Justice is in the eyes of a stranger, art is what they see.
Hershad of Cádiz, Poet of the City
There is a sadness that floats on the sea in the afternoon. It has always seemed that way to me. No matter how bright and warm, as the sun tires and drifts downward, a lingering stillness, quiet, a hesitation before the long fall into darkness. Even the horizon no longer shimmers; the dance of blue and yellow becomes a slow glide along the water's edge. Sounds blend. The salt-smells hang without any apparent change. Every thing is poised. A sadness... perhaps it's me... a loneliness as I sit on the cliff-rim rocks almost breathless. I feel... transparent. I feel... invisible.
It's only at moments like this that I can hear my own voice. It hasn't happened often during the past year since I came to this nameless, little town on the coast. No, not a town, a settlement. A few farmers, a few shops but without community and thankfully without any conversation. What would I say, what would we talk about? Yet there is a comfort in this place with its layer of dust and string of storms that burst out of the sea. The small house I found sits clumsily on the side of a hill as if the wind had left it there, a tree without roots. I have no sense of the history of this simple house in which I spend so much of my time. I have no picture of who built it, who lived here before me, the loves and births and deaths. It's as if the house had been vacant for so long before I came that its memories have faded and its mementos reduced to scratches and nicks and blurred stains in the floor.
Once, when I pulled some bricks out of the fireplace in an attempt to clear the chimney and stop its nagging smoke, I found the half-charred remains of a packet of letters wedged together with an old magazine. Here was a diary, a record of some other time, a bit of history to orient my role in the dwelling and its geography. It mystified me like an archaeologist who digs out glyph-laden pieces of stone only to find the writing veiled and unintelligible. The words were gibberish to me, disconnected meanings that I couldn't or wouldn't comprehend. So I used the papers to light a now friendly, smoke-free fire. And I felt satisfied, relieved.
A year without conversation, without hearing him speak to any one except in a clipped, informational sort of way. And the others? They have nothing to say to me anymore because I can't hear them, and they believe that he no longer listens to anyone but himself. That's true. I remember Evie once said: "You never speak to me. You only talk to yourself and let me listen." Sweet Evie, I wasn't talking to myself, I was talking through you, searching for a listener, hoping that even you might find a reflective surface in that soft, pliant body of yours to catch my words, to hear me. She absorbed, drank everything in, reflected nothing. I loved her beauty, as I saw it, and her soft willingness to follow me, to dance to my rhythm, to stop when I stopped. But in her eyes, I saw only her. When we made love and afterwards with our faces pressed together, I saw only her in her eyes. And at the end, she watched me disappear like fading light. Evie.
The days are made of light: bright and dark, black and white, blue and yellow. Days roll into days, a luxury that allows me to wander at will, along the cliff, often among the cracks and tiny caves of the hillside. At night, the wind snakes over the cliff and twists itself around the house in a reassuring embrace. The ocean wind is king, it owns the land and it is relentless. It smothers all talk. And when I no longer can hear his voice or feel his presence, I write. I don't know for whom. I don't know who will read any of this. It's a strange feeling to write for no one. All of my life, my reluctant professional life, the market, the audience appeared first and waited for me to fit the words to their desires. Now I write to capture images, to bring into focus events and memories that, once down on paper, exist without the need to be read. In this way I want to see them again, all of them. They would say that I was succumbing to my need to confess. They have a way of making me feel as if they had uncovered an embarrassing secret just inside my head. No. There is nothing to confess. There is a only a need... to write it down.
We were standing in one of the last good taverns left in San Francisco — a large, dimly lit, disconnected place with a long, friendly wood bar. Outside, the Hollywood-set of hills and bay and sun remain unchanged. Sadly, the decor and faces no longer reflected the city I first came to explore and couldn't leave. Even in its smug days, when the city tailed its kite with the flag, "world class," it managed an ancient ether, deep colors and textures that penetrated its provincial and myopic view of the world. Now, except for a few hideaways like this and some soon-to-be-forgotten alleys, the old city had become an image, just a piece of tape you could rewind and watch over and over again.
I drifted into the bar occasionally to escape the noise, or the "deafening lack of nostalgia," as Alex called it. That was one of the immediate connections we found in each other. We both migrated to San Francisco around the same time, and we both lamented the loss of flavor, of artifacts and icons that first attracted us to the city. But the similarity ends quickly. I lament, I feel sad. Alex shakes sadness off like drops of sweat that are meant to dry and cool the memory.
We drank and talked for hours that first night. I was surprised and pleased how easy it was to begin a friendship with a man who was obviously satisfied with himself, aggressively expressive, commanding in his professional success and apparent wealth. He was no more attractive-looking than me, the same build, the same shadowed features, the same age. But inside, he was wound tight, like the coils of an electric motor. And his energy was focused, directed in a steady beam at whatever he came into contact with. He could magnetize any one. I couldn't. He could spin himself in circles around any one until that person was dizzy and defenseless. My god I always wanted to do that, desperately wanted to do that, to be free of having to hold people face to face in order to believe that they were hearing me, listening to me.
We talked for hours, both of us, and I remember thinking, some months later, how fascinating it was that on that first night, not once, not for the flash of a moment did I ever sense an innuendo, any intimation from his physical way of communicating. Alex touches, caresses any one who responds to him, who feels his nearness and warmth. Evie once asked me what we did, what we talked about that night. I can't remember, it's buried in the later stream of conversations, in the flood of words he deposited into my mind. We talked — and it affected me for days: it garbled my inner voice.
I saw him a few times in the next weeks late at night when I convinced myself that I needed a sentimental drink in that sedimental tavern. Each time, the smile, the touch, the generous acceptance, but nothing more. He was always in a hurry, and after a few minutes of banter he would rush out. I noticed that each of these times he was dressed corporate with expensive, conservative clothes. It was unusual only in that it was so late at night. And each time, he paused for a moment just before he left, glanced at me and nodded. It stunned me in a small way as if a tiny bell had rung in my ear. I should have let that bell ring until it became an alarm, until it jarred me awake, until I asked myself why I became distracted every time I saw his face, every time he looked at me. Instead, I dwelled on my lifelong compulsion for odd phenomena, a pursuit of voyeuristic trivia. I mulled and mused the intricate question of where he was going, costumed for a business meeting, after midnight. I never found out, even though I know more about him now than he ever knew about himself. Fool — I refused, once again, to look into my own mirror; a lifelong pursuit of everything but myself.
Do we exist as long as someone remembers us? If that's true, then Alex is an assassin, a cold, self-invented killer of other people's immortality. He has the unwavering ability, sharpened like a razor's edge, to slice someone out of his life, out of his awareness; to quickly and completely cut out every trace of that person from his memory: dead, no longer exists, never existed! I know. Because I am... his memory.
That last night was the first night I had seen him in over a week. He came in just after midnight, carrying a bottle of champagne. He popped it on the bar next to me and slapped my shoulder: "Say congratulations and I'll pour you a drink."
"What are we celebrating?"
"Me!" he laughed. He spit into his hands and clapped. "It's a celebration of me and my triumph — against impossible odds — conquer the enemy — time to drink their blood." He laughed louder as he unwrapped the cork. Then he stopped, grabbed my arm and pulled me away from the bar. "Come on," he chanted, "this is no place to hold a victory dance. I've got a case of this stuff in the car. Let's go back to my house and I'll show you what it means to be a star." That's how it began. He created the moment, designed the events, and unleashed an energy that swept me into a space I never knew existed. He was an architect and I only knew how to make bricks.
We didn't drive far. His house was up the hill on the edge of one of the few remaining industrial areas in the city. Actually it was a building, an old tool and die plant which he had completely rebuilt. The top floor, the loft, was his house. I felt good that night, a few drinks, an uneventful day, and now an adventure: to enter the citadel (always military references, his flavor!), to step into the sanctum where he held court and dallied with so many people. Thick summer fog nestled on the city, but this hill poked through, a vista over the billowy gray blanket, glowing with orange streetlights and banded by the studded bridges. It was reassuring and quite beautiful. I felt good. So did Alex. He loved the taste of spontaneity in other people even though he planned his events, as he had designed this one: so casual as he ushered me into the building, at ease with himself, secretly excited at the entré of a cultivated believer, someone who admired him and at the same time feared his finger-tipped sense of power and his unpredictability.
Inside Alex's castlekeep, with its high, disappearing ceilings and huge bay windows, the setting was spectacular. The panoramic sweep of its interior was too much to capture in one view, or even three. Perched as it was on a hill, it claimed the thrill of a matching exterior view of the peninsula city and its ocean-bay, in all directions. The decor and furnishings were expensive beyond any familiarity I had with the style and price of this way of clothing one's home. I remember once visiting some of the great homes in England, a treasured villa in Italy, even the pompously lavish home of a client in Malibu that looked like it had been first designed by the art director of Architectural Digest and then silk-screened on to the beach front. All of these ostentatious erections were static and distant. No one seemed to live there. The inhabitants were merely more privileged visitors. But this alcazar, this abode was Alex. The overpowering color of gray, lush – elegant gray that smelled like deep jasmine and tasted like fresh, thick cream. Polished stone, steel and glass, leathers and furs, ebony, velvet, tapestries, carpets, bolted fabric, concealed lighting, cool and warm air rushes, plants, some alive, some painted some preserved, and art — sculpture and paintings, each integrated (not mounted) into its location, somehow merged, an inherent part of its placement as the Taliesin Dreamer would have it.
I stood, suspended, in this overwhelming space, holding the case of champagne as Alex trotted up a large, curved white staircase, walked along the balcony which spanned three sides of the loft and disappeared into a room. (I can feel it now, grateful for the memory of an earlier moment before the stillness was lost to me, forever.) When he returned, the business uniform was gone in favor of black running clothes. "My favorite color," he said as he poured champagne. "It makes me invisible."
We toasted his success of the evening (whatever that was) and we saluted the view, the fog, and a few other declarations which I didn't grasp. It was a sensuous, fine-tasting wine, and I jealously let it caress me, become possessive. Then we talked, he talked, segueing from topic to topic, carefully revealing himself, describing what he did, where he'd been, facts he had never shared in all of our prior meetings. He knew that I was borderline breathless, an open mouth to an open brain as he poured in this free-flowing, spoken song about himself.
He showed me what he called his "media magic," the hidden decor of his home. There were obscured panels discreetly set into the walls, each controlled by a hand-held remote unit. One changed the lighting of the loft into elaborate displays: sunrise, sunset, noon in the tropics, even a star-strewn night in the dark ceiling above. "Very handy and very helpful in the bedroom," he laughed. Another altered the air flow from breeze to the quiet rush of a far-off wind with hints of fragrances or scents or whatever was desired. And of course, music — any type, anywhere, from a cozy pillowed corner to an arching cathedral sound over the whole room.
I remember how he watched me, taking his cues to proceed from the unguarded, unfiltered expressions on my face — my face, a window without a shutter. Evie often complained that I exposed too much of myself, too quickly, I made people uneasy, even her. The mask, I came to learn, is an unforgiving feature. With it, there are lingering, unrelieved expressions which distort the mind. Without it, the mind remains clear and refreshed, but a victim to the predatory selfishness of others. Victim.
"And this, he yelled, "watch this!" He tapped a button. A projected light beamed down from the ceiling creating an abstract pattern of colors on the floor. "Have you ever danced with a spirit? Watch!" He turned on music and stepped into the light. It changed. As he moved, the light moved with him, projecting a different pattern, different colors. He held his arms as if he were dancing with someone and the beam of light responded. Then he sailed across the room in awkward balletic movements, leaping, falling to the floor, rolling over the couches. The light stayed with him, changing its shape, shifting with every twist of his body. My champagne bladder was full and I almost pissed on the floor with laughter at the sight of his performance. But when he changed the music and stepped off into a tango with all of the sharp turns and frozen expressions, I could see 'her', the 'person' he was dancing with. I knew I could see 'her' even if there were only streams of light, sensual blues and orange and pink. I could see 'her'.
"Now you," he insisted, "come on, try it."
"No... I don't dance very well. I'm a...
"Neither do I. Come on," he said, shoving me toward the light. I hesitated; Alex clapped loudly. Then I stepped into the beam. It winked Hello. He changed the music to a strident Spanish-Gypsy piece and began clapping to the rhythm. I raised my arm, the light acknowledged. I moved across the floor, prancing like some half-assed Flamenco bullfighter, surrounded by colors and shadowed shapes. It was eerie but not frightening, the responses of my photoelectric partner and in turn my responses to 'her'.
When Alex stepped into the beam, the dance became more theatrical and much more fun. We played matador and bull. We mimed stories of fatal love triangles, pain, and passion, always enhanced and enjoined by our luminous companion. It was mad and exhilarating and, as I remember, great fun, totally unexpected great fun with a less mysterious, more intimate Alex.
It ended in a crazy carnival of circles, whirling, spinning with 'her' in the middle, as 'she' almost anticipated our every move. I collapsed, giggling, dripping with sweat, sprawled on the stairs. Alex cut the music and the light and fell into a couch nearby.
"I'm in love," I said, "I want her."
"She doesn't want you," he replied. "But when she does, watch out. She'll suck the juice out of you."
I laughed: "I'll love it; then I won't sweat so much."
He bounced up. "Too much energy to let it go to waste," he bellowed. "I want to show you something else, what all of this Piper-Heidsieck is about. I can trust you, right? We're friends, compadres?" He reached out and pulled me off the stairs. "Doesn't make any difference," he continued, "it's a fait accompli, I own it."
I didn't know much about his business, other than what he briefly touched on, earlier. I knew he had many interests, much success and was obviously wealthy, maybe beyond wealthy. All of his national and international operations, or what he called his 'mono-neural network', were located in the rest of the building below us. "I've streamlined it," he affirmed, "so it's as compact as the five fingers on my hand. And that's how I control it."
"Do you mind if I sit," I mumbled, as I sank down in the center of the floor. He walked in a circle around me while he talked, my head became a dizzy ball trying to follow him. The room's lighting changed into a display of a sunrise, high on the walls and into the ceiling. (I wondered if he did that or was it another of his electronic spirits responding to his mood.) For the next hour he talked, no, he chanted, lists of events, dates, places — the global extensions of his fingers. It was only later that I realized the significance of the details he offered. Later.
When he stopped, he stood behind me and said: "Tonight, I acquired the total rights to an essential element."
"Maalox?" I giggled.
"A solvent," he said.
He put his foot in my back and pushed me over. "Listen, you idiot savant, tonight I acquired a liquid... an essential, unique liquid that. when configured properly will dissolve almost anything."
"Anything?" I didn't know what the hell he was talking about.
"Anything..." he said loudly, "almost! Anything organic, nearly every metal, any kind of plastic, and — this is the stopper — a liquid that can be configured to dissolve the waste of nuclear reactors. Do you know what I'm talking about here?"
He grabbed my arm, yanked me up, and dragged me across the room, opened a door and pushed me on to a small elevator that took us below. At the other end, we stepped into a large, darkened room with sleek, reflective desks and tables, outlined by dozens of lit computer screens. He dragged me, like a stern teacher, to a tall, thick metal door where he punched in a code and pressed his hand on to a sensor pad. The door slid open. Inside, a large, bright white chamber with wall panels of switches, tiny lights, and screens. The rest of the room was occupied by a huge, cylindrical, glass tank filled with a clear liquid, so optically clear that it made the tank appear empty. Two glass ducts protruded from the sides of the tank: one cut off in mid-air with a cap on it, the other set straight up into the ceiling. Hovering above the top of the tank was a moving harness with a long, extended glass finger that occasionally jabbed the liquid with a laser-like blue beam of light. It was all very comic-book sci-fi to me. I could only lean against the doorway and focus on not giggling.
"The glass is very clean," I said, stupidly.
"It's not glass," he answered. "Quartz! It's a special quartz that the liquid won't dissolve."
" Let me show you something." He reached down and pulled off my shoe, took it to the short duct at the side of the tank, opened the cap and dropped the shoe into the tank. Up above, the glass finger began to move in wide circles as if it were stirring a cocktail. Then it stopped directly over the point where the shoe was suspended. There was a quick burst of laser light. Nothing seemed to happen until the liquid around the shoe became foggy, eventually covering it. When it cleared, the shoe was gone, only a wafting trace of black remained. He pulled me over to the tank. "That's what's left of your $19.95 footgear. That's what's left of anything you offer this hungry beast."
I stared at the black smudge for a moment, then turned back to the doorway and propped my self against the wall. "Wait a minute. You're telling me that you've got something that will dissolve anything."
"Wait a minute. You're saying that this will eat up organic waste, toxic waste." He nodded. "Even nuclear wastes?" He nodded again. "Terrific. So what do we have now, a super toxic waste? What the hell are we going to do with that?"
He jumped across the room, pinning my arms to the wall, his face close to mine.
"It's brilliant,you idiot," he hissed. "You see, when you add a certain little catalyst to the liquid, it dissolves itself — into two basic elements: hydrogen and oxygen. And do you know what that is?"
I shook my head.
"Water, my dim-witted compadre," he said quietly, "common, everyday, and quite pure... water!"
As we made our way back to the loft, I gifted Alex with one of my mundane observations: "Must be worth a fortune."
"Of course," he said, "probably priceless." He laughed. I laughed.
Mundane number two: "What a hell of a weapon. The military must..."
He waved me off, saying: "Forget it! This is way beyond the small minds they stuff into uniforms today. You know the old adage: those who can do, those who can't dig foxholes and shit in them. You can always gauge the decline of a civilization by the rise of idiocy in its army. That's why we're so close to doomsday in this country."
Upstairs, Alex insisted on pouring another bottle. He believed that the best way to stop a hangover was to feed it with good champagne, pickle your brain until there was nothing left to do but sleep it off. Dissolve it into water, I thought.
Now with the empty bottle in his hand, he opened a small door in the wall next to the elevator. A dim, bluish glow appeared at the opening along with the sound of air blowing through. He winked as he looked at me: "Do you know what I do with my trash?" He flipped the bottle into the chute and waited for it to clank to a stop. "Right into the tank," he said, "a very expensive garbage disposal unit, but convenient, and economical, right? Even though it's configured for organic, it can still handle lots of other things." He yanked the latch, the blue glow brightened followed by a burst of air. As he closed the door, he said: "Very ecosensitive." "Yeah," I mumbled. "Very!"
We sat around quietly for a long time, listening to piano music, musing about composers we liked. Outside, the night sky was becoming pale as the fog below slowly thinned out and rose. No longer Friday night, not quite Saturday morning. A hang time, a loose time, one of my comforts. He was right. The added alcohol, the bubbles up my nose... my head was beginning to clear.
After a while, after we had stopped talking, he began to stare at me. When I caught his eye, he smiled, that same pursing of the lips that had puzzled me some weeks before.
He sat up, saying: "You know why you and I connected, why I made this friendship happen?
Thinking for a moment, I said: "No idea."
He smiled again. "It's because there's something metaphysical about the fact that we look so much alike."
"What? You're crazy!"
"Oh, no... you surprise me. I saw it the first time I walked into that bar. Stopped me in my tracks. You didn't see it?" I shook my head. "You still don't see it? Come on..."
He jumped up and posed, announcing: "Same color hair. Same color eyes." Turning sideways, he put a finger on his nose and another at the point of his chin. "Same nose, same cheekbones, same chin. Look at the body: same build. Twins — duplicates!"
He toe-stepped over to my chair: "Wanna bet? I'll bet you a hundred bucks that we're almost identical."
"I don't have a hundred bucks." I could see the sparks rising in his face.
"Okay," he taunted, "tell you what I'm gonna do. If I'm wrong, you get a hundred bucks, cash on the barrelhead. If I'm right, you kiss my naked ass."
"Before or after you wash it?"
"How you going to prove it?"
"Simple. Just let me clip off your mustache, clip your hair a little bit and comb it the way I do. Nothing else, little things. What have you got to lose?"
I squinted at him. My mustache, my mask? Another one of his games? That smile, that smile, the bubbles in my mouth.
"Little things, just a few hairs. Gotta be worth a hundred bucks."
We marched into the bathroom. I sat on the edge of the sink while he took out a small electric razor and carefully shaved my lip, clipped my hair in a few places, brushed it, combed it, and styled it with a spray. When he positioned me in front of the mirror, he asked: "Who's that?"
"Me," I said without a pause.
He pushed me aside and took my place. "Now, who's that?"
I blinked, and blinked again. He returned me to the mirror. "Now?" he asked. He pushed down on my shoulders and placed his chin on top of my head. "And now?"
The mirror blurred in my eyes. Another one of his electronic effects, I thought. The view cleared. No, I saw it. A double image, like a strip of film. The face on the bottom staring in amazement; the face on top, smiling then copying the lower expression.
"And?", his chin digging into the top of my head.
I mumbled: "I don't believe it, it's a trick." I always mumbled when I didn't know what to say. "It doesn't matter what you say as long as you can't be heard," my long-gone friend once said. "Mumbled answers are a form of surrender!" I mumbled. Alex heard me and laughed. He let me up, took a garment just like the running jacket he was wearing, threw it at me, saying: "Put it on and follow me, dimmest dimwit."
We marched back into the main room. He picked up a remote control and aimed it at the wall. The dark, art-imbedded panels slid open revealing three large screens. The center one lit. There we were: the two us looking at ourselves, enlarged, duplicated.
"Live and in living color," he chortled, "and the camera watches us."
"What camera? I don't see any cameras?
"Don't worry about it, they're watching. Come on, stand next to me."
There we were, the two of us standing shoulder to shoulder as he used the remote to zoom in closer, and closer, until we filled the screen. I can't say this any other way — I felt a shock, a charge pulsing from my head deep into the center of my body. Why? We were copies from the same mold. Which meant what? If I could be him, then he could be me. What did that mean? Why did I feel that a window had opened wide, high up in a building somewhere and I could step out of it into open space. I wanted to, I wasn't afraid!
He heckled me: "I can't wait to put my sweaty ass in your face. Here's the coup de grâce." He pressed another remote button and the screen to the left lit. We were there again, but as we were a few hours ago, walking, talking. It was a recording! A recording! I shouted: "It's a recording!"
"That's right," he whispered loudly, "I record everything." He pressed a button to light the third screen. It was the chamber with the liquid tank and the two of us.
"See you," he said, "as you were, hairy-faced and mop-headed? See me? See us now?"
"You make tapes?"
"No tape. Digital, all digital.
Before he could answer, a phone rang.
In all of the hours we had been together, that was a sound I hadn't heard. Earlier, he had shown me a communications panel behind the triangular, glass table that served as his desk. Little lights blinked on and off, indicating calls coming and being answered somewhere, even faxes and email. But I hadn't heard a phone ring.
Alex placed the remote in my hand, saying: "Here. Play and be amazed." He went to a corner cabinet, opened a drawer and pulled out an ordinary white desk set, attached to a cord. A cord! I giggled: in the midst of this bounty of technology, this leading edge of communicate and therefore be communicated, he had an old, 'Doris Day' white telephone with a cord that reeled out when he moved away from the cabinet and reeled in as he moved closer. It was funny, and strange.
I used the remote to follow him on the screen, turning a small ball with my thumb to move the camera. A zoom button brought his face closer, larger — I could almost feel his breath. As he finished the call, I heard him say, softly: "Call me back in one hour, exactly sixty minutes." I turned to face him and laughed.
"I see you're convinced." he remarked, "Proof positive, right? So what's funny?"
"I'm laughing about the telephone. With all of this technology, all of this whiz-bang stuff, I can't believe you use one of Ma Bell's oldest..."
He smiled: "It's a private telephone, I like it. For one thing, it has a lot of security, it has a wire. No stray radio signals that a neighbor can pick up on a wireless. And it reminds me of the old Hollywood movies, film noir right out of the 50's. I feel... melodramatic, walking around with this set in my hand, pulling on the cord."
I smiled: "Melodramatic. That's funny."
He put the phone on the desk and sat me in front of the screens. Then he began to talk about his digital archive, his elaborate way of capturing his experiences, expanding his memory. He showed me his libraries, each with a menu, carefully cross-indexed by subject, date, time and associations. There were meetings, parties, even a record of the decorators when they installed the interior of the loft. Every woman he had ever brought to the loft, to his bedroom, was digitized: all of his sexual life displayed in close-up, sometimes boring, detail. There were many hours of Alex, alone, talking to the camera, exploring his ideas and feelings, examining his past, his childhood, recording old photos, letters, trinkets, memorabilia that only the collector could fully understand or want to understand. It was the most massive personal diary I had ever encountered, the most ego-centric cocoon I could imagine for any being to weave around itself. Itself was Alex.
When he paused for a moment, I asked: "What are you going to do with all of this? Make a museum?"
"Burn it!" He replied. "While I'm here, it gives me great control over myself. When I go, it goes wherever I go." He tapped a button on the remote to display the time on the center screen. "Listen, in exactly three minutes the telephone is going to ring. That's the time to finish our little test. You answer it."
"What do you mean... answer it?"
"Pick up the phone, idiot, and talk to the person on the other end... as me!
"As you? How the hell... I can't do that!"
"Of course you can!"
"I'm a lousy actor, it won't work."
He kicked my chair. "This has nothing to do with acting. Just be yourself. We're twins, remember?"
"That's only a coincidence!"
"You become me and that proves my point?"
(The little bell in my ear again, the pitiful little alarm that always fails me.) After a moment I said: "What do I say?"
"Just listen to her, just talk to her."
"You mean she is a she? Come on!"
"And a very beautiful she, and she is a junkie and I am her drug. And she comes to me for her fix.
I began to stammer: "Oh that's great... I mean... and what about my voice?"
He was enjoying it. "You've heard me enough. Just let yourself get into it. You'll do fine."
The phone rang. Its sound made me bolt as if it were wired into the chair. Alex took the white set and shoved it into my hands. "Pick it up," he whispered, "pick it up!"
I did. A voice said: "Kindred?" I said nothing. The voice said: "Kindred, are you allowing me to come over and see you?" I spoke: "Uh... I don't think we can do it. Something's come up... Mmmm." My voice cracked and wheezed; mygod I felt trapped like a petty thief. The voice said: "What's the matter? You sound so far away, so..." I closed my eyes and pumped my voice: "I'm coming down with something, been talking all day." (I cleared my throat, loudly.) "Anyway, I have to say no. Got to take care of this, may have to go out of town for a few days. I'll call you."
Silence. I waited for a response, not remembering a word I had said. She spoke: "Kindred?" Me, softly: "Yes?" She, purring: "You will call me, won't you?" Me, or whoever I was: "When I say I will, I do it." She: "Thank you. Goodnight, my love. Click." I dropped the phone!
Alex picked it up, laughing through his teeth: "You were terrific! I thought I was listening to a tape of myself. And that last bit: 'When I say I will, I do it.' Vintage Alexander, my friend! Bravo! Incidentally, I never use the word 'anyway'."
"I'll remember that," I said, as I breathed out.
He gave me a glass of warm champagne and perched himself on the arm of the couch.
"Now we have to settle the bet. You lost, right?" I nodded. "And I know that you don't want to sniff my ass, so I have an alternative. Interested?" I nodded again. "Okay... then this is what I want to pay off your marker: You passed yourself off with someone who knows me pretty well, knows my voice, intimately. I want to do the same with someone who knows you. I want to whisper in someone's ear and have them see your eyes looking at them."
"Don't know who that could be," I mumbled. Back to mumbling.
His voice rose: "How about a girlfriend, a woman who's been up close and personal? That one you keep talking about, Evie... I bet she knows you well. I bet she knows you real well. Perfect."
"No!" I said. My voice became louder: "No! That's not perfect!"
"Why not? She'll be a great challenge... quid pro quo, tit-for-tit... why not? You were me and I'll be you, then we'll be even. What's her number?"
As I tried to form an answer, a strong, final answer, my back stiffened; the tension crawled up my skin into my face until everything was bright and glaring, until his voice echoed in the room. I could see his words spread out in front of me. I could see... this wasn't just a game! There was a point to it, a prize. He was after a trophy, a capture, another souvenir he could twist and dangle and record in his arcane library. Everything he did, led up to it: the talk, the drink, the dance, the dazzle. He had designed a cup in which he collected thoughts, moments, sensations; now he was ready to pour in the last flavor and drink it, digest it like his glassed liquid in the chamber below. I knew it. I believed it. I screamed: NO!
He laughed as he reached behind the couch where my coat had fallen, pulled it up, dumped the pockets onto the cushions, and found my phone: "Evie... let's see. What could her last name be?" I lunged at him, but he bounced up and danced away. Stopping, he sang: "Oh... look at this. 'E's new phone number'. That's it!"
I ran to him and snatched the phone out of his hands. "Too late!" He snickered.
I thought: Please Alex, don't do this! I begged: "Please Alex, don't do this!"
"And why not, dimwit? You owe me, fair and square. Here I come... Evie!" He suddenly broke away and began to run up the stairs, carrying the white phone.
Panic flooded my skin wet. I couldn't move. This man, this surface copy of myself was going to jab into the one person in my life that made sense to me, made sense for me. Panic. All sound stopped, deaf, I could only feel. I could barely move my arm. I pushed on it from the inside and like a toy my hand shot out and yanked the cord trailing behind him; it was twisted around his arm. The combination of my pull and his forward motion flipped him into the air. He landed on his head, caromed off the railing, and bounced along the stairs until he lay sprawled upside down at the bottom, his arms out like wings. I looked down at his open eyes. I thought: Was he hurt? Was he breathing? As I reached to lift his head, I saw a slowly oozing puddle of blood underneath. Blood trickled from the edge of his mouth, from the edge of his eye. I touched for his pulse, listened for a heartbeat. Nothing. His eyes were fixed. He was dead.
I backed away, step behind step, until I hit the wall and slid to the floor. Across the room, the three screens: At the center, the image of a lifeless body draped at the bottom of a staircase, a shadowed figure sitting nearby. On the left, the now still image of two men dancing in a beam of light. On the right, a large tank of liquid, stirred with a glass rod. Outside, the sky was changing into dawn gray. Inside, the magic lights were responding.
How easy it is now to describe a picture of that moment, a handcrafted photograph, collaged bit by bit, sunk into cement, covered with glass and hung in the gallery of who I once was. How easy it is to write in the silence of a howling wind.
Long moments before I could move again, crawling across the floor. When I reached him, I stood up on two stiff legs. I looked — he was dead. I was here. I murdered him. That's what they would say. What else could it be? He was dead. I was here. His friends, powerful friends, his business associates, they would say: You murdered him! He was dead. I said it to myself over and over again. It rolled out of my mouth and into my mind, down into the deepest, smallest corners of my body. It was a chant that hammered inside my head and finally stopped when the phone rang.
Bizarre. The white set had tumbled with him and ended upright on the floor. The receiver had bounced into place on top of the phone. He told me that he always answered this private line when he was here. If the voicemail was off, the few who had the number knew that he would answer. It had to be answered. No, I thought, maybe he was busy, in the bathroom. Maybe he ran out for a minute. No. It had to be answered. If not, it might bring the caller to the door. I answered. I said: "Yes?" The voice said: "I have both reports and all the data on a thumb drive. I can bring it by later." "No," I said quickly, "I don't want to see it until Monday. I need to keep the weekend clear." The voice said: "You got it! Have a good one." He hung up. That's all there was to it, another test. No, not a test, this time it was the real thing. And it worked. Why shouldn't it work? Why shouldn't it?
I began to pace in a straight line, up and back, across the floor. My mind buzzed and throbbed with disjointed, dismantled pieces of words, thoughts. I didn't murder him! All right. If I didn't murder him, then he's not dead! All right. If he's not dead...! All right. If he's not dead...! It stopped me cold in the middle of the room. The thought became a pulse behind my eyes: He's not dead because... I'm alive! And if I'm alive, maybe there's a way out of this, at least for a while. It could work. Why not? I whirled around and stared at the screens. It was all there, every piece of him, his thoughts, his moves, a mosaic, all of the molecules, digitized and ready for electronic playback. I could absorb them, I had already started. Could I do it?
Simply, quietly...why not? At least for a while. The fantasies rushed through me: Alexander... Alex the Great, quits! Divests himself of everything, becomes a recluse. Happens all the time. Or, he goes on a quest, in search of enlightenment, in India, disappears forever! All very legal. He can do anything! He can do it if he wants to. I can do it. I can do anything!
I felt a warm energy pumping back into my chest, smothering the chill of fear and fighting against numbing exhaustion. I thought: thank the gods for the weekend. Two days to grab hold of... everything, myself. He told me that he never allowed his people to come in on the weekend. He kept the building clear for his own purposes. If they had to, they could telecommute. Good. Two days... to copy, no, to absorb.
Pieces became words. Words became thoughts, options, actions clicked off in a straight procession with a steel thread of logic tying them together. I made lists, long lists in my mind. No need to write them down, I could see them whenever I wanted to. Details, point by point: how to reconstruct this life, how to take it and give it back to myself. It exhilarated me. I never felt like this before. I thrilled at the way I grasped the situation, organized it, planned the next hours, the next days. the way I was able to crush any feeling of remorse, guilt. Guilt was fear, and the fear inside me was changing, mutating into something else. He... lying on the staircase, he was shrinking, cold, becoming smaller, already digitized and stored in a file somewhere. I... standing in the center of the cathedral, I was warm, growing bigger, amazed with the strength of my self control. It was that amazement that blinded me, as I discovered so painfully, later on. There was something else — turning a key inside of me that had never been turned, opening a willingness, a desire. I couldn't see it, not then. I wouldn't see it, until it was too late.
Details. I had to learn how to use the archive system, the libraries would fill my memory. Find the voicemail, turn it on, no interruptions. I needed his mannerisms, his tastes, the way he walked and sighed. I had to search out all the corners, learn his codes, his accounts, his connections, and then, slowly, over the days, I'd begin to steer him into another direction. His life would start to change, barely noticeable. He would slowly begin to evolve until I could walk through him and into a world of my own design.
I had to restore the setting, clean up, wipe away all traces of what happened tonight. I laughed to myself: Clean up what? I don't have to do a thing. I live here. I have nothing to hide. (The little bell becomes an alarm! For the first time, I can hear it, I can hear it!) The body! I have to get rid of the body. It's the one link, the one piece of evidence that would shatter everything.
The old panic set in, under my arms, between my legs. How? I marched over to the stairs and looked at it. No feeling of pain or disgust. How? Everything I thought of, every silly movie scenario, every paperback plot, just weakened my steps. I kept walking, begging myself for an answer.
The rising sunlight pierced the bay windows and cut across the screens. The glare caught my eye. There it was, on the third screen — the tank! The liquid! It was perfect! Didn't he say that he used the chute to dump his garbage, his trash into the solvent? Didn't he say it was set for... organic? What was that over there? A rock? No, a once 'organic' man. It was perfect!
I ran to the staircase and grabbed him. His arms were stiff. His whole body was rigid as if it were a cut out of thick, corrugated cardboard. I dragged him across the floor like a mattress, heavy, unshifting weight. I opened the chute. The faint glow and slight rush of air appeared. I had to think for a moment, remember how he worked the controls, released the safety latch that prevented anything from accidentally falling in. Was it wide enough? Would he fit? I lifted him into the opening. There was just enough room. Then I stopped. I wanted his clothes. I didn't know why, I just needed them, so I stripped him. I wanted the chain he wore. He lay at my feet, gray, naked. I stared at him and thought: He made our faces look the same, what about everything else? Then I tore my clothes off and stood next to him, the sweat dripping off my body on to the floor, on to him. I looked at the two of us, naked, strangers. It was time.
Light headed, shaking, I struggled to lift him, then pushed him into the chute, feet first. The body didn't slide all the way down, it caught at the arms, the stiff, lifeless wings that rose around his head, like a diver poised on his board. It took all the strength I had to crack them and push him free. He disappeared into the chute and I heard the latch click. It was loaded and waiting. A thin chill washed over my skin as I thought: It's perfect, too perfect. The accident (the accidental murder!), the existence of the tank and its willing liquid, the screens, the metamorphic screens. What if his design, his plan were continuing? What if he wanted it to happen this way? I stepped away from the chute. What if he were still alive? Suddenly, blindly, I lunged at the latch and hit it with my fist. As the bright, blue air rushed upward, I slammed the door shut and waited, listened. The sound stopped. I could breathe again.
Sadness. When I closed my eyes I could see my face and my body gliding down the tube into the clear liquid, slowly floating like an underwater plant.
Exhaustion. Could hardly keep from falling as I stumbled across the room. Collapsed into the couch, cradling the white phone in my arms. It was already late morning, the fresh sunlight covered me with a clean, warm, yellow sheet.
Had to sit up. Only a day and a half left. Had to hold on to the details, the thoughts. Opened my eyes wide. Had to see myself. Had to see myself in someone else's eyes.
Had to call to the outside along the private, white cord.
I would call... Evie.
Photo - Jon Rendell