By Christopher Hellwig
Christopher Hellwig is author of a forthcoming collection of biographies of fictional gunslingers, a former student of Michael Martone’s, and will read with his mentor (along with former classmate and Martone protégé Michael J. Lee) this Thursday, Sept. 29, at 7 p.m. at the Antenna Gallery. Event details here.
Per Martone’s instructions, I am sitting at a desk in the middle of a quonset hut, typing. I am writing the same page over and over. When you are done with the page, says Martone, hide the page away and write it again. There are no drawers in the desk, and so each time I reach the bottom of a page, I must roll it into a ball and tuck it away in my mouth. By the fifth page I can no longer breathe through my mouth. By the seventh page my nostrils are plugged. I continue to type. Martone stands on the other side of the quonset hut, pulling the lever of a steam whistle. One long blast followed by one short blast: He is requesting that I inspect the brake system. Four short blasts: He is requesting that a signal be repeated. I am turning blue, as blue as a bird’s egg, as blue as the stripes on a seersucker suit, as blue as a bluebell.
Per Martone’s instructions, I am sitting at a desk in a quonset hut, typing. I must type the same page over and over. When you are done with a page, says Martone, hide it away and write it again. There are no drawers in the desk, and so each time I reach the bottom of a page, I must hide it away by rolling it into a ball and placing it in my mouth. By the fifth page, my mouth is full, and I can no longer breathe through it. By the seventh, I have plugged my nostrils with the typed pages. Martone stands at the other side of the quonset hut, pulling the lever of a steam whistle. One long blast followed by one short blast: inspect the brake system. Four short blasts: repeat the previous signal. I can not breathe, but I continue. I am turning blue, as blue as a bird’s egg, as blue as the stripes on a seersucker suit, as blue as a bluebell.
From the outside, the quonset hut is no bigger than a hat box, or no bigger than half of a hat box. Nevertheless, Martone and I are playing a game of stickball inside. I am at bat. Martone pitches a stone at me. He is wearing a wool Kekiongas uniform and what appears to be a pointed Bolshevik cavalry hat. I suspect that he is bald beneath his cap, but I suspect also that his baldness is merely a cunning device. Each of Martone’s pitches hits me, on the shoulder, on the elbow, or, if I am fast enough to turn in time, in the middle of my back. I wince each time I am struck, and by the time I am squared at the plate again, Martone somehow has the same stone in his hand, and is already hurling it towards me. Each time I am struck, I am surprised at the same thud of the same stone against me. I think for a moment that maybe Martone isn’t a very good athlete, but then I remember his famous annual performances in the reenactment of the Kekiongas final game against the Troy Haymakers, when every year Martone is lifted up on the shoulders of his fake teammates. The stone is becoming smoother, more regular, each time it hits me–closer, probably, to how you imagined it in the first place.
#3: Tractive Effort
Martone projects a film of a locomotive onto the concave side of the quonset hut, high above me. Beneath the projection, he writes on a chalkboard:
t is tractive effort
c is a constant (for American writers, .85)
P is the boiler pressure (lb/sq. inch)
d is the bore of the piston (in inches)
s is the length of the piston stroke (in inches)
D is the diameter of the driving wheel (in inches)
We are playing cards for quarters in the quonset hut, at a square table. I don’t fully understand the game. Martone sits on the east side of the table. I sit on the west. The north and south sides are empty, but Martone has still dealt three hands of four–one to the south, one to me, one to the north. He leans back, setting the rest of the deck in front of him.He is in a jovial mood. I bet a quarter. Martone bets three, one for himself, one for the north, and one for the south–an even four quarters now on the table. Martone pulls two Jacks, one of Hearts and one of Spades, from the deck and lays them on the table. There are four heads, four halves of four mustaches, four eyes looking up from the two cards. He draws a third card, the Jack of Clubs. Still four halves of four mustaches. Eight eyes now looking up. But six heads, and three cards on the table, of three suits. I watch Martone. He appears agitated. He is sweating now. His hands shake. He removes his boater hat–he is wearing a boater hat–and mops his brow with a handkerchief. Before he replaces the hat on his head, he removes a fourth card, hidden inside of it, and places it face-up on the table. A fourth Jack, the Jack of Diamonds. Four suits. Still four halves of four mustaches. Eight heads, twelve eyes looking up from the table, sixteen symbols.