When you have the sweet disease (compulsive writing) you will write things and put them away and later not quite understand them; you will remember that there were secret meanings folded into the text but you will not quite remember what those meanings were. When you discover these orphaned narratives, from time to time, in old boxes or at the backs of drawers or on old memory sticks, you will have the pleasure of reading yourself like a stranger. I wrote this story, in a fever, almost three years ago, wrapping it up just before Christmas of 2015. I know it’s one of those haunting nightmares of dark logic and lost love you wake up in tears from… and I can figure out most, but not all, of it. Can you…?
Luci loved this season most of all. She sat in a bucket of chilled sunlight on her balcony, watching the leaves fall. The leaves fell more like sleepers than the dead. They drifted to rest. The dead leaves covered the curbs and sidewalks in Autumn’s crisp blanket and spilled onto the perfect black of the repaved street. Splatters of gold and bronze and blood-red. The air was full of change and chimney smoke and the visible fragrance of tea.
When Luci looked up through the falling leaves, and the knit of branches holding the fragile glass of the sky, she saw patches of the blue Mediterranean she planned to be swimming in next week. She saw patches of the metallic blue of Jack’s eyes. Patches of lapis and bruise. Luci stretched and yawned while looking up. She felt so cosy in the blue jumper she’d finished knitting the day before. Now she was busy knitting one for Jack. The famous bag of yarn and needles was right there in her lap. Right there on her hundred-year-old balcony so early in the morning, before the vacation, with splatters of gold and bronze and blood-red as far as the eye could see.
School kids were crunching through the leaves under her balcony and from three stories up she could afford an objective appraisal of children as a concept. Their smooth little bodies in gel-shells. She realized that Jack was right: why bring another Life to this crowded planet? Although, yes, the countries of the “re-developed world” were emptying out. They were all well under the rate of replacement when it came to birthrates. The Over-80s were in the mounting majority wherever Business English was the official language. Which included most of the re-developed world. Continent One and Continent Two. Who was going to pay into Luci’s pension, when the time came, as she had paid into the pensions of the generation before hers? Still. If Jack and Lucy one day felt the overwhelming urge to feed something, nodded Luci to herself, Luci could buy herself a dog. She’d name it Jack Jr.
Won’t Jack be pleased, she thought. I’m being his idea of rational.
Luci laughed until her phone surprised her with a very strange ring.
She thought, at first, it was actual music she was actually hearing. A classical melody. Something wrong with the N-plant. She’d had problems with N-plants before. Luci recalled that she once had a phone which dialled whenever she sneezed. The N-plant in that case had come slightly loose in its nutrient bed and a sensor wire as fine as an eyelash had entered her sinus cavity. The people at the phone shoppe had confided in Luci that this was far from a rare occurrence and they gave her an extra hospital voucher. And now this ring problem.
For obvious reasons, a ring had to be instantly recognizable as one. You couldn’t go around mistaking your phone calls for real world noises, could you? Luci considered complaining. But to whom? Her phone company was so ubiquitous that it didn’t even have a name. All Luci knew (or could possibly identify in a court of law) was a pictogram.
Luci tapped a temple.
“Yes?” she said. Still trying to identify the melody of that ring.
“Hey,” said Jack.
Said Jack, tersely, thought Luci.
Luci said, “That’s funny. Why didn’t my phone identify you?”
“Why indeed,” said Jack. “Listen. Remember that thing we always talked about?”
“You know. The thing that would cause you to respond with ‘what thing?’ if I ever asked you to remember that thing we always talked about,” laughed Jack. “Anyway. Listen. I can’t talk now but I’ll see you later. Okay?”
“After all, ” said Luci, to herself, after Jack was gone, above the sound of the children (she never planned on having) shuffling through dead leaves below her, “Jack is a mystery writer. But why is he being so mysterious on his own time, all of a sudden? And with me?”
What thing they always talked about? Children?
When Jack and I first met, thought Luci.
She stroked a cheek as Jack would have stroked it.
The look Jack had given Luci the first time he saw her had been stronger than any look Luci ever gotten. When she stepped through that door into the cafe library. A look so strong it was impossible to interpret. Anger? Bafflement? Self-disgust? Self-transcendence? Disbelieving Joy? Sceptical relief? Cerebral lust? Two of the above? Several?
They’d been communicating by phone for months at that point. Luci could have reversed-engineered the totality of their conversations from the intensity of the look Jack gave her the moment she stepped through that door, she felt. Jack was a mystery writer and Luci was a physicist Jack had called while researching a book. He’d wanted to know, initially, if it was possible to use anti-matter as an undetectable poison.
“Well, the really tricky part would be keeping your poison safely bottled up,” she’d laughed.
Luci remembered Jack’s account of that first phone call more vividly than Luci remembered her own.
Jack had put off calling for a week after getting her number from a mutual friend. He was profoundly intimidated by the prospect of talking to a real scientist. Jack had always been rather intellectually insecure. He’d been so bad at science in school. A powerful imagination wedded to a very poor grasp of the facts. A teacher had written this on one of Jack’s report cards.
The only reason Jack had gotten a passing grade in his senior physics course was the short story he’d written instead of taking the test. The Falling Bodies Test. Twenty-Five Per Cent of the final grade. A crucial test, in other words. The teacher, who happened to love literature, considered Jack’s spontaneous story, submitted at the end of the hour in lieu of the actual physics test, a minor masterpiece. He not only gave Jack a passing grade for it, but put Jack in contact with his first literary agent. The story Jack wrote (right there, in class, under his Physics teacher’s bemused frown), slightly re-worked, was published in the fall issue of INCONCEIVABLE TALES less than a year later, under a catchy title the editor gave it (Comacosm) when Jack was still nineteen.
When Jack phoned Luci Medrad for technical advice, twenty years later, he was a well-known writer. Jack was a pioneering content-provider of the Original Chemical Dream Theater Company (RNA-based intravenous drama schedules). College students knew his name and recognized his image. Successful as he was, Jack was terrified at the thought of speaking with Luci that first time. And yet. Long after the professional pretence of research was abandoned, they spoke at length at the end of most every day. Luci eventually explained to Jack, with perfect patience and not a hint of condescension, during these long phone talks, all the fundamental science concepts he’d never understood in school.
After three months of day’s-end conversations with Luci, Jack didn’t care if she was fat and bald, as he put it. He needed to meet her. Three months of suspense for the mystery writer was enough, as he put it. It was time they met.
Luci’s strange ring rang again. Luci flinched as though falling.
This intrusion on her beautiful reminiscence felt like a personal loss.
2.THE CENTRAL POINT
Luci’s area of expertise within the broad church of physics was under the greater umbrella of a theory called Konstant Locality. Students of science history are now taught that the Dark Ages extended into an interestingly deceptive period of pseudo-Enlightenment. During which even great thinkers like Isaac Newton, influenced by religious dogma , produced faulty theories based on a belief in a masculine Creator’s perfection, His love of “beauty” and “symmetry” and so forth. One of the by-products of this naive belief in symmetry was the faulty theory that the Laws of Physics are Universal, applying with relentless sameness everywhere in the Universe. The true revolution in scientific thought occurred when it was discovered that this is not so. The so-called Universal Konstants (e.g. the Konstant for gravitational force, previously known as “G”) vary according to location. The formulae derived from the false belief in universality were used to miscalculate, among other things, the size of the known universe, which turns out to be smaller than the previously accepted model by a factor of trillions. Importantly, within Luci’s lifetime it was discovered that the difference-value between various Local Effects can be calculated in relation to a central point in space. Luci was working on the calculations necessary to map The Central Point with perfect accuracy. Which was highly classified work, as the first Geopolitical Entity capable of mapping the Central Point with perfect accuracy would be capable of controlling Everything.
Luci was therefore less than entirely surprised that the phone call interrupting her reverie about Jack was from a man who identified himself as working at what her colleagues referred to, informally, as the Department of Gossip. The humorous nickname never quite managed to take the sinister edge off the shadowy bureau’s reputation. Lucy had received such calls before. People in high places seemed to worry themselves over what Luci knew, and whoever might also know that she knew it. While Luci was less than surprised at the call, she was less than relaxed at the prospect of meeting Case Officer Knut Appel at the corner in front of the Supreme Bean cafe, right down the road in the parish of Plummeton, though she agreed to the meeting.
“Miss Medrad,” said Case Officer Appel.
He reached to take Luci’s hand in greeting.
Luci’s first impulse was to stifle the reflex to reciprocate. As if taking Appel’s hand would establish a dangerous precedent of compliance. All around them, in the dappled sunlight beside the picture-fountain in front of the Supreme Bean’s door, young triads were holding hands and chatting with soft excitement. Luci could barely remember being so young. The other female in Luci’s old triad, as it turns out, had gone on to be a writer like Jack. Not famous, though. Luci couldn’t even remember the girl’s face or her name or a single distinguishing characteristic of her body. Neither her taste nor her smell nor the timbre of her voice. Nor the male’s. Oh well, Luci said, in the back of her mouth. Oh well.
Things fall away.
Appel’s hand was still out there.
“Shall we go inside and have a seat?”
Appel said, “As you wish.”
Appel, who was obviously using a masking protocol, had indeterminate facial features and a nondescript voice. His apparent height, weight, build, gait and IQ were rigorously average. He handed Luci his card as they took their seats and she saw that his middle name was supposedly Nick. She found that thinking of him as Knutnick was so internally humorous that she lost the majority of her nervousness in the time it took Knutnick to scoot his chair closer to their table, which was near the door to the WC. The door to the WC had an unrecognizable pictogram on it. And Appel was just some average creep from the bureau of Spies, after all. What was there for Luci to be nervous about?
Luci had no idea how many minutes or hours had elapsed before she became conscious of the fact that Appel was standing up and thanking her for her time. Luci could smell cinnamon and pumpkin and traces of her own saliva from the lip of the empty cup she held with two hands in front of her. She put the cup down as carefully as she could, with shaking hands, as Appel reached to shake her hand goodbye. She accepted Appel’s gesture with a blank expression. All that Luci could vaguely remember from the exchange with Knut N. Appel, of x-duration, was the word “China” or “Chinaman” or, perhaps, “Chinese”.
Had Appel done something to her? The Department of Gossip was famous for its tricks. Or were things already going wrong before he’d called her this morning? Luci had no recollection of actually walking to the cafe. Or even of showering and getting dressed that morning. She had no clue as to what she was wearing and she was afraid to look in a mirror to check. She repeated the word “check” to herself. Check. Check. Was it even a word? It sounded ridiculous.
Was “ridiculous” even a word?
Heart racing, Luci called Jack’s old friend Donna.
Luci was in a state of near-panic when Donna walked in the cafe within what seemed like seconds later, looking very theatrically to the left and right before spotting Luci at the table near the WC door. Donna waved at Luci as though she were standing across a very broad street full of Skaters at rush hour in a rain storm.
Luci instantly regretted calling Donna, who’d recently enjoyed a Personal Upgrade courtesy of the influential Measurements Company she worked for. Luci now remembered that Donna had always been intimidatingly beautiful but now she was worse. Donna’s skin shone with the liquid perfection of a wax duplicate of a pre-adolescent. The dancing lights in her smartly cut, translucent hair were subtly incredible and the affective theme she impressed on the room’s aura was Dowland’s Say Love, if ever thou didst find, a renaissance song of surpassing beauty. Donna’s transmitter was so refined that it pre-empted the cafe’s own ambient melodies like an emergency announcement in a time of crisis. Donna’s towering beauty was the crisis. Dowland, from the 16th century, was incredibly expensive to license, Luci guessed. With envy? Despite herself, and despite her current state, Luci found herself finding Donna physically irresistible. Luci felt pangs. Deep pangs from parts of her body she couldn’t realistically have had.
“Darling Luci,” said Donna as Luci stood to hug her. “Hey. Are you okay?”
The hug, scientifically speaking (Luci was trained in precise observation, after all), was fascinating. Luci smelled Donna’s nearness, the warmth and melody of her fragrance, her silks and soft skin and Luci thought, simultaneously that A) Luci wanted almost desperately to make love with Donna but that B) wanting to make love with Donna didn’t actually mean anything. Certainly not that Donna meant anything to Luci. If anything, paradoxically, it seemed to mean the opposite: that Donna meant less than nothing to Luci. The formula appeared to be an inverse square. Luci’s urge to make love with Donna was simultaneously trivial and profound because it trivialized Donna in the profundity of its glare. And, in any case, this urge was utterly distinguishable from what, for example, Jack felt when he touched Luci. In which case the word “love” again took on its actual (not ironic) meanings. The emotional cognitive dissonance of pseudo-reproductive strategies, Luci thought. Like being an adolescent again.
Or a man.
“Donna, something’s very wrong,” whispered Luci, into Donna’s ear, as Donna hugged her.
Donna was nearly a head taller than Luci in her heels. Luci inhaled Donna’s fragrance with her nose pressed to a sparkling, warm spot behind Donna’s ear. Then, at arm’s length, avoiding eye contact, in a deliberately “wide awake” voice, Luci added:
“Donna, something’s wrong but I don’t know what. Which makes it much, much worse. Donna, I don’t know. I may be losing my grip.”
Donna took the seat that Case Officer Appel had formerly occupied. Luci imagined the seat as being “still cold” as opposed to “still warm”. Luci wanted Donna to shudder, taken aback, by the seat’s bad energy. But Donna seemed not to have noticed.
Donna frowned and smiled and pulled Luci’s hands across the table and cupped them in her own perfect hands, festooned with screen-rings. Each ring an affirmation or a soap-opera or whatever. Popular with kids. Was Donna flirting with Luci? Luci was beginning to feel what a man must feel when he experiences an erection. Why was Donna so attractive? Because she was stupid?
“Have you spoken to Jack about the problem?”
Luci heard herself saying, “I don’t want to bother Jack. He’s deep in this new book.”
Was he? Was this true?
“Good old Jack,” said Donna. “Those books are an excuse for everything.” She smiled to soften the remark.
“They’re not an excuse, they’re his job.”
“What do you think jobs are? Jobs are the ultimate excuses, darling.” Donna laughed and turned in her seat and waved at the counter to order a coffee. She pointed at the pumpkin pictogram on the board over the server’s head and the server thumbs-upped her. “How’s yours, by the way?”
“How’s my what?”
“Your job, silly. How are things going in the lab? How much of it are you allowed to talk about with the general public? Listen, I know you must think that dummies like me are too dim to take an interest in things like that but nothing could be further from the truth. The bits and pieces that Jack has told me, over the years, were truly fascinating. They could be a book.”
Luci began to try to explain, in laymen’s terms, to Donna, exactly what Luci was working on, whether or not it was highly classified, whether or not there were stiff penalties for divulging the info, when Luci realized that she, Luci, didn’t have a clue what she, Luci, was working on. Luci’s mind was a perfect blank on the subject. Combing her mind she managed to come up with three or four sentences pertinent to physics or even science in general. But how was that possible?
Luci suddenly noticed that the pictogram on the WC door represented a mirror.
Luci knew what she had to do.
3. AUNT NALA
A millisecond before looking in the mirror, Jack knew exactly what he’d see (Jack) so he didn’t scream. He flinched. He’d been somehow convinced he was Luci all morning, hadn’t he? It seemed like all morning. Maybe it was an hour. How could Jack possibly have mistaken himself for Luci? What kind of psychosis does that?
He was alone in the WC. Jack was Jack, not Luci. And was Donna Moy, with whom Jack had done various things, some regrettable, over the years, really sitting out there waiting for Jack to rejoin her at the cafe table? Had she mistaken Jack for Luci, too? She had appeared to. Had she been humouring Jack the whole time? How crazy must she think Jack was? Big tall Jack believing he was tiny Luci. Flirting, as Luci, with the woman Jack had made the terrible mistake of cheating on Luci with. What did that even mean?
Jack got a good long look at himself (in his ordinary clothing, at least) in the mirror, as if to stabilize his self- awareness, before peeking his head out the WC door to check on Donna Moy. Only the WC door was now locked. Jack pushed a little, then pushed a little harder, but the door did not give. It felt as solid as a wall, in fact. Not like a door at all.
Breathe, he told himself.
Jack started crying. Pull yourself together, Jack thought.
What was wrong with him? Grief filled his consciousness like a total, ancient, irrefutable body of knowledge. Like an expertise that would never leave him. Also that feeling in the pit of one’s stomach. When an elevator drops. When there’s turbulence on an airplane. Why? He gently back-handed his tear-filled eyes with the cuff of his blue sweater. The sweater Luci had knitted for his birthday. It smelled like Luci, the sweater, and Jack hugged it to himself and decided he needed to think the way Luci had taught him to. He needed to think analytically and master his emotions until this puzzle was solved. There’ll be plenty of time to cry later. Also, to laugh. He’d tell Luci about his peculiar little psychotic episode and she’d die laughing, lifting her glasses to wipe her eyes clear.
Jack looked in the mirror. He said to his own reflection, in an imitation of Luci’s voice, of her speech patterns:
“There are two possibilities. Either this episode has something to do with Luci’s classified work for the government. Or with my own involvement with Original Chemical Dream Theater. Is this all the result of an experiment with Original Chemical Dream Theater gone terribly wrong? You usually know that Original Chemical Dream Theater is Original Chemical Dream Theater while you’re doing it. Maybe I dosed myself wrong. Maybe I got hold of a bad trial sample. In which case, all I can do is wait for it to wear off. I’ll sweat it out of my system. Piss it out.”
Jack bent to the sink and drank warm water right out of the sink’s tap. The water was metallic and he hoped it was already counteracting whatever he may have accidentally dosed himself with.
Adopting Luci’s speech patterns had calmed him. He tried the WC door and it opened without resistance. Jack composed himself and re-entered the room where he’d been seated at a table pretending to be Luci. Donna looked up from one of her screen-rings when Jack came back.
“Did you fall in the toilet?” She winked. “Have you seen this?”
Donna put the ring that was on the middle finger of her right hand very close to Jack’s face. On the ring flickered a very old film of a circle of men in comical caps and uniforms holding a circular net or trampoline or mattress of some kind, running back and forth under a man on a very high ledge. The film made Jack dizzy. He gently pushed Donna’s perfect hand away and said,
“Have you ordered yet?”
“Ordered and drank one and ordered a second as you wept in the bathroom, Jack.”
“Was I that loud?”
Donna nodded slowly, smiling largely, eyes opening wide. “Things going badly at home?”
Jack took a seat and a deep breath and waved at the counter in order to order another coffee (this time as himself). He gestured at the apple pictogram on the menu board over the server and the server thumbs-upped him.
“Bad at home? Never. I wish I were there. I’d give anything to touch Luci’s face right now, to be honest. I’d never stop touching it. Maybe you’d rather not hear that.”
“No, no, no. It’s very touching, Jack. I like it when you open up. Go on.”
“Before I met Luci I was just an animal. An organism. Do you know what I mean? I was just there, existing. Eating. Working. There was no purpose to any of it. In a way, I think, I was clay. Lacking a soul or spirit or poetry or whatever. Inanimate. Because you can’t just live for yourself. That’s what animals do. Not even all animals. One-celled animals. Pointless.” Jack took a long look at Donna, who, he’d somehow never managed to notice before, bore an uncanny resemblance to his mother’s notorious sister. Jack continued,
“The me you found attractive back then… I’m just guessing you found me attractive then…”
They both laughed.
“Those big brown eyes,” said Donna.
“Well, no. You actually found me attractive because Luci had turned me into a person. Freshly created people are attractive. So, you know, as these things tend to happen. Right? Luci’s good deed came back to haunt her, I guess. Without her knowing. One hopes.”
“Sobering thought. Should we feel guilty, Jack?”
“You shouldn’t. I should. But, no. Not guilty… what does feeling guilty fix? Guilt’s just inverted piety.”
“Why did you do it? If it’s not too ironic of me to ask. Why did you cheat on your so-called creator, Jack? Because you’re a man?”
“Or. Because you’re a woman? Because it’s easier to burn down an unfinished Taj Mahal than it is to complete one. Because I used to think of bliss as an unfair obligation to exist.”
“Easier to fall than to fly, ” she said in a very meek voice. An old voice.
“Food for thought.”
Jack looked up from an empty cup of apple-spiced coffee he couldn’t remember drinking and took a cautious look at the woman sitting opposite him. In her long scarves and gaudy rings and shoulder pads. Was she even conscious of his presence? She looked like a museum piece, already so incredibly still that Jack realized it would be terrifying if she blinked or even if her lips moved. Let this be a statue, he thought. Or a symbol.
Don’t let it talk to me.
Even as a boy, it had always been impossible to guess her age. Though, if she was his mother’s second-oldest sister, how young could she be? She was dark as old candle wax now.
“You raped me, ” he said. “You think because I was a boy it didn’t count?”
Jack had a sudden impulse and acted on it, tossing his cup of coffee, which was full after all, all over her. Or, no. A pile of dirty old coats draped over a chair.
4. BENNY & NALA
Jack paid for five coffees and left the Supreme Bean, lingering in front of the picture fountain in the cafe’s courtyard. His hands were in the pockets of his Loden coat and he shivered with exhaustion. He’d never been so tired in all his life. If he let himself sleep he felt he would never wake up. So Jack couldn’t allow himself to rest until he was lying beside Luci. The images in the splashing waters of the fountain were a blended Rorschach of wildly personal free-association and advertising. Jack saw his childhood and coffee drinks. The coffee drinks were the color of the river that ran through Palmertown. When they’d first moved there, Jack’s Dad told Jack the river was made of chocolate and Jack believed him.
It was his happiest time because it was his Dad’s happiest time. He remembers that.
They were so poor. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich for dessert was considered a delicacy. A big treat. And for Jack, it was. A very big treat. He didn’t know any better. His father always presented the quartered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on a plate covered in tinfoil and called the plate a silver tray and Jack believed him. Out there in Palmertown. The country ghetto, his father called it.
Come out and visit us in our country ghetto, his Dad would yell, jovially, into the phone. People rarely did. When they did it was embarrassing. Not because they were poor. Everyone was poor but Jack didn’t know it. A dozen drab stucco houses on a bleak grid of four or five little streets at the end of a wide dirt road that became a covered bridge that crossed a river Jack never once learned the name of. The chocolate river. There were three very large garages, army-green, full of tires and cannibalized Jeep chassis and high smashed windows stuffed with slanting sunlight and criss-crossed with wires. A fifteen minute walk down the hill and across the drainage ditch behind their crackerbox stucco palace were these three garages. They were brooding shapes in the twilight.
Their first summer there his Dad spent a month just emptying the tires out of the garage in the middle, which was tall as a barn. The garage with the highest ceiling from which a huge white hook on a chain hung. To improve the acoustics his Dad decided to cart all the tires out. Jack pretended to help. He must have been nine because it was two years later when things changed. His Dad calculated that they moved two thousand tires together. Each tire weighed as much as two Jacks at the time. Imagine the weight of four thousand Jacks, Jack’s father said, toasting Jack with the bottle he was drinking from. The bottle of special water. And then when they’d cleared and swept the cracked concrete floor of the garage wearing Jack’s Dad’s dirty old paint-stained breathing masks, they ended up moving a dozen of the tires right back in, which had a logic that appealed to Jack deeply. They moved some tires right back in as chairs.
And then his father could blow his horn in the garage like a full time job. His Weltklang saxophone. The acoustics were like a cathedral.
Palmertown had one grocery store and one pizza parlor and Jack recalls sitting on the long bench in the pizza parlor, which was next door to the grocery, which was next to the corner video store. He remembers sitting on the long gray bench across the floor from the long gray bench his Dad and Aunt Nala were sitting on, trying to shift further forward on his bench so his boots touched the ground. And he remembers feeling triumphant as the soles of his rubber rain boots achieved firm flatness on the yellow linoleum of the pizza parlor floor and looking up proudly and being confused to see his Dad and Aunt Nala kissing. Not quickly, either. One of those movie kisses where it looks like a zombie film. Like, eating someone’s face off. He remembers worrying that the guys working behind the counter of the pizza parlor would notice.
Is that why his mother joined that cult or is the cult why his Dad was chewing Aunt Nala’s lips five days a week?
He’d sit on a tire while his Dad paced around the cracked concrete floor of the garage, blowing the horn, passing in and out of dust-filled levers of toppled sunlight angling in through the high smashed windows. The crack in the concrete floor was highlighted brown with an oil stain and looked like a map of their river. Jack’s Dad had a motto. Never do the obvious. (But wasn’t sucking Nala’s face the obvious?) So no way would you catch him playing poignant imitations of jazz giants on his horn. Sometimes he’d blow one long note of joy or rage off and on for an hour, building a standing wave that throbbed in the garage like primordial life. Often he’d play Bach. Jack could see the flying discs through the high smashed windows, executing their complicated maneuvers, while his Dad played Bach on his German saxophone. The discs were black and silent and moved like flocks of birds and their shadows skimmed the concrete lot in front of the garage like clouds passing in a time-lapse film.
Jack’s mother would cross herself if the discs flew over while she was hanging up the laundry. Once she prayed for an hour before she would eat her dinner. The cult she’d joined was called The Star and the Cross and they didn’t ask for money because all the members were poor but they demanded your time and obedience. Jack’s mother would work the whole weekend in the church and twice a year took a forty-day vow of silence. She wouldn’t talk or listen about anything, even in an emergency, for forty days and nights. She’d write Jack notes about his homework and all that. Dotting each “i” in her signature with a heart.
Jack fired acorns at the squirrels with a slingshot.
Jack’s mother told Jack that the sun revolved around the Earth and Jack believed her. Her vows of silence gave her an aura of knowing that Jack’s face-chewing father couldn’t come close to. But it was his father, who Jack did not in any way respect, that Jack loved. If his father came home late Jack would wait up for him. If his father coughed or sighed or groaned in the toilet, Jack worried about his father’s health. If Jack and Jack’s father and Nala were walking up the street with bags of groceries, it was Nala everyone stared at. She looked like the posters at the video store. Jack’s mother told Jack, once (during a speaking period), that Nala was the older of the two by three years but it was Jack’s mother who looked the older of the two by at least a decade. A polite teenager in a red usher’s vest with buttons of gold asked Jack’s father in Jack’s presence if Siri was Nala’s mother and Benny and Nala both got a kick out of that. Jack fired an acorn at a squirrel with his slingshot while trying to picture Aunt Nala as his sister and killed the squirrel.
There was a sign on a pole near the end of the drainage ditch that said PALMERTOWN in reflecting letters the color of sky and Jack would make it ring with his slingshot.
Jack’s mother told Jack that there were seven planets in the universe and he believed her. She told him that gravity is caused by the Earth spinning. If the Earth stopped spinning we’d all fly off. Jack’s father called the leader of Jack’s mother’s cult that gap-toothed Okie bastard. He could raise the dead in another form. Your grandmother would come back as your neighbor’s newborn if he laid his hands on the right belly. The moon is a thousand years old. The center of the Earth is an ice cave. Some of these things Jack’s mother was told and some she guessed at but Jack never doubted she was right.
The discs would fly in impossibly tight formation like Ben-Day dots on your cornea and bomb simulated enemy neighborhoods on the bombing range twenty miles North of Palmertown. It sounded like popcorn popping. The sky to the north would glow blue for a month. Jack spent hours under his blanket with a flash light reading the yellow pages of Benny’s old science fiction magazines about things that had mostly already happened before Jack was born. But the covers were beautiful. All those bathing beauties from other worlds.
After a long rain the drainage ditch would back up with water. Frogs would appear. Jack’s mother told Jack that the frogs came out of the dirt and Jack believed her. She never ate the meals she cooked for them. Her own food she kept in her room. No utensils or refrigerator needed.
On Jack’s eleventh birthday at bedtime his mother was at the church. There was no cake. Nala felt sorry for Jack and left Benny asleep on the living room floor and Nala knocked on Jack’s door and asked if she could come in. She asked if Jack was busy and if she should come back later. Nala sat on the edge of Jack’s unmade bed and Nala said, I bet you read those dirty magazines.
Jack was standing at the edge of the drainage ditch, watching the frogs. His friends were there, too. It felt like twilight. They all had poor grades. Everyone was poor and everyone had poor grades. The water in the drainage ditch wouldn’t even come up to their knees if they chose to wade in it in pursuit of choice specimens but the frogs were as busy and settled in the water as though it was deep and old as the Nile. Scores of pairs of information-gathering eyes on the surface like blinking bubbles. And the water would eventually drain off and the frogs would vanish for a year. Only to return. A cosmology.
Jack had three best friends but there were four kids there, plus Jack, watching the frogs in the drainage ditch. Maybe the fourth kid was somebody’s cousin. But he was dressed like an Alien. Though nobody said anything about it. The fourth kid was bald and eyebrowless and dressed like a turtle in a transparent (subtly tinted) plastic shell. The other kids were giddy but trying to play it cool. A real Alien, they were thinking. Holy shit.
Jack’s father got red-eyed drunk once and yelled across the kitchen, over the roar of something frying at twice the recommended temperature, do you think I would have fucked you if I had known that you were nuts?
Jack said see you later, or something, and left his friends at the drainage ditch. The alien kid followed Jack at a respectful distance until they approached the depressing prospect of the busted fence surrounding the back yard of Jack’s drab stucco childhood house. Jesus, thought Jack. He never bothered to mend that fence.
Jack was more tired than ever. He had to go home to Luci.
The picture fountain was some kind of a trap.
Jack sat leaning back against the back door of the house he’d lived in from the age of 9 until 12. Out there beyond the parallax-fused, truncated sphinx of the three garages, miles away, cities away, a banner of clouds unfurled over the smudged thin lights of the horizon. It looked like an inverted mountain range. It was the sky’s black ocean crushing the final radiance of the day back into the earth. There came a drizzle over all the dead dirt and smashed brick of Jack’s backyard and its splintering tool shed and rust-gutted wheelbarrow and rotten coils of duodenal hose. While the raindrops bounced down and off the length of the black reflective plastic of Jack’s raincoat, the cap that Luci had knitted for Jack was absorbing the rain like a sponge. It chilled poor Jack to the back of his eyes. His ears and cheeks were already numb but Jack was serene about this. Jack assumed a philosophical stance that teetered on the brink of Nihilism’s lazy pit. Let whatever comes next come next, Jack thought. He wanted only sleep and no dream. This was a good place to do it. Jack expected his father to come home and wake Jack in an hour or two. An hour or two of nonexistence would be just the thing.
“Hey,” said the kid in the gel-shell. The drizzle beaded on the larger transparent bubble protecting his torso and the smaller one protecting his head. His face protruded from a hole in the fused helmet’s front. He pushed Jack’s shoulder with his clear-booted foot. “Wake up. Do you want to stay here forever? Come on, wake up.”
The kid’s piping voice.
“What,” said Jack.
“Do you want to see Luci again?”
“Luci. Do you want to see Luci again?”
“Who is Luci?”
“Who are you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes. You’re Jack. And you need to wake up. Can you stand? Can you stand up now? It’s kind of important.”
The kid in the gel-shell looked around the bleak back yard. There was, nearby, the dragon’s claw of a crusted rake, tines-down in the mud. The kid lifted the rake by the splintered end of its snapped-off handle. He ran over to smash Jack’s face with the claw.
“Fuck!” said Jack. He clutched his cheek where it bled and he jumped up, steadying himself on the wall. Jack lunged at the kid.
“You crazy little…!” Jack said. “What did you do that for?”
“Sorry! But if you fall asleep you’ll die! I mean, really die! And you’ll never see Luci again!”
“How do you know Luci?”
“Downstairs neighbor! Luci was my baby sitter before you two met! Don’t hit me!”
Jack rubbed his cheek again and looked at the blackening chunklets of blood on his hand and showed it to the kid. “Why didn’t you throw a bucket of water on me instead?”
The kid shrugged.
“And why aren’t you in school or something?”
“Great excuse, kid.”
“Are you serious?”
“Not much of a trade-off but oh well. Nothing I could do about it. The guy who killed me didn’t mean to. Can we start walking? I’m afraid you’ll fall asleep again if we stay here much longer. ”
“See? Please. Let’s go. What we need to do is get you away from these old familiar memories.”
They were on the wide dirt road that lead from Palmertown’s “downtown” to the covered bridge over the chocolate river. The covered bridge appeared to be a kilometer away, a smeared sketch in charcoal. The drizzle had drizzled out and the wind was at their backs, nudging them toward the covered bridge like a big cat butting them with a fuzzy fat head. The moon was the foggy edge of a blade in a cloud.
“It was the picture fountain. You know that, don’t you? The picture fountain was the trap.”
“Can I ask you how old you are?”
“And when do you turn eleven?”
Jack laughed. “So why do you know so much?”
The kid shrugged. “Prodigy. What a waste, right? I probably would have ended up curing something.”
“You’re pretty well-spoken for ten.”
“A venerable postmodern tradition.”
“What’s your name?”
The kid curtseyed. “Ras.”
Is curtsey even a word?
Jack lifted a hand, shoulder-high. “Jack.”
“And you know Luci.”
“Yes. Very well. Better than you do.”
Jack was amused. “I doubt that.”
“That’s where you’d be wrong. Name Luci’s favorite Beatle, Jack.”
“Her favorite what?”
“Never mind. Name her favorite 18th century writer.”
“These are trivial questions.”
“Name Luci’s favorite flavor.”
“This is silly.”
“Name Luci’s favorite smell. Her favorite 16th century composer.”
“Okay, you name them. All of them. Name me the answers, kid.”
“Easy. In order: George, Jane, coconut, Jasmine, John.”
Jack snorted. “I’ll give you this: you certainly talk like Luci. You sound like Luci in a higher octave. How do we know your guesses are correct?”
“Ask Luci when we see her. (And that wasn’t a very good imitation, by the way).”
“So when do we see her? When I wake up?”
“Trust me. You don’t want to ‘wake up’.”
“But I am dreaming. Yes?”
“Only in the sense that all perception is a memory, and all memories are dreams. But if you’re using ‘dreams/ not-dreams’ as a line of demarcation to segregate Reality from its opposite… no. You’re no longer in position to do that.”
Jack shook his head. “Truth is, I’m in a poison-induced state of psychosis.”
“If you prefer to think that. Anyway. You used the word ‘trivia’ before.”
“What’s the opposite of it? The word. Tell us the opposite of the word ‘trivia’.”
“This is just more of your trivia, Ras.”
“Dripping with contempt. For trivia, I mean. Contempt, Jack. My gods! What does Luci see in you?”
“There’s an old saying. ‘The Devil’s in the details’. I’d amend that. May I?”
Jack laughed. “Please do.”
“The Creator’s in the details. As is the Art. Ask your old colleague Nabokov.”
“Sorry. Mispronounced it.” Ras shrugged. “Happens.”
Jack suddenly froze to a spot. Disbelief became his face. His hands stacked up upon the top of his top hat.
“Ras, we’ve been walking toward that covered bridge for twenty or thirty minutes now and we’re no closer than we were when we started. In fact…”
“I was afraid of that, Jack.”
“We’re stuck here?”
Ras started walking back the way they’d just come. He gestured for Jack to follow, his gel-shell glowing bravely in the strength-gathering dark. His perfectly smooth face like a dessert shining green in an illuminated vitrine. Erasmus said, in that cartoon voice of his,
“I guess you have unfinished business back there, Jack. Why delay the inevitable?”
6. LUCI & JACK
The Library Cafe was full of old things. The name was old, the smell was old, the sounds therein, for Luci, were gloriously old. There were spring-wound clocks on the wall that went tick-tock and big old fixed-position, Bakelite telephones on the tables of the cafe that went ring ring ring when your order was ready. With physical bells built in. Electricity passed through copper wires in rubber sheaths connecting the telephones to the wall and the handsets to the bases and the bells went ring. Bakelite was a mysterious old material, shiny and brittle and thick as reddish-black bones, a mysterious old material that Luci loved and collected at home. The library cafe was full of Bakelite devices and figurines and some of the clocks on the wall were Bakelite figurines with eyes that moved back and forth on the picayune metrics of time. There were video machines on carved pedestals designed to show moving images, on cubical screens, from coded information on magnetic tape on spools in rectangular boxes. And there were electronic brains, calculating devices, which also displayed information on flat or cubical screens from information filtered and stored by way of ingenious old pills and wafers called transistors, called chips. Some of these devices were no longer working and nearly impossible to fix. And, of course, there were books. Books everywhere, smelling of births and deaths and the archaeological intensity of basements. Bound in leather (from the skin of an animal called a cow) or covered in cardboard (from trees). Books, which were things that even Jack had heard about. Of course he had. He was a writer.
When Jack walked through the arched entrance of the library cafe and Luci saw him for the first time, in her quasi-military, high-collared jacket, Luci was doing something very odd and very old: knitting. Knitting was a painstakingly manual process for making garments from threaded textiles called yarn. The yarn was made from wool. The wool was the fur of an animal called a sheep. The sheep once roamed all over places like a country that was once called, for example, Ireland.
When Jack walked through the door, he felt Luci (who he knew must be Luci, after knowing only Luci’s rapid words, and her long pauses, for months) … he really felt Luci staring so hard and carefully that it made Jack feel that he was under suspicion for a crime. It made Jack feel guilty. That must be her scientific training. As if Luci already knew everything about him that wasn’t good enough. Everything about Jack that wasn’t strong, or smart, or deep, or funny, or graceful, or serious or kind enough. But that wasn’t what Luci saw. A list of defects wasn’t what Luci saw. Luci saw a little boy in a giant’s body. She saw an eleven-year-old with graying hair and a strong jaw. Who would walk away long before anyone could possibly lose interest. Who was far too good at pretending he didn’t care. He will be lots of work, this Jack, thought Luci.
Nearly as much work as I am.
Luci was the only customer in the cafe when Jack entered.
But Jack looked very theatrically to the left and then right (because he was so used to being looked at) and pretended to be noticing Luci for the first time when he finally centered his gaze on her. He smiled a very genuine and dimpled smile, though, and that made Luci want to burst into tears. The grateful smile of an abandoned child, she felt. Thank the gods Luci was able to think of something funny to push that grief-summoning image out of her head. The abandoned child. Anything to do with children could make her weep like the weather. So instead she made herself laugh by remembering the way Jack had insisted on calling her Dr. Medrad the first few weeks they’d talked on the phone together. The wonderful sound of Jack’s voice in the middle of Luci’s skull nearly every night calling her Doc or Doctor or Doc Medrad. Luci had loved how old the abbreviation sounded but it was hysterically funny, too. When Jack sent over a year’s schedule of Original Chemical Dream Theater trials to Luci’s workstation as a gift, a gift for Luci and a bribe for Luci’s colleagues, the colleagues had seen the “To: Doc Medrad” on the steel box of the package and teased Luci to within an inch of her life. Luci’s department head (Dr. Mab) was the only actual Dr. in the complex. Not that Luci had ever bothered to correct Jack on that matter. Because why?
So there he was, finally.
Standing under the arched entrance of the Library Cafe (an arched entrance imported from a neomedieval church up North) , waving at Luci as though he were standing on the other side of a canyon. Which, in a way, he was. As we all are. Standing at the edges of our own private gulfs and abysses.
“If you’re waiting for permission to sit, it is granted!” laughed Luci. Rolling her r.
That voice, thought Jack.
“Well I’m pleased to say you aren’t my type,” said Jack, when he pulled up a chair and sat on it backwards, his chin on top of his hands on top of the back rest. “In fact, this is the honest truth, looking at you seems to have erased my sex drive entirely. How could I even think of doing something so ordinary and animalistic to you? But the minute I stop looking at you… after our date is over, and we both go home, later? I’ll be sick. And I’ll get sicker and sicker until the minute I see you again.”
Luci winked and reached across the table and took Jack’s cold hands in hers and pulled them across to her. They came with some resistance. As if they were afraid to get too near to her breasts. Afraid his knuckles might brush against them, perhaps. Afraid they might bite. Well, Jack was damned brave and she could be, too. After three months (93 days) of wide-ranging conversation it was time to do more than chat. Luci said,
“Just to warn you, Jack. I never want children.”
“I can live with that.”
“But you want children?”
Jack looked at his hands. “I want us.”
Then Jack looked up and around the room as if noticing it all for the first time.
“Hey. What’s all this junk on the walls?”
“You know which character of yours I love the most?” responded Luci. As if it were a non sequitur. She had a tendency. She was blowing into Jack’s cupped hands to warm them. She’d blow into Jack’s cupped hands and pull back to regard his hands as they reacted to the warmth. Then blow some more. “Guess which.”
She was about to make a point.
“Donna? Donna? Donna’s an idiot.”
“But a lovable idiot,” said Luci. “I suppose one could say Donna’s my type.”
6. a) JACK & LUCI
“Luci,” called Jack. “Luci, please don’t lean over that railing so far.”
Jack was in the living room and Luci was on the balcony. It was a twelve-room flat with a second level and Luci spent most of her time on the balcony, which wasn’t three paces long in any direction. With her tea kettle and a bag of yarn, that’s all Luci needed. Jack called the balcony Luci’s eagle’s nest. Luci watched the mad vista of the city from their aerie high on a hill overlooking the river. Luci turned and blew Jack a kiss and moved back to her fat chair near the sliding doors to put Jack’s acrophobic mind at ease. She had been talking far down through cupped hands to Jullee-from-the-first-level, who was just then entering the building with a bag of groceries and her newborn in a chrysalis on her back. Jullee’s newborn who still didn’t have a name yet two weeks after its literal delivery.
Jullee’s son Erasmus, who was nine already, was away at Uni. Luci liked to take secret personal credit for Erasmus’ genius. Luci had been Erasmus’ regular weekend baby sitter from zero to seven, after which the school system had taken its unhealthy proprietary interest in Ras, who would probably be channelled toward designing propulsion systems . Under Luci’s tutelage, Ras was learning advanced concepts in physics before he could walk, whether or not he understood the language. On the other hand, Ras, who, like his little brother, was a perfect male copy of his mother, had a mass of complexes, tics and phobias that Luci was not inclined to claim. The genius came from Luci but the tics and complexes were genetic, courtesy of Jullee, Luci felt. The dangers of parthenogenesis. But what could one do? Even otherwise fairly-conservative Jack (who wanted children; who longed for a daughter) didn’t fault Jullee for the decision to follow fashion and “self-split”. Listen. It’s hard to find heterosex partners these days. And stranger sperm is twice as problematic as ever since sperm cell (though not ovum; the crux being motility) was granted legal personhood. The right even, technically, to vote.
“Come on out here, Jack, this sunset is spectacular!” Though she knew, of course…
“Not until they upgrade that funky old balcony!” Jack yelled back, pausing his show. “I worry enough with your tiny weight on it!”
Jack was watching his favorite musical dramedy series, crafted by one of his protégés, Rickety Bridges, waiting for a call from Continent One about a show Jack was developing. The living room was full of colorful people who supposedly lived down South, across the Ocean, on Continent One, moving around Jack and Luci’s living room furniture as if they were really there. Jack loved it when they sat on Luci’s chairs or pretended to bend over and smell the fake flowers. The technology! The music was awful but the sounds and smells were just so expertly crafted. It was just the energy-sensitive RNA he’d swallowed and a wave projector and a soft black box with eight black antennae like spider legs called a head-syncer. The equipment was cheap but the tiered and compounded subscription fees was where they got you. The women characters smelled good and the men smelled serious and the kids never smelled like shit, as per the codes of Chemical Theater broadcasting. But it wasn’t like Jack was rich. The Pharmatainment Companies were the ones making all the money.
All shows were set in Continent One, but Jack was working on developing a series set on Continent Two (though it would most probably be recorded on Continent One). Jack was already dreaming ahead of being the developer of the first ever series to be set on Continent Three, half of which was still an enormous crater full of huge craters each full of smaller craters full of radioactive lakes . He had the rough synopsis of a treatment for a Continent Three project called BUTTERFLY PEOPLE all ready.
But first things first, thought Jack.
6. b) LUCI, JACK & DONNA
It’s the evening of the anniversary of their fourth year together. Four years, thinks Jack.
Jack watches Luci while she sleeps. Studies her. Jack is trying to be the scientist Luci has tried to teach Jack to be.
The moon through the magnifying (photon-enhancing) glass of the bedroom window turns Luci’s profile into a topographic wonder, an inspiration, a sonnet that speaks so goddamn well of the human accident. An ad. The moon is a phosphorous dinner plate in the window. Luci is an award-winning Ad for Faces. Jack passes a big dark airplane hand over the land of Luci’s face for the delicate heat. The mountain cave of her deepset eyelids and the saint-marble swell of her cheeks high above the fine gradations of moonshadow set like a sliver of sapphire within her philtrum’s strip, perpendicular to the sudden raw puff of her upper lip. Jack gets as close as he can without waking Luci, careful not to block the moon, careful not to rest his elbow on the Queenly silks of her pillow-covering hair. He whispers,
“A little girl. Like you. But with my hands and feet. Maybe the gap between my teeth, too. I like that gap. Your hair and my gap. Your brains, obviously. A little girl just like us. Someone you can be smart with at home. Teach her stuff. You two can gang up on me. Think about that. We’ll be so happy. With a little girl… and you can tell her to call you Luci, if you like but you know that kind of thing is not for me… I want to hear the word Daddy… and we’ll call her…. Beni….”
That face. Those hands clasped over those breasts as though she’s a sculpted saint on a sepulchre in iconic repose, eleven degrees colder than the surrounding air. Jack lowered his face over the luminous part dividing Lucy’s 19th century hair and breathed her image deep. Jack’s nose, just inches above the quantum power-plant of Luci’s brain.
Not fucking Luci is the most intense erotic experience of Jack’s life. Not fucking her every single night. That makes something like 1,400 nights, now, of imaginatively relentless and erotic not-fucking. Not-fucking on the kitchen table, not-fucking in the shower, not-fucking on the balcony heavily at midnight. Knowing that he could if he asked politely, probably, after four years. Knowing that he won’t. He can’t. His penis won’t let him. Never had that problem before. But it’s not a problem. It’s a poem. Every night a test, a gift, a brilliant little haiku of negation. Like the man who abstains from smashing a Stradivarius and thereby becomes its creator. It’s not as though he wants to fuck her. Good Gods no.
Jack could easily have been with someone it would have been actually possible to imagine entering. Jack knew that. He’d been with plenty. Too many. People liked him. He looked better naked than he looked dressed, as he’d been told by someone that quite a few people who Jack knew sort of yearned to fuck.
Someone Jack didn’t worship so. How can you fuck someone you worship? Maybe the problem is that Anglo-Saxon word. Maybe if the word “fuck” were the word “worship” instead…
Did the problem of the word “fuck” predate and configure the problem of the act “to fuck” or vice versa? There’s evidence to indicate that the word was a 15th-century Low German verb that meant “to hit”, which means it’s related to the word “pugilist”, aka “boxer”: “pug” and “fuck” being sort of cognate. Why so violent? Who were these sick Fucks who standardized the connection between intercourse and boxing in the literary tradition of the Anglo-Saxon mind? Obviously, Jack couldn’t “fuck” Luci any more than he could punch her (“punch” meaning “five”, as in four fingers and a thumb, as in fist, on the Indo-Aryan word tree). Though Jack’s writerly imagination was fired to learn that there was a bird referred to, in the early 17th century, as a Windfucker and he still wishes he’d kept the poem he’d begun of that title.
How could Jack or anyone every dream of fucking Luci Medrad? Christ-in-a-hat (thought Jack, who wasn’t aware of the non-expletive origins of the word “christ”): this fucking language!
Still. There remains the fact of that good old animal joy of fucking, with the hitting removed, which definitely has its place. Jack always thought of his erect penis as a kind of umbilicus connecting the spaceship of his body to the spaceship of another. Along which sensations and information pass back and forth and through which a liquid (containing teragigs of Biodata: blueprints for a city-sized population of humans) passed, at times, unilaterally after a trigger point.
The primitive gesture of possession. Of shifting dominances… she on top, then he, then she… the good-natured struggle of bodies, which so easily and gratefully become graceless idiot vehicles for nothing else… no heads necessary. The grandiose battles and feasts and losses and burials among the hills and valleys of the enchanted Kingdom of Fuck. Jack had known that reality well, had known it already for years before Luci came along and stripped him kindly of his animal self and stuffed an angel in his body to replace it. But, yeah, before Luci intervened with her angel-upgrade kit it was monkey-time-Jack for years. Jack’s monkey in a suit of armor astride a potent steed in the Kingdom of Fuck on the look-out for romps with monkey-damsels in veils and fetching hats. Jack had been a very gallant monkey-knight indeed. The crotch-sniffing and cage-shaking and sword-swinging amid the castle’s rubbery red walls at midnight with shrieks and roars and jerky little gasps of pleasure in the dying roar of the Dragon of Tingle’s apotheosis.
Forever and Ever Amen.
Proper absolutely to the young.
Well, that’s how he’d written Donna, wasn’t it? How Donna came to be.
Everybody’s favorite character at Jack’s Original Chemical Dream Theater Company was Donna. Shallow rich near-idiot Donna Moy, whom he based, secretly, on himself. Donna was Jack with beautiful breasts. Based on his awareness of his own weaknesses and projected from a thought experiment about breasts, one afternoon. How would Jack walk if he had breasts? How would he sit? Sleep? Would he prefer them large or small? Everyone loves coming to the virtual premises of the Original Chemical Dream Theater Company to catch up with the exploits of dumb-as-a-diamond Donna Moy. Who Jack wrote, initially, because that was exactly who Jack wanted to meet.
At the time.
Someone so simple that she’d think Jack was deep. Imagine. Someone who loved Jack but did not respect him one bit. A Donna who might call Jack a big dumb fuck with her dirty blonde chuckle of anti-poetic affection. Listen. Jack sometimes accused Luci of UULFing… the unfair usage of logic and facts to win and argument. Donna Moy would never, if she actually existed, UULF.
Why do the dumbest guys have the biggest cocks, she’d say. With the suspicious squint of a not-super-bright type who suspects she’s being teased.
And so it rises. Jack deals with it quickly, efficiently (and with just the right amount of shame). He wipes off and then wipes off what he wiped off on.
And then he’s asleep beside his god named Luci again.
As though nothing…
6. c) LUCI & JULLEE
Jack was famous to Luci for claiming not to remember either of the other partners in his adolescent triad. He didn’t remember a thing about the other boy and he remembered less than that about the girl. Or that was what Jack claimed. Luci sometimes suspects that the “unknown” partner was, in fact, the mother of Jack’s protégé at the Original Chemical Dream Theater Company, Tal. And when Luci is feeling especially paranoid or puzzle-loving she suspects that Tal is Jack’s bio-daughter, though the only resemblance is in Tal’s unusual height. Which is fine. Because Jack doesn’t know that one member of Luci’s adolescent triad was the lady now living on the ground level of their very building. The piano-playing lady with two parthenogenetic kids. Maybe they’ll both be super-brains.
Luci helped Jullee get the flat. Cut Jullee’s hair for her every three months and painted her kitchen twice. Love as service. Platonic sex. Long after adolescence but long before Jack they became lovers again. A very brief but intense experiment with anti-socially loud orgasms and matching knitted caps and pretending to agree on everything . Two very tiny women of mild temperaments ideally proportioned to play 4-handed piano pieces and sleep together like a yin yang symbol and gradually give up both.
“I love your flavor so dearly, dear. I’d bake a cake with it. Brush my teeth with it. I’ll never wash my chin again.”
And then one afternoon Jack called Luci Medrad and asked her some hypothetical technical advice about using anti-matter as a poison and Luci just sort of stopped going downstairs to visit for hours with Jullee.
And so on.
7. RAS ETERNAL
They walked in silence for a great distance, Jack and Ras, at a brisk clip through the richest darkness Jack had ever felt on his skin. They hurried down the middle of the wide dirt road right back to the old house in Palmertown, the covered bridge over the chocolate river diminishing behind them. It was during this silence that Jack felt the shift in the shape and texture of his thoughts to the extent that he no longer believed he was dreaming.
This is Now.
The moments were adding up as real to him. He began, finally, to accept the fantastical notion that Ras was the spirit of a real child who had recently died. Because how else could Jack explain the fact that they were suddenly in Palmertown at dusk in a world that wasn’t a dream, hurrying toward a house he’d lived in for a few years as a child, far across Ocean Two on Continent One where Jack couldn’t possibly be? Yet here he was. When Jack looked up and wondered where the stars were, he saw them, swarming in cold clusters in the fat black folds of the flesh of the sky like pearls.
“We’re in the same boat, you and I, Jack,” shouted Ras, over his shoulder, in his touching little helium voice. The born-father in Jack couldn’t help but respond to such a voice. “I want to find Jullee but I can’t because I never knew her well enough while I was living. And that’s why you can’t find Luci. You spent your precious years with her burying your knowledge of her and yourself and now you need to dig it all up if you want to see her again. And I’ll help you find Luci if you help me find my mother Jullee!”
“Jullee from downstairs is your mother? Did I know this?”
“Didn’t you? Luci was like a mother to me, Jack. Jullee and Luci were very close. How could you not know anything about Jullee? How many Erasmuses have you heard Luci talk about? Is Berlin just crawling with Erasmuses?” Ras giggled.
Jack felt that falling in the pit of his stomach. “So much I don’t know about her.”
“Don’t feel too bad about it, Jack. Living is a selfish business.”
“And Death turns us into geniuses of Empathy?”
“Being Dead is like being drunk. It doesn’t change your personality, it frees it. But, yes, I think it’s true… something about Death seems to make you a little less obsessed with your own perspective. Because you stop thinking of the Self as a limited resource, maybe.” Ras shrugged. “Or maybe it’s not hearing the constant drum beat of the heart anymore, listening for the terrifying moment it might stop, that soothes you. Something in you relaxes into limitlessness?”
“And now you’re Ras Eternal.”
“Well, no. At some point I’ll move on. As will you when you finally really die out of your current body. Wouldn’ t it be cool if you came back extremely short?”
“And you believe my real body is in some kind of a coma somewhere. And this…”
“I never said anything about a coma.”
“So I’ve accidentally just spoken the terrible truth to myself, then.”
“I think so. Yes. We’re both in your mind, Jack. Your mind is a Real Place. It’s a private physical space in the universe… everyone is allotted a private physical space in the universe. A place where no rocket ships or satellites can travel. I’m here in your mindspace as a guest, attracted by a shared affinity. The landscape of the mindspace is governed by Symbols and Distortions. The same as when you’re not in a coma. Only moreso.”
“And why was I impersonating Luci all morning? I seriously thought I was her. ”
“Coping mechanism? You wanted to keep Luci near. A bad imitation of Luci is better than none.”
“Okay. Makes sense. Another question. Two questions. Be honest. Are you really a ten-year-old kid, Ras? Or are you Luci?”
They were standing in front of the splintering slats of the rotten wooden fence around the broad front yard of the house Jack had lived in in Palmertown. None of the lights were on in the two-storey structure. The scene was lit only by a combination of moon and star light and the gel-shell’s spooky radiance. Science had been competing to out-SPOOKY the Unseen World for centuries. It appeared that no one was home but Jack could feel the powerful tug of unfinished business as though from the dark heart of an anomalous gravity well in the hole of the house’s off-kilter center.
Three old trees in the front of the yard formed a sort of complicated arch you had to pass under after entering the crooked-on-its-hinges gate and the wind gusted a clattering cloud of Autumn leaves. They swirled down to remind Jack of the leaf-pile-burning rituals of his childhood. His father had been bad about repairing the fences and changing light bulbs but, since most musicians are pyromaniacs at heart, he’d been good about burning the leaves every year, generating a smell that was better than any smell of burning things Jack knew, the smell of a fire in paradise, the fire that produces the kind of ashes a phoenix is mostly likely to rise from, a smell that had all but been lost from the world.
Jack went to push through the crooked gate and waltz through the ballet of interlocking helixes of falling leaves when he felt Ras tugging the belt on his leather coat. Or his favorite Mediterranean-blue velour bathrobe. A forceful tug that actually hurt.
“Can’t!” sobbed Ras. “The leaves!”
Ras shuddered on the word and backed off with frantic gestures. Jack looked from Ras to the leaves again and he saw that in place of the innocent grace of falling leaves he saw, rather, an evil cloud of clamouring forms like dusty black moths and glossy orange locusts with hideous segmented limbs and wiggling stingers. Jack could see the leaves as Ras saw them. Jack picked Ras up as he would his own sweet child and Ras clung to Jack with such force that Jack could barely breathe as he carried Ras, who was whimpering, through the mad clatter and rising swirl and across the yard and up five tilting stair steps, nudging the unlocked porch door with his shoulder. From the moonlit porch into the black parlor. The black parlor was illuminated by Ras’s gel-shell and Jack lay green-glowing Erasmus down upon the threadbare parlor room couch, where Ras promptly curled like a futuristic fetus, eyes jammed shut and sucking his thumb for dear Life.
The place was a mess. Jack had never quite noticed that as a kid. It was a genuinely depressing fucking mess. Debilitating. Life-ruining. Three grown-ups on the premises and no one had taken the time to pick the shit up off the floor and dust the shelves off the book case or vacuum the dingy carpet. There were vases holding long-dead flowers and half-empty bottles of beer in a row across the mantel over a decades-cold fireplace full of potato chip bags and candy wrappers.
But Jack started tidying it all up.
Jack went back through the little hall to the kitchen and found the magnetic flash light where it always was (stuck to the side of the refrigerator where a shorter, younger Jack could always reach it) and found then also a roll of heavy duty garbage bags in the storage space under the sink. Jack fetched the bags, and a broom and dustpan, back to the parlour. Then to the kitchen again for a bucket and scrub brush and so on while Ras appeared to sleep, thumb in his slackening smile and finger curled over his nose and the gel-shell’s lights dimming so as not to wake him.
The spirits of the Dead take naps?
Jack spent two or three hours making the place nearly presentable and making it smell clean while the flash light stood on the mantel like a candle. There were four large black garbage bags of wrappers and bottles and broken things stacked out on the porch when Jack was finished with the chore he’d been putting off for most of his life. He’d finally made the first level of one of his boyhood homes habitable. Jack imagined his young self hugging him in thanks. He felt the internal spritual shift of shapes and textures that corresponded to this external change in the tidiness of the surroundings and Jack sighed and Jack stretched what he’d started thinking of as his Coma Body. In his Coma Body, Jack was feeling as strong as he’d ever felt.
On the tatty parlor sofa where Jack had very gently laid Erasmus down to sleep there was now only a lozenge-shaped puddle of light, shrinking between cushions.
Jack realized with a pang that Ras had moved on.
8. SYMBOLS & DISTORTIONS
Over the cellar door was a brightly (freshly) painted sign, on a crudely-hewn arc of wood, lit with naive strings of white Christmas lights: THE LITTLE THEATER OF SYMBOLS & DISTORTIONS. Jack could hear music and the expectant chatter of an audience through the dark green cellar door under the sign so he pulled the belt of his favorite blue bathrobe tighter and tied it into a reassuringly stable knot . He pulled the door open and shuffled his Coma Body down the very steep stairs, down into the mute lights and convivial nimbus of attractive food smells of the little theater, shuffling in his comfortable bedroom slippers.
There were eight rows of folding chairs and each row was four chairs wide. The ceiling angled low over the chairs and the back rows of chairs were in utter darkness but the makeshift stage the chairs faced was bright with several shadeless table lamps and the cellar ceiling angled higher over that end of the room, an architectural feature Jack could not remember from his childhood. Behind the makeshift stage was a bank of opaque-looking windows that must have been level with the back yard. Jack suddenly realized there were people in those chairs. Nearly all of them.
Jack took a seat in the left corner of the front row, all three seats to his right empty, and fought the urge to make himself comfortable and nod off. He was not ready to “move on” or dissolve into impersonal energy, or whatever had happened to Ras, and it caused Jack genuine pain to think that it was obvious that he should never have let the traumatized Erasmus take that nap. But why was Ras so traumatized by Autumn leaves? By dead leaves falling? But that was irrelevant, now. The point Jack keeps trying to make to himself is that he let Ras down. He should not have let Ras sleep. Not after the extremes Ras had gone to to wake Jack himself from the embrace of Jack’s own exhaustion, before, out there in the back yard. Jack felt for the fresh gash on the cheek of his Coma Body and it was there, yes, and still a bit sticky.
“I have a tissue you can use, if you like,” whispered Donna, who was in the seat to Jack’s immediate right.
“So we meet again,” Jack whispered back.
“Small mind-world, isn’t it?” quipped Donna. Jack laughed. He said,
“You’re not real, so I’m going to have fun with this.”
Donna winked. “Where have I heard that before?”
People behind Jack and Donna shussshed them as the play began.