The Minotaur

by Salvatore Difalco

 

THE BUS

I could smell exhaust fumes. I wasn’t fully awake. My estranged wife Carolina had knitted the burgundy mohair sweater I was wearing, before she started hating me, but I had no memory of putting it on. I rubbed my face. A glimpse of my hands made me start. My fingers looked swollen and inflamed, fingernails discoloured. I performed violent jazz hands, hoping to restore circulation. But this was painful.

People on the bus looked like animals bearing reproachful burdens. A commensurate odour prevailed. Life in the city can be hard. Yet I felt little empathy for them, my fellow beasts. We had failed. We had all failed. What was left for us to do but despair, moving from foot to foot, or hoof to hoof, like doomed livestock?

The bus driver leaned to his open side window and blew snot from his nose in a silvery mucous-jet. He turned and caught my eye. Blue-tinged steel-wool sideburns coiled from under his ill-fitting navy driver’s cap. The black holes of his nostrils yawned, small black eyes peeping out above them, like their satellites.

A man beside me, who bore a resemblance to a fine English horse, lifted and lowered his chin, fluttering his lips. I held the stanchion, white-knuckled; an unpleasant disequilibrium threatened to topple me whenever the bus swerved or jerked to a sudden stop.

“You don’t look well,” said a woman wearing red plastic, gripping the same stanchion, in a falsetto rivaling that of Johnny, Señor Wences’s talking hand. Her arm seemed unattached to her small, round body. I tried not to think about it too much.

“I slept poorly,” I said.

A whiff of salami breath made me turn my head and face the window. Clouds darkened the world without. Perhaps a great storm was moving in, a monsoon, to cleanse the city.

“I know who you are,” said the woman in my ear.

My ear tingled. A man seated below the window, missing a third or so of the facial surface area typical for a head of his size, smiled. I could not imagine what accidents or procedures had led to this, so I averted his gaze and stared at an advertisement adjacent to him for a Phantom of the Opera production scheduled to open that autumn.

The intrusive woman had shoved beside me and tucked her small head under my arm, extended to grip the stanchion to my right. The man with the scant face raised his eyebrows. This reaction made me feel a kinship with him that, in retrospect, amounted to nothing, but at that moment bolstered me: no matter what the woman said, I would keep cool.

“I know where you’re going,” she said.

Sometimes with people like this, it’s best to just go along.

“So tell me,” I said.

“I know,” she said, drawing her hands to her breasts. Her hands, covered with fine dark hairs, rubbed each other. “I’m invited to the same party.”

I tried to piece all this together with zero success.

“I’m a friend of Nessus—you know. We met at his summer shindig. I came as Ariadne.” She framed her face with her hands and curtsied. “You were going on about Sleeping Ariadne,” she added, “reclining after a delirious orgy, radiating in the glow of apotheosis.”

I stared at her, waiting for the break in character, the telling laugh, but it never came. This was a case of mistaken identity, or a delusion carried forth from some other scenario, and from other characters, unrelated to me.

“What’s my name?” I asked.

“At the party you said your name was Minos, but I know that’s not your real name.”

The man with the unusual face raised his eyebrows again. What I perceived as an expression of empathy, if not sympathy, turned out to be one of urgency.

“My stop,” he announced as the bus slowed. He hopped to his feet and exited without touching a single person or thing.

“Tonight you’re coming as a Minotaur,” the woman said.

“Say again?”

“You said you were coming to the next party as a Minotaur.”

This had gone far enough. I broke away from her and squeezed to the front doors. Someone or something violently lunged behind me as I shoved through, but I ignored it. Looking behind you pays no dividends, neither in horror films nor in life. The driver swung his face around, his nose with all its blackened pores stopping an inch from mine.

“What’re you think you’re doing, mate?”

“I want out.”

He pointed to a large laminated sign above him that read:

EXIT BACK DOORS ONLY.

He bared his teeth, which could have been wooden dentures judging from their hue and grain, and glanced backwards.

“Get going,” he chortled.

“I’m going,” I said. 

Faced with the atavistic energy of the riders, I thought of a ruse. Rather than shoving through them to the back of the bus, I remained at the front but ducked behind a man with the breadth of a silverback gorilla, obscuring myself to the driver, who intermittently checked his rear-view. The goliath serving as my shield could have played professional football in the United States or wrestled professionally, I’m convinced.

When the bus came to a stop, I waited for the driver to open the doors, front and back, since people stood waiting at the stop, and bolted for the front door before anyone made a move. The driver roared curses behind me, taking the matter too personally perhaps, a mistake if you ask me, but I moved swiftly, as I can when I must.

 

 

ESPRESSO

Thought I knew the city. Used to work as a bicycle courier and thought I knew every inch of it. Clearly not. It was upscale, this neighbourhood: high-end fashion, gourmet foods, designer kitchen supplies, extortionate furniture. Chi chi cafes and tony eateries glittered uninvitingly. I entered a zinc-encrusted espresso bar and took an aluminum stool at the gleaming counter. I was the only customer. The barista, back to me, ponytail shaking as he worked, must not have heard me enter. I could see him, bearded, serious, black plaid vest impressive, in the mirrors behind the bar, but his downcast eyes and furrowed brow indicated complete focus on the task at hand.

I cleared my throat, more loudly than I’d intended, startling the barista, who whirled around holding in his hands some kind of metallic sculpture or icon.

“It’s you,” he said. “I’ve been waiting.”

Before I could say anything, the barista raised his hand.

“Existence is bizarre,” he said.  “Consciousness contradicts reality, undermines it.”

“When you finish polishing your toy—a double espresso, and tell me where I am.”

“Apotheosis requires encounters,” he said, smiling. He rested the statuette—a horned animal or hybrid creature, in brass—on the counter, and turned to the espresso machine. “We’re in the Seventh Circle of Hell,” he said, glancing over his shoulder.

“Practicing your stand-up? Love good stand-up. This gig just pays the rent. Correct?”

“They said you’d be feisty.”

They? Tell me what’s going on before I—”

“Before you what?” interrupted the barista. He placed a demitasse filled with thick black coffee at my elbow. Steam rose from it. “Sugar?” he asked.

Of course, sugar. He placed a chrome sugar bowl beside my cup. I stirred in two teaspoons and tasted. Not bad.

Resting his elbows on the counter, the barista opened his hands and settled his chin on them. “I know,” he sighed. “We get the coffee from a family-run operation out of Naples who’ve been roasting their own organically grown and specially blended beans for more than a century.”

“Seriously,” I said, “where am I? Got off the bus a few stops early. They must’ve redeveloped this whole neighbourhood, it all looks new to me.”

“He’s my talisman,” the barista said, nodding to the statuette, “traditional symbol of the unconquerable force of ego, haha.”

“I need to be …” I stopped myself and glanced at my wristwatch. Almost eleven.

“You were saying?”

“None of your business,” I said, when in reality I’d forgotten where I was going, drawing a blank. I racked my brain, but nothing came. A sense of panic washed over me, buzzy, cold.

“What’s the matter?” asked the barista.

“Where did you say we were?”

“This is a Minotaur,” he said, holding it under my nose.

Buffed to a rich shine, it exuded a faintly coppery smell. All told an impressive property. It could have easily crushed my skull with a violent blow. The barista tossed the statuette from hand to hand, a manoeuvre that looked reckless to me.

“Do you know what a Minotaur is?” he asked.

“I don’t fucking care.”

The barista smiled. “Picasso did some splendid Minotaurs. Do you know Picasso?”

“What do you mean? I know of him. I know his art. Whatever.”

“I want you to do something for me. If you do, I’ll tell you exactly where we are.”

He abruptly disappeared into the back. I examined the statuette. A bull-headed bipedal creature. I recalled reading about the Minotaur in high school mythology, but if someone had held a gun to my head I wouldn’t have been able to shorthand whatever myth it appears in, or explain any socio-historical or symbolic associations. How did it become part of my day, a day when I was scheduled to sign my divorce papers? Ah-ha! I thought. I was headed to the lawyer’s office to sign my divorce papers! Carolina and I had been separated for five years. So I wasn’t demonstrating signs of early onset dementia. But damn, I’d missed the appointment. Carolina would see this as a deliberate attempt to forestall the inevitable—she believed I still loved her.

Shortly the barista returned holding some kind of mask by one of its two horns. It was quite large and as menacing a mask as I had ever seen.

“What the hell is that?”

“The construction’s well done,” he said. “Real craftsmanship went into this bad boy. No detail glanced over. That’s real bull hide and real bull horns, man. But get this—foam padded interior. I kid you not. We hit our tester in the head multiple times with boffer swords and he barely felt it, and the mask stood up to further beatings—bats, chains, whips—no rips or tears.”

“What the—what?”

“You’re skeptical. Okay. Some cons. Not easy to see out of it. Zero peripheral. Even seeing ahead challenging—keep eyes centred on the eyeholes or you’re blind. And the interior of the head is huge, made for an Andre the Giant, haha. Your head appears normal-sized. But the testers kept it on without too much wobble using a wound towel—like a turban. I strongly suggest you copy.” He placed a rolled white towel by my elbow.

I stared at the mask, the sharp horns, the flaring nostrils.

“Did my ex put you up to this?” I asked, however unlikely she’d go to such lengths.

“Your ex?”

“I’m not putting that on,” I said.

“But you came here for it, didn’t you?” The barista leaned over. “You need it for the party, no? The costume party.”

“But I—”

“Come on, man. Don’t get weird on me. Just put it on.” He patted the towel. “The towel will keep it stable. Come on. I don’t have all day.”

 

 

CHIAROSCURO

The world is divided into distinct halves. The right side bright and full of chattering people living good lives and willing to talk about it. The left side dark, thronged by sullen figures absorbed in dark, unspeakable thoughts. I’m having trouble breathing. I expected as much. And hearing, forget about it. Might as well be buried. But that comes with the turf. The bifurcation of the world, however, comes as an unpleasant surprise. Who knew? Maybe one of the eyes has a darker lens. That’s too easy.

The bus rumbles and wheezes along. No one dares sit beside me, there in the middle of the back seat, no one from the dark side, no one from the bright side. My peripherals are blocked, but I know that no one sits to my left or to my right and that no one will sit there.

I’m perspiring heavily, armpits soaked. Raging thirst. I just want to get home now. My plans for the day have been scotched. I just want to get home and think about the next thing, the next thing I must do. A young man in a tight black suit sits in front of me, to the left. He turns and smiles. An exception in the gloom. I see half his face as I try to adjust my eyeholes. Dark-haired, square-jawed, exuding cocky but friendly energy. I nod in acknowledgment. I understand how this must look.

“What’s your story?” he asks.

“Supposed to be a Minotaur.”

“Speak up, man.”

“I’m supposed to be a Minotaur!”

“Yeah, I gather that, but the question is why? I mean, in the middle of the day?” He taps his wristwatch, holding it up as though he knows I’ll have trouble spotting it without assistance. “Kinda early for a costume ball, eh?”

“That’s later, yes, a party.” A party to which I wasn’t invited, speaking of which. “But I was trying on the mask and—well, I can’t get it off.”

The young man chuckles into his hand.

“It’s not funny,” I say.

“Sorry, I don’t mean to laugh, but you can’t get it off?”

“Believe me, I mashed my nose, ripped my ears and almost broke my jaw trying to get it off, but no go. I’m—it’s fucking stuck.”

The barista and I had spent the better part of an hour trying to pull the thing off, after I let him convince me to try it on “just for the hell of it.” The towel must have got jammed up inside there and we couldn’t get the mask off my head no matter how we tugged and twisted it. The barista said we needed a lubricant and grabbed a stick of butter from the cooler and greased me up, but all that did was stain my shirt. I figured my only option was to cut the bastard off.

“That’s fucked up,” says the young man. “Like, really out there.”

“I know. And I missed an appointment to sign my divorce papers. My ex will be pissed. She thinks I still love her.”

“Do you?”

“It’s—it’s been five years …”

“Anything I can do?”

“Like what?”

“Take you to Emergency or something? Tricky getting that thing off by yourself.”

“No, forget that shit.”

The young man stares at me with serious eyes.

“So you’re just going to go home and do it yourself?”

“Yeah, I’m going to cut it off.”

He leans over and taps the mask. “Gonna need a saw to get that sucker off.”

“Think so?”

The young man rings the bell and looks at me sadly.

“This is me,” he says.

“So it is.”

“Good luck with that.”

“Yeah, thanks,” I say, barely containing my tears.

 

 

 

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