THE FIRST TRIP, OR KETHER
From Dealey Plaza To Watergate…
The Purple Sage opened his mouth and moved his tongue and so spake to them and he said:
The Earth quakes and the Heavens rattle; the beasts of nature flock together and the nations of men flock apart; volcanoes usher up heat while elsewhere water becomes ice and melts; and then on other days it just rains. Indeed do many things come to pass.
–Lord Omar Khayaam Ravenhurst, K.S.C., "The Book of Predications." The Honest Book of Truth
It was the year when they finally immanentized the Eschaton. On April 1, the world's great powers came closer to nuclear war than ever before, all because of an obscure island named Fernando Poo. By the time international affairs returned to their normal cold-war level, some wits were calling it the most tasteless April Fool's joke in history. I happen to know all the details about what happened, but I have no idea how to recount them in a manner that will make sense to most readers. For instance, I am not even sure who' I am, and my embarrassment on that matter makes me wonder if you will believe anything I reveal. Worse yet, I am at the moment very conscious of a squirrel-in Central Park, just off Sixty-eighth Street, in New York City-that is leaping from one tree to another, and I think that happens on the night of April 23 (or is it the morning of April 24?), but fitting the squirrel together with Fernando Poo is, for the present, beyond my powers. I beg your tolerance. There is nothing I can do to make things any easier for any of us, and you will have to accept being addressed by a disembodied voice just as I accept the compulsion to speak out even though I am painfully aware that I am talking to an invisible, perhaps nonexistent, audience. Wise men have regarded the earth as a tragedy, a farce, even an illusionist's trick; but all, if they are truly wise and not merely intellectual rapists, recognize that it is certainly some kind of stage in which we all play roles, most of us being very poorly coached and totally unrehearsed before the curtain rises. Is it too much if I ask, tentatively, that we agree to look upon it as a circus, a touring carnival wandering about the sun for a record season of four billion years and producing new monsters and miracles, hoaxes and bloody mishaps, wonders and blunders, but never quite entertaining the customers well enough to prevent them from leaving, one by one, and returning to their homes for a long and bored winter's sleep under the dust? Then, say, for a while at least, that I have found an identity as ringmaster; but that crown sits uneasily on my head (if I have a head) and I must warn you that the troupe is small for a universe this size and many of us have to double or triple our stints, so you can expect me back in many other guises. Indeed do many things come to pass.
For instance, right now, I am not at all whimsical or humorous. I am angry. I am in Nairobi, Kenya, and my name is, if you will pardon me, Nkrumah Fubar. My skin is black (does that disturb you? it doesn't me), and I am, like most of you, midway between tribalism and technology; to be more blunt, as a Kikuyu shaman moderately adjusted to city life, I still believe in witchcraft-I haven't, yet, the folly to deny the evidence of my own senses. It is April 3 and Fernando Poo has ruined my sleep for several nights running, so I hope you will forgive me when I admit that my business at the moment is far from edifying and is nothing less than constructing dolls of the rulers of America, Russia, and China. You guessed it: I am going to stick pins in their heads every day for a month; if they won't let me sleep, I won't let them sleep. That is Justice, in a sense.
In fact, the President of the United States had several severe migraines during the following weeks; but the atheistic rulers of Moscow and Peking were less susceptible to magic. They never reported a twinge. But, wait, here is another performer in our circus, and one of the most intelligent and decent in the lot-his name is unpronounceable, but you can call him Howard and he happens to have been born a dolphin. He's swimming through the ruins of Atlantis and it's April 10 already-time is moving; I'm not sure what Howard sees but it bothers him, and he decides to tell Hagbard Celine all about it. Not that I know, at this point, who Hagbard Celine is. Never mind; watch the waves roll and be glad there isn't much pollution out here yet. Look at the way the golden sun lights each wave with a glint that, curiously, sparkles into a silver sheen; and watch, watch the waves as they roll, so that it is easy to cross five hours of time in one second and find ourselves amid trees and earth, with even a few falling leaves for a touch of poetry before the horror. Where are we? Five hours away, I told you-five hours due west, to be precise, so at the same instant that Howard turns a somersault in Atlantis, Sasparilla Godzilla, a tourist from Simcoe, Ontario (she had the misfortune to be born a human being) turns a neat nosedive right here and lands unconscious on the ground. This is the outdoor extension of the Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec Park, Mexico, D.F., and the other tourists are rather upset about the poor lady's collapse. She later said it was the heat. Much less sophisticated in important matters than Nkrumah Fubar, she didn't care to tell anybody, or even to remind herself, what had really knocked her over. Back in Simcoe, the folks always said Harry Godzilla got a sensible woman when he married Sasparilla, and it is sensible in Canada (or the United States) to hide certain truths. No, at this point I had better not call them truths. Let it stand that she either saw, or imagined she saw, a certain sinister kind of tight grin, or grimace, cross the face of the gigantic statue of Tlaloc, the rain god. Nobody from Simcoe had ever seen anything like that before; indeed do many things come to pass.
And, if you think the poor lady was an unusual case, you should examine the records of psychiatrists, both institutional and private, for the rest of the month. Reports of unusual anxieties and religious manias among schizophrenics in mental hospitals skyrocketed; and ordinary men and women walked in off the street to complain about eyes watching them, hooded beings passing through locked rooms, crowned figures giving unintelligible commands, voices that claimed to be God or the Devil, a real witch's brew for sure. But the sane verdict was to attribute all this to the aftermath of the Fernando Poo tragedy.
The phone rang at 2:30 A.M. the morning of April 24. Numbly, dumbly, mopingly, gropingly, out of the dark, I find and identify a body, a self, a task. "Goodman," I say into the receiver, propped up on one arm, still coming a long way back.
"Bombing and homicide," he electrically eunuchoid voice in the transmitter tells me. I sleep naked (sorry about that), and I'm putting on my drawers and trousers as I copy the address. East Sixty-eighth Street, near the Council on Foreign Relations. "Moving," I say, hanging up.
"What? Is?" Rebecca mumbles from the bed. She's naked, too, and that recalls very pleasant memories of a few hours earlier. I suppose some of you will be shocked when I tell you I'm past sixty and she's only twenty-five. It doesn't make it any better that we're married, I know.
This isn't a bad body, for its age, and seeing Rebecca, most of the sheets thrown aside, reminds me just how good it is. In fact, at this point I don't even remember having been the ringmaster, or what echo I retain is confused with sleep and dream. I kiss her neck, unselfconsciously, for she is my wife and I am her husband, and even if I am an inspector on the Homicide Squad-Homicide North, to be exact-any notions about being a stranger in this body have vanished with my dreams into air. Into thin air.
"What?" Rebecca repeats, still more asleep than awake.
"Damned fool radicals again," I say, pulling on my shirt, knowing any answer is as good as another in her half-conscious state.
"Um," she says, satisfied, and turns over into deep sleep again.
I washed my face somewhat, tired old man watching me from the mirror, and ran a brush through my hair. Just time enough to think that retirement was only a few years away and to remember a certain hypodermic needle and a day in the Catskills with my first wife, Sandra, back when they at least had clean air up there… socks, shoes, tie, fedora… and you never stop mourning, as much as I loved Rebecca I never stopped mourning Sandra. Bombing and homicide. What a meshuganah world. Do you remember when you could at least drive in New York at three in the morning without traffic jams? Those days were gone; the trucks that were banned in the daytime were all making their deliveries now. Everybody was supposed to pretend the pollution went away before dawn. Papa used to say, "Saul, Saul, they did it to the Indians and now they're doing it to themselves. Goyische narrs." He left Russia to escape the pogrom of 1905, but I guess he saw a lot before he got out. He seemed like a cynical old man to me then, and I seem like a cynical old man to others now. Is there any pattern or sense in any of it?
The scene of the blast was one of those old office buildings with Gothic-and-gingerbread styling all over the lobby floor. In the dim light of the hour, it reminded me of the shadowy atmosphere of Charlie Chan in the Wax Museum. And a smell hit my nostrils as soon as I walked in.
A patrolman lounging inside the door snapped to attention when he recognized me. "Took out the seventeenth floor and part of the eighteenth," he said. "Also a pet shop here on the ground level. Some freak of dynamics. Nothing else is damaged down here, but every fish tank went. That's the smell."
Barney Muldoon, an old friend with the look and mannerisms of a Hollywood cop, appeared out of the shadows. A tough man, and nowhere as dumb as he liked to pretend, which was why he was head of the Bomb Squad.
"Your baby, Barney?" I asked casually.
"Looks that way. Nobody killed. The call went out to you because a clothier's dummy was burned on the eighteenth floor and the first car here thought it was a human body."
(Wait: George Dorn is screaming.…)
Saul's face showed no reaction to the answer-but poker players at the Fraternal Order of Police had long ago given up trying to read that inscrutable Talmudic countenance. As Barney Muldoon, I knew how I would feel if I had the chance to drop this case on another department and hurry home to a beautiful bride like Rebecca Goodman. I smiled down at Saul-his height would keep him from appointment to the Force now, but the rules were different when he was young-and I added quietly, "There might be something in it for you, though."
The fedora ducked as Saul took out his pipe and started to fill it. All he said was, "Oh?"
"Right now," I went on, "we're just notifying Missing Persons, but if what I'm afraid of is right, it'll end up on your desk after all."
He struck a match and started puffing. "Somebody missing at this hour… might be found among the living… in the morning," he said between drags. The match went out, and shadows moved where nobody stirred.
"And he might not, in this case," Muldoon said. "He's been gone three days now."
"An Irishman your size can't be any more subtle than an elephant," Saul said wearily. "Stop tantalizing me. What have you got?"
"The office that was hit," Muldoon explained, obviously happy to share the misery, "was a magazine called Confrontation. It's kind of left-of-center, so this was probably a right-wing job and not a left-wing one. But the interesting thing is that we couldn't reach the editor, Joseph Malik, at his home, and when we called one of the associate editors, what do you think he told us? Malik disappeared three days ago. His landlord confirms it. He's been trying to get hold of Malik himself because there's a no-pets rule there and the other tenants are complaining about his dogs. So, if a man drops out of sight and then his office gets bombed, I kind of think the matter might come to the attention of the Homicide Department eventually, don't you?"
Saul grunted. "Might and might not," he said. "I'm going home. I'll check with Missing Persons in the morning, to see what they've got."
The patrolman spoke up. "You know what bothers me most about this? The Egyptian mouth-breeders."
"The what?" Saul asked.
"That pet shop," the patrolman explained, pointing to the other end of the lobby. "I looked over the damage, and they had one of the best collections of rare tropical fish in New York City. Even Egyptian mouth-breeders." He noticed the expressions on the faces of the two detectives and added lamely, "If you don't collect fish, you wouldn't understand. But, believe me, an Egyptian mouth-breeder is pretty hard to get these days, and they're all dead in there."
"Mouth-breeder?" Muldoon asked incredulously.
"Yes, you see they keep their young in their mouths for a couple days after birth and they never, never swallow them. That's one of the great things about collecting fish: you get to appreciate the wonders of nature."
Muldoon and Saul looked at each other. "It's inspiring," Muldoon said finally, "to have so many college graduates on the Force these days."
The elevator door opened, and Dan Pricefixer, a redheaded young detective on Muldoon's staff, emerged, carrying a metal box.
"I think this is important, Barney," he began immediately, with just a nod to Saul. "Damned important. I found it in the rubble, and it had been blown partly open, so I looked inside."
"And?" Muldoon prompted.
"It's the freakiest bunch of interoffice memos I ever set eyes on. Weird as tits on a bishop."
This is going to be a long night, Saul thought suddenly, with a sinking feeling. A long night, and a heavy case.
"Want to peek?" Muldoon asked him maliciously.
"You better find a place to sit down," Pricefixer volunteered. "It'll take you awhile to go through them."
"Let's use the cafeteria," Saul suggested.
"You just have no idea," the patrolman repeated. "The value of an Egyptian mouth-breeder."
"It's rough for all nationalities, man or fish," Muldoon said in one of his rare attempts to emulate Saul's mode of speech. He and Saul turned to the cafeteria, leaving the patrolman looking vaguely distressed.
His name is James Patrick Hennessy and he's been on the Force three years. He doesn't come back into this story at all. He had a five-year-old retarded son whom he loved helplessly; you see a thousand faces like his on the street every day and never guess how well they are carrying their tragedies… and George Dorn, who once wanted to shoot him, is still screaming… But Barney and Saul are in the cafeteria. Look around. The transition from the Gothic lobby to this room of laminated functional and glittering plastic colors is, one might say, trippy. Never mind the smell; we're closer to the pet shop here.
Saul removed his hat and ran a hand through his gray hair pensively, as Muldoon read the first two memos in one quick scan. When they were passed over, he put on his glasses and read more slowly, in his own methodical and thoughtful way. Hold onto your hats. This is what they said: