I had inchoate plans to go back after another two years. I went to work for a new place and it was good. I rented a house outside the city with a dark and tasy corner room on the third floor where I could listen to Bernsey and readings of Samarra Cain and sit among the crinkling lights of the iron-lined hearth. My neighbors were amiable people, an actuary with a sharp part and a public school administrator, who had me over for whist on alternate week-ends and once set me up with their niece whom I found charming and pretty and fulsomely shallow.
I took the train in and out of the city. One saw it growing from nothing more menacing than a distant grey line. Spiky towers and other nettles sprung up almost at once, and the sneaky arms of the thing were cast about you before you could realize it. I felt often like a great octopus were collecting me up and pulling me plainly toward its horrible beak, against which the meager carapace of the train would be nothing. And so to occupy myself I pretended to read the paper on the way into town, and some journal coming out. Though it should have relieved me, coming out always left me shaky with residual fears; plus I was otherwise free to think on going back in the next day. While I pretended to read, I said things to myself over and over, some of which I’d told myself at the Convention. They weren’t much on their own, but they had a power apart from their simple semantics. After awhile I felt at more ease.
At work I had an office and I had work. I had work in great piles of paper and large cups of pens. I had a file full up of persons who needed to meet with me in a given day. I had unspallable blocks of time across a desk from another person whose words and gesticulations toward papers tessellating my desktop were seldom congruous.
It seemed I was getting tired. Once a week I left early. If there was no earlier train I sat in one of the station’s long benches and watched the panhandlers ply. But some days of this and I thought that the sounds of all the people, all the clackety business soles on the marble floors, were oppressive. I spent inordinate time in the washroom until the same deal. Then I took in to a small chapel around the corner from the station scarcely wide enough for an aisle beside the singlet pews. In prayer I was stuck. I felt most ill and run-down in there but at least it was quieter and I could pass the time until the next train.
My boss had an assistant I think was fond of me. He had very short hair with a fluff of balding-hair on top and a half-leavened face. He told me when I looked ill and sent me home summarily. But as I took more and more partial-days, he sent me warnings. “Hombre’s tripping on accountability today; take a pill and rough it.” “Late start but lack of examples.” “Feel free but don’t be so.”
I needed a whole week off. The dregs of vacation, sick time, and personal days podged together. When I waked each day, the pallor of dawn tasted of sick and drainéd death. Retreating under covers, my own incessant thoughts terrified me, shouting in the black void. They were nothing but here-there lyrics, figures, shapes, slogans. I made toast slack in my robe and no underwear and ate over the sink dreading the table. Not knowing what I wanted, or could want, I slept as much as possible. I waked with headaches of too much sleep, too many disintegrating dreams, my back aching, the sheets smelling deeply of bedsoil.
The day to come back I was up all night and carefully washed, carefully dressed. I did up my tie seventy times, in greater or lesser steps of length too wide or too short, and then the knot wasn’t right, or the dent asymmetric or unround. I rode the train reading business articles out loud, moving on to stock quotes, commodities. The office was too white and bare and at once the slack walls were apulse with somethin malign behind them. I was there catching up. I put off meetings, I eschewed new work. Catching up, shifting piles to piles, one big Towers of Hanoi. Eventually the piles would be in perfect order and ergo the work would be done. I left for lunch ten minutes early smiling weakly at the boss’s assistant passing in the hall.
I walked down the street toward the trendy arcade of cafés and tearooms. My belly was not unfull. In fact my whole body had a fullness-to-the-brim, a sense of tension at whatever failsafe membrane kept it all in during extremities. The street had a bus stop and the bus also stopped at the north end. Where, writing an uncomfortable check I got in the time machine and got back to Year A, very early Monday morning, thumps far away but otherwise only flaps and thwipples, dirt compacted by bare feet, titters, and the choir of starlight in one’s soul.
I forgot about this. Sunday night and the dreariness of setting up the party, exhaustion, the sound of fan breezes blowing over passed-out toga-wearers. I trod the grass, still very much fresh and unbent. I listened to cicadas begin to drone the way they would the entire week, like an incessant flashing warning light. The air was lightening of dew and carried the faintest smell of turned-up grass and moist, black soil.
A bazaari choked on his snore and woke. He saw me—he must have seen a sorry wreck. I had on my work polo and slacks and worn loafers becoming chequy with muck. Usually he says, “Welcome to the spectacular bubble of Elsewhen!” but that night he asked if I needed tent poles or condoms. One unfortunate consequence of the mixing of different times was a sore outbreak of Challenger super-syphilis.
I hoofed it for a good while. I saw a family running around stupid with sparklers. The boy was ashen-blonde with a cleft lip. The father had deep golden-gray hair and a smidge of a ghost of a hairlip scar poking from under his moustache. The woman held his hand and laughed. She was lank but with a big bottom and tangled dark brown hair. The girl was a picture of her and didn’t resemble him at all.
Such was the transformation of mood all about me, from the tempest I had felt myself a part of only an hour before, elsewhen, that I was starting to come down. I still felt my heart jag forcefully in my chest. I still felt with every step like a cryptic hand were waiting to shove me and topple me ass-over-teakettle. I felt in my pocket: the little mint-tin of barbiturates. Et in Arcadia, I thought. I popped two and walked far enough, four rings and five paths, among all the sleeping masses of forever and the sparklers and little muted trumpet-solos of the few, that I felt them try to topple me, and I let myself collapse on a tuft of cool clover, and watched the stars bleed into the night and the black of my own eyelids.
In the mornings those days I usually dreamt about stale haciendas and dancing in a courtyard with a warm lithe body enveloped in silk and tulle. The faces were those of women who had haunted me. I tried to dance as carefree as possible, I said to the women, “what élan I have!” but I felt revolution all about, as keenly as a reader of a history book feels momentary pity for the haves before the next orgiastic purge of class grievances. Afterward, in my bed surrounded by morning, my stomach clumped and rennetted, wires from my forehead to my shoulder blades slowly being tensioned.
Another such morning. I rolled over on my tuft. Trumpets and allophonors as bright as the sun. Under a flap of tent, two young eyes staring. I turned back around and grabbed my knees. I felt the throbbing of time all through me. The convention was all about me, I smelled the grilled meats and bitter-umami sauces of 23rd Century vogue, I felt camaraderie and tanning skin and oil in everything, deep-fry oil, sheeny pores, reddening slicked-up backs in the sun. Stews as loud as trumpets. The allophonors took up on the convention anthem, a startling pastiche of the Marseillaise and a gangster rap rhythem. Everything was as appropriately fashioned. Clutching my knees still harder I bent back inside myself. I was as a series of dank passages in a catacombs and every which way I sought the warm flambeaux that showed the way to a rich cache of stacked bottles and the warm ruby essence, and all I found was dusty niches and a profusion of crawling things.
The way was east. I walked with my head slung low. The convention was stretching now, people were about, the dirt paths were being trampled in, one had to step around naked people and unicycles, one had to continually acknowledge and decline a trade in some age’s special bead necklaces.
Everyone who passed I wondered about. I imagined them all filled with élan and gusto. I imagined the smiles flowing as inexorably from some inner state of peace and curiosity as a machine following its coded directives. What could I mount in this phalanx?
I slumped past the Cowloon Square. Scetirious Jackson himself stood in his founder’s rags and received homage from a host of future dignitaries. They must have been telling him about what was to happen the next day. It must have been odd for Jackson, who never went through the convention he founded but once, among people who knew every second of every day of that week, and had guessed at every thing but what was in his inaccessibility.
In fact, it had to be scary, so I thought. Jackson did a madman thing founding this convention. Appropriate for a former lunatic. But when it succeeded beyond any even unreasonable expectation, what room could there be even for a former madman in exultation when every day had to feel like it had been lived a hundred thousand times already? Like every thing you did, even contrary to your own judgment or being, was already known, expected, scripted, commented upon?
Thence past Cowloon Square, down ramifications and ramifications,, ultimately into a little corner of a seldom-used cul-de-sac down a rare path from an underpopulated side-branch of the main action of the whole convention. Here is where I had my tent.
There under the cover of motley another sixteen of me cowered in shadow. My earlier self sat at an empty cable spool with a seemingly older version of myself playing chess. Of course I recognized XVII immediately sitting in his wheelchair waiting for what comes. The rest looked up at me and collectively said, “Hey, good to see you, man.”
I said hi back. II made a blunder queenside and XII capitalized. “Should’ve known better than that!” he boomed. I, IV, and VIII were in a klatch at the back trading stories. X kept watch at the flap. XIII and XV were dressing for fronton.
My whole life sat in that tent. My first time sitting on the silk pillows and still overwhelmed with the fragrance of strange food and the apparitions of my future, I thought better, selves talking to me like my father never could. It hadn’t been so long before, a matter of years, a matter of a man’s youth not yet spent—so I hoped—just matured. If I were to look in a mirror, how similar we would appear. My nostrils were still too large and my philtrum too wide. My hair was still unruly. I still had a habit, when I laughed, of softly biting the tip of my tongue with my right canine. I watched myself do it, over and over, sitting indian-legged and rapt in front of himself like older brothers. But was his skin the same as my skin? Maybe never before did I bother touching another one of me at the convention, or never again. All of a sudden I couldn’t be sure. I wanted to remember reaching very gently, almost with the slightest cosmic trepidation, and then—oh but the frisson of an endlessly recursive self-touch! I should feel the crawliness of spider-legged ages, I should feel my own memories being frisked directly through the skin. But then I watched that first me again, younger, stronger, a smaller belly. If I touched his skin it would feel like another person. Any other person. Someone else’s skin, a little warm and soft and yielding and if any frisson than just a tiny little shudder of wanting.
It was the same with them all. The smirking chess player making the pit and the pendulum motions over the other player’s queen. Thinner hair, some spectacles, looked a lot like me. Picked his ears like me. His is the carapace I was to inhabit in only ten years. Which was a cold and lonely thought, as if I were sentenced into an iron mask.
I walked out then. I felt their eyes on me. No one could say anything. They all started immediately talking about me. A few cracked jokes, a few made lamentable excuses. Masquerading as some memory, this picture.
Inward and then out again to a circle with a set of public showers. A lovely middle-aged woman with silky hair and no top handed out artisanal soaps embedded with the leaves of the northern shaggy quercus tree, which she said was extinct as of 2348. Her second, slightly droopier, incarnation collected used soaps for recycling.
Went looking for some new clothes when I wandered up-spoke. Every other circle there was a stage and there were young people picking and strumming at its edge, many lookking a bit hungover. I saw an art installation I hadn’t noticed before: a large fan, putatively facing east, which was supposed to exert a token effect of reversing the rotation of the earth. It wasn’t spinning but about 30 revolutions per minute.
Made my way into the central wheel. Here Pyrrhon had another sauskon station. When I met Pyrrhon on my first trip, it was a station nine circles away in a temperate climate. The little hunks of substance on his rack superficially resemble hot dogs but are a tremendous treat when wrapped and dressed in sauskon sauce. Apparently a fantastic delicacy in 2200.
This Pyrrhon looked a bit older, paternity inscribed in his forehead. Still the missing incisor and ludicrous tongue-thrusting smile. I liked him, though. “I’ll have one,” I said.
“I know this boy for sure,” he said. Tongue-thrusting. “Hey how you going?”
“Going okay. How’re you?”
“Super. I love these people, I love this place. Say, which one of you are you anyway?”
“Heehee! Guess what I am—no you’ll never get it. This virile creature standing before you is XXIX.”
“Real impressive.” My sauskon reached my hand and immediately began drizzling and drippling all over. Part of the charm, even if the sauce was blisteringly hot
“I say, when I first come here, and set up my station in Pollard’s Circle, I heard them say there were dozens of me everywhere. And I could never believe I’d come back so much. I didn’t want to come back for a long while, anyway. It was as much fun as my heart could handle, I think.”
“But you can’t stay away.” Blowing on my sauskon. I had neglected eating and anyway lately any kind of food seemed like perpetuating a nonsensical process. But I truly hadn’t had a sauskon in a few years and for its duration I had ignited in me a hunger.
“No, I come back finally, set up in Slasherville, this damn physician come by and inject me, says I’m cured. ‘I’m cured?’ I say. ‘Of what?’ ‘Of what ails you,’ he said, with the queerest smile I ever saw. So I’m still kicking. How’s the vittle?”
“Damn good,” I tell him. My mouth is full of scorching sauce and meat. “I got to go, see you man.”
The Omphalos is still full-up. I skirt round the well-wishers and acolytes. There’s too many pressing everywhere. I get pushed completely out of the circle and into the little lane that exists between all the paths from the Omphalos to every other circular plaza, and every other path from them. This the already worn turf in the back of every yahoo with a tent. Back-alley it? Fine with me, then.
There are piles of refuse. There are little dug-up-and-buried mounds that have a foul odor. As I walk I hear the goings-on one doesn’t from the main way. Mostly bickering, mostly completely boring conversation and sighs and clinks of drinking vessels, not a little fucking. There’s a guy with long moustaches and no shirt sitting out behind his tent and he watches me the whole time I come through. He has a scar across his belly the size of instant death, and insanity-betokening stubble rubbling his face.
It’s something at least to be eyed. To be suspected. Not to fly about in the same orbit in continuous time and no one ever bother anymore to mark your phases and eclipse. Someday the world, if she continues, will be so habituated she’ll forget to breathe. Somewhere in this place, too, in one of these tents or on the other side of one, is a person from just near that time. Not too near—they can’t bother to come back. But just near, and so disdainful of anything, so bored, that his entourage must be huge. And that person deserves—well, that person deserves her state.
There’s actually more than refuse and yellowing grass. There are small pot-stills and even little gardens just sown. There are little generators pulsing like a good headache, less than a foot square though you can feel the thrum from six yards away. About which, good. Good to feel one’s substance in motion once in a while. Oh to be a stew in a pot under crackling heat and have one’s insides roiling, frothing at the top, crusting at the potedge. Oh to be a stew and be stirred by a good cook. Everything settled, even just for a while, heat dispersed. After going a little further it opened up slightly and I sat in the grass.
You can’t escape the sound of the place. But there I sat and I watched the long grass between my bent legs and tried to listen to them. Over and yon was a band engaged in complex polyphonic dog-stomping; opposite was a chamber group of doorknob-squeakers. They told me when I first came, this is where people come to share what they have. They never share then but they always do now. What, on account of that lunatic founder they all mobbed about?
Ahead were two paths quite close, and one cornered off by a heavy red canvas tent. There was giggling inside, and ruckus. Hands and what else pressing on the walls. And then the prettiest little ass darts out the back just for a second before popping back in.
Naked people at JaxMoCon? There is no license for lowered inhibitions greater than not having yet been conceived, in the broader time line. But still. I had seen her buttocks and the small of her back, a heel and a short thigh. As I was pulling the long grass between my bent legs I noticed my woodie. Well, so an aperçu of a sightly ass got me excited. Still, it was like another day. It was like a really fine spring day and Lavinia Praetzkin made me go for a walk with her through a meadow they were about to burn to protect it from fires. But so I slowed up and when I looked up and saw her walking, wiggling, the way she wiggled after class sidling up to me to beg a hug I got a hardon just like this and sat in the long grass just like this, and hoped she would just come back.
There’s absolutely no changing what happens. VIII gives us all a great lecture on it on Thursday, I recollect. So what so invests everyone here, so many thousands here I’ve never even seen the whole encampment, just what makes every imperfect-lived person long to come back?
There are more sounds so I focus on the grass. The hardon passes. I take the way to the left.
The sun is higher. Another beautiful day. It’s always a beautiful day here and now. The grass is lively under my feet. I’ve decided to wander aimlessly, to go as far between the spokes as I can. To the end, maybe some dozen miles away, among who knows what kind of people, at least to see once the limn of this great place. And what is the world like outside the eternal bubble, what host this parasite.
But I have not gotten far when I hear a ruckus that jars me from my thoughts. Several tents have been thrown down, there is splintered and tossed-around everything, wicker shards everywhere, and people standing by in shock. The tent just to my right comes down in a mighty pull. A jagged-face brawn of a man rises with his own effort-whoop on the other side grasping fistfuls of canvas. Two young men emerging from the fallen tent confront him and are pushed down.
Well what the fuck is this. Stomping through the middle of the common way is a column of jagged-faced blond men and women wearing charcoal trousers and gray-bendy shirts. Big men of the same physiognomy are tearing things down and throwing people left and right. They’re all chanting something, “Cibu! Cibu!” One of them is enthusiastically sawing a leg off one of the wooden communications towers.
There are about twenty of them. I can hear more chants much further behind them. It is the Takeover Plot, 14.25 local time on Monday. And how they have fouled my mood.
At the head is a man chanting less stridently than the others. His hair curlicues above a set of eyes setting on every thing as if they shot lasers. He never once looks back upon his posse.
I steal back into the interstitial space and jog back toward the center fifty yards. I come back into the common way next to a cycling stand. This gray and platinum phalanx marches on and every blob of color in its way is pushed to the side, knocked down. Some people around me have stopped where they are, they are assessing the sudden threaat. I hear grips tighten around long cylinders, I hear feet uncertain brushing the grass. I hear the same realization creep into every throat.
Standing in the center of the way, the man at the head quickly marches up to me. He stares at me, but I’ve had stares enough. He quickens his step, but at least this time I see the thing right in front of me. He stops just in front of me and snarls a threat. One big guy is lumbering from behind. The frontman’s face is moving discordantly and strange sounds are coming out and that hair, that fucking blond curlicue is just too much.
I hadn’t time to wind up. I popped him a quick jab in his face. It snapped backwards and then upright like a sprung trap. Eyes crossed, a fist-sized blanch in planted in the center of his apoplectic face. That fucking curlicue bobbing. I pop him again. And then I run for my life.
Just as I turn a hand lands on my shoulder that I brush off. Then I hear heavy steps. My lungs are already burning—I’m completely out of shape—but I keep going. The rhythm of the steps grows erratic and I feel the whoosh of a large mass going down and the brusque scrape of hard fingertips on my calves. I grab a bicycle from the rack and I ride off toward the Omphalos. Turning onto the eighth circle I’m washed over by a wave of angry, chanting conventioneers. They are going back for the blonds. Once they’ve passed, I let the bike coast to a stop and fall over.
Sweat and burning breath and a splintery pain from my knuckles to my elbow. My breaths feel like they’re suffusing my entire body, they’re traveling the interstices all the way to my fingertips, to my toes, to the apices of every hair. I am hollowed out and twitchy.
After awhile, I get up. I turn the bike back down the interstitial way and pedal softly. I go down another way but I can hear the yells and whoops and hoorays clearly enough. Can’t think about what happened. Everyone who’s ever been here knows the Takeover Plot is Monday, half past two. A krewe from the Omphalos goes out to meet them and beats them to a pulp before shooting them backwhen. The Convention is always safe. Nobody ever dies. I just forgot and got excited.
The ride takes hours. I take water and leave it by the common way. Twilight brings dew and slipping tires. The people here make cuzhnos which are like a flatbread filled with something lumpy, creamy, and savory. Take and leave more water. The Moon having risen grandly above plains. Firelights and night-temblors of bands and masquerades. Open smoky tent-halls in orange and ruddy face. I’m going so leisurely my legs are doing fine. Watch the tents go by, open circular plazas, wooden thrown-up stages, dark circles with people ranging around a tall, rickety telescope. I cannot be any more tired than I already am, so I pedal on.
By daybreak, the plots are thinning and the people are passed out on the grass. A low ridge runs crosswise my path, either direction, endless, curving. Now my legs have given out. The gears on the bike sprocket like a dying little something as I lay it down. Climbing up the ridge, bluing sky beyond. Climbing up the ridge and at the top, look down on a vast, unimaginable plain of wild buckwheat with sparse oak sentries bent over by age. And teeming terribly at the edge is an enormous crowd of people pressed up against the buckwheat. They are but figures and pale heads, standing in woods, standing knee-high in streams, standing in muck and thorn. I am so exhausted it must all be a hallucination. Sit down, steady myself. Pressed up tight against the buckwheat but no further, not a step of incursion. I look at them and they look at me.
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