03 July 2009

Pickman’s Progeny: The Horrid Truth Below

(After H.P. Lovecraft)

You ask me if I remember how we used to ride in the very front cars on the subway, pretend we were driving the train, pretend we were in control, back before the success and before the money and when we still road the trains. You ask me when was the last time I have ridden that way. Pour yourself another glass of port, old friend, for it’s the last bottle in my cellar. For god’s sake, light that cigar instead of letting it just hang out of your mouth; it’s the last of the Cubans. Start smoking and I’ll tell you about the last time I rode in the very front of the very front car of the subway train and why I’ll never do so again.

Graffiti changed in the 70s remember? It was the birth of wildstyle and the ghost of Vaughn Bodé stalked the Lower East Side, branding the sides of building, bus, train, and tunnel. Everything, whether moving or stationary, was tagged, decorated, illustrated, storified, politicized, aethetisized or otherwise adorned. Everything, whether organic or man-made, seemed to wear a coat of spray paint. And for every Keith Herring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, there were 10,000 others and far less talented scrambling through the night with their satchels of purloined paint and super jumbo markers seeking aerosol expression.

Those were crazy days and I remember watching white-powder deals transpire between white-lipped junkies and the local supply, an anonymous hand that reached up from a storm drain to take money and deliver drugs. It was way before crack.

Summer nights when the city just lay gasping and indolent beneath the filthy, wet heat, we would bounce from bar to apartment to loft to bar, music pounding all the time, torn t-shirts and safety-pins, spikes and gripes, white noise and black hair dye. The Ramones wrote our anthem, Talking Heads interpreted our dreams, Blondie asked us to dance, Devo introduced us to our destiny, Eno was a god, the Sex Pistols were our stooges, and the Stooges were our elders. Nothing made more sense than nonsense and we excelled at chaos.

So it was with the usual nihilistic buoyancy we boarded the train that (what’s a word that means “sweltering” but ten times so; what’s another way to say “brutal, aggressively hot, hellish, and virulently foul”) night in August. My 22-year old’s version of seduction dependent upon privacy, I pulled Daisy Mae away from the group with a promise of adventure and, in those days, the only thing worse than being ugly was being boring. Through car after car after car, I dragged her forward through each double set of graffiti-etched doors, across each gap with jostling couplings just inches below our feet and I hoped the joining of the subway cars put ideas into her head about coupling and jostling.

When we reached the very front of the very first car and stood at the only forward facing window on the train, stood just inches from the motorman locked in his motorman’s booth with his hand on his deadman’s switch, I put my arm around Daisy Mae’s waist and pulled her closer to me, soft flesh damp beneath damp Fruit-of-the-Loom cotton.

“How fast do you want to go?” I asked her.

“Faster,” she replied. “Always faster. No matter what, faster.”

And for some reason, the car sped up and we stood there swaying together, sweaty young bodies pressed together, and I was afraid I was getting a hard-on and afraid she would notice and thrilled that she would. We watched our own reflections, wet matted hair and pale faces and glints of silver, superimposed over the image carved by lamplight into the tunnel. I certainly did not pay attention to graffiti flashing by; it was a multicolored, ubiquitous background scrawl signifying nothing.

So I cannot tell you exactly when the neo-primitive obscenities of modern urban flash became replaced by something more Neo-lithic. The random-seeming letters and numbers of our many tribes’ jabber was infiltrated and soon supplanted by another tribes’ images of fat times and famine. The images I retain from my fragmentary glimpses of their passing are of rage and terror, hunger and violence, raw meat and bloody hands. Like a Lascaux Cavern of the insane, these crude murals unfurled like a demented cyclorama telling stories of the hunt, of the slaughter, and of the unholy feasts to follow where stalker and butcher and beast all appeared human.

Under what exact street and avenue that shift from 20th century punk tag to nightmare prehistoric cave painting occurred, I cannot say. I had my hand down the front of Daisy Mae’s daisy dukes and my fingers inside Daisy Mae and my tongue explored the long hard tendon of her shoulder. So did my teeth, but only a little bit and just hard enough to make her squirm. My tastes then, in contrast to my costume of punk anti-finery, were simpler.

It was the frozen image of something, something I don’t want to know, that took me from my pleasure. For one eternal second I saw a thing there in the tracks agleam with headlight glow and I will never not see it again. As if burned into my retina, I still raise my eyes to a thing, clad in pale leather loincloth, raising its eyes in fatal surprise from its awful feast there on the tracks, eyes wide and screaming and glowing in chorus to the screaming brakes, in pain from the awful stabbing light, in a rage at a meal interrupted and baboon or madman, mole person or demon, friend or terrible foe, what shall always remain behind my eyelids is the horrible image of its scant clothing and the terrible remnants of a tanned human face there covering its loins.

The rest of that evening is forgotten and Daisy Mae long gone. She said she never saw the thing that I saw and I believed her and I hated her for it.

So, my friend, let us savor the last of this fine port, the taste of contraband tobacco, and never, dear fellow, never ask me of the subway again.

(Published in Arkham Tales #1. Click cover or title for more information.)

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