The day began before the luminescent solar canary chirped the morning into existence. In my kitchen sat a vintage AGA cooker stove. The stove smelled of rust and aged musk. Modern amenities are not for the intellectually curious! I bought the oven from a very curious character, while browsing the rubbish of an antique swap meet, several years ago. The man and I have been friends ever since.
I hovered over the stove and patiently brewed oatmeal and boiled water. Soon enough I would consume the oatmeal with a daily regimen of vitamins. Routine is very important. There is to be no deviation from the schedule. This is a lesson I learned from my newly found friend. This lesson was a lasso and the resulting horse was a position at the local university.
I tossed the boiling water into a small circular basin.
Around six-thirty in the morning I stuffed myself into the basin and read the works of obscure English scholars. While the toxins, from a night of drinking cheap gin and puffing religiously on expensive cigars, seeped out of my body, I ingested the works of John Donne and Roberto Bolano. After a few pages I savored a few moments and reflected upon the day’s work.
There is to be no deviation from the schedule!
Once the washing was complete I moved on to the dressing. A stranger’s glance into my closet would reveal identical shirts, pants, belts and shoes. This provides a hue of uniformity for my students and anyone whom I may meet in daily interaction. Expression and variability in dress is nothing more than the cloak of Satan.
Daily correspondence was then crafted a half hour before eight in the morning. Mostly this was reading letters from recently acquired admirers of my publications at the University. Occasionally I will take to the quill and parchment but normally I prefer communication to be face to face. I am a very poor writer. This was another lesson taught to me by the man from the swap meet. I provide my thoughts on fragments of paper and he takes the works home and compiles the ideas into a cohesive publication. The only catch is that I am not to read or edit these works before submitting for publication; breaking this rule results in the termination of our friendship.
Morning classes lasted from eight until eleven thirty. During this time interaction with students was mundane and rote. My mind continuously flickered to the clock on the back wall. I must focus and avoid distraction. Even if the message was the same year after year there must be no distractions! At eleven-thirty I rushed off towards the Grey Turtle Tea Company to meet with my friend. He prefers not to be mentioned by name in polite or vulgar company. Mostly he talks and I absorb his cheery mixture of warmth and wisdom.
The man constantly referenced Din’s Fire. He went on to explain the fire should engulf my enemies. This produced control. “Treat everyone as an enemy,” he recited with alarming frequency. Initially, I questioned this reasoning and informed the man that we had become the best of friends. He slowly nodded his head in disagreement - simply stating that perchance someday I might understand the world and how to deal with people.
Sipping on the Jasmine tea I pondered this question as the lunch hour expired and I returned to class. The next few periods were free so I went about reading essays from the previous evening. Essays are the only homework which I assign to my students. All subject matter much be articulated by the written word. Still yet another lesson taught by my mentor.
Curiosity might have already grasped the reader by this point in the story: Why do I refer to this, so far anonymous, man with such regularity? Before I met this man I was lost in a web of consciousness and fear. I could not make heads or tails out of each day’s interactions. I would just roam around the town leaving the residue of small talk on meaningless people and return home feeling empty and sullen and leaving the bedroom pillow wet with tears.
Now everything sought after has a specific purpose. Anything without a reason was snipped from the itinerary early on in our relationship. The control started early on in our conversations. He would ask questions and I would reply with small talk. His brow would curl and he would slam his palms down on the table, shaking around the sugar canister and splashing droplets of tea all over the table, immediately chastising my response.
“No, this is not right.” He would say and then repeat the question. This routine would continue until I answered the question appropriately. Satisfaction is met only after cutting through the bullshit and searching deep within for a meaningful response. Small talk was justly eliminated. This method taught the importance of the routine and paying attention to every small detail.
He would placate the nervous tension with a smile and then carry on with similar conversation for the remainder of the lunch hour. If I felt really passionate about the discussion then I would try tostretch out the meeting. The man rushes off at exactly one each afternoon. Meetings are not held on weekends. In fact, he never talks about his weekends and distastefully shrugs off any inquiry in regards to his actions.
The man is in complete control.
You may perhaps be asking yourself why I have spent so much time in detailing my daily regimen as a member of the faculty at a rural British college. I have done this precisely to provide you with the context that will be essential for you to understand how my interactions with a most curious individual upended my life, and made me reconsider those heretofore unquestioned assumptions of my outlook which, being taken for granted, blinded me to the things that are most important in life.
So, gentle reader, please indulge me, as I unfold for you the rest of this tale that may, at first sight, appear all too quaint. But I can assure you, on my honor as a former Oxford man, that this should prove to be one of the most interesting tales you are liable to hear.
And, I must also ask your forgiveness in advance. For you see, in deference to the rules of civility and proper etiquette, I may be obliged to adjust certain facts in relaying this story to you. But do not be alarmed; these changes are only the variations which are strictly necessitated by my respect for proper decorum.
For example, the subject of this story, who is quite famous in some circles, and certainly among the intellectual elite, cannot be referenced openly. This is not because the story is scandalous, nor because it has any impropriety to it, but only because in our circles one does not openly speak with this degree of detail about one’s acquaintances.
I will call the figure in question ‘Doctor Blue.’ Do not attempt to decode a hidden meaning from this name. The selection was, effectively, completed at random, and has no significance. Being myself an academic, I know full well that my warning will not dissuade you, and that many of you will seek symbolism where none exists. I can hear it now, as the chaps in the English department prattle on: “Is Doctor Blue a metaphor for the narrator’s diminished sense of self, or general malaise?” “We can tell that the narrator harbors deep feelings of jealously over Doctor Blue, since he so deliberately failed to use the pseudonym ‘Doctor Green.’” And so forth. But, I assure you that there are no hidden meanings in my account. This is not a puzzle, but a mere record of events.
I must mention, at this point, how curiously incidental the circumstances can be which lead to a total rethinking of one’s outlook. As I mentioned above, my routine was just that: routine. Every day, like clockwork, I would complete the same series of minor rituals in my life. Which is what makes it so curious that this whole story revolves around the tying of my shoe.
I know this must sound absurd. I would not have believed it myself, had I not been the person whose life was so overturned. But, one morning, as I arrived at work, I noticed that my shoe had come untied. I thought little of it at the time, except to observe that this was a relatively unusual occurrence, and, of course, to bend over and re-tie my shoe.
I am sure you are now expected a Rube-Goldbergian series of events leading from this slight deviation in my schedule to the pivotal event, but if that is your hope, I must disappoint. As I bent down, I observed an advertisement, requesting submissions for an upcoming conference in my area of expertise (which, for our purposes, we will say is Egyptology, but this is one of those places where I am forced to recast the story so as not to be indecorous).
The conference would feature a number of influential Egyptologists. I was, frankly, astonished that I had not heard of the conference prior to this moment, and, given the positioning of the advertisement, so low on the bulletin board, it was a huge convenience for me that I noticed it, mere days before the registration deadline had passed. I of course needed to attend this conference. And it was at this conference that I met the curious, incomprehensible, Doctor Blue.
I suppose some individuals might call me stuffy. I am, certainly, concerned with propriety of appearance, and I do take my work seriously. At the conference where I first met Doctor Blue, it became immediately apparent that he thought very little of my demeanor, despite seeming to care a great deal about connecting with me.
It is a wholly unique experience to be courted, effectively, for friendship, by one who clearly holds no respect for any aspect of how you carry yourself. To be simultaneously mocked and flattered by their attention is at once unsettling and electrifying.
I found myself deeply craving his approval, and thus, in spite of myself, when he derided the conference as a waste of time and an absurd collection of buffoonery, I found myself agreeing with him; not just for the sake of civility, mind you, but genuinely agreeing with his negative assessment.
So, as I tell you these facts, it will not surprise you as much as it surprised me, that when he later invited me to visit him at his home, I began mentally planning the trip before I was even able to thank him for the invitation.
I had never been to the island he called home, and so I was pleasantly surprised, upon my arrival, that everything on the island felt vaguely familiar to me. It was like returning to a home that you have long since forgotten, but which immediately calls back fond memories of joyous times and comfort.
I decided to hire a local rickshaw to transport me to the address I had been given by Doctor Blue. Though the ride was bumpy, and dusty, I did not mind at all. A short time later, I was intensely struck by the sight of the doctor’s home coming into view.
The doctor's house faced east, squatting low and round atop a slight rise, perhaps one half of a mile from the island's lengthwise center. Noticed unexpectedly, as it was to me, on a first approach from the east, ten feet nearer to sea level, the handmade home would appear amid the swaying summer flourish of lanky clover to be almost subsumed. His was a modest home, and a carefully part-buried one, to limit the initial expense of its construction and to ease the daily regulation of its temperature; his scaffolded hillock he assembled with the instruction of a meandering textbook on self-reliant homesteading. One of a few physical artifacts in his possession that in its present role was not immediately pragmatic to the tasks of living, the yellowing tome obscured itself ineffectually in the lower shelf of his bedside table. A thin shade of dust gathered over a muscular craftsman, booted and flannel-shirted, and proudly observing his handiwork, whose painting emblazoned the jacket. I momentarily regarded the lingering book, despite an abiding disinterest in its subject matter and distaste in its presentation, on almost every occasion that I met with Dr. Blue.
The dirty homesteading book was not present in the first, second, and last instances of our contact. I made an acquaintance of Dr. Blue in New York, at an annual convention of experts in our mutual field of study, which, for respect of the intellectual distance that had grown between ourselves and the dominating mindset of those gathered, neither of us would again attend.
An obvious question—might I have again attended the conference, were it not for the influence of a mocking Dr. Blue—is a good one, but is unrelated to the complex of problems it is my intention in essaying here to explicate. Irrelevant as well is the question of who would take responsibility for our headlong climb into a distant and eccentric intellectual orbit, and the trajectory of our path, and the apparent value in our destination.
As for his home, where he spent most of his time, and in the years I knew him, a substantial portion of mine, it was a usually serviceable place to live despite its crude furnishings and the inherent difficulties it presented to the maintenance of my hygiene. The entirety of its approximately six hundred square feet was a single round room, walled and ceilinged by a low dome of taupe plaster which, at points every ten feet not blanketed by topsoil, housed a small circular skylight. A cook-stove welded together—he, with a little pride, sometimes informed me—by the man Blue himself, stood opposite the door on the west wall. A bed dominated the north; a queen-sized one, and judging by the elaborate and precise embellishment of its 19th-century headboard, a memento from the era of his extraordinary means. A plain oak desk faced into the room at the south side, backed by a cheap wheeled office chair that rolled uncertainly across the gradually fissuring floor planks. Another of these chairs was introduced at the opposite side of the desk, a somewhat more comfortable one, on the second occasion that I visited Dr. Blue's home.
He would make omelets on that cook-stove with an expertise borne of a limited culinary repertoire and limitless free time. Delicate, tender, more in the character of pastry than the oily carnival food passed off as breakfast by a typical diner's line cook or a loving spouse. His cast iron skillet was rarely washed; though less often than his body, which in response to his temperament received a frugal patting of soap as often as every third day and as rarely as every second week. He bathed in the sea. He took his drinking water from a well, nearby to the south, taken up through an antique hand pump. It dried perhaps three days of the year and in the spring and summer harbored a sulfurous flavor.
He often considered raising chickens for their eggs, but always concluded that in the balance it would be a waste of his time. I brought the eggs, on the same occasions that I left for a proper shower, and the other ingredients, largely bread, cruciferous vegetables and dark leaves, and the occasional pasta or cured meat. Also: salt, butter, reams of copy paper, and #2 pencils. Once in a while I took his clothes and bedsheets to be properly laundered, though with familiarity, I admit, the pungency of many human odors recedes. The acrid stench of candles just extinguished never lost a propensity to offend me. I sometimes speculated on the extent of their irreversible pollution of my alveoli, but did not follow up the thought with study. Though the room soon had no power to disgust me viscerally, I always found it needlessly uncomfortable and a hindrance to our work.
Indeed I thought the whole environment, the home and the whole of Imp's Island, to be something of a charade, and a frivolous one, that more interrupted our work than, by the ascetic method of focusing our attention, aid us. I took no curiosity in how he had built any of it, whether with marked persistence alone, or by campfire light and warmth with old friends and relatives unknown to me and now seemingly to him. Perhaps the book on his nightstand served ever only as prop, and he'd stumbled upon the entire artifice intact in a feverish, staggering hike years ago. Maybe his home was the work of a year, maybe of three weeks. It was no longer well-maintained, if it ever had been, and he had not seen fit to improve upon its comforts or to mop the clinging dirt from its surfaces. As I was there for my personal interest in the man and our work, I took no mind of these superficial matters, or, what is more plausible, as little mind as my patience could tolerate.
However, these superficial details grew monstrously onerous as the pace of our work slowed, then halted altogether. Instead, the doctor tasked me with a list of menial duties each day. I continued on in good faith. I learned to do home repairs, I cleaned and cooked and shopped and washed. I become his handyman, his grounds keeper, his live-in help. But no matter the amount of effort, no matter the progress achieved by the end of day, in the morning, it started again. Every day there was more of the same–another pile of linen to launder, another hole to plaster, another leak to fix, another meal that won’t be eaten for me to prepare. As I busied myself with the upkeep of his shambling property, the Doctor withdrew even further from me. There were weeks on end when he and I did not have a moment together, though always he would leave a list of tasks for me to attend to at the beginning of each day. On the rare occasions that I caught him in transit to his study, he dismissed my objections, pointing out that I may leave anytime I wished. This is not how someone expressly here to work with him should be treated.
I could feel my good faith curdled into rancor. I spent sleepless nights wishing to escape the monotony of crashing waves, the monotony of my days. I had the feeling that I’d made a terrible mistake. I had not seen him for two weeks, what does he even want with me? I went as far as to pack up my things but then felt immobilized in my tiny room, almost as if some extrinsic force had countered my momentum and dissipated my motivation to leave. I cried. I fell asleep. And when I woke again, there was another list of tasks slipped underneath the door.
Something new was on the list. In fact it was the only task on the list: burn the contents of the study. I’d had the run of the house for some time but never had access to the study, which was detached from the main house. Unlike the rest of this dilapidated heap, the study stood like a turret, windowless and impenetrable against the corrosive elements. When the Doctor disappeared, this was where he went. What must be contained in that study—a lifetime of work, path-breaking work, personal effects, things to be hidden. But why destroy it? Why now? Why me?
The mythology built around the Doctor and his scandalous departure from academia was what drew me to this place, to unveil the man as much as to engage with his work. I had heard of his aloofness, his solipsism, his obscurity before experiencing it myself, but that’s not uncommon among intellects of his caliber. But the Doctor was rumored to have other proclivities, ideas about nature and life that bordered on the occult. At the last prestigious institution that employed him, he conducted “experiments”—more like bacchanalia—that resulted in one death and several students committed to long-term psychiatric care. At his hearing, the Doctor said absolutely nothing in his own defense yet was cleared of all charges. He disappeared the next day, only to resurface, years later, on Imp’s Island. Though he was in self-imposed exile, his ideas found their way into every part of the world. His publications, rare as they were, were seismic in their impact. New disciplines emerged to pursue the implications of his foundational theories. New technologies developed from his ideas have changed the way we live. The Doctor, however, seemed to live outside of his own times: a recluse who granted no interviews, shunned outside contact, and resisted any recognition for his contributions. It had been 12 years since anyone on the mainland had heard from him. I found him through extraordinary effort and good fortune. The fact that he extended an invitation to me was a miracle. However, since I’d arrive there, I’d been held at increasing distance from him. What more, there had been no trace of anything that gave insight to the man inhabiting this house. It is as if he had severed himself completely from his past. If he was willing to reveal the contents of his study to me, perhaps he was finally trusting me, perhaps I had demonstrated something to him with my servitude… perhaps he just needed someone else to do the dirty work.
I left out the back door and walked the hundred or so yards to the tower. As I approached, I felt increasingly nauseated, as if my gut were signaling me about what was to come. I hesitated and felt sweat drops forming on my brow, my arm pits dampen, my hands grow clammy. It’s not right. This is not right.
The door to the study was open. I stepped in to a space that felt incongruously larger than I had expected from the outside. There was no light except from a single oculus in the ceiling of the structure. The air was stale and musty, like a vault or a tomb. The space was empty save for a single form in the middle of the round. It was the Doctor, decomposing. I forced myself closer to the corpse. It appeared desiccated, almost mummified, and it looked like it had been there longer than I have been alive. This was not the resolution I was hoping for.
I felt a sudden vertigo overtake me, and then nothing.
When I came to, I was seated in an unfamiliar drawing room, full of low tables and leather chairs. There was no trace here of the miasma from the Doctor’s rotten body, but I still felt nauseated. A woman with short black hair and an unpleasant smile was sitting across from me.
“Ah, you’re awake! I found you unconscious, and brought you here to recover. How are you feeling?” She smirked faintly as she said this, as though she didn’t expect me to believe it. I didn’t.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“I’m an old friend of Dr. Blue’s,” she said. “Tell me, Ms. Stone, what were you doing in the tower? I’d like to know what happened to the Doctor. I would like to know it very much.” She had to have noticed me tense up when she called me by name, but didn’t show it. Her speech sounded rehearsed.
I didn’t bother lying. I never do. I told her the whole story. Her eyes narrowed at some of it, but she stayed quiet until I was done.
Finally she spoke, glaring at me. She was still sitting, but looked like she wanted to get up. I wondered why she didn’t. “Do you expect me to believe that nonsense?”
I hadn’t, really.
“I’m telling you the truth. After all, I wouldn’t want you to think I’m ungrateful for the help you provided when I was passed out.” This seemed to enrage her more, but oddly, only her face showed her anger. Her hands were folded calmly in her lap, several fingers tapping out a lazy rhythm.
“Cut the crap, Stone! You have to know what Dr. Blue was really up to! You know what was in the tower! Now tell me how it went wrong, and what you really had to do with it!”
Her apparent insanity was frightening. I didn’t have time to fully process what she was saying at that moment; instinct took over and I jumped up from my seat. I ran to the nearest door, but as I was turning the knob, I realized she still hadn’t moved. Cautiously, I looked back.
My interrogator remained in the exact pose she had been in the entire time, but with her head (only her head!) twisted around at an unnatural angle to face me. “You utter fool! Do you know what’ll happen to you if you go out there?”
“No,” I said, calm now that I realized she couldn’t stop me. “But neither do you. You’re not really present, are you? You don’t have any power here, and the only thing making me a fool is that I stayed to listen to you so long.”
As I went out the door, I continued to hear screams of rage from the woman, or projection of a woman, or whatever shadow she might truly be. It no longer mattered. But I was still unnerved by the depth of disbelief that head had shown after my explanation. Either she or I must have been sorely misled about the Doctor’s actions. If I could make my way back to the tower where I had seen his corpse, perhaps I could still find some resolution to my concerns.
Unfortunately, of that tower I could see no sign. The house I emerged from was surrounded on all sides by a vast muddy expanse. I had no idea how long I had been unconscious, but judging by the dim, unfocused light, it was either dusk or nearing dawn. As I had no means of orienting myself properly, I picked a direction at random and began to walk.
I trudged on through the mud for what felt like many hours in perpetual twilight. It was as if the sun’s movement had been arrested; or if not the sun, some other secret hidden behind the cloud cover. The woman in the house obviously would have been unable to pursue me, but I expected her accomplices (for without accomplices, how would I have been brought there?) to come after me. If they did, I did not notice. I felt as though I were the only person remaining in this world.
I passed long-dead trees, their charred branches groping towards a heaven that had rejected them. I walked through marshes where slimy creatures scurried away from the squelching of my boots. I saw caves whose entrances were strewn with bones and potsherds, and moved on hastily. Eventually, when I stopped to catch my breath atop a wide and rolling hill, I sighted a tower.
The Doctor’s tower? Perhaps, but the light was faint and the sky cloudy. I resolved not to let myself be carried away by a false hope. Yet when I walked towards it, and its features gradually became distinct, I became satisfied that yes, this was what I sought. My satisfaction was tempered by a grim apprehension at what might lie within.
But then a wind began to brush the mists aside, and I noticed other dark shapes peek through: four more towers, equal in size to the one I had fixated on. What I was approaching was but the closest of a set of five towers, so it surely could not be the place I had found the Doctor’s body before.
Or could it?
It could be.
I fully entered the clearing in the forest: a grim pentagon dotted by tower-shaped vertices. Satanic towers, I bet to myself. I approached the nearest devil-pole; it was about 200 feet high with a 50 foot radius, built out of stone that must have been quarried nearby to elicit such a strong spooky response in myself. Noticing a pentagram scrawled into one of the bricks I was glad to know my suspicions of Satan’s involvement were correct. I wondered about the late doctor and how he could have died while staring at the pentagram. I stood completely motionless with jaw agape for perhaps ten minutes or so, churning the terrifying and cruel events of the day over in my mind. After admiring the sizeable drool pool I had created I snapped my fingers and decided to enter the tower. I imagined Satan himself shocked to see a woman such as myself enter his dark domain willingly. The door to the tower had rotted away to the ages. Perhaps the dark ages. I couldn’t be entirely sure which continent I was on or if I were still even in my own universe. The fact that it never seemed to grow darker or lighter was worrisome. I stepped through the threshold and said aloud, “Dr. Blue, are you here?” before remembering that he was dead.
“Not blue!” a voice shouted from the darkness, “but red!!” Satan’s rock-hard and perfectly sculpted red body appeared before me: horns curled around his face, mouth grinning, and hands covering his would-be exposed genitals.
“Satan! Are you surprised to meet me here?” I proudly asked.
“Yes, I am. Could you please leave? This is private property. I don’t want to have to call the authorities.” He answered in a shockingly timid tone.
“What are you doing here, completely naked in a dilapidated tower?” I could not afford to just walk in the other direction; the woman’s servants could be on the lookout for me after all. If I could keep a conversation going with Satan long enough, there would be a witness to my inevitable murder and I could die happily.
“It’s none of your business!!” Satan flexed his arms impressively as he scowled but still managed to cover his genitals. “What I do on the weekend is top secret.” He was shivering, obviously harmed by the cold and gloomy atmosphere despite his impressive musculature.
“Is it the weekend already?” I wondered aloud.
“The weekend is nearly over! I’m really in the middle of something here! If it’s the murderer you’re looking for, his name is Timothy.” Satan bellowed, his fingers clenching slightly from a small gust of wind that pierced the tower walls.
From upstairs, I could hear a goat bleating. I decided it might be best to leave after all, murder witness or not.
“I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you! Do you mind if I explore one of the other towers in the clearing? I think some people may be trying to kill me.”
“This tower is the only one I own, the others are all private property as well, so you will be breaking the law regardless of which one you enter!” His left hand slipped, exposing a sliver of his penis. It was not red, but caucasian!
“Satan, I don’t think you are who you say you are!” I knew now this was not really Satan, but a mere impostor.
“Curses!” He bellowed into the ceiling, shaking the dirty wooden boards with simply the reverberation of his voice. He had outstretched his arms with balled up fists to the sky, showing me that the cheap body paint this man had used to cover himself ran out at what you could say was a ‘crucial moment.’ Little flecks of dust and wood fell onto him from the ceiling above, sticking to his fresh red body paint. He winced. “Okay, Ms. Stone, you’ve got me! I am not the Prince of Lies! I’m not even the Duke of Lies!” His penis shriveled more with each word he screamed at me. “Stop staring at my penis!!”
I found it difficult to comply. I decided a long time ago that I was going to live for myself and nobody else, and this shrinky-dink wasn’t going to make me change my mind. I continued staring directly at his penis as I said, “How do you know that Timothy killed Dr. Blue? And who are you?” My lips tightened into a frown and I could swear it tucked itself into his body.
“My name is Timothy, the other Timothy is my brother. We both work for the woman in the mansion. We are twins, you see? One of us good, the other evil. I am employed as a detective to solve the murders she employs my evil brother to commit.”
Finally satisfied at the negative length of Timothy’s genitals I decided to look him in the eyes again. “Can you put on some clothes and help me get out of here, then?”
“No! I’m very busy!!” I could tell that he was lying.
“Whatever you were hoping to do with those goats upstairs, it’s not happening. Just put on some clothes and let’s solve this mystery.” I demanded.
A few minutes later and we were once again outside in the misty and very Satanic forest clearing. He hadn’t removed either his fake devil horns or body paint, but he was dressed in a proper detective outfit. Exactly like Jim Rockford.
Timothy pointed at farthest tower from us. “The inspiration for this tower complex was derived from the shape of the national defense building, the Pentagon. My evil murderous brother lives in the tower farthest from mine.”
“If this complex was built after the Pentagon, why does it look like it was built several hundred years ago?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s just my tower... I don’t take very good care of it.”
After ten minutes of silent awkward walking, we reached Timothy’s tower. It seemed somehow less Satanic than his brother Timothy’s. Finally we could solve the mystery of Dr. Blue’s murder by asking the murderer how he did it, then I could enjoy the rest of my weekend once I got home.
I examined the base of the tower very carefully for any evidence of structural flaws. If there was any murder evidence in the tower, it was bound to be at the very top, and I wasn’t about to start climbing before I’d made sure the structure could support my weight. I weigh six hundred pounds, and I’m perfectly comfortable with that. I love my body. Sometimes, though, it does require some caution where crumbling architecture is concerned.
As I worked, Timothy gathered wood, and started a cheery, honest fire. He produced bread and cheese from his pack, and ate contentedly. I could tell that he was very pleased with his life. He put me into a comfortable frame of mind, and I found myself making small-talk before long.
“Awfully demonic out here, isn’t it?” I observed.
“Oh, yeah,” said Timothy. “People used to do a lot of witchcraft out here. You know, occult stuff. It was mostly government agents.”
“Really?” I inquired. “What would government agents want with the power of Satan?”
Timothy shrugged. A red fog drifted into the clearing. “They just get lost, and this is where a lot of them end up wandering. They think it’s the Pentagon, you know? Then when they get here, the local witches start pestering them to perform magic. Government agents are very impressionable.”
I thought about this for a while. My heart was sailing! This was shaping up to be the best day of my life. “What sort of spells and dark rituals did they perform?” I inquired.
“Dark ones,” said Timothy, evasively.
“Come on!” I insisted. “Give me a real answer!”
Timothy lit a cigarette and thought about it for some time. There were colossal, shadowy figures moving back and forth in the woods. There was no sound of disturbed branches or snapping foliage. No sound at all, save for distant screams and moans.
“A lot of the times they’d just do regular old magic tricks. Rabbit out of a hat. Sawing a lady in half. That sort of thing. I think that a lot of them didn’t really get witchcraft.”
“But some of them did?” I asked.
“Yes, some of them became very powerful indeed. Some of them did spells that allowed them to attract insects. Others used blasphemous words to sort piles of marbles by color and size. Some performed spells for knocking things over. My brother rebuilt his tower many times in those days.”
“But that’s not the whole story of this place, is it?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “One became mightier than all the others. His name was Rick Hemmell, and he was a white male. He developed a spell that allowed him to levitate over spilled groceries. His many servants laid waste to this region, spilling groceries everywhere they went, to increase the levitation area of their dark master.”
What he said was chilling to me, but I knew that it was true.
“Most people think he was slain by a virtuous knight, but for all I know, he might still be out here somewhere,” said Timothy. “I found a can of beets the other day down by the river.”
I sensed that Timothy was getting uncomfortable with this line of thought, but I was enjoying myself so immensely that I couldn’t bear to go too far off topic. “Were all the agents white guys?” I asked. “Or were there multiple ethnicities?”
“Some of them were black,” said Timothy. He seemed relieved to abandon the topic of Rick Hemmell.
“I’ll bet they were all the same, though,” I said. I thought he’d like that. I wanted him to see me as tolerant. “I’ll bet that the black agents and the white agents were equally skilled in magic, and used essentially the same spells.”
“Well,” said Timothy. “I’m not a racist or anything, but it seems to me like the black ones, I mean, the African American ones tended to favor combining spells.”
“Combining spells?” I asked.
“They liked spells that involved combining things with other things,” Timothy said. “Sometimes they’d combine a bottle and a shirt to create a wearable bottle. Or sometimes they’d combine a rat with a baby. It’s very simple magic. Doesn’t take long to learn.” He pointed to a tree with a strange piano-shaped lump in the trunk. “See that? That’s a tree that was combined with a piano by magic.”
“Oh my!” I exclaimed. “Do you play?”
“Of course, silly!”
“I play a little.”
I didn’t want the moment to end. I had long since finished my inspection of the tower. It was perfectly safe. But I didn’t want to go up. There was something magical about this satanic clearing, and I wanted nothing more than to drink it in like so much spooky honey.
Obligingly, Timothy poked at his fire a few times, and got up to investigate the piano tree. The piano section was a bit higher than was comfortable for him, and the piano’s keys were crooked, and spaced irregularly. “I don’t think this has eighty-eight keys,” he observed. “But it’s been some time since I met a set of ivories I couldn’t tickle.”
I lost myself in the music as he played the theme from Cheers. Then he played the theme from Antiques Roadshow. Then he played the theme from Cheers again. It was heavenly, and soon I had lost all track of time. “Sorry I don’t know more songs,” said Timothy.
“Dances, though, dances I know,” he continued. He winked at Timothy and stood up from the bench. Unshackled from Timothy’s ideas of what music should sound like, the keys of the piano tree took up a chorus of “Ya Got Trouble (Right Here in River City),” weaving it deftly into a medley with Shakira’s breakout hit, “Hips Don’t Lie,” and the smell of wet lavender. Synesthesia, I later learned, is a common side effect of turning a tree into a piano. It’s most common in the tree itself, but sometimes turns up in the spellcaster.
Timothy grabbed me by the elbow. “One must always lead a novice by the elbow,” he explained, hefting my joint in his hand as if testing the weight of a melon. “It’s where the grease comes from, after all.” The piano tree seemed to agree, chiming in helpfully with, “Pockets that make the difference, between a gentleman and a bum with a capital B that rhymes with P that stand for this is perfection oh I’m on tonight and my hips don’t lie you know I’m starting to feel you boy.”
Once, when we were young colts—literally? Figuratively? Pretentiously, either way—Dr. Blue read me a Dorothy Parker story, which said that the lovely rhythms of the waltz should be listened to in stillness and not be accompanied by strange gyrations of the human body. This remark made rather little sense in the moment, which was during a timed mathematics exam in a high school in Idaho that neither of us attended. Thankfully, it did not become any clearer as I was cranked back and forth by the elbow across the ominous grass. I dread that it will make sense if I ever manage to smell a lovely waltz.
The night wore on. I was beginning to revel in the delicate give-and-take of ballroom dancing, enchanted by the rapid twirls, pases de deux, and spit-takes that comprised Timothy’s ballroom repertoire. As the zodiac plodded its way around the celestial sphere, I discovered to my delight that the lightest touch of Timothy’s fingertips on that ashy bit of skin on the very back of my elbows could communicate so effectively, sending me careening into a rapturous grapevine. Timothy, huddled along the edge of the dance lawn like any sorry sucker without a date, met me at the end of my line, looking like he wanted to cut in and a rug. So I grabbed his elbow just above the funny-bone nerve, winking flirtatiously. But he caught the wink dead on, saw it coming rather than being surprised halfway through it, and any time someone actually watches you wink the gesture turns out to take about one-and-a-third times as long as your mind thinks it should. So the winker just comes off kind of creepy and deficient in fine motor skills.
In a slapdash attempt to salvage my dignity, I pitched Timothy’s elbow toward his brother, threw up a “touchdown!” hand signal to indicate my intention to take a break from the dance, and squatted down on a stump to catch my breath. I look around, realizing that we must have been dancing longer than I thought, because a medium-sized, medium-20th-century city had sprung up around our clearing. Maybe it was more combining magic, or maybe it was just the air pollution of pre-Clean Air Act radium refineries, but the sky above shimmered with an unearthly glow. This both was, and wasn’t, your momma’s St. Louis in 1963.
The only thing to do was the set of logically compossible things. I called out to Timothy, and he tore himself away from a sultry ragtime-twerk with Timothy to come see. We set out down the sidewalk that began behind the piano tree. Dr. Blue appeared on the front porch of the 37th house we passed (It’s quite important to count houses). I reminded him of the Dorothy Parker quote, in more ways than one, and he joined our small raiding party.
Our constitutional ended at the foot of Pruitt Igoe, which wasn’t really nearly as bad as the documentaries would have you believe. Its global standardized stabbiness rating couldn’t have been more than 13.6. And besides, there were empty apartments! I’ve always wanted an empty apartment. We scoured the nearby hallways for vices and devices to help us while away the rest of the evening. In the suffuse glow of the radioactive cloud above, it wasn’t hard to find a few shakers of martinis, some contraband smokes, copies of The Savage Detectives and a collection of assorted printouts on British poets from Wikipedia. The internet came early to these projects; maybe that’s what turned the residents on one another. Or maybe it was all us looters. I suppose there are academics to answer such questions. I should know, after all, being one of them.
Emboldened, we continued to pilfer, trade, and otherwise acquire and re-acquire the typical accoutrements of apartmenthood. I found appliances from my past and future in the 9th floor stairwell, realizing that my desire to stay connected to objects was both the root of all suffering and the reason I could never keep an empty apartment for long. But there are so many things to have! I dragged the elements of a kitchen and, to be safe, the detergent dispenser from a local laundromat, into the apartment. Looking around with satisfaction at a job mediocrely done, I chugged another shaker’s worth of martini and passed out, both under and over a Timothy, in a heap on the floor.