The Cafe Irreal: International Imagination 
Issue Twenty-Three

Four Short Prose Pieces by Ian Seed
More from Pieces for Small Orchestra by Norman Lock
Dinosaur Evolution by Sharon Wahl
The Rabbi's Magic Wagon by Harry White
Finding Kafka in Prague (first version) by The Cafe Irreal


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More from Pieces for Small Orchestra
by Norman Lock


28.

He sets his theodolite on the bar glyphed by beer-glass bottoms, anchored by elbows, rubbled with cocktail napkins, tiny plastic swords, and peanut shells. It is polished brass and handsome — this instrument by which he measures two-dimensional space quaintly Euclidean now that an invisible lion in our midst has vanished into a parallel universe impossible, for us, to describe. "I am a Land Surveyor," he replies in answer to the Prime Minister's question: "Who are you?" "But we have no need of surveying, sir!" the P. M. asserts with a belligerence, due, in part, to absinthe (which is not forbidden us) and ministerial habit. "This is a hotel!" he continues in this strain. "To take measurements, such as are within your ken, would be superfluous in light of this —" He indicates with an elegant hand the finished space around us while, with his other, moves his empty glass toward the absinthe bottle. "But I was summoned!" the Surveyor protests, much put out. "By whom?" "By me." The Physicist leans his lean length into the conversation to explain: "I wish to prove to my detractors that our hotel is swinging in and out of a visible dimension, according to String Theory's axioms as I have adapted them to suit the singularity of our existence, which is simultaneously imaginary and real." "O, so the Surveyor will play a role in another of the Physicist's thought experiments!" we moan, having been terrified by the last involving not one but three lions! "How do you propose to prove such a postulate?" the Prime Minister, whose head is 'big' at the moment from the dangerous intoxicant, demands. "The Surveyor will measure a room to determine whether or not it shrinks or expands, as I predict it must." The Surveyor requests a beer. "Put it on my tab," says the Plumber, who feels collegially toward this fellow of the building trades. The Surveyor quaffs and smiles at the lace of foam inside his empty glass. Not to be outdone by a Plumber, the General calls for drinks all round. The Physicist continues to elaborate: "I conjecture that the hotel is — in its essence — a vibration induced by our desire. It will shrink as the waveform flattens. At the point of climax, we will disappear. In other words, we are invisible to the outside world in proportion to our wish to be so." That night, the Surveyor measures the hotel lounge, where a row of barely dressed girls dance the hoochy-coochy. "What are your findings?" the Physicist inquires at the end of the floorshow. "The line of chorus girls grew shorter," the Surveyor states with aplomb. The Physicist is elated, as are we. "Hooray! Let us now retire to our beds and dream, each in his own way and according to his disposition, a world cordial to moonlight serenades and love."


45.

Despite its feints and tendency to vanish (consonant with the postulates of String Theory), the hotel is not immune to the contagion of life outside. The virus of the quotidian gets inside it — by what method of transmission no one can say with certainty. "Perhaps the walls are like a porous membrane," the Physicist attempts an explanation. Incensed, the Building Inspector thunders that the walls are sound. "I examined them with a fine-tooth comb!" He produces the comb from his pocket "as evidence." "That's mine!" the General whines. "The curry comb with which I groom my hobbyhorse! Give it back!" Grumbling, the Building Inspector does. "The walls are solid," he says sullenly. "Nothing — not a straw, not a glint of light can penetrate." "But you have no conception of the chasms that lie between elementary particles bound by the Strong Force," the Physicist, with insufferable smugness, intones. "Look, a bear dancing by the fernery!" the Hat Check exclaims. She has wished more than once for a circus or, at the very least, a zoo. Hotel life, while often amorous, can leave one between bouts yearning for something else to do. "One need only look at it," the Plumber states, "to know that a bear cannot squeeze through matter's interstices, no more than a camel through a needle's eye." He is a Baptist, as you might expect of one whose working life is spent with water. "There is something strange about this bear," the General (observer, for the Allied Powers, of the Russian Revolution) muses: "Once, when I was in the Kremlin, I watched it waltz with Isadora Duncan. I recognize the red nail polish Lenin painted on its claws." The Manicurist is intrigued. "What are you suggesting?" the Prime Minister asks. "That I may be dreaming it, the bear — or did, and now it has somehow managed to achieve autonomy." The P. M.'s response reveals an empirical nature: "Pinch it and see whether it disappears." "O, I would not pinch a bear!" the Manicurist cries alarmed; "not even an illusory one. Even figments of the imagination can startle and cause the heart to stop." The bear lumbers elsewhere; the Manicurist is relieved. "I am feeling not at all myself," the General says, mopping his brow with a pink handkerchief ridiculous in a military man, no matter how superannuated. It belongs to the Chanteuse, with whom he dallies in the afternoon. "I fear we cannot keep the outside out," the P. M. sighs. We forgive him his defeatist mood — so heavily on his narrow shoulders lie the burdens of our governance. "It is a sickness with a pathogenesis we cannot fathom or resist," he concludes. "It will enter where it wishes." "Care to join me for a cocktail on the promenade?" This, from the Physicist, whom I do not like. Thirst, however, overrules aversion; I reply: "Why not?" We descend the iron stairs that spiral ever deeper to the cellar where the black lake is that washes on its further shore the foundations of the Paris Opera House. Half way down, the way is blocked by rocks; but they are styrofoam creations of the Decorator, whose new interest is in ruins provided they are picturesque. "Look!" the Physicist exclaims, pointing with amazement to a dark and threatening sky. Cumbrous altocumulus clouds roll in from France; their charcoal linings shot with coppery incandescence. "That lightning's real!" the Physicist cries. Derisive laughter crackles out the speaker, from which — as a rule — soughing wave and birdsong issue: sound effects for lake. That laugh, I swear, belongs to the Meteorologist (now the hotel Maniac). The laugh reprises, drowned by pelting rain and thunder. We take shelter in a cabana where other guests stand shivering. But this is not the last of it! A giant made of mud is shambling where the waves dash on the sand. "Help! The Mud Man, which I made for fun, shuddered into life when a bolt of lightning struck its earthen occiput!" The Hydrologist is screaming like a man about to lose his soul for delving into things he hadn't ought to. "My Mud Man's now a Golem — run!" We do, while the monster jabbers in a tongue that may be Aramaic or something more autochthonous. Possessed of superhuman strength, it wreaks havoc on the promenade, finishes my gin and tonic, then vomits on the Turkish carpet! What a filthy beast it is! What terror to have been loosed upon our world! "We do not blame you!" we shout to the hysterical Hydrologist as we hurry up the stairs. "It's the Meteorologist's fault for meddling with the weather." In destruction's aftermath and the dispatch of the Golem with a fire hose, we are more disposed to sympathy and dictate to the Journalist a moderated view: "The Meteorologist was infected by malevolence. God knows who among us can resist! We only wonder if the episode may not be a harbinger of things to come." The Photographer visits, with his Hasselblad, the scene of so much recent bedlam. I go with him, wanting mud (if any Golem should persist) to remind me of reality — its gall and tempests. "How long until the next breach in fantasy threatens to undo us?" Mired in his dream, the Photographer does not see the bear admiring its claws.


49.

"The Meteorologist has this time gone too far!" the Decorator sputters in effeminate rage against the hotel's "weather prophet," who defaced his Aegean mural by painting spots on it. "The gesso was scarcely dry!" he cries. "And now there are daubs on the pomegranate sun!" "I don't give a damn for your simulacrum of Stymphalus, with its muscle-bound Hercules, whose loins behind a kind of curtain seem like Vesuvius on the verge!" rails the Prime Minister, whose concern is always for us, his hotel constituency. "What concerns me is the erratic local weather and bizarre behavior of the guests. I am told by the Physicist, for whom celestial bodies hold no secrets, that both are attributable to sun spots." "But this is nonsense!" sneers the Carpenter, putting down a can of turpentine, which — with rag and ladder — he is ready to reverse the vandalism to the Decorator's art. "While I grant you that its likeness is superb, this sun done in oil is puny compared to the original, not to mention flat!" The P. M. counters in good parliamentarian fashion: "That may be so, but it is the only sun we have to warm us in our exile." "There are some who call it that, but I do not," the General interjects, looking up from where his eyes were resting on the golden cleft between the Chanteuse's breasts. "I am content," he says. "The outside world from which we've fled does not possess half the charms of hotel life." The P. M. agrees but is anxious nonetheless for our beleaguered enterprise. "Outside seeping in caused the formerly stalwart weatherman to veer (not to mention other acts incompatible with the commonweal). I fear we have maligned the Fireman, though his guilt is great: it may have been the Meteorologist, who introduced the meteor disturbing our ιlan. House Detective?" "Here, Prime Minister." "Where is the Meteorologist?" "In the weather station, plotting." "To undermine my government?" "No, how a frigid current over Labrador can be deflected by Coriolis Force to make us miserable." "He must be stopped!" the P. M. shouts. "This is a summer hotel and none are dressed for such an eventuality." At the mere thought, the Chanteuse shivers inside her skimpy dress. "I shall keep you warm, my dear," the gallant General promises. The P. M. proves again his gift for leadership. "Carpenter, put your crew to work to plug every crack and crevice while you clean the painted sun of spots." "It shall be done!" The Carpenter clatters off, infused with patriotic sentiment. "General?" "At your service!" "I depend upon your military prowess to neutralize the weather station." "But there are no horses!" A General emeritus, his branch of service was the cavalry. "I have one stuffed with dried legumes," the Taxidermist boasts. "You will sound, when you break into a gallop, like the maracas favored by Calypso bands." "Bully!" replies the General, who charged up San Juan Hill with Roosevelt. "But first, I'll take a furlough by the sea." "Granted!" the P. M. intones, as a priest would absolution. The General salutes, prepares to steer his sweetheart by the arm, and — before departing for the Brighton Room — instructs the Orchestra Leader: "While I'm away, have the musicians practice the von Suppι." "The Light Cavalry?" "What else!" The General and the Chanteuse go and one week later, "like a couple from a honeymoon," return with souvenir pillows — their eyes glazed by surfeit. "I am ready," he announces to the little nation that is us, "to rout the Meteorologist from the weather station." The General mounts his stuffed horse and gallops up the stairs. His spurs? He never takes them off — not even in bed! The orchestra plays, the guests throw their hats and cheer. The Chanteuse rehearses viduity, or widowhood, in the lobby mirror. The horse curvets, then carries the General through the station door. But the weather anarchist has vanished through the roof! METEOROLOGIST CARRIED OFF BY RISING BAROMETRIC PRESSURE! is the banner headline the Journalist composes for the late edition of the Hotel News. "Let us mourn," the Prime Minister says solemnly, "for a man caught in the toils of a world he did not make or want, but was helpless to resist." The orchestra plays a dirge, the General lowers his sword while, on the roof, the anemometer stops a moment its furious spinning in the winds of war and storms of history.




A recipient of the Aga Kahn Prize from The Paris Review, Norman Lock has published fiction in leading American and European reviews. A novella — Marco Knauff's Universe — is available from Ravenna Press. Joseph Cornell's Operas and Ιmigrιs — two short-fiction sequences — appeared together in a limited edition volume from Elimae Books. They were issued subsequently in the Turkish language, by an Istanbul publisher as part of its New World Writing Series. A History of the Imagination: a novel is available from Fiction Collective Two. The Long Rowing Unto Morning — a novel — was recently published by Ravenna Press. Trio — a collection of Lock's short prose — and Two Plays for Radio, both published by Triple Press, are also available from Ravenna Press. Cirque du Calder — a handmade artist's book — is distributed by Rogue Literary Society. He also edited George Belden's Land of the Snow Men (Calamari Press, 2005), which was reviewed in irreal (re)views. His short story, "A History of the Imagination," appeared in Issue #4 of The Cafe Irreal; "The Catalogue," appeared in Issue #6; Three Short Metaphysical Fictions appeared in Issue #12; and selections from Pieces for Small Orchestra appeared in Issue #20.


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