David Swartz "RELIGION WITH AN EDGE"
biblicalfictions.com
Poetry for the Curious across the Religious Spectrum
THRENODY

a novel

The colonial house on Princess Street had been painted the previous summer.  The grass was uncommonly thick yet recently trimmed.  The shrubbery was even and tidy.  There were 2 cars in the garage, Buick sedans of recent make.  There were 2 elderly people on separate beds.  The male, probably 65, was experiencing some pain as he lay conscious and listening to absolute silence.  The female, probably 62, was totally asleep and dreaming.  She was dreaming of a wedding on a strange planet in which the genitals of the couple were bared, the rest of the bodies covered in black crepe.  She felt prompted to scream and couldn't, was required to endure the strange ceremony in utter silence and lay there in silence until her eyelids fluttered open to a rose ceiling and milk glass fixtures, a fly on an outer rim.  She turned and saw his eyes.

     "Good morning, Desmond."

     "Good morning, Mary.  Did you rest well?"

     "Yes.  I suppose you didn't."

     "No.  It was one of my usual nights."

     "You were thinking about him."

     "No.  Not really.  I don't think that much at all anymore."

     "Well you know that's the best way."

     "Yes.  Do you have to go to the bathroom?"

     "It's not that urgent.  No, you go right ahead."

     "Fine."

     "Yes.  But there's a fly.  Get that first."

     "Where?  Where's the fly?"

     "Up there above you.  On the ceiling.  On the light fixture.  See it?"

     "Yes.  I can see it clearly even without my glasses."

     "Then kill it."

     "Surely."

 

 

 

Desmond worked hard to clean his face.  When that was brought satisfactorily to conclusion he slapped on hot water from a fresh puddle in the sink.  He added hot lather from the dispenser and shaved carefully.  When he was through there were small white clots of foam in the sink, flecked with tiny black hairs. He stepped under the shower and held his breast up into the stinging needles, soaped carefully, and stood back to let it enter the pores.  He stepped back under and turned slowly, feeling the stabs of heat.  When he reentered the bathroom proper he was water slick and very pink.  He toweled off and headed for the bedroom.  Mary was fully dressed in a glossy dark blue dress, patting her bouffant and adding lipstick.  He stood aside and entered his clothes carefully.

     "I suppose you'll need another set of underwear."

     "Yes."

     "I packed your summer suits."

     "Good."

     "The new tie will be splendid with the cream knit jacket."

     "Fine."

     "We'll have some Martel glazed doughnuts and coffee."

     "That should do it."

     "Where would you like to eat?  To eat lunch."

     "I suggest we try the Howard Johnson's."

     "That could be the best thing."

     "Yes.  It's been nearly a month now."

     "Yes.  We stopped at one in Oil City, I believe."

     "Yes.  It's been nearly a month."

 

 

 

Desmond was at a round walnut table.  At the exact center were 6 Martel glazed doughnuts on an aluminum foil tray.  It was necessary to insert the tines of his silver fork into the first doughnut and transfer it to the center of his white porcelain plate.  And then to eat that doughnut, using the same fork and a silver handled knife with a stainless blade.  By chewing carefully he could achieve the maximum appreciation of the flavor.  Attacking the doughnut with precision and efficiency, Desmond glanced up at his wife.  Their eyes met for perhaps a second and returned to their respective plates.  Desmond reached for a second doughnut and deposited it on the exact center of the plate.  He noticed that there was steam on the glossy porcelain surface at the rim of the doughnut.  He had not previously noticed this.  He was about to share this observation with Mary when she interrupted his thought with her first remark since they had sat down.

     "Mr. Landis said he would look in now and then while we're gone."

     "I suppose you told him where to find the key."

     "Yes.  I told him the precise location."

     "I think that will be a blessing."

     "Yes.  He's a generous man."

     "I think well of him."

     "Desmond?"

     "What is that, Mary?"

     "Let's not send any postcards this year.  Let's confine everything to the slides.  We should be able to save a bit, you know.  What do you think?"

     "I think that's a splendid idea.  But you know me."

     "Well yes.  I do.  But let's hold it to a minimum."

     "All right.  Mary.  We'll hold it all to a minimum."

     "How are the Martel glazed doughnuts?"

     "Good.  The Martel glazed doughnuts are very good."

     "You know.  They were something of a bargain."

     "Good.  That is very fine to know."

     He reached across the round walnut table and patted her left hand.  Shortly after this he reached his fork for the third doughnut.  It looked very succulent there at the precise center of his white porcelain plate.

 

 

 

Desmond Phillips found it relatively easy to carry the luggage to the rear of the larger sedan.  It was no problem to lift the mint green lid of the trunk.  He inserted the 2 suitcases carefully.  He aligned them with the bumper.  When he lowered the lid he could no longer see them but was nevertheless certain of their presence.  He looked up past the mint green crest of the roof at Mary's handsome face in the frosted bouffant.  She was smiling brightly for an instant with the cords taut in her neck and then descending to the level of a wide gutter, the chin obscured by the mint green crest of the roof.  Desmond had the nuance of a feeling, something indeterminate but real.  He rounded the bumper and reached for the furthest mint green door.  She was at the corner cabinet, piercing the hole in the house key with an eyehook at the level of her bosom.  The door nudged inward on the contents of the cabinet and clicked into place.  The body turned and smiled, stepped briskly toward the larger sedan and entered.

     "I'm very happy.  Very happy this June morning."

     They had backed out cautiously.  Desmond thumbed the gray button on the dashboard and watched the door descend, perfectly white, to snip off the dark interior.

     "Yes.  I feel very tranquil."

     He patted her knee gently, careful not to startle her.

     "Well.  Let's make this the trip of our lives."

     "Yes.  I think we've earned that."

     "Desmond.  I saw a wren yesterday.  I wanted you to know that."

     "That is pleasant.  I am moved."

     "Yes.  It's a perfect life."

     "Well.  It's hardly perfect.  But it is pleasant."

     "They will put fresh flowers out on Friday.  Isn't that nice?"

     "On the grave."

     "Yes.  I arranged it while you were gone."

     "Mary.  You are as close to perfection as anyone I've ever met."

 

 

 

Desmond had total and absolute control over the mint green sedan.  The sky lay over the horizon like a stainless steel lid.  The foliage whipped by like cardboard cutouts.  A farm was there, not the first, briefly, a clutter of buildings thrown flat as if sprayed on the pale green earth.  Desmond knew farms.  He knew they were very unpleasant.  It was hard to remain clean while involved with farms, either as an inhabitant or visitor.  Suddenly there was a great colored swath that loomed large over to the right and clicked past, proclaiming the advantages of a brand of cigarette Desmond once had committed himself to, perhaps 5 over each waking period.  Desmond felt a vague prompting.  He reached carefully past Mary and thumbed the glossy button on the glove compartment, heard the rustling his hand made groping over the interior.  The large pink hand emerged with a Philly brand plastic tipped cigar.

     "Desmond.  There's a problem."

     "I know it's a little early but it might be the best thing."

     "No.  I was really wondering about the temperature."

     "Well.  Don't worry.  We're air conditioned."

     "But it troubles me.  What it might really be."

     "Well.  Take my word for it.  It's very close to 78 degrees."

     "Yes.  Well that puts my mind at rest."

     "That's the important thing."

     Desmond inserted the end of the Philly into a chromium receptacle with a glowing wire ember at the base.  It was called a lighter.  He sucked in contentedly and emitted a haze of fragrant smoke.

     "What sort of flowers will they put out Friday?"

     "Chrysanthemums.  Yellow white and red."

     "That's good.  That's good to know."

     "Well you know me.  They're just about the best possible buy."

     Desmond looked over at her perfect teeth and smiled.  He knew that she was simply welling over with euphoria.  There was just something about a level road, when you could leave that foot perfectly even on the accelerator and just cruise on without the slightest nuisance or inconvenience, just cruise on dead ahead.

 

 

 

The George Washington Bridge was splendid, a runner of concrete tonguing the Jersey shore.  There were interesting steel cables tensed ably to support the roadway.  The whoosh of sleek sedans clicking past on either side, as Desmond negotiated the middle lane, the throaty yowl of the Buick dampened toward a numb hum against the drill of the air conditioning, reminding Desmond of compressed air in large sodden bags, the slab of the tires against the even concrete seams, holding the press of his right foot regular on the accelerator, firing up a Philly, cruising toward Manhattan soaked in a pea green smog, pinnacles of concrete and aluminum stabbing the tepid air like crochet needles, the total mind altering experience of thrusting steel into absolute space, however littered and encrusted with the jetsam and putridities of modern living.

     "Oh Desmond.  This is exciting."

     "Well hold onto it.  This will be the big one for both of us."

     "Yes.  Certainly.  I truly hope so."

     "What do you think?  Are we a handsome couple?"

     "Comfortable and handsome and first rate.  Divine."

     "How's that Special settling?  And the shake?"

     "Perfectly.  How about the All-American?  And the lemon chiffon pie?  I truly hope they are digested with no difficulty."

     "Well.  They're just fine.  I should have a proper movement."

     "Well let me know the details after the whole experience."

     "I'll keep you posted.  Well here we go."

     Desmond and Mary Phillips sucked down into the Expressway in absolute and unqualified euphoria.  Thus far it was all on schedule, not the nuance of a snag, as certain and efficient as the mint green Buick that hurtled them on toward joy and adventure.

 

 

 

Mary felt the slightest flutter of her heart as the pale of Desmond faded in the murky glass.  Her assignment was simple—to guard the two powder blue Samsonite suitcases from any of the teeming crowd here in the Kennedy terminal.  The large Moroccan leather rhinestone clasp handbag contained her only weapon, a long gleaming hatpin with a studded pearl base.  Wrapped in a clot of Darvel two-ply scented toilet tissue, it lay ominous in one of the bulky compartments beside a clear plastic bottle of Bayer aspirin with a white plastic safety cap, an ampoule containing her tiny blood pressure tablets, a glossy paper cylinder of Tums pills, a copy of R. F. Delderfield's hitherto unpublished juvenilia.  She watched the throng of people jerk in and out of the glass entrance like plastic fright toys on invisible strands of number 5 Sew-Gude transparent nylon catgut, her veined lower calves straddling the largest case, her mind exceedingly alert.  And then she relaxed.  Desmond was shifting through the foyer, meaty and solid in the Eagle topcoat, grinning blandly, the pink hand waving like chubby worms on a hex nut.

     "It was reasonable.  The parking was very reasonable."

     "Well let's have it.  Let's have the whole unadorned truth."

     "45 dollars even.  And that includes the tip."

     "Desmond, you're a prince.  You always surprise me."

     "Well the man was honest."

     "Yes.  Well.  Well I think he was responding."

     "To me?  You think that."

     "Yes.  I think he knew you were that sort of man."

     "The kind one treats with respect, I guess."

     "Yes.  That is the unqualified truth.  Yes Desmond."

     "Well.  Well here we go then."

     She loosened her calves from where they had adhered to the larger powder blue Samsonite case, and they marched off together across a plane of terrazzo like pitted marble or peppered egg whites toward the next exciting increment of their odyssey, Mary's buttocks as formidable as howitzer casings in the nylon panty girdle.

 

 

 

The room was immaculate and most comfortable, Mary and Desmond eased like plastic crows on a railroad tie, there on pressed Fiberglas contour chairs over a chromium bar, Desmond reaching up a partially consumed Philly to examine the mulched plastic tip, Mary lolling on her meaty tongue an Ambrosoli honey-filled drop.  Nestled carefully, they could hear the subdued murmurs of less than a hundred bodies, excited little rasps and pitters, raps and belches, moist lip smackings, titters and gasps over the handsome terrazzo.  There was a genuine surge of contentment knowing they were with the right crowd.  A forest of distended maroon groins, buckled patent leather pumps, paisley ties and Eagle topcoats—the crowd was impeccable, contained, mouthing the right platitudes, urgencies, tepid observations, into fleshy spotted ears, a sea of bouffants against the glossy tile.  Desmond stabbed a glance at his Accutron and felt a tremor of sweet anticipation—7 minutes to departure.  He reached up each Stetson in turn and examined the soles for encrustations, small tacky nuisances that might have adhered in a moment of neglect—the soles were uniform and flawless.

     "Desmond.  The temperature.  What about the temperature of this room?"

     "Well.  We could ask.  But I would wager 72."

     "Are you certain?  Are you completely certain?"

     "Yes.  I would say that I am utterly certain."

     "And the temperature out there?  Out there in the darkness?"

     "Well it is perhaps under 70.  I would wager 68."

     "But there is no certainty in your voice."

     "No.  I think you've caught me totally off guard."

     "Will there be a tasty meal?  On the flight."

     "Well.  Yes.  I would imagine there would be 2 tasty meals."

     "Good.  That is good.  Could you have a look?"

     "Yes.  Certainly.  I think you've suggested an important task."

     Desmond reached down and lifted each patent leather pump and inspected the narrow sole.  There was a bit of yellow paper, which he removed carefully with a wad of tissue, otherwise nothing.  There was a measure of warmth in that knowledge, in being able to report his findings with a measured detached air.

     "There is nothing left on the bottom of your pumps."

     "Good.  That is utterly fine.  Thank you, Desmond."

 

 

 

The delectables were nestled in plastic, a pale tray of sautéed mushrooms, cube steak, and diced carrots.  Desmond sliced off minute segments and inserted them into his cavity to nibble and savor, to impregnate with saliva and thrust down into the alimentary canal, mulched and nutritious.  He was seated upright in a padded chair beside his very own wife Mary, propelled into absolute space in air conditioned luxury, the patter and trills of processed music just above the threshold of consciousness, snug and secure, pampered and solid here in the 707.  There were many such nooks in reality, cushioned retreats for his sensitive spirit.  He found them in these large airliners, in dentist offices, and in the driving seat of his mint green sedan.  He found them in Howard Johnson's restaurants, in large chain department stores, in Holiday Inns, and Masonic temples.  Here with his 2 ply napkin tucked neatly into crenulated folds below his 3rd chin, wielding the plastic utensils, he knew he was very close to peak excitement, to absolute pleasure, to matchless comfort and ecstasy, and he nipped off just a bit of bread and worked on it to see if the viscous bolus produced would trigger the supreme bliss as it writhed downward toward peristaltic movement, toward utter efficiency in his God given perfect machine.

     "Desmond.  I feel so totally blissful, so fulfilled."

     "Yes.  I had just registered the same sentiment."

     "Try the carrots, dear.  A large percentage of them are perfect."

     "Well now.  I'll just ingest several and wait."

     "Good.  That is very good.  You put that well."

     "Haven't we always been articulate?"

     "Yes.  That is very true.  That is a true observation."

     A medium sized face entered the periphery of Desmond's vision.

     "Is everything fine, folks?  Enjoying your meal?"

     "Everything is perfect.  You can quote me on that, truly."

     "Well then.  Have a pleasant flight."

     "Well.  We certainly plan to do just that."

     "That's the ticket."

     The face edged out of vision, replaced with a plastic panel containing the oxygen equipment and a swath of granular blond vinyl.  Desmond's head clicked back toward the tray.  There was a portion of cube steak inundated with glistening beads of rich gravy.  There were several diced carrots like small sliced torsos, and a gray inert mushroom.

     "I'm looking forward to this.  You know that, Mary?"

     "To London?  To Munich?  To Paris?  To what, Desmond?"

     "No dear.  I'm looking forward to the balance of this meal."

 

 

 

With the seat absolutely back Desmond felt a comfort unparalleled.  Whooshing dizzily through space, projected into the starlit void over distant dark watery undulations, moonlight ghastly pale on the airfoils, monstrous cacophony dampened to a pleasant hum, syrupy music lulling the brute instincts to a barely palpable palpitation, gusting onward toward Britain, that noble encrustation on the sallow breast of mother Europe, Desmond felt a tremor of heady delight unreachable in the darkest fantasies of the mystic, the opium fiend, the maddened raving devotee of lysergic acid, the Christian saint.  And yet here in this reverie there was the first anticipated prompting of his contracting colon, the subtle chemistry and press against the perfect sweet sphincters of his proud pink perfect corpus, the insistence of the darkened nutrients reaching toward the light.

     "It's coming.  It is truly coming, Mary Phillips."

     "Good.  Well good.  Yes.  It is 9:17 PM."

     "Yes.  It is precisely on time.  I am humbled."

     Desmond held his sweat moist palm up while she rummaged in the pocketbook for the bundle. Within moments she had slid out a 6 inch wooden dowel from the dozen others secured there by a gray latex band, had nipped it into his palm with the precision of a surgeon's assistant.

     "Take your time, Desmond.  Make it a certain thing."

     "Well.  Yes.  I will give it the attention it deserves."

     Within minutes Desmond had bared his pitted rump to the chill of the black plastic seat.  Within minutes he had released the projectile.  Within minutes he had poked and prodded its contents.  The total sequence was not without a certain grandeur and sweep.

     "Well.  Desmond.  What is the verdict for today?"

     "I can safely state that the movement was utterly perfect."

     "Well then.  Well good.  Yes.  This is good."

     "Yes.  Mary.  It is very good.  I'm batting 836."

     "For the month?"

     "Yes.  An even 836 for the month of June.  Cross my heart."

 

 

 

Desmond was totally erect above the hips.  He was anticipating total pleasure.  In one large meaty hand was a sweet roll with a curdled pineapple jelly center.  He knew this totally.  He knew as well as he knew himself that this one sweet roll held the nutrients, the tang, to totally cleanse his system.  That with the proper digestive process it would make his day.  Desmond Phillips had exhausted the contents of a small paper tub, had applied that creamy butter to the blond base of the roll, had smeared an even .5 centimeter thickness and had discarded the tub, the plastic knife.  Desmond would not eat the other roll.  He would not need it.  With boundless joy he propelled the delectable over a steady arc toward his waiting eager mouth.  Contact.  Desmond felt a tremor of utter languor ripple down toward his buttocks, a spasm of total orgiastic delight, as he clenched his incisors to nip off the first mouthwatering morsel and loll it carefully over his tongue.  Working that tangy mind-bending euphoriant into the first bolus.  Desmond nearly swooned.  The sainted dervish writhing inward toward hallucinatory spirals of measureless iridescence could never realize the boundless ecstasy that exploded throughout his corporeal form.

     "I am consumed by bliss.  Hold my hand."

     "Desmond.  You really shouldn't excite yourself.  It is a rudimentary jelly center sweet roll.  Save your energy.  There are things to come."

     "All this munificence.  I truly treasure this moment."

     "Well.  We're the lucky ones.  Now that much is true."

     "Well Mary.  This is the big one.  I just know it."

     "Here.  Hold still.  Just try a sip of your coffee."

     Desmond inclined to sip from the amber fluid.  A great explosion rent his head.  He snapped back into the seat and giggled.

     "I thought you'd like it.  Well we're right where it counts."

     "Mary.  No one has ever experienced this.  Not totally."

     "Are you having an emotion?"

     "Yes.  I believe I am having my very first emotion."

 

 

 

Desmond was particularly caught by the pale vinyl seat.  With the table retracted and snapped tight it was a miracle of symmetry and verve.  He was particularly caught by the sudden intrusion upon this symmetry of eight manicured link sausage fingers and an attractive onyx ring.  Fired with heady anticipation, Desmond steeled himself for maximum impact.  It came.  Within several microseconds a florid disk popped into view over the phalanges and grinned in apelike ebullience, the immaculately shaved face with great yellow teeth, a clot of food in the upper incisors, the perfect iron gray "butch" haircut and modest sideburns, wrinkles over the forehead like a crenulated ham hock, eyes delirious with euphoria, like bright blue sparkling skulls, a rope of snot under one pudgy nostril.  The teeth yawning to a great pink mucid cavern, the lips pulsing and retracting, strutting and wriggling, fashioning words, a message of utter moment and total significance, pregnant orison of destiny.  Desmond smiled and let each syllable nudge him toward transcendence.

     "Hello there.  I'm Creedin Evers.  I'm Colonel Creedin Evers."

     And then with the same utter impact translucent fingers tipped sharp in coral, and the second disk, pale and translucent, little girl ringlets of fine spun gold, eyes like watery agates fluttering and blinking, florescent signs, pert red bow mouth simpering into smile and then finally wide dazzled radiant pearly white sharp-toothed maniacal ecstatic grin.

     "Hello there.  I'm DOLLY Evers.  We play bridge."

     "I am moved.  I am moved utterly."

     "We thought you just might play.  Dolly made that prediction.  Perhaps you could tell us if she was on the button."

     "Tell them.  Mary.  Let these precious people know the truth."

     "Dolly Evers.  You were right on the button."

     "Oh.  This is delightful.  This is precious."

     "Oh.  We are all moved.  This is peak experience."

     Desmond knew at this intersection in his destiny that he was at the threshold of total fulfillment.  Desmond Phillips swooned.

 

 

 

Desmond was breast deep in a steaming pool.  He was fondling a large bar of scented creamy soap, kissing it, enveloping it in the murky liquid, drawing it across his modest genitals.  Desmond's iron gray hair was creamy white from a generous dollop of Perigrin Balsam Herbal Shampoo.  Uttering languid goat cries that reverberated from the sumptuous violet tile, running that slick cake over his most secret places, cleansing his body for the coming rites.  Desmond's mind was clean, purged with the Maharishi Yogi's mantra, receptive to only the most elevated and spiritual missives from the great hollow void, from the pristine bowels of the Creator.  There in absolute reverie, soaking his pits, his prodder, his sphincters, in the anointment, the ambrosial fluid, the pure tangy water and Max Factor bath fizzies, the dash of musk and civet, there waiting, he heard the flutter of fingers on the massive door, closed his eyes and stood, entered the sumptuously appointed bathing chamber proper and toweled off, heady with anticipation.  And then, in consummate bliss, opening his eyes to the great black cloth, slipping in underneath its velvet folds, he knelt by the powder blue toilet bowl a great pulsing hump with one arm bared through the slit.

     "Mary Phillips.  You may enter, my love."

     Mary, eager as a young girl, tripped through into the chamber totally naked, her corpulence descending in pitted folds and undulations, bouncing and quivering with abandon.  There over the porcelain tank that great body squatted, readied for utter joy and consummation.

     "A little higher.  Yes.  That's it.  That's it, Desmond."

     "Oh Mary.  My rapture is infinite.  Oh dear."

     "A little higher.  Oh, that is exquisite.  I'm coming."

     "Oh sweetness.  Oh sweetness itself.  Oh dear."

     Desmond under the black cloth felt utter ecstatic joy and surrender, total humility at this beatific moment, tender pit pats and throbs of his gentle worthy heart, palpitations and pulsings that suffused him with utter radiant liquid and heat, quiverings and pipings of exquisite gentleness and preciosity, stabs and lacings of rapturous iridescence and bounty, inconceivable tides and currents of ethereal goo—this totality of sensation prodding, thrusting, propelling him toward some unreachable surd, some utter wholeness that only the martyred saint in the final beatific rapture could ever bear to approach.  Desmond under the cloth fell into grateful tears at such utter munificence.

 

 

 

The sleeping chamber contained all the amenities of civilized life.  There was a marvelous French provincial vanity with a plush love bench.  There were 2 large and ornate dressers of uncertain origin.  There was a cozy frilled sofa with pink velvet cushions.  There was a massive white bed with a red velvet canopy.  Desmond and Mary had settled down for their brief slumber, each in a carefully tailored morning coat with tasseled satin slippers.  Each was at the edge of the bed, staring up into the dark red fabric against the off-white ceiling.   At the exact center of the bed were the two powder blue Samsonite suitcases aligned as a barrier between their noble bodies, rendering the total situation as chaste as a page out of MOTHER GOOSE.  They were lying in the hatha yoga dead man's pose, or rather rigid as if in the concluding stages of a sailor dive; were breathing to a count of 4 16 8 and reciting the Maharishi Yogi's mantra carefully under their breath.  Soon they would be asleep, drifting off to innocent reverie, gamboling in clouds of lacy white, frolicking down long verdant avenues of ethereal green.

     "Mary?  Mary Phillips?  Are you quite content?"

     "Well.  Well yes.  There is a story of my childhood."

     "You're never told me this.  An actual story?"

     "Well.  Well yes.  I was eleven.  We went into the village, the whole family, and my father bought us each an ice cream cone with 2 large dippers.  And I walked down the street, waiting to savor it slowly, and it fell off onto the street, and I never tasted it.  And he wouldn't buy me another.  And I cried all that night, and we took the buggy into church the next morning over by Honey Grove."

     "Yes.  And then what happened, my treasure?"

     "I stepped into a dog stool and stained my white pumps."

     "Yes.  And then what happened, my treasure?"

     "Well that's it.  That's the whole unadulterated story."

     "I am saddened.  This story has great tragic elements."

     "Desmond Phillips, I've been stepping into dog stool all my life."

     "But you're tranquil.  You're affirmative.  You're radiant.  You're peppy.  You're succulent.  You're happy.  You're full of verve and vigor.  You're my wife."

     "Yes.  Well yes.  I am your own Mary Phillips."

     Desmond's brittle bright eyes burned into tears and clicked shut as he drifted off, nuzzling into the cool granular powder blue vinyl that ensured their chastity.

 

 

 

Desmond nicked a look at the great clock on the velvet wall—7 PM.  He leaned back and adjusted his linen napkin.  Dolly Evers pert and pretty in a rainbow chiffon frock with a creamy lace collar.  Creedin meaty and solid in a blue smoking jacket.  Mary Phillips massive in a black velvet sheath over precisely wedged swells and hollows, great slabs of adipose tissue hammered and pressed into solid meaty blocks, the large spotted hands wielding polished ware chastely, nipping off bits of mutton, tomato, roasted potatoes.  There before him was munificence, inconceivable bounty.  These ruddy knots of mutton garnished with slices of cucumber and pimento.  Nine medium sized potatoes crinkly brown and succulent.  A strand of sliced grilled tomatoes, juicy and aromatic.  A clot of peppermint jelly in a hollow lemon half, slick glossy mucid dollop against the pale yellow rind.  Peas pale and plump on the glossy porcelain, carrots piping and delectable.

     "Oh the tang.  The utter zest of this moment."

     "I'm having an emotional experience.  Truly emotional."

     "Oh Desmond.  The entertainment.  Over there."

     A massive blonde with great creamy white udders ground across the ebony platform and began to sing nasally to an electric piano, kissing, fondling the microphone, lolling her tongue across her glossy lips, rotating her buttocks like great sides of beef in the powder pink sheath.  There were lovely carnal sweat stains at her pits, and her eyes under the black shingles batting about were clear as the deepest pool of paradise.  Desmond fell to munching in time with the dynamic lyrics, rapping light belches of contentment.

     "Desmond.  You're absolutely radiant."

     "Yes.  I feel as if the whole universe of good things were lodged in the cavities of my large intestine."

     "Isn't he a poet?  Doesn't he put things well?"

     "Just think.  There's the whole evening ahead of us, and when the weather breaks?"

     "LONDON!!!!!!!"

     "And the trifle.  Think of THAT."

     "Oh yes.  Well I bet you're just corking yourself."

     "Isn't he a devil?  Oh those luscious little sponge cakes."

     "And the jam filling and the cream filling and the macaroons."

     "This is as close to paradise as any of us will ever come."

     "And the evening's just beginning.  Unreal."

     The blonde at the microphone was making precious little grunts to the beat of the piano, small slurping sounds by drawing her pert little tongue over the abrasions on the stainless mike, wheezes and sighs and slabs of her great thighs together, amplified through the nibblings and raps, the gummings and swishings of that large crowd under the chandeliers.  It was a precious moment with every nuance of fulfillment.  Desmond, Mary, Creedin and Dolly joined hands moistly under the great bright laden linen, under the massive table.

 

 

 

Desmond and 35 others were jammed in the chartered bus in varying states of gastric distress, colons pincing and twitching, seats inundated with viscous clots and putridities, maroon trousers and delicate lace shifts befouled with oozing sludge.  They were retching into the aisles with heady abandon the comestibles of that evening's excess, mulched mutton and potatoes, masticated carrots and trifle, peas, cheese, in a drastically altered state, putrid rancid effusions from the alimentary canal.  Such a cacophony of sound was rarely witnessed, a retching, gagging, wheezing, snorting, clapping, spewing, rattling chaos sealed within the airtight bus.  Groans, moans, death rattling agonies of distress with the chaste vinyl and chromium rendered despicable with noxious sediment and sloshings, windows smeared, befouled, clotted with partially digested nutrients, great fountains of excreta exploding, rending seams, a deluge of abhorrent nasties soaking, inundating, blasting the sacred air itself with monstrous din, rendering the sanctity of that doomed conveyance nauseous, repugnant, putrid, repulsive, foul.  A kaleidoscope of frenzied writhing flesh and vestment careening through Soho toward the Hilton, beshat and puked upon with utter disregard for the delicacy of such fine sentiments, dispositions, as had been nurtured over many years of chaste refinement—launched, plunged, thrust, catapulted, madly afloat, a jetsam of quivering ugliness, sheer groaning helpless terror, toward refuge and surcease.

     "Desmond.  I swoon.  I am utterly overcome."

     "Yes.   This is perfect.  This is the time of our lives."

     "But I feel discomfort.  A certain lack of tang."

     "Experience.  Take it for what it IS, my love.  Raw sensation."

     "But I'm fouling myself.  I'm voiding my places."

     "This is life, Mary.  Savor it."

     Creedin Evers's head lolled back into the aisle there at Desmond's knee.  He was totally covered with slick mucid effusions, bits and flecks of bright minced flesh among the predominant gray.  His eyes were rolled back in his head, his stomach twitching, shuddering the torso, the veined pudgy neck, the slick clots of hair matted with retchings.

     "Desmond.  Help me.  I think I'm dying."

     "Take it for what it is, Creedin.  A slice of life.  A segment of reality.  An honest experience.  Creedin, this is paradise."

     "But Desmond.  I am helpless. I am lost."

     "Savor it.  Feel it.  Feel the utter intensity of this moment."

     Desmond Phillips closed his eyes to the swimming frenzy and felt an inner peace.

 

 

 

Desmond's maroon trousers were clumped around his ankles.  His stained Jockey shorts were gathered at his knees.  Desmond was squatting in the sumptuous bathing tank, writhing and heaving in utter discomfort.  Mary Phillips, his comely helpmate, was on the powder blue toilet bowl, her fouled rayon bloomers a ruffle over her pretty pumps, her dress gathered at the waist, her buttocks splayed massively over the Lucite seat.  Mary Phillips was clutching the powder blue sink and retching, was spraying the fouled water below her pitted rump.  Her frosted bouffant spattered and matted with intestinal discharge, her makeup ruined, her hearing aid clogged with sediment, her fingers slimy with mucid effluvia, her feet slick in the sodden hose, Mary Phillips prayed for release.  Agonized, fairly moribund, racked with hideous pincing convulsions, mortified and ruined, she glanced up at the apparition of an immaculately tailored swarthy man with a black leather case, a miracle, a visitation, scrumptiously antiseptic cleanliness within the vortex of the holocaust.

     "Desmond.  Oh dear, Desmond.  I'm having a vision."

     "Savor it.  Let every aperture open to the radiance."

     The little dark man set down the bag on the marble ledge over the towel rack.  He pulled out several small disposable syringes and a clear chromium capped flask.

     "Madam.  I am a physician.  I'm going to give you an injection."

     Mary Phillip's eyes rolled back in utter horror.

     "It's the dark angel.  He's going to violate my virginity."

     "Savor it.  Let each moment blind you with the numinous fluid."

     Mary's body was frozen, rigid in the cold pincers of nameless horror.  With the cool swab and the prick of steel, the rush of some noxious unmentionable effluvium, she swooned, a great slab of adipose tissue belting the powder blue tile.  The little man leaned over Desmond with the glistening shaft.

     "Oh paradise.  This is it.  This is maximum rapture."

     "This will calm you down.  It will help you.  That's a good chap."

     Mary Phillips registered the patter of her tears blurring the patent leather pumps of the physician, registered the slick of her face on the tile, the stained base of the powder blue toilet.  Registered her husband Desmond tripping about with great risk to life and limb over the edge of the bathing tank, twirling on his soggy Stetsons and clapping his hands in glee—great lurching hulk of fouled humanity cavorting in drunken frenzy.  She beheld this madness, gripped with the pincers of utter mortification and agony, then drifted off into sleep.

 

 

 

"Desmond.  I'm frightened.  Turn on the light."

     In the utter darkness Desmond Phillips reached his hand over the vinyl suitcase and groped for her face.  He touched something lumpy, which was probably her breast.  He reached up higher and settled his hand on a faint stubble, possibly her chin.  He knew that this would comfort her, give her the maximum tactile sensation.  He was confident that in a few moments he would hear a sigh of total comfort and languor, and he curled up, sleepy, utterly content against the tender grain of the vinyl case, fondling with his free hand the chromium catches and the leather grip.

     "Desmond.  I'm frightened.  Turn on the light."

     "Mary.  Darkness is there to help us receive the maximum pleasure from light.  Darkness is merely a momentary absence of light.  Darkness is delectable.  The convolutions and textures of the sweet spermy vitals themselves are sequestered in darkness.  Darkness is pleasant.  People sleep in darkness.  Animals huddle together in blessed contentment in darkness.  The sacred effusions of the human corpus are wrapt in darkness before they emerge to cleanse or purify the system.  I happen to like darkness.  Without darkness how could people clothe the animality of their passion in the vestige of sobriety and tenderness?  Darkness is fun."

     "Desmond.  I'm afraid he's calling for us.  That's he's alone."

     Desmond coiled and sprang, braining himself on the carpet.  He barked and howled, coiling and springing, thrusting his body in massive heaves toward the switch.  Illuminated the room in a great blast of radiance, and squatted by the window.  His body was palpitating, trembling, twitching, his tongue lolling, his eyes dead white up into the skull.  Saliva pooled in the hollow of his neck.

     "I'm sorry, Desmond.  I was being very unpleasant."

     "Mary Phillips.  I came very close to losing my senses."

     "No.  Desmond.  Pray, never lose your senses.  Forgive me."

     "Mary.  We're in paradise.  We are in utter bliss.  This room is sanitary.  We've had a perfect evening, full of raw sensation.  We've seen the utter extremes of bodily sense input.  We are on the threshold of unqualified fulfillment.  Our bodies have been completely purged of noxious effusions.  I've had 35 bowel movements this evening alone.  This is paradise.  This is Eden.  Look out there.  Just look out that window,"

     "I can't see from here.  Just a moment, dearest."

     Mary Phillips entered a quilted pink dressing gown with lavender tassels, pulled fluffy pink slippers over her gnarled feet, bounced lively around the bed and squatted.  They were both there tranquil on the carpet, squatting like massive toads, facing out toward the fragrant June darkness, the iridescent scatter night.

     "Mary, my love.  Look there.  It's Big Ben."

     "Desmond.  We're in the Hilton.  Big Ben is miles away."

     "But it's so luminous.  It's absolute perfection."

     "Desmond.  That great silver disk, that radiance, is the moon."

     "Why yes.  Of course.  That radiance is the very moon."

 

 

 

In Desmond's dream there was a succulent platter of steak, sautéed mushrooms, baked potatoes in tinfoil, cleft and smeared with butter.  Desmond was trying very hard to partake of those delectables, but as he neared, the platter retracted.  It was on the end of an impossibly large tongue, which was slithering back into a great pink yawning mouth.  At the very end Desmond gave a mighty leap and landed belly down onto the viscous tissue and was drawn, lurching in utter horror, into total darkness.

     "Desmond, you're quivering.  Desmond, wake up.  It's a new day."

     Desmond woke totally rigid, staring up into the canopy.

     "Mary Phillips.  I had a most unpleasant dream."

     "But it's morning.  The cock is bleating his pregnant orison."

     "No.  That's not it.  There are light rappings at the great door."

     "Desmond.  I was only being figurative.  Dawn's radiant haze is kissing the dew of morning with moist wet dabs of bliss.  This is what we've lived for in the svelte loins of mother darkness, a bright and fruity fragrant rebirth of innocence and gamboling joy."

     "Mary.  You should publish.  I have never heard such inspiration."

     "It is my cheerful ebullience piping trills from the udders of fancy."

     "I believe that's our breakfast out there.  Oh gracious.  I can't wait.  I'll summon him with haste, chaste words of cheer."

     Desmond let the little man enter with his gleaming cart, the gnome-like wrinkled little man with the dark blue skull cap and the massive hands.  He popped back into bed and plumped his pillow. Within moments two neat platters were thrust over their laps, and the jolly little dwarf-like creature clicked out of view, leaving them with the morning feast—a large white bottle of Kaopectate, two bowls of bouillon, a pot of dark fragrant tea, and a generous stack of dried toast.  They fell to it with rapture.

     "This Kaopectate is rich and creamy.  Better than a Ho Jo shake."

     "Yes.  And the bouillon is tart and fragrant.  Delightful."

     "The texture of this toast.  Dip some in the Kaopectate.  Try it."

    "Yes.  This is the best breakfast I've had in 43 years."

     "Desmond.  Have you ever thought about reincarnation?"

     "Yes.  I have in fact.  I've thought of it once or twice."

     "Desmond.  Let's put it this way.  What would you like to be?"

     "In the coming life?  I've never given it much thought."

     "Well give it a try.  What would you like to be in the next life?"

     "Well.  Well I guess I'd like to be an executive in a shoe company."

     "Desmond.  You're so prudent.  You're so regular and solid."

     "Well.  Well what would you like to be, my little one?"

     "Well.  Well I'd like to be the wife of the Attorney General.  Or perhaps the Queen of England.  Either of those takes my fancy."

     They reached across the luggage and clasped their hands moistly.  Nothing could possible disrupt the sanctity of this moment.

 

 

 

"Ladies and gentlemen, we are now viewing, perhaps with some difficulty, the Tower of London.  This medieval fortress, the most perfect in all England, is actually several buildings comprising with their grounds a self-contained community with its own rulers.  Altogether some 700 to 800 people live in 'Her Majesty's Royal Fortress and Palace of the Tower of London.'  This population includes the infantry regiment and of course the world-famous Yeoman Warden of the Tower, retired warrant officers and noncommissioned officers with excellent Army records.  At the center of the enclave stands the oldest and finest building, the White Tower, begun under William the Conqueror and slowly completed under his son, William Rufus.  This is the 'keep' of the fortress.  Enclosing the spacious Inner Ward is a hexagonal wall from which rise 13 towers, the best known being the Wakefield Tower and the Bloody Tower facing the river."

     Desmond pressed his face into the trapezoidal window and reared back.  He ran his hand over the glass and lifted his Fortrex XV12.  With trembling fingers he pressed off a dozen shots in rapid succession, capturing the chromium border of the window, the steel catch, a portion of the vinyl ceiling, and a great white monstrous fog that reduced visibility to less than 3 feet.  Desmond was filled with rapture and excitement.  He knew that this moment would be enshrined forever in 12 perfect slides.

     "Desmond?  Desmond, you can't see anything out there."

     "I know.  It's utterly perfect.  It's very moving."

     "I mean you can't see the Tower.  Why have you taken those photographs?  Aren't you wasting the film?  Desmond, you're wasting perfectly good film.  Desmond, this upsets me.  Try to explain your behavior."

     "Mary Phillips.  I have recorded for posterity the texture of this window.  For 10 billion years, or as long as there is sentience in our solar system, this window, that great white oozing blanket of water vapor, a portion of vinyl and chrome, the total compelling sensory data, will be enshrined forever in film, in the hearts of man.  Think of it.  Our experience frozen for eternity."

     Desmond gripped her spotted hand and held it gratefully to his cheek.  He snapped shut the leather case and leaned back enraptured.  There was so much to see, so much to behold, such total unmitigated verve and excitement, so much history, such deep roots of tradition and beauty here on this sacred soil, and he would see the greatest portion of it sweep past in several hours.

     "Desmond.  I can understand you at last.  You have cleft my heart."

     Mary Phillips looked about at the other tourists.  The vaster segment was clicking off photographs with heady abandon.  Some with Polaroids were slipping out greasy tongues of stiff paper darkening into likenesses of the bus itself, the colorful, excited wayfarers, the mighty clot of vapor heaved from the cosmic abyss.  This jubilation and clamor was poetic beyond the wildest dream of deranged fancy.  There was still so much to be shared.  Mary Phillips nudged her renewed bouffant into the veined corpulence of Desmond's neck and coasted right out of there with the liquid vibrations of the omnibus, onward toward completion.

     "Desmond.  What was it Edmund Clarence Stedman once wrote?"

     "Stedman?  Edmund Clarence Stedman?"

     "Yes.  What was it Stedman once wrote about time?"

     "Yes.  I remember it totally, having committed it to heart.  Stedman put it this way: 'Time is Nature's way of keeping everything from happening at once.'"

     "Yes.  That's it.  I am totally moved.  You've made my day."

 

 

 

 "Desmond.  Desmond, do you believe in an afterlife?"

     Desmond was experiencing something indefinable in the darkness, something unpleasant.  He was nuzzled at the vinyl luggage, rubbing his forehead against the texture of the grain.  He was  not certain he had heard a voice.  Perhaps it was the echo of his twilight state, hung between dream and the Samsonite case.  Perhaps if he waited there long enough in absolute darkness, the echo would fade, go back into the uncertainty from whence it came.  Desmond thrust his meaty slick tongue out against the vinyl and tasted the neutral texture.  There was something vague and unsettling in this quiet, something he hadn't felt in some time, and couldn't recognize, perhaps fear, certainly discomfort, perhaps a lack of verve or tang, an absence of sorts.  If only the voice would go away.

     "Desmond.  Desmond, do you believe in an afterlife?"

     "Mary.  Dearest Mary.  I'm trying to taste this vinyl."

     "Desmond.  Do you believe in damnation?  In eternal fire?"

     Desmond remembered back to his catechism and clicked it off.  He remembered Sunday services in Port Royal with his grandfather Benjamin and the rides back in the buggy.  He remembered that and clicked it off.  Desmond remembered a bright hill jutting granite in the early spring when they lowered Dorothy Jane.  He clicked it off.  It was far more pleasant to fondle the steel catch and insert his tongue into the cleft of the lower spine.

     "Desmond.  Answer me.  Do you believe in an afterlife?"

     "I really don't know.  It's very unpleasant of you to bring it up."

     "Desmond.  Do you think Frederick is happy where he is?  Do you think little Ferdie is happy?  Do you think he's anywhere?"

     "Mary.  He's in an airtight magnesium coffin.  It's the very best we could do for him.  I'm sure he knows that.  Ferdie loves us."

     "But it's so final.  Desmond, would you stop licking that case?  It's so abrasive.  It's so unpleasant.  It grates on my nerves."

     "Just think, Mary Phillips.  Tomorrow we fly to Munich.  We haven't seen Munich in 5 years.  Won't it be joyful?"

     "Yes.  You know they really love you.  The whole gang."

     "Yes.  That is true.  That is very true."

     "Desmond.  I wish there was some way to find out."

     "To find out?  What could we possibly not know?"

     "About little Ferdie.  About our poor little Frederick."

     "Mary Phillips.  I want to sleep.  You are being terribly unpleasant.  This has been the crowning achievement of my life, this whole trip.  It even tops the Booster Award from the senior citizen's council of Nullyburg.  It tops my promotion to District Ten Supervisor for Aetna.  It tops my 12th grade Latin Proficiency Award.  I have never felt so tranquil.  This case has a perfectly metallic flavor.  I am very happy.  Please let me go to sleep.  I am content."

     "Good night, hon.  Good night, my little bear."

     "Good night, Mary.  Good night, my perfection."

     "It is very quiet.  It is suddenly very quiet."

     "Yes.  We are incredibly lucky people.  We're just corking."

     "I mean it's so quiet I can almost hear it in the silence."

     "Hear what, hon?  What can your hear?"

     "Your Accutron.  I can almost hear your Accutron."

     "I thought you meant the silence.  Sometimes I can hear the silence."

     "Now that's a notion.  No.  I simply meant I can almost hear your Accutron."

     "What's it sound like, Mary?  What does my Accutron sound like?"

     "Remember Suzy Wilks, the fat girl in your 9th grade?"

     "Yes dear.  I remember her well."

     "Well it sounds a little like her thighs rubbing together when she was on her way to the blackboard.  And something else."

     "What else does it sound like, Mary dearest?"

     "Well.  Well it sounds a little like your stirring in your stool.  With the wooden dowels."

     "Really.  And nothing else?  And it sounds like nothing else?"

     "Well.  Well it sounds the way it got after he shot himself."

     Desmond bolted from the bed and went writhing on the floor.

 

 

 

On Occamstrasse a swarthy man stepped out from the shadows.  Creedin Evers braced in the best pugilistic stance and prepared to defend Dolly and his revered friends.  It wasn't necessary.  The dark man flashed a china grin and thrust out a small parcel, a Manila envelope containing photographs.

     "I have some interesting photos.  Sehr interessant and cheap."

     Desmond recoiled from the reptilian little man.  He shielded his eyes with the crook of his arm and beat his forehead on a stucco shop front.

     "If you are interested I can avail you of a good show.  Sehr sexy."

     Creedin Evers took the little man aside to confer.  Dolly grinned lasciviously, and Mary Phillips flustered in mortification, the two flushed nodes in a leak of leucorrhea.  Desmond towered, smacking his head and thrashing, alone in his stunned chagrin.  The little man smiled silent deadly flashes of artificial teeth and leaned back in darkness.  Creedin came gamboling forth from the pit.

     "He says there are real beavers.  Come on.  It's our last chance."

     50 footsteps back the alley was a suspicious brown door, peaked and glossy in the gloom.  There was a crisp patterned rap.  A cadaverous looking ruffian snaked out a leathered skull and clicked out of sight.  They tottered inward and descended steps to fork left, at last a cavernous chamber with rough stone ceiling and slick vertical columns.  The solitary illumination was a yellow flare on greasy planks, a dark platform in the shape of a human stool.

     "Desmond.  I'm terrified.  This place is absolutely dreadful."

     "Mary.  This may be the experience we've waited for."

     They were seated at a large slab of black wood spattered with drops from the leaking ceiling.  There were 4 tankards of dark ale and as many clear glasses of schnapps.  Creedin's mucid upper lip was frothed with millions of tiny odoriferous bubbles.

     "I suppose there's a show.  I suppose there's entertainment."

     Through the flickering bestial faces in the mutter and hiss a stab of flesh tripped onto the platform.  There were 12 lithe youths wearing crotch straps and glossy metallic genitals of great and discomfiting proportions spurting yellow milk.  The young men kicked and writhed mightily before a great fat larded hulk of a woman suddenly lowered from the ceiling where she had quivered in total obscurity.  The slabs and layers of tissue were repulsive, greasy, pitted, blotched with sediment.  A great heavy bush surrounded her monstrous genitals, twitched and swayed as if in response to a foul wind or torrent from some pestilential orifice not visible but lurking, threatening from off stage.

     "This is hideous.  This is utterly repulsive.  I'm overcome."

     Desmond covered his eyes with his meaty palms and burrowed into the grain of the wood in search of refuge.  The great hulk emitted terrible suck sounds, bloated slurpings, when suddenly the prancing youths descended, clustered over her like boar bristles, poking with their shafts, spurting the yellow milk.  The outcry from the crowd, from the exhibition itself, the rutting spurting flesh, was nearly a death rattle, or the hounds of the apocalypse.  Suddenly lights appeared from nowhere to reveal the room in its entirety, even unto the darkest forbidding crevice, with magnesium intensity.  They were ALL grinning, all leering at Desmond and friends, at the 4 worthies paralyzed with extreme and total discomfiture.  And then Desmond bolted.

     Careening off the walls with loud bonks and mighty thrashing, scrabbling toward the opening, the stairwell, scratching and burrowing through the pitted miasma, the clawing assemblage.  Dolly, Mary, Creedin in hot pursuit, bolting with utter nausea and repulsion, scratching their way up the stairs over the greasy pools and encrustations.  At last on Leopaldstrasse they stood, shaking with the wrack of utter exhaustion, leaning together in mortification, distraught and helpless against the cynical eyes of the sated throng, the jaded nightwalkers, the manic predators of that doomed purgatory.

     "Desmond.  I thought for a moment we were doomed."

     "Dearest.  It was nothing.  We have fared far worse."

     "But you were the one who bolted.  You were the one hell-bent and furious.  It was you who forged a wedge through the inferno."

     "Mary Phillips.  It was merely concern for your chastity."

    "But I don't understand.  You left me there helpless."

    "As Stedman himself put it:

                      'While fat and fine my love has been,

                        Though thick or thin I'll save her skin.

                        The moon doth beam its ruddy face

                        On tiny birdlings, on disgrace.

                        She is delightful, is discrete.

                        Will take a healthy lob of meat.

                        And while I bolt from heaven's door,

                        I'll never trade her for a whore.'

     But he said other things."

     "Desmond.  You're a devil.  You're a perfect devil."

 

 

 

"Desmond.  What about Ferdie's little girl?  What about Christa?"

     Desmond felt very happy against the vinyl of the Samsonite case.

     "Well I'm not sure what to say.  What ABOUT Christa?"

     "Couldn't we go see her?  Couldn't we drive up to Frankfurt?"

     Desmond rolled over to his back and tried to see something.  With the drapes drawn there was absolutely no light or reflection to relieve the total obscurity, the darkness, the sensation of it, the texture there on the great good bed.  When they closed the words down there was darkness.  When Ferdie died there was darkness.  He had entered from darkness.  He had ended in darkness. Perhaps the immaculate rayon or pure silk lining of a handsome coffin.  Perhaps something like that was darkness.  Desmond himself had known darkness, the word with no real synonym.

     "I think we could.  We would miss something, however."

     "What would we miss?  What would we possibly miss?"

     "I'm not sure.  I think we'd miss the gang.  We'd miss the Everses."

     "But we could stay a day or a night and a day.  We could rejoin them in Paris.  We've seen Munich.  We've been on this tour before."

     "Well.  I wouldn't want to miss the smorgasbord."

     "No.  Not that.  I wouldn't like that either."

     "I just tremble when I think of the smorgasbord."

     "Yes.  It will be the high point.  I wouldn't miss that for anything."

     "Yes.  Not even for little Ferdie himself."

     "Don't say that, Desmond.  You're a devil.  You're terrible."

     Desmond tried to laugh, but it came out like phlegm—rattling.

     "Desmond.  Why don't we wait until after the smorgasbord?"

     "Yes.  There is much merit in that."

     "I mean we could have our little cake and eat it."

     "You mean Christa.  We could . . . "

     "Desmond.  You're terrible.  You're a real devil."

     They both laughed like beads in a small black gourd.

     "Desmond?  Do you think she'll be glad to see us?"

     "Christa?  I hope you don't mean the other one."

     "Yes Christa.  Do you think Christa will be glad?"

     "I imagine she will have some emotions.  Perhaps one of them will be the sort you describe.  It is very hard to anticipate such things."

     "Well I would hope she would have the emotion I referred to."

     "Yes.  If she did have that emotion I would also have an emotion."

     "Yes.  Well yes.  What would that emotion consist of, Desmond?"

     "I think I would be glad.  I think I would experience the same emotion."

     Desmond reached across the case and groped for her hand.  It was very hard to find, and when he found it, it was very cold.  He touched it, gripped it, squeezed it, reached back empty to touch his face.  His face felt like her hand, and yet it was perhaps a little moist—not clammy—pleasant.

     "Desmond.  You know Mr. Berger.  The mortician?  He did a fine job on little Ferdie."

     "Yes.  You know.  I just had the identical thought."

 

 

 

The little man in lederhosen stood on a chair and grinned with tiny white teeth.  His trimmed goatee twitched and bristled.  His fat little fingers fluttered like earthworms on a griddle.  A great curtain hung behind from a track in the ceiling, proclaiming SCHLACHTFEST in iridescent gold letters.  36 worthies sat twitching at small black tables, inhaling the fragrance billowing toward them from an overhead fan.  The little man cleared his throat, received awed silence.

     "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Oberkirchen.  Within a few dizzy pregnant minutes we will begin the quarterly Schlachtfest.  Behind this banner are the seasoned comestibles.  The Schlachtfest, or slaughter feast, known perhaps as buffet or smorgasbord to the citizens of your noble country, is in fact a feast of the slaughter first celebrated in the small town of Hinterwalden during the reign of Ludwig the Bavarian.  On a crisp spring morning in 1627 a huge and awesome miracle was recorded in that hitherto obscure little village.  A herd of succulent bovines and perhaps a dozen swine fell from the misted sky, crushed on the cobblestone of the marketplace during the height of a terrible famine.  The celebration or Fest that commenced upon the following morning was registered forever in the hearts of the Bavarian folk as Schlachtfest, or feast of the slaughter.  And now without further ado, we shall part the banner and assemble at the laden table.  Approach with reverence the spiritual essence of the munificence assembled for your hearty delectation."

     There was a pitter of applause and then hushed reverence, the curtain parting to the array of comestibles.  Dozens swooned.  Few in their lifetimes had ever experienced such bounty assembled for the ingestion by a simple, rude, perhaps ordinary gathering.

     "Ladies and gentlemen, assemble on the left.  You will find a hearty array of liver dumplings, raw potato dumplings, horse radish, white radish, broiled fresh pork, pig's feet and knuckles, blood sausage, liver sausage, white sausage, pink sausage, dark and light bread, crusty rolls, soft pretzels, sautéed onion rings, smoked ham, souse, sweet and sharp mustard, red cabbage, apple strudel, strawberry tarts, Bavarian doughnuts, apple rings, Black Forest tarts, goulash, small steaks, baked ham, bacon, ice cream, roast of beef, pork chops, noodles, carrots, peas, cucumber salad, yeast cakes, sauerkraut, herring salad, caviar, wheat crackers, shrimp, potato salad, and many other delicacies.  Inhale the heady aroma emanating from the table.  Be unafraid to gorge yourself for there is only the threat of indigestion and other gastric disorders.  Yes.  Avail yourself of this bounty."

     Desmond was at his table with a great high pile of edibles, succulent steaming sausage, glossy salads, pools of grease and nutrients trailing off onto the linen.  He hadn't eaten since breakfast and was corking himself.  Mary Phillips pinced off bits of dark bread and rolled her eyes in ecstasy.  Creedin Evers was face down into his plate, nuzzling and rooting like a beast of prey.  Dolly was mincing and mulching, holding great strings of sausage and nipping into them with obvious relish.  Above the throng of eating gnashing tourists was a great cacophony of sound—slurping, sucking, lapping, gargling, gurgling, smacking, licking, chewing, chomping, grinding—while great sprays of saliva and minced food spewed about with the lolling of their heads.  Utensils were clashing, clacking, clanging, chattering, clinking, a great clamor of concerted effort. There were huge cracks of expelled gas, rasps and titters, foul and odoriferous into the laden air.  Plates licked clean were thrust back at the buffet, piled high with comestibles, attacked with a terrible relish.

     "Desmond.  I'm on fire.  This is paradise."

     "Yes.  Well yes.  I'm just.  I'm just corking.  I'm in heaven."

     "Yes.  Yes.  The sainted udders.  The bounty."

     Desmond went running back to the table, loaded on great heaps of sausage, coils of entrails, stewed tomatoes, stacks of bread, huge clots of potato salad, heaped it high and bolted for the table, his head down into the munificence.  Everywhere utensils flew from thrashing fingers, clattered on the floor abandoned.  The gang was gorging itself, rooting, rutting, gnashing, great whoops of abandonment, sighs, gurgles, claps of wind.  Desmond was up on his chair and bending over his plate, rooting and champing off great clots of food, roaring and barking with utter exhilaration.  The buffet was clustered with citizens and patriots like boar bristles, going for seconds, thirds, losing track as they began at last to eat directly from the platters.

     "They're eating it all.  There won't be any left."

     "Oh gracious.  I'm overcome.  I can't hold back."

     "Desmond.  No.  Don't do that.  Don't humiliate me."

     Desmons Phillips bellowed like a wounded hippo and leaped for the floor.  Squatted and sprang, leaped and flexed toward the buffet, a great toad in powder blue, coiling and springing to the edge of the excited crowd.  Leaped onto the buffet full length among the comestibles, reaching about and cramming whole roasts, whole trays slimy and succulent into his mouth.  Rooted and writhed, a great greasy encrusted slab of pulsing greed, champing, chomping, munching, gnawing, gorging, glutting, cramming with total abandonment, at last a great steaming hulk coated with the encrustations of the food itself, a great smoky morsel.

     "Wait.  I'm not food.  No.  Gracious.  Don't eat me."

     "Save Desmond.  Creedin, save our Desmond."

     The sportsters leaped up on the table and began to nibble and nuzzle, to tear off small bits and swallow, to bite, to chew, to ruminate over his prostrate helpless form.  There was a huge writhing clump of slime like maggots over carrion there upon the buffet with the Schlachtfest continued in a larger dimension, Creedin and Dolly, Mary Phillips trying in vain to save their beloved friend from being devoured.  And then before it had edged over into utter tragedy, they were sprayed apart with the steaming water hoses.  Ravenous forms, bodies coiled to rend his flesh, driven off by the great torrents, crouched in corners, licking the caked remnants from their flesh.  A great hush as Mary clung sobbing to Desmond, minced and broken.  Quiet at last in Oberkirchen as the little man turned to a great hulk of a Bavarian in utter disgust.

     "It comes rarely but it comes.  The last time they had to call the mortician."

     "Yes.  Well remember.  We had OUR trouble way back with the Poles."

 

 

 

They parked off Ankergasse with the moonlight on the hood.  Desmond sat back against the leather and walnut and watched her bouffant and the stucco shop beyond.  She looked back at him, a pale wash under the frosted hair, and swung the door out to the chill of the night air and the laughter from a Gasthaus down the block.  They had seen this street in 1964 when they toured Britain and stopped over for a visit.  There was the same laughter as then, fitful like coughs, or the rattle of emphysema.  Desmond shoved the seat forward and stepped out.  Beyond the curb was the wall to the garden and the wooden gate.  Above through the trees were 2 windows flaring on vacancy like torchlights stabbed toward darkness, toward a cancelled sky or a morass of black thread wound tight around silence, like a candle in an enormous empty room, like silence itself, bright rectangles against the dark front with the sky beyond pierced by tiny apertures of similar radiance in the immensity of outer space.  Desmond knew it was about time to relieve himself.

     "Mary.  Mary Phillips.  Rap gently.   They may be asleep."

     They threaded through the gate over the concrete walk toward a low stoop under a recessed door.  There was little light and possibly no sound beyond Desmond's labored breathing.

     "Mary.  Mary Phillips.  Rap lightly.  Just a flutter."

     Mary Phillips pulled off a patent leather pump and beat the heel against the heavy wood, a great thwack and clatter sufficient to raise the dead or frighten them into sentience.  A window opened above, and a narrow bald head thrust out into the moonlight like a skull in a vat of ether.

     "We're Desmond and Mary Phillips.  We've come to see little Christa."

     The bald head clicked back out of sight.  There was suddenly laughter from down the street and someone singing in the Hessian dialect.  The bald head clicked back into view and a mottled face fringed with small tight curls.  The two stared down like harpies over carrion.

     "What do you want here?  Who are you and what do you want?"

     "We're Desmond and Mary Phillips.  We want to see Christa."

     "She's asleep.  Ingrid, Frederick's parents are in the garden."

     A third head thrust into view, long dark tresses, a pale blue face.

     "We want to see our little Christa.  We're Ferdie's parents."

     "She's asleep.  What are you doing here?  I don't understand."

     "It's the tour.  We wrote to you.  We decided to pay a visit."

     "Well come back in the morning.  It's much too late."

     "You can't just send us off.  Besides, I must make a bowel movement."

     "Well come on up, Mr. Phillips.  But make it quickly."

     Desmond Phillips was in a small tiled room leading to a balcony.  He was on the pot and had just executed an imperfect evacuation.  He was rubbing the cleft of his buttocks with a coarse brown paper and finally reaching to a great chain hung from the overhead tank.  The stool had seemed perfect, but on closer examination was rather small, and there was no instrument beyond his hands to examine the contents.  Desmond Phillips was leaning down to gather up his trousers from their puddle at his ankles when he heard the door open and a little blond girl enter in utter astonishment at the spectacle of his hefty pitted rump.

     "Oh.  It's you, Opa.  Did you have a good movement?"

     "Yes.  Well.  It wasn't what I had hoped for."

     "Well, maybe you will soon have better luck.  I hope so."

     "Thank you, little Christa."

 

 

 

Desmond Phillips was eating a large open-faced smoked ham sandwich in a very dark room.  He could see the glossy texture of the upper slice and the eyes of the others, their teeth gleaming like the reflections of the little schnapps glasses Herr Schmidt had pulled from the cupboard.  The superimposed eyes across the table were readily identified as Mary's and little Christa's, flashing, clicking in and out of view.  The only sound was his mouth on the sandwich while he worked it down a very dry throat.  They had been sitting there in the darkness for a very long time, and he could only vaguely remember the yellowed wallpaper and the threadbare furniture at the far end of the table.  He tried to summon a comment to cut the dark silence, force air through his pharynx, emit audible vibrations that might relieve a rather morbid tension that had settled after the last cheery "Prosit."

     "This is simply a corking sandwich.  I love every morsel."

     And then the silence fell like the shroud of darkness, and he sat back waiting as if at any time someone might say something horrible, something dark and terrifying, like a dead man's ticking heart in a very large room, a last gurgle or rasp in a phlegm choked throat, or a solicitation from a large vague emptiness, a request, a simple request for the last pulse of spirit soaking in the large vat with the other pickled specimens, the garish frightened sportsters dashing toward oblivion or a lack of themselves final and irrevocable, pickled ether oblivion coiling and twisting, fragments lacing off in eddies, bits of rotted flesh fuming with the solvent.

     "I had a very disappointing movement.  I COULD provide the details."

     Desmond heard the gurgle of a bottle somewhere.  Perhaps the other old man was pouring another schnapps.  He waited for the throat sound, the liquid pitter and suck.  It was so absolutely quiet against his own labored breathing that he could hear his heart, the hearts of the others, the pulsing muscles squirting blood nearly treble into the great aorta.  The heart was an ominous organ.  It really never rested until that last spasm like a thrust toward fire, that last spasm of agony when it gathered up and let go to relax forever.

     "I am happy for you."

     "Little Christa.  Come to me that I might hold you."

     He heard her coming in the darkness, the rustling against the edge of the table, the soft young feet on the hardwood, felt her at last climbing onto his lap in small taut jerks, turning to kiss his mouth so utterly soft and tender that he wasn't repulsed, that he could nearly cry with gratitude.  He nuzzled into the soft darkness of her hair and the radiance of her perfect child face, felt it feed his stone and chill, light feathers of sweet soft warmth as perfect and innocent as what he felt with Ferdie before it became embarrassing to hold him, perhaps threatening with the languor and desire it had awakened.

     "Opa.  Grandpa.  You're a perfect person.  You're my favorite friend."

     "Christa.  I wish I knew what I truly feel for you."

     "Don't you love me, Opa?  Don't you really love me?"

     "Well.  Well yes.  Well.  Yes.  I love you a bunch.  Everybody does."

     "Do you know what my daddy said about you when he got out of the hospital last Christmas?  Do you know what he said?"

     "No.  But I'm sure it was favorable.  Whisper it in my ear."

     Little Christa leaned into his face and whispered.  The sound was like rain in the evergreens toward fall when he sat on the old applecart and waited for his father to ascend with the big bay horse from the lower meadow, when the light through the trees was perfect and made him want to cry, watching it dampen the matted earth.

     "Grandpa.  He said you never loved anything in your whole life."

     "I can't hear you.  Just say it a little bit louder."

     It was very quiet and the little girl started to say something, but he couldn't hear it, could only hear the hush like rain on the gentle grass.  And then she started again and he finally made it out.

     "Grandpa.  He said you were a very good person.  He said that."

     Desmond Phillips emitted a slight sound with the feeling and pulled her into him with all that feeling and the gratitude he first felt when she kissed him, and then somebody turned on the lights.

 

 

 

In the June morning the Ronneburg rose high into soft light, high on a verdant hill.  Within those walls Desmond crept patiently along with little Christa, holding the soft moist hand.  They were in the upper story down a dank hall past ancient chests and tapestries, Herr and Frau Schmidt chattering in German, Ingrid interpreting, Mary pinched and silent, as the tour guide pointed out scabbards, lances, armor, trinkets of historical significance, the archways so low that they had to bend, and the smell of centuries, stabs of sunlight through narrow slits, motes of dust drifting, dancing in the fetid air.

     "Grandpa.  I'm bored.  I've been here twice before."

     "Christa.  Dearest Christa, we are confronting history.  The legions of beleaguered saints, royalty, artisans, that have haunted these hallowed halls, their footsteps linger in hollow rattles of chinking feet treading these soft corridors, wearing grooves in the very stone.  Be moved, be comforted.  Nothing passes into the abyss without first carving a notch in the infinite alabaster column of sainted history.  At these windows crossbows have nipped the hoary infidel with sharp pierces of redeeming pain.  We might ourselves have walked here centuries past."

     "You talk so funny, Grandpa.  Sometimes it makes me itchy."

     "This sainted castle has witnessed the birthings of whole legions of martyrs, great lusty louts that took the hammered sword into the maw of hell, the yelping hounds of the Apocalypse.  In those sainted times a mere youth, a callow boy, grew soon to hold the thirsted dagger and pierce the heart of the rudest ruffian in the league of Satan himself.  As Stedman put it:

          'Prithee waste not the sainted saber

           When at perdition the wicked labor.

           From out the fruited boundless deep

           A slot of fancy devils leap.

           Behold the muted cord of light

           That sets their wicked loins to flight.'

     But he said much more, and I revere him for it."

     "Who was Stedman, grandpa Phillips?  Who was Stedman?"

     "Stedman is and shall remain the greatest bard to ever set his sainted feet upon America, the basket of plenty for the beleaguered race of persecuted man.  Edmund Clarence Stedman, the bard of the Infinite."

     In the lower level there was a large room cluttered with bright armor.  There was a small concession of souvenirs attended by a man of gargantuan proportions and a mousy small woman with yellow teeth and a bad complexion.  The guide gestured toward these worthies, and they glittered back with rude and loutish grins.  Light stabbed through great slits over the foot worn stone.

     "Finally you will see that there are inexpensive trifles and tokens for your delectation.  I recommend the small jewel boxes, but for the hardier I would suggest the armored helmets, fashioned in good steel and perfect replicas of the headgear worn by the knights of this region back toward the dawn of history."

     "Buy me a mask, grandpa.  Buy me a shiny helmet."

     "I think they're far too expensive.  But why don't you try one on?  Sir, I am interested in one of these helmets."

     The large man settled a heavy plated helmet down on Christa's shoulders.  She nearly doubled under the weight.

     "It's much too large, little Christa.  It's meant for a grown man."

     "I suggest that the gentleman try it on.  Here sir."

     The big man set the steel helmet over Desmond's head.  There was some grunting as he finally slipped it down snug as a glove and Desmond stood in sudden twilight blinking like a myopic pigeon.  Mary grinned madly and took the camera for several shots, Desmond in heroic pose against the background of standing armor, his lemon knit jacket and maroon trousers colorful and exciting.  And then he tried to take it off.  The gargantuan man wrestled to take it off.  Desmond lay writhing on the floor as everyone assembled tried to pry the steel helmet off his head.  Desmond cried like a whipped dog with the grinding of the helmet against his temples, but nothing would take it off.  He was doomed to wear that helmet, a modern Quixote ludicrous in the coat and trousers, perhaps to the last clang of doom.

     "I think he looks nice.  I think grandpa Phillips looks really keen."

     They were on their way down the slope past staring tourists toward the brown Mercedes.  Mary Phillips was stricken, mortified, clutching for her dignity.  With the hinged visor up Desmond's eyes were clammy and feverish, two small veined orbs helpless as a mooncalf hopelessly in love.

     "Christa.  Please don't try to comfort me.  I'm humiliated."

     "Well.  Well perhaps we could find a blacksmith, dearest.  Perhaps in the next village.  You can't just wear that for the rest of the trip."

     "There's not time, Mary.  We're out for adventure.  I'll just have to wait."

     Back at the castle the huge man was chuckling over 150 Marks.  Sometimes he had taken in as many as 3 a day, and they all wore maroon pants.

 

 

 

On the terrace of Wilhelmsbad, before the magnificent spa, only the most refined of the upper middle class sat at strawberry cake and whipped cream in the shade of the large umbrellas.  There were weekend guests and those who had come for the summer to lounge sedately, to walk the paths, to climb the tiny "Snail Mountain," where royalty had frolicked centuries past, where only rarely, perhaps once of a summer, had maroon trousers pressed the elegant chairs.  And here at shortly past 3 PM, Desmond Phillips pulled up in a brown Mercedes in a knight's helmet and held the doors for a little blond girl in a green dirndl, an elderly couple of good stock, a young lady, perhaps 30, probably the mother of the girl, and an elegant looking American woman in a frosted bouffant.  There was a ripple of laughter and then genuine unrestrained mirth at the lemon knit jacket, the trousers, the helmet, the dignity of the others trying to pretend there was nothing amiss, the posture of the knight smoking a plastic tipped cigar.

     "Halten Sie uns eine Rede.  Eine Rede."

     "They want you to give a speech, Mr. Phillips."

     "Desmond.  Ignore them.  They are merely a clutch of ruffians."

     "Woher haben Sie den Helm?  Woher haben Sie ihn?"

     "They want you to explain how you came to wear the helmet, Mr. Phillips."

     "Desmond.  Ignore them.  They are a band of louts and malcontents."

     "Halten Sie uns eine Rede über Ritterlichkeit."

     "They want you to give them a speech upon the nature of chivalry."

     "Desmond.  Let's get back into the car.  I am mortified."

     "Mary.  Mary Phillips.  These people deserve some small word.  Perhaps an account of my predicament.  Perhaps an inquiry into the nature of chivalry as they have requested.  Perhaps a few words of inspiration to placate their rude and bestial souls."

     "Desmond.  If you say a word to them they will make you the butt of their impudent jibes.  If you address them, I will just die of mortification."

     "Eine Rede.  Halten Sie uns eine Rede."

     "They want you to give them a speech, Mr. Phillips."

     "It's that cursed helmet.  I told you to get rid of it."

     "Hail to thee, innocents and jesters.  There is little to say."

     Ingrid translated.  There was a patter of applause and calls for more.

     "Perhaps it was the noble hand of fate itself which placed this helmet on me."

     Ingrid translated.  There was a patter of applause and calls for more.

     "In the ancient Abyssinian country of Glück there was a great regard for the chivalric tradition.  Huge swarms of infidels were converted with the turning of the third moon in the period of abstinence, and a clot of angels dripped mighty clouds of mucid effluvia which prompted many to inscribe magnificent poems of love and adventure, mighty lyrical tributes to the noble and beatified loins and mammae of the chieftain brides and the sainted virgins themselves."

     Ingrid translated with difficulty.  A gale of applause rent the assembly, and many cried, "More."  Desmond hitched up his trousers and thumbed up the visor.  His eyes were feverish, bulging with hot veins.

     "This is despicable, Desmond.  Leave these ruffians in peace."

     "In the present land of America the tradition has been continued in the hot lusty mating ceremonies, the rutting and exuberance over the bodies of many a fecund maiden.  There is the gang-bang, for instance.  Poesy has been written, most notably, as it comes to mind, from the sainted Stedman himself, who in a hot and fiery mood of extreme longing penned these immortal lines:

           'Lo my fruity gem, radiant and fine,

            Open your limbs to let your privates shine,

            Each curvature so plump and sweet,

            So moist and subtle poised above your feet,

            That bulbous layers twitching front and aft

            Might quench my piping heart and soak my shaft.'

     There are other contributions, but let this last suffice."

     With the translation, the applause was thunderous.  Desmond Phillips bowed gratefully and turned back to his group.  Mary Phillips was hiding in the Mercedes, sulking.  Christa was dazzled and grateful.  The Schmidts were blanched and hostile, attempting to derive some small sustenance from examining the flagstones.  The crowd was screaming for more, pleading, whining for more wisdom from the knight in lemon and maroon.  Desmond walked off toward "Snail Mountain," hitching his trousers.

 

 

 

Toward dusk Desmond knifed out under the listing stucco and waited for the bouffant.  Seligenstadt crowded the narrow streets with quiet centuries numbered on the house fronts, quaint shops lighted across the cobblestone, and Desmond still in the helmet, Herr Schmidt gleaming in fading sunlight, sober and collected with his busy little wife, Mary pinched and pale as a fish belly, Christa charming and lively in the dirndl reaching a snug little hand into Desmond's fingers.  And the citizens staring, lurching from car doors at the knight errant in the lemon jacket, collecting into a sizeable crowd around the Mercedes as they finally looked up and headed for the Romische Kaiser.

     "Ingrid.  Would you inform these ruffians that the show's over?"

     "They are just curious.  They mean no harm."

     "Well.  Just remember, Desmond.  No speeches.  Not a word of explanation.  I have tired of your weary little word games."

     In the restaurant was a retired insurance executive, rather largish with a florid complexion.  He was drinking beer with some difficulty from a large plastic straw.  He was wearing dark maroon trousers and a lemon knit jacket.  He had visited a castle earlier in the afternoon and had been persuaded to try on a steel replica of a knight's helmet.  The helmet was snug, too snug.  The retired executive before a platter of succulent venison goulash, the butt of a number of rude jibes throughout the course of the afternoon, the object of much scorn and derision, and much simple curiosity, was wearing the same steel helmet much to his own embarrassment and would probably wear it to his death unless the winds of fortune put him in the way of an acetylene torch.

     "Just remember, Desmond.  No speeches.  We're here to enjoy a leisurely meal with little Christa.  Should they become rude we will leave quietly and sedately.  There will be no loutish pleasantries."

     The people in the Romische Kaiser were fairly inured to the presence of Will Oakes, the retired executive with the steel helmet.  Their mirth was unrestrained at first, but with time the novelty had subsided, leaving them content with a casual glance in Oakes's direction periodically to see if he indeed still existed, ludicrous in the garish costume.  However, when Desmond Phillips entered, their astonishment knew no bounds.  Desmond stepped into an inferno, a hot blast of hilarity that froze his soul and which he weathered only so far as to become totally apprized of the situation, that is, to encounter his double, Wilbur Oakes.

     "Sir.  I believe we are in the grip of some foul destiny."

     Will Oakes bolted from his table and trembled with fear.  It was terrifying enough to see his double, but to hear his own voice or at least a perfect counterfeit was in fact maddening, apoplectic.

     "Sir. Your habit of expression.  It ill becomes you to mimic me."

     "But it IS my voice.  And where did you acquire that headgear?  Those clothes.  Did some force of hell impel you into this room from the sodden humors of the night or am I mad?"

     "Sir.  This is a foul sense of humor or the devil himself.  I am but a poor worthy stranded in a sea of fortune.  My ship has been set adrift only to land here in this quaint little village, this simple restaurant.  This gale of laughter, this apparition.  Your person.  You are a shade perhaps, a flitting phantasm from the darkness of my maddened soul, from the pit itself."

      It was hard for either of them to make themselves understood in the torrent of hilarity produced by their confrontation, by their chagrin, the hysteria of their voices, the choppy gestures and the rhetoric which was only imperfectly understood even by those who had some command of the language and were hastily translating.

     "Sir.  You frighten me.  Retreat back into the miasma.  Leave my simple ruddy soul in peace.  Sir, I appeal in the name of the good bard Stedman, leave this mortal coil, vanish into the maw of perdition from whence you have sprung."

     "Shade, spirit, phantom.  Dare you draw upon the good name of Edmund Clarence Stedman? Must you mock me and my spiritual mentor?  I cast thee out.  Be gone, ghost, mockery of all that is honest and perfect."

     Wilbur Oakes was stricken.  He reeled back, clutching his throat.  This vampire from the dark of the abyss seemed his very double.

     "Can you know Stedman, spirit?  Then quote him."

     "I know Stedman as I know my hand.  There is not a living being on this earth beyond myself who knows the reverend bard as I before you.  If you know him quote him.  If not be gone."

     "Very well.  I quote from the 3rd revised edition:

          'The alabaster loins become

            Her purple groin, her cherry teats,

            And when I poise above the pit

            She whispers softly lines from Keats"

     Quote, yourself, or be gone."

     Desmond reeled in distress.  The phantom was diabolic.

     "Sir, I know the entire corpus.  I have committed every noble line to memory.  I am the world's authority.  I quote from the same edition, the following quatrain:

          'So softly moist her nubs retreat

            From wicked thrust and cancerous rays,

            But stipple taut they suckled thrust

            When prodder perfect ruts and sprays.'

     Sir, one of us is damned."

     "That's my favorite quatrain.  I'm going mad."

     Desmond took one last look at Wilbur Oakes braining himself on the hardwood floor and stepped out into the night.  With the door killing the din of hilarity toward muffled dissonance, he entered the street and felt himself.  He was still all there, and he wasn't mad.  He certainly wasn't going back into that restaurant.

 

 

 

At 2:30 AM Desmond Phillips nosed the brown Mercedes up toward the striped beam, sat there bathed in light as a little man in a black uniform leaned in the open window for their passports.  Mary was dozing under the bouffant, the cords of her neck like padded wire over the several chins.  The border guard with a thin black moustache reached in and saw the helmet, arched backward in hilarity, the pink roof of his mouth under the nostrils and the glossy bill of the hat.  Two heads poked out of the squat little building and came on large.  There were 3 of them in the black uniforms laughing and slapping each other's backs, the one woman like a great sack of cabbage under a bloated white face, the other man stocky and florid, possibly alcoholic.  The 3 clustered together, conferred, and the first returned to rap on the car with a light stick, to wave them from the sedan.  Desmond awoke Mary Phillips, who blinked about like a dazzled pelican and reached to her hearing aid.

     "We're at the border, dearest.  I think they may wish to search us."

     "But this is impudent.  Anyone can tell we're not felons."

     "Please cooperate, Mary.  It is but a minor inconvenience."

     Desmond and Mary Phillips entered a large room.  There was a clothes tree against the wall and a small black bench.  Desmond was waved further into a corridor and down to another room.  The little man pointed to his clothing, his jacket, the helmet.  Desmond pulled off the jacket, and the little man smiled and nodded vigorously.  He could hear footsteps in the corridor and Mary's muted voice.  Desmond Phillips sat down on a small stool and pulled off his shoes.  He heard his wife louder, now more clearly, nearly hysteric.

     "Desmond.  Save me.  These brutes want me to undress."

     "Cooperate, Mary Phillips.  It is merely a formality."

     Desmond Phillips stripped off his trousers.  The little man put each article of clothing into a large white sack.  He could hear a gruff feminine voice and his wife's bitter pleading, a scuffle, and then more pleading.

     "Desmond.  This terrible hussy twisted my arm.  Oh, it's horrible."

     "Mary Phillips.  These people are merely doing their job."

     Desmond stripped the whole way down to the helmet.  The little man tapped the steel headgear and nodded.  Desmond shrugged and yanked at the helmet as if to demonstrate he couldn't remove it.  The little man disappeared, returned with his florid partner.  Desmond squatted on the stool, a pitted mass of welts and lard, and the 2 guards wrenched and twisted at the steel but couldn't budge it.

     "Desmond.  They want to examine my privates.  Oh, it's terrible."

     "Mary Phillips.  It is a mere formality.  Please cooperate."

     "No.  They're not going to remove my little panties.  No.  No."

     "Please Mary.  Let them have their way with you."

     There was a terrible thrashing in the other room, the horrible sound of a head against concrete, flesh against cinderblock.  The 2 guards began to smirk and titter, then reached out a flashlight from a small cabinet and examined the crevices of the helmet.  There was silence in the other room, and then further thrashing and shrieking, hideous plaintive wailing, sobbing and moans so pitiful as to melt a heart of cast iron.  The guards chuckled and smirked.

     "Desmond.  I'm bare.  This hussy has battered me.  Oh the shame."

     "Please, Mary Phillips.  These people are only doing their job."

     The little man tapped Desmond on the shoulders and demonstrated with his own body that he meant him to bend and grasp his knees.  Desmond saw the partner pull on a rubber glove as he followed suit.  Desmond was afraid of this, hoped it wouldn't go that far, but at last he could feel the fingers and at last it was over.  There was still a terrible thrashing and an agonized outcry of utter desperation from the other room.

     "Desmond.  They want to poke in my places.  I'm going mad."

     "Let them, Mary.  Please let them.  It must be done."

     And then it was quiet, utterly quiet, all but the muted sobbing.  Desmond dressed slowly and followed the little man into the large room with the black bench.  There was a hippy couple there with multicolored gowns and bright frippery.  The woman was nursing a child on a bare breast, glanced up kindly for a moment and looked back at the baby with infinite tenderness.  The long- haired father smiled and reached over to take his hand by wrapping the fingers over the base of the thumb.  Desmond lifted the visor and launched his finest professional smile, and their eyes met and fixed.

     "That's some heavy threads you laid on there, my friend."

     "Thank you.  But I assure you.  It was merely an accident."

     "Man.  Don't you know.  There just ain't no accidents.  Not nowhere."

     Mary Phillips emerged from the corridor a total disaster.  She was favoring the right leg, her bouffant awry, her hearing aid dangling, the makeup—the blush and shadow—smeared and dripping.  But it was her emotional state, the total devastation of the armor, the barriers she had carefully, artfully, dutifully, erected over 6 decades now stripped, leaving her totally defenseless and broken.  Mary Phillips came over and raised an arm, let it fall, and went on out toward the sedan, great slabs of meat quivering like barrels on toward the door.

     "Mary.  My dearest Mary.  They've played you foul."

     "Man.  Don't feel bad.  They cleaned us of a whole kilo on the way from Amsterdam."

 

 

 

Toward dawn they pulled in before their hotel and cut the motor.  In the thin light Desmond opened to the powder blue cases.  A dutiful boy in red velvet clicked over the bumper and yanked them out.  And then he saw the helmet, dropped a case on his right foot, hollered in pain and confusion.  Desmond handed the keys to a second attendant, whose face was distorted with humor and the sobriety of his function.  With Mary Phillips at his elbow, her great veined fingers cold through the fabric, pincing the flesh, Desmond walked sedately, stiffly, toward the lobby.  A handful of toadies concealed their mirth but moved about the lobby and over the furniture like blood-crazed parasites.  The desk clerk nodded solemnly, turned back to quiver below the shoulders, returned a porcelain stab of obsequiousness, and asked for their passports.

     "We're with the elderly group.  I'm sure a room is reserved."

     "Yes.  But of course.  Just follow the gentleman with the cap."

     "Sir.  I have a real problem.  I can't remove this helmet."

     "Yes.  But of course.  The helmet.  Very chic.  Very pleasant."

     "No.  You don't understand.  I want someone to remove it.  This is not my accustomed costume.  I need a welder.  Perhaps a blacksmith."

     "Yes.  But of course.  We will see what must be done.  Of course."

     "To cut the steel.  The helmet must be cut open.  Do you understand?  I have no desire to continue wearing this helmet."

     "Yes.  Of course.  We will make the arrangements immediately."

     The sitting room was utterly sumptuous, crimson plush furniture around a walnut table, fine lace draperies, stained dark beams, an Oriental carpet.  Desmond sat alone with a Philly, sucking intently as if for sustenance and nurture in the aromatic fumes.  Mary, in the other room, was lying under a bright canopy, her pumps glossy on a plush blue hassock.  Mary Phillips was dreaming about a large vat filled with little boys bathing and frolicking about in slowly heating liquid, basting slowly in a gigantic crock put.  In a great adjacent room was an elderly couple, perhaps the Everses, poised before empty platters, gnashing their teeth and hollering impatiently for the first succulent morsel.  Strangely, Mary found the dream very pleasant, until she saw that the faces of all the little boys were the faces of Ferdie, and she woke shrieking simultaneously with a pounding on the outer door.

     "Desmond.  They're eating our Ferdie.  Oh, it's horrible."

     "Mary Phillips.  Dearest Mary.  It was only a nightmare."

     There was more pounding, and then a little man entered with two tanks on a steel dolly.  The little man grinned and motioned to a chair in the sitting room.  Desmond squatted and thrust his head forward for the little man to feel.  The little man chuckled and grinned and slid a large sheet of asbestos between the helmet and the back of Desmond's head.  Desmond could only see the little man's legs as he worked with the torch, could only feel the heat's intensity at last as the little man worked on him.  And then finally he felt the helmet slide off and he was free and the little man clicked out of view with the tanks.

     "What's wrong, Mary Phillips?  Why are you crying?"

     "I don't know.  I guess I'm just a silly.  Just a silly."

     "What's wrong?  Was it the nightmare?  The nightmare?"

     "No.  I was just getting used to you that way.  As a knight."

     "You mean with the helmet?  But I embarrassed you."

     "Maybe it's your face.  The way you look in that jacket.  Maybe the way you look without the helmet.  As if you were.  Well, not as dignified.  Perhaps as if you were someone a little.  Well.  No.  Let's just forget the whole thing.  You look fine."

     "Mary.  Mary Phillips.  As if I looked a little what?"

     "Well, forgive me, Desmond.  But you look a little repulsive."

     Desmond Phillips blinked rapidly and bolted for the toilet.

 

 

 

Desmond wrapped a black velvet robe against his bloated flesh, nudged white slabs forward under the lower hem into the bedroom past the rich pink canopy, over the blue plush, the white slabs nudging, poking into the sitting room and Mary Phillips at a walnut table.  A large pile of croissants, a tub of whipped butter, pitchers of rich coffee and cream, the fluted handles on the silver knives, bright china and fine mugs, Desmond entering the chair precisely and setting to it, buttering a croissant thick with the creamy yellow, sipping from the lovely pale mug, munching, pittering, sloshing draughts into his churning belly.  Mary Phillips pincing off flaky bits, nipping over the rim of her mug, eyes misted with emotion, veined fingers fluttering, scrabbling at the comestibles.

     "Mary.  For some obscure reason I'm not enjoying this."

     "Well, you're not properly dressed.  That could be it on the button."

     "Perhaps.  Yes perhaps.  Well I'd better get cracking."

     Desmond knelt at the bed and fondled his paisley tie, the good tan shirt, the pale green jacket, and the darker trousers, the good underwear.  He rose and entered each article carefully and stood at a full-length mirror attached to the closet door.  With the bare veined feet ruddy and plump, the costume didn't reach far enough for the effect he had always registered—prosperity, efficiency, command, yes, perhaps nobility—but rather seemed slightly strained, absurd, pathetic, yes, perhaps repulsive—and he knotted the tie rapidly to escape indictment from the unbiased glass.

     "Mary.  I just don't feel the tang.  I feel listless."

     "Well.  Well yes.  But you haven't pulled on your Stetsons."

     "Yes.  That is true.  Well, as I said, I'd better get cracking."

     In the lobby the sportsters were crowded over the furniture, garish in Bermuda shorts and jumpsuits, in lemon jackets, maroon trousers.  Many waved, grinned apishly, wiggled fingers and hitched trousers, patted bouffants and adjusted girdles, and at last they saw their old friends.  Creedin was working through toward them, dragging Dolly, spinning off sportsters like ten pins, a swath over the sumptuous carpet.

     "Oh, it's beautiful.  You're with us again.  With the gang."

     "Creedin.  You old devil.  Oh you little corker you."

     "Not so small but fine and fit.  Ready for action."

     Creedin was stunning in a blue velvet jumpsuit, Dolly in a sequined body shirt and pleated shorts.  The 4 embraced each other and did a little dance under the solemn eyes of the desk clerk.

     "Well.  What happened in Munich, boy?  What was the docket?"

     "Desmond.  We saw some real beavers.  And they were beautiful."

     Dolly grimaced and then giggled lightly and executed a little jig.

     "Was it topside?  Was it a beautiful moment?"

     "Desmond.  It was emotional.  It was truly emotional."

     "Oh my.  I am moved.  I am totally overcome."

     "Well it wasn't the same without you 2.  It really wasn't."

     "Well we're back.  Randy and ripe.  Fit as a fiddle."

     A cadaverous young man nipped his head in the entrance.

     "Departure in 10 minutes.  First stop at the Notre Dame."

     "Well, what else happened?  Give us the whole story."

     "Well it was marvelous.  They asked for audience participation."

     "Yes?  Oh really?  And then what happened, Creedin?"

     "Well, you won't believe this, but Dolly and I did a little strip."

     "Really?  Really?  Oh this is incredible."

     "Yes.  But that was after the pinto pony and the big black lady."

     "What was that?  What was that, Creedin Evers?"

     "Well they pretended sex on the stage.  We were all mortified."

     "And then you did a strip?  Was it the whole way?"

     "Well.  Just down to our girdles, but everyone corked themselves."

     The cadaverous young man nipped his head back in.

     "Prepare to board, ladies and gentlemen.  Thank you."

     "Well, we did a little strip too.  No really, we did just that."

     "Oh how marvelous.  Did they cork themselves?"

    "Well I don't know.  But it was terribly intense and meaningful."

     Desmond followed the others out, a cluster of cameras and other accessories in the bright sunlight.  In the bus he leaned his head against the cool of the window and tried to feel just corking, terribly happy.

 

 

 

On the steps to the 3 portals, sportsters posed for photographs.  The sky was overcast, but the gray of Notre Dame was clear and precise.   Desmond stood aside from Mary and the Everses staring at the panes of concrete toward the Seine dappled like the latter's even water.  There was a little boy in shorts and a striped jersey, blond legs flashing by the nylons of his mother in a stiff suit and beside a slender man in a blue beret.  Desmond could hear something vaguely about the statues above the arches, and then they were drifting in, a clot of color muting under the stone darkness of the interior, where, as he climbed, he could see past columns to the central vault, and where he felt the same stab that he had the last visit, and in fact every visit to Notre Dame, with the voices lost in the awesome space of that architecture, swallowed by the granite, the vault, the sportsters with their color and motion absorbed as casually as garbage dropped into the infinite bottomless ocean.  And Desmond felt with that feeling the utter helplessness in the face of its vague definition, the inability to sort it out and tag it with the right response, to reduce it to something as tiny as a pleasantry, as if in the face of an awesome hurricane or perdition itself in the guise of a terrible storm, one would remark that the weather was certainly unpleasant and relax into that assessment even when death and the inferno were impending, and even though one knew it, knew it as well as the back of one's hand or the look of sunlight on a clear day.

     "Desmond.  This is awesome.  I am utterly moved."

     "Yes. We are very fortunate to have this again."

     Desmond watched them move on past the chapels from the end of a smooth dark pew.  He felt so absolutely quiet inside, like a watch ticking in an empty stone dead amphitheater, so small, so very small looking up, upward toward the limitless space of the vault, which captured infinity so much more closely than the vault of night itself, which was certainly friendlier, more accessible, far less remote than that dizzy reach of granite upward into a much greater immensity than the immensity of the night sky or the immensity of the universe, into an immensity of spirit that frightened Desmond and yet calmed him curiously with the footsteps on the stone buried in the quiet that lay everywhere and even there in the small matchbox of his heart.

     "Desmond.  Isn't this truly splendid?  Isn't this ripping?"

     Desmond looked aside at Creedin Evers, who had crept up on him like a lizard and hissed the words as if out of a great cavern or beads in a small gourd, or a serpent's flicking tongue, communicating by the slick mucid abrasion.  Creedin's face was feverish and madly delirious with some quivering excitement forcibly generated by the absolute impossibility of any human personality or divine to make a permanent or even temporary impression upon the cold impervious architecture of the granite that thrust upward in massive dignity beyond the people who fashioned it, as if having gathered to itself in the centuries which had given it birth, a personality or presence of its own that was greater, infinitely more intense, than any of the beings who had conceived of it or given it voice in song or in the lamentations of their heart.  Poor little Creedin Evers.

     "Creedin.  I don't know what to say.  I feel very strange."

     "Desmond.  I was in this town when it was liberated."

     "Creedin.  I was just thinking that my little Ferdie might have sat right here on this very spot.  And I wished little Ferdie were here to tell me how to feel in this place, because I can't get the words right in my mind, and maybe he could."

     "Desmond.  You're turning into a poet.  You've always been a poet."

     "Creedin, I'm just about the only man in this world."

     "Desmond Phillips.  There are 10 million just like you."

     "Really?  You really think so?  You think so, Creedin?"

     "Desmond.  Take it from me.  You're everywhere."

     "Well you know.  I rather fancy that.  That's pleasant."

     "Desmond.  If I know one thing in this world I know you.  And you're all over this universe.  When you look up at the stars at night you're up there.  You're even in the toilets."

     "Creedin.  You know.  I think you put it well.  The way I feel right now in this big church.  Right on the button."

     "Well Desmond.  It's been a large thing in my life to know you."

     "Creedin?  You really mean that?"

     "Yes.  You're the only guy I ever met.  Well maybe I shouldn't say it."

     "No.  Please.  Say it, Creedin.  Tell me the whole truth."

     "Well Desmond.  You're the first guy I ever met who I could feel truly sorry for.  You're the first guy more fucked up than I am."

     "Thank you, Creedin.  That's so touching.  Thanks a lot."

 

 

 

In the Grand Galerie was hushed reverence before the Mona Lisa.  Many of the sportsters were kneeling, permitted now to rest their headlong flight through the Louvre, notching off in their little guides each worthy object signaled out for their delectation.  Desmond at the periphery dawdled before the portrait of an old man, whose eyes seemed to burn from great depths, whose sad dignity seemed utterly alien.  And yet he had seen that look on his grandfather Benjamin late Sunday evenings as the latter read from the Good Book, read and glanced up at the gathered family.  And he had never truly seen the Mona Lisa, and while he harbored utter reverence for that solitary artifact, there was a subtler solace in his inner conviction that anyone, practically anyone with a minimal training and effort, could execute a portrait of equal complexity and value.  For Desmond art was much like religion, a phenomenon you stored in large rooms and visited periodically, never something you worked at and brought into your life, for art like religion had no real pragmatic value, never helped you meet a deadline, and all Desmond had ever truly known was the long vacant corridor housing all the deadlines, a corridor that led really to no termination but rather ever past the deadlines, always past in much the same way this great long gallery housed a few truly consequential artifacts to be notched off in pursuit of movement alone and the few further artifacts that marked the stages in the pursuit.  Perhaps it was as if reverence itself was like a deadline you met and negotiated in the pursuit of progress itself toward nowhere and certainly not toward any final and irrevocable deadline, perhaps a stopover in a large alcove to be ticked off in parcels of 45 minutes.

     "Desmond.  We've seen her again.  Aren't you moved?"

     "Yes.  Utterly, dearest Mary Philliips.  But I haven't had my bowel movement."

     "Well.  Well yes.  But when it comes it will be well worth the wait."

     "Yes.  Well that certainly has merit.  Look at this old man."

     "Yes.  It's nearly repulsive.  It's utterly homely and pathetic."

     "Well.  Well yes.  But isn't there a certain quiet dignity?"

     "Desmond.  He's a ruffian.  He's a horrible nasty type."

     "Well.  Well yes.  But my grandfather Benjamin had the same look."

     "Is it your grandfather Benjamin you always talked about?"

     "Yes.  Once he went into Harrisburg to sell a porker and to buy some flowers for Dorothy Jane.  For the grave.  And he came back late, drunk as a lord, and very foul smelling.  And mother asked him if he had had a good trip and he said yes, and that he just couldn't get a flower, and mother never could forgive him that he spent all the money on liquor and women and forgot poor Dorothy Jane's grave."

     "Yes.  Well yes.  That is an utterly repulsive anecdote."

     "Yes.  Perhaps.  But I always loved old Benjamin."

     They walked on through the great corridor, Desmond dawdling at the lesser works until finally they doubled back through the Porte Denon and saw the great Winged Victory, which reminded Desmond always of chickens flailing about after the stroke of the axe.  But this time as he looked up at that monstrous spread winged marble he saw that there was a head, and he wondered how they had managed to complete the statue and was about to ask any one of the sportsters when a closer look froze him in utter horror.  The head was Mary's with the pinched lips and stone cold imperiousness under the frosted bouffant.  He blinked and rubbed his eyes, but the head was still there.  He thrashed through the crowd for Mary Phillips and seized her arm in a steel grip.

     "Mary.  Mary Phillips, look up at the statue."

     "But Desmond.  I've been looking for at least 15 minutes."

     "You don't see something strange?  Some horrible distortion?"

     "Desmond, this is my favorite statue.  There is nothing amiss."

     Desmond thrashed back and stabbed another look at the statue.  The head was gone and the whole mighty form had regained its impression on him of a thrashing decapitated chicken.

     "Mary.  I thought I saw something horrible.  Your head."

     "Yes.  Well you see.  I've often thought that I once posed for this statue."

     "But it looked repulsive.  Utterly disgusting and repulsive."

     "Desmond.  You must know.  I didn't like that.  You're not that pretty yourself."

     Creedin Evers lurched from the throng feverishly and grinned like a lobotomized child molester. He held up his little guidebook and pointed with one bloated white slimy finger at a photograph of the headless statue.  There was a large X penciled in under the printed commentary.

     "Desmond.  I've seen it.  And nobody can take that from me."

     "Creedin.  Please Creedin.  I am terribly discomfited."

     "Desmond.  Take heart.  This might be the pinnacle of our mission."

     Desmond went over to a little bench and squatted solitary, a lonely cipher in the welter of garish forms flitting about X-ing their guidebooks, crowding the entrance to the next section like iridescent maggots swarming toward carrion.

     "Desmond.  We're going to see her again.  The Venus de Milo."

     "Well.  We have that at home on the mantel, Mary Phillips."

     "Yes.  But this is the original.  And ours doesn't even keep good time."

 

 

 

Past noon they ascended the Eiffel Tower, a crowded clot in the big car, climbed to the second level.  The sportsters rallied to the edge and ogled the misted city, cameras clicking off choice shots, murmurs of excitement and delectation before they entered the restaurant and sat down to coq au vin.  It was nearly miraculous to enjoy such sumptuous delectables together with the magnificent view, to wield the stainless cutlery over the morsels, the comestibles soaking in the tangy sauce, to hear the magic suck of corks drawn from fruity bottles of vin ordinaire as they chattered and grimaced, grinned and tittered, fluttered meaty fingers, nibbled and minced.  But for Desmond the experience was disgusting, lacking a certain zest.  And the hearties hovering aloft and mulching seemed ravenous, birds of prey, garish predators over the flesh of innocent fine clucking cacklers, once plump and radiant, preening before some lusty rooster, now minced and shredded, thrust mutilated into the cold and viscous mucid orifices of jackals, hyenas, vultures writhing in outlandish garb with gustatory rapture, varicose larvae grubbing rot and corruption, leeching vital juices, chomping and gnashing the putrid rank effluvia of their carnage, mindless and indifferent, privy alone to the stark rapacity of their limitless greed.  Desmond bolted from the room.

     "I think it's his bowel movement.  Otherwise why so sudden?"

     "Yes Mary.  Lend your complete attention to this succulence."

     "Creedin?  Don't you feel he's a bit out of sorts?  I mean Desmond."

     "Yes.  Well yes.  I have detected the taint of morbid humors."

     "Could you possibly look for him?  Attest to his well being?"

     "Yes Mary Phillips.  In fact I had that in mind."

     "Could you observe his mien for the slightest irregularity?  And then report?"

     "Mary Phillips.  You can place absolute trust in my mission."

     Creedin Evers entered the small lavatory and paused at the second booth.  The tiled chamber was otherwise totally empty.  Creedin could make out none of the accustomed sounds of such labors and tried the handle.  The booth was locked tight.  Creedin knelt to all fours and peered beneath the steel panel.  There were two sets of feet.

     "Desmond.  Desmond Phillips.  Is that you in there?"

     There was no answer.  Creedin Evers reached up to the top of the panel and secured a tight grip.  He scrabbled noisily upwards to peer over the edge.  There was a large fat man in a blue beret on the porcelain pot, certainly not Desmond.  He was bent over in a suspicious manner before a rather emaciated looking bald man, whose face, twisted up and around to view the intrusion, was filled with utter sickness and guilt.

     "I'm sorry to bother you folks but have you seen Desmond Phillips?"

     "Morris.  Tell that imbecile we want some privacy."

     The man called Morris looked up and grinned feebly, motioned for Creedin to remove himself.

     "You'll just have to wait your turn, good man.  Broderick is first in line."

     Creedin Evers scrabbled down in utter mortification at the full weight of the scene's perversity.  He examined the empty booth and went on out toward the open parapet where tourists gathered at the edge to point excitedly at the magnificence of Paris, the utter grandeur of familiar sights seen from this steel crow's nest.  Over off by himself was Desmond Phillips, his arms embracing a great steel girder.  His eyes were teary and fogged.  He took no notice of Creedin or Creedin's distress.  He was too busy nuzzling and licking the great rivets.

     "Desmond.  There is a succulent dinner within.  We miss you."

     "Creedin.  Leave me in peace.  Leave me to suckle these rivets."

     "But Desmond.  Your coq au vin.  Come in and enjoy TRUE succulence."

     "Creedin.  Coq au vin is a mere minced chicken drowned in its own effluvia.  This tower has straddled the mighty earth since 1889."

     "Well yes.  There are small creature comforts to be enjoyed by even the most harried spirits.  I would imagine that the texture of that steel, while pitted and scabrous and certainly to a more refined sensibility, obnoxious and repulsive, offers some small sustenance, a vague balm, some nurture for your weary spirit."

     "Yes.  Well yes.  And think of this, Creedin.  Just consider this."

     "Well yes.  The abrasive quality of pure metal perhaps."

     "Not just that, Creedin.  I haven't been this hard in 35 years."

 

 

 

For Desmond the overall impression was as if they had sunk the coffin in a great vat.  The porphyry's luster was the radiance of coral in the lower depths.  And the figures watched in silent homage as if for the first stir of resurrection.  There was no spiritual presence but rather the force of personality, the Emperor returned to the womb to rest beneath the great dome, which, had that element existed, would seem to provide the vault for a benign master who for some lapse in the affairs of men had decided to relinquish control and let the simple minions of the earth burn in their own lust for the vacant throne.  The element of supreme greed and intelligence under the red stone held in the sealed containers, held tight lest that figure emerge to storm the earth again, to offer millions up to the conflagration of his own dark soul, to strut magnificent for a flicker in boundless time and then return to ashes, return to this monument to the utter frailty and grandeur of the human spirit.  Perhaps the lack of the spiritual in Invalides was the very real and tangible element that drew so many to return to gaze from the parapet down to Napoleon's entombment, that force of personality which seemed so much to transcend spirit or at the least to burn its own dark imprint into that vague radiance which knew no real locus, no density, no focal point other than in the vague presence of figures of a different sort, Christ, Krishna, Gautama, whose impact was that lack of focus or personality itself, omnipresent, murky and serene in the deluge of human speculation that would seek their definition.  Desmond, ruminating to this effect, moved on toward a more immediate source of spiritual travail.  He had been stopped up horribly for nearly a week.

     "Desmond.  Don't lean out that way.  You frighten me, dearest."

     "Mary.  Mary Phillips.  When am I going to have my bowel movement?"

     "Well.  I don't know.  Perhaps if you would flex your legs a bit."

     "That never works.  I haven't been so clogged up in several months."

     Over by the edge of the embolism, the clot of sportsters, was Creedin Evers in a solemn heroic pose.  He had removed a beret from the pocket of his jumpsuit and was holding it over his heart.  His lips were mouthing silent tribute, perhaps a prayer of supplication to the fallen hero.  Dolly was off to the side in the body shirt and shorts, her knotted hands clasped in reverence for the noble Colonel, her helpmate, her supreme lord and master, her bridge partner, Creedin, her lover and husband.

     "Just look at that, Desmond.  Have you ever seen greater emotion?"

     "Never.  Never in all my 65 years on this blessed planet."

     "Desmond.  You look absolutely peaked.  Why don't you flex a bit?"

     "Mary Phillips.  I'll give it a try over in that alcove."

     Desmond Phillips entered a hushed chamber designated for the repose of several generals of the Napoleonic era.  Aside from a few diminutive children he was quite alone.  Desmond Phillips squatted and stood, squatted and stood, squatted and bounced on the balls of his feet like a great green toad in the Stetsons.  He leaped about flexing, holding a precarious balance, working up a sweat, the strain against his abdomen evidenced by the great heaving grunts and spasms which were at first a delightful spectacle for the few children and at last a source of concern.  For they scooted out and returned with several adults, perhaps relatives, perhaps teachers, perhaps sitters of a sort, who stood in absolute amazement as Desmond heaved and squatted about, much as if the stone were fiery hot and he were delaying certain death by superhuman last ditch effort.  At last the young man summoned to this display came forward and laid a hand on Desmond's pulsing shoulder.  Desmond Phillips paused a bit and looked up with feverish eyes and a weak mucid smile, panting like a long distance runner into an oxygen mask, apparently delirious and in great distress.

     "Pardon me, sir.  I assume you are an American.  Isn't this true?"

     "Yes.  My name is.  Desmond Phillips of Nullyburg.  I was formerly.  An insurance executive but am now retired.  My favorite poet is the late.  Edmund Clarence Stedman and I have a simply ripping.  Collection of U. S. commemoratives.  My wife.  Is Mary Phillips."

     "But are you in distress?  Should I summon a physician?"

     "No.  Not at all.  In fact I'm simply corking.  I'm fit."

     "But why are you making these exertions?  These horrible thrashings?"

     "It's simple.  I'm flexing.  I do this periodically."

     "Oh yes.  Well I suppose it's a form of exercise."

     "Yes.  That's it.  That's it on the button.  You see.  It's simple."

     "Yes.  Well I suppose this is some sort of regimen."

     "Yes.  It keeps me fit.  It's really corking."

     Desmond squatted and lurched away toward the parapet like a great wounded toad, trailing saliva.  The Frenchman turned to the 3 children and shrugged his shoulders.

     "Why is he squatting and jumping so, Mr. Philippe?"

     "I'm not sure.  It's very strange.  He is forced to exercise by some regimen."

     "I know, Mr. Philippe.  I know what he's doing."

     "What's that, little Jacques?  What is the poor man doing?"

     "He's an astronaut.  But he's a little old.  But he doesn't want to quit.  And so he hops like that.  He keeps hopping, hoping they won't make him quit."

     "Well this is possible.  But I think it is something else."

     "What is that Miss Colette?"

     "Well perhaps he is an addict of heroin.  He experiences withdrawal."

     "No.  I don't think so.  I think he is an old astronaut."

     "Well, I know when I do that what makes the problem."

     "What is that, little Michelle?"

     "I do that when I must go to the bathroom.  I think maybe he has a load in his pants.  I think maybe a big load.  A very big one."

     "Well.  We'll never know.  We'll never know for certain."

     "Mr. Philippe.  Why are the Americans so silly?  They dress so peculiar and they talk and move so unusually.  It makes me feel so strange when I see them with their cameras, big and red in the large shorts."

     "Well.  America is a very young country.  I think it may be the immaturity."

     "And maybe the mind.  Maybe they have a big load in the mind."

     "Michelle.  This is a very serious accusation."

     "Yes.  I suppose.  But I heard one at the Tour d'Eiffel say that to a big one just like that.  He said, Morris, you're a real shit-head.  And the other man smiled and thanked him, and everyone thought it was a compliment."

     "Well yes.  Every people has its pride.  Even the Americans."

 

 

 

Desmond from within edged backwards from the glitter of the interior, from the garish motes flitting in the whore's belly, edged to the steps and descended, always backwards, until the whore became a grand lady, pristine-white against the night, breasts or fingers, certainly extensions of the earth itself upward, ever upward in some wholly realized attempt to humanize the darkness and belie the womb within, that gaudy welter of iridescent forms that crashed together and apart like cymbals of hammered bronze to the belly-dancer-twitching-heart of the central space.  Edged ever backwards alone to the 3rd landing, Paris of another womb lying in uterine splendor beneath the vertical vault of night and sidereal immensity.  That clutter of incandescence contesting for supremacy with galaxies and great stars reeling in drunken splendor, frozen so eternally distant and fixed, mute and remote, unfeeling in mathematical symmetry and precision, held immutable and serene above the lesser flicker, and yet wholly dancing, so far from Desmond Phillips who was having terrible stomach cramps and was in no small distress.

     There was yet another dance against the silence, dark tresses and white flesh symmetry moving against the silence of the night and the silence of the lute and the silence of Desmond's heart, the latter a scuttle in the matchbox there on the steps below before the glowing lights, the sea of garish incandescence, form in motion, symmetry in flux, that held him suddenly as if in déjà vu, for had read that passage from Ferdie's book.  And perhaps Ferdie was ever there to witness control and abandon, and perhaps it was all fixed and fluid, flux and symmetry, on the steps of Montmartre, all a great masterpiece created to roll on eternally in his own private booth, to view and enter eternally once the blade rent on through the fabric of utter possibility and left it all determined, left it to reel forever in the private viewing booth of his very heart.  And perhaps there was a frozen instant when it all became accessible to the great and small alike, to the grand as well as the lowly of the earth in that frozen moment when the feeling stopped and spirit began.  For Desmond at this precise moment it was all in his lower colon.

     "Desmond.  This is utter majesty.  I am moved beyond human capacity."

     "Yes.  It is splendid, Mary dearest.  I just wish I felt better."

     "Desmond.  That radiance is Paris.  Imagine.  This is the real thing."

     "Yes.  It is very real.  But I think I'm losing my mind."

     "Desmond.  Be practical.  Take a sound laxative as soon as the opportunity arises.  But brood no further.  This is the pinnacle of our lives.  We are at the center of the utterly munificent culture of Western civilization, the most humane and monumental of population centers.  This is the gem of human tradition, the citadel, the womb.  This is Paris.  This is paradise.  Live for that, Desmond.  Relax.  Enjoy yourself."

     "Mary.  Mary Phillips.  I simply must get rid of this load."

     Desmond felt the grip of a slimy hand upon his meaty left shoulder.  In the twilight dance of light, Creedin Evers squatted at his side and stared feverishly and intensely into his pupils, his tongue lolling, a rat stool bit of candy adhered to his mucid chin.  Creedin Evers was in all probability thrust head first into the very loins of Mother Pleasure herself, soaking in the viscous convolutions of healing balm.

     "Desmond.  This is it.  This is the one we've been waiting for."

     "But I feel listless, peaked.  I lack the tang, the zest."

     "Well wait till Pigale.  Wait till we see those beavers."

     "I don't want to see any beavers.  I don't want to see anything."

     "Would you like a mint?  A genuine Tic Tac mint to set you free."

     "I don't want to be set free.  I don't want anything.  I feel listless."

     "Desmond.  You're becoming absolutely depressing.  Please, Desmond."

     "I don't want a mint.  I don't want a succulent dinner.  I don't want a floorshow.  I don't want anything."

     Creedin Evers reached carefully around Desmond's neck and gripped it in a steel lock.  Desmond bellowed in pain. Creedin Evers shook out a white rat stool mint on his lap and picked it up and thrust it in Desmond's mouth.  Desmond Phillips spit it out and started weeping.  Creedin Evers stood up and shrugged his shoulders.  At the bus below Dolly waved from the sportsters who had clotted to enter like a kind of gaudy parasite undermining a healthier creature.

     "Desmond.  We're leaving now.  We're going to leave you alone."

     "No.  Don't leave me.  Don't ever leave me alone.  Please don't."

     "Then behave yourself.  Be positive.  Be affirmative or we'll leave you."

     "Let me have a mint.  I want a Tic Tac mint right now."

     "That's better.  That's the spirit.  Come on.  There's still a lot ahead."

 

 

 

The sportsters dined on Chateaubriand.  On the stage were a dozen young ladies in frilly red panties, garters, pumps, and stockings, working up a great sweat flailing their legs in a can can.  Around the low large room were squat arched mirrors draped in red velvet.  Totally nude women, youngish, hung in great gilt cages.  The welter of forms and color, multiplied by the mirrors, glittered garishly under the chandeliers.  The noise was awesome, the orchestra, the strutting maidens, small raps and pitters, a mighty drone of conversation, clashes of dinnerware, the mincing and mulching of teeth, all contending as the sportsters glanced about feverishly with lolling heads at the pinnacle of euphoria.  Desmond alone was silent, minced his food listlessly, stared down at puddles of broiled effluvia, glossy shallow pools, Desmond somber in a dark blue jacket with iridescent lapels, a white carnation stuffed tight like an occluded eye above his pack of Phillies.

      "Desmond.  This is it.  This is the one we've waited for."

     Creedin was popping boiled potatoes in, chomping and grinding, spewing flakes of parsley, clots of celery, squirts of saliva and other effluvia.  His "butch" haircut was dotted with small flecks of potatoes, his hands white and slimy, streaked with broiled blood and greasy effusions.  Everywhere about him sportsters lunged at their food with similar abandon, the air above the tables misted with juices, bits and shreds of comestibles.  Creedin grinned madly with clotted teeth and thumbed his slimy fist at the pressed genitals, thumbed at the dangling flesh, thumbed at the Chateaubriand.

     "Desmond.  This steak is simply corking.  It must be corn fed."

     "Desmond.  You're not eating.  You promised you'd be affirmative."

      Mary Phillips was pincing off small clots of flesh with crenulated lips.  In the dark satin ball gown her dugs thrust forward, creased and pimply like elbows of corrugated pipe under the knobby chest.  The cords in her tensed neck protruded like piano wires.  Her eyes were like small nuggets of anthracite coal, her fingers like arthritic centipedes over the elegant plate.  Mary Phillips was absolutely stunning and knew it.

     "Desmond.  One of those beavers has red hair and a big dark mouth."

     "Creedin.  You're becoming perfectly obscene.  You devil you."

     Dolly Evers was radiant in a fancy crinoline party dress with a large blue bow.  It was her daughter's graduation dress in 1957 and a perfect fit.  The plunging neckline revealed 2 meaty mammae, crinkled and tender.  They might have been soaked several months in formaldehyde to procure such luster and sexuality.  Dolly's eyes were two mucid sapphires, quivering and blinking independently of each other like bumper lights on a pinball machine.  Her teeth were white and sharp.  She was very happy.

     "Desmond.  Liven up, boy.  What do you think of that meal?"

     Desmond closed his eyes very tight and bellowed like a wounded steer.  The sound startled adjacent tables but was fairly well absorbed in the general din.  Desmond bellowed again, much like a pregnant hippo juking rifle shots, and rattled the chandeliers.  The dance troupe faltered, regained their composure, and went on bravely, flashing succulent thighs and staining their panties.  Creedin reached a greasy maggot hand across the comestibles and chucked Desmond under the chin.  Desmond opened wide his occluded eyes and snapped them shut and bellowed.  The sound was so utterly grim and cacophonous, so hideous in texture and volume that it reached out like a great fist and swatted whole tables of sportsters with mighty thunderous vibration.  It dislodged several of the cages and sprayed a dozen tables with plaster.  The dance troupe froze in utter paroxysms of horror at that diabolic onslaught.

     "Desmond.  You're just spoiling it all.  You're making a nasty scene."

     "Desmond.  Please don't bellow like that.  It's absolutely depressing."

     Desmond Phillips bellowed a final mighty goat cry dissonance that laid waste the closest tables and dislodged another cage.  The utter volume and abrasion of that lusty yammer and din was so awesome and noxious that many feared for their own sanity and fell absolutely hushed before the mighty and august instrument of that terrible deluge.  In that hush and silence even the pulse of many an artery against a tight girdle was audible, even the small murmur of stomachs squishing in peristalsis, the very treble of the piping blood itself—all audible in stone dead hush and silence.

     "Desmond.  For God's sake.  What is it, man?  What's the problem?"

     "Creedin.  The wine.  It's absolutely splendid.  It has the proper bouquet, the consummate texture and body of such fine Bordeauxs.  In fact this wine induces within me paroxysms of utter euphoria and delight, ripples of extreme titillation and exquisite raptured tingling, heady voyages into warmth and splendor, from the very tips of my Stetsons to the apex of my wiry hair.  This is a Bordeaux.  It is the utter perfection of wine, the mistress and empress of all spirits.  It is in itself a spirit, a touch of the divinity, the majesty of the sainted Mother herself, a wellspring of sustenance and munificence that knows no bounds, only pure rapture, utter delight, the metaphysical union of wine and palate, the zest and tingle, the total rhapsody that pushes to the absolute frontier of human transcendence, leaving us sated but fulfilled."

     "But for God's sake then, Desmond.  What's the problem?"

     "Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  I feel utterly corking."

     "But why the hideous cacophony, those monstrous bellows?"

     "Suddenly I knew it all.  I had no other way of expressing it."

     "What is it?  What did you find out, Desmond dearest?"

     The hush was profound, as 36 waited with baited breath.

     "I knew it all my life, it was so very simple.  And yet we never guess.  And it's that simple.  The secret of the universe, the key to existence, the central motivating force, the portal to paradise, the cool sweet resolution of the central enigma, is a very common process hitherto neglected.  But I'm not going to share it with you.  I'm going to surprise you."

     "Desmond.  Please let us know.  Desmond.  We need to know."

     "Yes.  Everyone needs to know.  Please, Desmond."

     "Desmond.  Please, man.  What is it, man?  What is the key?"

     In the tumult Desmond stood and grinned.  He thumbed his nose, hitched his trousers, and strode majestically, imperiously, out the door.

 

 

 

Desmond worked for 3 hours but it finally came.  And, kneeling at the toilet, he observed the result.  There were particulars, but it was more a general impression of succulence and utter purity, which moved his heart to tears.  It was very probably the most beautiful artifact he had ever confronted.  Desmond Phillips reached into the cold water and hefted it.  He was certain there was nothing unusual about the weight or indeed the texture.  The mass of it in configuration or fragrance or in any other quality was indeed toward the norm.  And yet Desmond cherished this product of the chemistry of his aging body, had awaited it, this very mass, all his life.  And it was sufficient unto itself, yet it was particularly gratifying that he knew as well its place in the affairs of men, and in particular his own constricted life.  Desmond Phillips kissed the mass of it and nuzzled it to his face.  There was a particular essence, a crystallization or density of all the tangled threads of his life in this one mass and the pure delight it afforded him.  Desmond broke off a small clot and massaged it carefully into his face, checked his image in the bathroom mirror.  He had never appeared more handsome, more serene.  Desmond worked the whole mass of it into careful clots and worked them into the other areas of his body until at last even his very hair and ears were anointed with the blessed effluvium.  The pure unsullied nutrients entered every pore and pit, every crevice of his aging body, filled him with bliss and serenity, a voluptuous tingle unto his very toenails.  He entered the bedroom.

     Mary Phillips was seated at the vanity, primping her aging face.  She was wearing a stunning flesh-toned nightgown, which bared her perfect and immaculate cleavage.  She expressed mild surprise at his entrance, trailing the effluvium in dark tracks over the carpet, and yet she turned with utter ardor and composure to greet him with the following sentence:

     "Desmond Phillips.  You're all covered with shit."

     Desmond knew that she loved him, knew that this moment would be sustenance for them throughout their lives.  He walked majestically across the carpet and attempted to embrace her.  For some unfathomable reason, she eluded his grasp and melted toward the door, totally unruffled, totally loving, and perhaps inviting him to some euphoric and delectable assignation beyond their chambers, perhaps an Old Fashioned at the bar, perhaps a rubber of bridge with Creedin and Dolly.  And while he sought to prevent her exit he knew that perhaps it was for the best under the circumstances.  Desmond took one last look in the vanity and admired his form, his mien, the utter virility and sensuality of his appearance, clots of hair twisted into peaks with the effusion.  He entered the corridor.

     "It's horrible.  He's covered himself with excrement."

     Desmond met many familiar faces in his pursuit of Mary Phillips down the plush corridor.  Strangely, they nudged out into the corridor and disappeared with some agitation, perhaps stunned by the utter pristine otherworldly beauty of his coated body.  Mary was gone finally, and yet he knew they would soon meet again, perhaps in the Everses' chambers.  In fact he stopped and rapped, rapped and waited.  Creedin Evers certainly would be the first to congratulate him. He would be absolutely overwhelmed with praise and enthusiasm.  In fact there was Creedin now through the crack.

     "Creedin.  I love you.  I love everything on this earth."

     "Dolly.  He's covered himself with shit.  He's a great walking turd."

     And strangely the door snapped shut and no one would answer further rapping, and it was necessary to go elsewhere in search of his destiny, to thumb for the elevator and descend to the lobby, to cross the floor toward those stunned, startled faces which kept disappearing mysteriously with some agitation, greeting his approach with such unfathomables as:

     "God.  He's covered with shit.  Oh God, keep away from us."

     Even in the bar there was no one who appeared permanent.  They all started quickly, short jerky movements and headlong flight.  All that was needed was an embrace, and he would seal the union that was so necessary in life now that one was rubbed down and anointed, purified, so to speak.  Desmond entered the street, the wide boulevard, in pursuit of the one person in the world among this welter of forms who would afford him that embrace.  He was continuously surprised by a scattering, an avoidance and startled vociferation.

     "Look at that.  Oh God, keep away from me."

     "Look at that.  He's naked.  Oh he's covered with shit."

     Desmond strutted majestically down the center of the boulevard, dazzled by the glitter of lights and the flashing people crowded off to the edge from his path.  He walked on, confident and hopeful, full of serenity, until he heard the shots and turned back.  There along the curb was a fine young man, a policeman firing warning shots in the air, urging that he stop.  Perhaps this was the impending union.  He would embrace that young man with the startled face turning into fear as he came on slowly, majestically, tensing each leg in utter grace.

     "Halt.  Come no further.  Don't touch me.  Hold back.  Arret."

     "I love everything.  I love everything in this whole world."

     "Stand back.  Don't touch me, sir.  I must take you to headquarters."

     The little man's face was nearly frightening.  What went wrong?

     "I am Desmond Phillips.  I love you, sir.  I love everything."

     "Arret.  Halt.  Come no further.  I tell you.  Stop."

     The little man fired 3 shots into Desmond, who tottered and lurched forward onto the cobblestone.  The little man stood wringing his hands and screaming, but Desmond was only aware that there were two utterly black sliding doors coming in from right and left to pince off the cobblestone, which grew brighter brighter brighter, a radiant piercing slit with no ending, a dazzling slit of cobblestone among utter silence that cleaved his head, his body, in half with total brilliance like the very force of light itself, so pure and holy that he died weeping in utter rapture.

     "You should have halted, sir.  Oh Jesu, why didn't you stop?"

     Over in the darkness Morris Codish, a very big man in a beret, lit a Philly.

 

 

 

Dolly and Creedin were in the sitting room when the doctor came out.

     "I've given Mrs. Phillips a strong sedative.  She should sleep profoundly."

     "Well yes.  Well we'll wait out here until morning.  You can trust us."

     "Well she shouldn't be alone.  This has nearly broken her."

     The little fat man nudged out the door, and they stabbed each other looks of commiseration.  Dolly was still handsome in the morning coat, her curlers jutting out from the tight scalp like a string of pink grenades.  Creedin, fully dressed, was meaty and solid in the lemon knit jacket, the immaculate trousers.  They sat on the velvet plush and held hands, smiled bravely.

     "I think I had better go in to her.  Just to make certain."

     "Yes.  Well yes.  If you need me just give a little holler."

     Within the bedroom Mary Phillips was rigid under a satin spread.  The bouffant sat precisely over her reclining head like a wad of spun glass.  Her face was ghastly white and strained, her eyes like small iridescent beads feverish toward the canopy.  She was gripping and relaxing the upper fold of crisp linen with her spotted pincing hands, emitting small pitiful moans in the twilight.  Dolly Evers sat down at the edge and took one taut twitching hand and held it in her lap.

     "You must sleep, dearest Mary Phillips.  You must sleep."

     "It was so utterly mortifying.  The poor dear there in the open street."

     "Yes.  But he's so very happy now.  There are no more disappointments."

     "But why did it have to be so utterly repulsive?  Such lack of dignity."

     "Mary.  Mary Phillips, dearest.  He was only acting out the role to which he was assigned since the first pulse of Creation 30 billion eternities past when it was all written down irrevocably in the great sealed book."

     "But he was covered with excrement.  In the open street like a perverse porker rutting in his own slime.  I shall never live down this spectacle."

     "Well, it's over, Mary dearest.  There is no more pain for him.  Desmond is resting with the greatest saints and martyrs of this blessed earth.  He is enshrined irrevocably in the hearts and souls of all who knew him.  Desmond was a leader, a poet, a sensitive and refined spirit.  This last ordeal was merely a lesson for all of us to take heed and consign to the pulsing warmth of our harried hearts.  Even the most noble of creatures is mortal, is infused with frailty, can be broken upon the rack of his own sensitivities."

     "But he was covered with faecal matter.  The embarrassment."

     "Desmond was the prince of men.  We all loved him.  Let none of us judge him.  Let us remember the fine wrought fire of his inner spirit."

     Mary Phillips was weeping a small dry scuttling insect sound on the sumptuous mattress.  Mary Phillips was broken.  She was feeling as much pain as within her capacity to experience, as her atrophied emotions would permit.  And the dry scratchings in the matchbox were not enough, not even the absolute rigidity of her body taut within the linen, not equal to the pain she felt justified to experience could it ever filter through the steel shell she held against it after 62 years of numbing attenuation, erected with the growing death that she had always cultivated to prevent the larger death, the insensitivity building toward a pervasive rigidity and torpor she regarded as her strength, her invincibility, her cogency.  Mary Phillips hadn't felt anything very much, not anything very subtle, tender, moving, not any pain or discomfort, anything particularly disquieting or alarming, distressing, in fact anything particularly beautiful or ugly for several decades, felt it more than a numb dissatisfaction or a greatly attenuated warmth in over 30 years.

     "Leave me, Dolly.  I want to be alone with this suffering."

     "Well yes.  Well we'll be in the other room.  We'll stay by your side."

     "You're a real lady, Dolly.  You're a princess.  I love you."

     "Well, Mary Phillips.  Everybody loves you.  This whole world loves you."

     "You really think so?  Do you think anyone really loves me?"

     "Mary Phillips.  This whole universe loves you.  They root for you."

     "But how can you tell, Dolly Evers?  How can you possibly tell?"

     "I can't say.  I just feel it.  I feel it everywhere.  I feel it here in this bedroom.  In the street.  Even on the toilet.  I know within the capacity of human-kind to know anything that you are loved.  That you are totally loved.  That you are one of our children and we love you."

     "But what about Desmond?  How can I go on without my Desmond?"

     "Mary Phillips.  You have the whole universe.  You don't NEED Desmond."

     "Yes.  I see.  I think I see what you're getting at.  Good night, Dolly."

     "Yes.  Good night, Mary.  I'm going to kiss your forehead.  Will you mind?"

     "No.  I think not.  Yes.  Please kiss my forehead.  A dry kiss."

     "Yes.  Perfectly dry.  You won't catch any germs.  I promise you."

     Dolly kissed the paper-dry forehead and walked out to Creedin, who was picking his nose carefully and rubbing the deposit off under the bottom drawer of the vanity.  Mary Phillips in the other room was totally alone under the canopy.  She sensed somehow that there was still an order and regularity in the universe, that there were still little tagged boxes for the emotion when it finally came filtering through the shell.  And yet she would miss him within her capacity to miss anything, would miss his pitted, his florid hulk, his deathless optimism.  She tried very hard to scream but had to be satisfied with a dry tepid whimper, and that sound had a lack of sound as she reached for the Samsonite case.  Dolly Evers in the sitting room took a red plush seat and started to cry.

 

 

 

The sky was vacant, drizzling, as the cab pulled into a side street and nosed in toward the curb.  Creedin, bulky in a tan military raincoat, slid out and skirted the bumper, offered an arm to Mary Phillips struggling onto the curb.  The imposing front was in panels of imitation onyx that reflected the taxi and their forms bleary over the curb.  They entered neatly, clicked through a foyer toward solemn music and decayed flowers over the taint of rotting flesh, over that cloying putrefaction, an imposing electric organ stabbed by a sallow young man with yellow teeth.  The carpet was dark brown plush.  The walls were red sateen with black crepe borders over the silhouetted furniture where several sobbing couples sat squat and formidable along the wall.  A gaunt shell of a man, perhaps 50, perhaps ageless, held immutable in a film of formaldehyde, the flesh leathery and moist, scabrous on a sac of pus, thrust a claw toward Mary and escorted her to an adjacent office with the organ muted, to a fine imitation leather bench before a great desk, a slab of mahogany sheen with black cube weights scattered over paper wrinkled like flakes of dried skin.  The grin came—a mass of perfect teeth against the brown lips—and the fingers fluttered on the glossy wood, stabs of vellum and bone in the relative silence.

     "Yes.  Well there is only the mere formality of the papers.  And of course you will wish to arrange payment.  But it is very simple."

     "Mrs. Phillips will repay you handsomely, I'm sure."

     "Well yes.  Of course.  But there will be the papers.  The signature to guarantee the requisite reimbursements.  And we will need to know where to ship the remains.  It is all perfectly regular and simple."

     "Send poor Desmond back to Nullyburg.  To the Foster Funeral Home on 6th Street.  I believe the address is 285 6th Street, Nullyburg."

     "Yes.  Of course.  But most of the work will be done here.  We are fully equipped to meet all the requirements of the North American culture.  The restitution of the appearance of breathing vitality.  And of course this requires some ample expenditure.  I believe, however, we can hold the total sum, including shipment, to $6,000.  Will this be satisfactory, Mrs. Phillips?"

     "Yes.  But of course.  I think we should do our best by Desmond."

     "Now then.  Here are the official papers.  Now.  Please.  The passport.  Thank you.  Yes.  And the precise hour of the death, Mrs. Phillips?"

     "1:30 AM.  I believe that is correct.  Creedin?"

     "Yes.  I would say so.  Will there be any further questions?"

     "No.  I have the police report and the passport.  I just need the signature."

     Mary Phillips signed at the base of a heavy mucid sheet.  Her signature had not altered since her sixteenth birthday.

     "And the statement of agreement?  For the remuneration.  The pledge?"

     "Yes.  Of course.  Let's just get this terrible business over."

     "Now.  Is there any desire on your part to view the deceased, Mrs. Phillips?"

     "No.  Gracious no.  Not at all.  Not until the viewing in Nullyburg."

     "Mr. Evers.  Would you like to view the deceased, sir?"

     "Yes.  In fact.  Yes I would.  I'd like to have one last look at our Desmond."

     Creedin Evers followed the leather sac, the jerking bones, back a long corridor into a small white room.  The light was brilliant over a white shroud, dazzling and painful.  The mortician smiled and pulled back the cloth, baring the smeared brown face and protruding eyes.  The teeth were bared with the lips drawn tightly back into a terrible and repulsive grin that revealed the clean pink flesh within.  Creedin stared down into those blind eyes until they blurred with the patter of tears onto the silent face.  He felt the grip of the other man and turned back toward the immaculate white of the tiled square wall, the stainless fittings of a small white sink, the other cot  vacant and white with the stainless brackets and the stainless gates swung down at either side.

     "You knew him well?  You were well acquainted with the deceased?"

     "No.  Not really.  I only knew him for some few days.  Less than two weeks."

     "Well then you probably wouldn't understand his psychology.  I mean why such a prosperous gentleman would launch such a hideously bizarre and grotesque caper as that which led to his unfortunate demise."

     "I'm not sure.  But I think it might have been the League."

     "The League?"

     "The Womb of Consciousness League.  Morris Codish.  It's been in the papers.  The Tribune.  You know they're practically everywhere."

     "Is this some sort of conspiracy?  A diabolical cabala?"

     "Yes.  Well perhaps.  The man we talk of there on that gurney could have been a convert."

     "Well.  I suppose we'll be seeing more then.  More Desmonds."

     "Yes.  In fact I was just telling him that the other day.  In fact yesterday.  In fact I said, Desmond Phillips, you're everywhere."

     Creedin stabbed one last look and entered the corridor.  A brief walk down was Mary, seated stiffly before the desk.  He took her arm and crossed the outer room into the foyer and at last the street.  The darkness of the drizzle and the mist was everywhere, pervasive.  And they crawled in the back of the cab and entered more of that omnipresence down a dark mucid corridor that led to the tiniest of flickers somewhere vastly distant and unreachable, somewhere so far down that vast tunnel that no one would ever reach it, would only experience the dark and drizzle forever, even unto 10 billion years of pursuit, for that light so tiny and fragile was only there, it would seem, to keep them moving, to give them the strange and awful ambition that fed the pursuit, onward toward something unreachable and yet totally pathetic down the unending corridor that led to their hotel.

 

 

 

"Essentially, I would say then that the teeth constitute an organ, a vital and living organ or cluster of organs so to say that constitutes the veritable center of the living organism.  The health of every creature can be measured by the quality of the mandibles, the chewing cluster.  The slightest imperfection, caries or malocclusion, flaw or blemish, in the seat of the organ cluster, the very mucid tissues surrounding, can indicate, and very well of necessity, conjure the intrusion of sickness, illness, malefaction and decay, the impending cessation of all the healthy and natural processes, in essence rot and corruption, the rank and foul putrefaction of the living corpus.  That is why I would urge everyone to brush after every meal, to massage the gums periodically, to ensure the integrity of the crevices themselves with a sound dental floss, to visit the dentist periodically for a checkup.  My lead."

     "I have 12 points with the void."

     "The void isn't counted in no trump, Mary dearest."

     "Yes.  Well yes.  Well Dr. Ambers here is so fascinating.  He's so diverting.  I had totally forgotten poor Desmond for the lapse of several minutes.  It's extraordinary."

     Dr. Raymond Ambers scooped up the first trick and led a spade.

     "Well.  I know this must be painful, but how were Desmond's teeth at the occasion of his unfortunate demise?  Please be terse and careful in your assessment."

     "Well.  I believe he had fillings in every molar.  But there were no complaints."

     Creedin Evers scooped up the second trick and proceeded to make his bid.

     "Well.  Were there caries?  The bicuspids.  Were they sound or diseased?"

     "I really couldn't say.  I don't believe he complained."

     Dr. Raymond Ambers dealt briskly with capable clean hands.

     "You see it is so very important.  Mental derangement in itself is often traced to the bicuspids.  Perhaps a chemical imbalance resulting from the ingestion of caries effluvia into the delicate system.  Remember that the primary function of the living organism is ingestion itself.  The taking in of comestibles thoroughly mulched and impregnated with saliva.  The nature of existence itself is grounded upon that simple process.  Throughout the vast welter of sentient being across this boundless universe organisms are eating.  They will continue to eat until the last clang of doom inexorably and they all need proper mandibles, sound living tissue, good white teeth.  One diamond."

     Dr. Raymond Ambers led a nine of diamonds and yawned.

     "How was his calcium intake?  Was your late husband fond of milk?"

     "Well.  He liked a good shake.  Whenever we stopped at the Ho Jo's.  He always had an All-American and a good fruity shake or a slice of pie to tide him over on the Turnpike."

     "This is good.  But one should ingest at least 3 glasses of whole milk every day of one's life. Remember, the secret of existence is ingestion.  And the secret of ingestion is teeth.  Throughout this blessed earth organisms are devouring each other with utter rapacity and greed to be in turn devoured, and they need good teeth."

     "You know, Dr. Ambers.  You're a real corker."

     "Thank you.  My lead.  Now.  Consider.  This interdependence, this situation, is potentially horrifying to the simple clod without the reflective bent.  I mean that we are essentially food, that we emerge from the reptilian slime to serve as food for each other, to pass again into that slime as food for microorganisms, maggots, predators and scavengers of every ilk.  But it's really a blessing.  There is no beauty more pristine and total than the sight of a healthy organism devouring a carcass, the flash of those noble incisors, cuspids, bicuspids, molars.  The clotted teeth themselves are a wonder more awesome and total than the very sunrise or an infant's smile.  Yes.  We are all food, and there is no nobler role than this the divine being has assigned us."

     Dr. Raymond Ambers reached across to Mary Phillips's spotted hand and drew it to his lips.  He nibbled lightly on the fingertips and sank in to leave an impression.

     "You're so gallant, Dr. Ambers.  Oh you make it all so wondrous."

     "You're a handsome woman yourself.  Some day you must visit my office."

     "Oh yes.  Perhaps you could even work on my teeth."

     "Yes.  Upon the door to the waiting room is my life long motto:  'A smile can light the darkest day.'  I don't suppose you know the author of those noble lines.  I suppose you could never guess."

     "Let me see.  Was it Whitman?  Keats?  Browning?  Longfellow?  Whittier?  Southey?  Ginsberg?  Delderfield?  Norman Mailer?"

     "No.  No, it was an even greater figure.  It was Edmund Clarence Stedman."

     "Oh my God.  Oh gracious.  He was my husband's absolute idol."

     "Yes.  Well we have much in common.  But the secret of the smile itself is teeth.  Without perfect sharp teeth, without bright teeth, the smile is impotent."

     "Oh, sir.  Dr. Ambers.  I'll keep that.  I'll hold onto that."

     "Yes.  Well I'll leave my address with Creedin.  We might write to each other."

     "Yes.  Oh gracious yes.  I believe it's your lead."

     Dr. Raymond Ambers flushed and flashed a dazzling smile as the little room contracted and pulsed like a tiny mucid rubber bulb.  They went on playing in the moist slick room nearly forever, nearly a dozen rubbers till the time elapsed, until the departure, and everyone smiled one last flash in the uterine chamber with the plush red chairs around the ornate table.  And then they were squeezed out into the bright afternoon, treble pulses toward the chartered bus.  The sunlight held them cold and rigid like marionettes jerking into the vehicle, and while their shadows danced it was the choppy fragmentation of silent film, with everyone fluttering, faded, pulsing toward the dark.

 

 

 

Mary Phillips in the 707 found herself seated by a large bulky man in a blue beret.  She had little curiosity, was rather quite listless staring ahead at the portable table snapped tight in the back of the seat.  Yet there was a certain serenity in the large man, an intensity and fire of conviction she noticed, glancing over several times.  If it weren't for the costume, the secular collar, she might have taken him for a man of the cloth.  The fine gray worsted, the white turtleneck, and the rich plaid vest suggested a man rather of adventure, privy to the most remote and exotic in the affairs of men, the immaculate hands perhaps those of physician, a surgeon, and yet his penetrating eyes those of a professional psychiatrist, certainly learned and sensitive, a refined spirit.

     "Dearest lady.  Would you be put out of sorts were I to smoke a fine cigar?"

     "Gracious no.  My husband smoked constantly.  I loved it."

     The great hulk of a man pulled out a ten pack of plastic tipped Phillies.

     "Oh heavens.  You smoke the very cigars my dear Desmond absolutely adored."

     "Well.  That IS interesting.  Well I particularly like these little smokers.  I particularly like the plastic tip.  I love to mulch it and feel that abrasion within the mucid layers of my lips.  The total effect is comfort and solace, dearest lady."

     The big man fired up and gusted a haze of fragrance.  The big hands fluttered and stroked the length of the smoker as if to give it pleasure of a sort for the satisfaction it afforded him.

     "Sir.  I couldn't help noticing you as you strapped in.  Are you with the tour?"

     "Gracious no.  I was on standby.  Someone cancelled and I got this seat."

     "Well yes.  That was my husband Desmond.  You see he passed on in Paris."

     "Oh heavens.  I am terribly sorry.  I'll say a prayer for him."

     "Oh.  That isn't necessary.  But it certainly is thoughtful.  Are you a man of the cloth, sir?  Are you perhaps the shepherd of a flock?"

     "Well.  You might say that.  In fact, I am one of the inner council of a rapidly growing organization which is certainly spiritual, certainly rooted in the traditional processes of organized faith.  Yes, I would say I am certainly a man of the cloth.  A minister perhaps.  Yes.  I like that."

     "Well then.  Is this a traditional Christian organization, dearest sir?"

     "Well.  Not really.  We do have a sacrament, a mass of sorts.  But I would say that if we are truly Christian it is rather in the fundamental principles of charity and beneficence that are rooted in that ancient faith."

     The large man gusted smoke toward the vinyl ceiling and smacked his lips.

     "Well, this IS interesting.  I would like you, that being the case, to offer up a prayer, a rogation, a canticle, a benediction, a supplication just now for my poor Desmond.  After all.  All religions are essentially the same.  We worship the same Creator, the lord and prince of blessed munificence over this darkling earth."

     "You know, dearest lady.  You certainly have a way with words."

     "Thank you.  I learned it all from my late husband, Desmond Phillips."

     "I see.  Well now.  NOW.   Dearest Lord and mighty Father, incline the sacred dugs of your beneficence and nurse this darkling spirit.  Raise the late Desmond Phillips, a man of honor and refinement, into the lap of the Mother where he may rest eternally with the effluvia from your sacred aperture.  Let him live in absolute splendor forever within the mighty colon, the wellspring of our rapture and sediment, the blessed sacrament and effusion.  In the name of our blessed founder, the most noble and splendid Morris Codish, from whom I have received my present designation, appellation, from whom so many of the first thousand have received fruity balm and succor here upon this cinder.  WOCL WOCL WOCL WOCL WOCL WOCL WOCL."

     "Oh.  That moved me.  That moved me into utter paroxysms of rhapsody."

     "You may rest assured, dearest lady.  He rests now in perfect bliss and contentment."

     "That final chant.  Is it a litany of sorts?  A sacred threnody?"

     "Of sorts.  I would suppose it is our equivalent for the traditional Amen."

     "But what is your dogma?  What are the tenets of your faith?"

     "Well.  We hold them in secret.  Suffice it to say that our watchword is humility, humility in all matters, and particularly the sexual.  One could conjure the vision of Ash Wednesday when the zealots of the Roman Catholic faith anoint their skulls with simple ash to demonstrate their humility before the radiance of the divine spirit.  This rude ritual is really the core of that august faith.  We of the WOCL anoint ourselves in much the same fashion with another effluvium, our entire bodies in fact particularly prior to the rites of our movement.  In fact, I saw an utter stranger just the other evening, likely a zealot of a similar order, in fact, early this morning, if I have it right, totally anointed and shot down like a cur upon the boulevard, wholly misunderstood and very likely repulsive to the man who filled him with the projectiles of death."

     "Why.  Why sir.  Was this approximately 1:30 AM?"

     "Yes.  In fact it was.  The man was totally coated with the effluvium."

     "But that was my Desmond.  He was covered with his own excrement."

     "How marvelous.  It was the very martyr I saw sprawl in the street."

     "But he was covered with SHIT.  It was awful."

     "Gentle lady.  More beautiful than the loins of the Great Mother herself is the SUCCULENT HUMAN TURD."

     Mary Phillips bolted for safety with a curdling bloody shriek.

 

 

 

The Phillips's living room was utterly pink—the rug, walls, ceiling, the great sofa where Mary sat alone very rigid in the silence.  The powder blue cases rested at the base of the steps.  The coffee table was white and oval, a marble slab blotched with porcelain swans, a tidy crisp stack of magazines, a shallow ashtray, an arrangement of dried flowers in a fluted vase.  The shelving by the television was clotted with best sellers and commemorative cups and saucers, a Compton's Encyclopedia, vintage 1947, 2 translucent wine goblets of exceptional taste, a gift from Ferdie and Ingrid.  Mary Phillips was utterly alone in the stab of light through the drapes of the big bay window, alone with the dancing motes of dust over her frosted bouffant, tensed, rigid, trying desperately to kill the anxiety and sorrow there in the emptiness with Desmond just not there to carry the cases up the carpeted steps.  There was a scuttling dry emptiness in her tiny heart, insect absence scrabbling against the tidy walls, and she tried very hard to cry.  In the pink mucid room Mary Phillips saw it stretching onward, the wakings, the meals, the hours by the television, crawling in under linen to arise to the same absence, the same lack of Desmond, that florid hulk and rhetoric, the fluttering capable hands under the great black cloth.

     In the uppermost LADIES HOME JOURNAL there was a perfectly splendid article upon Truman Capote and his stunning collection of antique paperweights.  Mary Phillips browsed through to the tiny ending like a gasp, a quick clotted intake of breath in the absolute white under the last dark print.  Ferdie had been creative.  She had saved his poems from grammar school.  She had read portions of his novel.  Ferdie and yes Desmond would have liked this article about that terribly precious little man with the refined lisping voice and the perfect sensibility.  Where could she possibly find that voice, those voices, in the silence of the big modern colonial house?

     Mary Phillips entered the powder room and snapped the light.  Her face was terribly grotesque in the clear glass, the purple blotches of Revlon medium blusher, the lipstick a livid crisp smear around the bridgework.  She looked down at the clear water in the purple toilet, at the roll of paper, the brush and comb set on the tank.  She looked back and patted the bouffant just right, smiled bravely and entered the kitchen past the small gun cabinet with the cast iron eagle.  There was the round table glossy under the hanging fixture, the sturdy chairs where she sat, her head nudged down toward the bridge of her spotted forearms.  The image of her face in the glossy surface was pleasant, yet indefinite.  The vague haze of it portrayed none of the imperfections.  It could as well have been Desmond's face or little Ferdie's.  There was simply nowhere to turn.

     Mary Phillips raised up and eyed the upright freezer.  As if lured there by some imponderable sentience, some benign obscurity, she stood unsteadily and crossed the pale green tiles of the floor.  She nuzzled her forehead against the cool enamel, waiting for further prompting from that vagueness, some message or motivation.  Mary Phillips opened the stark white door to a welter of frozen comestibles.  There in the 3rd bin was the familiar orange box.  She pulled it out with a spotted claw and clutched it to her breast.  She turned and snapped back the door.  She stood there over the stove and nuzzled the carton, caressed it lovingly, kissed it with moist warm dabs of utter affection.  Below the stove was a flat drawer with a stack of broad aluminum pans.  Mary Phillips drew one out and emptied the contents of the carton onto the glossy impervious surface.  She set the oven to 300 degrees and stood back for a few minutes before thrusting in the laden aluminum.  She checked the time.  Within 6 short minutes it would be transformed.  The world would regain its certainty, its regularity, its consummate order.  Within 6 short minutes Mary Phillips would ingest 6 piping plump glossy viands, 6 tender succulent yeasty munificent delectables, 6 tangy perfect comestibles, 6 rhapsodic awe-inspiring ingesta, 6 magnificent lovelies.  Mary Phillips stared feverishly through the dark glass, her mouth watering, her soul wracked with utter need, suffused with impending rapture.  There, basting, simmering, the sugar melting into a perfect and utterly sumptuous coating, were 6 Martel glazed doughnuts.  Above on the light fixture, casting a shadow of its own, a solitary fly rubbed its hairy legs and preened.  It too had an appetite.

 

 

 

 

                                                                                                          FINIS