When you work at Snuj, there’s no fixed timetable for anything. There are no clocks or calendars. If you want something, you have to do something to get it. This kind of purity doesn’t exist anywhere else.
I made up my mind to go see Ludwig. Ludwig was black and didn’t speak with any identifiable accent. It was an unwritten rule at Snuj that you never asked Ludwig about his background.
“I want Cow Five,” I said to Ludwig.
He gave me an over-long stare before reaching for the lower drawer of his old wooden desk. He took out a magazine and handed it to me. “Now you go to the men’s room and do what you have to do, understand?”
“You just bring back the cover. The rest can go in the waste basket, understand?”
I took the magazine to the men’s room and…I did what I had to do. I brought back the cover. “The cover is still clean,” I said.
“We don’t care about that,” he replied, taking it from me. He opened another drawer and took out a brown envelope, which was sealed. “Now you go to Zeugma and ask for Nine Special Ray.”
“Nine Special Ray,” I repeated.
“Yes. Now go.”
I went downstairs, pausing at the window in the stairwell to look at the Unerectable Dome across the street, a structure that was perpetually collapsing and being rebuilt.
I walked into Zeugma, where Carney, the albino, sat in a cubicle very much like a subway toll booth, with the added feature of a bell on the counter. I held out the brown envelope to him.
“Ring the bell if you want service,” he said condescendingly. I rang the bell. “What do you want?” he asked.
“I want Nine Special Ray.”
He snatched the brown envelope out of my hand, opened it neatly with a letter opener, and peered inside briefly, frowning. Then he took a small ledger from a cubbyhole, opened it, and flipped a few pages. He was still frowning as he scanned a page. The frown was Carney’s only facial expression. I wondered if it was a medical condition. “You do…Solar AB….The string, that is.”
“In the Fish Tank, of course. That way.” He pointed.
I went down the hall to a wooden door with faded letters: FISH TANK. It was unlocked. It was like a janitor’s closet with a chair. I sat down. A tangled mass of strings hung down from a high shelf. Each one had a tag. The rectangular tags were Neon, the round ones were Fruit, the triangles were Solar, and so on. There was another closet called Beggar’s Dream with other tags, but don’t ask me about that. So I had to look for a Solar AB. I found one. I yanked the string, and a key fell down from the shelf. A gold key. Irish Knights. But we had other names for them.
I went to the other side of the building to what was called the Insensorium, or “Sorry.” I knocked at the open door. There were a half dozen guys dressed as leprechauns, all with their feet up on this big table, smoking clay pipes. “Whut-choo got?” said one, talking like a ghetto black, although he was very pale.
“I have a Solar AB.”
“You going for Cow Five?” asked another.
“Yes, that’s right,” I said firmly.
The leprechauns chuckled and made some remarks in a dialect only they understood. Bunch of assholes. Older guys with no degrees, no technology, just years of seniority. Not one of them ever saw Cow Two, I’m sure. The oldest one got up, picked up a large wooden mallet, and stood in front of this large copper plate on the wall. He struck the plate with much force. The others went Ooh! and Ahh! with fake reverence. Then the one who had struck the plate said in a loud ceremonial voice, “Voola One-Two-Three!”
“On the roof,” someone else explained, although I already knew that.
The elevator only went to Six. After that you had to climb this long ladder, which was always greasy and slippery, and the handrail was loose besides. I came up onto the roof. It was an asphalt roof that was always too hot in the summer, so the company wisely sprinkled dirt on it, which was guaranteed to make a mess of your shoes.
There was this large pigeon coop set close to a wall, and set into the wall was a bank of boxes like safe deposit boxes. There was very little clearance between the coop and the boxes, so you had to squeeze in to get to your box, and it was hard to read the numbers as well. I managed to find Voola 123 and put my key in, hoping it would work, because very often the leprechauns would give you the wrong box number, and you’d have to go back down, and they would claim it was an honest mistake or you heard them wrong. Ha, ha. Very funny. But fortunately my key fit. I opened the box and pulled out a small gold brick. Pretty damned good. You got a gold brick, that was good.
I had to take the brick down to Ludwig. Before I could say a word, he said, “Carmody,” and pointed toward the end of the hall.
Carmody was dressed in a blue uniform like a bellhop. He guarded the Gasworks. There was actually no gas in the Gasworks. It was just an old traditional name that went back to the time when Snuj was called something else. Carmody unlocked a metal door and led me down a long gangway to a basement that was poorly-lit and smelled like oil. There was a lot of low, throbbing machine noise that came from these chambers behind the walls, but you couldn’t actually see the machines.
Royster was in charge down there. I think he lived there because I never actually saw him come to work or leave. He was supposedly a mechanic, and he was dressed like one. But rumor had it that he was the one who actually controlled Snuj. He was said to have the entire 800-page Code Book memorized.
Carmody said to Royster, “He’s all yours, Sir.”
“Yes. Fine,” said Royster. Carmody went back up the gangway. Royster said to me, “Come this way, please,” and he led me through a maze of passages. “Watch your head. Low ceiling,” he warned me. We reached an area referred to humorously as the Un-Stable, which smelled like animals. There was a row of stalls screened individually by canvasses, which were rigged like shower curtains. He led me to the one at the end. “This is it. Congratulations,” he said, shaking hands with me. Then he left.
I took a deep breath. Was this for real, or was it just a dream? Would this be the happiest moment of my life, or would I be cruelly disappointed? I pulled the canvas aside, and there it was…Cow Five….It was tied to the wall with a rope and was chewing contentedly on something. There was a decal on its side like that of a racehorse — a white 5 on a background of green and gold. I almost couldn’t believe it.
“Four years of college just so I could stand here now,” I said out loud. “But it was worth it.”
“Moooo…” said the cow.
Copyright@ 2008, by Crad Kilodney, Toronto, Canada. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org