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.