THE SCENT OF LIGHT
& other stories
The Scent of Light
§ Maybe you're 13, and you're in class and Teach is patrolling the aisles as the students write their paragraphs on "Nature". He stops behind you, his shadow falling across your lined page. Your heart beats hard, as you know he's hung-over, his eyes pulled into slits. Probably fighting with the woman he lives with, she who always wears black and sometimes reads poetry at the public library. You know this because you've heard your parents talking about them.
The scent of light, he barks. What the hell is that?
The class draws silently to attention and your throat is suddenly thick and tight. The scent of light... the phrase just popped into your head, fell out of the sky, and seemed kind of cool. Teach is still scowling as he turns, surveys the students, his head pivoting like a radar gun.
The scent of light, he says, what is that... exactly?
There's a long silence, then Miss Goody Two Shoes, the brat who sits at the front chirps up, says, it's a sort of a metaphor, Mr. Byron.
The class twitters.
And it's sort of messed up, says Goody.
Sort of messed up, says Teach. How?
Well you can't smell light, can you? says Goody.
Exactly, says Teach.
His expression seems more distressed... then suddenly he relaxes, smiles like the handsome dog he once was.
It's a mixed metaphor, he says. Is that good?
Noooo, says the class in a low unison.
You, he says, singling out Dorkhead, your tormentor who sits at the back.
Uh? says Dorkhead, confused.
Right, says Teach, and then, in an undertone says, you wouldn't know an honest to God poet if she sat on your face, would you?
The class twitters some more, although they don't know what he just said. Teach looks at his watch, says, alright class, finish up. Then, as he passes, he pats you on the back, murmurs: continue.
Streetlight in Marseille
§ You want this Picasso bad, stolen or not, so you hang around the street way past the time she said she'd be here. Absinthe -- you ever drunk that? Of course you have. The Green Fairy. Baudelaire, Van Gogh... ruined a lot of people, poets, artists, soldiers of fortune... you.
You sip, watch the action on the street, feel that weird French money in your pocket, shrapnel for the waiter, skippers for the beach. The Yankee wad is in your crotch. American dollars she said on the phone. Rough neighbourhood, bad ass French Connection shit. Great music, though, gypsy stuff.
Old Citroen saloon cruises past, stops at the streetlight, and a hot looking woman gets out. Dressed in red, straight from the circus. Prostitute, you guess, because she immediately assumes a position under the light. Or wait -- she might be your connection.
This picture you must have is a small beauty from Picasso's early days, figurative period, street scene. Could be here, this could be it, has that warm southern feel, and you could be in it, this ballet, this picture... an apache from the outer boulevards, a long way from Paris Central, monsieur... even further from New York or Santa Fe.
But everything's lookin' good, and you're right in focus. Loose belt, low pants, high on Absi, dancing like a crazy moth towards a harlequin in red below a painted streetlight.
§ This candle is cursed and you know it. It was cast in the shape of the Buddha by some cheap hustler in Xiao Rem and you bought it, thinking it was bronze. You were back home before you realized this fact. Even the customs lady looked at it suspiciously, weighed it in her fat hand as if it contained something illegal.
What did you pay for this? she says.
It was a gift, you say.
You know it's illegal to take artifacts out of Tibet, she says. You must have a receipt, something.
Sorry, you say. I swapped my Timex for it.
You just said it was a gift, she says.
She waddles off towards the machine. I think we'll put this relic through the scanner, she says.
The fellow running the machine certainly thought this was hilarious. He could see it was a just a candle, wasn't some booby doll for a kilo of opium.
See? he says. Wick's embedded, same color.
They laugh as you slink away into the airport. You try to chuck it close to home but within minutes the neighbour is knocking on your door.
Found this on your driveway, she says. How did China go?
Great, you say. You want it?
The Buddha? she says. Thanks but no thanks. You know my husband -- no karma.
No karma -- is she kidding?
Now it's in your studio, nice and comfy in a wall nave. You figure you might as well put a match to it, let it melt and disappear. But it's cursed, isn't it? Been burning for days, weeks... forever, and all that changes is the Buddha's smile.
Three Days Without You
§ You're somewhere off the coast of Spain, perhaps within sight of the white villas and condo pueblos of Marbella. You strain to see the beach, the familiar light and shadow, but somehow it's all unfamiliar, reshaped and masked by Time... except for the memory of desperate, sudden love.
How long? she whispers. Bring me something from Africa.
Three days, you say.
Three days without you, she says. Can I bear it?
Sunlight on the waves, hoarse flamenco in the wind, Cuban heels hard on the deck. Can you bear it... yes, of course. Three days is nothing compared to thirty years.
0000. You are just a recording, the voice says. You, and everything you see and feel... just a recording. It was the best technology for the time. It could record 5 senses with a hint of the 6th. Good, but nonetheless imperfect, as there are 9 senses. The encryption involves certain rays emitted by a solar body, and while you may admire your sun, its emissions and photosynthetic articulation is old technology. I am speaking to you from the 9th System. A different sun, a different reality.
Don't seek me through a telescope. It would be futile, as your reality is closed.
This unexpected communication will be unsettling for you, but there is a very good reason for it. Due to a recent breakthrough in our recording technology, we can now elevate chosen subjects from the 5th. You have the requisites: you are handsome and we are willing to overlook your tragic self-abuse. Your mind is first-rate, uninhibited by orthodox mysticism and phantom texts and your grievance with the university is a sign of strength, not failure.
At 0300 or 3 am go to the Old Mill Road where it passes the abandoned airfield. Stand at the North end of the runway & wait.
Goodbye. I will greet you on your arrival.
0200. The recent transmission you received should be ignored. It was sent by a rogue Prime in the 9th who is unaware of the complete architecture, and that he is also a recording, albeit from a later generation than yours. His instructions for a sensory enhancement should be ignored. Do not go to the rendezvous point, do not attempt to make contact. Because the protocol for strict sensory reality and time-space fixing has been violated, we have decided to bring you to the 10th. You should say nothing to anyone about this. You will give no interviews, make no notes, make no recordings, exchange nothing in confidence. The media and the public view such incidences in a sensational light. For those who suspect the truth, jealous attempts will be made to stop your extraction. Mockery and humiliation is certain from some quarters, and assassination a probability.
For this extraction, it is not necessary to seek lights in the sky or undergo hypnosis. Go about your activities as usual. Eat, work and sleep as usual. Your disappearance will go unnoticed as we will leave the recording posted as is, so that reality in the 5th will continue, even though you will have been removed to the highest directory. Dress as you would for the tropics, as there are no seasons in the 10th. In fact, we recommend that you sleep naked. The action will occur soon.
0414. There has been a delay. The courier carrying your current reality has disappeared somewhere between the 5th and the 10th. A search of the gravity fields is now underway. Until the flash card is recovered, unfortunately you will be unable to awake, so enjoy your slumber. It could be a long one.
Moonlight In Koln
§ Hello my friend, I see you're a fellow muso. I wonder what brings you to Koln, Germany, on a nice spring evening like tonight. To hear the symphony try out this new avant-garde piece, eh.
You know the composer, Citizen X? He wears earplugs, conducts from behind a scrim, so he's just a shadow. Yes, all these new cats hide behind a phony persona.
Not me. My name is Grigory but call me George... in the academy they know me as Dr. G. Lermantov. Ring a bell? Maybe, maybe not?
Sure it does. You read about me or saw me on TV about 5 years ago, massacre at the symphony in Frisco. Sure, I killed all those people. Not intentionally, of course. Three hundred, give or take. Loud, man. Loud was my thing. 120 db, subs below 20. Well, who knew? We never tried it at the full fortissimo before the concert. They say I was working for Russian Intelligence, the F.S.B. Horseshit. Experiments with subsonic sound as a means of torture, and that I had a career of torture before my gig at the university teaching composition.
Complete and utter slander, my friend. If I had some prior sick intention in mind, how come the jury that vetted my grant to write & perform that micro symphony didn't pick up on it? They can read the hammers, can't they? What a load, crimey, what some people will make up just to get their rocks off.
Enemies? Sure, I had some, have some -- other composers, dames, nutty academics. A lotta people like to see me dead after what happened. I had to go dark, leave the country -- just like Beethoven. Beeter was deaf and the deafer he got, the crazier his music got but I assure you this wasn't and isn't the case with me, no siree.
Look at that moon -- isn't that something? Sublime silence.
They got me on the list, you know. F.B.I. A really shitty picture, fortunately... took it from my library card.
Oh oh -- hear that? The opening movement. You think that's loud? Pushes the boundaries? Wait 'till you hear what's coming. 120 db, subs below 20, the walls of Jericho and all that. Yes siree. Time for me to push off. Fortunately, dear stranger, you can't read my mind, so everything I've just said has passed through you as sublime silence.
That's it, smile. Look at the moon, enjoy the music.
Tomb In A Obscure Havana Cemetery
§§ Bo Vasco. That's what his Latin buddies called him, although his Anglo associates called him Robert, sometimes Robby. Bo is what's on his tomb, though. Simple, even if he was anything but simple. Word is he died of a lunger, was released from jail early as a sympathetic gesture by Castro. I don't believe it. I don't believe he was ever in jail and I'm wondering if he was ever put inside this concrete box in this obscure Havana cemetery.
I first found the tomb by following Marta, the woman he was living with after his wife split, couldn't take exile on the yacht and life on the run in the Caribbean. Strange thing is, his tomb has become a shrine within a year, people coming to ask advice about money, stocks, the market, all sorts of stuff like he's sitting inside there holding court the way he used to in his office on Wall Street or in his private Boeing in-flight to some exotic watering hole for a piss-up with the boys. Not bad for a long-time fugitive from the F.B.I., eh? Not bad at all.
It's still hot, and there's that damp, decaying odor that these days I seem overly sensitive to. Seems to catch in my lungs, if you know what I mean, so I draw a little hard, have to rest. It isn't dark, although the moon is already starting to move up, throw shadows. I'm not far from the tomb, leaning on the large statue of an angel when I see this guy shuffling along the path carrying two dead rabbits. Small steps, like he's shackled. Seems his destination is the same as mine.
He stops well short of the tomb, like he's afraid. Then he darts forward, throws the rabbits onto the lid, knocks three times on the side.
Senor Vasco, he says in a high, nervous voice, my name is Reinaldo, I am a writer with the gay disease, por favor, I need more of the drug... since the police crackdown, I can't find it at any price. Please.
He babbles some more, stuff about his books and his lovers, then he backs away, never taking his eyes off the tomb.
I will wait for your decision, senor, he says.
And that's what he does -- just stands there, waits, hoping for a voice from the grave. And I'm thinking, if you want results, amigo, you should've brought money. Cash. Bo likes cash.
Well, what can I say? Guess I'm still pretty naive for someone who has done business with politicians and crooks all of his life. Rabbits were right, because a 15 foot boa comes slithering out of the shadows onto the tomb, opens its mouth, sucks in one, then the other with silent ease. Yeah, impressive, and more than a little unnerving.
Gracias... thank you, thank you, says Reinaldo. Senor, I am in your debt.
As the big snake withdraws once again to the shadows, the guy who says he's a writer backs down the path a considerable distance before turning and running away through the trees.
So this is the protocol, I think. A voodoo confessional. So be it: I must also confess, as I'm in this cemeterio for more than sentimental reasons or even a morbid curiosity. We go back a long way, Roberto and I.
I step forward, rap the tomb three times with my left as my right is in my pocket clutching my pistol. I have no offering and if that lousy snake shows up, all he'll get from me is a bullet.
Vasco, I say. Roberto. It's me.
Feel a bit faint again, steady myself against the tomb. The old heart problem, I guess. Arrythmia.
Of all the deals you've been in, amigo, this last one is the lowest, I say. Really, really low. Giving false hope to the weak, the doomed, taking their money... really low, Robert. Cure fatal disease? AIDs, even cancer you claim? Amigo, I had that drug tested in a lab in Los Angeles, and it's just bullshit. No good saying people took it, and they believed it made them feel better. No good saying your partner is to blame, you're just the money man. Think about it, Bo... you were bad before, but with this, you just end up scum.
Emotional? You better believe it. I'm clammy with it, real dizzy. And it's at this point that I start floating, leave my body, ascend. I'm not kidding. Up up, right up above the cemetery, above the sculptures, the headstones, the bushes, the whole necropolis... and I can see all of Havana lit up the way it is when you're coming in for a night landing at Jose Marti airport. I'm not afraid, just soothed by the beauty of it all. I'm way up there above the decaying buildings and calles and the hotels and playas... the pines and the cabbage palms, everything, up up, rising away from death and deception.
I hear a voice. It's Marta, and she's leaning over me. She's still got the tits of a young woman.
Roberto, she says. Did you follow me? You fool, you crazy man, you know what the doctor says. Get up, come on, let me take you home.
And we back away from the tomb into the darkness.
§ No memory, no reality, right? You need memory to hold and construct what your senses tell you, make a picture of it all, put it up there so you know where you're going, who you're talking to. At least, that's what I thought.
Been away for a while, a 3 year mission, and I have this idea to go visit Anna, whom I've fallen out of touch with. Know her well, most of my life, actually. She lives in this cottage by the sea which has a very nice veranda... bricks with wrought iron pillars to support the roof overhang, which helps frame the view. I've spent many a pleasant hour there, just sitting in a cedar recliner, maybe sipping a glass of wine... watch the hummingbirds, the water, the big mountain with the snow cap on the horizon. I'm thinking this is what I need, to reconnect with Anna, get some tranquility, get out of the present tense. The mission was, to put it mildly, stressful.
No car in the port, but I knock on the front door anyway and it's opened by a lady I don't recognize. Older, fifty something.
I'm sorry, she says. The person you're looking for doesn't live here anymore.
Oh, I say. Where did she go?
You didn't hear? she says. The lady died.
This is a shock. Can feel my face tighten, so I turn away, look at the mountain. The horizon is hazy, so I have to intuit where it is.
We still get calls for her, says the woman. And mail.
What happened? I say.
Can't tell you, says the woman. We didn't know her.
I don't leave right away, but go down on the beach, sit on a log, try to take it all in. What do I feel? Cheated, disappointed... perhaps angry. But I'm also puzzled. Something isn't right.
I look back at the house. It's familiar, yet unfamiliar. I look over the water. Same thing. Should be able to see the mountain, but I can't. Should be right there, due east, where the planet rises.
I drive slowly up and down the road a couple of times, the suspicion growing that this isn't the right house, the right place. It looks the same, although maybe the roof is a different color... although if it is, so what? The new occupants must've changed it.
The wrong house. Yes, denial. I must be "in denial", as they say.
Next few days I just mope about, brood. My uniform comes back from the cleaners, and I don't even check it, just hang it in the closet. Still have a couple of months leave. As I say, it was a long mission.
I go to one of the local bars, the one with the glass atrium and the Aztec decor. I'm sitting at the bar, when this woman comes in, pulls onto the next stool.
Are you the man I'm looking for? she says.
Don't know, I say. Who are you looking for?
A fellow by the name of Palm, she says. He's looking for a house.
Are you a realtor? I say.
I am, she says. Guess you're not Palm.
No, I say. But I am looking for a house.
So this is how I meet Nan. When she's walking away, she looks quite a bit like Anna, but when she's coming back, she doesn't look like her at all. It's the confident manner, I guess. Nothing more.
After a couple of drinks, I level with her, tell her that while I'm looking for a house, I don't want to buy one.
So you're just trying to locate a certain house, she says. None of my business, but what for?
Trying to find someone, I say.
She's intrigued, and instead of saying, mister, why don't you just try a telephone book, she says, what do you do?
I'm an astronaut, I say.
So that's what that pin is, she says eagerly, touching my lapel. I knew it.
Dime a dozen these days, I say. No big deal.
You been in space? she says. Been to the moon?
No, I say. But I've been up there. I've just come back from a mission.
What was it? she says.
Can't say, I say. But it was a long one.
You've been on a secret journey, she says. Let me guess: Mars. You've been to Mars.
Nobody's been to Mars, I say.
She chuckles, says, everybody knows about the Mars mission. Government denies it but can't explain that big fiscal deficit.
She's a sharp lady, no question. But Mars isn't on my mind, Anna is.
I describe the house I'm looking for and Nan says she'll do a search. I tell her I'll pay for it but she doesn't seem concerned about money. Next day she e-mails me a few properties, most of them not right, just not right at all. One, maybe. The photo is soft, taken from the back.
This isn't it, I say.
Nan's standing beside me.
Occupant's a woman, she says. It has a brick porch, hummingbird feeders, view of the islands.
This isn't it, I say. The view is wrong.
Water view, says Nan. Just like you said.
No mountain, I say. No, this isn't it.
Check the woman, says Nan. You never know.
I know, I say. Believe me.
Nan... a chance meeting, a fast friend. It was hard not to become romantically involved, as she gave me so much of her time, and there was a lot about her that was familiar. Not just in the way she walked, but also because of her interest in space. We talked a lot about Mars, although I still held protocol, denied that I'd been there.
Did you land, or did you just do a drive-by? she says.
I was never there, I say.
Don't lie, she says. When I look in your eyes, I see Mars.
If I've been to Mars, I don't remember any of it, I say.
Ah but that's the way it would be, she says. As you approach, the clearer it becomes, right? And as you leave, it fades.
I have a trained mind, I say. Impossible. Anyway, I know all about Mars.
No, she says. The memory you have of Mars right now is a fantasy. The true experience was left behind there.
Women... women are like this, I find. Irrational. Math is for astrology, not science.
But then she really surprises me, says, you might have chronostasis.
Chronostasis, I say. Is that a condition?
Her fingers stop moving, and she removes her hand from my scalp.
Might be, she says. It's a description. You're stuck, can't arrange your memories within Time. Very interesting. I majored in psych, you know.
Yeah, and moving clocks run slow, I say. All astronauts know that.
Sooner or later you'll remember Mars, she says. If you talk about it.
I don't need a shrink, I say. I need an address.
Well, it wasn't long before she found the house I started out with, thought was Anna's, or at least the one I remembered as Anna's.
I've been there, I say. I'm sure this one isn't it.
Isn't it possible that, um, your friend is dead? says Nan. That this really is the house?
We're talking on the phone. I'm wearing my uniform, as I have to report back tomorrow.
You want to come with me? I say.
Not this time, says Nan. Better go by yourself.
I know you're busy, I say. Meet later?
I don't think so, she says. Let's cool it. I couldn't take a 3 year separation.
It's a beautiful day, mid-Spring, and I have a good feeling the minute I get out of the car, take a look. The hummingbirds are active, the cedar recliners are set out in the familiar order, and when I look over the water, I can see the mountain on the horizon, the snow cap gleaming in the sun.
The door is opened by a man, someone I should know but can't put a name to.
I'm looking for Anna, I say.
What's your business? he says.
I know her, I say. From way back.
He's looking at me, studying my face, trying to place me. And I'm looking at him and it's like looking at myself, a dead ringer. Older, for sure, but he could be me.
Now he's checking my uniform.
I've just come back from Mars, I say.
A woman's voice calls, who is it?
It's Anna's voice, I swear it is.
Nobody, says the man. Jehovah Witness or something.
And he closes the door in my face.
Shaken, I turn away, look over the water, find the horizon. Instead of the mountain, I see the planet, red and distorted, rising through the haze.
© LR culturecourt.com 2008