Prismatic Prison Interviews
by Artemus Konig Longfoot
This piece from Information Sickness #9 unites characters from several ongoing story threads.
Berkeley (Universe 2, 1997) / Inkster, Michigan (Universes 2 & 3, 1937) -- The editors of this publication, well aware of my odd ability to experience two universes at once, have sent me on some strange assignments. If you're a regular reader, you may remember a few of them. This time, however, I've been assigned the grandfather of all stories: I have to go and talk to him myself, which wouldn't be such a problem if he hadn't died when I was 14.
Of course, this conversation is happening 60 years ago at a somewhat painful period in Opah's life. He has just made the transition from artist to felon, thanks to a brand new law on the books, and his outlook on the world is understandably bleak. I'm in one of those states where another reality takes over on three sides of me, but my back is firmly attached to my usual world. Instead of sitting at my desk looking over the treetops to San Francisco Bay in the sunset, I'm sitting on a stool in a county jailhouse somewhere in the rural suburbs of Detroit. My grandfather, age 50 give or take, sits on a metal cot in gray prison pajamas with thin vertical pinstripes that are eerily prescient of what would become the de rigueur active wear in concentration camps four or five years hence. His knees jut up from the floor, his elbows rest on his thighs, his chin sits philosophically in his palms. He doesn't look so much like me or my father, more like one of my older cousins. As with everyone else I've interviewed, he doesn't seem too alarmed by my presence. Maybe I've caught him at a moment when hallucinatory conversation feels perfectly natural. I don't know if he can see 60 years into the future behind my back. The subject doesn't seem to come up.
But wait. There's more. I don't know whether looking back along your own time track constitutes visiting a parallel universe, but just in case there was any question, the next thing to occur renders it moot. Beyond the bars, apparently in the cell next door, we soon meet two Irish-American gadabouts who are serving a little time themselves for the same felony in the same jail, even in the same year -- but in Universe 3, not Universe 2. Why this happens to me, I don't know. I've never had to juggle two extra universes in the same visit. I wonder if the editors of Information Sickness have anything to do with this. [As if! - Ed.] Anyway, Danny and Johnny are either absent or asleep as we begin, and they don't wake up until later.
Artemus Konig Longfoot: Well, I don't suppose you know who I am.
Artemus Naterly Longfoot: Some relative, I bet. Don't they have barbers where you come from?
Konig: Yes, except they call themselves hair stylists.
Naterly: If everyone has hair like that, they'd have to. Where are you from, Rasputinland?
K: Well, actually, the place I come from is called 1997. Like, I mean the year I come from.
N: A time traveler? Son of a gun. So that makes you my descendent, I guess.
N: I might have known. You look like Artie, just with some years and pounds. And hair. They all wear beards where you live?
K: Some do. But this is Berkeley.
N: Berkeley, California? That's where you live? I've always heard that was a jazzy place.
K: Yeah, I guess it's had its reputation for awhile. Maybe not always the same one.
N: So what are you doing here? Just visiting?
K: Uh -- yeah.
N: Well, it really cheers me up. Emily's got her hands full with the business and the kids, Larry has his own family to worry about, and Artie's traveling with an orchestra. None of my friends come by. Guilt by association, I think. I get a lawyer who's working on my appeal, and I get the occasional news reporter when the warden feels like letting one in. The people here, the guards and the inmates, you know, they're not very -- Hey, did you tell me your name?
K: I'm Artemus, too. I mean, I'd be Artemus the third, except nobody in the family used numbers.
N: Well, that was creative of us. So you're Artie's boy? I bet he gave you a different middle name from his because Emily and I gave him a different middle name from mine. Yep, the Longfoots are all creative. And that's what I was going to say, Artemus. The people here aren't very creative. Nobody really wants to do or make anything. The guards are all waiting for quitting time, and my fellow prisoners are just waiting to be released. Nobody's engaged in the present.
K: Do you feel like talking about what you're in for?
N: Oh, hell, don't get me started off about this. I'm rich and I'm an oddball, and the boys over there in Washington, in all their wisdom, just made one of my vices illegal. You know about the Marijuana Traffic Act? Courtesy of the same pole-up-the-ass holy rollers who thought that the Volstead Act was such a big idea. We all know this happened just because Los Angeles is afraid of the Mexicans. Look, I'm not rioting in the streets up here. I'm a businessman, and I've invested a lot of money in the local economy, especially during the years when, by God, it's really needed my help. And just because I correspond with Andre Breton and have friends in common with Max Ernst, people think I'm an abomination of some kind. Sure, I used to host salons down at the shop, but that ended after I built the house. My friends from Europe and New York brought their business to the hotels and coffee shops in Inkster, but folks found them too outlandish. This is why I have 58 acres outside of town -- so people will leave me the hell alone!
K: Okay. Obviously you have some issues about this. Did they hurt you when they arrested you?
N: No, and they didn't manhandle Enya or Eglantine, either. But those cowboys the Sheriff sent out broke the door off its hinges. Didn't they ever hear of knocking? They swept some crystal off the table on their way through the dining room. Emily would've had a fit if she'd seen it. The ladies and I were sitting at the kitchen table, quietly smoking our reefers and talking about inventing a new language with better nouns for the abstract. And then Haff, that was the arresting officer, pulled apart the pantry because he saw jars of mint and bay and oregano leaves, and he must have thought we were supplying the whole county with hooch. Dumb corn-fed idiot. Didn't his mother have an herb garden when he was growing up? That's what Morty my lawyer is appealing. All we had was two cigarettes in a little tin lozenge box. It was the last of what Eglantine brought from New York. There weren't 21 pounds of the stuff! Not only did Haff carefully weigh the herbs, he made sure they were in their glass jars at the time! Now who's the menace to society?
K: Wait, Opah, let me get this straight. You're sitting in this cell right now because of mint leaves and oregano?
This is where Universe 3 begins to intrude. The cell behind my grandfather's back is suddenly brighter, as if daylight is coming in from a strange direction. Two men lie on their cots, propped up on their elbows as they pay attention to us. They're in their twenties, their pale brown and dark brown hair shaggy for polite society in 1937, their faces recently shaved. They look vigorous enough to be ready for more of the hard lessons that life probably has to throw at them. They're Danny Flanagan and Johnny Wheeler, and they have some bizarre tales of their own that they're eager to add to the mix.
Johnny: You were smoking mint leaves and oregano? I bet you needed the mint -- oregano's hard on the throat.
Danny: Are you telling me you're in jail for that? It's almost as silly as what we're in for.
Johnny: Now they say hemp is against the law. How can that be? People grow it on farms all over the world. It shoots up wild by the roadside. What would they use for making rope?
Artemus Naterly Longfoot: They dragged you in on that damned law, too? Let me shake your hands, boys.
Artemus Konig Longfoot: Opah! You can see these guys?
Naterly: Opah? No one's called me that yet.
Konig: You'll get used to it.
Johnny: Opah, is it? Good to meet you. Jonathan Woodrow Wheeler. Johnny for short.
Danny: And I'm Daniel Patrick Michael Flanagan, but you can call me Danny. The name's Opah?
Naterly: Well, for the moment I guess it is. Thanks to my grandson here, Artemus. He's yet to be born.
Danny: Traveling backward in time. Wasn't it Wells who wrote about that?
Johnny: Wells? No, you're thinking of Verne, the Frenchman.
Konig: Danny's right. It was H.G. Wells.
Danny: You should read more, Johnny. Helps pass the time in jail.
Naterly: How long have you been here so far?
Johnny: Two weeks, five days. I've been counting.
Naterly: Strange, I haven't seen you before this.
Konig: Opah, it's because they're not really -- why am I trying to explain this?
Danny: What's he talking about?
Naterly: Like I said, he's visiting from the future. They do things differently there.
Johnny: When in the future? We'll be there some day.
Konig: 1997. You'll be pretty old by then.
Johnny: That's ... 60 years?
Danny: Yes, I think you'll be seeing us then, much the same as we are now.
Naterly: What did you do? Find the fountain of youth?
Danny: No, we found the Mist of Ten Thousand Years.
Naterly: What in the world is that? It sounds like the title of a painting.
Johnny: It was opium. We had it a long time ago, thanks to our friend Mr. Qing in New York City.
Naterly: Opium? You're playing with fire, Johnny. I hear that kind of dope can kill you.
Danny: No, it's the other way around, Opah. How old would you make us to be?
Naterly: 25? 26?
Johnny: That's how old we were back in 1900 when we spent our pleasant evening at the pipe with Mr. Qing and Mr. Chen.
Konig: Wait a minute, wait a minute. You smoked opium in 1900 that stopped you from aging?
Danny: Private stock of ancient Chinese court magicians. So they told us.
Naterly: And how long is your sentence?
Johnny: Four years each. But Danny and I plan to get time off for good behavior.
Danny: We can do it. They took two years off on the '29 bootlegging rap in Chicago, 13 months off our dust conviction in New York back in '09, which we saw as our lucky number and decided to leave great Gotham --
Johnny: But we had to serve the full five years in Boston for morphine between '17 and '22. I reckon with the war on, it was unpatriotic to use what they called a medical supply.
Konig: So you guys are, like, repeat drug offenders. But you're immortal. Doesn't this seem like a waste of time?
Johnny: Well, I can't say as I like the inside of prison cells, Artemus, but let's just say that me and Danny here like to get a load on whenever possible. Now I'll grant you that our luck hasn't been all that good --
Danny: We've still got the better part of ten thousand years ahead of us. I look at this as time to read without being disturbed. Have you ever read Joyce?
Johnny: Fine Irish writer, crazy like the rest of us. I had to stop reading that one book, though. Made me want a woman too much.
Konig: Are you talking about Ulysses? Have you read any Joyce, Opah?
Naterly: No, but I keep meaning to. My friend Elspeth brought me a copy from England before they finally published it here in this country. Some bluenoses thought it was obscene. Obscene! And this from the Republicans, who we have to thank for Prohibition! By the time they let me out of here, the Puritans will be running America again. Makes me want to move to Europe.
Konig: Uh -- Opah, I don't think this is such a good time to go to Europe.
Naterly: Why? They about to have another war there? It wouldn't surprise me, some of the things I hear from my friends.
Danny: There are too many wars. It's because they don't let people enjoy themselves.
Johnny: It's always like that. Mr. Qing said China's been that way for centuries.
Konig: Where I come from, pleasure is built into our culture. I mean, it's part of our self-image. We're the people who know how to have fun. And it still doesn't help.
Danny: The next 60 years don't sound like they have a lot to recommend them, Johnny. Maybe we should just stay in prison.
Naterly: I don't believe these boys! I hate it here. I have a lawyer working hard to get me out of this place.
Danny: Opah, if there's one thing I've learned from longevity so far, it's patience. You have to be happy where you are. Don't always be expecting the next thing.
Johnny: That's right. People are always going to decide the wrong thing, and like as not you'll be on the wrong end of what they decide now and then. For instance, do you know about the circumstances of our arrest?
Naterly: No, Johnny, I don't believe I've had the pleasure. We only just met, remember?
Johnny: Well, it was a lovely evening over in Pinckney, and we'd just made the acquaintance of two fine young Mexican lasses, Conchita and Ramona, through their brother Raul and their father Porfirio who worked on the road gang with us, laying asphalt on the county road just south of town where they'd found a huge patch of hemp growing on what I'd guess was public land, although the Sheriff, it seems, had issued an order to have it destroyed --
Danny: Stick to the point, John, for God's sake! What he started telling you was that we went out for the evening with these two girls in their brother's truck and a handful of marijuana cigarettes. We went to one of those things they call drive-in movie theaters. Have you seen the like?
Naterly: A very dadaist concept. I've never actually been to one.
Konig: Go while you can. We don't have too many drive-ins left in 1997.
Johnny: Now that's a shame. You can see the silver screen and the night sky at the same time. You can be comfortable in the privacy of your own car, or in our case Raul's. We were there to see a strange show called Lost Horizon, but we had pleasant company and plenty to smoke with them. And then things got very strange.
Danny: The High Lama had just given the travelers a stern warning, and all at once the movie screen went to color. I've heard that such things are possible, but it didn't have much to do with the story.
Johnny: Almost as if the projectionist had gone to the reel of a different film.
Danny: There was a lady with a strange hairstyle, talking to us like a person in a newsreel. She was in front of some kind of many-colored desert, and the ground was jumping around. Or maybe the cameraman was drunk.
Johnny: And the sky behind her head was full of streaks, like comets and shooting stars in broad daylight!
Danny: And her lips were chapped, and her hair was standing on end, and her face looked as though it was being lit by a fire. And she was trying not to be upset, talking about people who were her friends vanishing before her eyes in strange ways.
Konig: Uh-oh. This is starting to sound too familiar. Did she say her name was Juniper Hansen?
Johnny: I think she said something like that.
Naterly: Why, Artemus? Is that someone you know?
Konig: Someone I've heard about. It would take too long to explain. But what I'm trying to figure out is how this landed you guys in jail.
Danny: I was just getting to that part. Because it was an unexpected interruption, and because it was frightening, and because people had never seen a color movie, and because they were all drunk as lords on a Saturday night, a riot broke out.
Konig: A riot? Over that?
Johnny: It was a terrible thing. Conchita and Ramona had their clothes on and were out the doors of the truck before we could bat an eye, and we stayed where we were because, as I said, we're men of peace.
Danny: And the floodlights came on, and police were streaming in the gates, and cars were smashing into each other, and by then it wasn't as though anyone could escape.
Johnny: And so the cops arrested anyone for any reason they felt like, and there we were with all this marijuana which is now against the law. And here we are.
Naterly: Did you boys have a good lawyer? Maybe you can have your conviction appealed.
Danny: Bless you for thinking of it, Opah, but they just threw us to a public defender. Do you think the likes of us could afford to hire one of our own?
Naterly: Oh, but I could help you out. Money's no object for me.
Konig: Opah, that won't work. They're in a different universe from you.
Naterly: Oh yeah? Then how come I just shook their hands? Johnny, Danny, next time Morty comes to see me --
Johnny: Morty? That was the name of our public defender.
Naterly: Well, this one's no charity lawyer. Mordechai Krasnow has been handling my affairs for years --
Danny: Mordechai Krasnow? Jewish fellow about sixty? Bald head and pot belly?
Naterly: Do you know him?
Johnny: That was the shyster who lost our case! That was the public defender who just shrugged his shoulders whenever the judge called his name.
Naterly: I don't believe this!
Konig: Opah, I keep telling you. It's a different universe! Their lawyer Morty took a totally different path to 1937 than your lawyer Morty.
Naterly: If I didn't understand surrealism, I'd say I was going bananas!
Konig: Surrealism is all about dislocation. I'd say you're doing pretty well under the circumstances.
Naterly: Does this happen to you a lot, Artemus?
Konig: More than you know, Opah. More than you'd want to know.
Danny: Hey, Artemus. Any chance that we'll meet in your 1997?
Konig: Different universes. Not likely.
Johnny: But who knows? Maybe Dan and I'll find another kind of opium that will take us sideways as well as giving us ten thousand years of life.
Konig: If you don't, I'm sure it won't be for lack of trying.