Art by Joey Feldman
by Marc D. Goldfinger
Everyone gets to pay the gatekeeper. In the end we pay with the only currency that we own. The gatekeeper’s desires are simple. All he wants is all we’ve got.
They call me the Troll. I’m a gatekeeper of sorts and I have my own kingdom. Of course, I have to follow the rules too. He’s always watching me. He watches me through the eyes of the junkies that live here. Who’s he? I’ll get to that.
That’s why I treat everyone the same here in the last dope house on the block. No one gets here without paying the high price. Every one of us has opted out of the world as most of us know it.
Have you ever woken up in the morning at first light, heard the birds chirping and then cursed the sun for burning you out of slumber? Have you ever stumbled to the bathroom looking for the wake-up shot that you hoped was still there, knowing full well that at 3 in the morning you had used it because the dreams in your head had grown sharp with yellow teeth that were ripping away the pieces of what was left of your soul? Have you ever come to in the dark alley between mortar and bricks, behind the dumpster, where you had hidden to protect yourself from the young boys out wilding?
No, maybe you wake up scratching the dead skin on your face cursing the job that you must go to everyday where your essence spills out into the ether as you wait on customer after customer. “And what would you like in your coffee, sir? Who’s next? Just jerk the handle, I’m dying, sir. I could use a drink myself.”
Or maybe you sit in a cubicle, one of many in a giant row of them, staring into a computer screen tabulating figure after figure, maybe checking zip codes hour after hour, pressure building up in your bladder, but “oh my god, I can’t go yet, there’s still so much to do and they never stop coming in. I hope I pass that urinalysis, I didn’t know that they’d pick me today. I don’t want to lose this job and wind up homeless.”
Quite possibly you’re a beautiful woman waking up late in the afternoon. Your body aches from running from the tables to the bar in that costume that always makes you feel like a piece of ground round served up steaming in a hog trough. The bruises where you were pinched dot your upper legs, you still smell the drink that someone threw at you because you wouldn’t give them a kiss. “Better the drink than their breath,” you think as you make your way to the bathroom to clean yourself before you are fouled by life once more. You look in the mirror and see the worry lines starting at the corners of the mouth, sparrow-prints at the eyes that are suddenly very wet and you swallow hard and splash water into your face, sobbing deep in your chest.
Just maybe you are the President of the United States waking to the news that another woman claims to know about the tattoo on your penis and you wonder how George Washington, John F. Kennedy, or even J. Edgar Hoover would have fared in this terrible time when everything is grist for the cows at the public watering trough called television? You roll over to hug your wife; she is crying. An emptiness that is full hurts between your lungs. “Maybe a war is not a bad idea,” is the thought that crosses your mind.
Hey, maybe you’re a writer like the guy in the corner there who is between stories or poems. You haven’t written a word in over two weeks and the worry stomps your mind into its own hellish nether regions. We all have them in our heads. Your mind says, “Maybe that’s it. Maybe I’ll never write again. Maybe I’ll just shoot some dope; I know a place where I can go, downtown where all the lights are bright, downtown where I can die tonight, downtown, everything’s waiting for me.”
I could go on and on and on. That’s how life is. Sooner or later we all wind up knocking on the door of the gatekeeper.
I’m a gatekeeper. My kingdom is a subterranean basement where junkies come to dream about what might have been; what should have been; what could happen if only, if only, if only. Sometimes I tell the stories and he writes them down. I’m not the only one here who tells the stories. Everyone who comes here has a story, maybe more than one. The guy in the corner, the Troll points to a bearded junkie sitting at a typewriter, he writes them down. He never tells the stories but he’s always listening and writing or typing. All it takes to shake him out of a deep nod is for someone to say, “Oh yeah, let me tell you a story about what happened to me.”
There are times, in the middle of a story, that he will stop to fix; maybe his hand has started to shake, maybe he just wants to hold off the cold and the cramps until the tale is over. His memory takes over and he’ll play catch-up while he’s listening. He may get to hear the same story a few times but each time it is a little different, depending on who’s doing the telling. It could be different even with the same teller.
He writes the stories but he always laughs and says, “I don’t really guarantee their accuracy, you know. But I don’t have to, see. No one believes a junkie.”
Call him Seth. Last name Morgan. The writer. I’m the teller but he’ll record it. He promised not to lie or change the facts and to write it just like I tell it. Junkies always make promises.
Let me tell you about another gatekeeper. The one who watches me. The one who might very well have his eyes on you. Some people call him the Dustman. Others say he is the king of the dreams that live between the waking and sleep. Still others say that he is just a man who has chosen a path of crime and that he is nothing more than a druglord. I choose not to argue with anyone’s story when it is about him. The confusion clarifies my beliefs. My beliefs? I’ll tell you this story and let you form your own.
I’ll tell you this story about his beginnings. It was told to me by a Harvard professor who comes here now and then for a bit of a rest. Forget about it. I’m not going to reveal my source. You would probably recognize the name.
In the beginning the Dustman’s only name was Ar Lain Ta.
Ar Lain Ta was a man of humble origins. His parents were farmers from the west bank of the Salween river. The terrorist, but legally sanctioned, army of Burma, known as the Tatmadaw, had driven his parents from their farm. The Tatmadaw used what they called a “Four Cuts Strategy” which meant isolating and controlling sources of food, funds, intelligence, and recruits. His father, a farmer named U Hla Pe, had been meditating and his mother had been in the fields slicing the pods of the poppies when the Tatmadaw arrived and began looting homes, gang-banging the wives and daughters of friends, and plundering animals and the croplands. Instead of surrendering to them and becoming unwilling participants in the construction of a one-hundred-mile-long railroad line from Aung Ban south to Loi Kaw in a slave labor camp where cholera, dengue fever, yaws, blackwater fever, yellow fever, amoebic dysentery, and other antagonistic life-forms constantly raided the camps, U Hla Pe chose to slip through the fields and take his pregnant wife to flee across the Salween into Mae Ark, a small Pa-O village which was controlled and protected by a benevolent lord of the opium trade named Chang Te Tzu.
Very little is known about his mother’s origins. She was named Nang Saeng Zoom, yet it is not known whether this was her given name or one that she acquired later. It is said that she loved the fields and, as she worked, she was known to talk to the plants. There were some that said she was haunted by ghosts of her ancestors.
This story about Ar Lain Ta’s mother was passed on by an old farmer in the opium den that he had retired to after his work was done. One day, when Chang Te Tzu was visiting the village he became very ill with all the symptoms of cholera. The diarrhea came on suddenly and violently and his stools were filled with filled with rice like-particles. He vomited and shat simultaneously and the muscles in his arms and legs knotted and contracted spasmodically, literally appearing to be boiling beneath his skin to all those who watched with horror. The man collapsed and virtually seemed to shrink in size within moments. Other observers said his skin turned to light parchment paper and began to rip in places.
At that moment Nang Saeng Zoom appeared and light seemed to shine from her eyes as she lifted Chang Te Tzu as if he weighed nothing and carried him quickly into her dwelling. His personal guard stood well away and did not interfere for they were afraid that they would be stricken with the strange malady that had infected their Lord. Normally they were afraid of nothing and would charge headlong into battle no matter what weapons their enemies wielded but this was something out of their realm.
Nang Saeng Zoom lit lamps, mixed potions from strange herbs that were hanging on the walls of her hut, and soon alien smells and chants mixed with the sound of moaning and the smell of feces, vomit, and death spilled into the air. At first the smells were weak and the chanting was soft, but like a rising wind, they increased in velocity and power. Suddenly they began to diminish and, within hours, the stench of hell was gone and the people nearby the hut heard the voice of Chang Te Tzu singing in harmony with the sweet soprano of Nang Saeng Zoom.
It was told, and there are no villagers that will contradict this, that in the evening Chang Te Tzu emerged from the hut of U Hla Pe with Nang Saeng Zoom on his arm and he was in such robust health that he appeared to glow. When he asked Nang Saeng Zoom what he could do for her, the only boon that she requested was that Chang Te Tzu take her son, soon to be born, and raise him with the best of educational opportunities. When Chang Te Tzu asked her how she knew that the child would be male, she laughed. He began to laugh also; he laughed so hard that his body shook and the laugh leaped from him to his men and coursed through the entire village like a titanic tide that could not be stopped.
Three days later Ar Lain Ta was born on the day when the harvest was celebrated. It was the largest harvest in the history of the village. Soon after that day U Hla Pe met with an unfortunate accident, the details of which are unknown, while working in the poppy fields. Six months later Chang Te Tzu married Nang Saeng Zoom.
To this day the people speak of the wonder and magic of the times when Chang Te Tzu ruled with Nang Saeng Zoom at his side. There were those that said that she wielded the power during this era in which Chang Te Tzu’s influence spread across the land and even reached overseas to the Americas. Of course, this is nothing but rumor and innuendo. Only the walls of their many dwellings know the truth and they are not speaking. Yet, there still remain servants from this era who might talk if they were so inclined.
However, these servants that still live now serve Ar Lain Ta, the birth son of Nang Saeng Zoom and the adopted son of Chang Te Tzu. It is said that he is everywhere at once. There are many stories told about Ar Lain Ta, the man of many names.
Some say that Ar Lain Ta speaks more than eight languages fluently. He did attend Harvard University and, it is documented, now has two post-graduate degrees: a doctorate in International Relations and a doctorate in Ethnobotany.
There are many stories about Ar Lain Ta yet there are not many people who have specific memories of meeting him. Many students say that he was like a phantom and sometimes they noticed him and sometimes they didn’t. Even the professors have different versions of their experiences with him and their stories are always subject to change.
Me, I met him in a church and I’ll never forget that day. Did I ever tell you that story? I seem to remember relating it to you once. But I feel a little sick right now.
The Troll turned in his chair and called out.
“Veronica! Veronica! I need you right now.”
Ron de Voux came bustling over, pulled two packets out of the Troll’s cracked leather bag and cleaned a syringe that lay on the great table.
“Into the kitchen,” hissed the Troll.
Veronica, as she rolled him through the door to the kitchen, glanced back at us. She gave us a great big grin that brought the dimples out on her cheeks and her pinpoint pupils appeared to spray laser beams of light before they disappeared into the candlelit back room.