Stare out the passenger window as the landscape blurs past. Anything to distract. He drives with one hand on the convertible’s steering wheel, his left arm rests on the door’s frame. He, a mustachioed middle-aged man with a paunch. He, who wears his comb-over like a Franciscan Monk. He, who won’t stop talking.
As we speed along, the wind plucks at his words, comically tosses his fringe of hair.
Arrive at a squat, two-story octagonal building. Robust and colorful graffiti interrupts the peeling white paint of the structure’s weathered exterior. Perched on a narrow spit of land, the building broods over the gray ocean.
Exit the convertible. Follow him — and his endless monologue. Up a wooden ramp that spirals simultaneously around the building’s wind-whipped skeletal exterior and its dim, yet warmly lit interior. Pass small clutches of people hunched and huddled at the ramp’s edges.
While tramping ever upward, notice that the inclined ramp is pocked with rows of evenly spaced, one-inch diameter holes. Each hole contains a large, thick, striped- and dotted multi-colored caterpillar. In a rolling wave, dozens — hundreds — of the creatures retreat, withdraw into their respective holes to avoid being stepped on. Then, in a rolling wave, they thrust their fat heads out of the holes again once the threat has passed.
An antique city, all sharp curves and unexpected angles. Filigree cast-iron gaslights line the wide sidewalks. Worn stone buildings, carved in relief, march along cobblestone streets…
There, across the street, one corner building curves back sharply on itself in a flatiron shape. Narrow alleys slide past, follow its long sides out of sight. Here, the streets are thick with a clamor of people – they spill out onto the cobblestones, eddy back and forth in incessant motion. All except one woman, who holds and defines her own space within the human river. Stationed before the flatiron building, she is dressed in a formal riding habit of tailored black velvet jacket and long skirt; a high-collared white shirt with lace at neck and sleeves; a veiled, men’s style top hat; and low-heeled hook-and-button boots.
While the sea of people swells around her, she cries out suddenly, calls attention to the “Little Green Heron” she has found! Such a surprise! Such an unanticipated and marvelous happenstance! Indeed, a medium-sized semi-aquatic bird waddles near her — it pulls occasionally at her skirts with its long, narrow, hook-ended beak. Most ignore the woman’s exclamations. But the crowd constantly reinvents itself with new folk, and gives her renewed opportunity to draw any attention she can to the “Little Green Heron”.
But it is not a Little Green Heron at all; it is clearly a double-crested cormorant. In addition, there is no reason she should be at all surprised at its proximity, for each time she crosses from one curb of the narrow corner to another, she reaches inside her riding habit and pulls out a small fringed, burgundy purse that is filled with fish. With a gloved hand, she rations morsels to the sleek-feathered black bird that shuffles its webbed feet over the cobbles and struggles to keep up.
Dated. Faded. Dull. The hotel room, though clean, desperately needs an update. Carved, shag carpet. Once-modernist, flocked wallpaper. Matching coverlets spread over twin Formica beds. And red. So many shades of red – scarlet, crimson, burgundy. The room glowers, sullen and ruddy.
Across from the beds, an old television cart holds a large tube-style black-and-white TV. The set is switched on, and an old film flickers. Images of staircases cover the screen. Crossing and intersecting each other at impossible angles, each seems to have its own dimensional reality, similar to an M.C. Escher work. A woman, with tumbling long hair, dressed in long, dark gown descends one of the staircases. As I watch, my sense of origin slips. For a breath, for a moment – I am that woman, caught in a flickering black-and-white world, descending a shadowed staircase within a repeating landscape of tilting, dim-lit staircases. I clutch a handful of gown, lift it up to avoid tripping on the hem. I hear the soft tread of my slippers on the unyielding stone steps. I feel the weight of my hair.
Noise. A saving, sudden sound, and I am yanked back, find myself standing within the red room, staring at the television. During my brief…absence?… a repairman has entered. He has set his toolbox on the sunset, shag carpet at the foot of one bed, spread his tools across the other bed’s coverlet.
“Those old movies give me the heebie jeebies,” he says. “Especially the monster ones – vampires and werewolves.” He catches my eye and shudders dramatically. “Good thing you’ve got company…” He jerks his head approvingly toward the far wall and continues sorting his tools.
From that further, narrow wall, where there is neither door, nor window, a steady stream of people begins to enter. The small space is soon crowded with bodies and chatter. The last to arrive is a life-sized cartoon-style Popeye, complete with pipe, flexing bulging biceps and chewing spinach.
All the while, the television’s grainy images continue to flicker and snow.
…And then, that distinguished gentleman, with his unruly fringe of white floss hair, in his pert bow tie and professorial brown tweeds, gave an inarticulate shout. He began to list over against his will, despite his best efforts to remain upright and erect, pulled by the increased weight and drag of his rapidly growing right ear. The organ expanded –from the size of a tea saucer, to that of a luncheon plate, a dinner plate, until, at last, it exceeded the size of a tea service tray. The elderly gentleman flailed his arms in wide, wild gestures, drawn earthward in a fashion that demanded he balance on one leg. “The mice! The mice!” he cried out. And from the auditorium’s wings dashed several young men in dark blue suits brandishing tweezers and chopsticks. In a wave, they surged toward the professor’s side and maneuvered about his enormous right ear in complex choreography – some moved to the rear and grasped him about the hips and shoulders to prevent the aged man from falling; others leapt to his left side and applied themselves to his raised left arm as ballast; while those remaining drew their particular tools and, with obvious care and practice, inserted them into the enlarged ear’s broad canal and withdrew, again and again, compact wads of soft gray matter. The young men flung aside the accumulated mouse-like wads with flicks of their supple wrists.
And all who witnessed gaped, astonished and astounded and – while endeavoring to preserve the tweed-suited gentleman’s threadbare dignity – visibly appalled.
Climbing, climbing. The cement stairs – smooth underfoot, uniform – rising on and on, up and up, switching and curving back and forth in deceptively lazy sweeps, but ever, always up. Over varying landscapes – green forests, sunny glades, rolling hills; spanning lakes and rivers to continue their ascent. Eventually, leaving behind the wild, primordial, and untouched places. Trees transforming to steel I beams; hills to bricks and cinderblocks; waterways to chain link fences. Crowded now. People moving, elbow-to-elbow, hip to shoulder, climbing separately en masse.
The stairs continuing, lifting up into the wide blue, cloud-filled sky. Gradually, each step narrowing – two or three feet wide only. No security of enclosing walls. No handrails. A Dali-esque staircase rising, lifting, floating with no need of supports, anchored unto itself.
Unease creeping in. Worry. Fear of slipping, tripping – a misplaced foot, an endless plunge.
While the stairs are still connected, fastened to a small island of green turf, stepping off the stairs. Entering an enclosed, factory-style, industrial warehouse. Gloom and shadow, here. Feeble light leaking past smudged, yellowed windows.
Bustle of activity – people crouching over desks and counters, faces lit blue by computer screens. Interrupting first one young woman, then another. Neither looking up from their display, their skin washed pale with electric light. Their answers are the same.
Pink. Yellow. Lilac. Forget-Me-Not blue and tulip red. Brightly-colored chairs line the street’s edge like the flowers of spring. Each metal seat blooms on hollow tubular legs carefully curved and bent to provide support and a bit of bounce. Their backs are molded, fluted, and patterned with punch-outs. Parallel to both sidewalk and street, they are arranged over thick green grass with a casual grace. And though the street is wide, and the day is comfortable; though a gentle breeze stirs amongst the trees’ leaves and casts shadows into lazy movement; and though there is seating for plenty – a dozen times over – each chair, without exception, is empty.