by Theresa Duncan
art by Jeremy Blake
from Jack Spade: Bald Ego Sells Out, eds. Max Blagg and Glenn O’Brien
Chrome and glass headlights, a rare and new nighttime occurrence, roll over the dark, highlighting the things they chance to fall on like a cursor swept over evening’s dim flatscreen monitor. If you aren’t used to automobile travel, which nobody is in 1909, the speed and strange visual distortions of the ride are as weird as any fantasy Jules Verne submarine trip, as vertiginous as the virtual reality software which will soonishly be developed by precocious students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology over yonder. Now the stone steps of a Beacon Hill townhouse are washed suddenly white like the hull of a small wrecked boat glimpsed at the bottom of a dark lake as Harry Houdini’s Model T rolls to the curb with the chugging, stuttering jalopy noise we now know best, and inaccurately, from old movies. The car that carries Harry is designed by Joseph A Galamb and Eugene Farkas. Like the great conjurer, they are Hungarians. The design duo, with their vaguely Count Dracula accents, hunch all day like mad surgeons over engine components splayed out like scavenged body parts, supervised personally be Henry Ford. Come evening Ford heads to Detroit Palestine Masonic Lodge #357 to don a fez and climb the Masonic pyramid toward the 33rd degree, there to plot Fordism and other secret satanic future shopping societies. History shoots out in all directions tonight like Tesla’s bouncing global lightning. It’s all so exhausting, it’s all quickly Modern. Everyone wants to be magic.
Blink. The headlights are extinguished. Harry Houdini, short, neat, handsomely muscular from his escape-contortions, alights from the car and steps nimble-like into the merely gas lit street. Two men already waiting on the street corner silently fall in behind him and climb the stoop to the four story townhouse. The conjurer’s finger is extended to press a button and voila, a bell sounds somewhere deep within. Bing-Bong! Another death knell for the old, dark world. We stand now not on any stable present, but straddle the past and future as the crack between the two opens, accelerates, and widens like a funhouse attraction where patrons must leap to one side. Now! before the chasm sends them hurtling down a long corkscrew slide and ejects them through a painted clown’s mouth. Past or future, take your choice, but do it fast. It’s the last month of the last year of the first decade of the Twentieth Century. Bing-Bong. The present is out of style.
California, though, is coming closer. The chasm between the Eastern and Western United States closes as each occult-inflected Model T rolls off the assembly line at River Rouge, forming unexpected juxtapositions and kicking up odd shapes in its dust-devouring wake. As if in answer to some invisible tone, Abbot Kinney lifts the latch and steps into the domed portico of his house on Cabrillo Canal. Though it’s dark and freezing at 11 Lime Street, Beacon Hill, where Houdini and friends still wait to be admitted to the evening’s séance, the sunset here rakes its long red fingers through streaks of gilt California cloud. Seventy five degrees, slight westerly breeze. Venice is a whole town as new and fast as one of Ford’s magic carpets. A zephyr-no mere wind will do—blows, sending the tiny boats moored in front of every bungalow along Kinney’s canals listing. All is dipped into proto-Disneyesque color, the jacaranda and the jasmine, the candy box houses, the sky and birds and grapefruits, oranges, lemons, pomegranates. The sequined costumes of the mermaids and beauty queens on the boardwalk light up like pinball machines, the freaks in their side-show attraction preen in the lurid Pepto Bismol light, one man affixes a happy polka dot ribbon to the thick black hairs at the apex of his pinhead. Only Abbot remains etched in black and white, a pre-Technicolor habit he brought with him from his home back East.
Elegant, bone thin, enormously tall in his Victorian pallbearer’s garb, Kinney lights a cigarette with a series of long-limbed Lincoln moves, his mind rolling like a worm wave over the Ladies’ Twilight Smokers Parade recently held on the boardwalk (women’s rights and smoking already being deliberately mixed in the public mind by savvy marketers). An army of independent women became a firefly swarm of amber cigarette ends in the dark, a modern-girl Milky Way of stockings and hats low over one eye. The independent smoke-laughter was so much more novel and therefore more exciting to Kinney that the laughter of last year. The image of these hot ends evokes in Kinney an involuntary show of mental lantern slides. Dirty French postcards depict other rouge highlights of the female anatomy, all enflamed with red sunset heat or engorged with grapefruit’s pink juice. Tender buttons, tinted rosebuds, parted lips smeared with Cherries in the The Snow, the usual red array of sexual surrender. Abbot Kinney, Indian interpreter, tobacco heir, former U.S. intelligence agent, exhales a stream of pink smoke into the day’s last ray. The worn purple curtain of night falls on Venice’s citywide vaudeville stage. Kinney has fucking on his mind.
For a moment, he blinks back a memory of dreadful red: Abbott Kinney, agent for his parent’s tobacco company in Virginia, covered head to toe in crimson gunk like poor clairvoyant Carrie at her humiliating rom. After the ship he had filled the exotic Turkish tobacco blends was boarded by furious Muslim hordes dedicated to massacring every Christian in the port (Kinney the odd survivor), he quit the family business. The tobacco and the easily replaceable American crew sailed back to Virginia without him. In a trancelike state that we would now recognize as trauma, (Freud and his acolyte Jung have just this year arrived in New York via steamship) Abbot devotes his time to wandering European capitals, learning languages. He fixates on Venice, and late, in his own mind as if it were a medieval European city. Like the fragile Christian capitals of the Middle Ages, Kinney was vulnerable to Turks and their intrusions of fire, screams, severed limbs, smoke and drowning men. Moats, castles, and barriers needed to be erected. The endless building of Venice of America begins at five a.m. each morning, and at night, when work must cease, Kinney takes boat rides to bliss like this one, gliding noiselessly through the canals like a pimp in a pink Caddy. Of all his many