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The Essay
Show #119
The Catbox Café
David Gunn
Abel Kenhowzer, age 38, sits in his pick-up truck in the parking lot of the Catbox Café awaiting the 11pm shift change. He has been sitting there slouched behind the steering wheel for nearly four hours, alert for any untoward change in the atmospheric conditions around him. He slowly stretches his cramped feet and knocks over an empty styrofoam cup on the floor. The noise, inaudible outside of the truck cab, sounds like cannonfire to Abel, and he jerks upright, accidentally brushing against the volume knob on the stereo. A hyperactive disc jockey had been playing static for 15 uninterrupted minutes on the radio, but suddenly the gentle susurrus changes into a deafening roar of alpha wave particles waging war on hapless magnetron oscillators, and Abel has to switch off the ignition to stop the racket. He holds stock still, the only sound coming from the jingling of the key ring in the ignition. Glancing furtively about, he satisfies himself that no one else heard the commotion. In fact, no other vehicle is parked within 50 feet of Abel's truck, and a nearby kennel of dogwood trees helps conceal him even more. Relaxing somewhat, he checks the barometric pressure, wind color, and nuclear antimatter bandwidth and enters the data in his notebook. So far, everything appears normal. Everything, that is, except for the fact that he has in the past hour heard the word "Mesopotamia" uttered 11 times and his truck has been twice circled by four hooded characters in an old Hudson Wingback.

Inside the café, Emil and Dorodny are in a booth hunched over a huge plate of mashed potatoes. The mushroom gravy sits idly by in a tureen on which cherubs suck on ornate hookahs in basso rilievo. Blanche had served the gravy separately so the two wizened trenchermen could deal with the potatoes on their own terms -- which is to sculpt the mash into a realistic likeness of a certain fusion energy device as alien to the café as are bean bag chairs to the Trilobite hunter-gatherers of the New Guinean backcountry. The hands which carefully knead and massage the pliant tuber mound have done so dozens of times before, and as whatever it is slowly takes shape, a few café regulars crowd around the booth to watch the finishing touches. The time is 10:55pm.

The Hudson, driving without headlamps, slowly turns off of East Main Street and pulls into an employee parking space. Through night vision field glasses, Abel observes three young giggling women in waitstaff attire pile out and saunter into the building. A fourth person remains in the idling car, fiddling with what looks like a cellular phone. He, or she -- the hooded parka conceals the person's genderical persuasion -- attaches a whip antenna to the roof of the car, opens the trunk, and pulls out a sophisticated looking console from which green glowing tubes protrude. Working quickly, the cowled character connects a cable from the console to the antenna, flips a row of switches, climbs back into the car, and revs the engine, shattering the evening calm. Soon, however, the engine howl is displaced by another sound, a low frequency hum that seems to resonate through the earth, but whose focal point is undeniably the Hudson. Abel can actually see shards of the deeply- pitched oscillation emanate from the antenna, and as the pulsing increases in frequency, vision through his glasses begins to distort on the vertical axis.

As his digital wristwatch chirps 11pm, Emil pours the gravy onto the potato sculpture. The brown slurry sizzles as it hits an energy field, and then the mound begins to flow in and out of focus. The size of the field grows rapidly, and within nanomoments the entire café and part of the parking lot are also wavering between two uncomfortably different focal points. The visual slippage plays especial havoc with the Hudson, seeming to stretch its chassis among an assortment of divergent universes before the car and its occupant abruptly wink completely out of focus, at least on this visual plain. An afterglow from the headlamps is all that remains ... that and the eerie murmur of the word "Mesopotamia" echoing in the suddenly chill air.

Inside the café, the energy field is dissipating as normal focus gradually returns to the mound of potatoes, which once again resembles hearty diner fare, prompting Dorodny to dig in hungrily. Emil withdraws a sparkling vial of thawed limeade concentrate from his coat pocket, takes a swig, and joins Dorodny in the culinary dismantling of the potato-flavored tokamak. There will be much to discuss this night.

Outside in his pick-up truck, the 38-year old former whiskers six-draw champion jots improbable barometric pressure and wind color data into his notebook, sighs, and turns on his radio. The gentle susurrus of static has been replaced by this, the officially sanctioned pre-broadcast of the 119th episode of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Bazaar, and he pauses to listen, his senses alert for any change in normal radiophonic frequency modulation, nuclear tempos, or le flambeau oriange. But he hears only the voices of the aforementioned hosts, the imagined plop of warm mashed potatoes entering a vacuum, and the occasionally whispered polysyllabic word which he has come to both anticipate and apprehend, a word which may be attributed to four hours of cramped car surveillance, or, perhaps, to Kalvos.

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