The Green Transfer
by Alan Gullette
"What you need is an adventure!" said Stephen. "You've been working too hard, even if you don't have much to show for it. You should let loose -- get out and experience some freedom! Perhaps something will happen to inspire you."
I had nothing to lose. . . except my possessions, of course. But of these I valued only my writings, and I insisted on taking them with me. When I looked into the closet, the box containing them practically fell on my head. I gathered them together with the newer scribblings, rolled them up, and stuck them into an old thermos. It was the shiny silver type that looked like a mortar shell and had a convenient shoulder strap.
We set off on foot, walking as far as the thoroughfare. We had planned to hitchhike, but a downtown bus came along first so we took it. The empty bus throbbed and rattled as it made its way north from the isolated suburb of Brickshire. By the time we reached the outskirts of the city the sun was setting. Since we were the only passengers, the driver asked us where we wanted to go. We answered vaguely, uncertain ourselves. He stared at us for a moment through the wide slanting mirror above his head and then pulled over in a half-residential, half-warehouse district and opened the door.
"Stand over there," he said, pointing to the opposite corner of the cross street. His casual gesture conveyed years of experience.
Stephen and I looked at each, shrugged, and moved to the front of the bus. The driver handed us two green transfer tickets as we passed.
We stepped down and the bus drove off, spewing a big cloud of exhaust. The smoke rose up, a dark bluish gray against the black night, drawing our gaze to the building across the street. Most of the windows were either dark or boarded up, but one was brightly lit. From where we stood, we could see paintings and framed photographs on the walls, shelves stuffed with books, a mantle covered with bric-a-brac. There was a party going on.
I have always been intrigued by other people's apartments, seen from the street this way. I like to imagine what it would be like to step into someone else's life, complete with their belongings and friends I do not know. It doesn't really matter who or what -- it's the otherness that appeals to me. To escape from one's own shoddy life -- that's the ticket!
"Come on!" Stephen said, stirring me from my reverie.
We crossed the street and stood on the corner which the driver had indicated. The party was two stories above us.
"Now what?" I asked.
"Now we wait. Remember, we're looking for something out of the ordinary, but if you're patient and watchful, something is bound to happen."
We stood, waiting for a sign. I eyed the green transfer, which was printed on thin, cheap newsprint with complex designs that made it look like a small note in some foreign currency. "Odd," I must have said aloud.
"Haven't you seen one of these before?" Stephen asked in a tone that bordered on condescension.
"Uh. . . no." I couldn't lie. I was relatively new to the city and this was the first time I had used the mass transit system. I had no idea whether the transfer was of the standard type or something special.
"Neither have I." He surprised me. How often had Stephen been my guide into worlds of which I had no knowledge? How often did he introduce me to new and interesting people who would otherwise remain beyond my sphere? Now I felt somewhere between being lost and being his equal: two adventurers into the Unknown. As I stared at the ticket I felt a thrill run up my spine.
A carriage drawn by four horses turned the corner at a gallop and pulled up in front of us, raising dust from the street. The horses snorted and whinnied, stamping their hooves a few extra times on the pavement. I was astonished. Before the carriage had turned the corner it was totally out of earshot. Besides, who rides around in horse-drawn carriages these days? The time of the Revolution is long past.
A rotund, finely dressed man bounced out of the carriage. "Stephen!" he cried.
"Lord Randolph!" So we were once again in Stephen's realm.
"However did you hear of this soiree?! Was it Lady Falgren? Ah! The tickets, of course." To our confusion, the gentleman indicated our bus transfers.
Stephen introduced us. "Lord Randolph, may I present Alan Wilcox; Alan, his Lordship Randal Hampton, Baron Randolph."
"Good to meet you." The nobleman grasped my hand firmly with his white-gloved hand. He was of medium height, with close-cropped, grayish blond hair, a white mustache, and steel gray eyes. "But why wait? Let's go in!"
I followed them through a door and up some stairs. Suddenly we were transported into another time. The wallpaper, the moldings, the gas lamps -- all spoke of a hundred years past. On the way up, Stephen and Randolph were catching up on old ties. "Lord Ficksure. . . the outing on Īle D'Efe. . . Lady Pennifore. . ." The fellow certainly moved in rarefied circles -- as did Stephen, far more than I had realized.
At the top of the second flight of stairs we opened the door and the party burst upon us with brightness, warmth, and gaiety. Stephen was whisked away by acquaintances, leaving me feeling abandoned, but I was immediately welcomed by Lady Falgren, a gracious hostess who seemed to hold nothing against my humble beginnings. She introduced me to several friendly people and I had no problem fitting into the scene.
By their accents and dress, and from snippets of conversation, I deduced that the guests were a strange admixture of locals and nobility who had been exiled from Europe. One townsman was called Greg by his friends but introduced himself to the elite as Gregory. He shifted his accent appropriately, if somewhat unconvincingly, and put on airs when speaking with the blue-bloods. The latter, as I have indicated, were not at all aloof. Was this, perhaps, an adaptation to their expatriate condition?
Thirty or more people filled the room, all dressed in their finest and conversing animatedly. Vivaldi blasted from an old Victrola, its flowering phone straining at every frequency and rattling like a tin can.
I saw someone eating an hors d'oeuvre and realized I had not had dinner, so I worked my way to the kitchen. Refreshments were laid out on two long tables in the dining area. On one side there was champagne and caviar, among other delicacies; on the other, chopped vegetables and dip, and a small keg of beer. A provincial fellow with an atrociously outdated (and outgrown) suit was bending over the sink, stuffing his face with cheese and crackers. Still chewing, he quickly looked me up and down and then said "Name's Jimmy." Between bites he added (for some reason) "my brother owns a fabric shop on Commerce Street. . ." I realized that the cheese was, in fact, a spread made of what looked like roasted garlic but which turned out to be locally grown scallions known as "ramps." I spied a colander full of them in the stainless steel sink, but when I picked one up to eat I saw it was riddled with wormholes.
Jimmy continued stuffing himself and talking while I went to work on the vegetables. There were sticks of celery lined with pimento cheese; artistically carved radishes; carrots sticks; broccoli spears; French onion dip. I helped myself to caviar and crackers as well. An elderly woman, elegantly arrayed in regal purple and adorned with jewels, came in from a back room. She doddered, gliding slowly through the kitchen and chatting to herself.
After temporarily allaying my hunger and quaffing a couple glasses of champagne, I went into the back in search of the lavatory. Instead I found a study, equipped with an ornately carved antique writing table and several shelves of books. The room was partitioned by an Oriental screen that was meant to conceal a bed and dressing area. On the wall, a postcard portrait of Rimbaud lent conviction to the whole setting, which was both a place to sleep and a fashionable place to entertain. (How often do parties admit us to such semi-private domains!)
The shelves consisted of slats of pine wood supported by cement blocks. I cocked my head to one side to read the spines of the books. All the usual authors were there: Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Rilke; Blake, Holderlin, and Dylan Thomas; Goethe, Plath, and Welty; C.S. Lewis, Paul Bowles. . .
A woman cleared her throat and stepped from behind the partition.
"I'm sorry!" I said. "I hope I was not intruding. . ." I felt as if caught in the act of prying.
"Oh, no -- not at all." She was strikingly beautiful, with sparkling green eyes and black hair that fell in delicate curls around her face. "I'm Marion Wellsey," she said, extending her hand.
"I-I'm A-Alan Wi-Wilcox," I stammered, then added "Charmed" and kissed her hand. The refined customs of the aristocratic company were contagious.
"Lady Falgren is my aunt. I'm holding the party in her honor."
"I see. I am a friend of Stephen-- Stephen-- " I couldn't remember his last name!
"Yes, I know Stephen well!" she said, putting me at ease.
I could think of absolutely nothing to say. "Uh, very nice party -- and such distinguished guests." I was really quite at a loss before her beauty and courtly bearing.
Stephen walked in, just in the nick of time!
"Ah! I see you two have met. Marion, did you realize we were on an outing and found our way here quite by accident? If it were not for Lord Randolph's arrival. . ."
As he talked I fumbled nervously in my pockets and pulled out the transfer ticket from the bus. Marion's eyes lit up.
"Oh, you simply must come to the Theatre!" she exclaimed, touching my arm in a familiar way.
Stephen elaborated: "Alan, as it turns out these tickets will admit us to the Great Green Theatre for tomorrow evening's performance. Marion plays a leading role in the production."
"Ha! It is only a small part. . ." she protested.
We chatted a bit in this fashion and then went to rejoin the guests in the main room. In the hallway, Stephen took me aside and discretely placed a roll of hundred-dollar vouchers in my pocket.
"No questions asked -- these are from your new patron."
"Fine by me," I beamed. To be honest, I was already a bit giddy from the champagne and did not have the presence of mind to question the source of the gift.
Marion had gone ahead. Now Stephen moved off into the crowd, which had doubled since our arrival. People were coming and going in the hallway and I had to struggle to maintain my course toward the front of the apartment.
A choral symphony by Charles Ives was now playing on the Victrola. Its simultaneous orchestral sections clashed beneath snatches of hymns and popular songs of the '20s, alternating typically between the sacred and the profane.
Alone, without knowing a soul in the crowd, I wandered along the perimeter of the room until I discovered an antechamber previously closed off by sliding doors. Lit only by a dim Tiffany lamp, this smaller chamber was quite dark in contrast to the main room. I stood in the doorway while my eyes adjusted. I could barely make out the outlines of several people sitting on a couch in the blackness. A cigarette burned red, glowing brighter as its owner drew a breath, then dimming again as he blew a lungful of invisible smoke through the dark space between us. I coughed and stepped from the doorway into the room, moving off to one side.
"I'm sorry!" I stepped on someone's foot -- almost collided with him before I could distinguish him in the shadows. He said nothing but moved off and out of the room. My eyes followed the black silhouette through the doorway into the light. Peering back into the room I studied the figures on the couch and also saw several people standing against the left wall, talking in pairs or groups of three and taking no notice of me. I thought I recognized Jimmy from the kitchen and realized suddenly that everyone present was of lower or middle class origins: there were no nobles here. Turning to my right, I took a step back but encountered an obstacle with my calf which threw me off balance. Falling in the darkness, I tumbled into an easy chair and banged my right elbow on the upholstered arm of the chair, jabbing the funny bone. Shock waves rippled through my forearm but I hid the pain, feigning a casual air and pretending I had intentionally thrown myself into the chair. The pain subsided.
From my vantage point in the shadows, I surveyed the room. The smoker on the couch to my right was flanked by two women; the three of them talked and laughed. Across the room, Jimmy and some other townsmen exchanged jokes. I caught only snatches of the various conversations. I was being totally ignored but my self-consciousness made me increasingly uncomfortable, so after a while I stood up and returned to the double wide doorway between the rooms. From where I stood, darkness reigned at either side of my vision: the corners unlit by the small lamp echoed laughter and words. Light streamed in from the living room straight ahead, gleamed on the glasses of golden liquid and sparkled in the eyes and teeth of the guests. A few people danced. The whole scene was refreshing.
I stepped forward into the room.
As I did so, the crowd shifted and blocked my way. Instead, I stepped to one side, and there was Marion, standing against the wall. She smiled and seemed to glow, blushing from the wine (had she been dancing as well?) and laughing.
"I hope you're having a good time, Alan."
"Oh, yes. Most certainly."
"Stephen tells me you write."
"Uh, yes. But I've had problems lately -- with productivity, you might say."
Just when I thought Marion and I might have a nice talk, she was interrupted by someone who demanded her attention as hostess. And though I was left alone again, at least I was beginning to feel welcome--a feeling pleasurably reinforced by the champagne, which was in plentiful supply as waiters made their rounds. And so the hours passed, and (quite frankly) I have no recollection of what transpired next.
© 1993, 1996 Alan Gullette
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