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“…the doctors do appear, when to their patients they are called, in places by the plague appalled, their hats and cloak, of fashions anew… ahhem” the professor clears his throat and resumes.
“Ahhem, sorry, yes: are made of oilcloth, dark of hue, their caps with glasses are designed, their bills with antidotes all lined, that foulsome air may do no harm, nor cause the doctor man alarm.” He pauses the poem for effect, surveying his audience of diverse age in the amphitheater.
“Let us listen intently to the following line: The staff in hand must serve to show they’re noble where’er they go.”
The tenured professor closes the book upon the podium, catches his crackpot breath, looks offstage, checks his watch, and says: “Now, we’ll have time to answer some follow up questions for five minutes or so…” The professor at the podium stares across the dim sea of flesh, fingering their cell phones, or restlessly spreading five fingers into the air, never lifting out of their seats, as if they are stuck by duct tape to stilted chairs, rising and rising in three decked levels of Cooley’s Collegiate Amphitheater.
“…Yes, hmm hmm, you.”
A bald microphone is presented to the woman who stood.
“Hello Doctor Jentz, my name is Mary.” Mary is pleasantly plump, bulging slight with a baby paunch, in a marital dress with ruffles around her neckline and shoulders. Her mouth moves mechanically under a thick algae-colored, algae-hardened wig of hair that isn’t human.
“How do you do Mary? And what is your question?”
“Yeah, well, like, I think you are like a plague Doc, in the sense that your ideas propagate a plague, infecting us with ideas, claims and cures with no supporting science.”
“And what is your question exactly?”
The audience gives a whimpering chortle. They love derision. Especially when it’s ‘dead-on-the-money’ as the saying goes, like a troublesome opossum, belly-up on a stack of Benjamin bling-bling, bloodying the currency.
“Yeah, so, like what’s your real evidence Doctor Jentz? We’ve heard a seventeenth century poem, seen PowerPoint slides of Plague, but so far no physical proof in the current day. You haven’t even said what this Plague is! So how do you expect us to believe some sort of sickness has returned, when the scientific community hasn’t declared more than one death due to some specialized strain of Yersinia pestis? By what facts would you predicate this new plague exactly? Seems like you’re predicting. Why should we believe another loony tenured oracle?”
“Look to your left, then look to your right.”
The Cooley College crowd complied, confusing their neighbors for the inflicted, or carriers of a secret shadow.
“It is not my assertion that there is any physical plague, no bacterium to my knowledge is responsible Mary, but inasmuch as there has always been some form of pestilent propagation, dormant as it may appear, that sits within us, sits deep below the skin, this form does not reveal itself on flesh to fleshy eyes. Only those with the right eyes may witness it.
“What I speak of is social, psychological, ingrained in personality. There are no indicative boils on the epidermis, by which to spot it, except perhaps by a sneer, or the occasional malice worming within, which Man is ever so fond of masking in his motives for peace. There is no evidence, qua evidence of it at all. It merely is. It is built into our being. You may call it original sin, or mayn’t. Cure is not my concern, only recognition of our most fundamental frailties.
“Thanks for the question, Mary.”
A hundred hands shoot up from sweaty spouts in the sea of flesh, squirming in air, like oriental fans stretching as far out as possible to contract more air and attention.
The Ph.D. Jentz presses his crescent spectacles deeper into the folds of his nose, “We haven’t time for more questions.” He massages his temples and turns.
Voices in the amphitheater, clung to the highest eaves, reverberate symphonically in a cacophony, shouts, protests, inquiries, deafening in deep gurgles of droning disapproval.
The professor passes into the recessing curls of curtain with an attenuated flick of the folds, into the blackness of backstage, as stage lights fade and all are ushered outside, into the brisk November night in and around the Cooley College Campus.
They wave plague pamphlets like napkins. The student body has sneezed, and no one has, as of yet, said bless you.
They see no signs of the plague in themselves, but see it stamped in invisible spray-paint all over their fellow students, positing that any given person could be painted in plague graffiti. Meekly they hurry home, dive into dorm rooms before their fright catches up, blindly locking in the night, keeping heads tucked under double-down comforters like gullible gophers believing, yes, sincerely, they’ve seen a spectral shadow.
The self teems with shadows? Good gracious Doctor.
Dr. Jentz laughs like a little piggy all the way to his bungalow off campus for a beer, a bitter IPA, thinking he’d said seriously too much. He should’ve stayed silent and just shown slides. Played the pensive professor, saying bounds by not. But, oh, hey ho, what the hell? It’s so delightfully darned fun to see students riled up in their individual internal riots by undetectable diseases.
The hysteria of fools.
Death, death, death, this little liberal professor piggy laughed all the way home to his National Public Radio.
“…you love listening to this station, so why not do your part? With a generous donation of five dollars we can keep delivering the same high quality of content that you love, for an entire year. So call now, that number is 1-800-555-4585 and you’ll also receive…”
Ah, ahem, his colleagues at Cooley College could instill confidence in Doctor Jentz!
During closing time at the diner the customers sit, shackled to their seats. Mouths gagged, some, simply wide open, vacant of meals or expressions except latent fear. An entire table of friends slouches, face down in their dinner.
An elderly woman, with dentures like caterpillars and teeth like larvae, has a butter knife shoved into her bready side. She is slumped into the spilled remnants of chicken soup, still steaming. Her earthworm mouth is as agape as a quashed grape, drooling with chicken juice; although she isn’t dead, she isn’t moving.
Jukebox is flipped for fifty cents to The Duke.
A few protest against their constraints, pulling at long nails wedged deep into the bones of their hands and feet, driven into the wooden booths.
An old trucker named Gus with his hands tacked to the quartzite counter and feet bound to his swivel seat by rope, manages to wriggle his hands free. He falls with his chair clattering to the leftovers on the floor below.
A black boot, shaped like a talon foot, succinct and sure kicks Gus repeatedly in his Montany trucker capped head. Spine snaps straight as steel, it does. And he freezes, just like that, all jumbled up with the swivel chair in cardiac sweat. Looking pretty darned pitiful, that guy Gus.
A father of two children fights pathetically from the family favorite place by the windows. He crys with rage, with the windows raining, with forks dangling from each wetted cheek, with hail slapping the structure’s tin roof. One of the four feathered figures slaps his fork-imbedded cheeks, repeatedly, in much the same way as the rain against the window. Slap Slap Slap.
His children weep, blindfolded by black bandanas, yet they know, through sharp shrill sounds, that daddy dies to fight for them from his favorite seat, facing Highway 5. Together the children tremble, melding in their terrified heat, son and daughter, dreaming of big mama/mommy.
For the family’s check is lain upon the table. 22.50. The twain family almost made it, safe and sound to mama/mommy’s apartment two towns over.
It was the weekend.
Only the owner is free from such sitting restraints. He alone stands, screaming, “you fuc…” as another black bandana crams into his mouth, by big hands in black gloves with sharp metal for fingernails. The owner of Herb’s Diner, Herbie Dinkins, is in his cook outfit, greased white, reminiscent of a disorderly chef’s straightjacket. Herb’s arms and hands, being bound to his breastplate, blotch with blood seeping through his shirt, transfusing onto the black and white checkered tiles, and running in grouted rivulets.
Herb Dinkins squirms from side to side, neck held in the vulture vice of the tallest troublemaker. He has buttery rolls in his neck that are slippery, scabbed, and pimple marked. All the pimples are popped.
The smallest nailgunman shoots the finishing nails into Herb’s feet, shooting spikes through his non-slick shoes, splitting tiles below the fryer, as Herb’s scream splits the sound barrier in thickly, throaty bellows.
Two of the figures, dressed in plague doctor garb, keep the customers under control, never saying a word. To the father one goes, gliding across the tiles on talon boots, pointing his beaked mask in such close proximity that the father pees, percolating his pinstriped legs. He clenches at the nails binding his hands to the booth.
Through his beak the figure breathes.
The father finally quits the fight for and against himself. His eyes roll red into their eye sockets as his head rolls back onto the booth’s pillows, mouth as open as the old woman, shocked to sleep in her grave, who still isn’t moving. The scent smelt is similar to a salty flower. The forks in his chipmunk cheeks lift and lower their handles at every breath, vibrating as tuning forks.
Paterfamilias dozes. Up and down go the forks.
But the children were wide-eyed under their bandanas, and awake, crying, calling through sock mufflers, “daaah.”
Two boots clack Duke time on clean tiles. The children have been taught before to timidly curl up when the boots break out, rather than attempt to break out from underneath the booth (or bed).
The children are sheltered in gummy cocoons of fear.
Stockiest, in black-feathered coat with glassy eyes and long beak waits at the end of the table, surveying the diner’s menu, pecking at the image of potatoes & steak & onions & oh my!
Back behind the counter Herb’s head is slowly lowered to the fryer. Duck Oil pops and sizzles his pimply nose, burnt into a bright red rash like Rudolph. The last words Herb clearly utters through the gag, if they can be called words, are “ool pay for is,” which was an oft-made demand on surly customers refusing to pay the full extent of their bill.
Herb held his breathe as his nose was plunged into the bubbling vat of grease, again. For all the good that would do him. Herb’s face was turned into boiling fryer food.
The tallest of the four feather-coated men, dunks Herb’s head over and over, letting him swish and scream as the gag falls from his tongue. Air is not allowed to become a final factor for poor Herb, who really said once, yes Herb just really said he wants to cook burgers in back till THE END.
This time Herb said nothing. His mouth was sealed shut. But the tall beak-masked man did not stop when Herb ceased to speak. Tallest’s cruelty ends when Herbie Dinkins is dead, or almost. Lastly, the tallest allows his straightjacketed cook victim to fall across him, cranium cracking the counter with an extra nudge.
Herb, the owner, is dead. Soon the diner will be dead too. Herb didn't breathe or budge to stop it.
Only the children squirm now. Everyone else in Herb’s diner is incapacitated in pea soup or runny eggs.
Though the children cannot see the four figures, they know they are there; one with a nail gun, one picking up a black briefcase of beaver leather, the tallest wielding a staff, and the last, just the stockiest. They hear and smell them. A stench pours from their pinioned capes, coming closer, and closer, clasping about them.
Oh! Their breath!
Stocky held the children by their napes in each hand above the tabletop. They thrashed and kicked at air, for a while, trying to bite the black glove that bound them, but then, they fell silent, as the scent of salty flowers invaded their nostrils, like good kids in the garden.
The soon fatherless children slump asleep into talons that take them out of the diner, not towards mama, but into the sky.
Fifty feet above the torched building, engulfing itself with grease and timber, the kids kick awake. Their blindfolds rip away with great groaning gusts. They are flying, though their feet seem unsure of this newfound ability, fighting air as if it might miraculously coagulate particles into a countertop cloud.
Their pleading screams can scarcely utter a vowel. Being so young, they barely possess the vehement vocabulary to demonize or ostracize these four feathered freaks, that fly above, below, and all about them; nor could they define the term dsyology, in order to define these dream-induced mythologies of habitual human flight.
Like arrow points of astral projection moving at a mad rhythm, the four in black-feathered coats, coats that ripple with ripping wind flurries like loose flesh, and the two children, flew very fast.
This strange soaring venture is subconscious myth brought back to actuality on the wings of Vultures. All so Aviary and unnatural, but as aforementioned the children possess not the capacity to express what is on their blooming consciousnesses, no; so, they shriek, traveling up and up until Herb’s building below is shrouded in smoke, and the curvature of the earth overturns, like a dripping ladle of land, dipped into the vat of flat purple atmosphere. They flew with the four feathered-figures, praying that mama was making an airstrip.
Tallest spoke, “Silencio! Silence!” Then salty flowers.