Authors: James Sallis
Table of Contents
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To Adrian and Clif
VerrÃ la morte e avrÃ i tuoi occhi.
Death will come,
and will have your eyes.
The man keptopening his mouth, wanting something from me, but it was a language I didn't know. Not Mandarin. Not Thai or Vietnamese. Only sounds. His voice rose and fell in pitch. Shouting, demanding. I shook my head, the sour, foul smell of my own body washing up over me in waves, tongue so swollen I could not talk, could not respond. Soon the pain would start again. And I would rise, hover near the ceiling looking down. Watching. Apart.
I woke suddenly, rushing to exchange the currency of dreams for coin I could spend. Morning light fell dazzlingly through the skylight onto the futon. Those wide shadows were not bars or slats in a cageâonly the leaves of plants in hanging baskets up there. That sound was only the phone.
Nothing else in the room. No windows. The futon, a painted bamboo screen against one wall, an expanse of blond wood floorâtongue and groove I'd put in myself. About as close as the real world gets to the ordered simplicity of oriental drawings.
No one else, either. Only Gabrielle and myself.
She slept crosswise on the futon, my head cradled in her lap. Trying to get away from the light, I turned over. “Oh yes,please,” she said. But obviously the phone was not going to quit ringing, so I snaked along the bed to answer it. Gabrielle grabbed me as I went by and held on.
I listened for a moment and hung up. “Wrong number,” I told her. “I'vegot your number,” she said, head moving to replace her hand, but I stopped her, wrapping black hair around both my hands and pulling her up into a slow, easy kiss.
“I'm going for a run,” I said. “Get the sludge out. Want to come along?”
“Atsixin the bleedin'mornin'?”
With Gabby you never knew what accent you might get. Her features came mostly from an Irish mother and patrician Mexican father, but her extended family was pure goulash. Dad left when she was three, and she and her mother spent years shuttling from household to household, family to family, country to country. This early morning, the accent was British, a better choice than most, I suppose, for gradations of polite outrage.
“Okay, but don't say I didn't ask. So go back to sleep now, my little peasant.”
“Peasant. Half an hour, tops, even with a head wind. I'll bring breakfast.”
“And here I thought youwerebreakfast.”
“Miss, have you considered taking up a hobby?”
“No time for it.”
“That was my point.”
She shrugged. “One stays with what one's good at. Run along now,” she said, and was asleep again before I got shorts and shoes on.
I stood watching her a momentâher compact brown body against light blue sheets, breasts just a little too heavy, rib cage set highâthen went into the bathroom. Turned on the radio there. It was Mozart, a serenade performed on “original” instruments which the musicians wrestled valiantly to bring into tune. Thousands upon thousands of dollars, thousands upon thousands of hours, had been expended on this bogus authenticity, these elaborate counterfeits. I washed my face and brushed my teeth, then stood at the window looking out till the piece was over. One doesn't hang up on Mozart.
There were few others in the park that early: a handful of runners and dog walkers; one young mother who looked remarkably like Shirley Temple pushing a pram; another trotting along with three children at her heels, all of them androgynous looking and none over five years old; street people starting off on their day's boundless odyssey. Birds and squirrels worried at yesterday's leavings, perhaps hoping their investigations would help them understand these huge, dangerous beings that lived in their midst.
I swung around the park's perimeter in an easy jog, following an asphalt bike path, and stopped at a pay phone on the far side, the kind of old-fashioned booth you rarely see anymore. There I dialed a number I still knew all too well. It was picked up on the first ring.
“Age has slowed you, perhaps.”
“As you must realize, I was in no hurry to return this call. At first, I was not even sure that I wanted to respond at all. And after eight yearsâ”
“Actually, it just slipped over the edge into nine.”
“âI believed it likely that whatever business you think you have with me could wait a few more minutes.”
“Perhaps. However, your plane departs at ten or thereabouts. American, Flight eight seventeen. You are Dr. John Collins, a dentist on vacation.”
“It has been, as you say, nine years. I have a career, a new life, commitments.”
“I am no longer in your employ.”
A still longer silence. Then finally: “It will be good to see you again, David.”
I hung up and ran back the way I'd come, pushing myself now. A light breeze was coming up, and full sunlight struck the artificial lake at a slant, tossing off sheets of glare. Birds and squirrels didn't seem any closer to understanding us. Neither did I.
They were waiting by the benches about halfway around, in a space partially screened by trees. You wouldn't be able to see much, here, either from the street or adjacent apartments. So some thought had gone into it, at least.
One was in jeans, black sweatshirt and British Knights, twentyish, a broad, pale-complected man with bad skin. His head kept tic-ing convulsively towards his right shoulder, crossing and recrossing the same minute, almost imperceptible arc. The other was maybe ten years older, wearing what had once been an expensive suit, with a chambray dress shirt frayed to white at the cuff and loose threads at the collar, and a knit tie with the knot tugged down to his breastbone. Lank brown hair tucked behind his ears.
“Your money, sir?” the younger one said, stepping in front of me. “Don't mean to hurt you. This can all be over with in half a minute, you want.”
Chest heaving, heart throwing itself again and again against rib cage, I sank onto one of the benches. A placard alongside documented this asSTATION NINE(9). Pictographs indicated that I was to restretch muscles and tendons, check my pulse against my own personal MHR, perform ten to twenty deep knee bends.
“â¦Minute,” I said. Then, catching my breath: “I don't carry money when I'm running, boys. Better pick another pigeon.”
“Donegotour pigeon.” The older one. He raked straying hair behind one ear with the open fingers of his hand. Ran his nose quickly along that coat sleeve. It was slick already from prior crossings. “Just got to fry it up now. Drumsticks.”
I glanced briefly at him, and when I did, the younger one made his move.
With amateurs, it's always easier when there's more than one. Then you can use them effectively against each other, the same way you use an attacker's own momentum against him in classic judo. That's the physical part. But they also get overconfident: safety in numbers and all that. And even those who know something about what they're doing can get sloppy or, hesitating to check on the other one, let down their guard for that essential brief second.
With these guys I swiveled into a basic high-low, unwinding like a spring, low and moving inexorably right-ward to take out the younger one with a sideways blow to the knee as I spun past, then on past the older one, coming in high and behind as he was looking down to see what happened to his partner, watching him crumple from an open-handed blow just below the third cervical vertebra as I went past.
I followed the arc out to its natural stop and straightened, concerned. You never lose the reflexes, but the edge fades on you. You lose the exact touch, where imperceptible gradations can mean the difference between stunning an adversary and permanently damaging him. I was afraid I might have come down a little too hard.
But apparently not. If anything, from my concern over going in too hard and fastâwhen I shouldn't have been thinking at all, simply reactingâI'd held back. The older guy had already climbed to his feet and was staggering towards me with a hunting knife he'd tugged out of his boot.
I felt all consciousness of self melt away, felt myself dissolving into motion, reflex, reaction.
The knife clattered onto cement and he lay in a grassy patch beside a bench, elbow shattered, face draining of color.
“Please,” he said. “Oh shit.Please.”
I stood there a moment. Yesterday, even an hour ago, what had just happened would not have. I'd have handed over whatever money I had, talked to them. Or simply run. And yesterday, even an hour ago, once ithadhappened, I would have called the police and awaited them. I'd spent years trying to turn myself off, shut the systems down, before I was finally successful. And now the switch had been thrown again: deep within myself, whether or not I wished it, whether or not I accepted it, I was again active, and on standing orders.
So I left the muggers there, knowing they were people with complicated histories and frustrated needs like my own and probably didn't deserve what had happened to them, and went home to Gabrielle.
She stumbled into the kitchen just as I was finishing breakfast, wearing one of my T-shirts, which hit her midthigh, and white socks that had started off at the knee and now were bulky anklets. She took the cup of tea I handed her, looked at my face and said, “What's wrong, Dave? Something has happened.”
“Sit down.” I slid a plate of buttered rye toast, fruit and cheese in front of her. Ceramic plate, thrown on a wheel near Tucson, signed by the artist, all brilliant blues and deep greens. I sat opposite her with my own tea, in a mug from the same set.
“This is going to be difficult.”
“Yeah, looks that way. But we've been through a lot together. And we've always handled it.”
“Nothing like this, G, believe me.”
I looked at the window, wondering how the birds and squirrels were doing, then at her face. So familiar, so filled with meaning for me. So open to me now.
“Everything you know about me, everything you think you know, is false.”
“No,” she said.
“Yes. I have to tell you that much, have to insist on it. But for good reason I can't tell you more, not now. Now I have to ask you to do something for me, to do it immediately and without question.”
After a moment she nodded.
“I want you to pack whatever you absolutely must have and I want you to go away. Not back to your apartment, but somewhereâanywhereâelse. Preferably out of the city. I don't want to know where you are. In a week, a month, whenever I can,ifI can, I'll come and find you.”
“It would be easier if I knew why, Dave.”
“Yes. It would.”
“But I don'thaveto know.”
She was away maybe ten minutes and came back into the kitchen with a huge over-the-shoulder bag and one small suitcase. I sat at the table and drank my tea, looked out the window. Heard sirens nearby, then, as though just an echo, others far away. Watched an ambulance pull up at a brownstone down the street, lights sweeping.
“Well,” she said.
“You're an extraordinary woman, Gabrielle. I love you, you know.”
“Yes. You do.”
And she was gone.
Outside, several million lives went on as though nothing had happened.
After a while I walked through the archway into the studio. Began capping tubes and cans of paint, turning off burners and hot plates under pots of wax, soft metals, glue. It would be a long time before I came back here, if I came back at all.
At one end of the long room, by the windows, sat the piece I'd been working on, a forbidding mass of mixed materialsâburlap, clay, metals, wood, paperâfrom which a shape struggled to release itself. You could feel the physicality, the sheer exertion, the intensity, of that struggle. I threw a tarp over it and as the tarp descended, the sculpture's form, what I'd been seeking, what I'd been trying to uncover for so long, came to me all at once: suddenly I could see it.
Awake in amotel room at two in the morning, thinking of Gabrielle.
I'd flown straight through to St. Louis, then by connecting flight to Memphis, where at debarkation a message, and this room, awaited Dr. Collins. Ate dinner, something called a “patty melt” held in place on the plate by barricades of french fries smelling of fish, at a Denny's two blocks away, since there was nothing else close by; came back to the room with a Styrofoam cup of coffee and watched half a cable movie about a Pole who'd shoehorned his way into the KGB. Then I pulled a book out of my bag but, distracted by memory as much as by the present, finally gave that up as well.
My room was on the second floor, with a sweeping view of the approach: parking lot, street, strip of bars and second-string businesses opposite. The motel itself backed up flush against another building. Once (and still, I supposed) we had hundreds of such safe rooms spread about the continental U.S. and most of Western Europe. Its stairs were cement and steel. They rumbled like distant thunder or a muted percussion section, bass drums, kettles, gongs, whenever someone mounted them.
At this hour only an occasional truck passed outside, but the smell of auto exhaust lingered, so many olfactory ghosts. Behind that, a verdant smell, compounded of pecan and magnolia trees, stretches of bright green grass, honeysuckle, mildew, mold: Delta land was rich land. Still farther back, at some level, sensory awareness of the river itself. The bottom two inches of my window were permanently ajar, the aluminum frame immovable. Smells, sound and moonlight spilled over its rim into my room. Including, once, the hoot of an owl adrift in this city at the border of its homeland.
For many years, longer than I wanted to think about, I had lived on the edge, at the verge. I was good at what I did: fast when fast was needed, slow when that seemed to promise better results, always efficient, often surprising in my solutions both to the original problem and those inevitably developing from it. But then one day in Salvador as I stood watching a red Fiat burn, I realized that it was over for meâas though I'd stepped through an unseen door, looked up and found the world transformed in ways I could not fathom, or had blundered over borders into a foreign country where familiar words meant inexplicable things.
Not that I stopped believing in what I was doing. I'm not sure Ieverbelieved in what I was doing; it was simply what I did, what I was programmed to do, the way I defined myself and negotiated my days. But it occurred to me there in Salvador that I was becoming what I didâthat there was little else, little more, to me. And once I'd paused, even for that moment, I could never get back in step, never remember how the centipede walked.
So I climbed down off the edge I'd blunted with others' blood and my own.
And I'd spent the past nine years turning myself into a human being. Learning to care, to feel, to trust, to let go. At first it had been all form, just going through the motions, and I often felt like some alien creature painstakingly learning to pass, to give a good imitation of humanity. But in time, as it will, form became content.
Now I was reentering the old lifeâbriefly, true, but already it began to feel familiarâand in many ways it was as though that nine years had never been. Exceptâ¦
Except that Gabrielle had been a big part of my transformation. Except that I carried Gabrielle, carried my feelings for her and memories of our years together, within me now, and always would. Maybe none of us finally is anything more than the residue of those he's known and loved.
Blaise's cratered face came back to me: “You must notthink. Cast away everything, David, let it go, let yourspinebecome brain. The body has an intelligence of its own, far older than your mind's.”
Blaise had trained me, trained us all. Taught us to stay alive. And if ever I had loved anyone in that prior life, I had loved him. Leaving the agency, leaving that life, I felt that I had to leave Blaise as well: one of the few regrets I allowed myself, but it was a profound one.
In my years as a soldier (for that's what we always called ourselves, among ourselves) I lived without personal identity, slipping in and out of roles and temporary lives as easily, and as readily, as others change clothing. I had been many people, known many people, taken part in many dramas and not a few (albeit unintentional) comedies. One thing I knew absolutely was that the stories we live by are as real as anything else is. As long as we do live by them. Even when weknowthey're lies.
Towards morning I dreamed that Gabrielle was above me, moving steadily upon me, head thrown back and black hair catching light from the window. Then something changed and my hands, reaching up, touched not flesh, but canvas, steel, the rough grain of wood. I opened my eyes again in the dark and saw it there over me. Half-formed, unalive, its weight ever increasing, it continued to move upon me: the sculpture I'd left behind, unfinished, at the studio.
Towards dawn anotherthing happened as well.
The old training, the reflexes, were flooding back all at once, and I don't know what cue alerted me, some minutely perceptible shift in the volume of sound outside, a muted footfall or mere sense of presence, but I was awake,waitingfor the sound, before the sound came.
The sound was my door being tried.
There was a pause, a silence, then the lisp of a flexible pick entering the door lock. Senses at full alert, I could almost feel the tension as again the knob was turned hard right, till it stopped, and held there. The pick raked its way slowly, methodically, along the lock's pin-tumblers.
It had happened a few times before when I was concentrating like this, and it happened now: I was outsidemyself, in another self. I watched my hands (except they weren't mine) working at the lock, felt a trickle of sweat down the middle of my back, became aware of the weight of a folded paper in the side pocket of my coat.
For a moment it rippled back from there. I sat in a large rented room off a hall so narrow that people had to turn sideways to pass one another. The room smelled of canned meats and beef stew, stale coffee, the bathroom four doors away. Bedroom and living room furniture were jumbled together indiscriminately. A stack of newspapers squatted under a low window looking out onto a wall, with a sliver of morning light showing at the top.
Then the ripples spread. I was nineteen and terrified, running beneath a thick canopy of green. Minutes ago there had been a riot of birdsong; now the only sounds were my boots slapping into puddles and sucking their way back out, the staccato gabble of those pursuing me in the distance, my own thudding heart.
And, again, my heart pounding: but now when I reached out, my hand fell not against vines and undergrowth, but onto the waist of a slim, dark woman in white shorts and sandals. She stirred in her sleep.
Then, like a thread suddenly unraveling, giving way, it was all gone. I was back in my own body and mind. Back with the old training, the old reflexes.
By the time he got the door unlocked, I was out of bed and in a dark juncture of shelf and wall. By the time he crossed to the bed, pausing twice to listen closely, I was aping his own footsteps. And by the time he realized no one was there, and turned, I was behind him.
“The weather tomorrow will be fair,” I said, “with temperatures in the mid-60s and a light southeasterly wind, brisker towards evening.”
He started to speak, then simply shook his head. He was thirtyish, with flat gray eyes, blond hair, a tan poplin suit. He wasn't new at this. He'd been at one end or another of it many times before.
“It would be terrible to miss such a day,” I said. “We have so few of them.”
A lengthy silence as his eyes caught my own, and held. Then: “The seasons do go on.”
“Yes,” I said.
Another long silence.
“I do not know you.”
I shook my head. “Nor I, you. It can stay that way.”
“Yes. Sometimes that is the best choice.” He looked briefly about the room. “It seems the client neglected to provide me with information necessary to executing the assignment.”
“There's not a lot of professionalism left.”
“He failed to tell me what you were. I would have to say that such bad faith voids the contract. You would agree?”
“I would.” But this man's utter humorlessness, those gray eyes round and flat and hard as lentils, still frightened me.
“Good,” he said. He watched light sweep quickly along the wall, snag in a corner and momentarily brighten there, then fade, as a car passed outside. “I was to kill you, you know.”
“Would I have been able to do that?” He remained staring at the wall, as though awaiting the next car.
I held out a hand, palm up. “You didn't.” And shrugged. “Maybe the only things thatcanbe, are those thatare.”
“But we will never know.” Philosophy at five in the morning with the man who came to take you down: we lead a rich life, out here on the edge.
He looked back at me.
“Only once before have I come to kill a man and turned away from it.”
“Then I'm glad I could be here to share this moment with you.”
After a moment he said: “A joke.”
He nodded back. “I was sixteen. I went into my father's room, where he was, as most nights, drunk and sleeping. I had brought along a knife from the kitchen, the sharpest one I could find. For a long time I stood with the knife poised above his chest, looking down at him, slowly coming to understand that I did not have to kill him now, that it was enough just to know how easily I could have. That was the last time I saw him.”
He still had not moved. His eyes remained on mine.
“His grave is covered with kudzu now. You know about kudzu? Amazing stuff. Brought over from Japan to help control erosion, then it started taking over everything. Climbs radio towers, covers entire hills a foot or two deep. People have to go out every day and chop it back from their yards.”
Lights again went by outside, but barely showed on the wall. He started towards the door and I went along.
“The man you will be wanting to see is Howard the Horse. He will not be wanting to see you.”
“And where would I start looking?”
“You would probably start looking at a greasy spoon on Ervay and North Main.” He pronounced itgreezy. “You would probably stop looking there, too.”
Nothing. Not a blink, not even a shrug.
“Mindy's Diner. Corner table, rear. Guy wears a jockey cap year 'round, day and night. Looks to be the same cap going on ten years now.”
“Think of it as professional courtesy.”
“I owe you.”
“No. No one owes me.”
We walked to the door together. I opened it for him.
“Enjoy the fine weather tomorrow,” I said.
He looked back. After a moment he said, “You too.”
MACARONI CHEESERED BEENS & RICEMUSTARD GREENS COOKED WITH SALT PORKBEETSMASH POTATOSGREEN BEENS (CHOOSE TWO)
The blackboard hungon a side wall, eraser dangling from it by a foot or so of heavy string, menu chalked on in scraggly printed letters.
Those of us who are close to forty, our fathers used to take us to places like Mindy's on rare nights mom was at work or for some other reason not home. That was back before fast-food spots sprang up four to every street corner; going in there reminded me how much things have changed, and how little we notice it.
There were two or three career coffee drinkers artfully arranged at the counter, lime-green Formica printed with those sketchy boomerang shapes you saw everywhere in the fifties; a couple of kids sitting together in a booth sopping up grease out of waxed-paper wrappers with their hamburgers; a scatter of older folk with one or another of the day's $4.95 specials, drink and roll included.
I could just make out a steamy corner of the kitchen through the gunport-like window behind the counter. From time to time heads ducked down to peer out, or disembodied hands and arms slid out plates heaped with food. At least two radios were playing back there.
Howard the Horse was, indeed, at his accustomed table, jockey cap everything I'd been led to expect. I was reasonably sure it had started out yellow. Howard himself had started out lanky, gaunt. Ichabod Crane was still in there somewhere, sunk in Nero Wolfe's body, waiting. As I approached, he tore open two packets of sugar and dumped them into a glass of milk. Then he slowly drank it all, watching me over the rim of the glass as I sat across from him. The sugar had turned to sludge at the bottom. He kept the glass tilted till the sludge had snailed down the side into his mouth. Then he put the glass on the table with his hand still on it and watched me some more.
“How old are you?” he said.
I told him.
He snorted. A little milk came out of one nostril.
“Young.” Though I wasn't.
He shook his head and dabbed at the milk, almost daintily, with a shirt sleeve. “Used to be young myself. Long ago, in a land far away: you know? I can almost remember it, sometimes. Now I got your basic sugar diabetes, your basic ulcers, your basic high blood. Bad hearts in my family, on both sides, as far back as anyone can remember. When it rains, I can't breathe. When it's dry, I can't breathe. Few days Icanbreathe, my ankles start swelling up like snakebites.” He pushed the glass away. “So what can I do for you?”
“Sounds like I better ask fast, before you keel over on me.”
“Maybe you should at that, boy. Not the kind for keeling over, though. Most likely just stay propped up here and looking pretty much like I always do. Could even be some time before anyone noticed a difference, come to think of it.”
He held up a hand. The waitress must have been watching for his sign and poured him another glass from a plastic jug under the counter. She brought it over and asked if I wanted anything. I thanked her and said no. He reached for two more sugars.
“So you don't want food or a cup of coffee, whatdoyou want?”
“I have trouble sleeping.”
“I remember that too, being able to sleep. Almost as good as eating whatever you want. Sleep till noon, pull the covers up over your head and sleep till it started getting dark again. Now I know every crack in my ceiling like I know my shoe size. But a man your age, there's no excuse foryouhaving trouble like that. Get yourself a woman, son. Or a hot bath. A bottle.”
“You got it. Good old all-American pragmatism.”
“I think the reason I can't sleep is because I have this dream there's someone in the room with me, Howard.”
He didn't say anything, but he knew. He dumped in his sugars, drank his milk.
“In voodoo lore,” I went on, “spirits take over the bodies of mortal men, inhabit them and use them to their own purposes. Those bodies are called their horses. Is that why they callyouHorse, Howard?”
He put the empty glass down. “You're the one calling himself Collins.”
Problems were developing between supply and demand. Several times the waitress, a wiry redhead somewhere between thirty and fifty, wearing pressed jeans and aWho? Me?sweatshirt, had shouted back into the kitchen following up on orders and been ignored. Now she picked up a dirty plate from the counter and sailed it frisbeelike through the window. It broke against the wall with a hollow snap.
“'M I gonna have to come back there like I did last week? Huh? You boys want t' talk about each other's mothers or take knives to each other, I could care less, but you better do it on your own damn time, you hear me?”
Two streams of rapid-fire Spanish from the kitchen: suggestions as physiologically incorrect as they were politically so.
“Yeah, whatever. Could be fun,” the waitress said. “But right now, either I see my orders on this window in two minutes or you're both out of here.Comprende,gentlemen? And shut off that music.”
The music didn't get shut off, but it did get turned down. Two or three plates of food thumped onto the ledge.
“Has a real way with words, Linda has,” Howard said. “Charm the buzz off a bee.”
He turned back to me.
“I'm a postman, nothing more,” he said. “You do understand that?”
“I can accept it. And rain or shine is up to you, postman. I'll have to ask for a return address.”
“I can give you a name. I don't know how much good it'll do you,” he told me. “Think you might get me another glass of milk before you leave? I usually limit myself to two, butâ” With a quick dip of head and hand he shooed away whatever might have followed thatbut.
I went over to the counter, brought the milk back to him, set it down. He sat holding glass and sugar packets, nodding his thanks.
“I been doing this a long time,” he said. “I know a few people, people around a long time like me, and I talked to some of them.”
“You been away a while. My friends knew you. But these boys that wanted the package mailed, they're kind of new hands at all this. Guess they must of thought you were too.”
“But you went ahead and sent your man around anyway.”
He shrugged. “How else these boys gonna learn? No one teaches 'em anything anymore. Don't be too hard on 'em.”
He poured in sugar.
“Besides, like I told you: I'm just a postman.”
He drank, waited for the sludge, put the glass down and thanked me again.
“Take care,” he said. “There aren't many of us left.”
No one knows why the dinosaurs vanished. With our kind, it's a lot simpler.
In the cabinwindow, against the city's pinpoint lights, what Neruda called “the diminutive fires of the planet,” I saw: a man in his forties rushing headlong from everything that had sustained him, rushing towards the things that almost destroyed him. But within those things, in large part, were the seeds of what he'd become, what he was, what he couldn't (however he tried) leave behind.
Following my designated assassin's departure, I'd gone back to bed, later had a leisurely midmorning breakfast, then in early afternoon paid my visit to Howard. Two hours still remained before my flight, and I had passed them in a bar by the departure gate drinking Perrier. The same people were milling around who'd been milling around years ago when I spent a lot of time in airports.
I was on my way to Dallas. The message left for me in Memphis had directed me there, to DayRest Motel in Oak Cliff where, as I sank slowly through southwestern skies, I would become Jorge Sanchez and (the message had no need to tell me this part) await further instructions. The address that Howard the Horse gave me also belonged to Dallas.
Just before takeoff a young woman had slipped into the seat beside me, and we spent much of the early part of the flight talking. She was twenty-six, Indian, traveling from New York City, where she lived and worked as a CPA, to attend her husband's graduation from engineering school at SMU. It was an arranged marriage; married a year, they had spent one long initial week and six evenly spaced weekends together. She kept telling me how nervous she was. Now, after a few pages of something gargantuan by Michener and a brief plunge into what appeared to be a prayer or inspirational book of some kind, she'd fallen asleep. Cities scrolled by below us.
And I was thinking about Gabrielle again.
I'd been alone a long time. For a year or more after quitting, I sat in my rented room and read things I'd always wanted to read and a lot of other things I'd never even known existed. I ate in anonymous lunchrooms and delis, usually with a book propped before me, and talked to almost no one. I walked in the streets and parks for hours at a time, watching people closely, all the different ways they linked themselves or kept apart. And I spent whole days in galleries and museums, slowly coming to realize that my future, whatever future I had, was bound up with these places, with what they stood for. At one point, I remember, every wall of my room was papered with prints and reproductions torn from books bought cheaply in secondhand stores near the college: CÃ©zanne, Delvaux, Redon, Renoir, DalÃ, Rothko, all of it in a dazzling, undifferentiated jumble. This was some time before my first makeshift studio and longer still before my first real piece, but studio and piece were there already, nascent, in the half-life I was living. A future had begun coalescing even as I moved blindly (and trying to learn to see) towards it, and in one of the museums on a dim, low November day, I met Gabrielle.
She worked there as a part-time guide, just as she worked as a substitute teacher, as an occasional waitress, as a spear carrier for the opera, as a ballet or tennis tutor. All were ways of staying safely out of the mainstream, of remaining (she liked to say) at the center of her own life and (she'd add, laughing) not ever gettingtoobored.
A major Matisse show was in progress, and Matisse, the way he repealed not just perspective but depth itself, the way he handled large forms and pools of pure color, had recently become important to me. I wound up sitting much of the afternoon in a room full of work from theJazzperiod. Individuals straggled through. A guard circulated erratically. Tour groups eddied in and out. Then just after the museum's closing was announced, someone came and sat beside me.
“You really like these, don't you?”
I nodded and looked at her.
“Especially these two.” She pointed. I nodded. She pointed again. “I couldn't help noticing. When I came through with my tours.” She held out her hand. “My name's Gabrielle. Tell me: do you usually have dinner after a tough day of museum-going?”
“Early, I bet.”
“But not tonight.”
“I hope not.” We stood and walked together towards the door. “My name's David,” I told her.
“Come with Gabrielle, David.”
Late that night I had returned to a cozy, safe room suddenly gone bare and cold. I stood for what seemed hours looking out at a blood-red moon, at trucks being loaded from the docks across the street for early-morning hauls. I was thinking that I'd just received, without warning, fanfare or expectation, an invitation to rejoin the human race, RSVP. Towards dawn I picked up Pavese.
Two days laterI was sitting in Johnsson's office saying, “No, sir.”
It was not something he was used to hearing. He dealt with it by waiting to see if I was through, then, when I added nothing more, simply went on talking.
“No, sir,” I said again, interrupting him, something he was evenlessused to. It's conceivable that no one had ever interrupted him before. “I will not pull down Luc Planchat for you. Or for anyone else.”
He waited again. A bird on the window ledge outside peered fiercely in at us. I thought how birdlike Johnsson himself was. Heavy brow, dark recession of eyes, the stillness in them.
“Yet it appears,” he said, “that this must be done.”
“According to information you have received, yes. But in the first place, that information remains circumstantial. And secondly, since your own agency has no specific intelligence function, most of that information was piped in from another agencyâ”
“âone with which you have had disputes in the pastâ”
No nod this time.
“âand is therefore suspect.”
“Perhaps so. One takes nothing at face value, of course.”
“Including your own veracity in reporting this information to me.”
“There is that, yes. Do you believe I would lie to you, David?”
“Freely. Outrageously. The good reporter looks at his scattered facts, then starts cobbling them into shoes that will fit. There's always an agenda: political, aesthetic, personal. Connect the dots. Constellations.”
“You're right, of course. I would do whatever I thought necessary to get done what I thought must be. And so, in another time, would you have.”
“Itwasanother time, sir.” After a moment I added: “If Planchat needs taking out, they should be the ones to do it.”
“Ah:should. A most dangerous word.”
He moved for the first time since we'd begun talking, taking his hands from the chair arms and folding long fingers together on his lap. I thought again of the feet of predatory birds. There was no desk in the room, only chairs with various tables alongside, many of them antiques picked up at flea markets, estate and garage sales. Johnsson hated desks. Hated people who sat behind them. Hated cages.
“Removal, you understand, is no longer a part of their agency's charter.”
“And it is of yours.”
“As it has always been.”
Something suspiciously like a smile darted across his face and was gone.
“They created Planchat,” I said. “And then they decidedâor someone decided, at whatever levelâthat the model was obsolete.”
“Perhaps more an anachronism than obsolete:theirthinking, of course, not my own. A killing machine, David. The finest, certainly the most artful, ever devised.”
“Yes. And if the machine needs unplugging, it's their responsibility.”
“Absolutely. No one would argue that. Itistheir responsibility. But it's also our job: what we do.”
“It's not whatIdo, sir.”
He looked at me for several moments.
“Very well,” he said. “I suppose it is possible that nine years can change a man, perhaps even past the point of recognition.”
“Or in that time, the man can change himself.”
“By his own bootstraps, yes. I understand that you're an artist now. Critics write of the âcontained violence' and gentleness of yourâdo you call them statues?”
“Pieces,usually. Or justwork. Most of them aren't sculpture in any classical sense.”
He nodded. Anyone not watching closely would have missed it.
“The wordpoiseis often used. Meaning, I take it, a kind of rare and comely balance.”
“Of course: by some.”
Neither of us spoke for a time then. Out on the ledge the bird's audition continued. Darkening clouds nudged at the sky. Finally, as imperceptibly as, earlier, he had nodded, he shook his head.
“Be cautious about settling for memory, David. It's far too thin a gruel for the like of us to live on.”
I said nothing.
“I suppose that you may have changed in fundamental ways, after all. And I cannot say, finally, that I am sorry for that. I suppose it's time for you to go back to your Gabrielle now, back to your work, your âpieces.' Thank you for coming.”
I stood and held out my hand. After a moment his own left his lap and falteringly searched mine out.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I forget, and you could not have known. But for several years now I have been quite blind.”
I told him that I was sorry, and to take care.
“Davidâ¦,” he said when I was almost to the door. “A single favor.”
“An old friend has many times asked after you. Go and see him. It will not take you long.”
“You will find him here.”
He held out a card. I walked back across the room and took it from him. His hand lingered there after it was gone.
Two days past,on a hillside in Oak Cliff, the motel-room TV won't work, bringing in only dim gray forms and phantoms behind a wash of dots, and the real world outside my window, awash with gray drizzle, is little more defined.
Jorge Sanchez lies on his bed in paint- and plaster-spattered jeans and sweatshirt waiting. Occasionally there is lightning far off, or a climb of car lights up the wall. The couple next door (possibly a threesome) has left off its lovemaking, and someone over there's drawing a bath now. The whining glide of a steel guitar reaches out from a radio nearby.
A knock at the door, then: “Pizza.”
“Sanchez?” she says when I open the door. In her mid-twenties and in sweats, with a face that still could go either way: towards beauty and character, towards plainness, a kind of vacancy. Her nose is peeling from recent sunburn. Hair tucked into a long-billed baseball cap. “Comes to eleven ninety-seven.”
I hand over a ten and a five and tell her to keep it.
“Have a good stay,” she tells me in return. Her car is an ancient VW beetle, once beige, in other incarnations green and canary yellow. There's a sign on top,FREE DELIVERY, that's almost as big as the car itself. In a good wind you could use it to sail the thing.
Under the pizza there are two waxed envelopes.
The first one contains a dossier on Luc Planchat. I know a lot of this, up till about ten years ago, and go through it hurriedly. There's a gap then for most of that ten years until, six months ago, entries resume.
Planchat had been the pride of a new program established in one of those backwashes we learn to live with, hawkish after several years of a kindler, gentler leadership. Someone with sufficient political clout had decided the only answer to terrorism was an elite killer corps and went about calling in sufficient favors to make it happen. Planchat was first car off the assembly line, the prototype, a real dazzler. He was also a loner. And became ever more so as his fellow grads started checking out to brute craziness: some suddenly proclaiming themselves free agents (as though they were, after all, only football players), many either on their own or with a little help from their friends back at the factory heading out in search of what Rabelais calledle grand peut-Ãªtre.
The ensuing backwash was liberal, of course. When word came down that his program was deactivated, Planchat declined further government service and, in time-honored tradition, fostered out to a new identity.
Of three program graduates still undocumented (agency code meaningnot dead), that accounted for two, Planchat and myself. Meanwhile “out in the world somewhere” (as an old blues song has it), whereabouts unknown, identity unknownâif indeed he were still aliveâthere might be another. No one could be sure.
No one had an explanation, either, for Planchat's sudden resurfacing. All these years he'd quietly gone about his placebo life of employment, possessions, payments, polls, appointments. Thensomethingbrought him crashing back out of the closet.
Twenty-three weeks ago two security guards were found dead at Compso, a high-tech electronics manufacturer and research facility in upstate New York. Both had been dispatched instantly, expertly: the first with a single blow, the second by severing the spinal cord through a narrow incision at the base of his neck. There were some blinds and red herrings thrown up, but whatever was missing,reallymissing, didn't show up on any of the company's various inventories.
Four days later a military installation was hit; and in following weeks bodies turned up in hotel rooms, places of business, parks and storage facilities, warehouses, even once in a library. There was nothing definite to tie Planchat to any of this, but his name came up in one of those sotto voce conversations between our best jockey and his computer, and the more it was looked into, the more it started looking like a match.
For one thing, Planchat wasn't where he was supposed to be, and hadn't been there for a whileâabout six months.
He may as well have dropped off the edge of the earth, floated away in a balloon, gone to Tahiti to live among natives. Or been collected by extraterrestrials. The few spoors that existed were being tracked. Several calls had been traced to a phone booth in Dallas. That's why I'd been routed through here on my way in. To connect, if a connection existed. If the arc was there.
Rain hasn't abated. I put the dossier down and look again out the window. The world remains obscure. An occasional car scales the curved back of the hill like a momentary moon.
In that rented room of mine, the second month after I'd quit maybe, or the third, I got up one morning and, sitting still naked on the side of the bed, with frost plating the window outside and my own breath spilling out from me in spumes as a portable heater filled the room with the smell of raw alcohol, began a journal.
At first I simply transcribed my day: what I read and saw, where I went, stray thoughts, observations. Before long, though, I found the journal pulling away from the day's details and pastimes.
Memory was strong then; I sank back into it. Scenes of my childhood, friends, family, the way spaghetti or milk and oatmeal cookies had tasted when I was a kid, the first time I kissed a girl (Trudy Mayfield, Friday after school, February 1962), stories about a bibliographic worm inBoy's Life,my mother's face. It all came back in a flood.
Cedar Hill,I wrote. A two-story white frame house at the end of the block, with a scraggly weeping willow out front. We never locked doors, didn't even have keys for them as far as I know. Ate at a gray Formica table in the kitchen; the dining room stayed closed off except for holidays. A '52 Dodge with green plastic shades for the wing windows and windshield, and fluid drive.Pecans. They were everywhere, forever rolling and cracking open underfoot. Wasps in thick bushes that skirted the house.Honeysuckle.
But soon I learned that, precise and detailed as my memories were, they were also in some incomprehensible way complete. Once I had gone over a period in my mind, it was set; if I returned to it, there'd be nothing more, just those same memories. There was no depth.
There were also curious gaps. I could visualize my mother's face exactly, curve of cheek into chin, the wing-like sweep of eyebrows, but I couldn't, for all my efforts, recall how she smelled, or the touch of her skin. And Trudy Mayfield's name was just that: a name. I had no image of her face, no further memories of her sitting beside me in a classroom or over sloppy joes in the school cafeteria.
Shortly after these realizations, I put the journal away. Best not to think about it, I told myself. I had a present, a life that gradually was taking on form, andthatwas what was important. Not the past, not history, not the stumbles and snags of a faulty memory.
I go into the bathroom, tear the weightless plastic cup out of its paper cocoon, fill it from the tap, and drink. When I come back, the couple (threesome?) next door has again taken up the challenge.
The second envelope contains a copy of the police report on the death of one Raymond Hicks, discovered by his common-law wife early that morning in their home on Colorado. The only mark on Mr. Hicks was a small incision beneath his nipple by way of which, with some flexible knifelike object and what the ME called “astonishing surgical skill,” the ventricles of his heart had been pared away like quarters of an apple.
Rain streams on the window. Momentarily I feel like some ancient aquatic being, sequestered from evolution's progress in the depths of its cave and forgotten. When a truck's lights break suddenly against the rain there, I'm startled.
Raymond Hicks was the name Howard the Horse had given me back in Memphis.
It's good tosee you.
Beats me. Woke up one day and turned over to say good morning to whoever was there and I couldn't. Now I write on this blackboard, like some kid. Nothing wrong physically, the doctors say. Hell, Dave, I'm sixty-two: there's alotwrong physically.
“So at this advanced age you've become a writer.”
Ha. It ain't funny, I guess. But then if it ain't funny, what the hell is it?
Yeah, life. Joke without a punch line. So how you been?
“Good, Blaise. It was rough at first.”
Letting go, you mean.
It was hard taking hold at first, too. You forget?
“No, I haven't forgotten. Anything. Including the fact that I wouldn't be here now, probably wouldn't have returned from my second assignment and certainly not from my tenth, if it hadn't been for you.”
So you're welcome.Youhave someone to tell good morning?
“Yes. Her name's Gabrielle.”
Good. That's important. You never did before. Maybe someday I'll get a chance to meet her. You can take us both to dinner.
“I'd like that.”
You'd like it a lot more after a few years of the oatmeal soup here.
“I hope you're kidding.”
With croutons. Just a guess, of course. Can't tell a thing by looking at it, even less from tasting it. You ever get around to reading that Frenchman I told you about?
“Cendrarsâyour namesake. Some of it. What I could find in translation. Amazing stuff.”
Amazing life. What areyoudoing these days?
“I'm an artist, Blaise.”
Always were. Saw it in you from the first. Told Johnsson that.
“A different kind of artist.”
Different, huh? Everybody's hard behind change these days. Like there's always been something wrong with us and we just noticed it so now we're going to do something about it. People and things all changing so fast you can't hold on to any of them anymore.
“I never could.”
Yeah. I guess maybe none of us could.
“Are you doing okay?”
I'm not doing at allâthat's the problem. But yeah, I have what I need. Johnsson and the others, they see to that. He bring you in because of Luc?
Thought he would. You stillthatkind of artist too?
“You mean, am I going to pull Luc down for him?”
It wouldn't be for him.
You never asked me before what you should or shouldn't do.
“A dangerous word.”
“Johnsson calledshouldâa most dangerous word.'”
He's right. But if you take out all the shoulds, what's left that's worth anything?
“I have to go, Blaise. Take care.”
You too. Come again.
“I will. And next time I won't wait so long.”
I may not wait at all.Ha.
I'm certain Iam dreaming, and am watching, I think, within the dream, a play.
Scattered about the stage are folding screens, all of them sheer and lit from behind, some plain linen or rice paper, others painted with landscapes, domestic scenes, still lifes, vegetation. As actors speak and move about onstage, they pass behind these screens, sometimes pausing there, other times moving quickly through, and reemerge. Whenever an actor goes behind a screen (beyond a country hillside, behind a table and chairs or a vase with flowers, among the silhouettes of a crowded street) the actor abruptly, unpredictably changes: how he moves, how he responds, what he saysâveering off even in midphrase. A comic line suddenly gleams with menace, dialogue curdles to diatribe, an actor's kindly query concerning another's affairs becomes, for the split second he passes behind one of the screens, a fierce, mad monologue. When the actor reemerges then, just as suddenly, the play comes back to keel.
I look down and find I am holding a program. On its front is printed the play's title:Dailyness. On its back is a peel-off sticker readingHELLO MY NAME IS.
Applause starts up around me. An actor reemerges from one of the screens and the play, whose end he had signaled with a final, summary line while there, resumes.
I looked past the window at a group of young people emerging from Wendy's. They wore the general uniform of the dayâjeans or baggy trousers, various combinations of T-shirts, denim jackets and oversize sweatersâand were laughing before the jokes got told.
“I just had an interesting conversation on the subject of change.”
He had picked up the phone on the first ring. Now he waited a moment and said, “I see. Philosophical discussion, like memories, in time of inactivity can prove somewhat comforting, I suppose.”
“Or, again like those memories, disturbing.”
The young people, who'd gone out of frame to the right, reappeared in the window imaginatively arranged on the seats of a convertible. They were still laughing. On the wall by the phone someone had written in purple marker:WE NO WHO YOU R.
“I'll need a complete file,” I said. “Not the one everybody else sees. Your own.”
“Certainly, David. For whatever good it may do you. Which I suspect will be very little, by the way. But I'll have Lawrence run off a disk for you. Your preference as to format? ASCII, perhaps?”
“Very well. Paper, then. Those thrilling days of yesteryear. What else?”
“Clothes. All I have are jeans, sweatshirts, running shoes. Those won't do, not for this.”
“Of course. Your measurements would be approximately as before, I assume.”
“Cohen is still with us. I believe he should be able to assemble what's required in short order. Suits for daytime and evening, I would think. Assorted sportswear. Formal?”
“Not for the moment.”
“Very well. Shall I have Miss Sidney contact you about travel bookings, then?”
“I'll be driving.”
“Driving. I see. Well: as you wish. Have you a preference as to automobile? Fiats are no longer readily available, you understand.”
“Anything small and manageable, unflashy. With more power than it looks to have.”
“I'll have such a car at your hotel within the hour. Keys will be at the front desk. You will find suitable clothing, an array of it, within the car. And should you need anything more, anything at all, simply call me. You'll be put through instantly.”
There was a low humming in the wires behind our voices, like the voices of all those who came before us.
“I need to know if there's a timetable to this,” I said.
“Ourcalendar's open. Intrinsically there may be. We don't know where all this is pointing, of course.”
A brief pause? “Of course.”
“I don't want anyone flying up my butt on this one, sir.”
“I know department policy, sir, the ones you broadcast and the ones your agents actually follow. I'm telling you that I go out alone, completely alone, or I don't go out at all. And that if I should happen to find someone behind me, I'll assume he doesn't belong there. Once I decide that, he won'tbethere.”
“There's one more thing.”
“I want a book sent. Poems by Cesare Pavese.”
“Yes. I can't give you an address. I don't want to know, and I don't want anyoneelseto know. No direct contact or inquiry, nothing at all that might be traced. But the agency can find her and get the book to her discreetly. She'll know who sent it.”
“Of course she will. David.”
“It's good to have you back. I know that Blaise was pleased to see you again after all this time. Thank you for going to see him.”
“It accomplished what you wanted, at least.”
“Nine years ago I would not have had to do that.” Someone spoke. He turned away momentarily to answer, turned back. “But then, nine years ago it would not have worked.”
Assume there ispurpose, connection, because you must start somewhere.
Assume the features we obtain connecting these dots, these aleatory islands, are those of Luc Planchat, though in fact they may not be.
Assume that a line drawn through the coordinates of my motel-room visit in Memphis and the death of Raymond Hicks in Dallas necessarily intersects other events past and future, bearing them all towards pattern,completion, closure.
Things of the world try to connect. Prodigal rain issues from a sky into which trees rise like pleading hands. Days bear us lightly across the face of the world as every year the ground pulls harder, recalling like a spurned lover, ever more fixedly, how much it wants us.
Across that same grid (as on the screens of my dream) fall the contours of my own history and future, here congruent, there fugitive, the configuration ofmyface a Venn diagram overlayinghis,Planchat's.
He knows. The Memphis motel-room visit and Hicks's death signaled that. And while I have little knowledge of the past ten years, of what Luc has become, how he thinks and what might be important to him, I know intimately the rise and fall of far deeper sensibilities.
Essentially (au fond,as Blaise might have said) we're the same.
I have only to wait.
Once in FranceI waited three days in a blind alley among decaying trash, battling rats and ravaged, ravenous birds for a certain man to walk past, as sooner or later hehadto walk by, that alley's mouth. I lived on stale bread and a foot-long sausage I'd carried in with me. It rained fitfully, and I collected what water I could for drinking. On the fourth day, near sunset, all my preparations began to gather into a single, sudden thrustâthen instinctively, for reasons I still don't know, stoppedâas the man for whom I'd waited stepped into sight. I crossed the border back into Germany that same night. And months later, far from there and assigned to matters wholly unrelated, discovered that our information had been, in one small detail, wrong. Had I pulled my target down that day, it would have proved a terrible mistake.
In many ways,of course, the clothing available to me determined my role, and though it filled only two smallish leather bags, I should now be able, with middling imagination and care, to graze at whatever social level I required. Cohen was something of a genius in that regard, author of one slim, esoteric book,Dress: Code and Language,that brought him to the agency's attention. I often wonder if his fellow academics ever noticed he was gone and thought to question what might have happened to him.
The car was an excellent choice as well, a midseventies 240Z in workabout condition that might just as easily be (considering my age) a leftover from college days or a vintage piece in the throes of restoration. There were patches of primer and the whole thing was an odd bluish-gray that looked as much like undercoat as paint; wheels were mismatched; the passenger door hung askew.
Saying good-bye once again to Baltimore, I threw both suitcases and my own cloth book bag in the back of the Datsun and started out of town along the Loop in no particular direction with no destination in mind. Away from Baltimore, Washington and this whole stretch of tucked-in coast. And most of all justmoving. Two things about moving targets. First, they're harder to hit. Second, they get noticed a hell of a lot quicker.
I stopped at a service plaza, bought maps of the northwest states and Florida and paid with a fifty-dollar bill, even putting the faintest, indefinable trace of an East-European accent in my voice to be sure I'd be remembered. Reflexes come back fast. Red herrings, feints. The mutability of it all.
I was wearing jeans, leather deck shoes and a cotton sweater without a shirt, sleeves pushed up to my elbows. I'd purposefully not shaved that morning. There was a sedate black watch on my wrist, a calfskin trifold wallet in my left rear pocket.
I had curved slowly inland from coastal routes, and highways here coursed through unbroken stands of treesâoak and maple, birch, elmâwith little indication of the towns and communities one knew lay beyond. Only a monotonous cadence of exit signs with icons forGAS, FOOD, DIESEL, RESTROOMS, and every few miles the mast of a gas-station sign rising out of the trees. As though the six-lane interstate had materialized here to allow visitors from other places, possibly from other worlds or times, to experience what this country once was like everywhere: its rawness and awesome scale; how empty it had been, and at the same time how filled. Yet these thickets of growth were Potemkin blinds. Depart the interstate, and you found they shortly gave way to sprawling settlements of Texacos, Exxons, Kwik Stops, McDonalds.
The hills themselves seemed every bit as redundant as the exits, swelling up gradually, monotonously, under prow, then settling in a languid curve towards the next.
An hour or so outside D.C., I topped one of those hills into the most astonishing sunset I've ever seen. Somehow I'd taken a turn out of real life into a movie, a travel brochure, a romantic novel. I pulled to the side of the road and sat with the motor off, watching. When the last fire-struck tendrils darkened to slate and let go, I felt a sense of personal longing and loss, a bristling sadness.
Deep into Virginia, wonder of wonders, I found an FM station that followed some classic Louis Armstrong/Bessie Smith with a Ravel piano concerto and an a cappella quartet version of Neil Young's “After the Gold Rush.”
Once, a deer staggered into the wash of my headlights, turned and sprang away.
Other eyes glittered from the growth at road's edge.
Bodies of raccoons, dogs, opossum, a lone porcupine, lay at roadside.
Around ten I stopped to eat. A special section of the cafÃ© (with a phone in each booth) was reserved expressly for truckers whose rigs circled the gravel-and-asphalt parking lot like wagons in old Westerns. Rack upon rack of bright postcards, novelty items, NoDoz, eyeglass cleaner, lighters and pocket knives bearing the Confederate flag. Tattooed arms and huge bellies in black T-shirts crowded around a rack of Books on Tape: Louis L'Amour, Stephen King, technothrillers. Little doubt I was in the heartland of America.
An LED banner-box set over the rear counter scrolled by news headlines, aphorisms and self-improvement for the benefit of the truckers as they ate. The Word for the Day waseschatology.
My barley-and-beef soup was good, the cornbread even better. Afterwards I had a piece of pecan pie and dawdled over two cups of coffee trying to decide whether to drive on or crash for the night at the motel(Rooms Scientifically Cooled)across the street.
“Passing through, honey?” the waitress said when she brought more coffee. I'm fairly sure I had never in my life been called honey before this. She was thirtyish, virtually blond, with features you'd forget once you looked away. A woman who had made a sudden stop on the way to pretty, who would never quite get over how close she'd been. A white plastic rectangle over one high breast readAlicia.
“Well, should you have a taste for a cocktail or two, there's this little place just down the road, Lou's, you can't beat.” She gestured across at the motel. “And you won't do better than the Island anywhere within ninety miles of here if you need a place to sleep. If you're of a mind, that is. My husbandâex-husband I should say, reallyâruns it like a cruise ship. I should know, I put in my share of sixteen- and eighteen-hour days over there. Anything else I can get you?”
I told her no, and thanks.
“You change your mind, we're open all night. I'll be here to twelve, myself.”
Alicia waited a moment, put down the check and walked away.
Lou's was everything I could have hoped for, though I almost missed it on my first pass since the neon sign overhead readBLUE CORRAL. But a wooden one in the window saidLou's,and that was also painted above the front door in the same DayGlo green.
Basically it was a feeding trough: bar running down the middle of a long shotgun room, with slots for livestock, or in this case stools, on either side. Pool tables floated in their islands of light off in the darkness to one side, a dance floor lined with stacked plastic chairs loomed to the other.
I took a stool near the door beside a cowboy who looked like something from a wax museum and asked for a beer. Out in darkness on the dance-floor side, a guitarist and bass player tuned by harmonics. A dancing couple, the man forty or more and wearing slacks with white shirt and tie, his partner maybe half his age and wearing considerably less than half a T-shirt and jeans, periodically orbited into the bar's dim light and back out into blackness.
I drank my beer and asked for another. The cowboy was drinking coffee with bourbon in it. He had a little squeeze bottle of honey in his pocket and was putting some of that into the cup too.
After a while, having made the round of drinkers, the bartender came back over and stood across from me. He was as quietly animated and as flushed with color as the cowboy was waxlike.
“Lou,” he said, sticking his hand across the bar.
I took it. “Dave.”
“Good to have you. Haven't seen you in here before, I don't think.”
“Haven't had the chance.”
He nodded. “Quiet night. There's usually a good group in here, though, most nights. Come in here either to drink and be left alone, or else to dance. Either way, mostly they don't get to minding somebody else's business.”
I told him I knew what he meant.
“Not like some places. You want a shot with that beer, maybe? Be on the house, you understand, first-time customer and all.”
“Thanks, but I'll stick with beer. I'm not much of a drinker. Just unwinding a little. You know.”
“On the road.”
I nodded, and he nodded back. Two good old boys who knew what a man had to go through.
There was a loud thump from out of the darkness, then a voice:
“All right, you rebels, cowboys, horsewomen, Jaycees, JDs and all others within the sound of my voice.” A pause, an adjustment. “Keep those cards and letters comin' in. And if you have a request, so do we: keep it to yourself.”
Lights came up slowly onstage. A portly, youngish man stood there with a high-slung hollowbody electric. He wore preppy clothesâsweater, broadcloth shirt, tan chinosâand a cowboy hat. Behind him in shadow, as though they belonged to one another, shadow and musician, the bass player half-sat on a bar stool, ragged out in honestly worn jeans with a sateen tour jacket, hair to his shoulders, a single long earring.
There was a sudden, machine-gun-like burst of hot jazz guitar.
“Okay, Justin, we're ready if you are. All saddled up up here. Let'sride,man.”
The cowboy on the stool beside me looked at me for the first time.
“Boy's your basic asshole,” he said, “but if there's a better guitar player in four states I ain't seen him.”
He got up, ambled onstage, strapped on a bright red electric mandolin.
“Keep it country,” he said, “just keep it country,” and the band broke into an uptempo version of “Faded Love” heavy on tremolo and sevenths. They worked without a drummer, and with that particular bass player, with the guitarist somehow laying in brick-solid rhythm chords and skirting all around the melody at the same time, they didn't have much need for one.
“Faded Love” gave way to “Sweet Georgia Brown” and that to a breakneck “Jolie Blonde.” Then a catchall of current hits with the guitarist singing while the mandolin player stitched bluesy licks and fills all through his lyrics.
Sometime during the second set and third beer, the bar stool beside me stopped being empty.
“Okay if I join you?” Alicia said. “Guess you changed your mind huh? God, I love these guys. Bourbon and water, Lou.”
She had changed into black jeans, pink hightop canvas shoes, a voluminous man's cardigan (sleeves rolled into doughnuts) over a lowcut cotton top. What appeared to be an authentic Indian arrowhead hung from a rawhide thong and pointed down into her cleavage.
Foucault's pendulum. Use it to deduce and demonstrate the earth's rotation.
“We haven't really met,” she said, “but I'm Alicia. You're staying at the Island, too, I bet. Business trip, or pleasure?”
“You ever mix the two?”
I shrugged, and the gesture hung between us there in the air like a ghost struggling to keep its form, like a diminutive fire. She smiled and took a healthy swig of her drink, then a measured one. Accustomed to pacing out a night's drinking.
“Well,” she said. “You like country music?”
“You don't look like you would. Not the type, you know? And so much of it's just junk anyhow. I'm gonna get drunk till I get over you. Kick me again, that's the only time we touch. But then in the middle of it all there'll be this one line, or this few seconds of music, that's just absolutely right, that says whatyouneed to say in ways you never can.”
We had a couple more drinks and sat there talking. Alicia was twenty-eight, legally married but living on her own for about two years now, in furnished apartments mostly, sometimes with a dog, God she loved dogs, but the dogs, like the men, never lasted. They all ran away or turned mean.
We agreed on one last drink, and towards the end of it she said: “Guess you must be pretty tired huh, being on the road and all. Prob'ly just going to go on back to your room and turn in.”
I told her that I was.
“Yeah. Well, me too, I guess.”
We said good-bye and I walked out into the parking lot, leaving the start of a new set and “Milkcow Blues” behind. An older man in a bowling shirt leaned against the wall puking. A jet whistled past overhead. The neonBLUE CORRALsign flickered once and becameBLUE COR AL. Lost at sea.
Not long after, there was a knock at my motel-room door. I opened it. She was carrying her sweater.
“This is absolutely your last chance,” Alicia said. She looked beyond me into the room and smiled: “Or mine.”
Outside a townnamed Stonebrook I pulled off the interstate, stopped at a U-Halt convenience store and at the pay phone there dialed a number that shuttled me through several blind relays and redirects before ringing.
The phone was picked up without greeting.
“Sir,” I said, “perhaps you remember Marek Obtulowicz. Also used the name Lev Aaronson. We worked together in Gdansk, then again for a stretch in Santiago.”
“Yes. Went to ground some years back. In Budapest, if I remember. We were never able to confirm.”
“I've been thinking about something he often said, an old Russian proverb: Do not call in a wolf when dogs attack you.”
He waited a moment. “I see. This is the reason you have called on a secure field line, against every policy and all standard practice.”
“Then let me offer in return something my father read to me when I was a child. It is from Karl Kraus, I believe. âTo be sure, the dog is loyal. But why, on that account, should we take him as an example? He is loyal to men, not to other dogs.' Is there anything else?”
“Stay in touch, David.”
And the connection was gone.
I stood watching a bluebottle fly throw itself again and again at the window, buzzing furiously. The sill was lined with the desiccating husks of its predecessors.
The road givesus release, reaffirms the discontinuity of our lives, whispers to us that we are after all free, that (around this curve, when we reach the next town, if we can only make it to California) things will change. Twain and Kerouac both knew the great American novel would have to be a book of the road. So did James Fenimore Cooper, before therewereroads.
When I left the agency, I sank almost my whole severance pay into a car. Since the agency took care of our needs, I'd never been in a position to accumulate thingsâclothing, automobile, house, apartmentâand that car became virtually all I had. It was perforce, for several months, where I lived: a late-fifties Buick with auxiliary gas tank and custom sound, backseat scooped out to make room for sleeping and cargo. And in it I drove from Memphis to Dallas to Akron to Seattle, often reaching my destination only to turn around and start back or veer off towards yet another fanciful destination, spending nights at the side of wayward country roads or in motels that sprang up sudden and solitary as cactus along Oklahoma highways. And always in those months, music was playing: big bands, Bessie Smith, Bix, Trane, Eric Dolphy. Being on the road, and music, were all that made sense to me for a while.
And so I drove southward now, and westward, thinking of Alicia across from me at the diner that morning. I had the radio tuned to a comedy hour. Jokes about wives, dogs, kids, bosses, kumquats, kangaroos. All equally alien to me. An absolutely impenetrable five minutes of double-talk on contemporary relationships from “The Professor of Desire.”
“You ever be back through here?” Alicia had said, watching me over her coffee cup.
I shook my head.
“Yeah. Well, I didn't think you would be. No way. But that's all right.”
The waitress brought our breakfasts and asked Alicia if she worked today. Off, she answered, but I have to pull the night-owl tomorrow.
“There's something in you,” Alicia said when she was gone, “something you keep hidden. Dangerous, maybe. And maybe that's why I wanted to know you. But it wouldn't matter how well or how long I knew you, would it? That something would always stay hidden.”
“There's something hidden in all of us.”
“For many of us, anyway. Even if we don't recognize them, or know they're there.”
We finished our breakfast and coffee and said good-bye outside by the car. There's never a lot you can say at times like that, apartness spreading like a stain between you, sky dumping its endless spaces over your head.
Alicia had touched my arm, very softly, and gone back into the diner.
My reveries were interrupted (again!) by rude reality, this time in the form of a battered gray Chevy. It dropped onto me outside a town called Carl's Bay, dogged me past the town's dozen or so roadside buildings, and finally announced intentions as we passed a city-limits sign and started into a long curve that quickly bore the town out of sight.
The Chevy came up fast on the inside. I saw only the driver. It wasn't Planchat, of course, or anyone I knew; it wouldn't be. But obviously there wasn't enough road for both of us. Out of town by sundown and all that.
The obligatory car chase was taking place rather early on in the movie.
There are several ways you can handle this sort of thing. Probably the best is just to ignore it, and that's what I did for some time, the Chevy's driver growing ever more reckless and erratic, like a bull throwing itself repeatedly at the same stretch of steel fence.
He came up alongside and made as though to swerve into me. Dropped back till I could barely see him, then all at once closed the distance and shot around. Pulled off to the roadside and waited, rocking the car on its rear wheels, as I went by.
Another response is to bail out, just refuse to play, and when I thought the time was right, the stew just about ready for serving,that'swhat I did.
I braked, neither fast nor slow, and came to a stop in the road.
The Chevy's driver zipped on by, braked hard with an eye on the rearview mirror, then tried a fancy turn and almost lost it. The Chevy sat facing me about thirty yards down the road.
Then I floored the little Datsun, feeling everything it had cut in, and headed straight for him.
I was outweighed by at least a ton and would have wound up crushed against his grill like a bug, but reflex won out. I watched him haul the Chevy hard right and, in the rearview, saw him try to bring it back around and fail. It went over on its side, then heavily onto its back in the roadside ditch.
Saw it start to, saw it had to, saw it happen,as Archibald MacLeish wrote.
Everything was very still.
This is where the audience whoops it up for the good guy, I told myself.
But there weren't any cheers or applause. Only more road waiting to unwind, most of a day left to unwind it, and god knows what waiting ahead.
I slowed again and drove on.
It was the sixties, a woman said on the radio, and I decided to drop out,reallydrop out. I went down to Sears and bought me a sleeping bag, a camp stove, some heavy boots. Gave everything else away to friends. Then I hitched out to the middle of Montana with everything I owned stuffed into a backpack. Found this neat cave. Moved in. Lived there four days in absolute, wonderful solitude; and on the fifth day the bear came back.
I once reada story by this guy named Harlan Ellison ending: That night it rained, everywhere in the known universe. I was never too sure what the ending meant in terms of Ellison's story, but anyone who sits alone in a motel room for hours, watching rain wash the world away, begins to understand. Knows what itfeelslike.
I'd lost the Chevy and later in the day, with appreciably more finesse and less violence, another car, a recent Buick; but I had little doubt the stalking continued. He was (they were) out there somewhere in all that water, in what remained of the world, what hadn't been washed away, waiting.
A coded call from another phone booth, though not on a secure field line this time, had brought information at best equivocal: no further incidents involving Planchat, no further sign of him. Presumably I was the distraction from whatever program he'd previously been pursuing. And presumably it was Planchat, or his soldiers, dogging me:Iwas the program now. Just as I wanted.
I'd driven into Helena (pop. 11,972, all nice people, it said so right there on the sign) in a downpour. There were two motels, one at either end of town, the Sleep Inn and The Deluxe, and I chose the latter, then went back out to sea for provisions.
After me, the deluge? Well, it sureseemedto be after me.
I sat on the swayback bed eating canned ham, water crackers and longhorn cheese and watching reruns of old TV shows about humble crises within happy families. Each was resolved when a character decided to do what he or she had known all along to be the right thing. There weren't a lot of families left, happy or otherwise, among the people I knew. And very few people seemed to know what was the right thing to do.
I shifted the dial over to FM music and drew a bath so hot my skin reddened. I soaked in it till the water grew cold, through sets of Buddy Holly, the Beatles and the Talking Heads, then came out and lay on the bed. It was seven-thirty. Lots of night left to fill. No letup in the rain.
Back a few months before I met Gabrielle, for a short while, there had been someone else, a young woman named Carol whom I met in a used bookstore. She was in line ahead of me with a stack of science fiction and biographies and needed forty-two cents. We had coffee at the lunch counter of a drugstore nearby. I followed her home.
Carol lived about as close to the ground as anyone I'd known, in the beachlike expanse of an unreconstructed second-floor commercial loft relieved only by five or six folding chairs, upended crates, an exercise mat she used as a bed, a scatter of bright cotton rugs. Walls were hung with photographs of the city's many baffles and dead ends, and of its denizens. Often there would be a dozen or more versions of the same subject, a battered face, an alleyway opening onto dark sky, each so like the others that only with close examination could I discern subtle shifts in angle or focus, in lighting, in contrast.
Carol had put on water for more coffee and a Tom Waits album. Listening to “Tom Traubert's Blues” there beside her in what was more akin to the waiting room of a train station than a place where someone actually lived, so aware of her, so taken by a woman's softness and scent after so long, buzzed with the coffee we'd already drunk, I was overcome by Waits's music, by the way he became what he sang. By the all but unendurable pain in his voice and the petty, doomed heroism of his people.
We listened to a lot of Waits that summer. It was a world I knew all too well, a world of bars and bleak mornings, of forfeits and endless beginnings-over that never took. A world Carol was courting.
To create his music, to give that world voice, Waits had transformed himself as unmercifully as did castrati or Rimbaud, burrowing ever deeper into the city dweller's brutish, subterranean, neon-struck life. And so, for similar reason, did Carol. I never knew whether art or access to that world was her primary motivation: if the photographs were intended somehow to earn her entry, or if perhaps she had come to believe her assumption into that world essential to continuing, to perfecting, her art. At any rate, she followed in Waits's wake, turning away from privilege, family, comfort and safety to live in poverty and to spend her nights roaming the city's black heart, her days slogging down hard coffee and (as she said again and again of her work)trying to get it right.
I don't know if she ever got it right. But that world, or some other, did finally open and let her fully in: one morning she didn't come back to the loft, and I never saw her again. In a way, I think, I'd been expecting it. But for a long time I went on looking down into the street half-thinking she would be there; for a long time I listened for the sound of her feet on steel stairs. I waited, there in the loft that later became my own studio. And now, far away from there, I remember.
Dawn was rosy-fingered,just like in Homer. But did someone want it bloody?
Waking every hour or so from old habit, I had been aware of the rain's slow passing. By five, when I came fully awake, it was over. By six I was on the road.
I drove for a couple of hours before stopping for toast and tea at a cafÃ©, Sam's, in the middle, possibly on the edge, of nowhere. Nowhere consisted of Sam's, a gas station and a dance hall. The gas station and the dance hall weren't open.
Oddly enough, Sam's was almost filled.
Or maybe that wasn't so odd, considering the choices available.
I sat over my teaâa generic bag of English Breakfast loosely packed with leaves as dry and brittle as insect legs, all they hadâand listened to splinters of conversation, trying to reconstruct in my mind something of the lives around me.
I was, I supposed, in the very heartland of America now, among people whose values, families and bottom-line way of life I had been protecting in all my years, in all my actions, with the agency. A quarrelsome dictator removed here, a cooperative military junta supplied with weapons there, an assassination or two. Eyes-only information passed along, overthrows, “tactical support.” All so that (nominally, at least) these people could go on about their lives of Budweiser, proms, sitcoms, Saturday-night football and Sunday church. They'd never know about most of it, of course, and if they did, would never understand. One of the reasonsâjust oneâthat I felt so terribly apart from them.
I was still in that contemplative frame of mind thirty or forty miles down the road when the holes appeared in my windshield.
There was no sound or real sense of impact, only two sudden holes about the diameter of pencils, spaced an inch or so apart, slightly to my right. I looked down at foam protruding from the seat just above my shoulder where one of the loads had entered. It looked like a small flower.
I pulled off into a patch of sunlight and killed the engine, not so much looking or listening for anything in particular as simplyopeningmyself: becoming a receptacle for whatever sensation might fall in.
Why had I had no indications at all, no premonition?
A raucous flight of birds overhead. An approaching semi. The purr of other engines far off.
Nothing that shouldn't be here, as far as I could see or sense.
No Hollywood glint of steel in the trees or hills.
Ten minutes passed.
I was reaching down to turn the key when two more holes appeared in the windshield, this time to my left, again an inch or so apart.
Two flowers in the seat beside me.
Basically, if someone wants to kill you, if he's any good at it at allâif, say, he's an expert marksman, as this guy seems to beâand especially with current technology, there's not a lot you can do about it.
I got out and stood by the car, breathing deeply, feeling muscles let go. It's a trick you learn, at first. Then it becomes a reflexive response.
Sunlight and silence.
Against the horizon a frail-looking biplane skimmed the top of remnant clouds.
Of course, if hedoesn'twant to kill you, you may have to wonder why he's making such a show of trying to.
I got back in the Datsun and started the engine. Switched the radio on and sat there. “Sympathy for the Devil”:bambouladrums, shouts. Calledhocketingback in Senegambia.
A hawk dived from a nearby treetop and swept low over the Datsun, banking.
No new holes or flowers.
I stopped atthe next town and made a great pretense of looking for an old college friend. Asked after him at a diner and gas station, made several phone calls, kept going back to the car to rummage through the glove compartment and my book bag. Even cruised streets for a while at 20 mph, slowing still further to rubberneck infrequent signs at corners.
As illusionist Howard Thurston used to tell his assistants: If you don't know what's going on, boy, just smile and point the other way.
Soldiers and dinosaurs like myself wouldn't be so easily misdirected, of course, but I wasn't certain just who I was dealing with, not yet, and this could be one way of finding out. Besides, confusion never goes to waste. And it gets to be almost instinctive after a while. All part of the game, chords to play choruses over, steps of the ritual dance we locked ourselves into again and again.
“C'mon, m'am,” I said at the local post office. “Give a guy some help here, all right? We gowayback. Jimmieâwith ani-e,not ay. Never James: Jim. Last name sounded English. You know? I mean, I can see his face like it was yesterday. Parkingham? Markham?”
“The postal service is not a public information system, sir.” Visions of long, untroubled breaks, lunches replete with fried-shrimp po-boys, and a fine, secure retirement filled her head.
“I know that, m'am. And I know you guys do one hell of a job. Women too, of course. But hey, this is the first chance I've had to look him up in almost twenty years. It ain't like I'm calling in from home to ask you something. I'm standing right here, and I just drove over four hundred miles, and tomorrow I gotta drive at least that again. Just don't tell me I'm gonna have to go all the way back to Portland without ever seeing my old buddy after all this, okay? Just don't tell me that.”
I stared off (fiercely? forlornly?) towards the window. Some double-winged insect the size of a hummingbird butted away at it.
“Hey, hold on a minute.Berkeley. That's it! We all used to call him Bish.Esse est percipi,the eraser, what eraser? and all that. How could I have forgotten?”
“I'm happy for you, sir. Have a safe and pleasant journey home.”
“C'mon, m'am. Miss? Jimmie Berkeley. How hard is it? I'm begging you. Bail me out here, huh? Whatta we have, if we don't have our memories?”
And wouldn't you know, with all the other towns I might have pulled into, with the name itself (or so I thought) pure invention, just riding way out there on the edge of a blue note, there actually wouldbea Jimmie Berkeley in Marvell, North Carolina.
“I really should call my supervisorâ”
“Please. Please do. Absolutely. In your place I'd do the same.”
“âbut I can't see the harm in it.”
“Maybe you should call him anyway? For appearance's sake. Cover your bases.”
“And things haven't been going at all well for Jimmie this past few years. It should do him good to see an old friend, talk over better times.”
Johnsson'sshould. That dangerous word again.
“He's living out at the old Swensen place. Caretaking. Not that there's any care to take, or much left to take care of. What do you call it? A sinecure?”
She sketched lightly on the back of an old envelope as she went on.
“The mailing address is route one, box nine. But the way you get there is to take Cherry, that's the main street out front,”âas a bold line crossed the bottom of her improvised pageâ“on up to Loman's Lane and turn right once you pass the Nazarene church.” A square with a cross inside it. “Then you go on four, five miles. Till you come to an old boarded-up Spur station. That'll be on your right. The road to the left's the one you want, the gravel one.” Thinner lines now. “Half a mile more, over the creek, first house you come to. First one you'llsee,anyhow. Out behind the big house, where old Swensen lived, there's a cottage, probably used to be a carriage house or slave's quarters. That's Jimmie's place.” AnX.
Remaining in character, I thanked her effusively, all the time thinkingDamn, damn, damn,andWhat webs we weave.
But like a good athlete, now I had to follow through.
I had to go out there, shoot the basket, fumble, trip, foul and withdraw.
So I did.
Jimmie climbed down off a tractor overgrown with vines at the edge of trees as I came up the drive. The ruts coming in were bad enough, but these were worse. I lumbered over them, the low-slung Datsun bottoming out again and again, hood heaving up and crashing back down like a ship in heavy sea. I hit the brake and rocked to a stop. Jimmie stood by the big house waiting.
Okay. I'd indulge in a few moments' small talk and tell him sorry, obviously I have the wrong person. Wrong town, maybe. Completion, closure. Then back the Z up, U-turn, and get the hell out of there.
But I saw in his eyes, or thought I saw, some trace of recognition. And something about his face, something in the pace and cadence of his words, was familiar.
“Can I help you, sir?” he said, keeping a distance.
“Iâ¦I seem to have lost my way. Can you tell me how to get back to the interstate?”
“Well, I reckon you're lost all right. Leastways thehighwayis.” He laughed. “But you just turn around and go on back down the way you came a few miles, and when you fetch up against the creek, you turn left. Don't you cross the creek, now, just turnatit. Mile or two farther along, you'll see your highway.”
“Got it. Thanks.”
He stepped closer to the car.
“I know you?”
“Don't see how.”
“Not from these parts, then?”
“And I been here my whole life. But I do know you. We've met up before.” He shook his head and shrugged. “In some other life, maybe. Who knows about these things? You okay now on finding your highway?”
I said yes, thanked him again and sailed back down the ruts.
Who indeed knows?
As I'd told the postal clerk, before this man I thought I was making up out of whole cloth took on flesh and spoke to me: What do we have if we don't have our memories?
What I believed pure invention had becomemore,seemed in fact to have made its way to the surface from some clandestine well of memory.
What if memory itself, in turnâhis, my ownâwere only invention?
For the nexthundred miles a Ford Escort moved up to number one on the charts.
Talk about protective coloration. A FordEscort?
It picked me up not long after Carl's Bay and the unseen sniper. A Dodge van had come around some miles back, so for a while it was a toss-up, both with a bullet, as they say, but then the van turned off and never came back, meaning either that it didn't figure at all, or that it was running a classic A-B tail and had passed me on to the Ford.
So that's the song we were dancing to.
I drove along thinking of those first weeks in the Buick following my retirement, the endless miles of highway I covered and recovered, all the open road I had felt beginning to unfurl in my mind and life, Brubeck and Bird and Sidney Bechet unwinding on the tape player the whole time. That stuff wasn't readily available then; I'd paid dearly to have collectors dub it for me from their stashes of old records and acetates.
I thought of men long since dead, of a woman's face in Chile, of part of a child I found beside the road one morning in Salvador. I remembered what it felt like when someone died there beside you, how your own body became in that instant instantly more real, more alive.
I wondered what use a soldier with a conscience could possibly be, and if indeed I had one (but I was here, wasn't I?), and what conscience was.
No more trustworthy, no less unreconstructed, perhaps, than was memory?
Just after lunch the Escort ceded favor to a Mazda pickup that paced me at such a calm distance I became certain I was this time in the presence of a pro.
Mazda sat uncomplaining in a vacant lot the whole while I stretched a steakhouse dinner to almost two hours. When I left, it came along quietly. And when I went to ground, it pulled into the parking lot between tourist cabin number nine and the sole exit.
He knew the moves without having to work them out. I was no longer dealing with amateurs.
The cabins were pure fifties postcard: fake frontier, as though some Titan's idiot child had been given a set of Lincoln Logs for Christmas and turned loose, complete with brown plastic chimneys and slab doors painted to look like four planks with crossties. Inside, it was even worse. You could barely turn around in there without bumping intosomething;it was packed full with a green Naugahyde sofa and chair, a bed whose headboard put one in mind of tombstones, matching blond dresser and bureau, a corner desk shelled with aqua Formica that after many years of bondage and struggle had almost succeeded in emancipating itself from its support brackets.
I used the cabin's phone and my own calling card to send a telegram to a deadfall address:Xanadu tomorrow stop.
More confusion and background noise.
I left open the canvas curtain with its frontier scenesâwagon wheels, lariats, a chuck wagonâand turned on the TV to a Special Report about recent mass murders in Utah. Canted newsreel footage of the suspect, of abandoned backyards and one-time schoolrooms, of a town square, a storm-laden sky. Interviews with a psychologist specializing in (caps? italics?) the criminal mind and with, unaccountably, a “television consultant.” (Awhat?) Having become instantly, momentarily, an actor, each spoke his lines with heavy sadness and certitude. Apparently it occurred to no one that, inasmuch as explanations and answersdidexist, they were complex ones, and might only be found in the suspensions of true discourse or of art, certainly not in homilies, slogans, threadbare aphorisms.
Strike another blow, I thought inanely, for American no-how.
The newscast was followed by a poorly dubbed Japanese mystery,Ransom,that nevertheless immediately swept me up and carried me off, more from the intensity of the lead character's features and the stark, angular black and white of the film itselfâlike something out of his own mindâthan for any facility of plot or technique.
A three-time murderer (though none of them committed in passion), Osho is released from prison during war with the understanding that, in return for his freedom, he will kill again: this time a most peculiar patriot, an old, once-great soldier now leading his people away from confrontation and towards negotiation. Osho instead flees, settling in an obscure mountain village where he becomes protector for a young, mildly retarded woman with whom he falls slowly in love, and for her family. Raidersârefugees from various war zones, deserted soldiersâperiodically come upon the village by chance only to be dispatched, violently, by Osho. There are brief flashbacks to beatings he received from his father as a child; to (at the beginning of this same war) the imposition of martial law and subsequent confiscation of his home village's sole source of income, its fishing boats; to the single boat he and a friend carried into the hills and the officer they struck and happened to kill when he came upon them there; to the man whose throat he slit years later in a barroom brawl over a woman whose name he never knew or asked; to the face of a man he almost killed, but from whom he drew back at the last moment, in prison. By film's end, despite all he has done, despite his final, passionate killing, one feels a great compassion, a spilling tenderness, for Osho. In the movie's last frames, half a dozen policemen in plainclothes climb slowly up the mountain to put him to death for defaulting on his bargain. The country is at peace.
I walked to the window, half-expecting the Mazda's driver to be in the window opposite looking back, the same film coming to its end on the screen behind him.
But there was only blackness out there, blackness shot through from time to time with the lash of passing lights, broken by the dull thunder of trucks on the interstate a mile away.
And behind, there was only more news, more detective shows and sitcoms, endless advertising, an interminable hour of sophomoric British comedy in tuxedos and drag.
I slept well, dreaming of the countryside of southern France, its smallcavesand restaurants, its pÃ¢tÃ©s, oversize bottles of local wine, cassoulets, greens and rolling green hills. I was a leaf carried along by wind. Wind whispered softly to me and would never grow tired.Ma feuille,the wind said,ma petite feuille, ma jolie feuilleâ¦
In the morning, no less surprised than I might have been upon receiving, by return post, a reply to a message in a bottle, or to words whispered into the darkness, I received a response to my telegram.
“Mr. Anderson?” the desk clerk said when I picked up the phone. He was probably also owner, maintenance man and half the housekeeping staff. “I'm sorry about disturbing you at such an early hour, but I have a telegram here for you.”
“You want me to read it?”
“Oh. Okay. Let's seeâ¦it says:I await you. And there's something else here, a name maybe.K-U-B-L-A?That's it. Be checking out this morning, will you?”
“Yes. Thanks again.”
“Oh no: thankyou.”
Ten minutes later, the Mazda pulled out behind me. We drove up the street like a very small circus and stopped at a truck stop for breakfast. Plenty of parking in front. This time he came in, sat at the counter and ordered coffee.
I ate breakfastslowly and, afterwards, carried a second cup of coffee over to the counter and sat beside him. He was on his third or fourth, with milk and with sweetener from sky-blue packages. Where we were, you could see stacks of glasses in wire racks against the kitchen wall, a tottering tray of napkins rolled, burrito-like, around silverware, a badly encrusted waffle iron.
“Come here often?”
A lot younger than I would have thoughtâbut aren't they all?âand good-looking in some indefinably continental way; functionally dressed in loose jeans, sweater, ski jacket, running shoes. I wasn't the only one who thought him good-looking. The waitress spent an inordinate amount of time seeing to his coffee.
“Capricorn,” he said. “And no, I don't want to dance.”
We sat there a while. Truckers came in, made calls over coffee and burgers and left. Travelers whose children could be seen looming into the windows of vans outside like sharks in aquariums materialized at the counter and voyaged back out with cartons of food in hand.
“So what do we do next?” I said. “You supposed to smother me with a jelly doughnut?”
“Thought maybe I'd just persuade you to order the chili. That ought to do it.”
“Or I could jot down my itinerary, we'd meet a couple of times a day for meals. Save you a lot of trouble. Easier for everybody, in the long run.”
“Hmmmm,” he said, and got more coffee from the waitress. Can't let a good customer take two sips without a refill. He nodded to her and smiled.
“We could even consider carpooling,” I said. “I can't remember if there's an energy crisis right now, but if not, one's bound to be along shortly.”
He shook his head, half an inch in either direction, once. “Don't think so. I've seen the way you drive.”
“There's that. But you do have to look at the big picture.”
He looked into his coffee instead and suggested a walk. I paid, waited as he spoke with the waitress, then we went out together into a chill, sunny morning. Sunlight on everything, just lying there, trying to get warm.
We walked down the main stretch a block or two, then onto a side street that barely managed to harbor six buildings and a building-size, overgrown parking lot before surrendering to the chaos of kudzu and what people hereabouts calledwoods. I'd had similar feelings once on a brief assignment in Midland-Odessa, Texas: this sense that three paces out from the city I'd step abruptly off the continental shelf, into quicksand and nothingnessâas though aliens had carved the city from its environs and deposited it here.
“Do you remember a morning in the fall of '71, on Cyprus?” my companion said after a time.
A woman's face floated into my mind. The smell of lemon trees, kerosene.
“I do. But there's no wayyoucould.”
He went on. “Because of your presence, because of what you did, or caused to happen, thereâI don't know the details of this, and you yourself may or may not recall themâa woman selected to die instead was reunited with her children.”
Oh, yes: I remembered.
“Years later, far from those islands, in a far different life, in a different world, that woman again found love and remarried. Her husband was a Russian Ã©migrÃ©, a childless widower who had long believed his life over, his family name never to be forwarded, his fortunes at an end.
“Dmitri was at first astonished, then grateful, to find love and family so late in his course. Gratitude did not come easy to him, you understand. He had clawed his way up from the rudest dock work. It was difficult for him to credit fortune, chance, destinyâto creditanythingbut his own determination and laborâfor what happened in his life. And because that recognition, that gratitude, came with such difficulty, it was taken most seriously. Takento his heart,as he himself might say. It became one of the central facts of his life.
“In time that gratitude extended itself to the person he knew to be responsible for his wife's survival. And so, declaring someday that person would be properly thanked, Dmitri turned his considerable resources towards discovering the man's identity.”
My companion paused, watching an Amish buggy make its plodding way along the road's shoulder.
“It was, as I'm sure you know, a formidable task.”
Stressed on the second syllable, as the British do.
“I'd think so.” Hope so.
“One fraught with false trails, laden with dead ends, blinds, misdirections. And impossible to say, finally, whether it was dogged persistence, moneyâvast sums of it, pirate chests full of itâor simple luck that's carried me at last to this long-desired end.”
“This is the end, then? Here?”
“The Russian, Dmitri, died many years agoâas good a man as will ever see this world. His wife, the woman you knew as Cybelle, followed shortly after.
“In thanking you now, I discharge both my father's gratitude and the vow I made to him.
“Spaseba,”he said, holding out his hand. “I am Michael. And now, I suppose, finally, I can get on with my life.”
Thinking of his obvious professionalism, I said:
“But surely thisisyour life.”
“No. I'm an engineer, a shipbuilder, actually. Not that I've had much chance to practice that profession.”
We had come back around to the truck stop.
“For all his efforts and dedication, the old Russian was never able to discover your identity. In fact he learned almost nothing. What else was there for me, then, but to become, myself, what we knew you to be? If you wish to find wolves,becomea wolf.
“This is what I did. I trained and had myself sent out as a field agent and before long in that clandestine, circumspect world I began encountering certainâ¦stories, I suppose you would say. You may or may not know: a kind of myth, a hollowness, exists in the place you once occupied. As in Voznesensky's poem for Robert Lowell:
Ð²ÑÑÐ°Ð» Ð² Ð¿ÑÑÑÐ¾ÑÑ, ÑÑÐ¾ Ð¾ÑÑÐ°Ð»Ð°ÑÑ Ð¾Ñ ÑÐ¾ÑÑÐ° Î ÐµÑÑÐ°.
“You were ensconced, shrouded, in that space. But then it began to seem as though the space might be no longer vacant, the hollowness filling. Rumbles of far-off thunder made their way to me. Rumors, unexplained occurrences, movements on the horizon. All of which led me inexorably to this assignment. To you. And thereby to the end of one career.”
We stood near a huge plate-glass door plastered over with travel stickers. Our breath pedaled out into the chill morning air. A middle-aged couple on a Gold Wing pulled up at the curb and sat with engine idling, studying separate maps, he in half-moon reading glasses, she holding the map out away from her, squinting.
“I had assumed it wasmycareer that was supposed to end,” I said. “And my life.”
“So, apparently, had others.” Michael looked into the cafÃ©. The waitress looked back at him from behind the counter. They both smiled.
“I must tell you: I am not at all certain that I recognize the game pieces in use here, or that I know their proper moves. And the board itself seems a most peculiar, oddly shaped one. I hope that you will take particular caution, my friend.”
He held out his hand and we shook.
“How very strange to call you that: friend. You have been central to my life for much of it. Yet I've not met you until this day. And now will have no reason to see you again.”
“Unless you come simplyasa friend.”
I stood for a moment watching through a tiny map of Texas on the door as he reentered the cafÃ© and sat at the counter. A cup of coffee was put before him. The waitress, apparently, was on break; she came and sat beside him.
For the remainderof that day and much of the nextâpresumably until someone got around to discovering Michael's apostasyâI was a solo act. Sailing free and alone on the interstate and through adjunct towns, at peace with myself and surroundings.
Then about three in the afternoon, roughly alongside a stretch of fiberglass hot tubs turned on edge like huge jigsaw pieces and another service-road store selling “chainsaw art” (totemlike figures of bears and other wildlife liberated waist- or haunch-up from tree trunks), with acquisition of a sporty little white job and a moose-like Pontiacâcountertenor, bassâI became a trio.
They took the Datsun out an hour or so later.
There wasn't a lot I could do. We'd cat-and-moused for thirty miles or more on the straightaway before nosing into a cluster of tight, contradictory curves. The Pontiac had lugged up hard on my outside then, holding me in the curves and crowding close against me while the sports car, a Fiat, nipped and nibbled at the inside like a good cow dog.
It was all timed perfectly, almost balletic. And when finally I did leave the roadâmore or less electively, as it happened, taking what I decided might well be my last chanceâfor a moment, just before the rear wheels lost purchase, I thought I'd done it, thought I might actually have pulled it off.
The Datsun hit the far bank and paused, listing for an interminable moment during which several Latin American nations changed their names, political ideology and rulers at least once, then, very rapidly, gaining speed all the while, began rolling.
After six it all seemed academic and I quit counting.
So I started rolling, myself: out of the tight ball I'd tucked myself into and out of the car in a single ongoing motion. Then let momentum carry me onto my feet and sprinted between billboards for steak houses, motels and wrecker services into nearby trees.
I was on a limb high overhead when they finally talked themselves into coming in after me. I could see their cars pulled into a gap-toothed V back at roadside. There were only the two drivers, one a middle-aged, crewcut man in crisp white shirt, tie and windbreaker, the other in Yuppie Lumberjack and baseball cap. The older one had a shotgun. The younger one probably thought his red shirt was weapon enough.
I stayed up there a long while, letting them wear themselves down and lose what edge they had.
Then the kid stepped around a tree into my elbow and went down. His head lay propped against roots. Blood poured from his nose and pooled at his collar, soaking into the shirt, darkening it to maroon. He snored.
The older one was considerably more trouble, and for a time I was afraid I'd moved on him too hard. But eventually light seeped back into the dull gray eyes he leveled at me.
I nodded to him.
After a moment he said: “Correct me if I'm wrong. But I suppose if I moveâif I can, that isâyou'll shoot me.”
I was sitting, knees up, against a tree. I spread my hands.
“Okay if I sit up? Again: if I can.”
He came up slowly, hands flat against legs, breathing deeply, forcing the pain back. Put it in the pantry, use it later.
“Adrian?” he said.
“Temporarily, or otherwise?”
“Give him half an hour.”
He looked off towards the highway, blinked up at the sun through the canopy of leaves. A squirrel was fussing up there somewhere.
He lifted his left hand and probed at its wrist, experimentally, dispassionately, with the fingers of the other.
“Third time now I've broken the sucker. Soâ¦”
He looked at me again. Eyes depthless.
“So?” I said.
“So what's the deal?”
“How about we play History? I'm the big bad Russians and you're Julius Rosenberg. Tell me some secrets.”
“Yeah, well, I know how that one ended.”
“This one doesn't have to.”
There was a sudden exodus of birds from trees around us. Moments later, half a block long, a truck heaved into view on the service road, cab black and gleaming, bright cars lashed to scaffolding behind, distinct as paints in a paintbox.
“Cigarettes in my shirt,” he said. “All right if I get them?”
He lit one and sat smoking, watching the truck swing back onto the interstate. I thought of camels lumbering among dunes half a world away. Of Erector Sets, carnival rides, the Eiffel Tower. My sculpture.
“Can't help you much. There's this manâan agent, I guess you'd have to call him. No pun intended. Everything comes through him. Someone needs a job done, he gets in touch, and the man sets terms, strikes the bargain. I call in later, a couple of times a day when I'm not already working, otherwise it might be two or three before I get a chance, and he tells me go here or there. Be in Dallas at five, Akron tomorrow morning, this is what you have to do there. Tickets are always waiting for me. Motel rooms. Cash. Everything about it ultraclean, professional. Smooth. So I can't give you a name. That's why it's all set up the way it is.”
He shook his head. “The rest is silence,” he said.
But it wasn't.
Adrian's breathing signaled trouble. We both heard the laboring heaves, listened and caught the gasp, realized at the same moment that his breathing had stopped.
And suddenly were there, together, at the tree.
Grabbing ankles, I pulled the boy down flat and thumped at his chest, twice, hard, with a fist. Then quickly measured three fingers up from the xiphoid, locked fingers and began rocking, elbows stiff.
“One thousand, two thousandâ¦”
His companion pinched nostrils shut and blew his own breath into Adrian's mouth.
“Three thousand, four thousand, fiveâ¦”
“One thousand, twoâ¦”
After ten or twelve minutes, onchange,we traded places. I watched him there above the boy rock back and forth on his one good hand, counting; and every fifth compression I blew my own breath forcibly into Adrian's still mouth. It remained still. Our sweat fell onto him.
We shifted places, shifted again.
Until finally, exhausted, we gave up. Adrian's pupils had been dilated for some time.
“What the hell happened?” my co-rescuer said.
“No way to know,” I said. “I'm sorry.”
“Yeah. Well.” He lit a cigarette and fell back against the roots, breathing hard, looking up at sky. “It's all pretty frail, what holds us here.”
“You got kids?” he said after a while.
I shook my head.
“Not many of us do. Boy there's the closest I was ever gonna come. Twenty-one years old. Would of been twenty-two next month. You even remember what it was like, being that young?”
He struggled to his feet and to the Pontiac, fished a bottle of Stoly out of the glove compartment and brought it back.
“Join me?” he said.
We passed the bottle back and forth a few times.
“I don't get out much,” he said. “You know how it is, working all the time, never knowing where you might wake up tomorrow morning. Then Idoget out, and I look at all these people with their suits and their station wagons and the next thirty years of their life stamped out like it's on the back of a coin, and I have to wonder what makes them go on.
“Has to be family, I figure. And I guess Adrian there was pretty muchmylast chance for family.”
I handed the bottle across.
He took a small, careful sip and passed it back to me.
I finished it off. Held the bottle close to me. Birds sang again. We sat there a while without talking.
“Come on,” he said. “Help me get the boy into the car and I'll give you a lift to the next town. Get on with our lives, as they say.”
As if we had them: lives.