BREAKNECK: A KATRINA FUGUE
The Lud staggers out into the rubber, cobbled thoroughfare, hand on his whomper. The storefront emerges out of the faux medieval stonework like a portal to another plain of existence. I hang back in the midst of the user flow and take it all in. The Lud mutters to himself and paces in a tight, mean circle, his mustache aflutter, before working his way along the non-compliant ruin of tents and sleeping bags the customers have abandoned in the middle of the thoroughfare.
The pressure is building. They close their eyes and sway and hum. Probably have to keep an outrage quota to maintain tax exempt status. Lud, all right, forget it. Psych leave. You know how those retirement arcologies can be. No one does. Gandy probably forgot what his mother even looked like. Nor the depths of sleaze Tom Gandy is willing to dig himself through to get outta work. But I do know we got a job to do. A campfire crackles and extinct animals caterwaul in the prehistoric wilderness. Before I even have the opportunity to ask, he assures me the cocoa belongs to a genetic lineage untampered with by human cultivation.
He jerks the cup back, scalding himself. I take the cup and sip it. Not so much the part about sacrifice. He weaves his fingers together solemnly and rests his elbows on the refreshment cart between us. The female members are industriously crushing flowers picked from the parklands into a colorful goop and painting their pulpboard protest signage with pithy sayings.
Both seem like probable violations of the transit code. I narrow my gaze to measure his level of snark and unconsciously drink the cocoa. A swig of cocoa U-turns up and out of my nostril and I nearly double over. I take another sip to drown the cough. Above us, the fiberglass needles of a spooky pine beat softly in the busy air. Pigeons coo in the Styrofoam undergrowth. I nod over at the Craft-A-Crotcling. Blankets, pillows, sleeping bags, toilet paper, sacks of waste, carryout and delivery canisters, nanofridges, natural sunrise alarm clocks.
He flings out a couple toddler-shaped bipedal Your Motherhood Starts Today! TM soligrams. They wail and babble on the floor in tantrums. Lying face down on the floor tiles behind the Lud is an elderly woman in handcuffs. She calls the Lud a cave pig. An older gent, who I guess is her husband, paces around her, his hands worming in his pockets.
A young woman shouts at the Lud from her firmly held spot in line—daughter maybe—and demands to know if the elderly lady is being detained. Chief Lenny pokes a finger in his ear and digs around. He flicks out something organic. I respond to them on reflex. But no human brain should be able to call up every code in the MTA database willy-nilly. The three-three-eight-seven is listed under a section heading with the lively title of Transgression against the Grain of the Moral Fiber of the Universe, which spans a range of criminal endeavors including, but not limited to, cannibalism, the use of weaponry banned by the Reunification Treaty of Topeka, and the offering of a payday loan service.
In what way the Lud is interpreting this is beyond my capacity for judiciary sadism. I cradle the cacao shell and sidle my way through passersby across the thoroughfare. The second I leave, the tribesmen swarm their chief. Call it experience. She looks like a geriatric turtle with her neck craned up under her osteoporosis hump. Her freshly permed hair is full of pluck. According to the database, they live in a well-to-do tenement in Sector 12 called Sarasota Coves. Clothing optional. Healthy pensions, not. We never have this trouble with the surface police—the real police!
The Lud crabcrawls out of the tent, looks up at the words, and snaps his head in her direction. The tears tremble in her ducts. My husband, he… he… he died in the line of duty. The Lud struts past the old man up to the widowed daughter-in-law. I check the time. It is going to be a long fucking day. Hands in prayer mode, the widow brings her bare arms to rest on her childless bosom. The old man stops coughing. He swallows hard, looking a bit woozy. The Lud turns on the elderly couple and draws his phablet and stylus so fast they seem to pop into existence. He nods at the daughter-in-law.
Soulless, pitiless. He shrugs. But, you know, the three-three-eight-seven seems like a happy middle-ground. The line of prospective parents outside the Craft-A-Crotchling issue forth a collective, pent-up animal squee. They hop and bunch like an epileptic millipede. The head on this thing is massive. An encephalitic subspecies of human. The neck is weak. The head bobbles with the rhythm. I wonder if this being is representative of one the designer phenotypes Craft-A-Crotchling is rolling out this morning. The end result of selection by parental one-upmanship in the baby genius department.
The widowed daughter-in-law is in near panic, turning between her former in-laws and the Craft-A-Crotchling, but in the end, she opts for the next generation and powerwalks straight for the vulvar entranceway. He drags his elderly perp to her feet. Serve something! I turn and see Chief Lenny climbing one of the plastic oaks, an animal horn pressed to his lips.
He puts all his non-fatty cardiological might into blowing. I cover the cacao cup with one hand to keep from spilling and ford the stream of Metro users moving down the thoroughfare. For their credit they just go about their business, ignoring or simply not noticing the Paleochristians or the Craft-A-Crotchling customers.
I scan the median for movement. Nothing but a lifeless wall of plastic plants all similar shades of gothic. Batshit zealots with a primitivist fetish. A crawly ichthyoid thing flops over in my stomach and dies. My colon lurches. My diaphragm heaves. Neither end knows whether to open up or pucker shut. My gut and my head churn. My intestines knot. My brain uncoils and loosens. It squirms along my esophagus. Vomit slides up the back of my throat while the velvet autumnal leaves in the median surf along the currents of conditioned air blowing from vents hidden in the undergrowth.
This plastic forest writhes. Layer upon layer of careful hues reveal themselves like the slow, complex rainbow of a blackened room. Depthless, entangled, evolving. The plastic displays all the symptoms of authentic plantlife. They breathe and bask. The untapped soulstuff of polystyrene. Synthetic beings conjured from the selfsame polymeric soup as all other creatures but eons dead and process manufactured.
Chief Lenny toots his maddening horn from the treetop while the tribeswomen hold hands and throat sing guttural hymnals in sync with the open-handed drumming on the exo-temporal. The melodies ripple over me. Scenes of quaint Ice Age cave life play in my brain. Lazy Saturdays spent mowing or watering the front grassland. Children chasing the megafauna down by the glacier. My eyeballs trace the ageless kilometers of what could only be my arm, to where the cocoa inhabits my hand. The chocolate liquid steams in its organic cup like a Precambrian ocean pregnant with lungless ecosystems.
The cacao shell the vessel of the world. I take a breath through my skin. I take a breath parsecs deep and it becomes abundantly clear to me, in a true volume of clarity inflating my chest cavity, that the fucking paleos have spiked their cocoa with a hallucinogen. And in this moment, at the intake, the warriors of the Providential Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid break from the treeline. They charge past in slowmo, whooping and frothing, infused with cocoa. Avatars of a prehistoric manger-born god of battle. Each of them wields a noodly weapon—probably a leftover of the Perpetual War scavenged from some forgotten underground cache—with a mouthlike killing end that squirts forth warmly glowing splooge whenever one squeezes its ammunition bladder.
One hits near the Lud and glues his boots fast to the floor. I blink and stretch my eyelids, attempting to shutter out the limitless geometries. Somehow the Lud slips out of his boots and foots it after them down the thoroughfare in his socks, his whomper drawn. He spins back and looks me dead in the eyes. His mustache evolves and crawls over his face. You hold down things here until I get back. Be back in two shakes of a jiffy. The Lugosi concourse bristles with war whoops and screams.
A crowd of gawkers have gathered along the concourse, sipping coffee and snapping pictures. The men fire indiscriminately while the women sing. I am soaked in sweat and itching. I drop the rest of the half-empty cacao shell into a trash receptacle, out of habit, and something squawks bloody murder. A pigeon leaps out, flapping its useless wings, its featherless skin smoking with hot chocolate. It skitters across the thoroughfare, cooing angrily, threatening lawsuits. I strip off the windbreaker and draw my whomper from its holster.
Be uhdvized, evuhryzing will be okay. Do not wuhrry. On either side of me and above, the pink walls and ceiling throb and glisten with a mucosal sheen—a fussy veneer of sexual tissue dribbling with viscous weaponized mucilage. Out of the cooling discharge the outstretched limbs of victims flail and grasp at me, exposed heads heaving for air and pleading for release. Shh, be quiet. Nothing to see here. Its beheaded helmet piece looms like a prehistoric egg from the goop nearby. The canal is swamped with body heat. I am shedding sweat. Animal fear. Primal bafflement.
Spinal contingencies. Hives break out along my throat and shoulders, pricking down my belly, firing off nerve endings at random. Invisible protohuman hairs prickle all over. Deadened action potential. I grip the whomper tighter and it vibrates. The weapon sings. I slog down the corridor, following the ragged and ulcerous throat-sung hymnals of the tribeswomen.
Every step forward my feet pool, spreading like gelatin, elephant-like, tremendously heavy. I begin to stumble, feeling the urge to crawl. The Oedipal squirm back into oblivion. The womb that waits on the other side of dying. The Metro grows darker behind me the deeper I plunge. I remind myself I was born of a C-section—there is no metaphor here. This is the inside of a store.
Suspects ahead of me. No backup. From the concourse, a news drown sweeps down the corridor at breakneck speed, panning over the scene, beaming distress citywide. It corkscrews and flies around me, turning its all-exploiting eye on my willowish, drug-flustered being. It sputters to life out of a decade long coma. The pulsing organic architecture, its psychic overflow, becomes a terrain to be crossed. Simple and manageable, entirely external. Third person. Zero conscience except for what the media provides.
Police business. The lobby is lined with an abundance of intersecting fallopian hallways. More victims are glued to the floor and walls. After a few minutes, I stumble upon a lone paleo warrior squatting on his sculpted glutes at the entrance to a showroom filled with demo fetuses suspended in vats, knees splayed and warcrying, as he fires his noodle-gun at the people hiding inside. I tiptoe up to the archway and brace myself against the wall.
I turn my head sideways to keep reality from sliding back off. I hold my breath and level my whomper at him. Sweat runs down my face. The angles curl and wave under the tide of cocoa washing back over my brain. I measure the space between us. The single flat whomp of the shot plasters me against the wall and reverberates through the clinic and back out into the concourse. A green flash strikes like a light bulb burning out inside my skull.
I fold up on the floor and stutter and spit and slap at my bleeding ears. No ringing. My ears are fried. My head swells, the skull bone becoming the rind of a melon. Gelatin grey matter sloshes in my brainpan. Bile roils up my throat, between my teeth, and I retch. At some point, between the wall and the floor, it occurs to me, the thought wiggling into shape, that I was holding the whomper backwards. The Paleochristian tribesman stares down and levels his weapon at me sprawled on the ground. He lowers the weapon, blinks at me, and hops over my body, scampering off deeper into the clinic to join the others.
I try to roll up and position my body to a pursuit vector but end up grawling toward a glowing red EXIT hologram. The news drone hovers around me, its lens focusing acutely on the blood, snot, stomach acid, and cocoa draining from my mouth, nostrils, ear holes, and tear ducts, while I pull myself across the lobby one arm at a time outstretched like an elastic, corn syrup-filled latex tube. A heaviness seems to infuse the air as I cross the uterus.
My lungs weigh me to the floor. The Metro. My brain. The gross weight of the entire city above arches over me, all threatening to cave in. Everything recedes. The birth canal extends darkly toward the concourse like a Metro tunnel. I attempt to pull myself upright, finding feet at the end of my legs. And I laugh. It wells up and takes over.
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Each guffaw a yawning gulf punctuated by heaves and stutters. The news drone encapsulates everything in its massive and singular eye.
I stand giggling in the black pit of its gaze, my enlarged gourd tottering on my fragile neck, held upright on useless noodles of limbs. I chuckle and slide down the slick vaginal lining of the wall to the floor but never seem to reach it…. I am bundling, compartment by compartment, into unconsciousness—the infused cocoa lets me feel every cerebral region fold up and close down.
My tongue lolls like a dead cat, slaked with fur. When my eyes open again, without my telling them to or even suggesting it, I find myself staring up at the Jovian bulge of a low-hanging crotch on a pair of crisply starched transit cop uniform pants. We should… What are you doing? He stares down at the puke covering him.
Beside me, cuffed to one another around the trunk of a plastic palm, is the elderly couple. I have to keep my eyes level with the steady plane of his mustache to keep from falling over. He jabs a thumb back at the clinic. The TM sergeant said something about upgrading the situation to a five-nine-seven. I hate it when he smiles. On the phablet is what might be the thirtieth straight replay on The Morning Commute of me marching into the Craft-A-Crotchling with my weapon drawn and whomping myself in the face while the words SGT.
Despite having whomped himself on a live newsfeed, he somehow managed to make sixteen arrests. He slaps me on the knee. I gotta run these measly three-three-eight-sevens, sergeant. The victims snuggle under trauma blankets and drink nostalgic comfort beverages. Think this might belong to you. It was in a pile of crap we found.
The discharge has lost its warmth and glow but not its potency for stickiness. It stretches between my fingers like doughy snot. Yesterday had been my fucking birthday. I like telling myself I forgot. All day yesterday I paced in my apartment wearing nothing but the ceremonial garb of a pair of day old briefs, pretending to have forgotten and hoping someone, the Lud or even Tom Gandy, would call so I could demonstrate my forgetfulness, my lack of sentimentality, but no one did.
Thirty-eight years old. Fourteen of them spent on the fucking job. Half of my life. As a kid, I would dream of being a transit cop. I would ride the trains alone or stand on platforms for hours after school and peer into the tunnels, into those new winding caverns and the prewar fathoms of the Old Metro so stuffed with mystery, with its abandoned stations decaying in the depths like ghost towns and its unknowable mutant lifeforms prowling its spans of endless night.
It was a borderland full of promise. It was like looking at manhood through the eyes of a pubescent boy. And here I am looking back and wondering if I ever arrived. Nowadays, being a transit cop is all I dream about. Paperwork, procedure, protocol. The flame of adventure has guttered. Transit infraction after transit infraction, day in and day out. A lifetime of predictable outcomes is the outcome of a predictable lifetime. Black hair has become salted with gray.
All our promised tomorrows lie at the head of a long ruin of other tomorrows. The end of the line. Frontierless middle-age. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. At the end of the day, the Lud has six daughters and a wife waiting for him at home. The Metro taketh. I hop off the foam block of castle wall and walk across the thoroughfare. I toss the whole whomper into a waste receptacle, through a hole labeled HERE. After finding his ruined boots in the solvent the Lud continues throwing the book at the elderly.
He stands in his socks and quotes violations and ordinances while the old man nods gravely and his wife prods and pokes at potential loopholes in the seamless fabric of transit law. I consider walking away. I quit. I gave the order: burn everything, and I did so to protect my intellectual property as well as that of the Palestinian Film Board, which generously agreed to finance my live action adaptation of Watership Down. They wanted a parable about liberty and statehood, and I have always been a fan of the novel.
I took the helm solely because of the technical challenge. The Palestinians do not have much money and could not produce a film with expansive computer animation, hence the need to use real wildlife and to shoot on location. The film itself was viable and remains viable, and would have been brought to utter, timely fruition had it not been for Professor Gregor Ritzenthaler, PhD, former chair of the North Carolina Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology.
I see in him now something of a tortured genius and an unpleasant, reluctant saint. It was a Wednesday morning, about half past eleven, and he was on his eighth or ninth boilermaker. I should have been alarmed by this fact, but instead I was charmed by his knowledge of rabbit society, the inner workings and brutal politics of warrens and harems, breeding grounds, places of exile, defeat.
It was operatic. But Ritzenthaler showed up to the first day of filming drunk on Knob Creek and released all of the rabbits. Once he sobered up on a loaf of sourdough bread and a thermos of blackcoffee, it took him a full day to traipse through the marshes and recapture most of the principal cast. We had dinner that night in my trailer, and he apologized in full and promised to switch to a lower proof bourbon. At the time I believed this to be a fair and reasonable compromise.
The role of General Woundworth went to our largest rabbit, but he was docile and diffident on camera, not at all keeping with his characterization in the novel. In order to induce the appearance of despotism and rage, we fed General Woundworth four ounces of espresso and his heart promptly exploded.
The look in his eyes was terrible. Ritzenthaler did not forewarn me of this possible outcome. More rabbits freed and anamorphic lenses smashed to bits. It may be unpopular to claim outright, but a single, German-engineered anamorphic lens is worth a thousand Woundworths. There is no justice in this world.
My tormentors were somewhat organized and adequately funded. They were occasionally ruthless, and one night they kidnapped Ritzenthaler as he was exiting a local tavern in the company of a known prostitute. Did she lure him into their hands? Was she a part of it? But dear God, what they did to him was much worse. It was perverted and sanctimonious. A letter dated four months ago from those bastards records their attempts to sober up Dr.
Ritzenthaler, much to his horror, by feeding him a diet of milk thistle and organic honey. Of course I contacted the police, but the detectives I spoke to were entirely apathetic. Ritzenthaler was a known drunk and a lecherous troublemaker, and they were glad to have him off the streets and away from their genteel country brothels.
Fate had thrust into my unassuming orbit a manic scientist, a listless constabulary, and a cadre of mediocre terrorists. Without Dr. Absolutely joyless. I had hoped that the musical score could add a subtext of romance and power to these empty trysts, but I ran out of money to hire a proper composer. My nephew, who is my ward, began writing and recording music on a keyboard synthesizer as per my instructions, but it was not very good. His atonal concertos did not suffice. Halfway through the scheduled shoot, on a large hill overlooking the set, under the aegis of the setting and torpid Carolina sun, he appeared at dusk with an army of militant vegetarians behind him, forty pounds lighter from the denial of Knob Creek and fried haddock and broiled liverwurst.
Our eyes met from across the field and his were dull and humorless.
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Sobriety made Professor Ritzenthaler sinewy and agile, with a chest like repaired and burnished Alexandrian marble. With Ritzenthaler leading the charge, they attacked us with paintball guns and attempted to seize our equipment. He was devastated. What little I salvaged of the film is rough, extremely rough, without color correction or computer effects.
Many shots still include myself and Dr. Ritzenthaler shepherding the tranquilized and chemically aroused rabbits on our hands and knees, placing them into phalanxes, arranging them beside conspiratorial camp fires, forcing them to confront or make love to one another or to assume the stance of a tyrant, trickster or messiah. In spite of our bellies and hangovers, there is a natural harmony and litheness to our movements as quadrupeds, and the rabbits are so drugged and insentient that they seem to harbor some love or at least Darwinian deference for us, like newborns for their mothers.
We look like a family in the dirt and mud, among grass and longleaf pine, immortalized in 70 mm film while under the distant lights of Ursa Major. I note this wearily and wistfully with each, obsessive viewing. But Ritzenthaler and I will be erased in the post-production process, and the rabbits will effectively be orphaned.
Avee Chaudhuri is from Wichita, Kansas. People always asked Dana what the set of Lost City was like. There were lots of crazy stories. People said hookers swarmed the set knowing they could trade favors for background or extra work. They said it was the biggest migration from sex work to SAG membership in film history. They explained the weird sound modulation in certain scenes with tales of boom operators being fellated or cunnilingled while tape was running. Bobby had a cocaine buffet next to the cold cuts, of course, and Dom Perignon decanted into plastic pitchers and flower vases.
Walk Through Harlem was lean and mean just like its antisocial protagonist. His later movies were elegant, bombastic, as was the catering for them. Lost City , then, was frenetic either because that was the script and the energy radiating off the actors, or because now there was money and no one had yet learned how to hogtie it.
Most of the legends about the Lost City set required the kind of credulity usually only found in teenage boys.
Hard Trail to Breakneck Pass
But in regards to the story about Doug Reimer, there was video evidence, and Bobby would trot it out whenever the crowd count at his house dropped below twenty and he wanted to engineer an atmosphere of intimacy. That was his flaw: not being content with being applauded in the auditoriums, needing instead to be loved by anyone in his parlor. Roberto Cazadores on credits and statues. Reimer categorically denied it was him, but also lectured anyone who came into his office about how easy it was for an ungroomed situation to make even a big dick look small.
He did everything short of issuing an official press release saying so. There are pictures of him on set in that shirt. The cufflinks were engraved DR. Dana had seen the routine more than anyone. Whenever someone asked how they met Bobby started sounding the opening notes. He craned his neck to see who was laughing next to him and saw Dana. It produced the same effect as the tightening of an aperture, blurring the depth of field behind him.
They meant her laugh had a power to wound them. She could see him. He was looking at her now and trying to figure out if she was beautiful. Her mouth was wide, her lips full, giving her a smile that looked superimposed. She walked that line too: half beautiful, half buggy. And here was Bobby Cazadores trying to decide whether he wanted to fuck her, which meant that he did. They had to know that they could. She asked if he could at least pretend to stab her. He grabbed a nearby microphone and went through the old Pyscho routine. When Dana let loose her scream it paused the set. PAs stopped walking with half a heel on the ground.
Crew members at the sandwich table let their mouths hang open, showing wads of roast beef. Doug Reimer, still half-naked in the deli set, looked at her with eyes that seemed like they might never blink again. Screams were common enough on set from actresses in scene, from drug freakouts, from crewgirls getting goosed, from young actors when assistants spilled drinks on their costumes.
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A moving and important work of fiction. The characters who populate Louisiana Maps: A Diagram of the Territory of New Orleans, are loners, seekers, pilgrims—often as worn and scarred as the post Katrina landscape—the stark reality of their existence shot through with vibrant streaks of hope.
There is a man in prison and the woman who loves to make him burn for her and there is a man who burns fire in the deep of the ocean and the woman who falls asleep with his arm beneath her and there is the woman who films people talking about the parts of themselves they are willing to sell, the woman who, like all of us, desperately needs to hear that she is needed. All eight stories are about desire and how so often desire goes unfulfilled. Here you will find beauty, strength, and the raw ache of what it means to live in what remains of New Orleans.
Here, the tensions of art and story meet to create a precise and beautiful darkness unlike any other. They are flawed but fully human, never mere caricatures but men trying to overcome the bad cards life has dealt them. Poissant is a first-rate storyteller who has an appreciation for the absurd turns of events that press down into all we try to keep buried until we have no choice but to face the people we are when we're alone in the dark. By turns, funny and heartbreaking, this story has teeth and enough bite to grab onto you and not let go.
Throw in an alligator in a kiddie pool and, dear reader, you've got one hell of a story. Poissant is an extraordinary talent, and 'Lizard Man' is nothing short of unforgettable. David James Poissant's writing has that same effect, the initial and wonderful strangeness giving way, slowly but surely, to something deeper, something difficult, something beautiful. Poissant is a writer who knows us with such clarity that we wonder how he found his way so easily into our hearts and souls. I read his fiction years ago and became a lifelong fan; I promise that you will, too.
Wilhelmus Award. She seamlessly weaves together the outer life and the inner, events in the world and the actions of her characters, the tenor of the times and the yearnings of individuals. And she does this with stunningly fresh language and a compression that not only feels natural but inevitable. This is a very fine book by a very talented writer indeed. Francine Witte's short stories invoke a strange and compelling world. Sentence by sentence each story flows brilliantly and effortlessly toward its own perfect and surprising end—and makes you return to the beginning to discover how you got there.
Do not miss these astonishing, luminous rides. They're built from wicked humor, grit, and an affection for the fickle, fragile people we are. These are exquisite stories that wield the power of precise and artful language. Francine Witte grew up in Queens, New York.