E lascia pur grattar dov’è la rogna! And let them go ahead and scratch where it itches. — Paradiso
A line of twenty or thirty men (difficult to count in the murky light), faces haggard, streaked with dirt, stubble on their chins and cheeks, eyes red-rimmed, weary pace and lagging, trudged up the steep rock steps from a vast hole in the ground. One foot swung ahead, a pause, then the other. They were singing a kind of wordless low dirge. “Damn, Alf,” said one during a pause at the first turn. “This’s one long set of stairs, what?” “What?” Alf a little hard of hearing, turned his head, though he continued the low detuned murmur of the dirge. “The mine, Alf. A long way down.” “Course it’s a long way down. Wouldn’t be a mine if it weren’t.” Alf stopped his humming. He had a doctorate in Medieval Philosophy from a major university, and was well equipped for mining. Far below the shouts of the shift foreman faded with distance, drowned in the monotonous fall of rain. “But Alf,” said the other, “What’s the purpose?” “You ask that, Morley,” Alf replied. “But you don’t mean to ask it. The Great Chain of Being: this is our place in it.” “That’s all? That’s the meaning of life? The Great Chain of Being? We’re in our place? That’s it?” “Perhaps not,” Alf admitted, after giving it some thought. The sky was filling with an impenetrable darkness; low clouds hid the moon, and the air was too thick to show stars. “Perhaps there’s more. But what other explanation could there be? I suppose we could discuss phenomenology. Look up there, what do you see?” “The skyline of Manhattan?” the other suggested. “Of course not, Morley. You couldn’t see the skyline of Manhattan from here. This is a mine. Open at the top, carved out of the solid rock. We’re still beneath the surface of the phenomenal world. Skylines imply sky. Do you see a sky? Of course not. So there can be no skyline. Down in that mine,” he gestured toward the deeper black below them, “are metals. Things like copper, silver, molybdenum. What did you do all day?” Morley tried to think, but the others pushed them on and they had reached the second switchback where the climbing grew more arduous. Conversation was not only impossible, it was pointless. An interminable time later the small column reached the top of the cliff. Before them a plain stretched out, fading into murk. Puffs of red flame pushed balls of black smoke into a sooty atmosphere along the horizon. A dimly visible road meandered away toward what might be a city, a lighter black against the blasted earth. “There’s something very old-fashioned about all this,” Morely said. “I studied Medieval Philosophy, not Hegelian dialectics,” Alf complained. “Of course it’s old-fashioned. I had a whole semester devoted only to Dante.” “Oh.” Morley nodded. “Dante.” “Yes, yes,” Alf said impatiently. “A moral order to the universe, from the highest unto the lowest. Virtue rewarded, vice repaid. No disquieting thoughts of Job and people of his ilk.” “Job? That guy got injured on the morning shift a month or two back?” Alf gave him a look. “OK, OK.” Morley held up his hands. “The obedient worshiper God wagered over. I read the book, too. Even if I didn’t finish my degree.” “That’s why I’m a squad leader and you’re not,” Alf said. A raw buzzing sound approached growing louder. A yellow cab pulled up and the driver leaned over to open the door. “Cab?” Alf nodded and he and Morley got in. “Where to?” the cabbie asked. “The Slough of Despond,” Alf said. “Right!” The cabbie flipped down the flag and the meter began counting. Years went by and the canyons of the city yawned for them. Lower East Side. They passed the bus terminal. Painted faces loomed at the window, laughed, and disappeared. “God,” Morley exclaimed. “The Slough! I haven’t been here in years.” “About time, then,” Alf murmured, but his mind was elsewhere. “It’s changed, but it’s still the same.” Lights were flashing when the taxi stopped. An eternity rung up on the meter; they owed it all. Jazz spilled into the street, almost dry after the recent rain. The notes piled up, teetered for a time, fell sprinkling on the street, began to pile up again. Clarinet, bass, drums, guitar. Lots of diminished sevenths. Alf lit a cigarette before they went inside. The table was small, but some of the weariness left their eyes. The clarinet player’s cheeks bulged; notes soared, arpeggio and glissando, talking back to the guitar, which answered. Soon there was fusion. Electric fiddle joined, a dark figure seated in back who hadn’t moved until just now. The temperature dropped below freezing, and the molecules of the air stopped dancing. Frozen smoke in the fiddle music. It was the girl Morley saw, hair mowed straight across, tall ears burdened with a winking ghetto of silver rings and crosses. Her lips were dark purple and cast shadows on her teeth. “Excuse me,” he said, straightening his tie, sliding the knot up a little tighter under his chin. His hips swayed smoothly as he dodged the table's edges. He touched her elbow. “Liz,” he murmured, and she looked at him without comprehension. “It’s me. Morley Laffiter.” “Yes,” she said after a moment. He thought she almost smiled. “Eleventh grade, Warren Gamaliel Harding High School, St. Louis, Missouri. Mr. Occam’s Logical Rhetoric class.” “God,” she said. “It’s been centuries. Occam! The man who never shaved! I remember you. What are you doing in New York?” “Oh.” He shrugged. “I work here now.” Electric fiddle reached around them, brought them down together. Alf tapped his forefingers on the table, snaring the beat. Morley and Liz were somewhere else by then. She touched the back of his hand. “You work here?” “Yeah. I sell drugs. No, not them. I mean. I work for a drug company.” “Oh, wow,” she said, and it gave him a pang. “That’s terrific.” She lived at the Barbizon Hotel for Women, wanted to be a model. The purple lipstick, the hair, it was part of the job. She did catalogs. “Leather: coats, skirts, boots. It’s the new look, Neopunk.” It was old times all over again. Morley forgot Alf, swirled away in the smoke. She lived nearby, a loft on Canal. “I bet you’re married,” she said, a little wistfully. “More than once, less than a dozen times,” he answered, and she punched his arm. Finally he took her over. “This is Liz,” he said. “Liz? Of course. Warren Gamaliel Harding A Chicken in Every Pot High School. He died in office.” Alf was morose. The instruments were alone on the small stage. It was break time, the set was between. “You look like a miner, Alf,” she said, shaking his hand and sitting down at the same time. Morley stood nearby, shifting uneasily. He and Alf were friends, sure, but enough was too much sometimes. Alf nodded though, not looking at her. “Sins are deadly,” he said slowly. “Virtues are cardinal. Why is that? Do you listen to the radio?” She picked at something between her teeth with a long maroon nail, right index finger. It was growing late. Alf leaned forward earnestly, a look of passionate intensity pinned in the small furrow between his eyes. “That man sitting over there is an Assistant Prosecutor for the Borough of Manhattan. He suffers from periodic failures of confidence and nerve. At those times he goes into a stall in the men’s room on the eighteenth floor, at the far west end, and counts the white tiles on the floor at his feet. He always counts to the same number, all the tiles visible from where he sits, amounting to six hundred and sixty-six. He sees in the number of the beast a message, and attributes to this the source and cause of his depression. But he is wrong. He’s depressed because he truly is inadequate. You studied Demonology, so you know.” Her eyes grew larger. She was interested in this sly stranger, so intense and bleak. “I had an affair with him once,” she admitted. “What you say is true.” Alf leaned back. “I have no special access to the truth.” The Assistant Prosecutor was standing by the table. “Hello, Liz,” he said. “Long time.” She nodded. “Sure. Long time.” Morley was increasingly uneasy. He felt a series of shocks to his abdomen, the tickle of electric guilt. He was in the presence of a Prosecutor. “Uh, look, Liz. I just wanted...” She looked up at him and patted the empty chair beside her. He sat obediently. She placed her hand with all her lacquered nails on his thigh. The Assistant Prosecutor went away. “Lust is a funny thing,” Alf said, professorial. “It diverts the forebrain from its true destiny, which is a rapt contemplation of the infinite.” “On the other hand,” Liz suggested, “in its satisfaction, lust offers its own rapture, its own access to the infinite.” The smoke in the room had thinned, and overhead lights cast a milky glow on the empty tables. The chairs were stacked upside down. In the distance a man in a white apron polished a glass. The three sat at the small table in the center of the room, waiting. After a time the man in the apron was gone, and the doors were closed. “Time to lock up.” The waiter was dressed in white tie and tails. An opera hat sat rakishly on the side of his head, which sprouted a chaotic spray of white hair beneath the shining silk brim. His nose was very large and crimson, but his eyes were small and mean. “So beat it. Now.” He rapped his ebony cane on the table, a sharp explosion in the milky silence. They went outside. The street was empty. Long shadows were thrown against the brick wall across the street, shadows of deformed human figures trudging painfully along a twisted path. They turned left and walked past the neighboring building. Bricks scattered on the street tripped their feet. The empty windows threw out a faint red light that flickered. Somewhere inside a fire warmed the homeless. The smell of burned cordite wafted along with the odors of garbage and decay. The war was almost over, and the sense of defeat was heavy. Spring seemed very far away. They stepped over a body, one of dozens that littered the streets near the Slough. This one had once belonged to an old woman, but now belonged to no one. She wore surgical stockings, and had once been treated for psoriasis. “Mom!” Liz cried, kneeling beside the body. “Oh, my God.” “Come on, Liz. We’re late.” Morley tugged at her arm. “But this is my mother,” she wailed. “We’ve all lost someone,” Morley reminded her, and reluctantly she went with him. Her loft was an empty space surrounded by fears. The door had seven locks, and as she opened them one by one, each one cried out a different kind of pain. She led Morley and Alf inside. “My cactus collection,” she said, leading them past shelves of small pots. The plants were gray and pale green. The chairs were without form, bags of slick black filled with plastic beads. The three of them sank gratefully into a small grouping around a glass table. On the table were three large books: a 1977 Manhattan Telephone Directory White Pages, a 1956 Manhattan Telephone Directory Yellow Pages, and an oversized set of reproductions of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. Alf began leafing through this while Morley and Liz made gentle love on the pitted wooden floor. Later they had tea while the light outside the window began to bloat. Her windows had lace curtains. The light cast intricate shadows along the floor. Steam rose from their tea. They were three people, alone in a room. Soon it was time to leave. “It’s funny,” Morley said in the taxi. “I thought we could recapture something.” “It’s not funny,” Alf disagreed. “It’s not funny at all.” “No, I suppose not. I suppose it’s not funny.” The taxi driver turned around. “Here we are,” he said, his voice a hoarse croak from a puckered throat. He too was dead. The mine yawned before them, exhaling dank mists and the clanging sounds of metal hitting metal. They began the long descent.
-- Rob Swigartis from Cincinnati but currently lives in California. Swigart earned a B.A. in English at Princeton University, and a PhD in comparative literature at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He has taught English at the university level, worked as a technology journalist and technical writer, and scripted computer games and a television episode. He has also served as a visiting scholar at Stanford University, consultant at the Institute for the Future, and secretary at the Electronic Literature Organization.Previous books and collections of his have been published by Houghton Mifflin, St. Martin’s, AltaMira, Left Coast Press, BooksBNimble, and others. His poetry and short fiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, Antaeus, Atlantic Monthly, Beloit Poetry Journal, Epoch, Fiction, Foothill Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, New England Review, New York Quarterly, Poetry, and Poetry Northwest. His Lisa Emmer series, The Delphi Agenda and Tablet of Destinies, sells briskly on Kindle. His latest book, Mixed Harvest, is a hybrid of fiction and nonfiction stories about the human past, published by Berghahn Books.