Showdown At The Atomium

Pimps and deregulation…The king’s property…A cultural misunderstanding… An enormous iron molecule and a reckoning…

I

I woke up the other morning with the eerie suspicion that I had committed some dreadful crime the night before. My recollection was hazy. I couldn’t recall a specific incident, which didn’t matter. I had seen enough far-fetched psychological thrillers to know that these types of things happen all the time, and that there is not a second to lose, and that the police are on their way to get me. I must admit it is a stroke of luck on my part to live in a neighborhood that has an area of moderate to heavy prostitution in between it and the police station, about ten minutes down the road as the crow flies. This is bad news for victims awaiting the arrival of the police. But if you are trying to escape a dragnet it is invaluable because the cops, on their way to a call, will usually do a couple of circular passes to either flirt with or threaten jail time to the girls hanging out in front of the pay-by-the-hour motels next to the highway, and it is this critical window through which a person can escape the long arm of the law. Prostitution is illegal in these parts, even though it is about as regular as the morning news. I’m in the wrong business for that type of sport. I’m not a long-haul trucker, or a night watchman, or a serial killer, or an insomniac, or a lonely cop on the beat, and I’d just as soon pay to place any part of my body in an oft-used and rarely flushed toilet bowl. But as an artist I do enjoy the outdoor bargaining spectacle now and again, particularly for the hypocritical aspects.

This little section of skin trade is a tricky part of town to drive through because of the odd vehicle that is always cutting across three lanes of traffic to swing a u-turn in order to “ask directions” from a pair of breasts, a bulbous ass and an enormous hairdo that ostensibly has a woman hiding somewhere in the middle of it all. These girls have it rough. The working conditions are poor. The women are forced to pace along the sidewalk, in all types of weather, and the risk of harm seems irrationally high. The state of Georgia prides itself on staunch deregulation, and so no one should be surprised if there is a massive influx of pimps, each with a stable of streetwalkers, eager to take advantage.

I whipped by the whole crazy scene as I got on the freeway. I had my passport in my bag and my foot on the gas pedal. I was on my way to the airport. Truth was that I had been feeling down, as of late. I was feeling beaten, tired, jaded. I was feeling like a blind cripple who has been made to wear a sign around his neck that says, “Kick me, hard, or you will suffer grave misfortune.” Any pedestrian who sees a sign like that hanging off some poor, bundled wastrel on the sidewalk will not hesitate to plant a foot in his stomach for fear of suffering grave misfortune. It reminds me of that landmark psychological experiment from the sixties in which volunteers were told to administer lethal electric shocks to, unbeknownst to them, actors who mimicked excruciating pain. The volunteers were guaranteed not to be held accountable, and most of them juiced it up to what would have been lethal doses of electricity to their victims. So it goes that even nuns in orthopedic shoes will take a running kick at a man with a “kick me, hard, or you will suffer grave misfortune” sign on him, because the wires of mysticism and superstition get crossed sometimes, and even normally devout people will plant their shoe in the gut of an invalid if it means salvation from evil forces.

On those occasions when I start feeling like life’s soccer ball it is always therapeutic for me to direct my attention to someone else who is in the midst of a crisis. It helps me forget about my own problems and I can help someone else, which always feels good. So like magic, a few weeks ago, I got a call from a friend of mine who lives in Belgium. He knows he can count on me. “I have a friend over here who is suffering from a severe breakdown,” he said. “The thing is that it is something that could result in an international scandal. The Belgian monarchy is involved. Get over here as soon as you can. The problem is not without its points of intrigue.”

I hopped on a plane the next day. Immediately I felt my luck change for the better as I got the business class upgrade. Because they care about you in the business class. Or at least they are really good about pretending to care about you. The flight attendant thought I was the funniest fellow on the flight, kind of thing, and she never let my glass of Calem 10 year port wine get any less than half full, which actually became a bit of a handicap. Anyway you get a big pillow, a blanket, a seat that reclines into a bed, a relatively big television, a hot towel, a glass of champagne, a coursed meal, the lion’s share of a bottle of port wine, and all the bullshit movies you never wanted to watch. In this day and age, that is about all you can ask of anything. You also get a small kit of sundries–a sleeping mask, ear plugs, hand lotion, some type of slippers-socks hybrid, toothbrush, etc–point is that you get there in style. What you do when you get there is no longer the concern of the airline personnel. They turn you loose abruptly. We landed at 2:00 a.m. Atlanta time, which is 8:00 a.m. Brussels time. I was normal drunk for 2:00 a.m., which is actually offensively drunk for 8:00 a.m. The sun was in my face, strong and unyielding as a vengeful god as I walked out of the terminal. A car was there to deliver me to Woluwe Park, which is about twenty minutes east of the airport. The driver dropped me off at the park entrance without a word. I surveyed the sculpted green expanse and decided to take a stroll down one of the paths. It was a warm day with a clear blue sky, somewhat rare for Brussels as it turns out. I wasn’t even five minutes into my walk when I heard my name called. I looked over. My friend was hiding in a thicket of trees. He gestured frantically.

“You smell like a wine store exploded,” he said when I reached him.

“Victim of my own overindulgence.”

“What do you think so far?”

“It’s nice. Do you live in the woods like a Yeti or do you have a house?”

“We are waiting for my friend.”

“Is he really in trouble?”

“You’ll see.”

We chatted a bit, caught up on a few things, inquired about mutual acquaintances. The tranquility of the morning was broken, though, when I happened to see a man, sopping wet, running at me with a huge bird tucked under his arm. “Go, go, go, go, go,” he was yelling. Just like that all of us, bird included, were barging our way through the woods toward a car parked at the edge of the trees. The drunk sweats kicked in as I was suddenly forced to exert myself. Bad way to start things off. I was guided into the backseat of the waiting car and the bird was thrown on top of me, batting and kicking and snapping and growling at me. The car pulled out into traffic and we sped off.

“This is Mevan,” said my friend, “rhymes with even.”

“Bonjour,” said Mevan from the driver’s seat, weaving the car through the early morning traffic.

“Paddy the Duke,” I said, covering myself as the bird tried to bite my ear off. “I don’t think your bird likes me.”

“It’s a swan. He’ll get over it.”

The only thing that kept the bird from plucking my eyes out with its beak was Mevan slamming the car to the left and to the right, dodging through the congested streets like the devil was on our tail. The swan just kept batting its wings and warbling, trying to get a foothold. By the time we got to Mevan’s house we were all covered in feathers and dander. The swan was still trying to peck my eyes out when Mevan grabbed it and marched it down a small alleyway and through a metal gate into a courtyard. My friend and I followed. In the back was a shed. Mevan put the bird down and wrestled the shed door open, releasing a bevy of swans as they poured out of the enclosure, shrieking and flapping. Mevan began scooping them up and throwing them back into the shed, which just caused more of them to spill out. After much corralling he got the last one back in and slammed the door shut. We sat in some chairs and Mevan lit a cigarette. I was getting nauseas. Port wine and exercise, as it turns out, do not go well together.

“As you may have figured,” said my friend, “Mevan has been kidnapping the swans that sit around Woluwe Park. The thing is that the swans are the property of the monarchy. King Philippe owns the swans. Every swan in the country.”

“Kidnapping them would be a serious offense, I imagine.”

“I can’t bear it,” said Mevan, on the verge of tears. “Someone must put an end to this tyranny. They must be freed.”

“They’re stuffed in a dirty shed. You call that freedom?”

“It poses an interesting philosophical question, don’t you think?” said my friend.

“They mate for life,” said Mevan. “When I take one I always have to go back for the other. Filthy animals.”

“So this isn’t about your love of birds?”

“It’s about freedom from regal oppression,” insisted Mevan.

“Lucky I’ve brokered a deal with an official from the Dutch government,” my friend said. “He is the Minister of Swans.”

“Minister of Swans?” I said.

“His position sounds a little more dignified. Minister of Historical Ecology, or some such thing. Anyway, we’re going to hand over the swans to the Netherlands, who have promised sovereignty for the birds. We just need you to meet with him. We want you to be the liaison. I’ve got my career to think about, and Mevan is obviously out of his mind. What do you say?”

To this I vomited a torrent of port wine all over Mevan’s patio. “Greetings from America,” I said, wiping my mouth.

“I’ll hose that off. You relax,” said Mevan.

2

Later on I got the real story from my friend after we had left Mevan’s house. There was no Dutch official. No formal plan to liberate the swans locked up in the shed. No nothing. The reason my friend was so distressed was because Mevan was a cook at one of these little food shops that line the streets of Belgium. They sell “durums” which are like gyro wraps, with chicken and cabbage and french fries and some secret sauce. Mevan makes the best “durums” in the city. If the police take him away and lock him up for being a nut, said my friend, the neighborhood will not be able to get “durums” that are anywhere near as good as the ones Mevan makes. So the situation was delicate. We had to get the swans that Mevan had put in the shed back to the pond at Woluwe Park, while convincing Mevan that a deal between the Dutch and Belgian governments would be struck so the swans would have some type of autonomy. This would put him at ease about the whole tyranny thing so he could get back to work making his delicious gyro wraps, or “durums,” and in doing so avoid being carted off to the booby hatch.

“What do you need me for?” I said.

“Mevan thinks all Americans are shady and have a natural distaste for imperial rule. In a way, you are the only one he can trust.”

“You’re an American,” I said.

“I’ve been in Belgium for a couple of years though. He half trusts me. Anyway I have to go to Rotterdam tomorrow on business. I expect this thing to be cleared up by the time I get back.”

“You’re leaving me here?”

“It’s all set up. Just follow the plan.”

The next day I found myself riding in the passenger seat of a van driven by the “Dutch Ambassador” my friend had secured. Our fictional “Minister of Swans.” He had been chosen because he owned a van and had a very “Dutch” look, thin and ruddy-cheeked with a pale forehead. He also owned a suit that looked like it had been dug out of the ground and stolen off a corpse. My friend told me he was a delivery man, nice enough, and that he had a mild, almost imperceptible case of Kluver-Bucy Syndrome. “He has manic sexual urges,” said my friend. “But don’t worry. You aren’t his type. Neither are the swans, if you were wondering.”

We drove through the city to Mevan’s house, the Dutchman and I. The rail cars glided past us on the streets. I admired the steeply pitched roofs, lopsided chimneys and beautifully wrought gothic stone buildings weathered by centuries of attrition. The history embedded in the stone. The living antiquity. I wasn’t used to the idea, given that in America when something is built there are usually already corresponding plans to tear it down.

The best laid plans of mice and men, as the old Burns saying goes. I knew there would be a hitch. No sooner had we arrived at Mevan’s and gotten all the swans packed into the van when the Dutchman pulled me aside to discuss a sudden problem.

“Mevan is suspicious,” he whispered. “He thinks I might not be a Dutch Ambassador.”

“Well, after all, you’re not.”

The Dutchman looked offended.

“Great,” I said. “He’s crazy, but just lucid enough to fuck everything up.”

“He wants to come with us.”

“So instead of driving around to the park we now have to drive to the Netherlands?”

“Don’t worry, I’ll figure something out.”

So now there we were, us three, bouncing through the city in a van loaded with more swans than I cared to count, with a smell of equal size. The Dutchman was at the wheel, Mevan in the middle, and I on the far side staring glumly out the window. Always something, I thought, stuck here with these two wet brains. I hunkered down, not knowing how long we were traveling for, or what we were going to do when we got there. On top of that I was baffled by the onslaught of foreign language. For every French sign in the road, there was a Flemish sign right next to it. It seemed that Belgium had a bit of an identity crisis. Imagine traveling on a French cruise liner that just happens to smash into a Dutch cruise liner, and a whole lot of Dutch people just spill onto the French cruise liner and set up shop, but nobody tries to conquer the other, so you’ve got the Dutch culture and the French culture existing simultaneously, and while most people speak French, at least in Brussels, you still have stalwart Flemish, a little German, some English and people who are so unwilling to make eye contact it makes New York City feel like Mayberry. The people were a bit perplexing too. When I see a man on a bicycle in America he is usually in top shape. So I was a bit amused when the van had to brake for a dumpy, unshaven, middle-aged man in sandals as he slowly pedaled a bicycle in front of us, smoking and mumbling caustically. What made the whole thing quaint was the wire basket hanging gingerly off the handlebars. A few blocks up the road I watched a pregnant woman in a body suit and headband go rollerskating along the sidewalk.

“I can’t figure out whether that is dangerous or not?” I said.

“It depends on how good of a skater she is,” said Mevan. “And you call me crazy?”

It wasn’t long before bad went to worse as our Dutch Ambassador, without a word, pulled the van over to the side of the road, shut the engine off, leapt out the door and went running down the street. He had taken the keys with him. Mevan and I just sat there for a moment in the still van, contemplating what had just happened. Even the swans in the back seemed confused. We decided it would be best to go and find him. As we walked down a quiet, somewhat abandoned street, Mevan and I debated his somewhat controversial kidnapping of the king’s swans. We spoke of freedom as necessity and freedom as opportunity. We spoke of title and ease. We spoke of the nature of the hierarchy. We spoke of liberation without comfort. We spoke of lavish confinement.

“I hear what you’re saying…” said Mevan.

“Sorry.”

“What?”

“Sorry,” I said, “there is this woman waving at me from that window. It looks like she is in her underwear. She seems to really like me.” Mevan stopped and looked around, trying to get his bearings.

“It appears we have stumbled into the red light district.”

“There is another one,” I said. “She likes me too. I feel like we’ve arrived at the friendliest place on earth. I didn’t know Brussels had a red light district.”

“They all have red light districts,” said Mevan.

Indeed, Mevan and I were suddenly in high demand. As we walked down the road we were besieged with smiles and hand gestures as the girls invited us to come in and sample the wares. I had to admit that, in this case, the United States could learn something from good ol Europe. These hookers actually had an office, of sorts. I thought of the prostitutes near the highway in Atlanta. They would probably do better work if they had a cubicle, some real security, a legitimate licensed agency, a dental plan.

“They pay taxes,” said Mevan. “Do you want to try one out?”

“No. Let’s just find the delivery guy… I mean the ambassador.”

“Well,” said Mevan, “just remember if you want a blow-job, just so you know, we don’t refer to it as such. We call it something else.”

“Really I’m not interested, I’m just…” I stopped and considered the cultural discrepancy. “Out of curiosity what do you call it?” I was waiting for some strange Flemish word with like twenty-five letters in it. Vrooden-plooden-sooden, or something.

“Pipes,” he exclaimed proudly.

“Pipes?”

“Pipes.”

“Like,” I uttered, scratching my head, “is it a noun or .. use it in a sentence please?”

“How much for pipes?” he said.

“I see. Must be awkward if you’re a plumber around here.”

The idiot Dutchman was gone for good, it seemed. Then I remembered my friend explaining about the Kluver-Bucy Syndrome, the sexual mania, and then it made a little bit of sense. Some things, I suppose, are just out of one’s control. Mevan and I headed back toward the abandoned van filled with swans. I tried to convince myself that the situation would be resolved, somehow. A man was approaching me on the sidewalk. I tried to walk around him, but he blocked my path.

“Bonjour,” he said.

“Hello,” I said.

“Aha! American. Mr. American, that is my girlfriend.” He pointed up to one of the girls standing in the window.

“She is lovely,” I said slowly, feeling the need to say something at least, watching through the glass as the young girl, bathed in neon, stabbed her tongue into the side of her left cheek while rocking her fist into the side of her right cheek, the international symbol for pipes, I suppose. “You must be very proud.”

“You go for pipes. You pay her. She is good.”

“Not today,” I said. “We’ve got a serious international concern on our hands.”

The man’s face dropped into a look of outright insult. He started to froth, and babble splenetically in French. Mevan stood next to me, his eyebrows raised. Like an Italian grandmother who is irreversibly affronted when you don’t take a second helping of spaghetti marinara, the man was beyond reason. He gestured violently at me, raised his hands to the sky, pointed at his watch and then spat on the ground in front of me and marched away.

“Well there goes the afternoon,” said Mevan.

“Why?”

“Now we have to be at The Atomium at 3:00 pm.”

“What for?”

“He challenged you to a fight. He said he is going to make you pay.”

“He wants to fight because we don’t want to sleep with his girlfriend? What type of place is this?”

“You branded her as worthless. He now has to save her honor.”

“Would it be weird to point out that she is a prostitute?”

“Forget it, let’s go back to the van. We still have time to get the swans to safety and then maybe grab a beer and a waffle.”

When we returned to the van it was still there, but there was no sign of the Dutchman and the back doors had been flung open. The inside was full of feathers and bird shit, but the swans themselves had fled to the four corners of the earth. We looked up and down the road but there was no sign of them. In retrospect I like to think that they somehow put their heads together, figured out how to free themselves, and achieved the true liberation Mevan had craved for them. Either that or someone just took them and made swan pudding. Either way, we had other things to settle. There was going to be a showdown at the Atomium.

3.

The Atomium is an enormous recreation of an iron molecule made for some world’s fair about sixty years ago. It is about eight stories tall, and each shiny silver “atom” is accessible by an escalator, where a different vision of the future awaits the eager tourist. It seems that, at the time of its design, the future would’ve had a lot of shag carpet and egg-shaped chairs and the music of the future would’ve been played on machines that could hold up to six eight-track cassette tapes. The ovens of the future could heat up a meal in a matter of minutes. A person could talk to their relatives on egg-shaped tele-screens, and in the evening, while contemplating the cosmos, the swinging bachelor of the future could sip brandy and listen to disco on a rotating floor. Mevan and I paced around the front for a while, keeping our eyes open for our bitter antagonist. Three o’clock came and went. Three-thirty. Four o’clock. I stretched a bit, had a waffle and watched a Japanese tour group gather for a photo with the Atomium Mascot, a confusing character that struck me as an enormous child wearing a business suit with a tie, a cape and a toupee. People will take pictures with anything dressed in a fluffy suit. I remember hearing of someone in the United States once answering an ad for a job whose description was: “High-energy individual wanted for exciting P.R. position. Good pay, reasonable hours, instant fame.” It was the instant fame part that was a bit of a mystery, until the person arrived for the first day on the job to find himself thrown into a bear outfit and kicked into the middle of an amusement park while hordes of crazed kids chased him around all afternoon in the sweltering heat.

“I guess he isn’t showing up,” said Mevan.

“So much the better for him,” I said. Mevan looked across the parking lot to a wooded area where a few swans were relaxing in the sun. He grew thoughtful. One day the creatures of the world would lose their shackles, and that day gave him hope. I tried to cheer him up by buying him a souvenir from the gift shop. A small plastic swan. He seemed to appreciate the gesture.

“Take a picture with the mascot,” said a man with a big camera, importuning us to gather around the strange fluffy businessman-child-superhero with male-pattern baldness. Mevan and I flanked the dopey thing, and ten minutes later I was sitting on the train, staring at the odd photograph. I was ready to return to my part of the world. Ready to surround myself with the culture that I had grown accustomed to. I felt ready to do some good. To make a difference. Maybe I could try to organize a labor union for the prostitutes that hung around the highway. I would tell them I had seen their future, and it was relatively bright, well, slightly less dim. I stuck my hand in my pocket and realized something. It was empty. Problem was that I specifically remembered having a fifty-euro note in my pocket. It had been there. It was gone. I looked down at the picture, and as things will in this world, it all became grotesquely clear. The mascot had filched the money out of my pocket. Then I thought about the bitter Frenchman’s threat. He was going to make me pay. At the Atomium. One way or another. Clever bastard had even given me a picture of himself, underneath that stupid outfit. Maybe I was over-thinking it. Was it him? Just a coincidence? Some things are better left unknown. If it was, I hope he took his woman someplace nice.

More Alembics to come.

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