Ch. 17 – What Happened Last Time (3)

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Jump to the Prelude

No one who visited Mr. Shevlin’s bookstore (as yet merely a recently-vacated, dusty shop space without a sign) could have guessed this. Especially when looking into the shop from the exhaust- and commuter-filled street, no one could have guessed, simply no one.

Guessed what? That in the basement of the empty shop, an entirely different world lurked—a world that represented everything that was the opposite of shabbiness, and also the opposite of vacatedness, vacation, vacuum.

Zach didn’t know what the correct noun form of the adjective “vacated” was. He couldn’t care about that right now, having seen the basement. If he’d had the energy to care about matters as trivial as the validity of words such as vacatedness, vacation, and vacuum, he wouldn’t be wasting that energy on figuring out their validities anyway. He’d be focusing his efforts on trying to find a suitable single word to describe the nature of this basement, this— this—

Luxury Hodgepodge Kingdom.

There was no one word for this basement, no way. The Luxury Hodgepodge Kingdom was a world of its own, completely hidden from the nosy pedestrians and reeking vehicles on the ground floor. Only gradually did Zach recognize individual components that contributed to his impression of the place.

First, “Luxury”:

Giant, fully lit chandeliers, at eye level to Zach, as brilliant as the sun outside, but much more mesmerizing because of the glass ornaments that reflected the light in rainbow colors. Deep down there, the brand-new, reddish mahogany and oak flooring. To one side, the dozens of beautifully polished round tables, each equipped with umbrella-shaped lamps with golden tassels.

Next, “Hodgepodge”:

The myriads of material used to decorate the place: glass, wood, golden tassels, but also metal and concrete for parts of the walls and the ceiling. Jasmine, rose, and tulip scents from the tall vases. The mismatch of paint on the walls: matte yellow, shimmering gold, imposing black.

Lastly, “Kingdom”:

The sheer size and depth of the basement.

From the sliding wall through which Zach followed Mr. Shevlin, a wooden staircase sunk into the pit. This place had to be at least two standard stories deep.

But what did “standard” mean anyway? What was reality? Zach had forgotten what those words meant. The Luxury Hodgepodge Kingdom had been designed to make people forget the woes of the real world. A fantasy land with a clear purpose, this was.

Mr. Shevlin punched the brick-button from the kingdom’s side. The sliding wall creaked closed. He led the way downstairs.

Zach kept looking around on his way down the staircase. There was a dance floor between the round tables and a half-moon-shaped bar area. For now, the shelves were empty and only a single phonograph stood on the counter.

Upon reaching the dance floor, Zach looked up. From here, the giant chandeliers, which had seemed as large as whole upright pianos, only looked as small as French Horns attached to the ceiling. None of their brilliance had lasted. In fact, on the dance floor, there was just enough light to feel comfortable. That was how deep the pit was.

In this Luxury Hodgepodge Kingdom, Zach represented the sole shabby spot. Yet, he didn’t feel out of place. Not at all. He was part of the hodgepodge. Anybody could be. The beggars, the homeless, the convicts, it didn’t matter. Here, even blatant luxury was forced to coexist with lusterless poverty.

“Well?” Mr. Shevlin said.

He fluttered his dirty apron as he quickly turned on his spot to face Zach. Zach jumped, unceremoniously awoken from the endeavor of assessing the place. Mr. Shevlin laughed.

“You impressed?” Mr. Shevlin said.

“I am…” Zach said, “I am flabbergasted. In a, in a good way, in an amazing way. This is… just amazing.”

“I’m glad you like it! Come on, let’s go take a look at the piano. Let me know if you like it, and if not, let me know that, too, because everything at The Underwater Palace has to be the best of the best.”

The Underwater Palace,” Zach muttered.

The Underwater Palace. Isn’t that a grand name, to go with the Grille across the street? You’ve seen the Grille?”

“I’ve noticed it. But, this, what is this?” Zach said. “This place, is it a, a ballroom, attached to a bookstore?”

Mr. Shevlin grinned mischievously and gesticulated at his surroundings.

“This, Zacharias, is the future.”

“The future?”

“Yes, the future, past January 1920, only a year away. Because, do you know what happened recently?”

“What?”

“The idiot law just passed. The Amendment was ratified. The anti-drinking law that the religious idiots are pushing.” Mr. Shevlin laughed. “Haven’t you heard? They tried to blame everything on drinking.”

Indeed, Zach had heard about the change in the law. But as a person who drank rarely (and as a person who, in general, didn’t think much about matters that didn’t concern him directly), Zach hadn’t thought much about the fuss over the great impending change. Mr. Shevlin, on the other hand, seemed to take this change very personally.

“I call it the idiot law,” Mr. Shevlin said, “because life isn’t as simple or rosy as those idiots want to believe. The prohibitionists, the great underestimators of the human desire for vice!”

Mr. Shevlin roared. He walked around the many round tables, taking a detour instead of heading straight toward the stage with the piano. He beckoned Zach to follow. The entire time Mr. Shevlin talked, he pointed to this and that particularly nice golden bas relief on the wall or a fine painting or a light fixture. Zach hurriedly followed and looked everywhere Mr. Shevlin pointed at.

“Foolishly optimistic people, they are,” Mr. Shevlin said, “and they don’t realize that foolishness is a sin in and of itself. Anyone who’s ever thought at all can see the predetermined failure of this Amendment. Don’t you agree?”

“Eh—”

“If the churches couldn’t get rid of rape and murder in His name, what makes them think that getting rid of alcohol will bring about God’s land? I mean, if those men of God don’t fear God—because unfortunately, Zacharias, some among them are rapists and murderers themselves—why should an average American fear mere felony? Who do the prohibitionists think they are, higher and mightier than God?”

Mr. Shevlin snorted. He kicked a chair that stood an inch too far from the table back to its place.

“A tyranny, this is!” he said. “This country was built on freedom! Taking it away can’t be a solution. Anyone with a brain knows that. Everyone has the right to choose. Those broads talking about voting, just look at them. They should be able to vote, and do so with confidence, I say. Anyone should be able to vote, and anyone should be able to drink, including those broads, they should have the right to drink right alongside any man. Don’t you agree?”

“Well, yes—”

“Their—and I mean the prohibitionists—their pathetic attempts at realizing their righteous ideals on this Earth are worse than indifference, because what are those attempts based on? Foolishness. The complete, utter inability to see humans for what they are: freedom seekers. Now, they might not know it. They, the people, the freedom seekers. Or, they might know it and deny it. Remember what I told you upstairs, Zacharias? Not everyone is new in the heart. Not everyone sees things with fresh eyes, not everyone makes the most out of the opportunities presented to them. But even that is a choice, their freedom. Do I go around demanding that this country should make it illegal to be blind to opportunities? Of course not! Freedom, that’s all that matters. And that freedom involves what those prohibitionists call vice.”

Mr. Shevlin shook his head, sincerely disgusted.

“I don’t know what made them think that normal Americans without grandiose delusions would suddenly want to dutifully obey the prohibition of so comparatively harmless an action. Compared to rape and murder, I mean. Truly, everyone knows that for every church with a morally upright pastor or priest, there’s another one with a leader that is less moral than the most deprived common pauper. And you know what is worse, Zacharias?”

“No.”

“That their foolishness also covers the part where they think that we, the adventurers, will just stand by and watch as they let an opportunity slide by.”

Mr. Shevlin stopped. He faced Zach.

“That will not happen,” Mr. Shevlin said.

Zach nodded and took a step back. He liked Mr. Shevlin and respected the man for his conviction, but he didn’t want the barbecue sauce on the apron to get on his suit. He couldn’t afford it.

“They are taking what is mine, what is yours, our opportunity,” Mr. Shevlin said. “They think that we’ll do nothing. Do you know the one thing I hate more than people who accept poverty as their fate?”

“No.”

“The people who tell other people to accept poverty as fate.”

Mr. Shevlin stepped back and presented the stage with a grand sweep of his arm. Zach hadn’t even realized that they stood right by the piano. Hurriedly, Zach climbed the few stairs that led to the stage.

“They take us for morons,” Mr. Shevlin said, “with a thin disguise that they care about us. But no one will fool Gus Shevlin, no one. It is insulting. I have done my research. Nineteen thousand miles of borders, they plan on patrolling, on land and water, to monitor that their idiot law is actually being upheld. How many people do you think they’ll assign for that task?”

“I don’t know, sir,” said Zach, and pulled the bench from under the piano.

“Maybe a thousand, my sources tell me,” Mr. Shevlin said, looking at his Palace rather than Zach. “Maybe two thousand, if they get really ambitious.” He snorted. “To think that that will work… Madness. Foolishness. And most of all, thievery! Thievery of our rights!”

Zach put his baggy cap on top of the piano. He nervously took out a few pages of old, crumpled sheet music from the briefcase and placed them on the rack.

So, that’d been what was up with those two police officers who’d frowned when Zach had noticed them. Liquor—its illegal sale, and maybe also its importation and manufacture—that was Mr. Shevlin’s new business. Catering to the drinkers; a “crazy, dangerous, nonsensical vision,” as Mr. Shevlin himself had said.

Not that Zach was against that vision. When someone put it the way Mr. Shevlin put it, anybody would support that vision. Support freedom. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Besides, no one but Mr. Shevlin, so far, had been impressed by Zach’s lack of formal education and his undeniable eclectic tastes. If it weren’t for Mr. Shevlin’s conviction for freedom and diversity, Zach wouldn’t have been so lucky as to be here. A fair person, Mr. Shevlin was.

But Zach was just a piano player from the middle of nowhere. Why was Mr. Shevlin telling him all this?

“You must be wondering why I’m telling you all this,” Mr. Shevlin said.

Zach jumped once more, this time on the bench. Mr. Shevlin stared at him. Not talking, Zach realized, made Mr. Shevlin look even bigger than when he did talk, accompanied by all those theatrical hand gestures. Strange, how a man could limit his movements—contract—and thereby seem larger, more dangerous—like a lion ready to leap.

“Yes,” Zach said. “I was wondering about that.”

And he also wondered what kinds of people could possibly oppose Mr. Gus Shevlin. Some nerve, they’d have to have.

“It’s because I need everyone to be on board,” Mr. Shevlin said. “Everyone will know about what’s going on here. I’m not the only one who’s doing this, and there’s no way to keep a secret as big as this anyways. It’s too fascinating and it makes too many people too happy to keep a lid on it. Believe you me, right now it’s only the local officers who’re in on this, but when the Bureau actually starts functioning, I guarantee you that among them, there’ll also be people who’d rather be happy on earth right now than betting on some unknown outcome in the afterlife. Taking away people’s rights, expecting them to follow those rules, ha! Unacceptable!”

Mr. Shevlin paced around like a trapped lion.

“So what matters isn’t that people know or don’t know, it’s that people don’t talk about it when they shouldn’t be talking about it, when they’re in front of people who shouldn’t know about it. That’s why everyone who works here must share the vision, otherwise nothing will work. Beginning next year, the law will be enforced. This is a time of change. But guess what, Zacharias? In all my years in New York City, there never has been a time in which it wasn’t a time of change. When change happens, it is a good idea to try to figure out where that change is headed, and go with the flow—but not by accepting defeat, son, no. By taking what is yours. By taking advantage of the opportunities.”

Zach nodded with big eyes.

“As I told you earlier,” Mr. Shevlin said, “if you damage anything that’s mine, I will have to do the same to you.”

“Oh, I would never.”

“Of course not. You would never. But if you do. But why would you? You’re new in this big city, and does it hurt to have a resourceful friend like myself?”

“Not at all, sir.”

“Because, that’s what I see myself as, Zacharias. Your friend.”

“I’m… very grateful, sir.”

Mr. Shevlin nodded meaningfully. “This is your chance to make it big. I will pay you well and pay you every time. I will give you two nights off, per week. I do not care what you do on those two nights off so long as you don’t damage what’s mine. You can make connections here—talk to the guests, socialize. You can use those connections to play at rich people’s homes, I don’t care. I’d admire you for that, if you did, if you’d show such initiative. I want those kinds of people working for me, Zacharias, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir—”

A wild knocking came from upstairs.

“Gus?” a worried, sluggish female voice called through the closed sliding door-wall. “Gus, are you in there?”

“Oh, damn it,” Mr. Shevlin muttered. Then, “Yes, I’m here, Nora!” Mr. Shevlin boomed at the maximum volume of his baritone voice that could probably reach the back seats of a three-thousand seat theater. “But you’re not supposed to be here.”

The knocking stopped.

“Yes, I know, honey,” Nora said, slowly, unconfident. “But there’s this man who came to the Grille. A mechanic, he says.”

“Wait, hold on,” Mr. Shevlin said. “I’ll be right—”

“He says that he ‘began this thing’ as a favor to Officer Jensen,” Nora said, apparently not hearing Mr. Shevlin, “but that this will be the last time he’s going to be ordered around to do a favor, and told me to tell you that if you want him to fix that ‘stupid wall of yours’—his words, not mine—you’d better come to the Grille now and discuss payment first.”

“That asshole,” Mr. Shevlin groaned.

“And he threatened to tell,” Nora said, “and I asked, ‘Tell what to whom?’ and he said, ‘To whom it concerns, about matters of concern,’ and said that Officer Jensen is his long-time buddy but if this continues, he won’t be no longer—”

“Okay, okay, I’m coming!” Mr. Shevlin said.

He stomped toward the wooden staircase while shaking his head and rolling his eyes at Zach.

“That’s my wife, Nora,” Mr. Shevlin said. “Good woman, but slow as a rotting log that just sits there on the forest ground.”

“Should I come back another—”

“No, no, you go on, play.”

“Now?”

“Yes, play. I’ll hear you. I’ll be right upstairs.”

The knocking resumed, more like hammering.

“Gus?” Mrs. Shevlin said, worried, sluggish even in her urgency. A log of a woman.

“I’m coming!” Then, Mr. Shevlin glanced back at Zach. “Go on, play, play.”

“What should I play?” Zach said, going through the scores. “I have here—”

“Something that’ll make the audience want to dance and drink more.”

“A waltz, maybe?”

“A waltz sounds good.”

Mr. Shevlin punched the same brick-button as earlier. The sliding door-wall opened up with a painful screech.

Zach heard Mr. Shevlin chiding Mrs. Shevlin as if she were a little child. For a man who supported women’s voting rights, Mr. Shevlin sure sounded patronizing toward a woman. But then again, Nora did sound, well, a bit slow. And it wasn’t like Mr. Shevlin beat her up. There were many of those men. Zach shivered at that thought. Disgusting men. Mr. Shevlin was nothing like them. Perhaps he was just concerned that Nora had said something to the mechanic—something that she shouldn’t have revealed. Something about the “crazy, dangerous, nonsensical vision.”

The couple’s footsteps sounded from upstairs. Soon, the honking of the outside traffic became audible.

“Tell him to get over here, that piece of shit,” Mr. Shevlin shouted.

He was shouting through the open shop door, intending for the mechanic to hear him from across the street, whether Mrs. Shevlin relayed the message or not.

“ ‘Discuss payment,’ my arse!” he said. “I’ll have him know that if he threatens Gus Shevlin’s wife again, I’ll have him killed. Tell him to get over here!” Then, Mr. Shevlin said in a surprisingly friendly way that was so different from his anger toward the mechanic, “Play, Zacharias, I can hear you from here!”

© 2022 Ithaka O.

All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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