More Dark

On the after­noon train from Pough­keep­sie to New York City for a thing at the Krem­lin Bar — John and me and an empty seat that should’ve been Jack’s, except Jack was dead going on three years, body or no body. Hud­son out the right-hand win­dow, shin­ing like a scale. Win­ter light fad­ing fast, blend­ing the ice and snow and water into a steely red. More heavy weather com­ing, they said. A bliz­zard; the fifth in as many weeks. One body blow after another for the North­east and no end in sight.

We were sneak­ing shots of Glen­fid­dich from a flask. I watched a kid across the aisle watch­ing me from beneath eye­lids the tint of blue-black scarab bee­tle shells. He wore a set of head­phones that merely damp­ened the Deftones scream­ing “Change.” His eardrums were surely bleed­ing to match the trickle from his nose. He seemed content.

Another slug of scotch and back to John with the flask.

I thought of the revolver wait­ing for me in the dresser of my hotel room. I could hear it tick­ing. I dreamed about that fuck­ing gun all of the time. It loomed as large as a planet-killing aster­oid in my mind. It shined with sil­very fire against satin noth­ing­ness, slowly turn­ing in place, a sym­bolic prop from a lost Hitch­cock film, the answer to the mean­ing of my life. The ulti­mate nega­tion. A Rossi .38 Spe­cial bought on the cheap at a pawn­shop on 4th Avenue, now snug in a sock drawer. One bul­let in the cham­ber, fated to nest in my heart or brain.

My wife of a decade had mys­te­ri­ously (or not so mys­te­ri­ously if one asked her friends) walked out six weeks ago, suit­case in one hand, ticket to the Bahamas in the other. My march­ing orders were to be gone by the time she got back with a new tan. Yeah, I wasn’t tak­ing the divorce well. Nor the fiasco with the novel, nor a dozen impend­ing dead­lines, chief among them a story I owed S.T. for Dark Mem­brane II, an anthol­ogy in homage to the works of H.P. Love­craft. This last item I hoped to resolve prior to dis­si­pat­ing into the ether, but at the moment it wasn’t look­ing favor­able. Still, when marooned in the desert and down to crawl­ing inch by bloody inch, that’s what one does. Crawl, and again.

John said, “I saw him, once. The Author For­merly known As… A while back, when the gang was in Glas­gow for World­con. Me, Jack, Jody, Paul, Livia, Wilum, Ellen, Cana­dian Simon and Eng­lish Simon, Gary Mac, Ian, Richard G, both Nicks – Berke­ley Nick and New York Nick. Some others…all of us wan­der­ing from pub to pub after dark. Hal still lived in Scot­land, so he showed us around, although he was drunk, as usual, and I fig­ured we’d find the con hotel again by morn­ing, if we were lucky. A crowd busted out of a club and this chick, in a leather jacket with her hair shaved to about half an inch of fuzz and dyed pink, almost knocked me over as she elbowed by like a striker for the Black­heath Foot­ball Club. Hal stared at her as she stomped away, then leaned over to me and whis­pered gravely, ‘Whoa, lad, that’d be like fookin’ a coconut, wouldn’t it?’” John was a tall, burly fel­low of Scotch-Irish descent; an adjunct pro­fes­sor at SUNY New Paltz. He wore glasses, tweeds, and a tie whether he was lec­tur­ing or mow­ing the lawn. Hon­estly, he usu­ally appeared as if he’d just mowed a lawn, such was his habit­ual dishevel­ment. Nonethe­less, his charisma was unde­ni­able. The more his beard grayed and his hair thinned, the more irre­sistible the world at large found him, espe­cially the ladies. Like Machi­avelli, he was becom­ing dan­ger­ous in mid­dle age and I hoped he used his pow­ers for good rather than evil.

As John spoke, he cra­dled the mar­i­onettes, Poe and As You Know Bob, in his lap. Poe dressed in black, nat­u­rally, and had a pen­cil mus­tache and over­large, soul­ful eyes, all the bet­ter to reflect sar­donic ennui. As You Know Bob was clad in a sil­very cov­er­all and col­lar – a space­suit sans hel­met. Bob’s shaggy hair and beard were white, its eyes a corn­flower blue that bespoke earnest­ness and hon­esty, if not wis­dom. The pup­pets were on loan from Clara, John’s twelve year old daugh­ter. She intended to become a world class pup­peteer, just like John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. Dis­turb­ing, but admirable.

Let’s be crys­tal clear. I hate pup­pets. Hate them. They descend from a demonic line par­al­lel to mimes and clowns and are wholly of the devil, espe­cially the life­like vari­ety. The uncanny val­ley is not one I’ve ever enjoyed strolling through. John wasn’t par­tic­u­larly keen on pup­pets either. How­ever, as a pro­lific author with a con­stant itin­er­ary of speak­ing engage­ments he’d twigged to their util­ity as ice­break­ers at read­ings and lec­tures where the audi­ence was often mixed – the lit­tle bas­tards were per­fect to talk down to the kid­dies (As you know, Bob, this novel is the eleventh in the saga of non-Euclidian hor­rors invad­ing Earth from the X-Space!) while keep­ing the high school­ers and adults rea­son­ably amused through­out the expo­si­tional phase.

John brought his mar­i­onettes because we were going to wit­ness (and wit­ness is the best way to describe it) a pub­lic read­ing by the reclu­sive hor­ror author for­merly known as Tom L, or sim­ply L to his small, yet fer­vent cult of devo­tees. L fea­tured pup­pets and mar­i­onettes in his tales, allud­ing to humanity’s suf­fer­ing at the whim of the gods, and owned an exquis­ite selec­tion of the things, each hand­crafted by mas­ter designer W Lind­blad, a native Texan book­seller renowned for his macabre dolls and enor­mous col­lec­tion of rare and banned vol­umes of per­verse occult lore. Also renowned for being a career felon, but that didn’t usu­ally come up until who­ever men­tioned his name was as drunk as were get­ting at the moment.

I assumed John hoped for an auto­graph, maybe a few words of kin­ship from L. I wasn’t quite clear. Nor did I under­stand his obses­sive fas­ci­na­tion with the guy. L was a skilled, if obscure, author of weird tales, oper­at­ing within the precincts of such clas­si­cal mas­ters as Love­craft and Robert Aick­man, tem­per­ing these influ­ences with his own brand of dread and show­man­ship, much of it fueled by a loathing of cor­po­rate life, and, if one took him at his word, life itself. He’d writ­ten dozens of hor­ror and dark fan­tasy tales over the years, the bulk of them col­lected in a tome enti­tled Enemy of Man. The book had sold well enough to war­rant sev­eral for­eign edi­tions and gar­nered almost every award in the field. It was, as the Wash­ing­ton Post pro­claimed, an instant classic.

I owned a cheap paper­back reprint of the orig­i­nal immac­u­late hard­cover, albeit mine con­tained lengthy story notes and a pref­ace by the author. My impres­sion of L’s work was luke­warm as I found his glib pooh-poohing of the mas­ter Robert Aick­man as a for­ma­tive influ­ence of his disin­gen­u­ous con­sid­er­ing their artis­tic sim­i­lar­i­ties, and L’s reduc­tion of human char­ac­ters to ciphers a tri­fle off-putting. L the author was vastly more inter­ested in the machi­na­tions of malign forces against human­ity than the indi­vid­u­als involved in said strug­gle. Nonethe­less, his skill with alle­gory, sim­ile, atmos­phere and set­ting was impec­ca­ble and his style unique despite its debt to clas­si­cal lit­er­ary ances­try. His gloom and groan regard­ing the Infer­nal Bureau­cracy wasn’t my cup of tea, yet it pos­sessed a cer­tain res­o­nance among the self loathing, chron­i­cally ine­bri­ated, per­pet­u­ally per­se­cuted set. How­ever, there was the man him­self, and it was L the man that turned me cold.

L dwelt in a mori­bund Amer­i­can Heart­land city (although inde­pen­dent con­fir­ma­tion of his res­i­dence and bona fides were lack­ing) that had been aban­doned by most of the cit­i­zenry and at least half the rats. Afflicted by a severe mood dis­or­der, he main­tained few con­tacts among the pro­fes­sional writ­ing com­mu­nity, albeit his asso­ciates were eru­dite men, schol­ars and the­o­rists such as him­self. Per­haps this hermit-philosopher per­sona is what even­tu­ally cemented his sta­tus as a quasi-guru whose fic­tive med­i­ta­tions upon cos­mic hor­ror and Man’s minute­ness in the uni­verse grad­u­ally shifted to relent­less pros­e­ly­tiz­ing  of anti­na­tal­ist pro­pa­ganda in the form of email inter­views, ran­dom tracts pro­duced on base­ment presses, and one full-blown trade paper­back essay enti­tled Hor­ror of Being, or HoB as his acolytes dubbed it. That book was pub­lished to much clamor amongst his fans and a ten­ta­tive round of golf claps by the crit­ics who weren’t cer­tain which way to jump when it came to ana­lyz­ing L’s eerily lucid lunacy. Nobody enjoyed receiv­ing death threats or dead rats in the post. On the other hand, endors­ing such max­ims as “The kind­est and most noble act any sapi­ent being may com­mit is to never pro­cre­ate” and “Con­scious­ness is an abom­i­na­tion” wasn’t too spiffy on a journalist’s credentials.

John con­tin­ued: “We stum­bled back to the hotel even­tu­ally, although I don’t recall how we got there, and sat around the lounge com­fort­ing Paul about a ter­ri­ble Strange Vis­tas shel­lack­ing of his novel. Some­body on staff had it in for him, no two ways about it. Once HBO bought it for a series, the ass­hats sweet­ened right up about his new books and SV begged him on bended knee for an inter­view. How con­ve­nient, eh?”

Screw SV and that knob job who runs fea­ture reviews,” I said and grabbed the flask for another swig. I’d always had the luck of the Irish when it came to press, but Strange Vis­tas was noto­ri­ous for the sus­pect qual­ity of its reviews depart­ment, mainly because it was helmed by a blither­ing idiot who des­per­ately wanted to be his generation’s John Clute, and was instead doomed to a life of dis­ap­point­ment and neglect, which while typ­i­cal and deserved fare for much of the Brit Lit scene, no doubt stung like a moth­er­fucker. Among the ezine’s hand­ful of rep­utable free­lance con­trib­u­tors dwelt a rot­ten core of ankle biters who would sav­age a book like a ter­rier shak­ing a rat on the prin­ci­ple that bile drove traf­fic and brought some, yea any, atten­tion to them­selves that would be oth­er­wise lack­ing if depen­dent upon their own mer­its. Look at me! For the love of God! review­ers. For­tu­nately, no one actu­ally read the rag but friends, fam­ily, proof­read­ers, chronic mas­tur­ba­tors, and the aggrieved authors themselves.

Holy shit, don’t utter such heresy near me!” John made a sign in the air. “The woods have eyes, the fields ears. That eff­ing bas­tard Niall-whatever who edits the thing will have me killed or black­balled, whichever is worse.”

Niall is so famous and respected he needs no sur­name. He has never heard of you.”

You’ll be singing a dif­fer­ent tune if he gets a hold of your next book, you ham-fisted hack. I don’t know why he called you ham-fisted. They’re rather del­i­cate, actually.”

Speak­ing of coconuts,” I said.

Oh, yeah. Here we go.”

When I was a young stud, I’d dated this girl for a few weeks. It was all new and mys­te­ri­ous. We went to the ocean with another cou­ple, had a fire on the beach, drank some wine, all that tediously roman­tic sort of crap. On the way home, me and the guy are up front in his car, dis­cussing rock ver­sus heavy metal, the girls gig­gling and bick­er­ing in the back. I hear the dis­tinc­tive snap of a bra com­ing undone, more gig­gling, then smell coconut scent. The guy’s eyes pop out of his head and he almost swerves into the ditch try­ing to adjust the rearview mir­ror. I turn around and by thun­der, the ladies have peeled off their tops and are giv­ing each other a coconut lotion rub­down for no log­i­cal rea­son what­so­ever, except for our view­ing pleasure.”

My god.”

Whomever. Trust me, words don’t do the scene justice.”

Noth­ing like that ever hap­pens to me.” There was a world of bit­ter­ness in that admission.

I have lived a var­ied life,” I said. “Short, but varied.”

Great, now I got side­tracked with visions of gleam­ing breasts and…Yeah, there was a point to the bit about Scot­land. If I could only concentrate…”

L was in the house?” An easy guess on my part, but some­thing in my brain shifted with the right­ness of it as the words were uttered. The phan­tom click of a pistol’s ham­mer cocking.

Yes! The fab­u­lous bas­tard mate­ri­al­ized at the edge of the lounge near the bar. The lights were low and he looked ghostly with his wild hair and strange eyes. He wore an old-fashioned suit with a white car­na­tion in the lapel. And he car­ried a black­thorn cane. A twisted, sin­is­ter accou­ter­ment, that cane. I bet there was a cav­alry saber hid­den inside.” John’s expres­sion was as wist­ful as Bob’s eyes were blue.

I thought he avoided con­ven­tions. Ruin his image. Le Her­mit and all.”

So they say. Although there are rumors. Peo­ple know peo­ple who spot­ted him at the bar sip­ping Ard­beg at World Hor­ror in ’89, haunt­ing the hotel ter­race at the World Sci­ence Fic­tion Con­ven­tion in ’97, sit­ting in the back of a hor­ror lit panel at Comi­con when­ever. Jack swore they had a ten minute con­ver­sa­tion in the green room at Read­er­con in 2007. There was a power out­age and they sat in the dark and smoked a joint and dis­cussed the sui­cide cults in Japan. There’s a haunted for­est at the base of Mt. Fuji. Col­lege stu­dents off them­selves in droves every year. Sui­cide Mecca. Japan­ese gov­ern­ment tries to keep it hushed up, but y’know.”

For a man who loathes exis­tence, you’d think he’d be even more on board with sui­cide. It’s right for oth­ers, not him…”

Oh, L is def­i­nitely against. Anti­na­tal­ists abhor sui­cide. Goes counter to the code.”

Right, end­ing their mis­er­able exis­tences would trump the much greater joy of piss­ing and moan­ing about their mis­er­able existences.”

That, and it’s big fun to inflict one’s con­trar­ian views upon the hapless.”

Hap­less and gullible. Some peo­ple are born look­ing for a crock of shit to get their head stuck in. Jack didn’t tell me he met L.”

He only men­tioned it to me a few months before he died, dis­ap­peared, whatever.”

That’s unset­tling,” I said.

I have to agree,” John said. “But it’s a coin­ci­dence. L didn’t clip Jack. Hell, Jack prob­a­bly didn’t even really meet L. He got high and dreamed the whole thing. Plus the dude was a hell of a liar.” He laughed and had a drink by way of gen­u­flec­tion. One sim­ply didn’t take Jack’s name in vain.

No, man,” I said. “It’s unset­tling because Jack was obvi­ously hal­lu­ci­nat­ing at the end. That’s a sign of way too many drugs, or men­tal ill­ness. Maybe he was bipo­lar. We could’ve helped him.” I tried not to wince at the irony of my observation.

Sorry, I’m not gonna kick my own ass over what hap­pened to Jack. For your infor­ma­tion, I really did spot L. Michael C was sit­ting next to me. He saw the guy too, before he walked away. I ran over to see if I could flag him down. L was gone baby gone, of course.”

Of course,” I said. “That’s how men of mys­tery roll. And ghosts. And leprechauns.”

Michael’s tak­ing us for a few drinks before the show. You can ask him your­self. He’s keen on the sub­ject. Actu­ally knows L from the old days. Calls ‘em the cat food days instead of salad days.”

The last thing either of us needed were more drinks. On the other hand, who was I to turn down a chance to booze with Michael C, an author nearly as cultish and reclu­sive as the inim­itable L? Besides, Michael only drank the finest sin­gle malt, expense be damned.

The train rat­tled into a tun­nel and dark­ness. By the faint plas­tic glow of the inte­rior lights I had a rush of ver­tigo that tricked my body into believ­ing the pas­sen­ger car no longer moved lat­er­ally, but had shifted to the ver­ti­cal plane and was descend­ing at tremen­dous veloc­ity, an express ele­va­tor to the pits. Streaks of red flick­ered against the win­dows. The kid with the ear­phones glanced at me. His ear­phones resem­bled the curved horns of a ram. His eyes reflected the void. He smiled. His smile was the void.

I gave him the finger.

***

Michael C awaited us at Grand Cen­tral Sta­tion. We imme­di­ately repaired to a hole in the wall with an Irish house band and a sexy bar­tender decked in a leather bustier. Thank Jesus, Mary, and the Saints for those.

Most of the clien­tele were faux bik­ers and imi­ta­tion punk rock­ers. I sus­pected their tat­toos peeled and peacock-hued mohawks combed over to make office dress code come Mon­day morn­ing. The garage music banged and whee­dled with stops and gaps that hurt my brain. I ordered a round of Glen­rothes and we toasted good old dead Jack one more time.

Michael was clad in black, as ever. Black silk shirt and string tie, black slacks and black wingtips. His hair was black and curled spring-tight. He was pale, gaunt of cheek, and wiry as a hound, ever rest­less with­out actu­ally twitch­ing or fid­get­ing. His eyes, though. They shiv­ered and crack­led. He proved quite pleased to dis­cuss Tom L.

Sure, we saw him in Glas­gow. Dude was there, scop­ing the joint. I rec­og­nized him right away.”

What does he do? For a liv­ing, I mean.” Any­body who knows any­thing knows writ­ers don’t sur­vive off earn­ings from writ­ing. We all have real jobs such as being teach­ers, dish wash­ers, drug deal­ers, and crack whores.

Works as an under­writer. Or writes tech­ni­cal man­u­als for research and devel­op­ment at an auto plant. Or he heads a lab at a defense con­trac­tor. Point is, nobody knows what he does out­side of writ­ing because he says some­thing dif­fer­ent to whomever asks. Wilum and S.T. told me L bought sev­eral blocks of aban­doned prop­er­ties for a dol­lar and that he lives com­pletely alone. Pushes a shop­ping cart to and from an out­let store like a bag lady. Spends evenings on the stoop in a pair of John Lennons and a pea­coat, smok­ing for­eign cig­a­rettes and watch­ing kids smash in the win­dows of wrecked cars. Sleeps in a king-sized poster-bed in the pent­house of a his­toric brown­stone that used to be a famous hotel where all the Mo-Town singers and execs held court. Just him now, and the things that go bump in the night.” Michael had snagged Poe and was exper­i­ment­ing with the marionette’s strings as he talked, caus­ing Poe to strut and lurch on the table­top in a creepy pan­tomime of moon­walk­ing, then spin­ning like a 1970s break-dance king per­form­ing a herky-jerky taran­tella. In sixty sec­onds Michael had got­ten more of the hang of it than John had in a whole year. John shrugged and cheer­fully kept at his scotch, hug­ging Bob in the crook of his elbow like the pro­tec­tive father he was.

I said, “Didn’t Nathan B post an exposé on his blog? Explod­ing the Myth of L?”

Michael nod­ded. “As a joke, yes. A tongue-in-cheek decon­struc­tion of the L mys­tique. Nathan thinks, or at least he likes to think, L doesn’t exist. His the­ory is a few writ­ers got together dur­ing the 1980s and cre­ated their very own Richard Bach­man. He even went so far as to out that British hack, Mark S, as one of the orig­i­nal insti­ga­tors, although that’s a mighty gen­er­ous accu­sa­tion con­sid­er­ing Mark S’s best ideas were all pre­vi­ously writ­ten by Love­craft, Aickman.”

Yeah, I read some­thing by Mark S –The White Paws. That was his best­seller. Moved thirty-six copies at the British Fan­tasy Con­ven­tion when every­body got drunk and thought they were sign­ing up for a char­ity drive.”

The White Paws was fol­lowed closely by The Man Who Col­lected Bar­bara Cart­land,” John said. “But it didn’t do so hot, alas.”

Kicked ass in the Com­mon­wealth,” I said.

Does that even count?”

Nah, not really. I apologize.”

I hadn’t thought much of Mark S’s The White Paws. The sorry bas­tard wor­shipped at the altar of L and his work came off all the worse by way of com­par­i­son. L lite, so to speak.

Sadly, he’d been famously mur­dered by another author, an Eng­lish lady he’d cyber­stalked for ages. They’d had an ongo­ing feud over a metafic­tional story good ol’ woman-hating S wrote that painted her in an unflat­ter­ing light. Then the female author had the audac­ity to go and win the British Fan­tasy Award a few times while S was passed over with­out com­ment, as usual. Despite his pub­lic dis­dain for indus­try lau­rels and acco­lades, he snapped and began haunt­ing inter­net mes­sage boards the lady fre­quented, and post­ing pseudo-anonymous rants about how girls like her only won awards because they looked fetch­ing in a skirt.

He finally crossed the line by rum­mag­ing through trash bins out­side her apart­ment one night and she, hav­ing lost her wits due to S’s relent­less fear cam­paign, sneaked upon him and cracked his skull with a ball peen ham­mer, cut off his head and stored it in the freezer behind a frozen But­ter­ball turkey, or what­ever the fuck brand they sell in jolly old Eng­land. She was cur­rently fin­ish­ing up a remark­ably short stint at a women’s prison and her book sales were sensational.

I’d heard that S’s funeral recep­tion was attended by exactly one per­son: feared and dreaded genre edi­tor S Jones who’d show up for any­thing that offered free alco­hol and who’d once infa­mously hailed Mark S as the sav­ior of British hor­ror, much to everyone’s eter­nal cha­grin. At least Jones sprang for the wreath. HOCUS, the sci­ence fic­tion indus­try mag­a­zine, gave S a one-sentence obit­u­ary, which was more than they’d given any of his books at least. All very lurid, as befit­ted the community.

Michael said, “Any­way, Nate hypoth­e­sized the L Syn­drome was a sophis­ti­cated long con. A mas­ter­ful grift. Dead let­ter drops, fake email addresses, phony author bios, author photo of some guy dead since the Roar­ing Twen­ties. Started as a game, each of them pen­ning gib­ber­ish and send­ing it to Space & Time, Hor­ror Show, Night Cry, etc., etc. It got out of hand and edi­tors actu­ally bought the stuff and next thing you know, Tom L is a hot prop­erty, a hor­ror wun­derkind, the under­ground anti­dote to Stephen King and Dean Koontz, the Jack Spicer head­butt to Rod McKuen’s yam­mer­ing gob that is cat­e­gory hor­ror. The gig got stale years ago, but now these pranksters are stuck with car­ry­ing on the cha­rade. Hard to let go of those roy­alty checks. Nathan is wrong, of course. I’ve cor­re­sponded with L since 1988. We were pen pals on Usenet for a while before he got so reclu­sive. Met him on five other occa­sions. Went to his house once. The man is real as real gets.”

You vis­ited his house? God­damn it!” John pounded the table with his big fist and our shot glasses jumped. “That pisses me off more than the story you told me on the train.” He glared at me.

Today is the day to face the fact you are a frus­trated and unful­filled sono­fabitch,” I said. “And if you’d rather ogle L’s house than coconut oil drip­ping off a per­fectly formed breast, well, I am not cer­tain what kind of friend you are.”

There’s no rea­son I can’t do both!”

Michael con­tin­ued patiently. “It was just an apart­ment L stayed in after his wife died. Or dis­ap­peared. Sim­i­lar to the Jack sit­u­a­tion. What­ever the case, L camped for a while before he picked up and moved to where he is now. Noth­ing spe­cial, that apart­ment. Neat as you please, though. Ster­ile as a gynecologist’s office.”

What, no copies of theNecro­nom­i­con lying on the cof­fee table?” I said. Prob­a­bly sarcastically.

Just some­thing about the his­tory of pup­pets. No bod­ies hang­ing in the closet either.”

I didn’t ask the obvi­ous: what L was like, because I really didn’t give a shit. So I asked about our good buddy Nathan instead. “Where’s Nathan? He’s in town, right?” Nathan had been a bar­tender in New Orleans dur­ing the aughts. He got out right before the hur­ri­cane and the floods. His daugh­ter was thir­teen and work­ing on a PhD in nuclear physics at Cal Tech. Mean­while, he lived in a shack in South Car­olina and wrote the most del­i­cately hor­rific short sto­ries I’d ever read. Another recluse. Damn, we all had at least that much in com­mon with Tommy L.

No. Hell of a thing. Nate B and Paul from Boston were up north vis­it­ing  Cana­dian Simon at some Podunk book fes­ti­val. Those Canucks release a chap­book every other eff­ing week­end it seems. Paul got hurt in a sled­ding acci­dent, broke his wrist, but he’s okay. None of the Cana­di­ans in the sled were injured. Nate should’ve gone sled­ding instead of doing what­ever he was doing… He con­tracted a mess of flukes, so now he’s get­ting de-wormed. Gonna be a while.”

De-wormed?” I said. “He’s got worms? No shit?”

That’s what flukes are, worms,” John said, so drunk he sounded sober again.

No shit.” Michael made the Scout sign. “He’ll be crap­ping spaghetti for six weeks minimum.”

Every­body knows you don’t drink the water up there,” I said.

Men­tally chal­lenged chil­dren know it,” John said, tak­ing a huge gulp of scotch. He was begin­ning to worry me.

Maybe he got ‘em directly from Simon,” I said.

I’m care­ful to stick to booze north of Maine and I don’t kiss Cana­di­ans, ever,” Michael said, hand­ing me Poe’s reins. He rose with the sud­den grace of a man­tis and fetched another round: brim­ming mugs of a honey mead I’d not tasted before, kind of earthy and cop­pery and acidic. It felt like fur slid­ing down my throat the wrong way. My eyes watered and the hairs in my nose bris­tled. “A rare cask,” he said when I asked what the fuck it was. “This is the only place in New York it can be found and the pro­pri­etor only serves it to cer­tain cus­tomers on spe­cial occa­sions. I’m such a cus­tomer and a live read­ing by L is def­i­nitely a spe­cial occasion.”

There’s an occul­ta­tion of the moon in three hours,” John said.

Our fair maiden in the pointy bustier men­tioned it — the clincher,” Michael said.

What in blue-blazes is so spe­cial about this read­ing, besides a kooky hor­ror author show­ing his face in pub­lic for once instead of stay­ing in with the cats?” I said, wip­ing my mouth. My head felt half staved-in. Another part of my brain was turn­ing over pos­si­bil­i­ties like a kid flip­ping rocks with a stick and that part of me imag­ined the liquor was so rare, so exotic, Michael had paid for it with a Black AMX card he only used once a decade for this sin­gu­lar event, and the promise of ser­vices to be ren­dered later. Sex­ual ser­vices. This sim­ply had to be the don­key show of gourmet hooch.

We regarded one another for a few moments, then he leaned closer, so his chin was level with the table­top, and said, “Okay, look. Here’s the thing you rubes gotta know. Espe­cially you, John-Boy. First, L won’t be show­ing his face at all. This is the new deal.  He wears a cos­tume. And he doesn’t speak.”

I laughed. “Right. He doesn’t speak.”

He does not.”

Oh, yeah,” John said. “Meant to tell you, the guy – ”

Michael shushed him with a hard look. “No, no, don’t spoil the effect. He’ll see soon enough.”

How does he orate if he won’t open his mouth?” I said, feel­ing very drunk and very petu­lant. Pretty soon they’d be telling me the ass­hole didn’t walk, but floated, as if on a palan­quin toted by tiny elves in rhine­stone jump­suits. “Is it a pan­tomime like cha­rades? An inter­pre­tive dance?”

You’ll see,” Michael said and his eyes shim­mered with the void I’d been notic­ing more and more all around me every day.

Oh, man, it’s weird,” John said hap­pily. Actu­ally, he pitched his voice to a falsetto and held As You Know Bob in front of his face and pre­tended the pup­pet was adding its two-bits to the conversation.

Yes, weird indeed,” Michael said, bran­dish­ing Poe in a sim­i­lar man­ner. “You’ll see. You’ll see.”

I do hope it’s some­thing new,” I said, choos­ing to ignore their fool­ish­ness. “I keep the paper­back of Enemy of Man in the bath­room. I’ve read the thing cover to cover twice.”

Yes, oh yes, you are in luck, mon frère. L’s writ­ten a fresh book of essays, the com­pan­ion vol­ume to Hor­ror of Being. No one other than his agent has even glimpsed the man­u­script, but word is, it’s his mas­ter­piece. Dis­tils fifty-odd years of spleen in one rag­ing spume of a satir­i­cal opus. It’s called The Beau­ti­ful Thing That Awaits Us All. A howl­ing void of black­ness, I imag­ine.” Michael said that with what I swore was a shiver of delight.

It’s going to do for the anti­na­tal­ists what Ron Hub­bard did for the whack jobs wait­ing to be whisked to Yug­goth by the E.Ts,” John said.

Time and space dilated. So did the tav­ern and the heads of every­one inside. John and Michael were Thanks­giv­ing parade floats teth­ered to chairs, smugly amused by my agnos­ti­cism toward all things L. I would see, I would see…

***

The next thing I recalled, we dis­em­barked a sub­way in Brook­lyn and were on the Dr. Seuss-angled steps of the Krem­lin Bar that wound and wound and rose and rose from the glit­tery icy dark­ness of New York winter’s night to the vel­vety gloom of inte­ri­ors that had, in their day, seen a lot of blood from the innards of poets, and booze, and bul­let holes. Wood creaked beneath our shoes and brass gleamed here and there between folds of cur­tains, and the space around the bar was at capac­ity with an audi­ence that buzzed rather than spoke. A liv­ing, breath­ing, tele­path­i­cally com­muning Yin-Yang sym­bol. Inti­mate and imper­sonal as an Arc­tic starfield. Every­thing smelled of cig­a­rette smoke and liquor and sweet, sweet per­fume, and musk. The golden-green light tasted exactly like the last round of mys­tery mead we’d shared at the name­less tavern.

I’d been in the busi­ness a while, but though I rec­og­nized an occa­sional face such as a genre radio show host and a cou­ple of edi­tors and agents and a hand­ful of local authors, most were strangers to me, sel­dom glimpsed wildlife that had crept from the for­est depths to gather in the sacred glade and lis­ten to Pan whee­dle on his recorder by the dark of the moon. Lit­er­ally the dark of the moon as a glance at my watch con­firmed the eclipse John men­tioned ear­lier would be in progress at any moment. I was an inter­loper, a blas­phe­mer, and I half-expected a tor­rent of white blood cor­pus­cles to gush forth and con­sume me as a hos­tile bacterium.

John and Michael shoul­dered a path to our reserved spot in a cor­ner beneath a green-gold shaded dragon lamp. Its radi­ance made our hands glow against the table­cloth. Ellen D, famed edi­tor and host­ess of the event, came by and said hello and snapped our pic­tures and bought us another round in recog­ni­tion of Jack’s empty seat. I just poured the whiskey straight down my gul­let, inured to its puny effects, and waited for what­ever was com­ing, to come.

Tom L was not in evi­dence yet. His table of honor lay near the bur­nished wooden podium that had propped up many gen­er­a­tions of crazed, cat­a­stroph­i­cally ine­bri­ated authors. The table was ten­anted by two women, a blonde and a brunette in slinky sheath dresses, and a man in a slinky turtle­neck. The man was hand­some and clean-shaven the way one can only get with a straight razor. He reminded me of the actor Jan Michael Vin­cent dur­ing his youth before he socked some chick in the jaw for hand­ing his girl­friend an eight ball at a party and tanked his career. I hadn’t thought of Vin­cent in ages. I looked side­long at the women some more and decided they were way out of my league no mat­ter how smashed I might endeavor to get. Both wore long vel­vet gloves and smoked cig­a­rettes with hoity-toity cig­a­rette hold­ers. Nei­ther wore a Dal­ma­t­ian puppy stole, but that wouldn’t have sur­prised me an iota.

Jump­ing Josephat, that’s W Lind­blad!” John said, rat­tling his pup­pets in excitement.

THE W Lind­blad?” I said and rolled my eye.

Is that Jan Michael Vin­cent?” a woman stage-whispered.

No way…OMG! The Pup­pet Mas­ter is in the house! Eeeee!”I heard another woman exclaim.

Sonofa…he flew in from Texas!” John said.

Who wouldn’t?” Michael said.

Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I said and wished might­ily for another shot. Dranowould’ve worked fine. The phi­los­o­phy behind HoB was becom­ing more appeal­ing by the sec­ond. Every neck­tie made me think of nooses and solid over­head fixtures.

Lind­blad isn’t allowed in the UK,” Michael said, low­er­ing his voice like we were con­spir­ing to knock over the joint. “Lar­ceny rap. I don’t know all the details, except that he got in hot water regard­ing some rare book that was up for grabs on the black mar­ket by way of Fin­land. Ah, those wily Finns. There was a bid­ding war going down in some rick­ety ware­house on the Thames and the Bob­bies busted in and clapped the whole lot in irons. I guess twenty dif­fer­ent con­sulates got fran­tic mid­night calls. Lindblad’s chummy with more Arab princes than the Bush fam­ily is, so get­ting the gov­er­nor to pinch hit wasn’t much of a trick. After much legal finess­ing, he was sprung on the promise he wouldn’t show his face in Eng­land for a while. That, in a nut­shell, is that.”

Must’ve been a hell of a lot of kinky nudity in ye tome,” I said.

Not really. It was the for­eign edi­tion of a US weird almanac or an occult guide­book. Rather innocu­ous, you ask me.”

He did a dime in Huntsville back in the late 1970s for gash­ing some­body with a bro­ken wine bot­tle,” John said with grave respect. “Lived on the mean streets, close to the bone. After get­ting his MFA, Lind­blad was a derelict for like fif­teen years, or some­thing. L befriended him, scraped him out of the gut­ter and gave him a pur­pose. Heard that from Lee T. Lee knows every­body in Texas. Got his ear to the ground.”

That sexy lit­tle twerp over there did not do hard time in Huntsville,” I said try­ing to remain cool. “And he sure as shit didn’t do hard time in Huntsville in the ‘70s. Too pretty and too young. Look at those soft, effem­i­nate hands.”

Looks sorta hard to me,” John said with an intrigued arch of his brow. Luck­ily, his pow­ers didn’t work on suave ex cons.

Older than he appears,” Michael said. “Oil of Olay is a mir­a­cle product.”

I rubbed my tem­ples and counted to ten. Thank god right then two things hap­pened: Ellen saw my plight and brought me another triple of what­ever was cheap at the bar, and Tom L drifted from a shrouded alcove and stood near his trio of groupies. Stood, mind you, not sat. “Whoa. Okay, that’s a big dude.” I drank up and plunked my empty on the table and gawked, just like every­body else.

Behold the man,” John said with or with­out irony; I was too bombed and too awestruck to make that call.

Larger than life was a cliché that fit this appari­tion all too well. L was con­ser­v­a­tively six-feet-eight and broad as the prover­bial barn. His bulk was encom­passed in a heavy robe of crim­son silk that pooled around and hid his pre­sum­ably huge feet. He wore what I can only describe as an executioner’s hood, also of crim­son silk. No flesh was vis­i­ble, not even the glint of his eyes through the hood slits. He stood motion­less, a statue briefly ani­mated, that had sham­bled unto view, and was now once again frozen in place. Some­thing about his great size and sto­icism, the inscrutabil­ity of the slits for his eyes and mouth, the blithe obliv­i­ous­ness of his entourage as they chat­ted amongst them­selves, ignor­ing the giant entirely, scared the liv­ing bejeezus out of me, scared me on the level where the coy­otes and the lizards and lonely rolling tum­ble­weeds held sway. A polar bear had beached itself upon an ice shelf with a herd of seals and the seals barked with joy, wit­less to their mor­tal danger.

I’d seen a pic­ture of L once, a can­did shot of him in a sport coat and a bad hair­cut, hunched in the act of stub­bing a cig­a­rette into an ash­tray, gri­mac­ing at the cam­era as a thief with his hand in the till might.  A grainy, fuzzy, slightly out of focus pic­ture, but clear enough and con­tex­tu­al­ized by the pres­ence of other per­sons in the frame that it was utterly incon­gru­ous with the fig­ure in crim­son. The author in the pho­to­graph was of aver­age size and build. No way no how the same indi­vid­ual as this behe­moth hold­ing court. I said as much to my comrades.

He’s changed over the years,” Michael said. “It’s rather uncanny, I admit.”

How can you be sure it’s even him?”

Who else would it be?”

I glanced at my empty glass and sighed. “Could be moth­er­fuck­ing Patrick Ewing in there for all we know.”

The crowd was appar­ently suf­fi­ciently lubri­cated in prepa­ra­tion for the appointed moment. Ellen made her way to the podium where she effi­ciently intro­duced her guest with, “I present a man who needs no intro­duc­tion. Please help me wel­come Tom L to the Kremlin.”

Applause fol­lowed, although none of the rau­cous hoot­ing or whistling that usu­ally accom­pa­nied the appear­ance of a famous and pop­u­lar author, and the room sub­sided into a deep and rev­er­en­tial hush as the giant ascended the dais with a slow, mea­sured shuf­fle and then loomed with­out flex­ing a mus­cle or utter­ing a word for at least a full minute.

This silence gath­ered weight. A cur­rent began to cir­cu­late through the room and the lamps dimmed fur­ther, and as they dimmed, L’s already mas­sive form seemed to absorb the light as a black hole bends and deforms every­thing in its well, and his silk cos­tume shifted black and he was limned in white like the white-hot edge of a blade. Yes, my senses were swim­ming from enough scotch to par­a­lyze a rhino. Nonethe­less, that pow­er­ful forces were in play between per­former and audi­ence was unmis­tak­able and unmis­tak­ably unnat­ural. Even though noth­ing was hap­pen­ing, every­thing was hap­pen­ing. I thought of the sil­very moon going dark over the city, and behind Luna’s shadow, Mars through Pluto falling into a rad­i­cal sym­me­try, cogs link­ing and lock­ing along axial darkness.

L’s left sleeve rus­tled with inner life and slowly, hor­ri­bly from its cav­ernous depths birthed a pup­pet. The thing that emerged was the girth of a tod­dler,  soft and yel­low as decayed bone, and glis­ten­ing with a sheen as of jelly. It wore a skull­cap, rusty bells, dark sur­coat, a red cloak and red leg­gings; a diminu­tive mal­formed jester, or a monk of Fran­cis­can lore. Mis­shapen, malig­nant, dia­bolic — the hand puppet’s coun­te­nance was remark­able in its jaun­diced smooth­ness, its cock­eye, and demented smirk. Its arms were over­long, its spindly hands and fin­gers mock­eries of human pro­por­tion. The hands were rest­less. They writhed and ges­tured, both lan­guid and spas­modic, gracile and palsied.

The pup­pet gazed at the audi­ence, tilt­ing its head and shut­ter­ing one off-kilter eye, then the other. It reached out with the delib­er­ate­ness of a hunt­ing spi­der extend­ing a pedi­palp to taste prey, and tapped the micro­phone. Dur­ing none of the creature’s artic­u­la­tions did the tow­er­ing form of L so much as twitch. So dex­ter­ous were L’s manip­u­la­tions, the pup­pet appeared to oper­ate wholly inde­pen­dent from the man himself.

The pup­pet said breathily, the male ana­logue to Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe prep­ping to sing Happy Birth­day, Mr. Pres­i­dent, “I am Mandi­bole.” And, after a pause where it groaned like an asth­matic, “Tonight, I shall recite a story cre­ated by my bene­fac­tor, the incom­pa­ra­ble L. It has never been told. It is a true story.”  The voice seemed to emanate directly from the puppet’s twisted lips. “Imag­ine the heads of every­one at every table in this room dis­em­bod­ied and attached, like ripe fruit, to the branches of a tree in a field. A huge, leaf­less tree in a wide and grass­less field. The field is black dirt and the tree is also dark, fleshy and warm, how­ever it does not live so much as per­sist, suck­ling the life force from its own fiber, its own fruit, in essence a can­ni­bal of itself.

The hang­ing heads: your com­rades, your neigh­bors, your­selves, do not speak, can­not speak, for their mouths and yours are crammed with bloody seeds. You and they hang from the black tree in the black field, this tableaux illu­mi­nated by inte­rior flames from the heads, for the seeds glow with fire, swelling and froth­ing mag­gots of deathly light. You sway in the breeze like Jack O’ Lanterns and can­not utter protest, or ques­tion your Maker, or peti­tion your Accuser. You are muted by chok­ing mouth­fuls of gore. And this is Hell, my friends. It will con­tinue and con­tinue unto Eter­nity, until it becomes some­thing worse. Some­thing worse.” It repeated some­thing worse at least twenty times, imper­cep­ti­bly low­er­ing its voice until the words trailed off.

I observed this spec­ta­cle with pro­found unease. I felt as a man help­lessly staked near a colony of fire ants might feel, flesh crawl­ing in antic­i­pa­tion of the approach­ing swarm. A need­lessly sur­rep­ti­tious glance around the room con­firmed that every per­son was slack-jawed, faces shin­ing in rapt con­cen­tra­tion while their bod­ies faded to lumps within deep­en­ing shadow. John and Michael had com­pletely for­got­ten my pres­ence. They, along with every­one else at the Krem­lin, were on some dis­tant sound­stage in Hell, hang­ing from the Tree of Anti-Life.

Cer­tainly my over­re­ac­tion was the result of men­tal depres­sion and an admit­tedly ten­u­ous grasp on real­ity. Being wasted on god knew how many brands of liquor was likely a con­tribut­ing fac­tor. This tem­pered my urge to beg for­give­ness of John and Michael for doubt­ing them, for sneer­ing at the notion L was some evil mes­siah sent by the dark gods to spread a mes­sage of dishar­mony and dread. But only a little.

Mandi­bole said, “Now imag­ine the hours pass­ing, the days, weeks, months…Imagine the flesh del­i­quesc­ing from bone, hair peel­ing in strips. The black­birds feast­ing on eyes, noses, tongues…But you see every­thing that hap­pens, feel every exquis­ite inch of your­selves slith­er­ing down the craws of the flock…”

I rose and lurched to the bar, hand cov­er­ing my good ear to block the per­sis­tent drone of Mandibole’s ora­tion. The bar­tender didn’t meet my eye when I demanded a shot. He grabbed a fresh bot­tle of John­nie Walker and shoved it at me. I cracked the seal and had a pull wor­thy of Lee Van Cleef and Lee Mar­vin com­bined, and listed against the rail, gasp­ing for breath, and for a few moments this dis­tracted me from what­ever malev­o­lent shit the pup­pet was spouting.

Hey there, sailor,” the blonde from L’s table said, slid­ing next to me so her red lips were near my neck, the heat off her tongue trac­ing my skin in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the alco­hol ignit­ing my veins. Her body lotion was lilac and water. She laid her hand on my thigh and didn’t exactly smile, but made an expres­sion some­thing like one. “Buy a girl a drink?” She took the bot­tle and sipped, del­i­cate and lady­like. Her un-smile widened. “You seem sad. It’s because you’re alone.”

I’m with friends,” I said, con­scious of the thick­ness of my voice, won­der­ing if its intru­sion upon the scene would cause the crowd to turn on me, to hiss at me for silence. No one seemed to notice; they were a room­ful of wax dum­mies glued into their seats, heads fused, gazes fixed upon the podium. Only the brunette and the man in the turtle­neck were watch­ing us. Both of them were doing the un-smiling thing.

Don’t worry about these…people,” the blonde said, her breath hot and sweet with the John­nie Walker. “We’re all all alone in the world.” She wasn’t a true blonde – her roots showed dark where the per­ox­ide ran thin.

Of course we are. That’s why I’m sad. Man alive, I car­ried a torch for Julie Andrews. You’re more vulpine, but I’m not picky.”

It’s a dif­fer­ent thing entirely. Sun and moon. Heaven and Hell.” Her fin­gers roamed my thigh as she talked. Strange though, rather than erotic; jit­tery and unsyn­chro­nized as Mandibole’s hand move­ments or Poe moon­walk­ing as Michael pulled its strings.

I stuck out my hand, although the ges­ture seemed super­flu­ous at this point. “I’m – ”

We know who you are, Mr. B.”

We?”

Cer­tainly. You’re rec­og­niz­able enough if one squints just right.”

What’s your name, baby?”

I’m W Lind­blad. Whom else?” She swept her fin­gers per­ilously near my crotch, then tweaked my nose, leaned back and laughed coldly. Over her shoul­der, the man in the turtle­neck ges­tic­u­lated and pan­tomimed the blonde’s motions and behind him Mandi­bole exag­ger­ated a pan­tomime of Mr. Turtle­neck. Else­where, Pluto groaned and rolled off its axis.

I fuck­ing knew it would be some­thing like this.” I had to chuckle, though. The last time a beau­ti­ful woman approached me at a bar she’d bought me a scotch and then asked if I’d found Jesus. JC was still miss­ing, appar­ently. “Of all the poor schmucks in this joint, you had to pick on me?”

You’re the only one rude enough to inter­rupt this momen­tous per­for­mance, this rit­ual that will open the way and bridge the gulf between new stars and old ones.” She laughed a dog’s laugh with­out chang­ing expression.

Oh, okay. Amaz­ing work with that pup­pet. I assume it’s one of yours.”

You refer to pup­pets as it. Refresh­ing. Most peo­ple say he or she.”

No sense in imbu­ing inan­i­mate objects with sex­ual char­ac­ter­is­tics, even in jest.”

Says a world about you. In this case it is more cor­rect than you could pos­si­bly con­ceive. The pre­cise term, in fact. None other would do. How­ever, Mandi­bole is no inven­tion of mine. It comes from else­where. It’s a trav­eler. A visitor.”

In the back­ground, Mandi­bole said, “Some­thing worse, some­thing worse, some­thing worse,” and kept chant­ing it and chant­ing it. Sev­eral of the lis­ten­ers joined in and soon it was like a church revival meet­ing with the parish­ioners cho­rus­ing the right reverend’s punch lines. All of the lights had died except for the one hang­ing directly over the podium. Beyond the first row, all was dark­ness. The blonde and I sat, bump­ing knees, in dark­ness too.

The blonde’s face blended into the ink. Her eyes glinted red though, seem­ing to hang in blank space. “Why the ring? She’s gone gone gone.”

I didn’t under­stand for a moment, then reached instinc­tively for my throat where I kept my wed­ding ring on a chain under my col­lar. The ring was an empty ges­ture, not that acknowl­edg­ing this changed any­thing, and so the empti­ness con­quered all.  I couldn’t decide how to feel, so I tit­tered uneasily. “Nice. Are you a cold reader? Do div­ina­tions for old bid­dies and their toy poo­dles in Manhattan?”

I like Rick James and long walks on the beach. Maybe I’m too for­ward. My secret weak­ness. I read minds as a party trick. Free of charge. So, if you had to guess, why do you think your woman left you?”

Leave me? Ha! She kicked my ass to the curb.”

Why do you sup­pose this sad thing has occurred?”

Why is the cen­ter of the uni­verse as soft as a toot­sie pop undu­lat­ing with nuclear sludge ser­e­naded by an orches­tra of idiot flautists play­ing Hail to the Chief?”

Fair enough,” she said.

Wanna get out of here?” I said.

Her red eyes burned like coals. “A minute ago you were think­ing of our Lord & Sav­ior. There’s a fas­ci­nat­ing case.”

Is this a long story? Because — ”

Silence, fool. That Christ was a pup­pet, strings played by a mas­ter in the gallery of stars, is the kind of truth that would get you burned in ear­lier days. The par­al­lel between God and Gepetto, Christ and Pinoc­chio, surely an absurdist’s delight. I think the super­nat­ural ele­ment is bunk and lazy sto­ry­telling to boot. That the holy car­pen­ter was only a sim­ple lunatic with delu­sions of grandeur makes his fate all the more grisly, don’t you agree? His suf­fer­ing was the ulti­mate expres­sion of the form. Tor­tur­ers long ago dis­cov­ered that plea­sure and pain are indis­tin­guish­able after a cer­tain point. Jesus ejac­u­lated as the thorns dug in and the spear­head stabbed, and he waited in vain for his imag­i­nary father. Sui­cide is a sin, so they say. Unless you’re a mar­tyr, then green light go. Doesn’t have to be hard, even though it’s harder for some. Some have a tal­ent for destruc­tion. I swal­lowed sev­enty sleep­ing pills and half a mag­num of rasp­berry cham­pagne on prom night. Wow, my mas­cara was a mess. The home­com­ing queen was my sis­ter, if you can believe. She snuffed it right with a bag of bleach over her face on New Year’s Eve, 2001. Bitch was bet­ter at everything.”

I froze, dreams of a semi-anonymous fare-thee-well blow job in the bath­room across the hall going down like the Titanic, so to speak, and con­sid­ered the pos­si­bil­ity that besides obvi­ous derange­ment, the woman might be phys­i­cally dan­ger­ous to me, espe­cially in my cur­rent help­less state. The scene had taken on the tones of the ana­conda from The Jun­gle Book car­toon mes­mer­iz­ing that sap Mowgli with its whirly eyes and thes­pian lisp: trust in me! It seemed wiser to keep my trap shut and grunt non­com­mit­tally, which is what I did.

She said, “But he’s beyond all this and he finally knows. He’s a real boy now.”

What does Jesus know? The obvi­ous answer would be every­thing, at the Right Hand of God and such.”

He’s seen the beau­ti­ful thing that awaits us all. Wait­ing at the bot­tom of the hole beneath everything.”

If you’re say­ing shit rolls down­hill, I have to con­cur.” I turned away and she grabbed my wrist. Her flesh was icy beneath the gloves. I wit­nessed Christ bro­ken upon the cross. The sky burned. Christ’s bat­tered face was my own. The sky dimmed to star­less black and filled his eyes with its void. “Jesus!” I said and blinked rapidly and flinched from the woman, con­vinced she’d some­how pro­jected this image into my brain.

Mandi­bole cried, “Death is the aper­ture, the cath­ode into truth, the begin­ning! The begin­ning, my sweet ones. More fear­some words were never spo­ken. A more vile threat has never been uttered. Yes, there are worse things, worse things, and death is not among them.”

The blonde’s grip tight­ened and tight­ened. Oh, yeah, an ana­conda, all right. “That’s a goo-ood boy,” she said and her many teeth glinted as her eyes glinted. Not a ser­pent, but a mon­strous rat with tabby tom under her claw and pleased as punch. Good ol’ Punch. Or, maybe just maybe it was Judy who’d become a real girl. “I can see that you’ve seen. Infi­nite dark, infi­nite cold, infi­nite sleep. Much bet­ter than the alter­na­tive — infi­nite exis­tence as a dis­em­bod­ied spirit. Aware­ness for eter­nity. All you have to do is let go. Let Mandi­bole eat your con­scious­ness. Then, trot back to your lit­tle hotel room and go on per­ma­nent vacation.”

My choice is non-being via hav­ing my mind dis­solved or be a scream­ing head for eter­nity? What the fuck hap­pened to door num­ber three?” I said.

Be glad of the choice. Most don’t receive one. Talk to L after the gig. He can help you get your mind right for the voy­age into noth­ing. Don’t quit your quest a few miles from home. Don’t linger like HP and die of a tumor, last days spent wast­ing away on tins of cat food and the indif­fer­ence of the uni­verse. Don’t end it foam­ing and rav­ing in a ditch as dear Edgar did. Who’d come to your grave with a flower and a glass of brandy every win­ter to mark your sad demise? You don’t rate, I’m afraid.”

Some­thing cold and hard pressed against my tem­ple and across the way, Mandi­bole, haloed in a shaft of hell­ish angelic light, the far wan­der­ing ice-light of devil stars, swiveled and stared into the gloom directly at me, into me, and winked, and an abyss was revealed.

Oh, what is this bull­shit again?” A bulb in the liquor case behind the bar blinked to life as a div­ing bell sur­fac­ing from the deeps, and world-famous pub­lisher GVG appeared and pried the bot­tle from the woman’s hand where she’d stuck it to my head. “Go tell Tom I don’t care how many Hor­ror Writer’s Guild Awards he’s got rust­ing on his man­tle. I still don’t regret not pub­lish­ing that crap.” He smacked her sequin-studded ass and shooed her away, and she retreated to her friends with a hiss and a glare.

GVG owned a ven­er­a­ble sci­ence fic­tion mag­a­zine and had given me my first pro sale. I hadn’t seen him since the pre­vi­ous year’s World Fan­tasy Convention.

Thanks,” I said, slump­ing with sud­den weari­ness. “Quite a scene. One minute I’m get­ting lucky, the next I don’t even know what.”

You weren’t get­ting lucky, farm boy. In New York City we call that shit get­ting unlucky. Take a hedge trim­mer to that beard and you might not scare away all the nice girls. Or, on sec­ond thought, write some­thing remotely com­mer­cial for once. Yeah, try that sec­ond thing.”

The girlies like a man with fold­ing green,” I said.

Ain’t that the truth, my friend.” He smiled sadly and looked me in the eye. “The secret is chicks don’t dig seldom-read hosers like Mark S. So don’t be that guy. A lit­tle less of your Henry James lovin’-grampa’s favorite toi­let read­ing and a bit more twenty-first cen­tury. Come into the light.”

I didn’t have the heart to crack wise, or to con­fess that it was way too late for a career-defining shift. We lis­tened as Mandi­bole dis­pas­sion­ately described skulls stripped to bloody bone kicked around the equiv­a­lent of an Elysian soc­cer field while the gods cheered and did­dled each other in the grand­stands. But for me the spell was bro­ken. I said, “Not giv­ing Tommy boy the spring cover, huh?”

GVG shrugged and adjusted his Buddy Holly glasses. “I’m immune to the charms of pseudo phi­los­o­phiz­ing hor­ror writ­ers and their vam­pire bride entourages. Wanna see hor­ror, come see what my three year old and a bot­tle of rub­ber cement did to the cat and a pile of slush man­u­scripts in my liv­ing room. Gonna have to bite the bul­let and go elec­tric one of these days. Just remem­ber some­thing, okay? Dunno what that spooky chick told you, what you’ve got planned, but the only thing that changes when you check out is that noth­ing ever changes again. It’s no dif­fer­ent on the other side. No dif­fer­ent at all.” With that, he squeezed my shoul­der and darted back into the shad­ows, good deed for the evening accomplished.

The faith­ful shall be eaten first as a reward. The non believ­ers, the scoffers, the faith­less, shall be eaten last, or not at all. As for you, my sweets, your fate is this –” Mandi­bole ceased speak­ing mid­sen­tence and became inert. As slowly as it had appeared, its body now receded into L’s sleeve and the sleeve col­lapsed upon the brief, dis­com­fit­ing jan­gle of rusty bells, an echo of Poe and a cask of Amon­til­lado and the masonry of ances­tral cat­a­combs, a whiff of moldy death. The lights bright­ened and the audi­ence awak­ened, table by table, from its daze and clapped with sus­tained appre­ci­a­tion. My bot­tle was damn near empty and I snatched it and sidled away before the bar­tender remem­bered to charge me. One for the road to Eldorado.

Okay, you keep an eye on our buddy here — I’m going in,” John said as I returned to our spot. He smoothed what remained of his hair, scooped up As You Know Bob and Poe, and charged off to meet his destiny.

L had expe­di­tiously — for such a hulk­ing man– retreated behind the beaded cur­tain of his alcove. A can­dle or lantern flick­ered murk­ily on the other side. A conga line quickly formed — at least a dozen starry-eyed sup­pli­cants bear­ing books, tat­tered mag­a­zines from the glory days of com­mer­cial hor­ror lit, and in John’s case, a pair of cheap mar­i­onettes swiped from his kid.

Good luck, pal,” I said to myself as Michael lolled in his seat, drool­ing and mut­ter­ing impre­ca­tions in Pig Latin, far beyond pay­ing John’s depar­ture or my grous­ing any heed. I killed the bot­tle and left it cross­ways among the cas­cade of empty glasses and made for the stair­well, which proved jammed with a sec­ondary crowd of night owls who knew noth­ing of the read­ing we’d just sur­vived, or the beau­ti­ful thing that W Lind­blad swore awaited us all, but were instead stand­ing on line for the mid­night jazz club upstairs to throw open its doors. How nice for them to be them and not us!

No one stepped aside, kissy-faces too enam­ored with one another, too intox­i­cated by their own adorable­ness, each of them locked elbow and flank in a swanky retro mass, as I pushed my way through the gaunt­let of cock­tail dresses, feath­ery boas and pin­stripe suits and white fedo­ras. The peo­ple smelled pretty, and all I could see were their skulls dan­gling in Hell. Fuck you, Tommy L, fuck you and your lit­tle hand pup­pet too!

Freez­ing rain tick-tacked on the side­walk awning, the roofs of parked cars. I tight­ened the col­lar of my over­coat and hunched in the stair­well, shar­ing the smoke of a drunk woman bal­anced on high heels as she waved a cig­a­rette and cack­led into her cell phone. The air was just chilly enough to slice through the fog and remind me of how much alco­hol I’d guz­zled over the past few hours, and for the first time since I’d walked into the Krem­lin I visu­al­ized the gun wait­ing for me in the dresser drawer, back at the hotel. The psy­cho blonde had accused me of lone­li­ness, but that wasn’t quite right. Lone­li­ness didn’t jus­tify self-destruction. Despair and grief, self-loathing and self-recrimination, fail­ure and deser­tion… those were jus­ti­fi­ca­tions.

Yet, the whole sui­cide plan sounded lame in the frigid glare of the lamps along the boule­vard; a piker’s lament to avoid pay­ing the tab. Robert Ser­vice once said dying is easy, it’s the keep­ing on liv­ing that’s hard, and of course the poet was on the money, as poets usu­ally are when it comes to smugly self-evident affir­ma­tions. I planned to blast a hole through my skull less because of insur­mount­able heartache, but more because I’d become too weak and too chick­en­shit to carry the cross one more god­damned bloody step. The mar­bles were going into the bag and I was headed home, exactly like any self­ish, self-indulgent fifth grade snot was wont to do when con­fronted with one los­ing throw too many.

I’d almost decided to ask the woman screech­ing into her phone for a cig­a­rette despite the fact I wasn’t a smoker when John and Michael burst through the doors yelling and flail­ing their arms. I couldn’t under­stand a word – a string of gut­tural yips and clicks and snarls. They were men with hyena heads.

That did the trick. I leaned over the rail and vom­ited up the dark heart of the cosmos.

***

Michael went his way, bark­ing at slow-cruising taxis that refused to stop while John and I hus­tled and caught the last train out of the city. Our car was empty. A throng of night-shift work­ers pressed on at one lonely stop, seemed to take our mea­sure and with exchanges of warn­ing looks moved on to the next car. Same deal with the squad of off-duty Army grunts a few min­utes later.

John and I didn’t say much. His face resem­bled forty miles of bad road, as a coun­try philoso­pher might say; hair disheveled and mat­ted, eyes bul­bous and streaked red, nose a bloody car­na­tion; the gen­teel professor’s bark stripped to reveal a carv­ing: the prim­i­tive beast in the mouth of his cave. His pup­pets were in worse shape. Or pup­pet. He’d come from the Krem­lin with Poe dan­gling from his fist, As You Know Bob con­spic­u­ously absent. Miss­ing in action, as it were.

The train jarred as it trav­eled the rails, and my teeth clicked and the lights  threat­ened to extin­guish every few sec­onds, and Poe’s wooden body lay flopped neg­li­gently across the worn spot on John’s knee. The puppet’s head knocked rhyth­mi­cally against the metal seat divider. Some­thing in John’s demeanor made me loath to broach the sub­ject, and thus I sat­is­fied my deep­en­ing curios­ity with those side­long glances we men often shoot at dar­ing cleav­age or the dude stand­ing at the next uri­nal, but it was Poe that attracted my atten­tion. Poe’s vis­age had warped the way wood and plas­tic do when exposed to melt­ing heat. One eye was lost in slag; the other had crept toward the hair­line. No longer fash­ion­ably soul­ful, that eye — now an oblong black mar­ble, or an over­large pit of a rot­ten piece of fruit.

I recalled Mandibole’s lov­ing and love­less descrip­tion of bloody seeds and thought that yes, blood doth turn black. Poe’s eye was the seed of cor­rup­tion coag­u­lated in a mem­brane of evil. It wasn’t watch­ing me, though my poor abused mind would’ve eas­ily swal­lowed the premise like I’d swal­lowed so much scotch. Poe wasn’t watch­ing any­thing; what­ever energy might’ve been imprinted upon it from kind­li­ness and love, was gone. My recog­ni­tion  that the lit­tle pup­pet had been per­verted into a dead, alien husk, and that nei­ther Clara’s dot­ing joy nor John’s pater­nal benev­o­lence had done fuck­all to pre­vent such an omi­nous trans­mo­gri­fi­ca­tion, caused my rebel­lious innards to gur­gle and shift. I dared not dwell on As You Know Bob’s fate.

That steady tap-tappity-tapping of Poe’s skull against metal was too much in the end. I said, “Did you get his autograph?”

L doesn’t sign auto­graphs anymore.”

Doesn’t speak, doesn’t sign books, what does he do?” I said, try­ing for a laugh, a smirk, any­thing remotely human, and while I waited a string of ghostly lights of an elec­tri­cal sub­sta­tion floated past the win­dow, trail­ing into oblivion.

John smiled, a wide, car­niv­o­rous yawn of jaws and teeth. “It was…good. He wants what’s best. What’s best. We’re com­ing out of the cave. Got to, can’t go on like this. Got to come out of the dark.”

In my years with John, drunk, sober, and realms between those antipodes, his tone was a new one, his slur a thing unfa­mil­iar as some­thing dredged onto the beach from the deep sea. Tonight had been a night of such unwel­come curiosi­ties, and con­sid­er­ing my cir­cum­stances, per­haps a punc­tu­at­ing spike in the bizarre was appro­pri­ate, my karma if karma existed, if the uni­verse kept tabs in its own insen­sate fash­ion, mind­less as gravity.

We dis­em­barked at the final sta­tion and slouched past dim and silent kiosks through frosty glass doors into a gath­er­ing storm. John paused at a trash bin and whis­pered to Poe, then he sneered and dropped the pup­pet into the trash and walked on with­out a back­ward glance. I called out a fee­ble good­bye that John returned with a per­func­tory wave, then he was in his car, its door thunk­ing shut. I started my own rental and drove to the hotel near the New­burgh Air­port where the night man had on a soc­cer game and was relax­ing with a big stack of Jack Chick pam­phlets. I bought a soda from the machine in the hall because my tongue was swollen and leathery.

Man, it was a real let down.

I peeled some bills off the dwin­dling roll and left them on the cof­fee table for the maid, hop­ing she’d get them after the cops and the medics were done. I sat on the edge of the unmussed bed in that ster­ile, neat-as-a-pin, one-hundred-and-twenty-dollar-a-night hotel room. It began to snow and flakes piled against the win­dow. The tele­vi­sion was broad­cast­ing non­sense; chains of Amer­i­can flags, sun and moon slid­ing atop one another to make black rings, my wife’s face in the faces of ene­mies and strangers, a Nazi aim­ing his rifle at another man’s back, tribal hunters rac­ing across a moor, snarls done in red ocher, Sufis keen­ing in a tem­ple, my wife again and again, and Mandi­bole cut­ting through it all, speak­ing in tongues except for one clear strain in the cacoph­ony: clear as a bell Michael inton­ing through the creature’s mouth that noth­ing was ever easy, not this easy, and that noth­ing was ever clean, this wouldn’t be clean, the Eter­nal Foot­man had the check ready, no shirk­ing the bill, no escape. This couldn’t end like this because noth­ing ever really ended, mat­ter sim­ply deformed, that’s what the Pur­ple Peo­ple Eaters wanted to tell us, why they’d sent a rep­re­sen­ta­tive across the spoiled Milky Way to spread the word.

The blonde laughed at me as her eyes slid around most fright­fully and my wife’s head super­im­posed and shim­mered there, rip­pling with sta­tic, frozen in time.

I picked up the gun and I thought about my dogs that she kept in the divorce, and I thought of her as she was when we met, when she told me that it was over, and that dis­em­bod­ied voice replayed in my ear, promis­ing that it would never be over, and I wished I’d run after John, wished that I’d res­cued Poe from the trash­can grave and maybe I should put the gun down and get into the car and go do just that, but in this uni­verse I’d already squeezed the trigger.

***

GVG and Michael were right. L and his demon spokes-puppet were right — nothing’s dif­fer­ent, noth­ing changes. Lasts longer, though.

 

 

Laird Bar­ron is the author of sev­eral books, includ­ing The Imago Sequence, Occul­ta­tion, and The Cron­ing. His work has appeared in many mag­a­zines and antholo­gies. An expa­tri­ate Alaskan, Bar­ron cur­rently resides in Upstate New York.