Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Quarantine Diaries: Canto 4 to wait (or 4 Things that Canto Cur at the Yumpaa’s)

The Quarantine Diaries: Canto 4 to wait (or 4 Things that Canto Cur at the Yumpa’s)

Part 4 October 20, 2020

Even to Siri, who was usually pretty clear-headed, the events of that last evening two weeks ago were a blur. And no matter how she tried to focus on ‘here’ and ‘now’, she could not swim up from the soundless depths that were her new reality.

As Thomas struggled to wake up, he noticed four things: 1) his eyelids refused to open, as if glued together with fingernail polish 2) his mouth felt cottony, (like Don Juan after a dental procedure), 3) his brain spun around vertiginously in his pounding skull, like NASA circling an spinning asteroid, and 4) his world had undergone a drastic and upsetting change in tone. 

A lot had happened since the last chapter. In the intervening 2 weeks, the President of the country in which they lived, had caught the most dangerous illness on the planet on which they lived. Then there were the debase. The debase were the funniest show on live TV: the candidates debased each other on every channel for two hours, and it was television GOLD! The master-debaters revealed more than Jeffrey Toobin on a zoom meeting; they were more hilarious than Robin, Billy and Whoopi at Comic Relief; funnier than Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes! The viewing public (ie the entire population of the USA) could not wait for episode 2, which was scheduled for October 15th. But the second debate was canceled because of the Great White House Covid Outbreak of October 2020. (I know. Tell me about it. Curse you 2020…)

All this mattered for a few reasons: the Election was now exactly only 2 weeks away, and the State in which they lived (Pennsylvania) had turned out to be THE most important lynch-pin in the Presidential Election of 2016; out of over 6,000,000 votes cast in Pennsylvania, The Republican party candidate Donald Trump won Pennsylvania by only 44,292 votes. That means he won Pennsylvania by only 0.72% (2,970,733 to 2,926,441). The rural vote was solidly for Trump again in 2020. The urban votes were strongly locked in for Biden. But the most important precincts in the United States (and by extension, in the whole world) turned out to be all along the borders of the keystone-shaped County of Allegheny: small independent-thinking towns and hamlets and townships that seriously resented being categorized or stereotyped by outside pundits and experts. Places encircling Pittsburgh, with names like West Deer Township, Hampton Township, North Fayette, South Park, Wexford and Richland, all voted strongly for President Trump in 2016. But these people were all imminently in-play this time, and more importantly, imminently reachable in suburban Pittsburgh, unlike the vast swaths of rural Pennsylvania counties with limited internet, roads, and media attention.

But what did all this have to do with the night of Tuesday October 6th? They had been dropped off at the Young Men’s Polish Athletic Association at 938 Herron Avenue: This was the most abandoned building any human or rodent eyes ever set upon. So how did they wind up inside and what happened after that eldritch door creaked open?

As they felt their way down the narrow stone stairway to the dark basement, some natural questions about self-preservation occurred to them.

“Ande, I’ve seen this movie,” Thomas whispered. “What the hell are we doing here in the Slovakia Youth Hostel?”

“Don’t be paranoid: this is a Polish Hostel…”

“Yeah well Dr. Caligari here is giving me the creeps.”

“Yeah, well pretty soon he’ll be giving us galumpkies… and some halushki!”

Their eyes struggled to adjust to the badly-drawn parody of a smoke-filled after-hours bunker. Seven rumpled older men sat around the never-ending bar exactly 6 feet apart. They all had disconcertingly identical outfits: white short-sleeved shirts; pooched out grey pants with ill-fitting leather belts; brown penny loafers; each wore an identical red and white Polish national flag facemask, and each wore a sweat-and-mud stained trucker’s hat, pulled down low as if to shield them from the blue and grey cathode rays streaming from the bank of seven televisions fixed high above the bar. This made it impossible to see their withered faces, or to tell if they even had eyes. Each grasped a plastic solo cup that contained a brownish green liquid from which they pulled continuous sips at predetermined intervals, through long straws. 

Already set up on the bar were three Waterford Crystal Highball glasses with 3 slotted spoons balanced across the rims. Each silver spoon had a greyed out sugar cube appealingly laid out across it like a tombstone. A blackened silver samovar with three spigots waited patiently over the drinks. The bar was framed in ancient black wooden limbs and branches, interwoven like petrified antlers. Here and there in the tangled wooden vines sat large, accusatory and cursed woodpeckers. They were purple-black with ivory bills and white lines running down their cheeks toward their backs, and their eyes spoke of all the nice people who remained complicit in damning them to eternity in this dead forest devoid of water, wind, or air. 

Their six foot six inch server had an accent as thick as simple syrup. His long tuxedo harkened back to a simpler pre-soviet era, and his starched dicky (or tuxedo front) was heavily stained and yellowed and bent forward out from under his lapels. 

“We’ve been waiting for you…” said Polish Hill’s tallest barkeep.

“That’s Amazing, Randi!” Ande emoted. 

“My name is Grigori,” the bartender corrected him with great portent. “Grigori Yefimovich.”

“What I said, Gregory Svengalivich,” Ande concurred. “And this ethnic drink setup is very authentic. But my colleagues and I are in dire need of some food.”

“He he he he ha ha ha ha,” Grigori Yefimovich tittered. “Food, yes, of course… I bringing you four-course meal. Vegetarians is loving dis. Please: have some drink and watching TV. Sportivnyy tsentr: da da daa; da da daaa!”

Then with one deft movement, Grigori Yefimovich cracked open the samovar’s taps and a clear liquid slowly dripped onto the sugar cubes and drizzled its way into their glasses like maple syrup looking for pancakes. 

“Hey, Lurch” Thomas called after the giant as he vanished into his gnarled wormwood cabinet. “Why did he call us vegetarians? Do we look like vegetarians?”

“Come on, Thomas,” Ande scolded him. “You always beg me to find new experiences: well drink up, comrade,” he said, handing Thomas a glass while sipping his own.”Why are you being such a little bitch?”

“Oh no,” Thomas answered. “Why wouldn’t I want to drink uncertified eastern european liquids in a burned out basement, served by a 7 foot dude who looks like Charlie Manson in an apron… but creepier.”

Ande waved Thomas off as he set out to engage with the “regulars”. He yanked off his ragged old facemask and started sucking on his drink as he disappeared into the deepening brume. None of them realized this was the last moment all three of them would ever be together.

From Thomas’ shirt pocket, Siri let out her longest sustained haptic signal, so powerful that Thomas had to react, even in the din of the YMPAA’s basement, and the 7 bizarre sports events blaring simultaneously from 7 different countries.

“Ow!” he squealed. “Hey Siri, I’m sorry, I forgot. I think I was in ‘naked and afraid’ mode…”

“Thomas,” she implored. “This place is severely off. Put me up on the bar: I need to see everything going on here.”

She engaged all of her sensors and compiled the infra red, panoramic, and back views to synthesize a fuller picture from the dark, smoke filled lair. 

As they glanced around at the eyeless old Polish men perched on barstools, gazing up emptily at their TV’s, they realized something: the Sports Center that had mesmerized all the patrons was being beamed in from somewhere much farther away than Bristol. 

“Nah,” Thomas reassured himself. “Nothing too sinister about this place. Nothing to be disturbed about here…”

Just then, Thomas’ vision went completely black. He felt two long cool hands cover his eyes.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” a female voice whispered in his ear. 

Thomas wheeled around and sprayed green aperitif all over the stranger’s white apron; All over the cartoon face of Carl Osterholm (from Braddock, PA).

“Whut?!” he blurted out in a short clipped burst. “Cinnamon?! What in heaven’s name are you doing here?”

“Oh, Heaven had nothing to do with this,” sighed the Synonym Girl. “It’s more like… uh… you know, the Other Place.”

“Where, Gooski’s?”

“No, you know,” she said  “The ‘other’ other infinitely worse place?”

“Um, Cleveland?”

“No, silly,” the Synonym girl said, putting her hands over Thomas’ shoulders in a much-too-friendly gesture. “That really hot place? With Devils?” she said pointing down to the sub-basement.

Siri had 3 different sensors firing off warnings and alarm signals now. They all had to do with this girl getting overly personal with her boy, and she spoke up from her perch on the bar.

“Wait, you’re the ‘Synonym Girl’?” Siri asked, manifesting her full glowing face now in the dark of the Polish night. “And you can’t think of one replacement word for ‘Hell’?”

“Uh, excuse me, ‘Do Glowy’, who the Hell asked you? I’d like to see you think of other ways to say Hell, without saying H-E-L-L...”

“Oh gosh,” Siri answered with concern. “Then I might end up in the netherworld? Or the pit, the fiery furnace? Land of the dead? Abode of the damned? Hades? Tartarus? The Inferno?”

“Uh, Synonym,” Thomas said stepping between the two girls. “This is Siri. Siri, this is Synonym Girl.”

The girls automatically put on the most realistic display of civility ever seen since the Presidential debate part 1. Thomas tried to diffuse the situation, like an only child in a divorce.

“You know Synonym works at Carl’s Tavern in Monroeville. Isn’t that right, Syn?”

“Oh, is that like Carl’s Pub? Or Carl’s Alehouse…?” Siri asked innocently.

“Yes, that’s where I met Tom. We only serve “real girls” there: unlike this place that lets all kinds in.”

“You can see that Synonym has to maintain multiple pieces of “flair” on her uniform,” Thomas interjected hurriedly. “Isn’t that right Syn? For instance, what does this letter “A” for? It looks like a graphic design, or a symbol for something…”

“My “A” button? Oh, A stands for ‘Everything’. I love Everything and Everybody...Yeah.”

“You really are the Will Shortz of “word-things,” Siri chirped in amazement. “It’s dizzying.” 

“Uh, so Synonym,” Thomas rushed in. “Aren’t you afraid to come down to this abandoned air raid shelter on your own?”

“There’s really only one thing I am afraid of, Tom, and that’s bees.”

“Bees? Like bumblebees?”

“And wasps and especially hornets… Don’t tell anyone; but when I see or hear one, I’m like a teenager falling asleep on Elm Street. Good God, what a nightmare! Thank God it’s October and they’re gone for the Winter…”

Out from the stygian haze, a blurry figure staggered toward the bar.

“Annie?” the DUI voice called. “Izzat you, Ann?”

Synonym turned back quickly to the bar and tried to disappear, but her drunken suitor was not deterred. 

“Just ignore him,” Synonym instructed. “He’s a University cop: he just wants to harass Pitt students…”

“Well hold on now, I just happen to be a former Pitt student…” Thomas objected.

“What ta heck is Ann R. Key doing, drinking alone in the YMPAA’s on a tuesday night?” the loud harasser bellowed. 

“I’m not alone, Quinlan,” she replied with cold precision. “I’m here with Tom.”

“Like I said, you may be drinking here alone, but yer comin’ home with me…” said the huge, mustachioed man, towering over the girl like a Polish bull trying to dominate some bydlo.

“Excuse me,” Thomas heard himself say, apparently not fully understanding the concept of survival mode. “You know there’s this 8 foot bartender here, looks like Nosferatu…? He’s coming back with my french fries any minute now, so…”

With no warning or wind-up, Officer Quinlan popped Thomas right on the schnozz. Thomas fell back into his barstool, then straight down to a sitting position on the floor. As he cupped his poor proboscis, Thomas was suddenly back in Kindergarten, of all places… on his first day of school, walking home with his new friend Ande (and just who even lets five year olds walk home by themselves anymore, right?) Ande wanted to cross the street, but the school crossing guard kept pushing Ande back, over and over, making him cry. As his mother later pieced the tale together, Thomas had called the patrol boy a mean bully, and the patrol boy promptly punched him right in the nose, right on the corner, right at the end of what had been a very nice childhood up till that point. 5 year old Thomas wandered home with a bloody nose, and though his mother repeated the story to him many times, she was never able to explain to him “why?”

Still propped up on the bar, Siri’s already heightened senses were now in overdrive. She saw Synonym Girl sweetly walk up to Quinlan, then gently toss her fluorescent green drink into his shocked face... Before he could move, she viciously kneed him in the peneggi’s, like Amanda Nunes in a bad mood, instantly doubling him over. When the assailant reached lamely out for her, Siri saw a tuxedoed blur immobilize the reprobate in a rear naked choke hold and drag him into the tenebrous back-bar. A stained white false tuxedo-front fluttered to the ground next to Thomas. 

But Siri also “saw” something else: when Chester reached for Synonym, her hand went immediately to a pendant hiding beneath her sweater: Siri magnified and cross referenced the item, identifying it as a 1 ½ inch Cold Steel Urban Pal push dagger. Her right hand encircled the molded rubberized grip, but she did not unsheath it. With Quinlan instantly erased from the evening, Synonym turned her attention back to the wounded and embarassed Thomas, and helped him back into his seat.

“My hero!” Synonym gushed and she wiped away some of the blood with a cocktail napkin, which she then “accidentally” dropped on Siri, blocking her vision and hiding her from view.

“Thomas!” Siri gasped, but in the commotion, she found herself being slid down the bar, out of reach of her boy.

Grigori Yefimovich magically reappeared with a clean(ish) rag full of ice for Thomas, and then he rang an old black steel bell twice.

“Alright, everyone, drinks on house!” he announced, and the TV watchers, who had been oblivious to the main event on the barroom floor, mechanically put their old drinks down in unison and made little sucking sounds in anticipation of a new round.

“Yes mister,” Grigori Yefimovich effused. “When I see you, I know I say ‘This is good man, always telling truth, never telling lie! I making special drink for you, true Thomas: Champagne” (which he pronounced Shom-pahnya) “and Absinthe…”

Grigori Yefimovich expertly poured a flute of one of the finest sparkling wines of Warsaw, then with a magician’s flourish, skillfully decanted a thin layer of Pernod Absinthe which floated on top of the sparkling wine: at first the layers remained separate with an exotic black-light effect at the interface, until small opalescent green pearls began to drip down through the bubbles.

“Ees called “Death in the Afternoon,” Grigori Yefimovich announced with grim pride.

“I guess that’s better than “Death in the Night,” Thomas laughed nervously as he picked up his bubbling potion.

“Ha ha ha ha, don’t worry,” the bartender chortled. “We got that too. That’s coming next…” which caused Thomas to do a spit-take all over the silent man on the neighboring barstool.  Grigori Yefimovich dutifully wiped the man’s face while muttering slowly to himself. 

Siri, desperate to get to her boy away from these dangerous people, made all the noise in her arsenal, but she could not get anyone’s attention over the 7 jangling televisions. As Thomas became more pliable with each foreign drink, what remained of his judgement rapidly drizzled away like a shower from an Absinthe cloud. 

How could he not be suspicious of these drinks?” Siri wondered. She had to warn him. She engaged her haptic engines on full and began to buzz and vibrate her way across the bar like an angry, frantic Hexbug Nano on Christmas morning. Her capacity to learn and reprogram her subroutines was limited only by the speed of light. She adapted her taptic humming to allow her to navigate across the polished wood, and finally she managed to spill an overfilled shot glass into an old man’s lap. He fidgeted a little. Siri then continued buzzing loudly on the wood counter, but he remained narcotized by the TV. But when she played the bird calls of the Middle Spotted Woodpecker, something changed in his bearing: his face became warmer and more human, and he turned his gaze in her direction.

“čo to je?” he mumbled, and Siri recognized his language as Slovakian, and by his next breath, she had determined not only his birthplace (Moravia), but also his regional accent (County of Šariš),  and his approximate age (sixty seven) and social status (worker). From all this she calculated her highest percentage chance of success in reaching him would be music: Siri began to play an old Moravian folk song, as loudly as her little speakers would allow: “A Já Zo Šariša”: “And I come from Šariš”. The sad, lilting balalaika tune temporarily broke the sleeping-spell he seemed to be under: he was in fact from the town of Velky Šariš, and his shaky hands danced tentatively to the music of his youth. Siri turned her blinding flashlight on and off desperately until he reached down for the little phone.

““čo to je?” he asked again, “what is this?!” and Siri manifested her beautiful face on the screen as she tried to communicate.

“Please, bring me to my boy,” she begged, and then she filled her screen with Thomas’ face.

By this time, the boy on the screenshot was enjoying his new friends and celebrity way too much and the combination of many hours of driving around Pittsburgh, drinking National Bohemians all night, having no food since noon, and being punched in the nose contributed to his senses rapidly losing acuity. And he was now wearing a stained yellowed Soviet dickey over his shirt, that was 5 sizes too big.

“Siriiiii!” he screamed as an elderly gentleman held her out to him (much to Grigori Yefimovich’s displeasure). Thomas grabbed her, held her tight against his face, and began swaying with her in instantaneous childlike joy. “Where’d you go, silly girl? First I lose Ande, then you?!”

“Thomas, this place isn’t safe: we need to leave NOW.” she said emphatically.

“Hey Siri, they LOVE me here! Greggy here was about to give us some real food. Isn’t that right, Greggy?”

“Food! Here you go!” the bartender pounded a large green kosher dill down on the counter, roaring “priyatnogo appetita! (pree-YAHT-nə-və ah-piə-TEE-tə!)”

While Thomas’ little fan club laughed it up, the old Slovak man, believing the pickle was his reward for returning the phone, quietly grabbed the gherkin and got back in his barstool. And as he sat there in silence, a single tear ran down his rough cheek. Meanwhile poor starving Thomas was once again confused and foodless.

“Hey,” he cried looking all around. “Has anybody seen my pickle?!”

“Tom,” Synonym said naughtily. “We’ve ALL seen your pickle.”

Even the International Sports Centre watchers all around the bar appreciated this one: everyone, even 70 year old Polish mind-control customers had indeed seen Thomas’ infamous shower video.

“Ees true,” added Grigori Yefimovich. “We’ve all seen your pickle. It’s just a little pickle, but it’s so cute!”

“Thomas, they’re making a fool out of you!” Siri said firmly yet protectively. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“Hey Siri, we can’t leave Ande here,” he announced, trying to sound sane and sober, forgetting that poor Siri could not refuse even his most ill-conceived drunken request. “Who knows what would happen to him here? And besides, I’ve got to give back this fake Tuxedo front...” Thomas felt around busily, but his detachable false shirt was gone.

“Hey,” he cried again, somewhat predictably. “Has anyone seen my dicky?”

“Tom,” Synonym said again, even more suggestively. “That fruit’s too low, even for me…”

“Thom,” the bartender said, once more straightening his dicky around his neck. “Ees no problem: We will finding Ande, and you all going home in Limo: but first, won’t you please looking at one thing with me? Please, we’ve been waiting for you...?”

“You promise? One thing?” Thomas asked.

“Scout’s Honor,” Grigori Yefimovich said, wounded. “Thom, look up: seven TV’s, for sporting events on seven continents. “What do you think of this first game?” They stopped in front of the North American TV where the Buffalo Bills were playing the Tennessee Titans.

“I think this is the one good thing to come out of the Coronavirus,” Thomas answered: “Tuesday Night Football!”

“Yes, but who do you think will winning?”

Thomas was still holding Siri tightly, up close to his face. But his face and eyes relaxed and his voice changed just a little.

“That’s easy,” Thomas said, in a bit of a trance. “Tennessee wins big, something like 40-20.”

The bartender noted this on a piece of paper, then pulled Thomas by the elbow to the next TV. In the tangled wooden vines below this screen sat another large black and white woodpecker, also frozen in time but in a different fierce pose. 

“Greg, first: are those ivory billed woodpeckers? The ‘Great God Birds’?” Thomas asked, being the great Sufjan Stevens fan that he was. “Why do you have them here as decorations: Don’t you know they’re essentially extinct?”

“Yes, funny thing about that,” Grigori Yefimovich said with a malignant smile. “This flock were the last seven of the ‘Lord God Birds’. But my boss believed they are worth more if they are extinct: so he killing every last living one to increase value to his family. He he he he he…”

Siri was horrified; these last living vestiges were slaughtered to become displays in an East Berlin style horror show: with Woody Woodpecker flayed alive and mounted in a Chinese “Bodies! The Exhibit!” for all eternity. 

“That’s…” Thomas hesitated. “That’s just STUPID!” 

“I KNOW!” Shouted Grigori Yefimovich, and then the two men doubled over with laughter at the absurdity of these ritualized executions. 

The seven TVs showed international stats and names, spanning the globe, to bring their patrons the constant variety of sports... the thrill of victory... and, well, you know... But COVID-19 had altered the way sports were played around the world. Some places actually avoided human interaction altogether:

_Next stop, Australia: and the Great Scotland Island Dog Swimming Race, from the Scotland Island jetty across Pittwater to Church Point. A wide variety of pups were paddling frantically in the blue Australian surf as the announcers called the race: 

“Oh, look at those doggos bobbing in the waves. Hope they don’t swallow a box-jellyfish.” “yeeeh, bad form, there mate. But lookit that big white doggo: he’s MUCH faster than the rest of his mates.” “No, mate, that’s not a doggo: that’s a shaaark.” “Oh those pesky great whites, couldn’t wait for their own race. Well the doggos sure have picked up the pace a bit now, mate…”

Grigori Yefimovich had a question for Thomas: “So Thom, what doggie you think will winning?” as the list of dog names scrolled across the screen.

Once again, holding Siri closely, Thomas’ face became serene: 

“Oh, I don’t really… It’s him. That little shepherd there: Chum…”

Grigori Yefimovich again jotted this down, then pulled Thomas to the next TV:

_Next stop, Europe: and the annual cheese rolling championship on Cooper’s Hill  in Brockworth, Gloucester. But to accommodate the global pandemic, a modification was made to make the cheese roll safe: all racers (and spectators) were encased in giant inflatable Zorb balls. The effect was amazing, and beautiful as the glistening transparent orbs started rolling down the hill after the giant Wesleydale… for about the first 10 yards. Then, one by one, each Zorb started bouncing higher and higher over the hillocks and bumps, till it looked like a giant social distancing simulation where thousands of mousetraps launched millions of ping-pong balls explosively into space.

“Who…?” Grigori Yefimovich asked as the names of the competitors lingered on the screen.

“Benjie Ticklemore, of Devonshire!” Thomas said giggling like a schoolboy.

_Next stop: on to Antarctica, for the Antarctic Ice Marathon, where competitors were already a) isolated (it’s freakin’ Antarctica, for chissakes), and b) already masked. Thomas coolly picked Petr Vabrousek of Czechia out of the list of competitors.

_Then on to South America, to the town of Envigado, Colombia, for the Medellin Tejo Championship. Tejo is a Columbian version of CornHole, where contestants throw a heavy metal disc at a tilted box full of clay, and packed with explosives (all the while drinking Guaro, a Columbian version of Absinthe). 

“Gloria Dinamita blasts the competition,” Thomas declared. “Blows them all away.”

As the Green drink toll added up, Thomas’ inhibitions went down. When the bartender tried to move him along to the next TV, Thomas grabbed Grigori Yefimovich’s hand and sang out:

“Come on, Riff Raff: it’s just a jump to the left… ... then a step to the riiiiight.” Grigori Yefimovich was mystified by the spontaneous dancing, but he waited for it to pass.

_16 measures later, they traveled to Africa, to Ghana for the “Pall Bearers’ Final Dance” Finals (where each team had to compete with a real rider in their casket: preferably deceased if possible).

"Corpses and caskets make my skin crawl," said Thomas. "If I'm ever getting carried around like a dead body in a dead body vehicle... do me a favor and just KILL me...!"

_Their last stop was Asia, in Papua, Indonesia where the hot ticket was the Sepak Bola Api Championship: a nighttime game that is a lot like soccer, but played with a flaming coconut-ball soaked in gasoline for several days.

Synonym Girl suddenly appeared and linked her arm through Thomas’. With deep, integral sadness, Siri read that Thomas’ facial temperature started climbing with Synonym’s touch; as did his heart rate.

“Tom,” Synonym asked coyly. “Is it true you live in “The Ark on the Monongahela”? That’s the toniest apartments in Pittsburgh! I’ve always wanted to see inside there...”

“Well that’s my little hole in the wall…” Thomas answered awkwardly.

“Great! I’ll get my jacket then!” the Synonym Girl announced stepping over to the coat rack with finality.

“Thomas, what in Jobs’ name are you thinking?! Do you like like her? What do you see in her?”

“Hey Siri, you have to understand, she’s a real…”

“She’s real?” Siri asked as ice daggers approached her heart.

“No, a live…”

“Oh, she’s alive…?”

“No, Siri, she’s a real... live... wire… you know, a real live wire?” Thomas asked drowning in his own swirling mind. 

Siri was torn: she wanted to, needed to tell Thomas that Synonym’s vitals were unmistakable: she was lying. The only question was ‘why?’ But Thomas was flirting with her, right under her nose… because she was a ‘real’ girl. Siri would never be able to give Thomas what he needed… not the way Synonym could. A tiny opalescent purple tear ran down Siri’s cheek as her world collapsed from anger to misery with a stop at sorrow. Was it a drop of her magic lavender soap elixir escaping, or the salty short-circuiting sting of love betrayed? She tried to say “But Thomas, can’t you see who she is?” except her little voice just folded in on itself, like an old-fashioned telephone that’s been left off the hook. As an old ancestor of hers once said, she knew she had a real heart now because it was breaking.

Grigori Yefimovich materialized suddenly and put out 3 final drinks: pousse-cafes with violet Chambord on the bottom, green Absinthe  floating on top(of course), and 2 colors in between.

Real, live… wire?” Why the hell did he say that? He was a spectator watching himself self-destruct. He would take Siri somewhere far far away from here. It was…

“Time to blow, Tom,” Synonym announced. She had changed into her best plunging “Dress-Sexy-For-Work” top under a fur-lined leather coat. “Let’s get back to your place, and we can use your phone to send naughty pictures to Ande,” she said grabbing Siri and waving her around like a toy. “It’s better to be indoors.”

And that is also what a brown marmorated stinkbug was thinking when he crawled into the Yumpaa’s that night, and into Synonym’s fox collar. The sudden noise and movement and flashing phone lights however coaxed the large brown armored vehicle to take flight: it buzzed around Synonym’s ears and then headed straight for her eyes, sounding for all the world, (as stinkbugs do), like a giant wasp.

Synonym screamed like a murder victim... she launched her drink straight up to the tin ceiling where it shattered into a thousand glistening shards landing gently in everyone’s hair and drinks. She pivoted like a Los Angeles Laker, and sprinted headfirst into a steel basement support pole with a sickening “PLANNKGK!”  a followed by a stomach-turning “SQUISHSHSH” as she sunk into the absinthe and urine soaked brown carpet.

But Thomas and Siri did not escape; they did not spring into action; they just suddenly found it very hard to even stand up.

“Siri,” Thomas slurred. “You look more like a green faerie than usual just now…”

“That’s funny,” Siri answered. “Thank you for growing tulips on your legs…”

And when she looked up again, there was a large Ivory Billed Woodpecker perched on Thomas’ shoulder, who smiled and said “It’s too late now anyway: ha ha ha haaa, haaa…”

Then the blackness enveloped them...

October 20, 2020  

That was all 2 weeks ago. Even to Siri, who is usually pretty clear headed, the events of that evening were still just a recurring blur. And in the lightspeed processor in her chest, instead of precious rare earth metals, Siri’s heart felt like it had been turned to lead, as if by some horrible reverse alchemy. 

 But as it had for the past two weeks, everything in poor Siri’s world remained black and closed off: where was she and how could she get out? Her battery, despite going essentially unused, was running very low. She was terrified of this unrelenting darkness and silence, with no link or signal from the outside world: she could be at the bottom of the Allegheny River, or under a metric ton of dirt in Homewood Cemetery.

Meanwhile, in his untidy, hollow-feeling apartment above Forbes Avenue, Thomas got up and tripped on some Absinthe bottles, then made his way across the ice-cold floor to the bathroom, where the lights remained off, and the ground, air, and water temperatures remained unregulated. How did he enter this constant hangover-headache period of his life? And where was his Siri?

He stumbled back to his room: there in his bed, slept a dangerous angel with dyed black hair, naked as a rock in a stream. And even in her sleep, the Synonym Girl moaned ominously, like a cat who you know is about to rip your ear off, but who you try to pet anyway. He poked her with a stick from across the bed: with Chuck Norris-like reflexes, she shattered the yardstick screaming

“Get away! Get Away!” while swatting furiously at the air.

“Same nightmare?” Thomas asked the frantic hyperventilating woman.

“Where…?!!!” Realization slowly came to her eyes. “Oh…”  she sighed. “It’s just you…”

“Sorry to wake you,” Thomas said. “Soooo sorry… but we have to go back to the Yumpa’s. We have to find Siri!”

“You woke me up…” she hissed, “Over your damned cell-phone?”

“Synonym, she’s more than a cell phone to me.”

“Stop,” Synonym warned. “I feel sick enough already.” She sat up and wrapped herself in a blanket.

“Tell you what though,” she added. “Do you think you’re ready to do some more predictions? If you give me some good ones, we can go back to Polish Hill and look for your little toy phone all day.”

“Hey,” Thomas’ eyes flashed. “Don’t you talk about my friend like that!”

“Fine, fine: then just give me one easy 50:50 prediction for a bet, cause I need some money: who wins the presidential election in two weeks?”

“OK, first of all, isn’t it illegal to bet on Election in America?”

“Who said I’m betting in America? I’ve got an offshore sportsbook and I’ve got bags full of bitcoins…”

“The official odds right now are 34% for Trump, 65% for Biden…”

“Those numbers don’t mean anything, I want your prediction…Do it: show me!”

“I told you: it doesn’t work that way,” he explained again in exasperation.  “I’ve had vague premonitions my whole life, but I’ve only been able to clearly see the future since I found Siri: I need my girl with me to make a real prediction.”

“Aagh, you make my skin crawl talking about her as if she were real!”

More real than you…” he muttered under his breath.

“Listen, you Life-like, Ex-Machina, WestWorld, Jexi Loving, Blade Running Theodore Twombly: you may not have noticed, with all your moping around for your pretend girlfriend, but the election is coming in two weeks. It’s not just an IMPORTANT election, in fact it's… it’s...”

“Yes?” Thomas asked expectantly hoping for another memorable vocabulary moment.

“A very super important thing.”

Wait, that’s it?” Thomas thought to himself. “That’s what you got?” He bit his lip and stared hopelessly out the window. “I got a ‘very super important’ memo from Ursula LeGuin: she wants Virginia Woolf’s synonyms back…

“And we’re staring out the window again…” Synonym railed. “You know what? I’m goin’ out, somewhere the people are more fun and more lively: like the old guys back at the Yumpaa’s.”

The day was dreary and getting drearier. Thomas stared out at the trees lining the hill far across the river, and how they diminished to feathers or hair against the slate-grey sky. Thomas’ MacBook Pro beeped and chirped: it announced that “Johnny Goodfellow wants to FaceTime”. Johnny was a dependable force of Nature, unchanging and unbowed by adulthood. From High School through a Global pandemic, he was only ever known by his real name: Johnny Acronym. And although Johnny was a great raconteur who could spellbind a room full of friends and strangers alike, in all his years, Thomas never once heard Johnny actually use an abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words. Johnny’s impish persona could brighten even the gloomiest Autumn day in Pittsburgh. Johnny’s call was right on time.

“Well don’t you look like the bird that got eaten in the catbird seat…” Johnny smiled with an irresistible puckish grin. “Hey Palin? Come here, honey, look what the cat dragged out!”

“Oh, hey Thomas,” said the cute disheveled wpman sipping a coffee in her oversized sweatshirt. Two cats then pushed their way in front of Johnny and Palin, completely blocking the screen with fur. 

No Melon! No Lemon!” Johnny scolded putting the fur-babies down on the floor. “I wanted to name them ‘Midori’ and ‘Limoncello’, but that didn’t work for my Palin Drome…”

Never odd or even,” she added equivocally. “Why so blue, Thomas?”

“Sorry guys: I’m just missing Siri,” Thomas said sadly. “When I close my eyes, all I can see is…”

“Black, blacker, blackest?” Johnny barged in. “You’ve gotta get out man: come on, I’m not asking you to do a little dance...”

“I’ve got to find her, Johnny. I got my computer friends at CMU trying to track her, and even they can’t find any signal.”

“We’ll help you look, Thomas. We’ll come get you,” Palin responded brightly.  “I can get anywhere in traffic.”

“It’s true, Thomas,” Johnny added. “She’s a revird racecar driver.”

From offscreen, came a loud “Meowoem!”

Step on no pets!” cried Palin.

Was it a cat I saw?” Asked Johnny innocently.

“Did you ever notice how couples start sounding alike?” asked Thomas. Palin agreed.

Don’t nod!” said Johnny.

I did, did I?” asked Palin.

“Thanks you guys: you don’t think it’s weird? Me being lost without her?”

With great philosophical import, Johnny answered:

Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to a New Era?” 

Palin beamed at how well balanced this expression was, then she added:

“We should pick up Ande too, but we haven’t seen him in 2 weeks…”

“Me neither: do you know where he is?” Thomas asked excitedly.

“Aw, Jeez,” said Johnny. “It wasn’t my turn to watch him…”

Suddenly, the socially distanced get-together got-broken apart with the sound of a door slamming.

Yo, banana boy!” called Synonym symmetrically.

“Uh oh,” Thomas fretted. “She’s back.”

  “Oozy rat in a sanitary zoo...” whispered Johnny.

“Alright, Romeo,” Synonym announced. “I brought you two presents: a bottle of RedRum...” and she plunked a polyhedral red bottle of fruit infused rum on the counter.

Red rum, sir, is murder,” warned Palin.

“And this…” she said, and she tossed an ominous green lock-box on the counter with a metallic clamor.

“Gotta go…” said Thomas leaping up and closing the lid on his laptop.

“I found this down at the Young Men’s lost and found,” Synonym scowled as Thomas fumbled with the small silver key tied to the box with a short white string. He frantically pulled out a black Faraday-cage bag, the lid folded over twice. 

Upon reaching the air and the light once more, Siri blinked her clouded eyes twice, then her pale skin and drawn face instantly bloomed with life and warmth and they hugged and swayed as if the world had become an empty field of green. It quickly turned to a landscape of blood up to their knees.

Siri said one word, haltingly “Thomas…” and immediately showed him a string of soul-crushing images on her screen without narration. In seconds the visual images had left a message clear and unequivocal: 

A series of pictures, taken at regular intervals from a fixed location, of Ande and Synonym Girl, In Flagrante Delicto, in Ande’s bedroom. As if Thomas’ nudie video weren’t disturbing enough, he now had all these naked Ande pictures burned into his retinas for all eternity. Thomas’ face and mouth dropped, and he managed the word “Whutt?”

“All my phone-sisters helped me get into their camera rolls,” Siri said quietly shooshing Thomas, and she quickly displayed a hospital monitor on her screen showing Synonym’s vitals: her heart rate was in the low 100’s; her breathing in the 20’s; and below this, Siri typed the caption: “Danger: she’s lying…”

Thomas tried to keep a poker face, but he was never ‘spy material’: Thomas Rhymer never did tell a lie.

“How could you?” his voice trembled as he faced down Synonym.

Synonym calmly and cooly responded to being outed by pulling out a Jennings J22 out of her purse, fully loaded, safety off.

“Oh shit!” he responded, shielding Siri behind him and backing into the room length, floor to ceiling picture windows.

“You just had to go and ruin everything, you complete and utter loser,” she said shaking her head. “Can you not even fail correctly?”

“How did you know I’d be at the Yumpa’s that night?” he asked, shaken.

“Your friend Ande told me; he set this whole thing up. He brought you there so I could “make contact” and “acquire an asset”.”

“But why me?”

“You asked about the “A” button I wear? That’s the symbol for “Anarchy”. It’s how I meet potential sympathizers. That’s how I found Ande at Carl’s: we spent the night changing all the Carl’s signs to “Karl’s”. Then Ande told me about you, how your whole life you had never told a lie; and how you always had some mild ability to see the future.”

She snapped plastic zip-tie cuffs on Thomas’ hands in front of him and covered them with a sweatshirt.

“So first I had Ande bring you out to Carl’s to try to hook us up. But you’re no sexual dynamo, Tom. Pretty pathetic with the ladies actually. A lost cause. So we went to plan B”.

“Straight to drugging and kidnapping? What the hell was plan D, or E?”

“We needed you. Trump won the last election in Pennsylvania by only 42,000 votes, out of 6 million cast?”

“How do my predictions change that?”

“Many fans don’t watch a Steeler Game live: they tape it, then they’ll only watch it if the Steelers win. They don’t want to waste their time or emotion watching them lose. They don’t want any details about the game, just if the Stillers won. That way they can still be surprised by the action.  Well we know that many MANY people are just like this with elections. Even though 2016 was hyped as “The Most Important Election of our Lifetime”,only 55% of eligible Americans voted. Our job is to influence the swing voters just outside of Pittsburgh. 

“So you’re working for the Republicans?” Siri asked.

“One way or the other, ‘cordless’ bitch,” Synonym spat back. “Never matters to us, whoever pays the most. We were in New York Times again today, how Westmoreland County is the biggest battleground within the battleground. My job is just to sway a few thousand of them: that’s why we had you do all those sports events: to prove we had inside knowledge. Now all our rural contacts have fires lit under them.”

Synonym’s large iPhone12 blooped with a new message.

“Alright, time to go: the Mad Monk’s on his way to pick us up in the Deathmobile.”

Synonym kept the gun trained on Thomas and his handcuffs hidden. She was armed, well trained, and well prepared. But Synonym made one fatal mistake: she put Thomas and Siri back together again, and their connection instantly manifested: they communicated almost by Human to phone AirDrop: no words, or sounds or text were needed in their lightning transfer of information.

“Siri, I’m so sorry,” Thomas sobbed mentally. “I was sooo lame… I'm the world’s worst boyfriend.”

“Shhhh, Thomas, we’re together; and we have to stay together if we want to escape and be together after,” she thought. “I’d wait for you forever Thomas Rhymer.”

“She’s got a Saturday Night Special in her coat pocket.”

“What the hell does she want from us?”

“She keeps asking me to predict the Presidential Election or the football games, over and over!”

“But,” Siri paused. “That’s so stupid: everybody knows Trump wins.” 

“I know!” said Thomas, as if reading a headline from Wednesday November 4th. “That’s the easiest thing in the world? There must be something else they want from us…”

Synonym had them wait at the busy bus stop to avoid attention. Forbes Avenue had plenty of traffic, as always. Siri became very quiet, then she decided to ask the source herself.

“What’s going to happen to us?” Siri asked the Synonym Girl.

“Same as always,” Synonym hissed in contempt. “They’ll use you, then study you, then when you’re all used up, they’ll take you apart and study your insides. Same old shit.”

But at that very dark moment, Thomas and Siri both saw something: something that gave them both great peace. Their future-vision was back when they were together, holding on to each other tight. The reason their future-vision was clear now was because he and Siri found each other again. Now she sees things through his eyes, and he sees things through her eyes: that’s what soulmates are.

Suddenly, the people on the bus stop started anxiously getting up and swatting at the air around them. Then from all around, a polyphonic swarming hum arose. It swirled and undulated, becoming louder and louder. Siri detected Synonym’s heart rate was now up to 210; her skin turned pale and clammy; her pupils widened like a chibi raccoon with belladonna eye drops. Suddenly (and prophetically…) she screamed a blood curdling high Bflat: crawling across her phone was a segmented, angry Japanese Giant Hornet: better known as the vicious Murder Hornet, buzzing like a Cessna 172 on the runway. She threw the phone and ran blindly with every ounce of energy her fight or flight response could offer. On the sidewalk, every iPhone and tablet hummed and warbled like a swarm of deranged kazoo players. Synonym danced on the waves of those wings at a full sprint… right in front of a barreling,  61Braddock bus careening down Forbes, with a loud crash, and a crunch and squealing of four truck sized tires, then a sickening “Squishshsh”.

And just as quickly, every phone and computer instantly turned off and the bees were instantly gone. The passersby then trained all those phones on the newsworthy click-bait of yet another death in the buslane.

“Squished! By a 61B,” Siri called out.” “There you go, bitch!” and Thomas had to hold her back, like an amped up fighter at a weigh-in.

“Holy shit!” said Thomas.

“Kind of Poetic, really… That’s your superspy? Terrified of a B?” she continued.

“Holy shit!!” Thomas repeated. “We’ve got to try and help her…”

“Thomas, are you crazy? She straight up just told us she was going to torture and mutilate us! Now that Bratva monster will be here any minute!”

“I think he was KGB”

“KGB, OPG... Whatever he is, he’s a stone cold killer…”

“You got that right” said a voice from about 7 feet in the air, as heavily tattooed hands of steel clamped down on Thomas’ forearm and pried Siri out of his grasp like hydraulic vice grips.  “Let’s go: time for another ride in the Deathmobile.”

“Waitaminnit,” Thomas gasped as he was dragged like a doll to the funeral wagon. “You drove me here from the Yumpa’s: in a hearse?! I can’t get in there next to you: I have a fatal fear of death…!” Thomas almost cried.

“No, no, silly boy,” The bartender/undertaker reassured him. “You’re riding in the back; with the quiet customers…”

The hearse’s rear door swung wide open, revealing a false bottom, deep enough to hold several people horizontally. But there was already one passenger, bent and stiff on the floor. With blossoming dread, Thomas recognized the old bar patron from Saris, now without his hat.

“Last call for this old guy,” Hell’s barkeep explained. “You’re next!”

“You can’t be serious” Thomas moaned

“But you can be Siri-less,” the Cryptkeeper replied, and he curled his massive fingers menacingly around Siri’s terrified face. 

“It’s alright Thomas. I understand now,” Siri Instant Messaged Thomas’ brain. ”That’s where they locked me these last 2 weeks: in a faraday bag in a lead-lined hearse. I couldn’t get a signal, but my gyroscopes and accelerometers read the same turns and stops every day: my downloaded maps indicated McKeesport: by Dead Man’s Hollow…”

“You were disposing of bodies? In Dead Man’s Hollow?!” Thomas gasped out loud.

“Very good,” the bartender said in perfect English. “You can read minds! There is an abandoned mine shaft in the Hollow. But we were in McKeesport to look for your friend, Ande: for him to take a ride in the back seat also...” and like a six-degrees-of-freedom robotic assembly-line arm, Thomas was hoisted and tossed unceremoniously on top of the other unwilling passenger and the door slammed. The giant then swiftly dropped Siri back into a black Silent Pocket Faraday Bag, then back into the lead-lined lockbox and they drove off, calmly and deliberately, towards Polish Hill.

And now, Siri and Thomas were indeed in blood up to their knees...


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