug out till she looks like a Tex Avery toon in love. They’re not really fingers anymore so much as talons, and her legs dissolve away into a weird amoeba growth. Too bad, if she had some replacement limbs where her legs used to be she would have had a fighting chance, but before the new nasty can slither away with her pseudopods the soldiers pump her full of bullets. One of the guys in the nice tuxes falls to his knees and sobs through his mask. I guess he’s the husband. The other tux and his girl tap their feet and look at their watches. They are, after all, still late for their reservation.
—My goodness, what a terrible blow for her.
—Didn’t we tell her we should have taken a cab? Didn’t we tell her?
—We certainly did! You just can’t be sure these days, I tell you. Well, are you coming, or are you just going to kneel on the filthy street all night long?
Don’t worry about this poor young man, he’ll be fine. Most likely he’ll find someone else just as irreplaceable as her. The National Guard’s pretty much there just to shoot nasties on sight. Keepers of the peace so to speak. They’ve been trying to exterminate the whole bunch of them, but there’s always one or two that are good at hiding, not to mention there’s pretty much going to be a never-ending supply of nasties popping up anyway, what with people either making their own or people doing it to themselves, accidents will happen I guess. Wanna get rid of the nasties in this town, might as well try to get rid of evil while you’re at it.
Anyway. Someone turned the air in Orange Island purple. London has its pea-soupers, and Orange Island has its borscht. No matter what, no matter how much it rains, no matter how much the wind blows, the borscht hangs over the lamps and doesn’t go away. And like you just saw earlier, anyone who sucks in a mouthful of borscht turns into a nasty, which is why you can’t go anywhere in this town without a good gas mask. You would think that the government would have completely evacuated a danger zone of a place like this, and they did, and people generally stayed out for a while like sensible folk. But then a strange thing happened. A few loose nuts with too much money put up a few five-star hotels, a few resorts, a few casinos, and suddenly the most godforsaken place on the planet became fashionable. The wealthy got it into their heads that if you buy a good mask, keep the windows shut and stay away from the nasties, you can have yourself a time at Orange Island.
Now you would think that the government might make it illegal for anyone to willingly enter Orange Island. You try telling a man or woman of privilege that they can’t get their own way. Officially, the island is completely evacuated and sealed off from the rest of the country, surrounded at all times by a blockade of helicopters and navy warships. Unofficially, people bribe their way in and out all the time by stowing away on supply planes and helicopters, and so the government sent in the National Guard because if you’re going to be stupid you might as well be kept safe. Anyone with enough money to get into Orange Island sure as shit better have enough to get out as well. Several prominent senators have complained that their sons went missing after an ill-advised trip to Orange Island and demanded that the government send in a search party to rescue them, and every time they just shrug their shoulders and say “sorry, that whole place was evacuated years ago.”
Now you might be thinking, how does everyone breathe around there? Surely they don’t just live off of everyone’s recycled oxygen for that long, do they? The people of Orange Island are able to breathe the same way anyone else in the world does, by trees. Trees and trees and trees, pines along the streets, oaks in the apartment complexes, birches in the ghettos, weeping willows in the lobbies of skyscrapers. Officially the island is completely evacuated and sealed off from the rest of the country, surrounded at all times by a blockade of helicopters and navy warships. Unofficially there is an entire corporation dedicated to the importation and distribution of trees all over the city to perpetuate photosynthesis. The only thing more omnipresent that the trees, courtesy of Tannenbaum Arbor, are the Tannenbaum employees constantly rooting up dead trees, leaves a sickly dull purple after a month or so of service, and replacing them with fresh green ones.
Anything else I forgot? All the doors are hermetically sealed and opened only on the hour. Late for work, my friend? Supposed to be at the office at nine in the morning, and you show up at nine oh one? Guess what, you’re going to be at least an hour late, because that vault door isn’t opening back up until ten, let alone how long it takes you to check your mask at the door. There’s no skyline either, because windows aren’t safe anymore. Well, now you’re probably wondering… what, you think just because I’m the omniscient narrator I know everything? I know perfectly well it doesn’t make any sense, but I still live here, don’t I? I was here when the borscht first spilled out all over the streets, I saw my friends taste a couple sips of it and turn a bit nastier as a result. I was here when there was no effort made to evacuate the citizens, here when we were left high and dry by the government. And since I make two hundred dollars a month, not nearly enough to book passage out, I’m still here.
It must be the danger element that attracts them, the tourists that flock here every weekend. What do you do when you have too much money to have real problems? Go to a place that gives you some. No, there’s no place like Orange Island when you want to mix upscale opulence with the ever-looming threat of a grisly death. It could be the ninth goddamn circle of Hell, right there with the three worst people who ever lived chewed up in three sets of jaws, everyone else frozen in place by the banners of Rex Inferi marching on, as long as there’s a couple good casinos they’ll show alright. See? Here’s a couple of them now, sipping little snifters of their favorite brandy around the fire.
—Remember that summer we spent in Orange Island darling?
—Oh, how could I forget, it was wonderful! Really, you must go sometime.
—I don’t know, I heard it’s dangerous out there.
—Oh, nonsense, it’s quite harmless really. Just remember not to eat the borscht and you’ll be just fine, dear.
—And remember to take care of your mask darling.
—Oh yes, you have to wear a mask around town. We got ours from Knox Enterprises, have you seen the commercials?
—Oh yes, people who love people, marvelous things they are, really.
How could I have forgotten about the piper himself? Hold on a second, I may not have much in this dump but I’m not destitute, let’s turn this box on. Any channel will do. Here’s one right now: Look at that dapper man in his black suit and bowler taking a stroll on a quiet Orange Island night, cane swinging back and forth by his heels. He looks at the camera and waves, one can assume he’s smiling, and how could he not be with a gorgeous mask like that on? This isn’t one of those black rubber knock-offs that make you look like an insectoid Medieval plague-doctor, no, this is some classy stuff. Elegant design with an array of tasteful rhinestones pressed in to make you feel right in the middle of a Venetian carnivale with all the other Italian nobles out and about, streets overflowing with water instead of gas. The dapper fellow speaks through the mask, seeing him through the camera he becomes a pantomime with, right over his head, the voice of God speaking through his covered mouth:
—The rest of America gave up on Orange Island, but we sure didn’t.
Cut to the lobby of a tastefully-furnished Art Deco building, the huge metal doors already slammed shut, the red lights and siren ceased, and now the valet takes his mask, his true voice emanating from his mouth, all the mystery gone.
—Why do we strive to offer Orange Island the best, the safest and most innovative in portable breathing apparatus technology?
Coming from this guy it sounds like the setup to a dirty joke. But who’s this other guy? Why it’s none other than young millionaire playboy Roger Knox, the figurehead and face of Knox Enterprises itself. He’s wearing his black suit and bowler just like his dapper friend here. He pats his friend on the back and looks at the camera.
—Because we’re Knox Enterprises, and we’re people who love people!
Get used to hearing that about a hundred times a day or so if you want to take a holiday out here in the borscht bowl. Years ago, an enterprising man by the name of Timothy Knox, tired of his arms company not selling as many tanks and rifles and bombs as it used to in the early forties, got a bright idea: While officially, the island is completely evacuated and sealed off from etc., unofficially, whether you’re here to work or to play, everyone in this town has to breathe. It took a couple years after the incident and a bored arms industrialist to say wait a minute, if there’s a whole town where everyone has to wear a gas mask to get around, shouldn’t I be the one selling the damn things? No matter your tax bracket, Knox Enterprises will get you breathing: They’ve got everything from cheap Russian civilian-issue rubber masks all the way up to those stylish white leather ones, with the fancy baroque eye sockets and diamond studs laced all around. Goes great with a tux. A few years and a few million masks sold later, and Timothy Knox carved himself more than half of the oxygen business in Orange Island, the closest thing to a serious competitor in the breathing industry being the aforementioned Tannenbaum Arbor, Inc.
Then a couple years ago, Timothy Knox up and vanishes (the word vanish of course meaning a variety of things in this town), which left Roger his only surviving relative and heir to daddy Knox’s clean air empire. But Roger here, he’s only good at two things: One, spending money (as you can see him here, at another one of his wild soirees going on all night in the Knox homestead, a pretty big Tudor located on the outskirts, far enough away from the town to be considered waterfront property but still close enough on the Island to be surrounded by purple-tinted trees and the ever-present chopping of helicopter blades in the sky. There he is, among the wine and liquor guzzling and pill-popping and cavorting and hot jazz and raucous laughter. He’s wearing his red suit), and two, selling those goddamned masks on the goddamned TV.
You know, I’d say the advent of television might have been one of the factors that made everything go to hell around here. Seemed like yesterday this box here was a great curiosity of the wealthy in Orange Island, but soon enough everyone got their hands on them. It wasn’t just a bunch of sitcoms to us. It showed us all a world outside of the island, where the sun shines in a clear sky over clean suburbs, where folks go to work and kids play hopscotch and jump-rope in the streets and they all came home to a nice roast beef dinner, where everyone smiles all the time. And commercials. Good lord the commercials. How do you alleviate the misery of three million people doomed to live in a dead city? Tell them what to buy. Speaking of commercials, I forgot to finish that other one.
So the dapper man and Roger look toward the camera, smiling and arms around each other like they’ve been friends since they were kids. In fact he never spoke to him in his life until about a half hour before, and in all likelihood Roger’s probably going to fire this guy right after the shoot (and did you ever wonder who they’re talking to? I mean I get it, they’re talking to us, the four walls and all that, but they’re in a building, a real building in Orange Island. I swear I’ve seen that building somewhere before. Wouldn’t you find it a bit odd if a guy in a black suit and bowler went up to you and started talking to you about buying a refrigerator or something?). Roger pats the guy on the back and they walk to the front vault doors, waiting with everyone else for them to open up.
—So go ahead, pick up a Knox mask and stay in Orange Island for one more day.
They both put on an elegant mask, and Roger speaks to the camera through his mask, a muffled, Rogeresque voice speaking for him.
—And remember, make sure you don’t eat the borscht around here.
Everyone in the lobby waiting for the doors to open up breaks out in some of that awful canned commercial laughter, as if that whole lot isn’t just a bunch of sad saps trying to get home from work, as if he’s about to have whiskey and goddamned cigars with them after the shoot (a whole lot of people apparently smarter than I am attribute this sort of reckless insouciance on Roger’s part as a significant reason why the commercials are such a success, that whole looking straight into the camera and telling a stupid joke each and every time, basically declaring to everyone on the island and pretty much everyone in the country since it’s a national broadcast that yes, there’s quite a few people who live in and visit the island from time to time and require his business in spite of the official position of the Federal government that Orange Island is completely yeah yeah you get it).
You can’t go anywhere on this island without seeing a box hanging up somewhere, and you can’t get any channel that doesn’t at some point or another have Roger hawking his masks on it. Even at the Note there’s a TV on every wall, not to mention the fact that he’s a regular here anyway, so even if he’s not in the box he’s still here most of the time. On the other hand, the Note is the rare joint in town where the guests are looking at anything but Roger. See? There’s Morgan up on stage now:
Blow, ill wind, blow away, let me rest today,
You’re blowing me no good, no good…
And that guy in the shabby white suit? Looks like it’s the only decent suit he’s got, wears it pretty much any day of the week he has to look good? That’s me, and that’s because it is, and I do. Morgan sounds hot as usual, and the crowd’s eating it up, but I don’t have time to watch even if I wanted to. The vault doors are shut, the bouncer just took my piece away (still hot, I just got done shooting a nasty on the way over, and a good thing I didn’t bump into anymore since I used all six for that one), and I’m on my way over to Archie’s office. My toons are all over the walls, and if things go right a couple rabbit-influenced pieces will be joining them by the time the hour’s up (it’s an odd feeling sometimes, seeing so much of myself hanging up all over a single place. It’s not like I’m an artist or anything. I get up and take a stroll outside, take a look around at what’s going on in my city. Sort of political cartoons entirely populated by nasties, I’d say. If I forget what I see I go back to my place and watch some Tex toons. I like the exaggerated faces they make, they look more like the nasties than the Looney Tunes do. If I get too happy watching those I go back outside. Sometimes I have to remember that life isn’t really a cartoon, that I just live in a town full of them). I have a feeling Archie’s not going to like the latest batch, but I’ll never find out, because at that point a certain commercial comes on the tubes that stops me dead. Stops everyone, actually. This was going to be the commercial that changed everything. Hell, it already was, thanks to that spot it was the first time in the history of the Note that Roger ever upstaged Morgan. This one starts out like any other, Roger in his black suit and hat, staring into the camera. But this time he isn’t in some nameless Art Deco lobby. He’s outside. He’s standing on a balcony overlooking his estate, purple trees swaying in the gaseous wind.
—Beautiful day, isn’t it?
Of course it isn’t, the cocky bastard.
—Gosh, I could really go for a good cigar right now.
Roger pulls out a stogie from his coat pocket, cuts off the tip with a guillotine and lights it with a match. Goddamn him, is he actually smoking outside? Without a mask? He takes a puff and exhales, the smoke does a little tango with the borscht right above his head.
—Hello, I’m Roger Knox, and yes, I am standing outside my house, without any breathing apparatus whatsoever. What you are seeing now is a temporary version of a real, honest-to-God cure for the toxic gas in Orange Island. Next month our researchers will unveil a permanent solution. When next month arrives, I would like you all to come to my house, right here at 348 Magnolia Lane, to celebrate this truly revolutionary discovery. That’s right, all of you are invited. When that day comes we can finally, after eleven long years, go outside and enjoy the day.
And just to rub it in all their faces, he closes his eyes, stretches out his arms as if to embrace the whole damn ugly day, and takes a big deep breath. The entire island gasps, its brightest star about to turn into a nasty, no better than the other scumbags with no name and a faulty mask. But nothing happens. He’s still there, smoking his goddamn stogie and smiling at the goddamn camera. A whole city breathes a sigh of relief and bitter disappointment.
—I’ll see you here real soon, but until then, why do we care about Orange Island, when the rest of the country turned its back on us? Because we’re Knox Enterprises, and we’re people who love people.
That was one month and a day ago.
This was yesterday: Remember that whole mess of people in that nice Tudor estate, so overstuffed the guests can barely walk around, let alone have a good time? Remember Roger was wearing his red suit? These are the people Knox Enterprises loves, Roger’s friends or else directly affiliated with the company one way or another. Now see all these other people littered outside, banging on the door and demanding to be let inside (and just what the hell do they think they’re going to accomplish there? That’s reinforced steel, buddy)? These people either mistakenly think they’re friends with Roger, or are just the salt-of-the-earth people that Roger claimed were welcome (chances are pretty good too that some of them are affiliated with the luxury-and-danger industry and just want to soupline his boat-rocking ass dead).Well, Roger told them so on the TV, they’re the kind of people Knox Enterprises loves so much, one can understand their behavior I suppose. It’s not a pretty sight. Words are spoken that aren’t meant, certain individuals take them the wrong way. Punches are thrown, people are shoved, shoddy gas masks come off. Merely shunned from the wildest party of the year five minutes ago, these new nasties have to get used to being pariahs no matter where they go in town. A lot to be mad about, the nasties go about the mob and make a few new friends. These new friends aren’t so happy about it, and so on.
The next morning, fifty-eight people were found dead inside and outside the Knox property. The tabloid photographers failed to give a damn about fifty-seven of them. It’s not that they responded before the police did, so much as there simply is no standing police force on the island and that’s about the closest we’ll ever get to having an investigative force. True, hundreds of murders happen every day on Orange Island, but let’s face it, there’s really only one way to get yourself killed around here. Why waste bullets, why spill blood on your nice suit, when all you have to do is shove someone out the door and take off their mask? And since it can be a little more than difficult to interrogate a nasty (well officer, I was minding my own business when all of a sudden I blargablargaragalragarog, aren’t we safe in our own grghagghash), disappearances simply aren’t investigated.
Roger, on the other hand, was something of a trendsetter. He had the good taste to leave behind an exquisite corpse. And since there was really nothing alive left at Roger’s house for the National Guard to shoot at, does it surprise anyone that the tabloids came shooting first? There they are, standing over the late great Roger Knox, and there he is lying supine at the foot of the grand escalier, a pool of blood under his head, matching nicely with his fine red suit. Victim apparently died of massive trauma to the head, the murder weapon a crowbar, the crook still embedded in the brainy head wound of… wait a minute. Wasn’t it a claw hammer? A claw hammer, with the claw still stuck in… no, a frying pan? A cast-iron frying pan cast aside next to the body, still dripping blood as… now wait a minute, what the hell would a cheap thing like that be doing in Roger’s place? At least this gold-plated titanium nine-iron makes a bit more sense, but how do you bring that into a party anyway? Or… well why not, maybe this hardbound first edition copy of Finnegans Wake, apparently footnoted by Joyce himself. Maybe him and ol’ Timothy were chums. Might as well use it for something, either that or a doorstop…
Well, if we can’t even agree on a murder weapon we’re going to be in trouble. Which is why the photographers are all gone and instead, the Knox place is filled to the brim with Dapper Men, hundreds of men in black suits and vests and bowler hats and masks, as if all the boxes on the Island spit out their contents all over the murder scene. This isn’t just any souplined stiff on the floor here, this is Roger Knox. The most beloved man on the whole island turned into the most hated after a single commercial, the one guy who could sell a million gasmasks to these sad saps around here about to unveil the one thing that could make the whole clean air business go under in one fell swoop. Knox Enterprises can’t very well just not find out what happened to him, can they? It makes perfect sense, then, that the Knox suits send over their own team of investigators to figure things out. The first batch of Dapper Men are pretty much there to clear out the dead nasties and make the way ready for the guy who apparently knows what he’s doing. And at that the sirens go off, the vault doors of Roger’s house slowly open up, and the Dapper Men take a look at two more of their own kind. The first guy’s real little, Napoleonic even, as he walks in with a swagger that suggests his nice three-piece suit and bowler hat are actually his own and not just Knox issue. He peeks around the corners of the mansion, stroking his tiny Clark Gable mustache with his right index finger whenever he’s thinking about something. His friend next to him, Samoan or some other, he’s gigantic, could probably fit three of the other guy inside him and have room for a good steak dinner too. One of the lesser Dappers goes up to the little guy and tries to shake his hand.
—Mr. Updike, sir. It’s a pleasure to finally meet…
Before the Dapper Man can finish, let alone shake this guy’s hand (apparently one J.R. Updike, Senior Executive of Quality Assurance for Knox Ent., which is in all likelihood the closest they’ve got to an investigator themselves), the Samoan bodyguard pushes him about three feet away.
—That won’t be necessary, Casabianca, we’re all company men here.
The little guy, Updike, pats the Samoan on the shoulder and the latter backs off. He takes in a deep breath and looks around the house before reaching into his coat pocket to take out a… carrot? Well, alright then. Chomping down on the first, he pulls out another one for the Dapper Man.
—Care for one? I’m quitting smoking, I like to munch on a carrot when I get a craving. Good for your eyes. Comes in handy when you’re doing detective work.
—No thank you, sir.
—Suit yourself. So, what do we have here?
—Our men are still collecting data all around the house. We were able to round up five suspects…
—Where’s the body?
—You didn’t move the body, did you?
—Sir… Technically speaking, we didn’t move the body.
—The hell does that mean? He didn’t just get up and fix himself a drink, did he?
—Well, sir… it’s a bit hard to explain, but…
—Never mind. Five suspects, huh? I know this is a stupid question before I even ask, but did you happen to get any confessions?
—As a matter of fact, sir, we did.
—Oh, good, things are looking up already. Which one?
—I’m terribly sorry, Sir. I think one of the others let slip the, ah, curious nature of the crime and how the guilty party would have to be sent to prison. We think it got around to the other suspects, and interpreting that as a means of leaving the Orange Island blockade…
—Go on, spit it out. Which one of them confessed?
—Er… All five of them, Sir.
Suspect one: Jackson Miller. Caucasian male, age 32. Brown hair, green eyes. Thick-framed glasses, moderate myopia. Teal and orange Shaheen aloha shirt, 8-carat gold chain. Early signs of male-pattern baldness. General hyperactivity, behavioral tics include tapping on surfaces with fingers, looking to his left and right for brief intervals during conversation, making chewing motions with mouth, despite lack of masticable objects. Occupation: claims to be independent filmmaker, curriculum vitae unavailable. Found morning of June 11, 1956, at 8:21 am in dining hall of deceased’s residence, disoriented, pacing around room and mumbling to himself. Found one (1) claw hammer on immediate person when taken into custody. Relevant excerpt of sworn testimony:
—Roger Knox Roger fucking Knox, yeah I killed that fucker, and what? And what? I brought a piece with me alrite I brought it right into the big show no one the wiser and I stuffed it all right up in that fucker’s great big cocksucking mouth and I was all you like that you queer, huh, you like that in your mouth and I shot him like I blew my fuckin load right in his mouth and
—Excuse me, but Mr. Knox was bludgeoned to death.
Fifteen seconds of silence, followed by:
—I know that! I fucking know that! Like I said I bludgeoned the fucker. Fucking listen man and you might learn something alrite, I bludgeoned him, bludgeoned the fucker dead man…
Suspect two: Stanley Tannenbaum. Caucasian male, age 54. Brown eyes, blond hair, poorly-applied toupee which suspect tends to adjust in the middle of conversation. Charcoal gray two-piece suit, tan trenchcoat. Remarkable tobacco habit, smoked (3) cigars in succession during interrogation. Generally irritable while interrogated, hostile to interviewers, several verbal threats of physical violence but otherwise no incidents to report. Occupation: C.E.O. of Tannenbaum & Sons Arbor, owner of several buildings and businesses throughout Orange Island, including Tannenbaum Tower. Found immediately at the scene of the crime in grand foyer of deceased’s home, fifteen (15) yards away from deceased. Found one (1) box of cigars on person, which suspect refused to relinquish, as well as one (1) gold plated titanium nine-iron golf club. Relevant excerpt of sworn testimony:
—I told you for Chrissakes, I told you a hundred times! Don’t you know who I am? Ever hear of Tannenbaum Tower? Hello, I own half the buildings in this goddamn town! I don’t have time for this, I’ve got several million shares of stock with steadily increasing value I have to enjoy! Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I’ll call my secretary, have her detain your ass all day long, see how you fuckers like it. Yeah, you’re sorry, not yet you’re not sorry, just you wait till I snap your dicks off and shove em…
Suspect three: Walter Lamb. Caucasian male, age 18. Red hair, green eyes. Blue jeans and blue varsity jacket for one Pottawattamie Central High Stingrays (location of said high school currently unavailable). Suspect in high distress during interview, most likely brought about by combination of conflicting feelings, including: severity of crime, domineering maternal issues, and deeply pervasive Protestant, possibly Calvinist, guilt. Occupation: busboy at the Purple Note nightclub. Found in kitchen of deceased’s house, with one (1) bloodstained cast-iron frying pan in possession, apparently belonging to deceased. Sworn testimony mostly inadmissible, suspect insists on guilt, fails to provide any relevant facts thereof. Lowest priority among major suspects. Relevant excerpt of sworn testimony:
—Oh, I did a bad thing! Bad, bad very bad thing! Mama, I’m sorry, I won’t do it again! I didn’t know it would kill him, I didn’t mean to hit him so hard! The nice lady wanted me to do it, it was her fault! Oh, wicked, wicked, bad, bad, bad! Take me back home, Mama! I’m sorry I left Mama, take me home! (etc.)
Suspect four: Baxter McCullough. Caucasian male, age approximately 28-32. Eye and hair color unavailable, suspect refused to remove one (1) black beret and one (1) pair of red-tinted sunglasses. Black turtleneck, other clothing all self-made. Unnaturally calm demeanor and impeccable posture, remarkable lack of behavioral mannerisms. Refuses to speak in any way except through self-composed “poetry”. Occupation: unemployed. Found in second-floor waiting room of deceased’s residence, staring through window at the Western wing of deceased’s garden property. Found two (2) small glass vials on immediate person, as well as one (1) first-edition hardcover copy of Finnegans Wake, apparently removed from deceased’s library, with prominent bloodstain on front cover and first two pages. Suspect claims blood does not belong to deceased, (according to educated guesses regarding interpretation of testimony, at any rate). Relevant excerpt of sworn testimony:
—Holy the king of town and the changing of the guard, holy the deep red ritual spilling from the crown forged of masks, holy the violence in the city of violet. Holy the great act of finality.
Thirty seconds of silence, followed by:
—All fecund in its naughtiness.
Suspect five: Julian Paisley… yeah yeah, they’ve got me mixed up in this monkey business too. I’m not even anywhere near a box and I still have to listen to these dapper twerps prattling on and chuckling to each other, well that’s just swell. I’ll spare you the details, but here’s a relevant excerpt of my sworn testimony you might get a kick out of:
—So, you claim you killed Mr. Knox?
—Maybe. Maybe not. Honestly I don’t know.
—You mean you don’t remember?
—I feel like if I did I would certainly remember. But I wouldn’t put it past me either, it sounds like something I’d do.
—I don’t understand.
—You might want to try and ask someone who has a better idea. Hey, Roger.
The Dapper Dan and I turn to Roger, holding his glass of eighteen-year-old Scotch in his right hand and using the left to dam up the river of blood and brains coming out of his head. He tries his best, but even a seasoned Scotch drinker like Roger lets a few errant drops of blood into his drink. What the hell, he’s probably thinking, it’s all going to the same place, isn’t it? He’s wearing his yellow suit.
—Was it me that killed you, Roger?
Roger stops in his tracks and puts his drink down.
—Wait a minute. I’m dead?
—I think so. Roger’s dead, right?
—I’m afraid so.
Roger frowns, takes a moment to look around the room before knocking back the rest of his Scotch, blood and all.
Something tells me we’re going to be here for a while.
Soon the lead company man has us all here: the hack, the square, the kid, the beat, and the ego, sitting in a more or less well-behaved row in the main lobby in front of the grand escalier. The Samoan stands by the door, big enough to cover the whole thing by himself, arms folded and watching over our masks that they had us surrender before the investigation.
—My name is J.R. Updike. Knox Enterprises has sent me here to investigate the murder of Roger Knox, who I’m sure you are all acquainted with in one way or another. As I understand it, you have all claimed to be directly responsible for the death of Mr. Knox’s, which means that, owing to the single mortal wound found on Mr. Knox’s head, obviously four of you are lying. Therefore, it’s going to be my job today to weed out the liars in this group until I’ve finally got myself one honest suspect, one I can get past the Orange Island blockade and hand off to the proper authorities, who will then send you all the way to the maximum security prison of their choosing. So here’s how it’s going to be: You sit tight in this room, and when your name is called, you go upstairs and we have a nice chat. The more you cooperate, the sooner you all leave, barring of course the guilty party. And if anyone thinks about leaving the premises, they’ll have to deal with my associate, Casabianca. Have I made myself perfectly clear?
(What kind of parents in Samoa look upon their progeny and declare “thou art Casabianca?” The boy, stood on, the burn-ing deck…)
—Good. So let’s start with… you there. In the nice suit.
The square gets up from his seat.
—No, not you, him. I was being sarcastic.
So I’m first up. They’ve got me in what looks like the library. Not a bad selection, I notice as I’m waiting for Updike. Never realized it before I guess. Whenever I found myself at Roger’s place I never was in the mood to read, for a variety of reasons. Probably all his father’s anyway. Hm. Wordsworth, no thanks. Lots of Romantics, lots of Latin stuff. Ol’ Timothy must have took himself rather seriously.
—Mr. Paisley. Thank you for being patient.
—Mr. Updike. It was my pleasure.
Updike slams the door shut, sits down at the other end of the table and pulls out two carrots from his jacket. He chomps down on the first, and offers the other to me.
—No thanks. My doctor says I should avoid vitamins and minerals in my diet.
—Suit yourself. So let’s get down to business. You knew Mr. Knox, correct?
—Sure, I’ve seen a TV before. I heard he loves people or something.
—I mean intimately.
—You could say that.
—You both went to the same university. He becomes a wealthy socialite, you a starving artist. How does that happen?
—Roger got a business degree. It’s the easiest one to skate by on while your father pays your way.
—It didn’t occur to me then that I could learn how to draw caricatures if I worked as a carnie.
—You don’t expect me to believe you went to one of the top colleges in the state, the same one attended by Roger Knox, to study art?
—Of course not. I’m not a complete idiot. A man doesn’t turn to art unless he’s got a good reason. Not until the whole world betrays such a man first, and all he knows and feels is deep disillusionment and regret.
—So what was your major, then?
—Studies in Disillusionment and Regret. Magna cum laude.
—Well, you certainly do sound like a bitter man, Mr. Paisley. It seems the tuition was well-spent.
—If you really want to improve my morale, you’re more than welcome to help out with the rent. Mr. Updike.
We both shut up for a moment. The Company Man smiles at me and takes another bite out of his carrot.
—So you’re an artist?
—I wouldn’t really call myself…
—You just did a few seconds ago.
—More of a rhetorical flourish, really.
—I think I’ve seen some of your work at the Purple Note. Very vivid.
—Sure pal, I bet you have. On a Saturday night when it’s poppin’ at the Note and you’re in the mood to knock back some whiskey, kick up your heels and let your hair down. Look, what does any of this have to do with Roger anyway?
—Just humor me. That is your work posted all around the Purple Note, yes?
—Yeah, I’m a regular there.
—Ah, good. So you must be acquainted with Morgan Wednesday. She’s a regular too, as I understand it? A singer?
—Archie’s got a lot of girls up on that stage.
—You’re telling me you don’t know her, then?
—I might have heard her sing once or twice. She can do a good Ella impression.
—Morgan Wednesday? Mr. Knox’s wife?
—Oh, right. Morgan Wednesday. You must mean the girl I was in love with for seven years until she fucked and married my best friend because she wanted his money.
Another silence. The Company Man finishes his carrot and chuckles to himself, spraying a couple bits of carrot from his mouth and onto the table.
—Not that I’m bitter about it.
Updike clears his throat and discreetly wipes the carrot bits away.
—It seems like you’re trying to make my job easier, Mr. Paisley.
—It would seem like that, except you’ve got four other guys who all think they did it, so in fact I’m making your job that much harder. And they’re all much more insistent than I am.
—So, you’re telling me you’re sure you killed Roger, but not as sure as the others are?
—I’m not sure at all. But if it’ll get me a ticket out of Orange Island I guess it wouldn’t hurt to pretend.
—A ticket out of Orange Island and straight to prison. Locked up in your own cell, surrounded by thieves and murderers…
—What’s the difference? Least in prison they’d give me a better suit.
—I see. Why don’t you tell me about the last time you spoke to Mrs. Wednesday?
That would have to be that one afternoon when she met me at my place, right before that big show of hers (I don’t remember the day, so it may very well not be the last time I spoke to her). Sorry about the mess, I’m hard at work on a piece at the moment. The rabbits will have to wait this time, I’m actually working on a commission, believe it or not. Don’t look at it, it’s embarrassing. I’d rather just hand it off to Archie, get the rent back from him and be done with it. A buzz at my door interrupts me, I trip over some of my toons and pull off the locks. Guess who.
Her mask is already off, so the first thing I see is her smile. She waves her black hair out of her face, rests on the side of my door with one hand as her mask dangles from the other. Black Chanel dress and dolled up like she’s about ready to put on a show, which is odd seeing as how it’s about three pm or so. Or maybe later, I’ve been working on this piece for a while so I could have lost track of, I said don’t look at it! I don’t say anything for a while, so she brushes past me and throws her mask on the floor. Tiptoeing over my lesser toons, she searches for the least moth-eaten piece of furniture before settling on the creaky green couch. I head over to the fridge.
—Want a drink?
—Got any gin?
—You know I don’t like gin, and you always ask. Then I say no, and I end up making coffee for us both anyway.
—Well, got any?
—I have some Coke bottles and three-weeks-expired milk.
—I’ll have some coffee then. Hold the milk.
She watches me take out the kettle and pour in the grinds. Moments later she pulls out her cigarette holder. She knows I don’t like smoke in my place. I’ll make the coffee and finish up the routine like we do, then she’ll finally say what’s on her mind. I see her on stage all the time at the Note, but it’s been about three years since I’ve had a cordial conversation with her, let alone at my place, so she definitely has something to tell me, and whether it’s gravely important or utterly trivial is anyone’s guess.
—Is that the kettle from Italy?
—Yes it is.
—I thought you vowed to throw everything out of your place that reminded me of you.
—I was going to, but then I remembered how much I like espresso.
I hear the rickety couch groan as she gets up, blowing a cloud of smoke that will no doubt make the curtains a little dingier than they already are. While I wait for the coffee she takes a look around the place, no doubt a little different after three or four years. Passing by the nasty toons, past the fascist rabbits rallying their brethren on to find more karrotesraum, she sneaks a peek at my commission. Well damn, now I have to describe it, don’t I? It’s not a caricature so much as a mild suggestion of Morgan, a Morganesque I suppose, not true-to-life enough to stay true to myself but pretty enough so Archie will pay me what he promised. What’s embarrassing, though, is that she’s got the same damn black Chanel on. She knew it was my favorite, so she must have something important on her mind after all.
—I see your pictures all over the Note, but I hardly see you around anymore.
—I don’t usually stick around after the initial peddling of wares.
She picks up the commission and brings it over to the kitchen.
—Doesn’t look a thing like me.
—Archie wants me to do it. Apparently you’re a big deal at the Note or something.
I pour the stuff into two little coffee mugs, also from the aforementioned Italy trip and which I neglected to throw out, and hand one off to her.
—And will you put that damn thing out? If I wanted to inhale some toxic air I’d go for a stroll outside.
Morgan takes her coffee, and with a grin she sticks the lit end of her cigarette holder into my espresso.
—Very funny. You know, this stuff costs more than the place does per month.
—And whose fault is that?
She takes a moment to sip her coffee. It probably turned out decent enough, but I guess I’ll never know for sure. Finally it comes out.
—I’m leaving Roger. And I don’t think I’ll be around much longer, so I thought you should know. You probably hate me, don’t you?
—No. I don’t think about either of you anymore.
—Is that so?
She goes back to the commission and gives me the pose I made up for her right back at me. Goddamn it. I suppose I am willing to let hundreds of potential patrons of the Purple Note see it eventually, but not until after I’m handsomely paid for it. I snatch it away and put it back in my portfolio.
—I told you, Archie wants me to do it. You have any better ideas to pay the bills, I’m all ears.
—I’m only joking. Listen, you can hate me still if you want, but I’m sorry I did what I did to your friendship. Roger, he’s not taking this very well.
—You mean, he doesn’t love people anymore? Gosh, say it ain’t so…
—I’m serious, Jules. Do me a favor, go and see him for me, will you?
—What do you mean, you won’t be around much longer?
—What do you think it means?
—What’s your game, Morgan? How do you have enough to leave the island? Obviously Roger won’t let you, so who are you bribing…
—I’ve been keeping pennies in my piggy bank for a while now. Don’t worry about me, I’m a big girl. Just go and see Roger, will you?
—Yeah, sure. So this is goodbye for good then, isn’t it? Well, take care of yourself.
—You too, Jules. Take care of yourself.
Go see Roger. Even if I wanted to visit him, it’d be a hell of a cab ride just to get up to his neighborhood. Despite my better judgment, however, half of me is sorry for him, the other half wants to see him wallow in the old didn’t get my own way blues (besides, in better times Roger would reimburse me for the fare, who knows this time), so I strap on my mask, relinquish the last of my grocery money to the nearest taxi, and make my way up to the northernmost tip of the Island.
The Knox residence is part of the prestigious Dyckman Heights, the one part of town untouched, if not by the borscht, then by the city’s efforts to adapt to it and survive. An outdoor museum dotted with colonial-style mansions the original Dutch settlers lived in and bequeathed to their descendants, Dyckman was also, until the borscht anyway, the only part of the Island with trees. Nowadays it’s a ghost town. Where before one could see good-looking young people smiling and walking poodles on pristine streets with trees and greens blowing in the wind behind them and blue and sunshine above them, now all anyone sees around Dyckman is purple, empty streets of purple trees and uncut purple grass swaying in the purple wind. Nowadays only five people are still dumb enough to live around here: Roger Knox, acting C.E.O. of Knox Enterprises, and four other guys you don’t care about.
The cab stops at the front gate and I tell the driver to wait. After what seems like a mile walk from the gate I finally reach his front vault doors, the only part of the old Dutch house altered for safety, as a concession to the Orange Island powers that may or may not be. Strange, the doors are wide open and swaying in the purple wind along with the tainted trees growing all around the house. It looks like Morgan’s the one who used to pay attention to the upkeep, judging by the state the place is in now. Furniture overturned, rooms half empty, shards of broken crunching glass from former windows, now letting in small heavy bunches of borscht that float above the disarray. For all I know Roger could be dead in here, or even a nasty waiting to jump out and bite my mask off. It could get lonely in Roger’s house as a nasty with nothing to do, so I wouldn’t put it past him if that were the case. I let myself in and keep my mask on, also keeping a hand on my gun in my coat pocket.
Roger’s nowhere to be found on the first floor, so I head up the stairway. Maybe he’s on that balcony shooting another commercial. I get to the second floor when I hear glass smashing in a room somewhere. Sounds like it’s coming from his bedroom and I hesitate to go any further, as the bedroom is the absolute last place I’d ever want to encounter Roger, but then I remember Morgan’s gone and I keep moving. Through a hallway I see the shadow of what looks like a paw raised, claws protracted, toothy mouth open wide and ready for the kill. I take out my gun and point it at the nasty shadow, before realizing that for a nasty it’s not making a whole lot of noise. Oh, right. That’s Timothy Knox’s old office. Roger kept all those African safari hunting trophies around. Dummy, put your gun back and keep moving. I finally reach the library, which also looks like hell. A couple shelves are overturned and books litter the floor. I pick up a volume off the floor and I offer to re-shelve it, until I realize it’s a copy of Anna Karenina and I throw it back on the floor with all the others. It’s so hard living in high society when you cheat on your husband for no good reason.
The French doors leading out the balcony are wide open, and the visibility due to what little light they let in is negated by the oppressive wafts of borscht that amble on into the room just as easily as I did. It looks as if he knew his whole house was going to look like shit someday, so he just let it all go to hell anyway and packed away all the essentials in here. That would be a rack full of just about any variety of distilled spirit you could imagine, an entire wall full of stacked television boxes and a painting of old Timothy with his rifle, standing over a dead tiger or cheetah or something. Roger sits hunched over at a little rickety table that holds whichever bottle he wants to work on at the moment, transferring the empties to the floor in the form of smashed glass. He’s wearing his blue suit.
—Hey Jules. Fix yourself a drink.
—It’s ten in the morning, Roger.
Foregoing formalities, Roger polishes off the rest of the Scotch from the decanter and shatters it on the floor with the others. A real tragedy, or so I would think if I were on the same side of the peat fence as he was.
—Suit yourself. So what brings you here?
—You came all the way from Clover Ridge for my arm?
—No, I mean your arm. It’s… lumpy?
Roger looks at his arm, the goosebumps on it (ostrich-bumps at this point) start to get ornery, wriggling and gurgling about.
—Oh, I must have let some borscht in. Excuse me.
Roger picks up a hose from the floor and puts a mask attached to it up to his face, covering his mouth and nose. The whole house suddenly creaks and groans from below as he sucks in, then exhales a thick yellow gas cloud that falls to the floor then gets up and does a little dance with the purple gas until they both disappear. The goosebumps settle down and make themselves scarce, till you could have confused it for an average human arm.
—So that’s it then?
—You saw the commercial?
—The Note has a couple TVs.
—I thought people go to the Note to listen to music. Now they’ve got the place covered with TVs, and that awful, what is it, beat poetry?
He selects another Scotch from the rack and brings the bottle back with him, kicking along shards of broken ones on the way. After fixing his however-manyth drink he offers me the hose and mask.
—It works, you know.
—Nah. I’ll believe it when it works for everyone. Where did it come from anyway? I’m assuming you didn’t invent it, did you?
—There’s a whole reservoir of it under my house. It occurs naturally in the ground. From the spirits of the earth, for all I know. They’ve heard the cries of the trees and they want to take the purple out of the town.
—If I know anything about the spirits of the earth, then what you’re telling me is a crock.
—No, really. I was out in my yard planting my fucking begonias. I dug it out, like I just hit a natural gas deposit.
—So why are you just sitting on it then, only to let it all out at the end of the month? Why not patent it, dole it out to certain people, make a shithaul of money?
—Ah, you know… What do you care? What are you here for anyway? You want some money?
—No, nothing like that. Well, I could use some cab fare back if you could spare it.
—Then what do you want?
—I don’t know, actually. I talked to Morgan today, and she told me you weren’t doing so well…
—What do you mean you talked to Morgan?
—What do you mean, what do I mean I talked to Morgan?
—She just came up to your door and started chatting away, is that right?
—Sounds about right to me?
—Never mind. So you came here to say I told you so?
—No. I’m not angry at either of you anymore.
—Today’s the anniversary.
—Which one? There are just so many milestones in the whole Morgan saga for me to keep up with…
—You know the one.
Of course I know the one. I think…
—That night at the Note. The busboy. That fucking brat.
—Listen, you don’t look so good. Call off this dumb party, will you? I mean, how in the hell are you going to fit the whole town into your house?
—Of course I’m not having the whole town over. It was just a stupid thing to say, make them feel better about themselves.
—Call it off, take some time to get yourself together, will you? You know, there was a time when I used to care about you. I still do, sort of…
—So is that what you want? For us to be friends again?
—I guess so… Sure.
—Fine, then. We’re friends again. Now get out of my house.
A moment of silence as Roger downs one more shot of Scotch. Looks like a good idea after all.
—I’m going to make a Bloody Mary, if it’s all the same to you.
He actually has some tomato juice and pepper next to the vodka, as if he expected my company. I make the drink just the way I like it, not too much juice and spicy as hell.
—You remember my number, right? Orange 54600? Call me if you need anything.
I look around for one last thing, the essential ingredient to the perfect… Hm. Looks like he wasn’t expecting me after all.
—Say, Roger. Do you have any celery?
—Why the fuck would I have celery?! Get out of my house!
Damn. And now I can kiss that fare goodbye as well. What a wash. I make myself scarce and bring the drink with me. Might as well, he’s got so many glasses he’s throwing them on the floor anyway. I don’t have much time to kick myself for that waste of a meeting, because the first thing I notice is how much nicer the library looks. I could have sworn I didn’t hear anyone tidy up and close the windows while I was in Roger’s room. Could it have been these guys…?
—So I understand you’re a filmmaker.
—Oh, you understand I’m, is that so is that what you understand? You don’t understand, listen asshole, you don’t understand anything about me alrite? You don’t the only thing you should understand is that I…
—Are you sure? I think I may have seen one of your films…
—Oh, listen to this, this fucking, listen don’t patronize me company man, alrite? You saw my films huh? A fucking blockade all around the goddamn island this asshole thinks I premiere at the fucking Mann’s Chinese. Listen I make films I don’t sell popcorn, so I doubt you may have seen of my, my fucking films I average about ten-theater distribution deals this fuckwit says he may have seen one of my, what the hell does this even have to do with the…
—Oh, I get it.
—What do you, what are you saying, man?
—Yeah, so what, I… oh, now wait a minute, mister, what’s the big idea?
—Only screen in a few theaters around town? That sort of thing?
—Hey now I didn’t say that, I didn’t say, now just wait a minute I’m not, I’m not a fucking… I don’t make, I’m not that kind, you think I’m some cheap little fuck-film huckster,
—And what’s wrong with that? Honest work in this town’s hard to come by, so why not?
—I told you, I don’t…
—And besides, what makes you think I don’t like a good, what do you call it, a fuck-film?
—Listen asshole, I’m telling you one fucking Hey! Hey, what are you, is this an interrogation or what, what’s the big—
—Easy, big guy, just reaching for my wallet. Christ, get him back in his seat.
—Fucking nutty, fucking hey get your goddamned hands off, get your, alrite, alrite fine Christ I’ll sit, I said I’ll, fucking Christ will you…
—Relax, will you? I was just going to show you these.
—The fuck do I care what you… What is, the fuck is this? These your children?
—This is my oldest, George. And there’s John, William, Andrew, Tyler, Quincy, James, Millard, Franklin, Zachary, Thomas, Martin, and Abe.
—The hell is, the hell do you have so many…
—We’re naming them after presidents. In about ten years or so we’ll have enough for each one. Ulysses is due in June.
—…and you never have like any daughters or…
—Oh, that’s a different wallet, here… the first ladies, me and the old lady call ‘em… lemme see if…
—That’s, that’s alright man. Well fuck man, what’s in those carrots?
—I’m not trying to patronize you at all. As far as you’re concerned I am deeply, deeply passionate and concerned about the state of modern cinema in Orange Island, erotica or what have you. So please, if you would, forget about the case, forget about Mr. Knox for just a moment, and do tell me about the latest Jackson Miller picture.
—Well, I’m trying to tell you, I’m not… but alrite fine. It’s not porn though, that’s all I’m, that’s all I’m trying to say. So the script is nothing that special, just something a buddy and I collaborated on, but it’s what I’m bringing to it, bringing to the table these, you know mise-en-scene stylistic choices and, you know? Guy gets stranded on an island, Swiss Family Robinson without the family, right? So he meets these mermaids, this crazy batch of these just, I mean these mermaids are ready to fuck, alrite? It’s been what, three hundred or so years since anyone’s seen a man, let alone, you know, I mean the idea has potential but I was, I was a little, I wasn’t sure I could, I mean how the hell do you fuck a mermaid anyway, but you know it’s these stylistic innovations I’m adding to the thing, it’s a challenge, it’s like you gotta think about it real, you gotta think if I were a mermaid how would I, and I wanted a whole wallet full of mermaids named after presidents, or mermaid presidents, don’t really know what they have down in the, anyway so this stuff I’m adding to, you ever see The Seashell and the Clergyman?
—Oh. Yeah. Maybe not. I mean it’s French. Might not have caught on here yet. Anyway it’s this real surrealist French like Buñuel shit, so what I’m doing is, I mean I thought you might have seen it, stylistically it’s sort of what I’m going for…
—Excuse me. Do you have any celery?
The hack and Updike stop and look over at my direction. I’ve been standing there the whole time, haven’t I? Guess it’s alright if I take off my mask too…
—Have you been, what were you doing in that room? That is a restricted area!
—I was just fixing myself a Bloody Mary. Do you have any celery?
Updike lets out a sigh and drags his hand down his pencil mustache as he reaches into his coat pocket. So many carrots in there it probably takes a bit of effort to find anything else. A moment later he’s got a stalk or two, breaks one off and hands it to me.
—Anyway so like I said I’m doing this crazy stylistical shit, alrite? See that’s the good thing about that’s the advantage of being outside the system, if the studios aren’t paying your way you can do whatever you want, no Hays code or nothing. And I’m drawing in all these, all this new shit okay, like the Japanese. I hear the Japanese are experimenting with tentacles. Brilliant shit, alrite? We blast these Japanese sea monsters out of the water with our nuclear heat and they grow like what, five stories tall? They’ve got these tentacles, right, hundreds of tentacles, and they just fucking go off on these girls okay they, see here’s the thing. You still can’t show dicks in a shot, okay, so these are like, hundreds of metaphorical dicks just going nuts alrite, and it’s… it’s not that kind of, I know what you’re thinking and that’s not what I’m going for. I’m going for real gritty, dirty kind of… you ever see Night and Fog?
—Oh, well, alrite then. I was just saying, if you had you might know where I’m, it’s another French one, so it might not have caught on here yet, but real powerful stuff…
—Why do you do that anyway?
They both stop and stare at that guy in the shabby white suit, stirring his now-perfect bloody Mary with his celery stalk.
—You were, goddamn it you were over there that whole time?
—How come you just keep celery in your pocket? That’s kind of strange, isn’t it?
—Then why did you ask me if I had any?
—Well, I just thought… Huh. Touche.
I make myself scarce, I guess I’ve heard enough of this creep and his bad art. Wait, you’re saying you haven’t? Don’t worry yourself about it, I am the narrator, aren’t I? I can be in two places at once.
—Right so as I was saying before, I’m going for some real off the beaten, real challenging shit for this piece right? So the thing is yeah I’m not in the system or whatever and fuck if I care good fucking riddance those goddamn, those fucking, anyway so the thing is if you’re going to make a film around here if you’re not getting those penguins out there on the other side of the, if you aren’t getting them to you like that? Penguins, right? The suits they, anyway if you’re not getting them to pay your way you’ve got to find some other rich asshole, some other guy who will, you’ve got to… anyway so the last I guy I had lined up, real asshole, real fucking reactionary, okay, it’s like he was all on board when I was pitching my idea to him alrite, this old crusty fuck wants to support the arts in his last fucking twilight years of life or whatever, right, so he’s totally fine with my ideas and the crazy new shit I told you about, and then I show him the dailies okay, and all of a sudden, out of the fucking blue he’s all “oh, Mr. Miller, frankly I can’t be attached to, quite frankly” who the fuck talks like that? Quite frankly, who the fuck, like he’s in a fucking Jane Eyre novel or something, not even fucking British, we’re in fucking America okay, we won that war a long fucking time ago, this “oh, quite frankly Mr. Miller, this is pornography.” Well so maybe I overreacted a little bit, maybe lost my temper and threw my film can at the guy’s head, maybe sort of gave him a little bit of a concussion. But the nerve of the fucking guy! See, he’s just like you, just like you when I tell you my ideas you immediately think, you just assume right off the bat that I’m just some, you don’t even look closer to see what I’m trying to do, you just…
—So you had to find another investor.
—Well, yeah I needed another investor. And there weren’t many left that were too approachable, and I like to go to the Note from time to time and have a couple, you know knock back a few like any, I mean when I’m not working I like to, that singer, you know her? That Wednesday? She’s something. So I mean he’s always at the Note, when he’s not on the TV he’s at the Note, so I thought why not, you know what the hell…
—So you went to Mr. Knox. The richest guy in town.
—And finally, gentlemen, we arrive at a point.
Three weeks ago the hack arrived at his point, and his point was sitting at his usual spot at the Note, not too close to the main stage but just close enough so he could get a good look at Morgan suggesting to the crowd that night that maybe they should both let’s call the whole thing off, cause they say either with an e and she says either with an i. He’s wearing his red suit. And you should see this guy Jackie when he wants some money. His shirt’s only one color this time, and it’s tucked in, complemented by a jacket and tie that match. Hair all nice and tidied up, standing in relatively decent posture, and looking down on occasion at his wringing hands as he gently stammers out what appear to be properly constructed English sentences.
—Excuse me, Mr. Knox. If I could just…
Roger swallows his drink and pounds it on the table, the hack’s presence drawing out the mirth of everyone at Mr. Knox’s table.
—Well, look who it is! The filmmaker guy, right?
—I’m glad I bumped into you sir. I was wondering if you made a decision regarding…
—Christ, can this guy make a film. Right fellas? Remember that thing I showed you, with the mermaids and all that crazy shit? Was that a riot or what?
One of his many nameless friends lets out a hearty chortle in the middle of his double gin on rocks.
—How the hell do you fuck a mermaid anyhow…
—Maybe she’s got some gills between’er legs or something…
—She’s a mermaid, dipshit, she don’t have any legs!
—Well how the hell should I know? I’m not the one trying to make art over here!
The laughter dies down and Roger wipes away a couple tears.
—Well, Mr. Miller, I did appreciate the little joke you sent me. However, if you want me to be involved I’m going to need to know what you’re really doing. A nice trick though, take a little porn flick and make it as unerotic as possible. I like the irony of it. Maybe a little too highbrow for my tastes, I mean I like a good Bogart picture as much as the next guy… What I don’t understand is why you would ask me to invest in a picture of yours when you clearly have money to send me one of these…
Roger, barely looking at his supplicant the whole time, barely remembering he was even there, glances up to meet a face that wants to say something along the lines of but it isn’t pornography, it isn’t a joke, it’s a piece that anyone could see has big things to say and was made with the deft hand of a true auteur, how could you not want to be a part of it? Fortunately for the hack, who couldn’t possibly afford to embarrass himself even more, he doesn’t have to say it.
—Hm. I see. Well, er… in that case, Mr. Miller, I regret to inform you that I simply cannot be attached to your project at this juncture…
Roger gives it his all not to laugh again, but it can’t be helped. His scorn is a time bomb that explodes and sets off charges all around him in an instant. And then drinks are brought to the table, Roger turns his back and the hack is instantly forgotten. Plenty of people don’t know Roger at all, but for an Island bum like this guy, to have the opportunity to know him, to pretend to be his friend long enough to squeeze out a chance to be somebody in this place, and to lose it that quickly, to the worst the island has to offer it’s a fate worse than death. If Roger Knox, the best and worst of all of them, willfully decides he has better things to do than acknowledge the fact that you exist, you might as well jump off a building. Or walk out of that building and take a little stroll without your mask on. Same thing.
But even in adversity there’s hope. Maybe this is what he needs to improve himself. Maybe he’ll realize that he didn’t know so much after all. That a misguided passion doesn’t excuse a complete lack of talent and craft. Maybe he’ll finally realize he was never good at the one thing he only thought he was, and once knowing that now knowing there’s not a single atom of his body and soul worth saving. That the old poet should have abandoned rhyme and meter and instead written ‘for everything that lives is holy, with the single exception of one Jackson Miller of Orange Island.’ Maybe then he’ll take that stroll, let the borscht blow through his hair a little. No such luck. There’s not much in the world more insufferable than a bad artist who thinks anything’s possible if he just perseveres.
That ingrate, he thinks. That fucking, that goddamn motherfucking, thinks he’s so goddamn smart, so he’s got some money and some friends, thinks he knows a fucking thing about, thinks he’s so you don’t, you don’t fucking do that to a, I’m an auteur, I control the mise-en-scene, you don’t insult the auteur, you don’t, motherfucker probably never read Cahiers du, I mean maybe not, it is mostly published in, but that’s no fucking excuse, wait till I, you’ll see, you won’t be laughing when I, and so on.
Meanwhile Morgan finishes her set, once the whole thing has been adequately called off, and Mr. And Mrs. Roger Knox walk right by the invisible hack and head over to the penthouse suite of Tannenbaum Tower, where they have been reluctantly invited by Stan Tannenbaum for a little get together he’s having, no big deal, just all of the people in the island who matter will be there. Stan’s sinking putts in his little miniature golf range he has next to the lifeless statues covered in gold he surrounds himself with. No no, not his friends. I mean the place is literally filled with gold-dipped statues. Naked armless dames and old bearded Nobodaddys and cupids spitting into fountains, that sort of thing. Even the goddamn club is gold. He looks up as one of his aides escorts Roger and Morgan inside, and misses a putt.
Ten years ago, the square wasn’t much to look at as one of the proprietary sons in the small family urban landscaping business, Tannenbaum & Sons Arbor. Anxious to hang up his dingy overalls and leather gloves and make some real money in Orange Island, he finally got the chance once the air turned purple and trees suddenly came in high demand. Now officially, etc., but of course if certain wealthy and influential people want to have a time on the island they’re more than willing to bend the regulations and let a man import some trees through the blockade, if you’re the right tree man that is. A fellow’s gotta breathe, don’t he? So it’s trees first, then some call liquors so the guys can bring the wife somewhere to get a decent highball, then some lobster and beluga caviar for that little seafood bistro we visited last year that was simply divine, and before you know it a few hundred thousand exceptions to the rule are secretly imported through the blockade every year. From lowly tree-monger to the one man who controls just about the entire tourist industry in the Island, with an amassed fortune formidable enough to fund the luxurious Tannenbaum Tower Hotel and Casino Resort, and his personal collection of… What’s with the statues anyway? Jesus, if this is what he does with his surplus money, what on earth does Roger do with his? Oh, right. The cure. How about that, a Tannenbaum with too many trees and not enough gold, and a Knox with too much gold and not enough trees. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if Roger decided to get rid of the borscht just so Stan couldn’t get his hands on more of these… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
(—Roger fucking Knox. That little pissant.)
Roger and the exquisite Morgan Wednesday mingle about the place for a while before the square acknowledges them, giving Roger a firm begrudging handshake.
—Stan, ol’ buddy. How’s the family business? Towering pines, mighty oaks…
—I wouldn’t know, Roger. I’ve been busy keeping track of the one hundred and seventy two other businesses I own.
—I can tell. I see you’ve got more gold and shit.
—Yes, I do. How’s your family business? Doing well?
—Can’t complain. People have to breathe, don’t they?
—Did they ever find the old man?
Roger takes a moment, and a sip from his Scotch. He sees Morgan in the corner of his eye looking at a new piece.
—No, but we’re looking.
—I knew ol’ Timmy. He was a good man.
—I should know better than anyone, right?
He walks over to Morgan, standing by a golden young raven-haired maiden gently turning her head at a glance with a look of scorn, which now that you mention it looks an awful lot like…
—Say, this is a new one, isn’t it?
—Sure is. This one’s my pride and joy.
Roger and Morgan exchange a little knowing giggle at each other. Now Roger knows perfectly well Morgan has her occasional dalliances. But it amuses both of them a little inside that this crusty old man of the stump thinks he has a chance of putting the proverbial horns on Roger’s head, especially with such a piece of work that is Morgan. Roger goes over to the statue and touches it. Gently at first, a mere fingertip across the stomach, which eventually leads to the whole hand across the breasts and any other bumps that occur to him, which leads to some amusing wrinkled-up grimaces from the host.
—This is exquisite. Can I buy her off you?
—Er, that’s not really for sale…
Roger reaches into his pocket and rips out a check. He signs the bottom and gives it to him along with the pen.
—Write yourself a figure, however much you want. I simply must have her all to myself!
(—So you really want to know why I killed him? Over a dollar.)
About an hour later and a few more cocktails in, the square sinking in more putts and well off away from Mr. And Mrs. Roger Knox, the latter clicks on his third glass of Scotch and the party goes silent.
—I’d like to give a toast to our gracious host for this evening, Mr. Tannenbaum.
The obligatory hear hears and Roger has the floor again.
—Mr. Tannenbaum and I were just discussing his collection of, ah, fine art, which you all see he has just festooned his penthouse suite with. These are dipped in real gold, aren’t they Stan?
The square gives him a weak nod. The crowd’s eating it up. I’m willing to bet more than half of them are there only because Roger was invited too. True, he does throw such marvelous parties, but put him and Roger together and now you’ve got an entertaining party to boot.
—They say Tannenbaum has the Midas touch. Every joint he touches turns to gold in his pocket. Yes, the borscht has been good to Stanley Tannenbaum. Or has it?
He misses again. This could be good. He’s the ideal straight man in the Tannenbaum and Knox comedy duo, never misses a beat, if not a putt.
—Who do you think draws more water in this town? The guy who gives people a good time, or the guy who makes sure the good times don’t turn into bad ones? As everyone in this room is my witness, I propose a friendly gamble, between myself and Mr. Tannenbaum. The end of the fiscal year is coming up. The guy with the most yearly revenues wins.
—It was supposed to be a shoe-in that year.
The square takes a moment to blow a cloud of smoke through clenched teeth, the company man strokes his pencil mustache.
—Five million, six hundred fifty thousand, three hundred twenty dollars.
—And Mr. Knox?
—Five million, six hundred fifty thousand, three hundred twenty one!
—I take it, as with any bet, there were stakes you agreed to?
—Oh, you mean you never saw the commercial?
(I did. It went a little something like this:
(leisurely walking through
the penthouse suite of
Tannenbaum Tower among all
his gold and shit)
Hello, my name is Stanley
Tannenbaum. As the proprietor of
the largest assortment of Orange
Island attractions, including the
luxurious Tannenbaum Tower Hotel,
I rely on state-of-the-art
breathing apparatus to keep my
clientele safe. And that’s…
That’s why I’m so thankful for
(laying on the usual smarmy
charm, his endearing smile
keeping a half-smoked cigar
secure in his mouth)
That’s right. And not only are our
masks the safest, highest quality
on the market,
(takes out the cigar)
they’re also the most fashionable.
Go on, Mr. Tannenbaum, try one on.
(hesitates, glares at Roger,
takes in a deep silent breath
of regret and resignation,
puts on a mask)
That’s a good fella. So go ahead,
pick up a Knox mask, and stay in
Orange Island for one more day.
And remember, the rest of the
world gave up on us, but not Knox
Enterprises. And why is that?
(pats Stan on the back,
who nearly topples over)
Go on, Mr. Tannenbaum, tell ‘em.
(Muffled through the mask,
unclear if he’s weeping)
Because… Knox Enterprises is
people who love people.
—He humiliated me! I’ll never forgive him for that alone. And then a month ago he comes out with a new commercial.
—You mean the cure.
—He’s not stupid. He knows what it’ll do to my business!
—So, let me get this straight. Mr. Knox, whose livelihood depends a great deal on the gas just as much as yours, decided to make a product that would not only jeopardize his own company, but improve a barely populated, disaster-ridden urban area affordable only for the upper class and help hundreds of people at no apparent gain for himself… to spite you?
He takes a long drag from his cigar. It looks like he actually inhales it and breathes it out like a cigarette. He really shouldn’t do that. It’s how Ulysses S. Grant died, you know.
—Now you’re starting to see the gravity of the situation.
—But why kill Roger over that? Why throw away everything you have and go to prison?
—I don’t have anything anymore. He made sure of that.
My mistake, I was actually thinking King Edward VII. That’s how King Edward VII died.
—At least on the way to prison I’ll get to see the sun rise and breathe in some real air for once, not this goddamned recycled crap, not through one of his cheap goddamned masks.
Updike chuckles to himself, takes out a briefcase. He opens it and slides a photo over. It’s a picture of a sunrise. Not bad, a lot like the ones you and I see.
—Was that worth killing a man?
—Worth killing Roger, anyway. There’s not enough air in this town for the both of us to keep breathing.
—Alright. So Roger made you look like a fool in front of all your buddies and you took a gold-plated putter to his head.
—Well, not at first. I figure I have money, so I might as well get people to do it for me.
—A bunch of them. I got them mainly through his wife.
Technically he only got one of them through his wife, and it didn’t work out as well as he would have liked. Roger’s wife told this particular willing stooge to meet him at the usual spot, where she liked to sing and where they had very often met before to discuss business or various other things. She told him to wait until her set was done. This guy should have known better to believe her, but like a dope he waited, waited until one in the morning at least. Thank goodness this guy is fond of his espresso shots. After a while it looked like closing time, it seemed like the only ones left at the Note were the stooge, allegedly Morgan, Archie, and this new kid he picked up off the street to bus his tables. Why the kid’s around for so late is anyone’s guess. Maybe he’s dumb enough to expect a big tip from this guy. I expect he’ll be disappointed.
—I think we’re just about to close up, sir.
—Gosh, I had no idea. I thought you were putting the chairs up on the tables to air them out.
—But that’s… that doesn’t make any… why would they need to be…
—Don’t worry about it. I have business with Morgan.
—Oh. You mean Mrs. Wednesday, the singer? Gosh, she sure is swell, isn’t she?
—She can do a good Ella impression. Why don’t you get me another espresso? And see if one of the girls can bring it out instead of you.
—I think I’m the only one here…
—Forget it then.
The kid looks down at the table. The guy’s doodling on a napkin, what he usually does to pass the time while Morgan’s off doing whatever.
—Is, that a rabbit?
—Why is he in a… say, are you Julian Paisley?
—That depends. If I say yes are you going to keep talking to me?
—I mean, that looks like… that’s, those are your pictures on the wall, right?
—…I guess so.
—I, just wanted to say, I admire… I’m a fan of… I’m an artist myself, I don’t really plan on busing full-time… See, I used to live in Iowa, and I actually stowed away on a plane to…
—Alright, listen kid. Yes, those are my pictures on the walls. Yes, I’m Julian Paisley. World famous Julian goddamned Paisley. Millions in shallow fans and fake friends, and yet barely a cent to my name, so fat lot of good they’re all doing me, huh? Boring as they are, however, they’re all far more interesting than you at the moment, and also none of them bus my tables. So unless you’re going to impress me with something real profound and real fast, kindly take my cups away and fuck off.
I turn away from him after that, so I don’t really know for sure, but I’m assuming at that point he just kind of stands there dumbly for a moment with a sad, indignant little quivering lip, then does exactly what I suggested. I’ve got better things to worry about, and I’ll never see him again anyway, or so I thought at the time. In hindsight maybe I didn’t have to be that harsh. It would have at least stopped things from getting even worse than they already were. But how could I have known, for example, that he’d sulk around and eavesdrop in on my upcoming conversation with Morgan and overhear my phone number? It could be important, it might not be, but nonetheless if I hadn’t… but I’m getting ahead of myself. Finally, here she is.
—Where the hell were you? I had an appointment with Archie you know, he’s probably gone by now…
—He’s still here. And he can wait a little longer.
—Gee, I wonder what kept the both of you…
—Give me some credit, Jules, I’m a better singer than that. Anyway, how was Roger?
—A lot like the way I was when you did the same thing to me. I’m sure he’ll manage. Lord knows I did.
—Did he want to make up with you?
—More or less.
—Good. I told before you I’m leaving Roger. The truth is Roger’s leaving me. Leaving me everything.
—Yeah, you could say that. Willingly.
—I should have known… You said you were sorry about ruining our friendship.
—I know that. My plans depend on you two being friends again. That’s why I said you can still hate me. Precisely because I haven’t changed.
—I’m not souplining Roger. Certainly not for you. Goodbye Morgan.
I get up to leave but she grabs my hand and stops me.
—I don’t want you to soupline him. As it turns out he left a stipulation in his will. My portion of the estate is null and void unless there’s a body to identify. Not to mention he spends all day huffing on that yellow stuff.
—Sounds like a smart guy, that Roger. Probably thought his crazy wife might try to push him out a window and take his money or something absurd like that.
—You spend as much time together as you can, so he brings you into his confidence. And when the time is right, bang. It was Julian Paisley, in the study, with the heavy object of your choice to the head. Remember, if he’s reported missing the deal’s off, so you need an identifiable body to annul the marriage. It’s important.
—Even if you aren’t completely out of your mind, which you are, I’m not too keen on the whole “It was Julian Paisley” bit.
—No one will suspect you. No one even knows we’re talking right now, why do you think I waited so long to meet you here? And you’ve got nothing to gain from him anyway.
—You know perfectly well I would have a clear motive for doing what you’re suggesting, and it’s sitting in front of me right now, trying to convince me that I don’t.
—That’s why you have to chum up to him a little, don’t you? Take all the time you need.
—Jesus Christ, Morgan…
—Alright, how about this. If all goes right, you get a handsome fee out of it. If not, you get what you wanted all along anyway. A way out.
—To jail, huh?
—Better than nothing. The company will send someone out to investigate, and they’ll make an effort to deport you to the mainland if they catch you.
She throws a folder in front of me with the usual stuff.
—I’m working out a deal with him. He’ll be the one paying you. There’s some information and his address.
The Tannenbaum Tower, huh? Thank goodness she included the address, who knows how on earth I would have found the place…
—You know what, thank you very much for the offer, but I think I’ll go now and try to make some honest money.
I get up to leave again, snatching away my hands. This time she doesn’t need them. She points to my portfolio.
—What have you got in there now? Is it good enough to impress Archie this time? When’s your rent due?
Well, she does have a point. Might as well take the damn papers, never know when I might change my mind.
—Don’t worry. It’ll be better for the both of us when this is all over. You’re still at Orange 54600?
I nod to her as I notice something else. That thing on her hand, that wasn’t Roger’s…
—What the hell is that?
She snatches her hand away and covers it up with a glove, smiling like how she does.
—It’s from a secret admirer.
—Is that a fact? I bet I know his address.
I snatch the napkin with the rabbit on it before Morgan can take a look.
—You used to be the one thing in this world that made any sense to me. Now the best I can say about you is you might have a better offer than the other guys. Don’t forget to take off the rock before Roger gets home.
As it turns out I don’t fare much better with Archie, who is decidedly anti-rabbit this time around. Four hundred altogether, two hundred advance and the rest when… some edits are made, he says as he slides a file over to me with the photo array of the usual undesirables in Archie’s life. It looks like Morgan has a better deal after all. So the next day I head over, thanks to a generous contribution from the Mrs. Roger Knox estate which paid for my cab, to Tannenbaum Tower, otherwise known as the Washington Monument of Orange Island. The elevator ride up to the penthouse suite seems to go on forever, so much as if the elevator itself isn’t even moving. I could talk at least three more pages or so about my peculiar thoughts and sensations while on this elevator, but I’ll spare you the tedium and let some other writer do that for you.
The square is alone when I arrive. What little light there is reflects off all the gold and makes everything glow a dull yellow sheen. He puts down his putter and goes over to me when he sees me come inside. Jesus, does this guy do anything else but putt? You’d be hard pressed to think he owns one business, let alone as many as he does, all the putting he squeezes into his day. He crushes my hand and nearly yanks the whole thing off. Hard to say if he’s genuinely this glad to see me.
—Hey there, how are ya? Stan Tannenbaum, but of course you know me, right?
—Sure, I live on the Island, don’t I? Julian Paisley.
—Miss Wednesday told me all about you. I’ve ah, seen some of your pictures hanging up at the Note. Neat stuff.
The hell he has. He wouldn’t be caught dead at one of Roger’s favorite haunts. Not to mention it’s one of the few places he doesn’t own around here. Still, it might not be such a great idea to insult him just yet. Not overtly, at any rate.
—I saw that commercial you were in with Roger. Neat stuff.
He screws his whole face into an involuntary grimace that satisfies me for the moment, and then he leads me deeper into his suite.
—So you, ah, spoke with Miss Wednesday?
We walk over to his desk, right next to the Galatea a la Wednesday. First time I’ve seen it (if you don’t count my recent omniscience) and I definitely notice the resemblance. It’s my turn this time to make my face a Rembrandtesque. Didn’t skimp on the tits, did you buddy? An undeniable advantage of artistic license I suppose. Take out a man’s rib and you’re bound to wind up with slightly imperfect goods. Mold them yourself and steal a bit of fire from the gods and only your imagination’s the limit. From outside the window I can see a helicopter at rest.
—Say, am I interrupting one of your shipments?
—Oh, no. That’s mine. I bought it a few days ago. I’m planning something… well, I shouldn’t talk about it here, but let’s say it’s big. Let’s say I’m… taking a little vacation.
—A permanent one?
—You’re gonna bring your ah, friends here with you? What about her?
I point to the Wednesday de Milo and Stan shakes his head.
—Where I’m headed, I won’t even need her anymore.
He takes a cigar out of a box and emasculates it. He offers one to me and I refuse.
—Well, I just want to say how much I appreciate you doing this job for me… Listen, you seem like an alright fella, I’m going to let you in on a secret. I’ve actually been spending a lot of time with Morgan. She’s a very special girl. I proposed to her about a week ago, and she said yes.
—I mean, most other women seem to only love my money, but she really understands who I am, you know? And I know it’s not money she’s after, cause she has so much from Roger, right?
—It would strain credulity to think otherwise.
—Look, I’m getting to be an old man, what I need is to settle down with a nice girl like her. That’s why it’s so important you kill that prick of a husband for us, right?
—She, ah, didn’t happen to tell you how we’re acquainted, did she?
—No. How are you acquainted?
Well, many years ago, long before she willingly braved the sight of your awful figure disrobed and… I can’t even think about the possibility of it. Maybe some merciful exemplar of classical antiquity will rescue me from the agony of literalness. A satyr. A swarthy, rustic woodland demigod, wooly and filthy-hooved and horns already on his head. So that makes him used to the inconstant woodland nymphs he chases, only to have them turn into trees just before he can have his way with them. No, worse than that, he is a tree. An ancient, hulking, nearly-rotten, crusty old sequoia. Say it ain’t so, Miss Wednesday. A guy like this, you need the check filled out and signed and actually lying on the pillow next to you. Oh yes, now I remember why I suddenly turned to dendrophilia.
—Oh. Great. Well, you’re invited to the wedding.
—I can hardly wait. So, when is this thing going down?
—Very soon. Follow me.
He leads me to a small table nearby his desk, covered with a red velvet cloth. He pulls the cloth off in one grandiose motion, a magician who forgot to put all the dishes over it in the first place.
—What, no candlestick?
Not this time. Only a crowbar, a claw hammer, a frying pan, a fine first-edition copy of Finnegans Wake, sans blood, and a nine iron, titanium alloy, exquisitely gold-plated.
—I recommend the club.
—Nah, that’s alright, I know how fond you are of the seventy-ninth.
—…the seventy-ninth what?
I pick up the book and take a look at the jacket, then the first page. Hey, it really is signed by him. Could be worth something. I wouldn’t mind keeping it around in my collection if it wasn’t already a potential murder weapon. It would be in perfect condition for years. Never touch the damn thing.
—You like to read, huh?
—Nah. A book that big, that’s only good for killing people.
—Then you’d do better to put Ulysses on your table. Technically it’s a hundred pages longer.
Two gone, three to go. The hammer’s a little too small for my tastes. And the frying pan… well that’s just silly. Crowbar it is.
—Not a bad choice, Mr. Paisley. Now remember, we want to leave a body. Make him suffer if you want, but don’t fuck up his face too bad, alright?
—Sure. So do you have a cab ready for me? It’s a long way to Dyckman.
—No need. Right this way.
He walks over to a wall covered by a red velvet curtain and pulls the rope. The curtain parts to reveal… er, Roger’s front door. I’ve seen weirder things. In that case I should probably put my mask on. The door leads to a long corridor, dimly-lit with a thick purple fog, such little visibility I might as well be outside. I would have been in trouble if the corridor hadn’t been pretty much straight all the way throughout, although I stubbed myself on a couple errant knocked-over pieces of furniture. The long walk, broken up by occasional titubations though it was, gave me time to think. Things were occurring to me that should have stopped me from doing what I was about to do. Not to mention I had the creeping feeling I was on my way to kill the wrong Orange Island profiteer. I keep on anyhow. The square’s paying me, after all. And Roger’s already dead, so if he’s all of a sudden alive then I figure someone should definitely kill him now. Might as well be me. It’s not like I was the one who did it before. Was it me?
So we have a helicopter. Owned by lecherous old man. In direct competition with a soon-to-be-deceased profiteer. Who is looking to ruin the entire Orange Island infrastructure, including his own lucrative business. Whose wife is wearing a gigantic rock, bought by said lecherous old man. He’s leaving the island. He bought that helicopter recently and he’s going to leave on it. Not just leave, but probably film the whole thing, try his hand at making a commercial, make everyone aware of it. If anyone other than Roger had enough power or influence to directly break the blockade and simultaneously give the government the finger like so, it would be the square. Roger was about to ruin him with the borscht cure, but he’s going to ruin Roger before he gets his chance. And with the square gone, none of the bigwigs would have any reason to come to the island, let alone buy any of Roger’s masks. No one left but bums and criminals and general fuck-ups for Roger to cure, not nearly as much potential for photo opportunities as it would have been for the more well-off clientele. But that’s not all. Roger could have at least had enough of it for he and Morgan to huff off of for a good many years to live a peaceful, if purple, life in Dyckman. But he’s taking Morgan away from him too, he’s ruining him completely. But no, that’s only what he thinks he’s doing. No way in hell he convinced Morgan to go with him on his own, she must have her own reasons for hopping along for the ride. So she’s finally done it, after all this time. She’s finally…
The doors to Roger’s bedroom smack me in the face and I fall right on my ass. Thankfully my mask stayed on. I get to my feet, stretch out my hands through the purple and feel for the knobs. I let myself in, assuming I had knocked for him well enough.
—Jules, that you?
He doesn’t even get up and look at me, just stays hunched over the decanter as usual. The place is even more of a mess than I remember. Smells like vomit too, and I may have stepped in some, but I don’t look down at the floor, I keep walking and keep my eye on Roger, who doesn’t on me.
—Oh, good… I wanted to thank you… It was very considerate of you to visit…
—I think I’m going to enjoy your visits from now on… They stay away from me when you’re around.
—People in the TVs. People with the black suits. People who love people.
I take a glance to my side, where that big wall of TVs rests. Some of them are broken.
—What are you talking about, Roger?
—They’ve wanted to get rid of me since the beginning. They know what I did to get where I am now. I can’t hear them when I’m passed out…
Who now? And what did you? To get where now? A shame I have a job to do, or that I don’t feel like asking Roger questions anyway.
—Don’t worry about it, I’m here now. I’m going to make it all better.
I remember saying something stupid like that, and just barely raising the crowbar high above my head. A few moments later Roger’s head is somewhere on the table, muddled together with the broken Scotch decanter into the worst old-fashioned I’ve ever seen. Not to mention a surprising lack of his blood on my suit. Good for me, it’s white and it’s the only good one I have.
—Well, if it’s all the same to you, I’m fixing myself a Bloody Mary.
Bloody objects in hand, Mary and crowbar both, I take my leave of Roger’s room, back to the ongoing investigation. I’m not too worried, I’m not the one who killed Roger, after all. I would have definitely remembered something like that, and I never would have done it the way I just did. Not sure why I did it that way, now that you ask me.
—What are you doing in there? That is a restricted area!
—Just fixing myself a Bloody Mary. By the way, I just killed him. Roger, I mean. So you can wrap this all up now, case closed.
I show them the telltale crowbar, and point it in the square’s direction.
—Oh yeah, he also paid me to do it. You should arrest him, too. I mean, if he wants to go to jail too, might as well…
Both of them stare at me, arms folded and frowning.
—Did I ah, do something wrong?
I hear a leaky faucet behind me, and turn to face Roger, in his yellow suit (which is just about turning into his red one at this point), doing to his own head what a few king’s horses and men are famous for not being any good at. Either that or I didn’t beat nearly enough hell out of him as I would have liked. Or maybe I did the wrong one? I remember he was wearing his blue suit.
—Don’t listen to him! I’m not dead! I mean, he knocked me around pretty good, but I’m okay. I think I can put myself back together.
He takes a snowball full of brains and stuffs them back in his head. Suddenly my drink doesn’t look so good. At least it tastes better. The square chomps on his cigar and points at the two of us, both making a mess on the floor, Roger by way of his head, and me by what was his head on the crowbar.
—See? That’s what it was like at first! No matter what, the fucker could never get himself killed properly!
—Well, gee… I’m sorry, I guess. Does this mean you’re not paying me?
Well, this is embarrassing. I can’t even maybe not after all kill a man without mucking it all up. I put the bloody crowbar aside and leave the room, let someone better than me try their hand. At this point I’m too broke and way too far from my place to take a cab, so I might as well sit in the waiting room with the other oh wait, almost forgot.
—Say, do you have any celery?
I would later regret listening to the company man and going down to stay in the detention foyer. Not much to do but stare at the front doors and at Casabianca, who stares right back at you like one of those Pacific Island giant head statues. Meanwhile the kid keeps on sniveling and making the hack fidget around, so it’s only a matter of time before a conversation starts. At least the beat keeps quiet. At least there’s a stalk in my drink.
—I’m sorry, mama… I should have listened! I shouldn’t have come here!
—Ah, wouldja shut up already, you whiny brat?
—It’s the whole town, the town is wicked, no place for someone like me! No sir! Not for me!
—The hell’re you going on about, kid?
—It’s just like mama said. It was the Jews! They released the gas into the town! It’s all part of their plan to take over the world!
—Christ, you all hear this nutty fuck?
It’s always the Jews, isn’t it? Funny how they have enough power and resourcefulness to establish sophisticated worldwide conspiracies, and yet not enough of either to keep their plans secret from those wading at the shallowmost end of the gene pool. As much as I’m dreading to join in, I can’t sit back and listen to them bandy about gross misinformation. I put down my drink and attempt to balance the manic discourse with some level-headed rationality.
—It wasn’t the Jews.
—Really. Who then, mister expert, huh?
—You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.
—Told you so.
—Ah, fuck yourself.
—No, really. Big, human-sized rabbits. They live underground now, but there was a time, long ago, when humans and rabbits lived in harmony. But discord grew between the two races. The humans were angry because all the rabbits ever did was eat vegetables and fuck. Day in, day out, nibble, fuck, nibble, fuck, nibble, fuck, nibble. Soon there were too many rabbits and not enough vegetables for humans to survive, so they did what they had to do: They declared war on rabbitkind and overpowered them with their advanced weapons. Some say they laced the bullets with myxomatosis. The humans then forced the surviving rabbits into the lower levels of the earth. For a while humans lived in peace, and the rabbits were an unpleasant memory. But the rabbits never forgot the atrocities the humans committed upon them, and they vowed revenge. And so the top rabbit scientists devised a secret weapon that would ruin human civilization. Just as the humans regarded the rabbits as freaks, so this secret weapon would transform them into the very freaks they feared and despised. It would make them lose their minds one by one, make them see things that aren’t there, believe things that aren’t true. Their plan is, when they have released it in every major city, made every single place on earth unlivable for any decent human being, all the liars, thieves, and murderers will inhabit these cities and kill each other off, each one trying to one-up the next guy. And when there’s only one guy left in all the world, the reigning king of all assholes, standing atop the tallest building on earth, surveying his kingdom and finding no one left to conquer, the rabbits will overpower him with their strength in numbers and end the human dynasty once and for all. At least that’s what I heard, anyway.
—Ah, piss off, will you? You both are a buncha fuckin loonies. That’s some crazy… You said they like to fuck?
Meanwhile, may wisdom be the flaxen breath of a silken promenade, when the dragons dance all throughout the virtuous monarchy permeates the library underneath that heavy paradigm. Defensive, defensive, drowning down between the legs of the spidery morning dew, for that is the one true hiatus. But what is a pile of secrets, when the corporate rust sucks in the death of the weald around the fountain? Too true, oh too very true.
That was the closest thing resembling a complete English sentence spoken by normal people, let alone the most comprehensible statement the beat has made to Updike thus far, in the span of about forty-five minutes, among a relentless barrage of deliberately cluttered syntax, impromptu vocabulary and long stretches of onomatopoeia. He’s going to need another carrot for this one.
—Right. Never mind the investigation for just a moment. I’m going to ask you a very simple question, and you just give me a coherent answer. Okay? Here goes. What is your favorite color?
He thinks about his reply with great care, then takes in a deep breath, like he’s smelling a fine wine.
—The sapphire of the afternoon, in which fly the bone-canaries clucking bare mandibles in Latin tongue sing qua qua qua.
Some level-headed rationality is needed in the proceedings, so naturally it’s my turn again. He offers me another one of his carrots, apparently forgetting I didn’t want one the first time either, and then sets it down on the table by his side, as if maybe I’ll change my mind.
—So, Mr. Paisley. I’m from out of town. A real bitch to get through the blockade just to come here, I must say. I have to admit, I may not be privy to some of the more quaint customs you people have around here. Like this “soup line” business. Soup lines, you ever hear of those?
—Well, I may be a bit rough on my history, but I think soup lines were used during the Depression to alleviate hunger brought about by rampant unemployment due to a severe economic downturn.
He frowns and strokes his mustache, most likely not the answer he was looking for. We take a moment to stare each other down, sitting still in our chairs on opposite ends of the table, and then we keep dancing.
—You’re a freelance artist, that right?
—So we established three hours ago.
—Is that your only occupation?
—I beg your pardon?
—Where are you living now?
—Clover Street Apartments.
—That’s on the Upper West Side? The unfashionable side?
—Yes, and yes.
—How much do you make as a freelance artist, if I may ask?
—You may not ask.
—Alright then, I changed my mind. I’m not asking.
—Maybe four hundred a month? Six if you’re lucky?
—So, seeing as how the minimum cost of housing alone in Orange Island, yes, even on the Upper West Side, runs up to at least eight or nine hundred a month, tell me, Mr. Paisley, how do you get by?
Another lull. I have to tell him now, don’t I? And he knew I was going to need that carrot after all. I let out a sigh of resignation and reach out my hand, in which he throws the layaway vegetable.
—Give me a minute, will you? It’s difficult for me, you know? I’ve been keeping it inside for so long…
—The truth will set you free.
—Alright then, here goes. Landscaping.
A real impressive frown this time. Definitely not the answer he was looking for.
—That’s right. I commute to that nice suburb where your mother lives, mow her lawn for five cents an hour and fuck her on the side.
I take a big Updikian bite of my carrot and talk back with my mouth full.
—Look, I didn’t want to tell you this way, but you insisted, so…
Soup lining, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s when you feed someone a big mouthful of borscht. Forgive me if I prefer to tell you over Updike at the moment. Let’s say, completely hypothetically of course, that Archie at the Note finds this hot guitar player by the name of Johnny Cosmo, but Cosmo decides to play on the West End of the Island at a hot jazz club called the Cabana Bop. What do you do when you’re Archie and you’re smart enough to know your business is hurting because people would rather hear this Cosmo cat, but too cheap to just pay him more than the other guy? Have someone soupline him, of course, someone like the beat, whom you can see now heading toward the Cabana Bop as I speak, with a gentle skip in his step and the faintest crack of a smile beneath his mask over the faint groan of a newborn nasty in the background. I may have heard his work once or twice in passing, some sort of crazy imitation Whitman fare but a little heavier on the sex and lighter on the nationalism. But the reason I know of him is, not only is he the best soupliner there is, he’ll do anyone for any price. He has to, he’s a bad artist. It sure as hell isn’t his pen that’s going to pay his way. And such is his purpose tonight at the Bop, not for poetry, but the deft jazz stylings of one Mr. Cosmo.
And the Bop’s popping, as usual. Never was one of my favorite places though. Forgive me if I sound like the ignorant Emperor of old Austria-Hungary, but the music here is just notes, too many and all over the place. Crowded with people as it is, with all the extra notes jumping and skipping around the floor like the ecstatic throng listening to them, a guy can hardly sit at a table and sip a cup of fine espresso. But I’m not even at this place right now anyway, the beat is. Even amid the heavy congestion of souls and soul, it’s not hard for him to find his mark at center stage, stepping forward to fill the room with an even bigger effluvium of notes. Then the number ends, the music pollution finally clears and all the gathered disciples of St. Vitus quit their dance, opting instead for wild applause. They’ve all been a great audience, Cosmo assures them, and the band’s gonna be right back after a short break.
Cosmo goes to the can, where the beat waits for him, leaning against the wall, heel tapping to a cadence in his head. He watches the young man all throughout his business, all the way up to the most uncomfortable hand-washing session he’s ever had. Cosmo then makes his first big mistake and turns around to acknowledge the beat. Poor guy, he should have just assumed he was a queer and paid him no mind. Too late now.
—Er, hi there. Can I help you with something?
—I saw your hands on fire, young disciple. Looks like the spirit avoided the tongue and gave them the Pentecostal word instead. I hear, am enlightened, and will spread unto all nations this fine bit of glossolalia.
—Oh, uh, thanks man.
Cosmo attempts to shake his hand (the dope), but the beat keeps staring and smiling, his hands craftily behind his back. What this guy is about to find out the hard way is, never talk to an artist worse than you are. A bad artist only truly cares about himself, so if one supposes to take an interest in you all it means is he’s out to soupline your loving ass.
—I’m about to head back. If you liked what you heard, there’s plenty more to come.
—Well and good, friend. I yearn for the mystical, platonic, astral and atomic level of perception where such a grand event could be witnessed.
Cosmo peels himself away and beats it to the stage, but the beat beats him to it. Seconds after his attempt at egress Cosmo feels a sharp jab stab his cheek, and as he staggers to the floor he can feel blood come out. But there was no way, a quiet thought thinks to Cosmo amid the considerably louder thoughts of fight or flight. He had been standing there when I left, arms behind his back. There he is yet, the beat against the wall, both arms behind his back, so it must have been a third arm that assaulted Cosmo. And sure enough there it is, a sinewy appendage slithering along the beat’s head, fastened on a pivot joint that moves around underneath his skin. The weird arm dangles from his forehead, its three long talons grasping a rusty, bloody claw hammer. He lifts up his shirt and opens up his stomach, then the weird arm gently places the hammer in between the rows of teeth protruding from his abdomen. The teeth retract and the stomach mouth closes shut and conceals the hammer. Huh, so that’s how he got it past the frisker at the door.
Now he notices Cosmo’s whimpering and cries for help and remembers he’s here to soupline, not leave a body lying around. There’s blood all over the place, but so long as no one knows where it bled from no one will care. Seconds later the beat leaves the can, with a slight skip in his step and faint smile on his face, as if there isn’t any poor young guitarman with his face buried in three talons of his weird arm, dragging him along the halls of the Bop behind him, slamming his head against the walls from time to time into a kind of submission. He heads toward the kitchen, otherwise known as the “garbage dump” of any prospective soupliner, the kitchen staff, here at the Bop the same as just about any joint on the Island, consistently either poor enough to sympathize with a good old-fashioned soupline when they see one (or at least poor enough to accept a little something for their trouble and their silence, making it customary for soupliners to ask for “tip money” from their employers in advance) or just plain stupid enough to not notice or care about what’s going on anyway. The beat, sadly, has to relinquish his tip money this time, but only because of the novelty of his weird arm in the back of his head, not to mention the pots and pans it knocks around while restraining Cosmo as he tries to free himself. A strange sight to be sure, but upon receipt of the usual gratuity, probably not the strangest thing he’s seen on the Island, so tells the head cook to himself as he goes back to work.
And finally the beat reaches the back door, his quarry secure and in weird sinewy hand. He throws the switch and waits for the first door to open amid the sirens and flashing lights as he puts on a mask he borrows from the cook in exchange for the tip. It’s hard not to imagine how many lives could be saved if the city closed down each and every one of these hermetically-sealed back doors to the kitchen area. It’ll never happen though, those doors are the only way the owners can keep the clientele from intermingling with the help. And so, preserving the sanctity of human life falters against preserving the purity of the great Orange Island foyer. Besides, where else is a guy going to soupline someone?
Mask on, the first door shut behind him and the second creeping open, there’s nothing left for the beat to do but watch. Here we go. First the usual choking spasms, then the purple showing up beneath the skin as he breathes in and out in hundreds of varicose veins. Cosmo arches back, almost supine, as his arms and legs crack and divide into about ten or so arachnoid limbs, allowing an awkward crab-walk, yet nonetheless a notable advantage of increased ambulatory capabilities (compared to his fellow mutated brethren at any rate), which would be sure to help him in his future escapes from peripatetic military predators. Meanwhile the typical growth of way too many eyeballs, a couple sets of toothy mouths somewhere around where the back of his head used to be, and what’s this, a tail? Not a tail so much as what looks like a furry bridal veil. So it looks like this particular mutation isn’t without its surfeit of vestigials after all. No one ever said the borscht adheres to Darwinism. If it wasn’t so dangerous to stick around and watch, it could sometimes be interesting to see the initial metamorphosis, different for each victim each time. I wonder if there’s a correlation between a person’s transformation and their personality, or body type, or general health or lifestyle maybe. Do heavier people grow tentacles, do Type A personalities get scales, and so on? In a strange way it can be a small comfort to us all, knowing that we’re not all the same, that deep down inside each and every one of us is a unique and beautiful nasty.
The Cosmo thing shrieks and crab-walks into the alley, and the beat nods and heads through the back door, back out the proper entrance, and on his way to the Note to collect. Sadly, the nasty thing doesn’t have much longer left to live. About five minutes after the beat shoved him outside, his first and last mistake was his choice in a first victim, a guy in a shabby white suit, looks like it’s the only one he’s got. He’s on his way to the Note too, attempting to collect on some reactionary rabbit-driven work. An ornery one, this new nasty, so he plugs him with all six bullets of his revolver. Better safe than sorry. Hopefully he won’t run into any more on the way to Archie. And meanwhile somewhere in the Midwest a weary housewife wakes up and realizes something’s happened to her Johnny, somewhere in that wicked city to the East, and that she really should have done a better job persuading him not to take that bus a year ago, not to hop on that cargo plane that was supposed to never even land on Orange Island in the first place (officially, of course). She’ll be the only one to mourn poor Cosmo tonight, the Island sure isn’t going to pick up any slack. More likely than not, back at the Bop they’ll actually assume he got souplined, and correctly at that. The most they’ll do is shrug and say that’s a shame, he was a hot player. Like I said, it’s the good ones that go first.
Meanwhile the beat’s in Archie’s office, giving him a taste of his verse, telling him the one about the guitar player who grew a few spider legs and a furry tail.
—I dig your poems.
—And I dig your taste in poems.
—Morgan Wednesday’s pretty hot at this joint. After your set, make sure you do a good job introducing her. Make it nice and poetic.
—Book me, sir, and you shall possess the origin of all poems.
As he leaves the office, he bumps into that man with the shabby white suit, already upset over an earlier business proposition, only to be even more upset by an upcoming rejection.
—Ah, if it isn’t the Hanged Man before me, swinging along between heaven and earth.
—It’s you hanging on the walls, is it not?
One thing a soupliner never does is acknowledge another fellow soupliner. It’s like calling someone a bad artist. Bad manners is what it is. We both know we didn’t get to where we are now because of any sort of passing semblance of talent, and for either of us to vocalize it out loud is the same thing as rightly accusing the other of pushing some anonymous saps through some open kitchen doors from time to time. The beat’s a different bad artist altogether, however. It’s hard to say if this guy actually enjoys spouting that beatific noise or if it’s just a night job to support his passion for professional souplining. Well, he may not care about his art, but I do mine. The insult isn’t lost on me, and I respond in kind.
—Looking forward to your set, buddy.
Our mutual disdain for each other at this point isn’t so loud I can’t hear Morgan starting her own set before I walk into Archie’s office…
Holding hands at midnight, ‘neath a starry sky.
Nice work if you can get it, and you can get it if you try…
Wait, wasn’t she done with her set then? I could have sworn it was pretty late at night…
Anyway. Souplining in a nutshell, boys and girls. Sure I know what it is. Sure I’ve done it a few times. But admit to this dandy I’m a bad artist? I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction.
—Get Casabianca up here.
—The boy, stood on, the…
—Well that’s a shame, Mr. Paisley, I didn’t want to resort to brute force, but obviously you’re not telling me something.
Seconds later the hulking Samoan and some dapper company arrive, lugging an ebony chest between them, and drop the thing next to Updike. Three padlocks fasten shut whatever the ornery wriggling thing inside it is, and it rattles the whole thing around regardless. On the broad side, one word in great gilded Futura: WEDNESDAY. What’s this? Wednesday could mean a lot of things. The third day of the week, named in honor of the chief deity of the ancient Norsemen. Or it could mean the company man knows perfectly well what souplining is, and only wants you to admit you know it too, a bothersome part of me blurts out, most unwelcome. I pay it no mind.
He enters the combination and removes the first lock. The second lock follows soon after, and I still have no ideas. Can’t ask him for another carrot, I never finished the last one (I don’t really want one anyway, not even as a diversionary pretense). But there’s no way he could have, no one could possibly have, I made sure, only Roger and I, is that what this is about? What’s all this to Knox Ent.? She’s just, and the first number spins round and goes click, and the company man spins the dial widdershins and clicks it again. The last number clicks just before he takes the lock off and then I get it. No reason not to give him what he asked for, if not what he wants.
He raises an eyebrow, puts down the lock and leaves WEDNESDAY be.
—You seem to be suggesting that since I’m a career artist with questionable ability and success, there is a compensatory act of an unsavory nature that I perform to persist my living arrangements.
—Unfortunately I don’t know what you think such an act might be, and if I did I wouldn’t tell you.
He reaches for WEDNESDAY again.
—So my advice to you is, if you really want to know, maybe you should try asking another unsuccessful artist, and make sure it’s one who likes to talk a lot more than I do.
—So fundraising wasn’t going so well, alrite? I hooked up with this guy who was into souplining.
—Yeah. It’s when you feed someone a great big mouthful of borscht.
The hack helpfully demonstrates by ripping out a pantomime tube from his invisible mask, hacking and gasping for breath as he transforms into unseen hideous horrors.
The company man frowns, strokes his mustache and reaches for another carrot. Well that was easy.
And there’s the hack now, at the Note where we left him, licking his wounds as well as the bottoms of more than a few shotglasses. Somewhere around that fucking ingrate, I’ll show him, etc., and the beat saunters up to his side, right after introducing Morgan and making it nice and poetic at that.
—I greet you at the beginning of my great career, sir.
The hack musters up what little effort his alcoholic stupor will allow him and offers to shake his hand.
—Jackie Miller. You’re that poet guy, right? I dug your words.
—The tendency to dig honeyed words is not only natural, but essential.
The beat silently denies the hack’s gesture of goodwill. Goodness, are we waiting behind another soupline, and so soon after he fed the last unfortunate Orange Island soul? Probably not, not in the very establishment of the man who paid him for the last job. Besides, who around here would be willing to waste perfectly good money just to have someone kick this guy out to the curb? Something tells me I shouldn’t put it past him, though. The beat, I mean. The hack catches Roger and company out of the corner of his eye and slams his glass down on the bar.
—You seem to be stricken by a bout of the old quotidian.
—Look at those smarmy cocksuckers! Giggling away like a buncha fucking… You know what I’d like to do, I get my hands on him?
—It is impossible to know the creaky workings of another soul as much as it is to, as the dusty Attics of old would have it, know thyself.
—Right. Well, anyway, I’ll tell you what I’d do. Why, I would… ever see The Passion of Joan of Arc?
—It’s an old French film. No sound or anything. Powerful stuff. Sort of like Night and Fog except only one person gets burned to death, if you can dig it. But I can’t worry about that shit, you know? I’ve got a film of my own to finish. I’m… You know what? Fine! It’s pornography! I admit it! I really get the fuck off on this premise! And why not?! I mean, why can’t a fuck movie also be aesthetically pleasing? Why can’t a guy be reminded of the sublime, dreamlike imagery of Cocteau when they’re getting off?
—So you find yourself in the desert where each grain of sand is a mediocre mind, and you seek succor.
The beat smiles, takes the bottle and pours another drink for the hack, putting his other arm around his shoulder and patting him on the back.
—You are passionate, young disciple. Take refuge under the wing beatific, together we will summon manna from heaven.
—Money from heaven?
From that moment on began the greatest humanitarian partnership ever to come out of hunger epidemic of Orange Island. Between that last shot of whiskey and up until very recent events, the beat and the hack served over fifty of the most important residents of and visitors to the island, usually at the behest of their direct competitors who very charitably noted the lack of borscht in their diet. The hack would line up the first poor rich sap into the front of the soupline, setting up a bogus meeting under the pretense that the former wished to have a given latter bankroll a certain independent film venture (or maybe not so bogus after all. According to the plan, he had no need to attempt anything even minutely resembling marketability, and in fact the more outrageously he pitched himself the better, but given the highly improbable freak occurrence of one of them actually saying yes I’m sure he would have tried to call off the beat and go along with the deal himself). The mark, after rightfully vacating the premises in a huff upon realizing the venture in question was little more than a titty flick on a cardboard deserted island, would, by so indulging in righteous indignation over his lost dignity, thereby neglect his personal safety, leaving the beat free to sneak up beside him and pull out a few poorly maintained tubes on his mask. Then the beat would go to the poor, recently nastied fellow’s direct competitor and negotiate a proper soupliner’s fee. Upon immediate receipt of payment, the beat signals the hack to meet said fellow and help himself to a few of his mask tubes, sending him to the alleys and sewers where his former rival and the rest of the nasties wait for him. Almost decimating the Orange Island population in this way got them a few hundred thousand dollars split down the middle, as well as enough put aside for an impromptu stay in the Tannenbaum Tower, but sadly, the hack halfheartedly laments after tossing the last bill into the pile of money in the middle of the suite floor, still not quite enough to cover the film. The beat reaches into a pocket and tosses the latter a small glass vial, stopping a hazy purple mist within, the very same sort of glass vial the hack must have seen and carelessly stepped on in an alleyway at least once or twice in his life, being as he was a complete shitheel like everyone else.
—A glimpse of the pure beatific, my friend. A reward from the heavens above for a job well done.
That night, in suite 6130 of the Tannenbaum Tower, from the moment both pressed their lips against the tiny vials and inhaled, until about three hours or so afterward, chaos reigned. Multiple visions of apotheosis and damnation alike were had, some of them spanning centuries at a time. Meanwhile furniture was upturned, chairs were broken, mirrors were shattered, walls were graffitied with various and sometimes unidentified substances. Room service was ordered.
—And some baklava. You like baklava? I always wanted to try it, ah what the hell let’s go for it…
You already know what happens to a fellow with a broken mask, broken one way or another of course. Small traces of the borscht, on the other hand, only cause mild mutations, hallucinations, and gradual dementia, no big deal. If the blockade made it difficult to import actual illegal contraband, the readily available supply of borscht all but effectively ended the drug trade on the island. Any loser can suck in a drop of Orange Island air and get a cheap thrill, completely free. They even changed the meaning of a popular colloquialism for it: Russian Roulette. Get it? Russian?
And here are two such losers who are even now wrapping up a little game of Roulette, the hack lying on the floor of 6130, strung out on a cornucopia of international junk food as much as the borscht, washing it all down with some brand of champagne from some year he never bothered to inquire about, lazily stipulating to the hotel attendant that it only be “expensive,” and the beat calmly sitting cross-legged beside his compatriot, his two birth arms folded in contemplation as his borscht-given arm spoons mouthfuls of… huh.
Borscht. He’s eating borscht.
Well, I have to say. That is, thus far, the strangest thing I’ve ever seen in this town.
If the hack doesn’t bat an eye at his comrade’s extra appendage, not to mention his preferred choice of soup amid an infinite set of other possibilities, it’s because his own little mutation starts to manifest. He reaches for and grabs a bonbon and, fully expecting that the bonbon will eventually enter his mouth, is instead met by five fingers on an empty hand. After a couple more tries, where he makes a conscious effort to see and feel himself picking up the bonbon, only to find his hand empty once again, he rules out the possibility that he’s merely imagining himself picking up the confections in question, and further inspects his hands. There on his palms he finds a common side effect of his first foray into recreational borscht consumption, the first of many of a given borscht huffer’s new friends. Two extra mouths, one rapacious maw for each palm, greet the hack as he stretches out his hands. And the funny thing is, he tells himself, I can actually taste all those bonbons. It may be tempting to look down your nose at them, or indeed at any unfortunate Roulette player down on his luck, but in a way we’re all playing Roulette here. No matter how diligently you take care of your mask, some borscht will always get past you. We’re all slowly losing our minds here. You have to be out of your mind in the first place to live in a town like this.
—I like you, you know that? We make a good team, you and I. We understand art. We know what it’s like to move people, emotionally. Can I suck your cock?
The beat comes down, lifts himself off the floor and raises a single eyebrow at him.
—Ah, shit. Did I just ask you if I could suck your cock? Ah, Jesus, it’s these, it’s, I mean otherwise I wouldn’t, it’s this stuff, it’s the air I sucked in, and mixed up with this, with all this, I mean I’d never ask anyone unless I… you know what I mean, right?
He gets no reassurance from the beat, who only manages to raise his eyebrow even higher.
—Well… ah, jeez… Listen, don’t, I mean not unless, I mean if you want to that’s fine, but if not, then just, you know, pretend I didn’t say anything…
The hack shoves a handful of baklava in his mouth, and then grabs two more handfuls for his other mouths.
—It’s just I have a reputation, you know… I’m an auteur…
The beat rises, kneels behind him and places two hands on his shoulders, as the third reaches into his belly and pulls out the hammer. Queer panic? Hard to say if the hack even is queer, all the muttering and baklava mush in his mouths, not to mention the borscht he just came down from. If anything I’d call it maudlin-panic.
—Fear not, young disciple. All your earthly woes will end soon…
—Yeah, you’re right. When you and I get Roger Knox, we’ll be set for life. There’s gotta be people in this town who want him dead. Tannenbaum, for sure.
Maybe not quite what he meant by earthly woes, but the beat rolls with it anyhow.
—It would be a small task indeed to visit this Tannenbaum and have him procure our services. Just in time for this up and coming masque ball.
The extra arm raises the hammer about four feet above the hack, ready to bring it down on his head.
—Yeah, and it’s a good thing we’re working together. You’d never be able to get inside Roger’s place yourself.
Mid-comedown, the hammer freezes in place. Well, fuck. When you’re right you’re right.
—But Roger knows me, so I can definitely get in there, and I can probably bring you along as well. We can get close to him together, and kablam!
With a barely audible grumble, the beat puts the clandestine weapon back in his stomach cavity and retracts his third arm.
—Hey, do you guys want to question me at all?
The hack and the company man notice the kid poking his head through the door. To be fair, I guess I forgot he was around too.
—We’ll call you when we need you.
—Oh. Okay… It’s just been a while though. And you sure have been with the others a long time.
—We’ll call you when we need you.
—I was a little shook up before, but I’m calmer now. And I’ve got some good testimony too! I think you’ll really like it…
—We’ll call you when… Fuck Almighty, will someone please just take some statements from him, get him out of my hair?
Another dapper man leads the kid away from the main proceedings, down the hall and toward the former office of Knox the Senior, amid his old stuffed hunting trophies, stuffed all along the room and casting shadows on the wall.
—Will it be okay if you do it and not the other guy, though? Will it still be admissible as evidence…
—Should be fine. Have a seat.
The kid sits in a chair with a stuffed lion directly behind it, its jaws bared and right forepaw held over his head.
—Are you going to check the windows before we start?
The kid points to a tiny streak of purple wafting along the floor that ambles along to the second company man, who waves it away and makes it disappear among the rest of the room’s recycled air.
—Is that bad? Should I get my mask…
—A little bit won’t hurt you. Now then. From the beginning.
—From the beginning… well… I was born eighteen years ago, in a small town in the middle of Kansas. My mom and pop ran a livestock feed store in town, and they kept the place running even during the Dust Bowl. Animals still have to eat, my pop would always say. I guess you could say I had a good life growing up back home, as good as any other kid my age had back then. I’d wake up extra early in the morning to open up the store and help my folks with some chores, then I’d go to school. I did alright, I mean I wasn’t the top in my class but I came home with good marks, good enough for my folks anyway. I played football and track for a while, and I was decent at it. Not good enough to go pro, but I did make it to the varsity team senior year. I guess if there’s one thing I miss about leaving home, it’s the girl I left behind. She was something special, really something else, you know? I remember homecoming, she said her parents wouldn’t let her out that night because she was grounded, but she came out that night to see me marching out on the field, and then that night we went out to the big bonfire, and she was cold so I let her wear my letterman jacket. We snuck out onto the football field later that night, and we just lied there on the grass, totally alone, staring up at the stars, her head resting on my belly. We must have been holding hands for hours that night, and then I screwed up the courage to ask her if maybe I could steal a kiss from her…
—No, I mean… ugh, I meant from the beginning of why you think you killed Mr. Knox.
—Oh. Er, sorry…
The company man lets out a sigh, then produces a large chest and slams it on a nearby table. A few moments later he has an analog reel-to-reel recording device set up and places a microphone right in front of the kid.
—Tell you what, I’m going to step out for a minute and see if my boss needs anything. Do me a favor and just keep telling your story, but into the mic, okay? We’ll pick it up on tape and go from there.
—Oh, alright. I mean, if that makes it easier for you, to conduct your, ah, investigation, then of course…
As the company man hastily takes his leave, the kid hesitates for a moment before sliding his chair up to the microphone and gently tapping his finger on the tip. He receives no indication of approval, only the open jaws and protracted talons of the stuffed animal company before him, no less fierce in death than alive. He speaks into the microphone.
—So like I was saying before, life was good in Kansas, but somehow I got the feeling it all wasn’t really for me, you know? I felt like there was a great big world out there that I wasn’t seeing, that I would never get to see unless I skipped town then and there. So the principal gave me my diploma, I flipped my tassel to the other side and threw my hat up in the air. Next thing I knew I ran to my room, took out my piggy bank that had all the allowance my folks gave me that I saved up over the years and smashed it into pieces. I wrote a note to my girl saying I’d be going away for a while, but as soon as I made it in the world I’d send for her. From then on I knew exactly where I wanted to go: Orange Island. I read in the papers how a while ago, right after the war I think, the army closed off the whole city because of some kind of poison that overran the place, and no one could go in or out. That was all I knew back then, but it seemed like people all over wanted to go there. It just seemed like the place that was meant for me, you know? Full of danger and excitement and all that. Well, I was turning a new leaf, I was on my way to starting out a whole new life for myself, and I didn’t want to cut any corners, not then. If I could make it in a town like Orange Island, there was nothing I couldn’t do! So I bought a bus ticket and traveled all the way East. Turns out I had heard right, and no one could go in or out after all. I asked the bus driver how so many people got into town, and he told me about this place where the army planes would dock before flying around the island, and how some of them would land into the city. When I got there I saw a bunch of people in suits sneaking onto the cargo bays of the planes and helicopters. So I went to one of the pilots and I asked him how much it would be for passage to the island. He said it would cost me three thousand dollars! Well, I barely had a fifth of that for the bus, so there was no way I could afford that. For a moment I thought the whole trip was a complete bust, but then I guess the pilot noticed my expression and said maybe we could work something out. He told me he was a photographer, and he asked me what my shoe size was. I told him eleven and a half and I was about to untie my shoes when another pilot went up to him, smacked him across the head and told him to stop bothering the customers. I didn’t see what the big deal was in asking my shoe size, but I didn’t say anything. The second pilot said there was no room in his plane for stowaways, but he had a crate of potatoes that wasn’t quite full, maybe he could stick me in there. Before I left he said I would need a mask, so he gave a spare he had on hand in the cockpit. It looked like a tin can with some rubber straps, and it covered my nose and mouth but not the rest of my face. I wasn’t sure if it was going to do me much good, but as it turned out I still use it to this day, and it hasn’t let me down yet! So after that they pried open one of the crates, cut open a hole for me to breathe, and then put me inside and nailed the thing shut. I remember it was really dark for a while, and I remember jostling around for about three hours and then nothing. I think I was in there for about twenty-four hours, and I think I actually fell asleep in there for the night. I don’t think I ever got the chance to be afraid I’d never make it back out of the crate, because I actually woke up to someone prying it open again. As you can imagine they were more than a little surprised to find me along with their shipment of potatoes! So they pulled me out and told me to scram. I asked them if they could spare some food for me, since it had been a couple days since I had eaten last, but they were insistent. I was able to snag a potato along with my mask before one of the cooks grabbed my arm and dragged me to the back hydraulic door. I had a few seconds before the doors opened up to nibble on my potato, and let me tell you something, potatoes are much better cooked than they are raw, I found that out the hard way that day. Anyway the doors were opening so I had to put on my mask. I stepped out and caught my very first glimpse of Orange Island! I had never seen buildings so tall before, so many people dressed in the height of fashion, so much noise from so many cars rolling along, and the gas… they said it was poison, but it looked beautiful to me, hovering just above the street lights. It blocked quite a bit of the sun, so even in the daytime it made the city look dark, it had this strange effect like it was dark all around you but if you looked down you could see sunlight and shadows, and it also meant all the neon lights were on all day and night long. If you looked at it long enough sometimes it could make out shapes, like the clouds back in Kansas. When I left that restaurant I just stood at the corner at the end of the block and stared at one of the purple clouds, and I remember it kind of looking like a couple rabbits. And then I saw my first… well, I guess they call them nasties around here, don’t they? A freakish looking thing jumped out from an alley, it had these two eyes that just bugged out and sagged from the head down to the ground, and this sort of slimy thing underneath it moved the whole thing around by slithering forward and then dragging the rest of it along. I thought I was a goner then, but then some of the soldiers marching around ran up to it and shot it. I forgot the army was even there, I was staring at the clouds for so long, but I was thankful for them at that point. Right after that someone walked up to me. He was wearing a light blue shirt with flowers on it, and I couldn’t see his face because of the mask, well, to tell the truth I couldn’t really see anyone’s face out there, and it was kind of strange because everyone could see mine. I could tell he was drunk though, because he was staggering around and his speech was slurred through his mask. Oh, and he was carrying a bottle of alcohol, and drinking out of it, so there was that too. He said a lot of filthy things to me, this strange person, and normally I would never repeat such things out loud, my folks taught me not to waste the Lord’s gift of speech with idle profanity. But since this is an official investigation I suppose I’ll repeat them just this one time, I mean so you can have an accurate record and all. So he goes up to me and says something like hey, you, you over there! Spare any change? I need to get my dick wet tonight! I was about to tell him all I had left from the trip was a twenty dollar bill, and I reached for my wallet and pulled the bill out to show him, but then he snatched it right out of my fingers! That’ll do, he said. I tried to tell him that was all I had, and could he please give it back to me, but he didn’t hear me, he undid one of the tubes on his mask, blocked it with his hand, and then really quickly poured some of the alcohol down the tube. He fastened the tube shut, and then said, I don’t remember exactly, something like, fucking put me on turnaround! Goddamned gold-toothed stingy fucking kites! And I’m not sure what he was so angry at kites for, and at that point he was saying a lot more filthy things and to be honest I thought he was just a very strange and sad man, so I wanted to leave him alone. As I left he turned to me and said, what about you? You’re kind of cute, wanna suck my cock? My folks warned me about these kinds of people. Let’s just say that when they ask about their cocks they definitely don’t mean chickens. Well, that’s when I knew I had to get as far away from him as possible, so I ran for the next place that was opening up its doors. As he was chasing after me, and just before the doors shut on him, I could hear his last words to me, something like, I’ll make your dick stand up! I’ll fuck you all the way up to your prostate! Don’t walk away from me, I’m an otter! Come back, you beautiful boy… I don’t know what he meant when he said he was an otter though. Some people just don’t grow up the right way, I guess, they don’t get the right parental guidance and they end up very very disturbed. So as it turned out the place I stumbled into was called the Purple Note, and as it just so happened they needed a busboy. I told them I couldn’t drive a bus, and then they asked me if I minded being on my feet and carrying heavy loads. Well, heck, I was on my feet all the time back at my folks’ feed store, and some of those bags of feed were fifty pounds at least. So they said you’re hired. I thought it would be hard to get on my own two feet when I got there, and there I was, hired after the first fifteen minutes of being there! It was simple work, mostly, just picking up empty glasses, a little tidying up, a little dishwashing, no big deal. And it was while I worked at the Note that I realized exactly what I wanted to do. I looked at the walls one day, and there they were, these just… amazing pictures hanging up all over the place. Pictures of the nasties, hundreds of them, clearer and more terrifying than if I had seen them all for real out in the street. And scenes of the city, of my city, with gusts of purple flowing through them. Right then and there I would have given anything to see the city the way whoever drew those pictures saw it, the shapes in the gas, the people in masks bustling around, the nasties crawling around the alleys and sewers. And in ink, in black and white, just like if you were watching it on one of those TVs. Right then I knew I wanted to be an artist. Just like my favorite artist, the man who signs his name on those pictures… Julian Paisley, whoever he is. So after work I would go back to my place and I’d… Say, aren’t the wheels on that thing supposed to be turning? Is it… I don’t think it’s turned on. It’s, oh cheese and crackers, it’s not on… Sir? I think we have to record it over again… sir? Anyone there?
No, there isn’t, the kid finds out when he pokes his head through the door of Mr. Knox’s old office. Good thing he brought his mask along, too, because one of those great big purple clouds he’s so fond of watching is the only thing that does greet him when he opens the door. He quickly shuts it, puts the mask on and heads out for a look. Everyone’s packed up and left, as if the Dapper Men were never there, as if not even Roger was ever there. All the windows are busted open, and when he reaches the main foyer he sees the reinforced steel door swinging back and forth, warning lights flashing red, and no Casabianca standing before it. The kid walks through the swinging door and finds the rest of Roger’s former estate just as empty as the inside, save for a single man standing beside a cab. He shrugs and approaches the man.
—Excuse me, sir. You wouldn’t mind giving me a ride downtown, would you?
—I’ve been standing outside this house little over a week now. My last fare still hasn’t come back yet.
—A… a week?
—That’s right. Guy in a white suit, looked like shit. A week ago he went into that house, never came back. You didn’t happen to see him in there, did you?
—I’m not sure if I know him… But, if it’s been a week, then why do you… I mean, why not just look for another passenger?
—You kiddin’ me? The meter’s on. This guy owes me twenty-five hundred big ones in fare. I ain’t giving that up so easy. ‘Less you got three thousand on you.
—No, I’m afraid I don’t.
—Ah, then go piss off, will ya?
The kid had planned on hitching the cab to the Note, with just enough time to make it to the Note, but with that option not available to him he decides to foot it back home, figuring he’ll make it there by sundown. He does, and figures he’ll spend a couple more hours on his work before he goes to bed for the night, he’ll come up with an excuse for Archie tomorrow. What could he do, he was under investigation for a murder, after all.
And good Christ, look at this kid’s work. He’s using crayons. I would have guessed at the time he fancies himself a real de Kooning, if I didn’t already know that no de Koonings ever made it past the blockade, let alone to goddamned Kansas. Half of the drawings he has Scotch-taped to his wall are knock-offs of my drawings hanging at the Note, I can tell. The rest of them… what’s this? A picture of his family? I’ve seen better family portraits at a Kindergarten classroom, and there are no children on the Island. He fills in the indeterminate blob on the left that could very well be his father with a navy blue wax coating, draws an orange circle on the poor man’s head, and then takes a good hard look at his work. Hopefully this is the part where he realizes a couple things about himself and kicks the bucket. And I guess I’d be okay with either interpretation of that idiom, now that I think of it.
Listen, folks. Nothing good has ever come out of anyone who wants to be an artist. If you’re a lawyer, and you’ve been one for years, and yet it’s always been your dream to sing baritone in the opera, and one day you up and decide you want to throw caution to the wind and finally take a crack at that Mozart libretto? Keep practicing law, you’ll be happier. No, it only comes about from someone who has to do it. Not someone who thinks they have to do it, but someone who actually has no choice, because they are truly not good at anything else. There’s a desperation that corrodes such a man, who spends the sum of his life, if not failing over and over again, then constantly second guessing his scant successes. The possibility of reaching the final hours of your concluding days, and looking back on your entire life, when you were barely able to take care of yourself, as you denied yourself both the usual labors a man endures and the usual pleasures that reward it, only to come to the searing conclusion that a lifetime just walked right by you, and this was the very best you could do. That’s what drives a man to create, or should, anyway: The fear of a wasted life, the ultimate and inexorable pancake. To create, first you must suffer. And this bozo has never suffered a day in his whole… Who in the hell is he calling at this hour?
—Orange 54600, please.
—Erm… Is this, ah… is this Julian Paisley?
What is this?
Hey! What’s the big idea here?
—Um, my name is Wally, sir. I met you at the Purple Note… I’m the busboy there, remember?
—Perhaps. Then again lots of people bus my tables. What can I do for you?
—Well, remember when I was ah… telling you how much I admire your work? See, I’m aspiring to be an artist too, like you, actually…
—I see. Let me guess. You want me, a highly successful independent artist, to guide you in the ways of perfect artisanship.
I never said that. I never would say that.
—Well, gosh sir. That would be great. I mean, if it’s no trouble.
—No trouble at all. I have absolutely nothing better to do. I was in fact looking for an apprentice when you called.
I’m telling you, I never had this conversation with this kid. What in the Christ would I need an apprentice for, anyway?
—Well, golly! What can I say? Thank you sir!
—Don’t call me sir. Everyone I give a damn about calls me Jules.
Well. I probably would have said that. But not…
—Oh. Alright then, Jules. So when…
The buzzer rings and the kid scrambles to unclasp the bolts on his door. Some other guy doing a passable impression swaggers into the room. Nice suit, jackass.
—Say, nice place. Want to trade?
He’s wearing a mask, has to be. The likeness is stunning, but the smile is a dead giveaway. When was the last time I ever smiled, anyway?
—So, let’s see your stuff. You did want the advice of a highly successful independent artist, right?
The kid scrapes some papers off his desk and flashes them in front of the impostor. He takes a gander at the portrait of the blue and pink globules that begot the kid, stroking his…
His goatee, for fuck’s sake.
—Hm. Not bad, interesting use of… line, negative space. What else?
They’re stick figures, you imbecile. What the hell else are they but line and negative space? Next up is a portrait of a man with a flowery shirt and wild proportions. At least this time he bothers to crayon in the rest of his canvas. The mountebank gives a little smirk at this exhibition, taking particular note of the thought balloon floating out of the man’s head with what appears to be a picture of an otter inside.
—Nice touch with the wordplay there.
—Oh, uh… thanks. I’m glad you got what I was going for there.
Christ Almighty. Next.
—My neighbor’s cat crawls between the walls sometimes, and I thought it was a mouse, so I stabbed it through the wall accidentally, right there… and I drew it.
A bloody cat, or maybe I’m just assuming it’s a cat thanks to the kid’s prompt, sandwiched in between two big brown Pillars of Gibraltar.
—I had to scrape it back out of the wall with a frying pan. Trust me, you don’t want to know how I did it.
—Very interesting. You’re not afraid to use controversial imagery, I’ll give you that. Tell you what, I want to hang you at the Note. I was planning on an exhibit of my own, but I’ve got plenty of money already, since I’m such a famous and highly successful independent artist. How does six grand sound?
—That, sounds wonderful, sir, er, Jules! I don’t know what to say!
—Say yes. And let me tell you a secret, kiddo. Never stop believing in yourself. All the greats, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso, all of them achieved success because they each understood one thing. That if you truly desire something, and live each moment of your life drawing upon that desire and keeping it within you, the universe will have no choice but to grant you that desire. Anything you want is in your grasp, you just have to…
Hey, he might be on to something. That must be my problem, that must be why I still haven’t found a way off the Island. Maybe I just don’t want it enough.
Right. I can’t take anymore. End scene. Were any of you paying attention to anything I was saying at all? Page 40, Re: The hack, his rejection by Roger, aftermath thereof: Maybe he’ll realize that he didn’t know so much after all. That a misguided passion doesn’t excuse a complete lack of talent and craft. Maybe he’ll finally realize he was never good at the one thing he only thought he was, and once knowing that now knowing there’s not a single atom of his body and soul worth saving. That the old poet should have abandoned rhyme and meter and instead written ‘for everything that lives is holy, with the single exception of one Jackson Miller of Orange Island.’ Maybe then he’ll take that stroll, let the borscht blow through his hair a little. No such luck. There’s not much in the world more insufferable than a bad artist who thinks anything’s possible if he just perseveres. Page 21-22, Re: First discussion between Jules, Updike: UPDIKE: You don’t expect me to believe you went to one of the top colleges in the state, the same one attended by Roger Knox, to study art? JULES: Of course not. I’m not a complete idiot. A man doesn’t turn to art unless he’s got a good reason. Not until the whole world betrays such a man first, and all he knows and feels is deep disillusionment and regret. UPDIKE: So what was your major, then? JULES: Studies in Disillusionment and Regret. Magna cum laude. Page 66, Re: The beat, on souplining: What this guy is about to find out the hard way is, never talk to an artist worse than you are. A bad artist only truly cares about himself, so if one supposes to take an interest in you all it means is he’s out to soupline your loving ass. Not to mention page 88, Re: Narration by Jules from not even five goddamn minutes ago: No, good art only comes about from someone who has to do it. Not someone who thinks they have to do it, but actually has no choice but to be an artist, because they are truly not good at anything else. There’s a desperation that corrodes oh fuck off.
The Note’s popping that night, as usual, and look, there’s another man hanging on the walls. The kid has drastically improved his technique in the span of a few seconds. Bold, confident strokes that elucidate the unnatural life you and I perceive every day. A portrait of a rural American family, frowning at the casual observer, defying the usual hardships doled out by a generally fucked economy, every detailed wrinkle and gray hair and liver spot revealing their never-ending determination, hard work, and probable Anti-Semitism. A typical Islander, his pose contorted, the flowers on his shirt the only color in his life, apart from purple that oppresses him daily, that his weathered mask barely protects him from, the mask that nonetheless fails to hide the palpable desperation of an Island-addled mind. An anonymous cat (still a cat, which is a small miracle in itself in this town), sandwiched between two walls, filling up a bucket of red wax strokes underneath. It’s as if someone regarded the works of Julian Paisley and said not bad, but you know what it’s missing, some color. And maybe a tiny shred of some good old-fashioned Midwestern optimism. No one’s here to admire art at the moment, though.
—Thank you. Now I’m going to do a song my daddy used to sing to me. This is for a special person in the audience. You know who.
An interesting choice of words, since the gang is quite literally all here. There’s the beat and the hack, killing some time before a scheduled meeting with their next employer, who will hopefully give them the chance to kill something other than time. And speak of the devil, there’s the square, at a table in the back, sipping on an immaculately mixed Islander (two shots of rye, rocks, dry, with a cherry on top), figuring he might as well for the first and last time sample the place his recent main squeeze likes to frequent so much, making sure to keep his distance from that fuckwit goddamn him, sitting in his usual spot by the front of the stage (he’s wearing his red suit), beside some other guy he’s never seen before, Christ would you just look at his suit? And there’s the kid, admiring his own work, then letting his attention slip toward that lady on the stage, sure is a swell singer, isn’t she? Meanwhile the band sits back as a lone guitarist plucks out a baroque intro, then eases into a light strumming.
You always hurt the one you love,
The one you shouldn’t hurt at all.
You always take the sweetest rose
and crush it till the petals fall.
You always break the kindest heart
with a hasty word you can’t recall.
So if I broke your heart last night,
it’s because I love you most of all…
Then the guitarist picks up speed and the band barely has any time to sit back up. All in, the big band fills up the whole room with swing, but Morgan has the pipes and the chops to squeeze through it and directly to the eyes and hearts of everyone there, turning into stone all unlucky enough to gaze upon her or prick up their ears, a Medusa-siren of jazz. She takes the mic out of the stand and saunters over to the first table, leans over between the hack and the beat and lifts up a leg.
You always hurt, the one you love,
the one you shouldn’t hurt at all…
A waste, really, as the hack’s ambiguously queer and the beat’s married to the borscht, but why complain when the client offers a little something on the house? She brings it over to the square and poses again for the benefit of everyone else.
You always take, the sweetest rose,
and crush it till the petals fall…
The square nods, as if the champagne tastes just as good as he was told it would, as if to an employee who did not just meet but exceeded expectations. Morgan goes on a voyage to the front of the house and brings it home to two side-by-side conquistadores.
You always break the kindest heart,
with a hasty word you can’t recall, soooo
if I broke your heart last night,
it’s because I love you most of all!
She never sang this one before, thinks one of them, so what could she mean by it? Another part of him thinks, if that’s to be believed, then how many people do I hurt in a day? The other one knows the answer to both of his questions, but doesn’t bother to say so. Then she looks to the young hanged man, the founder of the feast, and he looks at her. Everything disappears, only Morgan and the kid remain. She walks up to him and wraps an arm around his shoulder. The band freezes, now the empty room is silent.
It’s because I love you most of all!
The loud fermata lasts an eternity. Then the band jumps back in and backs her up with a crescendoed major seventh. She grasps the kid close and punctuates the performance with a big Studio Era kiss. Then she releases her grasp and the place reappears. Good thing none of the others saw that, else they’d all have plenty reason to take it sorely. The applause lasts almost as long as the hold at the end when the beat finally climbs up on stage and waves it down.
—Ladies and gentlemen, the voice cherubic of the great Miss Morgan Wednesday, descended all the way from the empyrean and back, distributing on the house those great glad hosannas meant for the one who moves the earth and the stars, all for your mortal pleasure. And now, tonight I herald the glad tidings of a rebirth. Ladies and gentlemen, Walter Lamb is born, the new hanged man you see on these hallowed walls, the man between Heaven and Earth, the man who has seen the beatific and is yet tied upside down at his post, Walter Lamb is born. Once a worm eating the very dirt he was made from, once a Neanderthal man who stares at his shadow and thinks it’s real, but now Walter Lamb is born. Go up to the rooftops, take off your mask if you have to, and shout to this whole purple town a purple note of glad tidings, for Walter Lamb is born!
The kid faces a mob of applause, a unanimous group of old Vikings trying to bring a dead god back to life, although there might be an individual, one who immediately comes to mind to this narrator, holding back his show of emotion and ruining the efforts of all the others involved. Meanwhile the kid walks through the laudatory racket and approaches her again, hoping for a bit of a reprisal from that last performance, especially the finale.
She rises from her seat and gives him three empty glasses, smudged with fingerprints.
—Five million, six hundred fifty thousand, three hundred twenty one! I shit you not, one dollar over! I’m telling you, it knocked me right on my ass when I saw the reports. Can you believe it?
—Yeah, that’s real swell…
The three regulars look up at the kid, who next thing he knows is wearing an apron and holding a big plastic bin.
—You, er… you said that what people call you when they know you…
—Do I know you?
—What are you… it’s me, I’m hanging… Wally Lamb is born…
He looks around the walls but finds someone else hanging from them, color and wax gone, only black ink on white paper remains.
—Oh, give the kid a break, will you Jules? All he wants is your autograph. Come on, sit with us. What are you drinking?
—I, um… I’m working… I have to…
—Don’t worry, kid, Archie won’t mind if I talk to his bussers for a bit. And if he does, I’m Roger Knox, so he’ll have to learn to deal, won’t he? Here, gimme a napkin. Alright, now it’s your turn, use my pen. And you too, Jules, we’re all famous over here, aren’t we…
—Christ sake, Roger, will you knock it off?
—Come on, I’m just having some fun. What are we going to do in this town if we can’t have a little fun once in a while, huh?
—I’m sorry, I should really go…
And then she, the silent goddess of the dead, ruling over those who died inglorious deaths, who grew old or gave up, beautiful on her top half but old and withered underneath, who by being the jailer of that dead Viking god ended up in her own way ruining everything for everyone, rises up from between her two suitors and approaches the kid.
—Wait. You saw the show, right? Did you like what you saw?
—Do you like me?
—Yes… yes, ma’am.
—Do you want to take me home tonight?
—Ah, Morgan? What are you doing?
—You see those two sitting side by side over there? They might look like regular folks, but the truth is they’re a few hundred years out of their own time. They’re a couple of old Spanish conquistadors, and they both think they stumbled onto a real juicy plot of New World in me. See that one? Sure he’s rolling his eyes away from us and sipping his drink like he doesn’t care, but don’t let that fool you. He figures that since he stuck the pointy end of his flag in me first, that gives him the right to own me forever. And you see the other one here, his jaw wide open at the first sign of things not going his own way? He figures his patron country gave him a whole lot more than the other guy, so that gives him the right over me. Maybe he thinks if he can win me over with gold and jewels I won’t feel so bad while he’s plundering away at my fields of green. And now here you are, standing right in front of me, saying you like me too. Why?
—I… I’m sorry, I… I don’t know… I guess I don’t have a good reason at all.
—Well then, today’s your lucky day. Because right now I’m plenty sick and tired of men who think they have a good reason for keeping ahold of me. Your place then, shall we?
—Where are you… you’re really… okay, this isn’t funny anymore… Morgan?
And so on. I don’t know if Morgan was right about me. Did I care at the time, or had I just accustomed myself to her by then, like how I accustomed myself to the air, in the same way I calibrate my mask when things get too weird around here? How can you care when it’s more of the same as yesterday?
Meanwhile at the Lamb domicile the kid manages to toss his mask on the couch, tear off his Letterman and kick off his tennis shoes before Morgan steps through the door and takes a moment to lift a cursory eyebrow at the surroundings. He starts for his shirt, but Morgan stops him with a hand to his shoulder, leads him to where she may very well find a bed somewhere, and gently whistles the song her daddy used to sing to her. She pushes him on the bed, gently slides off his shirt and pants, only to find an embarrassing set of longjohns underneath. Somehow she gets those off as well, and finally peels off the kid’s kneesocks, leaving him in a general state of what he may well have looked like when his mother brought him into the world. Not even on the football field with his old flame had he ever gotten this far as he was about to with this complete stranger. He kept himself hard that whole night and even up to the moment when he fell asleep, only to remember just barely a dream more pleasant than most and to wake up to a change of pajamas. It’s not a sin when you’re not awake, when God takes those awful feelings and throws them in the garbage for you, so you don’t have to dispose of them yourself, which He hates. Sadly, his soul will remain intact tonight, since he forgot that the goddess of the dead is beautiful on her top half, but ugly and misshapen underneath. Two leafy tendrils wrap around his legs and lift him in the air. Another set of vines grasps his ankles and stretches the body taut. Amid screams from the kid, hopelessly drowned out by the shrieks emanating from the Venus flytrap head, she brings him just to the edge of her snapping jaws and rips him open, then dangles him over her mouth for a while, just letting the pink tubes and blood drizzle down.
Updike drags a hand across his face. WEDNESDAY just popped its locks and spilled its guts out too, and its leafy tendrils writhe around the fecund library of Roger Knox and family, wrapping up Dapper Men and swallowing them whole, as if it loves people even more than they do and wants to yell a beastly shriek on the rooftop more more more.
—Who let that thing out anyway?
Meanwhile the kid lies supine on the floor, his guts opened up and hiding what little modesty he has left, he screaming and trying to stuff it all back in, surely it’ll work just right as rain if he just gets it all back where it was, right? Guess he tried to bite off more Morgan than he could chew, ended up getting a whole bellyful of WEDNESDAY instead.
—What is this… what’s happening…
—You’re dead, that’s what’s happening.
—No! No, I’m not…
—Look at yourself, friend. You’re completely disemboweled. You can’t live without your digestive system, it’s a well-known scientific fact.
—I’m not dead. I’ll show you.
He’s got most of his colon back in there, but the small intestine’s a long little fucker, it’s going to need some time and certainly more finesse than the kid’s bothering to give it now, if he’s going to have a fighting chance of not being dead. I’m no doctor of course, but I think Updike’s just jerking his ass around, he’ll make it. And look, there’s a fellow in a shabby white suit coming out of Roger’s room again, celery-less as usual.
—What are you doing in there?! That is a restricted area!
—Just fixing myself a Bloody Mary. Got any Jesus what happened to him?
—Don’t worry about him, he’s dead.
—No I’m not!
—Yes you are! Where the hell is Casabianca?
—The boy, stood on, the burn-ing deck…
—Fuck now don’t you start with that again!
And now Roger’s close behind, giving his rugs a little piece of his mind as it were, showing the kid how it’s done, an expert in the whole getting your insides all over nice things department. He’s wearing his yellow suit.
—Hey Jules. Jesus what happened to him?
—What are you doing out here? Get back in your room!
—Updike says don’t worry about him. He’s dead.
—No, I’m not…
—Hm. Yes, he looks dead to me.
—I’m not dead!
—Yes you are! Casabianca!
—Oh, he’s dead alright. I’m something of an expert on being dead, if I don’t say so myself.
—The boy, stood on…
—I mean, I barely have a head wound, so if I’m dead then he’s definitely…
—Get back in your room! Is that fucking thing back inside yet?
Nope. WEDNESDAY’s guts shrieking and having its fill of some rather dapper clientele. It just ate a bunch of our guys, says one of them, as if Updike couldn’t have figured that out himself. Legs dangling out of its toothy Venus flytrap, legs with formerly fine-tailored tatters still attached. Maybe doesn’t like the taste of their pants, maybe the shoes. Man-eating plant beasts don’t have the palate for fine Italian, wait a minute. Wednesday. That isn’t… And now the gang’s all here.
—Oh, fuck me rollerskating, I did not ask for any of you!
—What the hell’s going on here?
It must be nothing. A coincidence. A new plant the square has yet to unveil. On a Wednesday afternoon. It can’t be. I have to make sure.
—Why if it isn’t Mr. Tannenbaum Arbor. Don’t recognize your own handiwork?
—The fuck’re you talking about, nutjob?
—And Jesus, what the hell happened to the kid?
—If only rabbits! No, this is much more insidious! A scheme to empty the town of riff-raff, to eliminate those with mid-to-middling income levels so the rich can move in and take the city for themselves!
—Jesus wouldja look at ’em, and he’s still alive?
—Oh yes, we need plants in Orange Island, don’t we Mr. Tannenbaum? Plants that can defend themselves against the hegemony of the human race. Empty the borschty streets of undesirables as it were. If they’re going to get themselves eaten by Tannenbaum trees they’d better do it and decrease the surplus, and Updike says don’t worry about him, he’s dead.
—No, I’m not…
—Yes, you are!
—Those who have reap the rewards of their own toil. Those who have not, fuck em, they’ll just get eaten by your murderous trees. It’s all an obvious…
—What the… the hell is he talking about?
Ah well. Worth a shot. Probably not in the know. Maybe he’s bluffing. Rather impressive if so, seeing as how I made all that up on the fly.
—Explain that, then. Where did you get that…
—Never mind! Just… where the hell is Casabianca?
—The boy, stood on, the burn-ing…
Updike reaches into his coat pocket, pulls out his revolver and fires into the ceiling, shutting everyone up except Tannenbaum’s leafy conspiracy (or at least a fellow can hope, can’t he?). That loose end is soon after tied up by the hulking Dapper Man, not to be confused with the tragic French sea captain of the same name, who shoves the beast all the way back into WEDNESDAY and shuts it up good, taking care to spin the padlocks a couple times. We’re quiet for a moment, although Roger can’t help himself dripping like a rusty old faucet, the kind of rickety fixture Roger wouldn’t be caught dead with in a place like this, thereby giving his leaky head away. Updike takes a deep breath, relishing the room-wide complete attention brought about by his piece. Gives me time to think about other things too. Such as. Hm. Too bad about the ceiling, it was a nice one. Will borscht get through? Suppose that’s a pointless question, re: cure, general disarray of house, borscht all over other parts of the house, inherent uselessness of living space in light of recent death. Well. Can’t be good for the infrastructure anyway. Makes the value go down. Could have been three hundred thousand, have to settle for two and a half. Could sure use a stalk in my drink.
—You! Back in your room, now!
Roger frowns, wipes his mind clean off that nice yellow suit, and goes back to his room like he’s told.
—You, take one more fucking step, I dare you! That’s a restricted area, stay out! And no, I have no celery!
Ah nuts. How did he know I was going to ask?
—You, you and you! Stay in the waiting area and wait till you’re called! And you, once and for all, accept your own mortality, goddamn it! You’re not the first poor son of a bitch that’s stopped breathing in this world and you sure as shit aren’t going to be the last! And just so we’re all clear, let’s all agree that this man is absolutely, without a doubt, one hundred percent dead! All in favor of his deadness, say aye!
Nothing for a moment. I suppose we all agree, but is it really necessary to, I mean, do we, you know, the empiricism of the senses anyway…
—Well, say fucking aye already!
Well in that case. General murmurs of agreement. One dissent, with a little whimper and a schlup schlup. Stomach’s back in. It’s a good effort but much too late, as unfortunately the ayes have it.
—Good, it’s unanimous.
Updike lets out a sigh of relief, sits down and chows on a carrot. Dapper Men surround the kid and lift him up, and innards splutter back onto the floor, ruining all of his hard work in reconstituting himself.
—So, boss, you want us to bury him in the backyard? Since he’s dead and all?
—Keep him downstairs. I might need him for questioning.
I can’t imagine what it must be like having to wait in the foyer with the kid huddled in the corner with his pink smelly guts, sobbing and carrying on his whimpering ontological argument with himself. It turns out to be a very small consolation that I don’t have to after all. The Company Man gives me a carrot, and I take it.
—You knew all along, didn’t you?
—I need you to admit it.
—Why? It’s all back in the box anyway.
—I have a feeling you’ll be the one who will find out in the end.
Where do I start? She left, her arm around his, and eventually so did everyone else. Archie let us stay at our table and he kept ordering drinks. The janitors came by every twenty minutes and put away stacks of smudgy rocks glasses he left behind. It took the whole night for me to finish my one espresso, which had turned stagnant by the last drop. I looked at a clock on the wall, and it was an hour when the sun usually comes up when we finally spoke to each other.
—I heard rumors, of course. I was under no delusions. As long as she loved me while she was with me, I was satisfied. But this… I thought I was at least more special than the others.
—Well, now you know better. Don’t worry, it was hard for me the first time as well.
—So what can we do about it?
—I’ll tell you what we can do. I’ll pay for my tab, and you and Morgan can never speak to me again. You can count me out the next time you need someone to watch you ogle your trophy wife. And you can find someone else to say “I told you so” when it doesn’t work out.
—And what if I told you I wanted a divorce?
—What kind of divorce?
—You know what kind.
—You don’t know what you’re saying, Roger.
—I’m just as angry about this as you are. I want to make sure it never happens again. It’s not like you’re going to get fucking arrested for it. Not to mention something tells me you’d jump at the chance if you could ensure you would be.
I sip down the last putrid cold drop of espresso and get up from my chair.
—When’s the rent due, Jules? Better yet, why bother paying rent for that shithole ever again? I can get you a good job at Knox Ent. I’ll put you up in a better place, hell, you can have one of those empty houses at Dyckman if you want. Do this for me, and you’ll never have to worry about money, about Morgan, or anything at all. Do this, and it’ll solve both of our problems.
I sit back down and really think about it this time, unsure whether or not I’m angrier at him, or her, or myself.
—Listen to me very carefully, Roger. You’ve never worked in this town a day in your life. It’s all good and well that you order people to disappear when they inconvenience you, but you don’t know what it’s like to do what you’re asking me. To have to live in this town, not want to, have to, and know your hardest work is never enough, to have to decide at the end of every day that as worthless as you are, some other poor sap doesn’t deserve to live in this town as much as you do. That’s going to change tonight. I will not do what you’re asking me to do for any amount of your money. What I want from you is your assurance that you will finally take some responsibility. If I do this, you will be just as guilty as me. In fact, I may not decide to do it myself, I may decide to bring her up to your house, and if I tell you to finish the job yourself, you have to finish it, no questions.
He went back to Dyckman to think it over, and I went back to finish my commission, get used to what little of her I’d have left, and wait for a call from him in the morning. I want to get rid of the kettle once and for all, but then I stop myself and remember how expensive the coffee was, not to mention it was pretty good too. I decide then and there to brew all of it. By the eighth cup I’ve finally finished her face and hair, and her arms grasping the mic. By twelve or fifteen I lose track of whatever progress I’ve made, time of day or whether or not I’m even conscious. The sun is going down by the time I wake up and answer my phone. I answer the phone and hardly remember what I hear or tell whoever is on the other line. A black puddle adorns my vest, so I throw it off and settle for a two-piece from here on out. I look over at the commission. It looks like I upended the bottle of ink while I passed out. Her face and hands are still intact, but long inky tendrils emerge from the dress and writhe all around the paper. Beautiful on her top half but withered, rotten, misshapen, a monster down below. I’m finished with Morgan.
So where has she run off to now?
—So I don’t know if you, ah, met my fiancé, Miss Wednesday…
—I don’t know him, but I know him from the Note. He’s the best, so as long as he’s with him I’m satisfied.
—I see. So I understand you’ve been involved in a bit of work lately.
—We certainly have, sir. Would you like to see our portfolio?
—Ah, you got him? I met him at a party Roger threw once. He was nice enough.
—Glad to see this bastard’s gone though.
—You think so? I thought he was kind of charming. He actually kissed my hand when I first met him. Not many people do that anymore.
—No, not him. You’re thinking about the French guy. This guy runs that bank upstate, fancies himself a writer. A travel writer. He keeps telling us he wants to show us his slides from New Zealand.
—Oh, him. Right…
—I tell this guy over and over, the fuck is anyone gonna do in New Zealand? I hear the whole fucking place is backwards, people there are four feet tall, live in little huts and don’t wear shoes. Maybe they’ll make a movie out of it someday…
—I think we did get a French guy, though… didn’t we?
—Well, gentlemen. I have to say, I’m impressed. So you can get close to him, correct?
—We sure can. We’re going to that party of his.
—Great. All that’s left to discuss is your fee. Fifteen thousand?
—A hundred grand.
—A hundred grand? Fuck me, Morgan, but this guy’s pretty big in the britches, ain’t he?
—I need it to finance a film I’m working on.
—That so? You’re in pictures, huh? I ought to show you this film some nutjob friend of Roger’s made for him. Mermaids and octopuses fucking each other, crazy shit if I’ve ever seen crazy. Morgan brought the print down from Dyckman and we had a hell of a laugh that night. Thank Christ she was there too, damn thing was that close to permanently killing my hard-on. I tell you, the stuff some people come up with in this town…
They talk the plucky souplining duo down to seventy-five in the end. Morgan makes the long elevator journey from the penthouse suite down to the front door. She finds me waiting for her there, and even if I’m wearing my mask she still recognizes me just the same.
—What are you doing here?
—How old is Stan Tannenbaum?
—Come on, you don’t think I’m really…
—How old is he?
—He’s fifty-four. So what do you want? Name it and I’ll get it for you.
—I want to go back and time and tell my mom and pop not to bother. What do you want, Morgan?
—The same thing I’ve always wanted. Roger won’t give that to me, and you can’t.
—And you don’t think I would have tried, as hard as I could?
—Your best wouldn’t have been enough. You know that.
—I guess I do.
—So Roger put you up to this?
—I’m not doing it for him. With you and Stan gone, no one will want to come to Orange Island. As much as it galls me to say it, we need the rich folks to keep the rest of us in line. When they go, all the businesses go with them. Everyone else will have no way to feed themselves, we’ll fight and kill each other off one by one till there’s no one left.
—And what’s so bad about that? It’s a way off the Island, isn’t it?
—Forgive me if I set the bar a tad higher than starving to death, or sucking off the business end of an open tube on my mask.
—The bar’s set just right for me though, is that right?
—You’re forcing my hand, Morgan. I’m not going to enjoy this any more than you will.
—And it’s too late to change your mind, I take it?
—Put on your mask.
She slides on her mask, the red lights flash, the sirens honk and the doors open. I run about five blocks, my outstretched right hand barely in her grasp, when she trips on a curb. I catch her before she falls and rip a tube from her mask, then I turn around and walk away. She doesn’t scream or say anything at first, but as she breathes in the air her sighs of resignation turn into ghastly shrieks. About a minute after the deed is done I turn into an alleyway, and that’s all I see or hear from her after I turned the only thing I ever did love or could have loved into a beast, a nasty thing. After that I head over to the Note to hand in my commission to Archie, and to tender my resignation.
—An exact likeness of Morgan Wednesday, just like you wanted.
—Jesus… You just ruined me, you know that?
—I ruined a few people doing this, the way I see it.
—You should have come to me. I could have beaten the other guy’s price.
—Not this guy. By the way, I have a feeling Miss Wednesday might not be the only high profile regular you’ll be losing.
—You don’t mean…
—Who do you think I mean?
He was up at the usual place, wearing his blue suit, drinking whatever was left of his whiskey, hoping it would stop the other company men from visiting him. Looks like that’s not to be the case this time, as there seem to be about fifty more TVs in the room than when I last left him. A few commercials come on at the same time, none of which he remembers shooting. Scores of fuzzy, static approximations emerge from the screens, all with the same black dapper outfit, the same smile, same likability, same reckless insouciance.
—Hello, there. I’m Roger Knox.
He throws an empty bottle at the screen. It does a decent enough job of shutting him up, but now he has at least thirty or so more to contend with.
—No doubt you’ve seen me around town and on your television sets, where I peddle shoddy masks and spend as much money as I can.
—That’s right, folks. And as you may know, that’s all I’m really good for, isn’t it?
He does the best he can in his drunken state to lift up two bottles and strike those sets at the same time. One out of two ain’t bad.
—Now, you might be wondering how I came to be dealt such a swell hand as I have. Well, that’s a very good question, isn’t it Roger?
—You bet, Roger! I can assure you I didn’t earn anything I have now. I can’t even begin to describe to you how much of a disappointment I was to my father…
—Oh, you must mean Timothy Knox, the real founder of Knox Enterprises…
Honestly, it’s a small miracle he was able to hit the first two bullseyes, the state he’s in now. At this point he resigns himself to stumbling around and feebly lobbing whatever he can get his hands on at whatever he can muster up enough strength to attempt to hit.
—And let’s not forget about my dear wife, that Morgan Wednesday. She’s really something, isn’t that right, Roger?
—That’s right, Roger! It’s just a shame I couldn’t please her in any way once I married her, which she obviously agreed to only because of my money!
—Leave me alone…
—And what a raw deal I gave to my best friend, huh? As if it’s not enough I took his girl away from him, then I go ahead and hire him to kill her for me! Talk about cowardly, am I right Roger?
—You betcha, Roger old buddy!
Each of the commercials let out a unanimous laugh of scorn, and then seven or eight wobbly, static Roger signals step out of the screens.
—Thanks a bunch, Orange Island! I sure couldn’t have done it without ya!
—Gosh I just love you people!
—Go on, Roger, put on a mask, stay a while!
—No! Get away from me!
The Rogers grab him by the legs and keep him from dragging himself away, cutting up his arms from the broken glass on the floor. They hold him down and strap a tasteful, elegantly designed mask on his face. From inside the library, where I’m still talking to the Company Man, I can hear a muffled scream coming from the bedroom.
—I guess that’s why Roger made the cure. Penance, for what we did. But I don’t care what happens to this town anymore. If you think I’m proud of what I did you’re out of your mind. There’s nothing worse I’ve ever done in my life. I’m an asshole like anyone else, now and for the rest of my life. So why not stay in this town, full of so many other assholes? I already souplined Morgan, so why not do it to a few others, if I need it to get by? But you know, we’re not investigating the death of Morgan Wednesday, are we?
This time, as he watches me rise from my seat and head toward Roger’s room, all the while stroking his pencil mustache, he doesn’t try to tell me it’s a restricted area. I go in and he’s right where we left him, on the floor, cut up and bruised, coughing up vomit through a mask. I kneel down and take the thing off his face, nearly spill some of it on my sleeve. Yeech.
—You don’t have to wear this in here, remember? You said yourself, the yellow stuff works.
—The anniversary… they came back…
—They’re gone now. Don’t worry about them anymore.
I do my best to pick him up by the least-yellowed portions of his blue suit and drag him over to his bed.
—It’s my fault… all of it…
—Don’t worry about that anymore. They’re all gone. You’ve just been drinking too much, that’s all. Get some rest now.
—You know why I wanted to be your friend, Jules? I had hoped a bit of you would rub off on me.
—Come on, buddy, let’s get you into bed.
—It’s true. I still wish I were you… What’s so great about me anyway?
—You ah… you make it safe for people to live here. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
—No. My father made it safe for them… and I killed him.
—Come on Roger, you’ve been drinking too much, you’re not making any sense now. Timothy Knox disappeared, everyone knows that.
—He disappeared all right. Right after I pushed him out of that balcony.
He tries to point to the balcony, as if I could have confused it for any other one in the room, but another torrent of bile and liquor and food comes up and onto the white satin sheets. Damn, now it’s going to be that much harder to wait for him to pass out.
—What are you talking about? You mean you didn’t really…
—Even if he didn’t have another thirty years in him to retire, you really think he would have left all this to me? You think Morgan would have thought anything of me if I hadn’t? If I didn’t have the only other thing you also didn’t have?
—You’ve been drinking too much, Roger. Just get some rest now, you’ll feel better.
All of a sudden I hear a ruckus outside, rumbling and tumbling, things get knocked over, other things get struck by various blunt objects, while furious oaths and cries of agony alike are screamed by people I can more or less guess who. Sounds like the investigation deteriorated. A calm after a few minutes of this, followed by a single clank and punctuated by a gunshot. Odd, to say the least, but what power did I honestly expect I’d have over any of those proceedings, and what could I do other than be glad they were on one side of Roger’s bedroom door and I on the other? As it turns out, that line of thinking didn’t work out too well for Roger, who, next thing I knew, starts leaking out of the back of his head instead of the front, leaving all the primary colors on his bed. Also odd, to say the least. Proof that sympathetic magic is possible after all? Maybe, maybe not, but again I console myself by realizing there’s little power I have to make it so or otherwise. Before I leave the room, and since it’s all the same to Roger at this point, I fix myself a Bloody Mary.
Here’s what I missed while I was gone:
—So, I hear you’re a fan of poetry. Well, my associate here, Casabianca, he’s quite a poetry lover as well. And it just so happens he has a poem he would be honored to recite for you. It’s one from your youth, one you just might fondly remember. Take it away, Casabianca.
The huge Dapper Man clears his throat, produces a pair of equally large reading glasses, takes out and unfolds a crumbled piece of paper from his coat pocket, and begins reading with a surprisingly sophisticated diction and a steady, gently-rocking cadence :
The boy stood on the burning deck,
Whence all but he had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone ‘round him o’er the dead.
Yet beautiful and bright he stood
As born to rule the storm;
A creature of heroic blood,
A proud, though child-like form.
The beat remains silent, smiling. After waiting for and receiving a permissive nod from his superior, Casabianca continues.
The flames rolled on—he would not go
Without his Father’s word;
That father, faint in death below,
His voice no longer heard.
He called aloud— “say, Father, say
If yet my task is done?”
He knew not that his chieftain lay
Unconscious of his son.
And finally, progress is made. The slightest crack of a frown appears where that perpetual, mocking smile once was. Another stanza or two and with any luck the Company Man might even elicit an uncomfortable fidget. Casabianca clears his throat and reads on.
“Speak, father!” once again he cried,
“If I may yet be gone!”
And but the booming shots replied
And fast the flames rolled on.
Upon his brow he felt their breath,
And in his waving hair,
And looked from that lone post of death
In still yet brave despair.
Some interesting developments now: A true grimace, and arms folded in irritation. Could the beat really make it through the whole thing?
And shouted once more aloud,
“My father! Must I stay?”
While o’er him fast, through sail and shroud,
The wreathing fires−
—Enough! Good fucking Christ alive, enough!
—You’ll talk then? In plain English?
—Whatever you want. Just stop reading that rotten fucking abortion of verse!
—Very good. You can start by telling me about this party.
—Indeed. The night belonged to no one but me. Roger Knox, the only one left in town worthy of the purple offering, the pinnacle of my art.
—Your art, huh? So you get Knox under your belt and go to the highest bidder. Then all of a sudden you’re the richest man in town?
—You look like you were hired for your keen wit, company man, so don’t play the fool now. What need do I have to build up a store of filthy lucre, what do I need that this great city won’t provide? I don’t serve the cackling god of gold on his dusty underground throne. No, man, I honor and venerate the god of death, the great annihilator, the equalizer of Orange Island dancing the purple dance of atoms. And to think that mountebank believes himself a true servant of the borscht. The borscht rules the city, and I perform its holy work. And with Knox become an offering to the borscht, it would show the town, and all the yuppies it beckons to come to her on planes and choppers, a clear memento mori: What you are, I was, and as I am, so shall you be.
—Fair enough. Go on.
—And so a masqueing we will go, the hack and I, but yet the night belonged to me alone. Not the mountebank reveling and relishing the winnings gained by the good hand dealt on the day he was born, not this porn-huckster by my side with delusions of grandeur, and not this bloated, dropsied, overcompensating knight of the old days, looking to avenge the honor of a maiden fair with his gold-plated ceremonial lance. The patsy hack had to but lead me to the door and past the fellow revelers, unaware they’re all models posing to an old Flemish Triumph of Death, up the stairs to the library and to the great mark himself. I think he was wearing his red suit. And what a grand providence it was that we retired to a library, and such a fecund depository of bound volumes it was! For it was there and then that, while the patsy led the mark in a discussion regarding the committing of some misguided erotic obsessions to silver halide, I could take a moment to select my weapon with great care. For words are, have been and ever will be my true weapon.
—A weapon? So you were the one who used the book after all?
—Not just any book, friend in mourning. The best book. I grasped the formidable folio and struck. He fell as all vain works inevitably do, that is, long and hard, but the deed was not complete. I approached his fallen form, lifted my weapon aloft and offered to strike the final salvo, when of a sudden my companion stayed my hand. Hey wait a minute, I believe he said, you already got a turn. Are we a team or what here? Perhaps, I rejoined, but as I have first blood, I should be the one to finish it. Yeah, he then said, but I was the one who got us in here, so I should finish it. Good and well, said I, but I struck him first. Yeah, he said, but I got us here! Yes, I said, but I hit him first! Yeah, he then said, but I got us here! Perhaps, I said, but I hit him first! Yeah, he said, but I got us here! Indeed, and well done, but I…
—Yeah, I think, ah, I think I get the picture.
—And so a few more sallies and ripostes between him and me later and a stratagem forms in my mind. What need have I of this alliance after this mark of marks is achieved, think I to myself? I then immediately relinquish the honor of the mortal blow to my companion and instruct him to arm himself with a weapon of his choice, all in the most honeyed of words I can muster. As he then produced his weapon, that is, a tiny claw hammer concealed within his own stomach, his gift from the borscht, I let him relish in the glory of the moment, let him perceive that it belonged to him, while I…
—Wait, so now he had the hammer in his stomach? But I thought you…
—Meanwhile I lurked in his shadow behind his back, my own weapon grasped by my own gift of the borscht, raised above his head, and prepared to offer up two marks to the god of death. But this was not to be. For that vengeful knight entered, brandishing his golden lance, and upon sight of me at the cusp of my great work aborted all the proceedings with a simple what tha fuck? Out from under the patsy’s shadow, the game was up, and each of us three soon discovered we sought to take the same life, still muttering and sputtering limp on the bloody floor. We surrounded the mark and found ourselves deadlocked for what seemed like hours, when an unexpected detente dragged and scraped himself into the room, disrobed but for his own inner workings, and wielding what looked to me like a frying pan. I believe the knight did the best he could to shoo this upstart child out of the room with the toe of his shoe, all the while keeping his attention on us.
—And then what?
—And then, I believe that was the moment you showed up:
—Wait! I have reviewed the facts in the case, and I have finally discovered that the guilty party is, in fact…
—Well, er, I’m about to say in a moment…
—I did it! And I’d do it again, god damn him! I am an auteur! And I’m going to be doing things my way from now on! I’m not going to spend another minute in this town begging and fawning over these bloated overdressed faggot cocksucking… also, I think I’m in love with you.
—Well, ahem, that’s all very good and well, but…
—It’s been a real blast going about town, souplining the hell out of these squares, and I’ve just really come to cherish you as a beautiful human being. And, you know, I thought if I could get this one mark all by myself that I could impress you…
—Well, that’s fantastic and we’re all very touched, but as a matter of fact the guilty party is…
—Me! You see this shitheel on the floor right here? He has to have everything in this town, doesn’t he? Can’t leave nothing for nobody else, can he? Not even her! I was going to give her a good life, away from this place, somewhere nice, where we could have actually seen the sun rise and fall, but you had to gobble up that controlling interest too, didn’t you? I killed him before and I’ll do it again, I’ll brain the fucking brat right here and now!
—Er, that won’t really be necessary, because in fact the true guilty party is…
—Oh fucking hell. I forgot you were still around…
—You think you loved her? You never loved her! I actually cared for her, I saw beyond her superficial beauty and saw her as a person, and her personality and stuff! She picked me, out of all of you, she wanted me to take her home! And now I have to show her how much I care for her, show her I’m willing to do anything for her…
—No, really, this is not how these things are supposed to work. And what do you care? You’re supposed to be dead!
—I’m not dead… I’ll show you…
—Yes, you are. And anyway, the guilty party is…
—…well, go on. Why you?
—…I don’t know.
And at that, gold clubs, hammers, lengthy wakes, and third arms alike were brandished, swung and struck home on various targets, which after about a half a minute no one involved was specifically aiming for anymore amid the chaos. A couple minutes later the dust clears and three lifeless bodies rest on the floor, all slain by each of the three assailant’s weapons, as well as some piecemeal little folds of flesh gnawed off by more than a few borscht-given tiny mouths, and hey, did someone manage to sneak a gun in the whole scuffle? The company man slumps to the floor, his back against the wall, and shakes his head with his face buried in his hands. But wait, the kid’s still going strong, and so is Roger, oddly enough. The former skids toward the dying man with his elbows, holding his guts in one hand and the pan in the other, and brings the metal down on his bleeding head, three times for good measure. Roger stops sputtering and twitching after a while, and the kid drops the pan, pumps his fists in the air and lets out a triumphant whimpering laugh.
—You see? I did it, after all! It was me! Me!
After a preliminary stroke of his pencil mustache, the Company Man pulls out his piece from his coat pocket and shoots square at the kid’s head.
—Christ Almighty… what a complete waste…
Then the door creaks open, the Company Man looks up and a tiny glimmer of hope twinkles in his eye.
—I was just… er, fixing myself a Bloody Mary?
—Ha ha! Yes, yes, of course you were! Just fixing yourself a Bloody Mary, yes! And I’ll bet you’re going to need plenty of celery!
He rises to his feet, takes out a whole bunch of celery stalks and jams the whole thing into my drink.
—Say, what gives, Company Man?
—Thank God you arrived, Mr. Paisley! Oh, thank the Good Heavens above I was lax in keeping you out of Mr. Knox’s room this one last time!
—How did you, ahm… how did you get all these stalks in my drink?
—You have no idea how much time and effort we’ve invested in this operation, Mr. Paisley. And to think we may have had to abandon the whole thing after these idiots went ahead and killed each other…
—No, really. There must be like twelve celery sticks in this glass. How did you…
—But no! The investigation was a success after all! I have finally arrived at the true guilty party!
—Oh. Well, ah… that’s great, Updike. So who did it?
—Well, you did, of course!
—…what? But I… but he was…
—You see, Mr. Knox isn’t dead. He never was, as a matter of fact. Think about it, how could he be dead if you were in there the whole time, talking to him? No, Mr. Paisley, he’s not dead yet. But he will be, very soon. And by your hand.
—It was the cure, you see. The poor little fool, Mr. Knox, found out too late he doesn’t quite belong to any one place, person or time. So he goes about trying to ruin everything for everyone. I pity him, in a way…
—But… wait, hold it, so…
—So it became necessary to take him out of the picture. And so we agreed upon a plan of my own choosing. One that would divert attention away from us. We round up the people who would most likely want to kill Mr. Knox, and research the most likely scenario. We wanted at least five candidates, so we sort of had to make do with the kid, but other than that…
—Think about how we’ve been conducting the investigation up to now. Think about your testimony, about the others. Did you notice anything missing from the proceedings? Things like evidence, plausible means, or for that matter, plausibility in general? No, we had no need to discern the facts of the case, we only needed to research motive, only culpability. And that research led us to you.
—The hardest part is over now, Mr. Paisley. You don’t even have to think about anything from here on out. All you need to do now is go to Mr. Knox and kill him yourself, and keep this cure a secret. And then it’s smooth sailing across the blockade and into a nice little prison cell of your own, just like you always wanted.
—But… No! You’re wrong, Company Man. To be a patsy for you just because your company doesn’t have the balls to fire Roger… say, wait a minute. You’re not even from Knox Enterprises, are you?
—I’m not quite at a liberty to say.
—Is your real name even Updike?
—I’m not at a liberty to say.
—Who are you then? You can’t be working for Tannenbaum, obviously, but there has to be some other square in this town who wants Roger dead…
—I’m, ah, not at a liberty to say.
—Or maybe you’re working for the ones who set the gas off here in the first place!
—A perceptive guess, to be sure. Unfortunately, I’m not at a liberty to confirm or deny it.
—The Japanese? The Reds? Some nutty kraut hiding out in Brazil? Come on, man, you’ve got me dead to rights anyway, just spit it out!
—Hm… well… No. I’m not at a liberty to…
Updike lets out a faint chuckle and paces around the room, careful to step over the bodies, as he takes out a carrot from his jacket. As Casabianca and the other Dapper Men enter the room, I find a nearby chair and give up.
—Hell, for all I know, you could all be rabbits.
Updike, just before he takes a bite of his carrot, stops in his tracks and looks at me.
—I mean, why not, right? It might not make sense, but what the hell does anymore? You’ve got an unlimited supply of vegetables. You’re naming your sons after presidents, so you must like to fuck. Even your name, J.R. Jack Rabbit Updike. Jack Rabbit…
I thought I was essentially fucked at that point, so I never quite notice I’m actually fucking myself until I glance up and see his face. He and all his companions share the same glare of surprise and anger, all trained on me. He breaks the silence with a bite of his carrot.
—You just couldn’t leave well enough alone, could you?
The Company Man takes off his hat and strokes his mustache, as if savoring the last time he’ll ever have it. Then he pinches a fold of skin on his neck and starts peeling it from his face. He pulls and pulls, and shrill, high pitched shrieks emerge from his mouth, which now has two huge buckteeth sticking out, and as the other Dapper Men grab the skin off their neck and pull on their faces with him, Updike pulls and pulls, and finally the whole thing comes off.
A leering, grinning rabbit face in a black three-piece suit stands over me. He places his hat back on his head and through two slits cut off at the top for his ears. A minute later Casabianca and the others all have their masks off as well, and the rabbits all mutter instructions and misgivings to each other in their rabbitese dialect. Take a field recording of a parrot strangled to death, and then play that record backwards, and you have a decent idea of it.
—Huh. So Updike was a rabbit all along. Who knew? Well, so long…
I throw my glass on the floor and make a break for the door. The Casabianca rabbit stops me and drags me back to the chair and cuffs my hands to the back, as a couple Dapper Rabbits bring a canister with a hose attached to it, with a purple bio-hazard sign painted on the side.
—I don’t know how you found out about us, Mr. Paisley, but now we have to make
sure no one else does.
—Really, fellas, you don’t have to worry, your secret’s safe with me…
—We disagree. You blabbed our whole story to the others in the foyer. Lucky for you they’re all dead, but still, we can’t take any chances.
—Well, let’s be fair about this. I made you up, you were just some toons I drew once. And Archie didn’t even pay me for you, goddamn it!
Jack Rabbit Updike spins the valve on the canister, and another Dapper Rabbit holds the hose up to my face.
—Bottoms up, Mr. Paisley. You know what they say, you’ve never really been to Orange Island unless you’ve sampled the borscht!
The hose comes closer and closer to my face, but then the Dapper Rabbit suddenly stops, screeches to Jack and puts the business end down. I’m guessing the conversation went something along the lines of this:
(But sir, what about the plan? You said yourself, it took months to prepare everything…)
(Forget about the plan! Soupline this asshole!)
(And what about Mr. Knox? He could still release the cure! The secret isn’t safe unless it dies along with him…)
The Dapper Rabbit lifts up the hose, only to put it down again moments later. Before I can wonder if this is part of the torture, he turns around to face his comrades.
—I think this has gone on long enough, sir.
The strange thing is, he seems to be speaking, not to Jack, but to Casabianca Rabbit, who, standing behind Jack, takes out a hypodermic needle, flicks the tip, and jams it square in the middle of Jack’s neck. Jack cries out and curses and flails his limbs around as he tries to pull the needle out, as the other step back and prepare for the inevitable. He takes a couple steps toward Casabianca and reaches for his piece.
—Traitor! I’ll kill you! I’ll…
A hacking cough interrupts him. Here we go. The coughing progresses to spitting up black bile, as blood pours through his eyes and through sores that crack open on his skin. His hair falls out, his eyes sink to the back of his head, his buckteeth crack and fall on the floor. The black suit catches the chunks of bloody skin that slough off and would have otherwise plopped to the floor. After a couple minutes he shrieks as his whole constitution collapses like a Wicked Witch of the West, leaving a pile of black, bubbling putrescence. The bowler hat, with the two ears still sticking out, is the only remainder of what was once John Rabbit Updike. Some Dapper Rabbits uncuff me from the chair, and then the Casabianca Rabbit offers his huge paw to shake my hand.
—That was a highly-concentrated dose of myxomatosis. I’ll bet you’re wondering why I’m helping you right now?
—Among many other things… sure, I’m wondering that.
—The truth is, I’m not actually a rabbit.
The rabbit reaches behind his neck and pulls, much like how Updike and the others ripped off their human faces last time. A minute or so and a couple grunts and Casabianca is finally able to get the rabbit suit off…
—I’m Timothy Knox!
And there he stands, a handsome gentleman in his early fifties or so, speaking to me in a velvety smooth voice, a real Clark Gable where his former employer merely suggested him by his choice of facial hair, and not to mention wearing the same safari outfit the Timothy Knox in the pictures wore all around the walls of Roger’s house. Time actually stops for a moment as the Knox patriarch smiles and poses before a camera somewhere, and a big RKO orchestral flourish erupts and some of that Looney Tunes text appears over him:
THAT’S RIGHT FOLKS!
IT’S REALLY TIMOTHY KNOX!
The freeze frame finally ends after a while and time goes back to normal. He lifts me to my feet, dusts off my suit for me (as if that would help any), and offers me, Jesus, another carrot. I don’t even remember if I refuse or not.
—Let me tell you a bit of my story first. Life was good on top and the Island was treating me well, that I can’t deny. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel something was missing inside me. I had already seen most of the world worth seeing, and so I set my sights underground. I suited up, brought my elephant gun with me just in case and set out below.
—So that must be why Casabianca was so big… you were wearing two different costumes…
—Well, I didn’t find any elephants, but I soon discovered that we weren’t alone beneath the earth. You see, it’s not just rabbits that dwell below the surface, but an obscure sect of subterranean human as well.
—How in the hell do you wear two masks at once, anyway…
—It’s true, what you’ve heard. It was the rabbits that turned the air purple. But not all of them are as bad as we’ve made them out to be. You see, on the way down my mask busted up and I accidentally sucked in a bit of air. Luckily some good Samaritan humans brought me to some even better Samaritan rabbit doctors who nursed me back to health. It was this experience, being so painfully close to the cusp of permanent nastiness, only to be yanked back to the side of the angels by a rabbit, that truly opened my eyes.
—What do you do when you go into town? Wear three goddamn masks…
—There are a few bad apples in the rabbit kingdom, to be sure. But there’s a small and mighty few of them that are fed up, that want to see an end to the war, the suffering, the constant bickering between the sub-humans and rabbitkind. And being someone who profited so much from war, from prolonging the suffering of my fellow man, I decided to help them make a difference. And so we come to you today, my fellow rabbits-in-arms and I representing the sub-humans and their pacifist rabbit allies. We remember a time, long ago perhaps, where rabbits and humans lived together in peace and economic prosperity. But then the belligerent rabbits changed everything. They enslaved the sub-humans, and to this day they keep them in check with the gas. As long as the borscht exists, humans and rabbits will never live in peace. You know, I’ll never forget the wise words spoken to me years ago by Grog-Ohleth, the great chieftain of the sub-humans. He once said that the world is like a carrot…
—Wait! Hold it! With all due respect, sir, I almost got souplined by an anthropomorphic rabbit. Right now I really don’t give a shit about any of this. What is it you want me to do?
—Oh, right, of course. Well, Roger is somewhere in this house, keeping the cure for himself. For whatever reason we don’t know. And this pile of Updike here, one of the leading insurgents in the ongoing rabbit/sub-human conflict, was going to send someone to kill him. We infiltrated his group with the intent to strike at him right when he thought he had won, when he was most vulnerable. Having done that, we were going to look for Roger and convince him to give up the cure. But now, we think it should be you.
—Of course, you. You’re the only one left. The cure’s ready, it just needs to be disseminated to the public. Roger’s the only thing between us and peace for the underground. And you’re his friend, maybe he’ll be willing to listen to you. If you told him about us…
—I don’t know, sir. Last I saw him, he seemed pretty keen on the notion he shoved you out of a balcony.
—Really? Maybe he did, I don’t really remember… Poor Roger. He’s been under too much pressure, more than anyone should be at once. And maybe I wasn’t as good a father as I should have been… Oh, you’ll be needing this.
He motions to a fellow Dapper Rabbit, who walks over to me and gives me my crummy mask.
—I know you think the city made you as bad as all the others, but I can tell there’s some good left in you. You see, if even a few rabbits can be good, then there’s hope for Orange Island yet! Now go, give the people the cure. And take care of my boy for me, will you?
—Wait a minute. You mean you’re…
—I’m afraid I’ve concluded my business with this world. My place is underground, with my fellow sub-humans, and my rabbits-in-arms. Farewell, Mr. Paisley.
Another loud orchestral hit comes out of nowhere and Knox splits the scene, but not before leaving a helpful message:
THAT’S ALL THE TIMOTHY KNOX WE HAVE FOR TONIGHT!
THANKS FOR COMING OUT, FOLKS!
And so I’m by myself. I start walking and looking for Roger, wherever he may be. I go to a room and if it looks familiar to me, I turn around and go the other way. After about a half hour of this I find myself completely lost, and pretty much just hoping that I’ll eventually bump into Roger. And the sooner that happens, the better, as the farther down I go it turns out some of these rooms are rather aggressively non-Euclidean. I spend what felt like just short an hour walking down the same staircase, and had to hop along to reach rooms inside bigger rooms, each held aloft on large stilts. These tiny huts housed expanses that seemed even larger than Roger’s entire house, and all with identical doors that each led to identical spacious hallways with identical doors of their own. An hour or so of this and I finally stumble out of the identical door maze and right into, Jesus, another goddamn looping staircase. I almost give up then and there when I realize seconds later that I can simply jump off the thing and into a room down below. This room leads to a set of egg-shaped hallways. By egg-shaped I mean the room itself was completely elliptical, with a door that you step through and then immediately fall on your ass as you roll down a concave floor underneath a domed ceiling. Climbing the curved floor from the bottom and all the way up to the next door was something, and doing it three more times was something else entirely. No wonder old Timothy wanted me to go spelunking through the Knox estate looking for Roger. The only thing keeping me from turning back around, lining him up with his rabbits-in-arms, and punching them all in the face over and over again for putting me through all this was I was way too lost to find my way back anyhow. No way to go now but in circles.
Two more egg-rooms later and I finally reach… well, it’s something. Another huge domed room, with a clear glass tank in the middle, almost as large as the room itself. Small gusts of the yellow stuff waft from the tank and permeate throughout the room. I take my mask off and take a closer look. There are three other people in the room, wearing masks with hoses attached to the mouthpieces that connect to the tank full of yellow stuff. One of them weeps through the mask and bangs his head on the glass, as his friend next to him paces back and forth, laughing and bucking his head. The third guy kneels on the floor, smacks himself in the head over and over, and something that reminds me of the Woody Woodpecker laugh comes out of his mask in between each slap. They’re wearing their blue, red and yellow suits. So that’s it. Knox Enterprises, or the rabbits, excuse me, must have put Roger here, and split him up like an American Twentieth Century Koschei. No wonder there were so many of him to knock around the head. I start to go on to the next door, when I notice that lying against the wall next to the yellow fellow is a lone crowbar. I’m not sure what it is that comes over me when I see it, for all I know maybe it’s that laugh coming out of the screwy one, but I pick it up and put him out of his misery, and not before letting his other primary-colored friends join him, I enter the last room.
All that way, and I find myself in Timothy Knox’s old office, with all the stuffed wild cats. Roger’s at the very end, facing away from the door, standing before a mirror, buttoning up a white shirt that will become the standard black three-piece suit.
—Hey, Roger. Took some doing to find you here.
—The people in the black suits put me here. People who love people.
—So then you know why you’re here?
—I was hoping it wouldn’t be you. But I suppose out of all of them I did you the worst turn after all.
—It’s not quite like that anymore. I spoke to your father.
He doesn’t seem too surprised at this, nor does he notice the blood from the heads of his other selves on the crowbar I have in my hand. He ties a black bowtie around his neck.
—Is that so? How is he?
—Fine, I guess. He wants to liberate the sub-humans from the tyranny of rabbitkind. Or something like that. I’m supposed to convince you to let the cure into the city, make up and
be friends again, and everything will work itself out.
—Sounds like a good plan.
—There’s just one little snag, one I guess he never really anticipated.
—I still want to kill you.
He puts on a black jacket.
—You’ve got a lot of nerve, Jules. You’re the one who killed Morgan.
—I warned you, didn’t I? You didn’t know what you were getting into. But you didn’t listen. And when it didn’t go right for you, you went crawling back into your tower here and whined why me, I’m Roger Knox, bad things aren’t supposed to happen to me…
He finally places the bowler hat on his head, then turns to face me.
—I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about how you did it.
—Are you so blind you don’t know how things are done in this town? How did you think I’d do it?
—Any way but that! Any other fucking way but that! I still loved her! And I thought she would have meant more to you than for you to rip her mask off, like you’re taking out a bum for Archie to make the next month’s rent! Christ, it’s not like you would have gone to jail over it! You didn’t kill her, Jules, you turned her into a piece of garbage.
—No, Roger. You did.
—What? Come again?
—She was a good person until she met you, until you brought her to this town. And even while she was here there was still a bit of good left in her. All she wanted to do was leave. She wanted to sing somewhere else, she wanted to see the rest of the world, see places where the main attraction was something other than you might not fucking make it back alive. Say what you will about Stan Tannenbaum, at least he was willing to give her the one thing she wanted, the one thing I couldn’t give her, and that you never would. It’s your fault, Roger. All of it.
—So what now? You’re going to kill me now? You think I’m just going to stand here and let you? I have a mind to kill you myself.
—Well, that’s good for you. I have a crowbar to kill you myself.
He makes a break for me and I start running so I can try to get there first. We meet up somewhere in the middle of the room and I swing the crowbar and it connects to his jaw. He falls to the floor and clutches his jaw only for a moment, as if he could merely wipe away the pain and be good as new. Maybe the yellow stuff has made him superhuman somehow, which means I have to step up my game. I raise the crowbar over my head once more but he tackles me to the floor, and somehow produces a snub-nosed. He points the gun at my head while I try to push him off me with the crowbar, and in the scuffle he grazes my shoulder with it. Say, it doesn’t hurt me nearly as much as it should either. We might be at this for a while.
I flip him over and hit him with my weapon of choice a few more times and he smacks me in the jaw and the gut with the butt of his. We stumble out of Timothy Knox’s trophy room and into the grand hall where his divided selves lie dead, and then somehow the force of each of our tackles and blows knocks us through the Escher-vomit from before and into the main wing of the Knox estate. We rise to our feet, a little weaker and bloodier than before but neither ready to back down just yet. The windows are shattered open here, and neither of us pay any mind as the borscht wafts into the room until I see Roger softly cough up a tiny cloud of the purple stuff before he lunges at me again. We roll around a bit and I wrap my hands around his neck and I squeeze. He screams until his eyeball pops open and three black tendrils emerge from the sockets. Roger lets out a shriek as the tendrils wrap around my face, pushing me off and several more divide and grow where his limbs used to be. It tastes salty I say to myself. I pull Roger off my face and more black vines grow and grow but I grow bigger. Bigger and bigger white muscles pull Roger off and beat Roger’s head into floor. Bigger and biger I grab Roger by vines swing him around house I grow more teeth longer teeth bite off Rogers vines pound Rogers face two arms now three arms hit Roger. Roger scream put his arms thru my eyes it dont hurt I pull him out my own head I throw him to floor he goes through floor. I dig hands in Roger I pul an pull am bull red soft things blue soft thngs out Roger he bleed red bleed blue on floor roger dig in me I pull out roger but he pull out white things pull out bone. I ggrow more bones I take from Roger an hit him hit him again again I pul an pul mor he bleen mor I hav teeth long teeth in mouth and sum in stomach I bite roger bite his head he grow head I rip rogers hed he grow mor and more an I grow mor an mor I put arns on Roger choke Roger but him mouth bite me arm I grow another we hit and bite and choke thro roms. we fit on rom wit mor ded mans on flor ded rabbits Roger tak ded rabit swing ded rabit at hed I take ded mans won arm an wit yellow thing won arm hit Roger hit Roger Roger bloods Juls bloods thro chest sevin arms cut bloods thro we hit and hit fit throu a rom thro Roger in flor Roger hit Juls hit into rom mor ded thins ded cats ded animuls I tak ded animl thro Roger Roger hit wit vins he hit I hit in rom rom ful yellow yellow I hit Roger Roger rap vins round hed squez
I take Roger hed squeez yello in rom yelo purpl squez roger kill yello
his vins small Juls arms smal squeez he squez Juls hed juls squz Rog hed he kill Roger tun garbag
yelo an purpl yelo in room go out purpl go way yelo in Roger mouth yelo in juls moth
squz hed kil almos kilpurpl gon smal an small vins gon arns gon yelo in muth purpl gon kil Rogr kil juls
Kil Roger squez hed hard
Roger Bloods bloods on flor
Red bloods blue blods
Jules Bloods on flor
Yello in room
vines go smaller
me smaller arms gone
me grow smal
can pull head off
on my head
Yellow all over
I think I’m
It tastes sweet.
The air is yellow.
You know how they say that when you die your whole life flashes before your eyes? That’s not true, and I should know. Right when you die you see the one thing you wanted more than anything else in the world. It’s just as cruel as being forced to watch yourself fuck up your life all over again, but it takes less time. Ah look, there you are with the one that got away, ain’t it a shame to be you. See, like that. Here’s what the suspects in the case of Roger Knox’s untimely demise saw right when they died:
Jackson Miller finally completed his cinematic masterpiece of maritime erotica. This time there was no one else to compromise his vision. He cast his star performer, and shot the whole thing while inspired by the sublime, dreamlike imagery of Cocteau, using a harsh black-and-white stock, and crafting a menacing mise-en-scène in each and every shot, clashing with the serene images to create a poignancy that harkens back to Dreyer, his salacious dialogue and shocking subject matter reminding one of the irreverent audacity of a post-Dali Buñuel, his wait a minute.
What am I saying? I have no idea what people see before they die. Hell, I’ve never died for anyone else before, have I? How did I even come to that conclusion? Why would it even matter what the hack or anyone else in this whole case wanted anyway, they’re all scum, good riddance to all of them. I don’t even know what a mise-en-scène is. And this, this is just bizarre. And that’s coming from a guy who was rescued from a homicidal rabbit in a bowler hat by his Samoan bodyguard disguised as another rabbit who was actually his best friend’s thought-to-be-deceased father. There’s Jackie in some sort of beefcake magazine pose, what’s probably some other guy with Jackie’s face superimposed on it, I guess you can do that in films nowadays. Mermaids all over the whole island, how did they even get to the sand if they’ve got fins on them, not to mention tits that could sink a life buoy, let alone a mermaid, and… what the, they’re all the beat. A whole harem of Baxter-mermaids. How the hell do you fuck a merBaxter anyway? Now who’s this, another Tom of Finland fellow, this one with an octopus on his head. An octopus that sort of suggests the general visage of the beat, a Baxteresque so to speak… Jesus, those tentacles are long. And now he’s… Huh. I guess you can put them anywhere there’s a hole. Do people go to the arthouses for this? I mean sticking to your vision is all very well and good, but isn’t the whole point of art to share your vision with other people so that they can see the way you see, feel the way you, ah forget it. You’ll just have to put up with the fact that I can see and am compelled to reveal the deep desires of some otherwise useless people for a few more paragraphs or so, won’t you?
Stanley Tannenbaum discovered he had finally gained the Midas touch. He awoke one morning wondering why his back ached so much after sleeping on what was once the most comfortable bed in Orange Island, only to discover the bed had turned into solid gold. He propped himself up on his bed, placing a hand on his pillow, only to find himself bracing his hand on a solid gold pillow-shaped nugget. He went to his office and laid a hand on his statues, and with glee realized he had turned his once-only-dipped statues gold on the inside as well as out. He then skipped through the Tannenbaum Tower in his gold slippers and solid bedrobe and turned everything he could lay his fingers on into gold: trees, chairs, tables, desks, pens, papers, lamps, and so on, until the entire Tower shined a bright yellow sheen. A few employees and hotel hands poked an inquisitive head out of their normal duties to wonder what the hubbub was all about, and Stan, not content with his statues on the penthouse floor, shook hands with his employees and made himself a few hundred more. The myth was meant to be a cautionary tale, of course, but this was something Stan had wanted for years. The Midas of old realized he got a raw deal when his food turned to gold, but Stan eventually got used to the hard, mineral taste that came with his steaks and red wines. After a while, when all the gold mastication left him with little to no teeth left, he figured out a way to grind up his golden food into a mealy sparkling mush. Best of all, Stan eventually came into possession of not one, but two great gilded Morgan Wednesday statues. He didn’t mind that the love of his life was a lifeless replica, or that he had one more than he knew what to do with. He would drill holes into the appropriate places and soon enough she’d be just as good as the real thing. The only problem was, sometimes he’d have a hard time keeping track of which was the real Morgan and which one was supposed to decorate his office. He’d rise up from his bed with a sheepish shrug as he’d realize he’d been humping a statue, while poor Morgan was locked away for the night in his office. Still, such mixups only happened on occasion, and if Morgan ever minded she never said as much to him the next morning, over golden bacon and eggs. Soon enough Tannenbaum was able to hop and skip around the whole town and touch every single last sidewalk, street lamp, and building on the Island, effectively ending any and all of Tannenbaum Arbor, Inc.’s competition. A host of seven million solid gold subjects ready to do his bidding. And so he reigns to this day, the golden king of all assholes.
Baxter McCullough stood on the burning deck, whence all but he had fled. Him, that is, and every poor sap the beat ever souplined in his life. There’s the banker he got five thousand dollars for, whipping the splintered masts with his tentacles and pulling himself closer. There’s the socialite from last month crawling closer on her pseudopods, the cab driver who couldn’t break a twenty so the beat gave himself a free ride, now snapping away with crab pincers hoping to snatch back his fare, some entrepreneur or other he must have souplined with the hack, his long giraffe neck swaying in the storm, and there’s none other than Johnny Cosmo himself leading the pack. Meanwhile the flames rolled on, but he would not go without his father’s word. And then he appeared. Descending from the sky in peals of light and thunder, with two wings to cover his feet, two to cover his mask, and two to keep himself aloft, he stretches a hand to the beat. Maybe he can finally give old Baxter a normal life, one free from the shackles of serving the purple god of death, free from having to balance the world around him. The beat grasps the angel’s hand with one hand, then pulls him down and grasps the man’s mask tubes with the other. He falls to the burning deck and sucks in the air. It’s hard to say what he transforms into, because the nasties on board immediately swarm and tackle the man, creating a chaotic mass of borscht-given mutations. Sure it was his own father, and his only ticket off the wrecked ship. But, so the beat consoled himself as the magazine blew and the ship sank to the ocean floor, blood is no excuse for relenting from the great equalizing work. If he could brazenly soupline his own sire, then he could achieve the balance he had been striving for his whole life, where all are truly one and the same before the good and holy destroying borscht. And besides, imagine how big of a score he would be. He’d look forward to cashing the check in the morning.
Wally Lamb found himself back at his idyllic hometown in Kansas, back to the mom and pop livestock feed store the Lambs had kept running even during the Dust Bowl days (animals still have to eat, his pop would say), and away from the purple madness out East, which was now so long ago and remote it seemed as though those days were nothing but a nightmare more bizarre than usual. He looked forward to waking up extra early in the morning to open the store and help his folks with chores, and from there go to school, where he would do alright, not so much in the top of his class but at least he’d make good marks, good enough for his folks anyway. He’d play football and track, and he’d be decent at it, not good enough to go pro, but at least he’d make varsity during senior year. And the girl he left behind to go to that weird Eastern nightmare, the one he’d never leave behind from here on out, she was something special, really something else, you see. On homecoming, her parents wouldn’t let her out because she was grounded, but she would come out to see him, see dear Wally marching out on the field, and then that night they’d go out to the big bonfire. She would say she’s cold, and the kid would let her wear his letterman jacket. They’d sneak out to the football field later that night, and just lie there on the grass, totally alone, and stare up at the stars, her head resting on his belly. They’ll hold hands for what seems like hours, and then maybe he’d screw up the courage to ask if he could steal a kiss from her…
Hm. Even when he’s dead the kid’s not very interesting, is he?
And as for good old Julian Paisley, what posthumous boons does he get? Why nothing other than the gift of omniscient narration. I guess if you’re a glass is half full kind of fellow you could call it profound empathy. Gee whiz, I get to see, hear and feel everything that everyone else does, everyone, as it just so happens, that I particularly hate. If we’re talking the one thing we wanted most of all, then I’ve got a little more than a bum deal if you ask me. Well, let’s roll along with it, what do you say? Since I wager it’ll be a few more decades before it becomes an unbearable cliché, let’s round up some flutes and oboes and strings and strike up that tune from Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, No. 1, Op. 46, as the sun rises and the yellow stuff wafts over Orange Island. The yellow offers an invitation to the purple and they both start an elegant ballroom dance, then as quickly as the dance starts it ends and they both clear out. Nasties that scamper and scurry along the alleyways let the yellow into their multiple sets of nostrils and slowly transform back into filthy, naked, ordinary bums. The nasties banging on the hermetically-sealed doors suddenly lose their extra limbs and stop their unearthly shrieking, and those behind the doors see the transformations and slowly figure what the hell, open the doors up and let them inside. A squad of soldiers train their rifles on a nasty, and just before pulling the trigger the yellow comes down and they find a regular Joe facing down the business end of their guns. They stand around dumbly and wonder what to do as the filthy former nasty meekly excuses himself and looks to finding some clothes and a cup to start begging for change. Meanwhile, another emancipated nasty isn’t so lucky, as one of the foolhardy National Guardsmen accidentally shoots his rifle off right between the initial nastiness and the complete transformation. Oops. And all the while scores of tuxes and gowns stop in the middle of the streets, wave their hands around like they’re expecting rain, find a distinct lack of purple in front of them, take off their masks and look at the sun with their own eyes for the first time in a while. Some of them laugh and cheer and skip through the streets. Others grumble and retreat back to their hotels, climb back into their cars and head toward whichever plane or copter they stowed away upon, or throw their masks onto the pavement, with an indignant I just bought the damn things yesterday! The military presence starts fading away just as quickly as the purple, and soon enough one standing along the docks on the island shore can hear himself think for once, for the lack of the copters circling around the city.
And even on the cusp of profound social upheaval, some things never change. Back at the former Knox estate, and before anyone else, the tabloids arrive. Sixty-four people were found dead that morning, and they expected not to give a damn about sixty-three of them; until they saw the damn things, that is. In a town where all the nasties found themselves back to normal, the most freakish-looking things on Orange Island were at Roger’s place. After about an hour or so the gnats with cameras are shooed away by the representatives of what’s left of Knox Enterprises, led by one J.R. Updike, Senior Executive of Quality Control. Already a little more than miffed by some random stranger knocking him over the head with a blackjack and taking his clothes and credentials the day before, he seems none too pleased with what he has waiting for him. A whole bunch of stiffs who never made it out of the party greet him upon immediately entering the premises, and then up the stairs and into the library he finds four more. Two of them have weird arm growths and teeth where they’re not supposed to be, and one has a gold-plated putter also not anywhere it’s supposed to be. And there’s a kid, completely disemboweled, his gooey pink plumbing stinking up the whole place, and for all that he died from a shot to the head. They keep going, and find, oddly enough, Updike’s old suit, soggy amid a bubbling, viscous mess on the floor. He picks up his old bowler hat and pokes two fingers through some curious holes cut through the top. Meanwhile some Dapper Men find a big black crate, with WEDNESDAY in great gilded letters on the side. After a bit of doing they break the locks off, thanks to a handy crowbar that just so happened to be lying nearby, and find the still, suffocated body of Morgan Wednesday. Just to be sure, a Dapper Man places two fingers by her neck and gets nothing in response, must have been in there for a week, he concludes to himself. Updike lets out a sigh and lights up a smoke, noting to himself how curious it is he can finally do so for once. A Dapper Man taps him on the shoulder, sir, you should take a look at this. He lets out a cloud of smoke, figuring he very well probably doesn’t have to take a look at this, and lets the Dapper Man lead on anyhow.
Deep in Timothy Knox’s office, amid a slew of knocked-over trophies and stuffed safari animals from years ago, lies a stuffed animal the likes of which neither in the room has ever seen. The body of what was once Roger Knox, and the body of some other guy in a crummy white suit. Two bodies, mind you, and yet only one head. The head of Roger and Jules enmeshed together, their features even in death fighting over each other, neither one quite coming out on top. Well there he is, the Company Man grumbles to himself. His thorough investigation of the premises eventually led him to the following conclusion:
—Who knows? Who the hell cares? Tag ‘em and bag ‘em!
It takes a few Knox hands each to dispose of all the malformed corpses. Teams of two Dapper Men each snap off the excess arms of the beat and the hack like wishbones, while another Dapper Man braces the remains of the late Stan Tannenbaum as two others pull the putter from him in an awkward game of tug of war. It takes about three of them to sort of roll Wally into a bag, guts and all, and three more to carry the whole thing down the stairs and out the door. Compared to all that, getting the former Roger and Jules out is a cinch. One holds down the black suit, another the white, as a third Knox hand procures a hacksaw and deftly bisects the monstrous head, if not back to its original form, then at the very least to its original proportions. And all the meanwhile no one mourns for those unfortunate misshapen stiffs, no one save a lone cab driver, haggard, unshaven, so emaciated you could pick him up and swing him like a baseball bat, who breaks through the crowds of black vests and jackets and catches a final glimpse of that shabby white suit just as a Dapper Man finishes separating him from Roger’s head and right before zipping him up.
—Ah, no! It’s him! That’s the guy, that’s the suit he was wearing! My fare! I musta been out there for three weeks! Oh Jesus Mary and Joseph, the fare I coulda gotten from him! Everyone else’s satisfied here, ain’t they?! The Company knows what’s happened to their man, everyone gets to leave the Island, revenge is gotten all around, everything’s put to rights, everyone’s satisfied! I’m the only one comes outta this with nothing! My fare! Ah Jesus! My fare…
And at that, just like the unlucky man said, Stan Tannenbaum, Jackson Miller, Baxter McCullough, Wally Lamb, Morgan Wednesday, Roger Knox, and Julian Paisley all found themselves en route away from Orange Island, at long last. I guess we did a good thing, Roger and I, cleaning up the air around here. But I don’t feel like a great humanitarian. All I really wanted to do was kill the man, and I did, in a way. And I suppose I could have done without all that happening to my mortal remains. But what can you do? At least I’m off the Island. Funny how things work out. Except I’m not really off the Island, am I? You see, folks, I never really can leave if I want to, just like how I’m not really dead after all, just hacked up in the head with a bit of Roger’s nose and eyebrow and whatnot and tucked away in a bag somewhere. The truth is, I am alive, and I will be forever, whether I want to be or not. That’s my punishment. Most people see their life flash before their eyes just before they die, but only once. Then the beast wraps his tail around you and you get one punishment or another, sometimes you have to run around in circles for eternity, or walk on hot coals, or spend it as a bleeding tree, or what have you. With me they got it all backwards. Since I loved the Island and its people so much, and since I myself was such an upstanding citizen thereupon, it is now my honor and privilege to be able to relive my life on the Island over and over again. But not just randomly, mind you. No, reader, I am punished every time you want to hear the story. Every single time a curious mind wonders what happened, and anytime anyone who heard the story once wants to hear it again. It’s all up to me, I have to tell you no matter what. Gather around everyone, let me tell you about the town I grew up in, the town that made me the man I am today. Go ahead and stick a bookmark inside if you’ve got other things to do, I’m happy to pick up where you left off, at that one part where I kill the only girl I ever loved for my wounded pride. Can’t wait to get to that one part at the end, can you, where my best friend and I ruin each other’s lives? Are you finished? Go ahead and pick it back up, be sure to tell all your friends about the town that snuffs out anything good it can find. Come on down, stay in Orange Island for one more day. The air’s clean, and the people are all real friendly. How could we not be? We’re people who love people.