Babylon If

(from Brian Earl Brown's Sticky Quarters #9, May 1984, later reprinted in Walt Willis' Hyphen.)

From a universe next door, in a fanhistory nearly but not quite identical to ours: an object lesson in fame, cliques and in-group ambitions. -Garth Spencer
It took a neofan and a couple of sticky quarters to make the discovery that split Fandom like a Hustler centrefold. The neo had been staying at Curly Thompson's famous Brooklyn apartment for barely a week when the quarters showed up in a dogeared envelope, addressed in a looping, childish scrawl to "Frederick Foster, editor" Freddy had never edited anything in his life.

"It must be an omen," Curly told him. "Buy a couple of stencils. I started with a two-pager myself."

Freddy had peeled the tape off the coins and stuck them in the pocket of his jeans. They were still there that evening, gummy and gathering lint, as the roar of the departing subway dwindled to a ringing in his rather protuberant ears. As soon as he realized he'd gotten off at the wrong stop, his suddenly trembling hands went to the coins, as if to a talisman.

He wished desperately that he'd listened to Curly, stayed to the end of the Spacehounds meeting and come home with him and Sid. The unfamiliar station was deserted. Naked bulbs, dangling overhead, sent shadows knifing away from the graffiti covered I-beams supporting the unnaturally low ceiling. Freddy began to move down the platform in an awkward walk that was really a frantic dash trying to pass for a nonchalant stroll.

Later, Freddy wouldn't explain how, terrified by the dank, subterranean tunnels, he had chosen to reach the Port Authority and the Brooklyn bound IRT by an aboveground route. He had not planned on finding himself on one of those disreputable blocks near Times Square. He was horrified to see the black flocks of "X"s that had come to roost on the theatre marquees thrusting out over the congested sidewalks. Everywhere, neon buzzed about "Topless Dancers" and "Live Sex" so shamelessly that it might have been hawking "Bud" or "Miller" It looked like it would be possible to commit all Seven Deadly Sins, as well as several others undiscovered by medieval man, before reaching the end of the block.

Steeling himself, Freddy started off. He never dreamed he would end up in one of the innumerable peepshows advertising "Movies - 25". It would never have occurred to him, except for the fateful quarters he kept turning over and over in his pockets. The sign in the window of the peepshow, which was covered with the stained glass contact paper favoured by storefront churches, said " West".

"A fan has to keep broadening his mental horizons," Freddy told himself, as he pushed open the door.

He made his way through racks full of glossy porno magazines, all sealed carefully in plastic bags like priceless fanzines on a huckster's table. As he approached the viewing booth in the back, he had the sensation he was being stared at. He glanced back over his shoulder. In the front of the place was a tall counter with a raised platform behind it. A moon-faced black man was sitting up there and grinning at Freddy in a peculiar way, as if he knew a secret.

Freddy hid himself in the first booth he came to. It resembled the changing booth in department stores and as he pulled the squeaky curtain shut, he recalled the mortification he'd suffered as a child when forced to try on new clothes.

He'd been certain that the other customers could look over or under the curtains and see him, with his skinny legs, in his underpants. As he rushed to get his trousers back on, the zipper invariably stuck.

Freddy flushed. He fumbled one of the quarters out of his pocket. It stuck to his sweaty thumb before he managed to shove it into the coin slot underneath the screen. It fell into the coin box with a loud thunk and he heard the projector behind the wall of the booth whir into life.

"Up in the Attic". The title flashed on, then vanished to be replaced by a grainy, unsteady picture of a nude woman, stretched out on her side. As the camera pulled back Freddy realized, with disappointment, that it was the famous poster of Marilyn Monroe. Intellectually speaking, he'd hoped for something more exotic than the picture that had adorned the backs of the playing cards he and the neighbourhood kids used to steal out of his father's desk for their poker games.

The camera continued to move back jerkily until it became apparent that the poster was hanging on the wall of the long cluttered attic of the title. The picture was dim, as if the projector bulb was nearly burnt out, and Freddy strained to make out four shadowy figures, moving about vigorously. Before he could figure out what they were up to, the screen went black. Muttering, he pushed his second quarter into the slot.

He gasped so loud that the moon-faced man must have heard him, and his sensitive fannish face was contorted into an expression of disbelief. The picture was brighter now -- and it was quite obvious what the four figures were doing.

*

There was the rattling of chains being unlatched and bolts being slid back that Freddy's week in the city had not accustomed him to. Then the heavy apartment door swung open and Sid goggled up at him through his lenses. "Thank goodness, you're OK," he said.

It was late. Brooklyn, stretching out away from the fifth floor window, was dark. Curly lumbered up off the couch, a big, indistinct silhouette against the twin arcs of red and green lights marking the Verrazzanno Bridge.

"So, you finally made it," he said, knuckling his eyes. "You should've stayed for the rest of the meeting. Vispi proclaimed Sid `The New Burbee' on the basis of that Pith article. Isn't that a laugh?"

"You got lost, didn't you," said Sid. "I knew we shouldn't have let you leave by yourself. You could've been mugged."

"At least that would've made an article," Curly said. "Maybe Vispi would've proclaimed Freddy `the new Willis'." He chuckled. "I'm off to bed, myself." For a man of his bulk, he made his way with surprising grace through the cartons of paper, stencils and fanzines piled like ancient cairns around the dark living room.

"Wait," Freddy said suddenly. "I did get an article out of it. I went into this peepshow and -"

"Peepshow. Great Ghu. Rotsler's on my mailing list. You think he'd be impressed by a juvenile account of some silly peepshow?"

"Well, what I saw -"

"My dear boy. I've attended 441 conventions. I know what you saw." Curly shook his head. A smile began to form. "Imagine, though. Freddy Foster, well-known young neo, not a week in the Big Apple and already succumbing to the illicit pleasures of city life. Now there's something I'll have to write up."

Freddy flushed. His mouth moved but for a moment nothing came out. "I - I saw Walt Willis in the peepshow," he finally blurted.

*

An hour later Curly, Sid and Freddy stood in front of the sputtering sign in the window of the Babylon West. Curly had grumbled but had broken down when Sid threatened to go with Freddy alone. On the way, over the numbing clatter of the subway, Freddy described what he'd seen.

"As soon as the picture brightened I could see it was a ghoodmitten match. A mustachioed character in a trenchcoat whacked the shuttlecock towards the camera and when one of the opposing players whirled to retrieve it, I recognized him as Willis." Curly led the way into the peepshow. As they passed the front counter, the moon faced man accosted them in a mellifluous voice. "Only one at a time in the viewing booth, gentlemen."

Sid dashed eagerly through the racks of shrinkwrapped genitalia and vanished behind the curtain of the booth Freddy had indicated. Curly came to a halt beside the booth, stopping slowly like an ocean liner coming into dock. He waited, glowering, with arms folded.

Half a minute after the whir of the projector stopped for the second time, the curtains squeaked and Sid emerged, looking sheepish. He pulled a red bandanna out of his shirt pocket and began cleaning his glasses. He looked straight at Freddy with his myopic, unfocused eyes. "There were just some - uh - girls. You know."

"Let's make it official," Curly said. He wedged himself into the booth.

"Freddy," Sid whispered, "I'm sorry." He put his glasses back on but wouldn't look up from the linoleum floor.

Curly yanked the curtain open and glared icily at Freddy. Freddy found himself glaring back. How much condescension were you supposed to put up with in return for a place to crash?

"I know what I saw." His voice quavered.

Curly looked thoughtful. "I don't think you do know," he said in a surprisingly mild voice. "For instance, you didn't even realize that the character in the trenchcoat is John Berry."

*

On the downtown IRT Curly and Freddy sat apart from Sid, as if he had metamorphosed into a giant slug. As soon as they got back to the apartment, Curly fetched Sid's travel bag from the bedroom and dropped it at Sid's sneakers. "Any real fan would've seen Willis in that film," he said. "I'm not harbouring any mundanes under my roof."

The horror of being banished from Curly's famous apartment was too much for Sid. He began to sob. "Maybe I'm not a trufan," he blubbered. "Maybe I'm just a jerk. But think of the articles. Where would Burbee be without Al Ashley? Let me stay, Curly. I'll be your Al Ashley."

From the fifth floor window they watched his foreshortened figure trudge off. He looked one of those cartoon characters that waddles away after being squashed up into its hat.

"Pathetic," Curly said. "He didn't even think to call us bastards."

*

"We won't be attending Spacehounds anymore," Curly announced the next morning. "We'll form our own club, exclusively for Trufen. We can call ourselves the Wheels of Babylon."

He had it all figured out. Discreet invitations were mailed. Small groups of would-be initiates began to arrive each week and Freddy and Curly escorted them to the Babylon theatre. Some saw the light. Most did not. It surprised Freddy that he could never predict which fans would see Willis in the booth, although it seemed to him that the rankest neos failed most consistently, probably because many of them were not long for Fandom anyway. Those who saw heaving breasts rather than spirally shuttlecocks reacted in various ways. Many gafiated in humiliation. Some denounced the whole thing as a hoax. One prominent editor merely added a couple of "h"s to his name and went on pubbing as if nothing had happened.

In the evening Curly bent over his vast mailing list, eradicating the names of the frauds who had been revealed. "Many are called but few are chosen," he liked to say. Above his desk hung a pen and ink drawing done by a fanartist after his revelation in the peepshow. It showed Mae West wearing a beanie. "Is that a stylus in your pocket, or are you just a mundane," she was saying. The Wheels of Babylon promised great things indeed.

It seemed to Freddy that club membership was increasing with agonizing slowness, so it surprised him when, after two months, Curly remarked that too many fans were entering the fold. "Some of them must be faking it," he concluded.

He didn't pursue the subject and the next pilgrimage started off normally. The dozen uneasy fans made their way down the seedy street to the Babylon West, trailed by the panhandlers who'd come to anticipate the weekly appearance of these easy marks. Inside the peepshow the moon-faced clerk was at his accustomed spot, smiling his enigmatic smile but not acknowledging the fans otherwise. He was remarkably tolerant of the commotion the fans caused - the whoops of glee from the chosen, the tooth-gnashing and howls from the less fortunate. It was as noisy as if Jesus Christ himself were to materialize at a revival meeting, save half the congregation on the spot and open up the floor under everybody else. The clerk's only response, if it was a response, was to play a jazz station on the radio he kept behind the counter.

In the group was a longtime fan with whom Curly had once feuded. "We fought the good fight and I've come to respect the man," Curly confided to Freddy. The longtime fan emerged from the booth exuding neofannish enthusiasm.

"What a sight," he exclaimed.

"What colour were the stripes on Shaw's sweater?" Curly asked him.

The man was taken aback. No one else had been subjected to questioning. "I think they were blue," he said hesitantly. "I wasn't studying the --"

"If you'd really seen the attic you'd know the sweater wasn't striped at all," Curly said. And Freddy could hardly disagree.

Testing soon became part of the ritual. Not everyone who claimed to see the attic was tested, but whoever Curly chose to test was invariably revealed as a fraud.

"When you've been in fandom as long as myself you learn to spot them," Curly explained.

Gradually Fandom was culled and the remaining Trufans were able to turn their attention to the great task before them. There was much to be done for, as Freddy described it, the film did not end after the first two segments. A third segment appeared a week after Freddy's initial discovery and was followed, at sporadic intervals, by others. Each new segment opened new universes of information.

Curly organized projects. Neofans were assigned to count the cartons of paper and stencils. The attic was mapped. Artists kept busy drawing Willis and his colleagues from life and coming up with new treatments of the bits of Newtonnards Road that was sometimes visible through the attic window. The length of Berry's mustache was calculated to the millimetre. One enterprising fan deduced the date from the angle of the sunlight hitting the wall to the left of the ghoodmitten net.

"To my knowledge not a single issue of Hyphen appeared within months of that date," Curly observed. "And yet, the amount of supplies suggests Willis was ready to print something. Freddy tells me he has verified the existence of crumpled stencils in the wastebasket which appear for a second behind paper stack 4A, during the fifth segment. "If all this is true, it can mean only one thing. A lost Hyphen."

By remarkable coincidence, it was the following day that Freddy reported the appearance of a new, sixth segment, in which a manuscript was clearly visible on the work table that sat beside the heretofore unglimpsed attic doorway.

The Wheels of Babylon set out to reconstruct the Great Lost Hyphen and all might have gone smoothly if Freddy had not met Ann Dilcher. Without Curly's knowing, Freddy had been visiting Sid at Vispi's westside apartment. Freddy had been surprised that Sid, although a mundane, was still publishing frequently and receiving numerous fanzines from other mundanes. It was at Vispi's that Freddy met Ann. She reminded him of one of Heinlein's heroines. He was smitten.

Curly was horrified when Freddy proposed her for the Wheels of Babylon. There were no women in the club. "It wouldn't be gentlemanly to take a woman into a peepshow," Curly explained. "And what if she was a mundane and rather than seeing Willis ... well ... it couldn't be done."

Freddy insisted, however. Ann was the most beautiful femmefan he had ever seen. When he and Curly finally took her to the Babylon West she had to pull a baseball cap down over her hair so she could pass for a boy. "What colour are White's socks?" Curly asked her. "White, of course."

Curly shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry, Ann. They're obviously a charcoal gray.

Freddy's mouth went dry. Curly was avoiding his gaze but Ann flashed her eyes at him. "Curly," Freddy said. "You must have seen wrong. Those socks are white."

*

Something seemed to go wrong with Curly once Ann was in the club. He proposed that the Wheels start work immediately on a fanzine, Babylon If, in which they would make public their findings, including a reconstruction of the lost Hyphen. He suggested they use magnifying glasses to enable them to make out the words on the manuscript page that was visible in the film.

"Why not take a camera into the booth," Ann suggested.

"The clerk would never allow it," Curly said. "Besides, it wouldn't work. The Effect can only be seen by a Trufan."

Ann took a drag on her cigarillo. "Hasn't anyone written to Willis and asked him about all this, about the lost issue, about whether he ever had a ghoodmitten game filmed?"

Curly leaned forward in his seat. From beyond the window came the sound of distant sirens. "I know there's still a Walter Willis in Northern Ireland," he said. "But, you see, he's not our Willis. He's not the fan Willis. Not anymore."

The next day Freddy found a net stretched across the middle of the living room. Curly was wheezing as he shifted cartons of paper from place to place.

"We will create an exact replica of the attic," he wheezed. "Every box of paper will be in its place. We'll recreate the scene. If we put ourselves in the minds of the Wheels of If we'll be able to fill in the gaps in the lost Hyphen. We'll need to dress appropriately. Does Ann sew?"

Freddy started to worry about Curly. It was with a sense of relief that he was able, shortly afterwards, to report that he had finally discovered the final segment of the film.

"There's no more. Willis' side wins the game, naturally. Then the trailer comes on."

With the completion of the project suddenly in sight, the Wheels worked feverishly. Evenings, after the others had left, Curly would stand before the window, between the replicas of "paper stack 4B" and "dropped stencil 2", gazing glassily out over the rooftops of Brooklyn, muttering about pods and mundanes who walked like fans, wringing his big, soft hands.

"Sometimes I think there's just the two of us, Freddy. There are no more fans left anymore but us."

The day came when Babylon If was finished. It was a magnificent fanzine, with gorgeous lino-cut covers. It was absolutely authentic. Every word, every picture had either come directly from or been inspired by the film of the attic. Freddy gazed upon the hundreds of zines choking the living room and quailed.

"Don't worry," Curly told him. "I'll see they're mailed right away."

And indeed, when Freddy returned from visiting Ann that afternoon, the issues were gone.

*

For a week Freddy haunted the tiny, cold foyer where the apartment mailboxes were located. At last the first loc arrived and he raced up the five flights of stairs calling for Curly.

"Dear Curly," the loc began, "Thank you for sending Swedish Metermaids in Bondage."

The locs were all like that, although some writers did not thank them. Even the Wheels themselves accused Curly and Freddy of sending them glossy pages of sexploitation rather than the twiltone revelations they'd laboured at.

"I never imagined that the Effect would remain, even after we transferred what we'd seen onto paper."

"They were all Mundane," intoned Curly."Not a single Trufan among them. They all deceived us." Freddy had to agree, there was no other explanation.

Freddy and Curly returned one last time to the Babylon West. Winter had arrived. Soiled snow lay sprawled in sullen piles along the curb. As they approached the peepshow, they saw an ambulance pulling away. Two police cars, red lights flashing, were parked in the street. The neon sign in the stained glass papered window was dead.

Curly strode through the doorway and confronted the policeman inside. "I want to see the manager," he said.

"You're too late," one of the cops told him. "The fellow's an escaped mental patient. Someone recognized him and tipped us off. He's on his way back upstate now." Curly headed towards the booths.

"Don't waste your time, buddy," the cop called after him. "No films left. As a matter of fact, the whole place was cleaned out weeks ago."

Freddy noticed for the first time that the racks were empty. There wasn't a magazine to be seen. The place might have been deserted for years.

He and Curly trudged back out, into the cold. The shock had been too much for Curly. "Now what?" he moaned. "What's left for me?"

"I'm moving out of the apartment," Freddy told him. "I'm gafiating. Ann is going to school. We have plans."

Curly said nothing. His eyes were dull. Except for the movement of his legs and the fact that his breath continued to steam out into the icy air, he might have been dead.

"Before I leave, though, I wanted to tell you, since you're the last one now, that there was another segment. I wanted it to be a surprise, for a second issue of Babylon If." Curly turned his head dully into Freddy's direction.

"Willis left a message. He wrote it on a sheet of paper and held it up to the camera so I could read it."

Curly's hand clamped around Freddy's thin wrist, but there was no strength left in his grip. It was as if he were holding Freddy for support.

"What did it say?"

"I'm sorry, Curly. I can't tell you that. It would plunge all Fandom into war."

Freddy pulled away from Curly. He started walking to the subway.

Back to the beginning.