Not even the nattiest turtleneck can spare old men the well-deserved accusation of lechery when waxing on the sublime beauty of the female form in the blossom of youth. Those of us courageous enough to accept the charge may also be lucky enough to have the prudence to restrict our lust to a quick sideways glance rather than the grimacing leer nature impels. “It’s rude to stare” is doubly true when the intent is baldly, nakedly, aggressively lustful.
As a younger man, I would audibly scoff at creepy old men ogling girls young enough to be their granddaughters. Yet the older I get, the more my scorn softens. My scorn softens for the simple reason that I find myself joining their ranks. I tell myself when I catch my eyes lingering a little too long on the curves of a girl not much past her second decade that I’ve done little more than develop a more refined taste for the natural beauty of woman in her prime. I’m even vain enough to pretend to rational-sounding biological or neurological justifications. But these are soothing little falsehoods, and now that the lies have been stripped mercilessly from the grim chambers of our hearts here beyond the end of the world, I find that I must confront the unkind truth that I’m no more immune to the inexorable decay into a dirty old man than I am to the thinning of my hair or the aching of my bones.
There is no pleasure in this admission, no succor. “At least I’m being honest with myself” is cold comfort weighed against the discourtesy inflicted upon others. Worse yet perhaps is that try as I might, I cannot summon so much as a tinge of guilt over my intemperance. I gaze with a clear conscience. Rationally, I know that I should be ashamed. I accept claims that unwanted stares can yield discomfort, that a lingering gaze can be aggressively unwelcome. But reason is the slave of the passions, and the older I get, the more commanding my passions become.
Coming to grips with my own inadequacies makes me neither more virtuous nor more mature than anyone else in circumstances similar to mine. Perhaps such self-awareness allows me the luxury from time to time of minding myself in trying circumstances. Perhaps not. Perhaps the best upshot is that I can treat myself to the vain realization that I don’t delude myself about my own crass motivations. Then again, we stopped lying to ourselves, so I’m robbed of even the small pleasure of knowing that I earned my petty insight through the toil of careful reflection and analysis. It is a cheap-won victory, a ticky-tacky philosophical trinket, vest flair for wait staff at the Hotel California.
Cosmetics were a thing of the world that was. Commercial makeup production had ceased the same as if it were activated charcoal, synthetic motor oil, or enriched uranium. No one cared enough to bother making and distributing it. More to the point, no one retained sufficient vanity to support a market in the stuff. Those few women who elect to ply their trade by crimson light may still color their cheeks with ochre or smudge a little soot under their eyes, but these little nods to fertility and youth serve the chief purpose of denoting profession, the same way a smith might sport a leather apron or a tinker a pair of modest spectacles.
The Baroness was, to my best reckoning, not a courtesan. In the world that was, polite folk might have described her as “eccentric.” But here? Here where frivolity lay dead, where contests of rank were bone-in-nose curios of distant, savage lands, where we no longer had anything to prove to anyone, least of all ourselves? Here she was a genuine outlander, a mystic, a sage, a holy woman. A Philadelphia goth oracle who deigned to stomp her surplus jungle boots in the midst of peasants. She smudged her eyes with coal black, stained her lips ruby with the juice of berries, but it was to warn rather than to entice. Welcome to my parlor said the spider to the fly.
The putative demesne of the Baroness covered the old McMenamins domain, a north-south sward mostly along the ruins of I-5 stretching from the scorched plains of Roseburg in the south to the caustic silt of Lake Union in the north. Like her manorial forbears, she claimed residual rights over her dominion, but unlike her manorial forbears, her portfolio was light on agriculture and industry. Instead, the bulk of her bailiwick was information. In a crushed, cracked, scattered, strewn world, there was safety in knowledge, comfort in companionship. The Baroness kept her stock-in-trade neatly maintained in census ledgers, swapped gossip for soup, ground her bread in the rumor mill.
Business was brisk. Her chief administrative center occupied the long-abandoned grounds of a 19th century boarding school set halfway between Portland and Astoria. A modest grove of overgrown cherry trees spilled their bounty across San Juan limestone flagstones. Insolent songbirds shrieked carnal soliloquies at each other. Over the main entryway hung a sigil, maybe five feet across rough hewn from dark granite: two concentric circles with eight outward-pointing arrows forming a crude parody of a compass rose. Inside, construction rubble sat tastefully arranged along the base of the sturdy plaster walls. Deformed taxidermy stared me down as I made my way to a repurposed gymnasium. The damp, cool air circulating underneath the vaulted ceilings bore a metallic odor. My best guess is that an artesian aquifer provided natural air conditioning to the building.
There’s nothing quite like the sound of a phonograph. Vinyl albums retain the character of the material from which they are cut, and tin horns select mid-range frequencies over the extreme treble and bass ranges characteristic of the selection playing as I was led into the Baroness’s decryption chamber.
Me: “I haven’t heard this in, well, I can’t remember the last time.”
The Baroness: “Strip. To the waist.”
Me: “Caustic Grip. This track is Forge, right?” Bill Leeb informed me that my mental games were getting weak. I shrugged out of my ragged gray polo and turned my back to her. A stooped man sporting a jeweler’s visor began transcribing the small tattoo atop my T3 vertebra. “I wouldn’t have guessed you were a fan.”
The Baroness: “You were given a number to memorize. What is it?”
Me: “The number. Yes. Uh, two three two three one nine zero eight.” The stooped man toddled off after gesturing me to put my shirt back on. I dutifully complied. “I caught them when they were touring for Millennium, but Caustic Grip was a little before my time.”
The Baroness: “Please wait here while we verify your identity.” She vanished behind a velvet-trimmed chainmail curtain. Provision was the next song up. I found a stool to await her return.
Outside, Anika collected the mottled yellow-and-scarlet Rainier cherries under the blistering eye of the weird sun. Clotho found a patch of shade to nuzzle under, one eye on the girl as his tail thumped with satisfied familiarity. It had taken some creative evasion to keep the reason for our visit hidden from Anika’s insatiable curiosity. Lies had been torn from my throat, but this place lay on the fault line between the Pacific maelstrom and the blight of the hinterlands. I could still bring myself to deceive by omission. It was strangely refreshing.
Inside, I lifted the heavy, yet perfectly counterbalanced needle cartridge as the B-side finished up on The Chair, a downbeat epilogue to an otherwise relentlessly domineering album. The needle point itself was commercial diamond, but it was housed in a metal quite unlike the rest of the machine. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen its like before.
The Baroness: “It’s a palladium-rhodium alloy of my own design.” Her sudden appearance startled me. I very nearly dropped the needle back onto the record. “Both metals can be recovered from catalytic converters, and I’ve found it works better for chirpy electronic tracks. Check the rack for Burn Out At The Hydrogen Bar.”
Me: “You have that? On vinyl?” I vaguely recalled it being next to impossible to find that recording on CD back in my dingy record shop foraging days. “I’ll be damned. Here it is. Suicide Jag okay?”
The Baroness: “Sure. Predictable, but okay.” I grimaced. The accusation was correct. So were her claims about the sound quality of the alloy. The grinding squeal that opened the track was pleasantly assonant. I suppressed the small sensation of wistfulness that inevitably accompanied a brush with Chemlab. Talent like theirs should have produced a far larger catalog. “It’ll be at least an hour till we can finish decryption and verification. Have you eaten?”
Me: “Not yet.” My eyes were fixed on the machine in front of me. I harbored a quiet fear that should my gaze wander too long on her, my thoughts would turn to enfeebling lust. It seemed unlikely to me that a woman able to gain a respectable degree of dominion in a shattered world would be unfamiliar with the techniques required to turn a man’s carnal desires against him. Prudence counseled against valor. I began flipping through her extensive record collection as a ruse to keep my attention averted.
The Baroness: “I have some pheasant aged. Shall I send for your ward? What’s her name again?”
Me: “Anika. She’s just a kid. I doubt you’d find her conversation interesting.”
The Baroness: “I’ll be the judge of that, runner. Janissary, please retrieve the girl.” A mustache armed with 25 stone of muscle and scimitar strode out of the chamber with obedient purpose. I fished out a bootleg 12″ single pressing of 1000 Homo DJs and put the original studio recording of Supernaut on. Trent Reznor started screaming at me in front of what I’d always suspected to be the merciless drumming of Martin Atkins. I never really found out for sure though.
Me: “So what was it I was carrying with that powdered orange anyway?”
The Baroness: “My dear runner,” her voice was languid, bemused, “in what state of affairs do you imagine that I might tell you that?”
Me: “I carried this shit clear up from Riverside all the while keeping the reason secret from an inquisitive little girl. I shrugged. “I don’t know, it seems reasonable to ask.”
The Baroness: “It is always reasonable to ask, runner. I wouldn’t be who I am if I didn’t ask. Constantly and relentlessly. But you seem like a sharp enough man to know that there are a great many questions that ought not be answered.”
Me: “True enough. When can I expect payment?”
The Baroness: “Are you in a hurry?” In lieu of responding directly, I lifted Led Zeppelin II from its sleeve, placed the platter on the turntable, and set the needle in the third groove on the B side. She grinned. “So I know who your Girl so Fair is, but who’s your Gollum and the Evil One?”
Me: “I reckon I’ll find out if my payment was worth the trouble, eh?” The swarthy hill giant she kept as a retainer returned, a chipper Anika astride his shoulders hollering “giddayup” and tugging the ends of his plentiful whiskers like a bridle. I cringed.
The Baroness: “You must be Anika. Welcome to my home.”
Anika: “I like it here. All the skeletons are spooky. I bet you have the best Samhains here.” She hopped down and glanced over at me. “What are you doing? What is that?”
Me: “It’s a phonograph. It plays music. Didn’t you have one on the farm?”
Anika: “I don’t know. Maybe? No one listened to old world music. It didn’t sound right. What’s this playing now? I like it.”
Me: “This is Led Zeppelin. Here, try this.” I swapped out the Zep for some Ministry. Anika craned her head over to learn for the first time that Jerry Lee Lewis was the devil. Her eyes widened. I motioned her over to the player and instructed her to refrain from touching anything.
The Baroness: “Aren’t you worried about turning her into a degenerate listening to such filth?” Her delivery was pitch-perfect, not so much as a hint of overt irony in either tone or expression.
Me: “It’s funny, isn’t it?”
The Baroness: “Do go on, runner.”
Me: “Both Uncle Al and Grandpa Sascha released symbols albums at about the same time. Both of which were departures from their signature sounds.” A slim man in a finely tailored changshan brought out a soup I recognized instantly. “Brigit? This is Brigit’s soup.”
The Baroness: “Indeed. Thank you for seeing her safe return. I hate to be without my favorite sous chef.”
Me: “She works for you.” It was more a statement than a question. “That explains” I tried in vain to keep the remark from sounding too cliche “so much.”
The Baroness: “Oh my dear. You didn’t think it was just happy coincidence that someone just happened to meet you just as you were getting ready to traverse the worst stretch of hostile country did you?” I did my best to keep from looking sheepish. I had at least fifteen years on this girl. My pride wouldn’t permit me the display.
Me: “Well thank you. Thank you for that. I had an unexpected injury. I’m not sure we would have made it in time otherwise.” I raised an eyebrow. “I’m curious though. Brigit and Clay seem like perfectly competent couriers. Why not have them run your messages?”
The Baroness: “You presume to tell me my business, runner?” Arch amusement without condescension. Impressive.
Me: “Idle curiosity, Baroness.” I too kept untoward sentiment from my retort.
The hunched scrivener who had transcribed the ink on my back returned to hand her ladyship a folded sheet of paper. Good stock too. 80 weight at least. She peered at it for a moment and excused herself. Anika wandered over and finished my soup without asking.
Anika: “So do you know where we’re going next?”
Me: “‘We’ huh? You want to stick with me? I thought you liked it here. I bet this baroness would have work for someone like you.”
Anika: “No chance. You’re after something and I want to see if you make it.” I wondered for a moment why I’d never bothered before to ask her motivation for shadowing me.
Me: “You know what they say about wishing for stuff, right?”
Anika: “What, I might just get it?”
Anika: “I’ll worry about that when the day comes.”
The record ended just as The Baroness returned. She seemed preoccupied. Anika went back to ferret through the record collection.
The Baroness: “Luck is fickle. We work at common purpose for now. The woman you seek was last seen in Alaska.” My pulse quickened. She was alive. And if I hurried I could make it before the weather turned. Probably. Depends on what part of Alaska.
Me: “What part of Alaska?”
The Baroness: “Skagway.” She beckoned the stooped man. “Please bring me nav charts from here to the Gulf of Alaska.” She turned her attention back to me. “Will you deliver a message to Juneau for me?” She twisted an oversized ring of the same weird metal as in the phonograph needle around her index finger. “It is urgent. Name your price.”
I found myself at a loss for words. I did not expect to continue this unorthodox commerce. I no more enjoy having others beholden to me than I enjoy being beholden to others. A clean ledger is a happy ledger. Forever and anon.
Anika: “How about this one you guys? Confessions of a Knife.”
Me: “No. Look for Front 242. My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult isn’t something you need to listen to at your age.” I made sincere eye contact with The Baroness for the first time since entering the room. “Unless you have more detailed information about what I seek, you have nothing to offer me.” She scowled. “But since it’s on my way, how about we say you just owe me a favor?” Her scowl softened. She wasn’t just conventionally pretty, she was tough chick pretty, the kind I’ve always found it hard to resist. Every second that passed made me feel like a dirtier old man.
The Baroness: “Very well. You have a deal. You won’t need another tattoo, but it will take some time to encrypt the message with your private key.”
Me: “My key?”
The Baroness: “Your tattoo plus that number you memorized. It both verifies your identity and lets the recipient decrypt the message. Don’t worry about it too much.”
Me: “Suit yourself. I still can’t figure out what the big secret is, but I suppose that’s your concern, not mine.”
The Baroness: “Tell me something, runner.”
Me: “My name is Sam.” Anika had picked out Front by Front. I closed my eyes in the pleasures of days long gone by. A superlative album, one of the best EBM compositions ever recorded.
The Baroness: “How did subculture die, runner?”
Me: “I’m not sure I understand the question.” The second course came in, belatedly. Anika skipped over to the table to sit with one leg tucked under her, the way only children can and remain comfortable.
The Baroness: “Goths, hippies, college republicans, gamers, sports fans, name your subculture. Before the madness, the barriers blurred, membership cheapened. There were no longer any sharp dividing lines between subcultures. Why do you suppose that was?”
Me: “I can’t say I’ve given it any thought. I didn’t even realize that was the case. I’ve always sort of thought of subcultures as being, I don’t know, what’s the right word? A la carte maybe? Like I can be a Skinny Puppy fan.”
Anika: “Skinny what now?”
Me: “When this record is over, go find Too Dark Park.”
The Baroness: “Rabies is better.”
Me: “You think so?”
The Baroness: “More accessible anyway.”
Me: “You’re probably right. Go find Rabies. Anyway, I can be a Skinny Puppy fan and enjoy amateur astronomy and play Warhammer and do macrame and, um, what else do I like? Rock climbing, gardening. You know, whatever strikes my fancy. I don’t think I ever once in my life definitively identified with a distinct subculture.”
The Baroness: “But you agree that the subcultures existed, yes?”
Me: “I suppose. It always seemed to me the same way team loyalties were. Squint your eyes hard enough and a hockey fan is indistinguishable from a hardcore Dungeons and Dragons player.” More food. Belgian style fried potatoes. Best style in the world. Executed to near perfection. “It might have been the case before Internet supra-culture showed up that picking and choosing was rare, but it could be done. I did it, after all. I’m no one special.”
The Baroness: “So it was the Internet?”
Me: “I can’t really say for sure. Cheap, worldwide, asynchronous communication pulls at least two directions: it lowers switching costs and it lowers creation costs. So the Web made it easier to learn more about, oh, say, dressing up in animal costumes. But it also enabled folks who might not have even had a word for the thing they liked to do to form little clubs or societies or whatever. Just think of how many fetishes emerged once people were able to find like-minded strangers who could say, ‘oh hey, you like big hairy dudes dressed up like Squirrel Girl too? Awesome. Let’s have a meetup in September.’ Or, you know, whatever. Maybe there’s no subculture anymore because there are so many, and it’s really hard to keep the fences up when the land is so finely divided.”
The Baroness: “I see. And you don’t think you’re just identifying a proximate cause?”
Me: “Dig long enough and you’re liable to find gold.” I shrugged, reaching for the salt. “The end of the world should have been a good enough experiment to test my hypothesis. No more Internet, no more low barriers to ad hoc tribal formation. A great many freak flags should have burned in the pyres of our cities.”
The Baroness: “I take it you think your experiment was contaminated.”
Me: “It was. Yeah. We did have some walled tribes show up. Hell, ask Anika and me about Texas sometime. But mostly, the mundane demands of survival plus the execution of romance put the sword to any culture apart from what you get from subsistence agriculture. Hell, even Christmas finally died.”
The Baroness: “So it’s an inconsistent, unpredictable story?”
Me: “Yeah. It is. I guess I never really thought about it. I mean, I know that the world doesn’t make sense anymore, but I just thought it all went to hell and was garbled chaos. Now that you mention it, there might be a pattern to the lunacy. I’m not sure I can say what that pattern might be though.”
The Baroness: “That, runner, is why I need you to go to Juneau.”
Me: “I see.” I didn’t see.
The Baroness: “No you don’t. But it’s okay. It probably wouldn’t do you much good if you did.”
Me: “As opposed to you then?”
The Baroness: “Who were you before the madness started? What were you?”
Me: “I was just me. I studied economics. I was a veteran. A husband. Just a regular dude. Why?”
The Baroness: “There must have been something special about you. You survived.”
Me: “I don’t think there was anything special. I think I’m still alive from a combination of luck and an abundance of caution. The first couple of years were horrific on land, so I stayed on my boat and only went ashore when I had to, and then only at night. Fear is probably what kept me alive more than anything.”
The Baroness: “Before the madness, I was a wreck. I had a few run-ins with mental health professionals. I did poorly in school despite testing extremely high on IQ exams. I got in a lot of fights, and I self-medicated. It was, in retrospect, an altogether unpleasant upbringing.”
Me: “Sounds like a common enough story.”
The Baroness: “Perhaps, but how many hard luck cases like me were abruptly cured the moment the world went insane?”
Me: “Like I said, I keep to myself. I’ve not exactly been keeping count.”
The Baroness: “Runner, there is something at play here. Something mystical. Something arcane. I can’t explain it yet, but I will. I will explain why the world and I understand each other. I will explain why I thrive in this broken world of chaos, but the old order was a din enough to drive me halfway to the bughouse.”
Anika: “What’s a bughouse?”
Me: “Asylum.” I motioned for Anika to pipe down. “Well, you must be doing something right anyway. It’s hard to have a fiefdom these days.”
The Baroness: “Though it pains me to do so, I am assigning Brigit and Clay to remain with you until your message is delivered. I am also giving you this journal.” The leather was warm from her grasp and still smelled faintly of the tannery. “Should you encounter a mad prophet, I want you to record every word they say. Verbatim. Do you understand?”
Me: “I understand the instructions. I don’t understand the purpose.”
The Baroness: “Excellent. I couldn’t ask for more. And that’s exactly why I can’t send Brigit and Clay on their own.”
Me: “Oh. Okay, I get it.” I didn’t get it.
The Baroness: “And it should go without saying that you are not to discuss this matter with either of them. They have instructions to inform me should you breach this term of our contract.” She leaned over, bared a shoulder, and tapped the tattoo there with the delicately lacquered nail of the opposite hand. It was the same sigil that hung over the entryway. “You do not wish to be in breach of contract with me.”
Her aroma was intoxicating. Desert rose undergirded by musk and ambergris with an accent of lilac and something umami. Blood perhaps. My eyes went a little swimmy for a moment.
The pheasant was pleasant.