Thursday, May 07, 2015

Nullified Barbarisms

Originally finished in 1992, but not published until 2012, The Head of Athena, the second Cyrus Skeen detective novel, addresses in this chapter the issue of freedom of speech, in which a notorious atheist, Enoch Paige, attempts to deliver an address in San Francisco in May 1929. The scores of people who attend the event go not out of agreement with or even curiosity about what he has to say or about what they expect him to say, but to silence Paige. His speech, they are certain, will “offend” their religious or moral sensibilities. Paige is awaiting trial for the murder of his ex-wife; his attorney has asked Skeen to investigate the crime and produce evidence that will exonerate Paige of the crime.
            Skeen, who has not yet met Paige, attends the lecture to assess the man’s character. Here he encounters Sgt. Robert Hoile of the SFPD, a homicide detective with a special animus for Paige; his fiancé was murdered in much the same horrific way as was Paige’s ex-wife, and believes that Paige is guilty. He is looking for any excuse to lock Paige up again for violating his bail and for disturbing the peace.
            In lieu of another column on the importance of freedom of speech (I have written a few dozen), and the May 3rd attack  n the The American Freedom Defense Initiative’s Draw Mohammad Contest in Garland, Texas, I chose to excerpt this chapter from the novel. It dramatizes much of what I would have said in a regular column. The Garland police officer  nullified two barbarisms when he shot and killed the two Muslim gunmen.


Founders’ Hall, a rambling, squat building of grimy red brick with a soiled neoclassical façade, sat a block and a half from the Southern Pacific rail depot in China Basin, the city’s flat industrial port south of Market Street. Built by the Metal Casters Association shortly after the Civil War, it housed the offices of die casting firms, metal jobbers, and automotive engineers. The offices ringed a small auditorium, which had once been a locomotive parts warehouse and repair shop.
At eleven-forty-five, Skeen drove past the building, saw a line of perhaps forty people, and parked his roadster around the corner. By the time he returned, the doors had opened and the line was filing inside. Skeen strode to the end of it. A cheaply printed placard was tied with string to one of the iron pillars of the portico: TODAY — ENOCH PAIGE ASKS THE QUESTION: IS THE UNIVERSE BIG ENOUGH FOR GOD AND MAN? ONE DOLLAR ADMITTANCE. At the door, a glowering young man in a worn tweed suit collected money and handed back mimeographed circulars. Skeen smiled and dropped a silver dollar in the open palm. The young man dropped it in turn into a metal cash box on the table before him. Skeen took a circular from him and went into the auditorium.
About a hundred wooden folding chairs were set up in two sections, leaving an aisle of bare plant floor between them. Early afternoon light struggled to pierce the unwashed glass of the high arched windows that divided the mezzanine above the hall. Dusty green curtains hung from the ceiling on the sides of the dais. In the middle stood a battered lectern. Behind it, on either side, were two flag stands. One was bare, and on the other drooped a dingy American flag that was missing half of its tassels.
Skeen spotted a vacant seat in the front row next to a sour-looking spinster and headed for it. By a step and a half he beat a large, pinched-faced man in a bulky woolen overcoat that smelled like rotten cabbages. The man regarded him with hostile eyes, and looked as though he wanted to say something nasty, but he turned around and found another seat in the third row. Skeen shook out of his raglan and folded it over the back of the chair, then removed his trilby, folded it, and stuffed it inside one of the raglan’s pockets. He did not sit down, but stood and watched the growing audience. Many more people had followed him in and were filling up the chairs rapidly.
He read the circular, on which was an encapsulation of Paige’s career, followed by a statement that his talk this afternoon had originally been sponsored by the Freethinkers League. Two weeks ago, the League had withdrawn its sponsorship, and Paige had had to hire the hall at his own expense.
Skeen again studied the audience, whose composition ranged from very well dressed men and women to students, sales clerks and manual laborers. As more people came into the hall and took their seats, he noticed something else: Many in the audience did not join in the animated chatter, but sat very still with sullen expressions. They looked too disinterested and too contemptuous, thought Skeen. These might be troublemakers. There were many who were angling for Paige’s head.
He finished reading the circular. The last paragraph read: “This is to be Mr. Paige’s last scheduled public address. Mr. Paige plans to sequester himself for a time to examine other matters of gravity. Whether he withdraws from the public eye by choice, or by compulsion, remains to be seen.”
All the seats had been taken by now, and attendees were beginning to line the sides of the hall and the rear. Skeen smiled when he recognized a face.
Sergeant Robert Hoile was leaning against a stone pillar whose blue paint had been flecking away for years. He permitted himself a brief grin when he saw Skeen approach. Skeen greeted him and shook his hand.
“Good morning, Sergeant. What brings you here?”
“I’m surprised to see you here, Skeen,” Hoile answered. “I didn’t know you went in for this kind of rabble-rousing.”
Skeen said, “He might be a client of mine. I don’t mind telling you that, because it would be hard to conceal the fact if I decide in his favor.”
“Freund talk to you?”
Skeen nodded, then waved at the hall. “Are you here to be edified, or are you on business?”
Hoile frowned. “I’m here to keep an eye on my man. I arrested him, you know.”
“So you did. Corelli with you?”
“No. He’s on vacation.”
“Why do you think Paige needs watching?’
“Because if there’s any trouble, the bastard goes back to jail, and no amount of money will get him out again. He’ll sit there until his trial.” Hoile’s eyes hardened, and little shades of red appeared on his face.
Skeen studied the sergeant for a moment. “You’re sure he’s guilty, aren’t you?”
“You didn’t see the body, Skeen,” said the detective. “One of the worst I’ve ever seen. Even if she was a slut, nobody deserves to die like that.”
“The condition of her body may be immaterial to Paige’s innocence.”
“If you knew what I know, maybe you wouldn’t want to help clear this guy.”
Skeen decided to drop the matter. “I shall endeavor to know as much as you do, Sergeant,” he said. He nodded, and returned to his seat.
A moment later the sour young man closed the doors to the hall, strode to the dais, and announced Enoch Paige. He left as the speaker came in through a side door. A pebbly applause greeted Paige as he mounted the platform and walked to the lectern. He put a sheaf of papers on it, and planted two fists on his hips to study the audience as though he were daring anyone in it to object to his presence there.
Enoch Paige was a short, wiry man of twenty-seven, with curly brown hair and blue eyes in a square, impudent face. His eyes and mouth were in perfect harmony; his mouth expressed what his eyes told, although both features seemed permanently locked in a curious union of impish humor and satanic intent. He wore a pepper gray suit and a blue bow tie.
After he had scrutinized the audience, he said, in a clear, impavid voice, “I must apologize for underestimating my popularity — or my notoriety. If I’d known so many of you would come out this fine Sunday morning, I’d have hired more chairs. And I must extend my gratitude to the Police Department for having dispatched a single officer to ensure the safety of my person. Welcome, Mr. Hoile.”  Paige swept a hand in the air in the general direction of the detective, who had not moved from his pillar. Some heads in the audience turned to look incuriously at him.
Paige clapped his hands together. “As was announced, the subject of my talk this afternoon is the question: Can God and man occupy the same universe? More specifically, my question is: Why has religion exercised a monopoly on the notions of good and evil? Even more specifically: Is it possible for man to know these notions, exclusive of God and religion?”
Skeen crossed his legs and sat back in genuine interest. The audience seemed quietly attentive.
Paige put a hand on the top sheet of his papers, then withdrew it and put it in his trousers pocket. “Now — how best should I approach this subject? My options appear to be limitless. I could ridicule the notion of God, and subject the rituals of religion to comic treatment. I could insult your intelligence with infantile jest, and point out that God, spelled backwards, is dog — really, it’s a very old chestnut, that one! — and dwell on a bawdy but fictitious mutual etymology. I could tell you that I’ve finished penning an amusing play, after the fashion of Mr. Bernard Shaw, about how many times the end of the world has come and gone, and, just to spice up the tale, included in it a fatuous romance between a Reformed Millenialist drummer and a Second Resurrectionist tuba girl.” Paige paused and raised a hand. “Or — I could tell you that I’ve written a very serious play, one in the style of those Continental Expressionist jackdaws, featuring a handful of symbolic characters marooned in a barren wilderness, who debate and shout and cry about a savior who never comes — ”
At this, some of the more studious-looking attendees chuckled. Others in the audience shifted restlessly in their seats.
“ — nor even sends word that he has been delayed by a faux pas in another part of the universe.” Paige shrugged his shoulders. “I could recite witty limericks or outrageous ditties and have all of you — or most of you — rolling in the aisles. Oh, I could do so many things to get your attention. But, I will not resort to ridicule. Ridicule is a luxury one may indulge in only after seeing to the grave business of refutation. It is not my way to cajole those whose intellects I presume to address, although I think I can be an amusing man. I do not fault apt speakers for using the device of humor to weave a web of attention over their auditors. I am merely saying that it is a device I choose not to employ.”
Skeen chuckled and recrossed his legs.
Paige stared down at him. “Sir?”
“Yes, Mr. Paige?”
“Were you scoffing, or was it a compliment you were paying me?”
Skeen grinned. “I simply realized that you used a combination of the Subtle and Direct Approaches, as recommended by Cicero in Ad Herennium. Book One, I believe.”
 Paige looked mildly surprised. “One,” he said. “Did I do it well?”
“Well enough,” Skeen answered, “as you’re doing it again.”
“Thank you, sir.” There was some laughter in the audience. Paige waited for it to subside. “Marcus Aurelius, a man esteemed not only in our political and intellectual circles today, but also among the clergy — for, even though he persecuted Christians and burnt them by the bushel, there is much in his writing to cadge and clip for many a sermon — said in his Meditations that the ‘purpose of reasonable beings is to follow the rule and law of the most venerable city and state.’ I have never held much esteem for Aurelius myself. While I admit that it is fine to follow rule and law, I question the object of veneration — ”
“Who are you to talk of law??” shouted a man in the middle of the right hand section. “Who are you, murderer?”
“This’ll be a decent state when they cooks you to a cinder!!” yelled another man.
Paige sought out the first man, who had sunk back into his seat. “You may ask that question of me when a judge or jury has concluded that I am indeed a murderer, sir. Not until then.” He turned to the second man. “And you, sir, should take better care to avoid barbarisms in your speech. There is, after all, a limit to colorful illiteracy.”
Skeen, too, had turned to look at the men in the audience. He noticed the pinched-face man in the third row scowling at a slip of paper in his hand. When he turned again, he saw also that the spinster next to him sat with her fingers in her ears, her lips moving in silent prayer.
“ — I question the objects of veneration,” Paige continued, “just as I must question the rules and laws. Here I direct your attention to the not-so-coincidental connection between Aurelius’s imperatives and St. Paul’s admonishments found in Romans, thirteen, to obey the state and surrender its due. ‘It is an obligation imposed not merely by fear of retribution but by coincidence.’ To free men who wish to remain free, these cannot be sage words of advice, but prescriptions for tyranny….”
Paige spoke on. Skeen thought that, given the first incidents of hectoring, he would have been driven from the dais twenty words into his address. But he suspected that the hecklers were not hearing what they had expected to hear. Five minutes went by without further interruption.
“…The state and religion treat you like royalty. You are deemed privileged persons. Laws and customs are established for your protection. Today, these diminish your freedom, rather than enlarge it. And, like the royalty of Europe, you must, by grace of these laws — such as the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Amendments, and all the countless, merely legislative intrusions on your person and property — indulge yourselves in secret and mind your own business in the umbra of sin, scandal and fiat guilt. You drop a coin into the collection basket in church with the same grudging charity that you fudge your books for taxes or buy your liquor from a bootlegger or search for loopholes in your business licenses. These laws and customs, designed to make moral men of you, instead corrupt you and their administrators, however understanding you or the administrators may appear in public. I say there is little difference between the fraud perpetrated on you by the state and that perpetrated on you by any church. In both instances, there are material exactions and spiritual exactions. They tend to make us, as Hamlet said of himself, unable ‘as unvalued persons do, to carve for himself,’ not free of the fetters on our minds and pocketbooks, fetters created to direct us to some ‘higher’ purpose or approved, salutary existence, fetters forged to allow us to move only with special dispensation awarded by those who have quite arbitrarily set themselves above us as our moral warders.”
Paige noted the coughing and restive movements in the audience, and waited before he continued. “This brings me to another announcement: I am unable to answer my own question! I freely confess a stock of requisite knowledge unequal to the task of formulating an intelligible answer. I shall no longer inveigh against God, or against superstition, or against the sham of organized belief. Something akin to the unpleasant ennui one experiences after a helping or two of very rich food has bothered me for some time. Only yesterday did I realize that it was — boredom. I have grown tired of tilting against the ghosts in men’s minds. There are bigger and more substantive specters to lance. I have said all I will say on the subject. It is a good record. That there is no God is a matter I have settled to my own satisfaction. In the near future, I shall retire in order to ponder the question I am now unable to answer, but which I am confident can be answered. It promises to be an intriguing and exciting quest.”
Paige paused. “I realize that I have not delivered my usual tirade, which is what many of you came to hear today. So, if any of you feel cheated, your admission fee will be returned to you without question or reproach – ”
What is this??” shouted a short, skinny old man in the second row. “You said you was gonna talk about God! What kinda trick is this?”
“You have no right to speak of morality, you heathen, Godless blasphemer!” shouted the spinster next to Skeen, brandishing her umbrella.
“You wanna retire?” yelled a man in the fourth row. “You’re gonna be retired — in the ‘lectric chair!”
Skeen turned to look at the last heckler, but saw the pinched-face man rise and read from his slip of paper. “There’s no love or forgiveness for him who denies the Lord!” Behind him, another man rose and shouted, “God can’t be understood with reason or defeated with fancy talk!”
A tomato sailed through the air and hit the plaster wall behind Paige. “Ah!” he exclaimed. “I see that my appreciation society is upset!”
Another tomato and an egg rocketed over Skeen’s head and splattered against the dais wall. “God’s aim seems a tat off today!” laughed Paige. “But — even though I’ve announced my temporary retirement and should have left this stage by now, I’ll not budge from this stage until this hall has been emptied!”
“Begone, ye of no faith!” cried the spinster, shaking her umbrella at Paige.
“If you don’t leave that stage,” shouted the pinched-faced man, “there’s enough of us to make you, you little squit!”
Skeen rose and turned to see the commotion that had exploded behind him. Between twenty and thirty people were shouting threats and denunciations at Paige, while others argued violently with the hecklers. He saw one man punched by another and collapse between the chairs. A woman screamed. Others, sensing the growing trouble, abandoned their seats for the safety of the rear.
Sergeant Hoile was nowhere to be seen.
Something hard hit the wall behind Paige. Skeen turned and saw a rock bounce to a rest on the planks of the dais. Paige stood still, glaring at the pandemonium, his arms folded, determined to stand his ground. Skeen mounted the dais, briefly saluted him, and stood with him. The sour faced young man also stepped onto the dais and stood next to Paige.
“Thank you for the gesture, sir,” said Paige over the racket, “but there’s no need for you to get a pummeling, too.”
“It’s no gesture,” Skeen said, offering his hand. “Cyrus Skeen, latter day roving Musketeer, at your service.”
Paige grinned and shook the hand thoughtfully as a large potato missed his head by inches. “In that case,” he said, “allow me to introduce my protégé, Humphrey Garnett.” The sour faced young man extended his arm, but he was hit above his left ear by a small stone. Stunned, he began to collapse, but Paige caught him in his arms.
Skeen stepped back and picked up one of the stones. He spotted the pinched-face man, who had retreated a couple of rows and was reaching into his overcoat for another missile. Skeen hefted the stone in his hand, then reached back and hurled it. The man watched stupidly as it flew through the air and struck him on the bridge of his nose.
Skeen did not have a chance to see what happened to him. Someone yelled, “Let’s show ‘em we mean business!” and a dozen or so men knocked chairs and spectators out of the way and rushed the dais.
Skeen took the lectern by its base and swung it at the first man to step onto the stage, hitting him in the face and knocking him back into two others. He swung again and caught another in the chest, but the force of the blow and the weight of the lectern yanked the thing from his grip. The lectern fell apart as it and the man crashed into the chairs below, falling at the feet of the spinster, who had fainted. Paige had lowered the unconscious Garnett to the planks, and stood in front of him, wildly swinging what looked like a blackjack at his attackers, keeping them at bay.
A stone grazed Skeen’s temple above his right ear. He stepped back and grabbed the unused flag stand and removed it from the brass base. He handed the pole to Paige and took the base at the stem in both hands. Instead of waiting for the men to rush him, he rushed them, striking out at their heads.
Just then a cacophony of shrill whistles erupted in the hall, and a dozen uniformed policemen swept in through the main doors, led by Hoile. The attackers leapt from the dais and tried to disperse, but were brought down by nightsticks. One man ran up the center aisle and tried to shoulder Hoile aside, but Hoile let him fly by and pistol-whipped him as he passed. The man plummeted to the floor and lay still.
Skeen stood on the dais, holding the brass base in one hand. Paige stood a few feet away from him, holding the two ends of the wooden pole, which looked splintered. Five unconscious men lay at their feet among the sheets of Paige’s scattered notes. Skeen had a small cut above his right ear, while Paige’s face boasted a pair of bruises.
Paige put down the pole, and bent to look at Garnett. With a groan, the young man opened his eyes and sat up.
Sergeant Hoile approached the dais with a uniformed officer and stepped onto the dais. He put his revolver away and stood over Paige. “You were warned, Paige,” he said. “Any kind of ruckus, and back you go.”
Paige rose to face the detective. “You know this wasn’t my doing.”
Skeen said, “You saw how it happened, Sergeant. If you arrest him, you’ll have to clap steel on me, as well.” He put down the brass base and approached the policemen.
“I’ve got no argument with you, Skeen,” Hoile said. “You did what you thought needed doing. But I can’t let this man go free to incite more public disturbances.”
“He didn’t incite it. He was finished. There were men here who were looking for an excuse to cause trouble. You know that.”
Hoile drew himself up and faced Skeen. “Don’t tell me what I know!”
The hall became still. Spectators, policemen and arrested men alike turned to watch and listen.
Skeen gestured to the hall. “There are as many witnesses to what we saw as there are to how it all started.”
“God damn you, Skeen,” muttered Hoile beneath his breath.
“Arrest Paige, and I’ll pay his bail, too.”
Hoile studied Skeen for a moment, then turned to Paige. “All right. You’ll have to come down to the Hall, if you want to lodge a complaint.” He turned, stepped down from the dais, and stalked away, shouting to a uniformed sergeant. “Don’t just stand there! Clear this place out! Now! Get moving!”
Paige sighed as he watched Hoile retreat. Then he turned to Skeen and they silently shook hands.
Skeen sat with a cigarette on the edge of the dais and dabbed at the cut on his temple with a wet handkerchief. Enoch Paige was gathering his notes. Humphrey Garnett sat in one of the folding chairs and held a wet towel to the side of his face. Hoile paced back and forth in the rear of the auditorium, waiting for ambulances to take away the few injured spectators and the men Paige and Skeen had felled. He threw angry scowls at Skeen and Paige and snapped at the officers under his command.
Paige lit a cigarette of his own and walked up to Skeen with a tired grin. “There was a debate Cicero had no advice for, eh, Mr. Skeen?”
“You won it, nonetheless.”
“So we did. But I wouldn’t want to adjudicate the point with such Catilines very often.” Paige studied Skeen for a moment. “Where’d you pick up your Cicero?”
“At Yale.”
Paige’s face lit up. “Not Professor Xavier Warmington??”
Skeen nodded.
“Old ‘Warm Up to My Subject Warmington? By God!” exclaimed Paige. “Another Eli stuck in the Styx! What year?”
“Twenty-one,” said Skeen.
“Twenty-three!” Paige laughed. He slapped Skeen on the shoulder. “Of course, you know, even if you’d been a Harvard man, I’d have welcomed your help all the same, and still called you friend!”
Skeen smiled. “I’d have helped you even were you an alumnus of Sequoia College of Dentistry in Portland, Oregon.”
They turned to face Hoile in the rear of the hall. The sergeant said, “Are you coming down to the Hall to lodge your complaint or not?”
“Yes, I am, Mr. Hoile. I’ll be right with you.”
“Then, come on! I haven’t got time to waste!” Hoile turned and walked out.
Humphrey Garnett rose and came up to Paige. “You go ahead, sir. I’ll see the custodian about the damages and have these chairs carted back to the rental.”
“All right, Humphrey. Sure you’re okay?”
The man nodded with a weak smile and began to fold the chairs.
Paige turned to Skeen. “I know how to reach you, Mr. Skeen. Freund said you’d be dropping by here, but I wasn’t paying him much attention. I’d better be going, before the law changes its mind.” He went into the side door and returned with his overcoat and hat. He waved goodbye and strode out of the auditorium.
Skeen dropped the handkerchief on the dais and rose to survey the carnage. He could not imagine how Paige could have committed murder. Murderers did not defend their right to speak in such a manner. 
He walked over to the splintered flagpole and picked it up. He examined the ornamental brass tip, which was shaped and as sharp as a spearhead. It was smeared with bright red.

1 comment:

Teresa said...

Most appropriate- and now I have to read Athena again. I hope Geller has a Skeen every time she needs one.