Archive | December, 2013

An Artist Goes to Hell – Excerpt 10

28 Dec

After an immeasurable time later in which all life before it could only have survived in his mind as a trace of a dream, a trace of a trace, Pensivemo woke up under a sky of black clouds just as someone poked his arm.

‘What the hell do you want?’ he found himself saying. He thought maybe he’d been drunk and had fallen asleep in a ditch somewhere. All around him were broken stones and crowds of dirty people, sleeping, sitting up and holding one another. Over the people on the ground stood a series of well-dressed men and women in black uniforms.

A man in a suit leaned over to Pensivemo and said, ‘It’s amazing you’re alive. Everything still working? Everything important, at least?’

Pensivemo frowned and tried to determine to whom the voice and face belonged. It was the droopy-jowled, hyperactive Dr. Sintek.

‘Yeah … I know you,’ Pensivemo said.

‘Of course you know me. Are you having memory trouble? Do you know where you are? Oh, how stupid of me. Of course you don’t know where you are because you aren’t where you were before.’

‘Where am I?’

‘You’re outside of the Meta-Corp building,’ Sintek said.

‘Meta-Corp? The hell’s that?’

‘It’s where you were. It eh … It’s greatly damaged but we can work with what’s left, surely.’

Pensivemo tried to get up to have a look around him but was too sore to move.

‘Do you know who you are, at least?’ Dr. Sintek asked.

‘I’m Pensivemo.’

‘Great, wonderful! At least you know something.’

Pensivemo frowned at him. With great pain, he turned a little and saw a giant, white building with a dome top. When he shifted upward, he saw that this dome top was only one of many on a building that stretched far beyond what his angle allowed him to see.

‘That’s the building I was in?’ Pensivemo asked.

‘That’s the one,’ Sintek said.

‘It doesn’t look too damaged.’

‘Well, you can’t really see the damage from this side, so much.’

‘Meta-Corp?’

‘Meta-Corp.’

‘What’s the Meta for?’

Sintek frowned, considering this. ‘Metaphor? I’m not sure there is one. Eh, I hate to be a pest, but we’re going to have to get a move on. You are, after all, a wanted man, remember?’

‘By whom?’

Dr. Sintek tried to pull him up by the arm and Pensivemo let out a little yelp. ‘Oh, sorry! Here, can you move your legs?’

Pensivemo forced himself up despite the pain, slowly, until he stood. ‘Who am I wanted by?’

‘Well, you’re wanted by a few different factions, see. If you’ll remember, you didn’t gain a whole lot of favor with the Inner Meta-Corp Militia, who were the cowboys in blue that were hassling you, if you remember.’

‘Of course.’

‘And then there’s the Lower-Level A firm, which I’m sure you wouldn’t want to have to run into again.’

‘No, no. They’re still after me?’

‘Oh yes. Definitely.’

‘Were they the first?’

‘No. The original firm that indicted you is the one that actually detained you and brought you in. You still don’t remember that?’

‘None of it. Who are they?’

‘It’s a firm called Meta-Corpse, you see. This is where it gets convoluted. The name is so close to Meta-Corp, and they carry themselves in such a lofty, professional way that dumber people quickly get them confused with something more important.’

‘So they’re not really a threat?’

‘Oh they’re definitely a threat. I mean, they have some pull around here and some strict laws, especially on artists like yourself, but it’s incredibly underhanded and sneaky. They put “corpse” in their name as a sort of eschatological allusion to their partnership with the Lower-Level A firm, you know, with their sinister imagery—the dead shall rise and be judged and all that. That’s sort of the imagery they’re going for in their punitive aspect.’

‘They sentenced me to a life of torture, Doc,’ Pensivemo said. ‘A life of torture. You ever heard of such a thing?’

‘Yeah, they’re known for that. That’s one firm you don’t want on your ass. How the hell did you wind up down there, anyway?’

‘Well, I was with eh, what’s his name, the Dean of Grievances?’

‘Rover.’

‘Yeah, him. Little swine stayed behind. But I was just trying to get to safety, you know … One of the levels looked like a warzone.’

‘Ah yes.’ Sintek sighed and shook his head, glancing off at the Meta-Corp building as though at something beloved. ‘That was between the Inner Meta-Corp Militia and a firm called Argonaut.’

‘So, they would have just tortured me if it wasn’t for that earthquake? Forever?’

‘Here, we’ll talk more on the jeep,’ Sintek said.

The said jeep pulled up and a few darkly dressed men in front welcomed them onto the back. With creaky, sore joints, Pensivemo hopped on. Raised that much higher, Pensivemo had a better view of the endless network of buildings linked together that made Meta-Corp. The black clouds above them were so thick that he thought it might have been smoke.

The jeep moved along a little cement pathway in between a series of polished, industrial buildings: shipping yards, factories, chemical plants, offices and even a few strip malls filled with barbeque joints, diners and sandwich shops—perhaps for the local workers during lunch hour.

‘So, the Dean of Grievances was telling me something interesting,’ Pensivemo said. ‘You don’t work for the top guys exactly … I don’t want to offend you by sounding crass, but basically, if I understand it, you capitalize on the charges that get flung at people by different firms, and you side with an opposing firm as a defense attorney?’

Sintek gave him a squinty, amused smile and, in such a way that a bit of spittle flew out, said, ‘There are no top guys.’

‘None?’

‘Not really. There’re a series of mediators, I suppose.’

‘Who do you work for, then?’

‘Well, things are complicated, see. I used to work for a firm called Myron Bank, see, but there’s been a readjustment in corporate structure, though I’m sure “readjustment” seems like an understatement to you, given the rumbling and all that.’

‘So who do you work for now?’

Sintek smiled. He pointed up at the black clouds.

‘You work for the sky?’ Pensivemo said.

He frowned and shook his head.

Pensivemo let out a little laugh. ‘Who then?’

‘Well … I work for the one responsible for some of the demolition and the renovations that you started to see happen at Meta-Corp, I’m sure.’

‘You’re talking about earthquakes?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Someone was responsible for them?’

‘Yeah.’

‘And that’s who you’re working for?’

‘Yep.’

‘Who’s that?’

‘Well … see, we don’t exactly speak his name,’ Sintek said, smiling nervously.

‘You don’t speak his name? What do you mean?’

‘I mean … we don’t speak his name.’

‘You’re not allowed?’

Sintek shrugged.

They went through an open gate in a chain-link fence and ended up in a parking lot behind a big warehouse.

‘Have you seen him?’ Pensivemo asked.

‘Never.’

‘Seriously?’

Dr. Sintek nodded.

‘So, how do you communicate with him?’

‘Through middle men, see. People higher up the chain of command.’

‘Is he immaterial or something?’

‘Ah well … that gets into complicated territory that doesn’t really have much bearing on business.’

‘Does he ever go after people? You know, does he charge them the way I got charged?’

‘Well, he may and he certainly has in the past but it’s finicky. I don’t know.’

‘Did he charge me?’

‘Well, technically no, since I’m helping you on your case now and I’m working for him.’

‘How do you know it’s a him if you’ve never seen him?’

‘It very well might be a woman, I don’t rightly know.’

‘So, technically, he or she is on my side in this case?’

‘Technically, you could say that. But we do have to lay low, you see.’

The jeep stopped. As they got off, Pensivemo saw on one of the black loading docks a sign that said Costco.

‘This is the last place I remember going before I woke up in the Meta-Corp building,’ Pensivemo said. ‘The last thing I remember was taking a bite from a little sample cup of pork and beans with a plastic spoon.’

‘Yeah well, they have good samples, don’t they?’

‘Yeah. Why are we going here?’

‘There’s a group here that’ll help you lay low.’

‘Are they even open this late?’

‘This late?’ Dr. Sintek let out a little laugh. ‘It’s only three in the afternoon, Pens.’

‘Why’s the sky so dark?’

‘It’s him, you see. He likes to make his presence a bit extravagant.’

They came to a door on a ramp near the loading docks, and as they entered the warehouse, Pensivemo said, ‘So what’s your plan in case they find me? Are we still going with the Insanity Plea?’

‘Well, it depends on which firm gets a hold of you first—God forbid any of them will, but you know, just in case. First of all, the Insanity Plea will work for groups that have a more Free Will oriented way of thinking, as was the case with Meta-Corpse. If you control your own destiny, the thing that would best free you from the charges of someone with this belief is a position in which you say that you, due to extenuating circumstances, did not have much control over your own destiny the way it would be supposed that others did, you know. And then with that we could always try and argue that artists are usually insane anyway, even if that only stands as a popular commonplace, see. All these ideas bounce around and qualify one another. Then, if we’re dealing with someone less Free Will oriented, you know, like the group Argonaut which has more of an old school Logical Positivist way of looking at things, you know, that there are no choices and that humans are absolutely locked into a strict chain of necessity, cause and effect and all that, then we would be able to paint you up as the sort of sympathetic, favored criminal of the Dostoyevsky or Goethe variety, you see? I would dare say that even the Lower-Level A firm is susceptible to the tugging of heartstrings we could pull off with the kind of dualistic thought that leads one to believe someone is different on the inside than how they act outside, you see. And me? I’m just a lawyer, kid. None of this stuff matters to me outside of a punitive context, you get me? I have to use all these different ideas against one another in order to better serve a client. It’s how I make money.’

‘And how much do you charge? That’s the important thing. Do I owe you money for the time we’ve had already or something?’

‘Well, that’s something we can discuss. It turned out that Myron Bank, as it was dissipating, you know, was able to pay me out for those few minutes of service I gave you. Consider the moment you woke up just a moment ago and up until now complimentary as far as my services go, but we’re quickly approaching a point where the dollars per minute are gonna start racking up just by me standing here and flashing my pretty eyes. That’s why we’re here.’

‘At Costco?’

‘Yep.’

‘And what about this group that’s supposed to help me lay low?’

‘Well that’s why we’re here too. You’re gonna wanna lay low either way. Now, you can lay low with these guys, which has very little to do with me, or you can lay low with these guys and continue to pay me for my services.’

‘Oh … Will they charge me for their services?’

‘Oh, they usually don’t as far as I know,’ Sintek said with a wave of his hand. They both walked across an isle and passed a large crate of bestselling books. ‘As far as I’m aware, they only charge you in conversation. They talk a lot. You listen a lot. It’s not always a small price. The stuff they talk about gets way over my head, you know. They’re Hassidic Jews. I mean, I grew up going to temple and everything but I don’t know what the hell they’re talking about half the time. I mean, I’m sure it’d all be interesting if I had the time but jeez, you know? You spend your life swimming around in law-language and you don’t have much time for any other language, you know what I mean?’

‘Right.’

‘Your ears are their currency, and as long as you don’t mind being reminded of your goyness all the time, you know, or their Jewishness, you’ll be fine. You are a goy, aren’t you? Of course you are. I can tell by your face. I hope that’s not offensive, it’s not intended to be. Anyway, so they’re usually in the electronics area. There’re a few chairs and things over there so they can go there. They stay as far away from the food court as they can, you know. You’ve seen the food, you don’t need me to explain.’

‘How come there’s no one here?’

‘Ah well, business has never been good since Meta-Corp came in. But nevertheless, we should be close now. Ohp! There they are.’

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An Artist Goes to Hell – Excerpt 9

21 Dec

On the other side was a big room like a theater hall without a real stage. There were five balconies. The five balconies had five balustrades in front of a series of seat-rows, probably a dozen per floor, and in each seat sat a man in a hooded, dark robe. The balcony wrapped all around the room on three sides. As Pensivemo followed the man in monk-garb, he saw what looked like a jury-stand on the first floor. In that stand sat about thirty men wearing red, hooded robes. On their trip across the room, Pensivemo saw that the ground had etched into it a series of hermetic shapes and symbols that he couldn’t place.

Halfway across the room, Pensivemo saw another robed figure standing in front of the jury. It took him a moment to figure out whether or not this figure was a statue, for he seemed far too big to be real.

The man in monk garb turned to Pensivemo and said, ‘Wait in the center.’

The man stood off to the side. The tall robed figure started to move. It wasn’t until he moved that Pensivemo saw just how impossibly tall he was—easily ten feet. His face was pale under the hood of the robe and his eyes seemed discolored—far too bright, the pupils far too small. Pensivemo took a few steps back as the man came close to him, standing nearly twice his height, and looked down.

In an incredibly baritone, freakish voice, the impossibly tall robed figure said, ‘Croce … Like the philosopher?’

Pensivemo looked almost straight up at him. ‘I suppose.’

‘Mr. Croce … You’ve transgressed the law of Lower-Level A. This court session will be your one and only. You will not be represented by your own or by any other party under court of law. This session will commence with a list of your charges, a plea on your part accompanied by any opposing evidence, and a final sentence.’

‘I thought I was already sentenced upstairs.’

‘By another firm, perhaps … But you haven’t been sentenced down here yet.’

‘What will I be sentenced to? Prison?’

‘That will be for the judge to decide.’ The impossibly tall man turned and walked back toward the jury stand.

On the first balcony, off to the left, there sat a great box, like those private booths at the theater, and there an even bigger man arrived, if such a size was possible. He wore a long black judge’s robe with his immense, bald, white head uncovered. His black eyebrows were peaked and his face was stern, his eyes pale, his pupils small.

When he spoke, it was great, clear and amplified. ‘Pensivemo Croce … You’ve been charged with Illiciting a Set of Self-Styled Moralizations in the Presence of a Minor. You’ve been charged with Talismanic Opposition. You’ve been charged with Augerious Amplifications and Exaltation by way of Poetic License. You’ve been charged with Pseudo-Mythic Ironism in favor of but not limited to a Proclivity for Modernist Preoccupations. You’ve been charged with Substandard Mimetic Deficiency. You’ve been charged with Negligence in Light of Recent Contrarian Sentiments. You’ve been charged with Delinquency of Reason in Favor of Capitalizing Non-monumental Nouns. You’ve been charged with Salience in Favor of Arbitrary Minutiae. You’ve been charged with Misdistinguishment and Diffidence in Favor of Impartial Expressionism in Light of Current Culturally Contingent Vulgarities. How do you plea?’

‘Not guilty,’ Pensivemo said.

The gigantic head in the box said, ‘Does the prosecuted party have any evidence for this case?’

Pensivemo looked around, realizing that he was the only one being addressed, and said, ‘Not really.’

‘And what is the jury’s conclusion?’ the big man in the box asked.

One of the men in red robes stood and said, ‘We find him guilty on all charges.’

The big man in the box pounded his gavel and said, ‘Pensivemo Croce, you are hereby found guilty by the Lower-Level A court of the Lower-Level A firm for transgressing the law or being party to the previously mentioned transgressions. I hereby sentence you to a Life of Damnation by way of Torture in the company of the Munch Fiend.’

‘A life of torture?’ Pensivemo said. ‘Munch Fiend? What is this?’

Two men in robes approached him from either side of the room and took him by the arms. He stood there for a moment trying to start sentences and failing with full-hearted, inarticulate noises. He saw that the men were looking above so he looked up to find the source of their attention. From a set of rafters near the dome ceiling, they were lowering down to him some kind of body harness on two wire cables. Once it reached him, two more robed figures approached and leveled it down. Roughly, they strapped him into it by the legs, arms, back and chest and backed away from him when they were finished. The harness tugged at all sides of his body and he found himself suspended in air about five feet above the heads of the four robed figures who’d handled him.

These four men left the center of the room, spread out evenly spaced from one another, to the four corners of the great hall. The cable pulled him upward, slowly, until he reached the height of the first balcony. He continued past the first balcony and on up to the second. The men in the rafters stopped moving him. There he swung lightly, right and left. A great mechanical sound filled the air like gears grinding and moving together.

From this view above, he could better see the hermetic iconography etched into the floor. There was a giant pyramid covering most of its golden center in the middle of a giant circle. At the pyramid’s corners were circles with designs on them reminiscent of the terrain of planets. The ring of fire around the circle at the pyramid’s head indicated its sunhood. At the bottom right was a circle with a slanted ring, Saturn, and in the other corner was a planet with rough, textured skin that seemed to represent continents—Earth. There were a series of symbols outside of the greater circle which encompassed the pyramid but it was hard for Pensivemo to see them in their particularity for how high up he was.

It was evident after a short moment that the great mechanical sounds were coming from the ground itself. The circle around the pyramid acquired definition as though its contours were filling with shadow. Pensivemo realized that the circle was sinking into the floor like a great, movable medallion though how far he couldn’t tell. The circle then separated at the center in a triangular, triptych split. As those three great pieces pulled away, Pensivemo saw a glowing, glazed world below of glistening meats lit by orange flame light. Rubbery substances, like giant pig organs, moved with strained digestion. A wave of heat rushed up to him from where he hung suspended from the ceiling. As the cable began to lower, every shape in that well-lit, subterranean prison was highlighted by greater and greater distinction in his mind, as though he was wiping the dust from a portrait or as though his vision, once black with faintness, was returning to him slowly. The cable reached the first balcony. Pensivemo thought he saw ghastly, butchered faces—gigantic faces—looking up at him from a slop pile of gristle and glowing organs. The faces, if they were really such, had closed eyes and pug noses, bared teeth missing and clogging their swollen, nonworking throats. He reached the barrier between the floor and the world below, feeling the heat with greater intensity, the figures below becoming still more defined though his mind couldn’t fathom what exactly they were or what purpose they served. It wasn’t until he reached that barrier between the floor and the world below that he realized just how much lower that next subterranean level was, which only meant that the strange figures, the organ-looking tissues, the ghastly butchered faces of strange creatures, were all much larger than they already appeared.

To the right and the left were great blowing torches, strictly for light and unpleasant heat, it seemed, which roared in great yellow and blue plumes from the walls of this immense, cave-like cavern in the hollow of Lower-Level A. As he lowered, Pensivemo saw a peculiar shape like a humanoid body lying amidst the gristle and big faces. It was smaller than the faces but surely a giant. Its body was unclothed, slimy and fixed into the greater membrane of those tissues and pumping, bloated organs. Twitching and struggling, like an infant waking, it began to move its skinny limbs around as if to try and get up. The lifting head was covered in long, black hair goopy with the gristle in which it had been resting. The creature seemed trapped by slime, as though it was only just born and had to tear itself from its placental home. A thick, membranous wing tore from under its arm and from between its joined legs.

As Pensivemo came toward it, he realized how immense the strange figure was, probably the size of elephants he’d seen at the zoo. The creature turned its head upward to reveal its long, ridiculous nose, its pointy chin like the lower half of a crescent moon, its open eyes now big and dog-like, its yellow, bloody teeth, its long black hair parted down the middle and hanging in goopy strings below. It lifted its gray, skinny-fingered hands and long fingernails and brushed the bottom of his shoes.

The cables shifted and tilted him down so that he was facing the creature head on. Pensivemo found himself shouting, ‘God no,’ without intending to. The creature opened its immense mouth, revealing its big pink tongue, and clamped its teeth down on Pensivemo’s hanging hair. Audibly, the creature began to munch. Pensivemo found himself muttering and making noises he didn’t know he was capable of making. If he was going to be there for life, he was going to crack eventually. It seemed better to just get it out of the way right at the beginning.

What would be the nature of this ‘torture’ they promised him? Would the creature perhaps eat all his hair first, then his toenails and fingernails? Would it eat everything off of him that would grow back and find some other way to tease him until those parts of him grew back? If this was it for him, if this was going to be his whole life, perhaps he could somehow coax the creature into just killing him.

Rather than coming up with something clever, Pensivemo figured it was worth a shot to make the request outright. ‘Just kill me,’ he muttered.

The creature—with a noise that sounded far too human, far too breathy, too voicey—started to laugh with great amusement, its eyes flinching up with amusement.

The immense, butchered faces resting about the creature—their bodies either nonexistent or fixed somewhere below that membranous sludge—began to open their eyes with looks of great terror.

On all sides of that subterranean cavern, the torches dimmed in flame making everything a shade darker. The gassy skunk smell penetrated the already bizarre smell of Lower-Level A. The faces on the ground closed their eyes, opened their mouths as though crying out, and shook their heads from side to side.

Just below Pensivemo, the Munch Fiend covered its face and screamed with a child’s abandon. The rope pulled Pensivemo upward a bit. His momentary relief was interrupted by a more abrupt jerk. He started to move so fast it felt like he was falling upward. When he reached the very top of the dome ceiling, far above the five balconies, he slapped the ceiling so hard that he felt several joints crunch with the impact before he fell back down, swung left and right from the very top, afraid all the while that the cables would suddenly snap and that he would find himself plummeting back into the gristly tissues below.

All around him, the foundation quaked, thus making the cables rattle while he swung. Pensivemo watched as the thousands of men in black robes tried to file from their seats and rush toward whatever exits were there in those dark places. The men in red robes below were leaping over the edges of the stand to get away. The great big box to the left, where the giant judge sat, rattled and cracked in half so that his immense body tumbled out and, because of its size, didn’t take long to land on the floor, his big, white, bald head bobbing about before he slipped over the edge of the open circle in the floor and landed softly on the giant faces of the tiny Munch Fiend below. The balustrades began to crack and fall apart. The dome ceiling sprouted a network of spider-webbing cracks as well. The shaking of the earth was now audible with a steady hum. The walls to the side of the room from which he’d first emerged began to crack and soon, a whole gold-plated fixture making up that wall toppled over, revealing a network of white offices and the waiting room where he had sat before. Pensivemo tried to grab hold of the cables in order to climb them to the rafters but he couldn’t grip them. The cracks in the ceiling were more tremendous now and he heard the great hum of tension and broken stone about to give way. With a sound like a pop, the ceiling busted open and he found himself falling down again. It all happened too fast for him to consider how he should land as he plummeted past all the breaking balconies, past the barrier into the subterranean pit, and land on the soft tissues of the slimy organs. It hurt but it was more stunning than damaging. The rafters above landed on all sides but missed him. Men in dark robes were falling into the pit. Just to his left, the giant judge was stirring to get up, a giant left boot almost knocking into the rafters and thus into Pensivemo, but he fell back to his side and rolled onto his stomach. There were a series of loud, endless crashes. A beige, camouflage jeep toppled over the side of the circular barrier, connected with the soft tissues and rolled upside-down. A couple more jeeps toppled over, landing on their backs and noses, and down came a dozen men in military outfit. Wooden tables, plates and nicely dressed screaming people all fell to the ground. As the foundation shook, the pile of rubble and the pile of people stacked up, toppled over and rebuilt with new streams of falling debris. As more and more of the soft, tissuey ground disappeared from sight, Pensivemo grew certain that fewer and fewer people would survive the fall.

Soon, the inside walls of that cavern began to cave in, and with it, the golden roof above them with that absent circle unloosened and fell into the next, subterranean level, slantways, hitting the giant judge, smashing through a layer of debris and burying its corner into the tissues underneath.

Pensivemo tried to get a better look at what lay beyond the now ever-widening hole in the cracked, dome ceiling but saw only darkness. Soon, as he strained even more through a mind far too strained already, he saw only darkness and after that, nothing at all.

An Artist Goes to Hell – Excerpt 8

16 Dec

The radio DJ muttered something to the microphone men and they all shuffled quickly out the door. Breeze tickled Pensivemo’s hair and soon, a strong wind blew through the looseness of his clothing in audible, rapid flicks as the fake plants at the room’s corners toppled over and rolled along the ground. Papers began to fly about in a swirl at the center of the room. The receptionist went about her business, unhindered in hair and manner. After a moment, she said, ‘Pensivemo Croce?’

By this time, the indoor breeze was milder but still present. ‘Yes?’ he said.

‘If you’ll take this door here and go to the end of the hall, they’ll meet you to discuss your charges.’

‘Very well,’ Pensivemo said. He tried to stand again, having forgotten about the chains. He yanked once, twice and sat down to try and break the chair’s arm with the force of his pull. He stood hunched over, facing the chair, a foot on the seat and pulled and pulled until his face was strained and his veins were visible. He turned to the receptionist again. ‘Ma’am?’

Her eyes were turned down, going left and right, reading something.

‘Ma’am?’

She paid him no attention.

‘Excuse me.’

She yawned and scratched her head through the bottom of the great hair-bun.

Pensivemo bent over the best he could, his one hand resting chained and flat on the chair’s arm, his bruised knees facing the metal legs bolted to the floor. He ran his finger along the bolts before giving one of them a passive squeeze and an already defeated attempt at turning. He shifted back to the receptionist and said, ‘Ma’am? Excuse me.’

She finally looked up at him. ‘Hm?’ she said.

‘Do you have any bolt cutters? Or perhaps a wrench?’

‘Let me see,’ she said, looking down, opening drawers, digging around audibly. ‘I don’t know.’

‘Maybe even pliers?’

‘Oh! Here’s some,’ she said. She set them on the counter in front of her.

‘Can you bring them to me? I can’t go very far.’

‘Oh! Psh. Duh!’ she said and hit her own head.

She walked over, her high heels thunking on the thin carpet, the breeze in the room just about gone. She set it on the seat of the chair. As he reached up to grab its handles with his free hand, she slid her hand off its body and moved her fingers along his fingers. She stopped where her palm met the top of his knuckles and he could feel a piece of paper padding the space between their two skins. Realizing it was something she meant to put in his hand, he turned his hand over so that his palm would meet it. She kept her hand on his. He looked up at her.

She held back a smile as she said, ‘I know who you are, you know.’

‘Oh? It seems everyone knows who I am.’

So soft he almost couldn’t hear what she was saying, ‘But they don’t know you like I do.’

She slid her hand away to reveal a yellow sticky note with a phone number in blue ink penned oddly into the bottom right.

With the pliers in hand, he lowered himself to the bolts at the bottom of the chair, and as he did, he felt the chain slide off the chair’s arm as though it had not been tied at all. As he stood, the chain slinked off of his pale arm with a few grainy rubs and painful pinches before falling to the ground in a rattling pile. When he turned to the receptionist again, she was putting her black, puffy coat on and coming around the other side of her table, heading toward the door that Pensivemo had used to enter the waiting room. Before she reached the door, she turned to him briefly, smiled and twiddled goodbye-fingers at him. She opened the door and left.

Pensivemo looked at the door to the next hall with his hand on the knob. He turned it slowly and pulled it open. It was a pale old hallway with several white doors on either side. He took a step into the hall and shut the door behind him. He came quickly to the door at the end of the hallway but before entering, he noticed that one of the doors to the right was wide open. Peeking inside, he saw a small, dark child lying asleep in bed, hooked up to some sort of breathing machine or heart monitor. The little boy sat up, opened his eyes wide and looked at Pensivemo with such terrible blankness that he struggled for something to say to the child to calm him. The child stuck his tongue out at Pensivemo and darted his head forward, as though shooting some vicious tongue-curse at him. Pensivemo smiled at the silliness of it until the boy leaned forward with more determination, sticking his tongue in and out, his brow raised, his eyes motionless but spirited. Pensivemo felt himself say something but the child didn’t respond with words.

He turned and saw that the room directly across the hall was open too. Inside, he saw a row with a half-dozen or so beds and a child in each one. They all looked sickly and pale. The nearest had a large, misshapen head and a frail body with protruding ribs. The room had that familiar gassy smell to it. The nearest child sat up with some struggle, looked at Pensivemo with wide eyes just as the last child and started sticking his tongue out at him, moving his head back and forth with determination—forward with each tongue-point and back in with each retreat. The other children behind him all sat up as though they’d been awake the whole time. As each one saw Pensivemo, they stuck their tongues out at him as though pointing curses, the same determination, the same big eyes, the same strained expressions and jolting bodies. They got to where it seemed synchronized; bobbing in pairs, fanning and waving in threes and fours.

Pensivemo moved his foot just slightly and felt something small wrapped around his ankle. He looked down and saw a silver band around his pant leg. Only when a thin, flicking red tongue shot out did he realize it was a snake. He lifted his leg with a yelp and rapid jiggle of foot. It fell to the ground and waved and wiggled to a position in which it could slither away. He stomped on its head until the blood of its smashed body spat against his leg and on the floor in front of it.

The children were still sticking their tongues out at him, lifting their brows, widening their eyes as though hungry, as though the intensity of their movements would bring some satiation to their vicious hungers, completely silent all but the abrasions of their small bodies against the bed sheets. When he looked at their bobbing heads again, he saw what he thought were insects clinging to the walls behind them. With a closer look, he saw that they were small lizards of some kind. He only noticed a few but soon his eye found a great many of them, all completely motionless. The children, in the same bizarre pattern, started audibly snapping their teeth at him.

Still looking at them, Pensivemo backed out of the room. In the corner of his eye, he saw a dark figure interrupting the paleness of the hall. He turned and saw a man in what looked like a monk’s robe. His head was completely hairless, his face pale, his eyes blue.

Pensivemo cocked his head a little and said to the man, ‘I really need a cigarette. Would you happen to have—’

The man shook his head slowly.

‘I think I might be in the wrong place.’

‘Pensivemo Croce?’ the man said, softly.

‘Yeah.’

The man was silent for a moment, sighed, turned, lifted his hand and motioned with his finger for Pensivemo to follow him as he entered the door.

An Artists Goes to Hell – Excerpt 7

6 Dec

As he journeyed down the hall, there were pillars on either side of him, and on those pillars were statues more Greco-Roman in style—the faces smooth and jaws rounded, the eyes expressive even without any depiction of pupil and bodies impeccably charactered with every muscle, tendon, dimple, tissue, crease and curve.

The door at the end of the hallway was a standard modern door with a silver knob. He turned it and went in. He found himself in what looked like a small doctor’s waiting room with a round reception desk. The receptionist had impossibly tall, bunned-up brown hair stacked atop her head. To her left, other people waited quietly. Among them was an old man with one leg crossed over the other, a leather jacket and a black beret, the tip of his nose scabbed and infected-yellow, his bottom lip protruding and his eyes hooded. A woman of about thirty with light-brown hair, a brown coat and a little sleeping baby in her arms which she bobbed absently. A kid of about nineteen or so in gym-shorts and a red hoody. A chubby girl with a sharp prettiness to her face enhanced by her silky, dark hair into which she seemed to have put considerable effort. A man in a business suit, middle-aged, an aquiline nose, glasses and big timid eyes.

‘Are you Pensivemo?’ the receptionist with the impossibly tall hairdo called.

He turned. ‘Yeah. That’s me.’

‘It’ll just be about ten or fifteen minutes if you want to go ahead and have a seat.’

‘Thank you,’ he said and joined the others.

Pensivemo sat in a chair opposite the old man with the infected nose who was now asleep. Just as Pensivemo got comfortable, the old man’s eyes opened a little. He looked at Pensivemo and closed them again.

On the table in the middle were a series of books and magazines: The Book of Mormon, The King James Bible, a book called Never Assume the Blame, and a series of magazines with unflattering pictures of celebrities at their fattest, their least makeuped and photographs of their least photogenic faces.

Pensivemo was just about to pick up The Book of Mormon to have a curious glance when something peculiar caught him off guard. The smooth jazz of the radio station overhead ended its music and gave way to the DJ, talking softly, but it sounded like his voice was doubled, being both overhead and present behind the door next to the reception counter.

‘And here we are,’ he said, ‘live at lower-level A where I’m about to pay a visit, along with our star violinist, Penelope Ardwell, to the good people in the lobby waiting for their turn.’

The door opened and in came a middle-aged man wearing sunglasses. He had following him a girl of about twenty or so holding a violin, and behind them, a few men with tucked-in black shirts followed with big microphones.

‘Alright,’ the DJ said, ‘we’re here in the lobby, hopefully the sound is good enough, where Penelope is going to play an old piece written in 1784 by Johann Bon Swindendeisen called, “Valhalla’s Horizon.”’

Penelope began playing very slowly, a low, melancholy note. As she did, the old man sitting across from Pensivemo uncrossed his legs, opened his eyes, munched at the air and turned to face her. Everyone else in the lobby faced her as she played.

Penelope played music that was indicative of childhoods. Many a spring evening with the tall grass in the meadow turned bright with the sun sitting somewhere just behind it, as though stopping to rest in the cool places. Many figures passing in and out of remembrance: faces, grandfather clocks, charms and silver necklaces. Many smells: the pungency of salt-water foam lapping about dark, porous rocks, the gamey smell of adolescent bodies huddled around bowls of soup at the settling of warm days into cool evenings, and the redolence of big fern leaves hiding faces. You may have whatever world you want, Pensivemo often thought, but you could not have whatever kind of past you wanted. You can look at the past however you like. The past that Penelope’s gave him was the past of unbroken curfews, newspaper rustling funny-browed fathers, wavy-haired dogs resting morose about slippered feet by warm fires. It was a past of cigarettes, matches, boxes, brown socks and browning white socks. It was a past of simpering insults across bicycle bars. A past of big pictures and black and white shows on skipped school days. A past of fawning followers in armies of striped shirts, dirty shorts, snapped shoe-buckles, pink skirts and tousled hair. Yes, he was a little revolutionary even back then with his own little band of rebels. He didn’t have collegiate communism at his disposal to gather admirers until he was nineteen and twenty. It was then he smoked with Stephens, Noels, Adrians and Benedettos. It was then he chatted up and fluttered about with Brendas, Maeves, Dierdres and Bernadettes. He dropped his typewriter along with communism and opted for a pencil and delirious aestheticism. A childhood legend and rebel no more, a collegiate communist intellectual poet no more, a sedecuer of Maeves and Bernadettes, a smoker with Stephens and Noels, no more. He was the homeless artist. No cigarettes. No alcohol. Hardly a woman save the consummated, long suffering correspondence across time, written wit and many suggestions and offers of money, advice, and guidance—following a final, comfortable civil union with his Ludmilla. He could have whatever kind of world he wanted. This was the center of his poetry and this was the center of his life and his development as an artist. The world he wanted depended on the word. If he used the right words, he could have the right world. A thousand mountain tops peaked with light snow. A thousand notes of lullaby to send him off to sleep. A thousand bushes to hide in which a thousand kinds of games might be played. He was a vest. He was a floppy set of hair. He was homeliness in the midst of beauty. He was homelessness in the midst of the sheltered.

Yes, the world. It could be had, served up, dressed, prepared and conditioned any way one wanted it. Unfortunately, there was still this problem of the past, the past and Penelope’s violin, whose notes had now become so soporific that in time he was sure that any care he had for the past at all would be exorcised altogether. The very last thing he remembered before his time in that place was a girl at the Costco giving him a sample of pork and beans in a tiny paper cup with a tiny plastic spoon.

The man sitting across from him sniffed with his infected nose, the nubs of his nostrils flaring as he frowned.

Penelope developed a someone-farted-look as she played her notes slower. The receptionist, squinting, waved a hand of long, red-painted fingernails in front of her nose and her puckered lips.

To the right of the old man, the teenage boy was leaning to one side and the other, looking for someone with whom he could share a crass secret it seemed necessary to disclose.

‘What the hell is that smell?’ the woman bobbing the baby asked.

Pensivemo could smell it. That gassy skunk proximity, thicker, nearer, heavier …

The woman with the baby screamed and jumped from her chair. The old man with the infected nose scrambled about butt-wise, struggling at first with both feet lifted and both hands waving before he jumped up and hobbled out after the woman through the same door that Pensivemo had entered. The teenager and the business man with the aquiline nose were trying to squeeze through the door together.

Pensivemo tried to stand but felt his hand jerk against cold metal. His wrist was fastened to the chair’s arm with a chain. He tried to pull it. The chair was fastened to the ground.

Penelope’s playing was now so incredibly slow that it just sounded like noise. When the light began to dim, she stopped altogether.