0-1(a): “GALLERY OF SHADOWS”


0-1(a): “GALLERY OF SHADOWS”
by Gregory Hernandez


Chapter One: Ticket – Admit One – ADULT

I had come so far to have traveled so little. When I first arrived, this island, these nations, this world had been hieroglyphs waiting to be translated. Having spent time in the United States, I could say that America was not only engaged in misadventures abroad – America was a nation at war with itself. Its ideals were being ruined by seedy politics. Politics had become a stage upon which con men and clowns cavorted fitfully; obscenely.

I had never expected to become even peripherally involved in that world, but there I was in a book store in lower Manhattan talking with one of the stage hands who operated behind the scenes of the great political play. He had no name, only a reputation. That was acceptable. I had no identity, only a rough mission: to understand the world where I had unexpectedly found myself.

The Unknown Soldier and The Mark – quite a pair we made.

The secret soldier – his words rose barely above a whisper, but his eyes communicated volumes. He was one of those rumored men, involved in many wars, and his face seemed to carry a scar for each of them. He had an elliptical manner of speaking. I sipped my latté and waited for him to come to a conclusion. His point was not in what he had said before, it was in what he was going to say next.

He leaned in close (his voice was that soft). I caught the faint whiff of old tobacco mingled with the odor of new coffee on his breath as he spoke. There was something else, a trace of something unpleasant – rotten meat, maybe? Sour dreams?

“It’s the President,” the old soldier said. “We think they are planning a hit on the commander in chief.”

“Who’s ‘we’?” I asked

He leaned back, didn’t say a word, just looked at me with those dead eyes. Bucking for time, he would have lit a cigarette if he could. New York City, the non-smoker’s paradise.

“Just thought I’d ask,” I said. I felt a nervous smile try to form on my lips. I controlled myself. “Why me, though?”

“Haven’t you been listening?” He asked impatiently. He reached in a pocket from his shapeless jacket. For a panicked second I thought he was going to shoot me right then and there. That would have definitely penetrated the cultivated downtown laissez faire attitude. He pulled out a stick of chewing gum instead. I was almost disappointed.

I knew why he had come to me. I was the only one who could get inside.

He had me make a phone call before we parted ways. I did. The funds had been deposited, and they were substantial. I knew that from the moment I had agreed to meet with him, I was playing the part of a snake handler. As quickly as the astronomical amount had been deposited into my unmarked unnamed and (I had thought) unknown account, so too could I be made to disappear. A stranger whisked away into the ether as if I’d never been.

Talk about living vicariously.

The first steps along this murder mile would bring me to the Nowhere Man; I thought that was appropriate.

Chapter Two: The Painting That Belched A Villain

“Explore my trust: brilliant…open…warm… never down.”

Mr Brightside had not been the same since he escaped from the Hanged Man. Who would be?

Charter member of the Illuminati, founding member of the Dadaists Organization of Disunity, current resident of Circle Square…his credentials were good in any number of underground movements – as a concept, anyway. He had truly gone round the bend in the last few years. No one could say if it was because of his time with the Hangman, or whether he had taken Dada principles to a new level. Either way, there was nothing bullshit about the guy, but plenty incomprehensible.

My kind of fellow.

I showed up at the doorstep of the Greenwich Village gallery where he was employed as a kind of living installation and he greeted me with: “Rob sunshine from the morning, set it in your lover’s eyes.” I took it to mean he was glad to see me.

From recent experience, I knew it was best to just state my purpose and go on as if he understood me and could help. He could make things happen or not as he chose. He was senseless, not powerless.

“You seem to be doing well for yourself,” I said by way of introduction.

“Beauty is ethereal, sublime…and transient.”

It was moments like that that made me wonder if he was as far gone as people thought.

“Like a liquid tree above ferocious steel. A forest of smoke. Smoke can never be good.”

(but then again…) “The thing is, I want to know if the Brotherhood has any plans on the President’s life.” It pays to be direct with a being that no longer had any need or cause for subtlety, even when it came to high treason. Chances were that I wouldn’t be able to get any further. The best I could hope for was to be led to where the other miscreants were holed up.

“We always think we’re above. The universe bleeds always. Questions are like ferocious liquid: good with salt.”

The objective I had set for myself might prove to be more difficult then at first I believed. I had to trust in luck and the magic of circumstance. I was willing to do both. Dancing on a razor was the true cutting edge. My life was my art. My art was survival.

“Be open and brilliant as a tree.”

I couldn’t have said it better.

Mr Brightside looked at me with his expressionless eyes. “Live as fully as your desire to die,” he said.

“I do,” I responded honestly.

He put his hand on my shoulder. “If you take a chance with me, I will take a chance with you” he said. He virtually sang the last few words. I recognized the tune. Avalon, by Roxy Music.

Madness was my garment, crazed chaos was the fuel which made my devices run. We had no myths where I came from, no bigger-than-life legends, no stories. The commodity was rare and precious. Lies were unknown, politics nonexistent. So was idealism, poetic aspirations, and despair. All of these existed in abundance in this great land I’d adopted.

This was why I had taken the assignment, it was also why I had decided to take up residence in these United (Untied?) States – a nation that fostered freedom while keeping disenfranchised colonies and oppressed a good portion of its people for a majority of its history – that was a nation for me.

“Explore streams, explore your poisons – make the universe remember you.”

I was; it would. I swam the stream, waiting to see where the current would take me next.

“Yesterday is a question which drinks perfume from the air. Questions from change may blow like smoke.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Chapter Three: Brothers and Sisters of the ‘Hood

I decided to wait for the next move on time’s chessboard. Turns out I didn’t have to wait long. In a case of the mountain coming to Mohammed, the person who came to the door of the gallery next was one of the Dadaists named Toyboy. I hid in the back of the gallery but I needn’t have worried. The gallery began to fill up with shades. I saw Basquiat’s inventiveness mixing it up with Klaus Nomi’s talent. Andy Warhol was there, but none of the other shades or Dadaists paid any attention, so he took out his diary and began to write in it. The gallery had a coffee shop (as most everything in the Village did these days). I wanted a mocha, but there was no one behind the counter. A couple of minutes passed and when I looked again there was a large 20 oz mocha steaming hot by my elbow.

By then Toyboy and Mr Brightside had been joined by the Safety Queen in her bio-containment apparatus and Friendly Frank Friendly wearing his customary glass jar and bow tie. Among others I saw Johnny Thunders, Iggy Pop circa 1973, and Les Paul looking cheerful as ever. There was another presence, looking sullen, it was one of the three Weird Sisters, holding the souls of nearly 3000 people in her hands of string. A disembodied pair of scissors floated nearby, looking dangerous.

I drifted in and out of the crowd and tried to pay attention to what the Dadaists were saying.

“We are all stardust. Every atom was first formed in a star.” Toyboy looked out of her depth. The metal gag she wore somehow did not muffle her words. Unlike the others, she seemed decidedly unoriginal. Normally she was unprepared, late; today she had arrived awkwardly early. “Moondust will cover you.” I recognized the quote. She needed new material, more inspiration.

“The voice of worry is a growl. The Commander-in-Thief already has his plans. He and his chrono-cronies have their plans set up from the beginning. I say we help them along. Mess up their clocks.” This was from the Watchman. He was the newest member of the Dadaists. He had a watch for head and a human face on a gold chain he kept in his pocket. Occasionally he would pull the face out of his pocket and it would tell him the time.

The Safety Queen was in full agreement. “We’re all slaves to a big machine,” she said. She hated everybody, often with good reason. “Does it matter, which machine?” Friendly Frank Friendly gave her a baleful stare, the rest of them ignored her. She drifted off. When next I saw her, he would be standing outside of the gallery, staring through the big windows with a forlorn look in her eyes. Next to her would be Agent Orange, looking typically vacuous.

There was an upswell of commotion in the crowd of the real and the unliving in the gallery. Mr Brightside was speaking, but either his speech was more fragmented than usual or I didn’t hear all he said. “Stone elephant …spooky eyes…breast cancer…child health…literacy…rainforest… animal rescue…hunger…free funding…get a love reading…walk to awareness…pink ribbon comfort…sign up for news…more bracelets to chose from…give a book…donate now…Rwandan goat kits…thank you for making a difference in our world…”

“Um, I’ll survive your naked eyes?” Offered Toyboy. This time, no one even pretended to listen to her.

I had had enough. I decided to go outside into the slowly cooling evening. I had learned all I was going to learn. Each individual personality was beginning to assert itself. Their course of action was set. The Dadaists were not out to commit political assassination, I was certain of it. But their alliance and support could prove just as dangerous, or more so. Not just to the President, but to the nation. I saw Friendly Frank Friendly outside. He had joined Agent Orange and the Safety Queen in loitering in front of the gallery. “My anger is like a car crash in the middle of the ferocious morning,” Friendly Frank vehemently expounded. “My worry lies like a car crash in the middle of the road.”

I was going to tell the old soldier what I learned and let him make of it what he would. It was with these thoughts in mind when I felt a hand on my shoulder. Turning around I saw Mr Brightside. As I thought, he wasn’t as far gone as people supposed.

“Time is delicious when savored with close friends,” he said.

I rested my hand on his. “Sacred warm moments breed brilliant cold magic,” I responded, and meant it. Turning back, I noticed the Watchman. He was flipping through Andy Warhol’s journal. All the pages were blank, except for the date. I made note of it, thinking it would be significant. It was the next day’s date, September 11, 2001.

epilogue

Two days later, all my funds had vanished along with my carefully cultivated false identity. I was in a freefalling panic.

After the terrible events of the previous day, two comments Mr Brightside had made kept running through my mind:

“Rob sunshine from the morning, set it in your lover’s eyes.”

Amen. As September 11th had shown, you never know which day will be your last. You could be on a routine flight on a slow business day after a long Labor Day weekend and inadvertently become part of the nation’s larger story.

“Live as fully as your desire to die,” Mr Brightside had said. What had he been trying to tell me? Did he know what was going to happen? I intended to find out.

Greenwich Village was choked by more than just the ashes and dust of the fallen Towers. The gallery where the Dadaists had met had burnt down. A small tragedy compared to the larger ones the evidence of which was all around us. The Dadaists had disappeared, and I was on the run from the government. If I wasn’t already labeled a terrorist, I knew it wouldn’t be long. With only my madness to keep me company and only the vaguest notion as to what I should do next, I took a train ride deep into the heart of the American nightmare. My journey along the murder mile had truly begun.

THE END

Leave a Reply