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The Essay
Show #487
Clam Chador
David Gunn

Peering out from behind the rickety barricade is a woman clad in a dusty black chador. Her eyes, luminous in the hot desert sun, warily take in the length of the bombed out street: the still smoldering crater, the charred remnants of the taxicab, the shell of the washing machine now forever frozen on the spin cycle, the heat-warped videotape collection of outtakes from the Hullabaloo TV show. Nothing moves. Oh, far overhead, the asteroid Toutatis abruptly takes an orbit-altering left turn and streaks earthward, the city of Rawalpindi in its crosshairs. At the last minute, however, a trans-universe anomaly escapes from the Algonquin Hole that sits above Central Asia. The asteroid caroms off it and hurtles harmlessly back into space. But back on earth in this turbulent Afghan village, the air is still almost to the point of stagnation. Nevertheless, the woman waits ten minutes before arising from her crouched position of concealment. Clutching her robe tightly to her body, she scuttles across the street to the abandoned carpet factory. The door is ajar and she slips silently into the building. Then she stops, holds her breath, and intently listens for any ensuing sound that might suggest she had been seen. She hears only her own heart hammering in her chest. But as she turns to go into the interior of the factory, she hears a second sound. It is so quiet that at first she thinks she imagined it. However, it is so out of place here that she immediately rushes to the window. Straightaway she looks to the washing machine. Its lid is raising slowly, its smashed hinge softly screeching in protest. The woman lifts up her robe, revealing a leg holster. From it she withdraws a gun barrel, magazine, breech and laser sighting mechanism. She screws them together and presently has a deadly assault rifle. The washing machine lid breaks free from its hinge and clatters noisily to the ground. An arm snakes out of the washer's tub. A second one follows. Then a third. The woman rubs her eyes in disbelief, looks again, and is relieved to see that it isn't another arm. It's just a very small head, attached to a thin neck and torso. Then the person - an albino man - stands up and quickly clambers out of the tub. He, too, is armed with an assault rifle, and he whips the barrel of the weapon this way and that. The woman recognizes him. He is not on her side of the war. She draws the rifle to her shoulder and sites the man through the laser spotting scope. But then she does a most incongruous thing. She begins to sing. Loudly.
   "Here in this world of utter bedlam, I find my peace in the Way of the Clam."

As she sings, the woman slowly sets down her rifle, withdraws a clam from a pouch in her chador, and holds it high above her head.
   "It either Islam or isn't very dysentery; what it is, is the Bombay Clam."

Here she pulls out two more clams and begins to juggle them. Even more bizarre, the albino man chimes in at the octave on "Bombay Clam."

No, the woman is not a member of the mujahideen on the prowl for foreign infidels in Afghanistan. Rather, it is Mother Bumpkins performing the supporting role of Betty al-Falafel in "Clam Chador," a new opera by Buster Augustus. Now she strolls out of the carpet factory and pitches a high B flat to the orchestra, which has suddenly materialized inside the crater. The conductor swings and misses. But the first violins bail him out with a flurry of furious glissandos that activate the sheep in the street. Mother Bumpkins has to dodge half a dozen of them as she fights her way to the albino man. The sheep are animatronic, but from a distance--say, from the first row, balcony--they look real enough to herd. Even their flatus, expelled with sheeplike gusto and regularity, is all too lifelike.

The albino man--the Playbill identifies him as Baloosh, a heldentenor--now launches into an aria of his own. But the sound effects man turns the volume of the haboob too high, obscuring all of his words save "melon" and "felon." Baloosh, who is also caressing a clam, leans over and yodels into the washing machine tub. He hits his falsetto just so, and the resonance is amplified much more than the natural laws of physics would typically allow. The heldenyodel shoots out into space and promptly catches up with and envelops Toutatis. For a supposedly inanimate object, the asteroid is sorely tempted to turn around and head back to Earth, but a long-range scan shows significantly increased sheep flatulence, and Toutatis isn't that desperate to crash into a planet.

The effects man throws a switch, reversing the polarity in the sheep. The air is forced out through their mouths and they become the opera's Greek chorus. "Baaaaaaaaa," they sing, and there is no denying their verdict.

The trunk of the taxicab springs open, revealing a miniature clam casino. Dozens of the mollusks are seated before slot machines and baccarat tables, in various stages of winning and losing. Several attendant clamettes meander through the crowd offering drinks and protozoa. Overseeing the operation is Queen Clam, who sits on a velour pad suspended high above the casino floor. Unlike the sheep, these are all real mollusks, according to Playbill's program notes. Still, it's not mentioned where Augustus found a four-foot diameter clam that could carry a tune. And the giant mollusk can clearly sing, as it proves when it joins Mother Bumpkins and Baloosh in a merry triskaidekaphonic patter song.

A fuse blows on the sound effects control panel, severing the connection to the Greek chorus, and the sheep are the sudden beneficiaries of free will. As one, they converge on the taxicab. Some of them begin to graze on the clams. Others nip at Mother Bumpkin's chador and Baloosh's galoshes. The conductor, correctly sensing impending catastrophe, skips ahead to the Dies Irae roundelay that brings down the curtain to Act 1 in the nick of time.

At the same time, the curtain raises on the 487th act of Kalvos & Damian's New Music Baaaaaaaaaaazaar, and here with today's cantus squirmus is Kalvos.