I Am Reminded of That Fateful Day That Gave Way to Bliss Everlasting
“One hundred years ago today, July the seventeenth, a legend was born.”
Polite, academically respectable applause.
“Having, reputedly, the bare minimum of sensory and intellectual apparatus common to newborns—thrust shrieking and confused into a chaos of sensations, a maelstrom of degenerate human conduct, as he would have been—we might assume that he, at the time of his birth, could have had no conception that a century on, we’d be assembled here today, celebrating his artistic achievements.”
It was early in the morning—too early—in this windowless room, under earwax-yellow lights, on ass-squeaky folding chairs, to offer any but the minimum allowable cubic unit of applause to sustain the fiction that any of them wouldn’t rather be at home, in bed, independently wealthy enough never to have to attend another conference, the rest of the world afire via eschatological judgement courtesy of a vengeful god, but, snug under the duvet, they wouldn’t care.
“My co-host, Professor Jane Splagg-Ploog, and I would like to thank you for coming. We have a bumper crop of presenters today, excursions to nightclubs and even a hot air balloon. Thank you for coming, and thank you for helping to honour that legendary singer, Gilberto Cecil Faturab Mershon the Third, but whom we’ll call—well, why not: we’ll call him ‘Cecil’. ‘Sir Cecil’!”
Many laughed; many cursed their own existence (albeit internally).
“So may I introduce our first speaker, Professor Sammy Liebregts of Shimer College, presenting on the nachleben of Sir Cecil’s canon.”
As Professor Liebregts—virile, magnificent—bounded to the podium, Professor Cecilia Pfannenschmid, suffering the second in a line of hot flashes to which she hadn’t yet managed to get accustomed, stared accusingly at the mirror in the ladies’ restroom and gripped the unsympathetic faucet knobs for dear life. She recited, at speed, Cecilian lyrics in her head; a de-stressing (and at times distressing) technique her yoga-inflected sister Noduterensis (younger, pretty, infuriating) taught her (unsolicited, it goes without saying) one Boxing Day when the electricity’d gone out. When her skin finally cooled, she adjusted her hair, to the extent that a mass of tangled kelp noodles can be adjusted, swallowed back an incipient uproll of vomit and headed back out to civilisation.
She took her seat and half-listened to Professor Liebregt’s humourless, sometimes dour, sometimes shouty diatribe against the prevailing view of everything under the sun, culminating in a screeching denunciation of every public figure he could recall in a catalogue of venom accelerando before his twenty minutes expired. Next up was Professor Jiff Tryphonopoulos, from Platt College, weighing in on Cecil’s apparent note-bending tendencies on any lyric referencing Asiatic flora, especially if pteridophyte. Cecilia’s gaze drifted to her fellow attendees, slouched as one, as if frozen in a Victorian theatrical tableau comprised of Cro-Magnons; to the pixie dust bespattering of dandruff across the shrivelled, cashmered shoulders of the ancient, penis-vein-necked gentleman sitting in front of her, which flakes, if she’d been prone to deranging her senses, systematically or otherwise, she would have snorted and in so doing escaped this madness; to the rows of metallic lighting fixtures overhead, buzzing in the spaces between the speaker’s words, as if to drown him out, eyes shut, fingers in ears and nursery rhyme declaimed at the top of one’s voice; and to the oddly out-of-place gramophone, minding its own business on a tea towel on a wheelie stand in the corner of the room, flaring brass horn taking it all in like an Edwardian HAL 9000 red-eye.
The applause signalled that Professor Tryphonopoulos had reached his startling, heroic conclusion and Cecilia had nodded off. Chatting over coffee (stale, insipid), the small group in which she found herself modestly informed each other of their scholastic affiliation, hierarchal position and areas of expertise.
“Dash Swigg,” one introduced himself. “Deep Springs College—I run a whole course on Cecil.”
“Are you presenting?” asked Professor Spats Bacigalupo.
Professor Swigg drained his paper cup and nodded. “On lyrical allusions to the Earl of Salisbury and general pygmy infatuation. You?”
Bacigaupo shook his head, his regret evident. “I was under the weather, for some time.” He shrugged, beaming, a world of endless possibility suddenly suggesting itself: “There’s always next anniversary.”
“When will that be?” asked Professor Marsha Ricciardi, of Luxembourg’s Sacred Heart.
“They should really make it annual,” opined Professor Cedric Clayton of the University of Tartarus. He turned to Cecilia: “Don’t you agree?”
She had about enough enthusiasm to raise an eyebrow; no more.
“Didn’t I see you at Frank’s centenary?” asked Professor Castellanos of Professor Seventrees. “Or was it Piaf’s?”
The others, save Cecilia, contributed:
“I couldn’t believe there wasn’t one for Ella.”
“When was that?”
“A couple of months ago.”
“They really dropped the ball.”
“Whoa! That’s a bit harsh, don’t you think?”
“Remember Vera’s, in March?”
“You got so wasted, man.”
“I didn’t know you could get drunk on sherry.”
“How could you not know that?”
“I don’t think I’d ever had it before.”
“If so, I was too drunk to remember.”
“There aren’t so many of these anniversaries in other disciplines, you know.”
“Sure. Before I switched to popular song, I studied literature.”
“Really? Gosh. You don’t seem the type.”
“In literature, you’ve got Bloomsday every year.”
“You’ve got the quatercentenary of Descartes’ daemons in two years.”
“Shakespeare, last year.”
“Did you celebrate the semicentennial of Sgt. Pepper last month?”
“Well, I listened to the new vinyl with my daughter.”
“How old is she?”
“What did you do for John Grote?”
“When was that?”
“Last year. One hundred and fifty.”
“Birth or death?”
“Is there something for the forty-fifth anniversary of Martin Gardener racing lolly sticks along the Wandle?”
“The jury’s still out on when exactly Evelyn walked Joshua to school along the Wandle Trail—since you brought it up.”
“I remember Charlotta Sturm’s tricentennial, last year. That was a bit. . .”
“Yep. That’s the word.”
“Not so Joe Maby’s hundred and fifteenth, earlier this year.”
“I lost my virginity at Adele Schwartz’s quasquicentennial in Tokchon.”
“You mean, figuratively? It was your first conference?”
“No; I mean in the broom cupboard. It was my second conference, since you ask.”
“What did you do in the broom cupboard at your first conference, I wonder?”
He shrugged. “Masturbated. No one saw.”
Cecilia gave the next paper—on the absence of transgender imagery in Cecil’s life and songs—a miss, choosing instead to wander up and down the corridors, the endless, vacant corridors, all steel and concrete and repeated panels of fire regulation-friendly gypsum, of this place, looking like somewhere to which the federal government might decamp in time of World War Three; or, perhaps, just for an under-the-radar holiday. Soon, she couldn’t, try as she might wish, avoid perceiving the unambiguous sound of a grown man weeping. Sure enough, on the floor of one of the empty offices, head in hands, sat said forlorn fellow. Cecilia made a half-hearted attempt to dredge up some dregs of sympathy, only to find that particular sump-hole dry.
“What’s—the—point?!” he wailed, spacing out each word of what was, after all, a rather abbreviated sentence to begin with, as denoted typographically by those dashes.
Not knowing the answer herself, she moved on, but she’d been seen. “Wait! Wait! Please help me! Please!”
Now her life was to be ruined too. She sighed, turned around and entered the vale of tears.
“My life is meaningless!” (Thus saith he.)
“I’m sorry to hear that. Would you like me to get you a coffee?”
He raised his head: sixtyish, professorially mop-headed, glasses fogged with the steam from his heated existential sighs. “No, thank you, but, say, if you’d really like to help, maybe, if I took a drive out to the nearest Walmart and bought myself a gun, would you shoot me with it? If I paid you, maybe?”
“Oh, say, come on, now,” she improvised, crouching next to him and randomly rubbing his back with the hard bottom of her palm, as she’d seen somebody do in a TV show once. “It can’t be that bad, things’ll look up,” etc., etc.
“Do you really think so?” He looked into her eyes with a delicate flowering of hope.
“Would you like me to tell you my troubles?”
“How much time have you got?”
“Well—I did really want to hear the next paper.”
“What’s it on?”
“I can’t remember just at the moment. I didn’t really pay much attention to the list, if I’m going to be honest with you. Heh-heh!”
“Wait a minute! I have to deliver a paper myself! At twelve o’clock!”
“That’s in ten minutes.”
“Come on, let’s go!” They began racing down the corridor (his stride connoting a somewhat stronger feeling of haste than hers). “So could you kill me after lunch?”
Back in the main room, the host introduced him. “This next presenter is an old friend of mine—why, I can tell you that back when we were both undergrads at Donsbach, we used to—”
“The son of a bitch bullied the hell out of me,” mouthed the melancholic professor, turning to Cecilia and offering her his tie knot. “I still send Christmas cards to the proctologist who saved me in ER after the hazing.”
“What am I supposed to do?” she asked him, with reference to his tie.
He shrugged. “Tighten my knot?” he asked hopefully. “Straighten my lapels? Dust my shoulders?”
“It gives me great pleasure,” beamed the co-host, “to introduce Professor Stephen K. Blisterwhiffle of the University of Shangri-La!”
“Asshole,” he muttered, with reference to the co-host (Professor J. Potter Williams of the University of Hades), not to Cecilia, and stepped grudgingly to the podium.
“Thank you, to the one or two of you who actually bothered to clap. It’s a great honour to be here. Really. Anyway, over the next twenty minutes, I will contend that Nelson Eddy’s ‘Shortnin’ Bread’ contains secret Communist code fused with speciocidal daemonic prophecy; in particular, that fifteen of the sixteen named servitors of Gedeil have infiltrated the Democratic National Committee, with the sixteenth—Benny Assaba, Jr.—off on an extended convalescence owing to a golfing injury.”
Professor Blisterwhiffle ranted full-throatedly, voice of Howard Dean and face of Cherie Tomato (red-skinned variant; season three; rare), until, by the eleventh minute, his lungs running on fumes by this time, he tossed away his script and bewailed more generally: “But what—is—the—point?! Will someone, please, please, just shoot me?”
Two Magilla Gorillas wrenched him off the stage, bundled him out and threw in a few jabs to the neck for good measure, leading the co-host (Professor Bill J. Gager (unaccredited), of no fixed academic institution, if he hasn’t been heretofore identified) to rise once more from the mists and apologise, “Now if that ain’t a cue for lunch, I don’t know what is. Ha! You’ve got sixty minutes, folks, after which we’ll have our traditional flea sale and, I know you’ve been waiting for it, the big event!”
Cecilia sat at the far end of a lunch table, chewing unconsciously on a rubbery strand of lettuce from a packaged sandwich, listening to the gossipy hubbub echo around the lunchroom:
“What do you think they did with Blisterwhiffle?”
“Dunno. Line him up before a firing squad?”
“That’d be just what he wanted.”
“What he claimed to want.”
“You callin’ him a liar?”
“I’m calling him a fraud, and a slave to the baser emotions. You sayin’ otherwise, friend?”
Blisterwhiffle’s ephemeral defender, an arthritic musicologist from Portland, four wisps of scraggly hair, bug-eyed, in an off-the-rack patch pocket framing a distressed Guy Mitchell Rocks Japan tee, cravenly lowered his eyes and filled with a forkful of falafel salad the hole where his dignity used to be. His vanquisher, for his part, thumb-knuckled the brim of his hat in satisfaction with the penectomy he’d performed, smirked into his beard and all but fellated his bottle of Michelob to climax.
Cecilia rose, donated the remainder of her sandwich to the garbage can and went for a walk. It was on this walk, this very walk, rounding a corner from one non-descript corridor into another non-descript corridor, that she bumped (knee into knee) into—
“Oh my God—Professor Pfannenschmid?”
“Call me ‘Cecilia’, please.”
“Uh, sure. How do you say it again? ‘Suh. . .’?”
“‘Suh-see-lee-uh’—right. So, how are you?”
“Good, good, Buzz” (lie) “—how are you?”
“Fine, just fine” (also a lie). “I’m glad to see you” (not a lie, and if anything, in fact, an understatement).
Professor Buzz Dano-Coburg-Gotha, it should probably be explained, was an expert in obscure twentieth-century singers of popular music into whom—Buzz, not the singers—Cecilia had had the fortune to bump at academic conferences several times. They always smiled at each other and made smalltalk, but that was the extent of it. Neither had seen the other naked, or even come close, if that’s what you’re wondering. You weren’t? Fine. (I don’t believe you.)
“Are you still at Wingate Wilderness?” asked Buzz, adorable flop of provolone hair bouncing playfully about his forehead.
“How’re the girls?”
She shrugged. “Not too much into the music, actually.”
“That’s a shame.”
“How’s. . .?”
He shrugged. “Nobody seems to appreciate Carmelo Molluzzo much there either.”
A smattering of enthusiasm could be heard from down the hall. “Shall we check out
the flea sale?” she asked.
A slow tapeworm of attendees squirmed along the labyrinth of tables, somnambulantly casting their eyes across sloppy hand-printed shirts, hagiographic posters, cracked shellac recordings, saucy postcards of semi-dressed 1930s blues singers in choreographed coital clinches, learned self-published tomes on cobwebby corners of music history in illegibly dense prose, homemade votive candles ambiguously shaped like a beaming Cecil in specie Santo Niño, and locks of hair and nail clippings purportedly from various Venuses and Adonises of the big band era in reliquaries made of Elmer-glued popsicle sticks. A tombola advertised on a poster owing something stylistically to late-period Kim Jong-un boasted a once-in-a-lifetime trove of Cecil-related treasures, including a sweat-stained bag of tools, his leather AAF jacket, sand documented by a vagrant beachcomber to have passed between his toes, a comb, and a 1960s auction catalogue of his furnishings modelled, apparently, on Fulke Greville’s.
A three-quarter-bar of Cecil Beach Foam Soap in its original, albeit frayed and yellowed, packaging caught Buzz’s discerning eye.
“It’s still got somebody’s hair nestled inside it,” Cecilia noticed.
“Do you think it’s his?” Buzz asked with a hopefulness that made him feel decades younger, a boy with a stick in the soil and an exhumed bone that could only have come from an ancient beast.
“’Fraid not,” the seller, an obese lady in tinted glasses and rotted teeth, sighed with exemplary honesty. “The DNA analysis didn’t match his daughter.”
“Did his daughter submit?” asked Buzz with professional curiosity.
The lady squinted mercilessly. “We got her to submit.”
The big moment was approaching: the doors to the ballroom were flung open, and attendees shoved past each other to grab seats to the tribute show. Civilians, a.k.a. “the public”, a.k.a. “non-academics”, a.k.a. la sale canaille, were admitted, and in no time at all slimy lumpen bag people oozed in, muttering their barbaric, demotic argot and stinking up the place with Ypres-style gassing. Amidst the bustle, a whiny teenaged Parnassian who ventured out of his cell only on such momentous anniversaries nearly got trampled underfoot but, eyes shut in meditative horror, was inspired nonetheless to compose a fragmented masterpiece.
“Shall we go for a walk?” she asked Buzz.
“You’re not going to buy the soap?”
“Nah. I get some for free from the hotel.”
Outside, all was quiet. The industrial estate sat on a wasteland, next to a decommissioned nuclear plant whose monumental shape, looming like a dead, bloated Zeus, soaked up the whole sky. No thing, plant or animal, lived here. But what it lacked in herbage, it made up for in verbiage, Buzz punned to Cecilia’s qualified amusement.
He whirled to her, suddenly, a little frighteningly, and implored her, all twinkly-eyed: “Tell me about yourself!”
And so she did: “Well. I grew up in a small town on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border called—”
“No no, just the interesting parts.”
A little offended, she elided to: “I married at eighteen, a choice I deeply regret, to the deaf-mute heir of a cattle syndicate several decades older than myself after meeting him at the cocktail bar at which I was employed as a means of putting myself through pharmacology college, only to find upon his death two years later that he hadn’t a cent.”
“Quite. I then spent a demeaning year and a half selling gags to a pretentious stand-up comic who’d invariably mangle them on delivery, then blame me for, in his words, ‘lacking a truly Poundian range of allusiveness’.”
“What became of him?”
“Wife murdered him in the bath. That’s around the time I first heard Bill Ragen.”
“Yes: I moved into one of a series of dingy studio apartments, and found hidden behind a wall panel a dusty Victrola with a mint ‘Danger!’ 78 on it.”
“That led me to ‘I’m Always Smiling’, and all the rest of it. So I became a musicologist.”
“What was your dissertation on?”
“The Homoerotic D-Flat in Migliaccio’s ‘Morning Glories’.”
“Excellent. Last time I saw you. . .”
The sky was cat litter grey, enfolding them Antonioniesquely, and threatened to absorb them, swallow them, entire.
“I thought you wore a ring.”
“I married again. We’re still. . .we’re estranged.”
“He lost his tenure, a few years back, and his position, after a politically incorrect outburst—pretty rash, actually—and squandered our savings in a lawsuit against what he contended were the university’s theophobic policies, and now he’s an Uber driver.”
“Interesting line of work. Kids?”
“Aido-Quedo—he’s seventeen, now, and far more interested in liking photos on Facebook than in talking to his mom. He’s staying with his dad this half of the year, anyway.”
“Well, I think you’re perfectly wonderful.”
Then, when they went back inside and found a vacant room full of boxes, there was nothing left for it but to engage in a hasty bout of furtive carnal relations; the other side of the wall against which the back of Cecilia’s head awkwardly chafed was evidently witnessing the screening of one of Cecil’s films, and the great man’s crooning, at times belting, could be heard by the entwined, until, on the final high note, she came.
“How dare you?!” Buzz snarled, withdrawing preclimactically.
“What do you mean?”
“You climaxed to him, not to me!”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He turned away and completed his own erotic endeavour while continuing to converse: “Deny it! Go on! Deny it!”
“Well—what does it matter?”
“You disgust me!” he spat, dispensing a sample of his genetic heritage upon a waist-high box marked “Cart-Getter 3000XD—red”.
They took their seats in the ballroom and sat, clothes-crumpled, incommunicado, listening to a Cecil impersonator pay vocal tribute to their hero against a backdrop of slides of mystical Chinese ideograms that the real McCoy had been wont to articulate through scat. They did not turn their heads, nor speak, during the Ted Parker and His Troubadours partial reunion (most of the refitted band were sons and daughters and other near relations, or acquaintances, of the original members, plus John Stamos), nor during the Biz Markie rap tribute, nor the weepy spoken-word eulogy in ancient Greek by a prosopon-donned woman about seven feet tall, nor the closing shouty swoop bike-speed metal set with vocals by the ex-drummer from Nemam Guzu. The bag people pissed in the corner.
She’d dreamt of being a horse doctor, or an entomologist discovering new species of ant, when a girl; that girl, if she could have foreseen how she’d be spending her days as a quinquagenarian, would have surely vomited in boredom.
When a sense-annihilating, polarity-reversing crash from above announced the arrival of an attacking alien horde.
A bag person ceased his piss mid-stream.
Flaming hunks of concrete slammed down around them; strange light of undetected hues lit up people’s skin. Screamed appeals to the smoky sky bounced from one mouth to the next, lighting fixtures exploded and collapsed, limbs tumbled end over end through the air, panic, slaughter, fire, skinning, and the total unravelling of the human capacity for apprehension of one’s environment.
Cecilia squatted where her chair had been, her senses too overrun to permit thought. Buzz appeared beside her: he ripped off his face to reveal a pothole-faced alien beneath.
“I bring from another star a revengeful pain amplified far beyond the measure of your race,” he gorled.
She punched him in the stomach, upon which his shirt disintegrated and his flesh sloughed off.
“Ddjknhfhjlpyteshkkysahjgdsuujfjjkjuh!” he bellowed, alien for What the hell?!, then projected towards her from his finger a coursing squall of electricity, out of whose way she jumped, rolled and dodged.
“I’ll kill you!” she screamed, then grabbed the severed metal leg of a Daliesquely melted chair, rammed it into him till he died, dropped it, and said a few kind words over his corpse.
Mangled, charred, fish-flopping bodies, piece-scattered like the aftermath of a vengeful big brother let loose with his sister’s doll box, eyes seared with the deracinating knowledge of what they’d seen, lent the air a stench of Boschian incomprehensibility. The alien infantry, clad in electrically sparking armour, spread out across the room, picking off survivors with finger blasts. Cecilia, legs singed, hid under a table and tried to remember God. Then, all fear melting inexplicably into the aether, she crawled out into the smoke, uncognisant of danger, to the unscathed gramophone, lowered its unconquerable arm onto a Cecilian ballad, and beheld the aliens’ ears—she assumed the laminiform structures about their heads were ears—prick up, as they ceased their slaughter, wept—she assumed the melichrous pus oozing liberally from their various face-holes was their equivalent of tears—apologised to their victims and held hands—those pulsating tentacular thingees—with the survivors.
* * *
Cecilia sat by the window, gazing at the pink dunes that stretched out into infinity. Somewhere out there in the sky, round a star she could no longer see, lay the petty, troubled world she’d left behind long ago.
Queen Cecilia turned in her throne; her biochemically regenerated legs were more gelatinous than human, now, but she had adapted to her environment, her role, and her new self.
“What is it, k’lavorsheen?” (A k’lavorsheen is a pig-like creature in their world which is considered revolting to look at, let alone eat or keep as a pet. In other words, she meant it as an insult.)
The underling bowed. “I’m sorry to bother your eminence.”
“Well, now that you have, will you pay me the respect of saying what you’ve come to say?! Or must I endure more of your execrable toadying while you—”
“Your majesty, your son wishes a word.”
Her cobaltic jaw of which they were all so afraid rigidified. “Very well.”
They wheeled in, on a Porgyesque cart, her son, who to the Terran eye would resemble most a particularly unprepossessing blobfish.
“Yes, Danny, what is it?”
“Mama! I’m bored with all my toys!”
She winced at the squelching, flatulent voice, which echoed unnaturally around the hall. “You know very well that your keepers will buy you whatever you like.”
“But I want to play with you!”
She made the effort to turn her eyes upon him, but really looked inwardly, and said, “All right, Danny. Go along to your room. I’ll be there in a minute, and we can play Elves and Wizards.”
“Hooray! I get to be the elf!”
They carted him away, and Cecilia looked out once more upon the dissipating nebulae of eternity. She’d done her best to bracket off the thousands of hours she’d spent on Earth, in her career, affairs of the flesh, dieting, and reading celebrity news. Pioneers from her new world had journeyed to the gateway to cosmic wisdom at the centre of the universe; she could undertake such a voyage herself, if it didn’t terrify her, and if it wouldn’t mean certain, irreversible snuffing-out. And yet. . .
“What is it, slark’piteen?!” (A slark’piteen is a small ocean-dwelling creature at which, so lacking in self-respect as it is, a k’lavorsheen turns up its nose and would rather go hungry.)
“It’s I, General Blookaloo.”
“The traveller from your former world has arrived. He wishes to convey his people’s well wishes, and open negotiations for trade.”
The blaze of a lifetime’s indignation flared up.
“Burn them,” she whispered. “Burn that world.”
“As you command, my liege.” She heard him scrape and bow—to the extent that rolling folds of fat can do either—off to the military command to launch the assault.
Would she notice if the universe were that tiny notch dimmer? The panorama of space through her window would be no less beautiful. She suddenly remembered that she’d had a mole on her thigh—her former thigh—which she’d always thought so unsightly, when she was young, and toyed with the idea of lasering it away. The universe, then, absent the earth, would be that much more creamily pure, smooth and beautiful and mellifluous, like the swoonworthy crooning of
Adios, addio, adieu. . .