Pittsburgh is the kind of place in which natives give directions citing things that aren’t there any more. “Remember where Poli’s used to be? You turn right at that light, yeah.” It was maddening when I first got here, but people stay in the same communities for lifetimes and generations, and they can’t help that landmarks stick in the memory. Restaurants especially come and go, which is true anywhere of course, and Café Euro was one of them. Two years after this novel was written, it closed its downtown location. I had the best job interview of my life there, so I’ll always carry happy memories of it. Too bad the funding didn’t come through for that research project though…
The Creature in the Machine
“There are wounds which allow the spirit to utter a long-stifled cry.”- Raoul Vaneigem
It was nearly noon when Fred locked the door behind him. He’d taken his coffee to the library, pulled down Vaneigem, and begun to read. Perhaps amid the familiar pages of Revolution, a phrase would leap out to his aid. Somewhere several chapters in, as Vaneigem excoriated the world of work, Fred rose impulsively and dressed, though without showering or shaving. He was not quite as deep in oblivion as he had been in the morning, but the mental vagueness remained, a fog from which he expected at any minute a great clarity to emerge like a charging light brigade. Vaneigem fed that fog, rather than clearing it; even on this latest of many readings, Fred felt there was something he didn’t quite understand that hid among the words.
No sooner had he withdrawn his key, than he heard the jangle of the phone inside. He paused and thought about whether he wanted to face whoever it was.
“Perhaps it is the cavalry,” he said with a little brightness, eagerly unlocking the door.
He grabbed the phone on its fourth and final ring.
“Fred?” It was Esmeralda.
“Oh, hello. I was on my way out.”
“Oh.” There was a pause. “I didn’t see you this morning and Ike said you were alienated.”
“That was the best way to describe it.” He was staring at the boomerang patterns of his shabby 1940s countertop.
“Are you OK? I want to see you.”
“Is something wrong?”
“Yeah, with you, love. You’ve got me worried. Hop a bus and we can grab lunch.”
“That’s amenable. Where shall I meet you?”
“Let’s go to the Café Euro. This is an emergency—we must summon some quality comestibles, service and atmosphere.”
“I am at your command.”
When he said goodbye, he put on speed. If he was going to catch the next bus, he had to run. And why not? The day was warming nicely, Vaneigem thumped sympathetically in his backpack as he pelted down Frank Street. He felt curiously free.
It was odd to remain on the bus, to still be riding as it roared past the green canopy of the Bank Tower Building. Fred got out at Grant Street and hiked through the noon crowds toward the stone plaza and glass façade of Café Euro at the base of the US Steel Building.
Esmeralda was waiting at the bar with a glass of red wine in her hand. Her casual Friday attire consisted of a voluminous caftan of a glossy synthetic fabric, loud and vibrant in a dense pattern of swirling purple, black and white, her head was swathed in a heliotrope turban a-glimmer with golden threads. She had been watching the door for him, and smiled sympathetically when she saw him.
He noticed her encompassing gaze, leaned over the bar to ask for a glass of Merlot, and then shrugged broadly as he sat beside her. “I am a sartorial disaster, am I not?”
“Well…” she drawled. It was true; though he wore his customary neat blue jeans and steel toed boots, his shirttails hung out beneath an ordinary gray sweatshirt. His hair was rumpled and he had not shaved.
His wine arrived and he tasted it, blinking in warm satisfaction. “Let’s go eat in the dining room.”
She collected her bag and followed him. “I like the hair, actually. You look more handsome with it uncombed like that. Curly dark hair, very sexy.”
He stroked his chin as they sat in the places offered to them. “I’m not sure how I like this. There was no choice today.”
“My treat,” she said as they received heavy menu books from the black-aproned waitress. Fred shrugged his acceptance.
“You know,” she said, studying Fred as he studied the menu. “I’ve always been a fan of a few days’ beard on a man, but for close encounters, it’s awfully violent against the skin.” She glanced at the menu, ran a crimson fingernail down the entries, then set it aside. She laid her hand lightly on his arm and tilted her head to gain his eyes. “Want to tell me what’s wrong?”
He met her gaze. “I’m not sure I can.” He took a sip of wine, looking into an invisible distance. “The moon was mesmerizing last night. I was riding the 67H for a change, when there it was, through parted clouds above Schenley Park, an enormous silver orb. It was still up this morning, before the sun made it over the rim of Squirrel Hill. I didn’t sleep last night. The world is too beautiful for the suffering that goes on in it. And it’s not Nature’s suffering—“
Esmeralda did not interrupt, apparently waiting for him to get it all out.
“I know. The owl that hunts the mouse and the mouse that loses his life, there may be pain and fear, but I do not believe they suffer in spirit. They are doing what life requires and there must be a sort of peace with that… I hope. But—“
The waitress had arrived. Fred took a deep breath to quiet the tumult that was bubbling up inside, enough at least to order a meal. Esmeralda ordered sea scallops as an appetizer followed by Pasta Primavera, using her charm to fill that awkward space, so that when his turn came he was well able to ask for a Tuscan Strip Steak with the extra shrimp scampi. He lifted his glass to indicate another merlot.
On their own again, he continued, his tone more subdued. “There is something in this working world, not just FKRS, but the whole cesspool of post-industrial capital that robs a man of his soul. Or a woman, I will not parse the genders. This piece-work production, all for power and profit, while the bosses smile and throw the minions an occasional picnic? As if offering Christ a Coke on his way to Golgotha would have ameliorated the Passion. Merde! What happened to the world? Is anyone happy? What is wrong with everything? Waste, rot, excrement over all things and everyone—IT’S AN ABOMINATION!”
Even Esmeralda startled.
“Fred?” Esmeralda said in a husky whisper. “Sweetie? You OK in there?”
“It’s a trap and we’re all in it. I can’t stand it anymore. None of us can get out, and even if some do, what about the rest?”
“Hate to burst your bubble, big guy, but you ain’t Jesus Christ. OK? You can’t save all of mankind across a hundred generations. Just figure out how to get Fred out of his trap. I’m here to help you. And if you get clear, you can hold out a hand for the next guy. Right? It doesn’t have to be done today. We do have to quench this misery that’s burning you up right now so you can breathe again. The wine’s good; drink it up.”
Fred reached out, and it looked and felt like slow motion, taking the smooth stem in his hand, cupping the glass bowl and taking a nice, full swig. It was rich, and warm going down, full of earthiness, salt. Reminded him of meat, of which there was more on his plate. He resumed his meal, savoring the flavors, textures and color. They absorbed him. He finished his glass of wine and ordered another one.
“You are a wise woman,” Fred said, when the third glass came and he took a first, satisfying sip. “Too much is strange and changing and, for a little while there, I had no idea who I was or what to think. I didn’t recognize my face in the mirror this morning. That’s how it started. Has such a thing ever happen to you? For a moment, I didn’t recognize the man looking back at me—or who the “me” was who didn’t know. The whole world came apart in front of my eyes and flew away like little mahjonng tiles. All that remained was a person staring at a person who didn’t know who he was.”
“Can’t say I’ve had that happen. Rather the opposite. Mirror meditation is a technique we teach in the Craft. My experience of it, at its best, is like you say, for a split second breaking the bond of this moment in time, though what I experience in that second is a sense of a much bigger, very aware someone who knows me better than I do, and I am that someone. For just a moment, it holds, and I feel the whole universe open up in a million dimensions behind me and I am as big as all that. Then the focus goes back to the face in the mirror and I see it like I’ve never seen it before. Who is that? You know? I feel incredibly benign toward her, even seeing her whole, pretty bits and ugly bits. One more moment and I’m back to little old me. It shakes you up when it happens—makes you feel different about what life is.”
“Same drug; different trip.”
She laughed her little bubble of a giggle. “Yeah, well, try again sometime on a sunnier day. Find out how big it all is and have a little mercy on little Fred Fuchs. He’s a lot of fun, once you get to know him.”
“Thanks, Esmeralda,” he said, and lifted his glass, without formality, as a salute.
She scraped the last bite off her plate. “Oooh, let’s order dessert! We’ve got time. And by the way,” she asked, making conversation. “How’s Constantia?”
Chapters 1-18 are here.