9b – The Flight

Dressed in a powder-blue suit, Grabmaler sipped a vodka and lemonade, chatting with Beuve about Byzantine art. Rupert sat beside him, worried about Undine and Diogenes, watching the silvery haze which hovered over Paris disappear. Several young women, Imke included, swiveled in their leather seats, sipping mixed drinks, and leafing through fashion catalogues — which were really order-forms for Grabmaler’s underground warehouses in Hoboken. One young blonde looked furtively over to Rupert, his thin, Roman features and broad shoulders apparently attracting her. Imke was sketching in charcoal, an impression of a man’s torso, listening through head-phones to electronic music as she monitored, without envy, the younger, less shrewd girl flirting with Rupert. The girl, named Eva, erotically shifted her nyloned legs and fussed with her hair after producing a mirror from her purse.
Rupert barely noticed them. He would only steal a glance over to Grabmaler’s evenly tanned face as he made a gentlemanly inquiry with his French art-assessor about what was left to plunder from Parisian vaults and private museums. Beuve, an older, white-haired scholar with a weakness for heroin and little girls, doubled as an art-spy and collector for Grabmaler. When Beuve excused himself, for a fix in the small bedroom in the rear, another girl in pigtails, perhaps just past her fifteenth birthday, followed him. Grabmaler glanced over to Rupert:
“Well, we’re on our way home.” He smiled warmly.
“Yes. To New York.” Rupert agreed.
“Imke tells me you’re writing poetry.”
“Oh, yes, but she doesn’t like it.” Rupert glanced at her and she seemed to hear what they just said.
“I didn’t say that. Only that it’s too formal.” Imke spoke up loudly, then switched off the electronic music.
“Rupert, indulge me for a moment, would you?” Grabmaler didn’t wait for a reply. “Please don’t follow Beuve into these opiates. I see that you packed a crate of common morphine vials. It’ll devour the man right out of you.”
“But you distribute them.”
“A man might market cigarettes and not smoke. He might manufacture jets and not fly. That’s not the point. You have better things in store for you.”
Beuve, then, re-entered the cabin. The young girl behind him lay undressed on the bed, nudging the door shut with her foot. He grabbed onto the seats and made his way back Grabmaler. Imke stood up and pulled on Rupert’s sleeve and dragged him into the bedroom, Eva following. Grabmaler smiled politely and helped Beuve into his seat who had apparently a bright idea about fine art after sniffing in the bedroom. Rupert, lured by Imke into the bedroom, tossed a blouse back to the young girl. Eva waited as she feared Imke and sank sheepishly down on a couch applying polish to her nails. Imke then pulled out an envelope of crystal mescaline and tasted it, slyly surveying the girls and Rupert.
Meanwhile, back in the cargo bay, Undine had freed herself from her crate, and shivering from cold, searched for Diogenes. He was still unable to free himself and had swallowed the vial to bring down his heartbeat, conserve oxygen, and endure his dreadful co-habitation. After he stretched back his arm and positioned his mouth beside the tiny crack between the lid and the rest of the plywood crate, he propped his head by unbuttoning then bunching up the left side of Go-Go-s suit, so that he could sleep without suffocating. Undine didn’t dare call Diogenes’ name, even with the jet’s roar, and the crates were apt to cause a racket if they fell to the floor. She carefully climbed the stack in order to start lifting lids and considered how she could, if necessary, reach the bottom.
Diogenes regretted his decision to drink the morphine. Without the co-operation of his will, his circumstance could bring him an horrific nightmare. As an exercise, he concentrated on the engine’s roar like a long cellolike chord. He breathed, sipping the cold air through his crack, as one would through a straw. He slid back, with the onset of sleep and dreamed he was walking down a street years ago in New York, watching one of the first Navy Transports roar overhead. He was dressed in his first suit, asking directions from a guard in Grand Central Station. The guard directed him to the elevator as he needed to report for his first day at work. He stepped inside and thought he recognized Grabmaler, waiting beside him. Diogenes followed him out when they reached the fifty-fifth floor. The businessman spoke to Lazarus then disappeared into the office with the view of the then intact New York skyline, leaving the door briefly ajar, with the Empire State to his right and the whole of 42nd street as it was, crowded with pandhandlers and prostitutes.
It was in the early days of Wall Street disasters. The New York Times on the desk editorialized “The Collapse: Who’s Behind It?”, and still had its old format. Diogenes lifted it, reading about the new President of Russia’s further reversal of the last’s democratic unsuccessful regime, and about persistent turmoil in Asian stock markets.
The secretary admonished him for smoking and, embarrassed at not finding an ashtray, he stepped into the hall and ran water over the butt then tossed it in a bin. Lazarus, with his thin white hair, greeted him warmly when he stepped back in. He showed Diogenes into a smaller boardroom without windows, lifting his résumé from a file cabinet on the way. As they sat down, both younger, Diogenes again had the uncanny sensation of trying to “invade the dream” and wanted to warn Lazarus about Grabmaler but could not move his lips. Lazarus explained that Tombstone had just opened its office and apologized for the boxes in the hall and for how long it took him to respond to his application. He smelled as he used to, while perusing Diogenes’ application, of a mixture of Old Sailor’s after-shave and Éclat Soap. Lazarus began to explain that the economy was beginning to change and that, however unfortunate, their company, which retailed headstones and which would soon buy quarries in Utah, was unlikely to go out of business.
The man in the corner office, whom Diogenes now knew to be Grabmaler, called to Lazarus, who left to show “The Executive Director” out while Diogenes briefly inspected the office. When Diogenes put down an invoice he had examined, it appeared to be years later. Lazarus stood behind him, apologizing for having to entrust the office to him. Lazarus’ wife sat behind him, nervously folding a hanky. Diogenes was wearing the same suit coat, now threadbare. Careworn stress had furrowed Lazarus’ brow, leaving him a pale image of his old optimistic self. Diogenes walked into the corner office and looked down to the streets. Bulldozers were clearing the collapsed buildings which housed squatters who piled into the bankrupt store fronts which once lined 42nd Street. He glanced to the Daily News building, now surrounded by cement pile-ons, and followed the headlines. It read: “IF YOU WANT TO KNOW … I AM STILL ALIVE.”
Diogenes felt a shiver climb up his spine then swung around and saw Go-Go dressed in Lazarus’ suit. It was the suit Lazarus wore when Diogenes first reported to work. Go-Go lifted the stack of invoices, all headstone requests, wearing a dead leer on his white lips as he held out an invoice to Diogenes, languid fingers flipping the sheets, as one would a phone book or a narrative cartoon. Diogenes yanked open a drawer with the slim chance that a gun might appear but it was stuffed with counterfeit money. He ran into the front office and checked the street and saw that the just erected skyscrapers and buildings were absolutely flattened. It was if he had a glimpse into the very distant future when New York itself had been razed, after a century of decaying down to its foundations. New York was a series of pinnacles or fragments of metal covered by volcanic dirt driven by a fierce black wind.
“Get out!” Diogenes mumbled, moving his lips in his sleep. He had the sensation of invading the dream. Go-Go smirked and poked the invoices his way, as if to say: “It’s all inevitable.” Diogenes shouted again: “Get out! Get out!”
He was struggling with Undine, shouting, when she covered his mouth, having slid the top crates off when she heard him scream from the bottom of the stack. She whispered frantically into his ear: “It’s me! It’s me!” and fought against his nightmarish delirium. She eased his head from the crate, while he still shouted, if only to quiet him and to re-arrange the statues so that they could hide together in one crate before landing in Hoboken.
On the other side of the wall, covered by sound-insulated carpet, they heard the crates fall. Rupert explained to Imke, Eva and Beuve’s kid-prostitute, that he should have loaded the whole of the shipment, suspecting that the cargo-handlers did a careless job. Imke ignored him and lay back on the bed and instructed that they all “play” together. Eva slithered onto the bed and began combing the girl’s hair as Imke rose again to unbutton Rupert’s shirt. Over her shoulder, she ordered Eva to undo hers and the girl’s blouse and that they would all entertain Rupert. The young girl, who was already undressed, mindlessly obliged. Eva, who still feared Imke, began to do as she was told, but languidly, not knowing whether this was Imke’s or Grabmaler’s request, and wondering whether it might be a trap. Rupert, mindful that Undine and Diogenes were on the other side of the partition, reflected on whether he’d risk suspicion if he declined.
“Go ahead without me.” He said, standing up. “Much has happened in the last few days and I have to … think.” He chanced, buttoning up his shirt.
“But Rupert … ” Eva protested, pouting.
Beuve’s mistress hid under the sheets waiting for Imke’s nod.
“Take the mesc and don’t be boring.” Imke ordered sternly, passing him the crystals from a silk handkerchief in her palm.
“Maybe later.” Rupert longed to see if Undine and Diogenes were all right in the cargo bay. He sensed them there, wondering if they had an accident, or if he hadn’t miscalculated that the cargo bay was not heated, or worse, not pressurized. It would draw suspicion if he mentioned the cargo bay, since he still had to unload when they landed on Grabmaler’s airstrip in Hoboken.
Rupert re-examined Imke. Her features were attractive but hard. When he had sex with her, her cynicism and strength felt impersonal and masculine. She also had introduced, almost forced him, into sex-practices, which, after making love to and having loved Undine, seemed vicious, as if cruelty were essential to her sexual pleasure. He scanned the pout-lipped Eva, Beuve’s “old” nymphette, her round face cosmetically hovering over her geisha-like upheld robe, her eyes dully soft, her expression stupid. And the girl under the sheets, with her childish features overloaded with play-acted, obligatory sensuality which could only refer him to the drugged efforts of the flabby Beuve, hallucinating his way through the sex-act, salivating while her eyes rolled back into her head, as she shammed orgasm.
Rupert returned to his seat in the front. Beuve had nodded off. The stewardess dabbed saliva from Beuve’s lapel and stuffed a pillow under his lolling head. Grabmaler marked time. Rupert pretended to doze but Grabmaler turned to him and said:
“After we arrive in Hoboken, I want you to choose the work you’d like to pursue … ”
“I will continue writing.” Rupert answered, eyes still closed.
“Yes, I know. I won’t rush you. But I won’t be here forever and if I go … I want you to inherit the Internationale.” Grabmaler persisted, a trifle embarrassed.
“If I inherited any wealth I’d give it to the poor. I would hire scientists to research a cure for the Plague.”
“What do you know of such things? Have you ever seen anyone dying of the Plague? In New York, in Paris?” Grabmaler huffed.
“Not of the Plague, no.” Rupert opened his eyes.
“There is no Plague, Rupert.” Grabmaler declared.
“Then what happens … why do people disappear and it’s said … they died of Plague … ?” Rupert stammered.
“There just is no Plague. Take my word for it.”
“Then what is there?” Rupert persisted.
“Disease. Disappearances.”
“Disappearances? You mean murders.”
“You said it. I didn’t.” Grabmaler shrugged.
Rupert quit the subject. Why didn’t he ever suspect it? It was a rumor spread by private militias, perhaps by Grabmaler himself. What pained Rupert was not that there was no new Plague per se but that he had been so naive as to act in concert with its profiteers. Grabmaler lifted his thumbs from his folded hands, again to express a shrug. How could a murderer, interpersonally, be so polite, urbane, affable, so fatherly? Rupert then thought carefully if murder could be justified. If Grabmaler could be right. That is, if those who want to survive and prosper in an overpopulated world of exhausted resources and economic disintegration might have to take lives in order to preserve their own. Or to preserve civilization. Was he a strict pacifist? No. Life was so cheap now and so savage that Rupert knew he could kill in self-defense, although he did not want to, and felt thankful that he had never been obliged. But what is the threshold? Where is the boundary? And what, or who, determines when taking a life is permissible, or even ethical?
He meditated on Undine’s description of Berlin and the struggle to preserve human rights, the poverty, the exclusion Georg accepted as the cost for founding their city-state. He could feel Undine and Diogenes in the back of the jet, behind the kept girls and the opportunistic Imke. And here he was, ensconced in the “first class”, with an exponent of “The Plague” and his junky aesthetician! A few hours passed. Rupert fell asleep. When he woke with his head on the glass, icebergs floated in Atlantic blue waves off the coast of Newfoundland. The islands, like bears crouching or hibernating among still naked trees and patches of snow, mutely reflected the wedge of their jet casting a quick shadow across their hunched woodland backs.
Soon, the gray brown cloud which hung over the East Coast from Portland, Maine, intensifying over Boston, thickened to the nearly impenetrable shroud of New York. As they slid into the foremost fingers of the black New York smog, Rupert noticed that the girls had buckled into their seats and the stewardess strapped-in the still passed-out Beuve. Grabmaler had apparently volunteered to land the plane and was now the pilot. Finally, as they began to descend into the thick smog, its grease cut by the now smeared wings broke apart intermittently to reveal street crowds swarming like a nest of maggots, below the jagged skyline which spired upward in chiaroscuro’d gray.
An explosion went off on the docks, in the East River. A tanker was sinking with squatters jumping into oily waves. They then veered West and flew briefly over Lower Manhattan, where Wall Street lay dormant. One of the Twin Tower’s rooftops was crammed with tents and torn blankets, the other with an observation platform for the paramilitary “Blunts”, right-wing nationalists who had blown holes in their own deck with a defective bomb. Washington Square was filled with the “Union for Mass Law”, who had also infiltrated the old offices of New York University, and held monkey-trails for their victims, to “esponge” the pacifist Pure Land Buddhists. It was all a blur now as they dropped and crossed the Hudson River and were positioning to land on Grabmaler’s private strip, with its anti-aircraft guns, barbed wire and mine-field. Just as they were skirting the defenses, Grabmaler’s voice blasted out from the intercom, welcoming everyone, especially Rupert, back to New York, announcing an evening party, complete with “illuminations” and a viewing of their newly acquired statues.
Before he knew it, Rupert was insisting on the runway that he oversee the unloading of the plywood crates, standing not more than a hundred yards from the compound surrounding the inverted skyscraper. Grabmaler tolerantly waved the guards to follow Rupert’s instructions and walked through the barbed wire compound with Beuve and the girls, all anxious to shower and to rest for the evening’s entertainment.