I woke up in a stupor on the front steps of the Plaza Hotel, doubled over with this killer stomach ache -- it felt like the Grambling University marching band was practicing in my belly -- and then, wouldn't you know it, I came across a newspaper item about the Grambling University marching band and its visit to the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Eisenhower and how, during a storm in the Mediterranean, the band was forced to practice below deck -- in "the massive ship's belly." So that's where it came from! But enough, I had work to do.
Where would you look if you were trying to find an ex-Eleventh Century Powloo warrior -- now a street-wise media celebrity -- on the loose in 1993? You'd look for him on TV, right? That's just what I did. I stayed in my hotel room and did nothing but watch TV all day long without a break, constantly changing channels, hoping to catch sight of him somewhere -- on a talk show, or a local news interview, or profiled on one of those newsmagazines -- and then, there he was, wearing a dark suit and a red tie, early one morning on channel 9:
"Hi there, remember me? I'm Duncan Clark, formerly Dancing Cloud, here to tell you about the real estate deal of the century: Powloo Towers. Beautiful, dramatic penthouse cave-apartments with views so breathtaking they'll take your breath away. Believe me, living in a cave hundreds of feet above the floor of a canyon is living at its best. Forget about elaborate and expensive security systems, forget about barbed wire, forget about front doors -- at Powloo Towers you've got the assurance of knowing that an intruder would have to scale cliffs too steep for most mountain lions. Call now, and remember: Bats are harmless, when not provoked. Thank you -- and how!"
Fine! I thought, Dancing Cloud, this proud warrior from out of the proud history of our proud past, is now pitching real estate on television! But, the commercial was taped, there was no telling where he might have been at that very moment, and yet I had to look, having promised his mother. And so, it was time for me to leave the hotel room, and the great room service (I charged everything to Maureen's Imagination Card!), time to venture out into the big city, to ask around, to take advantage of my extensive contacts in the literary world. Little did I know what awaited me. Very little.
"Seen this guy?" I practiced in the hallway mirror. "Know him?" I asked myself on the elevator ride down. Then the doors opened and, in a voice loud enough to be heard by everyone in the lobby, I announced: "Phone call for Duncan Clark, phone call for Duncan Clark, a k a Dancing Cloud!" He wasn't there. I walked across the plush red carpet, through the gold-encrusted revolving door, and into the scum-covered street -- and hailed a cab.
"Hail!" I shouted to a passing cab. Not that funny, but it was raining and the chance of actually getting a taxi was as slim as winning the "YOUR NAME HERE" contest. And then it occurred to me that by going back to the Eleventh Century and returning so quickly, that perhaps -- just perhaps -- I had disrupted the time-space continuum, torn the delicate cosmic fabric that holds the universe together. And then it occurred to me that I'm stalling for time, waiting for something more interesting to occur to me.
I started walking south, down Fifth Avenue, past the fancy stores, past Rockefeller Center, past the Statue of Liberty (pay attention!), turned right on Forty-seventh Street, continued west, crossed Sixth Avenue, and finally stopped at my favorite book store, the Gotham. "Where Wise Men Fish" it says on the front window, and displayed therein were the latest célèbre-causing literary lulus. I imagined myself in that window some day, with Maureen, and she was naked -- no, wait, here comes a cop -- one day I imagined I saw this book, this very novel, prominently displayed in that window, right next to some other recent releases, like, uh, Ulysses Shrugged, by Ayn Joyce, and Pride and Punishment, by Jane Dostoyevsky, among others.
"Can I help you?" a salesman asked, prematurely, since I hadn't even entered the store yet! "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he apologized, and went back inside. He should also know that, unless asked, the salespeople at the Gotham never bother you. They leave you alone, to browse, to pick up a book, to open it, to read it, to put it back on the shelf and leave, to pick up some batteries, to eat an undercooked hot dog, to go back uptown, to get really sick from the hot dog as well as the residual effect of all that peyote, to check out of the hotel, and so forth. That's what I like about the Gotham. They leave you alone. But I still had to ask someone about Dancing Cloud.
"Excuse me," I drooled to a very attractive young woman who was a cross between Maureen and Anna Matopeia, the type of woman who could be supportive, optimistic, and at the same time capable of, without warning, jumping out a window -- I like that in a woman. "Do you work here?" I asked.
"No, I don't," she answered, to my dismay.
"Nuts." So I turned to a nerdy little guy who was carrying a stack of first novels headed for the basement, and who clearly worked there. "Excuse me," I asked him, "have you seen a fictional character named Dancing Cloud recently? I need to get in touch with him."
"Are you Reynolds?" he asked, putting the stack of books down.
"Yes, good guess. His mother wants him home. Holidays coming up, you know how it is."
"Well, it's funny you should ask, because I just may have seen him."
"Yeah, at least I think I did." Then he began to rub his fingers together with all the subtlety of a couple of the jokes on the previous page.
"Oh, I see. Well, what would it take for you to be sure you saw him?" I asked, pulling out my wallet and fanning through thousands and thousands of dollars.
"It'll take a lot more than you've just described."
Before you could have thought of it yourself I was fanning through an even larger wad of million dollar bank notes, but he wasn't impressed.
"It'll take something you don't keep in a wallet, my friend."
"Like... blueberry pancakes."
"Blueberry pancakes?" I was being had, and before you could say "It's really Dancing Cloud in disguise!" the clever fellow from a millennium ago ripped off the life-like rubber mask and revealed his true identity.
"Hiya Jimmy Boy!"
"Very clever," I was forced to admit. "Very clever and very uncharacteristic," I added, because someone had to point out to him that he seemed hell-bent on destroying all the conventions for fictional characters and that it was going to get him in trouble one of these days.
"You're always worrying, J.R. That's your problem. Just write the damn thing and be done with it and then write another. And another. And then retire. Soon, you'll be the paper. Get it?"
"Uh, yeah, I get it, I get it. Very cosmic."
"What do you think of the name 'Duncan Clark'? Not bad, eh?"
"Well, it's kind of... "
"Kind of... what?"
"I don't know. It's so... "
"It's so... what?"
"Just... I don't know, it's so... bland."
"Bland? Well, maybe I'll change it. Things are so much freer in the future."
"Oh, you've noticed. Hey look, Dancing Cloud, all kidding aside, your mama wants you back, in time for -- what's it called?"
"Ha Pua Nua Yera. It's the Powloo New Year. The tradition is, if you miss the Ha Pua Nua Yera celebration you're cursed with bad luck for the following year. But it's just a lot of ancient hooey with no basis in fact."
"So, I take it you don't want to go?"
"Oh, I might make it back in time for Apru Fua, their version of April Fools, but maybe not even by then. I'm making too much money to leave now."
I had to laugh. What does this innocent primitive know about managing his finances? I had to ask him. "What do you, an innocent primitive, know about managing your finances? You'll be surrounded by sharks, and then pecked to death by penguins."
"I know enough. I know enough to never talk about financial matters with writers."
"Really? Where'd you hear that one?"
"The Wall Street Journal. I subscribe, but I only pay the old rates, one of the benefits of time travel."
"Well, would you at least think about going home? Your mother would appreciate it, and I'd be off the hook."
"Maybe, Jim. Hey, in the meantime, how about a cup of coffee? There's a Flameburger one block from here."
"I can't think about eating right now. But let's go."
We started to leave, but then I thought of something and got the attention of that incredibly attractive woman.
"Yes?" she asked me.
"Could you tell me where I could get some batteries around here. You know, the little ones, 'A' and 'AA'?"
"Try 47th Street Photo, it's just a half a block back in that direction."
"Thanks." And that was that. We walked up the stairs to the street, and as I saw the hot dog guy on the corner I knew my fate was sealed. Oh well.
(This ends Chapter Fifty-three.)