What is This?

About six months ago, the tunnel courier delivered to me a series of "comedies" written by Ephraim P. Noble from 1968-1974. Maybe there is an older meaning to the word "comedies" that I'm not familiar with, because they seem nothing like comedies to me. In any case, I have scanned the covers of each of these very short stories, and hope to post them here on a regular basis.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Fourth Chamber

In those days—the summer of 1976—Ephraim P. Noble found himself in the unfortunate position, having to make ends meet, as a barker at a Bicentennial-themed carnival in the parking lot of a Sears at a mall outside of Baltimore. Worse yet, every morning before work he was required to have his face painted red, white and blue. The saving grace was that the face painter was a beautiful girl, a runaway with double-braided black hair, who touched his face with her fingers and brushes with such delicacy and, Noble thought, tenderness. She was a hippie, now becoming something else, as everyone was. She wore moccasins. She had bare legs. She wanted something, though it was hard to tell what. She was very quiet. On some mornings, she smelled like lemons. And on those mornings, she seemed to let her fingers linger over Noble’s face.

Noble was charged with barking for a ride called “The Fourth Chamber.” It wasn’t so much a ride as a weirdly condensed funhouse. The only thing Bicentennial about it was an enormous, frayed plastic American flag draped across the entrance, which you pushed aside, like a shower curtain, to enter. Noble had been fired as a professor from Penn State years earlier by a bald man who wore an American flag pin on his lapel.

The fourth chamber was different from chambers one, two, and three, as far as Noble could tell, in that patrons emerged from it stained with blood. Sometimes drenched. They emerged completely silent, vacantly. They never, as far as he knew, complained about their ruined clothes. On more than one occasion, they collapsed (usually it was a child) and Noble performed the CPR he had been trained to administer. In fact (and Noble recognized the coldness in his heart that made him feel this way) he looked forward to the collapsed patrons, as the CPR inevitably involved the smearing of his face paint, which meant a trip to the face-painter’s tent, who would touch-up and fix his smears, her face close to his in the sweltering afternoons.

On his last day on the job, in mid-October, Noble ventured into the Fourth Chamber after dark. The only way in was through chambers one through three, which turned out to be not much more than rooms with plastic skeletons, sprayed-on cobwebs, a butcher’s block, and strobe lights. The door to the Fourth Chamber was marked “Do Not Enter,” but of course everyone entered. You had to enter to leave the ride. The room itself was completely blank. No props, no weird lights. Nothing phony. Just what looked to be a small machine—like an antique typewriter but without the keys—in the middle of the floor. The machine seemed to vibrate slightly, like a film jammed in a projector, the frame shuddering. When you looked at it directly, it was hard to hold in your vision. It seemed to keep squirming away. On the black floor was a white chalk line that bisected the room, with an arrow at the end, pointing towards the exit. To follow the line meant to step over the small, black, vibrating machine. Noble did this. What surprised him was not what happened, but what didn’t. Or but what didn’t seem to. In other words: nothing.

He emerged from the exit into the glowing-dull-orange parking lot, a small flock of weirdly colored birds cutting briefly across his line of vision. As for blood, there were only a few spots of it on the backs of Noble’s hands. All in all, he felt no different. The world was, for better and for worse, the same. He made his way to the face-painter’s tent, and found her sleeping on her cot, her hunter green Girl Scout Lantern burning. He wanted very badly to kiss her forehead. To take her away from here.

He wanted to tell himself that he would come back for her, but of course he wouldn’t. And after all, she was not his. Nobody was nobody’s. He had read somewhere once that the earth was speeding around the sun at close to 70,000 miles per hour. Somehow, this fact comforted him. Not everything was as it appeared. As he was soon to find out.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Lisa [1], Lisa [2]

"Lisa [1], Lisa [2]"

In 1972 I was in love with two women named Lisa, who happened to be, in fact, the same woman. It was a vicious trick. Lisa [1] sometimes dressed up as Lisa [2], wearing a wig and hippy clothing. I hated the hippies, but only in the abstract it turned out.

Lisa [1] was a wonderful kisser, and we spent most of our time kissing, in the stacks of Penn State’s main library, beneath the abandoned railroad bridge that crossed Atherton and Edgerton, and in an old barn on the outskirts of State College. Lisa [2] smelled like lemons, and introduced me to the films of Samuel Fuller. She very often dressed as an Indian from the American west, in a short deerskin skirt and full war paint that rubbed off on the meadow grass.

Lisa [2] and I often talked of the future in apocalyptic terms. Her vision was a return to the natural ways. She hated Alexander Hamilton for contaminating Jefferson’s agrarian utopia with National Banks and the abstraction of money into a symbol rather than something of value in and of itself. Between her economic theories and her legs, I lost all sense of time.

One night, on my apartment floor, Lisa [1] asked me about Lisa [2]. How does she know, I wondered. I had kept them perfectly separate, perfectly secret from each other. I came clean, I told her the truth. “There's another I love, equally. She reminds me of you.”

Lisa [1] slapped me hard across the face. My eyes watered. She disappeared into the bathroom, and a few minutes later Lisa [2] came out, with a bow and arrow. A copper-tipped arrow, pointed at me. She laughed. I recognized that laugh as the laugh of Lisa [1].

The arrow missed my heart but lodged deeply in my shoulder, pinning me to the pine-wood floor. I pooled my own blood with my hand, trying to keep it close, as if the rescuers who never came would put it back in me.

Lisa [1] leaned down and handed me a piece of paper, folded in half. She whispered in my ear, meet me at wharf 12 two months from today, and I’ll be both Lisa’s for you again.

God, what was wharf 12? The map made no sense. I took it to translators, my bum arm in a sling. My fingers went green. I counted wharves from the top down, and the bottom up. I could never get to 12 before passing out.

I really wanted her map to mean something.

I still do.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Bomb in the Basement

The Bomb in the Basement

I never believed there was one. This was back in 1969, the same month they put a man on the moon. The underground hippy group Radiant Union had just purged several “informers” and its Secretary General (a woman with freckles whom we all dreamed about kissing) had been reprimanded harshly for associating with a known agent of capital, a student loan officer.

God, I hated them. In those days, I secretly admired Spiro Agnew and sympathized with his doomy, under-siege mentality; of course I had to very cautious about that. But back to the bomb. The leader of Radiant Union, a con artist if there ever was one who happened to have a sort of Roman Polanski, movie-star quality about him that magnetized the force of his personality, persuaded the group of the existence of an enormous bomb, constructed in a secret lab beneath the Penn State campus during the last days of World War II. He revealed that it was hidden in a concrete chamber accessible through the basement of my apartment building, and that he was working on a complicated, slow-burning fuse that would ignite the bomb when the right moment came.

One night the Secretary General came over to try to recruit me to the group. She had a habit of wearing Native American garb, and I found it difficult not to think about making love to her in a field of maize. She wore moccasins and a very short skirt and a war-paint on her forehead.

After two bottles of wine, I said, “let’s go find that bomb.” I took her hand and we ventured down the back stairs, in the dark, to the basement.

“I can see in the dark. Let me lead,” she said. We followed twisting metal stairs, deeper and deeper, eventually coming to a metal door that pushed open into the basement, dimly lit by a few bare bulbs. Old machinery, some of it running. Boilers, an enormous furnace, black cobwebs everywhere. The floor hot and vibrating.

We walked through a narrow corridor with rusted pipes overhead. The corridor opened up to a small bare room with a lower ceiling and a single door at the end with a crooked metal sign that read DO NOT OPEN.

“It’s in there,” she said, “I bet.”

“Let’s find out,” I said.

The door had no handle. We pushed on it but it would not budge. The door was tightly fit into the wall. There were no cracks, no hinges.

Suddenly, she put her finger to my lips. I listened. After a moment, there came a noise from behind the door. It sounded like pushing.

It sounded like someone was trying to push the door open from the other side. Then, for a reason that wouldn't become clear to me until many years later, she gently leaned forward and rubbed her forehead on mine, smearing it with her war paint.

The lights flickered. The sound behind the door grew louder.

To be continued . . .

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Schwarzes Meer

"Schwarzes Meer"

In July of the tornadic summer that was 1970, I fell in love with the librarian, Lisa, whose skirts were felonious. She spoke a far Eastern language unknown to me, and struggled over each consonant, each vowel. In my apartment, her presence burst water pipes, confounded refrigerator compressors, spread spider-web cracks across my windows.

In those days, I lived on the 7th floor of the Black Oak Apartment Collective, and Lisa, in her paranoia, would sneak in through the old boiler room, up the unused back stairs, twisted and canted at weird expressionistic angles like some discarded set from Metropolis, and enter my apartment through the trap-door on the kitchen floor that I had made sure to keep clear since her arrivals.

At 2:00 or 3:00 am, each morning, she crawled across my floor and to my bed, and our revolution surpassed anything by the greasy hippies on the street, whose eyes, until recently, forever darted to this-and-that leader. This was July.

In August Lisa disappeared. The Penn State campus had been overtaken by the radicals, and I could hardly make it across campus to my office on the third floor of the Burrowes Building, where the other English professors cowered, living off food from the candy machines. Their own weird sort of commune. I disguised myself as a hippy and made my way through their mud encampments, their ideological traps, their false gurus, their teepees, up to Pattee Library, where Lisa had worked, over the flaming barricades at the front steps, to the circulation desk which had been repositioned to the top floor, guarded by the ROTC boys.

I asked for Lisa. “Are you the one who calls himself Ephraim P. Noble?” came the response from the slender librarian, who was obviously also disguised as a hippy, with a fake wig and a cheap peace symbol bubblegum watch. I nodded and was handed a yellowed envelope. Inside, a thin piece of paper, with the words “Schwarzes Meer” scrawled in her handwriting, as if written in desperation, at the last possible moment.

Schwarzes Meer?

It was only many years later, after it was too late for both of us, that I understood that this was an invitation, a plea really, and that near the banks of a deep blue lake, far away, Lisa had found a new way, a third way. I have no doubt that she wanted me to join her, to be with her.

But in truth, I only would have been an intruder.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Blinking Twins in the Diorama

"The Blinking Twins in the Diorama"

Of all the terrible things that happened in those days, the most awful and horrifying event involved the diorama twins, who were planted by the radical student group RADIANT UNION in the campus museum. This was around 1971 or 73, and I was just finding my legs again after the tornadic Sixties. RADIANT UNION had cost me my job as a young professor at Penn State. I was working as a carpenter-for-hire out in Amish country in western Pennsylvania, up high on the rafters in the wind and hot sun. My hands were bruised and splintered. I was closer to the sun than I had ever been before. I could practically feel its solar flares. Free from the world.

But I was dragged back down into it by a night-time messenger who crept across the barn floor, where I slept on the sloped wide planks and hay, and whispered in my ear that I needed to return to State College. The lives of two young women depended upon it.

Two days latter, I was hitching rides on back roads covered in dust back to Penn State. It was hippies mostly, picked me up, their dreams of a violent return to The Natural Order dissipating before their eyes. One of them was beautiful in her red calico skirt, and she let me sleep with my head on her lap in the back seat. Back at Penn State I lived on the street under the railroad bridge for a few days, until the messenger found me again and led me to the museum, through a propped open side door, into a darkened room that smelled of death, down two flights of metal stairs that practically crumbled into rust, into a corridor illuminated by a pale green light from what source I knew not, into and through a boiler room that hissed and steamed my glasses, and finally out into the Diorama Room.

“There,” he said, pointing to the “Virginia, 1787” diorama with its domed and pillared estate, its after-a-lightning-storm bright green grass.

And the twins. Obviously mannequins.

“There what?” I asked.

“Watch,” he said.

For some time, nothing happened. But then one of them blinked. I pressed my face to the glass but could get no closer. I wanted to see them breath, if they breathed. Then the other one blinked. I pounded on the glass. I made a goofy face. I exposed myself, but they held fast. Not even a grimace.

“Maybe they’re blinking mannequins,” I finally said to the messenger.

Only later did I find out the truth, that they were a sleeper cell, student revolutionaries planted there by RADIANT UNION, waiting for the day of revolution, when they would attack and destroy the museum from within, and that the estate behind them was filled with weapons, and that x-number of museum employees were also agents of RADIANT UNION.

The Sixties were not happening quickly enough for them, and now it was too late. There was a moment—maybe in late 1969—when their plan just might have worked, when their dream of a brief dystopia ushered in through violence would have gradually transformed into a utopia, free of tradition, and the green grass of this world would succumb to weeds and flowers in bloom so bright that even those responsible for all that had happened—those who had created the machines and buildings and satellites—would stand in awe at the resurrection of God’s Green Glory.

But none of that was to be. Three days after my visit, the museum was stormed at midnight by a rival revolutionary group, and the glass wall that separated the “Virginia, 1787” diorama from the rest of the world was shattered with axes and sledgehammers. The twins were either kidnapped or disappeared. The diorama itself burnt to the floor, its flames circling up through the ventilation ducts through the museum roof and disappearing into the black night.

Would it shock you to know that I smelled the fire from afar, and wept?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Tusked Rampage

The Tusked Rampage

In 1973, the Revolution lost its nerve. We all suffered breakdowns. The Penn State campus sagged beneath the weight of bad ideas. The radicals of RADIANT UNION most of all. By April they had effectively commandeered my apartment. I slept in the boiler room, the hisses and whistles of steam filling my head with sloppy ideas, attended to by the occasional last hippy-girl in fading war paint that would soon disappear completely in the new age seriousness of the Seventies.

The desperation peaked on a hot Friday night in May, when I was cajoled by a woman named Lisa with thin, bare legs to help her and the other hippies break into the zoo to free the animals from their cages, from their slavery, from their oppressors. The fences were easy to climb, the night watchman quickly subdued. The keys were literally old-fashioned, like you might imagine from a Lon Chaney movie, on a large ring, and we started with the birds, who seemed to take with them in flight all our good thoughts.

Then we freed the other animals, closer and closer to human form it seemed to me, as if we secretly wanted to release ourselves. Lisa stole the keys for long enough to snap off the one to the elephant pen. In the moonlit night, their trunks swayed like willow branches. Their eyes were wet and half-shut. They seemed dead to everything but themselves. Maybe that was the secret.

Then everything changed, I don’t know why. In an instant, the half-dozen or so elephants began storming in circles, kicking up clouds of dust, extending their trunks in screams, and one of them thundered out of the pen, and out of the zoo, making its way at 2:00am up Atherton Street, towards the Pattee Library on the central campus.

In the following weeks a rumor spread that the mad elephant had trampled an abandoned infant left on the steps of a church. We looked for red splotches everywhere. We saw them everywhere. For the entire rest of the month of May there was fierce lightning every night. The creek that divided east campus from west stopped flowing and dried up. Three prominent professors leapt to their deaths from the dorm rooms of students.

And Lisa? She leapt, too, out of my memory and then back into it, back and forth. By 1974, I was respectable again. The great amnesia of that era had erased me, too, and my transgressions. Like a child at the altar, I was reborn.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Color Spectrum Fiasco

On the very day I was fired from Penn State, in 1970, I was also kidnapped by a short-lived underground student revolutionary group who spelled their own name wrong. They shoved me into the backdoor of a yellow rusted-out car on Atherton Street, blindfolded me. A girl or woman was laughing next to me, and I remember she smelled like lemons and I was wearing shorts and she put her bare legs across my legs and I imagined her body all through the terrible hours that followed, before I escaped.

They drove me to a farm on the side of a mountain somewhere outside of State College where all the barns and silos looked crooked. The weeds were taller than corn. They took off the blindfold and led me through saw grass to a meadow with picnic tables and food and hippies. In the distance, there was a body hanging from a tree. Vultures circled overhead like leftover dinosaurs.

They sat me down at a splintered picnic table and fed me watermelon in the hot sun. A wicker basket not far off was filled with hand-made nooses. An ugly man with no shirt and a beard brought me a box and asked me to open it. Inside were many paper strips of color like paint-color samples or color-blind test sheets. He instructed me to select one. Each was numbered. By this time a small crowd had gathered, and I smelled the lemon girl and searched for her legs.

I picked color strip number 9, I don’t know why, maybe because of that Beatles song. The crowd rumbled lowly in disappointment and seized me and carried me roughly to the tree with the hanging body, its flesh draping off it like folds of wax. The sound of flies filled my head like an air force of prop planes.

They tied me to the tree and went off to drink or whatever. But they were incompetent. They were fools. I quickly freed myself and made my way down the mountain.

There were hundreds of groups like that in those days, in love with the idea of revolution rather than revolution itself, and I hated them all, and escaped from many of them, the cruel ones and the kind ones, and until that era passed I became as invisible as possible without disappearing completely.