Excerpt from The Murther of Blick Mancoosh
Blackened stick figures lie in charred furrows that rise behind them to a blackened, jagged peak. The sunís too close. Itís a dry heat, but heat it is: you lack the energy to move in your foam cube, even to raise your beefshake to your lips. Some of the figures rise to make the same gesture, one you donít understand. Their knuckles look like prunes, their fingers are so thin. Their eyeballs are yellow, their tongues black and pebbly in the center. They wear Nikes, pajama bottoms, holey T-shirts with cartoon characters from defunct comics. Some donít rise, but you can tell theyíre alive because as the sun moves across the sky and the shadows shift, the people turn their heads from the light. A woman with a star-shaped scar on her chin and only wisps of hair left gives up and lies back down beside what you make out to be a small, still child. Thereís a bright movement in the shadows: the child is looking back at you, listlessly.
JUMP TANNER, the man youíre tracking, is nowhere to be seen, though from a distant shrub you notice some bright colors dangling from a branch like a parrot, tail waving slightly in the dispirited air. Leaves on trees are balled tight as fists. Some of the barkís been scraped off. You understand the figuresí gestures now: theyíre pointing to their mouths. Through ragged holes in their clothes you see ribs, hipbones, and round, distended bellies.
You look away. On the baked rise in the distance, almost at the horizon, is what looks to be a geometric shape among this squalor, its lines so crisp you get an almost physical sensation of a reassuring order and cleanliness. Is it a rhombus, a pentangle, maybe an ovoid of some sort? No, no, now you see: itís a circle, a perfect circle, and there (fiddling with your zoom) inside it is your block, your street, and maybe, if youíre right about that slightly darker shade of slate, your very own roof.
Another figure rises, gestures, and lies back down. At the bottom of your wall appears a number you can call, but itís JUST . . . SO . . . HOT you can barely lift your thumb to
Waves slap against high, rocky promontories. An ANONYMOUS BUT AUTHORITATIVE VOICE says:
The population of Pieland is always sitting down (zooming in, you can see them doing just that). The island itself is basically a string of picnic tables placed end to end on this high, narrow ledge that extends from this swinging door in the central kitchen, here, and winds back and forth, serpentine, in hundred-yard loops to create what amounts to the huge daisy shape you might have noticed from overhead as we were bringing you in (you did, come to hear it said) around the kitchen before returning through this swinging door beside the first one, here. Widthwise, the ledge extends just enough behind the chairs for servers to scurry past, so most of the eaters just stay put, tablecloths fluttering around their knees, though occasionally someone will stand up and stretch. Underneath the table everyone has a tub for you-know-what. Every table seats twelve, each with its own easel-screen. The climate is moderate, perfect for year-round eating. Every once in a while a table will all finish a course at the same time, and if itís the windy season paper plates and napkins will rise like gulls and the cloth will billow out over the water, plastic utensils pitching off the cliffs like dejected suitors. It can be lovely. Our visit coincides with the windy season, and as we approached, various flying white shapes caught our eye, so thatís the table we approached. Due to the pause between courses, itís turned out to be a good choice.
(Youíre in the picture now, watching and listening and taking part. Everything smells delicious.)
"Jump was an OK server," says a woman with the slightly belligerent face of the plain-spoken. She wears a mustard-yellow dress and a tiny straw boater held on by a string that creases her throat. "Heíd keep an eye on your plate, pass what you needed, and even top up your milk, which is not strictly required."
"So long as they keep the pitchers filled," a fastidious-looking man next to her warns. He wears huge glasses with chrome frames and rose-colored lenses, and heís clipped his blond mustache to the width of his nose, his hair trimmed to the same even length; under a pair of faded overalls is a pale green shirt with a stiff white collar and cuffs, its links also chrome. Though heís seated closest to the showit he seems to be addressing a server, a boy so thin his wide leather belt wraps around him twice, with whom this issue seems to have arisen before. Flustered, the boyís trying to anchor a new tablecloth with a heavy glass pitcher that looks, in fact, empty.
"Once Jump did drop a radish in my pocket," somebody at the end of the table says. The showit focuses on a throaty woman with a brave smile and a gauzy scarf that tints her forehead over heavy, sloping eyebrows. Her short-sleeved shirt has two breast pockets, into which she inserts the pudgy fingers of either hand to show how easy it would be for something to fall over her shoulder, where a server might well stand. "Other than that he never made a mistake I know of."
Others at her picnic are distracted by the boy with the belt and another server, a girl, who are approaching at a dangerous angle, leaning out over the cliff to offset laden trays they carry on one shoulder, their black pants legs rippling with quick steps. At this table alone, you count forty chins. Heads and hands seem inordinately tiny, necks and rear ends huge.
"Iím going to lose them when the food gets there," you think, and then, your thumb on your voice button, "Did you know who he was?"
Between the serversí arms and oven mitts, annoyed faces look up.
"Did you know he was Jump Tanner when he got here?"
On the table now are heaping platters and dishes with Pyrex covers, bubbly on the inside with condensation; raised covers free wisps of translucent steam. People call for utensils to serve with and plates to serve into, bemoaning the lack of these things and supporting each other in their right to them, in the meantime digging in with their fingers. The showit seems forgotten until food makes it into mouths, when everybody settles back a bit.
"He told us right off," a bald guy says around a mouthful of corn muffin, the remaining half in his hand. "ĎMy nameís Jump,í he said, Ďand Iíll be your server tonight.í Took us a while to make the connection, because weíd already watched and voted and put the whole episode out of our minds. You see, we had time menu here before anybody the trade winds mess up our reception, so we needed it and before he even arrived weíd watched his whole trial."
"What else were we going to watch?" says the plain-spoken woman. "Rabbitball games?"
"All that movement!" somebody wails.
Others laugh. A stack of paper plates, a tube of paper cups, and some stainless-steel serving spoons have arrived, so spirits are on the rise. Fleshy arms reach and distribute.
"I didnít care who he was. Iíd be served by a rabid animal, just check every bite for spit," say a man with a wide mouth and a frogís sagging throat. "Thank you, mídear."
The serving girl says heís welcome, her face and voice flat, and for a few minutes all you can see is cheeks and elbows. All you hear is a low rumble and snorts broken briefly by the passing of the pitcher, which is filled with such luminous white it seems lit from the inside. You smell turkey, garlic, savory, field peas, and something with almonds.
"How long was he here?"
"Fifteen, maybe twenty dinners," says the woman in the scarf.
"Why so few?"
Silence. People are too busy eating to answer. The boy with the long belt stands with his hands clasped at the small of his back until he sees an empty cup or plate, when he leaps for pitcher or serving dish like a rabbitball boy at a championship match, then withdraws to his waiting position, eyes scanning tabletops. Finally the man with the chrome glasses wipes his lips and looks up.
"Jump wasnít really a server," he says, pausing to dislodge something from between molars with a fingernail. "He did his job, but his soul wasnít in it.
When heís taken seconds of mashed potatoes, he jerks a spoon like a thumb at the girl and the boy with the belt, who are bearing in with a gleaming silver tray, their faces earnest with effort as they set it down where the turkey used to be. On the tray is a brass-colored pig laid out in the hurdling position.
"Real servers are like that. They love it."
If so, the deadpan faces hide it well, but chunks of pork are making the rounds already, so you hurry.
"Does anyone have any idea where Jump might have gone when he left here?"
Someone points a finger, and the showit zooms in on a curly-haired woman whoís been eating at a daintier pace. Her brown eyes are large and moist, doelike, and her mouth tucks to one side, as if sheís used to people laughing at what comes out. To speak seems to cost her considerable effort, and just as she seems about to she balks, takes a baked potato from her plate and bites into it like an apple. When sheís chewed and swallowed she leans back, as if fortified.
"OK. I can tell you. I know where he went."
Several eaters pause, spoons or corncobs at their lips.
"Jump was just like any of us, really, and he once admitted to me that heíd always dreamed of going to --"
But just then the wind whips up, a cloth from another table blows over and wraps itself around the doe-eyed womanís face, and she gags and chokes, her feet kicking against the underside of the table. A few people at her table stop eating until the knocking slows and stops, and then the man in the chrome glasses rises just enough to reach over and take her plate. (Youíre so horrified and revolted that you donít know what to )
Youíre surrounded by shovel-shaped leaves, creased in the middle. In a clearing some forty feet ahead are an antelope, a tiger, and a fuzzy, wuzzy bear. Theyíre playing cards, slapping them down on a tree stump with a step in a surface. The antelopeís cards are in the dirt, where he keeps rearranging them with a hoof. Heís a bongo antelope; you can tell heís a male by the length of his spiral horn, almost three feet. The other animals keep telling him to hurry up. Finally he plays either a spade or a club, hard to tell at this distance, and as the tiger and the bear follow suit the wind shifts, and you catch an unmistakable stench. Flies buzz around the stump. The card players slump and lean. A general air of dejection prevails.
"Woof," says the bear, whose back is half-turned to you. In the motion of playing a card his claw stops in mid-slap, arm extended high. Itís a face card, you can see from the way itís wedged between two claws like the blade of a fan. "That guy," he says, finally playing his queen. "What a cheater. Woof." He sounds like a dog, but thereís that paw, that heavy snout, that rancid-looking matting in the fur beneath his jaws.
"Damn straight," says the antelope, sloughing the three of clubs. "Hop? What was his name? What a cheater he was."
"Swat," says the tiger.
"Or Swab?" suggests the bear.
The antelope looks at them, eyes bright with contempt. "You idiots. It was like Hop, or Leap Skip, maybe."
Play stops while they all glare at one another. To be cautious you step behind a leafy branch into what turns out to be a stand of bamboo. The bearís queen takes the hand, and he slaps the cards heís won onto the ledge of the stump, then leads with the seven of hearts, sighing heavily.
"Anyway, what a cheater, woof."
"He took advantage," the antelope agrees, nudging a card forward with the edge of his hoof.
"The cheating advantage of opposable thumbs."
But their voices lack conviction; you get the idea that this is a conversation theyíve had many times before.
"Excuse me, boys. I wonder if I could ask you a few questions."
The animals, startled, look at each other. The antelope is the first to speak, though his voice is a whisper now.
"Hey, isnít that . . . ?"
"Yeah. Whatís-her-name. From that show!"
"Yeah. Whatís her name?"
"Oh, no. Not this again."
"Itís Charolais Reicht [how wise would it be to use your own identity?], boys, from ĎJumpursuit.í I just have a few ques--"
"Jump. THATíS it. Hop, you said." The tiger, amused, turns to the antelope, who looks down, grumbling.
"Hopís closer than Swab, which was my guess, so donít feel bad," the bear tells him, then turns to the tiger. "And you, why donít you give him a break?"
"Anyway, boys. I just have a few questions, if itís all right."
"Well, hey, sure. Why donít you sit in for a hand or two, maíam?
Weíll talk while we play." The suggestion is the bearís.
"Oh. Well. I guess that would be all right."
In the space the others have cleared you cross your ankles in the dirt, your weight on the outsides of your feet, and drop into a cross-legged position, surprisingly limber for a woman of your bulk. You pick up the cards the antelope deals, your nails long and shiny red, and arrange your hand as the others watch with barely concealed longing. You make a neat fan.
"Ah, maíam? Thatís not really necessary. The game is Texas Hold ĎEm. The cards can stay flat," says the tiger.
"Oh. Well. OK. But youíre going to have to teach me how to play."
You lay your cards out on the larger and higher portion of the stumpís split surface, the way the others have done.
The bear leers around at the others, then swings his huge head back around toward her, his pink tongue lolling.
"Hereís the first thing you need to know about Texas Hold ĎEm," he says, indicating the antelope. "Meet Tex."
The antelopeís tiny ears redden so quickly they seem to have been lit, and through his chestnut-and-white fur the expression on his face can only be described as unforeseen anticipation. Heís staring at your chest, and the other two laugh uproariously. For a few seconds youíre still, your nostrils porcelain. Back at home, you see what needs to be done.
BANG! you shout, and the antelope is gone, a blur of chestnut and white.
BANG! you shout again, and the tiger leaps for the trees, forepaws extended like giant mops.
BANG! BANG! and now the bear lumbers off revealing, behind where he was sitting, a carcass of raw and bleeding flesh.
"Oh. My. Bob."
The dirt by the stump is mixed with straw. Some of the cards are face down in it, some face up. From those that are face up you could make a full house, kings over nines, but you kick yourself for noticing at a time like this. Around the carcass, flies buzz. You just hope itís not Jump. But how could it be? With all that hair, yecch, and isnít that a tail, in that disgusting mass of
"And this," says the moderator, craning to look up at the big screen behind him, "is one of our finest circles." The other panelists, seated on either side of his podium, lean to each side like waves from the prow of a ship, smiling over their shoulders as they too look up.
"A circle?" says the voice from the back of the auditorium. "Then what are those things?"
Others in the audience raise their eyebrows, lower their lids, roll their eyes, or scratch their heads through their hoods. Very few sit still this time.
"What things?" says the moderator brightly.
"These things right here!"
On his chair pad the guy clicks his cursor, and four points on the big screen blink. People in the audience and even a few panelists look at the moderator expectantly.
"These?" The moderator scissors his own large cursor over the points the guy in the back have set to blinking, stilling them one by one. "Arcs," he says finally, smiling broadly. "These are arcs."
The panelists and audience relax, except for the guy in the back.
"Theyíre not arcs," he shouts, on his feet. "With those angles on them?" But audience terminals are only clickable once, and itís harder to see what he means now. People lean toward one another, muttering. "Those are corners!" the guy barks.
Somebody near him lets go a high, mocking hoot. A young-looking member of the panel makes a buzzing sound with his lips, and the woman beside him hikes her chin, her smile grim. They fold their arms and turn reassuring faces toward the moderator, their smiles scornful and amused. The moderator draws back in surprise, furrowing his brows at the screen.
"Corners?" he says, peering. "Well, I guess I can see how it might appear that way, but . . . no, I donít think so."
"Four corners," says the man.
Somebody in the middle of the audience snores, and people all over begin to titter, like the aural equivalent of stars appearing in the sky at dusk.
"Well!" The moderator looks back from the screen and smoothes an edge of his hood with his thumb. "Under half a dozen, anyway. Letís leave it at that."
"No, letís not," snaps the man in the back. Incredulous faces turn all the way around. The man looks like everyone else in his suit and hood, maybe with a slightly sharper nose and darker eyebrows, the left one peakedbut he stands in a peculiar stance, fingers aligned on hips and hips thrust forward, head up, chin out. "In fact, I donít think thatís a circle at all but a square."
The laughter that meets this is genuine, if a bit delayed by shock. More in the audience crane around, faces concerned. Panel members squint out into the crowd; one woman stands, a flat hand raised to her eyebrows. All over the auditorium, fingers begin moving on keyboards, clicking like crickets.
The moderatorís voice is quiet.
"Oh, no," he says sadly. "Not a square. Iím afraid you are mistaken, my friend. We call this a circle, you see. A perfect circle."
"But I donít see," says the man, his voice calmer and surer now, "and I donít think anyone else does, either, you included. Thatís the point."
"Mmm," says the moderator, noting but turning away from the doors, which open to let in more hooded figures, theirs yellow instead of the audienceís green, the panelís blue. The moderatorís voice rises over the cadence of footsteps. "And that point would be one of the four you mentioned earlier, would it, sir? One of the . . . corners, you called them?"
Relieved laughter rises from the audience like colorful moths.
"I didnít make up that word," the man says, but his voice cracks, and when next he speaks looking around, his finger pointing at the big screen his voice is shrill. "Why wonít you look for yourselves?"
The yellow figures have reached him now, and all the suddenly bowed heads around him look like a cabbage patch. On the panel, too, people examine their thumbnails, their laps. One yellow figure on each side of the standing man takes hold of a biceps, gently but firmly, their stance more like solidarity than confrontation.
"Look! See! Register!"
The cabbages are quiet, motionless, and after a few seconds the man arches his back, his eyes darting, teeth gnashing the air, then sags and lets himself be led out, his own head bowed, too.
Not until the doors close behind him do the others look up.
"Well!" says the moderator, highlighting the entire shape on the screen to set it blinking. "Thatís our circle, then. Our perfect circle."
In his voice is a note of warmth approaching intimacy, and when he begins his wrap-up remarks heís interrupted by spontaneous applause.