Friday, March 30, 2007

New Beginnings (or is that redundant, also, too?)

The river district... On one hand, the run-down but still used warehouses, day laborers keeping warm around an oil drum filled with burning scrap wood, waiting to unload the next truck to back in to the dock. On the other, abandoned factories, their interiors open to the sky, scraps of roofing clinging to structure exposed like the ribs of roadkill in the penultimate stage of decay.

Between the dangerous and the merely dark stands a relic peculiar even for this street: three stories of brick which might once have been red, built as offices some time before the Depression, derelict for years. Swept up in the late-1960s counterculture as a place to "experience" psychedelic bands (and the substances that made them sound so much better...), then sold and converted to the next craze, disco.

Disco died -- too slowly for most, but eventually -- and so, nearly, did the neon above the door to the edifice in question. It once read TEQUILA REY (no one remembers why Spanish for "King Tequila"), but now only three letters sputter and hum into asynchronous, intermittent illumination.

But soft... what light through yonder broken windows? Is there life after disco? Or is the place haunted? Are those human figures occasionally entering and leaving, or the ghosts of would-be Saturday Night Feverites and Feverettes? Has some semblance of commerce returned within the crumbling walls of the wreck that tentatively announces itself, in no particular order, as T...Q...R..?

A charcoal-gray Mercedes passes the flickering neon, then turns to inch cautiously up the side alley to the rear of the haunted disco. Its driver gestures, and the reinforced steel door concealing the loading dock from the world rolls up. Inside against one wall is a haphazard stack of four-by-sixes and a pile of rotting straw (the odor hints at other ingredients). The Mercedes parks; its driver arms various anti-theft ordnance, then steps from the vehicle and walks back up the incline to the alley. He gestures again, and the steel rolls down, clanking in its tracks.

Back up the alley, across the street, and down a couple doors, is the only other lit sign on the block. An ancient gin joint, later an "after-hours club", it retains its name from the disco's heyday (but lost its originally intended double entendre with age): The Queen's Rump.

The driver of the Mercedes pushes open the door to the Rump and strides in with utter familiarity, though no one in the place has ever seen him... and they are staring hard, to make sure. He reaches into a breast pocket of his near-floor-length leather coat and extracts a Franklin with a flourish, like conjuring a paper bouquet. He slaps it down on the bar.

"Santino! Round for the house, twice. Whatever they're having... and don't you dare water it down, unless it is water they're having."

He turns to the classic Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner, which glows like a multicolored shrine to the Past that everyone remembers but never happened. Just beyond it is a plain gray metal box about the same size as the juke, with a single convex circle of glass set high in its center. At the stranger's approach, the glass lights up from within, a baleful red with hints of yellow.

"Hello, Hal," the stranger says in a soft baritone, and reaches out to momentarily caress the metal with his fingertips.

"Hello, Hal," replies the box.

"Hey!" comes an inebriated voice from the other end of the bar. Its owner is pencil-thin, but his necktie is thinner. "Who the hell is this guy?"

The stranger turns, fluidly removing his extra-dark RayBans to reveal a pair of eyes to match the single one on the gray box.

"Hi, kids... I'm home!"

DePlancher looks up from the cranberry juice, her focus switching from the tiny brown fleck of something spinning 'round on an ice cube in her glass to the tall, lanky shape at the bar. The stranger's features are slightly obscured by the heavy smoke suspended in the there no air in this place at all?

Smell of leather and polish. Is that a strut or a stride? A hint of rooibus or anise. Maybe hot wiring on plastic.

Then he speaks! Is this le vrai Hal who has emerged or is this some kind of machine-incarnation? At the very least, it's storytime at the Rump...he who was lost is found again. With new, uhm, parts.

Welcome home, mon chere! if that is you... [whispers to Magz: how will we know it's him??

holy jesus in hell, says Doomey. hello... hal.

If there is a hell, Jesus is there, comforting the damned.
--Daisetz Suzuki

I'll be damned, Hal, says Theo, coming down from his delusions of buddhism-ary grandeur. The poetry prize you ostensibly received in Kobe has made quite a difference in your disposition.

indeed, how will we know it's hal, maggie whispers to herself. she sips hurriedly from her glass-- amaretto-- she's trying to take it easy these last coupla days. her teeth hurt with the sweetness, and she feels she needs that punishment though she just can't say why exactly. the stranger's eyes, those eyes--well, she's just got to jump down from this barstool, do something, she's got a case of the jitters. peanut shells crunch under her boot heels. she feels a little wobbly but will keep on with her approach. she runs a slightly sweating palm down her short corduroy skirt and then offers her hand with a tilt of her head, and a quizzical, estimating look. "compadre?" her hair falls in her eyes and she's a little embarrassed. but why?

Hal takes Maggie's hand in the European manner.

"Maggie, I'm delighted to finally meet you. You returned just as I was preparing to leave, and we didn't... that is, I didn't get a chance to know you from that perspective..." He tilts his head toward the gray box in the corner, its cyclopean eye once again dark; then he leans toward DeP.

"How will you know it's me? If the ocular similarity isn't enough, then I daresay my reviewing style will be recognized immediately."

Still gently retaining Maggie's hand, Hall steps toward the flabbergasted Doomey. "Boligard, my partner in capital advancement... how's the cap this quarter? Are we going to sweep the field again when the Exec's meet at the Ides of March?"

Before Boli can frame an answer, Hal turns to Theo Himself. "Baas, where ever did you get the idea I was receiving a poetry award, of all things? I would have mentioned it publicly before leaving, if it were true. And I might have needed to publish some poetry beforehand, to be eligible...

"Oh, by the way: there will be some coming and going by the service elevator in the next day or two. I've ordered office furniture for myself, and for Maggie. That rusty institutional steel from the Salvation Army that Guevara has to use when he's needed is sorely inadequate, especially if meant to be shared by two. My treat -- and I'll be here to supervise the delivery and installation. Just thought you'd want to know. Oh, yes, and the fumigators will be here tomorrow afternoon, in case of lingering agricultural odors."

He turns back (and down -- Maggie is not tall), "Oh, I'm sorry... I still have your hand captive." He releases, but slowly. "I hope you like the desk and credenza. They're nothing extreme, but it's real wood, not that particle-board crap with the printed vinyl skin. If you're not pleased, or if the chair's not comfortable, back it goes.

"Now -- may I monopolize you for a bit longer? We're going to be close for the next few weeks. We should talk strategy... oh, and there are some things you need to know about my new form, to avoid shock."

He guides her toward the booth farthest from the bar.

New furniture! Defumigation in the Terminal! The new Hal is flashy, a man of action. Mmmm.

Soft touch with Magz. I knew that machine had its ocular on her...Magz, beware the buckle, ma petite. You are young, delicate and now in the presence of a tall, dark...person.

Maggie sits down (more like collapses), smoothes her skirt. She hooks her hair behind her ears. She clasps her hands on the booth table. Her hands unlace, in fact they fly apart. She reaches to tuck her hair, but the strands are already quite in place. She stands up, sits down, stands again, and calls out to the room: “Anybody got a smoke? Santino? Theo? Boli? Gabby, what about one of those French thingees?” Her voice quivers a little more with each naming.

Hal’s eyes watch her curiously, almost amused, but also as if he’s observing such girlish discombobulation for the very first time.

She has craved a cigarette since the moment this stranger, this stranger WHO IS HAL, walked across the floor to her, the halves of his long coat flapping.

Shit, I should be more considerate. She says to Hal,” Do you mind if I smoke?”

Behind the bar Santino’s waving her pack of Marlboro reds aloft.

She scoots from behind the booth table, pauses there, nervously tugs on the sides of her skirt. Her glance ricochets off the jukebox, her compatriots lined up at the bar, and the grey box, so lonely-seeming and quiet. Abandoned? Sleeping? Plotting? Inside her throat she feels moth wings-- just her pulse, exaggerated and erratic. She reaches into her old bag of tricks, bats her eyelashes, gives Hal a quirky smile, and even rests her hand on her hip. “Get me a drink while I go get a light?” She raps the tabletop with her knuckles. “Then we’ll talk strategy.”

"Of course, Magz. Sticking with Amaretto, or perhaps something less... cloying?"

[doomey had wandered over to the grey box over in the corner of the rump. he pokes at it now with the tip of a rolled up manuscript he holds like a sword.]

machine. hey.

[gives it another poke. looks over his shoulder at the tall dark and handsome sitting in the booth under the blinking Miller Lite sign.]


[he kicks at the metal box, a resounding phwom the result. he winces in pain. a broken toe? and digs inside his jacket, pulls out a cigarette, fingernails to life a swan vista and fires up the tip. makes a trip to the bar where santino has a drink ready. then he makes the long trudge, thinking himself a soilder in some wayward distracted war, to the booth.]

some sort of devilry. wicca work.

[doomey shuffles up to the booth dragging one foot, a pall mall hangs from the corner of his mouth, a manuscript rolled up in one hand, a scotch in the other]

hacksaws and hummingbirds, hal. how'd this happen to you? it's still you, right? same ol' same ol'? exciting, this. wondering if mayhaps i might be able to abscond with that there former shell of halness. what do you say? can i have it?

Maggie’s molars are singing: Enough Amaretto.

Can he read her mind????

What to drink? Hmm. Something cleansing and new slate-ish. She cannot decide, she cannot think. And here comes Boli to save her, but then, what’s this? Boli only wants the box. That just creeps her out. Wouldn’t it be like a photographer stealing an Aborigine’s soul? She looks to Hal, this new Hal, who certainly seems soulful, with those crazy red eyes that insist you look. Reconciling what resides in the box and what comprises this man before her—sheesh, but it’s confounding and circular.

“Order me whatever you like,” she says. “I trust you.” And she walks toward Santino for the Marlboro he’s tapped out for her, cursing herself, not for the trusting, but for putting it into words.

She grabs the cigarette with trembling fingers, and steps to the woman attired in cape and chapeaux, the woman with perfect posture among the slumps at the bar. I must talk with Gabrielle. She’ll right my rocky boat.

[doomey looks over his shoulder, eyes the bar leaners]

Dep and mags, conspiring. lord help us all.

[Ted sucks on his cocktail through two of those skinny, little drink straws, wondering on the dearth of cap this quarter moreso than the appearance of a more mobile Hal, wondering if the Terminali will even be able to glean some goodstuff enough so the Exec's will have something to work with... but not totally unaware of the sexual tension being weaved about their fairer sexed compadres by this stylish rogue machine and his now standardized parts, or Boligard's insistent fascination with the empty particular space enclosed inside of boxes. The dregs are sucked loudly through crushed ice, and Theodore disengages his lips long enough to say]

Confound it, Boligard! Welcome back, Hal. I don't know where the poetry award came from. Just keep your wandering hands occupied with business, will you? Santino, another Shirley Temple, if you please. I've got to keep the old cabesa lucid.

whatever gabby says will not dissuade maggie.

"so," she says, flouncing into the booth across from hal, flaunting her lit cigarette. "i take umbrage at this insinuation that your & boli's choices will be cream of the crop when the cap rises, kinda casts down on me & gabby before we've even had at it, ya know?"

she taps a fingernail on the tabletop. "don't count your chickens, mister. "and what's this you've got for me?" she sniffs at the rim of the glass, then drinks, swallows, offers a precious smile. "by the way, did i say thanks for the new digs?"

he smiles at her (maybe he's been smiling all along. maybe he's stuck on "smile mode.")

"and, um, compadre, i love the mont blanc."

Oui, you must trust yourself here, Maggie.

I know little of matters of the machine or the heart.

"Oh, Maggie... umbrage isn't necessary. I had to say something to Boligard to help along his realization that this," he gestures, both hands spread, toward himself, "is the same Hal he's worked with up to now. Oh, that reminds me..."

He stands, to call out toward the bar, "No, Doomey, you may not have the box! It is still as much part of me as is this finger... and you wouldn't want me to give you the finger, would you? Or have one of yours removed, as you suggest about mine?"

Hal sits back down. "See -- I can do expressions other than 'smile'. And did I really choose correctly with the Mont Blanc? I have been given mobility and dexterity, but the electronic analogue to taste buds are still in the future. Just as well -- there's no, shall we say, internal plumbing, nor need for it. \

"Anyway, it's merely the luck of the draw, or whatever coin Theo uses to decide, which incoming ventures goes to Gabrielle and which to Boli, thence to either you or me. And so it is also, in essence, random chance as to which of those we elevate to the Exec's are finally chosen for investment. The rivalry over successes is all in fun.

"Our position in the Terminal is as a second filter -- the difference is, we must justify our decisions in the public forum. In a way, we are also justifying the decisions made by our respective partners on the Floor... except for those rare instances when they send up a clinker, and, " he lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, "I sometimes suspect they do that on purpose, just to give us something to rail at, for variety's sake, and to entertain the troops."

"Wait a minute..." Hal's face freezes in mid-utterance for a few seconds. "Damn. I need to be elsewhere. And to save everyone the shock of this body sitting here, seemingly dead, while I am 'elsewhere', I'd better go.

"One more thing, though... an invitation of sorts. I left Japan with very little in the way of wardrobe. Would you care to accompany me on a shopping excursion in a day or so? A second opinion would be valued."

He rises, donning his coat. "No need to answer now. I'll see you in the Terminal tomorrow, after noon, so you can decide where your furniture is best placed." He bows, "Sayonara, Maggie," and leaves swiftly, coattails swirling.

[doomey, sitting at the bar, hangs his head, sighs, and then he finishes off his scotch and sucks the last dregs from his pall mall. he eyes the exit where last he saw hal.]

feel like that hunchback when he says to that gargoyle high atop notre dame, "why was i not made of stone like thee?" and all those 'hallelujahs' and that fantastic pull back from the cathedral to end the film.

[he looks at his yellowed fingertips, tries to flatten a particularly wrinkled patch on his suit front. glances at the grey box in the corner, shrugs his shoulders and pushes himself off the barstool. he trots out the exit, into the deluge]

no, boli cannot have the box.

truly deft the way hal smoothed her ruffled feathers over combat & the cap. maggie appreciates the soliloquoy about work. nothing like a sound directive on what we're all about here. succint & to the point, with no tinge of emotional investment. yet, maggie gets entangled with every single piece of cap. they are like children to her--or what she imagines that bond between mother & child might be. and she heard clearly what he so neutrally dropped in among all the rest--no internal plumbing, nor need for it.

tis a right pity. what seems like a long-held breath travels up from her center and escapes her lips as an audible sigh because she, maggie, definitely bears allegiance to the corporeal.

all this notwithstanding, she must smile with giddy anticipation for, without knowing, he knows her--this girl does love to shop.


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