Writings & Whatnot by Rob Hill
Crux showed his identification papers to the guard and gave the password: “Dervish.” The guard nodded curtly and pressed a button that opened the gate. Crux went through. He entered the drab brick building that served as headquarters. A poorly-lit hallway brought him to a low-ceilinged briefing room where he found several surly soldiers clustered around a tactical table. He felt them size him up as he entered and he returned the favor. He wasn’t going to have any trouble from them, he surmised with confidence. And even if he did it would be short-lived. Coolly, he pushed back a folding chair and settled onto the seat, resting one of his heavy combat boots on the rim of the chair in front of him. He began to pick his teeth with a wooden splinter.
The General came into the room, reeking of authority. His eyes were piercing, like a bird of prey. A scar ran along the crown of his bald head. The amount of shit he gave was little to none. “Alright men,” he began, and all spines in the room instantly straightened. “Here’s the situation. The Nazis have captured Professor Logworm, the imminent nuclear physicist. Their interrogation methods are, let us say, notoriously infallible. It is imperative we get him back before he spills the proverbial beans. We know he’s being held in a fortified castle in Bavaria.” He indicated a spot on a map of Germany which hung on the wall behind him. “So here’s what’s going to happen. Tonight the lot of you will be flown into enemy territory where you will parachute down behind enemy lines. You will have to make your way through the Black Forest without detection. The castle is built atop a cliff with its back facing a sheer drop. You will have to scale this back wall where it is minimally guarded. Hanson here is an expert mountain climber and will lead this stage of the assault.”
A wiry man with a pencil mustache acknowledged this with a slight nod.
“Now two of you, Rickard and Drubber, speak fluent German. You two will be given forged papers and will make your way through the front gate by impersonating inspectors. Your task is to cause enough of a distraction to let the rest of the team slip into the castle unnoticed.”
Drubber, a preposterously muscled American, spat on the floor. “I work alone.”
“Not this time,” said the General. “And spit on my floor once more and you’ll be mopping it up with your face.”
Drubber turned crimson but said nothing.
“Now,” the General continued, “we’re almost certain the professor is being kept in a cell down in the catacombs.” He unrolled a scroll of paper and laid it across the table. “Fortunately we managed to get our hands on this blueprint of the castle. The most likely spot you’ll find him is marked here. We expect the professor will be in no condition to climb down the castle wall so once you find him you’ll have to burst your way out. We’re counting on the element of surprise for this. Crux here is a mechanic and hotwiring expert. It’ll be his job to locate a vehicle on the premises to use for your escape. Once you cross the Gotterdammerung River you can blow up the bridge behind you to slow down your pursuers. Garbo here is a demolitions technician and he will handle that. We’ll have a plane awaiting here,” pointing on the map, “at the abandoned airfield near the village of Löffelstadt to fly you the hell out of there. We are calling this mission Operation: Bandersnatch. Now then, any questions?”
“Yeah,” said Crux, leaning back in his chair. “I have one.”
The General’s eyes narrowed. “Well?”
“Can we warn the Nazi pigfuckers ahead of time that we’re coming, to make it a challenge?”
Crux sat on the edge of his cot cleaning the blade of his V-42 stiletto. He was ordered to get a few hours of sleep before the flight was to leave, but he was too pumped with adrenaline for that. He held up the knife and imagined it slicing through the jugular of a Nazi. He knew how to cut to ensure a maximum amount of pain. When it came to Nazis he despised a quick death.
He took out a photo of a voluptuous blonde in a sweater. This was Vera, his girl back home. Or at least she had been. She didn’t understand why he hadn’t taken a safe desk job back in the States when he had the chance. She didn’t understand that the Nazis needed exterminating. And he couldn’t do that from behind a desk. Before he left the States she angrily told him she didn’t want to see him again. But he knew she would change her mind when he returned. She was nuts about him, he knew, and she couldn’t just walk away that easily. Besides, who in their right mind would turn away a war hero? He tucked the photo in the breast pocket of his uniform for good luck.
There was a knock on the door. Crux grabbed his pack and went out to an idling jeep. He climbed in and was driven across the base to the runway where the others were assembled beside an awaiting B-17.
“Good luck, men,” said the General, giving a stiff salute. “Don’t let me down.”
They climbed aboard the plane and moments later were airborne. They rode in silence. Crux lit a cigarette to pass the time. His nerves were rock steady. His years of dedicated training culminated in this moment. He was ready to spill some Nazi blood.
“We’re over Germany,” the pilot called back to them over the roar of the engines.
The team triplechecked their parachutes and got ready for the jump. The pilot opened the drop hatch. A burst of bonechilling air rushed into the fuselage. The forest below scrolled by like the perforated roll of a player piano. The pilot gave the signal. One after the other the soldiers leapt out of the plane into empty space. Their parachutes could barely be seen against the inky night sky, like shadows of jellyfish. Crux glanced down to see the dark earth rushing up at him. He saw what looked like a small clearing and aimed for it. A gust of wind dragged him in another direction, directly towards a cluster of trees. That was all he needed, he thought, to get tangled up in the branches of a tree and have to cut himself down.
He crashed full-force into the upper reaches of a Norway spruce. His head caught in the V of a protruding branch and he heard a sharp jarring snap, which turned out to be the sound of his neck breaking.
And that reminds me of the time I nearly cracked the secret of the universe while hallucinating in a dentist’s chair. I wasn’t there for a serious operation, just a filling that needed to be replaced. After strapping the mask over my nose that would pipe in the nitrous oxide, the dentist courteously explained in some detail what he intended to do, but all I heard was the song playing behind him. The last fairly lucid thought I had was “I didn’t know Hendrix did a cover of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’…” then I climbed into my bathysphere and descended into the roiling wet clouds, where oddly-shaped bubble creatures floated past, peering curiously at me through a porthole in the hull of my craft.
As the procedure commenced it occurred to me that this particular dentist’s voice sounded exactly like that of every other dentist I’ve had occasion to lean back for. Sure, one might expect the terminology to be similar, but these were even the same mumbled asides, even the same random off-key hummings. I’ve had several dentists over the years of varying ages in different parts of the country. Yet at this moment they were all one and the same. A dentist archetype. The conversation between him and his assistant was identical to every conversation between every dentist and assistant that has ever taken place. Fragments of dialogue wafted into my ear, each triggering bouts of deja vu. A tricky procedure described as “heroic.” A gruesome hatchet injury once encountered in dental school. I could even picture the setting, a cabin stocked with lumber somewhere up north. I’ve heard this dialogue all before.
I then understood that the Dental Experience is something recorded on a tape and replayed every time the patient reclines in the dentist’s chair. There is nothing to fear, the hypnotic tape loop reassures me, because everything is familiar. This is all routine and your well-being is in good hands. You’ve been here before and you will be here again.
And this led me to reflect on the nature of control. Clearly I was not the one in control of this situation. I willingly handed over the reins fifteen minutes ago (or was it three hours?) when I stepped into this office. The dentist could, on a whim, swing a sledgehammer at my jaw and there was little I could do about it. In this impaired state of mind I might not even recognize that as something I would wish to avoid happening. I pondered what a powerful worldly figure would do in my place. How would Charles Foster Kane react to placing his fate in another’s hands? Would he simply not let himself be put in this situation? Perhaps Charles Foster Kane would sooner have a mouthful of rotting teeth than entrust his safety to another.
Then, like a camera filming itself, I thought of myself sitting there trying to make sense of everything. Consciousness is a detective, I realized, eternally puzzling over what is occurring, attempting to make sense of its environment, to piece together meaning out of the disparate clues it finds. But a detective is also a nuisance, a monkeywrench in the machinery. In order to pull off any sort of repair work or self-maintenance such as this, a greater mechanism would have to decoy the detective long enough to work unobstructed, to prevent it from meddling. And that’s exactly what the purpose of the nitrous oxide is, a wild goose chase to distract my thoughts from what is really going on. I’ve voluntarily come in and placed myself completely at the mercy of the dentist. Or did I? Certainly he is functioning under the same principle. Perhaps he is merely an instrument of the maintenance department. This whole thing could be taking place under the influence of some kind of metaphysical nitrous oxide.
A distraction, that’s all this is. A distraction in the system. Then suddenly I understood everything. With an almost audible click the whole nature of the universe made sense. As if stormclouds were lifted and I could see into the distance in all directions and knew precisely where I was. The face of the clock was fallen away, exposing the tiny mechanical parts underneath. Everything was so simple and so obvious. I nearly motioned for the procedure to be halted. To hell with my teeth, I had seen the truth. I needed to scribble down this vision of clarity before it was obfuscated. I needed to ask for a pen and paper. If only I could remember how to speak.
And then I noticed the music playing was no longer Hendrix. It sounded familiar though. The melody resembled the song “Such Great Heights.” Not the original, but it could have been the delicate Iron and Wine version. And then I knew something was wrong. This was not part of the script. That song hadn’t even existed the first time I visited the dentist. It would have been impossible to encode into the tape loop. Something must have short-circuited. An interference of signal. The song was a tip-off that the pattern had been broken. The detective in my head bolted upright.
I opened my eyes and realized I was in the same room I had originally entered. I had been sitting there the entire time. I hadn’t gone anywhere. Certainly not for a subterranean ride in a bathysphere. The office around me looked unbearably ordinary. The mask was removed. I was handed a complimentary toothbrush and ushered on my way.
Groggily I stumbled outside into the daylight. I crossed the street to the park where some jazz musicians were gathered, hammering away at an obscure Thelonious Monk tune. I sat on a bench while my head slowly cleared and the feeling seeped back into my jaw, trying to make sense of all this, to reconstruct the state of mind that had led to my recent epiphany. I had a notepad in my lap, ready to jot down the faintest hint of the secret, but my mind was a blank. I felt the despair that for a fleeting moment everything made sense and then was spirited away, like a dream whose wispy tendrils eluded my grasp. Like a pearl disappearing into the murky depths of my soup. A tune whose melody I’d forgotten. Hopelessly I put away my empty notepad, the victim of a cruel joke. Why would the universe reveal its secret to me only to snatch it away again? What was the purpose in that?
And then a bird shat on my bag.
It was the morning of my execution. My head was throbbing from all the drinks I had, perhaps unwisely, downed the night before. I’d made the rounds of the bars in the village and everyone, knowing it was to be my last night alive, bought me enough drinks to drown a battalion. It was quite the occasion. Instead of my usual sorry rags I wore a tailored velvet suit made especially for the event and everyone was most impressed with my striking appearance. But as I lay sprawled on my bed blinking in the stern morning light, my brain stuffed with wet starfish, I regretted not having exercised a little more willpower.
Heroically I made it onto my feet and staggered to the sink to splash water on my face. I squirmed into yesterday’s clothes, now splotched and rumpled, and stepped outside, shielding my eyes from the stabbing daylight. No one along the street said a word, but nodded respectfully as I passed. Often I had felt shunned by the villagers who considered me a mere wastrel with nothing to offer the community. But today was different. Today I was something of a celebrity.
There hadn’t been an execution in the village in a very long time. Generations, in fact. Which meant no one was entirely sure how it was supposed to be handled. Tradition had it that the subject was to lie with his head resting on the rail that ran through town square as a steam train was driven over him. However no one was old enough to recall actually having seen this occur. This sounded to me like an especially gruesome way to die and, though I hadn’t spoken against it out of deference, secretly I hoped an alternative method could be settled on before the hour came.
I made my way along the narrow town streets, bidding a silent farewell to the places that had been my home for so long. The rows of stone buildings seemed distantly familiar, as though I’d known them only through secondhand descriptions and was now seeing them for the first time in person. Mr Pilsner leaned out the door of his barber shop and nodded in my direction. I’d gone to him since I was a boy but didn’t remember him having such a prominent scar on the crown of his bald head. For the first time I pondered the peculiarity of having your hair cut by a man with no hair of his own.
I watched two slavering dogs chase each other in and out of a blind alley, stirring up dust. As a little kid, I was convinced this alley contained dead bodies. I would refuse to pass in front of it until one day my exasperated uncle dragged me in against my will and pointed out to me that the lumpy shapes which had so terrorized me were just discarded bags of sand left over from the flood season. I passed the bakery where as a boy I had perfected my pilfering abilities. The woman who owned the shop wore a glass eye, which unnerved the other schoolchildren but never bothered me. While she cursed her indecisive customers I would walk out with a whole loaf smuggled under my coat. Early mornings I would often loiter outside, inhaling the narcotic aroma of baking bread.
After crossing a stone bridge, I followed the winding street until I reached the cobblestoned town square where my friends Mink and Pulse greeted me. Both wore wrinkleless grey soldier uniforms. Mink had her hair pulled back into a tight ponytail. Pulse looked impassive in dark sunglasses. Already a crowd had begun to gather near the fountain of a urinating boy, but kept at a respectful distance from me. The town hall clock indicated it was a quarter to noon. High overhead the sun glared down without mercy. I went over to the train tracks and crouched beside them. Gazing down the tracks I saw the dark spot of an approaching train far in the distance. Vibrations coursed through the steel rail. I imagined resting my head upon the steel and calmly waiting as the great mechanical beast bore down on me while the earth trembled and the engine screamed. At once I decided my nervous system was simply too fragile for me to be executed in such fashion. Tradition or not, we would have to find another way. The crowd began to close in. I could sense their anxiety. They were eager to watch an execution but unsure of what to expect. There was no one in charge to oversee the proceedings. Mink and Pulse stood on either side of me to protect me in the event that the unsettled crowd decided to take matters into their own hands. A hot noon sun has been known to stir up violence in the restless.
As the train clamored into the square I saw that it was filled with grimfaced soldiers, some hanging out the sides, and knew they had come to ensure I didn’t attempt to escape my fate, something I would never consider. But the villagers milling around me were confused by what was happening. Some suspected the soldiers had come to rescue me and deprive them of their spectacle. Or even to attack them. The iron beast screeched to a halt and the soldiers leapt off. The anxious crowd of villagers knew better than to rush the soldiers but were insistent not to yield their space. The air was tense and ripe for violence. This really was poorly organized.
The soldiers took their positions and the crowd glared at them. The soldiers had no leader either and were following no strategy other than their instinct to appear imposing. The crowd was a breathing entity. I recognized none of the faces now, though as individuals I had known them my entire life. Mink batted away several hands that reached toward me. Leaning toward Pulse, I suggested in a murmur that, should things get out of hand, he should be the one to execute me by firing a bullet into my brain. He didn’t like my idea, not even when I suggested he make it look like his pistol accidentally discharged while he was protecting me. I worried that without his intervention, the impatient crowd, feeling cheated, might lose its senses and viciously rip me apart. I felt I deserved a more dignified end than that.
I heard several small explosions but was unable to tell from which direction they had come. Among the surging crowd I spotted several pistols which had been drawn from waistcoats. A sudden pinched sensation at my side made me realize one of the shots had struck me. I looked over at Pulse to see if he had changed his mind and fired the shot, but his sunglasses hid his expression and I was unable to tell. His pistol was in his hand but it was pointed towards the ground. I felt a warmth spread through me, as though several quickly downed shots of vodka had suddenly kicked in. I slumped forward and people stepped back to make room. I hit the cobblestones lightly, as though gravity had lost much of its reign over me. Lying on my side as the onlookers fell silent, it occurred to me that the thoughts now swarming in my mind were to be my dying thoughts. And, somehow, I knew that these dying thoughts would be recorded in the annals of the universe, in a great memorial library of the cosmos where all dying thoughts are filed for posterity.
And what coursed through my mind at that moment, I recognized with dismay, was a nursery rhyme I’d learned as a child. I couldn’t remember the words. They were probably insignificant. Something about a greedy fish that gobbled up more than it could eat. Or maybe it was a bird. I couldn’t remember. It was a ridiculous melody caught in my head, like a ribbon threaded through a confusing series of clockwork.
This then was to be my contribution to eternity.