Elegant Union (John Clark Smith) - 6

John Clark Smith
A Novel by John Clark Smith

 

15

 

Titus awoke and had his breakfast.

When the bus arrived, the driver was in a medical mask. He handed Titus a mask and instructed him to enter by the rear door.

Titus sat at the back seat that faced the aisle. No one else sat beside him. The people kept apart. All had masks on. No one spoke. A boy attempted to run up the aisle, but his mother caught and scolded him.

“Is that you, sir?” a woman’s voice spoke a few rows up. “Professor Ketkar?”

Titus saw a lady with a scarf around her neck wave.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You haven’t aged a day,” she said. “It’s good to see you.”

Titus did not recognize the woman. Perhaps it was one of the parents of one of his students.

“You don’t know me?” she asked. “I’ve changed a lot, what with having children and fighting the virus. I’ve had it twice. Lost my husband. It’s Midia.”

As he focused on her eyes, he could now see a resemblance to Midia.

“Are you going to the clinic too?” she asked. “I’m told they’re looking for volunteers for the new vaccine. I’m going to try it.”

“No, I’m on my way to class. Good to see you. Glad you’re well.”

The bus continued for several blocks and then Midia waved as she got off.

“The university’s closed, sir,” a woman who sat near him said. “Been closed for two years.”

At his usual university stop, Titus got off and took the short walk to the quad up King’s College Road. On both sides of the road, people were sitting on the ground separated from one another, as if waiting for someone. Each of them held out their hand or cups for donations. Each also had a hand-written sign in front of them that told how the virus had cost them their job or killed one of their family.

When he reached King’s College Circle, the grass on the quad was completely worn away. Tents and squatters in ragged dirty clothes filled the entire area. The glass sculpture remained but was covered with graffiti. The bench that encircled it was there too, but the paint on it was chipped and one of the legs was teetering. A marker with a word was taped above it: “Pamoghenan.” Above the word was a circle with a cross below it and a half-circle above. In the center of the circle was the number 20.

A crowd had gathered around him, each with the hand or cup out. His suit and overall neat appearance made Titus look out of place and a target. Signs indicated the buildings were open, but most of the rooms were for those in need of housing, the rest were reserved by public health for temporary hospital beds for those fighting the virus. He quickly walked to his office. At his office the window was smashed, and his books, paintings, knick-knacks, computer, and printer were gone. There was no chair to sit down.

“What are you doing in here?” a woman in uniform asked at his office door in an Irish accent. “You need an installation pass.”

“I was just leaving,” Titus said. “This was my office.”

“Well now, isn’t that sweet,” she quickly said. “Remember anything? Personally, I prefer not to remember.”

“There’s always hope,” Titus said. “The economy will recover. The spirits of people will return.”

“Will they now?” she said with a caustic tone. “There’s not enough food. The water is questionable. Come winter, and again there’ll be no heat. We need medical supplies and protective gear. There are constant blackouts. Most of the essential workers are sick, a good portion of the farmland has gone to waste without farmhands, and the electrical infrastructure is working intermittently. The government, such as it is or was, is on the run or hiding. There’s no one in authority. Now tell me, laddie, does that lift up your spirit?”

“There’s you. There’s still a police force.”

“Me? Ha! I’m not the police. There’s only a few police left. Most are dead or sick. I’m a security guard. Public Heath gives me my meals and a bed in exchange for protecting spaces for the sick. But I won’t be around long. I’ll get the virus and take one of those beds here. They promised me I’ll get one.”

“I’m sorry,” Titus said. “I didn’t mean to upset you. I’ve been away. How did this virus happen?”

“Oh no. This wasn’t caused by the virus. We were managing the virus fine. We would have beat it. That wasn’t it. It was the government and the lack of leadership.”

“The government?” Titus said with a tone of surprise.

She laughed loudly as if Titus had made a joke.

“OK, you’re right,” she said. “What they call a government. I know, I know. The government is people like you and me. The choices of those in government. But let’s be completely honest. We elected them. Or did we? We supported them if nothing else. The government knew it would lose and was unwilling to concede. So the government let its most fanatic supporters run amok and the army helped them.”

“In the middle of a pandemic?”

As she was talking, she was ushering Titus out of the building.

“People in power think only of themselves and staying in power. In fact, it seems to attract selfish people, doesn’t it? Which of course breeds failure and chaos. Well, I suppose, you must be selfish to want to be a politician. But again, let’s be fair. You and I are no better, are we? We’re that kind of people, aren’t we? So, as someone said, you get the government you deserve. Well, we got a selfish, uncaring, bunch of nitwits who worry only about their own necks. The leaders used the pandemic for political reasons to try to defeat the opposition. But they’re pretty much done now, waiting around somewhere at Queens Park, waiting for I-don’t-know-what. The cavalry? It ain’t coming. And you know? I don’t care. Because the Zapatas aren’t going to surrender.”

“The Zapatas are--?”

“--where you from? The insurgents. They’re holed up in several buildings on King Street East pinned down by what’s left of the army. But it won’t be long.”

“So the army’s in control?”

“Ha! Not exactly. They’re weakening because they keep losing people. The military doesn’t know what to do. They just hope they get paid. Well, goodbye now. I’d suggest you leave the area for your own safety.”

Titus thanked her and looked for a stand to rent a bicycle.

There was one at the corner of King’s College Road and College Street, but none of the bikes were secure and there was no way to pay. Titus took a bicycle and started down College Street east to Yonge, then south on Yonge to King Street East.

Along the way, there were few people walking, even fewer cars on the road. Stores were closed, some boarded up. On each side of Yonge, many were camped and sitting on sleeping bags in front of the stores. The trip lacked the sounds of cars, buses, and people talking. Instead eyes with dark circles met his all the way.

As he approached King Street, the quiet ended. Conversations and the sounds of soldiers walking on pavement replaced the quiet.

Titus set his bike in another bicycle stand north of King Street and walked south along Yonge to the intersection.

Barriers and a line of soldiers were set up across King Street East. A block east at Victoria Street the crowd of soldiers became much thicker. Clearly the buildings where the Zapatas were controlling started there. The army contingent went from Victoria to St. James Park, but hardly enough to withstand a serious attack.

Titus walked back up Yonge Street one block to Adelaide Street, which was also barricaded, but with far less soldiers. Titus was able to slip by and walk east two blocks to Toronto Street. Titus hurried down Toronto Street until he came to Old Post Office Lane, a tiny alleyway that ran behind a building near the west corner of Toronto Street and King Street East. The soldiers were there, along the Lane, but Titus entered a building he knew on the north side of the lane owned by the Black Firm, a powerful and wealthy holding company. He had worked in the building on a project with a carpenter who hand-made much of the office furniture and the Boardroom table. In the basement was a tunnel that led to the Ashes Building where he could reach the Zapatas.

The Black Building, like all the businesses in the pandemic, would normally be empty and locked up during any crisis, but it was commandeered by the city in the health crisis because of the spread of the virus among the troops. A warning sign asked all but the infected or health workers to stay clear.

A nurse wearing protective clothing, a mask, and a face shield, greeted him when he walked up the steps to the entrance.

“Assessment?” the woman asked.

Titus nodded.

“Straight ahead, the third door to the right. Here.”

She handed him eyewear and sprayed his hands.

“Thank you,” he said.

Once inside the building, Fischer stood without a mask or eye shield.

Titus ignored and moved around him and began to take the stairs down two flights to the basement. Fischer stood in front of him at the bottom.

“You can’t rewrite this situation,” Fischer said.

“Of course he can,” a man said who walked into the room from the darkness. It was Wang. “This is the individual spirit.”

Fischer stepped back a few feet from Titus when he saw Wang, as if he feared Wang.

“It’s not an individual spirit,” Fischer said. “You know that.”

“This is his choice,” Wang said, “let him continue.”

Fischer and Wang for a minute stared at each other without moving.

Titus continued his journey.

There was a dark room that smelled like old documents and the sweat of heated meetings. He used the light on his cell phone to find the tunnel on the left. Thick cobwebs covered most of the entrance and a layer of dust was on the floor and stairs.

In a few minutes he crossed over to the basement of the Ashes Building. It too was pitch black. As Titus crept up the stairs to the basement door, voices on the other side of the door suddenly became quiet. The door flung open and several men and women with guns faced him.

“Who are you?” one of them asked. “What are you doing here?”

“My name is Titus Ketkar. I can help.”

They took him to a small room where there were four others.

Titus quickly outlined the strategy. Take the Path up to Queens Park. Again, knowledge of this possibility came from the carpenter, who had been hired by the government to barricade certain entrances to the Path and to the subway from the basements of several buildings, one of which was the Ashes Building. The government told the carpenter to seal off these entrances not permanently but superficially in case the government wanted to reopen them in the future. Titus knew how easily the blockades could be removed. Since the Path itself and all its stores were abandoned and empty, the Zapatas should have little problems reaching Queens Park.

After offering the plan, Titus made little effort to convince them. He returned to his bike and began his journey up Yonge.

 

An artist was sitting on the sidewalk near the corner of Elm Street and Yonge surrounded by paintings. Titus stopped and gave him a mask and other protective items he was given at the Black Building. The man put on the mask and handed Titus one of his small paintings. The work reminded Titus of Kandinsky and Malevich.

“I paint the future,” the artist said. “You’re from the future. I know you. You’re Professor Ketkar.”

“We’re all from the future,” Titus said.

“I sat here twenty years ago, right here. And I met you. My little girl was sitting next to me. And you bought one of my new works. Do you remember? It had three straight purple lines of varying thickness on a yellow background. In the corner was an exploding sun-like object. I called it Blessed Anarchy.”

“I still have the painting,” Titus said. “Well, I used to have it. It was on my wall in my office. It was ransacked.”

“My daughter saved it. She was one of your students.”

“What’s her name?”

“Charlotte.”

Hearing her name made him gulp and remember that young woman on the platform. But he was also happy. Somehow Charlotte was here and had not shot herself. This poor father had not lost a daughter from Lazan’s harassment. It did not occur to Titus that this shift may have been Lazan’s work to satisfy Gretchen.

“Because of the pandemic,” the painter continued, “she now lives with me. She likes to talk about how you helped her finish school and become interested in philosophy. She also credits you for her interest in Whitehead.”

Titus could not recall lecturing on Whitehead. Long ago his studies veered toward Peirce rather than Whitehead. He did read Process and Reality and a few other books of Whitehead, but he never taught them.

“She was thinking about doing her thesis on Whitehead,” the old man continued, “but you encouraged her to choose a woman philosopher. She chose Susanne Langer, Whitehead’s student, because of me, I think, because Langer wrote a lot about art. Well, you would know that.”

He mentioned Langer in his survey courses, but he had no special expertise in her work.

“Where can she return the painting?” the artist asked.

“Let her keep it until classes resume,” Titus said. “Here. You keep this one. I have no way to carry it on my bike.”

Titus climbed back on the bike.

“Professor? Back then, you asked me a question. You said: Do I know about the art of pamoghenan? I said no. I still don’t know anything about it. What is it?”

Titus did not respond but shrugged.

“I guess I was hoping you could tell me,” Titus said.

He had no recollection of talking about pamoghenan with him.

“That’s OK,” the artist said, “you needn’t explain. I’ll keep thinking about it. But tell me: Is it immortality or like the blowing out of a candle?”

Titus shrugged again and climbed on his bicycle.

“By the way, a woman came by and told me there are artists waiting for you at the Church of the Holy Trinity.”

The identity of the woman required no thought.

Titus cycled to just south of the corner of Bay Street and Dundas Street West. There, on the east side, snuggled off Bay Street, was the little Church of the Holy Trinity. ‘Little’ compared to Metropolitan United or St. James, but nonetheless remarkable. It was unique in service and in architecture, though swallowed up by surrounding modern secular buildings.

The Holy Trinity was built in the Gothic late medieval Tudor style with a cruciform design with two high turrets at the entrance. Inside there were tall narrow translucent stain glass windows on each side telling stories, which, like Chartres, brought light into the interior in unusual ways and a sense of awe at the height of the ceiling. Throughout there was the pointed arch.

Titus had often gone to Holy Trinity during Christian holidays to hear the traditional telling of Jesus’s birth story. On other occasions he would sit in the back pew and listen to the concerts of new music, or meditate to the wonderful organ music, hear recitations of poetry, or peruse the new art on display outside at the entrance. No other church had a better feast for the mind of sound, image, and literary power all at once. But, more importantly, no church did more to help the homeless and those in need. Often, when Titus would walk in to seek quiet, he would see boxes of canned food and bottles of water and homeless people stretched out in or under the pews.

As expected, when he entered, the church was mostly empty due to the quarantine. A group was sitting in the front pew and an organist was playing a work he knew, “Wachet auf, rufs uns die Stimme”[1], by J. S. Bach. He could easily identify all but one of this group of phantoms: He knew Marcel Duchamp, Ravi Shankar, Wassily Kandinsky, Fela Kuti, and Leonardo da Vinci, and, he soon learned, J. S. Bach himself was at the organ. Only the appearance of Fan Kuan, the Song landscape painter, was unknown to him, though his work was familiar.

“The sky is falling, dear little god,” Wassily said.

“Think creatively,” Leonardo said. “The future is now.”

“They are blind to possibilities because they know only the tradition,” Marcel agreed. “They’re afraid to step out of the box of rules lest they lose their jobs or livelihood. An artist of society must take risks, come what may.”

“Remember,” Ravi added, “begin, don’t end, with the unknown. It’s the obvious that has the unknown.”

“Your being must have purpose,” Fela said.

The organ music stopped. The master of Leipzig came up to the pulpit and spoke:

“Let’s not eliminate tradition,” Bach said, “let’s improve it, bring out its substance, not its surface. Society is now so unmusical, with no depth, no touching of the soul. Would you not agree, Fan Kuan? Is it not time to awake from the long sleep?”

Fan Kuan nodded slowly. Then he stood beside Bach.

“Yes,” Fan Kuan said, “awake from a sleep of selfishness, material illusion, and useless preoccupations. What is near in this painting of society is empty and shallow. The middle of the painting has no future and lacks contrast, and the far, the far is the weakest. What do we see that offers eternal seeds? As Johann has said, no depth in any dimension. If I was to paint it, it would be so boring I would be embarrassed.”

Titus had no opportunity to discuss or question them because they rose together, went up to the choir area, and left. He sat in the second pew and studied the large stained-glass windows at the end of the nave. The blue ceiling with its designs was so contemplative that he fell into a meditative slumber.

 

16

 

By the time he was back on College Street, the environment had changed. The street was crowded with people, and busy with streetcars and vehicles. No one wore a mask. Everything seemed normal, or at least a type of normal compared to what came before or after.

When he reached the campus, the quad had grass, and there were no tents or squatters. The only difference was that a large stone statue of a figure with no discernable features, had replaced the glass sculpture. Several bees were encircling it. The man was faceless in a mask, but he wore a suit. At its base were the words,

TO PROFESSOR TITUS KETKAR,

FOR HIS HELP IN OVERTHROWING THE PAST

AND STARTING THE REVOLUTION.

 

Titus stared at the statue.

“I knew him,” an old man said, coming up to stand beside Titus. “Well, I knew someone whose son knew him and took one of Ketkar’s classes. His office is open to the public. Have you been?”

Titus shook his head.

“Oh, you should go,” the old man said. “It has so many interesting things.”

“Thanks. I’ll think about it.”

Titus walked back to College Street and took the streetcar home. Karna caught up with him just as he was climbing the stairs of his apartment building.

Once inside his apartment, he sat on his couch and tried to wipe what had occurred from his mind.

“Are we ready?” Karna asked. “Is it time for old gods?”

“Yes,” Titus replied.



[1] Awake, the Voice is Calling us. This hymn, written by a pastor 400 years ago, was written in the midst of an epidemic.


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