…a genius of meta-solutions—knocking over the chessboard, shooting the referee. – Pynchon
Bar deadness, crashed by a slam opening. Stumbling. Lou halts midwipe to look on.
This one held the Saturday Morning Star above his head. Supposed makeshift parasol or what’s left of it. A number of pages ripped out by the rain. Trampled in the downpour, blown ragged in whipping wind.
The leftovers still holding in grips above him, resembling a sponge supersaturated with wastewater. The liquid mixture of ink, chemical pulp and fingerprints drip drops on his forehead, a thin torrent trickling down past misty glasses, collecting in cracked grincusps.
He wrings it out on himself. Sloosh.
Shedding a few more layers, detaching and dropping to the ground like filmy leaves. Landing and lilypadding in the puddle tracked through the door, a taupe carpet of newsprint unrolling ovular around oozing galoshes. He opens his blazer, exposing a mangled collar and a gash of red ink on the left breast pocket. Collecting the paper into himself, his laughter unabated except as an aching afterthought.
Let me guess, you need a drink, said Lou who held down the bartending duties around here.
I need a pen!
Never heard of it. Only got Bud and Bud Light.
What? I mean a pen, you fool! As in the device for writing—écriture! It’s mightier than the sword, you know? Wait—
He reached into his coat pocket. His grin disintegrated. He retrieved a handful of instruments covered in dark red ink, which he instinctively wiped off on his jeans. Not without painting his face, jacket, and paper in the process. Erratic sidestepping about the puddle for more than a minute. Backwards, spinning. All with the same giddiness. Occasional outbursts exhuming out of his nasal cavity, wheezing uneasily in subterranean frequencies, of which he was only probably unawares.
It did not take long for him to get distracted with de-inking. He started testing his instruments on nearby napkins. Frenetic scribbling, ripping through tissue sheets, soiling everything he touched. He wanted to write it on the wall, but the tissues stuck to his hands and withered from the moisture. Stucco proved unfit for scripting. So he came over to the bar and laid out his gooped implements on mahogany countertop. For the first time Lou caught whiff of the wet dog that followed him around and occasionally took pisses on his pantlegs.
What followed was a desperate juggle of wet papers, intermixed with episodic cursing and a whole repertoire of noxious snorts and subvocal eruptions. Cheath tattering, bones creaking charnelic harmonies. A cyclone of deflected impulse whizzed in his place. And without a single visible scriptsign issued over the duration, he let out a cry of desperation. It cut the circulation of spent pens and tattered leaflets which had hitherto deluged his attention. They fell to the floor as he collapsed on the bar in depression.
One Bud, coming up, said Lou who knew beer time when he saw it.
The man glared and replied:
Can’t you see that I need a pen, not a dose of your goddamned idiot’s brew? Can’t you see what I’m trying to tell you? Don’t you realize what’s at stake? No, be gone with your booze, but send me your nearest working apparatus of écriture! Of textual exteriorization! Pronto!
By the time his speech petered out, Lou had already retrieved the bottle. Momentum carried him through his daily routine of crouch, grab, open in hoping disbelief of what he was hearing. Surely the man would come to his senses, have a revelation. Lou could not believe his ears. He would have to bend his knees all over again, just to put the bottle back in its original position in the fridge under the bar. Unbelievable. He emitted a groan which echoed throughout the corridors of the establishment.
Well? said the man, tapping his finger on the bar.
So you don’t want a beer, but you want a pen. Am I hearing you correct?
By Deus, yes!
Lou stood back and sized up the wet man. Joe Wetman. The one who demanded not beer on an empty afternoon. Who tracked the weather into the bar, mucking up the place. Who was obviously nuts. Just look at him diddle. Bugger jitters. Varicose veins throbbing under his dome, pumping molten blood into the core of a cerebral meltdown. Look at his eyes, peering from beneath fogged bifocal screens like bottomless wells, counter-sizing, swallowing any reflection you might glean of yourself in their pillars of consummate shadow.
A psycho killer with a fix for jamming pens up his ass. Heh. In order to punctuate his colon!
Lou let out an uproarious guffaw.
Excuse me, did you hear what I parleyed? Does it bear repeating? A working pen or pencil, post haste if you will good sir!
Just give me a damned pen!
Sheesh! said Wetman with a wave of his wet hands, sprinkling droplets onto Lou’s face. He catapulted off the stool and proceeded to rummage up and down the bar, uprooting chairs and tables in search of lost ballpoints. Lou kept watch over his forage. He allowed the rearranging on the sweet anticipation that the hunt would come up fruitless. Though doubt pervaded him for a second when Wetman reached underneath the virtual lottery terminals in a last-ditch attempt to get his hands on the items dropped by chance and claimed by filth. But no luck. Shucks. Lou let out a sigh of relief. The wretch returned to the bar in fatigue.
You know, whatever your worries, whatever problems have got you down, buddy, beer will help to pick you up, said Lou with a note of charity in his voice.
I suppose it’s inevitable that I’d lose it…
Thatta boy. Take your medicine.
Hey, what the—
Wetman seizes past Lou’s readied arm, a flinch away from cracking the bottle, to pull at a speck of something. Lou parrying lifts the bottle in an attempt to shield his chest. Beer begins to fizzle out of the semi-cracked cap and spout foamy upon his apron. Still through his blockade and sudscreen could be seen an inch of cylindrical clear plastic that Wetman had uncovered from the pocket. It gleamed in the artificial barlight like the second coming of Christ.
Testing the name tag, proceeding with caution, Wetman went on:
Now Lou, it’s decisive that you let me borrow your pen. I’ll even give it back to you when I’m done. But let me use it for just one second.
Just one second?
No, Lou. That’s pars pro toto. More like thirty minutes. What does it matter? You’re not even using it.
Not this minute, but who can say for the next.
No, who can say. I don’t know. All I can say is that I have an idea. Have you ever had an idea, Lou? They happen inside your head, if you don’t know. They make your brain think, if and when. Usually they’re not worth the electroencephalographs they’re recorded on, most of the time, but this one comes from the pit of my stomach, Lou. Or I mean my heart. Up to the top of my head. Whatever, it’s the same thing. In any case you got to help me out. Give me a pen so I can get it out onto the page. I’ll spring it from my wrists, Lou. God. Consider it a favour. I.O.U.
Don’t drag the Lord’s name into it or you’re asking for trouble, said Lou in curt retort.
It dawned on Wetman the scope of his miscalculation. Without any inkling of how to proceed, Lou took advantage of the blank slate to set things straight.
I don’t know where you get off, buster. Saying that I don’t got ideas. The mouth on this one. Let me tell you. You’re not the only one with a plan, man. You got that? I know what’s what. In fact I got idea right now of where you can stick that pen!
And another thing. The problem with people today. It’s simple. They think too much. That’s the whole problem right there. You get in trouble. Start making stuff up. That’s why you gotta concentrate on one thing at a time, that’s right in front of you. At the center of your attention. To keep from going around looking like your type. Trying to fit it all into your mouths, all at the same time. Oh I know your type. Know-it-alls. A pack of jackasses in mortarboards. With diplomas sticking out of their hoo-has!
Wetman lunges over the bar. He has his fingers on the pen. Not so fast. Lou pivots, his stealth unanticipated by Wetman, who loses his balance and spills over the bar. Dumping headfirst onto the other side, face laid against the caked rubber mats grounding the barback. Bloodshot eyes squeezing out of their sockets, following Lou’s trot to the office where hangs a padlocked cabinet painted like a Union Jack, red, white, and blue. From which Lou produces a double-barrelled baseball bat. Ol’ Trustworthy. Best bouncer in the world.
He takes up the slugger in both hands. This gesture vaults Wetman from his shambles back onto the customer side of the bar. But he loses his balance along the way, sliding on a coaster and onto a nearby table, splitting it in half with his back. The legs and stretcher exploding out from under it and ricocheting across the bar like chipboard shrapnel.
Wincing and writhing in the wake of his broken landing, Wetman spots Lou walking around the bar with his bat. Lou exaggerating his stroll to relish the sight from his elevated vantage. He pat the shaft of Ol’ Trustworthy in his open palm, two steps behind but always within reach, while watching Wetman wriggle his way to the exit.
On the way, Lou glanced out the window. No mercy out there. Still the rain poured, even harder than before. Clouds blackening. Rumbles amplified with every passing minute, the shrinking interval between strikes signalling the approaching storm.
Lou did not want to compromise his dryness. He followed the man as far as the door and allowed him to slither free from the immediate menace posed by him and Ol’ Trustworthy. Lou thought it good of him to do so. A good guy gives grace. Better than they deserve. Mercy on your soul. Now out the door with you.
Wetman rested for a second, soaking in the gutter. He closed his eyes for a stretch. The weather made it difficult for Lou to keep in view of his movements. Soon though he had caught his breath. Soon after that he stood up.
The bench at the bus stop lent him something to lean on. Lou could no longer identify his face, which got lost in the moving waters washing out the streets, appearing only for a second and again, refracting through the rain.
Lou monitored the outcast as he trudged away, but began to grow concerned when he stopped and turned back to look at the bar for what felt like a long time. Lou chose to return the gaze, ready to protect the establishment at all costs. Nor one to turn down an opportunity to claim self-defence should some maniac in the streets want a whooping.
The standoff did not last long before the levee broke. The rising thunder of the thousands of feet matched shots of canisters and gunfire that ricocheted from the northeast intersection. It flooded the streets in seconds. Burning private property on the adjacent avenue fuelled the charcoal smoke rising overhead, blotting out the sky. Water spewing from fire hydrants and broken mains got kicked up in helicopter cyclones along with thick plumes of teargas, billowing up into the higher regions of the atmosphere.
The multitudes were dressed in red and black and green. They did not wait to throw a garbage can through the window. Too many of them filed in for Lou to know what to do. His shaking hands lost hold of the bat. He could only watch as they ransacked the fridge, tossed the bottles they could not carry off, flipped tables and tagged along a streak of smeared graffiti. Lou tried to grab a few of them by the end, but they overthrew his holds with elbows and knees. A punch to the gut took Lou off his feet.
When he caught his breath, he looked up to see Ol’ Trustworthy used to shatter the wraparound mirror backing the bar in an explosion of wood and glass. The swing broke the bat. They took the jagged hilt and jammed it through the big screen in the corner, where it jutted sidelong from the elephantine black box in a fountain of yellow sparks.
Crowds streamed past him in this state, trudging through turbulence and human traffic. Working hard for disobedience. Following the action. Taking photos on camera phones and tweeting cohorts. Some scrummed around him in his stupor, but how to speak without hearing? Looters vultured the leavings, others cast him as background to frame their photogenic. Only when the medics arrived did he realize what he had been saying.
They walked him outside and laid him down on the bench. One began to tape Lou’s head with gauze while the other went for help. Fumes began to funnel out of the windows of the bar. Soon it was smogsheets spilling upwards into the heavens, enjoining the coal nimbus already encircling the city. Lou’s eyes followed them up and away.
The block began to unclog. As the crowds rushed on to take in the next sight, this bodily dispersion allowed Lou to catch one last glimpse of the man from before.
Kneeling on the other side of the street, at home in a pile of jettisoned placards, treating them fresh under the point of a permanent red marker scrawling feverishly in his left hand. The signs spun out from under his pen and into the arms of passers-by, who hoisted them into the air to dance above the heads of the crowd.
Lou blinked. The signs did not communicate. The symbols resembled no alphabet he knew. Strange squiggles linked curves, hoops and knots of no known origin. Meanwhile slogans sounding a babble, many mouths shouting differences at the same time, each headed in the other’s direction or getting in the way going the same way.
Yet this did not prevent the runes from telling a story to Lou. They read of the passion of the antichrist and the twilight of the gods, a drama enacted in the whirling substitution and alternation of signs ebbing and flowing in the brooking mass, coursing on to the revel, around the corner and gone.
Civil dusk passed unnoticed behind the eclipse.
(Photo credit: Micah Markson)