My escape from The Hall of Fun House Mirrors, a gallery of grotesqueries -- elongated this way, widened, with swallowing eyes and gaping maws that splintered into pixelated suggestions of almost-but-not-quite human forms another -- came not from what was said, but from what was not said.
Instead of a lifetime wandering in endless circles through distorted visions of what was "supposed" to be real, my escape enabled me to explore other rooms -- other passageways, but to what end I'm not sure I will ever know. To understand whatever can be understood is to trace back to where my journey began, at The Galaxy of Amusements Park, which was to mark the conclusion of my young adulthood that had been an apprenticeship to the serious business of actually becoming a person. I'd grown up with the legend that The Galaxy was the true gateway to life's possibilities, so I arrived full of youthful expectations.
A myriad of walkways led to the park's multiple entrances, each flanked by twin spires soaring many stories high. At night the spires blinked and glittered in a neon color show so bright not a single star could be seen. Day and night, people streamed toward the gates from widely dispersed parking areas marked A, B, C, all the way up to Z and then back to AA, BB… endlessly. The park was open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
The entrances to The Galaxy opened directly into an enormous amphitheater that engulfed the reverberating voices of thousands of people -- sometimes swelling from a hushed murmur to a roar like crowds at a championship match. The Magician stood center stage, a bigger-than-life image dominating the amphitheater. His eyes glistened in the floodlights like huge black coals.
Suddenly his arm swept the air, releasing a series of white birds as if they came from his sleeve. They ascended into the night like enormous snowflakes riding an updraft. His words whipped and snapped around us like bullets spraying from a gun.
"Welcome to my show!"
It lasted for hours -- exactly how long, I was too hypnotized to tell. The pacing was incessant: no pauses, interludes, no time-outs for extras to rearrange set pieces. A succession of animals glided across the vast stage with the characteristic rhythms of each species. The tiger's predatory crouch, the nervous yet graceful leaps of the gazelle. Not only beasts of the jungle, but creatures of the past and fantastic chimeras, like a giraffe with ostrich legs. And not just land animals: Brightly-colored fish swam languidly through the air. It was beyond holograms, beyond 3-D animation. It was real, yet could not possibly have been.
By the time the Magician had concluded his show, anything seemed possible…
Buzzing with amazement, the crowd filed out from the amphitheater to experience one of The Galaxy's most extraordinary events. The exit aisles fed us through portals that opened onto long, dizzyingly steep slides, down which we plummeted at incredible speeds to land on rubber pillows, light and fluffy as feathers.
The fun continued on the pillows, which bobbed up and down every time another spectator flew in from the slide. Laughing hysterically, we wobbled and tumbled on the billowing surface as we tried to get off. Once off the pillows I headed for the walk, amid the laughter and chitchat of my companions, all of us full of excitement as we crowded toward the entrance to the great Midway.
Just then a man emerged from a small alleyway to grab me by the elbow. His suit and tie contrasted with the gay informality of the park. Dark glasses masked his eyes. He led me to a high brick wall beside the pathway where he flashed a badge.
"We know you have information," he said in a mechanical yet vaguely familiar voice.
"About what?" I stammered, suddenly so flooded with guilt I was unable to look at him.
He fell silent. With eyes concealed behind dark lenses, it was impossible to read his emotions or get a sense of his intentions.
"A woman has been gravely wounded," he said at last.
"Will she be okay?"
"With a severe stab wound, only time will tell."
Another nerve-wracking interlude of silence.
"You know something about what happened," he finally said.
"But I don't even know what you're talking about!" My throat had become so dry I croaked.
"We'll see," he said. "But from now on you're a person of interest."
He slipped into the alley's darkness, vanishing like a shade. From that moment on I was ever watchful for the detective, always searching for his face in the passing crowd, or a glimpse somewhere ahead or behind. Sometimes I still catch myself looking over my shoulder.
I rejoined the throng heading toward the Midway. But after the detective I no longer felt a part of my original, happy-go-lucky crowd. I was among them, yes, but as a suspect separate at the same time. Yet, bursting onto the Midway so assaulted my senses that even the detective was pushed out of my mind. A stupendous esplanade stretched as far as the eye could see. Lined on either side was an endless series of sideshows and rides and restaurants of every nationality, pubs, seductive entrances to intriguing dens, all ablaze with blinking neon. An immense human kaleidoscope representing every race -- blacks, whites, browns, yellows, reds -- milled about dressed in a rainbow of colors -- blues, greens, yellows -- with white T-shirts featuring incredible renditions of the beasts from the magic show.
A cacophony assaulted my ears: excited conversations among the crowd; squeals and laughter to the left and right from high-speed rides that turned and whirled and spun in crazy circles; the shouts of barkers towering above us on incredibly high stilts as they paced before their shows; the ringing of bells when someone hit the top of the scale; the pop and rattle of guns at the shooting galleries; a conflagration of music, ranging from a plaintive calliope to the rhythmic beats of jazz from the open doors of nightclubs. The aroma of foods wafted from a legion of restaurants representing every nationality.
The strangely conflicting whir of events had made the hours seem short. Now the restaurants reminded me I was hungry. I joined up with my original group from the slide bounce to enter a restaurant where we were served trays laden with grilled meats, arrays of fresh vegetables, and a variety of salads, along with grape leaves and bowls of Middle Eastern dip.
While we gorged ourselves, slaking thirsts with glasses of wine, I looked up to see the Mime for the first time. She glided across the restaurant's stage so effortlessly, as if she was freed from gravity. Her slender body was sheathed in leotards, jet-black at the top and, after a striking diagonal slash, white below the waist, echoing the pure white of her face. Brilliant red lips, black outlined eyes, and a mop of curly black hair, atop which perched a small bowler.
Her movements were wonderfully rhythmic and graceful. Each gesture was more expressive than words, shading from joy to melancholy, gentleness to rage. At the end, as she began to turn full circle, I realized that the diagonal slash across her waist created a back of pure white, with her legs switching to black. When she began to spin in ever more rapid circles, like a figure skater culminating her act, it seemed that one instant she was totally black, the next totally white. A performance so hypnotizing that I yearned achingly for her to become part of my life.
After the Mime's performance I approached the stage, but she'd vanished behind the curtains. I turned to see that my group had disappeared into the night. I left the restaurant, alone among the crowd, which despite the lateness of the hour still thronged along the esplanade in a steady stream, part going in one direction, the rest going the other.
After several minutes moving with the flow of humanity, I became so overcome with fatigue that I nearly stumbled into the Magician. It was mind numbing to be the sole focus of those huge, coal-black eyes. Up close his aura was so much bigger than life that it engulfed me. He'd changed from the formal black tuxedo to a red barker's coat with gold buttons and epaulets. He gestured toward an entrance sign behind him, The Island of Sleep.
"Only twenty dollars for the night," he said, in a whisper. "You'll awake refreshed."
Exhausted and quite inebriated, I meekly followed him inside. He led me to a pastel-hued room featuring a large and inviting bed. Lace curtains billowed in a light breeze at the windows. The room flickered in candlelight.
Without bothering to undress, I fell full length onto the bed.
"Interesting, isn't it?"
I raised my head to look up hazily.
"How each of us feels so special. No one in the world is quite like us, with our own unique blend of moods and feelings, of qualities and talents."
The Magician moved to the candle, thumb and forefinger poised above the flame.
"Yet just a single event can alter our neural pathways -- an injury, a disease, a genetic defect inexplicably triggered -- and…
His thumb and forefinger snuffed the flame to plunge the room into darkness.
"Pleasant dreams," he said.
During the night I grew restless, continuously exiting and reentering sleep. As my eyes became adjusted to the dark, I traced the subtle gradations of light and shadow that etched torturous patterns across the ceiling and up and down the walls. Gradually dreams unfolded on that ceiling in a strangely real three-dimensionality, hauntingly reminiscent of the Magic Show…
I wandered endlessly in long hospital corridors, passing wards for unspeakable diseases. Lining the corridors were stretcher beds with rumpled sheets and dried blood. Increasingly frantic, I searched for an exit but all the doors were locked shut. I discovered that the only exit led directly through the ward for spastic, crippled amputees. With a deep breath I opened the door to enter a maze of blue sheets, stretcher beds; lurching, jerking bodies. I couldn't see the doctors in the dimness, but I heard the moaning and the grinding of saws against bone. Severed arms and legs were piled high near the entrance.
Lurching bodies pulled at me with quivering stumps. I rushed past them, but the continuous bumping of stumps against my sides began to slow me until it seemed I would never reach the pulsating, yellow exit light. I was so overcome by fatigue, I collapsed into a nest of writhing bodies to be clasped so tightly by quivering stumps that, covered with a slime of blood and mucus, I lost myself to them in my adult body of that night, yet, at the same time -- in the upside-down reality of nightmare time warp -- I was only a tiny child.
Sunlight filtering through the curtains the next morning awakened me to a terrible hangover. As I lay in the twisted sheets and sweat-soaked mattress, I wondered if the writhing grotesques had actually visited me in this bed. Was the thin coating on my skin the residue of their mucus? I got up to a pervading sense of guilt. When I exited The Island of Sleep, as if on cue, the detective was in my face.
"Ready to talk now?"
"About what?" I gasped, blinking furiously in the bright sunlight. "I don't know anything more than yesterday," I said, praying my guilt from last night's orgy didn't show on my face.
"Yesterday? Surely you mean last week."
I stared at him, astonished.
He stepped closer to peer ominously in my face.
"You still don't get it? The ward for spastic crippled amputees is where the murder took place."
Reeling from shock, I shoved him away to rush up the esplanade, frantically looking back. So I was there! He stood, looking after me, hands in pockets, chewing on a toothpick, his body shaking with sardonic laughter. Like a steadily flowing river, the crowd carried me away until he was lost to view. But I knew escape was impossible. At some point he'd pop up again like a real life jack-in-the box. Anxiety became my companion, a flat line, steady state that spiked violently whenever a sight or sound reminded me of the writhing grotesques.
I mingled with the crowd, seeking safety in numbers, until we came to a shopping district. We gazed through windows filled with wondrous displays of merchandise: clothes, shoes, sports and camping equipment, games of all kinds. Food courts lined the walkway, interspersed with small crowds watching a variety of street performers.
I was thrilled to see the Mime at the center of the largest crowd. Even at midday her movements were magical and hypnotic. Hungering for her presence, I joined the group. Her dark eyes lighted on mine like a pair of gentle birds, not to leave for the remainder of her performance. It was if she performed only for me, and my anxieties faded under her spell. But after the show she vanished into the crowd before I could reach out to her -- as if she were a mist flowing through my beseeching fingers.
I rejoined my group as it entered The Nations of the World, Sciences, and the Arts. I became so engrossed that the detective drifted from mind. As the sun declined into late afternoon, I became acutely aware of my hunger for food and for a relationship with one of the lovely women who passed by me in the crowds.
A voice pierced my consciousness as if the speaker sensed my hunger.
"I have just what you want!"
I turned to look into the Magician's eyes, so close I saw the network of veins in the white. He'd come to the very edge of my space, this time as a different barker, hair cut short in the contemporary manner, open collar sport shirt, Dockside slacks, an engaging smile. But the eyes were still black and hard as lumps of coal, so big -- close as he was -- it felt like I was falling into them.
He motioned to the entrance behind him, The Arcade of Mystery and Intrigue. A steady stream of patrons filed in and out of the entrance, including some of the beautiful women I'd noticed during the day. The Magician took me gently by the elbow.
"I'll show you around."
He led me to a restaurant filled with the excited voices and laughter of young professionals. He pushed me to an open spot at the bar, then disappeared into the crowd somewhere behind me. After ordering a vodka and tonic, I turned to look into the intelligent green eyes of a willowy redhead sitting right next to me. Her lips parted in a friendly smile.
When I asked if she'd like to have dinner and go dancing, she nodded enthusiastically. We both stood. I was falling for her, and sensed that she felt something too. But just before we left for dinner, the detective reappeared.
"Enjoying yourself?" he asked, shuttling the ever-present toothpick around his mouth.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my treasured new companion studying me through narrowed eyelids.
"I have all the patience in the world," the detective said ominously. "Sooner or later you'll talk." At that he turned and, with a polite nod to my companion, sauntered away.
"A little matter," I mumbled.
"I know what he was," she said.
"Shall we go?" I asked hopefully.
She frowned at her watch.
"It's later than I thought. We'd better take a rain check."
There was nothing to be done about rain checks. She'd left no number, no way of ever getting in touch with her. I lingered, slowly sinking into despair. Then I returned to my spot at the bar to seek solace in another vodka, and another and another, until the bar became a blur. If only the detective hadn't returned to hang the yoke of guilt around my neck, I'd still be entering a relationship with a beautiful woman. Instead, I was left to an alcoholic haze through which I watched the receding shapes of now unapproachable women as they came and went.
"Come with me," the Magician whispered in my ear. He helped me from the chair and led me outside, motioning for me to follow him past the brightly colored lights of nightclubs and the beckoning menus posted at the door of one fine restaurant after another. Despite the hour we passed still more eye-catching women, until they too were left behind.
I followed him down ever darker passageways lined with increasingly cheaper, gaudier nightclubs filled with loud music and raucous laughter. The lights became dimmer and the music more savage the farther we walked. We came to a succession of doors where, with lewd gestures, barkers invited each passerby to enjoy pleasure with the women of the night.
He pushed me toward The Den of Indulgence.
"They'll welcome you here," he said. "You'll quickly forget whatever you think you lost during your sleep."
I stumbled into a den of blandishments and welcoming arms, of moist lips and lingering sighs. It wasn't until much later that I wondered how he'd known about my nightmare. But by then it was too late to question the wisdom of following his lead. Instead I surrendered to the entangling arms and legs of the women of the night. Countless days I stumbled through a numbing haze of alcohol and self-indulgence. As all things in The Galaxy, time passed much faster than I realized, until one day I awoke to the stunning realization that I'd been in The Den of Indulgence for many years.
Not long afterward, the Magician reappeared to inform me that my debts to The Den had become so substantial I would have to spend the rest of my life working there to pay them off. I harbored a vain hope that with extreme effort I could pay off my debts ahead of schedule and depart for a saner world. But in the days ahead, no sooner had I made a payment than my continued debauchery added the same amount back to the total, trapping me in a vicious cycle that promised to keep me there forever.
But late one night I was awakened by gentle fingers touching my lips like the wings of a butterfly fluttering through this barren land. I edged away from my slumbering companion to see the visage of my Mime hovering in the night shadows above me. She motioned for me to rise and dress, all the while urging me to utter silence while she slipped my night companion's clothes over her black-and-white leotards, magically taking on the woman's appearance.
As we slipped from the room her scheme became clear. The Magician immediately looked up from the front desk as we passed, but the Mime's extraordinary mimicry made the illusion so complete that even he was deceived, and he returned to his reading with a cynical smile.
The Mime led me back through the dark, winding alleyways of night women to the main thoroughfare of The Arcade of Mystery and Intrigue, and then out to the bright lights of the grand esplanade, where once again I experienced the release of flowing within the great crowds. But my ecstasy was short lived. The Mime grasped my hand with such urgency that I instinctively looked back to see the Magician not far behind us, knifing through the crowd like a shark fin through water. The Mime wove our path through the crowd with equal speed, but it was obvious we couldn't outrun the Magician.
Suddenly the Mime pulled me into The Hall of Fun House Mirrors. We entered a dizzying kaleidoscope of elongated, shrunken, fattened, narrowed, distorted, and contorted images. I was so visually bombarded that I stumbled about like a blind man, set back on my course again and again by the Mime's hand. She pushed me onto a platform and helped me into a funhouse car.
The car jolted forward to twist and turn through the most distorted of the images, quickly leaving the Mime far behind. I sped through the richest spectrum of colors I'd ever seen. But to my horror a sudden series of mirrors flickered up, like defective frames of a film, to reveal the Mime rising up before the Magician to sacrifice her body so I could escape.
My car sped on toward a giant mirror that caught the image of the Magician as he grabbed the Mime by the hair to toss her about like a rag doll. Her head dangled loosely as if he'd already broken her neck. Suddenly my car plunged into a pitch-black tunnel where my only sensations were the clack of wheels along the tracks, and the jolts and surges as the car rose, fell, and careened around sudden curves.
With a crash my car broke through a set of doors to pass onto a perilously narrow bridge spanning a steamy swamp. Far below, the water roiled with the horny backs and gaping jaws of jagged-toothed crocodiles. I clutched the sides of my little car in utter terror. But the parallel trestle held an even more horrible sight. The Magician stood astride the tracks, holding the limp body of my Mime with one hand.
I cried out as he suspended her by the hair above the abyss. With the other hand he raised a massive machete, and with a vicious slash, he severed her body along the diagonal line separating her white from the black. In a spray of blood, her lower half plunged to the water, setting off a frenzy of feeding among the crocodiles. As if dropping an orange peel, he let her top half fall to the same fate.
My car jolted through the exit doors to close on the last view of my dismembered protector, until she was only surface turbulence on the waters of a crocodile-infested swamp. My car rocketed down a narrow passage then abruptly stopped at an exit platform. I struggled to stand up on legs trembling with fear, horror, and rage. But strong hands grasped my arms, and I looked up into the detective's mocking, coal-black eyes. He abruptly snapped handcuffs on my wrists to pull me from the car.
The detective took me to the Judicial Center, where I was remanded to a holding cell. At first I paced around the few narrow feet of the cell, trembling with fear and anxiety, with each step grieving over the mutilated body of my beloved Mime. Finally, overcome by fatigue, I lay down on the Spartan bunk to await the confrontation with the crime hidden in my guilt-ridden past. Gradually, I drifted into a fitful sleep.
My slumber was invaded by two guards grasping me by the arms. I was dragged to a courtroom, where I stood in a queue of awaiting cases. Spectators were crowded in the shadows behind me like hushed cabbage heads. When my name was called, I walked haltingly toward a panel of twelve hooded judges, who sat in semidarkness, their faces made into black holes by the shadows.
A voice issued from the Chief Justice's hood: harsh, mechanical, almost robotic.
"You are being tried for murder."
I staggered back, arm raised over my face.
"You were present when the deed was done."
"But I didn't do it," I bleated like a baby goat.
"Once the crime is committed," the judge continued as if I hadn't spoken, "it can never be undone. Therefore, you are sentenced to life imprisonment without pardon."
He banged his gavel, and I was led away for a crime I had no memory of committing. Yet always this transcendental feeling of guilt. I was to live out my life in a cement cell in a long, gray hallway of identical cubicles, where time passed senselessly amid the stink of dried urine and unwashed armpits. At night the clank of chains echoed in the darkness, punctuated with moans of despair. I don't know how long I lay there, but my solitude was interrupted one night -- in that space between asleep and awake -- when something sparked within me, triggered, it seemed, by a sudden wind drifting through cracks in the prison walls. I sat up to see my cell door standing wide open. My Mime filled the space like a patina superimposed over the shadows of the night. She motioned me to arise and follow her. She led me through a bewildering labyrinth of interconnecting hallways until we came to a locked door, which she opened effortlessly to reveal a pathway leading into a vast forest.
Before disappearing into the forest, I turned to see my Mime waving farewell from the doorway. But how could that be? As I followed the pathway toward my new beginning, I realized that the Mime -- like the Magician -- can never be defeated. As I have stumbled through a lifetime of gateways ever since, choosing this way one time, that way the next, their warring tides have ebbed and flowed throughout my life, leaving me to navigate the treacherous waters in between. And just when I seemed to have parsed reality from illusion, in the darkening night I'm visited by dreams that go on to haunt the daylight. And I'm left to ponder -- what is it about dreams that lingers? The bizarre unreality of what had flitted through my mind while asleep continues when I awake like a stone dropped into a seemingly bottomless well until -- just when I think my dream has passed beyond all understanding -- it splashes faintly.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Ron Torrence. All rights reserved.