This week's story is below. It is the second installment of my 5-part series about Nocturne. In this part of the story Alex and Amanda find themselves in the middle of a massive art project and then they talk to an oracle.
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Nocturne (part 2)
At the corner of the market, diagonal to the south entrance, hidden away from the main shopping traffic, a 40-watt lightbulb zaps and flickers to life before settling into the continuous hum of steady Joule heating.
We emerged from the tiny bathroom hallway and into the halogen lighting that beamed down on us from above and stopped dead in our tracks.
‘Uuuuuhhh…’ I said, as I looked around.
‘Did we, uh?’ I turned around to look behind me to make sure that we hadn’t taken the wrong turn out of the hallway. It was a dead-end. ‘I’m not crazy, right? This is definitely not the same market that we were just in…right?’
‘Right. This is definitely, definitely not the same place.’
‘I mean, we were, I was, only in there like, two minutes right? Just the normal piss-shake-wash. Nothing fancy.’
‘You don’t think they, I mean they couldn’t’ve, like, switched it, right?’
‘No way, Tam,’ Amanda said, as she shook her head and strained her eyebrows like an expert in the field. ‘We don’t have the technology.’
‘You’re right.’ I paused for a minute then took a deep breath. ‘Okay Thaniel. Let’s just, you know, play it cool. Check things out.’ I gave her a sideways look and jerked my chin up, ‘Sugar Twin style’
We turned and gave each other a horizontal, mid-body five, first with the palm, then with the back of our hands, followed by a quick fist bump, then made a motion like we were sprinkling a little pinch of sugar on the ground. ‘Stay sweet,’ we said in unison.
Everything here had kind of a soft, warm glow to it. The colors were saturated and every color in the spectrum had a red-orange hue. There also seemed to be a shortage of straight edges. Everything was a just a little bit hazy and out of focus, similar to the effect that they use in Glamour Shots photos. I remember when I was young I had this book that taught you how to do different cool shooting and editing effects using one of those clunky, early nineties camcorders that dads used to use to film little league games. The kind that you had to prop up on your shoulder. One trick I remember is how you could make your scene look more hazy and soap-opera-looking by stretching a pair of pantyhose over the lens. On a not-entirely-unrelated note, one time when I was a kid I flushed a pair of my mom’s pantyhose down the toilet and she had to call a plumber to fish them out. I remember seeing him up on the roof shaking a pair of wet stockings above his head in his fist and my mom’s expression flashing back and forth between anger and bewilderment. When asked why I did it, the only thing I could say was that I thought it "looked cool." I remember holding the pantyhose in a kind of loose tug-of-war grip and watching the swirling-stretching motion as they slid through my fingers and spiraled down the drain. For the record, it did look pretty fucking cool.
I took off my glasses and examined them out in front of me. I shot Amanda a suspicious look. ‘I don’t have pantyhose on my face, do I?’
‘Nope. No pantyhose.’
‘Yeah, that’s what I thought.’
We meandered listlessly through the crowded marketplace and checked out the different booths. At different locations around the building they’d set up little arts and crafts projects for kids. This must be where the kids went to get their art fix while their parents took hallucinatory drugs and ventured out into the city. Other than the booths set up for kids’ activities, there was basically the same touristy crap that was usually here. Or, at least it looked that way. As we waded through the crowd, my gaze was running along the different vendors’ cubbies and I noticed that, in addition to the warm glow that radiated from everything and the lack of non-blurred lines, there was something else that was different about this faux-Pavillion 22. Each item here had a kind of bulbous, rounded-off quality to it. It seemed like everything here, even the maple-leaf emblazoned shot glasses, was the children’s-toy version of itself. Like all of it was designed by Little Tikes® or Hasbro® for, well, adult children, I guess.
Okay. It was all making sense to me know. Pavillion 22 wasn’t just open so that they could earn a few extra bucks during Nocturne. No, this was much bigger than that. This was all one big exhibit! They had intentionally saturated the warm colors and blurred the straight lines of everything and replaced all of the merchandise here with the child’s toy version of itself. Jesus! Imagine all of the work that someone must have put into this. There must be something on the order of tens of thousands of items here that needed to be swapped, one-for-one, with the Playschool® version of itself - brilliant! I should have never doubted you, Halifax.
I wandered over to a stand displaying 250 mL mason jars filled with orange, ruby and deep purple jellies stacked up in cute little pyramids. The jars had little square swatches of cloth over the lids that were held taught in place by a rubber band that secured snugly under the lip of the rim. The one that I was holding had a cloth top with a pattern on it of raspberries on the vine. I inspected the pattern on the cloth by closing one eye and holding the jar up to my face like a short, stubby telescope and twisting it back-and-forth in a continuous motion while I pulled it away, then brought it closer, then pulled it away again. Were I on a higher-grade, synthetic hallucinogen, I am certain that these vines would have started creeping around and intertwining with each other and, perhaps, even reach up off of the fabric to tickle my nose. I always held out the hope that somehow, this time, I would have stumbled upon the particular strand of mushroom that would give me a more vivid, tripping-balls experience and that fanciful, bubbly little hallucinations would start dancing into my perception unexpectedly. But, alas, this did not seem to be the magical shrooms that would take me to the next level of tripping. The vines on the cloth pattern remained disappointingly two-dimensional and static.
‘Ehem. That’s, uh. That’s our sugar-free raspberry jam.’ A plump, mustachioed baby-face beamed up at me from behind the pyramidal stacks of jars. There was a slight unease that shone through his look of otherwise accommodating salesmanship.
‘We source our raspberries and, all of our fruits and ingredients, locally from Nova Scotia farmers. Always in season and fresh.’ I could tell that this was his usual sales pitch, but I appreciated his efforts to make it seem sincere.
‘Yeah? That’s awesome…’
‘Yeah. You like’ta try a sample?’ He reached his thick arm carefully over the valley between two of the jam pyramids and grabbed a miniature-sized plastic spoon from a cup on the table and scooped up a small mound of dark-ruby jam with tiny white seeds in it. He then carefully pinched the corner of the spoon handle between his index finger and thumb and offered it up to me.
I put down the jar I was holding and daintily took the spoon from him. I sucked down the artificially-sweetened jam, turning the spoon over in my mouth so that I could use the tip of my tongue to lap up the little bit stuck in the concave part. I let the flavors seep into my taste buds; the sting of Aspartame on the sides of my tongue. I toyed around with the texture of the seeds by tonguing them up against the roof of my mouth.
‘Mmmm. Mmmm - that’s excellent,’ I said as I nodded my head and chewed up bits of seed between my molars.
‘Thanks,’ he said. The uneasy countenance on his face gave way to a cheerful, endearing smile that, judging by the way the facial muscles seemed to naturally recoil to this position, I could tell was his default expression. ‘Here,’ he said as he grabbed another spoon and reached over toward a porcelain ramekin filled with a translucent pink jelly. ‘You should try--,’ he paused and looked up at me. ‘You like spicy stuff? like peppers?’
‘Yeah, I can, uh. I can handle moderately spicy stuff,’ I said as I did a slow nod and scanned the table for a place to throw away the spoon.
‘Good, this is our Sweet and Tangy Pepper Jelly. This is our most popular item,’ he said as he carefully passed me a miniature spoonful.
I gingerly accepted the spoon before me. The jelly had little flakes of fruit skin in it. This time I opted for a method of pursing my lips and digging out the jelly from the cup of the spoon with the flexed lower point of my upper lip. I swept the jelly back and forth against the roof of my mouth to gauge the spice level on the surface of my tongue. It was, as advertised, sweet and tangy, but certainly not spicy enough to make you sweat. This is something my mom would lose her shit over.
‘Mmm. Mhmmm.’ I furrowed my brow and nodded as I swished the jelly around in a loose swirling motion in my mouth to ensure a uniform coating of flavor. Still absent-mindedly nodding, I picked up one of the squat, child-sized jars and examined the label. Pat’s Preserves. And underneath that, in thin, almost-cursive font; from my house to yours.
I raised one eyebrow, ‘what if you don’t live in a house?’
* * * * * * * * * *
‘What’s this street called again?’
‘This is Gottingen Street,’ Amanda said.
‘Right. This is where we went to that one time, right? To see that show?’
‘Yeah, that’s right. The Bus Stop, right up here,’ she said, as she pointed ahead. ‘We went with Alison.’
‘That’s right. Yeah, I knew this looked familiar.’
In fact, Amanda had told me all of this less than half an hour ago. In fact, that’s the sole reason that we were trekking out this far from downtown; to check out what they were doing at The Bus Stop for Nocturne. But on the timescale of a mushroom trip, half an hour might as well have been a week ago. That being said, it was no surprise that I had completely forgotten where we were going or why we were going there. Judging by Amanda’s non-reactionary response to my inquiry, I’m pretty sure that she’d forgotten that we’d had this conversation too. In fact, I believe that there is a very good chance that, had I not said anything, we would have just continued wandering aimlessly off into North Halifax until we reached the water.
We could see The Bus Stop up ahead and there was a small group of people meandering out front. As we got closer I could see the amorphous group of hipsters and Haligonian yuppies tightening up into a semicircle around the theater’s entrance. Maybe it was the shrooms, but there was something unnatural about the efficiency with which they shuffled into place. Almost like a video of something falling apart played slowly in reverse. A girl in a black dress came out through the front door, broke through the crowd of people, and walked cooly down the sidewalk, in our general direction. She ducked into the entranceway of the building next door to the theater that was either abandoned or closed and lit a cigarette. We passed her and she shot us a quick look before exhaling and looking back down where she seemed to be intently examining the contrast of the toe of her heels against the concrete of the sidewalk.
‘So what’s this supposed to be about?’ I said, as we joined the outskirts of the group.
‘I don’t know. I looked at it on the guide; something about a Black Box?’
‘I haven’t heard from anyone who’s been up here yet, though.’
There were two girls standing in the recessed doorway of the theater, facing the crowd. Well, one was facing us, the other had on a tattered-looking robe with a hood and was kind of huddled back behind the other girl. The girl that was facing us was also in some sort of costume that either intentionally didn’t make sense or was some kind of pop culture reference that I didn’t recognize. I don’t remember anything from the waist down, but she was wearing a kind of burgundy pea coat that was several sizes too big for her and stuffed to make her look like she had a cartoonly round belly. Kind of like Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons. She had a black circle dot drawn on the tip of her nose and three straight, black grease pen whiskers that went out diagonally from just under each nostril. She also seemed to be wearing a blue fez that was comically too small for her head.
‘It’s, haha, it’s going to be just a little while longer folks,’ the girl with the whiskers said in a kind of Mickey Mouse voice. ‘We’re just, uh, just inside there, getting everything ready for you. Making sure everything’s, haha, nice and prepared for--’
‘Nothing can prepare you!’ The hooded girl emerged from the shadows and leaned in toward the crowd. She had the look and tone of a menacing oracle or, like, a watered down witch or something. ‘For the wonder. For the blinding grandeur of it!’ She held her hands out in front of her like she was getting ready to cast a spell.
Without being too aggressive, the girl with the whiskers jutted her arm out in front of the hooded girl in a motion to block her off from the crowd. ‘Haha,’ she laughed nervously, ‘I assure you, ha, that there will most certainly be no blinding involved. We are fully prepared for you. All precautions have been made and all safety checks have been done. Ha, just, uh, just a few more minutes and, ha, and, uh--’
‘And you’ll never come back again!’ The hooded girl jumped out again from behind the girl with the fez. ‘Once you gaze upon its glory,’ she said, as she looked up and shook her hands toward the sky, ‘it’s magnificence!’
‘Aha, Ahaha.’ The girl with the fez quickly positioned herself in front of the hooded girl. ‘That’s certainly not true,’ she said. ‘Haha, we’ve, uh, ha, we’ve been doing this for a long time now, haha, and we’ve, uh, ha, brought almost everyone back.’
‘Ha. Haha, no. Nothing to worry about,’ she says. ‘We’ve got everyone on the list and we’re going to make sure everyone’s accounted for,’ she says, as she pulls out a clipboard and taps on it with her finger. The clipboard was made out of a transparent plastic and there was, quite noticeably, no paper clipped to it. ‘Just a few more minutes folks. Haha. They’re almost ready inside. Just need a few more minutes. Just want to make sure everything’s perfect.’
The girl that was smoking earlier materializes to my right and stands next to us at the back edge of the crowd.
I leaned my head over to my left without looking away from the scene at the doorway. ‘What is this?,’ I whisper over to Amanda.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘but I’m, like, really into it for some reason.’
‘Yeah, I know. Me too!,’ I said, as I looked over at her and nodded. ‘I just don’t, like, get the reference. Like the girl with the whiskers and the Shriner’s hat; what’s she supposed to be?’
‘Oh, I don’t know.’
I looked around at the crowd and tried to decipher what percentage of the people watching were as confused as we were. I was unsuccessful.
‘I’m gonna go check this shit out,’ I said to Amanda as I motioned over towards one of the front windows on the other side of the crowd with my chin.
‘Alright,’ she whispered back, without looking at me.
The Bus Stop had one of those standard, like, coffee shop style storefronts where the front of the store was comprised of a recessed door flanked by two large window panes that ran from the ceiling to just about knee height. The window to our right was blocked out by a large, heavy-looking black curtain. The window on the other side of the door had the same curtain, but I could see a little triangle of light where a small section of the curtain was parted open. I circumnavigate the crowd of people and walk over to the opening in the curtain. I lean over and look in. My view of the room was obstructed by some kind of bar or something on the left, but I could see a small section in the back right pretty clearly. From what I could make out, there was a dapper-looking guy, about my age, sitting in the center of a semi-circle corner booth, shuffling cards and smiling as he talked to someone across the table, just out of view. He was wearing either a tuxedo without a tie or a dark suit and he had his hair slicked back. There were two girls with him, one on either side, who seemed to be done up in some sort of hip, 1920’s regalia and they were laughing and seemed to be engaged in conversation with the same non-visible entity on the other side of the table. In addition to the cards that the young, crooner-looking guy was shuffling, there was a cloud of cards suspended in the air out in front of him that looked like they had been tossed up like that and frozen in place. Kind of like that three-dimensional freeze frame thing that got really big in the mid 2000’s. I watched the scene a little bit longer, hoping to get a glimpse of something else or, like, at least see who this person was that they were talking to. There was something about this guy; some sort of cool confidence. The way he absent-mindedly shuffled the deck of cards. The way that the girls seemed comfortable around him and leaned into him. The way he squinted his eyes when he smiled without moving his eyebrows. This guy reminded me of a younger version of the The Most Interesting Man in the World guy from the Dos Equis commercials. I didn’t know who he was or what part he was playing in whatever they were doing here, but, in that moment, watching him there, there was a part of me that wanted to be him.
I watched for a few more minutes and nothing changed. I walked back over and stood next to Amanda.
‘Dare to stare into the abyss!’ The girl in the hood was now back out in front and shaking her hands at the crowd. ‘Dare to have it stare back…at you!’
Amanda looked over at me. ‘Anything?'
‘Yeah, kinda. There’s, like, this guy sitting there with, like, these playing cards suspended in the air out in front of him. It’s pretty cool. You should check it out.’
‘Hm?’ she said, as she backed away from the crowd and made her way over toward the window.
‘Hey, haha. What’s, uh, ha, what’s all this abyss-ness about abysses?’ The girl with the whiskers and the clipboard let out another nervous laugh. There where a couple of soft, supportive chuckles from the crowd. One asshole let out an awkwardly-timed ‘Ha-HAAAA!’
It was me.
I look across the crowd and see Amanda bending over with her hands in her pockets to inspect the wedge of light that the curtain made. Her body was shades of grey and black except for her face, which had a warm-peach glow.
-- to be continued...