The waiter roars it through the hall
George Martin Lane, "Lay of the Lone Fish Ball," 1855
"Is this an oasis or an asylum?" asked Blackie on their sixth day in Herat, as they settled back for their afternoon tea and biscuits. The tea was black and served in small glasses with sugar cubes on the side to strain it through, and the biccies were a curious amalgam, halfway to shortbread and definitely not by Huntley & Palmer, yet the ritual survived even as the Empire crumbled.
"You got to have camels for an oasis, I think," he continued after careful thought. "There are plenty of nutters, though."
"They got camels," Whitey pointed out.
This was true. The traditional camel caravan still existed, following unmarked routes through the central plateau of the country, inhabited only by nomads who ignored the central government, if indeed they really knew it existed. In turn, the Ministry of the Interior happily overestimated their numbers, to attract foreign aid, and was glad to see the occasional wanderer hitch his beast in town. The aid, however, was designed to eliminate them by connecting the cities with black-top and providing trucks and buses to run on the brand-new roads. Tourists were not encouraged to hit the hinterland.
"Got a few. It's not right for an oasis, though."
Blackie gestured towards the square below them. There was a truck on blocks, being repaired by several oil-stained surgeons and an appreciative audience of kibitzers squatting around a hookah. The morning bus was resting over in one corner, the afternoon one was yet to arrive. Even the flies seemed to be taking a siesta. Dust from the road out of town hovered in the warm breeze and sank exhausted onto the buildings. Aside from some of the clothing, it could have been a scene from one of the gritty but warm-hearted Italian Neo-Realist movies of the fifties. Early Fellini, de Sica's Bicycle Thief, like that. Not Erroll Flynn in the French Foreign Legion.
"I was thinking of palm trees and shit, yeah?" elaborated Blackie. "Little mirages in the desert, shimmering off by the horizon."
"Wanna shimmer?" smiled Whitey, passing the joint.
"Right, right." [longish pause for the avoidance of exhalation] "Ah, Puff the magic dragon." [further pause for unavoidably explosive exhalation] "But they got water here, they got people ..."
"See the kid with no legs?"
"By the mosque."
"And he's really got no legs?"
Blackie was trying to get a handle on the idea. Like most verbal people, he was reduced to burbling while the wheels went round. He'd heard all right, but he didn't grok. He understood the words, four easy monosyllables [legs / no / with / kid] prefaced by an article and, give or take an interrogative inflection, the simplest verb form in the language, but he was having trouble hooking them into his reality. The question meant: Wait a minute, I'm trying to catch up.
If Whitey had been successfully socialized by his stepfather, he'd no doubt have come back with some illuminating retort like "Said so, di'n'I" that does even less to further the conversation than the automatic riff of repetition. That reply would have meant: I'm dominant in this interaction and I want you to acknowledge it. It's what penguins do, and goats, and eagles, and dolphins. They are not exactly verbal but then 'di'n'I' is not exactly a word, at least in English. It's all in the intonation.
What he actually meant was: Take your time. Or even, Have some of mine if you're short. Whitey liked to stick to the center of his own experience and had no great interest in or talent for annotating it. He was a seer without regard for the prophet margin. He did need to absorb, to internalize his experience, to structure it in his head, but he did this without conscious calculation. Whitey rarely bothered even to discuss what he'd seen with his closest friend, preferring just to check in occasionally to ensure they were on the same page. Blackie tended to achieve his synthesis in conversation and his process helped his friend to pull it together, as Whitey knew (without knowing) and so gave the other space in which to back and fill and ramble on.
Ah, the achievements of the subconscious, how like the base instincts of the lower animals, who don't know enough to act just, so they just act. Why 'lower'? one wonders, Why 'base'? Why get high to get down, for that matter? Why this obsession with hierarchy and pyramids and putting ourselves (natch) on top. It looks awfully pointy on top of a pyramid, you'd think it would be uncomfortable.
People are meant to do the things that are meant for people to do. When they do, they are good people, and when they don't they are usually unhappy. Sometimes rich, too, but that's rock 'n' roll. Even the bad die young.
"What'd he look like?" probed Blackie.
"Robert Johnson, man! 'I got three legs to truck on...' "
" 'Stones in My Passway', King of the Delta Blues Singers, side two, somewhere in the middle."
"You mean this kid, like, you mean you can see them?" Blackie was really horrified. Like a child[ish person] with an itch, he scratched.
"Just stumps, man. Like elbows or something." Whitey looked over to his right and saw that Blackie was not just hearing him but listening. He went on describing. "Sittin' on, like, a tray on wheels."
"You mean, he can push himself around?"
"He beggin' or what?"
"Oh right, it's by the mosque, you said. Like with a tin cup or something?"
The really strange thing was that Blackie had seen the leper. He just hadn't noticed him, and especially he hadn't imagined what it must be like to be him, because he hadn't heard about it or told anyone about it or even exactly thought about it. As Whitey described him, an enormous kaleidoscope of images came into focus, a thousand different pieces of society fusing and shattering around a single soul in physical collapse.
"You never see anyone like that at home do ya?"
"I guess we don't have them really, I mean you'd get to a doctor and you'd get artificial limbs or at least a wheelchair or something. And you'd get social security, a place to live and everything."
"Yeah, maybe, but ... I really don't want to see it when someone's that messed up. I'd say we should put them to sleep, maybe, except that I couldn't want that, I couldn't be someone who wanted to off the crips, I couldn't live with myself if I did, you know, I just couldn't stand to think I was that much of a shit."
"You'd think on it."
"So maybe you're not."
"Thanks, man." Blackie paused for a minute, not-looking out over the dusty square. He turned his head and caught Whitey's eye for a moment and nodded with uncharacteristic solemnity and turned back to the wall across the street. "Maybe that's why we're here, to make ourselves see things we don't want to see at home and we don't want to think about."
This was getting too far out there for Whitey.
"We're here 'cause we don't want to get fucking killed," he pointed out with a small but genuine smile.
"Nah," countered Blackie, getting back into the swing of it, "We're here 'cause we're too damn lazy to get on the bus to Qandahar."
"And besides, there's so much to see in this fucking outdoors lunatic oasis deal. That's what it is, man, I got it a reality oasis."
"Right, man, England's nuts, I'm nuts, you're nuts. This is real."
"So give the real nut a fake biccie then. I'm glad we sorted that out."