from Pieces for Small Orchestra
Norman Lock


And if, as I sometimes think, the hotel is all my own devising -- why have I not equipped myself, by a willful act of imagination, with a sac such as birds have? With it, I might ascend, dreaming, to my Funambulist and, after ceremonies of love, join her on the high-wire beneath the ceiling (festooned with trapezes of dust as if to remind us that life can be a circus, even though there are no elephants or tigers). I would not wish for feathers or even wings -- would not be a bird-man (a being, like us, preferring life in between). I would, however, be a cowboy like the ones I saw in movies as a boy (in a childhood deprived of cows), drinking bitter coffee under lonesome skies while tumbleweed and prairie schooners drive before the wind. So I rustle, with the Plumber, the General's horses while he is on sabbatical with the Chanteuse, staying in a cabin by the lake -- there to study the nuptial customs of mechanical swans. Having unhitched the horses from the carousel, we ride hell-bent-for-leather across the High Sierra Room, through a plaster-of-Paris pass -- horses buried to their knees in Ivory Snow flakes -- and (after days of hardship) onto a plain created by the Decorator from bolts of felt meant to cover billiard tables. I leave the Plumber to water the horses (thirsty though they are mostly wood) and stable them, while I take off my spurs and chaps in a room above the town's gaudiest saloon. Like any cowboy who has spent a long time in the company of animals and gruff, unshaven men, I am lonely for a woman. I send a telegram downstairs for one; and in no time at all, up comes the Shepherdess, dressed in cowgirl skirt and vest, smoking a cheroot. "Are you happy in this dream?" I ask her; "or would you rather have a different one?" She is about to answer when my wife's face in the windowpane reminds us that I am not at liberty to dally with cow- or any other kind of girls. Sheepishly, I smile at my acrobatic bride while the Shepherdess does up the buttons of her blouse. In the saloon below, the Prime Minister, playing the role of the Hanging Judge, is looking at a catalogue of rope. Surly and dyspeptic, he hankers to stretch a neck or two before day dwindles to a close. (The guests applaud the fidelity of his acting, overlooking the skimpiness of his false moustache.) The General with the Chanteuse on his arm abruptly enters through the swinging-door. The P. M.'s mustache would have twirled with his surprise, if the mucilage had not been Peerless. "We did not expect you two so soon!" "The swans were misbehaving," the General comments. "Passing by the carrousel, I noticed that my horses have been stolen." "What's that you say?" the Hanging Judge is all en point: "Stolen? Horse theft's a hanging crime!" He is pleased to have a thing to set his mind on; life in the Old West is often boring, especially for a man who adores a lynching more than most. A vigilante mob of three drags in the Plumber, whose hair looks like a magpie's nest after napping in the stable's stall. "String him up!" the P. M. shouts, breaking his gavel on the desk. "No, not me!" the Plumber cries. "Norman was the mastermind!" "Where's he now?" the Judge demands with all the majesty he can muster. "In the room upstairs with his fancy woman," the Hat Check, in the role of preacher's wife, informs the court. "Let's hang 'em!" shouts the Engineer, in town on railroad business. "Not before he pays his bill!" the Barman begs. "When you're finished, may I stuff him?" asks the Taxidermist, who has been complaining of a scarcity of subjects for his art. "Help!" I call as the town's folk thunders up the stairs with murder in its heart, which, in a mob, is a single sanguinary organ. The Cowgirl faints, but I have no time to take advantage of her state. They are breaking down the door! It is nearly splintered when Quasimodo shambles through my window, crying: "Sanctuary!" Nimble as a tightrope-walker, he tiptoes -- high above the dusty street -- toward Notre Dame Cathedral while, like a sack of spuds, I hang across his misbegotten shoulder. Where did he learn the art of funambulism and -- of even greater interest -- how did this Hunchback, who should be in Medieval France, arrive in 1880's Kansas? Who is dreaming this? Someone who has seen too many movies! A thought can sometimes splinter in a brain undermined by cocktails and lingerie (or even stamps if one happens to overindulge a passion for philately), with havoc the result. I only hope that -- tottering above an abyss of multiplying fantasies -- I will be upheld by Quasimodo, until he sets me down to rest among the gargoyles and sorority of bells.


What excitement! The Director, who arrived "like a god" one afternoon on a piece of stage machinery lowered from the roof, will reenact Ben-Hur. The Palatine Hill, where Romulus and his brother Remus were mothered by a wolf, is nearly finished. Below it, remarkable reproductions of Roman barges ply a model Tyrrhenian Sea. "The Decorator has outdone himself!" the Soubrette praises. "Yes," the Prime Minister agrees, "his Circus Maximus is a masterpiece." We tremble to hear the pawing of Arabian steeds. Foaled by nightmares, they are confined in a corral warranted to withstand earthquakes and their aftershocks of 7 on the Richter Scale. Inspired by their terrible neighing, the Chanteuse trills Cantata for Equus. "And who," the General asks, "is to be Ben-Hur, the Hebrew charioteer?" The Prime Minister, whose judgment is unclouded by sentiment or graft, nominates the Plumber. Indignant, the General rings his cavalry spur against a fluted column. "Only hands used to monkey-wrenches are strong enough to hold the reins." Blustering, the General reminds us of his equestrian exploits on a hill in Cuba. "That was long ago!" the P. M. snaps, and we detect a note of malice glittering like a scimitar's sharpened edge. "Pish!" the old man sputters. "You shall play the part of Tiberius," the P. M. says, relenting. "The Roman Emperor?" "None other." How the General beams to have been accorded such an honor! "But I don't have a toga, or is that just for Greeks?" "There are hampers brimming with costumes from every period," says the Soubrette, who, for the nonce, is acting as the drama's Costumier. The General claps his hands and hurries off. "Who is to play Messalah and race his chariot against Ben-Hur's?" inquires the Historian in his capacity as technical adviser. "Norman." "No, I'm out of shape and easily tired!" I protest. "Hmmmm. What about the Carpenter?" the Decorator suggests. "He's brawny and unafraid of horses." "An excellent choice!" approves the P. M. The day arrives for which we have been waiting. The circus seats are crowded. The guests, attired picturesquely like first century Anno Domini Roman citizens, are eating hotdogs and drinking beer in paper cups. Despite a reputation as a tyrant on the set, the Director is unable to forbid anachronisms such as these, as well as a musical score played on modern instruments. Anticipating blood and mayhem, the hotel Physician is ecstatic. There is little to occupy a man of his profession when sickness and injury are virtually extinct. I sit by the Shepherdess, who looks suitable to any age, and admire the Roman maidens in their décolletage, while on the Tiber galley slaves contend with currents flustered by a wind-machine. Now, a fanfare blares in the cyclorama's cloudless sky. The Emperor drops a handkerchief and, when it has finished fluttering to the rutted track, the race begins. Four chariots leap and rattle down the lanes, pulled by horses whipped to fury. Obedient to the oval, the chariots orbit until there are only two that interest us: Ben-Hur's and his former friend Messalah's, whose wheels are equipped with turning blades! He hopes, with them, to dismantle the Jew's, which lacks accessories. In spite of them, Ben-Hur's enemy tumbles from his chariot. The Physician rushes to his mangled side, a smile on his lips; and with instruments once used by his father for tending duellers, practises his healing art on the Roman, who, notwithstanding, dies. A shadow, scarcely noticed, has been crawling across the churned and bloody sand. Aware of it at last, I think it cast by a vulture or other bird of death -- a finale provided by the Director for his spectacle. But looking up, I see my tightrope-walking wife, passing loftily over Circus Maximus. She ignores the kiss I throw her, doubtlessly annoyed by the Shepherdess at my side. "She means nothing!" I shout. But the high-wire artiste, who has renounced the ground, does not stop to answer.


The Fireman set fire to the Roman Room, in which the Violinist moonlights as Nero while the other musicians are asleep, or in rehearsal. He is first chair of all the strings and needs none. "This arson is not the work of an authentic pyromaniac," the Analyst concludes. "That is, one consumed by notions of holocaust, which is, psychically speaking, an erotic contagion devouring what is touched. The Fireman's delight, however, is alchemical as he watches baser material alter into a gold and ruby conflagration." "He is, notwithstanding, a danger to us all!" retorts the Prime Minister, whose view is of the commonweal. "He must be apprehended and his head cut off." "But he is our friend!" the Chanteuse cries. She has been keeping company with the Fireman behind the General's back because of the former's ardor, which is larger than that of the old man, whose moustache droops. But the P. M. is adamantine in his resolve to arrest the "firebug" before the hotel, which is flammable, is rendered unfit to live in. The Engineer and the Decorator, whose interests are antithetical, argue the possibility -- each from his own entrenched position -- of burning to the ground an imaginary structure. Indifferent, I compose a tribute to my Funambulist bride, whose ankles have just come into view. "Look!" shrieks the Masseuse, pointing in alarm to real smoke on the painted horizon. "The palm trees are ablaze!" They are papier-maché. "Whom do you suppose could have disabled the sprinklers?" the Building Inspector inquires. As if in answer, the Fireman sidles from the scene with a canister of gasoline. Happily, the elephants (whose existence has been doubtful) shamble from the Serengeti Room and with their muscular trunks, having first unlimbered them, douse the flames with water brought for the purpose from a puddle on the plain. "Elephants are not so dumb as they pretend!" says the Prime Minister, who reprises then his punitive theme: "I sentence the Fireman to be chained to a rock in the Gibraltar Room -- there, to be pecked at daily by an eagle." (Miracle of the Taxidermist's art.) "But this is wrong!" the Historian shouts. "The mythic figure to which you allude was chained to Mt. Caucasus: I speak, of course, of the titan Prometheus, who stole the gods' fire in a fennel stalk and for this impudence was --" "Yes, yes, we have read Bulfinch!" the Plumber, who is Classical in his methods and approach to pipes, snarls. The Designer is delighted with the sentence, seeing in the fettered Fireman a way to finish the room's looming piece of Jurassic limestone, which, in his opinion, is "too much of a good thing." "May I visit him?" the Masseuse asks between (or is it amid?) sobs. "At twilight to distract him," the P. M. answers. "In this way, his flammable fancy will be less likely to catch fire from the setting sun's example." "I shall take him cakes and oranges and massage his aching back and be to him a wife such as the Funambulist is to you." She looks at me in recognition of the impediment to union imposed by my wife's aerial vocation. "And I shall play for you and your Fireman a fiery --" No, no, not fiery!" interjects the Prime Minister. "Are you mad?" The Violinist recants: "Forgive my thoughtlessness. I shall play for them a single soothing note on my brightest string." "The hotel has become something less than a utopia," the P.M. laments. "Art and love, however, have conspired to restore order to our disordered system -- a triumph for Chaos Theory!" As if to mock the vanity of human certitude, a meteor hisses hotly through the hotel atmosphere (singeing the flounce on my beloved's acrobatic attire). "Great balls of fire!" cries the General. "No one is safe until the Fireman is found and taken into custody!" A second meteor, accompanied by derisive laughter, rains incandescent debris on us. "He shall be taken and put to death!" the P. M. declares, rising up in the full majesty of his office. Thus the idea of death, which was banished, is admitted to the hotel and our dreaming. The maniacal Fireman, the origin of whose disease is not known, escapes his destruction in a swan boat on the lake far below. He goes outside, where fire is ample -- in a world mad for burning.