Published in ABSINTHE (New European Writing) magazine #4, 2005
I lived in a giant tilting pinball machine among plungers, kick-out holes, bells, gongs, the steady rattle of nickels and dimes, all day long. I was a marble slung into this arena at dawn, nudged, pelted onto ramps, zipping down, scurrying around, spinning, stopping for a brief span, and dashing for the exit again by night. No real life of my own: no purpose, no control, no fancy, no aims, no pleasure. No sense. No friends, no enemies anymore. Alone. Dead in a way; time stood still.
But I lacked nothing, I was content. I wasted my days driving a cab in Manhattan; at night I played a flageolet in midtown subway stations, taking a breath whenever a train thundered by.
I never crossed the river. Even if someone offered a double rate to drive him to New Jersey, I would decline. I couldn’t. I was scared, filled with fear of the corruption I might see there. I never wrote or called my mother either. For shame, not for dismay. However tiny my part might have been in the downfall of New Jersey, it was there and it made me sick to think about it.
I listened to the radio when I was alone in my cab, otherwise I chatted with the passengers. They all thought I was crazy. I didn’t mind. Sometimes they would even tell me I was a crackpot. I didn’t mind.
None believed my story. Sometimes I showed them the scars inflicted by the finch during the battle for Atlantic City but it didn’t seem to bolster my credibility in their eyes. That I could not change. Not for the lack of trying, though. I frequented libraries, seeking for evidence of what had befallen my comrades —and also to verify my version —but all in vain. No reports in the newspapers, no records in the books. Not a single reference to any war in New Jersey, not a hint of what had befallen my army. Their ability to conceal things, the very magnitude of the conspiracy inspired awe.
I was seventeen when the war broke out just after Christmas. I remember breakfasting in our cozy kitchen when my brother turned up the radio to hear the announcement. We were struck, especially mother who went ashen: her single, mundane dream —time with the family that can be preserved eternally and consumed in minute, tantalizing bites —had shattered.
The war had been anticipated for so long that nobody believed it would ever commence. It’s like death: you only take it seriously if it’s scheduled for tomorrow. Otherwise, who cares . . . Particularly when you are seventeen.
My brother and I grabbed our instruments and animals and ran to the town square as we had been taught during numerous drills. In no time we were marching south through a deep blanket of snow to join the good people from Newark and Trenton.
All together we formed an impressive regiment, several thousand strong. Mostly violins, but we also had units of trumpets, horns, bassoons, flutes, and even some basses. We knew that somewhere beyond the skyline there were other New Jersey troops moving in the crisp white snow: shining clarinets and trombones, violas and oboes, and maybe even some percussion back-up if we were lucky.
Our array, a bit chaotic at first, gained cohesion along the way. As we marched on and grew in mass, augmented by the battalions we met and merged with, our army became more structured and martial. My brother and I were separated and reassigned to opposite flanks: I went to the first violins and he to the second, according to our military rank and training. We would have liked to have been closer to each other during the battle, but at the time neither of us was too concerned about it. Young and hot-blooded, we were thrilled by the events and eager to fight. Sentiments could wait.
We spent that night in the fields, in tents. Farmers came and brought blankets and food for us and our baboons and marmosets. We ate quickly and bedded down but, exhaustion notwithstanding, I couldn’t fall asleep for at least an hour awash with thoughts of what awaited me in the near future. Will we win? Will we lose? How will the result change my life and that of my kinfolk? I had no answers, though, no illumination. My earnest probing couldn’t pierce time, my superficial knowledge of current events did not help either. I only knew who the enemy was—New York and Chicago—but not what he wanted. Or what we wanted from him, for that matter. Must have been something important if we abhorred and wanted to exterminate one another. Our slogan was “Liberty and prosperity.” Did they aim to take these from us? I wanted to discuss it with someone but was too ashamed to ask my fellows. On the other hand, they were all asleep now, an inappropriate time for conversation. Embracing my Callithrix friend, I yawned and drifted off.
Next day at dawn we promptly folded our tents, took our places in the units and marched off. After a couple of hours, however, our pace eased and in another hour we were ordered to halt. No explanation was offered, and there were no visible signs either of the enemy or of traps he may have set. As a first violin, I was in the very front line and had an unobstructed view. But all I could see was a monotonous winter landscape with bare shivering trees and crows in the vitreous sky.
It was cold that morning and soon it became unbearable to stand there doing nothing. We broke lines and started playing with the monkeys or punching each other to keep the blood circulating. We were like small careless children having fun on a sunny winter day. It was the last time that I heard myself laughing.
Finally, around noon our commanders who took instructions from their commanders called us to order. Rumor spread that the enemy was but half a mile away and closing swiftly. The news was both chilling and sobering. Now I really wanted to see my brother before it all started but it was impossible. We were at least a mile apart from one other, separated by hundreds of men. Men of the same fate who also had brothers or fathers somewhere in this swarm and wished they could see and hug them, perhaps for the last time. The latter thought gave me an idea; I grabbed my neighbors’ hands and shook them amicably as if they were my kinsmen. That was the right thing to do, for other soldiers who noticed my action emulated me. This affectionate outburst of camaraderie spread well beyond our unit, wavelike it cascaded outwardly and, I had few doubts about it, reached my brother.
And then —hell. Our scouts were incompetent or something else, I don’t know the exact cause, but we overlooked the enemy’s approach. One moment a boring frosty unwrinkled plane lay before us, the next moment the landscape was squirming with barbarians —hordes of brute bagpipers —so many of them that if my training had not led me to plug my ears almost automatically, I would have died instantly.
We were lucky to be trained so well, for the bagpipers’ vanguard caused us almost no damage. I stuck my violin under my chin, squeezed the fingerboard, placed the bow on the strings, and took a quick glance at our lieutenant who was waiting for a command. We counterattacked with Götterdämmerung, a wise choice, both a powerful merciless blow and a message that no prisoners will be taken. We edged forward pounding and pounding the adversary with strong waves of chords, yet at first they stood firmly and there wasn’t much we could do. My earplugs prevented me from hearing what they played but it must have been something lethal, for one of my comrades, whose hand I had shaken, lost one of his plugs and I could clearly see blood spurting from his unprotected ear, his eyes, nose, and mouth. He fell on the snow but I could not help him, for I had to keep moving and playing, and playing, and playing to protect my home, my mother, my town, and the whole of New Jersey from these savages.
My comrade’s death had shaken me to the very core. I had always known the war was no joke but this was the first time in my life that I witnessed a person’s death so close and it was dreadful. I longed for revenge, couldn’t help myself. I craved to kill and went amok. Without waiting for a command, reckless of the potential consequences of such noncompliance, I let my monkey loose, watched him run up to the nearest enemy soldier, jump onto his shoulders and pull the plugs from his ears. I leaped forward, played the highest note I could squeeze from my instrument without disrupting the strain played by my army, and observed the man dropping his pipes in a sudden attack of pain. Playing fiercely, I stood over him and watched him lying on the ground hemorrhaging, trying to cover his head with his hands, his life ebbing out nevertheless. It wasn’t a noble sight, though. I will never forget the uncouth plowman’s face and his imbecile eyes, full of fear and sorrow. However, at the time it gave me the gratification I sought and it was great. I realized that until then I had been frightened. Henceforth I was confident of triumph.
When I emerged from my frenzy and looked around, I saw the field alive with monkeys doing what my marmoset had done a minute ago: jumping on lubberly bagpipers, tearing out their earplugs to make them susceptible to the barrage of the Götterdämmerung. This brought about an instant shift in the balance. Barbarians were dying in scores now. Others, aware of their inability to resist our trained animals, tossed away their instruments and ran for their lives bereft of all dignity. Seeing this we switched to Mozart and chased the defeated with Symphony No. 23 in D major until night fell. Victory, the total victory of the first battle, was ours.
It wasn’t the end of the war though. For me it was only the beginning. For my brother it was over. After the battle I went to the sector of the second violins to see my brother but couldn’t find him. No one knew where he was and everyone seemed too tired to talk to me. Eventually I found a lieutenant who told me that one of the bagpipers managed to wrestle my brother down and unplug his ears. That night I did not sleep, clutching my monkey in my arms, listening to its snore. My mind was numb; there was no room for any particular thought. Desolation . . .
We moved south, almost effortlessly defeating the enemy’s numerous small guerilla groups with impromptu mazurkas, shooting hemidemisemiquavers of Schoenberg at their stray patrolmen. Our advance was measured and took several weeks, but we lost few troops and the whole campaign looked really scherzo until we reached Atlantic City, which we had to recapture. By that time I had been awarded the rank of private first class for my bravery: during a skirmish my violin broke and instinctively I grabbed the flute of a fallen comrade and played away, hunting the enemy with rapid bursts of Debussy’s sinfoniettas until all had fallen. I wasn’t trained for woodwind instruments. I had practiced on them on my own, mostly from curiosity. I was fortunate to have done so. I promised myself to test other instruments, and by the time we got to Atlantic City I could play most of them. Kettledrums and trombones were an exception, but if the war were to continue I was pretty sure I could handle those, too. Accordingly I awaited future promotions and expected to return home at least a second lieutenant, if fortune were not to turn its back on me. This wasn’t in the stars.
The battle for Atlantic City was furious, cruel, and continued for three days and nights. A terrible, terrible experience, an inferno. We finally won but the losses were massive: almost a third of our troops and half of the monkeys. We spent two days burying the dead and three weeks recovering from wounds and exhaustion and mending our instruments.
We closed on the enemy as a squall playing Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration, but had to switch to a more potent weapon, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, in the middle of the battle, as Strauss had no effect on the adversary. It was an uphill battle. The enemy was well prepared, his positions impenetrable. Huge barricades and lines of barbed wire prevented us from deploying our monkeys so we had to apply different tactics and rely on our own martial skills. We pounded the foe with mighty waves of consonances, hammered and hammered them. But the damage was insignificant. They stood firm, and we were only able to advance when an order came to play Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra whose dissonant harmonies assaulted the adversary like a hurricane and sowed confusion behind the barricades.
However, soon we were hard pressed, for the enemy, convinced of our determination, let fly swarms of small birds—Fringillidae. We absolutely didn’t expect anything like that —the use of trained animals was our idea — and we were bewildered. Like a tremendous cloud of hailstorm, these nasty buntings swooped down from the sky puncturing our earplugs, piercing our eyes, lacerating our skin, virtually tearing us apart. Screaming we dropped our instruments and tried to protect ourselves, covering our heads with our hands, but the vicious finches were not easily discouraged, they stabbed and slashed with their sharp beaks. There was no escape. Those whose plugs were perforated died, others lost their eyes, and almost all were bleeding. Our monkeys suffered as much. Many of them were blinded or forced to flee their masters. We succumbed to panic and began to abandon the field. But surprisingly our failing became our strength, for the birds, all of a sudden, changed their small minds, lost interest, disengaged, and flew back to their home lines. They now attacked their proprietors with the same fierceness and thrashed them until night came. We seized the opportunity, quickly regrouped, composed ourselves, and stormed the enemy with full force playing Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana. After sunset the birds disappeared and we launched an assault on the barricades. Once we breached the fortifications our monkeys did their part. After that there were few surprises, just the laborious, tiresome task of street combat. I won’t describe the details. It’s worth mentioning, though, that for such low-level warfare we used lighter weapons, like Paderewski’s Minuet in G, that were more than adequate to fight small squads hidden in driveways and passages, and Paganini’s Caprices for violin solo, especially handy for hunting single enemy servicemen.
Now that the state of New Jersey was clean and clear, we should had terminated the campaign and returned home. We didn’t do that, however. For one thing, resplendent in victory, we thought no one in the world could defeat us. We had crushed the enemy but were perfectly aware that eventually new insurrections would burst forth as long as our archenemy remained capable of instigating such revolts. The two principal hornet nests were New York and Chicago, corrupt dens of libertines, drug hawkers, and vicious bands that assaulted honest citizens, chasing them down the streets playing that awful thing they call jazz. Sleaze, decay, and corruption spread from those two places. We felt that it was the best time to finish them off, once and for all. It was our sacred duty.
As soon as we recuperated, we marched back north to Cherry Hill and Willingboro, greeted as conquerors everywhere. The people of small towns cared enough to travel from the boondocks to line the major roads we traversed, paying us, their guardians, respect and admiration. Farmers donated food and beer, ordinary townsmen shook our hands and made speeches, young women bestowed us with flower bouquets and kisses full of affection and, often, latent lust. We were honored similarly in Trenton with a magnificent celebration, comprising cheering, flag waving, and terrific salvos of fireworks, glorious in the midnight-blue abyss of the starless winter sky.
The regal treatment we received in Long Branch, Perth-Amboy, Elizabeth, and Newark slowed down our advance inordinately. It took almost three weeks to reach the state border in Jersey City. On a sunless, gloomy daybreak we stood on the waterfront in Liberty State Park, the towers of Manhattan grim minarets in the distance.
We used both the Holland tunnel and the Port Authority Trans-Hudson rapid transit system to cross the river and enter SoHo. No defenders were to be seen as if they all had escaped in awe of our approach. That could hardly be true, however. The city was too colossal to be devoid of all its dwellers, too deranged to be abandoned in an orderly fashion.
Cautiously we moved down the Spring and Houston streets, then 6th and the 7th playing Roy Harris but ready to switch to Bruckner’s Requiem at the first sign of danger. The tension was incredible: we were in the dragon’s lair, the very font of transgression, and had no inkling of what might happen the next moment.
Nothing was happening, though. There was no traffic, no people on the streets of the city that boasts that it never sleeps. Obviously, the enemy was ignoring our march, intending to entice us to pursue them in an insane exercise of hide-and-seek so that we would be exhausted and transformed into easy prey.
It was frightfully cold in the streets, in those narrow chasms with steep brick walls. So cold in fact that we had to play something vigorous to keep ourselves from freezing to the bone. We stroked up Handel’s effervescent Water Music and played it for a while. Only then some windows opened and groggy, heavy-eyed women and hostile unshaved men emerged, some just gawking down at us, others yelling something, surely words of insult, if their grimaces were a fair guide. Our earplugs prevented us from hearing them.
An elderly woman tossed down several coins, a quarter hit the pavement near me and circled for a while, then fell on its side and came to rest right in front of me. Instinctively I made a sudden stop causing someone to run into me from behind. My violin slipped from my frozen fingers and crashed to the ground. Another shove made me step on the instrument turning it into a jumble of string and splinters. I tripped over the debris, lost my balance and fell prostrate. My comrades did their best to avoid stepping on me but it wasn’t easy. An army squeezed by the concrete walls from both sides is as evasive as a steamroller: someone’s heel crushed the fingers of my right hand, a kick to my temple left me unconscious for a short second. It must have knocked the plugs out of my ears too, for when I came to my senses, the first thing to reach my brain wasn’t the feeling of paralysis or the view of the rear guard of my party, fading out into the distance, but a swirl of sound, tones ricocheting off the walls, the pavement, lamp posts, and blasting my unprotected ears. The music didn’t put me away instantly like it had killed my brother. It was too distant and didn’t have sufficient force to inflict great destruction. It crippled me, however. The chords mauled my head, pierced the ears, and scorched my brain. I lay there knowing it was over for me: the war, the triumphs, the kisses of lovely maidens, promotions, returning home a corporal, the honors —all gone. All gone. Forever.
But I didn’t die, however.
On nights when I couldn’t sleep, I would roam the streets scrutinizing every face in vain expectation of finding a familiar one. On one such occasion I wandered to the site of my derailment and experienced a sort of vision there. As if in a trance, it seemed that, once again, I could hear the last cadences of my regiment marching-off and see the backs of my fellows, fading in the distance.
While I stood there, working through that nightmare, trying to shake it off, an aged car pulled up, the driver rolled down the window, stared into my eyes, shouted and roared with diabolical laughter, “I know you. You are one of those bastard monkey fuckers from New Jersey,” and drove off.
How wonderful it was to feel that warped reality crack and shatter, the old and the true reassert itself. How rewarding it was after all those years of seclusion, of life in a quarantine, to see a portal open, to sense fresh hope being born and promptly filling the absurd void, to have the ability to judge return and take its rightful place in my soul.
My life has changed. I am back in business. Not just driving passengers around but thinking: reviewing my past, watching and listening, accumulating and sorting facts, devising new strategies, new weapons. I don’t chat with my customers anymore, I have no time for that.
One day soon I shall cross the river into New Jersey, mobilize a new army, and start another campaign. Take notice! This time we shall come as a hurricane, a tsunami, a merciless, relentless force, that will assault not only your ears but all your senses simultaneously, possess and wreck them, while replacing your superficial hell with our perfect inferno.
I am all determination now. I blast dead marches and don’t pause for a breath when a train storms by.