Desert Spleen

Excerpt from All the Last Furies, novel-in-progress.
Bert and George. A Couple of Real Coons. That was the title of the program. Arturo didn’t know what the term meant, why coons, but he could feel the seeds of malignancy implicit within it. He could smell and taste the wrong of the enigmatic title.
Yet Bert and George did make him laugh. Cry too. Laughter and tears. What else was there?
All Bert and George ever did was wander in the desert. An endless wandering, sandblasted peregrinations to nowhere, a tubercular odyssey with no point. They wandered, kept each other company, drove each other nuts, got into and out of scrapes and follies. The desert, in all its starkness and death-resin, might not seem like an ideal breeding ground for vaudeville, but these two men showed otherwise. They showed that comedy’s scoliotic backbone originated in a sturdier more epic spine.
There was the episode when Bert and George found an oasis, except it turned out to be a tainted oasis, at least for Bert.
The oasis was flanked by several hunched ashen trees with fringed fronds, and scant patches of grayish green grass grew miraculously in a semi-circle around a modest stream. Both men gulped down the cool water from the stream, both men bathed their faces. Except, and here’s where the oasis affected Bert and George differently, Bert started screaming.
What Bert what, George checked in.
The water is burning my tongue and my face.
Bert was covering his face with his hands.
George ordered him to put down his hands.
Let me take a look-see.
George went quiet real quiet.
Bert flutteringly opened his eyes, which had been shut, tears streaming down due to the acidic burning.
Bert gauged the mystified look on George’s face.
Bert went over to the stream and sought the clarity of its mirror. No reflection. No face. Just the porkpie hat and bowtie and empty space where his face should have been.
Bert walked back to George, his fingers searching for his face, finding it.
George do I still have a face? Do I?
George nodded.
You still have a face Bert but something’s happened to the pigmentation, you’re, it’s lightened.
Lightened?
Yea it’s lightened. It’s whitened. Now you’ve got the face of, by god I’m sorry to say this Bert, but you’ve got the face of the white devil.
The white devil?
Yea.
THE White Devil?
Well maybe not THE White Devil, but A white devil. You’ve got the face of a white devil Bert. I’m awfully sorry.
Bert begins weeping. Dark inky tears cut along the length of Bert’s face, like tire marks on ghostly plains. After a short violent spell of weeping, Bert and George left the contaminated oasis and resumed their wandering.
Bert wondered why George’s face hadn’t been whitened by the water, and when Bert asked George, Why did I become a white devil George and not you, George’s shoulders peaked in a shrug, Dunno. This desert has got me all kinds of mixed up.
For the rest of that episode, Bert and George wandered on, exchanging quips and observations, except their relationship was different, a bit strained, carrying the agitated seeds of a wariness that had not been there before, with George remaining a Real Coon and Bert having become a White Devil, or at least appearing as one, and the two men interacted from an unfamiliar distance as their trekking continued.
The laugh track, which punctuated much of the action with orchestrated roars of canned laughter, disturbed Arturo. It reminded him of the plastic roses. The laughter, like the roses, was an unpardonable disfigurement, a blatant travesty.
Arturo wondered if Bert and George could hear the laughter. Perhaps it rained down on them like some enigmatic phenomena of Delphic origins, strange weather balloons born of vanity and sin.
Where exactly did the laughter come from? It came on as a torrential and anonymous chorus, but if broken down into isolated segments, who were the people behind each laugh? There had to be a true source, an original one, Arturo thought. Same as the roses, which had to have been manufactured somewhere. Even betrayals, or perhaps especially betrayals, had their sincerest origins.
In today’s episode Bert and George see an emaciated woman in a bird-mask, bound to a cross. The woman’s sun-branded body is darkened by ash and soot, and bears a geometric riot of lash-marks. The woman is covered only in a tattered loin-cloth, splattered with dirt and dried blood. The loin cloth covers her from shoulders to hips.
Bert and George stop and stand before the woman.
Are you real, George asks.
No response. Windless, dry, harshly blank, the climate seems to have become the woman, or viceversa.
Maam, can you hear us? I’m Bert. He’s George. We’re wondering…are you real? I mean real-real. We’ve been wandering in this here desert for a long time and…well we’ve run into our fair share of the not-real masquerading as real.
The woman, whose bird-masked head has been lowered, lifts slightly, then lowers again.
Guess that means yes, huh?
Can I touch you, George asks. Maybe on your ankle or something, just to make sure…
George breezes his fingers against the woman’s shin. The woman violently jerks her head up and back and emits a raptorlike screech.
George jumps back—I’m sorry miss, I didn’t mean…I was just seeing if…
Bert huddles with George
What should we do?
We can’t leave her like that. Let’s get her down.
(Here is where you, the audience, should play the song “Protection” by Massive Attack, ideally on vinyl or cassette, and allow the song to seep into you like the essence of tea leaves steeped in boiling water, and when the song is over—or rather when quality seeping has occurred, which may require listening to the song several times, rejoin Bert and George and their dilemma with the Girl on the Cross)
Maybe she doesn’t wanna get down?
Well who the hell would want to stay tied to a cross baking in the desert sun?
I don’t know George, you may be right, but let’s not forget the desert’s got a logic all its own.
Maybe the desert does, Bert, but look at what’s right in front of us. Right there. A woman strapped to a cross.
When you touched her George, when you laid a finger on her, did you hear that scream? you ever heard a scream like that come from a human? And that bird-mask she’s wearing, what’s that all about? She may not be what she seems. This may not be what it seems.
Leave me, comes the low whittled voice of the woman.
What, Bert and George respond in unison.
Leave me, the woman repeats, a bit more firmly. You are right. I am not real. Not in the way you think.
Bert gets lost in the woman’s mask. Tufted with golden-brown feathers, its beak sharply narrowing into the incise symmetry of a talon. Bert thought he could see spots of dried blood at the very edge. That, or sunspots.
We can’t leave you hanging there miss, George says.
You have left me before. Leave me now. This has nothing to do with you. Keep walking. Forget me. I am exactly where I need to be. What I need to be.
Excuse me if I sound, I don’t’ know, perhaps a little naïve, but won’t you die if we leave you out here?
You two have been out here wandering a long time, right? Have you died?
No we haven’t—
Yes, gentleman, you have. And you haven’t. Have. And haven’t. Until you can understand that, you won’t understand a goddamn thing.
Bert and George were startled by the sudden surge of venom in the woman’s voice. Bert thought she was a mirage, or a curse. George thought she was more and less real than both of those things.
I guess we’ll go then, George says sheepishly. Before we do, are you sure that—
Yes I am. May ______ have mercy on our souls.
Bert and George both heard something different.
George’s blank was filled with a guttural melody, some sort of aural rune. Bert’s blank was filled with the sound of water running.
The two men departed.
Slowly, slowly, and they never looked back. Not even when they heard the unearthly screeching, and smelled the smoke.

 

Bert Williams and George Walker - c. 1903

 

About John Biscello

Originally from Brooklyn, NY, writer, poet, spoken word performer, and playwright, John Biscello now lives in Taos, New Mexico. He is the author of three novels: Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale, Raking the Dust, and Nocturne Variations, and a collection of stories, Freeze Tag. His fiction and poetry has appeared in: Art Times, nthposition, The Wanderlust Review, Ophelia Street, Caper, Polyphony, Dilate, Militant Roger, Chokecherries, Farmhouse, BENT, The 555 Collective, Instigator, Brass Sopaipilla, The Iconoclast, Adobe Walls, Kansas City Voices, and the Tishman Review. His blog--Notes of an Urban Stray--can be read at johnbiscello.blogspot.com. Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale was named Underground Book Reviews 2014 Book of the Year.
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