The bus arrived in the city as night came on, tunneling off the backstreets to the terminal underground, which seemed packed with every lost soul the devil could drag down – junkies, winos, pushers, pimps, beggars, hookers, small time cons, drifters, runaways, the down and out, and huddled here and there, in the corners, on the stairs, or sitting on the floor amidst the sleeping drunks, a number of homeless families taking refuge from the cold, Kopec was in between nowhere and no way out, caught in the middle, as always, with time running out. He secured his duffle bag in a locker and maneuvered through the mob, stepping carefully around the shadows who crowded the stairway life forgot.
The city seemed, in the deepening dusk, to have carved out of some great, black rock and then abandoned to Nature. It piled its way up into an abyss of sky-less night, gathering from that darkness a whisper of a snowfall, and he hurried alone beneath it down the wide, barren boulevards that cut between those dark mountains. Christmas carolers, if they did appear, did so always off a distance and only for a moment, and quickly vanished, as he drew nearer, down into the shelters from this harshest of cities, where all life seemed to continue in closed and intimate societies. Too freaky Kopec brooded as he shadowed through the labyrinths. The city seemed as inimical as any of the others, even on this most benevolent of nights. He probably shouldn’t have come at all. He probably should turn back. He hadn’t seen his brother in years. What was the point?
They had both changed. The world had changed. His brother was a big shot now, married, rich. It was odd that his brother’s Christmas card had even found its way to his drifter’s flop. What could his brother want with him now? Why would he want anything? In the world Kopec had come to know, given the polarity of everyone and everything, it seemed more like an invitation from the Twilight Zone than a Christmas celebration.
The black winds chased across the canyons. Designer dream worlds, in which stylishly dressed mannequins portrayed a fabulous existence of placid perfection, appeared in storefront windows everywhere, while snowflakes shrouded each pale ghost lost in the nimbus of the street’s nightglow, where all was silent, still and cold. Kopec reviewed his outsider life – that bad fairytale where no wishes were ever granted, no dreams ever came true. He was as unlikely a guest at a family reunion as someone come back from the dead.
Beneath the lights of a marquee, he stopped to study the card’s address. Holiday music from a speaker along the street floated mechanically into the icy air, and the bundled up Christmas shoppers jostled by in a lively lockstep with the jingly tunes. North? South? East? West?
The newsy on the corner barked as a van pulled up and tossed bundles at the stand.
“DEATH TOLL MOUNTS”
Kopec read the headlines, as the old croak hung the papers amid the montage of Money Mags and Designer Rags, Film Reviews and TV guides, the news print all but lost in the vast menagerie of splashy fan publications, silly sitcom shows, Survivor, Springer, Desperate Housewives, Chucky, Freddy, the Hilton sisters, the ghoulish politicians, and corporate gurus.
“MORE TROOPS KILLED”
He felt automatically for the scar on his neck, fingering the lightening bolt gash. Suddenly, he noticed that he was attracting a crowd. A small group gathered at the theater door was watching him and laughing.
“Are you going into the theater, sir?”
The stout patrolman hovered before him. He balanced his bulk on the balls of his feet, manner imperious, gaze mocking.
“I’m not sure.” Kopec stammered stupidly, copping some vagrant’s alibi. “No, look, I needed to see this in the light.”
Heart pounding, he handed the patrolman the card. When the big cop studied the address – in the park vicinity, an affluent neighborhood – he frowned, looked Kopec over again, peevishly, and curtly gave him brief directions.
“All the lost lanes go nowhere,” Kopec sang, hurrying through the night. “All the doorways say Beware, all the newsstands shout Despair, the streets are full but no one’s there.” When he reached the park, it was inaccessible, closed for the night by city curfew. Rather than risk another run in with the law, he detoured around its high stone walls, face and hands becoming blistered from the cold.
The towering structures dwindled in the darkness. Swank shops and upscale boutiques emerged amidst a miracle of fairy lights and holiday decorations. Once again, he was in the magnificent realm of storefront mannequins. The smiling, painted, puppet-like figures seemed to gaze at him derisively from their fabulous settings. Beyond the shops, houses loomed like castles in the falling snow. At an elegant structure, he slipped out of the blistering wind and entered a quaint, arched passageway.
“HARD TIME DEAD TIME
LIFE’S A JAIL LIFE’S A CRIME
FEEL THE BIND LOSE YOUR MIND”
Rock music met him, as he ducked in from the ghostly dazzle, hard blunt beats which bombarded his shivering body like bullets. Kopec could see nothing. He groped blindly through the staccato dark. The arched stone entrance was as black as a crypt. He searched the shadowy void uneasily, wary of the broken lamps, braced against some druggie skell who might be lurking with a knife.
He found the door and rang the bell. The black winds whipped and wailed around him. He knocked and rang the bell again. The great door boomed with the rhythm of the base “Knock knock who’s there?” Kopec muttered to himself. “Knock knock who cares?”
His teeth were chattering. His feet were blocks of ice. Despite his poundings, no one came. He tried the latch but it was bolted tight. He searched the dark in desperation
“WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE!
I HOPE YOU’RE GLAD TO BE HERE!”
A stunning woman with wild, dark hair, dressed in black, suddenly appeared like an apparition, as the door opened wide and the blazing light and thundering music exploded in the passage. The woman’s eyes were holy mysteries. Her pale skin was so perfect it seemed painted on. She studied Kopec over the rim of her tilted cocktail glass. Between her ivory fingers a slender, scented cigarette was burning into ash.
“I’m Steven Kopec.” He had to shout to lift his voice above the sonic blast. “Simon Kopec’s brother!” The light was blinding. He dug anxiously for the Christmas card buried deep in his shabby coat. When he finally found it and offered it to her, the wind tore it from his fingers and it fluttered through the night.
“I’m expected!” He shielded his eyes from the doorway’s dazzle. “I’m Simon’s brother!” He stood shivering in his shoes, frozen to the bone.
“I’m bored.” The woman gazed at him without expression. She talked from a dream, a hypnotic trance. She took a drag off her cigarette and blew the smoke in his face. She drained her drink and turned away.
“The house is empty.” A phantom in the foyer informed Kopec as he slipped shuddering inside.
“Then there’s room for one more.” Kopec forced a smile.
“You’re here alone.
The figure was indecipherable, a robed man shadowed from the party’s lights, tall, gaunt, eerie.
“A lonely number.” The phantom paused and pondered. He brushed stiffly past Kopec and closed the door. “One.” He returned Kopec’s smile with a sardonic grin. Teeth like giant pearls split the hooded man’s face in half.
“ZOOMIN TOWARD THE ZERO
BOPPING TOWARD THE BLACK HOLE
ROCKING TOWARD THE NO SHOW”
Death camp creatures of gigantic proportions climbed the flickering walls, while demon shapes danced in the inferno below. The great, marble hall was a huge, domed holocaust of multicolored lights, movie images, rock music and twisting figures. Kopec remembered the grainy, black and white films from history studies. They were documentary footage of concentration camp survivors. Like ghouls in phantasmagoria, the skeletal specters twisted and tottered tortuously on their spindly legs. Barely of the earth, beyond death, eyes vacant, they were synchronized to howl with the music in a fathomless despair as they skulked across the illuminated walls, heads a goggle on their scrawny necks. The ghostly ciphers and their barbed wire backgrounds, counterpointed the delirium below like a black ballet. The Goth girls with their flaming hair and shadowed eyes and spiked appendages, their night-stalker styled boyfriends, the bejeweled debutantes, the chic socialites, the Glam guys and the demimonde sirens rocked below them in their never-ending ritual. The wrong place. Kopec brooded as he took in the spectacle. What is this place? A towering silver Christmas tree, decorated with golden dollar signs, loomed above the dancing figures, rising from the middle of the marble floor to the base of the gleaming dome. The tree revolved on a floodlit stand, caught the colored light, and cast rainbows around the room. The dancers rocked around the chimerical cone as if in a tribal rite around a bonfire. Dazed and amazed by the towering tree, Kopec followed its glittering tiers to their lofty peak. On top, a skeleton with wings, perhaps an angel of death, tipped the blazing Christmas tree and seemed to rise like burning bones from a funeral pyre. Above the death-angel, like a storm cloud afloat in the concave of the ceiling, a giant tarantula hovered in the hollow of the dome. The brackish, black illusion, which must have been projected by a hologram, crawled murkily over the hellish party. Silvery strands extended from the arched articulations of its slowly scrabbling legs. The web-like threads glinted in the refracted light and dissolved amidst the dancers. A wreath of words, written in colored Christmas lights, encircled the giant spider at the base of the dome. The blinking wreath read: Simon Says: “THE GREATEST MADNESS IS THE GREATEST HAPPINESS! MERRY MAS X!”
“Look what just walked in.”
The greatest madness. Kopec stared at the message stunned. Simon says: the madness, the madness …
“Maybe it’s the ghost of Christmas past?”
“Maybe it’s the Holy Ghost?”
Kopec was covered with snow. It was turning into ice. Frost crusted his hair, caked his tattered coat. It was colder in the room that it was outside. His face felt frost-bitten. He could see his breath.
“I think it’s the abominable snowman.”
“I think it’s abominable.”
“It’s a party prop you deadheads!”
“Party propping what?”
Shaken and dazed, Kopec struggled through the pandemonium furtively searching the enigmas for his brother, wary of seeing him. Satan costumed servants shifted through the bedlam. Eyes blazing, tails flicking, they dispensed small ebony crosses to the revelers from pole-handled church collection baskets that were piled high with the crucifixes. The crosses were actually party pipes. The heady scents of hallucinogens further rarefied the rocking mayhem. Blonde-haired, blue-eyed, “Brides of Satan,” dressed in black wedding gowns, carried trays of drinks through the mob from an incandescently lighted bar in the corner which was carved from polished ivory. The shimmering bar was ornately arched and garlanded by the pearly “Gates of Heaven.” The gate-keeper, who was dressed in a black Gestapo uniform, smiled ruefully at Kopec as he poured drinks from a skull.
“Mr. Party Prop!”
Kopec reeled blindly through the rockers, lost in the nimbus, heart pounding, head spinning. The grand hall was so crowded he could barely move. He shifted and turned, struggled and searched.
“Bachelor number Zero!”
His legs felt rubbery. His head was in a fog. He was choking on the drug-smoked air. The crowds swelled and surged, crammed around him. Elbows jabbed into his ribs. Hard-bodies slam danced into him. He was swarmed by a chimera of bright, glazed eyes; pale, perfect faces; and mocking grins.
“Who designs your clothes, Mr. Party Prop?”
“Georgio Our Moan Eee?”
“Abercrummy and Flinch?”
A willowy woman, dressed in black leather, with long raven braids roped like whips, swiveled her head and lashed her long thick dreadlocks across Kopec’s face. The blow was stunning. Hands ripped at his clothes, tearing them to shreds.
“Have any tips on the stock market, Mr. Party Prop?”
“Can I buy your date book?”
“You’re the life of the party.” The phantom was suddenly beside him, fluttering like a black flames in the blazing inferno. “But then dead souls always do delight us, especially when they’re deadlocked in their descent toward their dead end.”
“Where’s my brother?”
Kopec’s lips were bleeding. A crowd of revelers stalked his steps and the hot notes from the hard rock seemed to flicker through the dazzle like fire-breathing dragon-flies.
“Simon?” The phantom looked around and pondered. “Nowhere. Everywhere.”
“Where is he here?”
“No one’s here.”
Suddenly, Kopec saw him, as high tech lightening bolts zig-zagged through the horrendous hall and white light and thunder flashed and rumbled through the strobe-strafed mayhem. Simon was seated on a throne in the back of the room inside a giant Horn of Plenty that was molded from gold. The throne was also molded from gold, and Simon sat surrealistically atop it, costumed in royal raiment. A crown of jewels glittered on his head. Sparks from diamonds flashed on his regal garments and flickered from his fingers. He was a monarchal mirage of velvet and silk and rainbow weaving. Popes in golden chasubles, copes, dalmatics and adorned with orphreys, anointed Simon’s feet with sacred oil, while bishops in flowing gowns and hallowed vestments sprinkled him with holy water shaken from the flails of silver-stemmed staves, studded with gems. More dazzling than the godly rites and the Midas-rich royal trappings was the breathtaking woman seated next to Simon atop an identical throne of gold within the horn’s conical chamber.
Hair like spun gold, piled high atop her majestic head, curling and cascading like the tiered tresses of a goddess, skin so pale it was almost transparent, eye like endless seas, she was the most beautiful creature Kopec had ever seen. A diamond tiara glittered above her noble forehead, emeralds and rubies encircled her swan-like throat, diamonds rounded her alabaster wrists and ringed her ivory fingers. Her grandeur was glacial. She gazed placidly at the rockers with a royal distain matched only by the suave smugness of Simon’s anointed saintliness –
An ice princess in a gossamer gown that shown so radiantly in the chimerical light it seemed woven from witchcraft. Simon’s wife, Kopec’s sister-in-law. An avalanche of Christmas gifts spilled past the royal couple from the horn, flooding the marble floor below them – bizarrely wrapped boxes decorated with banshees and demons, bowed and beribboned with hissing snakes. Around the snapping boxes, moribund morticians carried, like pallbearers, corpses on cooling boards which they brought to a great banquet table stretched below the golden thrones for a royal feast.
Debauchers and dandies, coquette and courtesans, reveled around the table while white-wigged waiters in ribald livery brought them body parts on silver trays. A dancing dwarf Jester dressed in a skin tight costume decorated with stars and moons and wearing a dunce hat of diamond dollar signs, capered amidst the bones and entrails and tankards of blood which covered the table, while he sang shrill songs and juggled skulls.
Crosses pelted Kopec as he swooned toward the royal gathering, his body moving, yet not moving, somehow being moved, a step at a time, as though by some invisible force. A chorus of phantasms sang: “Retro retro rags,” As they stalked behind him. “I wanna wear some retro rags!” The party pipes bounced off his head, thumped against his back. Simon watched Kopec’s staggering progress, keenly, as he sat reclining on his throne of gold. He held a ruby-red goblet to his lips. His smiling mouth was crusted with blood.
“Why doesn’t the spider get caught in its web?”
The dwarf Jester jumped from the table and blocked Kopec’s path, hopping and screeching and waving his hands.
Kopec swept his arm feebly at the little man, numbed and near delirium, but the jester dodged him.
“Why doesn’t the spider get caught in its web?”
“I don’t know.” Kopec chattered.
The dwarf lunged forward and rammed his pointed hat into Kopec’s ribcage. The feasters roared with laughter as Kopec staggered to the table bent, eyes watering and breath smoking with the cold as he gasped for air.
“Christmas becomes you, Steven.” Simon said dryly. He sipped his drink and shook his head. “But then you always had that manger born, martyr bent, crucified look about you.”
“It doesn’t do much for you.” Kopec coughed. He stared stunned at his brother, filled with rage and dread. Simon looked better than ever. His face was flawless, handsome and fair. His bright eyes sparkled, brilliant and clear.
“I’m a man for all seasons, Steven.”
“And what season is this?”
“Tis the season of Simon.” Simon toasted the air. “Like all the days and weeks and months of the year.”
“Simon says: ‘Tis the Season of me!’” The Jester shrieked. The feasters pounded the table, yelled: here here here!
“Not much to celebrate.” Kopec panted and clutched at a chair. He stared bewildered at the cannibal feast. Was it real? The sight made him sick. He fought down nausea and tried not to gag.
“Oh, maybe not, Steven.” Simon smiled. “But it helps pass the time. Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please! This dashing young blade is my brother, Steven, come to join us in our celebration! Steven is a master of the manifest, a nomad of the unknown. He speaks in darkness to the dead rumored words which are never heard. In other words poor Steven is a poet. But perhaps that’s something you guessed by Steven’s stately demeanor and stylish dress!”
“Touch us poet!”
One of the revelers roared.
“Sate our souls!”
“Warm our hearts!”
The table rocked with laughter.
“Simon says: The crud is a dud!”
“This can’t be possible.”
Kopec shook his head. Simon was a star at the Art League in their town. His mind was brilliant, deep and profound.
“Anything is possible, little brother, when nothing is real, and when nothing is real anything is possible. Poor Steven’s a lost soul. He always was with his books and dreams. He was a starry eyed little bookworm as a lad. Apparently, some worms don’t turn. They stay buried in their little holes in the ground, while the world changes despite them.”
“Into the present, poor bard. No one evolves into the past, me thinks.”
“Think again.” Kopec shuddered.
“You must forgive Steven.” Simon yawned. “He’s lost touch with the times. Besides, he’s out of his element. He isn’t used to seeing worldly society indulge itself. He isn’t used to society. The world is merely a suspicion to our poor poet, and he even less to it. Less than a suspicion. Less than zero.”
“Why did you invite me here?”
Kopec searched Simon’s face.
“Am I not my brother’s keeper?” Simon spread his hands. “I put it to you my Queen.” Simon turned to the goddess. “Am I not my brother’s keeper?”
“Keep him from me!” The goddess laughed.
Simon shook his head as the table rejoiced.
“No one wants a poem.”
“But let me give you your Christmas gift!”
The phantom was suddenly beside Kopec smiling his sardonic grin. He held a thick black book in his hands.
“It’s your journal, Steven.” Simon smiled somberly. “The story of your life.” He raised his ruby goblet in a salute. “I published a first (and last) edition for the party – not that anybody
reads. But no matter, we’ll enjoy it later as a performance piece.”
The Book of Others by Steven Kopec, was darkly embossed on the jet-black cover. The phantom fanned the manuscript’s pages in Kopec’s face. They were black and empty, a flurry of wind in a crypt, a desolate void.
“Nothing from nothing leaves nothing.” The phantom shrugged. “I did enjoy your disappearance and suicide.”
“At midnight, black confetti will fall.” Simon mused. “Black snow descending on the party from the marble dome. Steven’s Storm, a shroud to drop a curtain on this Holy Night.”
“Signifying nothing!” The goddess laughed.
The room began to reel. There was a black fog in his brain. Kopec’s temples pounded. He felt insane. He gripped the chair and closed his eyes. Like a nightmare, Simon’s Christmas swirled inside his mind. It was a dream of the devil, evil come to life.
“When you do the deeds of hell, hell will come.” Kopec whispered. He searched Simon’s face in desperation.
“Hell is here.” Simon smiled. “And hell is heaven. Satan is the holy ghost and his disciples the chosen. The armies of the night have marched across the land. Our reign will rule the world for a thousand years.”
“I can’t see your breath.” Kopec stammered, stunned. He searched the feasters’ faces, all stratified by the nimbus.
“Excuse me little brother?”
“I can’t see your breath.” Kopec strained to see through the dazzle. “It’s freezing in the room and yet I can’t see your breath.”
“Why would you?” Simon stared at him archly. “I’m not breathing.”
The feasters roared and the Jester turned a flip. He stood on his pointed hat and spun like a top. Simon looked around the table and rolled his eyes. The goddess laughed and clapped her hands and shook with delight.
“You’re not real.”
Kopec shuddered as he backed away.
“And you are?”
“You’re not alive.” Kopec glanced around. “None of you.”
Shivering in his shabby clothes, Kopec stood stupefied beside the phantom who still grinned at him and fanned the black pages. Suddenly, Kopec gave the smiling specter a violent shove. The robed man flew backwards through the air like a puppet on a string, glided past the ducking feasters and then flew back darkly at him. Kopec kicked the Jester and sent him hurtling. The dwarf screeched and kicked as he swung back and forth like a raucous child on a swing. Kopec whirled and plunged into the dancers, crazed and panting. He plowed through the mob like a football player and sent the revelers flying in all directions. Mannequin men and women swung to and fro amidst the kaleidoscopic light, tumbling and colliding as they flew through the air in a whirling pandemonium of screeching shadows.
“The party prop has popped his top!”
One of the revelers roared with laughter as he tossed madly with the others.
“The party prop has popped his top! The party prop has popped his top!”
The puppets laughed and jabbered as they twirled and tangled on their strings.
The room was spinning. The world was upside down. Kopec pushed his way deliriously through the mutant marionettes in a fever dream of desperation. Crosses pelted him. Glasses shattered against his head. The spinning puppets punched and kicked him. He fought through them charged with fear and awe. Their hands tore at his clothes as he searched frantically for the door.
“Can’t hang poet?”
The phantom stood before him blocking his way to the foyer.
“Get out of my way.”
“You’re here to stay.” The phantom smiled. “There’s no way out.”
NO EXIT, flared above the great door, a blinding neon sign. Kopec shook the latch in a frenzy. It was bolted tight. He slammed the door. It was sealed shut, like the lid on a coffin, like the cover of a crypt. He turned back and shouldered the phantom aside. He raced helter skelter through the party looking for a window or a door.
“There’s room for one more.” The phantom smiled as Kopec ran madly through the room. “One’s a lonely number poet, enjoy your doom.”
A flying sleigh pulled by mechanical reindeer, circled the blazing room. Simon sat in the carriage dressed in a Santa Claus suit. The goddess was seated beside him, waving at the mob below. The Jester stood atop the giant Christmas bag decked in the costume of an elf. The sleigh circled the glittering Christmas tree and rounded the spider in the dome. The Jester tossed gifts from the bag to the leaping revelers who fought for the treasures below. He dropped blockbuster movies and pop CD’s, best seller books and fan magazines, designer catalogs and television guides, money market rags and Wall Street weeklies, autographed photos of iconic celebrities, Prozac, barbiturates, and assorted amphetamines. The string-tangled puppets formed a mass on the marble floor, arms around each other, they moved in a lockstep back and forth.
“Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, riding down Santa Claus lane …”
They laughed and chattered as they moved like a drunken spider from left to right.
“Get me out of here phantom.” Kopec confronted the enigma, breathless and sweating.
“It’s the same outside.”
“Get me out of here phantom.”
“There’s a place to hide.”
He followed the black robed figure through the throngs. In the corner of his eye, he saw the tarantula descending the wall. A clock was striking midnight; black confetti began to fall. Puppets were catching fire from the smoldering pipes. The odd pair twisted through labyrinths, descended stairs, the robed mannequin and the shabby poet. They slipped down dungeon-like halls, through dusky cellar chambers and down torch-lit spiraling stairs. They turned a final corner and the robed puppet paused.
“Merry Christmas!” The phantom smiled. He pointed a bony finger at an egress marked Death’s Door.