Chapter 7: The Berkshire Big Ideas Festival
In which my many selves bear the puppet-Emperor to the Commodore for his big speech; Flap tells of bloodshed in Butte; and I escape the fray only to de-spine myself in a hotel conference room.
Working in concert, all the copies of me—I’m speaking from somewhere among them now, roving head to head—bear the Emperor on his litter down from the hills, back across the train tracks, and along the harbor toward the Commodore, where a crowd has gathered. The sun is setting and the boats on the horizon have turned on their lights and begun to strobe them across the boardwalk.
The Quay Brothers march at the front of the procession, in perfect lockstep, staring straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge the collective gaze passing over them from the sidelines. The Emperor’s head bobs on its litter, raining cold saliva onto our shoulders, but we keep our eyes on the Brothers’ blonde necks, and allow them to lead us past a growing mob, through the livery entrance, and into the Commodore’s lobby, as the boats in the harbor blare their foghorns in triumphant welcome.
In the lobby, a crowd of reporters closes in, restrained only by several of me, who strongarm them away while we bear the litter through the main doors of the auditorium, down the central aisle and up a ramp onto the stage. This all proceeds without incident, like it’s been rehearsed many times before, or, indeed, like a painstakingly orchestrated sequence in a stop-motion film.
It’s only when the litter has been safely positioned on a velvet-draped platform at the back of the stage that my head—I continue to rove among selves, stopping for a while in each one—becomes free to turn toward the front of the stage, where I see Flap in the middle of his comedy routine. He seems to pick up in mid-sentence, like my attention has conjured him, or recalled him from a dimension where he would otherwise have happily remained.
“And so there I was,” Flap recites, choking the mic in his fist, just as he did when I first stumbled across him, rehearsing in this auditorium on what I can only call my first night back in Berkshire. “I was right there, on a stage a lot like this one, in some godforsaken Holiday Inn in Montana, telling the mother of all jokes—the one about existence itself being the only source of genuine humor, of everything that exists being intrinsically funny relative to the far greater likelihood, and, if you think about it, eventual inevitability, of its not existing. I’m sure many of you here tonight have heard me tell that one before,” muted laughter from the seated crowd, “but anyway, there I was, in Butte, Montana, when the place just erupted in gunfire. I can’t even say what it was like, but that’s not my goal here. You wouldn’t be able to imagine it anyway,” he shields his eyes from the spotlight and cranes his neck toward the back of the theater, as if scanning for the possibility that the gunfire he’s describing might erupt again, or even that his describing it might summon it forth for the first time.
Then he puts his hand down and laughs, releasing the tension he’s just built up, and continues. “My goal here is to say that I thought I was going to die, along with everyone around me—my beloved Driver, this totally chill Croatian guy who’d driven me for my whole career, he got blown the fuck away, and like the whole staff of the hotel, everyone in the mall next-door, I mean,” he voice starts to shake, theatrically though perhaps sincerely, as well. He sniffles and wipes his eyes, dragging the mic across his forehead. “I mean, look people, the odds against my being here tonight were a lot higher than the odds for it. Sometimes, I think I did die, and this is a kind of afterlife.”
The crowd stirs; people cough and phones light up.
Flap coughs too, rattled by the response, and says, a little hastily, “But I didn’t die. I didn’t! That’s the point. It’s the opposite of the mother of all jokes! I thought I was going to, so I kind of lost my mind, and I wandered out of my room, where I’d been hiding after I escaped the gunfire in the auditorium, and I wandered back through that gunfire—this was two, three days later, there were corpses everywhere, the whole place was full of them, and more flies than you’d think could exist on the entire planet—but I kept going, and, I don’t know, I guess I was thinking of ending it somehow, I mean, if I didn’t get killed on the way, I thought I’d walk into this toxic waste pit on the edge of town and just dissolve in there, like that was the only ending I could think of… but, on my way, I passed through a parking lot, and in that parking was a gallows, and on that gallows was a puppet.…”
At the word puppet, he lunges toward the back of the stage, right toward one of my selves, and I have the feeling that he’s going to grab this self around the neck and drag it up to the mic with him. If he did, I would’ve let him take me where he wanted, and manipulate me however he chose. I’d decide later whether to remain in that self, or relinquish it and occupy another.
But he doesn’t choose me. Instead, he reaches under a blanket near my feet and extracts a much smaller puppet, tattered and ragged, its head barely attached.
He returns to the front of the stage, making a show of working his hand into the puppet’s guts and up under its chin. “And when he found me,” the puppet says, its voice lower and more insidious than Flap’s, like that of an old circus clown who’s been shouting and smoking for many decades, “he cut me down from that gallows, helped me sew my skin back on, supplementing it with some of his own, and took me out of Butte, first into the woods, and then to a train station we found on a high Rocky Mountain plateau, where we boarded the train that took us here.”
The puppet cackles, louder and longer than any joke would seem to merit, on the word here. It cackles so long, in fact, that Flap makes a point of stuffing his other hand over the puppet’s mouth, and interjecting, “What he means is….”
“What I mean,” the puppet interrupts, shaking its head free of Flap’s hand, “is that Flap and I rode that mystery train all the way to Berkshire where, it gives us no shortage of pleasure to say, the ruins of the world we passed through are long forgotten, and the Great Emperor Franz Josef is here to reassure us all that.…”
The puppet begins to cackle and cough again as I feel all of my selves stoop to hoist up the Emperor’s litter and carry it from the shadows at the back of the stage up into the spotlight, as Flap and the puppet, apparently our opening act, step aside. I feel my consciousness rove freely again, from one of my heads to the next, diffusing and blurring each time I migrate.
We put the litter down and step aside as the Quay Brothers step in, one from each wing of the stage, to sit on velvet stools with the Emperor between them. In unison, they reach under his handsome Viennese riding suit and into two gleaming slits in his back.
“Good people of Berkshire,” the Emperor begins, his Austrian accent thick but, to my ear, unconvincing. I see the Quay Brothers mouthing the words from where they crouch behind him, though the sounds do seem to be coming from the Emperor’s mouth. “Good people, welcome to the Berkshire Big Ideas Festival! We’ve been looking forward to this day for so long, have we not?”
The lights sweep on in the auditorium as the crowd cheers, their faces blank and jaundiced, their mouths hanging open, as if their jaws were shattered. I feel a shiver in one of my selves as something new comes alive, a sense that this is my real body, my original… or at least it may as well be. There will never be a better time than now to choose.
Rooted in this body to some degree, or, better put, in my conviction that it is my body, I try to settle even more deeply into it, to move into the flesh that surrounds whatever spirit I believe makes me who I am.
While I attempt this, the Emperor continues, “Here alone, as we all know well, we are safe. Out there,” the Brothers jerk the Emperor’s hands in both directions, “barbarians are ravaging what’s left of the wasted world. A gruesome, sorrowful scene, depicted many times over in Berkshire’s hallowed Hall of Hellish Art.”
The lights come on again, and again the audience is revealed as a vacant, grinning horde, their faces even less distinct than before. In my new body, the one I’ve settled on, I begin to sidle toward the edge of the stage, past my motionless copies, risking whatever punishment this attempted flight may incur.
No one moves to stop me as the Emperor continues, asserting, “The year, lest any of us forget, is 1886, the Austrian Empire just as strong as you please, or,” the Brothers swivel his head side to side, surveying the audience, “the year is 1986, the American Empire just as strong as you please. Whichever you prefer. Either way, the message is the same: we are safe here in Berkshire, and only here in Berkshire are we safe. What happened out there will never happen in here, provided we stay the course.”
“What happened out there will never happen in here! What happened out there will never happen in here, provided we stay the course!” chants the crowd, so loudly the Brothers have to hold the Emperor to keep him from toppling off his litter.
Under cover of this noise, I shove my way through the stage door, past where Flap and the puppet are resting, and begin to run across the now vacant lobby and down the hotel hallways. I start to hear gunfire and shrieking and then I forget where I am and begin to fear I’m in Butte, Montana, running for my life, praying to find a station in the woods with a train waiting to take me, if I run fast enough to catch it, all the way across the dying country and back to Berkshire, where, at last, I’ll be safe.
All I need to do is make it there, I think, or hear the Big Ideas Festival think through me. The thought sounds canned, recycled many times over, but I can’t keep it from resounding in my head.
I shoulder my way into a conference room and wipe my face with the bottom of my shirt, trying to get a handle on myself. I picture Flap reaching his hand into my back, grabbing the mechanism of my jaw, and forcing me to say, “I’m in Berkshire. I’m in Berkshire. I’m safe here in Berkshire.”
I let the words spill from my mouth as I look at the wall-mounted TV behind the round seminar table. The screen shows a close-up of the Emperor, his face more human-looking at this remove. He says, “And thank you, also, to the wonderful President, Provost, and Vice Provost of BerkshireArts, for so courageously training the next generation of thinkers, whose insight, drive, and passion will continue to push Berkshire toward its full potential. Its final, permanent glory. Through them, the world, though it be only Berkshire, will be made new again!”
I gag and shoulder my way out of the conference room, running back down the red-carpeted hallways, past buzzing soda machines, laundry carts, and eggy room service trays, desperate to find a way out of the hotel before whoever’s chasing me—I feel certain that someone must be by now—catches up. I run as fast as I can, but the Emperor’s voice follows me, piping down from speakers in the hallway ceiling, and soon I’m so disoriented that I barrel into another conference room, or, if I’ve only gone in circles, back into the same one.
But no, I think, as I sit down at the seminar table to catch my breath, this room must be different, because here, in front of me, is a half-eaten Danish and a cup of cold coffee on a tray. These weren’t here before, right? I push it away, repulsed, or miming repulsion, as I flash back to my arrival at the train station in Berkshire, for the first or nth time, the feeling of climbing down onto the platform and looking out at the choppy sea whose presence I couldn’t remember having been there before, and yet….
I look back at the screen, where the Emperor is now hanging a medal around Arp’s neck. “For service to the august aesthetic tradition of Berkshire,” says the Emperor, “I hereby welcome you to the Habsburg Order of Hermetic Geniuses.” Arp bows his bald head and smiles soberly as the Quay Brothers manipulate the Emperor’s hands to make them clasp the medal behind my mentor’s neck.
I pull the tray back toward me and begin to gnaw the Danish and sip the coffee, trying to focus on their old, familiar flavors, telling myself that this is how they taste, as the TV begins to broadcast Arp’s speech.
“After a long, difficult early life in Zagreb,” Arp begins, the medal gleaming around his neck, more brightly than seems possible without special effects, “I received the opportunity to teach at Berk, and I took it, and now here we are!”
He smiles, through the screen and directly at me. I know that look, the way he could always see inside me and understand what I was thinking, what I needed to say but couldn’t, or wouldn’t. The way he could see my ideas better than I could. I shudder and wish the image away. But the screen remains full of Arp’s face, hovering there, pulsing, demanding response.
I throw the tray at it. It bounces off and lands on the carpet, spilling crumbs and coffee dregs. The screen holds fast, a look of total sycophantic resignation smothering Arp’s face. That isn’t Arp, I think. It can’t be. They’ve done something to him.
My back begins to itch, at the very bottom of my tailbone.
The Arp-thing grows louder, hissing and shrieking through its smile, while the Emperor fawns over him and the demon audience pounds its hands together. I scratch my lower back as I stand, approach the TV, kneel to retrieve the breakfast tray, and, with whatever strength I can still channel through the body I’ve chosen to inhabit, smash it into the Arp-thing’s smile. The screen shudders, but the image holds fast, or even widens its grin, so I smash it again, then a third time, then a fourth, until the glass breaks and the image freezes, the Arp-thing’s face preserved inside the box like an impression on a towel.
I rise and stand there, trembling, as the itching in my back sends tears down my face and summons my fingers toward it, refusing to let them go. They tear my shirt off and affix both of the hands they’re attached to around my tailbone, at the base of my spinal column, just where the bone’s protruding.
My hands itch at it, then wiggle it back and forth, easing the spine out of my body, pulling, gently at first, but then more and more forcefully, desperate to relieve the itching however I can.
Soon, my spine—Spine’s spine, I think, cackling weakly—has been pulled almost fully from my back, attached only at the very end, clutched in my left hand like an extension cord.
I stay like that for a moment, hunched, regarding the smashed screen with the image of Arp frozen inside, until something tells me to go to it, to offer him what I have, in some prayer of return. Anything, I think, to get back to the Arp I used to know, in the Berkshire I used to know, when my future was still ahead of me, out in a world beyond the town’s borders, in a city I used to think I knew.
Huffing, in a state beyond the last of my weak laughter, I approach the screen, wiggling my hips back and forth, spine in hand, like I’m leading myself on a leash, a gimp offered up for sacrifice.
When I reach the screen, I rip out the plug and jam my spine into the opened socket.
I stand back, as far as the spine will let me, and watch as plasma and neural energy course from my body into the screen, animating the sagging cloth image of Arp and bathing the broken glass in fresh waves of static that fall like tinsel and confetti across the open space. Then the pain overwhelms me, as I knew it would.
I drift through a woozy, staticky middle zone, like the shirtless boy adjusting focus on that massive woman’s face in Persona. I feel soft and pliant, relieved of my spine, channel surfing down toward a couch I can see in the distance beneath me, under a slushy layer of molten static: a couch, a rug, a television set….
My back begins to take on shape again as a new spine slithers through it, until I fall through the ceiling and into one of those bodies on the couch, and then there we are, Spine & Arp side by side on a Sunday night in college, taking in a double-feature after a long dinner and hours of vivid conversation about the nature, purpose, and, most of all, the bright future of art.