6. The Ticket, the Tunnel
Lyuba, yeah, Lyuba, Butch intoned to himself…over and over, to the rhythm of the road, deep in the bowels of a dream where what had really happened couldn’t have, he woke with a start.
He was sitting on a bus. Slowly, to keep from panicking, he took in the unfamiliar buildings, the streets with foreign names. Vera’s warm, dry hand rested in his. She was asleep, head on his shoulder. He blinked, shifted his gaze, peered into the gray light, it was morning. He saw a river. The bus came to a stop.
They got off with the rest of the passengers, Vera staggering heavily, but still somehow graceful. He caught her, caught hold of her, he needed it bad. They were definitely in Paris, he recognized the steel structure of the Eiffel Tower. It seemed to be nodding across the river to them. Yep, it moved, it bent, he saw it. Blinked.
Check that off the list, Vera said. Butch stared. His girlfriend’s head was shaved, red scratches, dried scabs, scattered across it, a random pattern of clumps of hair alternating with bald spots. He thought back to the night before. Was it really just yesterday? He remembered holding her between his knees, by the neck, just in case, he’d said. So she couldn’t change her mind. I want to be brand-new for you, she’d declared, there, in the bathroom. Well, she got what she asked for. He stifled a laugh, tried to recall if they’d brought any luggage. What’s wrong? she asked, lifting her face to his. Ah, nothin.
Vera had come to him after Dusty. Or from him. He wasn’t sure. Dusty introduced them. At the bar. She smelled boundlessly delicious. All over. It was insane, intense, and immediate. He started sweating bullets. Every time she looked at him that night. Fell off the barstool, almost broke his arm. Showing off. Bought some hash from Chincha, chunks big as his thumbnail. Sparked it, that was the ticket. He badly needed to drive the night wild, in all corners, at all hours. He knew what came next: graves parading before his eyes, people inside them. Bit by bit he was losing the past, the present was wounding him, as for the future he didn’t know a damn thing. An uncomfortable time. Sparking up and inhaling wasn’t enough.
He needed the ticket, needed something to cover up the hum of the fluorescent lights, the whir of the grindstone, the clang of the trams, the creak of wires in the wind and the gurgle of pipes underground, the siren, the buzz saw, the fingernails on glass. The air shimmering with gasoline, the sky up above, and his brain wide awake: pain. His body completely defenseless. A very uncomfortable moment. So intensely uncomfortable he’d mistaken it for eternity. He didn’t intend to stick it out.
He knew that by taking drugs you become one yourself. And then either you stop or you’re dead. He knew drugs had killed even among the first humans. He knew drugs had come down to him through a chain of human bodies. Drugs circulate via bodies, live off the bodies of dead addicts. He knew it but left it for later. Right now, he reached for the ticket.
He wanted to work magic, go through the tunnel, be inside it. And at the end of the tunnel would be the inside of her mouth, the map of the inside of her head, all the rest he would toss to the walls, leave in the tunnel, he didn’t need it.
He saw into her, right down to her toes, and he let her see through all of the falsehood, through the jungle of light, into him, into the anthill. She sat by herself, a neck, a head. He needed the ticket badly, to cover up the murderous noise. He couldn’t stand the thought of any sounds causing pain to that little beauty, even for a second. He’d sooner hurl himself from the ramparts. But the ticket was better.
He had to borrow some cash from Dusty. That wasn’t anything unusual. Then they got hammered and got high. Together. Things got raw, but not for too long. When the old wounds laughed at them. They left them closed. Lying there, the two of them, looking at each other, looking forward. What a ride, she said.
Her twenty-six or -seven years, or whatever line it was she fed him about her age, were like a bouquet of red, white, and yellow roses, the slender tongue of timelessness quivering amid them. It went to his head, and if the bouquet had been in a vase he would have broken the glass and drunk up the water. He felt a need to feed the flowers himself.
It wasn’t at all like with Lyuba. Lyuba didn’t use. If he’d been capable of reflection, he might have realized that the two of them were so interconnected, whatever he did, she did too. Now he’s lying here with this girl, Vera. Bent toward her, doesn’t lift his head. Doesn’t look at the sky at all. There is no sky here. In the tunnel.
But it was definitely best to ditch Prague. So he cleared out. No: stormed out.
Lyuba. Besides, he’d had enough of her complaints about his cooking. After all, he only cooked for himself. Just enough for his trips into the tunnel. He needed it. Even Lyuba didn’t realize how much.
He hadn’t even thought about how they might appreciate his dubious art here, with Vera in Paris, the city of poets.
A fine layer of hair was starting to cover her head again, how long’ve we been here anyway? he asked, scooping some crystals onto the tip of a knife.
She’d gotten the address of this tiny flat from Dusty, who’d stayed here at one point. Their guest and household friend, Dusty’s buddy Vladimir, squirmed restlessly. Are we goin’ or what? he asked. He was anxious to do some business. But the way those two were sailing, he could tell it was useless to try and torture their time with hours and days, strapping their time on a rack that they couldn’t feel anyway.
Vera wasn’t too talkative. Whenever Butch focused intently on her, as a person, a female creature, or a spirit, rather than just a less reliable part of himself, he got scared she was slipping away and he wouldn’t be able to catch her. But he didn’t worry that much.
She wandered the streets alone for hours, he never knew where or who with. Every so often they’d make up their minds to go back, but just the thought of buying tickets and figuring out the schedule was more than they could handle, never mind facing what they’d left behind, they each had their own stuff…looking at each other it was obvious to them both that one agitated argument only led to another and another…another high, another run, another bed, another rage, another promise, another bottle, another day, another…whatever came in between.
Butch had cottonmouth constantly, craved salt. He didn’t eat much, and his senses got all rubbery sometimes from the drug, so he’d sprinkle his little snacks, a mouthful here and there, with huge doses of salt and pepper. Vera was more into sweets. On days when Butch ventured out, he never failed to bring back a candy bar or two for his queen. At least to start with. Later on, he forgot more than just treats. He forgot her.
Vladimir was a sailor. But he didn’t seem to care too much how he made his living. He was the one who’d introduced them to the neighborhood, guiding them through the underpasses of Nurreille, uphill all the way.
There’s a hundred an seventy-seven nationalities here, you guys’ll fit right in, he had assured them, as if they cared.
He had associates on the Place de la République, back then in ‘97, in all the blocks of flats in the area, in the Chinese restaurants and video arcades near rue d’Aix and rue de Marlboro. Most of his friends from the islands were degenerates who, regardless of age, already had at least half their lives behind them. He was on greeting terms with nuclear engineers from the Secret Fleet, depressurizing in the city’s underpasses. He knew the lighthouse moles and the he-men from the sleeping cages. He was on a first-name basis with the most expensive seafaring queers, blackmailers of officers’ braids. He had learned something from each of them and owed something to all. He could work a compass, forge banknotes, pick locks, he even excelled at first aid. Lied constantly. Always broke. He was trapped. Sent down to his lovers from Heaven itself.
Butch’s concoction quickly won the favor of the heroin skeletons from the underpasses of Nurreille, with Vladimir making the introduction. Is it good? This shit’d give your dog wings, Vladimir grinned at the junkies grasping for a rope, and raked in the francs. Vera was furious. Don’t be stupid, she warned them, just for ourselves, we said.
Hey, Butch reassured her, I know. But this way we cover our rent, our tickets home, and travel for Vladimir too, hey, we can take him with us…
She was furious. She fidgeted. But she accepted. She accepted a bump.
Mustafa and Ali, their next-door neighbors, dropped by to scout it out. Butch didn’t like the way they looked at Vera. Even if they did walk in arm in arm bearing flowers. But apparently all they were interested in was his cooking, his crystals. This is no good, we’ve gotta get everyone on the salt! Vladimir advised him afterwards.
Mustafa and Ali started bringing friends. Butch would disappear into the kitchen, snatching a lick here and there, hanging back with the flasks and alembics. Vera was the social one. She took charge of the up-and-coming salon. Swept up after parties. Put the shower back in place. Took out the trash and returned the bottles a couple of times. Once, in a fit, scrubbed the floor. She started noticing the shop windows, brought home some sensational vests. Leather shoes. A doublet with gold buttons. A cap with a pompom. Applied makeup to her beautiful face in colorful, even layers.
Butch, in a gray robe, skulked around the flat. Sat in the kitchen, building the crystal honeycomb, watching it grow. Ate her hallucinogenic pancakes. They rested their legs on each other and laughed. Tried out all the different ways they could lay their hands on each other. She chased him around, he liked lifting her up. He spoke to her; she replied. Soon she learned how to imitate the muezzin. Stunned the Arab guests, all the junkies. Sometimes she’d just take a little taste so she could handle conversation.
That was their life: Mustafa and Ali set up the hookah in the corner, the Moroccans brought the drums and rattles, Butch tasted from the tip of the knife, Vladimir raked in the francs, and Vera in her pointy shoes stomped the extra salt into the table.
Others began to come too: Lebanese, Mauritanians, Cocker Spaniels…who could keep track… Vera passed around her pancakes. They made your skin crawl. The guests mumbled appreciatively. When Vera began serving the crystals on a silver platter, Butch’s prestige grew in the eyes of their regular visitors and she became the pale goddess, the drug priestess, ever prepared for the graceful sidestep. They hung a Chinese lantern in the entryway.
Hasan served as Vera’s personal bodyguard, accompanying her at a respectable distance whenever she went to the marketplace. One evening she came back with fish.
We’re going to make a feast for our friends, Vera informed Butch. Isn’t it just wonderful having so many ebony friends? wiggling her ass at him, extending a leg clad in her new starburst pantyhose…eyes swimming, barely shining through from the other side of the drug…gutting the fish, she cut herself, sank to the floor. Butch, standing paralyzed, nearly shed a tear seeing her there, on the ground in front of the sink, as if for the first time.
Hasan finished gutting the fish, playing around with the bladder, weaving around the kitchen, glancing into the pots, steering respectfully clear of the alembics, black and smooth as a panther, Butch thought.
Girl, hey girl, Butch slapping his love in the bathroom, hey, get it together, you’re burned out, give it a break, you’re burned – smackfromtheleft, out – smackfromtheright. Hasan leaped on his back, almost snapped his filigree tribal necklace, they horsed around a while.
Vladimir carried Vera down from the roof, she was about to fly away, propeller herself into the void, her naked arms cranking up, she was all ready to jump. By evening she was back at it again. With some local shaman, Nembo the lancer.
We don’t have sex anymore, Vera said. We don’t even try.
Butch stared out at the storied rooftops like he was looking down a tube.
What’re we doing here? he said. What’re we hanging around for? This is stupid.
Open that window back up!
Some buzz saw or something woke me up, said Butch. As if she cared.
I was looking out the window, or no, wait, he thought a moment. First I screamed, I was screaming at the noise.
That’s what woke me up, she said accusingly.
I thought I was in Prague, he said. With Lyuba.
Fuck off, asshole.
And I shut the window.
Exactly, she said angrily, I’m lying here all nice and cozy, breathing in the air, and you go and shut it! She got up, just in her panties, he watched her breasts, mostly them, though he saw all of her, stomping toward the window like a pint-sized general, storming mad and a little bit sweaty from sleep, he was in awe, suddenly his girlfriend, that crazy bitch, was standing at the window, rearing up, a miracle of tenderness, on tiptoe, grabbing hold of the frame and yanking. It was like a pit to the outside, for him, stupid window. He almost fell out.
And they had a nasty fight.
I don’t trust you anymore!
Good! You shouldn’t!
Do you even care about me?
Listen to you!
A cunt like you isn’t anyone’s!
Next thing he knew he had hold of her, she slashed his face, he threw a punch, the knife scratched her, out came the red, she went berserk…things started tumbling down, tea bags and canisters filled with rare spices, gifts to the pale priestess from her Arab friends, she tumbled into his alembics, look out, he shouted, shielding the stove with his body…then he held her, Vera, to his chest, suddenly all the tension was gone…with a sickening yearning he saw her left breast, for the first time, all of a sudden, it struck him as kind of…yeah, now of all times.
Bastard, she said, you’re a sick fuck and it’s only gonna get worse!
You…he said, you should talk, you’re getting old!
What do you care, you’re not my husband! she slipped out of the coffin on him.
I never knew that’s what you wanted, he steered into port.
Neither did I!
She tried to wipe the moistness from her eye so he wouldn’t notice. He blew his nose.
It was awful. They felt awful. Next morning amid the scattered pillows. Major confusion. Too tired to lift an arm. How far can it go, they wondered, avoiding each other’s eyes. But…then something happened. That same day. By then they had bandaged each other.
7. Miracle in Nurreille
He could tell as soon as he took it. They sat next to each other, holding hands. Watching each other. Infinite bliss. An incredible adventure, a demon-free flight. They stared at each other, wide-eyed.
Vladimir tried it too. He wasn’t capable of words, but he raised the price. Mustafa and Ali hugged each other, sweating. No anxiety to interrupt the effects. They were beside themselves. They were themselves. Vera smiled and a river of bliss ran through Butch’s heart, maybe the drug’s little kid, a previously unknown…compound.
This morning…I’m sorry, he told her.
Shhhh, she said. He laid his head on her chest. She could chop it off now if she wanted, bite it off like a dead nettle, he couldn’t move his neck consciously. But she took his head firmly in her hands and squeezed it against her. It was beyond love, beyond love’s insanity, and it was more than just love. They knew each other. They had arrived at the gate.
That evening Hasan bowed down to Butch and consumed the crystals from Vera’s palm like the cave dogs of mythology. From that moment on, he maintained a respectable three steps away from the pale priestess. The other visitors were in ecstasy too. This drug, this new concoction, got everyone.
A white-haired man from Lebanon stayed at their place for three days straight, dubbing Vera Imam of the Seven Blisses of the Tower of Men and Butch the Blessing of the Entrails’ Delight. Word in the neighborhood traveled fast. The mysterious Lebanese man left them the rug of rare fabric he had sat on the entire last day without blinking an eye; there wasn’t a trace of human scent on it.
That same day Hasan’s boys fended off an attack from the Georgians, and later that night the murky waters rolling through the gutters and catacombs of Nurreille washed up the dead body of Hedon, the dreaded loan shark. Amore Tapa, referred to by neighborhood residents in fear and only in whispers as Shame of the Hill, leader of a terrorist group called the People’s Fist, turned himself in. Word on the streets was he did so at the pale priestess’s request. That evening Nembo the lancer addressed her as Gazelle of the Plains, and he and his desert hyenas established a 24-hour watch over the flat.
Hand in hand Butch and Vera walked along the knife edge, the lip of the volcano, coexisting in the mental gateway to the world beyond without even realizing it. The amazing concoction’s reputation spread through the buildings and underpasses of Nurreille like a fire across the steppes. The two lovers were drowning in cash, drowning in themselves.
How did it happen? Butch wondered.
When we had that fight, Vera said. I love you.
Over what? In the kitchen?
I don’t know. I feel like I’ve known you a million years. When I threw you against the wall.
That stuff that fell off the counter. What was it?
They couldn’t remember. But that had to be it. When they were wrestling, some of the spices, the teas, the drugs they’d received as gifts in return, some mandrake or something must’ve fallen in there, but which spice, which one? Butch wrinkled his brow. For now they had enough. Even Vladimir was getting high and blowing off business. At least he didn’t hassle them so much.
The door never stopped swinging. Vera received visitors while Butch lived in the kitchen, experimenting feverishly. Doritos, Pridol, wolfsbane, cnidaria, cat dander, none of it worked. He tried taxubulin, ferrous lactate, the curse of Zosia of Bulz, he crammed himself full of demon leaves and watched the bubbling mixture with a fiendish gaze, to no effect.
Vera peeked anxiously into the kitchen. Butch sat in his gray robe, stuffing his face with ophiurida. It was one of the last things he hadn’t tried yet. Love, she said. Ugh, he replied, eyes glued to the second hand. An alembic exploded.
In their spare time they basked in their popularity, strolling the streets, followers bowing down to them. Every derelict in the neighborhood had grabbed hold of the ropes joining them to the world beyond and was swinging on them for all they were worth. Withdrawal was a thing of the past, a vague nightmare from the Middle Ages. The future was bliss. On the night of their conception the addicts’ children would become other beings, human arks of altered genetic information.
Ever since the day Vladimir had bowed the messenger from the Sultanates out of the flat, there’d been no limit to the Eastern Threesome’s fame. In honor of their invention, the Levantine Association of Nurreille declared the first day of the month of Jasper the Day of Bliss, marking the dawn of a new age. The bliss killed the pain. They all wanted it.
Everywhere Butch, Vera, and Vladimir went, they were surrounded by packs of little children and beggars holding out their hands. Followers and kindred spirits invited them into their homes, showering them with flowers and gifts. They lived in a cloud of music and adoration. Sorcerers bowed their heads, scamps whistled on their fingers, kettlesmiths banged their kettles. Even the ancient Jews of the Nurreille pits, hidden so deep in the catacombs that the thundering boots of the brutal invaders in WW2 sounded like nothing but the distant echo of a falling dove feather, surfaced from trapdoors in unexpected places, half covered in parchment as camouflage, to give Butch knowing winks, haggle with Vladimir over staggering sums, and offer Vera giant raisins in recognition of her near-inhuman grace.
Vera’s eyes were living fire, her body blazed with sex. She was the First Lady of Bliss. She began to be visited with dreams of the new age, and Rosanna the All-Seeing herself sent a flock of her bastards to carry the train of her dress.
Some of the derelicts began speaking in tongues. Leaving the Nurreille tunnel they went out into the city, and under the wild, dangerous sky they bore witness to the boundless delights of the new age of bliss. Others continued to come. A messenger from the town of Zirnj offered to grant Butch a wish, and Butch received a parrot, and the bird talked from inside his enormous cage. I don’t want him to talk, the inventor said, and the slave tore out the bird’s tongue. I don’t want him to fly, Butch stomped his foot. The slave heated the bird’s feathers with a blow dryer.
That’s not what I meant, Butch explained to Vera and Vladimir when he brought Noh back to the flat. Mustafa and Ali were in ecstasy. Ali couldn’t contain himself and pounced on the parrot’s feeder. Gaak, said the tongueless bird, giving Butch a reproachful look, straight into his black addict’s heart.
But at night. At night sometimes it ate at him. That the concoction was disappearing. And he couldn’t make any more. He couldn’t figure out the missing ingredient. And then he saw it again. Vera was sleeping, fast asleep, eyes open as usual, when he saw it on the pillow. The reflection. The red.
He screamed and sat bolt upright. The sun was coming up. The red skies spread above the storied rooftops of Paris closed in on him and he had his vision of blood from the clouds again. Drip, drop, drip…and gaak, Noh called to Butch.
It took them almost an hour to find him. Are you crazy? Vera said. How did you know? Vladimir asked. And: how come you didn’t warn us, here, he handed Butch a line with one end tied in a sophisticated sailor’s knot around Noh’s neck like a collar. They were standing in one of the Nurreille hill’s underground passages.
What was I supposed to warn you of?
You know, that they were there, Vladimir said.
The police and the militia, Vera explained. They’ve got the building surrounded!
What for? Butch blinked, fingering his robe.
We barely escaped! Vera shrieked.
And we don’t have a franc, Vladimir said. Not one damn sou!
They trudged up the hill. The sun wasn’t out. There was a sharp bite to the air and not a soul around. The few pedestrians they met carefully avoided them. They noticed a curly-haired kid duck behind a lamppost, a dark-skinned child dip down a side street. The only one who didn’t clear out of their way was a Chinese man in the underpass, who looked like he was watching them. That frightened Butch.
They walked the streets. All the shops and cafés were closed. No smiling eyes or joyful energy. Gone was the jubilation, all the people who’d applauded them…gone. The miracle was over.
Now they were on their own, mercilessly cast out of the world beyond. An addict’s bloated corpse floated by in the sewer beneath them. Marionettes nodded at them from shop windows. A mannekin offered his swollen penis to Vera; the worms were already at work on him. His eyes were watching Butch too, he ran a finger across his neck. Vladimir didn’t notice, standing rigidly listening to a rat that said it was going to kill him. The stink in the air was unbearable. Like the anxiety in the building next door had just thrown on a change of clothes, glanced at its rotting watch, and run out for a date with death. Gaak, Noh said. They’d hit bottom, hard.
He went back to Lyuba. After a couple weeks. After all they’d been through. After they’d broken up. They left Noh with Vladimir. But they couldn’t go on together.
You’re going…you’re going back to her, aren’t you, she said.
We can’t help each other, he said. We can’t help each other anymore. You and me, I mean.
But we can’t leave each other either, she said.
That’s true. Are you staying?
Maybe, whatever. I’ll be alright.
She probably stayed, since he kept seeing her. At least he thought he did. In the Métro, through the glass of a display case. A few times in the bar where he worked. He said something. She pretended not to understand. But probably he was wrong. It probably wasn’t her.
He thought back to the first time he’d seen the red flashes here. They had come at him while she was asleep, out of her unseeing eyes. And merged with the red in the sky. He thought about her, but the image in his head disintegrated, soaking wet from the constant drip, drop…what Butch saw falling down from the sky.
Anděl. Copyright (c) Torst, 1995. English translation copyright (c) Alex Zucker, 2012