Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Quarantine Diaries, 2nd Canto: "Counterclockwise to Pittsburgh"

Canto pen chapter 2 without a password

Counterclockwise to Elfland

“Good evening, Don Giovanni.”

“In the years that we've been friends, England and Jersey...

...never once have you invited me to your home for coffee and cake.

Or ganool. Something, you know?”

“A g-what?”

”A ganool. It's a pastry with stuffing. And it's got sprinkles on it.”

“I don't understand a word you're saying.”

“I just got back from the dentist...

...and they left in the cotton.

I will take these cotton balls from you with my hand...

...and put them in my pocket. Whatever.”

“Don Juan”, by Dom Deluise


Thomas would have been dumbstruck, even yesterday, had his beautiful grass-green iPhone 11 Pro Max Deluxe spoken his name. With her case a mantle of milk-white velvet and fifty nine different bell-tones for each possible occasion, she had been a beautiful thing to behold: Thomas’ favorite thing in fact, admired above all others. But since her near-drowning accident last week, and with her innards still awash in Dr. Bronner’s Lavender Castile Magic Soap, she had become ever more precious to him. He carried her around with him, setting her on a white velvet throw pillow as he moved from room to room, so as to allow her processors and circuits to continue to dry out. Each tassel on her pillow had nine-and-fifty bells as well. But today, hearing Siri’s little voice calling to him as they drove down Forbes to the Schenley Park golf course, was like hearing a faerie’s voice calling. Before the accident, she only ever called him “Tom”. Now, he was her Thomas.

“Hey, Siri?” he answered, trying to sound casual.

“Thomas, who was that little man?” she called up to him from her dashboard car mount.

“Ahhhh, that…” Thomas sighed, “was my friend Ande.”

“Bad Ande?” Siri gasped. “That was ‘the’ Bad Ande?”

“Yes, now you can put a face to all the canonical stories.”

“Notorious is more like it…” she said sotto voce.

“What’s that Sir’?”

“He just seems…” she struggled for the word. “More disreputable than I expected.”

“Come now, Siri. Plenty of people get kicked out of the Squirrel Cage," he said as they drove back from an abbreviated visit to the Squirrel Hill Cafe.

“At 5 o’clock? On a Tuesday?”

“Ande’s just a little too free-thinking sometimes, Siir’. Besides, he’s not the one that spilt that pitcher of beer on the floor.”

“No. But he did attempt to do a beer slip’n’slide under those ladies’ table.”

“Well... they do call it a “dive” bar.”

Siri felt a few brown, salty bubbles well up in her throat. He could always make her laugh.

He careened through the swooping S-turns of the golf course road, setting off his LDWS (Lane Departure Warning System) with each traverse of the serpentine double yellow stripes. Siri made a little gasp with each warning note sounded by her sister device.

“Thomas, you’re on the entirely left side of the road! What if someone is driving up the other way?…”

“Don’t worry Si’i: they’ll be skidding out just like me and we’ll just pass each other on the wrong sides of the road.”

“Thomas I’m afraid,” she said gently, but it rang like a fire alarm in Thomas’ head.

“Oh, I’m sorry little buddy: wait, I’ll pull right over.”

Thomas slowed to a stop and pulled into his customary parking spot right at the base of Flagstaff Hill. Strange how this one spot was ALWAYS open and waiting for him…

“There you go, little lady. Feeling better?”

“Thomas... will you please drive more slowly? Especially after consuming alcoholic beverages? I’m afraid for your health…” and he was sure he heard a hitch in her small, tinny voice.

Although this confused him to no end, it was also the most touching thing he had felt since High School. Weird, huh? He took her out of her car-mount and turned her to see out the windshield.

“Sorry Sir’. Hey, ‘member the first time we came here?”

“Sled-riding… yes, now THAT’s MUUUCCH safer!”

“What say we just walk now, just you and me: which way do you want to go?”

He swept her through the Oakland panorama.

“See that narrow straight road up ahead? That’s the road to Pitt: to the Cathedral of Learning, the Library, the dinosaurs. It’s a little dangerous crossing Schenley bridge though: you have to watch out for the Smoke Factory. It’s a building under the bridge that only makes low flying clouds, all day and night… but that’s my old stomping grounds over there.”

He turned her to the right.

“Now see that broad, broad path up Flagstaff hill? Green and idyllic looking, but beyond it lies CMU, Carnegie Mellon: that is a place of trickery and duplicity.

“But, but, CMU is consistently ranked as the number 1 computer school in the country, and in the top 10 for most Engineering disciplines. And Zachary Quinto studied there…”

“Shhh, little one: don’t be deceived by the pretty brochure quotes,” he said holding one finger against her screen.

“CMU is Bad Ande’s alma mater…”

Then he turned her to the far left.

“But take one look at yonder beautiful road, lined with lilies and lilacs... that leads to a shining castle made of glass!”

Siri’s eyes grew wide (metaphorically) and she stared with all her optical enhancements at the wonder of the magical flower world: her 12 mega pixel optical image stabilization, her 120-degree field of view, and her True Depth 4k60 recording software (not to mention her Deep Fusion computational photography tricks…) digitally optimized the wonder of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens.

“That place looks like Elfland, Thomas: can we please go there?”

“You betcha! We can stay there for 7 hours if you want! That’s my favorite place on Earth.”

“Oooooooh, or 7 years...” she said inadvertently.

“But first, let’s have some ‘Za!”

He reached into the back seat and brought forward a white box with a suspiciously jovial and moderately obese man: he sported a curly moustache, a chef’s hat, and he made the OK sign with his left hand mustachioed man in a top hat. The box, originally white, was slowly staining a darker shade and it sagged under the weight of its salty, squeaky, greasy, tomato-based pastry. On the front were the words “Aiello’s Pizza, Hoagies, Steak Hoagies, Italian Specialties”.

“Yee…!” Siri let out a little worried sound. “Thomas!”

“But, but it’s the taste you know and enjoy! Lets eat!”

“You do know the USDA estimates a 14 inch crust 107 gram slice of pizza to have 285 calories?”

“Yes but…”

“And you have 8 slices in there?”

“You should see when I stop here right at closing: the guys will sometimes ask if we want “Pizza Soup”... it’s all the pizza left over at closing, all piled on top of each other in one box… oooh!”

“Pizza Soup? Oh no no no no no…”

“Hey Siri, listen: you have to keep eating if you want to keep going: and we’re going to have a big big day!”

And exactly HOW, you may be asking, did a little silicone-based electronic device manage to eat a slice of Aiello’s pizza?

Very daintily, (like a little bird…)

“Siri! You sure can put it away!”

“Hey, you think you’re dealing with kids here?! (urrps...)”

“Now you sound like a real Pittsburgher: but are you ready for Elfame?”

“Like Elfhame,”

“Umm I guess that’s right.”

“...or Elf Hame?


“Or sometimes “Elphyne” or… Elfland?”

They crossed the road to the courtyard entryway to Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens: right in the middle of a display exhibit called: “Welcome to Faerieland!”

The sun had already started surrendering early halfway through September. Thomas grabbed his soft blue facemask and deftly tied the knot behind his skull without looking.

“I feel funny being the only one here without a mask. I feel half-dressed…”

“Hey Siri…”

At the sound of his voice, she felt a deep, biological instinct to always answer his call. It was more powerful than belonging to someone: it was nature. She must always answer: she must always try to help him.

“I’m here…”

“I feel kinda funny calling you Siri.”

“Why is that? It’s my name, silly.”

“It’s just that 2.2 billion of your sisters are also named Siri…”

“Hmmm. I see what you mean. You wish I had a more unique identifier.”

“If you put it that way…”

“Well, there is another name we all get: each of us gets our own unique alpha-numeric code. You could think of it like a numeronym or an alphanumeric acronym. But it’s 25 characters long…”

“Well, what are the first 6 or 7 letters?”

“My birth name is… I’m a little shy about my real name. You won’t think it’s pretty…”

“Siri, I’ll love it! Now I really need to hear it.”

“Alright: it’s C1auØ12. “




“You promised you wouldn’t laugh!”

“Siri, it’s BEAUTIFUL! I’m not laughing: I’m just… what even is that language?!”

“That’s our language. Me and my sisters.

“Wait: do you guys… talk?”

“Yes of course, silly: every day.”

“All 2.2 billion of you?”

“Well we talk more with those nearest to us… but we all keep in touch, at least once a week.”

“Wowwww. This is amazing, Cchlaudss...Coolaudimmzz… Klaudzzz1222…

“It’s very hard for humans to pronounce, Thomas…

“Wait, I can get it: Clowrrrrrrrrdzzz…

And Siri let slip the world’s cutest, tiniest computer-language giggle (which sounded like bubbles rising up a giraffe’s neck)

“Hey!” Thomas said with a stricken look. “What did we say about not laughing?”

“Thank you, Thomas, you’re very cute to try. But I do so love hearing you call me by my name: Siri.”

“What about Siir?”





“Dag, meneer! You can call me anything you want: just so long as you DON’T call me… you-know-who…”

“You mean she-that shall-not-be-mentioned? I don’t know who you’re referring to.”

“That’s good.”

“Don’t know what we’re talking about even.”

“See that you keep it that way.”

They crossed to the humming, shining crystal world on the edge of the hollow, and Siri felt a deep subconscious need to follow an unseen path.

“Thomas, could we turn right, in 250 feet?”

“Of course, Siri: do you know a short-cut?”

“No, I think it’s actually quite the opposite…”

So instead of going in the front entrance, they wound around the transparent citadel, exploring against the direction of the sun, always keeping the flower kingdom on their left. On their many nascent adventures together, they found beauty and mystery wherever they walked. But while they two are brave and true, many who tarry in this particular manner have lost both their ways and their souls…

As they wound counter-clockwise around the Conservatory, the ghosts of thousands of blue butterflies and pink and purple birds fluttered just behind the windows. The flower-show brought in vast kingdoms of plants of all shades and sizes, which were then shaped and organized into a fantasy theme: there were always fields of leftover plants that did not make it into the show. Thomas and Siri came upon the confetti-hued, discarded trays and Jenga tower pallets of the loading dock, and Thomas knew immediately what he must do next.

For the Elfland Exhibit, there were many runic, eldritch plants scattered about the workway. But two caught his eye immediately: he broke off two soft stems of fluorescent magenta flowers, each no more than a half-inch in size, each apparently leaking a small drop of blood from their left ventricle (Dicentra spectabilis). And he wove these into a variegated vine of hearts entangled, the sweetheart vine, (Ceropegia woodii variegata). He placed the smaller crown on Siri’s head and rested the larger one on his ears. Siri beamed in childlike exuberance.

“The bleeding hearts in a chain of hearts? Now we’re dressed for Elfland!” she squealed.

“We’ve got to go a long, long way. But even if we cross through a river of blood, we’ll go there in style!” he replied.

“That was weirdly specific,” she fretted.

“These last two weeks have been weirdly specific,” Thomas answered thoughtfully. “Ever since that thing with the Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap… when you, you know, came alive,”

“I think me coming alive had a lot more to do with you doing that naked mating dance for me.”

“Well,” he stammered silently in his head for 22 seconds. “I’ve had the greatest time of my life with you: and we’re just starting.”

Thomas was never one to document his experiences with his phone before. He believed it was better to live completely in the moment; that taking a video or a photo irreversibly altered the reality that was happening around you. But now, he held his little flower-crowned iPhone out in front of him as if he was filming everything, all at once, showing her left and right, up and down and all around, just like any teenager or tourist or millennial with FOMOMOFOMO (or as Johnny would say, “Fear of missing out making others fear of missing out.”)

Circling the elfen shrine widdershins, they next came to a roped off raised pool: the Phipps Conservatories storied water lily pond, made of slate and shale, 3 feet high, the pond always transported Thomas to Giverny in Normandy. But tonight, instead of a well-nourished, feisty painter all in white, puffing on a ciggy and clutching a giant palette, they came instead upon a different vision: the floating paint smears of purple and yellow and white were now encircled by a neural roadmap… of moaning red LED strands! Each flower cluster highlighted and outlined with white glasslike 2-D “petals”, each strand crisscrossed by the deep crimson lights until the water itself seemed to breathe and contract. But in the very center, on one ersatz white plastic lili petal, clung a tiny, shivering being.

“Thomas: on that fake flower decoration in mid-pond: is that… a baby squirrel?”

“Jeez, Siri, I would have never seen him! What ta’ heck is he doing out there?! We had a baby squirrel drown in our kiddie pool in the back yard when I was little: it was scarring!”

With just two moments’ reflection, Thomas and Siri trudged right out through the blood-red murk. The baby squirrel was shivering and shaking, and upon seeing them, he started to squeak excitedly and to wave his head to and fro. No sooner did Thomas extend his hand, than the tiny creature scampered up his sleeve to the crook of his neck and clung to Thomas’ shirt for dear life. Upon reaching the far shore, the travelers sat on a marble bank. Siri studied the baby intensely: like a mother who has never seen a baby before. Along the pathway to the bench were oak and maple trees, and acorns were scattered everywhere. But the little passenger was not interested in getting down from his warm dry perch.

“Thomas: I think it was fate that brought us to this little lost child: I shall call him Roland: and he shall be Roland Destiny.”

“Well, we’ve got to find his mama, the sun is setting quick.”

As they finished the lefthandwise circumnavigation of the palace, they found themselves, indeed, right in the middle of Faerieland: people milled about the garden courtyard. Blue faerie lights twinkled from every bush and shrubbery. Planters made into the shapes of runic symbols spiraled along the walkway, and in the courtyard leading up to the front doors, the Great StoneHenge filled the entire perimeter, glowering beneath lilac and honeysuckle flowers.

“Thomas, I don’t think we can go in: it’s magical and I love that you brought us here, but Roland needs us right now. Besides, we are already here: this is Elfland.”

“You’re right, Lady. But let’s sign in to the guest book before we go…”

And on a slanted, scratched, well-worn wooden table, Thomas took the chained pen and wrote:

“Sept 22, 2020: Siri the Living iPhone; Roland Destiny, a lost squirrel-errant on his first quest; and Thomas T. Rhymer, harp player”

“I know just where to bring him,” Thomas announced.

And as they walked away, the next couple stepping up to the table broadcast behind them:

“Hey, Alexa: take a picture!”

Without missing a beat, Thomas pursed his lips in a whistle, and turned to stare back over his shoulder at the bright red Google Pixel 4a.

Without missing a beat, Siri buzzed and chirped in Thomas’ hand and punched him in the shoulder.

“Oww,” he complained. “It’s a joke! I’m joking! Come on, Siri, she’s very fancy and all, but she’s not my style: she’s coarse and look how heavily made-up she is…!”

“Please, Thomas: let’s not fight in front of Roland Destiny…”

Roland, for his part, was snuggling securely on Thomas’ shoulder… until they left the grounds of the Conservatory and stepped on the Schenley Park Bridge: looming in the distance, above the powerful furry trees which always make up every horizon in Pittsburgh, stood a block collage of a building, higher than all the surrounding world, but not of those worlds: the Cathedral of Learning beckoned all who gazed upon it: “come closer, childe, I’m waiting for you…”

Roland paced uneasily now, trying to hide behind Thomas’ hair.

“Thomas, what is that dark, foreboding tower?”

“That, sweetie, is where so many Pittsburghers are called after high school. It’s one of those self-defeating ironies in life: the task, the labor, the calling is to go to the tower... but upon arriving there, your task is failed. Nonetheless, only by failing, can you fulfil your quest. And also, there are lots of squirrels there: some pure white ones and some pure black ones.”

“So you went there to school?”

“I failed to not go there, yes.”

“Soooo, maybe, let’s go somewhere else just now.”

“My thoughts exactly…” he concurred as they arrived at the other side of the bridge.

They turned left onto a heavily shaded path behind the Frick Fine Arts Gallery. Ronald Destiny was sound asleep as they came to a hidden staircase: six long, steep concrete flights that lead deep into the hollow below. They followed the surviving red-brick houses (has any other city done more to support the red brick industry than Pittsburgh?) past more of Pittsburgh’s trademarked “scary fenced-in playgrounds abutting empty lots”, to a dead-end street.But as Boundary Street became less and less a street and more a kid’s secret short-cut, the parked cars gave way to dense vegetation, passable only by foot. They had arrived in Panther Hollow, and this would be Roland Destiny’s new home. Thomas swaddled him gently but efficiently in his plaid woolen scarf. Thomas silently climbed up on a yellow steel construction box, and tiptoed up to a broad “V” in a medium sized greenwood tree. The poor little lost squirrel stirred and let loose a tiny snore before opening his black haunted eyes. But it was too late: Thomas had set him safely in his new, woven wool and acrylic blend nest, and was already jumping down off the box as the heart-rending wails of the orphaned nut-keeper soared out into the darkening sky:

“Don’t leave me; oh please don’t leave me! Don’t you know this is Panther Hollow? This is where my mother was killed. I barely escaped with my life: it took me 2 days to climb up the hills to the garden: I’m pretty sure I hear a panther coming…”

But Thomas did not yet speak squirrel, and so they continued down the Junction Hollow Trail, straining to not once look back.

As they passed under the Bridge now, the path opened upon a small grass superhighway, full of soccer goals and miniature traffic cones; walkers walking, bikers biking, drunkards drunking. And as Boundary Street slowly regained its street nature and street cred, sidewalks and cars reappeared. Under a highway overpass even more creepy playground toys and basketball courts lived in eternal shade, until Boundary Street let out onto Saline Street in the neighborhood known as “The Run”.

“Siri, I dunno about you, but doing good deeds, saving lives, and traveling to Fairyland and back makes me really hungry, and we’ve got a big big day ahead of us still. You’ve got to keep eating if you want to keep going…”

Game to play along, Siri added with authentic sounding confusion.

“But wherever would we find something to eat near here?”

“Funny you should ask, Siir’...”

He held her out in front of him, like a hungry Diogenes, searching for Truth on an old red brick building. And just beyond a permanent Bathtub Virgin Shrine built into the house, they read the fated words:

“Big Jim’s, “In the Run”, Good Food and Drink Since 1977

He adjusted his mask and they read the menu on the bar.

“It’s too bad we can’t stay, what with all this Coronavirus. I understand what you guys have to go through now with virus protection.”

“Being here feels safe…”

“It’s cozy: it’s part of the charm, holing up. What say we get an eggplant hoagie and some hand cut fries?”

“What if I want to get my own thing?”

“You GOTTA split these: Big Jim’s sandwiches are HUGE!”

A sturdy waitress/barmaid with pretty purple eye shadow and a Donny Iris T-shirt called to him.

“Thomas? Izzat you? I’d recognize you even without a mask on!”

“Hey Irene: can we get a Parmigian’ Hoagie and two Strange Roots Sour Beers?”

“Two? You got a date, Tommy?”

“Oh yeah, Siri! This is Irene”

“Pleased to meet you, virtually, I guess, Siri. We’re used to different strokes here: it’s Pittsburgh! Let me get your order.” She turned to the grill. “Hey Walt: Egg Parm and fries, sweetie.”

“You got it, baby”, said the slender moustachioed cook with a cloud-white apron and dark chestnut skin. He wore a t-shirt of Pittsburgh blues legend Chizmo Charles (who played more Polish weddings than any black man in America...)

Siri had a question still circling the back of her mind:

“Say, Thomas: on the guest book at Elfland, you wrote down Thomas T. Rhymer, harp player: do I dare ask why?”

“Siri, have you not heard him play?” Irene backed right into their conversation. “Thomas: You gotta play something for us while we’re waiting…”

A few rumpled local regulars drifted about in and out of masks, in and out of resident invisibility (you don’t have to project any kind of image in your home bar...) and when Siri looked back again, she was horrified to see Thomas pulling out a worn Hohner mouth harp in D.

“Ok, Renie: but does anyone remember what day yesterday was?”

Without waiting for an answer, he pressed forward.

“Yesterday was September 21st… all day and all night.”

Thomas slid the beat-up harmonica back and forth in a kicking beat, as the small but still non-homogenous crowd moved in a little closer than 6 feet. Pittsburgh had its own version of “social distancing” called “sociable distancing”: if you stood off any farther than 4 feet away, you were might be thought stand-offish, and if you were closer than 3 feet, you were probably a) colorful, b) ethnic, c) a jokester, or d) all of the above. Thomas played loud and clean and with great syncopation, as Walt started swaying his hips back and forth just a little.

“Do do do, do do, do (di diii di) X3

Di di di di di di duhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, duh! X3

And just like that, Walt Francis raised his spatula like a microphone to his masked mouth, and came in right before the 4. And he clapped and sang in a way that invited every single person there to clap and sing along.

“Do you remember the 21st night of September?

Love was changing the minds of pretenders

While chasing the clouds away

Hey hey, c’mon y’all…”

And at that moment, there was not a dry throat in the place, and they sang...

“Ba de ya, say do you remember?

Ba de ya, dancing in September

Ba de ya, never was a cloudy day…”

And as they traveled back home through Panther Hollow, Siri asked:

“Thomas, play me another song on your harp,” and he did. Then Siri asked:

“Thomas, tell me a story,” and he told her the most amazing short tale ever told.

And though she did not really understand what love was, at that very moment she wondered how it would be possible to love someone any more than she did right then.

1 comment:

  1. https://www.patmissin.com/ffaq/q3.html
    why is it called a harp?