The Bridgetown Serpent
by Nick Powell
Of great age were the halls Paul strode. Not in four years had the feet of men tread within, but now there rang the clangor of steel and the roar of machines with cutting teeth. Strewn about were rags and boxes of caustic powders and buckets of hissing acids, and to and fro went his fellow workers clad in rubber and helmets grunting as they pried wood and pipe from the walls, stripping the halls down to their metal frame and carrying the dross out in wheeled buckets as fogs of dust billowed in their wake. They yelled and laughed at each other above the din. Prowling in the noise was the timekeeper, whose work lay in a stack of papers, rather than in his hands. Paul, dressed as his fellow workers and gripping a great hammer in his right hand, strode into a room whose skin was of porcelain, punched through by cracked tin plumbing, all corrupted of a creeping black mold that the years had been kind to. He was thankful of his mask as he went at his work, smashing with broad sure strokes the wall, sundering tile as though it were soil ‘neath a plough.
Of old these halls had been a gathering place where men met with other men and plied each other with humours that enlivened the blood. It was a den of decadence, from its high perch leering down on the foremost filament of the Rose City. But of antiquity decadence is not acquainted, so in due time it emptied and wilted in silence. A pair of Brothers purchased it, and with its frame they sought to shape an inn to board pilgrims from the midlands. Such travelers were of kind heart, but accustomed more to the seeing of things, as though they were behind a pane of glass, for they clucked contentedly at the sight of a frail boy beneath a tarp mongering canvases splatted with hot wax to form the shapes of curious mushrooms, or a dirty man making music by hitting plastic buckets with sticks, but they quavered ‘neath the booming vibratos of dark men with false hair. It was for such travelers that the Brothers would ornament their walls with rustic blemishes, and hang from their ceilings kitsch haggled in bulk, to tell a fable of eccentricity. Paul did not have kind thoughts about the things once done in this place, but with each passing day he liked less thoughts of carpets and gift shops.
Meals were taken nearby, for the Brothers who employed him owned not less than three-score eateries within nine steps. Or so it seemed, for by the middle of the day Paul’s eyes were caked with dust. In a dark tavern he would sit and be given the same meal as all his fellow workers: a basket filled with a sandwich of meat and ten tater tots, no more and no less. On good days the timekeeper allotted them a pint glass half-full of ale sweetened by vanilla and raspberries. He ate in silence as the tenders of the bar walked past with nary a glance, so he would stare with confusion at hallucinogenic paintings of dead artists glossed in plastic and photographs of pale sullen troubadours in black clothing, for beneath them were loud young men wearing pinstripes and shiny hair, and women with prim postures force-feeding blubbering children over tables covered in purse leavings and crayon. The faces were always different, and so was the kitsch, but Paul realized that this place was exactly the same as any of the Brothers’ other eateries that coiled around the city.
He returned to work flushed with anger, and with that anger he lay upon the porcelain with his hammer, as the puma swipes with stretched paw the haunches of a doe, or as the bike courier thrusts his piston feet to pass a line of slowing cars and shoot through an intersection as it changes lights. And with each smash of hammer and pry of claw the tile and tin shattered and the piles grew higher. A fellow laborer approached laughing and said: “Brother! I beg ye stop, for I cannot wade through tile as easily as I wade through the hindquarters of women!” And another worker joined them and said: “Verily, Paul, you lay upon the tile with a vigor matched only by the tenderness with which I lay upon your sister last night!” And he laughed, for despite his anger he loved his work brothers and their crude humor.
Paul was a man born of two worlds. His sire sat atop a leather throne in a room built of timber and brick, overlooking the central square of a school as large as any town, not two hours travel south of the city where his son would one day labor. On most days you would find him contemplating the depths of tomes with a pair of spectacles teetering on the point of a noble nose. But often he would stride to an auditorium, where a great skittering swarm of fledglings with reddened eyes would attend to a discourse on the habits of mortal men, and upon past generations of mortal men who were more noble than those of today.
Paul’s sire was a sluggish man, prone to atrophy, but on occasion he would venture eastwards over the mountains to partake in festivals where unbroken horses were ridden for sport and painted men danced around thrusting bull horns for no reason at all. Here his father laughed and drank with mush-tongued men, and rediscovered that part of himself that was most human. Upon returning from one of these adventures he stopped in a hamlet off the main road for provisions, the sort of place where the downtown went no further than the throw of a pebble, and the sides of the streets were covered with as many hulks of rusted iron as able vehicles. Such places served his purpose, for they were without fuss. But this time, upon finishing his errand and handing over payment, he found that his eyes would not leave the fair creature behind the counter. She was tall and robust, but not so much as to confuse her feminine shape, and she had freckles and crimson hair not unlike his own, and features carved and glowing like lithophane. They spoke for a spell, and he left feeling as though he had just walked upon the Sun. He came back several weeks after, and again but days after that, bearing flowers and wines of the valley. But at no point did he tell her of his caste, for he found that amongst these people such was viewed unkindly. They spent afternoons and nights together, but did little but stare into each others’ eyes, for they could think of nothing to say that would not disappoint the other. However, this impasse ended on the night they declared their love for each other. To the easing of his heart, she was not discouraged by his intellectual caste, for she loved him. And to the easing of her heart, he was not saddened when she admitted to being sired by a long line of morons, for he loved her. They married, and moved into a plain white house just a stroll from his office, and had a son.
Paul, they named him, after his mother’s father, which was fitting, for he quickly became beloved of her. Of all the boys he was the tallest and strongest. He would run all day with no need of rest. He would dig pits and chop down rotting trees f6r the joy of sweat. He fostered a python with giant rats he captured on the banks of the raging McKenzie. The other boys were cowed by his fists, and the girls swooned in his thick arms. But his father grew cold, for his son had become a man who would sooner use a book to hammer nails than to learn, so he dragged his son to libraries and lectures and staged dramas, but these efforts were only met with insolence. Paul mocked his father and his large words. As a mummer with a pinched voice he would recreate his father’s speeches for his friends: “Catastrophic metaphoric diegetic panegyric bull-a-shit-ic!” But no one drew Paul’s mockery half-so-badly as the thin young people who dripped southwards from the city like tree sap, sticky and organic. He quickly learned disdain for their corduroy pants and bowties and the wicked thoughts they bore on the curled corners of their lips. He did not like the way they looked at people, nor their manner of speaking in negatives. His dislike was so complete that he decided to not even learn what ‘ironic’ meant. He showed them how he felt with shoulders in the halls and curses meant for parts of the female body.
His father and instructors scolded him for such things, but not as much as they did for his marks at school. They told him every day that the path he bore was steep and barren. But such things did not bother Paul. He laughed at his father and said: “School is fine for women and money counters, but I will earn a wage with my bare hands! I shall go north and settle in the city, where they build towers in the sky made of packed dirt, and boarding and beer are as cheap as they are comforting!”
But at this his father laughed louder than his son, “Young fool, there are no jobs in the Rose City!”
Paul paid him no heed. He kissed his weeping mother upon the cheek and travelled north in a Caravan filled with his earthly things to the house where he had found cheap board amongst strangers. But as he drew closer, he fell into unease. Many nearby houses were slatted with flaking wood, children roamed naked on the sidewalks, and for every dark coffee shop full of laptops there was a barbershop that cut nothing but curly hair. Coming upon the house itself, he nearly froze with dread. Its edges drooped like wet paper, fat messy dogs roamed the porch with eager tongues, and its front was covered not by healthy lawn but garden, yawning over a wine bottle fence with tall stakes of drooping tomatoes. His new housemates were of varied skin color and primal masses of hair, and they greeted him as though he were a strange cousin at a family gathering: “Hail, friend! Look at your rugged belongings! Are you truly our new housemate or a grizzly bear who has lost his way?” They showed him a bedroom of prison-like proportions, a kitchen matted in dog fur, and a single bathing room for the use of all six of the house’s tenants.
That day he considered escape, but his mind was haunted by a vision of his laughing father, so he stayed. His misgivings slowly melted as the days passed, for his housemates were friendly, if odd, and they fed him well, and guided him through the concrete jungle where meatmongers covered all things in cheese and gravy. On most days he would return home from his rangings for work and find on the porch Carey the Confucian spackling a swatch of chicken fence to glue upon her garbage goblin statue, or Martin the Musicsmith perched atop the ripped recliner wrapping a wire of catgut ‘round a makeshift tin can headstock to discover new sounds. Upon first seeing these things, Paul thought himself a spectator in a menagerie, but his housemates told him of their thoughts and dreams with no wise grins and no large words, and Paul came to worry less and less about his own honor. The housemates became comfortable with him as well, for despite his crude tongue he had a love of labor and an easy laugh, which boomed across the neighborhood as he bore wood and steel behind the house for the building of a shed, in which his new friends would brew thick meads and heady spirits.
Paul’s wage hunting yielded meager sport. He earned pay on odd days, but spent most mornings waiting on street corners with ruddy men from southerly nations. But to his great thanks, his housemates fed him freely, and he learned to appreciate exotic fruits and to tolerate things of bean made to resemble meat. When he had a few extra coins in his pocket, he would go to taverns at the edges of the city where men with earnest beards and women with stretched faces drank watery ales, for with them he could tell foul jokes and yell at televised sporting events. With these people he made friends and brought them to his house, but they stood apart from Paul’s housemates, as ranks of soldiers stand parallel on the precipice of battle. But in Paul’s manner there was a dislike for thick air, so he came between them and bellowed: “Housemates! Bring forth the thickest porters so that we might see if these men from the Big Box Lands are as burly as they say!”Laughter rang out from both sides, and with the lines frayed good fun was had for the rest of that night and many nights after.
One day, with fortune wrought of his resilience, he was given his very first job that was certain to last more than a few days. He agreed before knowing his full fate, and was soon loathe to learn that this wage would be earned on the floor of a bathhouse in a quarter of the city frequented by the half-male and half-conscious. Upon learning this his housemates could not help but laugh at Paul, for they had heard him mutter the kind of curses meant for the people that frequented such places. They said to him: “’Tis fitting! You will want to encase your body in rubber, for if the pools of liquid they’ve left are half as thick as your words, then you will be in danger of drowning!” In life’s passing days Paul had grown slower to anger, so he laughed with them, as he knew there was no hate in their words. Later, he contemplated irony as he swallowed puffs of exotic vapor.
And so we come back to the beginning of this story, with Paul smashing tile with his hammer. He did his work well, for such was his way, though he knew that he would soon be replaced by men who plied paint and math rather than muscle, and he grew angrier with each passing day, and each plate of ten tater tots, and each half-full glass of sickly ale. On his final day, the timekeeper, knowing Paul’s bitterness, approached him and said: “The Rose City is as Atlantis. That dead place fell in one day and one night, and so shall this city fall beneath its own weight if some misfortune were to befall the Brothers, who verily are the mortar holding two cultures together!” To Paul this meant nothing, for he himself had formed a marriage between two cultures without the wearing of masks.
Near the bathhouse was another hall owned by the Brothers, where ale flowed like water all around a vast gathering floor that floated on polished stones. It had been during the timekeeper’s speech that Paul had heard a single thing of interest: that this hall had run afoul of the city itself, for it was a bawdy place, prone to overindulgence and belligerence, and threats had been made upon its very existence should it run afoul of the law again. So the next night, Paul went there alone and paid for a ticket to see three musical acts who sang, to his ears, as though they did not want to be understood. But he waited patiently until the final minutes of the final songs, when the lights on the ceiling had grown as dim as the lights in the minds of the spectators. He strode towards a bar, with a beer in one hand and a stagger in his strut. He slurred at the sky and fell into a man with a bright yellow ‘O’ on his jacket, onto which all of Paul’s beer happened to spill, and a vicious argument began, in which Paul was assailed with slanders he was well-acquainted with, which he returned with equal vigor, though inside he was as cool as a trickling pond. The man ran at Paul with a fist, but Paul was larger and faster, and he caught the man off-balance and threw him into a man dressed in oranges and blacks, and they tumbled to the floor in a mess of clumsy limbs as their friends scurried to their flanks. His legs suddenly sure again, Paul slipped between two strangers and through a doorway as a great roar arose from behind. He slithered down a maze of corridors and stairways and into the cool night air. He smiled at the ticket man, placed his hands in his pockets, and walked away with a whistle on his lips, as the sounds of raised voices disappeared into the wailing of alarms surrounding the entire hall. Paul did not look back, for his mind was already thinking of nicer things.
The next night he hosted a grand feast. Broad men in flannel mingled with diaphanous women and boys built like cornstalks wearing plastic spectacles. Between them Paul strode with a whole pig on his shoulders which he threw upon a table and flayed from stem to stern. He and the broad men laughed at the upturned noses of short-haired women, but soon all was forgiven, for there was beet salad and vegan chili and many barrels of powerful ale. But one of Paul’s housemates approached him and said: “Paul, why are you so full of joy? You have lost the best job this city has given you. Your path ahead is dim at best!” Paul roared with laughter and clapped him upon the shoulder and said: “Ay, you speak truth, friend. But should I meet my end in any city, I would want it to be this one!” And they cooked the pig in slabs across smoking rocks and lost themselves in drink, and joy was had by all.
© 2011 Nick Powell