Panangelum — by Lauramahr
I walk the strip because I’m a moth with lights. Even the traffic lights, even the headlights and taillights. Are the people in the cars looking out their windows at the casinofronts, the fountains spraying colors?
And Satan’s face, of course. That infamous calm smile and those black eyes look down from posters and billboards on every corner. “Pandemonium: 6/6” in narrow red. Almost eight months since I moved here. Two days until I will interview him in the Fire & Ice.
And I start walking toward there now, not expecting it to be open with the conference so soon, but silhouettes are moving behind the windows. Stained-glass figures, frozen mid-fuck on lava plains and glaciers. The red letters, identical to those in the posters but many times my height, are emblazoned on the black marble like they are in the pictures: Fire & Ice. The symbol of sin. I check my watch. Midnight. It’s tomorrow. I go in.
It’s red-lit: dull gleam on glasses, eyeballs, streaks of clean tabletop. Through a brief triangle between someone’s back and someone else’s crooked arm I see an incongruous teacup, pinkly patterned with small flowers, steaming. The thread with the square of paper stirs and the steam-column teeters; then the triangle closes as the arm-woman moves her hand from her hip to her hair and steps back. The people are lithe, have paid to be so. I see wingtip shoes but I don’t hear them on the carpet. The lights behind the bar turn to blue; everything sharpens, then relaxes back to red. A woman in a green – is it green? – dress shimmies past me, her hand on the arm of a man in a suit. Both of their heads are thrown back and neither is laughing. Cheekbones. Gin: they pass in a whiff of pine. But I’ve done my research; I’m in a slinky black dress that would kill my father; I’m in heels that may kill me, that hold me above even the men’s heads.
“What may I get you?” the bartender asks. It’s blue now and I can see him in the wood. A woman, hunched, in too many layers, sits at a barstool next to me. Shivering? Her hair is just long enough to run fingers through. I am fascinated by her hair. Is it darkest blonde or lightest brown? And the coat. The coat is camel, fraying at the cuffs, with a charred hole in the left elbow. The collar of the navy blazer underneath sticks up like a tag.
“Oh! Yes. I’m sorry.” I try to make eye contact but end up staring at his egg of a head. Smooth and white and matte. What was the woman in green drinking? “Gin. And, um, tonic. Please.” He glides off.
“You want to be more assured,” says the woman at the bar. Her shoulders jerk over her drink. Soda, it looks like, with ice and a straw bent at the red-lined ridges. The bartender comes back with my gin, slides it across the bar. The glass is heavier than I anticipated and my hand wobbles as I sip.
“Why?” I ask the flutter of hair over her eyes.
“You want to act like you’ve got powerful friends. A boyfriend in the army or a gang-member brother. If you seem weak he’ll spike your drink and rape you.” She turns her head. Slow drawl of her eyes over me. A smirk. “Though, in that dress, it looks like you might enjoy it.”
“I’m gay,” I say. She cocks her head.
“Really? So am I. One or both of us should buzz our heads before the end of the evening, don’t you think?”
“You’re drinking soda. I don’t think you’re likely to get very drunk.”
She nods, takes a deliberate slurp. “And what’s your name, or shall I call you Perception?”
“Rachel Caraway,” I say. I extend a hand and she shakes it. Cool from the drink. The blue light stresses the lines of her wrist. Blonde in this light, I decide, and brunette in the other.
“Nina Hardy,” she says out of the side of her twisted mouth. I drop her hand.
“Nina Hardy?” I breathe.
“Nina Hardy, the mathematician?” She looks at me. Her eyes are gray and dark. “Nina Hardy who proved the two incompleteness theorems…the most beautiful argument for the most terrible conclusion…”
“You’re a writer,” Nina Hardy says. Her eyes don’t blink.
“Journalist,” I manage. “Hardy numbering – you discovered Hardy numbering –“
“Invented,” she snaps. “And you’re a tabloid hack? Here to snap a few pictures of the Prince of Darkness and write five pages on the exact cut of his suit and angle of his smirk, so millions of suburban women can masturbate next week to something other than porn while they lie in bed next to their hairy fatty husbands?”
“Why ‘invented?’” I remember my drink. The bartender is looking at me. I take a composing sip.
“Because God created the natural numbers and everything else is the work of man.” She starts fumbling in one of the pockets of her outermost coat.
“You believe in God?” I hear the shock in my own voice, hear the echo of where I grew up, and I try not to shrink.
“Of course not. Does anyone? But yes, as a convenient metaphor for various things. The angels and the devils both use the word without believing; can’t I? Determinism always calls herself God when I talk to her.”
She’s dug a cigarette out of her pocket. She stares at it. Voices murmur in the background. The distinct click of a single fingernail against a single glass. Hollows fill with red at her collarbone between the lapels of her coats.
“Oh, you think I’m being metaphorical,” Nina Hardy says. “Rachel, was it? Do you have a lighter? No? But you noticed I’m drinking soda. Can you find the connection? I’ll be much impressed.”
The red hollows empty. Blue cliffs appear at her cheekbones. “Medication,” I say.
“Very good!” She’s delighted. She chews on the unlit cigarette and her jaw muscles jump. “Haloperidol doesn’t mix well with scotch. Only thing I ever drank, except coffee when I worked.”
“Past tense,” I say.
“Want to know how I got the idea for Hardy numbering?” She waits for me to nod. “I’ll tell you. Determinism told me. Walked into my office late at night, pulled up a chair and explained everything. Well, not everything. The overall structure. Representation lemma she only sketched. She was beautiful. She looked like you. She said her other name was God. I jumped out the window with my notes trying to follow her. I finished the proofs on a pad of paper on top of a radiator at a particular window on a psych ward. I could see the road from that window, going through the trees.”
Nina Hardy takes the cigarette out of her mouth and drops it into my drink. “Now: enough. Who are you, really? Are you Perception?” She starts laughing, too loudly; a few perfectly planed heads turn. “That prick serving drinks, is my red his blue? Do you have a daughter named Qualia? Or are you Sex? That would be lovely, if you’d just drop to your knees, darling, right here – “
“My name is Rachel Caraway,” I say firmly, through the buzzing in my ears. “Bartender!” I call. He slides over.
“May we have two more diet sodas, please? Lemon?”
When he comes back with the drinks, I push one at Nina Hardy and raise mine for a toast.
I say, “To proof.”
She clinks it, hard. Fizzy lemon flecks us both. “To models.”
“And ambiguous meanings.”
“And beauty and brains.”
I smile. “To education.” I wipe a droplet from my dress and lick the finger.
“Yes, and where did you go to school?”
The bar is emptying. “Let’s not talk about that,” I say. Then, my heart pounding: “Let’s not talk about anything.” That’s the right line, isn’t it?
“It doesn’t become you, lovely as you are,” she says.
“Trying to act like you’ve done this before.”
The moon: a pockmarked ball of butter melting onto a graybiscuit cloud. About thirteen minutes and the sun will rise. That liquid-metal slice of light behind the mountains. My estimates are good – years of practice without electric lights. I lean my head on the cool glass of the sliding door and think of coffee. There is a balcony, the bars of which are wrought-iron and twisted like DNA. I do not go out. Nina Hardy’s bed is empty; I can see it reflected. Rumpled, white-waffled down comforter, green sheets embroidered with white outlines of fish where you are supposed to fold the sheet over at the top. Nina Hardy had not folded it and the other sides of the fish, thready and all wrong, stared at us last night. In my new black lace, tiptoeing, I start down the hall looking for the kitchen. I wonder if I fucked up; I had read about it, but that’s no substitute, probably. Then I hear her.
“Someone would have noticed,” she’s saying. Her study. Her back to me at the door. I can’t see the floor for the dazzling titles: Wave Analysis, Applications of Ruskovich Spaces, Philosophies of Mathematics, The Diagonal Proof. Spines all viciously broken, sprawled where they fell. The chair opposite her desk (desk snowed under with papers) is pulled out and empty. Diplomas hang uneven on the walls. One leans against the bookshelf, fallen, the glass cracked and glittering like snow in the rug.
“I can’t,” she says to the empty chair. “I’m sick. Can’t you of all people fucking see that? No – no, I don’t think it’s fate. I’ve talked to Determinism and she wouldn’t bother with press passes. I think it’s coincidence. It’s only fate in the sense in which everything is.” Pause. Tightening. “No. No, God damn you. Please. I promise. I promise.”
I must have made some sound. Nina Hardy turns around. Her eyes are too wide but she smiles composedly. “Good morning, Rachel Caraway,” she says. “I was just talking to Conspiracy. May I make you some coffee?”
you think I don’t watch
He comes in from the bathroom dabbing his hairline with his sleeve, face tight and shiny from washing. Navy button-down tucked with uncaffeinated precision into khakis; businessman’s loafers. Behind the thirteenth-floor glass wall the sun has cleared the Diablos skyline. It’s early enough that you can look at it, and it looks like a child’s orange ball cut in half and stuck on a flashlight. He turns on the coffeemaker but no lights. Ticking, dripping. How the orange ball slants the room with dirty-cotton light. In the hallway a door closes in iambic meter – dah¬-dah – with a solid click. He opens the outer door of the suite and crouches, pinning the door between his thighs, and with violinist’s fingers presses each part of the doorhandle’s mechanism in turn. He stays like that for several minutes. When he moves his right index finger the motionless door clunks. The coffeemaker is silent, the sunlight’s self-assurance strengthened. Reflected grapefruit panes, parallelogramed by the angle of the morning, cobble the wood floor and blaze in the half-black glass of the coffee pot.
“The fuck, Luce?”
He looks up briefly. “Coffee’s on the bar.”
“Thanks. And did you make that before or after you decided to affect taking a shit on the floor?”
“This door is first-class. Heavy. There are four moving parts in the handle. There are usually half that. No wonder it sounds twice as satisfying when it shuts. It sounds symbolic.”
Beelzebub stares, then snorts, then walks across the room to pour the coffee. The red dress – high-necked, thigh-length, tight as poured frozen liquid – stretches across the androgynous shoulders, flat chest, and featureless groin the devils and angels share. Of course the devils are angels. Beelzebub is one of the few to prefer the feminine pronoun. She also prefers voluminous eyelashes, lipstick, hair longer than the dress, stilettos. Beelzebub does not mean to pass as a woman. She explained this when they were both drunk. Beelzebub means to parody the rest of the devils’ equally deceptive, but less obviously so, male facades. And the angels? Lucifer asked. At least they’re honest and pretty much wear bathrobes, Beelzebub said. Beelzebub is Lucifer’s second-in-command. She is drinking coffee now and swinging her straight curtain of hair through an invisible light-line in the air. When her hair moves into the dust motes it shines that nearly-blue that is beyond black. Lucifer clicks the door in time to the swinging of her hair and then stands, lets it fall shut. By the time it closes he is sitting on the edge of the divan, looking through the papers on the coffee table.
“The money for the hotel came out of the offshore account yesterday.”
“See?” Beelzebub says.
“It should have been the day before. As if the bank first cleared the transaction with Michael.”
“You’re overreacting. You’re paranoid.” Her mug clinks on the counter. “Who in the top ranks could it be, dear leader? And if it is someone at the very top, why does Michael seem to know a ton about our tactics and very little about our strategy?”
“Yes, I know your views on this subject, thank you.” He puts the paper down and gets up. Stretches. Goes to the window. “I’m going to tip Michael’s hand and expose the spy in one move,” he says over his shoulder. “Better, I’m going to do it before Pandemonium ends.” Beelzebub groans; Lucifer grins. “I am, after all, known for my economy, efficiency, and aesthetic elegance.”
“I can hear your Anglan comma.”
“Grammar, too, yes.”
“Nope,” Beelzebub says. “Fragment.”
“Pot, kettle, and black. Still Anglan comma.”
They hold each other’s eyes, half-kidding. Beelzebub smiles first. Lucifer has watched alpha wolves close their teeth a centimeter from underlings’ jugulars. They never miss. That he saw this in a zoo – has not visited the northern tundras of the planet, has never heard the pine-needles rattle or the hunted elk scream as its blood spurts cryptic inkblots on the snow, does not intend to – does not diminish the power of the image. The click of the teeth. He and a nine-year-old boy spent over an hour standing side by side, not talking, looking down into the pit and watching the wolves. Where was the father, he wonders now.
“Well?” Beelzebub says.
“Are you going to enlighten me about this plan?”
“You think it might be me.”
“No,” Lucifer says. “But I take no chances.”
Beelzebub rolls her eyes. “I should slap you. Press is going to want to see us this morning. I was on the phone with the Herald last night and they want at least five minutes with you in private either today or tomorrow.”
“I’ll give them two tomorrow. Also – have Abdiel check on the magazine drops into the enclaves. I want double the usual planes. I want some fineries dropped, too. Something to give them a taste of the West. Truffles, maybe. Condoms and lube, certainly. The Herald isn’t going to back out of the deal?”
“Of course not. I proof the damn thing or they lose the shitrag—“
“—and they will not fatally impale their business upon the point of principle.”
“Right. Blackmail’s a bitch. You sleep okay? You look tired.”
Lucifer smiles. “Fine, Beelzebub, thank you.” He checks his watch. “Only three hours until kick-off.”
“Three whole hours until kick-off. Relax. I’m sure your opening remarks have Anglan commas in all the right places.” Beelzebub turns on the radio on the glass table, then falls so dramatically onto the divan that Lucifer chuckles. The speakers crackle. Lucifer turns away from Beelzebub toward the window and closes his eyes. He sees the piano melody of the symphony as birds – blue, God knows why, and diving at different heights in perfect synchronicity through the redblack cave of his illuminated lids. Could light be liquified? Could photons be compressed enough, slowed down enough. Would that liquid be gold and would it cling dripping to his eyelashes and would it blind him if it got in his eyes. He opens them. The sun is high enough to feel the heat through the glass, to see, thirteen stories below, the shimmer on sidewalks like sheets of ice. A hell of a day brewing. He goes back to his room for more antiperspirant. It will not do to sweat through his shirt at the podium. The days when sweating was part of the job description are well over. War was hot, and so was the Middle East during the purge of the monotheists. He dreamt last night that Michael was him, pushing a sharpened stick through the alimentary canal of the movement’s founder and saying in his voice ‘There is no God.’ The quivering man’s hand-claws twisted slowly and twin arcs of blood shot out his nostrils. There was a hideous sound from the throat. In the dream he tried to stop Michael/himself but he couldn’t find himself to move and when he realized he was pure perception he panicked and woke himself up and lay rigor-mortised and sweating the sheets translucent. He pulls the comforter over the sheets, now. Calcified imprint in a man-sized half-moon. Beelzebub would not think to investigate her casual question, he knows that, but it will not do either to be careless. With one finger he dabs concealer above the ridges of his cheekbones. The skin is so thin there and the corners of his mouth turn down.
When he comes back out into the living room, Abdiel, shirtless, is next to Beelzebub on the divan. Lucifer pauses in the doorway and looks at the backs of their heads, tilted together and touching: one blueblack, shiny, straight, one sandy and amusingly pillow-flattened. The curved back of a hand like a shell around Beelzebub’s shoulder.
“I don’t know,” Beelzebub murmurs; Lucifer takes a silent step closer. “There’s just something about it. It’s, like, garish. False. The whole thing. Nothing’s worse than falsity. The way he is when he’s performing. I hate it.”
“A good performer is a frustrating thing,” Abdiel says. The hand tightens. Beelzebub makes a soft noise and manicured fingers appear over the hand.
“Maybe you should get dressed, Abel?” A small snort; whose, Lucifer can’t tell. ‘Abel,’ Beelzebub told him, is short for ‘Abdiel, love.’ The comma totally elided.
“Probably. After room service, though?” Abdiel releases her shoulder and picks up the phone from next to the radio. He orders “the usual omlette” and a piece of toast and raspberry jam to the despotic suite and hangs up. He stands, stretches. He’s in white boxers printed with lilacs. His back, as he moves, is slender and pale and the muscles slide with insouciant control. He could get away with the feminine pronoun much more easily than Beelzebub, who’s broader, darker, taller. Perhaps when no one’s in the suite Abdiel turns on the radio and twirls balletically to Grant’s Eighth Symphony: the bare arms rising and falling in perfect circles, the green eyes fixed maybe on the Oriental vase on the mantle with (it looks like) popcorned stalks tilting out of it, the hay-colored head turning (blindingly swift) only when it is practically parallel and the green gaze still perpendicular. Lucifer sees the geometry of it, wonders if he could calculate the optimum point for a ballerina to turn her head.
“We should see if Satan wants anything,” Beelzebub says, and Lucifer steps back into his bedroom and pushes the door just short of closed. The click he called so satisfying would alert them.
Abdiel, over his shoulder, reentering the bedroom he and Beelzebub often share: “I’d be willing to bet he doesn’t.”
Three taps on the door. Lucifer is in the leather chair by the vanity, reading. “Yes,” he says.
“Do you want anything from room service, Luce?”
He smiles at her. He really tries with this smile. “Sure. Blueberries and toast would be wonderful.”
Her plucked eyebrows jerk slightly. “Oh, okay. What’re you reading?”
“A very interesting book of poetry,” he says. “Formally innovative, but still about the same old things.”
Beelzebub grins. “Fucking?”
“Not sex. Love, certainly. Hatred. Despair. Fear. Uncertainty.”
“Sounds fucking depressing.”
“It is. And possibly very self-indulgent. But I am trying out hermenutical charity.”
“Hi, good evening, Azazel.”
“You know we all call you the Brute?”
“Brave Unofficial Therapist.”
“If he found out.”
“I see.” … “What are you thinking?”
“It’s funny, I get in this room – obviously not this one, just whichever one you’re in and the door’s closed – and all the things that I try not to think about just…” … “I hate crying.”
“Why do you hate crying?”
“Can you imagine him crying?”
“Yes, easily. Can’t you?”
“Have you seen him – ?”
“I wouldn’t feel right telling you that.”
“Yeah. Sure. Sorry.”
“It was a good question. If you saw him cry, would you feel better about doing it yourself?”
“Yeah – well – I – there’s just no reason for me to be feeling like this. I mean, think about Mammon, how much he’s got to miss Gabriel, to dread seeing him in the, I don’t know, course of duty; imagine knowing the angel you loved the most was the one who disfigured you, imagine thinking of that every time you look in the mirror. At least I still have Moloch. That’s better than a lot of us can say.”
“I would rather talk about you than Mammon, as much as I feel the same sympathy for him. Do you think you have less to feel sad about than he does?”
“… I don’t like the word ‘sad.’ It sounds weak.”
“And crying is weak, too?”
“Yeah. I know how that sounds. Like, debunked. Like only an idiot would believe it. But this culture – do what you need to do for the cause and don’t you dare feel anything but devotion…”
“That’s well put.”
“I am devoted to the cause. Intellectually. I am. The enclaves are wrong, I believe that. Our Enemy is wrong, I worked this out, I’m a deontologist, this is taking away individuals’ autonomy. But I don’t feel…much of anything.”
“You’re a brave unofficial analysand to admit that, Azazel. Have you told anyone else that you ‘don’t feel much of anything’?”
“How do you think you would feel if you told Moloch?”
“God. I don’t know. Ashamed.”
“Do you think it’s possible he feels something similar? I remember last time we were talking about his – what did you call it?”
“His sitting. He just sits for hours sometimes at night, not doing anything.”
Pause. Rewind. Play.
“God. I don’t know. Ashamed.”
“Do you think it’s –“
Pause. Fast forward. Play.
“—just sits for hours sometimes at night, not doing anything.”
delegated this. Take it as a mark of my
“Conspiracy?” I’m looking at her very carefully. She’s dressed already. Hair pinned. “Is there…someone I should call for you?”
But she levels at me such a look. “Shut up. Decaf or regular?”
“Thank you very much. Regular, please.”
“Wonderful. You just won me over. Interesting phrase – like we’re picking sides. Won me over. Won me. Six goats or the mathematician. Not vel-inclusive. Exclusive.” Somehow I’m following her into the apartment’s kitchen. Here it is. Black granite countertops flecked with something sparkling. The windows are huge, uncurtained; must be east-facing, because they are sheets of glare; I avert my eyes. It occurs to me I am still in lingerie. It does not seem to have occurred to Nina Hardy. I flex my stomach muscles and look through the cabinets for a mug, find one. She’s put the coffee on without a filter. I can smell and hear it straining the machine. In slacks and a white collared shirt and makeup and heels she clicks around the kitchen. She looks out every window. She is muttering to herself but her hair is perfect.
“I can’t hear you,” I say.
“I’m not talking to you. Of course I want the proof. Don’t accuse me of not wanting the proof. I did this for the proof. That’s proof – ” She’s laughing. Then she’s not. “Fucking dangle it in front of me. See what happens. It’s not worth my health. Wealth, stealth. Conditional. If I, then you. So you say. Well I want proof. Spoof. Spook.”
I should call someone. I stare at her. One shoulder leans, higher than the other, against the black pole dividing one window. Her head is cocked down toward the lower shoulder, nose and toes on the same line at a 60-degree angle to the floor, arms folded, legs crossed at the ankles, spine an elongated S. Look at me, look at me.
“Now I’m talking to you. Rachel Caraway.” She hasn’t moved. Staring up at me through heavy lashes, her gray eyes look encaged. I get my own coffee and sit at a stool at her table. I take care to slide onto it sideways, presenting the long slim line of my (ironically, now) pressed-together thighs. I note the eyes’ downward dart. “Yes, very sensual. I’ll sleep with you again. Now I need you to listen to me, and try not to prejudge what I’m about to say because I was diagnosed psychotic. This is not psychosis. This is something I know and need your help to prove.” Silence. Narrowed eyes. “Rachel.”
“I’ll listen,” I say. I sip. Her cabinets are white, tall. They sport gold knobs, one of which gleams. I haven’t understood that verb until this knob. The stove is so modern I don’t see any burners. No towels hang from the front of the oven. A spice rack by the phone filled with pencils, all savagely sharp or chewed broken nubs.
“I’m glad to hear that.” She starts pacing with slow, measured steps. Her heels become a metronome. “You’re a journalist,” she says. “This is a story. A big fucking story.”
I wait. She’s stopped; she’s frowning. “Dr. Hardy?”
It takes her an underwater moment to turn her head to me. “We’ve slept together; you may call me Nina.” Nina resumes pacing. “There is a massive conspiracy,” she says. She enunciates like a drunk trying to sound sober. “The most basic fact about our civilization is a lie. I know how absurd that sounds, but I promise you it’s true. Blue. Crew.” She stops, puts a hand to her head. Breathes in and out twice. Then: “The angels and devils do not work against each other. The angels want the same thing the devils do, but they don’t want the devils to know that. They figure the devils will work against them or not at all, and they need all the help they can get. Mankind isn’t goddamn easy.”
I wince, but her diction isn’t the issue. I decide that as soon as she goes to the bathroom, or to whatever real or imaginary event she dressed up for, I’m going through her drawers until I find the number of her doctor.
She’s looking at me expectantly. “So…the angels are after humanity’s technological and cultural progress too,” I say. “The thing about keeping us backward in prehistoric conditions, walled in, taken care of like children – that’s all a vast deception spanning four continents.”
“I’m crazy, I’m not stupid,” Nina Hardy says quietly. “Don’t be fucking snide with me. And yes. That’s right. That’s exactly right.”
“What proof do you have?”
Something happens to her face. Some tectonic shift under it. “I have to do this for the proof,” she says. “I need proof so I can have the proof.”
“That’s nearly a tautology, Nina,” I say.
Her look, again, withers me. “I repeat, I would think unnecessarily, that I’m not stupid,” she says. “I need proof of this conspiracy. If I get it and show it to Satan, the abstractions will leave me alone. They’ll stop appearing, they’ll stop telling me things, they’ll let me write my proof. I have to write my proof. Do you have any – you have no idea how revolutionary this proof will be. When I can write it. Tried to do it on the meds. Couldn’t. Went off them. Now they’re all back. Conspiracy, Determinism, Love, Obsession, Sanity. All of them. Universal quantification. For all x such that x is an abstraction, x can appear to me. Glee. See.”
This is not the important part it’s not but I can’t help it. “What’s the proof?”
“Of the inconsistency of arithmetic,” she says.
I stare at her. This must be the psychosis speaking. Must be. A proof of that would render the entire edifice of mathematics worthless, built on sand. Built on worse than sand: quicksand. All practical applications, all of physics, all of engineering – the efficacy of mathematics once again a total mystery, since it would be logically inconsistent. Would violate the laws of a comprehensible and reasonable universe. Would divorce all of mathematics – even the simplest addition operations – from logic, and from counting on your figures. Would be a model worse than useless, because it would still torture us with its beauty and utility.
But this is the woman who wrote the incompleteness proof. Mathematics is incomplete if consistent, and inconsistent if complete. What if she can…what if she really…if she thought of this before she stopped the medication…