It was the fall of 1997 and I was living alone in a small basement flat in what was then an unfashionable corner of Brooklyn. The building was owned by an older Italian couple who knew my family name from a chain of funeral homes my great aunt and uncle had owned in New York during the Fifties which, seeing as most of the neighborhood had gone Polish in the intervening 40 years, they saw as a good sign and took me in at a modestly reduced rate.
I had recently come out of a bad breakup and, as is so often the case, most of my friends had turned out to be in fact her friends. So solitary my life had become that year that when my doorbell rang early one evening in October, I at first could not quite identify the source or meaning of the sound. After a few minutes of intermittent buzzing, I found my way to the hallway and eventually the door. “Sir,” said I, “or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore. But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door, that I scarce was sure I heard you.” Here I opened wide the door.
There a giant black cat in a tall and ridiculous striped hat stood bow legged at my chamber door. “Hurry!”, it said. “Hurry! I’m being chased by the police! Let me hide in your house. I believe I had time to drop my jaw and wrinkle my brow before the Cat boxed my ear with one mighty paw, knocking me out of the way. “Louse!”, he cried, “shut the door!”
I did so just as red strobing lights came screaming down my street. The Cat, in a queer, ambling gate, strolled down the hall towards my apartment.
“Do you have any Vodka?” he asked, opening my freezer.
“No? You scum! Anchovies? Cream?”
“No,” I finally managed to get out, rubbing my red and swollen ear, “no, some bread I think.”
The cat gave me a dirty look. I remembered I don’t even like cats, I’m allergic to them, they’re uppity.
“Hey!”, I said “Hey listen, who do you think you are barging in here and going through my icebox? huh? all with that ridiculous hat on.”
“Hat?” the cat replied “You don’t like my hat? What’s wrong with it?”
“Whoever heard of a cat in a hat? Besides, it’s rude to leave your hat on in a person’s home! Don’t you know that?”
“Well, I don’t see where you get off talking about rude—inviting company over and not even having any refreshments—that’s rude” We glowered at each other.
He took off his hat. “Do you mind if I use your phone?”, he asked.
“Is it a local call?”
“Yes.” 8 numbers, 11 numbers, 15, 16, 17 numbers later the Cat begins speaking Italian into my phone.
“Hey!”, I yelled, “Hey!”
“You like that phrase, I notice,” the cat said, hanging up the phone with a flourish.
“Can I use your sandbox?” The Cat stalked into my bathroom sniffing then locked the door.
I sat down on my bed and wrinkled my brow.
My face would maintain this expression for a long time. A short time later the doorbell rang again. “Will you get that?” a muffled voice rang from the bathroom.
“Will you answer the door? I’m expecting some people!”
I got up from my bed and walked to the kitchen. When I opened my apartment door, there standing already in the hallway was a skinny, strangely dressed, smiling man holding a battered library card. “Hello.,” he said, smiling in a way that managed to show all of his teeth at once.
“Marcello?” the Cat yelled again from the bathroom. “Marcello? Is that you?”
“Yes, Cat,” the Smiling Man called, stepping around me.
“Did you bring the vodka?”
The Smiling Man produced a bottle of red wine and looked at me.
“My name is Jack,” he said. “Do you have a bottle opener?”
“Marcello,” I said
“Marcello,” I said again, putting the accent on the first syllable this time.
“I’m sorry,” the Smiling Man said, smiling a little less. “I’m sorry, but I don’t speak Italian. Do you have a bottle opener or not?”
“Why did you tell me your name is Jack?”
“Then why did the Cat call you Marcello?”
“Why is there a cat in your bathroom? Stop avoiding the question! Where’s the bottle opener?”
“Why would someone walk into my house and lie to me for no reason?”
“You’re being paranoid. You don’t have a bottle opener, do you?”
The Cat came out of the bathroom, licking one paw.
“This wouldn’t have happened if you’d brought vodka like I told you.”
When I got back from the store with a bottle opener, my apartment was full of people. My life with The World/Inferno Friendship Society had begun.
God they pissed me off. Pushing through the kitchen, I bumped into at least 30 people I’d never seen before. The Giant Cat was no where to be found, but the Smiling Man was leaning against the wall next to my stereo, speaking to a girl.
“Hey Listen,” I said working through the crowd toward him. “Listen—Jack or Marcello—or whoever you are.”
“I prefer just to be known as ‘That One Special Guy,’ actually, but whatever you can remember is cool. Great party, by the way.”
“This isn’t my party! I don’t even know these people!”
“You don’t? Well this one is Rio,” The Smiling Man gestured toward the woman he was speaking to. “Rio, this is the guy who’s party this is.”
“I told you.”
“Oh yes,” the woman interrupted, “it is a great party really, but do you have any other wine? This bottle really isn’t very good.”
“She’s right,” the Smiling Man agreed, emptying his glass, “and your CDs … really. What? Do you review records for a living or something? Terrible. I wonder if Lucky has his walkman.”
“But hey! Listen, ” I began.
The girl Rio put a hand on my shoulder.
“Is there,” she said, “anymore wine or not?”
“No! I didn’t even buy that! He’d …”
That one special guy said, “oh man, oh man! This won’t do. We’ll have to get some more.”
He shook his head as if he had been deeply hurt. The girl Rio wandered through the thickening crowd.
“So,” the Smiling Man said, “you got any money?”
I should have left them in my apartment and moved back to New Jersey.
The Smiling Man very reasonably convinced me to give him ten dollars which he then gave to another man to whom he introduced me as Peter Lorre, which is not my name.
“Lorre here,” he said to the new comer. “Would like you to make sure that this money gets spent on wine. I know I can trust you on this, Ben.”
Then the Smiling Man, still smiling, gave me a very hostile and suspicious look.
“Don’t try anything funny, Lorre,” he said, (Lori is not my name.) “Ben doesn’t fuck around.” And he shooed us out the door.
Ben was a tall and swarthy man in a tattered tailored suit. He asked me how I knew Favorite and when I said I didn’t know anyone named Favorite he snorted.
“You, though” I said as we walked to the Liquor store, “you look very familiar.”
“I have a twin,” he said shortly.
“Twin. I have an identical twin brother. Maybe you know him—he’s on TV sometimes.”
“I don’t know why you people think it’s so funny to lies all the time, after taking over peopleís modest apartments.”
“I’m not lying and I’ve never been in your apartment in my life!”, Ben yelled back.
“Yes you were! That’s my apartment we just came from.”
“You’re the jerk who threw a party without any alcohol? What’s wrong with you? I hope my brother doesn’t know you.”
Arriving at the liquor store, I thought it prudent to wait outside. Ben stomped in, muttering about Germans (I’m not German). After a few minutes, Ben stuck his head out the door.
“You got any more money?”
“Why?”, I responded.
“Need more money for the wine.”
“You have a credit card?”
“Why would I give you my credit card? I don’t even want a party at my house! I don’t even know you, or if I do you won’t admit it. I don’t want all those people at my house!”
"My name’s not Lori!”
“Listen! I’m not fucking around! Who’s side are you on exactly? Huh, Peter?
"He had me there. I wasn’t on anybody’s side. I gave him my credit card.
"My name’s not Peter.”
When we got back to my building music was coming from both the second and third story apartments, people I’d diligently never spoken to were hanging out the windows and lounging on the stoop. My landlady walked up to me as Ben fought his way down the hallway with his burden of bottles.
“Your friend the Cat is quite a charmer,” she said. “Did you know he spoke Italian? He lived in Naples after the war!”
“No Jeanetta,” I replied in high-school Italian, “I didn’t. Where is the Cat now?”
“He’s upstairs talking to John!”, my landlady yelled (she always yelled).
“Where’d that boy go with the wine?”
I pointed Jeanetta towards Ben and climbed the stair to look for that damn mischievous Cat. I found him in my landlady’s apartment, but not with John. The Cat was sitting on the couch whispering into the ear of a young girl who looked to be intently listening to his every word, though that might have just been the way she looked. I coughed. The cat and girl jumped.
“You!”, The Cat yelled. “Semra and I were just talking about law school. You didn’t see anything. What do you want?”
“I,” I said, “suspect you are a bloodless ghoul come here to haunt and terrorize me. If this is true, I must ask you to leave my home forever and take away this mess you’ve brought with you.”
“Why I never, the Cat said, rising and putting on its tall hat. "You little shit! Why I oughta …”
It is at this point I experienced my first instance of what I believe is called ‘missing time.’
Regaining consciousness was like slowly digging up through thick wet sand, but unpleasant. I opened up my eyes to what appeared to be my apartment, but something was terribly awry. First off, there was a cat on my chest – a regular-sized one, which was at least a bit of a relief. And second, someone had redecorated the room entirely in gold lame. I pushed the cat off me and sat up to an angry voice.
“Hey!”, it said, “easy with Lucky!”
I looked around. Sitting on a kitchen chair was a tall, lanky man with a crazy explosion of Buckwheatesque hair playing an unplugged electric guitar. My head hurt.
“Easy with Lucky, I said.”
“Who are you and what are you doing in my apartment?” “I’m Lucky and this isn’t your apartment anymore.”
“Do you always refer to yourself in the third person?”
“Why did you say 'easy with Lucky’ before?”
“The cat, you pushed my cat.”
“The cat’s name is Lucky?”
“And your name is Lucky?”
We looked at each other. My head was killing me as I glanced around. None of my stuff was here though it was clearly my apartment, I also seemed to be dressed in a suit.
“What do you mean I don’t live here anymore?, I asked.
"You don’t,” Lucky the person replied, standing up. He was wearing only a bunch of tattoos and boxer shorts festooned with smiley faces. “You moved in with The Cat about 2 weeks ago and I took over the lease. I’m Italian, so your landlady liked me. She’s nice.”
“I moved in with the cat?”
“So I live here?”
“ No, with the cat”
“So where does Lucky the cat live?”
“Lucky? Oh he lives here with me.”
“So we all live here together, you, me, and Lucky the cat?”
“Nooo, I live alone, you live with that giant cat. What’s wrong with you?”
“I live with The Giant Cat?”
“Why am I here?”
Lucky the person walked back into the bedroom.
“I don’t know why, but would you mind leaving? I don’t like company. I’ll see you tonight.”
“What? Tonight? Where do I live? Where’s the giant cat?”
“I don’t know. Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t like that cat—its too bitchy. He’s a friend of Pete’s.”
“You know, Pete, skinny guy, smiles all the time.”
“I thought that was your name.”
“Oh. Would you mind leaving now?”
“Listen! I want to know where my things are! I want to know where I live!”
At this point, Lucky (the person) grabbed me by the arm and threw me out of my apartment. Before he did, he stuffed a telephone number in my hand. “Call Pete,” he said, and slammed the door.
It was late morning on my old street, chilly. I noticed the leaves were starting to change colors. I was wearing some shiny gun metal suit which was too tight in the seat. In my breast pocket I found a few bucks, so I went over to a greasy spoon and had some eggs. Why did that kid and his cat have the same name? Why did I just get kicked out of my apartment? Where are all my things? I tried the phone number Lucky the person had given, but it was some museum so I hung up. I must admit I was at the end of my rope. I didn’t know what the hell had happened to my life; I was walking around in a confused daze. Finally, I just sat down on the curb, put my head in my hands, and cried.
And the rain hammered down. I got up off the curb and kicked a cat. I began to consider a plan to eliminate all cats from the city. Cats, I decided, were responsible for my present predicament. Cats and bloodless ghouls. As I was thinking this, an anemic teen-aged boy in a Misfits T-shirt was crossing the street. I chased him, yelling for a block or two, then stood panting when he hopped on a bus—damn ghouls. Using our public transportation. Just then a yellow cab pulled up and a small blonde girl climbed out, carrying an awkwardly-shaped suitcase.
“OK, Grosse Katze!”, she said, waving into the cab. “Bis heute Abend!”
Just before she slammed the door, I saw that, still in the cab, sat The Giant Cat.
“Giant Cat!”, I yelled. “Giant Cat! Give me back my life! I’ll find you cat! I’ll call the police, you awful fascist crap cat! I’ll get you!”
I banged on the window of the cab as it pulled away, but the cat just smiled when it looked at me and either made an obscene gesture or had an itch, it was hard to say. I cursed. The blond girl from the cab walked up to me, pointing.
“You know,” she said sharply, “I think it’s really fucked up that you hate the Cat just 'cause he’s German.”
“That Cat,” I said, “beat me up and got me kicked out of my apartment! That Cat is a menace.
"Oh, that was weeks ago!”, the girl said. “Didn’t he take you in after that? It’s not his fault that he’s German; he wasn’t even alive during the war!” The girl stomped one of her feet.
“Look you,” I said, “I don’t care if he’s German or not—he’s a giant cat! He’s a Giant cat and I suspect he’s aligned with bloodless ghouls!”
“Oh,” the girl said, bobbing her head, “oh, I see. First it’s Germans, then it’s bloodless ghouls! Where does it stop Lorre? Where does it stop!”
“My name’s not Lori!”
“Just forget it,” she said, turning away. “Just forget it! Maybe I’ll see you tonight and maybe I won’t!”
A bunch of ghouls had gotten off a bus to leer at me. I scowled at them. “What’s tonight?”, I yelled after her. “What are you talking about?”
She was already turning the corner. “It’s Halloween!”, she called over her shoulder. “It’s Halloween!”
The rain redoubled its efforts, obscuring the blonde girl and enveloping the ghouls. “Halloween? But that’s weeks away.”
Part II: The Devil’s Ball needs a band
There are those who believe that Halloween is not just a date on the calendar but a kind of randomly occurring carnival of the soul. A time and a place where normal laws are suspended and anything can happen. Someone once described these phenomena as Fortune’s Wheel stopping or the space between the swinging of some cosmic pendulum. If you are familiar with the author Hakim Bey’s awkwardly titled “Temporary Autonomous Zone,” I’m pretty sure that’s what he was getting at. When the angry young Deutschophile stormed off that rainy afternoon, I took her parting statement, “It’s Halloween!”, to be her way of telling me that I had somehow become involved with a gang of so-called 'Chaos Engineers.’ The word 'Chaos’ is ancient Greek for unformed matter; it’s where we get the modern word 'gas. Chaos Engineers then are individuals who dedicate themselves to manipulating situations, and yes, people like so much unformed matter to create the kind of conditions where a 'Halloween’ can occur.
That’s what I thought, but it turned out I was totally off base with all that. It literally was Halloween Day, and the small blonde girl was just pissed off and not trying to communicate anything other than a certain fondness for an alien culture you sometimes find in people who were unhappy with their surroundings during their formative years. At the time, though, I was pretty rudderless, and it was easier to interpret the random acts of hostility I was experiencing as some sort of coded message than it was to acknowledge that the last time I remembered being awake was almost a month ago. It just goes to show the lengths the mind will go to get itself around a situation for which there really is no explanation. Go figure.
But like I said, at the time I thought I was onto something and became determined to get to the bottom of it.
I crossed the street and walked up to where the bloodless ghouls who had quit the bus were still cackling noisily. They tried to pull themselves together as I approached. “Hey!”, I yelled, “Hey Ghouls! What are you laughing at? Why don’t you get out of here? Huh?”
The ghouls could barely contain themselves. They made such an effort not to laugh that I began to appreciate it. There were three of them; two were small, vaguely feminine, and difficult to tell apart. The third—much taller, male, and somehow familiar. He spoke, “Which question would you like us to answer first, Lorre? The former or the latter?”
I’ve always hated that turn of phrase. I always have to think about what it means. Stupid ghouls. “My name’s not Lori, damnit!”, I yelled.
The two girl ghouls cracked up, slapping their knees and grabbing their guts like they’d never heard anything so funny. The tall one turned his head and held just a tight smile with visible effort. Just then the rain started to taper off and the ghouls squinted up at the sun, breaking through the clouds. With hisses they crouched low, eyes darting about like a trio of Renfields. The tall one spoke again. “You’re acting like an asshole, Pete. Gotta’ run, see you tonight.”
With that the ghouls dove down a sewer drain, slight steam rising from their backs as they went. This to me seemed proper and I attached no special significance to it. Hmmmmm …
A few drunken Poles puttered around, colliding into poles, which I started kicking. Violence feels good, any boxer will tell you. Getting punched feels like getting fucked. Either will do for a drunk—ask one if you’re interested. Ghouls think I’m an asshole? Well, that hurts. Stupid ghouls, always being dead, living in sewers. Ought to be a law. I can’t even walk down the street with a beer, yet ghouls are allowed to wander unmolested through our dreams and latrines.
I was having some troubles. It had been such a long time since I had lost my mind like this, that it made me uncomfortable. I felt powerless, awkward, like some kind of aging movie-star teenager. Unpleasant. Soon I was pounding my head against a lamppost while kicking a moped some one had chained to it. I don’t like to do things half way, so I’m not when this Mod kid runs up and gets all in my face.
“You kicking my bike? What the fuck is wrong with you!?!?”
This was such a complicated and pertinent question that I had to think about it for a moment, which I admit, put me at a disadvantage. He brushed me aside.
“Christ, Lorre,” he said, pulling some keys out of his jeans. “You’re acting like such and asshole lately!”
I stared at him. He didn’t look bloodless; he was kind of ruddy actually. Blue eyed and dirty-Blond, he was all done up with Doc’s and a parka which had the slogan “Texas Go Home” stenciled on it. He busied himself with the moped. After a while he looked up at me while still wiping rainwater from various points of his bike. “And you look like shit, too,” he said, “did you sleep in that suit? You gotta pull yourself together, man. We ain’t on tour here. We have serious work to do tonight if the plan is going to work.” He stood and opened the seat of the moped and pulled out a pair of helmets. I stared at him.
“Plan?”, I said.
His head shot up. “Don’t disparage the plan, Lorre! I know you don’t like the cat, but I think he knows what he’s doing this time. It’s certainly gotten more kids to the shows anyway.” He threw one of the helmets at me, I caught it.
He sighed, 'I know you don’t like him. Pete, we all appreciate how you’ve worked together despite your personal feelings, but you got to get over that shit, you know? Theres always going to be some people you get along with better than others.“ He looked at me.
I continued to stare.
He threw his arms up and stepped toward me. "I’m serious!”, Paul Weller yelled. “Christ! You think we’re fucking around here? People are counting on you! You ever stop to think about that while youre sitting around feeling sorry for yourself?!”
He had a point: I did feel sorry for myself, but he was totally discounting my whole I-don’t-know-what-the-hell-is-going-on factor. I spoke carefully. “If I feel sorry for myself it’s because I …”
“Don’t want to be involved in something bigger than yourself!”, Texas interrupted. “You should give it up, Lorre! You should conquer this urge of yours to control. It can only lead to damage and destruction! It can only lead to decay! There is no 'i’ in 'troupe,’ Lorre! There’s no 'I,’ in 'troupe’!
I think I was about to cry. I am just small, I don’t know what’s going on. I wanted to go home but there was a giant man who named things after himself living there now. "I don’t want to control anything…” I began.
“Yeah, you do. Yeah, you do,” the kid interrupted again, jabbing a finger at my sternum. “You’re prejudiced against bloodless ghouls, and you don’t want to take your cues from a giant talking cat. I mean, fucking grow up, Lorre! Fucking grow up!”
This was too much! I closed my eyes and started to say, “Look, I don’t think-”
ìNo you don’t!“, Texas snapped, kick-starting the moped. "Now get on! We’ve got to get to New Brunswick before dusk.”
New Brunswick, New Jersey. Yes, my ancestral homeland. I would be able to think there. I ’d be able to get away from these lunatics. Its not like I had an apartment in Brooklyn anymore … why not take a free ride home?
I got on the back of the bike.
The sun was out and there might have been a rainbow in the sky as Quadrophrenia and I crossed the Williamsburg Bridge over to Manhattan. Two on a scooter doesn’t do much for conversation, which was fine as I didn’t feel I needed another earful about all the huge moral shortcomings I seemed to have developed before I woke up this morning.
We skittered off the bridge and onto Delancey Street, causing Texas to let out a whoop, and my jaw to clench. As we went West, past cars and trucks spraying water at us from the still wet pavement, I passed into a reverie. I was still having a lot of trouble with the whole 'Missing Time’ thing. It loomed large in my psyche, fragmenting my concentration, and I suspected ruining my complexion.
I marveled at all the great new enemies I’d managed to make. I wondered if I’d met any people who actually liked me. Maybe, I thought, maybe I’m a real jerk while I’m unconscious. If that were the case, how could I work on that? Could I try to be more considerate while passed out? Could I practice somehow?
I wondered if there was a twelve-step program for this sort of thing. I knew the first step would be admitting I had a problem and that at some point every day I went without being a jerk while unconscious would be a victory. But I also seemed to remember this being somewhere towards the end of the twelve steps, and really, I wasn’t even so sure I wanted to admit I had a problem in the first place. I mean, maybe I’m fine while unconscious and it was this bizarre cast of characters who were jerks. It certainly seemed possible, even likely! They obviously had no problem yelling at a person, bullying him, getting all up in his face!
Damn it! I bet I’m perfectly decent while unconscious! Perfectly decent but fallen in with a bad crowd! What the fuck? I head-butted the Texan in front of me and we swerved onto the sidewalk.
“Woo Hoo!”, Texas yelled. We careened through the vendors that line Canal Street, sending Chinese curses and cheap electronics flying about behind us. “Woo Hoo!”, Yelled Texas, “Woo Hoo! Out of the road! Beat it!”
Still screaming, he popped the curb toward the entrance of The Holland Tunnel. A strange thrill filled me then and I forgot what I had been angry about.
The ghosts that live along the banks of The Hudson howled at us as we kicked our heels under the River. Their brothers on the Jersey side got scared away by the police who pulled us over as we arrived, 'cause scooters aren’t allowed in the tunnel. You’re also not allowed to ride two on a scooter with non-street-reg. helmets, but the police were quickly distracted from all these details by a U-Haul trailer roaring out of the tunnel and side swiping their cruiser. The troopers dove to the ground as the U-Haul then stopped, backed up, and hit the front of their car. Texas and I looked on.
“Holy shit!”, one of the cops yelled.
“Yeah!”, I agreed.
He gave me a dirty look. He was a kid, maybe twenty. This was embarrassing for both of us.
“Fuck!, he said as he jumped into his battered car and took off after the U-Haul, which I am sure you will have by this time guessed was being driven by a goddamn giant talking cat.
Texas did a little dance with his shoulders. "You can’t tell me that wasn’t totally cool!”
I couldn’t. This annoyed me.
It also annoyed me that in the cab of that U-Haul with that damn cat there had been three attractive young women all throwing their arms around, enjoying Mr. Cat’s Wild Ride.
Girls like cats; this has always been my experience.
People tell me I talk about the Giant Cat too much. When we are auditioning new people for the band, Ben asks me not to bring it up, but I think they should know what they are in for. I mean, lying by omission is still lying, and that’s something I only do for fun, you know? “What do you mean?”, the new kid will ask. “Someone in the bands name is 'Giant Cat’?”
“Yes!”, Ben interjects, trying to push me aside. “Yes, we all have little nicknames ha, ha. How long have you been playing?”
I am quick, though—slippery. “No,” I say, stepping around our husky drummer. “No, he’s not in the band. He just hangs around and orders us about mostly. You have to be careful or he will box you in the ear!”
At this point the new kid usually starts looking around the room for some moral support. “You mean this cat is a fan of yours or something?”
“Yes! Yes! We have many fans! We are very popular! You read music, right?”
Ben always trys to dominate the conversation, but I have an engaging manner and people like to talk to me. “No,” I say, “I never got the impression he likes the music much. He mostly heckles us at shows, tries to break into liquor closets while we’re playing … right Lucky?”
What will the new kid do next? He or She will either crack a smile and sign on or back slowly away from us toward the door, leaving whatever equipment or personal effects they may have brought behind. We’ve gotten quite a few amplifiers this way. Happily, we’ve gained many more members. Who’s afraid of a giant cat, anyway? I don’t know who he thinks he is.
Maybe they’re right—maybe I talk about it too much.
The U-Haul tore off toward the NJ Turnpike state police in close pursuit.
“We following them?”, I ask the Texan.
“Looks like they have enough people following them, Lorre. We’ll take Rt. 1/9.”
“Bumpy, scenic. Why are we going to New Brunswick?”
“You really don’t pay attention at rehearsal, do you? I think you drink too much.”
“I don’t think I drink half enough. What’s in New Brunswick?”
“17 Jones Street! We’re going to 17 Jones Street! Gonna burn it down! Sound familiar?”
It did sound vaguely familiar, I realized with something akin to horror. “Burn down 17 Jones? Why?”
Texas threw both his hands out in front of him like he was describing the size of some wonderful fish. “Look,” he said, “Save your 'I don’t believe in the Great Pumpkin’ speech for the trial, you know damn well why 17 Jones is going to burn and burn good!”
I put my palms up as if to take the wonderful fish and shrugged helplessly, “Za?”
Texas’s shoulders slumped and his eyelids pursed at me. “It’s Halloween, the night of the devil’s ball. The devil’s ball will be held wherever The Great Pumpkin rises this year. The Devil’s Ball needs a band. We want to be that band. To find out where The Great Pumpkin will rise this year, where the most sincere pumpkin patch will be, we need to go to where He rose last year. We need to go to where he rose last year and at dusk light a huge bonfire. We need to stare into the flames, the flames will reveal where The Pumpkin will be, The flames will show us the way. Last year The Great Pumpkin rose at 17 Jones St. in New Brunswick, NJ. We need to go there now and light it up then get to this year’s pumpkin patch by midnight, ready to play. Remember? Alright?”
Oh my sweet pumpkin king, I did remember. I remembered the whole thing. The Cat, the band, the last year of speedy anarchy. The camaraderie, the unity, the busting out of clubs like the Hey Kool-aid commercial looking good and tasting great. I hadn’t lost a couple weeks; I had lost more than a year. It had been last October the Cat had burst into my apartment, getting me kicked out and ruining John and Jeanetta’s years of happy marriage, and yes! Since then, I’d been living with the Cat and a gang full of Texans in some kind of PBS art space, rehearsing day in and day out with a giant cadre of musicians. Practicing more than eating or working because The Devil’s Ball needs a band and we want to be that band. We had begun to attract bloodless ghouls from the sewers, which some of us took to be a good sign but I hated them 'cause one of the stole my girlfriend. Stupid with broken heartedness I became even more reckless than what could be considered attractive – drinking, cursing, mocking my friends, disparaging the plan, questioning the existence of the Pumpkin. I remembered, I remembered it all: taking some horse tranquilizers with Lucky after rehearsal, the drugs not working after a while so taking twice as many more then realizing too late that perhaps that wasn’t the wisest idea, and then being gone. And then being gone, and waking up in Lucky’s apartment, cat on my chest, and not a memory to my name. I looked at the Texan.
“But if we just need to light a bonfire, why burn down the house?”
Dan Bailey smiled. “'Cause that guy Steve who lives there is a real jerk.”
I remembered that, too. I am so down with this band.
Part III: We are the plan and the plan is good
Hello everyone. My name is Rudy. I never knew what I was in for. I’m a trained musician, for Christ’s sake, and not fucking around! I could be out making money and not sitting in some chicken joint in a B-city slum in a C-grade state, famous mostly for the people who moved away from it: New Brunswick, New Jersey.
If you were to look at me, you wouldn’t notice. You might note the saxophone case if you were a musician yourself, but otherwise, I blend: youngish, comfortable—in short not the kind of guy you expect to be in a cult. But I am. Oh they don’t call it a cult but if you take a step back from it, it’s pretty easy to see. I was describing to my mother in fact when it struck me.
“Yeah,” I was saying to mom, “I’m playing with these kids, a whole gang of them, and we travel a lot, and no, there’s no money. In fact, I have to pay money, and it makes me miss work and we rehearse so often that I hardly ever see any of my other friends and they’ve given me a new name…”
Every mother’s worst nightmare: My son’s moved to New York and joined a fringe group. Mom is quick, too. She’s like, “You say you don’t see your other friends so much Peter? Have any of your other habits changed since you joined this band?”
“Its Rudie now, mom.” I said, “My habits? I guess so, I’m drinking a lot more than I used to and we don’t like being called a band, by the way. Do you want a beer, Mom?”
“No, dear. It’s not a band, you say? You’re dressing differently now as well, I notice.”
“Yeah, we all wear suits. I don’t know why. Did you say 'dear’ or 'beer,’ Mom?’
Mom wanted me to stay in CT for a few days after that, but I had rehearsal and had to leave. Thinking over the conversation on the train back to town after the police explained to Mom that they couldnt arrest me for not listening to her, I realized she was right! I’m part of a cult! Me! Pete Hess! Fallen in with a cult! This is great! I’m in a dangerous, mind-controlling, city-dwelling, parent-scaring fertility cult masquerading as a rock band! This is so cool! Just think how that’ll look on the resume! Shit!
I was walking on clouds that day, I tell you. But that was a couple of months ago, and as Halloween approached, the band’s work load doubled, which is fine if your talking about playing gigs, but I’m not. There’s been a lot of skulking around, phone call making, ritual dancing. It still actually sounds pretty glamorous, now that I hear myself saying it. But why, for Christs sake, am I sitting in a greasy chicken joint in urban nowhere on Halloween? The biggest night of the year?
I’m here to burn down a house.
One thing I like about The Inferno is the amount of metaphors we throw around. People outside the collective never know what we’re talking about. Literal giant cat or figurative? Is the singer actually Jewish? Flip who now? Unfortunately, sorry mom, this is one of the rare cases where we are being entirely literal. I will not be 'burning down the house’ with my masterful saxophany, not tonight, but with lighter fluid and matches.
And why? Why is The World/Inferno Friendship Society incinerating an innocuous-looking-two-family dwelling at 17 Jones St. in New Brunswick, New Jersey, tonight?
To watch it burn.
OK, I’m being a little flip (who now?), because I don’t like my assignment tonight. We’re not really burning the place just to see it burn. Exactly … we’re doing it to look into the flames. There’s a difference.
Not that I’ll look into them—I won’t even be there. I have to sit here until 5:49 tonight—just dusk—and place a phone call to the upper dwelling of 17 Jones St. to tell them to get the hell out. The kids on the ground floor don’t need to be warned; they’re in on it. They’ve known about it for months … they come to all the shows. Good kids.
How did I get the chump job? Did we draw straws? Vote? No, the Cat just waved his paw at me, said, “You, fatty, make the phone call!”
Nobody really likes that cat, except the girls. The girls always stick up for him. Stupid cat.
Well, the sun is almost down. Excuse me while I make this phone call.
“Hello, Steve? Hi, Rudy Hess, World/Inferno Friendship Society. Remember I stole some propane gas from you about a year ago? Exactly a year ago, that’s right! Yes, from the Bar-B-Que! Yeah, uh-huh. Listen, listen Steve—get out of the house, it’s about to catch on fire! Yes, I’m serious. Oh, yes. Oh, heavens yes! No, you don’t have time to grab anything, no. What’s that? I don’t know, but you should leave, O.K.? No, probably not, Steve, no. O.k.? Bye.”
Well that was fun. Perhaps I will have some chicken.
A change of venue.
Hello. Yula, me. I play bass in The Inferno. I am friends with the Giant Cat. We have no Giant Cats in Israel so I was very interested to meet him. His fur is shiny and black. Hey! The Giant Cat is a liar; he lies all the time. When he said we had to go to NJ to burn down a house I was very interested but didn’t think we would really go.
The Giant Cat is a bad driver. He has no thumbs. I don’t discriminate against him because of the thumbs but his driving, terrible. But he drives the van, and he backs it into a police car bothering Ban Dailey and the Police chase us and it is unbelievable and the equipment is banging around in the back where Rudy and Benjy, Lucky and Terricloth are and I’m worrying about my bass and Maura is next to me saying “oh, blah blah blah,” something in stupid German she speaks to the Cat. And Cat says, “Shaddup, Shaddup,” like he is trying to speak Hebrew—my ancient tongue, Terricloth calls it. And Semra is laughing and poking Maura in the ribs going, “Maurie!, Maurie!”, and we drive through NJ and don’t get caught. “Because Giant Cats never get caught!”, The Giant Cat yells.
“And always lie,” I say.
“And always lie,” he says.
We all smile at the Giant Cat.
He dances in his seat and sings a song about never getting caught.
I fall asleep against the window.
When the truck stops, I wake. We are on a dirty street in a small city. Giant Cat bounces around the truck, opens the back and calls Rudy a fatty. Rudie is not a fatty. Giant Cat can be mean. Rudie carries his saxophone case to a corner store and sits in the window next to a payphone. We drive down the street, Giant Cat squinting at street signs.
Semra says “Oh, wine! Must get wine!”, and we stop at a liquor store. Inferno drinks a lot.
Giant Cat is still boogying behind the steering wheel, singing to himself. “Burn, burn—gonna burn a house, burn a burn-burn…” and Maura says “Ohhhh,” again because she is worried.
“We burn, yeah?’ I say
"Oh yeah,” Giant Cat says, doing a small hand dance with his hand paws.
“Do we have to?”, Maura asks.
“Oh heavens yes,” Giant Cat replies.
Semra gets back in beside me with a brown paper bag full of wine bottles. “Liquors,” she says.
We drive off. The houses get smaller and further apart, more grass, more trees. We drive slower.
“Jones Street!”, Giant Cat yells.
“Yeah!”, Semra says
“Nooo, Maura says.
"Oh yes,” replies the Giant Cat.
We turn the corner and see a large crowd down the street. The crowd is all wearing costumes and makeup over punk rock clothing. We pull up and the crowd moves toward us. I wave, Hello, Hi. I see many people I know from World/Inferno shows. The truck stops and I get out.
“Where are you guys playing? In that house?”, a boy asks me.
“No, not playing here, just burning house,” I answer.
“Cool,” the boy says.
Giant Cat opens the back of the truck again and Terricloth’s smile jumps out with a suit and a megaphone. Behind him Lucky and Benjy climb out from around our musical equipment that is all fallen over inside the truck.
“Whew,” says Benjy
“Benjeee,” I say.
“That was a bumpy ride,” he says.
“Shaddup, shaddup,” Giant Cat says, moving his paws threateningly at Benjy. “Always complaining, scum!”
“Which one we gonna burn?”, Lucky asks.
Terricloth jumps up on a parked car. “People!”, he yells through his megaphone.
There are 50 or 60 people in the street. They have candy and beer in bags. “Yaa!”, someone yells, other cars pull up.
“It is Halloween!”, Terricloth yells.
The people in the street start screaming and throwing candy; people from houses around us start to come outside. “People!”, Terricloth yells again, “TRICK OR TREAT!”
“Treat! Treat!”, I yell back.
“No, no, no,” Giant Cat sneers at me, “Trick, trick, we’re here for the trick. The treats later.”
I want my treat now, but I don’t say anything. He is a good cat.
“There are,” Terricloth yells at the crowd, “too many bungalows being built for my liking!”
More people come walking up the street. “This is Great!”, Benjy says.
“Where are we playing anyway?” Lucky asks.
“We don’t know yet. That’s why we’re here, remember?”
“Naw, I wasn’t paying attention,” Lucky says, nodding.
“Never paying attention,” The Giant Cat mumbles, throwing things out of the back of the truck. “How do I get anything done with nobody paying attention?” A drum flies out of the truck.
“Hey! My drum!”, Benjy yells.
“Shaddup! Shaddup!”, the Cat yells back, flicking his tail around. I wish I had a tail.
Just then Pearly drives up in his green car. Pearlys a new guy, piano player. “Whoa,” he says, “Wow, hey, whats going on?” he cracks open the window of his car. “Are we really going to burn down that house? I mean, wow thats intense. Are we?” Inside his green car are our friends Jerry and Star and Luckys sister Amy. Amy smiles widely and throws her arm out of her window waving. “Hi Lucky!”, she yells. “Hi!”
Lucky smiles and nods.
“Ah ha!” The Cat bounces back out of the truck, holding a large yellow container of lighter fluid with both his paws because he has no thumbs, and would drop it otherwise. He looks at Ben and says “AH!”, then at Lucky and says “HA!”, and runs toward Terricloth on the car.
“Im sick of that cat, man,” Lucky says.
I look at him and smile, nodding my head, ëno.
“I like him too, Lucky!”, his sister yells.
“Oh, yes,” Star agrees.
Jerry shrugs his shoulders.
“Its weird the way you girls like that cat,” Lucky says, squinting his eyes in suspicion.
“Hatul, hatul, anak hatul haviv al kol habaanoc,” I sing, “haviv al kol habaanoc!”
Lucky smiles with just his top teeth, eyes following a girl walking by. “Hey,” the girl says, “Whats that kid in the cat outfit doing over there?”
“Huh?”, says Lucky.
I look over; the house is beginning to burn!
“Oh man,” Pearly says, getting out of his car. “My Dad ritually burnt a house down once to find out where the Devils Ball was going to be that year.”
“Burn the bungalows, burn the bungalows, burn the bungalows, burn!”, Terricloth has started the crowd chanting, “Burn!”
17 Jones Street is really starting to go up. The jocks from the second floor are running around trying to find out whos responsible, but the crowd has grown to about 150 people and everybody is laughing and ignoring them. One jock comes up to me, “Hey! Freak! Ive seen you around; you live here, whos burning my house? What the fuck?”
“Suck a dog dick!”, I reply. “Fuck a cat baby! Goo your pants!”
My name is Ryan; Im what youd call a Circus Punk. “Pierce your scrotum, scrotum!”
Just then The Giant Cat comes over and boxes the jock in the ear from behind. “Ah Ha!”, the cat yells, ìgot your propane, sucker! Werent you warned by telephone? Get out of here!“
The jock reels, holding one side of his head. The cat trips him.
That kids house is on fire, man.
"People!”, Terricloth yells from his pulpit of a parked car, “Now is the time! Now we must do what we came here to do!
Go to the flames, my friends! Go to the flames, and look into them!”
The crowd cheers and rushes to the burning home, knocking over the jock Steve who has just regained his footing after being tripped by the Cat.
“Go!”, Cloth yells, “Go!”
At the front of the crowd are the rest of The Inferno, soon joined by Dan Bailey and Lorre on Baileys Scooter, who now lead the pack. Someone has thrown fireworks into the burning house and they now shoot off in different colorful directions.
“The Devils Ball!”, Terricloth yells. “Look into the flames and see where it will be! The Devils Ball is tonight!”
He blows a ball of flame from the back of the crowd and looking into it I see that there, too, an image has started to form. Looking back towards the house now engulfed, I see the same image getting clearer and clearer—two stories high.
In the flames I see a small street, an alley almost, flanked on one side by a large uniformly battleship Grey building with gated shop windows open to the night. The interior is stark-white lit like an art gallery.
“Its The Good/Bad!” I hear someone say. Its Benjy. “The Good/Bad? We drove all the way out to New Jersey to burn a building just to find out were playing tonight in our rehearsal space?”
The crowd has gotten silent, though the house roars on with the Brooklyn scene swaying gently within the flames. “Oh right,” The Cat says. “Oh yeah, I think I knew that, that makes sense.”
“You Idiot!”, Ben yells. “We didnt even have to move our equipment! I could still be asleep! Why didnt you tell anybody?!”
Terricloth starts laughing through his megaphone. “Alright! Ok everybody! Back to Brooklyn! Load up the cars! Start the convoy! Get me a beer!”
The crowd starts to move away from the burning house and the image fades as less people look at it. The Giant Cat is in a rarely conciliatory state. “Well,” he says, tail between his bowed legs, “I knew everybody wanted to burn Steves house down, and I didnt know for sure the ball would be in Brooklyn, and look at all the fun the kids are having. I mean, if you want to be mad at me for making people happy, I guess you can. But thats certainly no way to be—I mean, its pretty selfish, dont you think? I mean, really.”
Benjy is unmoved, but the rest of the band and crowd is. I climb with The Inferno into the back of the U-haul where we sing Misfits songs all the way back to Brooklyn.
PART 4: IT WAS JUST THE BEST PARTY.
“Hello everyone, and welcome to the devil’s ball! Here the Damned Souls of All History gather for one night to mix, mingle, network and bemoan their eternal fate! Why, lookie there, it’s the 37th President of the United States, Richard Nixon! How’re the fiery pits of Hell, Dick? Of course, Kissenger’s fault it was, yes. I think you’ll find he pulls a little more weight around here than you do, Dickey! Galling, isn’t it? Well, that’s Hell for you!
Everyone, my name is Jack, Jack Terricloth is what they call me, and tonight I will be your host! I am here with a great bunch of kids, The World/Inferno Friendship Society. If you need anything, if there is anything you want, please just communicate it to me, I will tell Dan Bailey. He will borrow money from Ben and go and get it.
It is that easy.
It is now my great pleasure to introduce, that alpha, the omega, and always of American music, your own gypsy-blooded-punk-identified mischief cult: THE WORLD/INFERNO FRIENDSHIP SOCIETY!”
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
I love that sound.
Ah yes, I never wanted to be nobody’s hero. I always wished I were special. I was always peering around corners, lurking through abandoned buildings, hoping someone would spot me and say, “who’s that lurking over there? Is that that young Cloth boy lurking over there? What is he lurking about? Perhaps there is more to him than we thought. I must learn more about this fascinating lurking lad. Lurk on Clothy! Youre gonna make it! You’ll lurk all the way to the top! People will see you lurking and cry!”
I used to spend an awful lot of time going on like this, and, like falling off a horse, it’s the kind of thing you never forget how to do.
No, please, don’t encourage me.
How can I explain that night? I don’t know if I can. I got what I wanted, the hard work paid off, every hurt and hardship I’d ever suffered was transformed in this fabulous new perspective as really alright and part of the plan. Through luck, hard work, foresight and several incredible bouts with the DT’s, I had risen to the very pinnacle of my profession; Master of ceremonies at the devil’s ball. The top of my field, folks. The tallest boy in the world, la cervasa mas fina. Fucking mint.
Oh yes, it was good. Imagine the vista: The great hall of the Good/Bad Art Collective where up the majestic spiral staircase marched all the Damned of the world, greeted royally at its apex by the dashing prince of lies, dressed impeccably in the finest tuxedo and resembling more a touch like the sartorial actor Patrick Stewart. Next to him, his beautiful witch queen resplendently nude, greeting her subjects whom gratefully kissed her hand and headed straight for the punch bowl.
Oh and we played. Hours, old songs relearned, new songs, off-the-cuff covers, requests, classical charts, we did it all. Between sets our accordionist Franz Nicolay strolled the crowd, playing his own compositions, setting many a lost soul swaying in his wake.
At the bar, I spoke with Orson Wells over a fine Shiraz (oh, let’s face it—he spoke, and spoke, and spoke).
There was Dan Bailey and Keith Moon yucking it up at Louie the Sun King’s expense.
The proud Texans of the Good/Bad Art Collective chatting with everyone who ever worked for the IRS about their tax exempt status.
Semra cackling at Salman Rushdie (“But I’m not dead!”… “Oh yes you are!”)
There was The Mysterious Doctor and The Kid hunched over with John Ritchie, and for some reason, Liberace, discussing footwear.
The entire Manning clan kind of keeping to themselves, actually.
Lucky and Mozart exchanging Masonic handshakes, Rudy giving Bing Crosby the finger (I don’t know why, really). Yuli giving Wagner an earful, Nietzsche trying to intervene and being drawn into a conversation with James Miraglia.
There’s Maura trying to ignore Frank Sinatra’s advances while slipping some of the ecstasy she always carries around into Beethoven’s wine (the best thing that ever happened to him).
And where was Ben?
The Giant Cat came and saved me from Orson’s drone (there were really a lot of other people there I wanted to meet, but…) to tell me it was time for the second set. The room was so full and the spiral staircase still ushering up the Lost Souls. I wondered how they determined what order they were allowed up. The poor Witch Queen looked tired, but gamely held out her hand to be kissed. What a pretty, pretty naked woman.
We began the second set. I can never remember anything that happens on stage afterwards—it is always such a rush. I yammered, we played, we yelled, “Fuck the police!”, there was Easy E as sweaty as I remembered him. It got late, we had time for one more song, soon the sun would be up, and soon the Damned would have to return down the spiral staircase. I called for the waltz and held out my hand toward the crowd, towards a little man bug-eyed and rumpled in his tuxedo. He stepped forward, smiling nervously onto the stage, filling my nostrils with a scent of almonds.
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” I said “Mr. Peter Lorre.”
The crowd not so much roared, but all at once sighed so sadly with such fondness. They knew the night was almost done.
“Thaank yoou, Jaack,” Mr. Lorre breathed in the mic while wiping his brow with a handkerchief. “Thank you for inviting me up heer, it is soo kind of you, really … really. Is it all right, alright wiiith everyone eef we waltz?”
The band started up the sad Oohm Pah Pah of Peter Lorre’s last waltz, and I stepped off the stage to dance with the audience, changing partners every other measure, spinning them away and turning to a new one, thanking them, thanking them all, as Mr. Lorre sang:
“It’s hard to remember, that one September. All the frontiers, through which I crept, well the displaced we forget. But the dope and the girls and the wine, oh hell they were so fine. What a wonderful, wonderful world.”
The great hall was filled with the dancing of the damned, sadly smiling into each other’s eyes as they were obliged to say good bye once again to this earth. Mr. Lorre continued for them.
“No, I can’t remember, not any December. It seemed I was always leaving, maybe you know that feeling? But I never forgot my lines; I still hear them all the time. What a wonderful, wonderful world.”
As the clarinet soloed, my spinning took me near the staircase where the first of the night’s revelers were sadly returning to the pit. And before them, as they filed slowly past, danced the devil, like the bastard he is. Sweeping his exhausted queen before him, his subjects sadly glancing at them, down for another year.
Mr. Lorre, finally letting go of a distressed looking Semra, back on stage, finished, “The dope and the wine and the stage, they gave back to me what I gave. What a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful…”
You could hear the sound of a microphone being dropped and the night was over.
“What was really accomplished by depopulating Denton Texas, good/bad or indifferent?” I wonder and my eyebrows huddle together. The hall is empty, balloons are sinking from the ceiling, the floor is crusted with candied corn. I’m sitting alone on the three risers which were the stage. Hiltz the angry P.A. guy is long gone, Ben’s drum kit is still poised behind me. My accordian huffs and puffs in my arms and around the acoustics of this empty garage.
My name is Franz Nicolay, I got to this party late and now it seems I am the last to leave. Tonight I fell in love with a lovely witch who’s been dead for 30 years. It’s ok, I’ll see her next year, next year if we make it again, if we can keep up another year of being the house band for the Devil’s Ball. Oh we gotta I do now anyway. Won’t be here though–seems we’ve finally worn out our welcome at the old Good/Bad. I hear they are even going to change their name–what now?All good or all bad?
I laugh louder than the instrument clutched to my chest, chokes that bounce back at me from the far wall. I should have gone over to Sweetwater with everybody else. Guess I meant to, I just had this tune in my head so I started playing, and now it is almost dawn. I snap the accordion closed and stand up. The Cat went down the well with the ghouls at the last moment when the police finally showed up. I don’t know why he didn’t just lay in a corner and meow, no one’s going to believe any story about a Giant Talking Cat. That kid really takes himself way too seriously, so it was “Outstanding warrant! Out of my way pigs!” and now we have to wait a year to see him again too. Just like Ingo and Marcus Jeroma over in Germany. It seems my whole life is spread out over one long tour.
I leave the accordion on the makeshift stage and move towards the door. It’s going to be a bitch cleaning this up tomorrow but I’ll worry about that then–Oh I’m way past worrying about anything. Yeah, the sun’s up, no way the bar is still open. I’m sure my friends are awake some where in this neighborhood. I yawn. Maybe I’ll call them on my way to the G train. Man, I fucking hate the G train.