July 27, 2015
By Tito Perdue
(The opening scene from CHAPTER TWO of Perdue’s dystopian satire THE NODE)
To leave home at the time of the rising of the dog star—risky behavior in the extreme. (Later on he said it was because he no longer had access to propane that he had chosen to come to town.) The weather, it is true, had been abnormally awful, and he could not stay warm throughout the winter without indenturing himself to hearth and dwindling hoards of hardwood. And though he had read his books and had accumulated a lot of sleeping time, he hadn’t laid eyes upon a woman in all those years. Having eschewed television and periodicals of every sort, he still believed the country to be what once it was. And then, too, owing to those nightly bands of stragglers and southern capitulationists migrating across his and his neighbor’s land… It was too much, as finally he admitted.
Originally it had been his intention to seek out a cylinder of propane and have it delivered to his place, a scheme that might have sufficed him until June; instead, after trekking the four miles to town and finding nothing of that kind, neither propane nor occupied cottages nor even anything else, he stepped from the edge of the forest and, treading as noiselessly as he could, began to penetrate the ruined suburbs that had washed up along the southern perimeter of Nelson County, as it was denominated in those days. Anyone watching from a moderate distance or less could have seen that he carried a knapsack on his back and was dressed in a hat of some kind that came to a peak and bent over and pointed to the ground.
That person could also have seen that he wore moccasins on one foot and boots on the other, and that he had accustomed himself to spats in place of socks.
But no one could have guessed what he carried in his knapsack, save that whatever it was, it was almost too heavy for an individual man. One waited in frustrated expectation of seeing him finally disburden himself of the thing and open it up to view. One also noticed that he was being trailed by a dog, an animal of commensurate size with a metal collar that made somewhat of a chiming noise as the little links happened to brush against each other in time with the pace adopted by the…
It chimed. The animal, yes, was old, a burnt-out case really, but endowed still with good dentition. He said he saw bats (one of them transporting a toad on its back), circling ever so slowly about the smokestack of one of the downtown factories. It was a period of long nights and short days, a symbiotic combination that still worked out to the usual 24 hours, more or less. Next, he crossed over into a Salvadoran neighborhood where he must tread with utmost care lest he be discovered and chased down and stomped to death or inserted into one of the glowing ovens where even now at three o’clock in the morning the local bakery was readying the next day’s wares. Pressing at the glass, he spied in upon a numerous family of a burly wife in a peasant’s skirt and some four or five children suffering, apparently, from want of vitamin D. No question about it, the odor that came from that place was praiseworthy in the extreme and included new-made pastries that could be smelt if not, however, seen. Here he lingered, aware at the same time that a lamp had come on in one of the overhead apartments. Far away he heard a radio full of static and bits and pieces of Spanish spoken at exaggerated speed.
They moved past the twice life-size statue of a bearded man who had been the western hemisphere’s most admired mass murderer. Never pausing, they crossed over into a Korean district where their safety was fractionally improved, as our narrator believed. But if they were awake and active, these neighborhood people, and going about their business, one could not have detected it by obvious signs. Was he being watched by Asian eyes? Probably. And might they leap out upon him as he wandered by? He thought not, no, or not at least with any effect, not so long as he carried in his vest the .357 caliber heirloom revolver handed down to him by his fathers. And this was not even to mention the some 300 rounds of ammunition that formed so integral a part of the freight that he carried on his back.
He was old and getting older, and his footwear was old, too. In younger days he had tried to avoid the cracks in the sidewalk while at the same time keeping a conscientious score of his failings. But not now, not when such matters seemed somewhat less important than more pressing projects bearing upon his prospects and very survival indeed.
By 3:57 he had come to the heart of the downtown city, an underwater garden, as it seemed, owing to so many stalk-like buildings wavering in the current. Here he halted long enough to twine his scarf more snugly about his neck and then take out a cigarette and ignite it hurriedly for the warmth it might give. The stars meantime were jittering back and forth—until he understood that it was but a deception caused by the motion cited above of the downtown structures listing from side to side. He saw then a light burning yellowly in one of the upper stories and silhouetted against it what either was a human being or item of furniture of some kind. There was no question but that the wind was accelerating as it wended among the buildings and ran off down the streets lined on both sides with commercial buildings. It was 4:07 in the morning and they still had several blocks to go.
“About four more blocks,” he said. “But what if they won’t let us in?
He groaned, the dog, and then began searching up and down the avenue for other places in which a person and his dog could escape the wind. A capsized car lay in the intersection, its doors missing and offering no sort of protection. Except for that, neither man nor dog could see any sanctuary soever from the weather.
“Too late to go back now.”
“Well hell yeah it’s too late!” (He was speaking to himself in two voices.)
“Should have thought of that before you started out!”
“I did. I thought about it.”
“The devil you did! I don’t know, sometimes you just…”
He stopped, distracted by an airplane toiling overhead. Many months had gone by since last he had witnessed any such thing as that, a jet-powered ship with fuel enough to get where it was going. The man marveled and watched, shielding his eyes by habit against the weak light of the moon. But what a poor pilot it was to steer like that, an unselfconfident person who changed his mind at the last moment and opted to keep on going instead of setting down.
“He’s not stopping.”
“Pretty obvious, isn’t it? Jeez.”
A delicatessen came up, a narrow building squeezed in between two much larger ones. Pressing against the window, our traveler detected an illuminated glassed-in counter holding a selection of meats and cheeses together with a gallon jug of knurled pickles floating in brine. He perceived a sausage in there too, a coiled and pudgy thing half again as long as the longer of his own two arms. They were eating well, were these people!
It was not that he intended to possess himself of any of these products, not at this time and not so long as the place held several CCTV cameras looking down from the corners of the room. The hour was late and there was an iron grating over the window that could by no means have been broken open save by aid of much heavier tools than any possessed by him. Even so, he marked down the location, using for that purpose the gel-point pen that he carried in his vest. Already he had circled a good number of landmarks on his street map, including the police station, the waterworks, and several other designations. Suddenly he ducked back under the awning, surprised that the helicopter had come back and was patrolling almost exactly overhead. In the next block an individual of some sort had stepped from his doorway and was scanning up and down the road, oblivious, as it seemed, to our hero and his dog. He estimated it, the man who gave this narration, as the last day in April, 4:38 in the morning, birds circling overhead.
He arrived at his destination and bent down close to the numerals that provided the address, a four-digit citation (1647) that approximated so closely to a well-known historical date that he knew he’d remember it always. He also knew that he was getting ready to knock on the door, and having done so he took off his glove and rapped a second time with greater vigor and simulated confidence. He was not afraid. A little bit queasy maybe. Meantime the building itself was of four stories with a frontage of perhaps a hundred and twenty-seven feet. Each storey had a row of windows, all of them rendered opaque with soot or some other accumulation that effectively formed “mirrors,” as it were, reflecting what was left of the washed-out moon. Peering upward, our man then descried a very long and very narrow pennant unfurling atop the building, a black or possibly deep scarlet streamer that reached out over the street below and possibly a little further. He could not of course decipher the insignia all at one time, though it seemed to bear the likeness of a reptile or something of that kind. That was when the door came open suddenly and he discovered himself squinting from a distance of about six inches into the face of a wizened old man, tall and thin, who wore a pained expression. His face was narrower than it should have been and in the moonlight his glasses looked as if they had been covered over in chartreuse paint. In those lenses our traveler could see himself, the building opposite, and an automobile snuffling down the street.
“Peebles, is it?”
“No, I’m ——————,” our boy said, giving his real name.
The usher checked his notebook, an inexpensive little affair with a spiral spine.
“I don’t see you on the list.”
“No, no. I was recommended.”
“Yes? And by whom if I may ask?”
He provided the name, our boy, and waited to see if it would register on the person’s face.
“Ah. Are we talking about a long-term stay? Or just for the night?”
“And the dog?”
“You weren’t followed?”
“No, no. I’m sure I wasn’t.”
The usher stood back, giving entrance to both the animal and man. The door, made of metal, was a good four inches thick and had a peephole in it that our hero had been loath to use when he was still in the outside world. He knew he was going to take off his heavy coat—(he had not been invited to do this)—and hang it on one of the hooks in the vestibule where right away he observed some six or seven pairs of galoshes and shoes arrayed in tidy fashion next to the interior door. The usher stood back now and looked him over with a noncommittal expression.
“Let me see if Larry is still awake.”
“Right.” He began to move into the building proper, which is to say until he was forestalled by the man. His arm was long and thin and extruded incongruously from a sleeve with girth enough for half a dozen men. He noted, our boy, a catheter dangling under the fellow’s trouser cuff.
“If you’ll wait here.”
It gave our narrator time enough to seat himself, take off his boots and moccasins and console his soles, as he liked to say. There were a number of etchings on the wall, most conspicuously of the letter “L” (for Larry?) in Holbein’s Alphabet of Death. Our man moved closer, examining in detail the full horror of that scene. Perhaps it represented his own impending fate, should these people refuse him and send him on his way.
He was a troubled-looking human being, this “Larry,” as could be seen in his face. Our man rose immediately and after wasting a few seconds trying to shake with him, said:
“I ask for sanctuary.” And: “I have money.”
“So. Are we speaking of a long-term stay? Or just for the night?”
“And the animal?”
There were two facing benches in the vestibule, allowing them to sit across from each other. His interlocutor was an austere sort of person with gray hair rotting from the top and pointing off in all directions. His face meantime looked like the underside of the fibulation plate of a disassembled 2013 Husquevarna snow blower. His mouth was wide and had a better number of teeth in it than might have been expected upon first impression. His eyes appeared to have been made, respectively, of porcelain, jasper, and agate. And in sum he was a representative wall-eyed man, rubicund, pixilated, beetle-browed and beery. His handshake, which he consented at last to grant, was firm in the beginning though he very quickly began struggling to get free. Behaving with conspicuous dignity, he then plucked out his handkerchief, used it, and began very calmly to inspect the needlework. “You come to us from…?”
“Yes. Been living out there in the countryside since 2017.”
“I should think you’d have wanted to stay.”
“I would, yes, like to stay,” our man said. “But it’s not possible, not any longer. Can’t get propane. And too many strangers moving back and forth.”
“Flagellants, people like that. Rosicrucians. All sorts.”
“I see. Yes, we get them, too. Gilians, most of them,” he said, referring to one of the new religions. “Well, not as bad as it used to be of course.”
He acknowledged the statement, our man did, and then waited for the dialogue to pick up where it had just now broken off.
“Countryside, you say.”
“You left out the part about wives.”
“Now it comes out. How many?”
“How many wives? Or how many divorces?”
“Those two numbers ought to be about the same, no?”
“Not necessarily. For example I might still be hanging on to one of those wives, what?”
The man put on an annoyed expression, and then drew out a pad and pencil and made a notation.
“Brought money, you say?”
He delved deeply, our pilgrim, into his knapsack, but then had to go back and release the combination lock that held together this rather protean piece of luggage that contained some forty-four pounds of highly miscellaneous contents. He had two hundred Yuan and a little more, together with another sixty stowed away in a certain pocket accessible only to someone already knowledgeable about it. The man named Larry took up the bills and, wetting his thumb, proceeded to count the stuff, a slow procedure that seemed to give him a detectable pleasure that made both men blush.
“Two hundred and four Yuan, all in specie.”
“Plus whatever’s in that little”—he pointed toward it—“that little compartment there.”
“I brought some food, too.”
“The devil you say.”
“No, I really did! See?” He withdrew one after another some dozen cans of sardines and processed meat, a wedge of cheese and box of substitute water.
“No spirits, I assume.”
He smiled, our boy, and then took out a pint of rum and another, not quite full, of a coffee liqueur from the former Brazil.
“Gracious. And you’re prepared to donate all of this to us? What else did you bring?”
“Books! How many? Or rather, how good?”
He lay them on the table, eight separate volumes, each scarcer than the next. The man applauded his selection.
“Anything further? But no, your little green knapsack is almost empty.”
“I still have something else in there,” the narrator said. (He took out his .357 caliber revolver and 300 pieces of ordnance, well-organized objects standing, each, in a perfectly-fitting little cubicle of its own.)
“Oh gosh! We can use this certainly! I think I’m going to let you into the great room, where we can talk.”
The room was great indeed, a high-ceilinged area that might almost have been a cathedral or shopping mall emporium at some period. But mostly his attention was for the fire, a robust affair in one of the largest hearths he ever had seen. They gravitated toward it naturally, man and dog, and stood at attention before the warmth. Suddenly he jumped back, surprised to find there an old man in a leather chair peering pessimistically into the flames. Outside it had begun to sleet, a commonplace occurrence these days. It formed a sound like that of grit being thrown unavailingly against the tall and very narrow windows that reached almost to the ceiling.
He was in an unusual place, an atrium really, notable for the absence of any sort of ornamentation or drapery or art works on the wall. He was however able to make out through the gloom a heavy-laden cabinet holding as many as a hundred volumes stored higgledy-piggledy on the shelves.
“Shall we talk?”
He followed the man to the table and sat across from him. A diesel-fired coffee maker took up the middle of the table, although the traveler waited until invited to do so before siphoning off a cup of the stuff for himself. The chinaware was frail and interesting-looking, and bore the schema on it of subatomic particles in rapid motion. The coffee, too, was of almost the perfect formula and there were good supplies of sugar and cream as well. The supervisor watched closely as our boy lifted the cup and quaffed down the contents in three or four hasty actions. And continued to watch as the boy poured out a second cup without risking to be asked.
“You’ve come far?”
“Yes, Sir. Peluria County.” “Peluria! I thought that would be the last place. You knew that they’ve cleared Ringo County already?”
“I’ve heard about it.”
“A few stubborn people still clinging on. They’re doomed of course.”
They looked at each other. A woman and child had come into the room and then, seeing two men talking, turned and went out again.
“How do you feel about that?” asked the man called Larry.
“I think some of my people were in Ringo.”
“Odd business, no? We spent a thousand years putting together
some advantages for ourselves, and now we’re supposed to give them all away.”
“Yeah. Everybody’s good except us. We’re bad.”
“Precisely. Entirely appropriate that black people, yea and Asians too, should look to their interests. But don’t you try it!”
“Yeah. ’Less you want to get ‘wedged.’”
“Just so. Is that why you’ve come?”
“I guess so.”
“To stand against this ‘malign titration?’ ”
“I been wanting to for a long time.”
“You’re an educated man?”
“Little bit. But I can still do things.”
“Escrubilator repair? We can always use that.”
“Pretty good bricklayer.”
“That’s even better. I’m already leaning toward letting you stay. Ever killed anyone?”
The boy looked down. “Not yet.” And then: “My granddaddy killed a fellow.”
“Yes, but we aren’t talking about him. Our grandfathers were a different kind of men.”
“Yes, Sir, I agree,” our pilgrim said, after raising his hand and waiting to be called upon.
“And so we have to start all over again, no? And learn to be more like them?”
The pilgrim frowned painfully, his mind slowly coming into play. “Look out for our own interests? Instead of other people’s?”
“Precisely. Can you do that?”
The conversation proceeded smoothly, right up until the boy began to notice that the sun was coming up behind the stained glass panes in the lower sectors of the elongated windows. It illuminated the picture of a reaper sowing in a field, a blue tableau highlighted in pink. He had been wrong, quite wrong, to imagine that the place was devoid of art.
“Yes,” the superintendent said, “one of our people made that.”
Together they watched as one by one the dawn uncovered a succession of stained glass scenes showing an ancient ship floundering at sea, unicorns and insects and a diagram of the daytime sky that might or might not replicate the reality that illuminated it from behind.
“We could not have created the Chinese civilization, we ‘Cauks,’ ” the man said. “But nor could they ours.”
Came next a portrait of the seated Charlemagne, an aged but yet handsome individual with a staff laying across his lap and a terrestrial globe cupped in one hand.
“Those were the days.”
The visitor, knowing little of such matters, nodded obligingly.
His attention had meantime been called by the sight of some seven or eight men, middle-aged types who had mustered in the vestibule and were preparing to depart the place. One wore goggles, one carried a canteen, and one had a bowie knife strapped at his side. Embarrassed by it, the chieftain tried to explain:
“We have to have some kind of income after all.”
“Try to use volunteers of course, but if that isn’t enough… Well! There’s always the lottery.”Our boy put on a worried face. He had not come to this place in order to take up a position in the outside world. On the other hand, the seven men seemed to form an experienced group that no doubt was accustomed to coping with things. He even thought he detected a certain repressed excitement as they assisted one another with their paraphernalia. The dog, too, wanted to go, though his owner held him back. Meantime he was giving half his attention to the stained glass portrait of a medieval cavalryman clothed in bright red armor composed of scales.
“No one works for more than seven hours,” Larry was saying. “And if they do, why we’ll go after ’em and bring ’em back.”
“Where do they work actually?” the visitor asked, his mind still partly on the cavalryman etched in glass.
“Oh, the usual thing. Rolo there is in sales. The others are mostly public relations, consultancy, facilitation, etc., etc. That wee fellow there? Grief counselor. But never mind, we don’t expect people to participate in our little enterprises during their first few days.”
“I could teach.”
“Not hardly, not unless your Portuguese is a good deal better than mine.”
“I can’t speak it at all.”
“Ah. No wonder you’re here.”
The boy reached for the coffee but then changed his mind when he saw how bright the day was threatening to become. Oblivious to the law, he took instead a cigarette and ignited it with one of the wax-protected matches he carried always.
“You’re tired,” the man observed. “You’ve come far and you’re tired.”
He admitted it, whereupon the supervisor arose quickly and, taking his candle with him, conducted our boy down a long narrow hallway that grew yet narrower as it disappeared among the dark. Indeed it tapered so radically, that corridor, it caused the people to turn edgewise as they went on. Here were any number of little cells, mere cubicles really, that abutted upon the hall. Some were shut tight, some open to view, and some had individuals in them occupied with books or escrubilators or, in one case, a hunched man bent over a monitor that glowed a virid green. Here they paused, proctor, pilgrim and dog, and introduced themselves.
“Herb? I want you to meet… By God, I haven’t even asked your name!”
“——————,” our narrator said, choosing a name from his recent readings.
They shook all around, Herb, the dog, and our man. He was a gloomy specimen, was this Herb, and because the computers gave so little warmth, had wrapped himself in a vicuña shawl. The office itself was full of clutter, much of it on the floor, and one’s first impression was of a chaos so complicated and interesting-looking that it had come to bewitch the rather unhealthy-looking man at the center of it all. Just now his monitor, clouded over by a fog of some kind, revealed a herd of whales roaming at high speed along the bottom of the sea. One’s attention turned then to some of the other screens that filled the wall and in two cases were suspended from the ceiling by what looked like nylon fishing cords. Among other visions, a person could see an unsteady black-and-white image of the very doorway by means of which our man had entered the place.
“No one can sneak up upon us now by God,” the rector said. “Not since Hollis here joined our ranks!”
Our boy meantime needed very urgently to piss, and if he were not soon given access to a mattress, might have to put himself on the unclean carpet and fall off to sleep in plain open view.
“Fellow needs to piss, I believe. See how he’s dancing around like that?”
“Yes, Sir. And sleep, need some of that, too.”
“I see! Well you can have one of those, but not both. This is not a charity you understand.”
“Yes, Sir; I understood that as soon as I handed my money over.”
In the event, his chamber, unclean also, did have bedding in it. He disrobed hurriedly and then arranged himself on a pallet barely thicker than the law required. He didn’t care. He had been traveling for forty hours and more and was tired of recycling in his mind all that he had done and seen during that time.
And slept well, too, which is to say until about noon when he stirred and stood up and then, assuming he was allowed to use it from time to time, began searching about for the facility. He passed a senescent-looking man sitting in a cell, a bald sort of person bending over a book bound in membrane. The fellow looked up and smiled.
“You’re the new fellow.”
“Yes, Sir. I guess so.”
“And your homestead? Your cozy little farm? What will happen to that?”
“I don’t know.” (Gloom came down over him.) “The government’s talking about giving it to the Cambodians.”
“So! An underrepresented group.”
“Yes, Sir.” Deferring the need to piss, the boy now stepped into the fellow’s rather constricted domain and began to marvel at the array of books that covered three walls entirely and a good part of the fourth. A globe of the world, too, although it reflected a very obsolete notion of countries and continents, including the picture of a bosomy mermaid sitting on the shelf of Argentina.
“O, I see,” the man said. “You think I’m trying to escape the present world by retreating into the past.”
“I would,” the boy said, “if I could.”
“Larry doesn’t like that. He thinks we still have a chance to bring back the country we used to have. Before you were born.”
“Yes, Sir. I’ve heard about it.”
“You’ve heard about it, but I was there. Bathroom is down the hall and to the right.”
For the rest of the chapter, click here.
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