Count Olshonsky points towards the entranceway where a crowd is gathering, and a steady crescendo of clapping hands snuffs out the background chatter. I look over in that direction but cannot ascertain the source of the disturbance.
“Whom are you talking about? What are they clapping over?” I ask the count.
“Not what—who. Ha-ha-ha. You’ll see him shortly. Ah, and ‘shortly’ is the operative word. Ha-ha-ha. I think you’ll like him, as it’s difficult not to.”
“I’ll rephrase. Whom are you speaking of?”
“The funniest man I’ve ever seen—a buffoon, a fool. Mr. Castlemaine, you are about to be graced by Goffard Bliss, the Great! Never was there a man so comfortable in his own skin, or so free from worry or care. You could learn from him.”
Then a familiar high-pitched voice distinguishes itself from the spectators’ enthusiastic accompaniment. The voice is vaguely familiar to me. While there is a strong urgency to uncover the source, a gnawing sense of danger makes my blood run cold. I stand up on my tiptoes to catch a glimpse of the spectacle, but several tall Shaolin monks are blocking my view. The words I hear are:
“Harken you knaves to my words,
Let not them fly over like birds;
The Day of Judgment cometh nigh,
Hold your heads up and don’t be shy!
To whatever end we are doomed to meet,
Thou hath the power to face it and beat!
In this great struggle of the soul,
On you will exact a great toll;
Suspended from purgatory’s rope,
With fear of Hades and loss of hope;
I humbly offer to be your guide,
As you swim against the tide;
Who am I you might ask,
No need me to unmask;
Ye shall never miss,
the great Goffard Bliss;
I shagged the sheep,
I made them weep;
Heaven or hell,
I shall rebel;
So keep me here,
To be a dear;
To make thee smile,
My heart’s desire,
To play the lyre;
To make thee laugh,
On my behalf;
A drink for you, a drink for me,
Getting piss-drunk I guarantee;
Away with worry, away with fear,
Or you may see my red wrinkled rear;
The laughter of joy or the laughter of pain,
Shall never rival the kind which is insane!
Clear your mind and enjoy the show,
One inch more I shall never grow;
In the staleness of rigor mortis land,
Do come and join my solitary band,
Get up from your seats and boldly stand,
For the great rhyming rogue be at hand!”
The performance continues and the Shaolin monks are thoroughly amused with the performer, although the performer is still not visible to me. They clap furiously, as if this is the greatest spectacle of all time. They turn to each other and move their shaved heads up and down in sync. The high-pitched voice thanks them for their endorsement and compliments them on their long orange robes. A nonsensical line is inserted in their honor:
“A shaven head lies well in bed,
Makes the man look like he be dead …”
The monks are further encouraged with the special verse dedicated to them, and kick their legs up high like dancers. Who is this person who brings such energy, such “life” to the otherwise mundane existence of the patrons of Beelzebub’s Bedrock? Even Jormundgand comes out from behind the bar and gently goes through the motion of clapping his hands, although they stop just short of contact. Oh, what a thunderous applause he would have contributed, but the simple gesture is more than anyone could have expected from the stoic giant. A colossal “statue” melts into flesh and blood in the presence of this “comedian.”
I am not left in suspense much longer. The crowd parts like the Red Sea to reveal the source of all the amusement, and the rhyming sensation proceeds down his personal avenue.
My God, he found me! I don’t know how, but he found me! It is the same inexplicable entity that had poisoned my welcome into this underworld. The five-foot fiend with the mischievous smile moves in my direction while kicking up his legs and throwing up his arms in a spastic little dance. He twirls around like a nimble ballerina on one foot, while the three bells protruding from his hat spin furiously around his head. They chime in unison as the ceiling light reflects off their polished surfaces. He stretches out his bauble at arm’s length and raises it up and down in jerky movements, which are out of sync with his dance steps.
Notwithstanding the absence of the pet serpent, everything else is the same—the clothes, the hat, the shoes, the height, the piercing eyes, the crafty smile, and the incessant rhyming. Here is unspeakable, unlimited evil, which paradoxically inhabits the limited boundaries of a silly little man. If infinite God had once dwelled in the body of mortal man to redeem the world from its sins, then this jester is Satan’s counterpart, designed for the sole purpose of enveloping his “redeemed” in the quagmire of iniquity. Satan’s progeny is not the result of an immaculate conception within the womb of an unsuspecting virgin, but rather the impure remains of a botched abortion in Bedlam’s bordello—the vaginal refuse of the Whore of Babylon!
Go ahead and keep clapping, you fools! I think. Fuel his fire; there is more than enough to consume all of you many times over! Does no one else know of this clown’s true identity, or am I the privileged, chosen one who received this revelation? At least I am not alone this time. This is what I get for killing myself!
The pint-sized fool approaches the bar and leaps up on it with feline finesse, continuing his dance down the “catwalk.” With each swing of his legs, glasses are sent flying in either direction onto the floor. The shattering sound serves as a bizarre musical accompaniment to the jester’s jig. Spectators move back to avoid the projectiles, although their shoes and pants get sprayed with the spilled drinks.
Jormundgand, none too amused with the mess, stands motionless with arms folded tightly and veins protruding from his forehead. The jester sticks his tongue out at him and crosses his eyes, but the Nordic statue is unmoved. Nonetheless, he makes no effort to obstruct the little man in his chaotic course, as if hypnotized into submission. The broken glass collects on the floor as the puddles of beer, wine, and whiskey seep around the shards. The little river of libations creates an archipelago out of the larger pieces, which sparkle like jewels from the reflected light off the chandeliers on the ceiling.
On concluding his dance, the little performer leaps off the bar counter, performs a somersault in midair and then lands perfectly on both feet, like a dexterous acrobat. His flawless finale brings forth abundant cheers from all corners of the room. The bar is wiped clean, fresh glasses set out, and drink once again dispensed in prodigious quantities.
I feel the Lilliputian threads of indecision weighing me down, as I contemplate the options of either staying put or fleeing to another place. I will be hunted either way, by him or by Jedediah. I can’t take my eyes off of the jester, but am relieved to see that the demon’s attentions are directed elsewhere for once.
He approaches a petite Aztec beauty sitting unattended at the end of the bar. She is even shorter than he is, but stunning with a light golden-brown complexion and an athletic physique. With almond-shaped eyes sheltering two hypnotic silver-black pupils, she looks hostile and alien to even the warmest smile. She has a broad, but strikingly aesthetic hooked nose. Her black, glossy hair is plaited and entwined with strips of multi-colored cloth wound around the head with great precision. Her cotton dress, interwoven with red-and-green, blue-dyed fabrics, consists of a sleeveless blouse and a long wrap-around skirt.
The girl is nursing a martini and, in between delicate little sips from her puffy lips, gently pushes the green olive around the perimeter of the cone-shaped glass with a plastic straw. Is she bored or just sending nonverbal signals to an eligible suitor to join and romance her off her rocker? Well, this must be her lucky day because the Devil is in “town” and eager to paint it red … with two coats of
Aztec blood. Watch out for his snake!
The master of disguise waltzes right up and leaps up into the chair beside her, setting his bells in motion to herald his arrival. Turning his slight little body towards her, he says:
“This seat be not taken,
Or I be mistaken?”
Without turning her head, she shoots a quick peripheral glance at him but says nothing. He appears intrigued by her indifference.
“I am the great Goffard Bliss,
I beseech the fair lady to give me a kiss,
Or I shall piss down perdition’s abyss;
I should like to make you my bride,
Not to be rushed, take things in stride;
Now lend me your savory mouth,
You dark-haired beauty from the south.”
What a Casanova. How long has he been on the dating scene? This is the same diabolical runt who had me on the run? Gee, and I thought that I was awkward around pretty girls. Ha! Hmm … how soon before he is wearing that martini?
The girl turns her head cautiously to see her rhyming suitor. His smile is so exaggerated that the ends of his mouth reach upward to the height of his nose in a “U” shape. He licks his lips slowly around the circumference of his mouth, then puckers them like a blowfish. She covers her mouth in an effort to suppress a fit of laughter, but the jester interprets this reaction as a positive reaction to his romantic overtures. Jormundgand and a few of the patrons take an interest in this interaction, erupting in laughter at her cue.
A man with a very thin, long nose and a chapeau bra on his head is particularly amused and buries his head in his hands, as contractions from intense laughter shake up his entire body. The demon jester suspects that he is the object of ridicule and turns on his charm for damage control.
“So easy on the eyes,
How can I thee despise;
The truth alone—spare me the lies,
Will you consent to be my prize?
It be fact that everything dies,
From the ashes a few shall rise;
Lend me your hand, so small in size,
To be the mate of Goffard the Wise!”
While giggling hysterically, she manages to let out an emphatic “Go away!” His motor mouth stops abruptly in a catatonic freeze, after which he politely bows his head in defeat. He stares inquisitively at the counter to digest the resounding rejection, and to review his pitch for any egregious mistakes. While the laughter dies down among most, the man with the chapeau bra continues in his fit of laughter.
“C’mon, it’s not that funny,” says someone in the crowd.
“It is to me! Why did you spoil it for me? Is it so bad that a man might have a little enjoyment down here? You’re nothing but a damn kill-joy! I hope you go to hell for this, Roland! Get out of my presence, now!” The man with the chapeau bra appears on the verge of losing control, and his face turns from alabaster white to red within seconds.
The other man backs down and apologizes, then swiftly leaves the room to escape embarrassment and a potential violent reprisal. The man with the chapeau bra, now exhausted from the exchange, grows a long face and slumps over the bar. The room is quiet and still, as all heads are turned in his direction, waiting for a resumption of the outburst. With the wind taken out of his sails, a new placid state invites reflection.
He mutters, “If heaven be close, then hell be much closer.” Picking up his glass of Malbec, he pauses just before sipping. The hand holding the glass begins to tremble.
“What’s going on here? What is this?” His fingers and then his entire hand become translucent. “No, not now, by God! A little more time, I beg of you! Stop, sto—”
The hand is no longer visible and the glass falls to the counter, spilling the red wine. A nothingness quickly works its way up his body and down his legs. He vaporizes within seconds in front of everyone, but to nobody’s surprise, except for me, of course. The chapeau bra falls onto the empty chair, right side up.
“Look at that! They left the hat! Damn, they hardly ever leave anything!” yells someone in the crowd.
“I’ll take it,” says another.
“How can you do that? Show some respect for the eternally departed.”
“What does respect have to do with anything? He has no use for the hat anymore. It’s better than someone sitting on it or stepping on it. Besides, I think he has more important things to worry about now.” The man walks over to the empty chair, picks up the hat, and turns it around for a little inspection. He then comfortably fits it on his head.
“I’d say it is almost tailor-made for me. Now I know why they left it behind! I do think I’ll be taking this with me wherever I go from now on.” He breaks out into an over-exaggerated chuckle. The onlookers stare at him but remain quiet.
Count Olshonsky quietly moves next to me. “Well, what do you think of Goffard? Is he not funny?”
My attention had been completely diverted from the clown to the man wearing the chapeau bra. Dismissing the count’s question, I ask about the man’s disappearance.
“Oh, so you’ve never seen that before? Well, you won’t give it a second thought after a while. We all go that way, but not necessarily to the same place. Ha-ha.” He gives me an affectionate pat on the back.
“Where do they go? Why do dead people disintegrate like that?”
“Good question. Ignorant, but fair. Remember that this is a midpoint station between heaven and hell. Just as you have not shed all of your mortal coil, you have not been entirely consumed by that sleep of death, either. The man you saw disappear was taken for his judgment and thus was deprived of the last vestiges of life within him. Wherever he be now, he is ethereal. Everyone complains about how long they’ve been here and how bored they are, but all are afraid once they see their limbs vanishing into thin air.”
“Are you afraid, Count Olshonsky?”
“Of course I am. We are all afraid. We don’t know where we are going and how much time is left. We see people disappear and know that we will meet a similar fate. You will go mad if you don’t learn to control your worries and fears. We are not designed to suffer from perpetual dread, as a healthy dose of denial must eventually anesthetize you to this. So drink more and talk more, and the rest will take care of itself. Oh, and of course, avoid Jedediah! He is sure to put a damper on your spirits!” The count politely excuses himself and exits the room.