What was beauty amidst decay? Rita thought of herself as dejected and alone, an outcast amongst ugliness. Hers was a feeling akin to culture shock, but not the wide-eyed wonder of the honeymooning tourist, but more like the creeping unease and paroxysms of pity prominent (she presumed) in those bleeding-heart philanthropists and kooky relief workers who braved out into third world countries on the nightly news, pleading for pledges. What did her father call them? Scam artists. But those were countries of the beleaguered and oppressed! This is America. Was America? Under the refuse and rubble, beyond the lushly overgrown plants, beside the milling pedestrians, she could see the skeleton of the old city, once vibrant and full of life. What happened? Did the democrats finally get their way?
Her stream of consciousness brooked into the River Styx when a voice, vaguely familiar, called her back into the present. She turned abruptly to see the thin woman from before, now with her pajamas tied tight and a ski jacket on. She definitely had a touch of the kindly matron about her, but Rita decided a little makeup wouldn’t hurt, and her red hair, faded to auburn in some places, could use some strawberry highlights, but otherwise she was approachable.
Winded from tracking Rita, the woman said, “I am surprised by how hard it was to follow you, what with those awful shoes you have on. I thought foot-binding was no longer practiced in your time. Barbaric, really, the shapes a woman had to contort herself to.”
Rita was surprised to be spoken to in this desolate place, rather than be mauled or panhandled. Was that pity she heard in the woman’s voice? “My time? You mean, you understand my situation?”
“Yes. Well, I pieced it together when I saw you in that neolithic outfit. I’ve been trailing you all morning.”
With the harum-scarum morning behind her, it took Rita a moment to place the face of this woman she had met just a short time before. It was Martha, the woman who had the smart-aleck wunderkind yapping at her ankles, whose house she had crashed at for a century. Why had she followed her? To attain some dusty curio, an attic antique? Rita was alive, opinionated, and would be resilient to the last; the woman would just have to contend with that.
The woman eyed her more judiciously and said, “Funny, my husband and I never did get why your generation wore such ridiculous get ups. I mean, those clothes exhibit neither form nor function. Really, I’d think even bloomers and petticoats had more practical advantages.”
Martha’s nasty vitriol was met with base boldness from Rita. “You can’t talk to me like that. I’m the daughter of Charles Jonquil.” She paused, waiting for the fact to register. “The millionaire. I’m beautiful and my clothes are beautiful. It seems to me your entire awful culture has forgotten that beauty is an art.”
Martha took offense to her whole life being so roundly dismissed, “Then you’re not much of an artist.”
“From heaven or hell, beauty, come you hence?” Martha waited for her deft quotation to register. “Charles Baudelaire. To oversimplify the works of Kant, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and if you would just open yours a bit wider, you might see this isn’t the hellish and ugly place you take it for.”
“But these are the ruins of the city I loved, the trash heap of a scene I was very much a part of. I guess I’m not in Kansas anymore.”
Martha hadn’t got the reference; apparently The Wizard of Oz wasn’t the timeless classic Rita hoped it to be. As a side note, I have since researched the film in question, and it’s rumored a few copies may exist, but are highly prized and coveted, screened once in a blue moon for ardent fans.
Relishing the opportunity, Martha went on to fill in the immense blank in Rita’s mind that was the preceding century with information, pared to the essentials for her benefit. The third world war, with all its blood and glory, was sized down to just a few raw chunks of facts. It was, and still is, a touchy subject. The post-war period, not to be confused with the postmodern period that had ended with the treaty, occupied a greater place in their minds for its relevance to Rita’s predicament.
It was the cultural purge after the war that made Rita such an outsider in the present, that time when humanity, what dregs were left of it, decided to rid themselves of what they assumed to have triggered the crises: the intellectual clutter that was shelved in the storerooms of history. Books, as many of you know, were largely destroyed or discarded for espousing ideals and morals contrary to the peacekeeping forces known as bureaucracy and blithe ignorance. Those which survived were those with no ideas beyond the status quo and no morals unconnected with commerce. Films not content to be empty entertainment were liquidated, including Things to come of course, and even Rita’s beloved The Wizard of Oz. It was a shopper’s paradise following the war, and many of my more agnostic readers must think that would have been the proper time for fate to snap our heroine awake. Our time had something else in store for her. Rita was both enthralled and mortified to hear what followed the post-war consumer bubble, but the biggest surprise was yet to come.
With loving reverence, Martha then mentioned the man who roused the world from its somnolence, Richard King. The name struck Rita as familiar, but again, her life was such a blur at the moment that all those who figured into it were just streaks of light shooting away from her, leaving her in the lonely dark. She explained how Richard had championed self-development in the face of crushing materialism and utter exhaustion with a number of books, essays, and films, distributed like contraband amongst remaining intellectuals. With those gestures, he thoroughly debased society as Rita knew it, leaving in its place destitution and desuetude. Poor Rita didn’t yet see the beauty in this.
Martha then went into greater detail about the malcontented messiah, explaining how he began putting reforms in place after losing the great love of his life at a movie theater. As legend has it, she rejected him wholesale by storming out of the theater, never to return his calls or reply to his emails. Heartache, as historians like myself know all too well, can cause man to go to great lengths just to pacify the afflictions in his heart. As he saw it, it was the superficial aspect of society that induced such cruelty in his lover and he aimed to change that. So flows history, and so on, and so on. I’m not here to give a history lesson, but I bring this up to point out one crucial fact. The spirited woman in the legend and our heroine were one and the same. Rita nearly had a nervous collapse when she realized this connection.
The depressing cityscape around her took on a morbid dreamlike quality as it slowly set on her that she herself had an integral part to play in its current outcome. If she had only watched the film contemplatively instead of dashing out to make calls! The revelation caused in her such dizziness she could do nothing to alleviate it but blurt it out. “I was her! I was the lost girl!”
“You were she!” Martha was ecstatic. “You know, you’re quite a mystery to most of us, like the Dark Lady of the Sonnets… Or Empress Josephine. We must consult the scholars with this discovery. Did you know him?”
“Only for about an hour or so. I don’t get how he could feel so much for me in such short time. I only really talked to him during the previews.”
“True love doesn’t need to mull things over.”
“Jeez, maybe I underestimated him.”
The fifth and final part will be available soon. Please check out my book on Amazon!
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