(I have no explanation for this. I wrote it a long time ago in a flurry of writing.)
In order to present a cheerful facade, Mr. Shade wore a bright pink hat upon his head. It was doubtful whether this did the trick, contrasted as it was with his generally dour countenance.
It was on September 25, 2006 that Mr. Shade’s life came to a halt.
It was early in the morning. The sun was just at eye-level. There was no looking left for Mr. Shade as he strolled up and down the neighborhood, swinging his spiralled ashwood cane to and fro. The weaker leaves were just giving up the ghost. “Too bad for you, tree-droppings,” he said and swung his cane about his head, chirping with glee. What was in his coffee that morning? That fateful morning, when Mr. Shade’s life ground down. Who can say? Perhaps it was the extra spoonful of sugar–normally capped at two, carefully scraped down to the rim of the spoon with a wooden stirring stick–tossed in. The barista (a word Mr. Shade liked to roll upon his tongue, trilling the central R with much relish: “barrrrrrrista”) had raised an eyebrow. Mr. Shade, the most regular of regulars, 2% 16-ounce Americano with just a dash of cinnamon and two spoonfuls of sugar at 7:37am every day, didn’t often deviate from the norm. Was this a special day? Oh yes, but no one, most of all Mr. Shade, knew it yet.
“Pleasant day, Mr. Shade.”
“Undoubtedly, Franz. Coffee’s smelling lovely. Try not to scratch your other eyelid with that fingernail of yours.”
Would an extra spoonful of sugar do the trick? What would make those 937 grains of sugar any different from the preceding 1,765 divided by 2? Unlikely. On this particular morning, in spite of the vicious exchange with his wife that morning over Weetabix and boiled ham–was it about the Times subscription? or perhaps the soiled dictionary?–he was humming some tuneless melody, stomping down the hill, occasionally pausing for breath and to stroke his gleaming mustachios, oiled to within an inch of their lives. Mr. Shade had slightly greasy fingers, it’s true, due to this slightly unsettling habit of his. A fastidious mustachier, was he, our fine and sprightly Mr. Shade.
Skipping slightly across the street to avoid the misjudged stream of oncoming traffic, Mr. Shade considered his alarm clock. Finally given up the ghost that morning, after 23 years of faithful service, Mr. Shade couldn’t bear to part with it, which was why he clutched that worn and grease-stained paper bag. It was intention to toss it into the garbage can on the corner of Burke and 12th. Was there method to his madness, our Mr. Shade? Shouldn’t the cessation of his waking routine (or rather the routine of his cessation of sleeping) be cause for some gloom? Mr. Shade squinted into the sun, as he turned onto 12th Street. Perhaps it was the specks of blue china embedded in the sidewalk there, on that corner, which caused him to pause.
Had birds been pecking at them? Or perhaps some wayward lads had been vandalizing the tea set set into the sidewalk these eighteen long years, now? Mr. Shade didn’t know. Nor did Mr. Shade know the exact reason for his determination to dispose of his ancient alarm clock in the rubbish bin on this particular corner. “Good morning, Mr. Crow or is it Raven?” Mr. Shade said. The large, unruly bird cocked its head and opened its large and shiny beak ever so slightly, went back to tearing some small beastie to shreds. Leaning his cane against the blue, flowery bin, Mr. Shade opened his paper bag, remembering with some fondness the roasted eggplant sandwich from the day before, and pulled the clock into the bright, morning air.
Our Mr. Shade poked his finger at the second hand, which steadfastly refused to move. Shaking it resulted in a tinny and unhealthy sproinging sound from somewhere within the depths of its mechanical heart. He sighed. The quintessential clock: it was round, with two bells set atop like ears. It had rung faithfully every morning, the clapper rapidly spitting between the two bells. Mr. Shade would have waxed rhapsodical, had not the coffee spike begun to ebb. He turned the clock over. The winding key still stuck obscenely, no more to turn, though Mr. Shade did give it one last tentative turn.
He had woken, unusually for him, before the alarm was set to ring. Waiting in the pre-dawn darkness, Mr. Shade had stared at the ceiling until the lamp began to loom out of the fading gloom. He had scratched his nose. Was something growing there, he had wondered, vainly. Mr. Shade had always been proud of his nose. One unsightly carbuncle could dash the whole thing to pieces. Otherwise, it was difficult to fathom his bi-weekly avocado and guava nose baths–a secret even from his wife, no small feat after 15 years–conducted in the privacy of the crawlspace above the hallway adjoining the bedroom and kitchen.
Mr. Shade heard nothing. Or rather, he heard the absence of something. Something expected and dear. The slow shifting creak of bedsprings, yes, and also the slow breath of his still sleeping wife and, but oh, could he even hear some small croaking frog? It took some moments, while darkness passed and the walls became white once more, the sun sneaking in its thin fingers through the drapes, hoping for a glimpse of, what? Mr. Shade’s growing unease? The stuffed owl upon the dresser, fallen over from too many socks and shirts? Or rather the silver face of Mr. Shade’s beloved clock, set now, quite stubbornly, at 11:57 of the clock.
For a moment, Mr. Shade thought, “and yet it moves!” A phantom second hand racing around. But it was only a trick of the light. Or a trick of the non-light. He glanced over at his sleeping wife, turned away upon her side, and switched on his bedside light. Picking up the clock, it had become painfully clear that his clock had failed in the night. Mr. Shade had felt a sharpness in his throat and set the clock down, only to have it fall upon the floor. He stared at it over the edge of the bed, pillow pressing into his closed right eye. He had closed his other eye tight, breathing in sharply through his nose and clutching his bedclothes to his chin. A single tear had welled, but it too failed, remaining trapped within eyelashes.
While his wife yet slumbered, Mr. Shade–lacking the slightest foresight of the doom which fast approached him–had crept out of bed, grabbed the clock and slid on cold feet into the kitchen, where he found the sack, his clock’s penultimate home.
Even now, just sixty-eight minutes later, Mr. Shade felt nothing more than slight remorse. He had expected… what? Fanfare? An epitaph? He chuckled and let the bag float to the ground, the better to hold his clock. Mr. Shade’s Clock. He’d have to get another and soon. He pulled at the second hand and felt its thin metal bend beneath the pressure. He had a mad desire to snap the second hand off and dash the clock upon the ground, betrayed by its mechanical weakness, and dance a jig upon its scattered gears and cogs. Mr. Shade shook his head, slowly, and reached to drop the clock into the bin.
A thought struck him, an imagined future, wherein space-suited future men unearthed his rusted clock from some ancient dump, holding it aloft in their thick, blue rubber gloves, as their sharp white lights spiked here and there, lancing into the o’erflung dust and darkness. In his mind’s eye, all of these future men bore brightly curled mustachois and Mr. Shade’s fine nose. Were they clones of Mr. Shade? Had some genetic stutter conveyed only Mr. Shades into the future, an improbability the likes of which the universe had never seen before? Perhaps his clock had been conveyed, by some freak interaction of outgassing rubbish, into a parallel dimension where the dominant being was only Mr. Shade? The only being was our Mr. Shade?
Too slow, Mr. Shade. Oh, too slow. Had some dark-coated spy, Bulgarian or Swahili, been crouching in the alley just behind, dark pistol swelling ominously in his hand, Mr. Shade would surely be gone, conveyed beyond this mortal coil by the silent whuff-whuff of a silenced (and silencing) firearm. Or even if some ill-maintained ice cream truck had come slaloming down the hill, Mr. Shade would have been ill-prepared to meet it, gazing stupidly, as he was, at the face of his broken clock, drool gathering at the corner of his slightly parted lips.
What dumb reverie is this, Mr. Shade thought, saying, “What…?” and moved to toss the clock. Mr. Shade stopped, as surely as his clock. Was that rubbish bin taller than before? Or, to his gathering horror, was Mr. Shade shorter? Had some time-stopping ne’er-do-well been replacing each bin with successively taller ones? If only it were so. It seems our Mr. Shade had gotten stuck.
Not only had he gotten stuck, but Mr. Shade was sinking. Thirty-seven minutes later, Mr. Shade was up to his armpits in sidewalk. The crow toyed with his paper bag. He seemed to have stopped his slow descent.
Ten years later, Mr. Shade was still stuck. The world kept flying by, but, for him, our poor Mr. Shade, it was still. Not much for him to do, he could only rely on the kindnesses of passersby. He had a tattered umbrella, which only fitfully protected him from the elements and a small collection of hats and scarves. Occasionally, someone would miss the bin and he would have some of a newspaper to read. It was a happy day when… Wait. There was no happy day for Mr. Shade. Not even the pink hat could help with that, could cover up the wrinkles of sorrow around his eyes.
Mr. Shade’s clock remained.
Indigo Jones scowled at the bus poem. How did they pick these?
Unreal barnacles, scream unseen into creatured conundrums. Yippee, scream the yes-men, dancing swinging on blistering candelabras. I am a green monkey...
Their quality control was slipping. She reached into her shag carpet bag and pulled out a thick marker. Reaching over the shaggy dude, she crossed out the word ‘candelabra’ and scrawled ‘rutabaga’ above it. The bus lurched. The shaggy dude–was there something in the water, here, that so many of them turned out like this?–squinted up at her and grinned, flashing gold tooth everywhere. “The angel Metatron, that being of great reknown, perches itself upon the shoulders of all our brethren. So we say and so we say again.”
What the fu–“What the fuck are you talking about?” Indigo Jones stuck her tongue out at the shaggy dude and clomped to the front of the bus, staggering slightly in the accordian. What was this babble that consumed the bus? The swollen hubbub of human voices was overpowering the normally dominant crushing bus sound. Every voice was raised, as if in echo of all the others, the reverb careening about. Indigo Jones plopped down into a seat, propping one boot up on the seatback in front of her. She reached into her bag again and pulled out a tattered notebook. She bit her tongue and wrote in jerky block letters: “POETRY IS FOR SUCKERS”, crossed out the last, replaced it with “SCOUNDRELS” and stuck it to the seatback with a piece of strawberry chewing gum.
She drew a smiley face with a mouthful of blood and stared out the window. The droning crowd-noise paused, as though taking a breath, and the synchronicity of rhythm and tone combined to mesmerize. Indigo Jones paused in her scribbling to listen. It was as though a voice spoke, too low to hear, a mutter overheard in passing in a crowded room. A failed stage whisper. The confounding echo of morse code on empty metal pipes. For a moment she thought she heard a glimmer of her name, “Iniiiiiiiigo…. Innnnnnnnnnnigo,” but she chalked it up to her adolescent egomania.
Her stop anyway. She got up, grimaced at the shlumpy bus driver on her way out, turned around and paused, before crossing the street. The man was still up to his armpits in sidewalk, blue china tea set spread all around him. Every day he seemed to excavate a bit more.
“Still here,” she said, not a question. The man did not respond, but continued his empty tea charade. Who knows where he got the herbs, but cold tea? That kind of steeping was a joke. Especially here, in February, when the sun was nowhere to be found. “You’ve got yourself a regular tea party, now.” This scrawny piece of work communed with crows, somehow. How else to explain the top hats perched on each of their three tiny heads? And how had he trained them to hold their china doll tea sets just so? It almost made her want to stomp and stomp and clobber the whole mess, grinding the madness to tiny, tiny bits. Who had given him that pink, knit cap, perched so crookedly upon his head? She looked down into her bag, fumbling through the flotsam for her sticker becrusted camera. When she looked up, camera in hand, he was looking at her.
She almost dropped her camera. His pale grey eyes spun slightly, round and around. “Do you have a biscuit for me? With blueberries?” his soft voice rasped, droopping lip hair covering his lips.
“What? Gross! I mean, No!” The anger in her voice startled her. A top hat fell to the ground, rolling, crows flying away. Or was that a bowler? She was no haberdasher, but she liked the word and no hats. She chewed her lower lip and watched his spinning eyes.
“Are you trying to hypnotize me?” she finally said. He broke the gaze and scratched his head, mumbling something about blueberries. “Fuck the blueberries. I’m out of here.” She noticed that he winced when she swore, bourgeois to the hilt, not that she really knew what that meant either, she’d read it someplace, maybe on a bus poem. “Boojie boojie,” she jeered and spun away.
–It isn’t as uncomfortable as you might think, being here. I’ve got a bit of an umbrella and my blue checkered scarf and this natty pink, knitted cap. I get to watch the cars go by; what will they be driving next? I can barely feel my toes at all, but at least they’re nice and warm. Actually, it’s probably best I don’t feel my lower extremities much.
–Well, my dreams are quite vivid. I dreamt I was an elephant, hauling crates along the floor. I dreamt I was a balloon caught in a brambleberry bush. I dreamt I dreamt I dreamt, recursively, without ever finding out what the true dream was.
–Sometimes, they’re a bit more complicated than single images. There was the time I dreamt myself awake into a sailing ship. The wooden beams creaked and lanterns swayed. A pirate captain, was I? If so, the booty and plunder make my head swim, rolling (and doubly rolling with the sway of the ship–the Coiled Nautilus) amidst my gold doubloons and Spanish pieces of eight, spices from the Orient and damask silk and other lucrative treasure. Such delight. Until Crazy Burt kicked down the door, the monkey skulls clattering about his neck.
–That was the end of that one.
Mr. Shade could only think of the triangle room with the diamond windows. Not a place for a fan of windowsills, unless the chin rested in a V of arms and hands, fingers bent back. Or, daring the worst, braved long, pale splinters on both sides of the chin. The birds had brought him half a rasher of bacon, burnt, but welcome nonetheless. Thank you, Balthazar, he said or thought he said. He had named the three kings, after the three wise crows of biblical lore. How did a crow carry greasy spices, let alone tumbrels of gold, across some vasty Middle Eastern dessert? There’s no water on a cake that size, only sour and inedible frosting. Perhaps they were in cahoots with camels, that was it. He nibbled on his bacon.
A car sped by, splashing yet another sheet of dirty water over him. Mr. Shade could hardly be said to have minded, let alone noticed, the intrusion. That bacon was good! Mr. Shade tried to remember the last time he had had bacon, but he couldn’t. The triangle room filled the hopper of his brain. Every punch card came up triangles. It wasn’t even a real triangle, more of a cone, and it stood on a giant, scaly chicken foot, which hopped, ripping ditches in the earth as it scrabbled for…. what? giant earthworms? The ground was too far away. He had already lost one slipper attempting to dangle down from the trapdoor opening in the middle of the floor, the bloodbrewed patchwork covering piled against the wall. All the astrolabes and beakers, barometers and dials had fallen from their shelves, his uncovered foot sketched with bloody lines. He gathered his faded blue bathrobe–shiny panda patch sewn over the heart–and slumped down against the wall, gathering the comforter about him. It smelled funny. He woke with a start to find Melchior tugging on a nose hair. Eyes watering, he yelped and swung his arms. Melchior fluttered away, top hat askew, pipe smoking furiously. Mr. Shade really needed to stop personifying these critters.
Mr. Shade attempted to smear his draggling mustachios to the right and to the left and sighed as they drifted down to cover his lips. No soup or ice cream cones for him, let alone a large glass of frothy, cold chocolate milk. The mustachios were just not the right touch for so many things (orange and apple juice; mild, medium or hot salsa, forget about the super, ultra spicy ones; any kind of sandwich except perhaps for watercress, a rarity though, so easily dismissed; blueberry and strawberry and really any of the fruity bagels–onion and garlic worked quite well, especially slathered with butter or lox; neither did he like milkshakes, nor any beverage with a sticky, sweet or syrupy nature; and etc. and so on and so forth), though he did find himself sometimes half-heartedly chewing on them when in some kind of reverie.
What had that girl been saying? He shivered. Was Mr. Shade catching a cold? He hoped not. He hadn’t really been listening anyhow, so it mustn’t have been important. The wife had come to visit three nights past. He tugged the dreadfully knitted pink cap further down over his ears. It had her name all over it.
“…so those witches will know you’re mine.”
“Witches?” Mr. Shade had said. (Though it was true that three overthatched witches had taken to visiting him fortnightly, dancing widdershins about his head, chanting foul prophecies and flinging chicken gizzards at him.) Mr. Shade had pulled something unsightly out of his ear, sharply indrawn breath, and flicked it away. She did not seem to notice or care.
“Don’t play coy with me, mister! I know why you’re stuck in there.”
“And if you had half a mind to do it, you’d be out of there, just lickety.” Her voice quavered. “If you were so… unhappy, you could have said something. You didn’t have to go and….” She fluttered her hand in the air, as if it was what was at a loss for words.
“I didn’t do anytihng. Witches? This just happened to me. I wasn’t unhappy.” Mr. Shade had finished, at a loss.
The wife had steamed, the sudden sun burning sheets of water off her parka. “Listen: As soon as something better comes along, I’m gone. So don’t wait too long in your hole, Mr. Shade!” She turned smoothly and strode away, her dramatic exit spoiled slightly when she paused at a boutique’s window to gaze at a bright blue gingham skirt.
So much for Mrs. Shade, she was probably long gone by now, he thought, though her hat was awfully warm. It was beginning to smell a little stale, after dampening and failing to dry repeatedly.
–Look here, you little urchin, give me back my hat!
Fernando ‘The Rutabaga’ McGee, with his flowing purple locks blown back, sez, with a shimmy, a little shuffle and sidestep, “Whatcha doin’?” Green, from his fingers down oh down to his toes, tip-pointed with a bell or two, there at the end, shoewise, and with a penchant for wanting his life to be filled with witty repartee and moments of glee, just pop-popping one after another after another. Oh and don’t be forgetting his rumpled doublet and, oh my, but are those, they couldn’t be, but yes they are, pantaloons. Forgive him, gentle soul, for his desire to clothe himself in words that he loves to say, whether it be the aforementioned pantaloons or jodhpurs, salwar kameez or waders or brogues.
Snapsnap, go the fingers, flashing silver in the sun. Always, for those times the sun deigns to visit this spartan clime. How’d The Rutabaga get himself stuck in such a dreary town? That’s one for the recordbooks, that is. With one fist on his hip, three flash crows struttin’ around his feet, feels like a show’s gonna start. Anytime. But it doesn’t. Too baaaad.
The man could catch flies with that mouth o’ his. “Nothing much,” the square finally manages to say, though that hat sure is nice. It could use some spangly bits, perhaps a moon ball, or whatever you call them, he can’t remember, that fly above those disco halls, all that light bursting out, spiralling around and around as the music shakes its happy… and Oh! he can feel that dance inside. Pow! and all of a sudden its a riff-shuffle-shuffle-step, step-dig-paddle-stepstep, clap. “See ya, round, Nothing Man,” and Fernando’s gone.
All the tea in china.
A sandwich is made, in great detail.
Mrs. Shade experiences disorientation and loss. The mailman pays a visit.
Mr. Shade taps into the noospherre. Damn the torpedoes! But all his magical skillz are easily replicated by internet gewgaws and fripperies. The witches visit (or not).
A visit to the zoo goes badly, for all concerned.
A rogue photographer captures the souls of his snapshot subjects. Must (s)he do the same to Mr. Shade? The photographer is expelled from the Ancient and Hermetic Order of Mystical Daguerrotypers and Their Lesser Photographerish Brethren). They resist ‘going digital’, but their fingers and noses are stained with occult chemicals, to what effect?
An adventure of crows, whereby our three nattily dressed corvian birds fly about and do this and that, but always with style and panache.
No one knows where they got their names or their top hats. It certainly wasn’t Mr. Shade, who lacked a certain mobility and felicity for naming, and whose foraging skills and effervescent loquacity had languished as a result. They were three. Their names seemed to suit them, for those who knew.
Caspar had the tallest of the three top hats, tied beneath his chin with a thin piece of twine, it still jiggled about as he flew. Perhaps his more powerful wings could accomodate the higher drag, the top-heavy nature of the endeavor. It was this bird, dark glinty eyes and deadly-looking beak, who most often brought crumpets and raspberry preserves, particularly when Mr. Shade’s spirits were at their lowest. Melchior, seemingly, had fallen into a paint bucket. Or rather, a series of multi-colored paint buckets. A rainbow bird, he flickered in the sun, scattering droplets of color across the ground upon take-off and landing. Somehow, his top hat remained as stark and black as the day it first appeared upon his tiny little head. A regular ragamuffin, tatterdemalion avian, was that Melchior. As for Balthazar, is that a scarf wrapped around its neck? It is, it is! A bedraggled bird, is Balthazar, with jagged molting all up and down his back.
How did our featherine friends get their delicious top hats, their stovepipes, their linkinoggins? Ah, that is a story for the ages, that is a story that goes down swinging, fighting for every drop…
Indigo Jones plays chess with Mr. Shade. It ends badly. For whom?