Monday, August 5, 2013

Fiction #45: David Haslett

MOBIUS DICK; OR, NON SEQUITUR

Grazing Teeth, the disowned child of an Inuit chief, catches your eye across the crowded mess, uses her salesman's touch so you feel like she's talking only to you as she makes her pitch to the crew of the Navy Supercarrier. She was the obvious choice to represent the local community, as she's one of its few bilingual tribesmen, most having cheeks too swollen with extra molars to be feasibly taught High English, better suited to grind leafy vegetation and, occasionally, the tenderest of seal meat. Their primitive language, the low, only has one word for sex and its multiplicity of stages, acts, and endings. And they have wide set eyes, practically on the sides of their heads, presumably a result of generations of skittishness, though the herd mentality seems to be a sufficient defense mechanism, the compared reports from the outer limits reassembled to allow for depth perception on a far greater scale, an early-warning inversion of the pincer movement, the extent of the hive mind constrained by the time it takes to spread the word versus the relevance of the data thereafter.

"Aren't you sick of lobbyists trying to shove the agenda of Big Condom down your throat? The pervasive propaganda of after-school special interest groups, grotesque pictures laser-inked onto the walking and bouncing billboards of conscripted cleavage, taking precedence over missing children no less? Vivid, adjective-ridden descriptions of highly unlikely contractions? Even the attack ads against one brand by another are schemes to get you thinking about which kind you should use, making you forget that you have a choice at all, a choice not to use them: Ice Breakers or Destroyers, Fibbed for Her or Lambskin Outfitters, each a false dichotomy. Look at the posters that you've allowed your walls to be draped with, demonizing loose women with scare-tactic suggestions that they might actually be transvestites or are or will be carrying sexually transmitted infectious diseases. Think about those free samples forced on you on every corner, that they're giving it away all the more suspicious. The pull out method works, is the point, if you're lucky enough to find yourself a nice Inuit girl," she winked; part of the allure of going native is that they don't take birth control, only receiving incidental medical attention from the state if they're impregnated by a sailor, some combination of being adopted and grandfathered into the healthcare system, the third world tradition of children born for their parents' sakes, "so you don't have to muffle that most ultimate pleasure, sheath and deaden the one thing that makes us humans, the shell or shed skin of a condom like a translucent apparition you've been conditioned since childhood to fear when you turn on the lights to check if it's still there. You don't have to deprive yourself of the sheer contact that is the logical end of your desires." The reason for the state's hyper-vigilance is the continued spread of a pill-resistant STID that wreaks havoc on women's reproductive systems, an epidemic that may in fact have been introduced as an act of biological warfare, nicknamed Ovarian Leprosy because its most notable symptom is eggs periodically falling out. It's grown more resilient, able to survive for days at a time once evacuated from its host body, which led to a scare in the laundry room of this very ship, rumours of an outbreak caused by variously soiled sheets co-mingling. They've begun to use dark lights as a precaution, jettisoning stiff socks into the hostile abyss. It's particularly prevalent in the fringe community of young heterosexual couples, sitting somberly in doctors' offices with their heads tilted together upon hearing the news of being afflicted with that which will slowly but surely tear them apart, mourning the loss of lives they'll never have. "And even if you do catch something, there's always the traditional home remedy." The Inuit have the privilege of raking sparse strands of seaweed from the shores of all major urban centres along the Hudson, hard-fought-for like stringed beads dangled in proprietary negotiations, the extracts of which are sold back under the guise of a rapidly disappearing panacea.

The walls are plastered with the weary disappointment of Lucy Lipschitz, the new official face of the folks back home, the superfluous mother figure of grownups. She eschews coddling for a demand that you finish what you've started, charged with keeping the subs sinking on schedule and dissuading what seems like the last of an entire generation gone AWOL, sailors having been consistently coerced into abandoning ship, returning to their loved ones, and hunkering down until the inevitable consequence of keeping people in close quarters comes to fruition. The excruciating monotony of near-daily referendums, tuned out by all but the most avid citizens, in conjunction with the mandatory opportunity for all military personnel to vote has resulted in a de facto Junta, direct democracy meeting chain of command. But Lucy can't actually tell you what to do, passing the shotgun-sprayed buck back down to the voters. Democracy is necessarily devoid of values, the system an empty vessel for the whims of the people, captained by drifters, a freightless boxcar without tracks or lighthouses to guide it. It needs to be an island of accumulating shipwrecks stumbled upon by unimpressionable young nomads who've packed up their bindles and run or swam away, following in their parents' footsteps along the constantly lapping shore.

After offering a sampler-platter preview of what's in and out and in this season in the counterculture, demonstrating her practiced and perfected feminine touch, the pendulum of attention paid to parts of the anatomy swinging year to year and port to port from head, clit, shaft, or G-spot to balls or cervical threshold or asshole, overhyped and neglected depending on highly subjective analyses of pleasure reported to people dressed as nurses on a scale of one to ten, Grazing Teeth's allotted time is up, to the frantic sputtering of her flushed and engorged volunteers. She leaves her business cards, double-sided, this meal brought to you in part by one face offering shore leave accompaniment and the other Sunday-morning-after counseling and medical options. As she's ushered out and dicks are ordered swabbed, she moons the mess and exposes a cluster of oozing abscesses, one final exhibition as she squeezes a single drop onto it from a syringe, and it immediately begins to hiss and shrivel, reduced to minimal scar tissue in a matter of seconds. "Just think of that next time you're struggling to maintain an erection while fumbling with a condom."

You row in from the Supercarrier to Detritus, the amorphous mass of garbage drifting across the Arctic Ocean once a continent everyone was trying to lose but now prized for its natural resources, the dichotomy of sound alarmism regarding unseen icebergs and quixotic opposition to windmills made irrelevant, the designation of intervention or adaptation a slippery one. You poke at its surface before hoisting yourself over the edge of the dinghy. Semi-intact screens glint, dusted with dried seagull shit and pebbles of crumbled Styrofoam and zigzagged by the residual paths of protruding muskrat tails. The ground is constantly shifting as discarded fads settle like fossilized footprints through layers of sediment: adopted and co-opted tartans; yarmulkes and schmucks; monogrammed his and hers accessories, themselves but slices of the longer-standing cycle of chosen and renounced names; torn denim washed in the acid of improperly-disposed-of batteries. But the bulk of the landmass is the remains of crashed satellites, it being more profitable to mine them for raw materials than keep outdated equipment in orbit. While they once splashed down and coalesced organically through the currents formed by the polar void, they're now directly aimed at Detritus to speed up the recovery process. The risk of Inuit casualties is mitigated by keeping the targets fairly consistent, which has led to a miniature mountain range known as the Noradiques or, more casually, the Business Moguls. Small blue collar communities trail behind the rotation of target peaks, and the Inuit congregate in turn. Your job is to goad them across Detritus, appealing to their nomadic heritage and explaining via charades that the Sino-Russian oil rigs in the now fully widened Bering Strait are encroaching on their land, so to speak. Few if any of them are actually Inuit; it's a misnomer along the lines of "Indians", entering the political vernacular in sync with the whole of North America's First Nations populations being herded and cajoled beyond the Arctic Circle, now being deployed as a proxy army. They've grown accustomed to life on the subcontinent, making habitats that, while called igloos, are more like a combination of gopher holes and beaver dams. Sometimes sailors will stumble across what are affectionately known as "garbage-patch kids" in pockets of refuse just beneath the surface, presumably being kept safe from the elements, not planted like crops, you hope.

You hear screams from behind you and to your sides, individually distinguishable at first but quickly rippling into a din. Attempts to further the Inuit migration often regress to incited riots, terror at the feigned emergence of a hybrid bear from the wave-rustled shore or the urgent need to disperse your weight. There's no way to know what's made up or a drill or a real, live scare. The Inuit bound towards the horizon in the syncopated stagger they've cultivated to move effectively across the unstable ground, whereas you and the other sailors almost immediately resort to crawling. Thankfully this bear isn't accustomed to the landscape either, stumbling splayed-legged behind you. You can't remember if the hybrids are infertile or just generally adopted the Panda's stubborn abstinence (though certainly not its picky eating). It would be a shame for the most dangerous land predators of the human era to be an evolutionary dead end, all for not if the top of the food chain cannot produce an heir. Perhaps that's the kind of singular existence that makes something if not a teleological arrival, at least an end by definition, that which cannot be aspired beyond or further selected from. Although you might be thinking of the koala-raccoon pests that infested high rise balconies after the last influx of Australian refugees. You do recall something poignant about their terminally empty pouches, despite having no problem exterminating them.

There's a whale that lives beneath Detritus, Mobius Dick, a horrifying mutant with a leagues-long penis that dangles behind him. He's classified as endangered, which, while technically, numerically accurate, is a loophole that violates the spirit of the law: he's not endangered but a freak, the last of his kind but also the first. He's an outcast of the cliquey whale community and so spends his days swimming in circles, chasing the proof that though a monster, he's still a mammal, two-headed but one-eyed, the blind leading himself forever in one direction, after the gratification of giving and receiving, almost unified, so close. The distance of the chase varies widely, circumference depending on the temperature of the water. If he ever gets there, he'll sift his semen with the krill he incidentally collects in his constantly wide open mouth and spit both out, the caught and released making for effective agents of pollination. The only thing the Dick family has in common is their capacity to reproduce, every last one of Mobius's ancestors having procreated, left to live up to the legacy of his father and his father's father before him. But he's big game for poachers, too. When the time comes, it won't be much of a fight, Mobius cooing and crooning at the sound and warmth of what he hopes will be a new friend while they drown him, which isn't an absurd death for a whale, just an anti-climactic one.

The stampede comes to an abrupt but momentary halt with the cracking, bubbling surfacing of a submarine, the potential for this huge, horizontal phallic structure to go back down at any moment apparent, the dwarfed bear raised aloft by then sliding helplessly down its periscope and curved hull, tumbling amidst the stirred up debris. Lt. Stern was once Lucy's most devoted follower, happy to lead from behind in her stead or be made an example of: you couldn't help but see yourself in his orthopaedic shoes, stripped and strapped to the bow as a figurehead, his ample breasts a suitable replacement since female soldiers were banned from going topless after the most enthusiastically celebrated examples of liberation and self-expression were revealed to be coercive in nature, or in his assigned heritage month costume, his fear of heights losing by individual shimmies and humps to the gym-class-reminiscent jeers beneath him as he worked his way up to the newly erected crow's nest (also the source of Lucy's quickly retracted "fagship" pun). But he's since gone rogue, the unlikeliest of mutineers commandeering a sub. He only re-emerges to spread rumours of her alleged master plan, a coming "boom", saying that she is in fact a mole burrowed deep.

Stern used to be her mouthpiece, condemning pragmatism as not compromise but the placing of all eggs in the present, proclaiming that she alone perceived four dimensions, dividends-yet-paid no different than the far-off bell of a tool-sharpening truck that sends people running with scissors. "Ladies," only a pacing, jaw-jutted, overcompensating voice to the troops he urged forward, "and gentlemen, this is a woman who, when others would knit or weave or crochet, was always sowing, plotting to leave a world that her children's children would someday reap. Once a dissenter -- she protested and was maced and had to have a steel plate put in her head and still went back to put a stop to the polluting of the marsh by the unnaturally hot springs where rubber-booted kids would hide in the reeds and watch all manner of depravity in the acid baths -- she's always maintained a grandmother's sole concern with the youth of tomorrow, that they might experience the simple pleasure uncomplicated by afterthought or regret that she never had, her hope for a future generation that will only think of themselves and say, 'I will not follow.'"

The sailors rush towards the sub en masse, undeterred by the yelps of those who plunk into Inuit caverns. Stern, apparently still craving approval, half appears in a hatch to welcome them aboard, and you're left to decide whether to lead the charge against and amidst the deserters or to use the opportunity to abandon altogether what Lucy only refers to as "the cause". The memory of her suspiciously simple first order reverse psychology, the ease with which you cohabit her thought process, looms over you, her weary relenting last time you saw her, waving off the entire division, that if you don't care about your duty to take or hold beaches against threats both foreign and domestic, then by all means....

You’re rudely awoken at the switch from advertisement-strobed swaying to flat expanses of less valuable real estate, where an urbanite’s absorbed lurches become a commuter's rheumatic jostling between satellite cities and the underground connects with the end of the line. A tumbleweed crumples and flexes like a flat tire as it skids past you; it isn't actually a weed but a mobile graveyard, a pocket of entropy perpetually on the move, gathering a congregation around an oasis for a reprieve from the exhaustion of life's journey, increasing the size of the Order until it reaches critical mass, taking a sip in unison and collapsing and leaving a circle bodies. You see the pall of a bar's single, buzzing neon light on the other side of the tracks. The alleyway entrance is manned by Oscar, an old drunk who's sat slumped between refuse for years without moving, a mascot, landmark, and naturalized doorman, scaring away stiffs too far off the beaten path. He's either the laissez-faire proprietor or a regular grandfathered into a position of esteem from back when it used to be called "The Business End", where men would tell their wives they only went to do their business. He doesn't even give you the courtesy of a puff of fogged breath as you walk into its current incarnation, "The Island of Misfit Boys", which the sign spells out for you.

Inside, amidst spinning lights and suspended balls waiting to drop again, an irregular pulsing in your chest stops you in your tracks, throbbing bass articulated with a girlish inflection, some of the chorus of voices speeding up with unbridled enthusiasm while others anally try to keep the beat, tapping their fake nails and rolling their eyes like real bitches. It's a countdown. So they're pagans, sun worshippers, ritualizing elongated and shortened days. You've heard of such people but never actually believed in their persistence. They fold their fingers one by one then do it all over again, the meticulous hedonism of party-planning, unable to contain their excitement but still having hours to go until Daylight Savings Time begins. Out here in the sprawl, the far reaches of the temperature-testing toes of city boys and bowls-of-warm-water-dipped fingertips of the passed out, where shift workers shiver and trudge to outer-ring bus lines that arrive at inconvenient intervals, natural light still matters. Daylight Savings Time is an excuse to stay up and out even earlier than usual, closing time delayed so they can fall back to their primitive origins. They turn their attention from fanning fingers to look you up and down, a square amidst round pegs, but somehow you fit right in, or vice versa.

Mother Hen is wearing a feathery flapper's dress with a boa thrown over his broad shoulders and, in a cage in the centre of the bar, appears to be the leader of the party fowl. This is the last outpost before you continue South and you'll need food. “Nonsense,” Mother Hen says. Even crouched down you're aware of his formidable height, legs up to his ass no doubt, because if they went to his neck he'd be a quadruped. He'd been given a nickname in high school because of his enormous penis, the object of jaws slack in the shower and locked in the bedroom. It was a destructive force in his relationships before he'd come out, hard to fit in and nearly impossible to pull out, which led to multiple home-alone-in-the-afternoon panics and girlfriends sent to live in the country for full terms. Until one day, sick of it all, he'd carefully drawn dotted lines on it, a cry for help, some combination of butchery and cosmetic procedure, and proceeded to lop and pare and whittle it down to the average of the average dimensions he'd found online. He was at long last a normal person, two-legged and feather-adorned, packing a member lacquered with a film of puss, the knotty-fibrous texture of innards turned skin deep.

He twists a lock of the shag carpeting that lines his cage, slips off his heels, and dances within his confines, grinding the balls of his feet without ever really moving them. His hair begins to stiffen and rise, static bringing component parts to life, standing alone, a product of electrons rather than synapses, displaying the ragdoll rigour latent in all people, the capacity to decay as a mere collection of carbon. But then you realize, trying to not stare at the shocking reveal, that it's a wig. Mother Hen has alopecia. He likes to tell people that he's more evolved, but in the early evening, before he's put his face on, he looks like a very self-conscious Neanderthal; eyebrows are the line drawn in the sand between knuckle-draggers and flipper people, mouth-breathers and those with gills, washed away before bed every morning or night. He touches a cage bar and zaps himself, and the wig tumbles back down. He sinks to his knees and sucks the finger, showing off his gaunt cheekbones. "Eating," he says, "is out of vogue, so yesterday." He turns his nose up: this is far more refined than the brute immediacy of the tongue, clumsily lapping; this is where true taste comes from. It leads you across expanses, not just in space but time, snaking through your skull’s sinuses, where linked memories linger like a fart. It is the seer, the medium that peers into more than a crystal ball, cupping instead the dual orbs of the hourglass figure, its eroded funnel hurried by and hurrying the passage of time, the widened middle of age, the product of seconds gone back for. Ghosts yet to come breach its deviant septum, waft over from the other side, butterflies a gut reaction to the obvious symmetry blotting the wings of chaos, knowledge of the inevitable as clear as day. "The past," he says, "is at once inescapable and inaccessible. Is there something you're running from, or looking for?" He passes you a platter through the cage bars and you're off to the powder room, the night henceforth a blur, finding yourself bent over in a stall, physically unable to sit, crippled by fear of a toilet seat that may as well constitute a sexual partner and entranced by the quote some vandal has scrawled in an arc over the entrance or exit of a glory hole, source and all, the self-fulfilling prophecy of reading material in the bathroom: "Until yesterday I had no idea that there were any families or persons whose origin was a Terminus. --The Importance of Being Earnest".

*

David Haslett lives in Toronto and will be starting an English M.A. in the Field of Creative Writing at U of T this September. He recently returned to Ontario after spending a year and a bit in South Korea. He likes the Toronto Raptors and meals microwaved in plastic dishes.

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