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CALLIOPE’S BOY

by

Tom Bradley




He looked like an aged pear with his olive drab raincoat stretched and safety-pinned about him. He laid his instrument horizontally across the topmost roll of his gut, on a plane nearly a foot higher than the tops of many of the heads filing by. He arched his back, clenched his great soft buttocks, bopped his skull rhythmically against the hard curve of the ceiling, and didn't sing, but wheezed and grunted unconsciously, and provided authentic-sounding mouth flatulence, in strict time, in order fully to exploit the bathroom acoustics of this yellow-tile tube.

Or else sometimes he did sing, three-four and whiny, the Pat Sky song that made America famous:

Our baby died last night.
It lived not forty-eight hours,
and it cost a hundred dollars.
It was a lousy baby anyway.

It died just to spite us,
of spinal meningitis—
wat 'n data ya-ga (forgot the words)
It was a lou-u-usy baby anyway-y-y.

Someone small and haunted-looking came by occasionally and sprinkled old ha'pennies like cinnamon powder into his case; and he leaned his huge head back in acknowledgement, letting this benefactor see the rich black soot which permanently lined his nostrils now, identifying him as a bona-fide people's musician.

The same rough iron soot was accumulating on the skin head of his instrument, gradually making it, too, look more appropriate. Underneath all that authentic soot was a fabulous banjo, an Epiphone, custom-made extra large and fine especially for Sam. It was eight hundred dollars, much better quality than any other busker's instrument (poor slobs), and he flaunted it high upon his gut. It had been a present from his mom on his tenth birthday, way back in his boyhood's America.

In one of her quasi-fugue states his mom had taken him to a franchised music store where they mostly sold Magnavox Home Entertainment Centers. Strung along one wall in the back had been a few extremely shiny trumpets and clarinets. And that's where Mrs. Edwine had led her Sammy, wanting to provide him with the mollification of playing beautiful music with his mouth.

After ten years she still had fresh in mind the sad hours she'd spent nursing her huge, lipless infant through a syringe, shedding tears because Nature had deprived her boy of the one activity which babies love most. And, of course, in her view, she'd been partly responsible: she'd helped Nature along by allowing gestation to take place downwind of nuclear testing sites. Unworthy is what Sam's mom sometimes felt in certain moods: generalized unworthiness. Sammy was her only weak point, and music her only field of ignorance.

So, on birthday number ten, after swinging by the credit union, Mom had yielded to the authority of the half-asleep sales clerk behind the wind instrument counter. She inquired, if her boy could have his pick of any he wanted, what instrument would best suit Sammy's double harelip (repaired)?

The clerk, evidently hung over, had looked slowly up and down at the six foot-tall child delivered up before him, and had mumbled, "Banjo."

If banjo it was, then fabulous banjo it had to be: customized with inappropriate mother-of-pearl squiggles and squirrels all up and down everywhere, and real secret Freemason symbols on the neck. It was almost physically painful to look at, it was so beautiful. Nevertheless, part of the obligatory game had been for Sam to pretend all these fifteen years that he hated his banjo. He'd left it behind at home. A cousin had secretly shipped it to him once he'd gotten situated at Herne Hill in unfashionable and perilous Brixton.

Somehow, from the way he made his banjo ring through the yellow tile tunnels of London's underground transit system, it was evident that this was exactly where this music belonged, as it were, and Samuel Edwine with it, evident that he'd taught himself to think and to feel and to play inextricably, all at once, down inside of another, similar place underground.

In a basement dug in a salt desert somewhere remote, pipes and heating ducts dangling like stalactites overhead. On a street called Dimple Dell Drive, where he'd spent his formative years lying flat on his back, staring up at the ceiling, and thinking persecution thoughts about the polygamist cultists who surrounded him.

And now he did not fail to notice the secret undergarments of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints. It seemed, to his curdled corneas, that more than two thirds of his passing audience wore them, showing white and peculiar through the fabric of their dresses and shirts. London, as far as he was able to ascertain, was becoming a city of Mormon converts.

They wore the stretchy see-through things against their bodies, the original design, right down to the hamstring-gash still bestowed by fundamentalist overseas branches of the faith as a reminder of the things Moloch has in store for his Moronic Myrmidons who fail to bend their knees in submission and prayer. Yes, even through the thick tweeds, one's corneas could plainly see that the limeys' long-legged garments had slits in back, brown with dried femoral blood.

One could see why these lapsed Anglicans, each of whom took pains definitely not to gawk at him, must hanker, deep in their sunless souls, for a shot of New World zeal to liven up their polite and stagnant lives. And, of course, recent converts are always highly orthodox in their approach to the newly embraced delusion. They surely declined to remove their official garments, even keeping them hanging from one toe while procreating more pallid limeys; for the Prophet Father Brigham Young had long ago warned his children that it might be fatal to remove them completely under any circumstances.

They provide prophylaxis from the infections of the Devil; and true Mormons not only fuck and suck, but shower and swim and patronize Turkish baths with these gauzy eye-catchers swathed around them, these conspicuously pious, whole-body scum-bags, which have pin-holes over each nipple so the soul may exit upon death or baptism by proxy, not unlike those poked with sewing needles in cellophane-packaged Trojans by counter help at Mini Marts all across the Far West, and beyond.

When Sam saw this salt-color glowing under the clothes of the sons and daughters of the thunderous Thames, he realized something about the ubiquity of cultural and moral and political and religious and sexual and aesthetic compromise. It was something so big and sweeping that he couldn't come close to articulating it, not even in the reasonably manic mood he was in these days.

So he decided to pack up his banjo and withdraw, to take a bath, for he felt besmirched with compromise. It would be his first and last bath this side of the Atlantic.

* * * *

He went to one or another of the bohemian parts of town, paid his few shillings, and was issued a stiff white towel, sandpapery with spider legs, and a virtually hairless slab of gristly soap. He could hear the moans of aged Cockney drunks drying out in adjacent booths, bums all around, singing sea chanteys like unshaven privateers.

He more or less stretched out on the chilly steel, naked, waiting to boil the metallic smell of spiritual prophylaxis, woggy amphetamine, ubiquitous compromise, and London itself off his virginal body. He waited in his stainless tub for the woman to turn the big red wheel and send him a rush of what he half trusted would be hot mineral water. But it turned out to be warmed-over tap drippings. Rusty, but potable, of course.

(If you want to see if a Brit has all his teeth, just ask him if it's okay to drink the water in his country.)

Then, instead of more clever things, Sam's brain heard a voice wafting across the Atlantic and into his ears, from the pickled wastes of the Mormons' Promised Land—second driest state in the union, absorbing less than thirteen inches per year of measurable precipitation, moister only than Nevada, causing an understandable obsession with all manner of baths among its cleanly natives, including blood baths.

Hear you now the words of the Prophet Father Brigham Young, regarding the Doctrine of Blood Atonement, as held by the Moronic Myrmidons of Moloch:

"There are sins that men commit for which they simply cannot receive forgiveness in this world, nor in that which is to come; and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt on the dry ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to Heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense, the fragrant steam that rises off newly shed blood, would atone for their sins. Whereas, if such is not the case, they will stick to them—"

(They being the sins and them being the sinners. Watch your referents, Brother Brig, you semi-literate, bloodthirsty motherfucker.)

"—and remain upon them in the spirit world—"

(Notice how this guy lets slip the phrase spirit world? Hear the blatant paganism? Why not the Bosom of Abraham? Or Beulah's Mighty Threshold?)

"—and I know that when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, you may consider it strong doctrine—"

(Strong medicine, ugh—you've been spending too much time with the little Navaho boys, Bro.)

"—but it is to save them, not to destroy them.

"Oh, and, by the way, fellas," continues Big 'n Hung, "now if you huff and puff and you finally save enough money for to take your wife and kids on a trip across the sea, take a tip before you take a trip a-lemme tell ya where t' go. Go to Engl-and, ohhhh...”

Engl-and shwangs like a pendulum do:
Elders on bicycles two-by-two,
The Doctrine and the Cov'nants
And the Pearl o' Great Price
Tell us guzzlin' London tea-hee
Is a terri-bibble vice...

Engl-and shwangs like a pendulum do:
Elders on bicycles two-by-two.
Johnny Donne's pulpit,
Belial's doctrine.
And it's time to take your leave
Before your prick goes limp again.

Sam sent his own voice echoing over the waves to Brother Brigham's grave in the upper avenues of Salt Lake City, or across the ether to his seraglio on his personal planet, or wherever the fuck this particular patriarch was hanging out these days.

"My eyes are open to my true condition, Brig, and it stinks so bad that neither the spilt blood nor the smoking incense thereof will sweeten this little hand."

Before he left the bathing booth, Sam reached down, gathered up his fatty soap, and created something written on the tiny rust- and pus-flecked mirror. Mixing his cursive with his printed, his upper case with his lower, in the quirky penmanship that a certain alienist had long before told his mom was a crying warning of early personality disintegration, Sam wrote—

MeLchiZedEk rULe, oK.

Then he got himself, minus abandoned fabulous banjo, back underground quickly, like a mushroom, before his swollen pores could suck in an acid rainy chill. He placed himself on a train full of bodies with fascist newspapers instead of heads, and he thrashed, screamed and flashed through the mud tunnels, back under the silver Thames.

* * * *

At St. Pancras Station, waiting for the train to Heathrow, Sam happened to see the old English gentleman, and recognized him in a flash: the first Londoner he'd laid eyes on as his train had pulled in so long ago. Incredible coincidence, in this city of so many millions of souls, that this old English gentleman should also be the last.

It was the exact dark-blue three-piece suit, with the same misplaced elephant labia growing in vertical rolls on either side of the identical groin area, and the precise eyeballs, grey and amazed, bugged a full span as by sheer hydraulic hypertension from the hair-free Churchillian skull.

And Sam's burnt eyes simply could not read the flapping letters and numbers on the elevated schedule board, so he decided to approach this older, but kindred spirit from this other dying, whimpering nation, also older.

Sam abandoned British restraint, which he'd never mastered, anyway, and he temporarily forgot about his delayed-reaction rage, vaguely protracted, built up over the sunless, damp, grey months until it was like a computer program that could run itself; and he began to murmur, then babble, then shout in the face of the old English gentleman, right there in the concrete middle of St. Pancras Station. Literally thousands of the Queen's subjects were definitely not listening or staring.

"Might you be familiar, Sir, with the medical term keratonitis? It designates a cornea that puckers gradually from birth into the shape of a dunce cap. This is a condition associated anecdotally with congenital facial deformities. I will be blind, they say, Sir, in five years. I should not be here, and wouldn't be, if not for the efforts of a certain person. And you know as well as I, Sir, the identity of the instigator of the foul alliance that put her away for good. And there are certain misdeeds so heinous—wouldn't you agree, Sir?—that neither penance nor the love of Jesus Christ Himself will ever wash them away, but only the blood of the perpetrator himself, Sir, and—"

The old English gentleman interrupted. He raised a pale hand, more than two fingers extended. He glared icily, and, with barely concealed indignation in his voice, puffed, "I don't know you. I don't care to know anyone resembling you. You look and sound half-dead, and your clothing is lamentable. I wish you would go away now."







ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Bradley is the author of five novels, Acting Alone, The Curved Jewels, Killing Bryce, Hustling the East and Black Class Cur. Various of his novels have been nominated for The Editor's Book Award and The New York University Bobst Prize, and one of them was a finalist in The AWP Award Series in the Novel. His short stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. One or two have been translated and published in Japanese (or so he's been told). His screenplay, Kara-Kun, based on his novel of the same name, was a finalist in the Write Movies International Screenwriting Competition. By invitation, Tom has contributed to Inking Through the Soul, an anthology of authors' reflections on their craft, published by Tarcher/ Putnam in January 2001. Tom's short stories and essays have appeared in such publications as Big Bride, Ralph, Salon.com, Exquisite Corpse, LitKit Journal, Jack Magazine, Milk Magazine, Tower of Babel, Oyster Boy Review, Spoken War, Unlikely Stories, Blue Moon, Heresiarch, Eyeshot, The Melic Review, Two Girls Review and McSweeney’s. Excerpts and reviews of Tom's books, links to his online work, plus a couple of hours of recorded readings, are posted on his website.

Send correspondence to
TBradley@literati.net







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