WE ARE MADE OF STARS
Providence native Jonathan Thomas has persisted in writing weird fiction amidst (or despite) such diverse livelihoods as postal clerk, artist’s model, and percussionist. His collections include Stories from the Big Black House (Radio Void, 1992), Midnight Call (2008), Tempting Providence (2010), and Thirteen Conjurations (2013; all from Hippocampus Press). A novel, The Color Over Occam (2012), is available through DarkFuse. Magazine appearances include Vampirella (Warren, 1978), PostScripts (PS Publishing, 2010), and Nameless (Cycatrix Press, 2012).
He keeps the world as his disguise…The leader of the starry skies…
—Tim Smith of Cardiacs
IRA WASTED NO SYMPATHY ON THE HACK FROM THE Preservation Commission. Photo op or no, who wore three-piece Armani to man a power washer? And with foolhardy bare hands? In sensible navy-blue jumpsuits, Ira and his DPW duo stayed upwind (as did the Journal reporter and cameraman) of clumsy assault on defiantly indelible graffiti “We are made of stars” above an illegible signature. From misapplied nozzle billowed a cloud of agitated droplets, and jets ricocheted everywhere.
The gray granite wall of St. John’s Cathedral was 200-plus years old, and magenta scribble bloomed beside a padlocked, weathered side door. When laden breeze shifted perilously, the onlookers backed further among the churchyard’s worn and broken gravestones, in even sadder shape than the cathedral. The property had been vacant for months, victim of shrinking congregation and untenable upkeep, a candidate for the wrecking ball. Preservation Commission gesture of solidarity with the mayor’s Graffiti Taskforce was a classic case of too little, too late.
Too bad about historic architecture like this, but why get all sentimental? Progress and omelets alike demand some breakage, do they not? Meanwhile, the dapper, sopping idiot persevered with pneumatic blaster to laughable effect, and the photographer angled for a spray-free shot, like a jackal angling for one-eyed wildebeest’s blind side.
Wandering attention led Ira’s eyes around the cemetery, in its artificial hollow bound south, east, and north by church wall, fieldstone retaining wall, and a nursing home. Atop seven-foot retaining wall was a railed promenade accessible to more active seniors, several of whom glumly surveyed the compressor-powered spectacle. A male orderly in turquoise was rubber-necking too, and over everyone’s shoulders peered a passerby from off Benefit Street, an artistic type, hardly unusual with RISD four blocks down. Detached, hipper-than-thou demeanor gave him away. In Ira he instantly triggered feelings of affinity and resentment.
He could have passed for Ira’s prodigal self, dropping by from parallel universe to taunt him. Same rough age, height, photogray lenses. Skin-deep differences between them Ira chalked up to plein air versus deskbound lifestyles. Prodigal self, beneath brown leather jacket, was concave where Ira was convex. Prodigal’s sun-kissed tan in April made Ira self-conscious of year-round doughy white, and flippant silver forelock mocked Ira’s receded hairline. Hell, the teenage Ira had harbored decidedly artistic leanings, but nobody had to tell him he’d be a damn sight safer majoring in business.
Impatient tap on the shoulder restored him to bleak reality. The two damp, fed-up newshounds were violating his personal space. They’d gotten what they came for, the writer mouthed over the roar of compressor. Goodbye! The so-called preservationist was still at it, venting mercifully private frustrations on unyielding spray paint. Ira signaled his crew to kill the noise. When high-pressure stream conked out, overdressed shoulders slumped as if a trance had lifted. Neo-yuppie turned stiffly, and fastidious beard sparkled with beaded-up water as he wailed, “I’m all wet!”
And dude, you’re the last to notice, thought Ira, who said instead, “We’re parked in the church lot down on North Main. Should be a towel on the passenger seat.”
Photo opportunist’s glower projected silent accusation he’d been tricked into dousing himself. Where was civilization headed, Ira pondered, with this level of chronic mistrust between private and public sectors? “Thanks. The Commission’s around the corner. I’ll change there,” the twit demurred in frostiest patrician monotone. Cloaked in bruised and shivering dignity, hands red and raw, he tromped up brick path to stone stairs up to the promenade and then Benefit Street.
Ira beckoned at his Taskforce, lounging on tabletop tombs. “Let’s show our fans how it’s done.” During inch-by-inch erasure of “We are made of stars,” Ira puzzled at artsy sentiment’s appeal to a delinquent. The audience, including his bothersome, mismatched doppelgänger, had dispersed from the railing when next Ira checked.
By the evening rush, smudgy column of smoke presiding over downtown would have apprised Commission twit his self-promotion had been wasted, even if he’d missed that thud like a piledriver impact, followed by sirens. Damn, it’s happened again, mulled Ira during ten o’clock news, not the least heartbroken that everyone would ignore the item about St. John’s, assuming the Journal ran it at all. Nor could he muster shock at latest attack, only bemusement at how readily citizens adjusted to a semblance of life in wartime.
Third local pipe bomb this month had destroyed the gondola shed under the footbridge at Waterplace Park. And with what result? Expensive boats were reduced to toothpicks, concrete bridge over the lazy Woonasquatucket had withstood the blast handsomely, and several minor casualties were receiving treatment for lacerations and tinnitus. The park was usually depopulated past mid-afternoon, based on enduring rep as a good place to get mugged, except on WaterFire nights, when too many suburbanites clogged streets and parking facilities.
Yes, the incident would wreak havoc with biweekly WaterFires, or Campfires on the Canal as Ira had it, when the gondoliers were busiest and stacks of hardwood in midstream rows of iron baskets went to blazes. City councilmen vowed on camera they’d approve special funds to rectify this cowardly act of terror. For prize tourist bait, Ira sourly observed, money always solidified up some magic sleeve, but termites were welcome to the 200-year-old wainscoting of historic landmarks.
So in whose manifesto was bombing gondolas an ideological goal? And with zero body count and no serious disruption? Previous sabotage had been equally random, stupid, and thus far untraceable, and Ira was happier than ever to be out of the Homeland Security loop. He was unclear whether the mayor had dubbed him Graffiti Czar as an honorific or a joke, and didn’t care, content to rule his little roost of DPW loaners and two vanloads of cleaning equipment. Let more ambitious politicos risk fucking up where it actually mattered.
In windowless excuse for a corner office, Ira slogged through morning review of voicemail, with near-even ratio of complaints about graffiti and misdirected tirades about potholes. Between peevish messages, he overheard coworkers beyond his partitions react to yesterday’s explosion. Their tone rapidly escalated from aghast to rabid, and he stopped listening when a proposal to summarily execute foreign agitators met with cheers.
He’d plead guilty to his fair share of heated discussions, talking trash, around the water cooler. But outright bloodlust like this—no, never! This new conversational norm made him cringe, as if people were losing their inhibitions, their judgment, like a milder version of the impulsiveness behind cretinous trend to plant bombs. Or maybe he wasn’t exempt from bad graces on the rise. Maybe he could have offered that Preservation Commission clown some pointers on using a power washer. It just hadn’t occurred to him.
Then again, absurd targets were blowing up daily in cities worldwide, as if terrorism had been dumbed down, rendered apolitical. That should have been enough to put everyone on edge everywhere, despite most sanguine adjustments to “life in wartime.” The mayhem hurdled national, cultural, and religious boundaries like wildfire over white picket fences, too scattershot to blame on copycats or any one organization.
Given the global situation, Ira was grateful for an HQ on the sidelines and off extremist radar, by Allens Avenue waterfront south of downtown, in a city hangar smelling of gasoline, rubber, and paint. This was particularly okay because a faint, embarrassing air of naphtha always clung to him, and he was more at ease in pungent surroundings than at City Hall, regardless of loud maintenance on sander and street-sweeping trucks.
Anyway, Ira couldn’t wax too pessimistic at grisly headlines. Every generation since Plato’s had proclaimed its officials most corrupt, its youth most irresponsible, its ideals most debased, its criminals most heinous. And how often have Jehovah’s Witnesses alone had to revise their date for doomsday? No sooner does prophetic handwriting on the wall fade from sight and mind than it reappears, as if for the first time every time, Ira concluded.
He happened to be staring at the crappy linoleum, as if subjecting it to X-ray vision, probing into its past when dispatcher’s or mechanic’s station might have occupied this corner. The cracked and scuffed flooring was black, with haphazard off-white whorls and ripples like froth on a creek or cobwebs in a drafty cellar or gas clouds adrift in cosmic void. Yes, that was it. Such clouds, he’d heard somewhere, were the last gasp of defunct suns, or the first stirring of nascent suns, or both.
What the hell were they called? Simple English escaped him, even as the cracks and scuffmarks faded and a planetarium’s illusion of depth surrounded him. He tried to wrap his head around the enormities of distance he’d have to travel to float within that starscape, the enormities of time in which dust became suns and then dust again. Somehow it didn’t faze him to dwell on light-years and eons, nor was it strange that these spans weren’t intimidating. He felt at home, in fact, within this daydream of deep space.
After a vacant while, the ringing phone brought him down to earth. He reached for the receiver slowly, dreamily, as if under the spell of lingering weightlessness. At the mayor’s voice he snapped to attention. His Honor ordered him to drop everything and skedaddle downtown to fix some goddamn graffiti on the Superman Building.
Superman Building was an utter misnomer, but who cared? Since Ira’s boyhood at least, Rhode Islanders had cherished the myth of Art Deco skyscraper as model for one version or another of the Daily Planet offices, and nothing could disabuse them of it. Might as well try insisting “spa” didn’t rhyme with “star.” For eight decades, bigger and bigger banks had tenanted the state’s tallest high-rise, till the biggest bank in America pulled out and left it like St. John’s, derelict and ripe for demolition.
Tagger had scorned unchallenging street level and bas-relief frieze (for which he’d have needed a ladder) of city founder Roger Williams befriending Indians and securing a charter and other iconic highlights. Rather, he’d made straight for the tippy-top, abetted by B&E or human-fly skills, and was obviously the same artiste who’d profaned empty church, because along the entablature below cylindrical cupola was scrawled, “We are made of stars.” Naturally the mayor was furious. The view of vandalism from his window would have hit him like a magenta slap in the face. Was that the artistic intent?
With leaden heart Ira grimaced upward, deaf to schoolkids and geezers milling around, waiting for buses in scruffy Kennedy Plaza. To undo this product of daring, stealth, and spray paint, Ira had to requisition scaffolding, safety harnesses, netting, and how the hell much else? The mayor would have to cut a lot of red tape, fast-track a lot of permits. Still, based on His Honor’s displeasure, Ira was confident of men on the job by noon.
Mayoral ego they could salvage, sure, but the outlook for Superman Building was more doubtful. For Ira’s money, graffiti on abandoned property always contained a subtext that solvent couldn’t remove. It marked a place as unprotected, vulnerable, the brick-and-mortar equivalent of a sick, lame critter ready to be culled from the herd. Sad it had to be the Superman Building, and the repetition of high-flown text irrelevant to the wall it marred was mystifying.
As expected, fully tricked-out Taskforce was soon hustling to the twenty-eighth floor, and by 4:30 the masonry was verbiage-free. Funny how fast the wheels of power spun when self-image was at stake. His Honor, of course, was home long before then, and would mayoral short-term memory extend to thanking Ira tomorrow? In any case, the cupboard in Ira’s apartment was bare, so he scouted downtown for a menu within modest civil-servant budget.
He paused at the corner of seedy Washington and Mathewson Streets, leery of presenting a stationary target to panhandlers or worse. Wasn’t some organic, local-ingredients eatery hereabouts? Down Mathewson, a mixed company of well-dressed thirty-somethings, with white collars or shiny necklaces, was filing through a doorway. That looked promising. The façade surrounding the doorway was of beige tiles with a sculpted row of blue cresting waves at tiptoe level, which Ira followed past the point of no return, to find himself gawking through picture window at a gallery opening, a.k.a. refreshments gratis. Why not?
The stoop was surfaced in black marble, as was the length of the foundation. It caught Ira’s eye and induced brief vertigo. In the black were white veins, webbed and swirling like the linoleum in his cubicle, like the seething stellar gas whose glow wouldn’t reach the earth for a million years. Steady there!
He wrenched his focus toward the unframed canvases beyond the glass. They only unsettled him further. The walls were like windows onto night skies, where stars clotted together as if between folded hands, or were strewn in irregular clusters, on the verge of resolving into patterns purely in the mind of the beholder maybe, like something by Jackson Pollock. These contorted heavens were somehow perverse, sinister, but mostly confounding because their exquisite stippling, their subtle infusions of red and blue and yellow, had been executed in spray paint. Ira would recognize that generally crude medium anywhere.
Refocusing on plate glass an inch from his nose depressurized him till he discovered upon it the press-type lettering “Signs of the Times” above an illegible signature in presumably water-soluble magenta. Were all scribbles too alike to differentiate, or had he erased this one twice in as many days? Out the corner of his eye he glimpsed a pair of upscale hipsters smirking at him on their way in. He shut his gaping mouth and steeled himself. If the culprit was right here and Ira oafishly slunk away, he’d never live it down.
The space behind the glass amounted to an anteroom with a massive reception desk, or did bank of shallow drawers for art-work make it a storage unit where an attendant sat? Anyhow, upon it stood an artist’s statement in a clear holder, and Ira skimmed as far as, “My true name is the unreadable name on my work. To reveal it would cede power to others, and moreover, the human larynx cannot pronounce it.”
Yep, in each lower right corner was a unique miniature of the magenta squiggle, an insanely narrow-gauge use of the spray can, in keeping with that possibly calculated insanity of the artist’s statement. Through square arch was a windowless inner sanctum with more paintings and, with any luck, wine and food.
First, though, title labels below each image might lend insights into the painter as madman, or better yet, as perp. Shuffling along, Ira crinkled despairing brow. “Pack Up Your Troubles”? “Everything Must Go”? “Game Over”? Names were as unrelated to compositions as graffiti had been to historic walls. “The Stars Are Soon Right”? Aha, connection with the subject matter at last, but as usual with modern art, Ira didn’t get it.
“It Had to End Sometime.” That arrested him, that threw him, as when a passing stranger snickered at his orthopedic Crocs. It had preternaturally singled him out, a rejoinder to earlier musings on the countless postponements of doomsday. He shrank from the label as if that were the same as disowning his outbreak of magical thinking.
Oops! How the hell had someone snuck up behind him, and he none the wiser? He recoiled from jarring contact, with the keenness of repulsion between like magnetic charges. “Sorry,” he mumbled, and turned to meet emotional short-circuit. Part of him was shocked and part was too ready to confront yesterday’s Bohemian from the parapet.
Had the Bohemian bowed more curtly, Ira would have mistaken it for a tic, and he grasped whose reception this was even without benefit of introduction. “An honor to be in the crosshairs of my specialty’s most outspoken critic. Call me Ari, why don’t you?”
Ira’s mental short-circuit sputtered on. How much, if anything, had this Ari just admitted, if that was his birth name? Ira fumbled for words like a skydiver for a misplaced ripcord. “What do you know about that graffiti you saw me erase?”
“I know it was unimportant once it served its purpose.” As Ari shifted his blasé weight from right foot to left, tight leather pants squeaked. Ira hated leather pants. “I know you shouldn’t fritter away the time we have left.”
Jesus, what to address first, the graffiti’s “purpose” or “the time we have left”? Ira was still foundering when a plump girl with armloads of jangly bracelets and blue streaks in blond dreadlocks steered the exhibitor away by the puffy sleeve, whispering about a buyer. She betrayed no awareness Ira existed.
Stress was loosing that musk of naphtha from his pores, wasn’t it? No wonder gallery girl had shunned him. He’d learn no more tonight about tentative suspect. This had been a far cry from his scene, his comfort zone, for decades. Best to steal away, before he attracted further demoralizing smirks.
On the sidewalk, he glanced up repeatedly en route to his Civic. Providence was city enough that its skyglow made for mediocre stargazing. Big Dipper, Scorpio, Orion’s Belt, anyhow, looked no different, to his great relief. Had he really doubted they would? And remarkably, sense of kinship with smug painter had also endured, though morphing into sibling envy that yearned to put parallel self behind bars.
Ira lost track of how many days plodded by without local disturbance. But they offered no respite. Spirits didn’t rebound, no hopes for lasting calm brightened, definitely not for Ira, and how could he be atypical? Nope, more mayhem had to be brewing, and the longer it held off, the tenser the citywide atmosphere grew. In others, moreover, Ira discerned unseemly, ill-harnessed anticipation, as if they were secretly eager for smoke and explosions, circus, a festival of calamity. Disappointment lurked under new workplace greeting, “Well, no bombs yet.”
Ira deplored this ghoulish hankering, crediting strength of character for exempting him from it. Yes, for weeks he’d had crazy dreams, but how was he responsible for those? Actually they’d have qualified as nightmares, except he woke energized, elated, like Scrooge on Christmas morning. But upbeat mood wasn’t his fault either, was it?
In fact, they only chafed because he couldn’t decipher the remembered chaos so lucid to his dreaming self. Ari’s jagged signature across chrome gate the width of a canyon had been perfectly legible, and Ira had blithely pronounced its chittering syllables. He was basking in the nuclear fusion at the heart of a sun, in teeming red bursts and eddies and vortices, and he beheld in it a parity with rioting mobs packed into malls and town squares, looting and torching and butchering, and both the solar furnace and the carnage filled his ecstatic regard as if he were in two places at once. The act of looking up had thrust him into black space among white maelstroms of gas broader than any planetary system, and had reminded him that everything material spent more eons inchoate than otherwise, that such was everything’s true and normal state, and squinting, he could comprehend the age of each atom as handily as reading a clock. But come morning, alarm clock dispelled any remnants of epiphany, demoting him to sad sack who’d absorbed too many bad vibes from the zeitgeist.
The mayor had convened a review session of everyone in charge of anything at Public Works, and glowing self-reports droned on as excruciatingly as shadow crept over brick wall across the way from stuffy Victorian council chamber. Rush-hour traffic had all ebbed away before a blue-haired secretary barged in and practically brayed, “Bomb scare at the Arcade! Bomb squad’s there now! Chief of Police and Public Safety Commissioner both called and said tell the mayor immediately!”
Meeting adjourned, before Ira could enlarge upon promising efforts to nab the graffitist His Honor most wanted to rot in jail. Stampede swept disapproving Ira along, involuntarily excited as if by osmosis, among seasoned bureaucrats no classier than hungry paparazzi chasing some poor celebrity. The Arcade was a minute’s trot from City Hall, but intervening taller structures prevented it from sticking like derisive finger in mayoral eye.
Here was another venerable landmark, its survival till impending two-hundredth birthday in question, a veritable temple of commerce with Ionic colonnades and proportions from the heyday of Greek Revival. Touted as the first roofed shopping mall ever, it had ridden out economic crests and troughs galore until current owner evicted its small-scale retailers to install a single major player, who promptly reneged during the mortgage crisis. For years the mice had had three stories of boutique floorspace to themselves.
Used to be, Ira mused, that prospects of lethal blast and dismemberment and rocketing shrapnel would have frightened the public off. Now, however, his colleagues’ bluster and elite rank couldn’t even leverage them up to the police cordon, through crowd thicker than pigeons around a hill of crumbs. Thrill-junkies had flocked from college dorms and repertory theatres and barstools, ditching nightlife culture in the dust. Not that city fathers were setting a more dignified example.
Nobody pushed or jostled. Rather, as if by psychic consensus, everyone strained forward en masse, to exert constant, fatiguing pressure on police line, like a starfish on a clamshell, ignoring orders to disperse without specific misconduct to provoke night-stick reprisal. Bomb-squad armored van was parked on slate sidewalk between cops and Arcade steps, and the crew was somewhere indoors. Nothing to see, actually, apart from the crowd itself, and in isosceles triangle below the roofline, the magenta script “The Stars Are,” stopping short of forlorn Xmas star made of light bulbs at the base of the triangle.
Hey, that was half of a title from Ari’s exhibit! Ira drew exultant breath. He had wily vandal dead to rights, never mind how unwily Ari had been to recycle telltale phrase. What’s more, the foretaste of guilt-by-association was delicious. Maybe bomb prep had taken Ari so long that police arrived before he could finish tagging.
Logic dictated Ari was already miles from the scene of the crime. Too bad! Ira indulged backward once-over just as streetlamps sank incandescent shafts into the dark, and for once wishful thinking was rewarded by sudden spotlight on Ari, catty-corner in the forecourt of an ’80s pink granite office tower. With a nonchalance as if he’d practiced at a mirror, as if his eyes hadn’t met Ira’s, he about-faced and ambled through the revolving doors into the tower’s glass-encased lobby.
Briefly Ira spaced out as he would while watching a seahorse in an aquarium. Then he charged off, without alerting his colleagues, who’d joined relentless mob, or the cops, in no position to assist. He darted through the revolving doors, raised an eyebrow at absence of night guard from receptionist’s island in the middle of capacious lobby, and detected Ira on the black rubber ramp to the revolving doors on the other side of the block. Green rucksack with pair of oblong red reflectors sewn into the flap must have functioned as vandal’s paintbox.
Ira padded along, a casual stone’s throw between them, grateful for de facto tracking device that bobbed away like red eyes of a playful monster skipping backward. Soon, he rejoiced, he’d be phoning police from outside Ari’s home or atelier or next site of misdemeanor in progress. Ira trailed him past Superman Building, across nocturnal sideshow of Kennedy Plaza, up more and more desolate streets beside the glass-and-girder impersonality of Westin Hotel, Convention Center, the coarsely christened Dunkin’ Donuts Arena.
Red-eyed monster was much less worrisome than the foot traffic. There was an awful lot of it, and it only increased dramatically after he and Ari crossed the bridge over Route 95 and headed up Broadway. Lowlife or cleancut, cool or conservative, male or female, pedestrians stalked around with hard, feverish expressions as if out looking for someone to start something and for no other reason, not that this avenue of padlocked cafés, funeral homes, and rundown Victorian mansions provided reasons.
Everyone’s bearing was jittery, loose-jointed, as if they had trouble containing themselves. What had gotten into people? Did they even question why they were rambling under the stars? Was tonight a full moon? Ira narrowed his gaze solely onto Ari’s back-pack and every so often repressed an urge to bawl, “Where the hell are we going?” Ari was as keen on the way forward as Ira, never glancing aside or behind. Nothing in his behavior let on he knew Ira was tailing him.
Ira had to weigh the dismal possibility he was in the thrall of a cheeky, solipsistic Pied Piper, a story that never ended well. Simultaneously, to break off pursuit would leave him alone in the thick of maladjusted, hostile humanity, as if Ari at close range conferred safe passage.
A knot twisted in Ira’s stomach as Ari entered Broadway’s final downhill stretch. Yes, they were bound for Olneyville, Ira’s least beloved neighborhood, scuzzy, congested, post-industrial bottom-land where bottom-feeder shops and businesses and the city’s social dregs collected. He was aware of how that sounded, but dammit, who could accuse Ira of snobbery when it was the plain truth? And ironically, though downtown touted itself as the Arts District, substantially more artists resorted to the gutted mills and warehouses of Olneyville for low-rent lofts and studios.
In the basin dubbed Olneyville Square (though it was more an unruly intersection), the locals were at their most reckless, most agitated, in such scofflaw numbers that cars weren’t getting through, the net effect resembling a restive carnival midway. He overheard plenty of angry muttering, but saw no conversations. Praise the Lord, Ari veered left before gathering riot entrapped them. Ira memorized the name of the side street and debated whether he’d ever been here, had dined at a rib joint around that hairpin bend, shit, it would have been thirty years ago.
But then, forget the rib joint, every sensory input engaging his consciousness began to resonate as if with déjà vu, or with the echo of someone else perceiving likewise. It felt like a nitrous oxide high, and maybe the someone else was Ari, halfway through parking lot of rehabbed multistory factory. Most of the windows, shaped like those tablets bearing the Ten Commandments, were lit and filtering giddy cocktail chatter, lapping like sonic waves out to the sidewalk. Ira shook his head vigorously and cleared it for the moment. Wow, tough day was taking its toll on his pragmatic brain, or was he hyperventilating after crosstown hike?
Squatting behind a minivan in the parking lot, he freed his cell from vest pocket of City Hall go-to-meeting suit and had 911 connect him with West Side precinct house. Two dozen exasperating rings later, he rattled off his name and title and the street and the name of the “arts complex” on plywood sign above the dark arch of the entrance. Inside, he announced, was a graffitist the mayor avidly wished to nail, and possibly the Arcade bomber as well.
The desk sergeant seemed inappropriately lightheaded and cavalier when terrorism and Mayoral priorities were involved. They were kinda shorthanded at present, he hedged, but he’d try sending a car, and what was the address again? “Okey-dokey,” he signed off.
“Okey-dokey?” grumbled Ira at dead phone.
Ari must have gone in by now. Ira scurried to the murky archway, seeking some directory of tenants with Ari therein, or even his true name’s unpronounceable zigzags. Instead he found Ari, taking snide, minute bow and heaving open gray steel door. Ira rationalized he wasn’t more startled because he’d grown used to Ari’s unpredictability.
“That bomb in the Arcade was none of my doing,” Ari greeted him. “In fact, I tipped off authorities when I noticed the break-in while going about my business. I refuse to be upstaged by anything rudimentary as fertilizer and brass tubing, though in light of quick police response, that’s exactly what happened.” He beckoned Ira brusquely inside. “You’ll be safer accepting my hospitality.”
Ira was at a loss for what to believe. He would, however, most likely feel safer behind even this miscreant’s locked door. In short order, cocktail chitchat suffusing night air had devolved into the uproar of a building-wide drinking game. Ira ducked on ahead, tempted to perform a snippy little bow of his own, but why lower himself to Ari’s level?
First-floor offices behind frosted-glass windows were dim and silent. Ceiling fluorescents shone dull on worn varnish of floorboards rife with gummy black spots and oily streaks, and Ira could have sworn the lighting pulsed in sync with the ebb and flow of raucous celebrants. At the end of the corridor were stairs and a freight elevator. Nary a soul had sprung from the woodwork yet, for which Ira was profoundly thankful.
Was accompanying impulsive Ari into confined quarters a wise idea? Ira’s line of sight tarried on the bottom steps till Ari cleared his throat. “I’m four flights up. Odds are better of running into people on the stairs than in the elevator.” Ira nodded haplessly.
Ari bent at the knees to yank elevator door up by a strip of burlap trailing in the dust. He slid aside the inner folding gate. Ira meekly preceded him into the cage and prematurely fretted over whether he’d exit through forward or rear door. Snap out of it, man! Ira had to regain some control before he degenerated into blubbering putty. He hit mental rewind of memories about Ari, stopped indiscriminately. “Do you really think your vandalism will save historic landmarks by publicizing their sorry condition?”
Tarnished brass plaque on the wall sported a big red button labeled “Up” and a big black button labeled “Down.” The frame for the inspector’s certificate was empty. Ari pressed his thumb against red button and held it there, and shook his head as if Ira were a slow child incredulous about the birds and bees. “We’re in 100% agreement that graffiti spells a property’s doom.”
When the hell had Ira told him that? Or was it like Ari’s “Had to End Sometime” title as clairvoyant rejoinder to Ira’s private musings?
“And I’ve used innocuous spray paint to hasten the destruction, rather than risk lives with messy explosions.”
“But why do you want these places torn down?” Furthermore, how long did this rattletrap need to go up four stories?
“Till quite recently I took for granted a morality that informed great art, an ethical code for artists. Then the dreams convinced me otherwise, and I realized abetting the inevitable would lessen the general suffering.”
“But what is it that’s inevitable, and what does flattening old buildings have to do with it?” Ira also puzzled at his poor judgment in decamping from the parking lot, since the cops, assuming they ever showed, would be clueless without him.
“You would know our inevitable end, you would know everything I do, if you let yourself.” Ira was half listening, half diverted by his blossoming bouquet of naphtha, automatically concerned he was offending Ari. No revulsion was evident. “Too many factors are contributing to that end for me to summarize. But would you like to discuss the one in which we’ve played roles?”
Grinding, squealing gears in the elevator shaft shook the cage and made Ira wince, which Ari interpreted as yes. “Obviously, ‘old buildings’ are a tangible part of our history, our cultural memory. Destroy enough, forget enough of the past, replace its traces in enough skulls with the ephemera of today minus all yesteryears, the collective psyche reaches a tipping point, as when infections from separate wounds stage a coup together. Ours then becomes a species deprived of history, mere consumers, like germs in a Petri dish, devoid of purpose or perspective, often in the name, ironically, of progress. And this is good, this merits expediting.”
“This is good?” Ira’s weak echo died as the car shuddered and groaned to a standstill.
Ari lectured on, as if oblivious to stoppage. “It’s good because it’s inevitable, it’s the reality of the universe in naked glory, the state in which we’ll be beyond good and evil, reveling and merging in a holocaust of ecstasy. Dreams have taught me this, and those like you who’ve had the dreams but learned or remembered nothing of them, they still awaken your atavistic selves to foment havoc or hatred.”
Could blithering Ari still relate to the here and now? “Are we going to be stuck here for long?”
Ari frowned again as if Ira were a pitifully slow child. “It stalls like that sometimes.” His thumb released the red button. “Let’s retry our luck later.” Ari was obnoxiously unfazed. “Ever occur to you that elevator factories are always in one-story buildings? What kind of confidence does that instill?” Ari had to grin for the two of them.
No sooner had ratchety elevator motor gone silent than the bedlam of merrymakers rushed in to plug the vacuum. Between the laughter, banging, shrieks, and breaking glass, the residents were already too ecstatic for Ira’s taste. Overbearing racket crimped the wail of approaching sirens into the whine of mosquitoes.
Pragmatic Ira was frantic to debunk this whole evening as an elaborate hoax, a joke, a montage of delusion and coincidence. However, calm and clarity from interior parts unknown assured him his doors of perception required no cleansing. From out of that same uncharted depth reverberated Ari’s soliloquy, a syllable ahead of its delivery aloud, like the pre-echo of first notes on Dad’s LPs, further proof of the empathic party line he and Ari shared.
He shied from buying altogether into Ari’s endgame madness, but something untoward, something surreal was occurring. As a pragmatist he had to acknowledge sober sensory input. And before pandemonium worsened, he had ledgers to balance, dots to connect. “Ari, you underestimate me. This anarchy erupting around us, I remember it from dreams as well as you do. But since I’m such an ignoramus, please, why is that anarchy mixed up in my dreams with feeling euphoric inside the sun and floating in dust clouds a million light years away?”
“Apologies if I’ve misjudged you.” Again with the minimal bow. “But to my credit, I distinguished in you a kindred spirit, the fellow beneficiary of an inborn gift.” Ari paused as thundering feet and concerted jabbering from somewhere below set the latticework gate to vibrating gently. “We’re privileged to observe these preliminaries without engulfment in them. Genetics or more obscure agency has made us brothers in that respect.”
Ari and Ira flinched in unison as a flurry of gunshots prompted a spike in the caterwauling, and then a bated hush, and then shriller caterwauling and muffled pounding. Cops in the maelstrom, as per Ira’s 911 call? Cops bluntly neutralized? With their blood, and that of their marksmanship, on Ira’s hands?
Ari shrugged off his backpack, dangled it by the straps on his forearm. “The rioters, the heart of the sun, the stardust, they are all one. That was the lesson of your dreams, decoded from every cell in your body, had you only been receptive to it. You should have become an artist. Knowledge doesn’t always come of logical processes. Or do revelations belong in the same mythic ghetto as Bigfoot and chupacabra?”
While awaiting tongue-tied Ira’s reply, Ari lowered backpack to floor and fumbled in it, and then the dingy bulb in the ceiling went out. In the treacherous dark, Ira went rigid like a panic-struck pillar of naphtha, but then, light from a battery lantern next to the backpack tainted the cage wan blue, as if Ari had foreseen this blackout.
That question on revelations must have been rhetorical, for he forged on. “If you’d cultivated a less earthbound disposition, you’d have remembered the sounds of my true name engraved on the chrome gate, you’d have remembered how to write it, and you’d have fathomed it’s your true name as well, just as it’s everybody’s true name.”
Ari paused as if forewarned again. Thud! Ira managed to embrace the white lie that a bushel sack of potatoes had slammed into the elevator roof and rocked the cage, in the seconds before a dribble, brownish in the blue light, seeped through the seam around ceiling emergency hatch and pattered onto the floor between them. Ari went on as if such distractions were beneath him, or simply weren’t getting past his manic effulgence.
“A more intrepid will than yours would have bypassed the chrome gate and deduced from tableaux and inscriptions on geometrically indecent monuments the glory of those who flourished before our stars, our sun, occupied the sky. You’d have understood that our predecessors can only reclaim bodily existence when the stars are right, those stars that were their stars, which decomposed into dust, into atoms of elements that became our sun, our planets, ourselves.”
With a clinical detachment in itself probably symptomatic of mental breakdown, Ira noted a readiness to take Ari at his word, as if he were professing nothing deranged, just as Ira’s reaction to blood from the ceiling was limited to a desire to sidestep the widening pool. No dice! His vexing bouquet had vanished, he was no longer a pillar of naphtha, but his feet were stuck fast.
“In other words, we are the stars, and now we are right, and in a position to restore the primeval majesty of one who has bided inert and diminished, a relic of his former omnipotence. This is our destiny, to revivify a lord of previous creation, to commune with what we were ten billion years ago.”
Initially Ira blamed bleak lantern glow for Ari’s greenish complexion, but it overtaxed coincidence that at the same instant he perceived Ari had gone mute, flapping his lips like a stranded fish, or else Ira had gone deaf, for he couldn’t hear the orgiastic din either. His nose, meanwhile, still functioned, and in lieu of naphtha was the burgeoning stench from a barrel of rotten shrimp. It didn’t bother him, though, any more than the blood on his shoes did, and really, it was something to savor.
And now sea-green Ari was calmly, languidly sloughing off human outline and melting out of his clothes, and Ira yearned to liquefy more quickly and coalesce with Ari and flow from the elevator toward the others, and it didn’t hurt, without pain receptors it couldn’t, those must have been among the first mortal attributes to go. Instead, his disembodiment felt liberating, empowering, and especially natural.
Best of all about becoming one drop in this rising sea, one piece in this global puzzle, he could envision the totality, as if a jigsaw piece could see the finished picture. His interactions with Ari, everybody’s interactions the world over, had always been jigsaw pieces too, building up to this moment, and as history ended and eternal now began, he saw with another’s eyes, and with dwindling selfhood, that he would be augmenting the girth of a mountain, a mountain he brought more fully to life by melding with it, a mountain that would live forever and tread among the stars and among the stars that would succeed them. The sound of his true name no longer posed a mystery, except no human mouth could properly pronounce it, and he had no mouth whatsoever.