TO DULL THE NICE REMEMBRANCE OF MY HOME
I once asked Grandfather why the hell the Tunnels ended up looking like a set from The Dark Crystal populated by the cast of Les Miserables. He replied, "Can you think of any reason why it shouldn't have?"
I couldn't. I really couldn't. Nor could I deny that the Tunnels made storybook fantasies real. Every time I stepped through one of its secret entrances, I felt both excitement and a sense of peace. I tried to remember all of the city's loud and dirty charms, but they were washed away by the promises of Below. Neon softened into candlelight. The might of skyscrapers was forgotten in the warmth of the Library. The wind and the tapping of pipes succeeded noisy streets. Above was a tumult of colors painted on a canvas of gray concrete. Below was filled with soothing shades of gold and yellow.
And people Below actually gave a shit about each other, which is more than I can say about most of you folks Above, thank you very much.
I left Knucklebones, stoned, sticky under my pants, ears ringing. When I stepped into the Tunnels and closed the secret entrance behind me, the haziness in my head cleared. The echo of my footsteps seemed to restore my hearing. I forgot about red hair and black leather. I even forgot about the inevitable pissing match waiting for me.
"Hey, Jamie," I called out loud as I walked through the tunnels. I received no reply. Jamie probably wasn't watching the tunnels at that time. It was after midnight -- time for other eyes and other Protectors. However, with my experience, it's better to assume that Jamie is watching, ready to fire an arrow into any ass that gets out of line.
I eventually reached a staircase which would have fallen apart a long time ago but for the care of those Below. After I walked down its steps into the Lower Tunnels, I heard new sounds along with my footsteps, the currents of air, and the seemingly random notes floating in the pipes; there was a clicking, a clanking, a whirring.
After a couple of turns on my path, I peeked into a cave. A man in his late thirties was working on...something. It was a large metal block with several moving screws. A pipe sticking from one side would occasionally cough smoke. The man was intently examining the thing's insides with a wrench in his hands. He was having an unspoken conversation only he, the machine and God could understand.
"Hey, Mouse," I said.
The man looked up with a face streaked with grease and soot. He appeared very serious for a moment, then a chipper expression emerged from his features. The latter expression reminded me of the younger man who had given me toys that sometimes did wonderful things, sometimes simply blew up.
"Hello, Jacob," Mouse said. "You're back early."
"Actually it's past midnight."
"Oh. Really? Interesting."
"What are you working on there?"
He looked down at the machine (?) with the intensity returning to his face. "I'm not sure," he said. He tilted his face back toward me and became my goofy childhood companion again. "But I'll let you know when I figure it out."
"Thanks. By the way, that wire you made me is perfect."
"It's strong enough? Did the plastic coating keep your skin from burning?"
"Yep on both counts. And it folds up nicely." I patted my jacket. "I just used it for a little job."
"Great!" The frown abruptly returned. "Did you use the cutter?"
"Uh, no. This situation didn't really call for..."
He pointed his wrench at me. "Use the cutter. Don't make such a mess."
"All right. I will."
His frown left as quickly as it had come. Mouse nodded with satisfaction and resumed his noisy dialogue with the contraption. I left him hammering and twisting in the cave. He had learned how to speak in full sentences without referring to him in the third person, but he was still an odd, brilliant inventor.
I met a lot of people who still hadn't gone to bed yet -- Memory Guardians with their dusty books; Life Givers contemplating their gardens and thinking up new ways to nourish soil in the darkness of the underworld; Builders creating new rooms for new children; Pascal sitting in the Pipe Chamber, never missing a word said through the city's metal skeleton. I nodded to some of them, talked briefly with others, stopped to share a joke. I wondered why I kept leaving these wonderful people to see bands like Psychocharger.
Then I came near my father's chambers. I heard the sound of classical music; Franz Schubert; Winter Songs. That meant Father was in a bad mood.
"Let the pissing match begin," I muttered to myself. I could have avoided his chambers and headed straight for my own. However, I would have hated myself for chickening out, and I couldn't have avoided the man forever. It was a small underworld.
I entered his chambers. Father was sitting in a chair with his back turned to me. He leaned to one side, an elbow placed on a chair arm, his fingertips pressed tightly against one cheek. A record spinning on a gramophone provided the Schubert.
That's right -- a gramophone. My father, the Luddite. I once told him, "Let me get you a stereo, a Walkman, anything like that. Then you can listen to your boring music all you want." He told me that "such machines only speak of the distances between ourselves" or "a musical note should be like a breeze, touching upon you once and then known only to memory" or some such crap.
Mouse and I provided a compromise. He built an old-time gramophone, and I scrounged up some vinyl records. I figured that would appeal to the reactionary, er, romantic in my father. And, whaddaya know, my father took a weird pleasure in winding up the crank and listening to that scratchy sound crawling out of the phone.
My gift wasn't making him happy now. He still wouldn't look at me, even though he had heard my footsteps from a mile away.
"If you want to say something," I said, "better say it now before that music puts me to sleep."
And he said, "You smell of the city."
"That's where I've..."
"You smell of intoxicants and tawdry sex."
"Wish you had been able to feel them as well?"
Father leaned forward and shifted his hands to his knees. "Not in the slightest," he told me, his voice as ever both rumbling and soft.
"That's a shame. 'Cause that lady had some primo..."
"You also smell of blood."
"I had a little confrontation tonight."
"In an apartment over at Murray Hill. Some jerk was..."
He jumped to his feet, turned and roared, "You went into somebody's home to commit violence!"
I took a step back. When my father is angry with you, you can't not take at least one step back. How else can you react to that lion's face, that imposing height, those tense clawed hands, that thunderous voice, and those eyes, those eyes like a well full of blood?
One step back was all I took, though. "Violence was already there," I retorted. "If I hadn't intervened, someone would have died."
"Are you saying that you killed no one?"
"Never have. How about you?"
Father closed his mouth and took two deep breaths through his nostrils. His rage lessened until he became the Father Who Annoyed Me rather than the Father Who Scared Me.
"Tell me what happened," he demanded.
I did. After I finished my story of the Eastlands, he said what I had expected him to say. "You should have tried a different way."
"Funny. The way I chose worked just fine."
"And you expect someone not to notice a young man crashing through windows?"
"That whole neighborhood somehow failed to 'notice' Harry Eastland's temper. Besides, even if a cop does get suspicious, Joe will take care of it."
"There is a limit to his power, as there is a limit to yours."
"I know my limits."
"Then you have already achieved more wisdom about yourself than most men do in a lifetime."
"You said it. I didn't."
Father sighed and returned to his chair. He rubbed his knuckles against his forehead. "Son," he said, "you not only have a responsibility to protect yourself, but this community. These...dramatic actions of yours risk exposing the Tunnels."
I laughed. "'Dramatic actions?' Father, your whole life has been a dramatic action."
Father let his hand droop to his side and turned partway towards me. "I know my life. And I know there is more of my soul in you than you would like to admit."
"No," I said firmly. "There is nothing of you in me. As there is nothing of me in you. Not any more. I thought we agreed that was for the best."
"Did we, Jacob?"
"I remember the discussion clearly."
Father sighed again. He was a master of sighs, able to load a simple expulsion of breath with sadness, pity, regret. "If your mother could see us, she would..."
"And now you've reached your argument of last resort."
If Father was good with sighs, he was even better with growls. He made one in his throat -- a small sound for him, a big one for a normal man.
I backed up another step. No more than that.
Then he became quiet again. I stood my ground, waiting for more.
There was no more. He just sat in his chair, listening to the baritone sing "Als noch die Sturme tobten, war ich so elend nicht" -- when the storms still howled, I was not so miserable.
I left his chambers. I had been reasonably calm during the confrontation. Snotty and sarcastic, yes. But I hadn't shouted and growled. After I left Father, though, my own anger exceeded my control. How dare he, I thought, how dare he get on my case for righting a wrong, how dare he accuse me of being violent, how dare he invoke the ghost of my mother, a woman I had never even met...
I kicked a footstool off a stone balcony. It crashed on some spot I couldn't see.
A voice politely said, "I hope you're feeling better. If that had landed on me, I certainly would be feeling worse."
I ran to the edge of the balcony and saw Grandfather sitting in his chambers with a cup of tea and a book. He looked at me with an expression perfectly balanced between sternness and indulgence.
I stammered, "Oh, sorry, Grandfather, I, I just, I didn't..." I gritted my teeth. "Doesn't anybody sleep here anymore?"
"Not tonight, apparently. Did you just speak with Vincent?"
I said nothing. Grandfather examined my red face and motioned for me to come down. I did and dropped my butt on a chair next to his. He stood, got a second cup from a shelf and held it up as a question. I nodded. He poured me some tea from a kettle set on the table, then seated himself back on his chair.
"Did you take care of the Eastland problem?" he asked as I sipped the warm ginger tea. I didn't ask how he knew about that. There wasn't much news passing along the pipes and the Helpers that eluded the man others called Father.
I nodded, then said, "Then you agree that it needed taking care of."
"Why do you say that?"
"You called it a problem. What else do you do with a problem except solve it?"
"There are many, many problems in the world. We can't handle them all by ourselves, nor do we always know the proper solutions."
"My solution was nice and proper, I guarantee it."
Grandfather scratched his mustache -- another familiar detail from my childhood, one that had become grayer over time just as my Father's hair had. "May I ask you a personal question, Jacob?" he asked.
"Why the hell do you keep coming back here?"
I blinked. A 'hell' from Grandfather was worth a slew of profanities from Al Pacino. I found myself stammering again. "Wh-what do you...I don't understand..."
"You keep coming back to the Tunnels, even though you clearly regard our lifestyle as 'candy-ass.'"
I made a face as if I had tasted a sour fruit. "I don't think you or anyone else down here is...candy-ass."
"Too sentimental, perhaps. You prefer the earthier pleasures you can find Above."
"Look, there's...there's things I want which I can only find Above. And there are things I want which I can only find here with you. Who says that I can't have both of them?"
"I'm not saying you can't. I just want to make sure you do want both of them."
"Including your father's love?"
I paused, then said, "Won't I always have that?"
"You don't have the Bond."
I stamped the cup onto the table. "I wish people would stop harping on the friggin' Bond. It's gone. I don't know why it's gone, it just is. I remember when Father felt my joy and I felt his. When he was in pain, I was in pain and so on. I remember falling down the damn shaft and breaking my leg..."
"I remember that as well."
"...and he came running for me just like that. Okay, nice thing to have in that case, but I'm not a boy anymore, I can take of myself, I don't need the Bond, I don't want it."
Grandfather absorbed this tirade, then said, "You understand...you understood this connection better than I did, so I'll take your word for it. However, as close as I am to Vincent, I never had the degree of intimacy that he had with you. I have loved women and they have loved me, but when I think of Vincent and Ca..."
He stopped himself, then said, "Perhaps I have wandered off-topic."
"It's your domain, Grandfather. Everything here is on-topic for you."
"It is your domain as well. And you must remember that your escapades, however heroic, risk exposing us."
I sighed and looked at the ceiling. "Please. I already got this lecture from Father."
"Did you? That's unusual."
I lowered my head toward Grandfather. "What's unusual?"
"I broached this topic with him before. His only words were 'Jacob must fight the battles which summon him.'"
"He really said that?"
"Don't mistake it for permission. I'm more worried that...he may not care."
I bit into my lower lip. When I finally withdrew my teeth, I said in an even voice, "Then why did he just chew me out over my 'escapades?'"
"Something else is bothering him. I guess you haven't heard about it."
"Diana has returned to the city"