Thursday, February 10, 2011
Words With Some Mummies
(Debt and apology to Poe)
With regret, I noticed that there was no rain. It would have been cinematic- an archaic term- to have it slip irregularly past the flickering neon sign vainly attempting to draw crowds into the Museum of Political Oddities. It was just as well: there wasn’t actually any neon. It was a digital light, programmed to give me a bit of atavistic pleasure; the burnouts and flaws were part of the program. If you didn’t think about that part, it could be nice. I was aware that the noir era for which I longed was before my time, but was both melancholy and optimistic enough to recognize that the past was as permeable as the uncertain present. Anyway, no one came here, so no one cared about my silly longings.
Tonight was a big night, though. Tonight was what I had been waiting for, in solitude, all these years. It is early February 2045, a year I picked to pay homage to something no one recognized. Tonight, they were coming back. For once I had company. This did mean something, though after years of comfortable solitude I couldn’t remember exactly what. I’m in my mid sixties, something that doesn’t mean much to other now, but I ache. Ignoring the general present means being acutely aware of your own. I shouldn’t be old, but I am. Surrounding myself with what I have ensured that. There were some regrets, but none of them mean much to this tale. Those regrets may be dead, or may still be young. With a vague sadness, I realize neither option affects me.
But! Getting back to my story, which began only a few hours ago. The minor size of the crowd was offset by its luminous nature. There was Professor Wittstart, the historian, one of our true public intellectuals. He dressed anachronistically, an affectation I resented for being too close to my own. There was the Honorable Representative L----, he of the fierce convictions, though on which side I couldn’t remember. Sadly, Marie couldn’t make it, a fact whose pain was heightened by its own surprising strength. The rest were gray to me. Five, maybe six.
Wine was poured; then it began. There was a crackle of tired bones, and a creak of joints long unaccustomed to use. Some stretching. Two pairs of eyes blinked, then quickly sized up the room, as canny as before. Making sure of what was happening was what these eyes were known for, before. The slowness surprised me. After all, while thirty years was a long time to rule, it wasn’t, I would have thought, a particularly long time to be dead.
Physical reluctance aside, I was impressed. I suppose part of me, remembering cartoons, was expecting a furious self-applied patdown, maybe with eyes goggling, looking at and dropping an imaginary bottle of booze. But these weren’t ordinary men.
There probably isn’t much need to rehash the tumult of events in 2011. Crowds in the streets, autocrats digging in, speeches illuminated by Molotov cocktails, strange faces contorted with anger and joy, the truncheons of riots cops, their shields and anonymous boots, Western politicians scrambling to keep ahead. Then, breakthrough, politically and scientifically. We could offer up a deal: step down now, and we can freeze you. For only a little while. After all, the quest for power is a vicious race against mortality. Every action is to prolong the artificiality of life. A promise of revivification was offered. This also appealed to a sense of metaphor, particularly because Egypt was involved. An idea of embalming. And, since the other leader was also an Arab, it could carry over. Never mind that the ancient Egyptians weren’t Arabs- this created headlines; therefore, it was acceptable. And now, the promised date had come. Very few remembered, and most thought our promises faded with time. But there was still need for an honor guard of sorts, and so a committee, brimming with excitement and reluctance, gathered to see the first moves of those who had once ruled.
Little has changed; we spoke in English.
Representative L--- began. “Welcome…to the future!” he said stupidly. It is impossible to welcome anyone to the future; each desperate and agonizing step leads only to the present. It was a strange relief to look on his crumpling face, though, as both leaders wordlessly dismissed him as a pompous lightweight, recognizing that some things remain constant.
A flurry of mumbling and introductions. Ignoring the need for imaginary piety, we all drank scotch. It warmed even those of us who struggled through the decades, and did wonders for those who passed them without thought.
The one without the mustache, with the cruel jowls and slick vampire hair was the first to speak.
“And was I right”, he asked, with his trademark imperious modesty. In the glancing shiver of hesitation, he guessed that he had been correct. “They took over, didn’t they?” He was looking directly at L---.
L--- couldn’t speak. He was running through his mind which mythology was the correct one to promote, and realized that it was impossible to keep straight. Was he supposed to credit…or was he supposed to diminish…or what policy was the one to take credit for, or blame for…
Scotch might have explained the frisson of amusement I felt. But even as that momentary joy faded, we were surprisingly saved by one of the nameless men piping up at my elbow.
“They did, partly,” he said, as a rictus of triumph snaked up our guest’s face (the other remained impassive, clearly calculating). “But only for a few years, and then again, later. And now.”
Our guest choked a mirthless laugh. In my head, I saw bats leaving a tower. He went into a long diatribe about abandonment and his powers of prophecy, and how loyalty was a trump card. Frankly, I was content to let him go. I didn’t have the heart. Did it matter? My companion, comfortable in the anonymous gloom behind me, interrupted.
“It was dicey for a while, but then, ‘democracy is messy’, right?” (A tinkle of glasses and ironic chuckling, and where have I heard that voice? TV?) “They quickly realized that elections meant something, and implied a certain amount of responsibility. Sure, there was some gaming of the system, but the people who flooded the streets and forced-“ a chill- “persuaded you to leave wouldn’t have any of it. In the end, there was something managed, and a compromise no one liked. The army was persuaded that if they stayed back, and ensured the sprit of treaties, if not the exact letter, popular sentiment could take hold. The convinced had to deal with the skeptical. In short, modernity. Your eventual removal, facilitated but not forced, rushed reality to the stage.”
The guest shrunk. This evoked some pity- crimes are lessened both by time and proximity to the criminal. History, which he had willingly embraced, had treated him poorly. The other guest was leery, but keen to move to him. He knew how the past worked. While all art of a time might be hastily thrown together for the quiet acceptance of museumgoers, there was a difference between artists. No one, even the brightest among us, understood idiosyncrasy and subtlety like he did.
“I was different,” he said, mustache still crinkling stiffly. Everyone had to admit he was. In our joy and in our haste, he was pushed out. After all, in many ways he was worse than his friend. He had no hesitation at turning his guns against those who hung his picture in reluctant doorways.
But history is reluctant to offer easy echoes, even though we long for the homophonic. In his case, the timing wasn’t right. There were too many other issues, and those who followed him were not ready.
“I was ready”, he continued. “Ready to step down. Frankly, I didn’t want to, but I knew I had to. If you had given me enough rope, I would have been able to ease myself out.” (I assumed he was going to say hang himself, which also wasn’t impossible.) “I knew the game was up. I was planning to do anything I could to stay in power, but in my heart, there wasn’t a way. You could have kept me in to deal with the immediate while those who hated me got their act together.” (People don’t still use that phrase. Frankly, I can’t remember if he actually did, and tend to doubt it. The strangeness of the night bent time and memory.)
“I’m going to assume,” he continued, “that a simulation of democracy took place in my absence, and was limited to the major cities. There, also, you probably had a choice. I imagine that after I was forced out, attention waned, and focused only on those with beards and bombs.” This was correct. “See?”- a bit of scorn, heightened by our lack of denial- “this manic attention on the very few was always going to be your downfall. I could easily have been forced out, and not in this condition, had you bothered to look at what was really happening. But the vision of your country was always scattered, and was always looking for the easy way, the binary” (I am positive he didn’t use those words.) You could have forced me out, but only with a commitment to fill the void. Otherwise, I should have stayed. You could have used me. “ There were implied italics to the last verb. He clearly meant it in several ways.
There was more conversation. Most of it was about the decades and their innovations. Despite the participation and curiosity of corpses, I found it tedious. People drifted away, and the men went off with various dignitaries to their dignified housing. I idly wondered what they would do next, and discovered myself unconcerned. I had been staring at them for years, and now they were gone. I flicked a switch, and the neon faded into an imaginary death.