Mark Twain in Milan
by Rob Hunter
some background »
“Where do you get those ideas,” my unseen reader asks. Well, I... From life, I guess, I answer.
“What kind of experiences can you get stuck in front of a computer in a little house on the banks of a river in the hollyhocks of Maine,” she asks.
The reader means boondocks. I do not correct her. Hollyhocks are my favorite flower.
And the ideas?
For this story, Mark Twain in Milan, while browsing the basement stacks of a nearby library (Calais, Maine) where gems of literature too precious to be thrown out just yet are kept hidden from public view, I discovered the works of Sam Clemens, known as Mark Twain. Sam’s better-known books—Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Life on the Mississippi—lived up the stairs, in the daylight. The variorum editions of The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrim’s Progress, languished in the cellar.
I noticed that any and all references to a Mark Twain stopover in Milan (or yet Turin, a nexus of great doings in the days of Charles Babbage, Lady Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron and company) were missing from most later editions. Why? Expunged by a zealous publisher with an eye on his bottom line? Spirited away by an Illuminati jealous of their secrets? Done away with by their embarrassed author? And, if embarrassed, by what or whom? I read on.
Innocents Abroad was Mark Twain’s great European adventure, first published in 1869, a compilation of dispatches contracted for by the Daily Alta California of San Francisco, the New York Tribune and the New York Herald. “Innocents Abroad” was a money-raising scheme wrapped up as a fabulous excursion. To quote the book: “The very beautiful and substantial side-wheel steamship ‘Quaker City’ has been chartered for the occasion, and will leave New York June 8th. Letters have been issued by the government commending the party to courtesies abroad.”
You are invited on an interstitial excursion: time-hopping, as it were, although Giancarlo Pieranunzi, mathematician and Andy Saperstein, our narrator, will insist (along with the 21st Century scientific community) that travel in time is quite impossible. Trans-dimensional train-hopping, now... there’s a fine idea.
“Op. Cit., Qui Bono, QED and so forth.”
Suspended in mid-ceiling, yellow work lights cast fitful shadows every hundred feet; a half foot of water in a concrete channelway reflected oily rainbow ripples. There was a distant vibration of machinery. If I had gone to Hell at least they kept up with the electric bill.
“Mister Ivory I believe,” said a tall tenuous man as he strode down the empty tunnel toward me. He wore a large untended mustache and a red fez in the Turkish style. I fumbled in my pockets for loose change. This was most likely one of the legion of New York’s homeless who slept down here. The man waved me off.
“My pleasure, for the moment,” said the gent. “...put aside your charity. And your mouth is hanging open—close it, please. Ivory or Onions, one or the other. You may choose.” He extended a hand. “Samuel Langhorne Clemens: author, adventurer, general bon vivant.”
I’m not afraid of rats, or the dark, but entombment with a lunatic in one of the silent landfills that herald municipal progress gave me the willies. I guessed this was the 2nd Avenue subway tunnel. It is a given of municipal affairs that if you keep a botched project under wraps long enough, people will forget about it. Parts had been sealed off since the late 1920s.
“No matter, I shall call you Onions,” said Samuel Langhorne Clemens. “How do you do?” He squinted and smoothed his moustache. There was a small squeak as on the wall behind him a New York City Transit Authority plaque slipped to hang on one remaining unrusted screw. It cautioned against smoking or spitting.
“Sam Clemens—Mark Twain. I read your books in the sixth grade. Aren’t you dead?”
“Hogwash, if I were dead I’d be out and voting. This is New York. And yes, I am better known as Mark Twain—a sad deficiency, but I’m working on it. Although I am not one to put on airs, I do turn a handsome phrase, my publisher demands it. I bestride the ocean like a colossus, if I do say so myself. And there is soap on your nose.”
“Uh... I was getting a shave. The last thing I remember is lying back in a barber chair under a mound of steaming towels.” Like that explained things. “Andy Saperstein,” I said as I reached out to shake hands. “...formerly of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.” Sam Clemens looked suspiciously at the hand. “It’s okay; I just washed it. And I’m not Onions.”
Sam Clemens/Mark Twain produced a set of those nineteenth century eyeglasses—pince-nez they’re called—and settled them on his large nose.
“Your hygiene habits are not in question here, Mr. Onions, but your hesitation—life is about choices. I name all my porters and attendants—steamship stewards, Montenegrin muleskinners, waiters at table. They nigh burst with joy that I might be on familiar terms with them. They are who I say they are.” We shook hands. “You, too,” he added.
I felt a minute vibration from an inside pocket—cellphone. Sam Clemens peered into my eyes. “Your shirt is singing,” he said. Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” is my ring tone; as we talked I must have wandered into a hotspot. Cellphone signals leak into parts of many stations through the street grates.
“Valerie?” A wrong number.
“Nope, sorry. No Valerie here.” I rang off. Then dialed 911. The cellphone was dead; I was stuck underground with a strangely arranged person who insisted he was Mark Twain and that I was someone else. A rat scuttled across his shoe and he looked down disapprovingly.
“Rat,” I pointed out.
“Yes,” said Mark Twain. There was a scurry of small animals escaping. “We have surprised them.”
I checked around for stragglers. “Hey, you guys, it’s only me, Uncle Andy. I come in peace.” I hoped the rats felt the same way. I tried to radiate nonchalance. One late diner, a disheveled two-pounder, scampered over my foot on his way to anyplace else, preferably dark. He was in so much of a hurry that he dropped the French fry he was toting. I kicked it after him. He grabbed it, waggled his ass at me and dived down the nearest drain.
“Well,” I said, “it is an axiom of city life that there’s never a cat around when you want one. A split second ago I was dunking a brioche, enjoying a forty-dollar shave and a haircut marked up to a hundred for the ambience. Then I am in an empty subway tunnel.”
“I too, Mr. Onions,” said Twain. I likewise seem to have departed the premises of a tonsorial parlor. I am understandably on edge, having just turned up smelling of rosewater and glycerin in what, on the face of it, is an ancient Greek netherworld. Death notwithstanding, I do have an aversion to rats.”
Overhead, crystallized accretions from a century of seepage had turned the tunnel into a backdrop for a vampire extravaganza: beryl, quartz, calcite and tourmaline. Spray can art had over the decades gotten layered in with the mineral deposits and produced murals that glistened with an eerie iridescent life.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens joined me in trying to puzzle out the scrawls. “Ahh, you admire the graffiti,” he said. “So encouraging to meet a fellow art lover.”
Recessed into the tunnel walls, every fifty feet or so, were niches that retreated down the line in diminishing perspective where track workers could dive when a train came by. But there were no trains, no tracks, no workers; this was a deserted tunnel.
“Buona sera.” A man stepped out of the nearest niche.
“Holy shit!” I must have jumped a foot.
“Scusi, signori. Un po’ di fuori, eh? You were preoccupied and I have disturbed your reflections. Cane che abbaia non morde. This is a proverb. I am harmless, a toothless terrier; I am not begging. I will not disturb you further.” He shrugged back into his niche.
“Wait. Hey, I’m sorry. Come out and let’s talk. I’m Andy Saperstein and this is Sam Clemens.”
The man beamed like a kid with his first chocolate sundae. “Giancarlo Pieranunzi,” he said. “Formerly docent in mathematics at the Università di Torino.”
Giancarlo was well-groomed and in his thirties, a decent looking gent wearing one of those tight Edwardian tweeds with the high narrow lapels that come in and go out of fashion every ten years, regular as clockwork. I noticed his buttonholes were leather-lined, custom tailoring.
“I thought the niche was an uscita d’emergenza, an escape hatch. But, alas, no. I apologize for affrightening you.” He paused to groom a closely clipped military mustache. After repeating our introductions, we three sat on the cement walkway and dangled our feet above the oily slick that slithered down the middle of the tunnel.
Samuel Langhorne Clemens leaned across to offer Giancarlo a hearty, manly handclasp. “You must be Mister Ivory.”
“Pieranunzi, Signor Twain. And I had not planned to become a graduate assistant at the Università. I was a romantic youth and dreamed to become a shepherd. Then came Mussolini and I went. No more Università. Eppur si muove.”
“Shepherd...” I began. If Mussolini chased him out of Italy that made him a hundred years old. His moustache was flecked with gray. Maybe I had underestimated his age. “...welcome to America, by the way. There’s always room for an extra shepherd.” I confronted Sam Clemens. “...and we are not Ivory and Onions,” I said.
“I am cut to the quick; you are a pair of ungrateful wretches. You could as well have been Obloquy and Irony. Those gems, however, I have bestowed on the Berber porters who tailed me like faithful dogs in Marrakech,” said Sam Clemens.
Our male bonding was cut short by a great rush of displaced air and the overwhelming thrust of a train entering the station. No tracks, no trains... remember? There was a screech of tortured steel as brakes caught hold and slipped, steel on steel whipping up great clouds of archival dust. Discarded flotsam from the daily commuter trek battered our faces. There was no train to be seen. A newspaper flew straight at me and covered my eyes. I was blinded and pulled it away in a panic.
L’Osservatore Romano. The type face was archaic—the kind you’d see in a museum. It was in Italian and the date was July 18th, 1869. There were two photo-engravings on the front page. After reading subway ads all my life, I am pretty good at translation if I’ve got a picture to go with the story. A pretty girl waved from the rear platform of what might have been a train. In the other picture a beneficent looking man in liturgical costume held a hand aloft in a blessing. The caption said something about a council of bishops. This guy to be the pope. The pretty girl in the other picture was a different story. The only part of that caption I could decipher said something about an apparition.
“What’s that you’ve got?” asked Sam Clemens. He reached out for the paper as he clamped eyeglasses on the end of his nose. “Apparition... hmmm.” He studied the newspaper. He was holding it upside down. He noticed my stare and aimed his intimidating moustache in my direction.
“Harrumph. You are not yet initiated into the mysteries of the camera obscura phenomenon. I am squinting: the smaller the hole is, the clearer the picture is. Op. Cit., Qui Bono, QED and so forth.”
I was forming an opinion that, however fine a writer he was—or had been, Mark Twain was a bit of a humbug. “What do you make of this, Giancarlo?” I handed the docent in mathematics the newspaper.
“The Holy Father,” he said. He then kissed the picture. Not the picture of the pope, but the picture of the young woman.
The tunnel shook with a passing rumble, the uptown express on the Lexington line a couple of blocks to our east, separated from us by cubic tons of basaltic granite. As I turned around to look for the train, a reflex, Giancarlo grabbed at my sleeve. “Mi dispiace. I was afraid you might be leaving. Look. Look at the date.” We looked at the date.
L’Osservatore’s masthead read July 18th, 1869. “So?”
Giancarlo wept. His shoulders heaved and tears ran down his cheeks. “It is too late. She is dead in 1869. Don’t you see?” He looked to Sam Clemens and me for confirmation.
“Yes, we see,” we said in unison, even though neither of us had the slightest idea what he was talking about.
“I am always late. No matter how hard I try. I always miss her.”
Sam Clemens held the newspaper at arm’s length. From the yellowed page a bright-eyed, attractive young woman, bustled and beribboned and in a tweedy Victorian getup waved cheerily out at us.
Giancarlo translated. “They are saying that this is a, how do you say—fakery. The photograph is not true but it has been staged by some malicious anti-Christian force. Such as the Risorgimento. It is claimed by some to be a miracle. The Church denounces her. My Ada.”
“Ah-hah, the lady has a name,” said Sam. “The giving of a name transcends the humdrum, the everyday, and elevates the wearer. A mother-gift, the name. Wear it humbly and reverently.” He rambled on, weaving eloquent variations on this theme.
“Ada Byron, Lady Lovelace,” said Giancarlo. He lifted aside a foulard silk tie and unbuttoned two buttons in his shirtfront to produce a portrait cameo attached to a gold chain.
“The face is the same as the woman in the paper,” I said. The woman was drop dead gorgeous, even allowing for some artistic license by a carver who had wished to please a finicky client.
“A mighty handsome lady, that,” offered Samuel Langhorne Clemens.
“You have seen her?” Giancarlo looked reproachfully at him.
“You’ve lost her?” Sam Clemens/Mark Twain turned the cameo over in his large hands. “Careless of you, I would say. No, I have not, more’s the pity.”
“Alas, I, too, have never met her.” Said Giancarlo. “But I have yearned for her since I was an undergraduate. Lady Ada is—was—likewise a mathematician. She has such a well-formed formula.” The woman of the cameo had a scrappy air. Her upturned nose was offset by a chinoiserie of coiled hair cascading over very creamy, very white shoulders.
Sam Clemens and I began talking at the same time. Sam Clemens/Mark Twain gave me a dark look and I shut up. “Ahh, that’s better,” he said. “Now sir, if you are a professor, explain yourself. And the bizarre situation in which we find ourselves while you are at it.”
Our new arrival quailed under the assault of the great drooping moustache. “Scuse,” he stammered and walked back to his niche.
“Nonononono,” said Sam Clemens. “Don’t go back down your pop-hole, please. We shall be needing all the help we can muster. Three heads are better than one, even when one of the heads is mine.”
Giancarlo reluctantly allowed himself to be pulled from his niche. We exchanged reminiscences and family histories. And found out that we hailed from different decades—different centuries. “Time travel,” I said.
“Claptrap,” offered Sam. “If there is such a thing as journeying through time, where are all the tourists?”
“Right here: us. Now,” I said.
“But which now?” Giancarlo let out a long Mediterranean sigh and gave one of those elegant whole body shrugs that only an old world Italian could pull off. “Time travel is impossible. It appears that you and I and Signor Twain are trading places on a space-time continuum defined by the 2nd Ave. subway tunnel. Alas, I fear this is too simple an answer. There is a hooker as you call it,” said Giancarlo. “Something which precipitates oscillations between your parallelism and ours.”
I explained hookers to Giancarlo.
“Bouno, a complexity, then,” he said.
“So time travel is impossible? They do it all the time on TV.” From Giancarlo’s and Sam Clemens’s expressions that remark positioned me firmly with single-celled organisms although by rights they shouldn’t have even known what TV was.
“I am not from your past, Andréas,” said Giancarlo Pieranunzi. “I am from my past. And Signor Clemens is from his past. Our pasts must differ slightly for the switching to take place without a massive release of energy.”
“Ka-boom!” I said.
“As you say, Andréas—Ka-boom. This is not time-travel,” said Giancarlo. “This is a randomness. There are two kinds of randomness: the wild randomness which abounds in nature, and tame randomness. This you find at the roulette table. Wild randomness has been intruded upon by tame randomness. It is as if we are an infinity of trains that speed along side by side through the fog, unaware that the others might even exist.”
“Everytime and any time,” said Sam Clemens. “There was this spiritualist at last season’s Chautauqua. He spoke of the concept of simultaneity.”
I figured he was getting his own back. “Is this going to be like me explaining hookers?”
“Nononono. He spoke of a mathematical concept. An algorithmic machine which once begun it is impossible to stop.”
Giancarlo smiled. “You are indeed perceptive, Signor Twain.”
“You are telling me that what is happening to us is foreordained,” I said. “Predestination, Kismet, some new age thingybob. All we have got to do is go to the Emerald City, three scarecrows and no Dorothy.” Sam Clemens grumped; I had begged to differ with him.
Another express rumbled by on the Lexington Avenue line. The noise mounted to a crescendo.
“The espresso,” shouted Giancarlo as the rumbling passed. Some words do make it across the language barrier.
“The Lexington Express,” I said.
“A punto. We hear the train but we do not see it. Shhh...” He held a finger to his lips. Silence, the train was suddenly gone. “I feared this. The anomaly has taken a substance from this—our—parallelism. The Lexington espresso. We may only pray that we get something in return. Though vast, infinity is a biography of finite numbers: sooner or later the displacement will arrive back where it started, and then Ka-Boom as you say. Good-bye everything. You would like me to write this out for you?”
“You’re the genius. So stop this merry-go-round and let’s get off. Say the magic words and get us the Lex Express back.”
“Andréas, my friend, life is not that simple. I also know how pneumatic tires function but I am not prepared to stand before an onrushing taxicab just to disprove a statement in inertia and momentum. How did we get here and what happens next, these are the questions at hand... We are summoned by destiny.” Giancarlo straightened and thrust out his chest.
“We have been called by a power greater than ourselves?” asked Sam Clemens.
“Which would be the New York City Transit Authority,” I said. “Oops...”
There was a thunk at the base of my neck, a curtain of blue ozone, shimmery like the aurora borealis, and I was standing behind the head of a beefy, elegantly tailored middle-aged man straight out of a 1920s gangster movie, the black and white variety. Said head was slathered with brilliantine. Sleek, like an otter.
“Less off the top, capiche?” said the head. His tone suggested I was a service sector clone and to speak only when spoken to. This was fine with me because I was sure I was not the one he thought he was talking to.
The head was sipping an espresso—thick black coffee with a twist of lemon peel—and I could not see his face. Across the room a big moose lounged dreamily with a sharpshooter’s rifle across his knees. The head was fiftyish and its attached body wore an Italian silk suit: pearl gray with wide, wide lapels and very expensive, an antique or something from a retro store. Except it’s new. I thought of him as Carmine, which is what I decided to be a good name for a head with an espresso and a henchman—I had seen The Godfather ten times. The Moose was tilted back against the wall, balancing on the two rear legs of a wooden chair. The bodyguard stared at me, I stared at the bodyguard.
“Chi è voi?” said the Moose, nonchalantly taking aim at my head. He showed a wide, ominous grin of many black teeth. I gathered this was him asking who am I. Pop, pop, pop! The Moose peppered the wall past my right ear with three shots in quick succession.
The blue aurora quivered and a woman popped out of thin air beside me. She was togged out in a tweed-and-velvet something that clung agreeably as she moved, and swinging a serious looking cavalry saber. A veil covered her face and head. She brushed aside the veil and peeped out. This was the face on Giancarlo’s cameo. She gave me the once-over and attacked. I ducked.
The breeze of the sword’s passage sounded just like in the ninja movies. I made a note of this. “Ow!” I landed on my tukhes.
Her pale gray eyes grew huge. “Oh, terribly sorry, old chap. I thought you were someone else,” she said. “Are you still alive?” I said yes. “I say, good fun, what?” she remarked. A bullet zinged past and she dived under the desk. Under the desk seemed to be appropriate; I dived too. And missed the floor.
As I departed the scene, behind the Don and the Moose there was a shimmer—like on Star Trek when they use the transporter? In an electric haze stood Giancarlo Pieranunzi; he flickered and went out. I fell through the aurora borealis and was back in the tunnel.
“I was in Milan,” Sam Clemens was saying.
“I am a Milanese,” Giancarlo said. “I but lecture at the Università di Torino.”
“Ah, Milano,” posited Sam Clemens. “...vast, dreamy, bluish, snow-clad mountains—the Italy I read of in the poems of Lord Byron.”
Giancarlo brightened at the name. “Byron. You have seen her, then. Lady Ada.”
“I have seen her,” I said. “Didn’t you guys notice I was gone?”
“I suppose so. She nearly took my head off with a sword. You, too, Giancarlo. You were coming in as I left.”
“Andréas... I have been here all the time.”
“An unholy miscegenation of locations, these comings and goings,” said Sam. “However, I have yet to meet myself.”
“You wouldn’t,” I said. “We would. Holy shit!” There was a blast from an air horn and bumping down the tunnel came one of those red double-decker buses that used to run on Fifth Avenue years ago, a genuine historical relic. Except shiny and new and minus most of its top deck where the subway’s roof beams had sheared it off. A vertical exhaust pipe remained, chugging forlorn puffs of acrid coal smoke. There was no driver in evidence and no visible passengers. All its tires were blown; I guessed from running on the cement footings of the subway tracks. What was left of its destination banner—the canvas roller where terminals and routes are listed—said Università. Another parallel universe. We had gotten our mass exchange that, while heavier than Sam Clemens, Giancarlo Pieranunzi and me, was still nothing to the disappeared Lex Express.
“Now we go Ka-boom! Right?” I said.
“Si, Andréas. I believe so. Unless something additional that we do not know about went over to make up the negative mass the espresso left behind.”
“Ivory. Onions. This can be our ticket out of here.” Sam Clemens was hopeful. “All we have to do is get aboard; which one of you...”
“Close but no cigar, Sam. We’re still a few tons shy of our missing train.”
Ka-bunka, ka-bunka, ka-bunka, the bus named Università flopped to a stop on squared-off wheels right where we stood. A woman got off, descending what remained of a circular stairway to the upper deck. She could have been entering a ballroom. She carried a white sable muff, one of those 19th Century hand warmers that doubled as a lady’s carryall.
“Well, that was exhilarating,” she said. “And you gentlemen are staring. This is rude,” said Lady Ada Lovelace.
“You’ll have to pardon us, your grace, but you tried to kill me only two minutes ago. With a sword,” I added.
“Balderdash,” she replied. She eyed me speculatively as if the idea might have some merit. “The last thing I remember is being booed off the podium of a lecture hall at the University of Turin. And here I am.”
“Yes. Here you are,” said Sam. He eyed her appreciatively. Giancarlo glowered. Lady Ada’s floor length gown was white silk trimmed with magenta velvet touches; her hair was coiled into a lacquered confection that framed a delicate oval face.
“I am sure you men find this all excruciatingly amusing, but I have things to do. You have had your fun, now if you will please...” And she was gone. No ozone, no blue aura, nothing. She was there, and then she was not. The bus steamed as it settled to one side and fell over.
There was a slithering as something tugged at my shoelaces. It was the same rat—back and begging on his hind legs, real cute—a number the Central Park squirrels use.
“Nice esquirrel,” said Giancarlo as he patted the rat on its head.
“Times are hard all over, pal,” I said. The rat looked disappointed and scuttled away. The bus called Università belched a final puff as its boiler went out. Hands clutched behind his back, Twain sauntered off to the end of the platform to light up a fresh cigar.
“Andréas, we are stuck in a Monte Carlo simulation,” said Giancarlo Pieranunzi.
“Uhn, great, more math hocus-pocus. What is that?”
“A bump in nature. We have hit an anomaly in God’s roulette system. We are trapped together like St. Sebastiano awaiting the flight of the arrows. Samuel Langhorne Clemens has explained this all in his estimable Mark Twain in Milan. You have read this?”
I had to say I had never heard of the book. “I read Tom Sawyer once,” I said. “By Mark Twain.”
“Nononono. By Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Twain was the unreliable narrator which he made up for the tale. Furthermore he meant Torino, not Milano, but dared not to speak openly of what he had seen. Samuel Langhorne Clemens also experienced the Monte Carlo Simulation.”
“Use my name gently, sirs.” Hands behind his back, cigar at a tilt, Sam strolled back. “...it is protected by copyright. Furthermore I never wrote the book. That’s a barge-load of nimble-fingered rotgut. And if I did, I don’t remember doing it.” He blew a smoke ring. “Well, I am pouring if you are buying. I recognized the lady, too.”
“Really?” I was surprised.
“From an illustration, actually—the frontispiece—of a book I have read. Can’t recall the book. But the lady... memorable. Ask our friend the mathematician.”
“Si, Andréas—Ada has explained it all. She was English, but her heart was Italian.” Giancarlo kissed the cameo with the face of Lady Ada.
“Well,” said Samuel Langhorne Clemens, as he adjusted the tilt of his fez, “I must be getting along. This has all been very, very... instructive. Ivory. Onions. I must return to whence I came. Whilst I should enjoy remaining here with you—exploring the future—while you rummage in your past, I have a deadline to meet. My telegraph dispatches for the New York newspapers which have underwritten my European escapade will not wait. I have editors,” he said meaningfully.
Mark Twain/Samuel Clemens stopped for a breath of air and Giancarlo threw himself into the gap. “I have been to America,” he said.
“It’s not the same,” said Twain. “It’s already discovered. Europe was never discovered; it was merely inhabited. I am leaving. As intriguing as this all is, I want out.”
“Sam is right,” I said. “Thanks for the chat; let’s do it again some time.” I hustled down the tunnel.
And then returned. “No Soap. For fifty yards in either direction both ends of our section of the tunnel have been bricked up. No way out without a sledgehammer.”
Giancarlo said something in Italian that sounded like I told you so. “We may then continue our conversazione?”
I sat down again.
“I require a favor of you. I have no idea how long we will have together, Andréas, so I must be talking fast. It will be for you to identify il portiere. I have not the word for this in English, a person who stands guard at a doorway.”
“Gatekeeper. Like doorman?”
“Sì, sì,” said Giancarlo; he was eager and urgent.
“Because you are here and I am here. We are here together.” This made some sort of convoluted sense. I let it drop.
“As an environs for the remainder of Eternity, an empty subway tunnel is a mite whingy, I opine,” said Sam Clemens. He cocked his head to one side, as if listening.
“Il portiere is more of a catalyst, the lost operand who points the way,” said Giancarlo, “...mathematically speaking. Alas, my Darling Ada’s equations were not perfect in every respect.”
“Bummer. The woman on the bus—this Ada—she is not the gatekeeper?”
“No. She is but one of an infinite number of Adas. The love of the middle years is a melancholy thing; one requires assistance. You must help me to win the woman I love. Amor vincit omnia. That is Latin, not Italian.” The dapper Italian slumped inside his suit, decidedly droopy and depressed. “She is a nineteenth century mathematician. In terms you will comprehend, dear Andréas, as a man of your marvelous 21st century, she is the nexus of a probability cluster. A line of code, like the “Else” of an “If, Then, Else” contingency.”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Il portiere, the gatekeeper, is the catalyst who connects 1841, 1867, 1929 and today.” A lung-clogging vapor of cigar smoke had glided our way from where Sam Clemens sat squatting on his heels, writing in the dust of the tunnel with a pointed stick. It stopped to hover over Giancarlo’s head. He turned red and gasped for breath, then collapsed in a coughing fit. I slapped him on the back until it passed.
“Huh? You mean all we have to do is find this person—this gatekeeper—and we’ll be home free?”
“I knew you would help me. Otherwise we will spend forever with Samuel Langhorne Clemens. We will strangle on his cigars.”
There was the thunk at the base of my neck, a curtain of blue ozone, and an invisible express train came cannonading through, right between my eyes.
Everything was pitch black.
“You okay in there?” It was the voice of my barber. He hovered in a moist haze that reeked of soap and cologne as he lifted a steaming towel from my face. I was back. And the face was the face of Giancarlo Pieranunzi.
“Welcome back Mr. Saperstein. You must have dozed off.”
“Call me Andy. What is your name if you don’t mind my asking?
“Johnny.” He looked doubtfully at me. “You should know that; you’ve been a regular for over two years.” He nodded to a framed license. New York City Dept. Health. Barber. Johnny Pieranunzi.
“Giancarlo. Gianni, Johnny—they sound the same. Sure you’re OK?”
“I’m OK. Feels right at home.” But it wasn’t and I didn’t. This looked like home, above the ground and New York City. Just slightly off-kilter. I made a feeble Alzheimer’s remark and leaned back in Gianni’s chair.
In the days when 65th and Lex was a palmier neighborhood, when Bloomingdale’s yet flourished and the local hookers bought their bait and tackle at Abercrombie’s, the place where I get my hair cut occupied the mezzanine, rightly floor number 1½, of what was once the local firehouse. Cast iron columns sought a vertical climax through neat holes drilled in designer teak genuine hardwood flooring tiles to bloom as cast Corinthian capitals eight feet off the ground. On the wall was plaque with letters incised in gilded bas relief: Parrucchiere Gianni. An oval cartouche framed a sepiatone photograph of a man with a military moustache—my Giancarlo from the 2nd Avenue tunnel.
I thought to play it cagey just in case I had dozed off in the chair and dreamed the whole thing up. “The man... a relative?”
“He was a barber?”
“Nope. A university professor—mathematics. I found it buried in the attic when my folks retired to Florida. There were two.”
“And your family hailed from Milan and your great-grandfather was a mathematician, right? Hold on, two pictures...”
“The other was a woman; I figured her for my great-grandmother. Want to see it?” I did.
He rummaged through some drawers muttering “Be patient, I’m looking” sounds under his breath just in case my attention might have strayed. It hadn’t. “Voilà.” He held aloft a portrait—an oval face in a gilded ormolu frame. “A great beauty, they say.” It was the face from the cameo. Cascades of auburn hair framed pale gray eyes with an elfin twinkle. I could swear the picture winked at me.
“Uh, Gianni... you ever hear any family stories about a Gatekeeper?” I wasn’t supposed know about gatekeepers yet, as Giancarlo wouldn’t have told me—half an hour before, stuck in an empty tunnel with Mark Twain time. But I did know. So sue me.
Gianni gave me a funny look and steered me back to the chair. “Nope. Just some recipes. I’ve got an uncle though who used to be a doorman at the Carlyle.”
As Gianni Pieranunzi—the great-grandson of the man in the tunnel—scissored away at my hair there were tears streaming down his cheeks. What the hell, I figured—Italians emote. “My hair isn’t all that much a catastrophe, is it?”
“Sorry about that.” Gianni choked back a sob as he removed his scissors from the area of any vital organs. “News travels fast, Mr. Saperstein—Andy. The hairdressers’ jungle telegraph, take a look.” We went to the window together. Across the street scaffolding crept up the walls of a four-story townhouse and a bucket truck was horsing a large fiberglass sign into place. The renovators had moved in, hanging ferns and opening painted-shut Palladian windows to dapple highlights on freshly exposed brick walls. I noticed Gianni was jabbing his scissors into the windowsill; the competition was moving in. “BrowBeaters, a franchise. They do body waxing.”
I put a consoling arm around his shoulders. “Tragic. A tragic sight. Trust me, Gianni, I’ve got a hunch a cut-rate hot wax joint is going to be the least of your troubles.”
Ding! Parrucchiere Gianni’s receptionist rang her chime to announce Gianni had a customer waiting out front. I jumped. I noticed that I was jumping a lot lately. Unannounced shifts in time and location will do that. Like jet lag. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! The receptionist was getting antsy.
There was a squawk from the bitch box, Parruchiere Gianni’s in-house intercom, “Gianni. NOW.”
I picked up the phone. “Gianni’s tied up. This is Andy.”
“Andy,” said a harassed voice. “Tell him I got a live one. And tell him no crap about my spiritual work.”
“I am so very happy for you, ahh...”
“Lindy. I want her the hell out of my reception area toots-sweet, if you catch my drift.”
I turned to Gianni. “Lindy has a live one,” I said.
“Nice for a change. She channels the dear departed in her spare time. I’m not complaining; most of the girls read magazines or do their nails.” He grabbed the phone away. A high velocity stream of verbiage poured from the earpiece. Gianni’s face fell. Then Lindy paused long enough for him to get a word in edgeways. “A new client... Listen, you’re not in one of your altered states of consciousness are you? Good. Come in here. Alone. Give her a soy latte, a health shake, whatever.” Gianni turned to me. “Business is slow. New clients—live ones—have to be coddled.”
There was a businesslike rap at the door to Gianni’s sanctum and it opened a crack. A woman slipped in. She was so slim she made it through with room to spare. Lindy was your basic legs job and glad to show them off, thank you. “Uh... hello,” I said. She looked great in the indie rock T-shirt she was wearing as a dress.
“Andy...” She made eye contact and smiled a smile of generous full lips. My pulse rate rose and my palms started to sweat.
“Hi there. You must be Lindy,” I stammered.
“Lindy Earlywine...” She paused. It was my turn.
“Andy Saperstein.” We were face to face in one of those epiphanies that are the bread and butter of the daytime soaps. Neither of us had moved. “Uh, you’re a medium?”
“I channel spirits, yes. When I’m not booking cuts and perms.” Like I said, this was Lexington Avenue, no big deal.
Gianni cleared his throat. “Heads up, young lovers. Company.” He squared his shoulders and stepped forward with his best floorwalker’s smile as a tufted pink hairdo thrust itself around the corner. I suspected this was one of Lexington Avenue’s medicated mamas. A small, determined woman shoved past Lindy and struggled into the room. She stared at me and Lindy, registered shock then delight. “I hope I am not interrupting a moment, but you are not Charles. It works.” It was Lady Ada Lovelace. She gave me a hug. She was naked.
As none of us was named Charles, I felt some reply was called for. “Ada Lovelace?” I said. That was the best I could come up with.
“I fear, sir, you have the advantage. Yes. Ada Byron Lovelace. And whom do I have the pleasure...” She arched a speculative eyebrow and looked me over.
The ball was in my court. “Andy Saperstein. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.” Lindy placed herself between me and the naked Ada.
Ada Lovelace brushed a hand through her hair and let out a small squeak of dismay. She hurried to a full length mirror to inspect the damage. Her hairdo was spiked and colored day-glo pink. Not the coiled perfection of her portrait cameo. “Charles. Luigi. This is their doing. I told them to wait for my final calculations. But would they? Men.” She turned to face me. “I seem to have a nosebleed. Ice, please.”
“This happens all the time on Lexington Avenue,” said Gianni. “It’s our uptown ambience.”
“There is something amiss in the algorithm. I think having to bleed to death because one acquires strange hair is a bit severe, don’t you?” She placed a thumb and forefinger at the bridge of her nose and held it till the bleeding stopped.
Wham, Bam, etc., and Giancarlo was in the room—not his great-grandson Gianni, but the original from the 2nd Ave. tunnel in the flesh, very suave and cool as a cucumber. He bowed, “I witnessed Don Paolo’s attack and I feel I must apologize for my countryman... Dio mio!” Lady Ada au naturel was probably more exposed woman than he had ever seen outside of the Uffizi Gallery. Mussolini ran a tight ship.
“Ma le dà fastidio se la fisso per un momento?” Giancarlo’s eyes traveled over her. All over. He ogled.
“He has requested permission to stare at me,” said Lady Ada as she clutched her hands over her heart. “Remarkable.” Her nose began to bleed as soon as she loosened her grip.
Lindy handed Lady Ada a Kleenex. “Where’s that ice?” She turned to me, “Andy?”
Just then Sam Clemens thrust a wild-eyed head around the edge of the door casing. “Andy. You won’t believe this, but...”
“Oh, I’ll believe it all right. And he’s Mark Twain,” I told Lady Ada.
“Wow. Some people will believe almost anything,” Lindy said.
“I don’t know how I got here, but there’s a man in a futuristic suit—wide lapels, snap brim fedora, the works—and he has a machine gun,” said Sam. “He must have followed me through. He just appeared then disappeared. Out of nowhere.”
“Nowhere is a statistical improbability, Sam. Except in a singles bar.” I flopped into the client chair. The gent with the ordnance had to be our very own Moose, somehow out of his time and after us with an assortment of bigger bullets. I kept my opinion to myself; it would have required too much explanation. “He’ll be back,” I said.
There was a splintering and crunch of distressed construction materials as the Moose appeared, a little behind the curve. He popped into place behind Gianni’s barber chair, wedged halfway into the room between framing studs, dismembered electrical wiring and what was left of Parrucchiere Gianni’s drywall. He looked ready to shoot the hell out of the place.
“Oh, sweet Jesus!” Sam Clemens stared through the cloud of plaster dust at the Moose. The parts of him not stuck in the wall held a smoking tommy gun, to which device he was methodically attaching a fresh rotary magazine of ammo. I guessed he was after anything that moved. Gianni yelled something appropriately bloodthirsty in Italian and raised his scissors to strike. He lunged forward, then tripped...
Splonk! The scissors went into the padded backrest right up to their rings. Anybody sitting all the way back in the chair would have been a goner. The Moose’s reloading was almost finished when he evaporated. The tommy gun fell to the floor. I was a minor casualty; Gianni’s shears nicked my arm.
Gianni rolled his eyes. “That chair. Imported Italian leather. Six thousand dollars.”
“That’s all right, Tonto. It’s only a scratch. Don’t worry about me.” I pulled myself up, clinging to the chair. The wall, as well as a stand of potted ferns and Gianni’s imported upholstery, was a total loss.
“Excuse me. I gotta make a call.” Gianni headed to his office to phone the contractors.
Lady Ada stepped up to the plate. “Master Twain. I do believe I have seen you before—for a fleeting moment. You will excuse the paucity of my manners but at the time my attention was understandably elsewhere.” Sam Clemens preened his moustache as he blushed beet red; Lady Ada was a distraction clothed or unclothed.
“I was watching myself about to be dispatched by that very same hired thug. I was dressed as though for an African hunting expedition and I disappeared in a hail of bullets. I was behind him and he couldn’t see me. You,” here she indicated Giancarlo Pieranunzi, “have the most delightful accent. You were also there for a split second. Then you both disappeared and the thug turned on me. ’Giancarlo,’ that was what he said. So now there are three of us. I am an honorary Giancarlo.”
I handed over a washcloth stuffed with ice cubes.
“Thanks. When faced with danger I often recover my equanimity by contemplating things of beauty. I looked about. The place was an obvious bachelor’s haunt. And the wallpaper! I tried sweet reasonableness, but it was as though they couldn’t see me. I started peeling the wallpaper. Toile de jouy, very au courant but hideous.”
Giancarlo cringed. “Don Paolo Carbone’s prized wallpaper. I came; you went.” So the Don was not named Carmine. I filed away this tidbit in case we ever met socially.
“And the great looming lout knocked the ladder out from under me in mid-peel,” said Ada Lovelace. “The last thing I recall is a brilliantined individual thumping away at the malefactor who had seized me. With an umbrella. He smelled like lavender pomade.”
“Don Paolo beating Nunzio Calabrese over the head with an umbrella. Don Paolo must have been heartbroken over the wallpaper.”
“Oh. The umbrella thumping has not improved his disposition. He must have followed you here,” said Ada Byron Lovelace. “And I seem to be naked. Cover me, please.” Unflappable. Breeding will tell.
His eyes large and staring, Gianni ripped down one of a pair of floor-to-ceiling draperies and wrapped her in it. Ada Lovelace looked him up and down. “You are a barber, a leech, a surgeon. You draw teeth and let blood, then. You’ll do,” she said. “Fix my hair.”
“Your blood type, my lady? Just in case.” That from me. My aplomb recovered, I was now all business.
“Jesus Christ,” said Lindy, “if you guys do transfusions too, it says a lot about whatever barber college you escaped from. She’s not going to bleed to death. She only whacked her nose.”
Gianni fumbled with the scissors and attempted to appear professional. Lady Ada had hit him as hard as she had hit his great-grandfather.
“You are dithering,” said the draperied lady. “Oh, I’ll cut it by myself.” She grabbed the scissors, made for the door and went tearing down the stairs to the street. I figured she’d be back because she left her drapery behind.
Five minutes later Lady Ada Lovelace was back, dripping with contrition. “Sorry, I was in a rush.”
She must have used the absconded scissors on herself. Her hair was a mess. She now wore an abbreviated shingle cut, one side only, East Village casual. It was an interesting look.
“Pardon me.” I nipped out to the hall and searched through my pockets; I needed a smoke. I hoped Sam Clemens wouldn’t pop out of the woodwork and catch me: I was supposed to have quit after constantly griping at him about his own ever-present cheroot. I left Lady Ada to fume unchaperoned.
I extracted a crumpled pack from an inside pocket and struck a match. Ever get an electric shock? Not the sizzle and burn, but a sandbagging at the base of your skull, the paralytic pounding that announces in big, blue letters that you can’t let go and you are going to die. This was heavyweight stuff, like the 600 volts DC they run through the third rail.
I was in a Piranesi landscape—tumbled columns, grazing goats, distant shepherds and shepherdesses about their discreet businesses in a renaissance bosky dell. Giancarlo crouched before a tiny campfire, feeding it with sticks and what looked to be loose rubble. He had several weeks’ growth of beard. “Signor Twain?” He turned and saw that it was me. “Ah, you are back. I had hoped you might return. Good day. Or more appropriately, l’altro ieri, the day before yesterday. Or the week after today.”
I moved in to warm myself at the fire. It was cold. “A couple of minutes ago you said something about a gatekeeper...”
“For me that happened three weeks ago. I asked you your name. You told me Andy Saperstein.” He looked me over. “You are Andréas?”
“Last time I checked. Your fire is not giving out much heat,” I said.
“It is not a fire; it is a picture of a fire.” Giancarlo gestured toward the grazing goats. “Push one,” he said. I walked over to the little flock; no matter which way I tried to go, everything was sideways. “Push,” said Giancarlo. I pushed. The goat fell over.
“Oops.” The aurora borealis number again and both of us, Giancarlo Pieranunzi and Andy Saperstein, were back in the 2nd Avenue subway tunnel. It was still devoid of tracks, trains or passengers. The Lex express rumbled by, invisible.
“Ahh, the phenomenon is occurring with greater frequency. Someone did something.” His tone was accusing.
“Well, it wasn’t me. Where were we? I mean the place was so... flat.”
“Wallpaper,” said Giancarlo. “Wallpaper is supposed to be flat. And of a familiar pattern. I believe we were in Don Paolo Carbone’s wallpaper.”
“Sure.” Holding a conversation with him was like playing checkers with all red squares.
“Every time is a different spatial dimension,” said Giancarlo. “Wherever you are, seem to be—you are. You will always be the same you with all your memories and experiences intact. The others you may meet—and the connections are powerful: Signor Clemens, myself, Lady Ada—these will be the native population of wherever you find yourself. They will wonder that you have changed, in some small way, perhaps. I thought you understood that. The Monte Carlo occurrence will find each universe different in some minor respect.”
“Like a butterfly died in Cleveland?” I asked hopefully. “Wallpaper, huh. So where’s Mark Twain?”
“He went off exploring. That was three weeks ago. He had not returned.” Giancarlo’s eyes got a dreamy, distant—well, Italian look. “He will be a three-dimensional being lost in a two-dimensional probability cluster.” He gestured with a subtle old world combination of hands and shoulders.
“We have a problema, you and I. We must cooperate. Our entire predicament spins on the tip of a pin. These are the people with the answer to our dilemma—Ada, Charles and Luigi.”
“Well, if I could get your dream girl to stay in one place long enough to ask her a civil question... These are the people behind all this? With the slipping back and forth in time?”
“Conditional branching—this is the brilliance of the daughter of Lord Byron.”
“Well, you are the mathematician. You tell it to stop.”
“Alas, one must do that before one starts the apparatus and I was not yet born. This is a mathematical machine, not a physical machine. Without an algorithmic manipulator who posits the structure to tell it when to stop, it will go on forever. Lady Ada, Charles Babbage, Luigi Menabrea and Garibaldi, heroes of the Risorgimento. They had a falling out.”
“Well, I am so sorry for them.” I thought he was going to cry. “These folks were all jolly coeds at the University of Turin, right?”
“They met. Luigi would become the Premier of the United Italy. This was in 1841. I have read his paper on the phenomenon we are presently experiencing. Ada Lovelace, how I worship the wildflowers that spring beneath her feet! Her mathematics do indeed perform as expected. Since I first met you in this empty tunnel I have thought of nothing but discovering the mechanism to join with her in some parallel reality.”
I was wondering if I was expected to run interference with these other nineteenth century suitors of Ada Lovelace, but I didn’t rush him. There was a cyclonic roar behind us. If you are taking notes, “Yeoow!” is the same in English or Italian.
Giancarlo and I flattened ourselves against the wall. The train kept getting closer and closer. After some seconds, maybe minutes, its noise reached a climax and, after one last ka-whallock like a piano dropping off a truck, there was utter silence.
“You look,” said Giancarlo.
“No you look.” Giancarlo had his eyes shut tight. So did I.
When we looked, no train. It was Nunzio the Moose. He looked confused and he had a gun, his target rifle, a potentially lethal combination. The Moose came tearing up the empty tunnel hell bent from 1929 to some phantom future. He saw us and stopped. He was not a happy camper.
“T’ta a facc’ arruso!” yelled the Moose and charged.
“Wha’d he say?” I asked Giancarlo.
“Hard to translate, Andréas. Literally, I’ll strip your face, asshole.”
“Oh.” The two of us ran like hell. The trackwalkers’ bolt holes shot past as we hotfooted it down the tunnel. In the glare of the maintenance lamps our shadows danced around us; doppelgangers chased us through double-shadowed brownouts from light to light between puddles of sodium yellow.
The Moose stopped to get off a couple of shots. Spang, yang, yang, yang. The ricochets echoed fitfully down the empty tunnel.
We must have run half a mile when I pulled Giancarlo to a stop. Hadn’t the tunnel been bricked up? “Hey, wait. There was a barricade here.”
“This one,” said Giancarlo. He ducked into a trackwalker’s niche identical to many we had raced by. But this one was not a dead end. There was a ladder leading to a tiny grated rectangle and daylight in the distance way, way above us.
“Uscita d’emergenza. What did I tell you?” said Giancarlo. We rattled up the ladder, popped the grating at street level and clambered out. Passersby paid no attention. Everyday stuff: two sweaty red-faced guys pursued by a gangland hit man scramble out of a hole in the ground. I took some comfort in the unflappability of my fellow New Yorkers. I hailed a cab.
“Step on it,” I told the driver, “There’s fifty bucks in it.” I felt just like Philip Marlowe. Or Christopher Marlowe. I’d have to check up on that. Whichever Marlowe was the hard-boiled private eye. The driver beat all the uptown lights and Giancarlo and I were soon in his great-grandson’s barber shop. There was a note from Gianni taped to the mirror:
“Grandpop—This is all too confusing. The rent is paid up through June and I’m at BrowBeaters for the duration. The place is yours; last one out please turn out the lights. Here’s the security code—this was followed by a string of numbers—there’s a keypad by the door.”
Lindy was still there, reading a magazine. “Andy...” She threw her arms around my neck and gave me a peck on the ear. There was no Lady Ada or Mark Twain in evidence: when one of us went forward, a like mass had to go back. Rather like a square dance. Someone or a part of someone must have gone in the opposite direction. Samuel Langhorne Clemens. I thought about Mark Twain as a refugee in time scattered in bits and pieces across three centuries. A shot of blue ozone and Giancarlo was gone. Not a word, not a sound.
But there was a return package, kicking, cursing and thrashing around generally. It was Sam Clemens, back from Don Paolo’s wallpaper.
“My God, I feel flat,” he said. “Where’s the naked lady?” He meant Lady Ada.
Simple. “Uh, Lady Ada is dead,” I said. “A hundred years at least.”
“Here, but not at the loop’s beginning,” said Lindy. “I was channeling Ada Lovelace only last week. Or a lady in a big hat who spoke Italian and had a father who was a poet.”
Lindy caught me rolling my eyes, “I can’t help it; it’s a gift. I am a channel for the spirit-world.” But Giancarlo was more than interested.
“Mi scusi, signorina. Can you get through to her and ask for a little advice?”
“Giancarlo! But, but, but... I mean, you too? Back?”
“Sì. I watched myself disappear as Signor Twain materialized. I fear my parallel self is in great danger.”
Lindy rummaged in her handbag. She didn’t open it, just held a plastic bottle of prescription pills close to her heart like a talisman. She went walleyed and teetered like she was in a trance. I turned to Giancarlo and cleared my throat.
Lindy glared. “This is a sensitive contact. Don’t agitate while I’m out.” Her head flopped to one side and back she went. Giancarlo stared at her as though he really expected something to happen.
Lindy held the pose for several minutes.
“Nope. No go,” said Lindy, “the spirits are not talking today. But I do know about the tunnel. My Uncle Larry was a foreman with Vents and Drains. He used to take me down for fun when he babysat me. I was six years old and we were supposed to be watching the seals at the Central Park Zoo. And the lady in the big hat was Sarah Bernhardt. Sarah says Lady Ada told her to hold all incoming calls. Sorry.”
“But Giancarlo #2 is still out there in the Great Wheresis with a gun-crazy torpedo. We’ve got to get him out. Any volunteers?”
“I, alas, cannot go,” Giancarlo shrugged. “To send me after myself might initiate an unpredictable cascade. Zero-sum gain, I fear.”
Lindy studied her nails.
“It’s your idea, Andy,” said Sam Clemens.
“No. Not my guy.” Lindy threw a protective arm around my shoulders. In some circles I am considered a prime example of reverse Darwinism. I am a slow learner but I get there, eventually. I hugged her back.
“Then I am odd man out,” said Sam. “I am not your everyday have-a-go hero. My birth was attended with omens and portents with the appearance of Halley’s comet; my death will come when the comet next returns.” He glanced at an Ansel Adams calendar on the wall. “2061, I believe. I am damn nigh immortal.” On the other hand, he had never expected to be stuck on a contingency loop with an Italian mathematician on the run from Mussolini and the Mob.
“Let’s get ourselves straight. Sam, you really want to swap times with Giancarlo #2, right? Permanently?”
“Of course not. You two’ll find a way to get me back. Right as rain on all other counts, my friends.”
“It will be like going on a cruise.” I high-fived Lindy and Sam, to whom this was but another custom of his adopted century, exotic and intriguing.
“Sam, you will be walking into a shooting gallery,” said Lindy.
Sam picked up the tommy gun from where it had rolled under a planter of ferns. “But not empty-handed, little lady.”
“It’s not loaded,” I said.
“They don’t know that,” said Sam.
“So how do we get Sam back?” asked Lindy.
“I’ll be here. Don’t worry.”
“I hope so.” I walked to the scale. “Get on, and we’ll find out how much mass exchange we are talking about.” I weighed in at 60 pounds less than Sam Clemens. “I’m lighter,” I said, relieved.
“Weight and mass are different animali,” said Giancarlo #1. “Isaac Newton’s Second Law of Motion.”
“I am willing to take a chance. Since I am technically in motion the inertia I would exhibit at rest should not register as weight. Phew!” Sam Clemens mopped his forehead and looked pleased with himself. “Chautauqua,” he explained.
Duh. Well, it worked for me. And we were ready to go.
After a quick trip to a surplus store, we got Mark Twain decked out with a camouflage fatigue jacket with his name, S. L. Clemens, stenciled on the chest; he wore a black turtleneck. He checked himself in a mirror and was pleased. “Buff, bluff and ready, SAH!” he bellowed. He snapped to and sucked in his waistline. “Oh, great galloping codswhallop, I can still do it.” He winked at his reflection. The mirror winked back.
“But let’s do it somewhere else and give Parrucchiere Gianni a break,” I said. I sized him up. Sam Clemens was tall and angular and even with sucking in his stomach, I doubted that he was capable of standing off a determined assault by a hit man twice his size without a stand-in double. The drywall contractors were still finishing up the repairs from Nunzio Calabrese’s latest visit so we headed for Bloomingdale’s and the 59th Street stop.
“Why are we going there?” asked Lindy. “I told you Uncle Larry’s secret way into the 2nd Avenue tunnel.”
“We are going to the Lex because it’s closer and safer. And easier on Sam’s sensibilities—no rats.”
“You think it’s me, don’t you?”
“The gatekeeper? Maybe, maybe not. Then again it could be the subway itself, or a scam of Donald Trump to milk the city fathers for an underground shopping mall. And I don’t want to lose you.” I gave her hand a squeeze.
“But Sam Clemens is your friend.”
“I don’t love Sam. Well, like a brother, OK? Besides, Sam is a big boy.”
“Like a very big kid,” she agreed. “Andy, did you just make a move on me?”
With no idea of how to get to 1929 on purpose, we supposed closer was better and trooped on down to the change booth where we bought four tokens and descended to the trains. Sam adjusted the line of his moustache in the mirror of a candy machine. “I am ready. If I get stuck in time, check the personals of the New York Times for 1929. I read about that in...”
And he was gone. No ozone, no blue aura, nothing. No Mark Twain, either. He had been standing on the 59th Street platform and then he was not. There was a lackadaisical “foop” as air entered the space he had occupied. Great, Giancarlo’s analysis of the Monte Carlo simulation worked. Sam Clemens must have made it back to the shooting gallery. But the exchange of masses routine? Where was our return bundle of joy from 1929? We waited.
Nothing. Not even a train. None of us said a word for upwards of ten minutes. We went for coffee.
With Sam Clemens/Mark Twain gone, Giancarlo, Lindy and I ran Parrucchiere Gianni by ourselves. Oh yes, Giancarlo #2 was there waiting for us, sitting in the six thousand dollar leather and chrome chair and looking very pleased with himself. #1 stared at #2 who shrugged and evaporated. But no Mark Twain. With the departure of the redundant Giancarlo the mass transfers, time-hopping, whatever, stopped.
On the back of Gianni’s farewell note was a tip on how to run the salon: establish an appropriate artistic setting. “If the client in the chair thinks something creative is going on, she feels special. This is the psychology of a good cut. The client thinks you are consulting with the hair muse.” The salon flourished but Mark Twain was stranded. We three moped between appointments.
“Lindy, remember your impromptu séance?” I asked.
“I’m sorry it was Sarah Bernhardt and not Lady Lovelace, Giancarlo.” She oozed empathy in his direction.
“I am used to be disappunto, Lindy. It is not your fault,” said Giancarlo.
I thought it was time for Plan B. “Your Uncle Larry’s vent grates. You said something about him knowing another way in.”
“Oh, sure. There’s an access hatch just past Bloomingdale’s.”
“That’s the Lex,” said I, “not the 2nd Avenue. How come?”
“I don’t have the slightest idea,” said Lindy, “but I remember the empty tunnel. They must connect. I was only six.”
Any answer is a good answer and, after all, I had asked her. “Plan B it is. We’ll go train-diving with Uncle Larry.” And we three were off together, headed against the uptown flow of rush hour traffic.
When we arrived at Uncle Larry’s grate there was a squatter in possession: a sidewalk hawker had parked his blanket and sat cross-legged in a semicircle of assorted wares: junk jewelry and silk scarves, brown twisted cigarettes and glassine envelopes. He sized us up, then turned to hustle a passing knot of commuters, “Loose joints. Loose bags and joints,” He noticed Lindy and switched his pitch. “Bracelets, lingerie, earrings...”
A voice with a Missouri twang sliced through the clamor and babble of midtown. “A sensible list of accessories for a most beautiful woman.”
“Sam!” No flash, no aura, no sparks, just Sam Clemens. Albeit Sam Clemens was a formidable enough looking specimen, he had well... bulked up. He was taller, younger and considerably more muscular than the last time I’d seen him. Even in Manhattan, he attracted stares. He was six foot six in his gaiters and must have weighed in at 240. Onlookers cheered as he came sashaying, moustache first, up the street like he had just bounded out of a cavalry charge. He took a bow.
“Be right with you, kids.” Sam Clemens walked over to the sidewalk vendor and lifted him off the ground. One powerful arm held him upside down while the other went through his pockets for the advertised loose joints and bags. “Cubebs, you say? We’ll take eight. Four for now, four for later.”
“Easy, easy. The customer is always right. No hard feelings, OK?” The man struggled in Sam’s powerful grip.
“No hard feelings, Kemo Sabe,” said Sam as he put the man down. “And a word to the wise—you’re as obvious as a wart on a debutante; try another corner. And cut back on smoking up your inventory. If the constables catch you you’re yesterday’s news. Not everyone has my forbearance.” He tossed a twenty-dollar gold piece to the street peddler, “Keep the change.” The man dusted himself and moved off Uncle Larry’s grate. He cast us a baleful glance as he spread his blanket a few yards away.
“Where were you. Where did you go?”
“As close as I can figure—nowhere: a featureless terrain, sun always at three in the afternoon, a gray haze. Nothing ever changed; I have not the slightest idea how long I was there.”
“Hmm...” Giancarlo looked wise. “Signor Twain—if you do not mind my saying—you are the same Mark Twain we last saw?”
Sam scratched his head. “Far as I can tell.”
Sam was lighting up a cubeb as we four dived down the iron ladder beneath the recently vacated access hatchway. At the bottom of the ladder was the same 59th Street stop we had sent Sam off from yesterday. All that work to save four fares.
By the time we got past the first landing with a Rastafarian and his folding table of incense and essential oils and a Bible Lady with her sandwich board, it was just before the early rush hour.
Lindy grabbed my elbow and spun me around to face her. “Andy? What if Sam hadn’t come home and you were stuck back there. I mean, I am here and you are there—forever?”
“Well, to be on the safe side, I could learn how to factor quadratic equations.”
“No. Just look at me.”
I looked at her. “Wow.”
“See,” said Lindy. She kissed me right there on the second landing of the 59th Street Station and I was a lost man. I held on tight and kissed her back. There were appreciative yells and a few wolf whistles as the uptown express pulled in.
“Andy. We’ve got Sam back. What are we waiting for?”
We hung around for hours—then gave up and trudged back to Parrucchiere Gianni.
Giancarlo revisited his theory of there being a human agency for these events. “You may be the switch that turns the phenomenon on and off. A gatekeeper. You or Ada. Or both of you. Or Lindy.” I was thinking this over, playing with a set of scissors and staring out the window.
“Drop the scissors,” Lindy screamed.
“Yeoow! Ouch!” The scissors were hot. I tried to shake them loose but they clung to my hand. I was being electrocuted in a shimmering of blue aurora starbursts and the smell of ozone.
“Shhh...” said Lindy. The closer she got to the scissors, the hotter they got. She slapped the scissors out of my hand. They went flying and stuck in a far wall where they caught a Tuscan shepherd right in the crotch. Said shepherd was a decorative trope on Don Paolo’s toile de jouy wallpaper and one of the few left adhering to the wall. We were back at the target range cum speakeasy Ada Lovelace had vandalized.
“Ready a sinistra, ready a destra.” Somebody was calling out from the other room, “Ready on the left, ready on the right.” The next command would be to commence firing. I thought of stray, or not so stray, bullets. “Lindy, down,” I said.
“Don’t push,” she said. We piled under a huge desk that filed the farthest corner of the room.
Grief-stricken, Don Paolo was sobbing over the shredded remains of his imported wallpaper—those renaissance shepherds and shepherdesses about their discreet assignations. As he dabbed at his eyes with a silk embroidered hanky, he spotted us. Don Paolo’s face turned an apoplectic red. “Nunzio!” he screamed. The Moose lumbered into action and squeezed off a barrage of shots in our general direction.
Poppoppoppop. Click, click. The Moose was out of ammo. He had missed, probably the enthusiasm of the moment. Next time he wouldn’t miss. Reverberations and ricochets died away to be replaced by silence broken only by our labored breathing. Then a rattle as the Moose fumbled in his pockets for more bullets.
As the Moose inserted a fresh clip, at the far wall an aurora borealis shimmered. It was Mark Twain. He had flaming red hair, wore a bronze-plated kilt and was younger and more muscular than the Mark Twain from the subway. Hanging onto his arm was Ada Lovelace, her hair long and flowing, held in check with a single golden circlet and dressed in body hugging spandex: a Druidic princess right off the cover of a Sci-Fi paperback. She waved. The carabinieri had arrived, a little late but we weren’t complaining. We now had the numbers but the Moose had the bullets. Lady Ada sized up the situation and began closing in. Very quietly she picked up an alabaster objet d’art, a lissome lass with her arms held over her head, adjusting a laurel crown, a nymph. Clunk! Lady Ada dropped the Moose.
“I have always wanted to do that,” said Ada Byron Lovelace. “It is a probability cluster. These show up as irregularities in the mathematical calculations...” She examined the Moose’s unconscious form. “...sweet in the code string. Endearing I thought, but what we have here is wretched excess.” She turned the Moose over with the tip of a toe and registered distaste. “Perhaps not so sweet.” The Moose groaned and cautiously opened one eye. The eye registered indifference, then surprise. A hand shot out to grip Lady Ada’s ankle. “Awful cheek,” she said as she bonked him again with the nymph.
The Moose was down for the count and there was no discernable damage to the alabaster statuette. The thing must have been the genuine article; in antiquity they built doodads to last.
“So glad you could come,” said Lindy, standing and dusting off her knees. Wham, Bam, etc. again, the heavy ozone smell of sunrise over the gas works. And...
We were back at Parrucchiere Gianni but without Lady Ada. She was left in yet another alternate 1929 at the mercy of Don Paolo and the Moose—when the Moose came to. Blue auroras danced from the ceiling and the walls as Lindy let out a shriek. Reclining in the leather and chrome chair was Ada Lovelace and leaning over her with a bundle of hot towels, me. Lindy passed out; I considered it. Lady Ada looked up, noticed us, and likewise screamed. She was disappearing as I watched. There was a minor thunderclap as air rushed in to occupy the space formerly occupied by, well... us. Lady Ada’s departing scream and the pop of collapsing air brought Sam Clemens running in from his sanctum—a former utility closet, where he now spent most of the day hunched over a 2½ inch TV. He had become addicted to C-SPAN and the History Channel.
“Sam, I have this woman...”
“Good for you, Andy. Something sweaty, I trust. I wish you both many happy assignations.”
“I beg your pardon; I don’t mean to intrude, but...” There was a fresh arrival. Mark Twain again. This one was clean-shaven. The two Mark Twains looked at one another, stepped back for a better look and circled one another in a neat figure eight not unlike a pair of cheetahs stalking in high grass.
“Sam...” I said.
“Yes.” they both answered simultaneously. “Uh, hello, Andy.” Then, each pointing to the other, “...who’s he?”
There was a crunch of crumbling drywall and the clearing of a manly throat as a third Mark Twain arrived, our red-headed guy in the Roman army getup. He was stuck in the wall just as the Moose had been. Mark III was carrying a standard issue Roman short sword. “But there are so many of you...” Lindy said.
“Yes.” The three Mark Twains replied in unison. He—they—were very pleased with him—them—selves. “Can’t have too much of a good thing,” quipped my Mark Twain—the man in the red fez. Or I supposed it was him. Mark Twain, Mark Twain and Mark Twain had been keeping busy while we ducked bullets.
“I sense a pattern here,” I said.
“Well, good for you,” grumped Mark III. “So do I, and I’m it. Get me out of the goddamned wall.”
There was a girlish giggle. “Hello, Marcus, well-met,” said Ada Lovelace. This Ada wore the spiky Day-Glo hair of Ada Lovelace #3 but was dressed in skin-tight black spandex. “My stars and garters, we must have a kink in the fabric of local space-time.”
Mark III, who even though stuck in the wall was absorbed with admiring himself in the mirror, flexed a bicep and grinned from ear to ear.
“Marcus Tertius Secundus,” said Mark III as he gave us a clenched fist salute and hammered said fist against his chest. “Agent of Empire.” He raised an admiring eyebrow at Lady Ada.
I gave a yank on the sword. It was hot to the touch. Mark III was immediately surrounded by a bluish aura. The University of Turin’s time-traveling docent found this encouraging. “Ahh, Ada’s theory is correct. I had hoped so. He will not be with us for long.” The three of us pulled Mark III out of the wall. His aura subsided as he shook himself off.
“Would you mind telling me what this is all about. I thought... I thought bodies occupying the same space was impossible,” I stammered. I was developing a nervous tic.
“Simple,” Lady Ada said. “If a butterfly dies in Cleveland there will always be a superfluity of Clevelands where the butterfly did not die. And went on to procreate and flourish.”
“We’ll always have Cleveland,” I shrugged. “Whenever.”
“Pay attention, please. Cleveland is real estate—a place—and firmly positioned in its parallelisms. To quote your marvelous Stephen Hawking, the laws of physics do not allow time machines, thus keeping the world safe for historians.”
“You are not supposed to know about him,” I said.
“I am a woman ahead of her time; don’t worry about it,” said Ada Lovelace. “The more the merrier. In case of trouble, I thought to bring along a friend with military training.” She nodded at Marcus Tertius Secundus. “And I am not the Ada Byron Lovelace with whom you have been associating.” Here she consulted a large platinum watch. “She is due to arrive in ten minutes. Come Marcus, we have interrupted a dalliance.” She winked at Lindy.
“But we must be away, Marcus and I. I am totally assured that my beloved shepherd will have covered the variora satisfactorily. There is a future for him, but not with me.”
Uncle Larry’s pop-hole took us to a network of underground passageways, and back to the 2nd Avenue tunnel. We waited.
Ka-bunka, ka-bunka, ka-bunka, the bus named Università flopped to a stop on squared-off wheels. A woman got off, descending what remained of a circular stairway to the upper deck. She could have been entering a ballroom. Her floor length gown was white silk trimmed with magenta velvet touches; her hair was coiled into a lacquered confection that framed a delicate oval face. She carried a white sable muff, one of those 19th Century hand warmers that doubled as a lady’s carryall.
“Well, that was exhilarating,” she said. “The last thing I remember is dodging overripe tomatoes at the University of Turin. And here I am.” It was Lady Ada, another Lady Ada. And if you’ve got a creepy feeling that you’ve been here before, join the party. It was déjà-vu all over again, this time with tomatoes.
“Lady Lovelace #5, I presume?” said Lindy.
“I never dreamed that algorithm would work,” said Lady Augusta Ada Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. “On material human beings—characters as they navigate the mechanics of a fugal landscape. This is too, too fabulous. I was stretching my intellectual muscle, showing off a bit in front of those self-important preeners.”
“Giancarlo?” I asked.
“Would the faculty of the Università di Torino have been the sort of folk to throw overripe fruit at a guest lecturer?”
His eyes grew large to the point where they bulged. “No, Andréas, excitable but not violent. Atti di violenza are for football and the opera. Oh, sì. This proves my hypothesis: I am not me. I mean, I am not your Giancarlo; if there is a Giancarlo Pieranunzi in your timeline he probably did not escape from the Fascisti and come to New York. And he would be 115 years old, which the General Theory of Relativity forbids.”
He smiled at Ada Lovelace and groomed his moustache; she smiled back coquettishly.
“Relativity? Tosh. Interesting, but a plaything. Wilmo Darndlefang of Gothenburg, a clerk at the Swedish Patent Office, wrote of it in 1839. A curious fancy, hardly the mete of serious mathematics.” Lady Lovelace smiled fetchingly at me. “And mathematics is an art, not a science. Science is all steam and rivets.” At this there was a hiss and a belch from the omnibus as it expelled a shower of glowing cinders. “And bitumen is so noisy,” concluded Lady Lovelace.
“For you.” Giancarlo handed Lady Ada his treasured cameo.
“Ohh,” she held it at arm’s length. The long lost carver had done her justice. “Do I really look like this?” We all nodded. She shrugged her very creamy, very white shoulders. “I wish I had known before I married William.”
“It is never too late,” Giancarlo made calf’s eyes at her then kissed her hand. Even though she was heart stoppingly beautiful Lady Ada had to be almost two hundred years old. Albeit her husband was stranded in their home continuum, she was far along in years for this timeline. She certainly didn’t look her age.
“What about 1929?” said Lindy and I simultaneously. “And if the omnibus is from 1841, where are the horses?”
Giancarlo displayed a cavalier grin. “Another train has pulled into the station. This time an omnibus. Like the trains on the tracks, the espresso and the train we could hear but not see? In the empty tunnel?”
“Yes. Yes,” from all four of us.
“Lady Lovelace,” he bowed in Lady Ada’s direction and was rewarded with a fetching curtsey, “is from a different continuum altogether. Different from yours and different from mine. And, since I am here, she at least may leave but it is unlikely that I shall ever go home again. This pleases me. I like it here. Even the lovely Lady Lovelace,” another bow and another returned curtsey—very European, these Europeans, “must obey the constraints promulgated by Relativity.”
“If we wish it so. Men! Is that not correct, my dear?” Lady Lovelace asked of Lindy . “By the way,” said Lady Ada, “I simply adore your little dress and your shoes. Would you allow me a small intuition?”
“Of course, your ladyship.”
“You are around when these arrivals happen—these conditionals?”
“Gee, I...” Lindy gave us a questioning look. We nodded. “...yes, I guess so.”
“Then you are the operand. The missing factor of my most elegant equation. You are the gatekeeper.”
“You mean I have a supernatural thingy?”
“No, only cute shoes. It is right that a woman have cute shoes. Because I am a woman, even dear Charles and Luigi tended to patronize me—I am but a woman. Likewise the Earth is hollow and spontaneous human combustion occurs regularly. Just look around you.”
We looked around. There were no flames.
“A gatekeeper,” said Lindy with an ear-to-ear grin that would have melted even Don Paolo Carbone’s heart.
“Don’t let it go to your head, my dear,” said Ada Lovelace. “China flats do not a summer make and if I might essay an observation—and this is not a characterization of you, dear girl—in my equation the gatekeeper is more of a doorstop than a doorperson: a brick, a lump, a catalyst. If you appreciate conditionals as I do, my dear, you will know that if you are not really the missing operand, you are a flag, a pointer to where it resides. Op. Cit.: a gatekeeper. You are not a part of the phenomenon. But without you nothing happens.”
“What about the scissors. They were hot,” said Sam as he wistfully eyed Lady Ada’s silk ball gown.
“An effect, not a cause, dear boy. Do you like it? I had it made in Paris. You have excellent taste for a man.”
“200 years old. And horny,” I volunteered.
“As you say,” said Ada Lovelace, “Men are a testosterone time machine.” Sam Clemens took a bow. He averted his eyes and shuffled his feet.
Lindy gave my hand a squeeze.
“You don’t remember trying to cut off my head? With a sword?”
“Nonsense, I don’t even own a sword.”
I explained the goings-on with Carmine the Don, the Moose and the 2nd Ave. tunnel.
“Hmmm... a genuine bohemian demimonde,” said Lady Ada. “The underworld can be so stimulating—and you have assured me that you have seen me here before, have you not?”
“I have. Three times at least, although it is hard to keep count when one is being shot at and run over by a train...”
“Understandable, albeit not helpful,” she replied. “Confusing. This is a clue, I believe.”
“Ahh... a clue,” said Sam Clemens, trying to look wise.
“A clue. We are in a mystery, a detective story. And, like all good mysteries must have a peak, a climax and, sadly, a dénouement.”
“But what about Lindy... the gatekeeper...”
“And your marvelous calculating machine, the difference engine,” said Giancarlo Pieranunzi. He blushed as Lady Ada leaned forward to ruffle his hair.
“Lindy is, alas, the love interest. This is a story after all, nichts wahr? A power greater than ourselves has found us to be diverting playthings; our realities are mere hallucination. The machine is naught but a quantity of cogs and wheels held together with rivets, my darlings. Without a soul it is nothing but ingenious levers and switches. I have the key to its soul.”
“Hallucination...” I gave myself a pinch. “Ouch. I seem to be real enough,” I said.
“I should hope so,” said Ada #5. “Dear Giancarlo, pinch me.”
He went ahead. He reached tentatively for an exposed earlobe. “No, something more personal. If we are Destiny’s playthings, let us be more adventuresome. If I can feel your pinch, then we are both in for a surprise.” She hiked up her petticoats and exposed what the High Victorians would have called “a comely thigh.”
Lindy quickly put herself between me and the exposed Lady Ada. “Where you are from? I mean to say it sounds, well, messy. Steam omnibuses, no refrigeration and all. Your potato salads must be crawling with bacteria. Your ensemble is, of course, devastating,” she added. “Coordinated.”
“Coordinated... I can swim quite well, my dear, and can ride a velocipede, if that is what you are getting at,” said Lady Augusta Byron King, Countess of Lovelace. “Ah-hah, you are asking me if my socks match the drapes. I am afraid not.”
Lindy got that out-to-lunch glassy stare I recognized from her séance and I knew she was plotting the makeover of an entire parallel universe.
The steam omnibus gave a puff, then another. The reek of coal gas was intense; my eyes watered. “Woo, the fumes,” said Lindy, waving her hand in front of her nose. The omnibus gave a tentative chug then rumbled into full steam idle. Cinders rose from a ruptured vent somewhere in its innards.
A cat, scruffy with long hair, singed and with irregular bald patches, descended the steps from the bus’s truncated upper deck. There was a squirming bundle in its teeth. “Oh, hello, Puss.” The lady and the cat seemed to be on speaking terms. It walked over and dropped a rat at Lady Ada’s feet. “Thank you Widdershins.” She held the rat up by its tail, examining. It raised its head and looked at her with black, beady eyes. “No, Puss. If you won’t eat it, neither will I. But thank you for your concern; I have missed my lunch. Well, time to go.” The rat scuttled off. The cat sat and groomed itself. “Giancarlo, would you care to accompany me?”
“Ahem.” Sam Clemens a/k/a Mark Twain reached down to pet the cat. He was toking on one of the sidewalk peddler’s absconded joints. “I hate to be an old stick-in-the-mud, but things must be piling up back in Milan. I have a book to write.”
“That aroma. Surely it is not bitumen fumes from the omnibus’s boiler.” said Lady Ada. Mark Twain passed her the joint.
“Ahh, the Arab weed,” said Lady Ada, inhaling deeply.
“Andy?” Lindy gave my hand a hopeful squeeze. She wanted to go along and neaten up the nineteenth century.
“Uh, I think we might make them feel intruded upon. And they won’t have indoors plumbing.” The two sweethearts would crave solitude at their nineteenth century picnic, even with all the bacteria and botulinum toxins.
“I didn’t think about that. You don’t even have TV?”
“I am aware that smoking is detrimental to the lungs but, no. My mother’s brother died in a sanitarium, however.” Lady Ada passed the joint back to Sam Clemens. She looked hopeful but was puzzled by the reference.
“Not tuberculosis, television.” Sam explained television to Lady Ada.
“No. No TV. But ‘talking wallpaper,’ you say? This brings to mind the wallpaper in your gangster’s inner sanctum: nymphs and shepherds having at it in the woods. Such naughty business, particularly for wallpaper. I am absolutely entranced. And by-the-bye...” She pulled a dog-eared notebook from her carryall. “And if my calculations are correct I should soon be leaving you lovely people. I can only hope poor Luigi and dear Charles are adjusting to things where they are. But then, they wouldn’t have a choice, would they?” She giggled becomingly.
Giancarlo sighed and shuffled his feet. Lady Ada offered him her hand. “Shall we continue this discussion en tête-à-tête? My, won’t dear Charles and Luigi be jealous.”
“I have always wanted to be a shepherd,” said Giancarlo Pieranunzi.
copyright 2010, 2015 Rob Hunter
Mark Twain in Milan was first published online as serial installments in Bewildering Stories—Don Webb, managing editor, Bill Bowler, coordinating editor. And our favorite time travelers Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage are in their own webcomic by Sydney Padua. Wow. Here.