“The Horror on the 33”

This week’s piece of weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is from Michael Shea.

Review: “The Horror on the 33”, Michael Shea, 1982.

Cover by Max Shevchenko

Like Shea’s “Tsathoggua”, this story takes place in the demimonde of the homeless underclass.

Our entre to this world is the unusually epistolary Knavle who sends letters to his friend, the non wino McSpittle, our narrator. That lends a certain old-fashioned flavor to this story. But it’s 1982. Knavle can’t phone or text it in.

And, as you might guess from the narrator’s name, there is some humor in this story which is  Lovecraftian flavored but not of the Cthulhu Mythos.

McSpittle starts out by telling us that Knvale’s decision to become a wino was quite deliberate.

Even I, his closest confidant, had been so unsupportive as to call his choice of lifestyle a “downward path.” He had mildly replied that his was no smooth downhill way; that it was far easier, in fact, to be a short-order cook (for example) or a bank president, than to be a wino; that, moreover, in being an object of compassion, he was performing a vital moral service for those more fortunate than himself who would otherwise, lacking such flagrant specimens of misery, pity only themselves.

Knavle’s been a wino for about a year by the time the story begins. We get a brief account of the small and wiry Knavle’s (all the better to find an unobtrusive place to sleep it off) early life on the streets.

One place to spend a few hours is on the #33 metro bus in its long run out to the airport and back in this American city in the desert southwest. Perhaps it’s Phoenix or Albuquerque.

Coming to on the #33 bus late one night, he sees two other passesngers. One is an elderly Oriental man. The other is a woman with three “bulging handbags and two doubled grocery sacks of junk”, her head crowned by dirty, spiky hair. The woman sits beside the man and talks to him. Knavle can’t hear her. The man listens to the woman without saying anything and fingers his tie.

The woman begins to pat and stroke the man, and then his head droops down. The woman takes off his shoes, rummages through his pockets, and the man just gazes at her with a polite smile.

Then she tilts the man back and takes the mask off her head to reveal something with a head like a huge wasp. “Its merciless oral machinery sank into the old man’s neck.”

After 15 seconds, she grabs her stuff, puts an arm around the man as if supporting a fellow drunk and takes him off the bus after saying something to the driver. Out the window of the moving bus, Knavle can see the man slumped on a bench, and the woman walking away. But, before she leaves, she looks back at the bus and makes eye contact with Knavle.

McSpittle tells us this really rattled Knavle. He even bought some food the next day, a violation of the wino’s usual disregard for the idea of a tomorrow. Indeed, Knavle takes steps to save his life. He goes to the police.

But Knavle gets lost in the police bureaucracy, shuffled about from department to department and never actually reporting the details of a possible murder to anyone before the filing department closes. It doesn’t help that he has a police record which doesn’t increase his credibility.

Knavle thinks the “Trashbagger”, as he calls the woman, will never be caught, and “that no power would ever take her against her will”. McSpittle initially thinks Knavle’s fatalism reasserted itself as he goes back to his old ways, “ . . . this was no more than the wino’s code of honor required”.

But, eventually, Knavle’s letters reveals he takes the #33 bus more at night than he used to as it winds from the airport, through farmland, and to the city.

One night the bus stops and the trashbagger gets on, mumbling something. Knavle thinks he hears the hum of the bus sign being changed. Does it now say “NOT IN SERVICE” now?

The trashbagger heads to an elderly woman. She makes a seemingly hypnotic gesture as if opening a door or window and then speaks to the woman. The woman smiles and nods as if in a daze as her earrings and shoes are stripped. Then, when the mask comes off again, he gets a better look at the Trashbagger’s head. He senses that he is seen through its compound eyes. Then, as before, the Trashbagger takes her stuff and her victim off the bus and deposits her victim beside the street in a park.

The next day Knavle finds himself buying food again, including a bag of oranges.

He tells McSpittle of his theory about the Trashbagger:

I’m petrified. But I am also strangely sure of one thing: it’s in that last conversation you have with the Trashbagger that all is won or lost. Only if she outtalks you there, only if she hypnotizes you, does her face come off. If you outthink her and resist her will, you win your freedom.

Knavle is also convinced that others have seen the Trashbagger as she preys. Perhaps “fear of madness, or torpor of the will” prevent them from speaking to the authorities.

So Knavle goes to confront the Trashbagger.

(Spoilers ahead)

We then hear, in the last letter Knavle send, of that encounter.

On the #33, about 10:30 pm, Knavle gets off the bus to buy some wine at the stop before the airport with plans to catch the same bus on its way back. Despite trying to keep track of the bus drivers during these incidents, he forgets to do so when he boards again. He’s also surprised to see absolutely no other passengers which is strange coming from the airport.

He nervously sits on the edge of a seat waiting for the Trashbagger. He notices the bus is speeding, not even stopping at the usual places. And he senses that, if he rings the bell, the driver wouldn’t stop for him.

He does see, finally, another passenger, a fellow wino who was hidden until he sat up when waking.

Then the bus screams to a stop, and the Trashbagger gets on and sits next to Knavle.

Knavle makes the opening move and asks her if she pushes around a shopping cart and collects trash. She does, she says, “to collect everything that’s mine”. And everything is trash, sooner or later.

I felt a mellow pang of faith in her. Her aura irresistibly inspired it. For despite her poverty and dirt, her agedness had taken on a wild-old-wicked-man quality. Hers, I felt, was the crusty, careless age of genius— Einsteinian, Whitmanesque, vital and bookish and humane.

All her victims must see her in such benevolent terms realizes Knavle.

Knavle protests he’s not trash. You will be, she replies.

Knavle pleads for a clue as to what he must argue to be spared. What can you argue, she asks.

I think I understand you . . . All lives are chance-formed electrochemical engines, vastly isolated in space. Then entropy  .  .  . atrophy  .  .  . death  .  .  . trash  .  .  .

He despairs. “But isn’t there something more, something else, that doesn’t become trash?”

“Something more? Something else?” . . .

“Motes in space . . . wound up by accident, running down by necessity.”

The Trashbagger takes off its mask as Knavle sees his reflection in the bus’ window, the vision of himself frozen.

“. . . with furious blind contradictiveness”, he swings his bag of oranges into the Trashbagger’s head.

The Trashbagger falls out of her seat, and then the driver shows up asking if Knavle is crazy. (There’s an unanswered question as to whether the driver is a confederate or under some sort of hypnotism.)

Knavle screams at him to get back to the driver’s seat. And there is almost an accident with a truck. When the bus screeches to a stop, Knavle bolts out the door. And the trashbagger follows. Knavle raises his bag of oranges again.

One of her antennas is bent.

“There is no place to run,” the Trashbagger said.  . . . “No place. Not in time. Not in space. Nowhere. Are you quite mad?”

Yes, Knavle replies and threatens to hit the Trashbagger again. He gets the impression it’s laughing at him, but he lives to run away.

Surprisingly, Knavle survives the tale. He even stops being a wino and takes up juggling. It’s an art defying gravity.

Everything that lives is a defiance of gravity! Everything has a dance in it which it is my joy to liberate, and I mean to specialize in precisely this, until my next meeting with the Trashbagger. Everything must dance, you see— everything— until it winds up in her shopping cart, that rattling jail!

So the story presents with both a personification of nihilism and entropy in the Trashbagger and perhaps the only way one can exist in a universe with such a creature and the entropy it represents: cheerful defiance until the end.

In the victory of humanity over the inhumane and alien forces of the universe, it reminds me of Shea’s classic “The Autopsy” though the victory comes at a higher price in that story.

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