Norman Lock
from Pieces For Small Orchestra


30.

He sets his theodolite on the bar glyphed by beer-glass bottoms; rubbled with cocktail napkins, tiny plastic swords, and peanut shells; anchored by elbows. It is polished brass and handsome - this instrument by which he measures two-dimensional space quaintly Euclidean now that an invisible lion in our midst has vanished into a parallel universe impossible, for us, to describe. “I am a Land Surveyor,” he replies in answer to the Prime Minister's question. “But we have no need of surveying, sir!” the P. M. asserts with a belligerence, due, in part, to absinthe (which is not forbidden us) and ministerial habit. “This is a hotel!” he continues in this strain. “To take measurements, such as are within your ken, would be superfluous in light of this --” He indicates with an elegant hand the finished space around us. “Nothing here is provisional or conditional; everything is fixed, immutable, and -- another, Bartender, if you please.” He moves his empty glass an inch-and-one-half toward the absinthe bottle. “But I was summoned!” the Surveyor protests, much put out. “By whom?” “By me.” The Physicist leans his lean length into the conversation to explain: “I wish to prove to my detractors that our hotel is swinging in and out of a visible dimension, according to String Theory's axioms as I have adapted them to suit the singularity of our existence, which is simultaneously imaginary and real.” “O, so the Surveyor will play a role in another of the Physicist's thought experiments!” we moan, having been terrified by the last involving not one but three lions! “How do you propose to prove such a postulate?” the Prime Minister, whose head is 'big' at the moment from the dangerous intoxicant, demands. “The Surveyor will measure a room to determine whether or not it shrinks or expands, as I predict it must.” The Surveyor requests a beer. “Put it on my tab,” says the Plumber, who feels collegially toward this fellow of the building trades. The Surveyor quaffs and smiles at the lace of foam inside his empty glass. Not to be outdone by a Plumber, the General calls for drinks all round. The Physicist continues to elaborate: “I conjecture that the hotel is - in its essence - a vibration induced by our desire. It will shrink as the waveform flattens. At the point of climax, we will disappear. In other words, we are invisible to the outside world in proportion to our wish to be so.” That night, the Surveyor measures the hotel lounge, where a row of barely dressed girls dance the hoochy-coochy. “What are your findings?” the Physicist inquires at the end of the floorshow. “The line of chorus girls is shorter,” the Surveyor states with aplomb. The Physicist is elated, as are we. “Hooray! Let us now retire to our beds and dream, each in his own way and according to his disposition, a world cordial to moonlight serenades, poetry, and love.”


40.

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 a 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 to tend to 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 forsworn the ground, does not stop to answer.