Incognolio

Michael Sussman

12 min.

CHAPTER ONE

Churn the Weasel

Incognolio.

Ever since the concussion, I can’t get the damn word out of my head.

I haven’t a clue what it means. But I love the sound of it. So, I’ll make it the title of my novel and allow the entire story to spring forth from this mysterious word.

My neurosurgeon, Dr. Noggin, isn’t so optimistic.

“Given the acute injury to your brain,” he told me, “the resulting deficits in planning and organization don’t lend themselves to the construction of an orderly plot.”

Screw Noggin. If I wanted an orderly plot I’d reserve one at the cemetery.

The best tack, I decide, is to allow my compromised gray matter to dream up the tale as I go along, placing trust in my pinwheeling subconscious mind.

But where to begin?

In the past, I’ve found creative inspiration in simply walking the streets of the city. Not knowing what weather awaits me, I throw on a jacket, say goodbye to sweet Yiddle, scamper down as many steps as I see fit to create for myself, and emerge onto the busy street, which I’ve named Random Road.

As I head east toward the harbor, the brisk morning air clears my head, and it occurs to me that I’ve forgotten my janx. But I decide not to go back for it, for the simple reason that I’m not entirely certain what a janx is, the tendency to make up words being yet another symptom of my recent calamity.

After strolling a block and a half I spot conjoined twins standing in front of a brick building, begging for change. They’re male, about twelve years old, each with just one arm and one leg to call his own. The onrush of people, bound as they are for important meetings and pressing engagements, fills me with shame for the way they casually ignore the twins.

The boy on the left has a gentle face, almost feminine in its features, and he brandishes an upturned newsboy cap. I retrieve a handful of change from my coat pocket—perhaps two or three bucks—and drop it in the cap. Lefty smiles radiantly and says, “Bless you, sir.”

Righty, whose face is mean and insolent, scowls and says, “Cheapskate! How ’bout some damn bills?”

So I delve into my wallet, finding to my curious astonishment that it contains only rubles. With a shrug of my shoulders and an apologetic smile, I deposit a crisp hundred-ruble bill into the cap.

“What the hell’s that?” says Righty.

“Sorry, it’s all I’ve got.”

“That’s cool, mister.” Lefty winks. “Have a grand day!”

“Asswipe,” mutters Righty, and he spits at me.

Wiping the spittle from my brow with a monogrammed hanky whose provenance I couldn’t trace if I tried, I forge onward. Two vicious Dobermans materialize at the ends of their leashes, snapping at me, reined in by an elderly woman dressed in a ratty bathrobe. Which reminds me to pick up some food for Yiddle, although now I’m pressed to recall whether I made her a dog or a cat—or even a goddamn parrot—and the absurdity of this budding saga gives me a sudden hankering for whiskey.

I’m on the verge of entering a bar when a kind-faced man dressed in an Armani suit pulls up to the curb in a Lamborghini convertible. He leans toward me and speaks. He’s new to town and looking for the Khadaar. Do I know the way? I don’t. In fact, I have no idea what he’s talking about. But I’ve always wanted to ride in a Lamborghini, so I say, “I’ll take you there,” and am invited into the passenger seat, whose soft leather feels like a cloud in heaven.

The driver introduces himself as Ko and I give my name as Muldoon. As the vehicle glides into traffic, Ko admits he had a hunch I knew about Khadaar. I smile knowingly, secretly wondering how I’ll possibly direct him there, telling him, for no reason in the world, to take a left on Arbitrary Avenue.

When Ko inquires what level I’ve achieved, I frown, compelling him to elaborate.

You know,” he says. “What level of Incognolio?”

My heart quickens, for I feel instantly lucky to have stumbled upon someone who is familiar with the term. But then I realize that since I’m the one writing the story, it isn’t luck at all. Furthermore, I wonder whether I might have created more suspense by placing a series of obstacles along the way.

It’s too late now; the man in the driver’s seat discloses that he has attained Level Six. I raise my eyebrows as if to convey a measure of being duly impressed, and just then I spot the sign for Destination Drive.

As I direct Ko to hang a right, he lets out a hoot and points to the Khadaar, a strange edifice that looks like a cross between a White Castle, a Shinto temple, and something else I’ll think of later.

Ko parks the Lamborghini, and when the two of us pass through the entrance to the Khadaar, a young woman asks me to please remove my shoes. Reluctantly, I comply; my mismatched socks have holes, and now my big toes peek out. I survey the interior of the room, which is nondescript, since I remain torn between lavish and minimal decor.

My driving companion warmly embraces a tall bearded man, causing me to wonder if they are long-lost friends, while I amble to the end of the antechamber, where people pass through a purple velvet curtain into a sort of inner sanctum. Just as I reach the curtain, I’m distracted by a burning need to pee. I rise from my desk, my back stiff from sitting too long, and make my way through the apartment to the bathroom, where I urinate standing up, erasing any doubt that I am indeed of the male persuasion.

Glancing up from washing my hands, I’m startled to see that I cast no reflection in the mirror, which makes perfect sense since I’ve yet to describe what I look like. Not that I’d be caught dead doing so at this juncture, knowing full well that every amateur novelist and his sister uses the mirror as a vehicle for slipping in a visual description of the main character. Plus, what’s wrong with letting you, the reader, use your imagination? Do I have to do all the heavy lifting? Hell, even the great Voltaire believed that the best books were those in which readers themselves composed half.

So I facelessly dry my hands and return to my desk, and just as I’m about to revive the scene in the Khadaar, my phone rings and a charming female voice introduces itself as Delphia. She tells me she’s got information that can help me find what I’m looking for and to meet her in twenty minutes at Hrabal’s Tavern, just ten blocks away in Circle Square.

I put on a gray trench coat, which strikes me as appropriate since this is feeling more and more like a detective novel. But before I leave I remember to feed Yiddle, who turns out to be a parrot after all—an African Grey—and Yiddle squawks, Better watch out, better watch out, which sends a shiver down my spine because Yiddle is rarely wrong. Once outside, I follow Random Road west all the way to Circle Square, enter Hrabal’s, and take a seat at the polished mahogany bar at which I’ve sat on many a long night, drinking myself into oblivion.

Hrabal limps over and pours me the usual, Jack Daniel’s on the rocks, and shoots the breeze until he is distracted by a stylish woman who appears at the door. She’s a luscious lass, just my type. Her leonine green eyes lock onto mine as she slinks toward me and parks herself on the adjacent stool. She orders a dry martini from Hrabal and turns to me. “I know about your quest for Incognolio.”

For the moment, though, entranced by the exotic scent emanating from this luminous creature, I’m less interested in Incognolio than in Delphia and am scheming how to seduce her when I recall that a certain sad side effect of my concussion appears to be impotence. So, reluctantly, I set aside my amorous designs and ask her what she knows about Incognolio.

Delphia sips her martini and scrutinizes me. Seeming to come to a decision, she leads me over to a booth with a come-hither look and sits across from me. “Operation Incognolio,” she explains, “is a covert CIA investigation of a strange phenomenon occurring at random localities in which the inhabitants gradually lose the ability to think rationally.”

“Why are you telling me this?” I ask, adding that she must know I was placed on unpaid leave from the CIA after single-handedly botching Operation Pandemonium, mangling my prefrontal cortex in the process.

“Yes, Muldoon,” she says. “I know all about you, including the novel that you’re writing, the one titled Incognolio. That’s why I got in touch. Even with your considerable cognitive impairment, I believe you are still the best damn detective around.”

I eye Delphia suspiciously. “How do you know so much about me?”

“Because I possess the Faloosh,” she replies, employing what is in all likelihood another of my made-up words. “It enables me to intuit the entire backstory of any novel in which I appear as a character.”

I sit there stunned, gawking at Delphia, the first character I’ve ever created who is self-aware.

Once this revelation has sunk in, I ask her to tell me more.

“Incognolio is spreading through my hometown, where both of my parents are paralyzed by a total inability to follow a logical train of thought.” Delphia looks deeply into my eyes. “I need you to help me discover the source of the epidemic in Whimsy.” Given my own aversion to lucidity, I imagine that an inability to cogitate would come as something of a relief. But Delphia looks distraught, so I agree to go visit her parents and see if I can help get to the bottom of their affliction.

I settle the tab with Hrabal and light out for Whimsy in Delphia’s car, a brilliant red Ferrari. Before I know it, the two of us are sitting on her parents’ sofa, drinking chamomile tea and trying to hold a semblance of a conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Yankerhausen. This proves a challenge.

For instance, when I ask Mr. Yankerhausen when he first noticed a shift in his thinking, he replies, “It was around the time that the kettle went to sleep, that is to say before the orange crimes revealed their cowboy addiction, festering in a kind of flaccid rotation of rejected noodles, the simpering fools having forgotten to release their canopies into the lagoon.”

And likewise, when I ask Mrs. Yankerhausen whether she understood what her husband just said, she tells me, “Well, dear, at first it kind of went in one ear and out the cranberry valve, so I tried to belittle his noose, the poor snub, though I can’t seem to fiddle the craw.”

The entire interview proceeds in this fashion, while Delphia sits there in tears, and my own thought processes begin to churn the weasel. Then my phone rings.

It isn’t my cell phone but the landline in my study. I stop typing and answer the call, which is from my literary agent, Myrtle Grouse, who has been a thorn in my side from the start.

“When are you sending me Incognolio?” she asks.

“Any day now,” I reply, which is the sort of thing I’ve been telling her for nearly three years, since the publication of my last book.

“You’re skating on thin ice, mister,” says Myrtle, her way of reminding me for the umpteenth time that Under Milquetoast and As I Lay Decomposing have both gone out of print. “You have exactly three weeks to finish the thing or I’m cutting you loose.”

This prospect sounds delightful except that, given my middling record of book sales, I’m unlikely to find another agent, and this at a time when most publishers won’t even piss on an unagented manuscript, on fire or otherwise. Were my monthly disability checks much larger or my expenses much lower, I could afford to tell Myrtle to take a flying leap, but since that is not the case, I can’t risk burning this bridge just yet, which leaves me with no other choice than to mumble, “Yes, Myrtle.”

“And listen, Muldoon,” adds Myrtle as a parting shot. “If you want to get anywhere with this story, lose the self-referential shtick. Metafiction is so played out.”

Her words hurt, since I thought I’d made it apparent that this is a parody of metafiction. Nevertheless, I grudgingly admit that it might make the manuscript tougher to sell and agree to keep the self-consciousness to a minimum. So as I hang up the phone, rather than note that this might be a good place to wrap up the opening chapter, I simply end it.

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About Michael Sussman

Abandoned by a cackle of laughing hyenas, Michael Sussman endured the drudgery and hardships of a Moldavian orphanage until fleeing with a traveling circus at the age of twelve. A promising career as a trapeze artist was cut short by a concussion that rendered him lame and mute. Sussman wandered the world, getting by on such odd jobs as pet-food tester, cheese sculptor, human scarecrow, and professional mourner while teaching himself the art of fiction. He now lives in Tahiti with Gauguin, an African Grey parrot.

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