HEAVEN’S BLACK TOP HAT by Michael Dority
“‘What’s happened to me,’ he thought. It was no dream.”
Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis
—"Wait, you can’t do that!” I shouted.
But he could, and already had.
There was nothing to do but get used to it. As I knew I would in time. This was my rightful place in the multiverse, after all.
√(-1). At the Bistro
“Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
- Leonardo Da Vinci
I met Don in some pretentious, dated, beat bar & grille in Greenwich Village. It was 1975… or thereabouts.
It was a melancholy afternoon. The weather was overcast and a slight cold drizzle was flailing around outside like tiny grey handkerchiefs flapping on a clothesline. I opened the door and a trip bell rang jingle-jangle conspicuously. Annoyed, I reached up and silenced it.
The place was a dive—no décor to speak of. The light was very dim, as if to conceal the numerous encroachments of mould and grime in the crooks and crannies of the old, rundown establishment.
When my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I noticed a man sitting at a corner table, eating a corned beef and rye. A mug of beer and a whiskey chaser sat next to his plate. As I watched, he scarfed a ragged bite out of his sandwich and lustily chugged his beer.
He looked up at me as he reached for the shot glass. Our eyes locked.
The sheer recklessness of this guy, I thought, eating in a shithole like this.
…I had no idea.
ii. Acquaintances Are Met
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
- Shakespeare, The Tempest (1.2)
I stared openly at him. He peered back at me, smirking under a black top hat sporting a wide silver band.
He was attired in what could only reluctantly be described as a suit but wore no tie or socks. His clothes, dishevelled and ill-fitting, hung from him in unflattering lines. A tapestry of conflicting colours and fabrics assailed rather than attracted the eye. His garments cried out for sartorial congruity, but to no avail.
But it was his eyes that keenly arrested my attention. Dark and penetrating, like they’d been places and seen things no self-respecting person, no sane human being, would care to experience.
Those eyes held the distant look of alienness. The flushed heat of madness. The driven intensity of genius. In what exact combinations I couldn’t say and didn’t want to find out.
Still beaming his Cheshire cat grin, he said, “Name’s Don, Don Van Vliet. Call me ‘Captain’.” His voice was striking. Raw and primal, it permeated the room. His was the raspy voice of a blues singer who drank too much liquor.
Something about his demeanour—a peculiar mixture of amusement and interest—drew me in against my better judgment, prompting my reply. “I’m Andrew Cahill, AKA Andy. How’s the corned beef?” I sat down, folded my hands on the table.
The Captain picked up his sandwich, tentatively sniffed it and took another bite. Curling his lip, he replied, “Is that what this shit is, Andy? Today’s special’s supposed to be ham and cheese. Excuse me, I’ll have to have a little chat with the bartender. I don’t like substitutes.”
With this, he tossed what remained of the offending cuisine on the floor and barked, “Goddamit, Ben, you old fart! Can’t a poor schmuck get some decent service around here?”
When—alas—no one immediately emerged from the kitchen, the Captain stormed peevishly to the front door and furiously swung it back and forth on its rusty hinges, causing the trip bell to jingle-jangle clamorously on its mount.
“Come out here, you lout,” the Captain screamed at the kitchen door. “I know you’re back there! Come out at once!”
I sprang to my feet and cried, “Captain, calm down! I’ll find the bartender. There’s no need for histrionics.”
“This isn’t a tantrum, kid. I’m pissed off!”
Just then, a gnarled old duffer slid—as if coasting on roller skates—into the dining room, piping, “Put a lid on it, Cap’n, or I’ll kick yer ass outtahere!”
Spying the half-eaten sandwich on the floor, Ben (for Ben in the flesh he certainly was) spat “What’d I tell you, ’bout throwin’ food around in here? There ain’t a gonna be any more food fights in my place. You got that, boy?
“Now pay your bill and get the hell out,” Ben wheezed through yellowed bridgework.
The Captain scowled. “Is it my frickin’ fault, you’re too stupid to read your own menu? Imbecile!” he hissed.
“Git!” Ben yelled. Then, in a herculean display of machismo, he cuffed the Captain and hurled him headlong (jingle-jangle) out the door.
I followed the Captain out on foot, helped him up, dusted off his purple velvet jacket and set his top hat back on his head.
He was still cursing and gesturing wildly at old Ben, angrily shooting him birds as we walked down the street.
It was a comical scene in an unsettling sort of way.
…And the Captain was an intriguing character in an equally disturbing kind of way.
“Well,” I said, “I guess you’ll be looking for a new haunt to order your ham and cheese sammies from, eh, Captain?”
“Naw,” said the Captain. “Ben and I, we go way back. Did him a favour once, to be sure. A big one at that. You wanna hear a funny story, Andy? You seem like the type to appreciate a well spun tale.”
He was standing in my personal space with his hand resting on my shoulder, speaking in confidential tones, as if someone else might be listening. We were alone.
I should have said no; walked away.
“Where and when do you have in mind?” I asked.
“Same place and time tomorrow,” the Captain proffered. “Ben and I’ll both be new men by then.”
“Jesus,” I quipped. “I hope so…”
iii. Ben’s Doleful Lament
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
- Oscar Wilde
Ben and the Captain were seated at the Captain’s table, laughing merrily and carrying on like two long-lost, sodden brothers.
By all appearances, it seemed as if they’d forgotten the bitter imprecations and crude gesticulations they’d hurled at each other the previous afternoon.
Ben stood up and warmly pumped my hand. It was an enthusiastic greeting. The Captain nodded at me to join them.
The Captain slapped Ben on the back.
“Our friend here,” said the Captain, “wants to hear the story about the favour I did for you.”
“Mother Mary and Joseph!” Ben ejaculated, “Are you sure that’s wise? I mean, can he deal with… er, that sort of thing?”
“You underestimate the boy,” croaked the Captain. “It wouldn’t surprise me if this young man here might hissef benefit from a similar turn of events.”
“No! Really?” Old Ben appraised me from head to foot in astonishment, then shook his head. “Inconceivable! He looks so… normal.”
“Oh, my dear Ben. That you of all people should judge by appearances. Fer shame! You’ve scarce even met Andy’s acquaintance, yet you rush to such harsh conclusions. Tsk-tsk, steady, now!”
The Captain turned to me. “When Ben and I first met, I was vacationing on Alpha Cent—oh, never mind that. It’s not relevant. He was waiting tables at some post-human café serving twenty-dollar espressos and stale truffles to doctors, lawyers and sundry other species of Tetraodontidae .”
“A hideous job!” Ben interjected. “They made me bathe.”
“—Regardless,” the Captain snapped, “Ben was not at all satisfied with his lot in life. He felt socially isolated and grievously misunderstood. It was as if he was living his life as a spectator, unable to fit in the groove of everyday existence. Human intimacy, even social acceptance, eluded him. Simply because he was different.”
I shot Ben a pitying glance. “I can relate,” I said, “I have friends in the LGBTQ community. Coming out can be so traumatic.”
Ben and the Captain looked at each other and blinked. Peals of hysterical laughter shook the room.
When the Captain finally recovered his composure, he chortled, “I thought you were smarter than that, Andy. Ben here ain’t gay, transsexual or transgender.”
I was taken aback by the sheer depth of my confusion. “Ben,” I timidly inquired, “Are you… ill?”
The Captain giggled. “I suppose,” he said, “You could look at it that way. I’d be stretching it, but the condition from which I liberated him might be considered a case of… uh, chronic dimensional dislocation?”
I cocked my head to the right and shifted uncomfortably in my chair. “Come again, Cap’n…?”
“Ben’s dilemma wasn’t just that he occupied the wrong body or entertained unconventional sexual preferences, Andy. His issues weren’t nearly as simple as that.
“’Cause you see,” said the Captain as he dramatically raised his arms and head in unison, “Ben was residing in the wrong universe.”
iv. Andy’s Lame—Yet Trenchant—Confession
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
- Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5)
The expression on the Captain’s face was maniacal.
In short order I feared for his sanity, and directly, my own safety.
“It’s all true, Andy.” Ben sighed. “Nothing in my old world made any sense to me. It was like a dream. Disconnected, pointless, futile. I was just going through the motions of living. Habit may give life structure, but it can’t imbue existence with meaning. I was lost in that world, and suicidal. The Captain here, he saved my life.”
My laugh was nervous, forced. “But surely, you don’t expect me to believe this nonsense? That such an absurd thing could happen to someone? To anyone?”
“Is that so, boy?” said the Captain, poking his finger at my chest. “If someone can be born in the wrong body, why not the wrong alternate universe? It’s the presence of the latter you can’t accept. That’s not my problem. Multiverses and branes exist whether or not you believe in them. They’re an objective reality. I’ve been there, and so has Ben.”
Ben nodded in agreement.
“Are you telling me,” I squeaked, “I can exchange external realities like shucking off my mortal coil and inhabiting another body? I don’t believe in either. It’s ludicrous!”
“Look, kid,” the Captain chided, “You’re doing it again. Objective reality isn’t determined by subjective belief. This is a big universe. Bigger than you think. And this is one of many. Face it, Andy: cosmologically, you don’t get around much.
“Dimensionally—pfft!—you’re a houseplant. How about showing a little humility here, for Christsakes!”
“Actually,” corrected Ben, “sentient life doesn’t always take on the same form. That’s a product of evolution. But consciousness is dependent on how we perceive reality. Intelligent life forms may develop different sensory organs, but alternate dimensions all arise from the same underlying, unchanging and immutable building blocks of reality: matter, energy, dark matter and dark energy.
“It’s a constant,” he asserted, “The only constant.”
The Captain’s piercing eyes drilled into mine. “Answer me this: Does this continuum suit you or not? Yes or no, I’m a busy man.”
“Truthfully, no.” I had to be frank. “It’s not a good fit for many of the reasons you mentioned before. Frankly, this world bores me.”
The Captain nodded. “A-ha!,” he exclaimed, “Now we’re getting somewhere! Let’s just see what we can do about that. I’ll be right back.”
v. Andy Ponders His Fate from a Literary Point of View
“I almost wish I hadn’t gone down that rabbit-hole—and yet—and yet—it’s rather curious, you know, this sort of life!”
- Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
“He’s not going to kill me, is he?” I asked meekly.
I suddenly recalled the fate of Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince and shuddered.
“Heavens no, not to worry,” Ben responded. “It’s nothing as drastic as all that. We just have to drop you down through the right rabbit-hole.”
So, I would be Alice instead. No poisonous asp required for the transformation, metamorphosis, transfiguration—or whatever in the name of God was about to befall me.
It worried me just the same.
I considered my available options but resolved on neither fight nor flight.
vi. The Captain Comes Clean—But Not His Piano
“Music in the soul can be heard by the universe.”
- Lao Tzu
Huffing and puffing, the Captain pushed a grimy old piano out of the back room. It moved on tiny black wheels, and one of them was stuck. It made a nasty grinding sound, leaving an ugly smear on the linoleum floor.
“Never you mind the racket,” the Captain said. “It’s all part of the act.”
The Captain rolled back the piano lid and dragged a soiled handkerchief across the keys. A cloud of dust kicked up in his face; he sneezed expansively.
Placing his hands on the premoistened keys, he began to play. “This is just a warm up,” he explained. “So, what we’re gonna do is this….
“As I’m sure you know, music is really a higher form of mathematics—an aural calculus of tone and rhythm. I’ve composed 28 songs; each tune resonates with a different alternate universe I’ve visited. They call me a transdimensional receptor.” The Captain smirked. “That’s scientific jargon for a savant, which I already knew.
“Anyway,” he continued, “I’m gonna play each song in turn until, hopefully, you resonate to one of the harmonics. The brane associated with that harmonic will be your destination.”
“How will I know when that happens?”
“Okay. Then what?”
I really, really, really wasn’t liking the direction this was all heading.
The Captain doffed his top hat and cocked it to one side on top of the piano, his fingers hovering menacingly over the keys.
vii. The Transdimensional Reception is Good—
Can You Hear Me Now?
“What have we here? A man or a fish? Dead or alive?... A strange fish!”
- Shakespeare, The Tempest (1.2)
The first tune began in earnest. A series of dissonant melodies and arrhythmic beats tumbled randomly out of the piano, accompanied by the Captain’s deep, raspy vocalizations.
The lyrics were interchangeably indecipherable and nonsensical. The result was not entirely pleasant. A cacophony of musical discord assaulted my ears. I winced, and the Captain moved on.
“Oh-NO, not that one.
“Or this one.
“Is it even music?”
The Captain paused. “Look kid, stick to the script, will ’ya? I don’t need another music critic.
“How about this one?” he offered, “the music is thud like.”
…And somehow it was.
I glanced sideways at old Ben. My mouth flew open but nothing came out. He’d morphed into something fast and bulbous writhing across the linoleum floor. Its cone-shaped tongue flicked in and out of its serrated oral cavity in response to the Captain’s melody.
“That’s Ben’s tune...” the Captain said. “It’s how I teleported him here.”
“Make it stop,” I said. And the Captain did. Ben resumed his familiar humanoid shape.
Then he played the next song.
And the one after that.
This time the Captain changed. He lurched around on two legs, bent back at the waist like a chicken with a broken neck.
And his head… the horror! It resembled that of a trout. Beady button-eyes stared vacantly into space. A puffy mouth puckered spasmodically in, out. Slimy gills flapped in time to the erratic beat. His top hat transformed into a fez.
“My old haunt,” the Captain said. “Sure do miss it. But far too much liquid methane for my tastes.”
—Then he played it. My tune.
To me, it didn’t sound much different from the previous arrangements (if you could call them that). If I was hard-pressed to classify the genre, I’d label it experimental blues. Undoubtedly there was something strangely hypnotic about it. Dare I employ the trite literary term déjà vu to describe the sensation that overwhelmed me? Surely, on some unconscious level, that tune and I shared a common, inseparable bond.
The Captain glanced up.
“That’s it, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Yes,” he proclaimed. “Look there—”
Peering through the bottom of his upturned hat, now balanced gingerly in the palms of Ben’s outstretched hands, I gazed into the abyss.
“Don’t ask me how it works, Andy.” The Captain shook his head vigorously. “It’s alien technology. I didn’t design it, or even make it. I just use it.”
Inside the hat seethed a roiling vortex in perpetual motion, shimmering and folding impossibly in and over on itself.
It was quite an impressive cosmic parlour trick, especially considering the meagre constituents of the Captain’s performance: a musty piano, an utterly deranged musician and his shabby top hat.
“It’s a rift to your new dimension, son.” Ben said. “A kind of rabbit-hole after all, yes? Congrats my boy, you’re going home.
“And by the way,” the Captain added with a lurid wink, “Your new body’s a thing of beauty, kid. Any sentient being would be happy to defile it.”
turned the magic hat right-side up,
lifted it over my head, and
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