NOCTURN FALLS AT OUR FEET
A Tale of Language in a Time of Undoing
“Nocturn falls at our feet,” his voice heavy with two AM jazz.
The world had become a serial place, like an unending line of rail cars parched, peeling red paint above a golden plain that stretched forever, the horizon erased between dust and sky. History was fatuous, and culture history’s concubine. It sweats silent and sulking in the humid night air, biding its time in the hours after decent folks have gone to sleep in their homes, and the cats have settled into their place under the slowly collapsing porches and weedy culverts.
Arbory Millhouse was prone to such vicissitudes, most particularly over luke-warm coffee given to bitterness, and most especially this Tuesday; the Tuesday before the inauguration.
He believed in poppycock. Not rabblerousing but poppycock in its purest and proper form. Arbory had made a religion of it. Lately he’d had a change of heart, where suddenly everything was the color of brown; a brown so heavy as to almost be stone, but retaining that hint of deep velveting reddish undertone that gave the color just enough life to breathe. He was harder for it, of course, but more balanced and content with it that he’d ever lived all those poppycock days.
Mister crumpet, flung upon the park bench beside him, had never known poppycock, had hardly even known brown. His color was gray, like the gray of asphalt, with a gruff texture and a hardened surface. For looks, well, he might be described best if one assumed one of his parents had been a fish or some scuttling crustacean, but with glasses and slightly more white hair. They had orbited one another for almost their whole lives, but how well the moon and sun know one another is a ridiculous exercise.
Crumpet wasn’t at all convinced, but the liveliness of the conversation had changed his overall color to some degree. If anything could be said of the friendship between Arbory Millhouse and Mr. Jacob Antiquinarian Crumpet was that their colors were brightened or deepened or better defined in their weekly conversations on that bench; weather permitting, of course.
“Cynic, now are we all of the sudden?” Crumpet squelched.
“Language, dear Crumpet, is a fault line in the air between each of us.” Arbory sat back and stretched, barely containing his sugary satisfaction.
Something, however, and maybe, because one can never be entirely certain of anything, but something was missing. Arbory believed it to be a new language, as the old one was insufficient to the times. if cataclysm, absurdity and upheaval were newly and unexpectedly the order of the day then certainly a lavender language simply would not do. Time and temperature demanded, instead something more scarlet, and perhaps even crimson. With a cleansing breath, the realization enlivening his velveting red to a frosty, at the sunrise vermillion
Arbory’s long, weathered fingers, yellowing slightly at the fingertips, beneath unevenly chewed nails, raked through straight red hair falling to his shoulders. That hair, thin and loose habited itself in Arboy’s eyes. he scratched his rusty beard and regarded Crumpet as if from atop a tall building to a lone derelict in a gravelly lot. he remained reclined, gazing up at Arbory, the duke of his own color.
“Reckon I won’t be around next Tuesday, or the Tuesday next or the one beyond that.”
“Heh! You’ve said that a time or two,” crumpet wiped snot away with his sleeve. His feet were out. A whisper of cold blue air found the hole in the bottom of his boot. He set the foot flat on the ground and felt wetness grow from the sidewalk, dampening his layers stockinged. “Come Tuesday, two o’clock sure as sssssssshinola, here you be.”
“Well, sell my stock. There is a world to change.”
Arbory smarted at the fading of the vermillion in his brown just for being there for longer than he wished, despite what affection…or habit…he held for Jacob Antiquinarian Crumpet.
“So long, Crumpet. You keep your half of our history and I’ll keep mine.”
Crumpet felt it was all a bluster, a pale excuse like an apology to a hurricane. He thought it something of a gust of wind whipping autumn leaves from the gutter of Arbory’s street; little more than a ruckus. but as Crumpet watched him cross the park he couldn’t help but feel all that heavy purple pouring into his gray.
Millhouse would be back, crumpet told himself. The purple over took him, now almost a deep and weighed damson. Crumpet stood, brushing off the secondhand tweed coat. Briefly he lifted his right foot and rooted around in the hole there, as if there was something more to discover than the cold and wet. He grumbled under his silver breath, more over Arbory than for the hole in his shoe. That exaggerated bit of spite returning him, mostly, to his comfortable gray. Not a small part of him envied Arbory’s poolhall bravado.
“A new language, huh?’ Crumpet conceded. “If anyone can…if it doesn’t kill you first.”
He stood and drew the collar higher and tugged the black knit cap lower over his ears and brow. With a sigh he turned away, favoring the foot with the hole in the bottom of the boot.
It was a time of beach comers and navel gazers, of lollygaggers and bullies in victim cloaks; neutered lions, and the too few brave voices shouting at the storm. Mostly it was empty tea cups, which was always the case, all falling like colorless confetti or snow upon the embers of the world. There were more of them now, and they seemed so eager for it. In pieces Arbory was at once all of them and none of them at any given moment. At a time when the colors of cobalt, vermillion, scarlet, lavender and purple was required far too many settled upon nothing or the gray. That, however, did not bode well for the world except for the predators lurking in the shadows, and the hens of indifference who only sought to gorge themselves on the porn of excess and the unending gluttony of more. Their pockets were never big enough, stretching and girded to their abstraction.
This too was also part of Arbory’s poppycock musings. Lately, especially in that little corner coffee shop on North Broadway, where he went to keep warm and lazily fingering every discarded newspaper he could find. He recalled the waves, the trials of a life, growing and building with energy, cresting and falling or erupting in torrents. He wondered if a fevered earth didn’t in turn compel fever among its merry-go-round children. The evidence lay in the reality that in little more than a day the shadow lurkers would soon be in charge.
Where it fell in the grander scheme of all things in the world was still the greater question. It was small for those in an Abruzzo chalet buried in a frozen avalanche, and the father stepping from the chalet for a cigarette only to lose his family in the deluge, or to the dozens lost to a bus accident in Uttar Pradesh that same day, or the Sudanese girl crying out from hunger. All of these things had to be weighed in the balance.
What was certain was that the language of the past no longer sufficed. It failed in its tempo and tenor in rising to all that would come, and that simply would not do. Arbory recognized it, even he had no clue where to begin. Events would reveal that, at least in part, soon enough
The lake pounded the wall in great sprays over a slowly crumbling bicycle path. They disintegrated in turn as mist, momentarily eclipsing the papercut silhouette of the city skyline wrapped along the shore. Each wave built like a symphony, a crescendo and dance as they rolled along the wall until fully spent, or succumbing to the next wave. Each wave boomed in his chest. There was a rhythm and pattern, a calculus that Arbory, standing beneath a young elm, concentrated on discerning. He counted 8, and then 11, and then 3 and tried to find some pattern in the back wash of waves. He was happy when a pattern repeated, believing he was on the verge of discerning something deeper about the world, his life and the Universe. But then, just as he grew the least bit confident in his calculus some seemingly random wave would upset the equation.
And he factored in not just the waves but everything before around and within him. The gulls frozen in place above the waves, beating their wings fruitlessly against the wind. The trees frame this stage just for Arbory. The curtains of clouds sweeping in from the north, a tumbling leaf, traffic on the drive, the exalted beating of his own self-consuming heart. These things were quantified, becoming lists, and then stanzas. Stanza’s became verses, which then grew to symphonies. Symphonies dissolved to an Elision of overlapping and conjoined melodies until all were dashed like those great and solid waves disintegrating into droplets and spray.
When he counted three predicted waves. Arbory was content that his non-mathematical calculus had sufficiently rooted out the universal pattern. His scarlet grew persimmon, lifting him and bringing a satisfied smile to his pale face.
It was just like Arbory to let himself get carried away in such poppycock. Generally, one is not casual about poppycock. Tomfoolery, gobbledygook, moonshine, balderdash, tommyrot or malarkey perhaps, but not poppycock. Arbory was a lifelong devotee, and preferred poppycock in its purest form.
His father was a preacher, not the kind that preached to great halls, large congregations or television audiences. He was the good kind of preacher who stood on street corners, perched upon plastic milk crates; one who was equally lucky not to get arrested or to walk away with enough change for a coffee and the occasional English muffin smeared with orange marmalade.
In the one enduring image, that of a tattered old photograph, Arbory’s father burgeoned like a bourgeois philosophy drop out turned street hustler, or a Trotskyist poser in a long leather jacket and rounded spectacles. In the photo The elder Millhouse drew a smirk that betrayed more an anxious quality beset with eternal misgivings and unending self-questioning than any sort of bravado. His Universe had ended some time ago, a slow unravelling and dissolution until the theory that becomes a life was no longer tenable.
The cause of that great unraveling was Arbory’s mother. She played the part of the heroin heiress, tragic in her passion and beautiful in her sickness. To Arbory she was cobalt framed in ultramarine with teases of gold and lace. Even in death, felled from overdose between the window and mattress in their city studio apartment, facing an alley, she was the universe to both younger and elder Millhouse.
At the wall, the waves rose and fell. Arbory abandoned, at least temporarily, the exercise of calculating frequency and pattern and keenly observed the peaks and valleys of the rampaging waves; the liquid mountain range of the lake. Several times the waves monopolized such volumes as nearly to reveal the stony lake bottom. Arbory shouted and scalded the air with laughter, certain the stormy lake might accidentally reveal some secret; a shipwreck, a treasure or some long hidden world.
This was the art and science of poppycock. And to be sure it was an art and a science. Within the field of poppycock everything, absolutely everything was open for scrutiny and ponderous dissection. What, for example was it like for a spider with a limp or missing a leg, or pulling a damaged leg uselessly behind it? After a particularly pounding storm of raging wind (Aaaaahhhgg!), pummeling rain, lightning and thunder Arbory mused scientific the ambient energy of the planet’s atmosphere. He wondered, in the total lack of any real aptitude for math, if weather might be predicted depending upon the available energy residing within the air. But it was the belief that the Universe was essentially all wet. That is, it acted like the lake, or an ocean-which he had never seen-with waves and currents and eddies and tides and storms. It was as true for galaxies as it was for atoms and all things in between, and it governed everything in the lives of people.
The thought was meaningless to his shadow, but it felt so fundamental that Arbory even felt a flush of summer cerulean amid the gently fading persimmon of that earlier discovery
All things were connected. Did language then?
The thought beckoned like an alley the day after Christmas, and held all the promise of a forgotten quarter in a vending machine change slot. It excited him like a teetering candy bar awaiting a proper shake of the machine. He was just the person to give it a shake and see what prize fell out.
His attention was absent from the moment, dragged there by the earlier weight of his thoughts. Now it was simply on siesta, languishing in the beautiful garden of his mind where he might retreat from the world and all things that might affect his color in some way. Truth be told, his attention, if not absent was almost always subservient to his poppycock, which is why he failed to register the police cruiser pulling to a stop behind him.
“Hey, Duck soup!” hollered a Chicago gendarme, like a toy robot, silently beckoning from a trash heap.
“Ah, the gendarmerie,” Arbory replied without looking or making any rash or mis-construable movements.
He’d been here before and had more than his fair share of run-ins with the cops. Sometimes they were chasing him off for vagrancy, or sleeping in the occasional doorway or pissing in an alley. He’d been arrested too, for lifting something to eat from a convenience store, or scarfing tips from a neighborhood diner.
There were two of them. One was old and the other, a half step behind was a rookie. Both were overpowering in their umber. The older man’s held flushes of ruby bleeding from the encroaching Chartreuse, both entangled in thick webs of the deepest violet Arbory had ever observed. By contrast, the rookie’s color was a brighter ruby with far less purple. He was quiet, following his mentor up the damp slick grass to the place where Arbory sat cross-legged on the ground. It was all be could do not to grin when the older cop shot him a knowing sideways glance. Likely he was fully unaware of the struggle between the ruby and that awful chartreuse as he delighted in what he assumed was about to happen. He likely had no thought on the way a body’s actions in life could supplant true color with Chartreuse, and ultimately Umber or gray, like that dull, dead gray of a broken and discarded chalkboard.
“See this?” homo-eroticized the elder cop, like a seedy uncle copping a feel during an innocent tickle. The voice was familiar. “What we have here is your classic deadbeat. Arbory Millhouse!”
“That’s my name, if anyone insists. Otherwise I might go my glah, or bleh or smuggugiduh or…”
“Show me some ID, Arbory,”
“Clearly that’s an oxymoronic statement,” he half glanced back over his shoulder. He’d barely finished the words before he was hauled up, cuffed and dragged the twenty or so yards to the cruiser, where he was slammed against the hood with such forced that he nearly blacked out.
“Call me a moron?” he gnarled obtusely. The older cop’s fingers dug deeply into Arbory’s bicep, causing his fingers to go numb. Together with the rookie they lifted Arbory’s arms so high that it was impossible to collect any breath at all.
“That’s what you have to do with deadbeats,” he puffed to the rookie. “Give ‘em what for and how come!” He put his mouth close to Arbory’s cheek, his breath humid and acidic. “Still want to be a smart ass?”
“I only meant that I believed we had established all the prerequisites.”
In a whirlwind, the elder cop spun Arbory around and shoved him back against the cruiser again. It was personal with his one. The red was draining quickly from him, the Chartreuse like a monsoon, pouring over eaves, falling in sheets upon the red which ran away in the street. It was full and deep, pooling in the shallows. Behind that deluge the umber, creeping like a bayou dusk.
“Don’t remember me, do ya?” the old cop venomed.
“Not held the pleasure before now.”