Roy Kesey – “Wait” (2006: The Kenyon Review)

Summary

A Canadian accountant sits patiently at lounge 19A in Wing D of Terminal 4.  He shyly takes note of a beautiful Ghanaian woman.  They are but two of many passengers who sit or stand or pace and wait for the fog to lift.  Hours stretch and airline personnel make assurances and serve crackers and purple tea.  A Bulgarian poet intermittently sleeps and quizzes the Canadian accountant from his crossword puzzle, children play games, and surrounding restaurants run steadily lower on cheese and coffee creamer.  Passengers complain at the gate, airline personnel placate and offer more tea, a Honduran woman watches the local news.  Night falls and pillows and blankets are distributed as some locals go home and others search for hotels.  

The next morning all gather to watch the TV; a cholera epidemic is sweeping through the city. The fog remains, airline personnel discourage passengers from leaving the terminal, and outside soldiers circle the tarmac. Hours pass, there is an enormous crash, and the power goes out; a meteor has struck the airport, but Terminal 4 remains intact. Passenger subgroups elect delegates, who appoint judges for an Olympiad, and for two days passengers compete in volleyball, tennis, synchronized walking, carpet polo, stroller bobsledding, boxing, and a beauty pageant.  Chocolate medals are distributed, and passengers slip into post-Olympic malaise. No functioning toilets remain. The accountant and the Ghana woman exchage gossip, but do not discuss their respective ex-spouses: warlord currently closing in, librarian currently dating a podiatrist. Airline personnel offer more purple tea; they have run out of crackers.

The following morning, the Cubans incite what passengers they can to rebellion; they will kill the soldiers and fly the plane themselves. The Canadian accountant and the girl from Ghana behold the battle from the lounge window. They hear the jets, then a crash. Airline personnel are happy to report that the rebels stole the wrong plane, that the remaining passengers’ flight should depart momentarily, when the fog lifts and the electricity returns and quarantine ends and the control tower is rebuilt. Restaurants are out of everything, passengers commence to fight amongst themselves, soldiers counterattack, and soon all are killed but the Canadian accountant, the woman from Ghana, and a small Mongolian boy.  A giant air balloon smacks against the window, and the three climb on it as a furious warlord paces into the Terminal with machine guns and machetes.  The three survivors rise gracefully into the wind amidst the gunfire.    

Excerpt (Accompanied by Kathleen Martin’s Cantique de Noel)

A young Bolivian woman gives birth in the bookstore, the manager himself delivering, while in a restroom an old Kazakh man is bitten by a tiny blue snake–a species of viper says one local, a species of adder says another. The viper or adder escapes through a crack in the tile; the Kazakh dies and is buried in a planter…

All of the women in the lounge begin menstruating simultaneously; a tampon is worth a bottle of champagne, then two bottles, then a case. The men of each subgroup huddle, discuss suicide. The cold has gone treacherous, and as darkness at last descends, all extra seats are destroyed for fuel. The bookstore is dismembered for kindling, the manager at first resisting, then remembering his insurance and standing aside. Each fire is tended gently, but in the morning there are new claims of theft–missing Marlboros, missing Kents.

The delegates meet desperately; the Belgian suggests a spelling bee and is beaten senseless. The girl from Ghana tells the Canadian that things will soon go bad, that she has been in similar situations, and always things go bad. She asks if he has any skills that might be useful.

“I’m a whiz at analyzing debenture impact on leverage.”

“Anything else?”

“I’ve been known to make adequate preparations for balloon maturity.”

Just then, on the far side of the wing, the Greek defeats the Turk at ticktacktoe, announces that the Cyprus question has been reopened. The Turk pushes the Greek. The Greek pushes the Turk. Sides are drawn up, only two of them now, and there is punching and kickboxing and tae kwon do, there is pinching and biting and scratching, the soldiers kick down the boarding-gate door, are attacked by passengers bearing burning armrests and broken bottles of Moet et Chandon, the girl from Ghana drags the accountant into a corner and lays herself across him, there is automatic weapons fire and jolt of grenades, shouting and screams and then silence.

Hannah – “The Red Telephone”

Summary

Three years have passed since Japanese planes struck Pearl Harbor.  Nondescript government officials–some in starched uniforms, some in three-piece suits which are another kind of uniform, and one, a secretary, in rayon stockings–gather in a Washington conference room.  The room, like the officials, is nondescript, except for the dark walnut table and its centerpiece; a red telephone.  The officials have narrowed their selections to two alternate courses of action, and these they circulate in folders and discuss.

Meanwhile, two men wait at their desks.  

The Colonel is a pilot, prone to quick movement and dry speech; he drums his fingers and watches the clock.  To him, the clock is ticking louder than the whirring jet engines and incessant barking from the flight hangar to which his office is adjacent. They escorted Little Man onto his plane this morning, and since then the guard dog has barked.  The Colonel drums his fingers more quickly, waiting.  They have installed a new telephone in his office; it is red.

The Science Espionage Operative does not drum his fingers; it is an annoying habit.  He grinds his teeth instead.  His desk is two hundred miles from the Colonels and his office is larger because it is communal.  The team has shared it, and the lab, since project “Who, Me?” began. The lab is stocked with vials, all foul smelling, horribly, awfully foul-smelling, and also precious.  The team is uncharacteristically quiet, anxiety is in the air, another smell.  The Operative admires his secret love, a dark-haired French woman, who chats with other lab techs.  None of them look at the tank frothing with SAC-23, a compound they have dubbed ‘US Government Standard Bathroom Malodor.’  The last two years have been dedicated to its creation, but now that it is ready no one looks.  Similarly, they do not look at the Operatives desk, upon which sits a newly installed red telephone.

It has been two or three hours, and most of the officials are in accord. Not all of them, but it is enough.  The secretary types the final memo, one official signs while another reaches across the dark walnut table, to the red telephone, and makes the call.

Excerpt (Accompanied by Dana Boule’s Sad French Accordion)

The Operative speculates how many projects were funded, and how many men are waiting now, like him, by their phones.  His team has met their objective, exceeded it even.  The compound, lining the walls in clear plastic capsules, is ready for Chinese Resistance distribution.  The capsules are small, pressure-sensitive and inconspicuous.  Range is ten feet, no backfire.  Activation silent.  ‘US Government Standard Bathroom Malodor’ is rainproof, soap-proof, solvent proof.  And revolting, like a very loose bowel movement.  It hits first with a sweet note, encourages a deeper inhale, then spikes of sulfur, of onions.  The nasal memory is gag-inducing.  To discourage this train of thought, he studies the French woman, sees that she is preoccupied, smiles wanly at her.

The Operative is a man of science, not psychology, and does not see why the phone must be red.  (As if he might otherwise lose it on his desk, beneath notebooks and papers!)  He suspects the French woman knows why; she is the insight on the team.  She is the one to postulate that their compound, SAC-23, will be more effective on the Japanese than the Germans.  “Zee German,” she says, “I mean zee German soldier, he will make light of zuch things.  You see, zee German uses civility to mask beastliness.  But zee Japanese, he is humiliated by zuch zings.  Zee Japanese uses civility to mask shame.”  She speaks with unquestioned authority, the team’s’ lone European.  The Operative imagines her beside him in an outdoor cafe with a cigarette and a coffee.  “Zey are ashamed of everything,” she sighs.  

Casey -“Where Silent is the Sun”

SUMMARY

For twenty years, the USS Dolphin had been charged with the task of intercepting slave-ships in the West Indies, the East Indies, and the Barbary Coast. In 1859, it embarked upon its final voyage, a scientific expedition to sound the depths of the Atlantic ocean.

The expedition was led by Matthew Fontaine Maury and Giovanni Cantelli. Maury, a former naval officer from Virginia, had been gravely injured in a skirmish with pirates. Crippled in body but fortified in spirit, Maury decided to explore those regions of the ocean that no living man had visited. He would make a map of the ocean floor. Cantelli was an Italian physicist, the inventor of a device that transformed images into audio-frequency tones which could then be sent across telephone lines. His interest in building a transatlantic line of communication had incited him to join Maury’s expedition. He was also a gifted musician. It was Cantelli’s idea to sound the ocean depths with piano wire, instead of rope; the piano wire fell straighter and more quickly, and when dropped into a choppy sea, it produced a resonant humming noise not unpleasant to the ear.

One morning, when the ship was about hundred leagues south of the Azores and far from any coast, the falling wire stopped abruptly. Further measurements of the vicinity confirmed that the ocean floor lay on average nearly six hundred fathoms below them, with the exception of an area some 15 yards in diameter, where the waters were only a little more than two fathoms deep. The shallow region formed a perfect circle, and as perfect circles do not exist in nature, Cantelli and Maury were lowered down in a diving bell in order to investigate.And so it was that on August 10, 1859, they became the first men in twelve thousand years to enter the Tower of Oricalum, from whose heights a vanished civilization saw lights from Stars that have long since burnt out.

Subsequent attempts to relocate the tower have proved fruitless. Some say it is cursed. The Dolphin returned safely to Norfolk, but a year later, Union troops set it ablaze so that it would not fall into Confederate hands. Cantelli’s communication device failed, and died in relative obscurity in his native Florence. Today he is remembered as the inventor of the fax machine. Maury completed and published his map, the world’s first map of Oceanic Bathymetry.  Maury’s map charts the depths of the area south of the Azores, but makes no reference to any shallow circle. Perhaps he wanted to protect the tower; perhaps he wanted to forget it. One of his great-nephews would later recall that, in the weeks before his death, old uncle Maury would mutter incoherently about the towers of Atlantis.

EXCERPT

The diving bell was lowered until it floated just above the hard smooth surface of the circle, scattering a school of halibut in a burst of bluish silver. It was a cloudy day, even at this shallow depth the light was dim. From the glass windows of the diving bell, at first Maury and Cantelli could only made out a green circle around them, pale, almost flourescent against the darkness of the surrounding deeps, a sunken garden floating over the black abyss. Algae and barnacles covered the surface of the circle. By repeatedly extending and retracting one of the legs of the diving bell, they were able to scrape the algae away, revealing a geometric pattern, “like a map of whirlpools,” said Maury. “Or like  a net of interlocking suns,” said Cantelli; “mi ripigneva là dove ’l sol tace. “Against me coming, pushed me, step by step/ Back to the place where silent is the sun,” echoed Maury.

As their eyes accustomed to the dim green light, Maury and Cantelli gradually discerned the outline of a circular wall, the interior of which was regularly adorned with large purplish rings of some unknown metal. From these rings, bolted to the wall, hung chains of the same metal. The rings showed no signs of rust or decay. Cursed, or miraculously preserved from the passage of time, the violet-colored chains repelled the abundant sea life that bubbled and flit around it. “We have come to a prison,” said Maury, “or to their place of exile. Men were chained to these walls.”

An irregular protuberance rose up from the middle of the circle. As the diving bell approached the center, they made out the outline of the form: the same purplish metal a triangular shape with another, inverted triangle atop it: an hourglass, said Maury. A woman, said Cantelli, and then the clouds broke, rays of sunlight illuminated the circle with a brilliant green light, and through the window of the diving bell they saw with atrocious clarity a leering and sadistic face, eyes aglow, mouth sharp-toothed and smiling, smiling, always smiling, eternally victorious.

Luigi Matta and Alberto Manguel -Il tunnel sottomarino (1927)

On May 12, 1924, the Atlantic underwater railway tunnel was inaugurated, and the first transatlantic train departed from the Point de Saint-Mathieu, bound for New York City.

The Tunnel was designed by the French engineer Adrien Geant, who conceived of the idea while watching a group of children playing with a bamboo cane. The tunnel was built using steel ropes to lower a series of tubes down upon the ocean floor. The tubes were lined with cement and united to each other by iron bolts covered with rubber so that any leakage could be avoided. The tubes were closed at one end only; the open end was connected to the previous segment and pumps used to remove the water. Once the section was completed, the workers inside demolished the metal cap that closed the end of the previous segment, and so the tunnel proceeded. As the first group of workers extended the tunnel along the ocean floor, other workers spread a strong iron net above it to protect it from possible shipwrecked vessels that might sink down upon it and damage it.

On the day of the inauguration, shortly after the departure of the world’s first underwater train, an explosion shook the tunnel, and most of Geant’s work was destroyed. The train remained trapped under water, but luckily at a point relatively near the coast, where the ocean was more shallow. The passengers managed to save themselves by putting on diver’s helmets and walking back to Europe. During their long march home, they stumbled upon the ruins of Atlanteja, one of the lost cities founded by the people of Atlantis.

It was later discovered that a certain MacRoller, a professional rival of Geant’s, as well as a spurned lover of Geant’s wife, was responsible for blowing up the tunnel; fortunately, he was brought to justice.

The derailed and sunken train, and the remains of the tunnel, have since been eroded by the sea; today, only minor ruins can be visited. The development of the airplane industry soon rendered transatlantic train travel impractical, and the project was never renewed.
All that is left of Atlanteja today are the ruins–broken or superbly erect columns, destroyed temples which resemble the wreck of a forest blown by a tempest, houses now inhabited by seaweed and fish, palaces where debris fills the space once occupied by exquisite furniture. Wide streets, now overgrown by underwater plants, cross the city from east to west and from south to north, trailing on into the underwater horizon. But what enhances, above all, the sublime beauty of these ruins is the phosphorescent bluish light that seems to rain upon the city like a shower of stardust and which gives these ancient places an illusion of life. The light comes from large numbers of medusae and jellyfish that haunt these dark waters. Inside the ruins, thousands of micro-organisms also give out a faint light which, combined with that of the medusae and the jellyfish, makes the walls of Atlanteja glitter with a strange and eerie movement.