Traversing the Void
—A Strange Pilgrimage

One day I was having a drink, or thought I was, with Charles Dickens at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street in London. We discussed the plight of the working poor, which has not gone away. The next day I was having a drink, or thought I was, with Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, at the same drinking establishment. We discussed the benefits of levity in literature. Why add more weight to a ship on the verge of sinking? Two days later I was meeting with Geoffrey Chaucer, or thought I was, at the Tabard in Southwark on the Thames to discuss making a pilgrimage to Canterbury, which he said would lift my spirits.

Life can be more fun when you bend reality a little, especially in the pursuit of truth. What we did not discuss, however, was youth, conformity, and middle-age obesity; perhaps we should have.

Dickens and Twain said they might or might not might not join the pilgrimage due to "previous obligations." I had heard that one before. However, being deceased provides ample excuse to anyone not wanting to show up at an event, including the opera as Twain has pointed out. I really did not expect their appearance, ghostly or otherwise.
Still, I was excited about going to Canterbury. I had been feeling a little down lately, and Chaucer said it would "do me good." Indeed, I went from being burned out to revved up.

Chaucer and I met the following day at Paddington train station in London to begin our journey. The train is the only practical way to make the pilgrimage these days, as all the old "carriage stations" like The Tabard are long gone. But before we could board the train and be on our way we found ourselves trapped in back of raw youths, both male and female, all wearing baseball capssome with the visor forward, some with the visor backwards, and a few with it worn to the sideand all loaded down with heavy backpacks. It was hard to get around these people but, after some jostling, we succeeded. However, I had the feeling that we would be seeing them again.

And we also found ourselves surrounded by heavy-set, older individualsthey looked like they could be the parents of the baseball caps and backpackswho were constantly snacking. I dubbed them the "bellies," which amused Chaucer. "We had many 'bellies' in my day, many of them kings. Sometimes it was hard not to stare at the bulge of those bellies." He chuckled.

Chaucer, however, began to look annoyed that we were stuck in line rather than riding out on horseback into the countryside"How beautiful it was back then," he saidbut I explained to him that these days this was the only practical way to make the trip to Canterbury; and that, moreover, these annoying people surrounding us were the "authentic" characters of our times, sad as that may be. The princes, the princesses, the knights, the squires, the millers, the franklins, the reeves, the yeomen ... were all gone now. "What you see," I said, "is their replacement." Chaucer said nothing but hung his head sadly. He looked ready to rejoin the dead.

While one of the older "characters" was tearing open a large bag of "Puffy" chips and transferring them one by one to his wide-open mouth, one of the youthone with a baseball cap worn backwardsbegan to speak: "What the fuck! ..." But he was soon interrupted by another voice, one much louder:

Suck the bottle, Betty, Oh!
Become Canterbury Sweaty,
& a needle for your neighbor's nose!

"What?" said Chaucer, "Who said that? 'A needle for your neighbor's nose?'"

"I don't know where that came from," I said, "Kind of an odd line, don't you think?"

"I think we are being haunted by voices," said Chaucer.

"That can happen in a vacuum," I replied. "I have heard of this phenomenonsomething or someone is trying to fill the void. Lao Zi might be able to enlighten us about this, but I have not heard from him in a long time. He likes many years of silence between our conversations."

"Dude!" said another young baseball cap, as though about to make an important announcement; then, looking confused, he looked down at his bright organge sneakers and said nothing at all. Was he, like so many young people these days, a mere bit player in a real-life version of Waiting for Godot?

The voice continued:

Mellifluous ubiquitous
meandering, ringing bells, thrills
of eagerness inevitable;
Tom's bottom is on fire, yow!
Can't have it your way both days dazed;
itch now, no one's looking,
miss Daisy's crumb crazy ...

"Odd stuff, very odd stuff, these voices!" said Chaucer. "Almost no rhymes and unmatched line lengths."

"Nonsense?" I asked.

"Not quite," said Chaucer, "but hard to fathom."

"Indeed," I said, wondering if Mad Tom were at work on this stuff, but added: "Where there's a vacuum, there's a voice. Thought fills the empty space."

"And much space there is," said Chaucer, eyeing a young woman with an enormous backpack. "In my day we just carried one little bag. We didn't take the house with us."

One of the older generation, without baseball cap but big of belly, was ripping open an enormous bag of chipotle chips and transferring them in whole fistfuls to his wide-open mouth. I was concerned he might gag. While I had seen a demonstration of the Heimlich Maneuver, did I really know how to do it?  Would I end up covered in vomit? Was this person even worth saving? ... Too many unanswered questions!

Then the voice began again.

Becket bleeding, kingly catharsis
in the cathedral, Sisyphus sorry;
one mind maddened, another gladdened,
another confessing to caring lessing.
Tears and a new kind of trouble begins,
trouble. bubble, bluh, bluh, bluh!

"'Caring lessing?'" asked Chaucer. "'Bluh bluh bluh?' Who is writing this stuff?"

Surely, I thought, Mad Tom was at work here. Or Robin Goodfellow, aka "Puck." They just couldn't stay away from utter nonsense!

While we stood waiting on the platform, Chaucer growing increasingly impatient, suddenly our train pulled into the station, disgorged its passengers, then engorged new ones, namely Chaucer, myself, the baseball caps and the backpacks, and the bellies with their snack bags. It was a hungry train, first shitting, then eating young and old alike, ghosts and goblins, robins and bobbins, and anything else that rhymed. It was a poetry train, and we were on a strange journey. I began to have doubts about being healed by the "blisful martir." Things were just a little too empty.

"These voices we've been hearing are certainly strange," said Chaucer as we boarded the train. "And where are they coming from? But I prefer them to the voices of the baseball caps or the big bellies. At least these voices seem determined to tell us something, though I'm not sure what they mean."

We were in the train now, wedged in narrow sets between squirming baseball caps, backpacks, and bellies. Chaucer nearly got wacked in the head by a rotating female backpacker but dodged her pack just in time.

Looking around the train, he asked, "Who is that fellow over there?" The fellow he referred to was a dignified-looking older gentleman with odd, goat-like hair and beard who was dressed in a suit and wore no baseball cap.

"Charles Dickens," I said. "I met him a few days ago, or at least his ghost, at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. I didn't think he was going to make the trip."

"Very astute-looking fellow," said Chaucer.

"Astute, indeed," I said, but before I finished, the voices resumed.

Astutus disputare
words used like weapons
win the war of words;
sharp arrows of thought
pierce the dullest of minds.
And the surly and the early
keep calm curmudeon at bay.

"Calm curmudeon at bay?" Was this voice now mocking us? I decided to ignore it and continue with my thought. "Astute of another age," I said, "an age of corruption and human degradation."

"Oh, we had plenty of that too in my time," said Chaucer, "but all the wars tended to mask it. War makes poverty look pleasant!"

A female baseball cap had struck up a conversation with a male backpack, and Chaucer and I listened.

"What are you going to do in the fall?" she asked.

"Get my master's degree," he said. He was a serious-looking young man with stylish holes in "distressed" jeans that looked nearly new despite the holes.

"In what?" she asked.

"I don't know yet," he said. "Maybe political science or poetry or environmental science or ..."

"Have you written poetry?" she asked.

"No, but anyone can. It's just a bunch of words. And political science is about the same. It's your opinion versus theirs. Who's to say who's right? Environmental science is a little more demanding. You have to know stuff."

The young woman looked a little doubtful.

"And what about you?" the young man asked.

"I don't know," she said. "I've been so many places I'm confused. Catacombs, followed by pub crawls, cathedrals, followed by pub crawls, royal palaces, followed by more pub crawls, Renaissance gardens with fountains, followed by more pub crawls, towers of this and towers of that, followed by more pub crawls, dark chambers with instruments of torture, followed by ..."

"I think the young lady needs to go home," said Chaucer, "and take a mental enema."

"Yes," I said, "clearing the mind, even in an age of texting, sexting, and 'instant communication', still has value."

"As to the young man," Chaucer continued, "he wants to be a 'master' of something but doesn't know what. I think he might start with the 'what', including his own mind, then decide if he wants to be a master of 'what'. And is poetry just a bunch of words! Saint Thomas, protect me from these people wearing baseball caps!"

Churn the churlish, liquor for the lickerish,
vitriol in a vacuum for the vacant,
and now the recalcitrant calamari grin!
The best bible buzzard recanting can't.

Both Chaucer and I chose to ignore the most recent "bunch of words" spoken by the voice.

A nearby belly was crinkling a cellophane bag loudly in preparation for the consumption of its contents. I wasn't sure I wanted to witness that. At the same time, I noticed that youth was avoiding the Dickens. Truth to tell, he didn't look very "cool." In short, there were empty seats on both sides of him, which gave me an idea.

"Shall we join Dickens?" I asked Chaucer. He agreed that we should.

We moved two rows up and I introduced Dickens to Chaucer.

"Charles Dickens, Geoffrey Chaucer!" I said. "I am sure you have heard of him."

"What a pleasure," said Dickens. "But who or what has dug us up and put us here? I was resting so peacefully in the other place!"

"我也是" (Wǒ yě shì or me too), said Chaucer, who had been studying Chinese on the other side in anticipation of a trip to Xi'an, the ancient capital of China during the Tang Dynasty. "Those were real poets back thenLi Bei, Du Fu, Wang Wei ... But I agree with Charles; I thought I had completed my 'earthly tasks' here."

"I think your observationsinsights, if you willare required," I said.

"I fear that this may be a job for Shakespeare," said Dickens. "I am totally confused by these people. Are they members of a sports team? Do they drive tractors in the hot sun for a living? And these people who are always eating! Do they know what real hunger is like? And then these voices! Do you hear them too? They seem mad!"

"Oh, indeed we do," I said. "They are the voices of the vacuum that one hears whenever nothingness is about to implode into greater nothingness, then into the irretrievable nothingness of the total void. That is the real danger point. This occurs 'whan that they were seeke' are 'seeke' in the extrema."

"We could pray to the 'holy blisful martir,'" suggested Chaucer weakly.

"It may not be enough this time," I said. "These voices mean business."

Destruction and damnation, nations at war,
no more the hoary whore, boring old boar;
goad and gore, life will be no more!

Nevertheless, as a starter the three of us held hands and prayed.

"Saint Thomas," said Chaucer, "see our plight and come to our aid. Thomas, do you hear me?"

I tried something stronger:

"Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the day of battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil ..." Then I added something about baseball caps and bellies that is not, strictly speaking, part of the prayer. But I think Saint Michael may understand and forgive me for my little addition to the standard prayer for protection from the devil.

"Eh eh eh eh eh," I now heard Chaucer utter. "Thomas is getting back to me. He says these kids are a hard nut to crack. He is not sure if an exorcist is required or he needs to call in the plague to thin out their numbers. As to the bellies, he says they just need to be placed on a strict diet."

While I did not hear back from Saint Michael directly, following Chaucer's comments I heard a great clanging of swords and a voice say, "Back into your hole, Satan" followed by a loud whining voice say, "But dude, I'm in a live Snapchat session. I'm going to report this on Twitter!" I'm not sure how the conflict turned out.

Still, the voices continued and the baseball caps and the bellies stirred up such an atmosphere of hideous conformity and mindlessness encouraging to gross obesity that I felt I was in danger of loosing my personal identity and gaining one hundred pound of wobbly fat. Would a baseball cap suddenly appear on my head and a backpack on my back, and would my arms stick straight out like toothpicks stuck into a potato? Would I suddenly find myself shouting, "What the fuck, Dude!" And inside all of the surrounding fat, would I cease to be? Would I be placed in a fryer and baked into potato chips and then be eaten by the bellies? Saint Michael, Saint Michael, do you hear my prayer in the hour of my need?

Dickens also looked perturbed. "I feel like there is a terrible thief onboard this train, a mental pickpocket, an enslaver of mind and spirit and will, if you will; and we will all be destroyed by the monster of societal indifference unless some drastic action is taken. But I do not know what action! Who are all these youngsters in caps and oldsters feeding like horses out of snack bags?"

Cap rap sap dap,
where duh dip, who duh skipper?
time of life, end of strife,
blood, knife, juh juh juh juh juh!
break butt, strut rut,
I am what you are but so much better!
Pass the ketchup, mustard mouth!
Rat knows the cat has the butter.

This imbecilic voice now recited like a rapper with the sound of boom cars in the background and drive-by shootings. Both Chaucer and Dickens winced; they had no exposure to such "music" and reacted as though it heralded the end of time. I was less shocked, having previous exposure to the likes of RAPPER PEE BODY JONES, KILLER WASPS UP YOURS!, and others. But in short, we were all pretty worked up.

Just then I noticed a gentleman walking down the aisle of the train toward us. I had seen him earlier sitting in the front of the car facing backwards so as to see the passing scenery, not the oncoming. Now, with his enormous mustache and bushy eyebrows, I recognized him. It was that wonderful American humorist, Samuel Clemens. Maybe he knew what was going on here, or could at least lighten up the situation for us with some clever remark or two.

"May I join you fellows?" he asked. "I'm feeling rather isolated."

"Please sit down, Mr. Clemens. May I introduce you to Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens?"

"Delighted," he said, "but I'm afraid you gentlemen do not know who I am. I came after you, and what a burden that was. But Dickens, I did once attended one of your readings in New York City and was most impressed!"

"Not depressed?" asked Dickens.

"Not that I was aware of," said Clemens.

"Then I must have not being doing my job that day!" said Dickens laughing. He continued seriously:

"I have heard rumors of you from the other side. You make the days pass easier there. You have the knack that I did not always have back then of the lighter touch."

Chaucer said something similar, adding: "Humor is always a good thing when all else fails, as it surely has here today!"

"You are much needed," I said. "All these baseball caps and bellies are unnerving us. What do you make of them, Mr. Clemens? Your comments at Cheshire the other day made me feel, at least for a moment, less depressed about the new American president, Donald Trump, who is such a liar and a bully among other things."

Clemens now looked unnerved toowas it the mentioning of Donald Trump that did that?but offered this concerning the baseball caps:

"'Their minds are more creative than their dull, conformist behavior indicates.' How's that?"

It reminded me of his comment on Richard Wagnerthat he was much better than he sounded.

"Good," I said, "but not as good as your quirky comment on Richard Wagner. But let me ask you this: Do you hear the voices too?"

"I hear nothing but voices," he said. "I was considering suicide before I spotted you gentlemen. Then I realized that since I was already dead, suicide was not an option for me."

Chaucer turned philosophical:

"I rather think hearing voices has a meaning," he said. "Do you remember Chanticleer's dreams in the Nun's Priest's Tale? I think these voices are kind of like thata warning to us, if you will."

"And do you remember Scrooge in A Christmas Carol when he goes home on Christmas eve?" asked Dickens. "The voice of Jacob Marley, the Ghost of Christmas Past, ... Frightening premonitions of what could come to pass!"

"Clearly these voices are not a good sign of anything," said Clemens devoid of all levity now. "I'm not easily spooked," he said, "but these baseball caps and bellies give me goosebumps. Has Edgar Poe been at work on this script? Should we push the STOP button and get off the train while there is still time?"

"Not yet," I said, listening for more voices. But all was silent.

"When we made this journey 'back then'," said Chaucer, "you saw the flowers and the bees and great mother nature coming alive in everything'The droghte of March that hathe perced to the roote/And bathed every veyne in swich licour ...' Now all you see is a blur of countryside speeding by. I'm not sure this is what you call 'progress' these days. The chamber pot did stink back then but at least we still had our senses; we could smell the 'flour', we could see the 'tendre croppes', we could hear the 'smale fowles' that slept all night long with open eyes, ..."

"This journey with these people is like a degradation of the human spirit," said Dickens astutely. "It is like seeing the little ones working in the basement blacking boots with rats leering in the corners. But it is even worse. The rats are ten times larger now and are roaming the streets, red-eyed predators on the poor and helpless...."

"Well, I'm not quite sure what it is," said Clemens, "but it is not like being out West and avoiding the Civil War when I was a young man. Those were good times in San Francisco and Nevada. Wow, the drinking and the carousing! But it is not the same San Francisco these days, I'm told, nor the same Nevada. In San Francisco it is all tourists and these 'teckie' kids, I am told, walking around clutching 'smart' phones, which I really do not understand. They never look up from them and sometimes get hit by cars while crossing the street. One fell into an open manhole the other day and drowned in the sewer! And Nevada has sold itself to the nuclear waste industry. Nevada used to be a place of snowy mountain tops, sage brush, and deer and antelope grazing in the valleys. Now it is a place of burning underground waste waiting for the day of revenge."

"Ah, yes," I said. "Becoming someone else's waste dump is never a good thing. And it is too bad Orwell could not join us today. He could explain this "smart" phone frenzy. He says they are another incarnation of 'Big Brother', but now with a Smiley Face to make Big Brother look more like a friend and less like an enemy. He says these phones are the subtlest addition to Big Brother ever conceived, with the owners of the phones believing themselves to be empowered, not enslaved, while paying some corporation for their imprisonment. But he was more concerned with the hypocrisy and lies of Donald Trump and could not come along with us. He feels Trump is a greater threat to humanity than Big Brother and must be stopped before it is too late. I deeply respect that opinion. Trump, he says, is the latest incarnation of evil."

"We are almost at Canterbury," said Chaucer, "and we have hardly had time to chat about things that really matter in life, only the things that don't matter, the bad things. That is a sad state of affairs. Back then we talked about glorious nature and the grandeur of God; now we talk about generations that have trod upon them with dirty boots."

There was a precious moment of silence in which we all pictured another world and another time, but the silence was soon broken.

"DUDE," shouted one of the baseball caps, pulling on a heavy backpack and smacking a young woman in the face with it when he turned around, "we're almost at cranberry cathedral, or is it strawberry? Ha ha ha! Tell me again about this fuckin' priest's pecker ..."

The voices commenced again, this time in a roar:

Holy hooligan, ignorant cormorant,
curdled in bottles of sea salt & blood;
free cat-foot, mouse-tongue recipe
straight from the den of Hecate;
death is no game with name unchanged,
bluh bluh bluh bluh bluh!
snore upon the sandy shore,
there is a no-strife strategy;
but hand me that knife or your life right now!
liver, giver, begotten, shriver,
any way you like to like it;
rotten rugby, marathon throng;
body of shoddy misconceptions;
dude taking whiz whispers in the hall;
fall over now which hadn't begun,
before & after the never lever;
it begins to snow but the tracks lead nowhere ...

What a mouthful! Poor Tomor was it Mad Tom?— seemed truly angry!

PLEASE STAND BACKTHE DOOR IS OPENING, said another voice, the voice of the train door.

We all breathed a sigh of relief as the baseball caps, backpacks, and bellies shoved their way through the train door and the voices ceased; and I thanked Chaucer, Dickens, and Clemens for sharing this journeycall it "Traversing the Void" or "A Strange Pilgrimage"—with me and said that I hoped I got it right other than their accents and exact manner of speech, which would have been beyond my abilities.
By Louis Martin