The Seven Storey Pipe (Part I)
My headâ€™s still not clear; something in the meandering melancholy of Los Angeles sunlight, the way it pours into the windows of my straw hut like a thickened molasses and stains everything. I ventured out this morning for a stroll. Ronald lay sleeping in his twig bed, sobering up, and I hoped to catch the morning before it progressed into something ugly, as is the nature of progress. But there was nothing in the landscape to provoke me into ambition, or nothing in me to be provoked.
It was cold outside, or as cold as LA can ever muster up the strength to be, so I wore a tight sweater fabricated of Birch bark threads, hand-knitted by the industrious slave laborers of JC Penny. What was I looking for, waking so early, walking so early, and foregoing my usual breakfast of corn flakes and flax seeds drenched in 90 proof spirits? Wandering into the denser confines of Oak trees, cacti, scrub brush, was I looking for God? No, perhaps not. And then a sound bites my ear, a throaty scratch reaching from afar and moving closer. Without raising my head I know that it is a 1971 Chevy Nova, some early morning hooligan who must have lost his way on Ventura Blvd. and now seeks to regain his course to the nearest exotic dance club. Perturbed by this outsider on my lonely hill I turn abruptly and raise my middle finger, mouthing some profanity or another, something about his mother and her youthful indiscretions. But there isnâ€™t a 1971 Chevy Nova to be found. In its place is a dry leaf, scraping humbly along, mindlessly humming the tune of a sought-after disco-era muscle car. I retract my finger and place it, along with my other fingers, in my trouser pocket. Why was I out walking? Had fate brought me here to contrive an elaborately triple X tale about the mother of a leaf? And furthermore, do leaves even have mothers?
These questions would plague me all morning: God, the meaning of life, leaf-mothers.
I had to walk delicately back up the path to my shanty. The surrounding earth still smoldered with the rancid smell of charred Walmart, red-hot coals occasionally branding the soles of my wooden clogs. I found it hard to be in good humor on such a morning, racing ahead of my nagging thoughts yet never catching up to their answers. Nearing the slate slab that lines my doorstep I hear Ronald laughing inside, choking ecstatically on his own fruity giggle. What gives him the right to be happy, I wonder.
Ronald lay on the couch with his hind legs extended, puffing between chuckles on my old Telepipe. â€œWhatâ€™s so funny, Ronald? Are you laughing about how lonely and unloved you are and always will be?â€
Ronald dropped the pipe onto the arm of the couch and gulped down his laugh. â€œOh, hi Mudd. I didnâ€™t see you there. I was just fending off this hangover by looking at digital images of you on the Tele.â€
â€œUm hum,â€ I kept on. â€œMust be watching a pretty funny movie, Ronald. Funny enough to distract you from your permanent freak-nature.â€ I donâ€™t know why. I donâ€™t know. I just needed to find a peer in my despair. Who better than Ronald?
â€œYoung Mudd,â€ Ronald said, twitching his tail. â€œHello? I just told you, Iâ€™m looking at pictures of you.â€
I try not to understand. â€œSo, um, must be funny picturesâ€¦â€
â€œOh theyâ€™re really funny.â€ He hands me the pipe and I see a still image of me. I am facing the camera and smiling. Thatâ€™s all.
â€œWhatâ€™s so funny about this?â€ I ask.
â€œOh, itâ€™s good,â€ he bellows. â€œGoo-ood!â€ I toss the pipe onto the floor, no longer able to pretend that I donâ€™t understand. Itâ€™s me who is funny. I am funny because I am me, nothing more. Like an eighth-grader farting on a school bus, my very nature makes people laugh. I am the plastic turd of humanity, the squirting flower of the collective unconscious, an utter clown.
A knock at the door, and then another. Ronald doesnâ€™t answer it. He must be regretting the way he mocked me, shamed me, or perhaps he is unable to open the door because he is a cat. Yes, despite his cruelty, he is only a cat who sits now fully engaged in licking his hindquarters.
A package had been sent by an anonymous patron along with a note affixed to a cord.
Dear Young Mudd, most obtusely afflicted of pipe smokers,
Iâ€™m sorry this package will be arriving so late. I had meant for it to accompany you in prison but I got busy with more important matters. Consider this a token of my appreciation for your efforts to restore pipe smoking to its proper place in the annals of history. I hope this gesture doesnâ€™t seem too grand for a card-carrying member of the hoi polloi such as you. It is, humbly, something of a Holy Grail. May it answer some of the questions your meager intellect has yet to ask.
A Messenger of Patience and Time
I crumble the meaningless jargon into a heap and litter the floor. â€œRonald, what does â€˜obtuseâ€™ mean?â€
â€œI think it means â€˜wide,â€™â€ he says between licks. â€œWide like your breadth of knowledge.â€
â€œOh,â€ I agree. â€œOf course it does. Wide with smartness.â€ I tear apart the brown paper wrapping of the mysterious gift, unfolding layer upon layer until-
â€œRonald! Ronald, for the love of God, look!â€ In my hand, cradled like a fallen baby Sparrow, sat the most precious of tokens, glowing, radiating a goodness that could not be surpassed, not ever, not even by the changing colors of autumn leaves in New England. I now had Ronaldâ€™s undivided attention. Neither he nor I had ever set eyes on such a divine object, never imagined, even, that such a species of superior craftsmanship could exist in such a flawed world.
â€œFor the past week, every time Iâ€™ve set eyes on another man,â€ I wept, â€œIâ€™ve seen in him nothing but a criminal bound by the cruelness that drives him. But here now, Ronald, I know that I was seeing only a reflection of myself being cast upon him. I bow to the wisdom that this glowing charm has awarded me!â€ And with this ode the halo begins to fade. The natural light replaces its fiery glow. And I read its inscription:
Fatto a Mano
Ronald is deaf to my newfound brilliance, dumb before this kingdom carved in briar. Then, at once, with a mighty heave, he belches a malodorous hairball onto my britches. â€œYes, yes, Young Mudd, I think I understand. For the past week Iâ€™ve really wished that you would take a bath. I now realize that what I was seeing in you was nothing more than the reflection of a hairball inside of me.â€
Ronald and I, a Buddha man and his Buddha cat. We sat for a moment just to stare at the pipeâ€™s hand-carved stem and perfectly grained bowl. It looked as though it had been polished with the gentleness of a childâ€™s hand, sanded with rose petals, anointed in sabbatical oils. In its bowl, somehow deeper than the bowl itself, I knew that a promise of something greater, a Being greater, was to be found. I let its voice speak through me, sending its message to Ronald without moving my lips.
â€œRnld, vee need tu vind the vaker of this vife,â€ the holy voice said.
â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ Ronald replied. â€œI canâ€™t understand a word youâ€™re saying.â€
â€œVEE NEED TU VIND VOD!â€ The voice repeated with maybe just a little unholy anger.
â€œFor Christâ€™s sake, Mudd, open your damned mouth.â€ So, the really holy part of the moment was over, but there was still enough slightly-holy energy left in the hut to bring us back together.
â€œWe need to find the maker of the pipe, Ronald. We need to find God.â€ Finally Ronald understood.
â€œOohhh, I get it. See, it sounded like you were saying â€˜Vod,â€ and Iâ€™m like, â€˜Vod?â€™ What the heckâ€™s a â€˜Vod?â€™ No, really, I get it now. You were saying â€˜pipeâ€™ and â€˜Godâ€™ but were, like, holding your mouth shut for some reason.â€
â€œRonald,â€ I said, â€œYouâ€™re really killing this moment.â€
â€œItâ€™s all good,â€ he laughed. â€œI get it. You were being a pipe ventriloquist or something. Good one.â€ There was no use explaining myself further. I needed to deal with the matter at hand and had no idea where to begin.
â€œThis will be a dangerous undertaking, Ronald. I need to know that you are with me one hundred percent. We will find this Radice or my name isnâ€™t Good Bad Old Young Mudd!â€
â€œNo, no, no, Mudd. I mean, Iâ€™m with you. Of course Iâ€™m with you. But I think youâ€™re beginning this quest all wrong. See, the maker of the pipe canâ€™t be a Radice. A Radice is a vegetable, a spicy-tasting root.â€ Ronald was right. No vegetable could have crafted such a pipe without a proper workshop, and how many vegetables have their own workshop? Heck, most roots donâ€™t even have their own house or family or anything! Thus, the man responsible for touching the earth with the heavens could be none other than fatto a mano.
A look of wonder crosses both of our faces. Wonder, yes, but I mean really, really smart wonder. Together we exhale and exclaim:
The Fat Man!