Stark phalanges exposed themselves to the liquid night and a crenellation rose from the sand like a fist. “The subject has been weaponized,” said a voice in an evacuated contralto. Fingers of electricity pulsed within the gas cloud whenever it spoke . . .
This prologue delivered the victims to the Waiting Room, a makeshift version of a low-income garage: mechanical undesirables stacked in a corner, an attic string dangling from a trapdoor in the ceiling, oceanic cobwebs, etc., etc. . . . Beyond the perimeter, a courtesan practiced burlesque dance moves in a narrow cage, breasts spilling from either side of a Naugahyde halter-top.
An addict leaned over a fold-out table. I passed him a pipe. He put it to his lips, tentatively, then smoked it and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ! Living without this hooch has been like losing a dear old friend every day of my life. Welcome back. It’s good to have a friend.” He smoked the pipe again, this time to the core. Thereafter he continued to inhale air, sucking at the stem with increasing angst. “More!” he barked.
Roarke entered, stage right. Unaccustomed to this manner of interscape, he walked sideways across the Waiting Room and exited via the Retinal Chamber. A stigmatism marked his vision in the left eye; he could actually see it if he closed the lids and concentrated, deflecting idle trailers and blotches of religiosity.
Knock at the door. Roarke opened it and let in Agent Zed, who strode forward and took him by the shoulders. “The baby! Where’s the baby!” He tossed Roarke aside and I handed him the baby, which, in the words of Agent Zed himself, he “confiscated without prejudice, malice, or forethought.”
Roarke regained composure and acted in response. Cradling the baby in one arm, Agent Zed fought off his assailant with the other arm, easily, until Roarke had been “defeated without cunning, dash, or autonomia.”
The scene dissolved into savannah and wind . . .
Back in the Waiting Room, a vintage black-and-white television set fizzled to life. A central dot expanded to the four corners of the screen in an oblong circle. For a moment the virtual shibboleth threatened to implode. Then an anti-smoking commercial featuring Yul Brynner came on. In a black, tight-collared shirt, with token bald head and elfish, possibly prosthetic ears, he looked into the camera and, voice deep and grating, a mutant basso from some evicted nightmare demonstrating the faintest trace of a weathered Russian accent, said, “Now that I am gone, I tell you: DON’T SMOKE.” The commercial ran again. Again and again—an endless chain of guidance and foreboding.
. . . Anxiety stamps itself onto the lapel of the Backyard Industrialist like a heraldic fleur-de-lis. He proceeds across the construction beam and surveys the black-and-white metropolis from two miles skywards. No acrophobia, but the prospect of a miserable future cuts him to the quick, and he steps off the edge and falls into the past tense, where everybody belongs . . . at which point the weaponized subject cried out for his father. Again.
Herr Moritz exclaimed, “It’s not my fault you exist in a universe of mutant appliances and acausal gizmos. Your technophobia is your own affair. I have never willfully projected orthopedics into your midst. Or, for that matter, into your person. I always told you that you were a good boy. Every day, like. Here. Let me adjust that chinstrap. There. That’s better. Wait. This clubfoot prosthetic is all wrong. How do you expect it to produce the requisite synaptic charges, cathexes, and pyrotechnic magnetisms? Imagine Lord Byron in such a contraption. How might his poetry have suffered . . . or evolved. Don Juan may have emerged as the first literary Martian, assuming, of course, that a sufficient population of Burroughsian femmes violeurs inhabited the red planet. Now. Let’s have that microscope, then. Right. Bend over, if you please. Thank you. Just remember, boy: God is as much a friend to you as a cauterized wound. One way or another, everything heals, if only by the art of death. Tabula rasa. The art of death wipes all blank slates clean . . .”
I erased chalkdust from the blackboard and flipped a switch, flooding the room with pixels of admission. Cathode rays hummed to life and paralyzed all viewers within reach. Onscreen the President of the United States deflected questions during an outdoor media briefing in a stylized fit of verbal wuxia pan. He stood tall above the mic. Stage left, the First Lady stumbled into view, with scarecrow hair and shotgun mascara running from the eyes like leaning towers of babel. She had not swallowed another case of beer. Idle, sober derangement was the thing. I secured a can of Budweiser and ordered a secret service agent to deliver it to the Lady. He refused to partake in what amounted to “a demoralizing act of kindness,” but a ray of sunlight caught the beer can just so, producing an eloquent glint in the Lady’s eyes. With my assistance, soon she was shitfaced for real and the media briefing culminated in a kind of battle royal, the president exiting on a telescopic ladder dangling from a Marine One helicopter like a flaccid proboscis.
An ailing ex-president noted, “He’s just an actor. It’s not real.”
Despite victory, Agent Zed continued to assail Roarke, as if to prove that he could do it, i.e., to show everybody that he was the kind of man who wasn’t afraid to beat a man when he was down. Roarke put up a wretched fight, defending himself like an overturned turtle, or bug, extremities flailing but with no apparent purpose other than to produce movement. This may or may not have upset Agent Zed, although the aspersions he cast became louder and more garbled, and he pummeled his victim with increasing brutality; according to my reading of his facial lexis, however, every new blow produced a calendar of regret, possibly mourning. I stepped forward to get a closer look, scrutinizing both men for good measure, and effectively collapsing the fourth wall. Aggravated, Agent Zed paused and said, “I can smell your breath. It reeks of desperation.”
“I suffer from pragmatism,” I clarified.
Roarke died on the floor. Agent Zed made reservations at a preferred mausoleum and gave the eulogy. It sounded like this: “Space harbors an eternal guitar tab—a club hammers mankind’s kettledrum between the whining high notes. It occurs to me that I know very little about death beyond various methods of dispatch and internment. The last intimate acquaintance of mine who died was my grandfather. I was just a boy and faith in God allowed me to negotiate the ordeal as if it never happened; grandpa was in a better place, I told myself, and I was happy for him, even envious. Now this. What do thinking creatures do when loved ones pass into the infinite Zilch of oblivion? What can we do but embrace one of two things: fearsome disavowal or furious anger . . .”
I recollected the prototype I met in Mr. Vanderwoude’s office, a kind of excrescent waiting room adjacent the Waiting Room. He introduced himself and I showed him photographs of me as a child. In one photo, I stood triumphant above a lattice of feather-strewn chickenwire, a pose accomplished shortly after chasing all of the hens from the coop. “I don’t know why I like it so much,” I intoned. “Something about the innocence of it. And the horror.”
“I’m disappointed,” replied the prototype, studying the photograph like an uncrackable code. “I wanted so much to like this. I wanted. I sought. But I didn’t find. It’s not here. The grail. Not. No.”
Still images drifted across the carpet, propelled by an artificial breeze.
Mr. Vanderwoude stood over seven feet tall. A devout Christian Reformed Dutchman and former “athletic director”—the script puts his biography in chronic jeopardy—he emitted the contaminant of Judgment from every pore, namely his eyes, two old, open wounds defined by two central pinpoints of superwhite light. He lingered near a closet. Every movement, however subtle or gesticulatory, was a dare.
I never escaped the reverie . . .
Roarke had been dead for days now. On a whim, a team of semi-drunk EMTs, none of them close relatives, exhumed the body and restarted his heart, chasing a provisional defibrillator with an atropine and adrenaline cocktail. Consciousness found him halfway through an apology for his life, arguing his case like a sidestreet lawyer disputing a speeding ticket. He spoke with an affected drawl and often repeated the word “stooge” without any apparent syntactic methodology or valence. Imagined jurors listened with simulated attentiveness, comprehension and sympathy, and when the defense rested, the audience calmly filed out of the courtroom into the lobby, hard rubber soles clacking against the marble floor.