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.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Vulture Don't Like No Culture

"The Vulture Don’t Like No Culture"

Remember that stuffed vulture? Well, it came back. Clawed its way back. Sounds impossible but it happened. Remember that warehouse? Well, it was real, and I slept there all that night, dreaming fitfully between the sounds of some terrible ticking insect and an odor incommensurate with humanity that smelled of rotting oil.

The next morning, the stuffed vulture was gone, as if it had just flown off the shoulder of my jacket. There were some loose threads where it must have wriggled or pecked its way free. Or who knows, I thought (mistakenly) at the time, maybe some hoodlums took it, maybe the same guys who threw a bottle at me, trying to knock the vulture off my shoulder in the first place, the previous night.

In any case, I made my way back to my apartment, dodging the dope-crazed war protesters with their Jefferson Airplane banners and hand-made jewelry, making my way past the open park so full of sunshine it was unbearable, the bright orange Frisbees gliding with impossible slowness against the wind, the sound of some distant high-school marching band in distorted waves.

At the apartment, I collapsed on the unmade bed, slept, awoke, made myself a plate of eggs and toast, and noticed the vulture, the very same vulture, with red threads tangled around its talons. It was perched atop the refrigerator, completely still. Its eyes did not move or blink.

Under my breath, I cursed the old-woman seamstress for her weak sewing. I sat down at the table, ate, and contemplated the bird and its significance. I remembered, from somewhere, that vultures’ heads were featherless to aid them in cleanly and neatly devouring the carcasses of dead animals.

Was I an animal?

I stood up, walked up to the fridge, seized the bird by its talons, took it to an open window, kicked out the screen with my foot, and flung it out. It went spinning, and then an updraft seemed to catch it, lifting it, impossibly, beautifully, and then I stopped looking. I shut the window, locked it, locked all of them.

This was in 1970, you people, and there was war to be had.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

A Stalled Rhino

"A Stalled Rhino"

The taxidermied rhino was one of two objects left behind by the former tenant of my apartment. Did I tell you that that rhino had saved me more than once? It must have been a baby rhino, or maybe just a runt. It wasn’t very big: about six-feet long (including the tusk or horn) and about four feet high. The fur was as rough as wire. The insides of its ears still smelled like Africa. It was stuffed with straw or sawdust, and was easy to move around. At one point, the rhino must have been glued to a wooden platform, and there was some damage to the bottom of its feet where it had been removed.

The rhino and the oversized coat: those were the only objects left behind in the small, two-room apartment that I took in March 1969 on Atherton Avenue at Penn State. As I said, the Rhino had saved me before, but not this time.

I had had a bitter falling out with the radical student group RADIANT UNION, whom I had sponsored—in what ended up being a career-ending move—and registered as an official student organization at Penn State. As I’ve said, I was a newly hired professor of English, teaching American literature. I was both loathed and worshipped by my students. They came to classes unbathed and in robes and sandals. Their brains sloshed with the blood from the war in Asia. My own mind had slid into anarchy. I chose the wrong side. The institution expelled me. I was made an example of.

But the RADIANT UNION students persisted, believing I still had something to offer them, a certain way into the Establishment. Of course, by the time the disciplinary hearings had begun, presided over by an alarmingly beautiful woman who despised me, I had nothing left to offer them. But RADIANT UNION was blinded by ideology—to this day I don’t blame them—and “seized control” of the apartment building, firing tear gas they had stolen from a local police precinct.

I heard them shattering through the lobby doors and clambering up the stairs; I bolted the apartment door. I positioned the rhino for maximum effect, placing a small, bare-bulbed lamp beneath it, casting the creature in 100-watt weird reverse shadows, hoping that the initial sight of it would stall them and give me just enough time to slide past them and down the stairs and out of the apartment. But it was the rhino who stalled. They beat on my door, those pacifists, those RADIANT UNIONists, and with bare feet kicked it in.

With such fury, they entered, knocking over the rhino as if they had expected to see it there all along, taking me by the scruff of my collar, dragging me down the dark stairwells, out into the back courtyard, the night screaming with insects, at least three of them wearing black capes with stupid insignias, and the leader holding some sort of weapon I had never seen before, violently shaped and glowing, while the others began stoning me, and it was Biblical, the pain, I can tell you, and on my knees, then on my side, curled into fetus position, the stones wrecking me until the sirens came, I swear I heard the earthworms moving beneath me.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A Hand in Window

"A Hand in Window"

There was a lot wrong with 1969, but nothing more wrong than the hand in the window.

Not in, but through. Through the window. I had been trailed home from Gravedigger’s Bar by someone who appeared to have a hunched back. Either that or he had many misshapen things stacked up on his shoulders beneath his trench coat. But it was late. It was deep into summer. The locusts were singing like maniacs in the high branches of diseased elms. I had had few. So what did I know?

I knew this: a hand came crashing through the glass of my apartment window during the middle of the night. I knew that it belonged to a woman, whose face I could see in the moonlight. What were these things? This woman, this moon? What was happening to me? I pitied the woman for being on the outside.

“There’s a door,” I think I said. “You could have knocked.”

Her hand was strong around my wrist. She wanted to pull me somewhere, maybe somewhere out of this earth. As it turns out, I should have gone. But I was young, embroiled in the passing events of my era. I had no sense of time, really. Gigantic ferns grew in the corners of my apartment, left over from the last tenant. An impossibly long green vine snaked its way back and forth across the floor, and up the legs of furniture.

The woman finally let go, but my arm was not the same. I examined the shadows of her fingers on my wrist in the morning, like ashes from a fire. I took aspirins but it still throbbed. The room itself pulsed in green.

At breakfast at the Black Ink Diner on Fifth Street later that morning I looked up from my French Toast and said, to nobody, “she could have knocked.”

The waitress with the beautiful red hair smiled and refilled my cup. The world was steady again.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Fruit or Foul

"Fruit or Foul"

The packaging of the box should have given it away. But I’ll make no excuses. I had been fired as an assistant professor of English at Penn State. It was 1970. My lease was up. The girl I loved—with the most beautiful small scar over her left eyebrow—had run off with some charlatan hippie guru who convinced her that my analytical approach to Thoreau and the other Transcendentalists was exactly what they would have hated. Who knows? Maybe he was right. They moved out into a field and lived in a teepee for two years.

The box, which appeared outside my door, was simple: a small wooden crate, about two feet by two feet. No marking on the outside except a partial elephant that seemed to be stepping out of some invisible dimension.

Inside, the most fragrant, luscious fruit, like a time capsule from the garden of Eden. Plums, apples, fat purple grapes, apricots. It was a riot of Technicolor, and compared to the drab surroundings of my half-packed apartment, was a revelation.

Why did I convince myself that the fruit was a trap? I had enemies to be sure—what decent man doesn’t?—but the likelihood that they would send me poisoned fruit seemed remote. In my defense, I will say that I had made enemies of everyone at this point: the radical student group RADIANT UNION had convinced themselves I was an agent for the government. The government was sure I was a radical professor.

Even the elderly woman behind the Woolworth’s food counter whom I had known for years and who affectionately had nick-named me “Chip” refused to serve me. I could barely get the garbage men to take my garbage. The mechanic to tune my car. The librarian to stamp my card. The lifeguard to rescue me. The minister to give me communion. The stamp to take my lick. The birds to eat from my feeder. The calendar to accept my black X’s. My records to play at proper speeds.

My heart to feel.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Bad Year

"A Bad Year"

1970 was a bad year. Very bad.

I had been fired by Penn State, and lost my bird.

In a complete act of madness and revenge at everybody, I decided to dress up as an old hunchback with a vulture on his shoulder. The vulture part was easy: the Chair of the Department of English at Penn State had a thing for stuffed birds and rodents, and on the day I was “released” I took it upon myself to steal his stuffed vulture.

It sat right there on his desk, like some sort of cruel warning, and it was easy to take. At home that night, I made the hunchback out of several loosely filled water balloons that the old lady across the hall who always went bare-foot duck-taped to my back. The balloons sort of moved and grooved as I walked. I put on a big overcoat, and for a bottle of vodka the old lady then sewed the vulture onto the shoulder. She sewed it really well, so even in a gust of wind the bird wouldn’t fly off.

This was September, or October. Late at night, you could almost hear the bombing over in Vietnam.

I was a regular Quasimodo, except I had the vulture.

I went out at dusk, in my disguise, and headed up toward the University president’s house. I developed a limp, or a gait. I kept my head down. People stopped and looked, and some cars honked their horns. Some kid threw a bottle at me. But mostly people steered clear.

As I approached the president’s house near the center of campus—I believe his name was Dr. Tremone Atkinson—the security guards walked nonchalantly down the gothic front steps, as if they had seen something like this every day, and without a word, began frisk me.

The thing was: it wasn’t my coat. It had hung in the apartment closet, left over from the previous tenant, ever since I moved in. I had never touched it before. It wasn’t my size.

The bald one padded me down, and then stopped suddenly, locking his eyes onto mine, reaching into the inside pocket, and removing a gun. It looked fake to me, but how was I to know?

I immediately turned and ran, the water balloons shaking like mad, the vulture on my shoulder bobbing back and forth, but hanging on. The old lady had done a good job. I ducked down one alley, and then another, then bolted through a fraternity house, then through an open door in an abandoned glass-blowing warehouse, where I waited.

They never caught me.

In a sense, I’m still waiting.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dead Birds Tell No Tales

"Dead Birds Tell No Tales."

The bird wasn’t quite dead.

It hung there, upside down, its little talons or whatever still clinging to the wooden bar in the cage.

I opened the cage door and whistled at it. It shuddered and opened an eye. I tried to set it upright, but it just swung down again. It had no interest in living.

This was back in ’68, or ’69. I loved that bird. “Chirpy” we called it. I had just that day received my walking papers from Penn State: a bright career as an English professor down the drain because a few radical students in a group called RADIANT UNION talked me into serving as their faculty advisor.

Outside my window, the familiar sound of gunfire, a strangled scream. The police and the hippies, going at it up and down the alleys. The thump thumping of a helicopter overhead. A man’s voice on a bullhorn. The distant and then closer wail of sirens. It would keep up all night, because it was hot, 88 degrees at 11:30 pm, and there was another brownout. The lights in the windows of the tenement houses across the way flickered between dark urine yellow and blackness.

I stripped to a t-shirt and shorts. A drink in hand. With ice.

Then, suddenly, a pounding at the door. I stood mute. The bird opened its eye again. I was afraid it would chirp, its last living sound giving me away. I tip-toed across the floor as the pounding on the door resumed. I put down my glass, gently took the bird in my hands as I had a hundred times before, walked slowly to the open window, and tossed it out.

I hoped it would fly, not fall.

The sound of gunfire growing closer. The pounding on my door louder.

The birdcage empty.

Me alone.