Mark Twain in Milan
by Rob Hunter
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 Andreas?”
“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: Signore 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 has 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, Andreas. Literally, I’ll strip your face, rude name.”
“Oh. Rude name?”
“Uh-oh.” The two of us ran like hell. The trackwalkers’ boltholes 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. Passers-by 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, returned 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?”
“Sì. I watched myself disappear as Signore 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, do 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. Neither of us said a word for upwards of ten minutes. We went for coffee.
* * *
Copyright © 2011 by Rob Hunter