Are `Atrocity' and `Chuckles' Synonymous?

by Dave Jordan


Rodya ``Rasko'' Raskolnikov emerged from the shadows pooled just offstage at Catch a Rising Star and cleared his throat. It was Monday night at Catch, open mike night, and the siren's call of drunkards' laughter beckoned raw amateurs to step onstage, strip themselves of reserve, and deliver a rambling five on whatever topics they deemed amusing. Rasko peered into the fecund darkness that cloaked the patrons, bleeding them of individuality and birthing a vital, sinuous new entity, the Crowd. An organism devoid of familiar human features --- a pock-marked face; groping, jelly-stained hands; corn-crowned toes --- the Crowd was nevertheless capable of entertaining human emotions, of grasping profound spiritual truths. The Crowd could love. The Crowd could nurture.

The Crowd could violate and render asunder.

Rasko faced the Crowd, the blind, intolerant, ever-ravenous Crowd, and slit open his swollen Comedy Teat to sate its ceaseless cravings.

``Hi, folks. Hey, what a great crowd we've got here tonight. You know, we all have health problems. Who can avoid them these days? But sometimes I really start to wonder. A few weeks ago, I was, uh, voiding my bowels. You know how you kind of grunt to expel solid waste matter? It's only human. But I guess I grunted too hard, because I got a real headrush. Well, wouldn't you know it, the body's means of controlling blood flow to the brain is a set of neural receptors in the neck. If you lie down, these receptors are supposed to detect the change in blood pressure and send a message to the heart. The heart varies the rate and intensity of its contractions according to these signals. So your head doesn't blow up like the Hindenburg when your position changes from vertical to horizontal. Unfortunately, I blew out these receptors when I took that dump I told you about --- a headrush is just a cerebrovascular accident all decked out in a cute halter top and Wet 'n Wild lipstick to make you think it's pleasure --- and now I'm a walking time bomb. You know that Edgar Allan Poe story, `The Tell-Tale Heart'? Well, whenever I lie down,it feels like my pounding heart has set up shop inside my head, and I feel like screaming most of the time. With no pressure-regulating system controlling blood flow to my brain, I'm set to have an extra-Huey sized stroke any time now. And there's simply nothing to be done about it. Believe me, it's unsettling to have the voice of Death thundering in your head when you're trying to grab a little shut-eye.

``Speaking of voices, when I was little, I thought that when you pick up the phone and make a call, you were actually calling the phone itself. The telephone contained the souls of the lost and the damned, and the voice that came from the phone was the voice of one of these desolate creatures of the spirit world. And I thought that one day this unhallowed union of incorporeal souls would emerge from our telephones to judge all Mankind, sweeping the innocent and the guilty alike before them in a cataclysmic onslaught of destruction. Later I learned that the telephone is just a communications tool, not unlike the telegraph with which we are all so familiar.

``Well, you've been a terrific audience. Good night.''

Rasko walked off-stage. The Crowd huddled in silence.

That night in his fleabag apartment (with the People's Radio Network blaring State-sanctioned Continuous Soft Hits to counterpoint the thudding staccato beat inside his head), Rasko contemplated the essence of Being. He knew one thing for sure: He existed. The Cosmos had generated at least one entity that was capable of rational thought, and if not thought, then at least sensation. But did anyone else ``exist''? Rasko deemed the question unanswerable. And, quite frankly, unimportant. When he attempted to estimate his position relative to the Masses, it seemed to him that Life granted some extraordinary individuals the right to do basically anything they wanted. After all, if the very existence of his contemporaries could be called into question, was not their vitality, the force of their Will, when measured relative to his own, more or less negligible? Should they not be subjected to his whims? Even if that meant slaughtering a few of the sheep, draped in shrouds of pallid Humanity, who blindly pursued the wanton pleasures of flesh or gummed the milky pablum of domestic contentment awaiting them in home and hearth?

Unfortunately, the strictures of practicality intruded upon Rasko's musings. His job at the tire-burning refectory did not exactly rake in the dough, and stand-up comedy had yet to yield rewards any more substantial than artistic satisfaction; he was painfully short of cash, and trembling at the edge of the swelling ranks of the destitute. His landlady, however, appeared relatively affluent, and this bothered Rasko. Why, he wondered, should she have any money whatsoever? What act of Destiny's caprice had favored her with the means for a comfortable livelihood, whilst he, Rasko, foundered in squalor? The thin veneer of respectability Society granted the relationship of landlord to tenant seemed to Rasko merely an obscenely inexcusable vindication of feudal exploitation. Why not just lock him up in a dungeon and toss him the occasional slice of mold-encrusted bread (with perhaps a cup of greywater to slake his thirst), rather than parasitically drain him of his resources through the monthly payment of ``rent''? The inequity of the arrangement galled him, and in a sudden rush of inspiration, he decided to restore some semblance of justice.

So he snuck down to his landlady's first-floor apartment. The door stood conveniently ajar; Mrs. Alekhine's habitual laxity in matters of security was notorious, and tenants had on more than one occasion warned her of the possibility of theft. Rasko entered the apartment and headed for the cookie jar. His pulse hammered in his head as he reached below the Upensyveta brand chocolate swirl macaroons (Mrs. Alekhine's talents did not include baking) and withdrew the fat wad of fifties that layered the bottom of the jar. He licked the light coating of crumbs off the bills, savoring their golden-brown, crispy goodness. He was about to make his escape when Mrs. Alekhine walked in the door, returned from the brief errand which had claimed her attention. Did I mention that Rasko had brought an axe and a mallet with him on his maiden criminal voyage? Well, he had indeed stowed these implements beneath his ragged khaki overcoat, and he now revealed the axe. Mrs. Alekhine only had time to cry ``Not on the carpet!'', before Rasko buried the axe deep in her skull. Then he withdrew the blade and hacked at her still twitching carcass, severing flesh from frame in a shower of gore. Next, he lay aside the axe and grasped the handle of his mallet. Straddling the corpse, he hammered the mallet home on her head and torso, smashing and mashing until the generously proportioned lady had been reduced to a pulpy pool of homogeneous detritus.

Rasko contemplated the filthy wad of tissue and blood at his feet. His clothes, smeared with the offal of mortality's seepings, stank of the abattoir. He pondered his act of carnage: Was it just? Was it good? Had he indulged in excess, when temperance would have served him better? Rasko shrugged. These questions probably had no ``right'' answer, and relative to his viewpoint, the defunct matron's abrupt change of state from living human being to inanimate matter really made very little difference --- except insofar as her passing had helped to ameliorate (if not erase) the cruel financial imbalance which had characterized their landlady-tenant relationship.

Shaking off the torpor which these reflections induced, he was about to beat a hasty retreat when the patter of stockinged feet arrested his progress. Little Serge and Puddin' Alekhine, awakened from sweet slumber by the commotion in the next room, had come out to see what was going on. Rasko turned to them and affected a personable smile.

``Hi kids. Your mom's not feeling too great.''

And, grabbing his axe, he approached the little ones to continue the evening's grisly work.

The uproar. The hubbub. The curious delays.

Despite the public outcry and the flurry of police activity, both in his building and throughout the neighborhood, Rasko somehow managed to escape detection --- which may seem a little improbable. But let us contract with one another to free ourselves from the slavery to realism that stifles our imagination in so much of what we read; and we shall do this of necessity, because for this story to ``work'' (although that may no longer be an option at this point), Rasko had to escape the police net that (we'll agree) was cast somewhat haphazardly over the apartment compound. Oh, it took a while for Rasko to regain his calm after the incident, and with good reason: You don't just off an entire family without feeling a little nagging guilt. Or if not guilt per se, at least unease. It's only human. But somehow Rasko held himself together, and in the end, he began to see certain entertainment potential in the unpleasant act he had committed. Every burgeoning stand-up looks for material: From going to the dentist to battling one's mother-in-law, the stand-up scours the panorama of experience for the grist his comedy mill must process if he is to earn the bread with which to feed himself. Although still an amateur, Rasko felt that his unique insider's view of human liquidation might provide him with a class act --- the kind of act tailor-made to propel a struggling young performer straight to the Big Time.

And thus, two weeks later at Catch, he stood naked (figuratively speaking) before the Crowd, his personality sacs packed to bursting with replenished stores of rich Entertainment Albumin. The Crowd rammed its needle-sharp proboscis deep into his soul and supped greedily of the dark amniotic nutrients roiling therein.

``Hi folks. Gosh, what a pleasure it is to see all of you out there, supporting all of the rising new talent. You know, murder is a funny thing. I mean, how often do we all fantasize about taking the life of someone whose existence seems to us, well, somewhat superfluous in the grand scheme of things? We see injustice and inequity all around us, thriving unfettered, and it's enough to make you just... indulge in an insane killing orgy. Just for the sake of argument, let's say that I had murdered a money-grubbing landlady and her two kids. I'm simply presenting this as a hypothetical situation, mind you --- it's just for fun. But let's say that I was guilty of the murders of three human beings. How would you view me? Would you consider me a monster, or would you just kind of shake your head and say, `Those darn kids today'? Not that I actually killed Mrs. Fernesta Alekhine, you understand. It's just that, you know, if I had split her scalp with an axe, you would probably think ill of me. That's the cancer of hypocrisy. You self-indulgent poseurs nauseate me. You drive around in your shiny automobiles, you play with your shiny trinkets and baubles, you smooth the wrinkles from your soft, subtly-textured muslin togas with a shiny camel-hair brush. And why? Because not one of you is man enough to act on his lust for power. You see an extraordinary individual like me --- a man who feels no compunction at pampering himself with the acts of savagery that one needs to nourish one's Will, to fatten the sleek and all-conquering Self --- and you recoil. I hope you're proud of yourselves, you squirming, hydrocephalic, mewling tissue bags floating purposelessly about in an idiot Cosmos.

``Thanks folks, you've been a terrific audience. Good night!''

Among the patrons at Catch that night was Inspector Dmitri Primakov of the local constabulary. He listened to the monologue with a suspicious ear, and presently he called Rasko into the station for questioning. Rasko took a seat in Primakov's office. The two eyed one another, each shrewdly evaluating the caliber of his opponent, each wary of the nascent darkness within his antagonist, but both yearning for the bitter-sweet pangs of budding friendship. Primakov spoke first.

``I enjoyed your act, Raskolnikov. It was really quite amusing, old fellow. To think, I was dreading yet another evening's worth of routines about visiting the dentist or sitting down to a mother-in-law's atrocious cooking! I might go so far as to say that your inspired, refreshingly unsettling schtick was the toast of the season. But say, you did lay it on a bit thick with that murder bit, didn't you?''

``Come out and accuse me!'' Rasko screamed, and flecks of creamy saliva geysered from his petulant lips. ``Stop toying with me! You've already stripped me of my last shred of integrity and self-respect. Do you want me to expose my neck so that you can apply steady pressure with your shiny Fascist boots, collapsing my windpipe and snuffing out my life as you would a wax vesta you've used to light a cigar?''

``Oh, now don't fly off the handle like that, old sport. All this pish-posh about breaches of integrity, loss of self-respect and whatnot is just so much drivel. We police aren't here to ``goose'' the public, trick them out of their rights and then knock them sprawling in a delicious, splay-legged pratfall. No, on the contrary, we're in the support business. We hold out a caressing hand to the public and say, ``Allow me to lend you an arm, old fellow. You look a trifle woozy.'' And I'm here to tell you, Rodya Tschykrelev Raskolnikov, that I'm willing to apply a caressing hand to you, if you'll only play fair with me. But let me just ask you, man-to-man --- it will go no further than the two of us --- where were you on the night of Federika Vyetski Alekhine's murder?''

``I was... out for the evening,'' Rasko replied, his brows beaded with glistening droplets of perspiration. ``Yeah, that's it. I was out, I tell you.''

``Disclaimers notwithstanding, you did as much as confess to the murders in your act, you know.''

``What are you accusing me of, you accursed devil?!'', Raskolnikov howled, his blood-shot eyes bulging.

Dmitri Yelesevich Polkariv rose to his feet and extended his finger in the general direction of Rasko's face. His robust voice seethed with unctuous, dripping notes of indignant condemnation --- the voice of the Avenging Angel:

``I accuse you, in the name of the People, of the murder of Fidernyeta Mistelovich Alekhine! I accuse you of the shedding of innocent blood, of spilling the life-essence of a countrywoman and her little ones! Oh, foul interloper, that we had unclothed your wickedness at the moment of your birth, that we had dashed your moist, pink body against the curb, rather than allow you to wander unchallenged across the face of the globe!''

``What are you accusing me of, you fiend!" came Rasko's retort. "Spell it out, rather than speak in your endless riddles! Am I Alexander to your Sphinx, that you should query me about the Ages of Man? Tease me not, but rather lay bare before my searching eyes the full import of your profane charges!''

``We have reason to suspect,'' replied Polgarich with renewed composure, ``that there may be circumstances... pieces of potential evidence which have recently come to hand... giving us grounds for a belief in the possibility of our alleging that you may have involved yourself --- whether as a principal or as an accessory, this to be determined in the sequel --- in the scenario surrounding the death by axe-and-hammer violence of Mrs. Fadeeva Alekhine and her two young children on the night of the 21'st of this month, in this year of our Lord 1---.''

Rasko rose from the padded, vibrating Recline-a-Lounger in which he had weathered the storm of the Inspector's interrogation. Soothed by the chair's back-massaging rollers and penetrating ``deep heating'' of the patented comfort-pads, Raskolnikov felt more confident now, somehow more capable (perhaps because his coping skills were richer, more mature, at this very moment than they had ever been before) of deflecting Polgarov's puzzling insinuations. Before turning to the office door, Raskolnikov leveled his eyes and brought the full force of his commanding gaze to bear upon the ruddy countenance of the Inspector.

``I am not going to sit here one minute longer and indulge your taste for sadistic little cat-and-mouse games, Inspector. When the time comes that you have serious, concrete charges to press against me --- and I harbour grave reservations as to whether these vague, unspeakable `notions' of yours will ever congeal into the probative legal material that commands the attention and the respect of a modern court of law --- then you shall find me eager to cooperate with the judicial machinery that we, as a civilized people, have erected for the purpose of protecting the innocent and furnishing the wrongly-accused with a means of redress against their persecutors. Until that time, I bid you good day, sir.''

Rasko's trial hit the community like a big soft heavy thing falling on someone who isn't quite expecting it. Rasko's prostitute girlfriend, Trisha Anderson, sat in the crowd and cooed lovingly in Rasko's general direction. Although her cutesy-poo "shame-on-you" finger waving didn't do Rasko's case any good, the court sketch artist enjoyed dabbing his fingers in the charcoal pot beside him and smearing them on his pad of paper as he delineated her gauzy, filmy outline. The prosecutor (Vasily Patronymich Kremelienko) presented his case in workmanlike fashion, but Rasko haughtily refused to defend himself. His tortured, pride-engorged eyes bulged and swayed at an awkward angle as he swung his head about to gawk at the fascinating legal proceedings. He was judged "guilty" by a jury of his peers. Upon pronouncing Rasko's sentence --- the ultimate penalty that the Law was capable of exacting --- the judge asked Rasko whether he had any penetrating insight into the process whereby he had been railroaded and condemned. Rasko thought for a moment, then turned to address the court.

``Good people of this town, it annoys me that I'm about to forfeit my existence because I (allegedly) whacked some dumpy hag and her runny-nosed kids. Think how you'd feel if you were in my shoes. It wouldn't feel that great, now would it? But to show you how big-hearted I am, I'm going to admit that, perhaps, I can see your point. And by `you' I mean'' (he swiveled his head meaningfully toward the jury and allowed a sneer to contort his lips) ``Mr. Know-It-All Jury and their Pocket Buddy, Judge Infinitely-Wise Overseer and Protector of Society. Yes, I can see how you wouldn't want someone like me around, someone who's (allegedly) too virile, too full of life to allow the existence of someone who isn't as vital as I am. I can see your point. But that doesn't mean I agree with you in your judgement.''

Rasko paused in his speech. The court's nutritional resource steward provided him with a Syvetlandia Doklady FunCake; Rasko bit into the golden sponge cake and savored the squirt of creamy filling gushing into his expectant mouth. Meanwhile, the onlookers in the stuffy courtroom turned inward, probing their reactions to the miscreant's sentence, examining their conflicting surges of vengeful acrimony and compassionate tenderness, unearthing their own loves, their own hatreds...

Their own cowardices.

Raskolnikov concluded his brief repast, then cleared his palate with a soda cracker and a draught of cool water. Refreshed, he resumed his passionate address to that corporate body of his fellow citizens, a body that had so rashly rubber-stamped him ``Unlawful'' and ``Unfit to Live.'' His taut, pendulous, straining eyeballs seethed with the fire within him, a fire that would know no quenching in this or any other world.

``But know this, friends and neighbors: If you execute me, if you tear the breath of life from my lips with your hangman's noose, with your electrocutioner's chair, with your gas chamber... attendant's... gasses, I'll simply come back stronger than before. Any feeble attempt on your part to quench the seething fires within me will meet with more than just passive resistance, let me be the first to tell you. I am too plugged in, I am too into it, to be stopped by mere death. Depend upon it, countrymen: If you kill me, I shall arise again when you least expect it. And my atrocities on that fateful day will make these (alleged) misdeeds look like... some pleasant, happy thing... that everyone kind of enjoyed.''

Immediately following his execution, Rasko's body began decomposing into its constituent elements.