In which Mark Twain is transported into the future (well, his future, our present).

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Samuel Langhorne “Mark Twain” Clemens was at the helm of his steamboat on an otherwise unremarkable run up the Ohio River when he was sucked through a temporal vortex. (Isn’t there actually a Star Trek episode in which Twain ends up on the bridge of the Enterprise? DAMN it, Mr. TWAIN! WHY must you ALWAYS be so WRY?)

Captain’s Log–October 6, 1858

River level: fair to middlin’. Drawing three feet of water under a healthy head of steam. Yesterday our concarned cook Hannibal ignored my orders and again served his execrable “meatloaf”, the ill effects of which are all that can explain a strange occurrence. In the midst of a squall, my vessel entered a fearful vortex and all hands blacked out. Note to self: ask Nik Tesla about vortices.

On gaining Cincinnati I was compelled to check the whiskey supplies to determine whether the crew had again slipped liquor into my coffee, because my eyes seemed to deceive me. Cincinnati towered higher than any city I had ever seen. Cincinnati, where, as everybody knows, everything happens ten years late, and I hadn’t seen anything like this, not in New York or San Francisco, and I’d been in Cincinnati not three months prior to buy a new white suit. I pulled to shore where we were greeted by porters wearing gaudy garb and badges that read “Tall Stacks”. I asked the men what city this was, explaining that I’d expected to find Cincinnati, not El Dorado. A man replied that it was Cincinnati, but he looked like a drunken roustabout to me.

“You must be the Mark Twain impersonator. You brought your own steamboat! Very impressive.” They took me ashore amid rows of booths—I deduced I’d stumbled onto some sort of county fair. The paths were lined with sundry amusements and signs reading “Tall Stacks 2006”.

“2006?” I asked.  The men laughed and said I was the best Mark Twain impersonator they’d ever seen. I replied I hoped so, and I’d like to meet anyone better and give him a good drumming about the head. But in my mind I was reeling from the import of it. The future! I gave strict instructions to my crew that they remain aboard and I set off to see what the world of the future was like.

Never could I have predicted that in the future all ladies and men would be wealthy, for the Cincinnatians frolicking beside the Ohio were paying a month’s salary for entrance to the festival and a week’s wage for a curious, flavorless beer called “Bud”. Everywhere people conversed with themselves like lunatics, whilst holding little boxes to their ears. The steamboats at port were concerned with human cargo. Clearly, slavery no longer discriminated by color—looking down at the river, people were corralled and run through complicated chutes to be shipped elsewhere. To my relief the grand old ladies of the river were still afloat: The Natchez, the Belle of Louisville, and more. But they carried no bails of cotton, no tobacco. No columns of steam and smoke ascended merrily into the air.

We passed a statue of Cincinnatus, who I’d always admired, his burly outstretched hand extending the bundled birch-rods. I’d give back the fasces too, if this was where we were headed. There on a stage, a man strummed his banjo to the most excruciating and nasal squawks. Ahh, a minstrel, I suggested, but was corrected.

I paused to watch a small troupe of actors performing a play called “Tom Sawyer” which reminded me somewhat of my own youth, although the subject matter seemed a little trite—it was about the whitewashing of a fence. Whitewash indeed. But I made a note in my notebook, nonetheless. For if this was the entertainment of the future, there must be something to it.

At last they thrust me onto a stage before a sizable crowd. A gentleman addressed the people through a stick which, with piteous shrieking, amplified his voice. “Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you Mark Twain!”

I told the crowd I had come from the past and that I was amazed by what I saw, that I never would have thought Cincinnati, the most backwards of backwards places, would become a shining metropolis. The crowd didn’t like my remarks and began to boo. Then there was a commotion backstage and a man dressed as me, indeed, looking exactly like me, came running out

“I’m the real Mark Twain impersonator,” the man said, brusquely pushing me aside. “Security!”

The crowd found this quite amusing.

I’m Mark Twain,” I protested. “I know the name’s mine because I stole it.”

The impersonator gave me a brusque shove. I did what any gentleman must, in the absence of any lady’s honor to defend; I defended my own. I twisted and pulled the charlatan’s moustache. It didn’t come away easily and meanwhile, he emmitted a yowl like a waxed cat . The crowd roared their approval. The impersonator, not to be outdone, took hold of my moustache. The pain was excruciating. I kicked him in the shin and ran. The crowd and several men in vests gave chase, but as you know, I’m wiry and quick. My crew saw me rapidly approaching, a column of natives at my back, and, interpreting correctly, made ready to cast off. Paddle wheel spinning faster than a weathervane in a hurricane so that spume coated their angry fists, we shot out into the river. There we were challenged by a strange little craft which we easily outdistanced by unloading such a cloud of rank exhaust from the discounted coal my engineer had insisted we pick up in Chillicothe. We rounded a bend, caught sight of a tower billowing steam, the banks defoliated and drab, towers tipped with torches . . .  not the Ohio thus named by the American Aboriginals as “beautiful”.  Quite without warning, a sudden squall descended, again the vortex gaped. When we awoke it was night and quiet on the river. We threw Hannibal off at Louisville, swore off meatloaf and whiskey and ever speaking of this occurrence. But still it haunts me: had it been the future or some hallucination?

~e. scripsi

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Published in: on October 6, 2006 at 3:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

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