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Trip out on Red Lizzie.

Once in a blue moon, inquiring after somebody reported as lost in London and last seen in the vicinity of the British Museum, the police would send a plainclothesman on a bicycle to look in at Busto's apartment house, much as they might have glanced into a disused well or dragged a pond--perfunctorily, as a matter of routine. Otherwise, they ignored the place. Nobody whom anyone wanted to find was likely to be found at Busto's.

The sort of people who rented his sad little rooms mostly arrived unnoticed, stayed pseudonymous, left unregarded, and were never missed. The very fact that anyone had come down to living there generally meant that he was well on his way out of sight and out of mind. This was his last chance to be private, one step this side of the flophouse; the last stop before "No fixed abode, no visible means of support' on a police charge sheet.

In my time, the only notorious character in the house was one Mr. Nash, an unfrocked clergyman--a much-wronged man, and determined to be martyred as such. A militant moralist, he had carried the war against vice right into the adversary's camp. Taken in the flank while on tactical reconnaissance in the park after dark with a girl who sorely needed saving, he was preposterously charged with indecent conduct and stripped of his living by a clique of envious prelates; he sued his bishop and lost.

Now he spent his evenings on a little portable roshrum, publicly denouncing the bishop in the most defamatory terms and daring the police to arrest him. But they had orders not to touch him. He was one of my neighbors on the top floor, where, by a cunning arrangement of homemade fiberboard partitions, Busto had made three "single rooms" out of an attic. In these paper cubicles we kept up an elaborate pretense of living in separate apartments--as if we couldn't hear one another breathing--and regarded privacy as sacred. Mr. Nash, in particular, was the soul of delicacy.

I was astonished, then, when he came into my room half-dressed and without knocking at eight o'clock one morning and, buttoning his collar and dickey with trembling hands, said, "I think it's happened. I've forced the primate's hand at last!: It appeared that the previous afternoon on Tower Hill, he had called the Archbishop of Canterbury, among other things, a Caiaphas, a dung beetle, a Pilate, a lickspittle, and a hypocrite.

("Poor old Nash went on the bash/Under the old oak tree," chanted the hecklers.)

"And now guess who's downstairs," he said, trembling with excitement. "Detective-Inspector Shropsall of Scotland Yard, and a sergeant! Thank goodness you're here--I want to be arrested in your presence." I protested that I would rather be left out of it, and Mr. Nash admonished me with, "As an honest man, you ought not to be afraid of policemen."

"I am an honest man because I am afraid of policemen," I replied, putting on my coat; but the detectives and Busto were on their way upstairs.

Bounding out to meet them on the landing, Mr. Nash squared his shoulders, planted his feet, and cried in a voice of brass, "Gentlemen, here I am, and I reiterate--"

The detective-inspector brushed him aside with a brusque "Excuse me," and turned his head to ask Busto, "Which is his room?:

"Yes, sir, gentlemen, room ona right," said Busto, vilely obsequious. "Ona right, padrone." To our astonishment, the policemen went to the third room, which was rented by the most inoffensive man in the world, a payement artist who called himself Jackson.

"I defy you to do your damnedest!" roared Mr. Nash, shaking his fists in the visitors' faces. "Sniveling myrmidons of Barabbas!"

The detective-inspector clucked, "Tsk, tsk, tsk! And you a Bachelor of Divinity. Carrying on like Marie Corelli on a tigerskin rug!" To me he said, "Stick around, will you?"

I followed them into Jackson's room, which was as clean and bare as a hospital cubicle. There was a bed made up taut as a drum, a tiny washstand, a chair, and a small table. Nobody ever saw an emptier furnished room.

"Nothing much here," said Shropsall, finding in the cupboard only a threadbare overcoat and a pair of cracked boots. Shropsall turned to me and said, "Weren't you friendly with Jackson?"

"Were? Is he dead?"

"Well, are--if you like. Eh?"

"On speaking terms."

"As far as you know, did he ever conduct any chemical experiments, or anything of that sort?"

"Not unless you count cocoa as a chemical; he mixed a lot of that. Why?"

"I'll ask the questions, if you don't mind. This man Jackson--I'd like you to tell me all you know about him."

I said, "You know more about him than I do. He was out from dawn till dusk at his pitch, chalking pictures on the pavement outside the London and Home Counties Bank in Southampton Row. Last night he didn't come home."

"I know he didn't," said Detective-Inspector Shropsall.

Busto said, "Firsta time in five a-year Jackson don't come home regalara-clockwork when pubs shut."

"He was a naturalized British subject," I said, "so there must be some information in the records--"

"Very likely," said Shropsall. "Where did he tell you he came from?"

"Russia About 30 years ago."

"Did he express any particular political views?"

"Never in my hearing."

"Did you meet any of his friends?"

"Jackson never had any that I know of," I said. "He was about as alone in the world as it's possible to get."

"Where did he hang out, apart from here? Eat? Drink?"

"He breakfasted off cocoa and a roll, carried a thermos of hot cocoa with him and lunched of that and a cheese sandwich at his pitch. At the end of the day he always got something to eat at the Little Brown Bear in Red Lion Street, and after that he generally had a few drinks of Lizzic wine at the Bricklayers' Arms in Percy Street. Why are we talking about him in the past tense?"

Ignoring this last, the detective-inspector said, "He had one over the eight last night, was taken in for D. and D.--drunk and disorderly--and tried to blow up Tottenham Court Road police station this morning."

"Bravo!" cried Mr. Nash; and "Sharrap!" said Busto. I asked, "Blow up the police station? What with?"

"We'll get at what with in due course, if you don't mind," said Shropsall. "Now, hve you any idea of what it was that he was in the habit of trying to draw a diagram of? Was it supposed to be a machine? Or what?"

"Machine? I don't know anything about a machine," I said.

"You were in the habit of holding long conversations with Jackson, thought, weren't you?"

"We chatted about nothing much."

"What subjects did you discuss?" Shropsall asked.

"Well, transcendental empathy," I said.

"Not chemistry, politics, engineering, or any allied subjects?"

"No."

"By the bye, what is transcendental empathy?"

"I don't quite know. 'Transcendental' means beyond the limits of possible experience; beyond human knowledge. 'Empathy' means projecting your personality into an object, and attributing to that object your own responses. It's rather complicated. One needs a special kind of mind."

"Did he leave any parcels with you? Documents? Packages? . . . No? Well in your conversations together, did he drop any hints or tell any yarns about places he'd been before he came here?"

"Well, let me think," I said.

"We know, for instance, that Jackson never was any common two-penny-ha'penny screever," said Shropsall. He had sized me up and was playing on my artistic temperament; his voice was cozy and confidential. "It's not everybody who can draw a perfect circle or a perfect square without compasses or ruler. And those pictures of his, all in black and white chalk--exact in every detail, and clear as photographs. . . . Farfetched, if you like, but original, you must grant him that," Shropsall went on. "Why a man with an imagination like his wasn't making good money doing illustrations for the magazines is beyond me. No gumption, perhaps?"

I felt that it would have been worse than pointless to say that the man who called himself Jackson was as devoid of originality and imagination as a take-your-own-portrait slot machine, and as incapable of depicting anything he hadn't seen with his own pale eyes, or of deviating by a hairbreadth from the immediate appearance of it. Such a statement would have been positively compromising.

Jackson drew nocturnes, but the cratered landscape he felt himself most competent to depict was lit by two moons. So I said, noncommittally, "A faithful draftsman is what he is."

Of all the people who scrape a living on the sidewalks of a city, the pavement artists are the most curious. I mean the conscientious, hardworking ones who are out at daybreak carefully dusting off the paving stones at their pitches before sketching out their daily picture, which may be a copy of an old master drawn painstakingly, not in pallid penny chalks, but in good, strong-colored French pastels. (For instance, one screever in London has been copying Hals's Laughing Cavalier for the past 20 years, brocade doublet and all.) They have done half a day's work by nine o'clock, to catch the pedestrians on the way to their offices. By noon their picture is finished, except for the extra touches; a shading here, a highlight there occupies them for the rest of the day.

And then they empty their hats of the pennies they have collected, wipe their work away with wet rags, and go home. There is a melancholy symbolism about it all. They are a sad race.

But none was sadder than Jackson.

He had, as Shropsall observed, a photographic eye and a sure hand, and there was a distinctly illustrative quality about that outlandish panorama he so persistently got down, all sharp black, dazzling white, and subtly shaded gray, on the stones of Southampton Row. There was an irrevocable lifelessness in its jagged promontories of blasted slag; its utterly naked crags and chasms suggested total silence.

Sometimes he was asked, apropos the two moons in the picture, if it was supposed to be Mars. "I don't know anything about Mars," he would reply. An American visitor said it reminded him of some place he'd passed through in Arizona. "I never was in Arizona," Jackson said, "but some of my family were there, some time back." One or two people suggested that he was simply copying, from memory, some old halftone plate out of a book by Jules Verne, and putting in an extra satellite for good measure; the more observant pointed out that the curious shadow forms and subtle overlappings of penumbrae could only be twin moons, one gibbous and the other full.

Working with practiced speed, he would finish the landscape, which covered three paving stones, in a couple of hours, and then settle down to making his diagram, as Shropsall called it. He would draw an exact 23-inch square in four strokes of a stick of black chalk; and a perfect circle of the same diameter inside it, freehand. (A curious newspaperman in the silly season took measurements.) Starting unerringly from the precise center of the circle, then, he would make a marvelously intricate series of long, S-shaped curves in black and white, right and left, forming a pattern that I can liken only to some hybrid Japanese chrysanthemum refined almost to invisibility.

More than one onlooker offered him money to draw that thing--whatever it was supposed to be--on paper. He simply shrugged and said, "It wouldn't be any good on paper," although he did promise me one evening, over wine, that he'd draw me that landscape of his "on something you can hang up, one of these days."

For he habitually drank more than the few glasses I have referred to in passing. That hellish concoction, which was also known as Red Lizzie and Lunatic's Broth, was in considerable demand in London at that time. It was made by mixing the rinsings of old port casks with wood alcohol and water, and they said of it, in the style of the old gin-mill advertisement, that on this stuff you could get stupefied for sixpence, homicidal for a shilling, and a clean cell for nothing at all.

Jackson swallowed it by the tumblerful, and its only effect on him was to make him seem sad and pensive.

"This stuff has been my downfall," he told me, "but I can't help it; my constitution needs a lot of sugar. Still, drink was the ruination of me."

"What did you do before?"

"Why, nothing at all," he replied.

"Was that in Russia?" I asked. When he nodded, I said, "You don't look like a Russian, somehow."

"Who said I was a Russian? If I was born in a stable would that make me a horse?"

"I can't place you at all."

"I come from----" He named a place with a labial and a sibilant: It sounded something like Bvenis.

"Venice?"

"No, Bvenis--down there," he said, pointing straight upward.

"Oh, Venus," I said, quite sure that Jackson was drunk or crazy.

"No, not Venus. Nobody comes from Venus."

"No intelligent life there?"

"Far from it. Bvenis--a star."

"Long way away?"

"You know what a light-year is?"

"About six trillion miles, I believe."

"Approximately. Well, by those measurements, Bvenis must be about 1,500 light-years from here."

"Quite a trip," I said.

He replied, "Look here. I talk to you because you have got the story writer's mind; you are supposed to enter into the spirit of things. Laugh at me and I will ask you to go away!"

"I merely remarked that a journey that takes 1,500 years at the rate of 186,000 miles per second is quite a trip."

"You could also figure out how long it would take on a tricycle. Who said anything about a rate as slow as light? There are quicker ways of traveling--"

"Einstein says if mass travels faster than light it becomes energy," I said, "and the formula is--"

"Formula!" he cried, staring me down. "Your friend Einstein is a baby; he can't count beyond ten. A Tartar cashier with an abacus knows more in his little finger." He took out his handkerchief and stretched it diagonally. "Say this is a distance. Which is the quickest way from one end of it to the other? Why, I simply drop the end I don't want, and there I am, at the other end. This handkerchief, a mile, a million miles, a light-year--there's no difference at all--it's only distance; one dimension only." He drank, and then called for more Red Lizzie.

"If I do this," he went on, drawing a line on the bar, linking two little puddles of spilled liquor, "that distance, like light, calls for space and time to traverse. But the other way--ah, that's the way."

"Rockets wouldn't be feasible?"

"Rockets? Listen to me: No Bvenisian would touch a rocket, or any other kind of machine. You know that picture I draw, the one you like, what you call the Wilderness? It was a garden, once, until we fought a war with machines. Then it was burned away to what you see--like something in a bad dream. No, no, machines are taboo. When I came here I would not even travel in a steamboat. I took a sailing ship out of Odessa."

"Couldn't you have picked up both ends of the distance and--"

"Didn't I just tell you that this d---ed stuff"--he emptied half his refilled glass--"was the ruination of me? What would I be doing here if I could have remembered the way Home? At the time of the last Exodus, in 1908, I was blind drunk in St. Petersburg, and my people left without me, 40,000 of them. And I am the last Bvenisian left in this miserable little world!"

"Forty thousand!"

"That was the last of us. There had been several Exoduses earlier on."

"And had the Bvenisians been here long?" I asked.

"Oh, millions and millions of years, waiting for Bvenis to heal itself and grow green again. What do you suppose you are, and he is"--he pointed to the barman--"and your friend Einstein, and all the rest of you, high and low, but descendants of us Bvenisians? Bvenisians brought intelligent life to this planet. I mean, intelligent life as you know it."

I said, "So I am a Bvenisian?

He murmured, with some embarrassment, "Well, yes, in a way. But by a true Bvenisian, I mean one of the hierarchy. We bred a sort of rabble to serve us as menials. . . ."

"If your people were here so long, how is it that they left no remains?"

"Well, we lost two large civilizations that are known in legend as Atlantis and Lemuria. Oh, we have had our setbacks here on Earth! For the rest, our practice has always been to send our dead home to Bvenis. Mechanical and chemical technology was forbidden to us. What should there be of remains, then? There are a few stray crumbs--Sumeria, Chaldea, Egypt--nothing much. . . . . Let's have some more wine."

At a gulp he swallowed another quarter of a pint of Red Lizzie and muttered, "I need the carbohydrates," and I remarked, "It must have been a formidable operation, getting 40,000 people off the ground."

"It caused some disturbance in the atmosphere around Lake Baikal, in 1908," he said, with a shrug, "and left a scar in the rock--"

"But that was the famous Siberian meteorite!"

"Your famous Siberian granny, sir! Why leap to the conclusion, on hearing a bang and seeing a hole in the ground, that it is the result of an impact--that it has been knocked in rather than pulled out? When one travels by empathy, a little of the place on which one is standing comes away, too, necessarily. Forty thousand people taking off simultaneously made something of a pockmark, of course."

"'Travel by empathy,'" I said. "That I don't understand."

"I couldn't expect you to, because there are simply no words in any language I know--except Bvenisi--to explain. How shall I put it?" said Jackson. "An empathic bending of the transcendental? Does that convey it?"

"No, I can't say it does."

"Candidly, it doesn't to me, either. . . . Hey, you, man! Some more Red Lizzie, please."

"Allow me to ask," I said, "if that strange diagram you constantly draw on the pavement has any connection with transcendental empathy."

"It is not a diagram, it is an empathic appliance; it is, to one-dimensional conveyance--or teleportation--what the wheel is to a barrow."

"It makes a very handsome pattern, Mr. Jackson."

"Perhaps. But it is inaccurate. If it were accurate it would be invisible, and so would I."

"Invisible?"

"It would enable me to let go of this end of the distance between me and Bvenis, don't you see, for everybody holds both ends of any imaginable distance in his hand," Jackson replied. "And then I should be back with my people. But the combinations are literally infinite."

"I am surprised," I said, "that a man like you should be screeving on the pavement in Bloomsbury."

"But I am a man entirely without resources now," he said, "and where and how else in the world could I be provided with the level stone surface that is essential to me, together with uninterrupted working hours and a modest but steady supply of money for my maintenance?"

"It seems so fantastic," I said.

He drank yet another glass of Red Lizzie and asked, "But why? For thousands of years you have believed in mystical passes, secret gestures, magic circles and triangles to raise the devil. And this is fantastic?" He made a wry face and shuddered, then said, "Flthy drink! But it put my curves out of my head . . . and it is my only hope of remembering them back again."

"What will happen when your drawing is completely accurate? Will there be an explosion?"

"No," he said, "not an explosion, but an implosion followed by an emphatic pop. And I shall be home. May that day be soon. Let's drink to it."

"And there's the long and short of it," said Detective-Inspector Shropsall, having taken me to a teashop and treated me to breakfast. "Jackson was taken into Tottenham Court Road police station, shouting his head off, 'I've got it, I've got it!' Got what, I wonder. Any idea?" he asked.

"Not a clue," I said.

"He was searched, and relieved of seventeen shillings in silver and seven-pence-ha'penny in bronze, a blunt jackknife, a tin of chalks, and a handkerchief. No papers, no matches. Locked up, he began to cry. The jailer, Butterworth, a goodhearted fellow and very popular, brought him a mug of tea and a slice of bread and marge, and told him to try and get a good night's sleep. Butterworth says Jackson had a bit of chalk which must have been overlooked, and was screeving on the cell floor.

"Butterworth warned him, 'Make a mess there and you'll have to swab it up,' but he says Jackson only laughed and said, 'I've got it, I've got it.' At 2 a.m. he was still making patterns on the floor--that kind of zinnia, or whatever it is. Then, at exactly 3:55 a.m., there was a kind of explosion--just like pulling an enormous great cork, I'm told, and a shower of plaster and small rubble."

I said, "Yes?"

"If you can throw any light on this at all, we'd appreciate it. And while we're on it, I'd take it as a personal favor if you just sort of kept this under your hat for the moment. The cell was still locked, of course, and nothing was disturbed; except that there was shallow circular hole just under two feet in diameter in the floor, and other holes of the same size going straight through all the other floors right up to--and through--the roof."

"And Jackson?"

"Gone. Vanished. And there's going to be hell to pay on account of the damage done to the property, and no way of explaining it that anybody can think of. So if you can give us any lead. . . ."

"considering the quantities of Red Lizzie that Jackson put away, could it have been spontaneous combustion?"

"Is that the best you can do?"

"If I think of anything else more rational I'll let you know, Inspector. Could I have a look at the damage?"

"No. The station is being closed."

So, to the glee of the loiterers in the neighboring backwaters and the irrational satisfaction of Mr. Nash, the red-brick shell of Tottenham Court Road police station was put up for sale. I urged Busto to tender a bid for it, but he said, "I don't lika be conspicuous." Except for an occasional suicide, his tenants gave Shropsall no further occasion to inquire for them in my time.
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Kersh, Gerald
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1991
Words:3836
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