Zarathustra’s Dragons stormed the stage like Cro-Magnon angels, a feral furry crew, too savage for Redemption, too innocent to Fall. Where their hair ended and their clothes began was painful to discern. The lead singer wore an ornamental bone through his nose. A necklace of human teeth, plucked sentimentally, the press releases claimed, from the jaws of one night-stands, hung to his navel. The band looked like they’d been used to scrub a large, industrial kitchen.
Midnight at the Apocalyptic Pancake with The Antique Dealer, proprietor of the Time Capsule Antique shop and amateur “poet” (though, to be fair, all poets of The Nation are amateurs). An old acquaintance from my college days, a lonely man, not of his time. Certainly not the kind I’d choose to waste a night with, but he invited me to drink, “for old time’s sake.”
How could I refuse?
Impatient for a waitress, he reached for my drink. The sting of Brain Death, the house specialty, a heady maelstrom of herb juices and spirits, put the light back in his eyes. The Dragons tuned their instruments, creating noise like claws on flint.
“I’m lonely. My little lady’s left me,” whined the Antique Dealer. “My woman dances for another.”
“There, there,” I consoled as best I could. “Now, now. These things happen. Other fish in the sea and all that.”
Our balcony table overlooked The Pit, a sunken dance floor nine feet deep, in which a hundred black-garbed dancers writhed in mindless torsion, bare feet pounding furiously, despite the conspicuous absence of…music.
The Antique Dealer was as drunk and depressed as I’d ever seen him.
When the tuning ceased, the dancers, sensing the imminence of art — or danger — stopped briefly, and posed. Menacing silence. As if the next might be the last noise. As if the Dragons had come not to entertain their audience, but bury them.
“I am become death. . .” whispered The Antique Dealer/ Bard.
“Oh, good grief,” I sighed.
At last the dark millennial minstrels, invoking the powers that spin planets and bend light, commenced to ditty:
Eat the rich,
Eat the rich,
But don’t eat them all,
They’re too high,
“I remember her black negligee, no larger than a kerchief,” moped The Antique Dealer, his voice tossed like a sparrow in a gale of sound. “The way she’d scamper across the kitchen on those infinitesimal light feet…”
The Antique Dealer was, like me, a year from thirty. His Beethoven ’do evoked the lead gray chaos of an ocean storm. Like nearly everyone else at the Apocalyptic Pancake (besides me in my green “Topiary Techniques” t-shirt — I’d come straight from work), he wore black. The back of his leather jacket bore a meticulously detailed portrait of Shelley, sporting open collar and wind-blown hair. Instead of a quill pen, The Antique Dealer’s Shelley held a smoking gun. The bold red caption across the top of the jacket read “Don’t weep for Adonais…” Beneath the portrait were the words, “…avenge him!”
“I can’t live like you,” said The Antique Dealer. “Tending plants, evading issues, skirting time. A poet is supremely mortal. He needs a warm body beside him, always. He needs communication. He needs life.”
I crushed an ice-cube with my teeth. The Antique Dealer was not a bad fellow, as fellows went, but poet/antique dealers in general bored me to near catatonia. They made me numb. The walls of his shop, which I’d visited once, offered photos of a brownish time when even the sun shone sepia in a dull beige sky. Men in bowler hats and skin-tight vests, their mustaches like clumps of bear fur bristling with ale; women stuffed like sausages into dark, double-breasted bodices with wide skirts and Italy-shaped shoes; quiet scenes bracketed by leafy-looking frames of bronze and copper. Among photographs and artifacts and his elegantly coiffed and tailored clientèle he seemed to feel home.
“I do not like loud, angry music; superfluous drama; crowds,” he said.
He’d inherited the Time Capsule Antique shop and the basement apartment beneath it from a maiden aunt, who had her own particular, if not downright peculiar, pleasures.
“People hate poets,” The Antique Dealer said.
I thought, “A poker face I haven’t.”
“People especially hate unpublished, spoken-word poets. How many times in one life can a man abide the phrase, ‘Oh, why don’t you just shut up?’ Try to communicate with people, try to reach some sort of accord, and they give you, ‘Oh, why don’t you just shut up!’ I won’t stand for it much longer. I won’t be silenced!”
“But who’s silencing you?” I asked.
The Antique Dealer laughed. Quite madly, actually.
A waitress appeared. I bought another round.
The Antique Dealer pointed to a table on the Lower Level, about ten yards from the stage, and not far from the precipice of The Pit. Around the table sat Bogvonian, The Filmmaker, and two young, gray-suited lackeys. Bogvonian was an older man, past sixty. He draped his girth in bright-colored silks. His rings and bracelets glittered, dense with jewels. The shiny skin stretched taut over his skull slackened to loose, thick folds around his collar.
The Filmmaker said something out of the side of his mouth. The gray-suits nodded. He bit the foreskin off of a cucumber-sized cheroot and searched his silks for fire. The young men simultaneously extended lights.
“It’s Bogvonian, the auteur!” gasped The Antique Dealer. “He’s come to study Kim. He’s going to film her!”
“If not here, wherever. It’s inevitable. He’ll soak up every drop of her. Kim’s image will be his.”
“She must have quite an act,” I said.
“It’s why we’re here.”
“It’s why you’re here. Why am I?”
“To bear witness.”
“Why do this to yourself?” I yawned.
“I must suffer—I mean, see her. I must see her.”
The Filmmaker’s obvious contempt for his surroundings caused him to expectorate a turd-sized wad of phlegm. He whispered to his men, then poked the air as if to tweak a passing fly.
When the Dragons finished their set, he left his table and stood at the edge of The Pit, gazing indifferently upon the young people who danced in silence. He flicked a cigar ash over the tangle of damp, swaying bodies and returned to his table to find that, in his absence, a waiter had heaped his plate with salad. Zarathustra’s Dragons exited behind a curtain.
“When I first met Tiny Kim, she was working as a promo-girl for MamaBubba’s Mini Donuts,” The Antique Dealer said.
“They’d decked her in an eenie-weenie, chocolate-dipped bikini. She wore bite-sized crullers round her ankles and a fried-dough choker. Her hair was honey-glazed, her cheeks dusted with sugar. She’d come to The City from out West, hoping to ‘make it’ as an actress.”
“Lemme guess. She only got ‘bit’ parts,” I said. “‘Small’ roles.”
“Not even in The City of Cities are there many leads for a woman two feet tall,” The Antique Dealer said with a straight face.
The antique dealer had rescued the seductive midget from the sweet exploitations of MamaBubba.
“I took her into The Time Capsule, my home. I educated her. I won her heart. Of course, I had to schmooze a little. Who doesn’t? I fed her a saucer of folderol about her being ‘pith personified, God’s platinum-blond Haiku.’ A tid-bit of hyperbole. An hors d’oeuvre. Anyway, I meant it at the time.”
For months they lived the domestic life, sponging frugally off of The Antique Dealer’s modest inheritance—the shop made little money. But Kim felt she was made for bigger things, and when the time was right, she pursued them.
“No one will love her like I loved her,” he wept. “No one will feel what I felt when I rocked that tiny body in my lap. Now, alone, I wander asphalt gullies of The City under strips of navy sky, breathing, reluctantly, the dense air of metropolis, cluttered as it is with particles of soot and rot. I wait, impatiently, for daylight, so I can open the Time Capsule and watch the occasional customers stroll among the escritoires and funnel-mouthed Victrolas; the cut-glass bowls and crystal cabinets; the gadgets, knick-knacks and no-longer-relevant machines, musty detritus of strangers’ lives.”
I nodded mechanically. The Antique Dealer turned away. He screamed at a passing waitress for more Brain Death. She gestured violently, and, chastened, he implored.
A new band took the stage. The back-up musicians of Tiny Kim. Thick, cotton-clad men with black shiny hair down to their scapulae. They carried wooden Pan-pipes lashed with gut and sinew and sundry instruments hewn from the flora and fauna of Peru. They played: the cold breath of the Andes, fermented in deep, Inca lungs and mellowed through cylinders of ancient wood, lulled the audience to torpor, loosened eye-lids, ips, nostrils like the vapors of a precious brandy.
“This music is likable,” I said.
“They’re from out of town,” The Antique Dealer said. “Kim plucked them from the Classifieds. The ink on their green-cards smears to the touch.”
A mountain of humanity lumbered to the stage, buck naked.
“Bruno has barely enough brains to zip his fly,” The Antique Dealer explained. “He worked in the Recycling Plant, made his living smashing bottles against a wall. After five years, he was still only an apprentice. Kim hocked a leather bound Keats and a hard-cover Novalis to afford him. I’d given her those books as gifts.”
“Doesn’t he realize where he is, and that he’s naked?”
“Irrelevant. The man’s an idiot. In previous versions of the act Kim had had him enter in a three-piece suit. It took too long for him to free himself. His struggles broke the rhythm of the dance.”
Tiny Kim appeared, a pint of Aphrodite scuttling across the stage. She danced her tiny dance with vigor. The pace of the music accelerated; the pipers’ bronze cheeks glistened. She orbited Bruno like a moon, moving closer, closer, until the music stopped and she stood, arms spread, before him, wearing nothing but Jesus, who died, gnat-sized, on the silver crucifix that dangled from her quadri-pierced left ear.
Bruno’s monstrous member loomed above her like the bald branch of a Red Wood. He lifted her in hands the size of hub- caps. Even the most callous ruffians in the audience gasped as he lowered her to his impossibly enormous bone. The audience watched, fascinated, as the muscle-bound behemoth, grunting in frustration, turned Kim every which way in search of entry, attempting even to twist her onto himself like a bottle-cap.
Finally, he set her down. Kim stepped backward. As if on cue, the giant’s ponderous erection lost its wind, drooped earthward, hung limp, like a narcotized ferret, from his loins. Bruno, the Apprentice Bottle-Smasher, lowered himself to his knees. Awkwardly, bearishly, he groped for her.
He bellowed to the Heavens:
“Mmmmmlvbg. . . mlubd. . . mmluh. . . luh. . . luh. . . love!”
He nuzzled Kim’s belly, and licked her tiny triangle of pubis like a stamp.
“I’ve seen enough,” I said. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“Not yet,” said The Antique Dealer. “I have things planned. It’s not too late for me to do.”
Tiny Kim, having acknowledged the audience’s wild applause, allowed Bruno to lift her onto his shoulder. She rode the giant down the steps of the stage and straight to Bogvonian’s table. At a nod from the filmmaker, the gray-suits rose from their seats and bowed.
Kim’s lips molded the word “sit.” Bruno, knees bent perpendicular, naked ass parallel to the floor, made a chair of himself. The midget descended to his lap, pulling a cigarette from behind his ear on the way down. Bogvonian lit her
smoke with the smoldering end of his cigar.
“I offered her, what, beauty, truth?” said The Antique Dealer. “She opted for…image. How can a poet compete with the sound and motion of film?”
The former Bite-sized Cruller Queen reclined against the giant’s stomach, which was flat and steep and cut with muscle like a grid.
“The…uh…the contrast between the two of them is striking,” I said.
“She doesn’t really love the giant. He’s an idiot. She’s using him to impress Bogvonian. She needed an image, or rather, counter-image, worthy of the Master’ s lens. She wants to be preserved, that’s what’s behind it all.”
I sensed where his talk was headed. Perhaps I should have done something to stop it. But I knew from experience that such manias as The Antique Dealer’s must be allowed to wind themselves to completion.
“I’m going to raise a commotion,” he said, grimly. “I’m going to smite the giant, tear him limb from limb. I’m going to carry Kim up to the stage and triumph where that lumbering behemoth so miserably fucked up. I’m going to earn my moments in amber, secure a place for myself in Bogvonian’s oeuvre. I’m going to — ”
Without warning, Zarathustra’s Dragons occupied the stage again and blitzed the Pancake with their second set:
Ain’tgot no love—
Ain’t got no love—-
Ain’t got no love—
got no love—
It all seemed so ridiculous, so unnecessary, so…disappointing. One minute The Antique Dealer was pontificating across from me, the next he was staggering across the beer-and-vomit-sticky floor of the lower level, bumping into tables, pushing waiters, waitresses and patrons from his path, until at last reaching Bogvonian’s table, he stood before the midget, arms akimbo, legs apart, expectant.
Tiny Kim wrinkled her brow. She snuffed her cigarette in the ashtray Bruno had made for her of his palm. The poet launched into a tirade, waving his arms, stamping his feet. Kim looked to The Filmmaker for assistance. Bogvonian rolled
his fat cigar slowly between nut-brown teeth and eyed the impassioned Antique Dealer with distaste.
The Antique Dealer lifted the nude midget from the giant’s thigh—not without her protest—and set her on the table beside a bottle of Bordeaux. He pummeled Bruno furiously, cursing at the top of his lungs—the music absorbed his every syllable. Though the antique dealer’s doughy fists could hardly hurt the giant, Bruno’s eyes churned huge tears which tumbled bluely down the grid-iron surface of his face. He remained in position, like a marble couch, immovable, while the midget pleaded with the filmmaker for ACTION.
Bogvonian, mouth stuffed to capacity with tobacco and escarole, nodded to his lackeys. They rose, dabbed their lips with napkins, folded the napkins neatly on their plates. Nostrils dilated, cheeks crimson with instant rage, they converged upon The Antique Dealer, who was now trying desperately to strangle Bruno, his wiry arms enveloping the giant’s tree-trunk neck like vines.
“I should do something,” I thought. “But really, I’m just a horticultural technician, a Plantman. Truly. Honestly. What can I do?”
The gray-suits unclasped The Antique Dealer’s hands, twisted his skinny arms behind his back and pulled. The pop of humeri wrenched from their sockets reverberated through the Pancake, causing even the lead singer of Zarathustra’s
Dragons to grimace, mid-lyric, and touch a finger to his heart.
Again the music sucked all spirit from The Antique Dealer’s screams. I stared down helplessly into the futile abyss of his mouth.
Swinging him by his long legs and stretched, useless arms, the gray-suits, with a syncopated “Heave! Ho! Heave!” tossed The Antique Dealer high over The Pit. He hung for agonizing nano-seconds before falling.
The disappearance of a human form into the jungle of dancers, the spectacle of a body swallowed whole, had its predictable effect upon the audience. Heads turned desperately to Zarathustra’s Dragons. The Apocalyptic Pancake became all eyes, ears and mouths pleading for the band’s electric succor.
Tiny Kim dabbed the giant’s egg-sized tears with the fringe of a silk cape proffered by Bogvonian.
Out of some vestigial sense of duty, or more accurately, pity — the weakness that had coaxed me to the Pancake in the first place — I descended to the lower level and stood for almost an hour at the precipice of The Pit, searching for a glimpse of The Antique Dealer, or Shelley, in the misty, churning swamp of flesh, leather, cotton. But the crowd was so dense I couldn’t see the dancers’ feet, much less what was under them, and I resigned myself to never drinking or conversing with the antique dealing “poet” again.
Bogvonian’s table was now empty. A busboy peeled a partially eaten lettuce leaf from Bogvonian’s plate and slipped it into a small, clear plastic bag. A souvenir.