What Happened to Humboldt and Marty Upon Arriving in New York City by Scott Navicky




Prose


 


An excerpt from Humboldt: Or, The Power of Positive Thinking, a creative misreading of Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism

 

1787 illustration of Candide and Cacambo meeting a maimed slave of the sugar mill near Suriname
1787 illustration of Candide and Cacambo meeting a maimed slave of the sugar mill near Suriname

 

I wonder which of these low economic housing developments is Connecticut? Humboldt thought as he stared wildeyed out his window during their descent into Idlewild Airport. He was amazed at how far the city’s concretesprawl spread. Huge concrete crops stretched for miles. From his vantage point, all Humboldt could see of these crops were their ugly square tops. And what was strewn all over these rooftops? Humboldt peered intently out his window.

Chicken coops?

Humboldt couldn’t believe his eyes! Who was raising chickens in such an unforgiving setting? What were they fed: concretefeed? And where did they graze: in the gutter?

As the passing rooftops drew steadily closer, Humboldt realized his mistake. These were not chickencoops; they were pigeoncoops! Over and over again, he saw pigeoncoops covered in the graffiti of pigeonpoop.

Humboldt was in awe of the city’s BIGness. No, its vastness. No, its peopleness. The city was a big, vast peoplefarm. Nooo, its pigeonness! The city was a big, vast pigeonfarm! New York City: the peoplepigeoncity. As Humboldt watched, the city transformed itself into a gigantic, concrete birdcage full of peoplepigeons. These strange creatures spent their days foraging for food and desirable reproductive qualities, while continually defecating on each other. At night, these peoplepigeons were kept in tiny cages that were geometrically stacked on top of each other. Once a day, these cages would open, causing a swarm of activity. Having been exquisitely trained, millions of peoplepigeons would fly in precise circles for hours. At first, this constant circlingcirclingcircling appeared meaningless, but upon closer inspection, it became obvious that the meaninglessness of the circlingcircling was the meaning. Once all the daily circlingcirclingcircling was complete, the exhausted peoplepigeons would return to their cages for their evening rest. And the next day, the routine would be exactly the same: more cages, more meaningless circlingcirclingcircling, and finally: rest unto rest.

Once their circling was complete and their private jet had achieved a stationary position on their private runway, Marty turned to Humboldt.

– Do we have a plan for travelling to Connecticut?

– Yes, Humboldt replied confidently. We’ll just ask the first friendlylooking person we meet how to get to Connecticut.

– And what if we never meet a friendlylooking person in this city? Marty asked skeptically.

The plane’s door was flung open and the duo descended a flimsy, metal staircase. Once on the ground, they began their measured march across the tarmac towards the bright lights of a distant terminal. Humboldt was still pondering the answer to Marty’s question when he heard an effeminate voice calling his name from across the tarmac.

Humboldt! Monsieur Humboldt! Bonjour! Mr. Humboldt! HELLOOO!

Scanning his surroundings, Humboldt noticed a small, fleshy flag waving. Upon closer inspection, this flag wasn’t a flag at all; it was a limp wrist holding a white handkerchief. Waving up and down, the limp wrist and handkerchief looked like a fluttering pigeon that had just ingested an Alka-Seltzer tablet.

The limp wrist was attached to a portly gentleman, who was wearing an illfitting paisley shirt. At first, Humboldt mistook the paisley pattern for a large sagging, sweaty piece of luggage. As the waving continued, the figure labored across the tarmac, dodging baggagehandlers and miniature motorized trains loaded with mounds of baggage.

Mr. Humboldt! Hello!HELLOOO!

The shouting and waving continued until the artful dodger stood no more than a handshake away. Out-of-breath and sweaty, the dodger thrust a greasy palm towards Humboldt in a gesture of friendship.

– Mr. Humboldt, I assume, the dodger said in choppy bursts. I didn’t learn of your impending arrival until the very last minute. I was at a fundraising gala for the City Opera and I had to tell my driver to drive fortissimo to get here on time!

Humboldt felt the warm squeeze of an unwanted handshake.

– It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, the dodger said obediently. Heavens, I’ve completely forgotten my manners. Please forgive me. My name is Chester K. Chesterton, but you can call me Chesté. That’s French for Chester. I’m the company’s New York City cultural attaché. I’ve taken the liberty of scheduling a full slate of cultural events. And I must say, there are some spectacular events taking place in the city this week. Opera! Classical Music! Broadway! I’ve even booked us front row seats for a reading at a bookstore in Brooklyn. But tonight, gentleman, we travel to Valhalla!

– Is that in Connecticut? Humboldt inquired.

Although he may have mistakenly thought that Valhalla was in Connecticut, Humboldt was no fool when it came to opera. Growing up in Winesburg, Ohio, he had often heard people speak fondly of the Ohio Light Opera company that performed every summer in the nearby town of Wooster. And while he himself had never personally attended a performance, the stories he had heard about pirates, butterflies, and promiscuous overweight men sounded enchanting.

But what was the difference between light opera and heavy opera? Like most Ohioans, Humboldt never knew. But after taking his seat in the front row of Lincoln Center’s Metropolitan Opera House, the answer to this question became obvious: any production that weighed less than forty-five tons was considered light opera.

Before the performance began, Chesté the attaché whispered a few explanatory words into Humboldt’s ear.

– The name of what we’re about to see is Das Rheingold. It’s the first installment of Richard Wagner’s masterwork: The Ring Cycle. The action takes place in a brewery in Red Hook.

Humboldt was tempted to relay Chesté’s whisperings to Marty, but when he turned, he noticed that Marty had cleverly angled his book towards the footlights and was diligently reading Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.

– Behold the machine, Chesté continued whispering as he pointed towards the hulking array of oversized piano keys that covered the stage. Those twenty-four moving planks undulate into the waters of the East River, twist into a staircase, and evoke the fortress of Valhalla. Pound for pound, ton for ton, that machine is the most inspired work of hydraulics in the history of modern opera. Just think of what Verdi might have accomplished, if he had only possessed a better working knowledge of fluid mechanics.

Humboldt nodded politely, although he felt confused. What did “fluid mechanics” have to do with opera? Shouldn’t an opera’s knowledge of such things be confined to knowing what combination of tea and honey best battled a sore throat?

– The entire production, Chesté continued, cost sixteen million dollars! And to think, it was almost derailed by the conductor’s spinal surgery.

– For sixteen million dollars, Marty grumbled not lifting his eyes from his book, you’d think someone could design some hydraulic planks that undulated into an ergonomic chair.

At first, Humboldt thought that spending sixteen million dollars on a fancy staircase sounded like a tremendous waste of money, but then the performance began. He was shocked at how talented “the machine” was. Not only did it undulate and twist, it also knew how to sing! Its ever-present mechanical whining added rich, atonal depth to the surrounding action. And that was not all, the machine also knew how to play the snare drum! As it sung and spun, “the machine” clanked out a persistent pulse that kept the opera’s rhythm surging forward.

During intermission, Chesté noticed a friend standing alone across the atrium. After waving his limp wrist in welcome, he hurried Humboldt across the crowded space for an introduction.

– This is so exciting! Chesté began. Humboldt, I would like you to meet my friend Harold. Harold is one of the most powerful literary agents in the city. Harry, you have to hear Humboldt’s lifestory; it’s a guaranteed blockbusting bestselling memoir.

– Really, Harry said with interest. I’ve had some success recently in that genre.

– He’s just being polite, Chesté exclaimed. Success? He’s Wagner and Barnes & Noble is his Bayreuth. Go ahead, Humboldt, just give him a brief synapses of your lifestory.

Even though he was still wondering why Wotan had offered his sister-in-law as payment to his building contractors, Humboldt briefly explained the trajectory of his life. He explained how he had grown up on a farm, eaten from the casserole of homeschooling, attended college, fallen in love, and worked for Senator Dick. He also mentioned how he had become the CEO of Hal Burton’s company. He concluded his narrative by explaining how he had recently been killed in Iraq.

As Humboldt unfurled his lifestory, he couldn’t help but notice Harold’s eyes widening at an alarming speed.

– Isn’t that a remarkable story, Chesté said once Humboldt had finished. I mean, you’d have to be a pretty uncultured, unsophisticated Nibelung dwarf not to want to read a book like that!

– I agree, said Harold. Truly remarkable! Any publisher would be an idiot to turn down such a story! I’ll greenlight it tonight! We’ll have it on shelves in a week! Promotional tour, bookclubs, front table at The Strand, backcover blurb from Michiko, a glowing review in The New York Review of Books, it could all be finalized before the curtain comes down! But I just have one question for you before we start: do you have any pets?

Humboldt was confused.

– Pets? he asked. No, I don’t have any pets.

– Well, Harold said flashing a look of literaryagentagony. Do you have a story about how your golden retriever was hit by a truck and you saved his life or visa versa?

– No.

Another look of literaryagentagony.

– How about a story about how you saved your Labrador retriever’s marriage or visa versa?

– No.

More literaryagentagony.

– Have you ever raced the rain with a dog?

– No.

– Shat in the snow with a cat?

– No.

– Hugged a horse in a hailstorm?

– No.

– Well, Harold continued. Do you know anything about wizardy, vampire abstinence, Swedish technobuggery, shady sadomasochism, or murderous futuristic teenage forestry?

Humboldt shook his head.

– Have you, or any of your pets, ever been shot in the face, cut off your own arm, cheated your way to victory in the Tour de France, or compared a high ranking national politician to Hitler?

Humboldt again shook his head.

– Have you, or any of your pets, ever had gender reassignment surgery, an abortion, or had a smutty affair with a high ranking military intelligence official?

Once again, Humboldt shook his head.

– I’m sorry, Harold said. I just don’t think your book is worthy of being published.

The following evening, Chesté insisted that Humboldt and Marty spend some time galleryhopping around Chelsea. Apparently the neighborhood was full of contemporary art, but Humboldt failed to see any of it. All he saw were crowds of hideously dressed people crammed into tiny whitewall gallerycubes. As the three of them hopped from gallery to gallery not looking at art, Humboldt began to wonder if there really was any real art to be seen in the city or if Alice Walton had indeed bought it all and had it shipped to Arkansas.

Humboldt was still pondering this question, as he attempted to secure an unmolested view of a work of art that turned out to be a doorway. Fearing that at any moment two naked people would appear and position themselves within the doorframe, Humboldt turned quickly to flee. But the gallerycube was so crowded that he couldn’t move. He bumped into a hideously dressed person in tightbright pants and then another and another. Pinballing between tightdenim and loose plaid, Humboldt felt like he was drowning in the Chelseasea. Momentarily losing his sense of balance, Humboldt bumped into a work of sculpture, dislodging from its pedestal. As the sculpture toppled to the floor, Humboldt froze in panic. Trampled instantly, the piece was ruined! Alice Walton would never buy it now!

Humboldt felt awful. How could he have been so careless? Because of his carelessness, a serious work of high quality art had been completely destroyed. Feeling humiliated and ashamed, Humboldt bent down in an attempt to regather the leftover scraps. But before Humboldt could begin reassembling the sculpture he had destroyed, he was rudely swept aside by a group of welldressed Southerners.

– I simply love it, y’all!

– I can have it in Crystal Bridges in four hours, Miss Walton.

– YEE HAW!!! the group yelled in unison while thrusting their ‘Hook ‘em Horns’ skyward.

A few of these ‘Hook ‘em Horns’ hit Humboldt, causing him to momentarily lose his balance again. Careening off another sculpture, Humboldt crunched a pile of dirty taxidermy underfoot while heading towards the gallery’s exit. As he left the gallery, Humboldt could hear a chorus of Southern voices praising the pile of garbage he had just created.

 

Scott Navicky‘s debut novel, Humboldt: Or, The Power of Positive Thinking, a creative misreading of Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism, was published by the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography in 2014. His work has appeared in Chicago Literati, Hypertext Magazine, (614) MagazineFiction Writers ReviewNecessary FictionZO Magazine, and Chaos + Words.