Friday
Sep282018

Nation of Cavaliers

Paul Albano


 

We leave Lady Sovereign's 24-Hour Railcar Diner bound for the Underground Laundromat. Mugs's still-pubescent cheeks and forehead are coated in olive oil from the salad dressing caddy and topped with the powdered sugar he stole from the kitchen. A black apron is slung around his back, sometimes fluttering. He soaks needle-nose pliers' tips into a cup of boiling water. Inspector Leif is slender and pale and dressed in black slacks and a gray jacket. His derby hat is misaligned, with the brim leaning over his forehead. He's on the phone with headquarters. He nods and nods and nods and says yes he's nodding. Then he shakes his head and says now he's shaking his head. Outside, evening ages into night and the moon is jaundiced.

Inspector Leif pockets his phone and turns his back to us. He says adaptability is in order because fate/providence/God/the mad scientist electronically stimulating our brain as it floats in a jar has changed things. Mugs sprawls himself against a building and digs his fingernails into the mortar as if he's anticipating the sidewalk dropping out. This is not the change. Inspector Leif says he's just received word that Halsted is closed and that the subway and El are stalled, and the matter-retransmission machine is vanished and presumed stolen or not yet invented. 

We decide to ride the under-subway north then take a pickup truck-drawn carriage to the Fabric Cleaning District. So we hail a red Radio Flyer wagon pulled forlornedly by a young girl in a sunflower dress. Inspector Leif tells her Harrison and State and the young girl bows her head and slowly shuffles along. Mugs presses himself against one of the back corners. He curls his upper lip and clasps one of his incisors in between the pliers. He turns it in small, initially almost imperceptible clockwise and counter-clockwise movements until the tooth is loose enough to twist completely around. Then he pulls the tooth out. There's very little breeze and it's humid and summer is dying. Inspector Leif asks the young girl's name. Mugs screams and gurgles blood that's viscous and nearly black. He pinches his tooth between the serrated pliers tips and holds it in front of him, his hand trembling. Coiled nerve endings flutter in the wake of his panting. The young girl says her name is Marie Antoinette Kuwolski. 

Mugs immediately stiffens his posture and spits pellets of blood. He says he's composed a eulogy to be read in the event of her inevitable death. The young girl continues to bow her head and carry us down the sidewalk. The neighborhood smells like tar and motor oil and small tidal pools of vodka caught in potholes. Ahead of us a group of choiring adolescents threaten a street gang and a bereted revolutionary waves a mannequin's head mounted on a drapery rod. Mugs removes a sheet of paper from inside his cheek. Blood gathers behind his bottom lip. He has to unfold the paper many times. He reads:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw thee, the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, a more delightful vision. Something, something, something glittering like the morning star full of life and splendor and joy. Oh, what a revolution! Something, something, something I will kill ten thousand scabbards with a sword. Something, something, something but the age of chivalry is gone and calculators have succeeded. Something, something, something, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

The young girl says the speech certainly has moments of beauty, but it seems under-written and lacking appropriate sentimentality. Mugs says she's a filibuster for thinking that and he's not sorry if that arrow stings. He sinks into the corner to extract another tooth with the pliers. He screams.

We climb out of the wagon at State and Harrison. Inspector Leif settles the fare. Mugs tilts his head back and stares directly into the night to avoid eye contact with the young girl. The hookah bars, regular bars, nightclubs, restaurants, liquor stores, detox centers, sleep disorder clinics, palm-reading stands, Forever 21 outlets, and dialysis kiosks that line the street are teeming with throngs of people spilling in from cabs and buses and leaping from fire escapes. When she finishes biting the gold coins and checking for teeth imprints, the young girl turns back and retreats down State, diminishing with every step. 

At the street side under-subway entrance we enter the mineshaft. Inspector Leif presses the Lower button and the gates slam shut. The cage rattles throughout the descent, mostly drowning out the soft jazz pumped ambiently through the speakers. Inspector Leif takes out the map he drew on the back of a word search and maze. He points to a crayon line and follows it to the phrase "Underground Laundromat" that he underlined and we all nod, wordlessly, a different number of times. When the machinery grinds to a halting stop, we draw open the mesh-wire gates and walk through the dirt corridor beneath flickering light bulbs and copper pipes and inverted bats. The ticket seller gives us tickets and change. His face is melting from age and maybe some disease. He says that all his life he has suffered from acute motion sickness due to the trains infinitely careening past him and the only wisdom he remembers from his father is that the path to all places not here begins with the first ambition to be someplace else. An escalator brings us to the platform. Mugs twists the pliers clamped to his right front tooth. He sighs twice before he yanks it and screams. Inspector Leif leans against a colonnade. He takes a metallic lighter from his vest pocket and ignites and de-ignites the fuse over and over again.

The under-subway station is sparse, with small clusters of people milling about the concrete plain. Trains slide in and out with great frequency while barrel-chested men in overalls drape from engine car windows to announce the arrivals and departures. Near me a soot covered child plays a monotonous, haunting melody on a cello. In between songs he asks for money or if anyone knows the hideout of a tightly knit, ragtag group of thieves who only steal from the rich and are looking for a cello player. In the far corner a street-biologist explains about pyruvate decarboxylation in mitochondria. Passersby stuff spare coins and their banking information into his row of beaker tubes. Inspector Leif keeps the lighter open and sometimes runs his finger across the flame before he kills it.

The train arrives and the engineer shouts at us to board now if we want to or board later if we want to do that instead. We board now. Mugs leads us to an empty car past the briefcases and open newspapers and backpackers. The benches are plastic and impaled by thin steel tubes. The seats are torn black cushioning speckled with red and blue and holes. Mugs and Inspector Leif claim a bench, with Mugs nearest the window, and I sit across the aisle. The engineer shouts again and the whistle blows and something hisses and lovelorn men in suits run alongside the other cars, yelling their regrets and well wishes at women in large hats until we quit the station. Mugs sticks the pliers into his mouth and wrenches out another tooth. He screams one continuous scream until he can no longer breathe, then tucks the tooth into his shirt pocket. His body shakes. At the next stop a couple boards and sits cross-legged on their bench behind Mugs. The woman is falsely bearded and wearing a low-cut frilly gown with a pink fetal arm protruding from in between her breasts. The man is veined and tattooed and preposterously muscular. Inspector Leif rests his forehead against his fist and stares at the window and the darkness surging past. 

At the next stop we pick up an adventurer with a faded brown fedora and satchel. As we travel he stands on a bench and stretches to the route map pasted above the sliding doors. He hums the theme from Indiana Jones and traces the distance we cover with a thick red marker. The couple behind us alternate between clearing their throats and fake coughing. Mugs curls his upper lip and studies his reflection in the window. He pokes at one of his canines which now look fang-like amidst the blood and swelling and the absence of surrounding teeth. In the last car a small production crew films a movie. Through the half window I can see stage lighting and a mounted camera and a boom mike and an aristocratic man in goggles fornicating with a limbless woman also in goggles. It is riveting. 

The train stops. The engineer booms all aboard, but no one enters or departs. The train starts again. We hand over our tickets to a conductor with a conductor's hat and coin holster. The couple behind us fakes a heart attack then stroke then an aneurysm then a live birth. Mugs says he doesn't drink wine in an exaggerated old world accent and adds a lot of space between the words "drink" and "wine." The couple taps Inspector Leif on the shoulder. He turns around and they ask if he is the famous Inspector Leif. Inspector Leif says he is Inspector Leif. Mugs interrupts and says similarly, he is Mugs. 

The couple fidgets and does not speak for a puzzling length of time. The woman's gown is cream colored and made of something that almost sparkles in the dull humming fluorescent lights. The man's left arm is sleeved in a tattoo of a dragon with a tattoo of a Vietnam vet running across the webbing of its wings. 

The fetal armed woman finally speaks. Her voice is flat and her words sound exsanguinated. She says their son has been kidnapped and they have a note. Inspector Leif watches the adventurer tracing the red line almost to the Fabric Cleaning District, then to Mugs, staring while he pinches his second front tooth between the pliers and twists it out, screaming himself into a seizure. He looks to me and in the small lenses arched over his pupils I can see distortions of my face and some of the clothes I'm wearing.

The couple clasps their hands and tilt forward at the waist. Inspector Leif stands and paces, reducing his distance and quickening his steps. He turns his back to us and says there can be no Underground Laundromat tonight, that circumstance has thwarted our plans once more. Mugs protests and involuntarily whistles and raises objections that are also sometimes whistles. The couple apologizes. The fetal armed woman is in tears. The tattooed man is wearing sunglasses. Inspector Leif bows solemnly and says fate governs us all. He tells the couple to begin their tale. They do:

It was a Saturday. That afternoon they, the fetal armed woman and the tattooed man and the son, went picnicking at a skate-park near their Northside midrise, watching amateur skateboarders and BMX bikers fall and sometimes head-bleed. The park was crowded. There were families in matching shirts and birthday parties and a seminary school field trip where aspiring priests practiced praying and moralizing and reading Last Rites. They went home around dusk and after dinner they all watched Eraserhead in the drawing room. They put their son to bed around nine. At nine thirty, they heard what sounded like a grappling hook repeatedly thrown and fallen. At ten they heard what sounded like a grappling hook catching a windowsill, followed shortly by a man climbing, then light-stepping throughout the upstairs. At ten fifteen they heard the soft, almost imperceptible murmur of a successful kidnapping, then the muffled zipper of a duffle bag closing. 

Then the note. In their son's room they discovered the note. The kidnapper or kidnappers left it. The note haunts them. Its technology is unknown. Perhaps futuristic. From another world. Its syntax is strange and menacing and prone to strange fits of capitalization. Punctuation is entirely absent. They have read the note every hour since that night. It is threatening and retroactively prophetic. They cannot not read it. The note. 

When they finish the fetal armed woman dabs her cheeks with the tattooed man's handkerchief. The only sounds are the repetitions of the train and the film crew yelling action and cut. Inspector Leif cups his chin and thumbs the curls at the end of his mustache. We stop and after the all aboard call a young soldier in full military regalia enters. Immediately he suffers from flashbacks to basic training and begins crawling underneath the benches chanting grunts and numbers and asking what AWOL stands for. Mugs removes the sheet of paper from his cheek. He pushes up the middle of his eyebrows and asks the couple if their son is named Marie Antoinette. They say he is not. 

At the next stop a woman dressed in beige and gray steps in tugging a leash attached to another woman handcuffed at the ankles and wrists. They find a bench in the back corner and spread a Scrabble board across their thighs and blindly draft letters. Mugs pulls a tooth near his left canine. His scream is silent but mimed passionately. The soldier wriggles underneath Mugs's bench and begs him not to mobilize the fellas tonight to attack him with soap bar filled socks while he sleeps. The adventurer traces the red line past the Fabric Cleaning District and I understand there is no possibility of return.

The train accelerates and bends around curves and all the sounds happen faster. There are tiny crystals of salt from evaporated tears calcifying in the base of the fetal armed woman's eye sockets and deep pores dappling her cheeks and the fake beard is peeling away just below her earlobes as the adhesive dies. The tattooed man's veins running along his neck and face intersect chaotically and his lips are cracked and vaguely trembling and in his sunglasses I see the black lenses and black frames and nothing. 

Inspector Leif moves closer to the couple and steps over the soldier. In the back, the librarian berates the handcuffed woman for lacking honor and shaming all that shall bear her name because she stole a triple word score by adding an S to lambdacism. Mugs uses his fingernails to chip away the caked blood streaks meandering down his neck. Inspector Leif asks if he can inspect the note and the fetal armed woman agrees. The note is crumpled and printed on a faded half-sheet of yellow paper, beneath large black lettering that spells Western Union. Inspector Leif unfolds it and reads: 

We have kidnapped your son STOP We is being used in the royal sense STOP By which we mean I STOP Singular STOP Singular STOP Only one STOP

The voice of the tattooed man quivers. He asks Inspector Leif what he can possibly learn from such impenetrability. Inspector Leif is unresponsive at first, then, in a whisper says that he has long known that he cannot answer every question. He pushes up the brim of his hat and deflates all of the air that was inside him. Mugs clicks two of his teeth together in one hand and repetitively raps the tips of the pliers against the window with the other. The soldier claps between pushups by the exit. The fetal armed woman sits very still, almost inanimate, and watches Inspector Leif pacing across the same strip of train car. Only her eyes move, like pendulums in a vacuum. 

The train stops and starts and we remain. The adventurer draws his line further and further past the Fabric Cleaning District. No one speaks. Inspector Leif migrates his pacing to the other end of the car. His posture is stooped and his eyes are streaked with crooked red veins. The production crew continues to film the same scene; there are no deviations in the setup, nor any announcements to resume the take, it just keeps beginning. 

Then something happens behind Inspector Leif's eyes and he straightens his coat and body, and the moveable parts of his face realign themselves into a thin, flat smile. He tells us to gather in the train car at once. We are already there. 

He says the note is a telegram.

The fetal armed woman bursts into tears and shouts oh, it is so, isn't it. She says that would explain the STOP and the strange font. She thanks Inspector Leif profusely and rises from the bench to embrace him. They hug and the fetal arm is pushed upward, the conjoined fingers brushing against the bottom of her chin. The tattooed man leaps up and clasps Inspector Leif's hand and says he had his doubts, chum, but he now knows the perils of lacking faith in his betters. The soldier salutes from the floor. The librarian congratulates him on restoring order and the handcuffed woman says we live in an age where it is badly needed. 

At the next station the couple tells Inspector Leif that ever since they received the note they have longed to resume the trajectory of their lives which they can now finally do. They tell Mugs that a mere glimpse of his deathly white face and striking, vampiric fangs frightens them to a state well past unease. They tell me they forgot I was there and praise my unobtrusive presence. Then they give a joint but mistimed wave and quit the under-subway car. 

Inspector Leif watches the doors slide shut. He does not return the wave. Mugs smiles and blood spills from his gums and smears the powdered sugar pink on his chin. He says happy endings for all, happy endings for all. 

 

The adventurer in the fedora traces the red line to the very edge of the map. The under-subway pulls into the final station. Everyone exits. Mugs, Inspector Leif and I ride the mineshaft up to the surface. We pass through the vestibule and into the night where the air is heavy and the stars are almost visible and the world is both here and distant. 

I check for street signs. The surrounding homes, buildings, and complexes are blotted with black smoke stains and tufts of pink insulation. Near the under-subway exit, robed missionaries sing carols warning about the dangers of aardvarks and agrarian-based economic systems. A newspaper vender shouts that Venice is slowly sinking into the Adriatic, but there are no new developments. In the intersection men in white dress shirts play Australian rules football atop glass shards and industrial waste. Homeless families in matching dereliction gather on the sidewalk and cheer the game and the emergency response technicians suturing cuts and disinfecting burns. There are no street lights here, just rows of oil drums stuffed with trash and fire. Inspector Leif says we're at the city limits. 

Mugs says he reckons we should start egressing away from here and to the familiar. I agree. But Inspector Leif holds up one finger and says in a moment. He walks past the crowd, past the football game, stopping at a sign. It's carved from a single tree trunk and stuck in the asphalt, tilting to one side. Extending from the base is a line of blue packing tape bisecting the street and sidewalk. Inspector Leif runs his thumb along the grooved lettering that spells The End.

Beyond the sign and the tape line there is a lone, pulsating trash fire amidst the otherwise void-like darkness. Inspector Leif fixates into it. His face is smooth and lean and almost not real. He says what a night tonight has been. He says he held a telegram. His voice sounds vacant. With a slow turn he faces us. Mugs is clenching his eyes and uprooting a tooth and screaming. Inspector Leif says he's afraid his journey must end here. I ask why. Mugs dry-sobs and bleeds more profusely. Inspector Leif says he knows, and he's always really known, that beyond this city he has no place to go, no purpose to fulfill, and no one to be with, but he realizes now that he'd always wanted to leave. 

Inspector Leif steps over the packing tape. There is no hesitation. He walks steadily, past the barrel and the flame teleporting in place, and past the last reach of light until the darkness replaces him. I cannot think of an appropriate response. Mugs frantically removes the page from his cheek, stumbling as he unfolds it. He finds a passage. He reads: 

in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, in a nation of cavaliers!