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.”
“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.”
“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.