Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Narrator's Tale, pt. 1

There is a small pub in North London. Its current clientele are vastly different from the sort that I remember. Now, the people in the pub are normal folk who have jobs, families, not the trapped men and women I remember from my time in the place. You see, I first went into the pub thinking it would be something completely different—as these stories so often start off. I was in the vicinity of the pub one Wednesday afternoon looking for a specific type of bread called challah. It is a kosher bread; sweet, with a golden color.
Going to North London felt like being in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, with towering trilby hats perched atop bushy bearded faces making up most of the pedestrian foot traffic. After buying the challah, and after a lackluster meal at a kosher restaurant, I decided that I would return to the outside world—the world largely free from Lubavitchers prowling the streets in Mitzvah Tanks—and what better way to do so than to go to a pub?
I wanted something relaxed. Something not too busy, but not where I would be sitting alone in a darkened room with only me, some sport on the TV, and the bartender. Of course, it had to be somewhere with some other people inside—I find that thinking to yourself is best done when there is ample opportunity to be distracted by people around you. So, using what I had learned in my time in England, I figured that my best bet would be something off of the main road. Walking away from the groceries and bakeries lettered with Hebrew, I chose a street at random and walked down. The street, it so happened, was called Dark Lane—and, though I had misgivings, I thought this was simply one of those places that had a dark-sounding name, though it didn’t deserve to. (After all, there was a town with the downright Gothic sounding name of Gravesend, and, from what I heard, the dead did not walk the streets in either the day or night.)
At first glance, the street didn’t seem bad at all. In fact, it seemed downright normal. The townhomes lined the streets in much the same fashion they did in the rest of the country; they all had a mini-garden out front with a few flowers and just enough green grass to break up the monotony of stone walls; the people walked the street in much the same fashion they did in the rest of the country (though, remembering back, I now see that they all crossed to the other side of the street when they went by the pub); and, by all accounts, the cars were parked in the same way they were in the rest of the country. As I say, I had no reason to judge this as anything other than a normal street in London. It even seemed to be a fairly posh and popular area, so I judged that the pub I spotted about a hundred yards down the road would be just the right fit for what I was searching for that afternoon. Perhaps, I thought, I could get a semi-cheap bite of pub grub to compliment the pint for which I yearned. If only I had kept the old adage in mind: “Never judge a book by its cover.”
As I walked down the street, heading towards the pub, I felt the air grow colder and saw the sky grow darker. I didn’t think twice, however, as this was England, and the weather had a tendency to leap madly from one extreme to the other with little to no warning. Perhaps, if I had not been so peckish and distracted, I might have noticed something odd about even the people: Perhaps they might have faded in and out of color; or their outlines may have started fading into the buildings around them; or they might have started stretching, like a figure in a Salvador Dali painting. This is all conjecture, of course, but I believe now that if I had been my usual observant self I would have realized that something was awry about the whole block and I could have averted the crisis that was making its way towards me. But, as they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty.
I walked opened the door to the pub—the front of which was painted black, the name of the pub in gold—and the door shut behind me. There was a sound that could only be described as a vacuum removing from the room all oxygen; and while that would be the proper description, it would, of necessity, be wrong, as I found that I could still breathe. I straightened my jacket, took off my hat, and approached the bar. The barmaid, a younger woman with pale skin, black hair, and gray eyes, who whore a white shirt and black pants, had a glazed-over look in her eyes. “Excuse me,” I said.
She turned and looked at me. Words fail me; she looked at me, that much is true, but she more specifically looked in my general area. The glaze did not leave her eyes, and there wasn’t exactly eye contact through the full time I stood in front of the bar. I ordered a Guinness and she nodded just slightly. Like an octagenarian with bad arthritis, the barmaid stood up, took a glass from behind the bar, and poured the drink.
I looked around. It was a smaller pub than I originally judged. There were five or six other patrons, dressed in all manners of dress. One man wore a zoot suit. Another wore a modern business suit. Another wore what could be described as a country gentleman’s outfit. The women accompanying them were dressed in an equally bizarre array—one looked as if she should have been in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, another as if she had stepped out of Sex and the City and the other looked as if she had been ripped out of a farm only seconds ago. All of them were as nearly dead quiet as one could get without being deceased.
The bartender put the Guinness on the top of the bar. I reached in my pocket to pay, and she shook her head—just slightly. I thanked her and took my beer towards the other end of the bar, to a comfortable-looking chair and a small circular table. I sat, sighed, and looked at the walls. There were six clocks, each showing a different time of day. Underneath the clocks were three calendars: 1891 (November), 1924 (July), and 2004 (March). Each calendar had a date circled in red marker. I looked around the walls for another, working clock, and found none. I pulled out my mobile phone, pressed a button to activate the display, and saw that, not only was I not in a network range, but my clock seemed to have malfunctioned. It was scrolling, and despite my efforts with the settings, I could not fix the problem. I took a sip from my Guinness, put the glass on the table, and that’s when I noticed the picture.
It was an oil painting, done with considerable skill. If I were more than a passing admirer of art, then I would have probably been able to pick out the attention to detail in the painting, the subjects’ anatomical proportions being almost dead-on, the way one of the subject’s face was contorted being a prime example of the understanding of the way the human body changes. Something along those lines, perhaps. But, the only thing I could notice was the glare from the foreground subject’s eye. It was infernal in every sense of the word; one could almost smell brimstone coming from those oil-drops that symbolized eyes. In the teeth, there was just the slightest hint of fangs coming over the lower lip from the top ridge of teeth. The subject stood in a pose of victory, as if he were holding a trophy from a sports competition. He wore a red English hunting outfit, black leather riding crop dangling from his side. In his hands above him, in place of a trophy, there was a black top hat.
Behind him, in the background, there was a shorter, stouter man in a blue uniform that resembled a bell-hop’s. Its brass buttons gleamed in the sunlight streaming in from the room’s windows. This led me to take a look at the room—a momentary reprieve from being caught in the hunter’s leer, one sorely needed to the shock I was to afterwards receive. It seemed to be a large library. Grand, wooden shelves held hundreds upon hundreds of leather-bound tomes. In the center of the room, on a table from which the hunter had taken the top hat from a mannequin’s head, there sat a few books, one of which was open; a small lamp with a green shade was in the center of the table next to a writing pad. If you looked closely, you could see a streak of red leading from the writing pad, to the edge of the desk, down to the floor, and on to the next monstrosity the painting presented to its viewers: Whereas before I only saw the bell hop, now I saw that over which he stood. It was the corpse of a man in a black suit. His back had been ripped open and the bellhop was in the process of ripping out a part of the man’s spinal cord, all of the blood and gore detailed exquisitely in the low tones the painter had chosen for the painting. I looked still closer at the painting and saw that, dripping from a long, almost viscous cloudy-white string from his lip was a tendril of drool, about to make contact with the gaping wound in the man’s back. I looked at the frame of the picture and saw that it was called “A Sacrifice and Its Reward.”

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Prologue to The Narrator's Tale

Saturday rolled around and I realized that it was my turn to tell a tale. I knew exactly what I was going to talk about, and, in order to keep it a relative surprise for you, Dear Reader, I will not, as of now, make the reveal. I left my block Saturday afternoon, today holding my umbrella, for I no longer trusted the weather to stay constant, to go down to the Sub-Pope’s Flock and was almost knocked over by the obscenely strong wind. I looked across the courtyard and saw, coming out of the block across from me, The Writer, who did fall over from the wind. I waited for him to stand up and then called his name.
He looked across, waved, and walked over. “So,” he said, “little bit of a wind today, right?”
“You might say that,” I said. I buried myself as deep as I could into my pea coat, attempting to resemble a turtle.
We walked in silence towards the foot path, saw a rabbit thrown into the air by a gust of wind, and decided that we should take the bus.
The main frequenters of the bus were students in the daytime during weekdays, and chavs and generally drunk teens on the weekends. Today was no different, as we went to the bus stop and saw four guys in track suits drinking from bottles barely hidden in their pockets. They each had a very fake gold chain hanging from their neck and, when we walked over, they nodded to each other and stared at us.
“Fucking hell,” I said to The Writer. I glanced at him and noticed that he’d turned paler than I thought a person who wasn’t a corpse could manage. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle this.” I gave a brief head nod to one of the chavs. “Sup,” I said.
They continued looking at me without making a move. This was good enough for me, and I decided that it would be best if I just took a seat on the bench and waited for the bus to come. We didn’t have to wait long, as one just cleared the hill and turned into the stop. “What do we do?” asked The Writer.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“The… individuals over there.”
“Don’t bother them, they won’t bother us. If they bother us, then we’ll worry about it.”
The bus pulled up, opened its doors, and we boarded. The chavs boarded. We took seats towards the back, they took the seats immediately behind us. If I didn’t know better, I would have said they were trying something. The bus started back down the hill.  After a silent ride and a couple of stops, I hit the signal. We got off, and the chavs got off behind us. My adrenaline going—mostly amped up by The Writer, who had been whimpering for the entire ride down the hill—I spun around, held my umbrella like a rapier, and jabbed the closest chav in the stomach with the metal tip, saying, “Have at you, rogue!”
The man collapsed on the ground and the other two bent down to help him up. One of them, who was wearing a red tracksuit, said, “Oi mate, wha’d you go and do that for?”
“You were going to attack us, don’t think I don’t know.”
“Bollocks to that,” he said. “We was goin to grab a couple pints from the pub is all.” He nodded at the pub in front of which we were standing. “Mate, you need to work on your issues before you go and piss off the wrong man. Go on, Tim,” he said to the one on the ground, “get up and I’ll buy you a drink.”
As the three chavs limped into the pub, I turned to The Writer, and said, “You just had to start whimpering on the freakin bus, didn’t you?”
“I’m not the one who attacked an innocent man with an umbrella.”
“No, but you are the one who kept gently rocking back and forth, whimpering and muttering ‘I don’t want to be stabbed’ under his breath.”
The Writer stiffened. “No I didn’t.”
I grunted and walked towards the Westgate and towards the Sub-Pope’s Flock.

When we arrived, no surprise, The Stalker was already there. The Student, The Drunkard, and The Traveler were all at the bar, having been on the bus that left just before ours. We all got our drinks and joined The Stalker at the bar. “I feel,” said The Traveler, “that I should apologize for our trip to London.”
“Er?” I asked.
“I feel that the day could have been better spent elsewhere, and since I’m the one who suggested the National Gallery, I’m responsible for the events of the day.”
“Balls to that,” said The Drunkard. “I licked a Da Vinci. How many people can say that?”
“And I,” said The Writer, “got a valuable four hundred words written.”
I turned to The Writer. “We were there for two hours. You only got four hundred words written?”
“I—yes. How many can you get in two hours?”
“Anywhere from fifteen hundred to twenty-five hundred. The hell do you do with your time, Writer?”
He turned red in the face and sputtered for a second before The Student said, “And I didn’t get kicked out of the Gallery, which I consider an achievement.”
The Stalker slurped from his cider. We all turned to him, but he didn’t respond other than another loud slurp.
“I,” I said, “apparently joined some sort of secret organization.” I pointed to the banana button on my jacket.
“Yeah,” said The Traveler, “what’s up with that? Where did you go when we were getting into fights and arguments with guards in the Gallery?”
I shivered, remembering the men with bowler caps who apparently struggled with figuring out what life meant. “The only thing I remember clearly was an empty warehouse and a man giving me what he called an Erisian Apple.”
“Wait,” said The Stalker, slamming his cider down on the table and leaning forward. “What did the apple say?”
“Hail Eris.”
The Stalker burst into laughter. The strange thing was, his laugh was actually comforting. One of those full-body, deep, belly laughs. I expected a titter, maybe something high pitched, reminiscent of a cackle, but The Stalker’s laugh was the laugh of a normal, well-adjusted—though maybe a bit too enthusiastic—person. “You’re shitting me,” he said.
“Fraid not,” I responded.
“They thought you were me!”
“Er,” I remarked.
The Stalker continued laughing.
The Drunkard looked between us and took a drink from his whiskey. “You know,” he said, “you do look sort of alike. I mean, in a passing glance sort of way. Yeah, I think that if someone had a blurry enough photo of one of you, then the mistake could be made. I’ll be damned.”
“Hail hail hail hail hail, Eris Eris Eris Eris Eris,” said The Stalker, finally stopping his burst of merriment.
“That’s what the pensioner said.”
The Stalker nodded and grinned. “She’s probably a part of the same Cabal as the guy in the bowler cap.”
“So are you…?”
The Stalker nodded, took out his wallet, and brought out a laminated business card. It read, in part: “The bearer of this card is a genuine and authorized POPE; So please treat him good and right FOREVER.”
“Wait a second,” said The Student. He leaned back, threw his head back, and burst into laughter, and said, “The Principia Discordia!”
“That’s right!” said The Stalker. He held up his glass and said, “To Malaclypse The Younger!” Then he took a giant swig.
The Student took a drink from his own glass and laughed some more. “I haven’t read that thing in years.”
“Still good enough to be a POEE Priest! Welcome to the CABAL, man.”
The two clinked their glasses together and said the “Hail Eris” thing, clinked their glasses together, said it again, clinked, and said it a last time before draining their glasses.
The rest of us at the table exchanged profoundly confused looks. “Any idea?” I asked.
“None at all,” said The Traveler.
“Barman!” shouted The Student. “Another round for the POEE POPE and I! There’s a fiver in it for you if you bring em here so we don’t trip over ourselves coming up there.”
In another moment, The Stalker had another cider, and The Student had another ale, and the bartender had a fiver in his pocket. “So,” I said, “you mind telling us what’s going on with this stuff?”
“You’ll have to read it,” said The Stalker.
“You’ll thank us when you do,” said The Student.
“Noted,” said The Traveler. He then clapped his hands together, rubbed them, and pointed at me. “Your go, Narrator.”
I took a drink and cleared my throat. “Now, necessarily, words may fail me when I tell this tale, and for that, I apologize in advance. I begin, though, with an invocation.”
“Jesus Christ,” said The Drunkard, “are you serious?”
I shot him the best approximation of what I thought would be a chilling glare. “Quite.” I cleared my throat again. “O God of Alcohol! Great thou art in thine wisdom and ability to unhinge the tongue—”
“That’s what she said,” said The Drunkard.
“Hey. Knock, knock,” I said.
“Who’s there?”
“Go fuck yourself.” I cleared my throat again—it was starting to get raw. “I ask thee now for thine guidance and mercy. Allow this in front of me to let the flow of words proceed unhindered, like a roaring tide; let them not trip over each other in the influence of too relaxed a tongue, but work together in the sense of something that works together really well. Amen,” I finished the invocation with a sip of the ale in front of me.
“Now that that’s out of the way,” I said, “I shall tell you a tale the likes of which we have not yet heard. So far, we have had tales of bloodshed, heartbreak, er, racism, drunkenness, and shit-flinging; today, we shall explore the more fantastic, the less concrete. We shall dip into realms that, so far, none of us have wanted to talk about. The ream of What-If.
“Perhaps you all know of the trope in murder mysteries, or ghost stories, of a picture whose eyes follow a passer-by. Well, I posit to you the question: What if it were not just the eyes that followed the passer-by, but the entire world of the picture? What if someone were sucked in by a picture, not in the figurative, but in the literal sense?”