More from Pieces for Small Orchestra

by Norman Lock

37.

When the orchestra is awake and playing tutti a tune we like, interruptions enrage so that, ordinarily amiable and pacific, we are liable to strike him or her or it that distracts the musicians from their music.  Blood has been shed from noses, and vases (even Ming) flung across the room.  We would beat our mothers were they foolishly to ask whether we wanted white sauce or raisin on our ham.  Imagine then our anger when a subway train appears in the middle of the ballroom where we are dancing!  To be precise, a subway station.  We do not see the train halt beneath the dance floor.  The General, nibbling happily the dainty ear of the Chanteuse, orders a cavalry charge, forgetting that there are no horses here.  “Cannon then!  Surely, there must be an artillery piece somewhere in the hotel!”  “Dynamite it,” the Prime Minister, who lost his office to anarchists, advises.  “There’s a stick in the pantry next to the Tabasco.”  The Maître d’ is dashing there when who but the Journalist should be coming up the subway stairs, his battered Underwood pendent at his side!  “I did not think to see you again in this life,” sighs the Manicurist, who has carried a torch ever since his departure from the hotel.  He kisses her having, during his sojourn in reality, missed her, too.  “I brought you this,” he says, making her a present of a flower, which is dead.  Reality is hard on flowers.  Speechless with surprise, she will press it later in The History of Chocolate, which commenced with the Mayans, who liked it hot and spicy.  “What brought you back?” the Prime Minister inquires.  “Life outside,” he answers, “is all but d ––”  “What news of the moon?” the General rudely interposes.  The Journalist takes off his hat as if in mourning.  “Not good,” he says.  “It pines for starry night, rolling seas, and aromatic firs in whose branches it was wont to rest.”  “What a funny way to talk!” the Building Inspector, who believes in vox populi, laughs, though not unkindly.  “I’ve been reading Shakespeare to it – the sonnets and the plays.  The moon is fond of the Elizabethan Age.  The present distresses it.”  “Do the anarchists torture it?” the General demands, his moustache bristling.  “They starve it,” the Journalist replies.  “You would weep to see the moon now that it is no more than a sliver of its former self.”  “I am appalled!” the General rages as Lear did on the roaring heath.  But what good’s ire in an old man good for nothing but ballroom dancing!  We look away for pity’s sake.  The Journalist sits and says, “You may be interested to hear how the hotel appears to those outside.”  “Yes, we would!” the P. M. affirms.  “It is something I have wondered about.”  “So have I!” I say.  “Me, too!” the Manicurist cries for fear the Journalist has forgotten her now that he is serious – a side of him that does not thrill her like his amorous one.  “The hotel moves.”  “Moves?”  “It shifts.  It is never in any one place for long.”  (Proof, perhaps, of String Theory?)  “And when it’s moving, it blurs – sometimes even disappears.”  (Just as the Physicist predicted!)  “It is this that keeps you safe from siege.  This and something also inexplicable: the building changes architectural style.  When I left, it was rococo.  Last time I looked, Art Deco.”  “How bizarre!” the Building Inspector remarks.  “It is sheer luck that I am here at all, though I wished to be.”  The Journalist lays his eyes on the Manicurist, who blushes.  “How so?” the P. M. asks, intrigued.  “The hotel came to rest atop the subway platform at the exact moment my train stopped.”  The conjunction is accidental and brief.  As if on cue, we perceive the unseen train depart by a screech of steel and odor of ozone.  The stairs leading down disappear, as we shuttle block by block across the city – up, down, and sideways like a rook in chess – scarcely visible to our enemies, behind the battlements of our hotel. 

 

44.

Theoretical science has disturbed the aplomb of the guests, whose insouciance is less now that they know the hotel and all in it are hurtling seemingly to no purpose, while vibrating spatially in twenty-six dimensions.  If it were not for my Funambulist, who moves overhead like an unswerving planet, I, too, would feel uncertainty’s rising damp.  “You are my lodestar, my compass needle, my railroad timetable!” I shout to her as she passes.  I gaze fondly at her ribboned underpants, recalling my nuptial visit on the high-wire she never leaves, wishing – as I do always – that she would live on the ground like me.  But her clay and destiny are different from mine (quite possibly from all others’); and I pay her homage, which she acknowledges by tipping her balancing-pole before tottering into the darkness at the end of the wire.  Her departure is propitious; for a preposterously chaotic weather pattern at this moment wreaks havoc in the Sahara Room, in which we are eating figs.  “The camels!” the Taxidermist shouts, alarmed (they are tedious to stuff) – too late to save them from a sand spout.  The caravansary is also carried off, together with the yoghurt and burnooses.  “Run!” the General, who was in Arabia with Lawrence, commands – mouth full of sand in spite of his moustache, which ought to have strained it.  Now the oasis is under attack – its papier-mâché palms torn to shreds by the burnishing wind!  Ours – we learn later – was not the sole meteorological quirk.  Snow fell on the Côte d’Azure Room, surprising several nudists.  Föhn, familiar on the lee side of the Alps, drove even the hotel’s ebullient to thoughts of suicide.  Haze invaded the lobby as an African Harmattan scattered folders devoted to destinations once in walking distance of the hotel (no longer, now that it moves).  Other winds besetting us include a Sudanese Habob, an Andean Pampero, a Persian Shamal, a Mediterranean Tramontana, and a south Australian Buster.  My Funambulist – by luck, providence, or prowess – outran them all on her high-wire.  The Prime Minister denounces the Meteorologist for malfeasance in permitting such conditions to develop unforeseen and for the loss of his toupee.  The House Detective, sent with a subpoena to the penthouse, reports: “The Meteorologist is drunk to a degree seldom encountered even in this hotel.  He fed the subpoena to the weather simulator, producing a squall in the hotel atmosphere – on the Beaufort Scale, an 8.  Observation favors the hypothesis that it had eaten diagrams stolen from the Choreographer’s drawer.  Only the application of my blackjack saved us from the lambada, carimbó, forró, and samba, which were next.”  “That would have been catastrophic!” the Engineer declares.  “The hotel walls will not withstand dances of the South American sort.”  The Analyst, tugging at his beard, avers: “Neither will our soles.”  This abysmal pun, not even Freud would have laughed at, though he might have cited it in Jokes and Their Relation to the Subconscious.  “I adore the dithyrambic!” the Hairdresser sighs, demonstrating the fandango with her stiletto heels and fingers’ castanets.  The Journalist arrives as if from out a grave.  “What’s wrong?” asks the House Detective, alert to disturbance and unease.  “Come see,” he answers tersely.  We follow him down the winding metal stairs to the cellar, where the Hydrologist has been digging a canal.  There, as if the water were a bed, lie bodies tossing in the feeble light of oil lamps.  “Dead,” the Journalist pronounces them.  “The anarchists!” exclaims the General. “Terrorists!” cries the Prime Minister.  “They are victims of the enemies of the moon,” the Journalist avows.  He opens the mouth of one; and we see, like a communion wafer, a white circle on the tongue left by the assassins of poetry, lunacy, and love. The musicians play “Clair d’lune” and weep, as do we all, for night and the once-shining waters of the earth – their light put out.

 

53.

Death has entered the hotel and with it Realism, a mode contrary to desire as we know it in the work of Gaudí but not of Mies van der Rohe (his towers of glass), which we like but do not wish to live in.  Haunted by dreams of Tintoretto’s Susanna at her bath, the Plumber has hanged himself because he cannot have her.  The Hat Check counts hats.  The Hydrologist abandons his Suez for the study of drainage ditches.  The Meteorologist makes rain in a pluviometer the better to measure it.  The Manicurist praises the hangnail and torn cuticle.  The Journalist writes Wall, in which he renders minutely the surface life there, including the order of Blattaria, or roach.  The Photographer prepares a photo-essay on beheaded roses to the dismay of the Florist, who remains a Romantic in spite of dead men in the cellar.  The Taxidermist wonders how to make a glass eye cry.  War has replaced amour in the General’s memoirs, which he dictates to an Amanuensis, whose calves remind him of Elizabeth, Empress of Austria (struck mortally through her corsets by an anarchist at the end of an old century).  “We are afraid,” we say one to another in the barroom where we have cloistered ourselves against violence and vulgarity.  “We are fantasists,” the Prime Minister observes, “and have no right to escape a dark age such as ours.”  Well-read in the Moderns, the Barber counters thus: “We were once outside and could do nothing to stem the blood-red tide, as Yeats called the anarchy then loose upon the world.  I, for one, do not wish to drown unless it be for love in a Venetian canal accompanied by an elegiac cello.”  Fond of rum, the Cellist begins to weep, saying: “Would I could be there when you do!  But I am hydrophobic!”  The Prime Minister is unconvinced by the Barber’s glossing: “He hopes in this way to extenuate his desertion of humanity, or is it from?”  “Are we not also humanity, though a small and – by many – despiséd part?” the Barber orates with rhetorical flourishes, which remind me of spit-curls.  I leave them to their wrangle, knowing the issue has no resolution. “Soru rahatsz edici ve yap1şkan, sanki Turkish Taffy,” says the General, who was an attaché in Istanbul during the abolition of the Sultanate. “Genç ve güzel bir k1z1n yan1na uzan1p boş vermekten başka ç1kar yol göremiyorum.”*  You are my constancy – you, dear General, and my beloved Funambulist!  A Western Union Messenger steps smartly onto the stage (for this is theater after all!).  “For you, sir,” he says, handing me a blue telegram, which rustles pleasantly when I open it.  COME TO ME TONIGHT. I SHALL BE CROSSING THE ROTUNDA CEILING AT EIGHT. IT IS TIME TO LEAVE THE HOTEL NOW THAT IT IS NOT SO HOSPITABLE TO DREAMING. YOUR FUNAMBULIST. I arrive well before the appointed hour.  One must be punctual for a tryst with someone who is never still.  The Rotunda is dark; but through the windows that pierce it, night seeps, lightening the gloom.  No longer willing to abet our insularity since the arrival of the floating dead, the Carpenter has unboarded all the hotel’s windows.  In the morning, the guests will confront day and day them; and their fancies will be dispelled like scraps of paper scattered by a wind-machine.  “I’m here, Norman,” the Funambulist whispers from her great height above the floor.  Whispers, nevertheless I hear!  “Hello, dear!” I whisper in return, marveling at the dome’s acoustic properties.  “I’m ready to go with you, but where?”  “To the moon,” she answers.  “It slipped its bonds inside the trolley barn while its abductors slept!”  And as if cued by her, a light slices through the windows that ring the mezzanine – dazzling and unbearable were it not coolly lunar.  It powders the Funambulist’s face and those of my friends standing like statues on the mezzanine, at the railing foiled in silver.  “Come,” says my Funambulist wife.  I touch the dial of the watch given me by the Engineer, containing a tiny gyro and device patented by Count von Zeppelin.  With it I have the lightness to ascend.  I rise into the arms of my bride, saying adieux to the moonlit figures, which may or may not be real.  Having no further need, she lets go her balancing-pole.  It floats above the high-wire while – together – she and I go through the roof and on out into the night.

_____________________
*Translation from the Turkish: “The question is vexed and sticky like Turkish Taffy.  I see no way out of it but to sleep on it next to a pretty young girl.”  How the narrator came by his Turkish is not known.

 


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 Émigrés — 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 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. A Japanese version of Land of the Snow Men is forthcoming, as is a new novel — The King of Sweden — to be published by Ravenna Press in 2009. 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 other selections from Pieces for Small Orchestra appeared in Issue #20, Issue #23, and Issue #25. The above selections first appeared in new (new-mag.com), Paris.