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BarleyMan in a Can
Act 1: Increase Publico, Censor of New York
© 2023 James LaFond
FEB/24/24
Dusk, Ascentday, First Day of Sepulcher
The chill had come early to New York. It should yet be warm. In its way though, this was the perfect death of a day. Here, on the fourth floor of his villa, below the wearisome apartments of his high estate where he dwelt, slumbered, dined and despaired in high state, he beheld the art of perfection, made more beautiful by the presence of a base ingrate.
The fourth floor of an estate was perfect for the conduct of an orchestra. At street level the din of hooves on cobblestone was deafening. Upon the second floor it often seemed, where he conducted his administration, that every crew boss’s call, each harbor whistle and every barrister’s bawl intruded upon one’s contemplation. Upon the third floor where his staff labored in the stacks and rested fitfully in their bier-like cot racks, the pipes that kept winter’s bite at bay knocked the loudest.
Such acoustic affairs as this where rarely held in the heat of summer when steam fans made the air bearable but ruined the tunes that made a Censor’s burden sanely tenable. A portion of his soul envied the carnal beasts of his class who flocked like so many tuxedo clad geese to their suburban hills all summer to return in the mild month of Sepulcher. A Censor never dare leave is city by summer, when mob tempers flared and plebe patience frayed. A thin grin of irony creased his mouth as he noted that more senators than usual, accompanied by their wives who would rather by a gladiator be up ended, sat the easy chairs about the artificial orchestra pit above the ivory inlaid rails, above those few affected stairs.
The men retained their tweed sweaters and even their waxed linen suit jackets, their stovepipe hats of beaver held by the gray-suited slave boys lining the walls of the upper fourth and utmost stair, their young ears treated to the best notes, as were his, seated as he was at the crown of the outer round.
The dames, seated to the left of their exulted husbands, ornately gowned in silk and ruffled cotton, with silken bows binding their exaggerated coifs of hair, were attended by their maids, kneeling in gray sackclothed modesty by their side, the great lady’s deep indigo hat held in pale little hands, their simple dresses belted with a sash as white as a winter sprite.
Increase Publico had reached his 70th year, his faltering and bloated frame unable to enjoy much that he had ever held dear—his darling wife, Umbria, gone now from the palsy three times a year. Life had long ago lost its luster. Now, in his third year dodging the marriages proposed by and on behalf of wicked widows and savage sirens, his affairs were finally stood to order, his nephew and scion by his side with directives concerning how a Censor presides—for no senator in his right mind so aspired and it was House Publico’s civic burden—he, Increase Publico, in his third year of terminal decrease, could finally and for all lift an honest smile to his joy.
His nephew, Gentile Publius, sat shifting and uncultured by his side. The combat of gladiators was more to his ken—and perhaps for this matter the Younger of the surviving Publius men of age to hold office, most deserved the ministry over the mob.
His silk shirt, despite the coolness of an early autumn, was damp with sweat. However, the tweed sweater, under the waxed linen jacket, expanded by his aching gut that could never know its fill since losing his sublime dame, Mary Publico, prevented the embarrassing sweat from showing.
He had chosen this moment to gift his patrimony, unknown to his nephew, in order to impress upon his rude scion the cultured duties of the Censor. For the duties of the Censor were three fold: to serve the cause of order in New York so that the hand of Caesar was free to commit Christian deeds in lands unChristian and far away and not be needed to settle trifling accounts here among the unclean multitude, to serve the cause of senatorial solidarity via such functions as this, and from this patrician eminence mollify the ever groaning complaints of the plebes and the poor.
And the scion next to him yawned!
The music rose like the mist of Eden from the cherrywood orchestra round below:
...The great organ under the fingers of the learned Deacon of Song moaned like The Deep through the ivory pipes.
...The seven pipers of fife narrated the progress of Innocent Adam through the Garden.
...The winsome chorus of three women: maid, matron and crone, whispered as if the very leaves speaking in chime warned the father of all men away from their parent, The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
...A wicked attired, red-haired Irishman, wearing snakeskin boots, fiddled most impiously upon what in other hands might have been a violin, signing the song of Satan.
...A grand old patriarch of white beard played his base violin in tunes to suggest the Coming of God among the Garden.
And among this orchestra, attired in innocent white, the man in cotton the woman in silk, performed the Synchronous Twins: cast as Adam and Eve. These were blond and just come of age, virgins as could be seen by their face, twins of a kind it was obvious. Their necks and shoulders were bare, as must all slaves at the age of sexual maturity be—yet they showed no brand.
The woman, of 16 nubile years, sang a song of purity, a song with no lyrics, pure voice perfectly mimicking the fall of water, the rise of wind, the sorrows of the heart and the hymn of the fallen.
Her twin, a youth of acrobatic and sinuous form, kept cadence with the voice of his sister, as if he were a puppet controlled by chords of pure sound rather than cords of the sore bound. His motions ranged from slinking and spider-like grace to monkey-like poses and a bounding pace.
The onlookers, particularly the dames, were spell bound.
Gentile Publius shifted restlessly in his seat beneath his bloated patriarch. There were a great troop of small, black attired children of a small pale race, children of Japan. These were placed all along the outer concourse, intermixed with the slave boys in their gray suits. Increase tapped Gentile on the shoulder and whispered, “Nephew, here to document your ascent to my vacated seat, for I, at the close of this performance, leave all to you, are the Animate Image Troop of David Echigo, of the Kyoto Weekly, here to enshrine our duty in image and word. Look, Gentry [1], how they each sketch like a Cherib at the gates of Eden inscribing the acts of Our Lord!”
As if suddenly awakened from a stupor, the oddly quiet nephew of the Censor of New York, come alive to his new station, blinked around at the many small figures sketching furiously on paper pads, “Huh? Say what, Unx?”
Gentry was not the highly cultured inheritor Increase might have prayed for. But he was the inheritor at hand.
“Dear Gentry, this is all yours—along with the responsibility of seeing to the needs of the plebes and the vices of the mob—I dare say you shall be a mob favorite!”
“You shittin’ me, Unx?”
“My Dear Gentry, I have invited Mister Enchigo to begin his sketch of New York for the Kyoto Times—for those little pale folk wish to emulate us in every way.”
“Fuck say what?!”
Increase Publico spared a breath for a silent prayer:
‘Please, Sweet Jesus, show my errant nephew the light of the way!’
The big bloated man then looked down into the face of his lean inheritor, who obviously spent time among his gladiators, training, based on the fit of his suit.
“Gentile Publico, you shall become Censor, at the dawn of the next day. Upon my passing tonight, provisional power passes to my staff until the rise of the sun on the morrow, at which time you shall rise as the last son of the House Publico. I suggest a wife to bear children and keep our line alive. I make only one demand, that on your honor, you dispose of my staff decently and not sell these poor creatures off like so much steam from the boiler.”
“Well, fuck yeah, Unx—gotcha drift.”
They sat uneasily for a moment. Then, a man of ancient and wizened aspect, with a Moorish hawk of a nose and yet possessed of a shock of blond hair, on the occasioned nod of Gentry stepped forward with a small hand bag and knelt before them. It was Grote the Thrall Trader, a slave seller of Norway who had escaped with a ship and crew and a fortune in gold stolen from his master, and sold himself and all effects to Gentry, upon the docks of this very quarter of New York.
The parchment like skin of the old soul driver played over his talon like fingers as he unzipped the black leather hand bag.
“Unx,” whispered his suddenly awakened nephew, “Ole Grote he not only invented dis zipper which we made a bucket load oh’ bank on. But he done com up wit’ da true article dat ‘ill have Ole Caese’ happier den a whore on Wineday!”
‘Good God Almighty, please send an angel of diction to clean my scion’s mouth of muck before he attains audience with Caesar!’
He then fixed Grote with a stare and whispered, “See to your Master’s manners before approaching Caesar with whatever wonder follows—that zipper contrivance of yours having helped this old tub upon many a rainy night.”
“Yes, Censor Dignatus,” soothed the old Nord in his outsized manners.
Then, as the bag was unzipped and Gentry waved some sketch artists over, and the wonderful song of Eden played below in the round, a tin can, like that one made candles to light in windows, was pulled forth from the bag. Only this can housed no wax and wick, but rather had a top, as if the entire thing were, rather then tin pipe with one end capped to make a bottom, were such like a box, with both ends capped.
And, what was more wonderful, in a degenerate kind of way, was that the can was wrapped in paper, and upon that paper was printed as if by woodcut, the all conquering image of Rex Born, most storied gladiator of the House Equis. Below this image was printed “Rex Born, Knight” and above it was printed, in a battle banner, “Barleyman in a Can.” [2]
“Amazing, Gentry—I do hope you have not packed the remains of some gladiator in this can?”
“Naw, Unx. Dis is barely en beef soup, like the gladiators eat, what to feed Caesar’s legions and every ‘ungry brat oh’ the mob!”
Increase Publico was stunned, struck by the very pace of social intercourse, glad he would be stepping off of this degenerating planet. A parting question did beg an answer though:
“The House Equis, is a Crusading order. They have signed off on this imagery?”
The slave answered, too smart by half, “Why yes, of course, Master of Plebes. We require only the brother of this one, ahem the Chaplain of his order, to agree to his image upon the back of the can.”
With that the old slave rotated the can to show a blank space, topped with the “Barleyman” banner, underneath of which was printed: “Max Born, Scot.”
To which the rude finger of Gentry pointed at the blank space, “This dame-fucker owes me, Unx—cods in a sling. We’ll sell a million first go.”
The rude and inane gobble politics had already wearied him for this world. So, as the little sketching Japs hovered below and above as Gentry smiled and showed off the can, Increase Publico turned his attention rather, to the scions, not of his blood and his troves, but of his heart and soul.
Notes
-1. Gentry and sometimes Gendry are endearing reductions of the ancient Christian name Gentile, which has been traditionally bestowed upon bastards of half patrician birth.
-2. Hordeari, meaning “barleyman” was an ancient name for gladiators based upon the staple of barely in their diet. Modern gladiators subsist primarily on barely and beef soups and stews, as well as salted barley cakes, beer made of barely and steamed barely served with butter. Legionnaires, who eat wheat bread and pork, primarily, deride gladiators as “barleymen.” The eating of barely was inherited from the practice of ancient Greek athletes subsisting predominantly on barely cake.
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Increase Publico’s Genteel Fault
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son of a lesser god
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honor among men
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beasts of aryаs
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logic of force
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into leviathan’s maw
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