Between twilight's torn curtain and dawn's gigantic yawn, I trip over a man with ancient features, a man who sits in a puddle of purple neon light, streaming from the overhead sign soldered on the front of the building and written in cursive:
This Mecca is 152 miles from my home. When I'm not working at the crematorium, turning flesh to ash, or stargazing with telescopes, I make the pilgrimage as often as I can, about every other weekend. Travel the East-West 42 express until you reach a green mile marker pierced by three bullet holes. Turn left here onto a derelict highway rode only by the tractors of local farmers, the thumbs of hitchhikers, and lost minivans full of five speeding in search of the nearest toilet. Inside a yellow diamond sign are two children on a seesaw, thirty-three degrees from the horizontal. This marks the turn onto a gravel road. Drive along the bumpy overgrown trail until you come to the first entrance, camouflaged by a tangle of flora that can be calmly removed if one knows the way. One must know the way, otherwise the way cannot be found. Drive until you reach an airy clearing in the midst of thick forest. This is the parking lot. If a spiteful couple arguing over directions or a band of federal agents materialize here they will perceive nothing. The store is hidden from unwise eyes by an interlaced network of larches and pines and chokecherry shrubs—similar to mycelium fruiting on a decomposed arboreal rind, or the fibrous white matter of the mind. The store is no bigger than an Olympic sized swimming pool with four sinking stories, and for postal purposes only is listed at 195E 33W Cydonia Lane, Hungry Horse, MT, 25765.
To get the formalities out of the way: I hereby make, publish, and declare this to be my Last Will and Testament, expressly revoking all wills and codicils heretofore made by me. I hereby bequeath to the Adult Superstore all my effects and personal property, including all cash on hand in bank accounts, in securities, and other intangibles. I hereby direct my Executor to use the necessary funds to posthumously self-publish this Last Will and Testament so that any curious or fortuitous party may investigate its claims. I hereby grant my Executor the exclusive rights to this Last Will and Testament with the express purpose that any monetary gain will be instantly forwarded to the Adult Superstore. I hereby deny any editorial changes to be made in this Last Will and Testament, for I have languished over each and every syllable so that the truth of the events herein will shine like a Red Giant sun. After all, a burgeoning nun may one day see this, or a sociopath. Formalities finished.
Now strap your fuckin seatbelt on.
After a stressful quest of car parking (the little lot was full so I dented some bumpers to fit under a tree—Deedee draws the casual fan, the devout, the die-hard) I find the secret path that leads from the lot to the store. It is searing cold and two days before Christmas. The moon is new. My breath is grey and active. I locate Libra, my daughter's sign in the sky, but when I make out the northern and southern pan the whole constellation, the whole night sky, disappears, is replaced by the ground. I pick myself up, spitting out dirt, and glare at the old man, sitting as if our collision didn't disturb him. He must have emerged from the bricks fully formed, like a translucent air bubble from mud. I stand over him but he doesn't, or pretends not to, notice me. I snap my fingers in his face. No response. He's not even shivering. He can't be a customer. Part of Deedee's entourage? No, doesn't seem right for her presence. Just a bum, passing the time? That's an affront to the taste of the patrons, and off the sane charts of plausibility.
An uncomfortable tingle crawls up my left arm.
There was perfect weather on the day I dismantled my seventeen-year marriage. Among the untouched junkyard of my daughter's room I weighed a stuffed planet Saturn and a homemade rainbow magnet in each hand, deciding which memento to keep. My wife and I were having an argument. It concerned our future. While I looked out Prati's toy telescope at the regular fading sky my wife said something like, "I don't understand why we can't heal together." In a tremolo I told her she had nothing to heal. She wasn't wounded. She threw a lamp. When I regained consciousness, her black hair shook against a long smear of cloudy pearl in front of me and blood filled my ears. I stood up, fell over, stood up again and shook off her navigating arm. I stumbled downstairs to the front door, fumbled with the knob before opening, then tripped over the folds of a welcome mat that Prati had painted with the hot-pink half and whole notes of 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star'. My wife helped me up, and the broken record of her voice was stuck on "Talk to me, talk to me, talk to me". I asked if she was in pain. She said yes. What kind? Deep in the gut. Mine was in the head. I ran inside the house, not sure what to grab and so grabbed nothing, and as I staggered across the front lawn to my brand new truck she screamed "You bastard, you bastard" but if not for the blood in my ears she might have been crying, "Come back, come back."
The bum rests against the wall of the building. He is wrapped in a blue wool coat, has black gloves without fingertips, no shoes, and gray trousers with indecipherable stains. He takes a pale tin cup from the space between his legs and rattles it in my face. For some bizarre reason I hear Prati say, "But daddy the dirt tells me things, and if you wash it off I won't know what I did today," as I carry her up the stairs for a pre-bed bath. I push the sound to silence. The cup is in my face. The cup is still in my face. Deedee beckons. Deedee roars. I turn to enter the store and shiver all over. I instantly say to myself: that bum will melt back into the building as soon as you step inside (or has already done so as you turned your back), fusing with the molecules of brick, assuming its angles and intersections, and only emerge again when you step out, or turn around. So I turn around. He is there. I turn back around, count to three, turn around quicker. He is still there. I poke my finger on his shoulder. He barely teeters and aligns like a punch doll full of air. The cup is back where it belongs but his eyes—brown, brown, brown, brown—are not. They plainly look at me, inexplicably soften me.
"I have some wine," he says, pausing to breathe, breathe long and full and unrestricted. "But I can see you want grapes." Whenever I burn a body, no matter the size, there are bone fragments that remain, and I have to grind them down in a special machine, a crembola, and they make a very special grating sound. His voice is steady and low and femur bones shoved in a crembola.
A vice tightens my chest so I grab and hold on.
Whenever I used to speak of my daughter I inevitably used the word "pain". My lips folded in on themselves to form the familiar 'p', my mouth opened a bit and drew back for the 'a' that diphthongs to 'i', and my tongue nonchalantly graced the roof of my mouth for the finishing 'n'. My breath pushed out the word and the soundwaves traveled at a speed dependent on the particularities of the atmosphere (rain under a restaurant awning, the hum of a fridge, horns in traffic) to hit upon the listening person's lobes, at which time the interference pattern (the tremor or hysteria or monotone of my voice) was transformed into recognizable symbols (by the decoding program we call the brain), symbols which then sped, Mach 44, through a tortuous conduit containing all memories, presumptions, associations, and representations of the word 'pain', or lack thereof. A shift occurred in the listening person when hearing this word in this context. They would itch a forearm, or investigate the laces of shoes even if wearing heels or loafers. They would stare at some indefinite thing over my shoulder, not quite knowing what to do with their eyes. The quintessential response of the listening person, whatever the intentions, brutally depended on stock phrases and aphorisms delivered with controlled emotion and a fidgeting of the lips. I am rarely touched. Sometimes, hesitant and timid, they mull over the word and, through misplaced intuition, comment ever so gravely on the time they found their dog in the garage after drinking antifreeze, caught a once faithful partner in bed with someone else, dealt for weeks and weeks and weeks with the discomfort of a toothache.
The bum and his voice make me lose a certain balance. He doesn't move. Welling up within is an urge to respond to him, an urge I haven't felt in months, an urge I thought I conquered once and for all. I open my mouth, and with a phenomenal amount of effort, close it. To keep from speaking I pick the brick with thumb and forefinger. Despite its appearance it is deceptively brittle, and bits break off without much effort. Before I know it a mini-pyramid of red dust is at my feet. I'm gone. I streak to the deeply tinted glass double doors and rush inside the Superstore. In the little lobby there is a familiar cinderblock wall with a red arrow pointing left (underneath: 'Enter') and a red arrow pointing right (underneath: 'Exit'). All my fingertips are stinging. My shoulder seems sore. I go right. Yes, right.
I have developed twenty-two different nods. Add eye, ear, nose, lip, cheek, and brow contortions and there over four hundred expressive possibilities in my face alone. For the sake of simplicity I am not factoring in arm movement, finger positions, the bend of the knees, the alignment of the hips. My relations with prospective clients have improved dramatically. My silence was read as sensitive respect. If pressed to voice in commercial transactions (bank, market, Superstore) or spontaneous social situations (neighbors, street corner, Superstore), I displayed a note card that said, "I cannot speak." Strangers read this as helpless stupidity and acted accordingly with well-meaning hearts. My former wife and close friends read this as grief-filled indulgence, apparently unable to understand that I never had to speak about anything ever again. I no longer telephoned my parents. I transformed a trite, shackling phrase such as "See you tomorrow" or "My daughter is dead" into the precise arc of a hand wave, the pace of my footsteps. Most likely to kill time or my thoughts or encourage my contempt, whatever, I mastered the language Solresol, which allows those deeply fluent to converse by pressing fingertips into another's palm.
Mademoiselle X sits at her long granite desk, where only cash is accepted. Behind her: a thick bulletproof glass case showing off all the hot items: blueprints for etheric motors and orgone generators; an original edition of Scienza Nuova; the complete set of Fludd's chemistry beakers; a quill pen Swedenborg once wrote with, etc. They have no price tags. When asked how much they cost, she robotically responds, "They are for sale." She always wears a two-piece white business suit that becomes more flawless and bright every time I see her. Over her right eye there is dark blue patch, and a relief map of the Nile Delta is tattooed on the crown of her shaved head. A perpetual cigarette is perched on the cliff of her lips. The lanky smoke swirls up past her one good eye—the color of bare feet after a day of walking in dust—and the city of Sais, then is sucked up by the iron grate of a noiseless ventilation system. I once asked her, another lifetime ago, how much the system cost, and she responded by lighting a fresh cigarette with the butt end of a dying one. Mademoiselle X moves with reluctance and as far as I know is the sole employee.
"I've just made the cutoff," she says, taking a deep drag and holding it tentatively, like a schizophrenic holds external reality. She lets the smoke seep out her nostrils. "But I'll sell you a ticket. You're lucky. She'll be on in fifteen minutes. So look around."
I slap two hundred-dollar bills, four twenties, a five and a one on the counter and receive thirty-six cents in change and a flimsy, gilt-edged red ticket with the logo of a feather and a heart on a balance scale stamped over the flowing calligraphy of Deedee's name. That nagging ache in the arm just won't go away. I feel the disturbing urge to speak, to ask her about the old man outside—how is it possible he's here, of all places, of all times, here, this night—but a petite patch of cream paint, just below the grated vent above and behind her head, shrivels up into a makeshift chrysalis, falling off the wall and fluttering to the ground without sound. She doesn't notice. I do not enlighten her.
She is holding the little television above her head.
"Put it down," I say.
I'm trying not to laugh, trying to show that I'm serious, that I really don't want her to watch TV before dinner and her mom's coming home soon so who is going to clean that up?
"Just thirty minutes," she says. "Think, dad, if you let me watch one show, then I put this down. But if you don't," and she makes a stabbing motion to the ground but doesn't let go of the box, which is really just eleven inches and two decades old, and doesn't mean all that much, and she knows this, and I'm trying not to laugh, so I put my head down and my hand to my forehead in an effort to look exasperating when I'm really smiling.
"Dad," she says, and I look up, angry, kind of. "Can I watch TV?"
"No you cannot. Put the television down."
And everything goes to pieces, the box, my face, my memory, my mind, which you'd think would be clearer, quieter, by denying my thoughts a concrete form, but noooooooooooooo, my head is stuffed with the pleas and sighs and wails, with the bed-ridden moan and the howl of joy, with the catty, irrepressible, wet-soil soft voice of my dead, dead, dead daughter.
The Superstore is symmetrical.
Each floor is divided in two by a main aisle, leading to the back of the store. On each side of the division are four floor-to-ceiling bookcases, evenly spaced apart. At the back of the store there is a small equatorial passage which directs customers to the longitudinal bookcases. Additionally, in the back, a spiral staircase descends from floor one (videos) to floors two (books) and three (music) and four, an open room often rented out to holy dignitaries and their spiritual wares. Some initiates are enticed to sit in a sensory deprivation tank where Hollywood shamans inject them with DMT, administer caplets of psilocybin, hand over cups of rancid ayahuasca or mescaline tea. A signed waiver acknowledging no responsibility for death or insanity is required, as is advance payment. No refunds. Others watch the overproduced dance numbers of Dervishes, thinking that those gyrations will somehow transport them to the Fantastic Wherever. They don't even know. Still others—like but in no way like me—attempt to divine certain information through the examination of entrails, laughter, Satan's conjured speech. However, if one seriously studies the subject, one will find that the most reliable form of divination is crystal gazing. This is why I am here tonight. Deedee is the most sought after scryer in the market today. I come here to see my future.
Suppose you are a character in a comic book. Suppose further that you wholly identify with this character as you move throughout the pages of your life. Suppose the farthest you can that some event is bestowed upon you—or is precipitated by you—an event that removes your mind from normal day-to-day comicness and deposits you in a different panel, where you cease to have a drawn identity and so merge with the mind of the artist of the comic in which you are a character. At this moment, you have total knowledge of your past and future, you have a fulfilling grasp of your character's life trajectory (including your death on the antepenultimate panel), and then all at once without warning or foreshadow you are "returned" to your ordinary comicness where past is past, future is future, and even though you again identify with your drawn character, you retain a few isolated flashes of the total knowledge you had when you melded with the mind of the artist. You know, for example, that in one panel you will be living in Uruguay. If you then know the future, and have faith in what that future holds for you, it will undergo a mental metamorphosis which changes the quality of that future, not the monstrous physicality of it (you will die when you die). A radiance seeps into the soul. To know the future is not to change it. With that attitude, when the future comes (as it does every second) you will not be shocked, you will not lose poise, you will be able to handle, say, a big step in sick puddle of garbage water, or maybe all your fruit catching mold at once, even the harsh words of your lover and the total collapse of your carefully crafted psychology and the car crash that destroys your daughter.
A few customers hover around the "How To" video section, everything from accessing the Akashic records to Zazen. I walk down the documentary aisle, where a recent movie about modern-day Convulsionaries snags my eye. I look at the image on the back of the case: a freeze frame of a child standing in a crowd of muscled men, men who swing huge lead pipes at the child's chest, legs, back, and stomach. This frame is superimposed over the bright yellow blurb: "Omnijective Films proudly presents a new underground sensation that is sweeping South East Asia by storm! See a strong man deliver a hundred blows to a frail woman's stomach! See children choked with no visible bruises or wounds! Witness firsthand through unprecedented and remarkable access the excruciating tortures undergone without a trace of injury! Knives will be stuck into chests with no blood to show! Bonfires will be sat in with no bodies burning! Your mind will be blown by the spectacular feats of painlessness displayed by the secret sect of the Convulsionaries!"
Bored, I return the video and pick up the one a few spots down, a docudrama on Dogon Prophecies, which, as I flip it over to read the back, partially disintegrates in my hands like a millennia-old papyrus scroll. My breath becomes shorter and shorter, my lungs small and weak, lightheaded, I close my eyes, count five, ten, open slow. The shelf holding the videos has disappeared, or rather, not disappeared, but blurred with the surrounding levels of shelves, as if—
A firm hand grabs my shoulder and spins me around. Stainslav. He is standing very straight, a half-foot over my head, and his large hand now cups my arm. Sincere eyebrows of concern. Thank you, I blink back.
Stainslav is Slovenian, moving to San Francisco in his early twenties to pursue a career in corporate administration. By his admission, he told me, he was good at it. But something went wrong, he refuses to say exactly, but he did mention that three years ago he threw his six-five, two-hundred and fifteen pound frame over a busy bridge and into the water. Some fishermen picked him out tremulous and blue. He said he felt warm enough within. I always used to badger him with the question of what the experience of falling, of hitting the water, was like. He would turn into stone and whisper stuff like, "Those four seconds of freefall were more therapeutic than twenty-five years of psychoanalysis" or "If we all knew what was waiting for us we'd all kill ourselves." We remained friends even after I decided to shut my mouth forever, although we never did have occasion to meet outside the Superstore.
He is excited to see me. I return his unusual smile the best I can, which isn't good enough, because his mouth morphs in a frown, and with a shift in his copal eyes to go with the knot in his brow he says, What's wrong?
I shift my weight to my right foot, plant a right arm, crooked at the elbow, on my hip, and sigh a strained breath, like trying on a tight shoe, through my lips.
He draws back in a thoughtful repose then grips both hands on my arms and smiles that smile you smile when the person will not listen to your advice and you know this but you say it anyway. He says, really says, "My friend, you are going crazy from this speechlessness, and this is not good, not good." He laughs a little laugh, all to himself, and says, "You may just need a new diet. More fruit, eh?" He lets go and steps back to appraise me.
I'm compelled to swipe off what looks like dust on his shoulder and before I realize it I've taken off a layer of his suit.
"If there is anything you need, you can talk to me, just talk to me," he says. His shoulder is being sanded down by my hand, still swiping. He looks at my hand, then at me, and raises those motherfucking eyebrows.
I break away from him and walk towards the stairs, feeling his frustrated gaze between my shoulder blades. The ache in my arm is more intense, the squeeze on my chest more pronounced, and my breath will just not come as it should.
She is yelling because to be trapped here, alone (not true, with her mother), while I go to the observatory, she's old enough, she can stay up late, it's not fair, and she won't let me explain, she cuts me off before I can start. She is taking out the kitchen trash as per the rule: you top it off you drop it off, no matter the time, who knows, there might be something in the sky. She is asking why macaws mate for life but not people. No, no, no. The song she had written in me is perfect but a mob of monkeys now bangs on a piano and I'm all out of tune. Song's over. The very first time I was in the Superstore I met a man from Belgium, a physicist, quantum, I think. Years ago, in Brussels, he was walking along the sidewalk with his son. They came to a crosswalk and patiently waited. His son, after the light had turned, was the first to step into the street. He was struck by a car and killed instantly, easily, right in front of his father's eyes. We talked for hours. I have never seen that man again. There was a rule I lived by: never do or say anything the person in front of you cannot understand. I was perfectly content to sit in my corner and not share. It felt not only impossible, but a betrayal, to stand and talk again. The Superstore pointed out the beauty of the attempt, so I see the sweet fruit in a tannic skin, the cure within the cancer, the words inside my head, the key is in your prison.
At the Book level an older man, slightly stooped over, and a younger woman, red hair in a bun, are comparing paperbacks in the middle aisle.
And the man says, shaking his worn pages in the air, "Are you kidding? This guy's word is all we have to verify his own ideas and predictions about the inherently chaotic phenomena like economic trends and sunspots and wars and what have you. There is no solid, outside, objective…" He falls out of earshot as I turn left down the passageway. I want to see if the Superstore has a certain book. And it does. I'm hoping it can help me. Fourth bookcase, second shelf, right-hand side, sliding my fingers along the bindings until I hit Riding To Omega, by Ken Ring, published by Pharer Press, New York, 1985.
I open the book.
The room faintly darkens. I try to read the first chapter, skipping the intro, but the words, I can't focus on the words. It's not my eyes. The letters blur and sway into the center of the binding. I flip to a random page and I still can't read, it's getting darker, and then I feel it, a pressure and a pull and a void. I feel the tip my nose, my lips, and my eyes drawn down into the book, like a small black hole is sucking them in. It grows more powerful, and fast, taking my breath with it. I slammed the book shut. The room brightens. There is a buck knife slicing between my ribs, and I double with the pain. The book lies plain and inert on the ground. I stumble back—never taking my eyes from it, to make sure it will stay there, lifeless—in the direction of the spiral.
The man and woman are still arguing, with the woman now saying, "He is trying to get at a certain special quality of his ideas, of ideas in general. Those that are validated by internal evidence. Because no matter how far reason has taken us, no matter how much reason has improved…" Her voice simply stops, as if the needle were rudely ripped from a phonograph, when I take my first step on the stairs. The slicing pain does not help the descent.
I rest my forearms on my knees and catch a breath at the Music level.
After a time I raise my head, and there, standing in front of me with her demure and conquering posture sweetly posed, is Raissa. I tighten my mouth and nostrils and straighten my body and look past her to pretend that nothing is wrong.
"So you're going to see Deedee, huh?" A mid-level pause. She knows I don't speak. "I figured that's why you were here. Hey, are you ok? You look pale." She reaches up to touch my forehead but I bat her hand back. "Alright, alright. You don't have to get snippy."
We can both tell that I want to go, and that she, out of politeness, should allow me to go, but that doesn't happen. She just stands there, looking at everything but me. "Hey, do you want to hear my new poem? I think it's one of my best and it's short so you won't have to miss, you know," she stifles a laugh, "Deedee. Please, it will take like a minute."
Raissa was born in Belize and adopted by Californians and thinks, bless her twenty-year-old heart, that every person is a song, every emotion a chord, every thought a note. She believes you can transpose a single person's life into a harmonious opus. She has written, she claims, an autobiographical symphony up to this very point in her life, entitled Emerald Rose in Eleven Movements. She also claims that by tape recording a person talking about their life in detail she can transpose their words into a symphonic biography. Conversely, music can be worded. Chopin's Nocturne in F-sharp major Op. 15, No. 2, or Tartini's Devil's Trill Sonata can be written as a prose-poem, or a novella. I encountered her quite a while ago when I made the mistake, one depressing visit to the Superstore, just after the crash, of confessing my psyche to a random girl with short auburn hair and a prismatic butterfly clip parting it to the left. She wore two rings on the middle finger of each hand, one dark wood, the other an oversized turquoise gemstone set in a silver band. She gestured beautifully. When I stopped talking our friendship deteriorated, at least from my point of view. I made no effort to hide my disdain for her thoughts, although she still believed I would make an evocative piece of music. Poems. She attempted to convince me to talk through poems. This was the depth of her delusion. When she cornered me and recited I listened to them selfishly, for her voice, if I dismissed the words and concentrated on the underlying tone, was within the range of Prati's. But I couldn't listen tonight. Not tonight. So I ignored her and ran further down the spiral, still heavy-chested, still sore-armed, still short of breath, and how relieved I was that she didn't call after me with a plea or a joke.
The stop sign I ran in the deep eight am fog had strange graffiti under it, and I still don't know what it's supposed to say. The impact was a blur but not the aftermath. My small maroon sedan was jammed between a colossal oak and the diesel-fueled six wheeled pickup that T-boned the passenger side. I was pinned to the driver's seat by the steering column and could only say, "It's okay, it'll be okay" and look in the cracked rearview mirror. Dark red blood, dark blue, ran like a lazy river, soaking her clothes, seeping in the tan upholstery. The Jaws of Life came late and my tears, honestly, more from the smoke than anything, added a streaking quality to the flashing sparks in the mirror as they gently landed, then evaporated, on her slumped and quiet body.
At certain times, if the cremator breaks down at work, or when the snippet of a song she loved loops nonstop in my head, or when Sirius (her favorite star) dominates the milk-split sky, at these precise times, I will sleep with her ashes.
At the bottom of the stairs I give my ticket to the black men with a diamond stud in each ear and a Desert Eagle .50 tucked not so discreetly in their waistlines. They frisk me then check the ticket with an infrared scanner and let me pass.
The room is crowded. Twenty square tables, covered in cerulean cloth—with a white votive candle encased in a transparent orb at the center of each—are evenly spaced throughout the room. I fall loudly into a chair at an empty table ten steps from the stairs. A man with a handlebar moustache, top hat, tux with tails, and a wormwood cane with an amethyst nub, sits at a neighboring table and raises a well-manicured eyebrow at me. I narrow my eyes, cock my head back and to a 45° angle then hold out my hands palm up with the elbows tight against the ribcage. He sneers and with a delicate thumb and forefinger smoothes out a curl in his fancy facial hair. I make my mouth tight. Then the tabletop candles all wink out.
On stage, inside a lone spotlight, is a flawless sapphire ball resting on a plush white pillow, itself supported by an black pillar scratched along the sides with Deedee's xenoglossia—if in a trance she will speak in a language that doesn't exist.
The room is pitch black and pin drop quiet. Deedee shuffles on stage and into the conical spotlight. She is morbidly gaunt, all sunken cheeks and eye sockets, with some yellow tinge about the hands and fingernails. Her oily blonde hair is pulled back in a severe ponytail and a red head wrap keeps the sweat out of her face. Scrying is physically demanding. She wears a grey camisole and beige short pants. She has no accessories except for a gold hoop in her nose.
I settle into the comfortable chair. My breath, though shallow, is not as hard to draw. The weight of my body lightens, having something to put it in. There is still a dull ache in my chest but I ignore it.
Her right hand begins to move in a sluggish circle around the sapphire, her fingers undulating like a drunken piano player over the keys. A milky fog spreads out in the ball, condensing into an odd shape: two overlapping tetrahedrons, one facing north, the other south, circumscribed by a sphere. This shape, as well, starts to spin in sync with Deedee's hand, which she swirls, faster and faster, and her eyes, faster and faster, are glossing over. Suddenly she stops all motion, bows her head, throws out her arms and becomes statuesque. But the shape in the sapphire does not stop spinning; it gains momentum, and spins faster, accelerating to the point of indistinctness. A sharp, hard, brilliant point of light flashes from the sapphire and knocks me off my chair.
I stagger up. The polished gem has imploded on itself, and Deedee, her fragile body, her flowing clothes, stretches apart and sinks inside the swirl of white light. A plug has been pulled in the cosmic bathtub. The people closest to the stage, the tables, the ceiling and walls—everything is vacuumed into the dazzling vortex now swelling out into the room. I summon something, anything, everything, to turn and run away. My lungs shrivel with the razors in my heart. I climb the stairs and do not look back. This doesn't help.
Exactly thirteen days before the crash, I came home after a long hard day of work and, without checking the alignments on my telescope (rare comets were coming that night), I flopped into the chair by the dirty fireplace and zoned out on the ceiling. The window shade was open, infusing the room with the dappled dark yellow tint of approaching sunset. Prati called it "angel light". I felt a tap-tap on my knee and there she was, recently showered and smelling of lilac, an open book in one hand and a restless finger pointing to something on the page.
"What does this mean?" A few drops of water from her hair had distorted some text.
"That's a really big number."
"I know that," she snorted. "But what does it mean?"
I had read the book too long ago to remember much, so I made her hand it over. The author (a dead, and quite famous, electrical engineer) had, in the section she demanded an explanation of, dramatically illustrated to the reader the amount of energy in an infinitesimal point of empty space by writing out the number: one followed by twelve pages of zeros, with an asterisk at the last zero saying that the publisher cut him off here, but there were seven and half more pages.
I thought about it. "What is the smallest thing you can think of?" I asked. She thought about it, then went to the fireplace, picked up a half-burnt log and softly blew on it, the ash settling in a hot beam of angel light like a million miniature hovering spaceships.
"That ash," she said.
I drew an imaginary circle in space with my two index fingers and said, "Now imagine this circle, this circle of empty space, is between two motes of ash." She took that in, and thought about it, and nodded. I pointed to the number in the book and said, "That is how much energy is in this circle, is in the space between the ashes."
"Well…" and I launched into a rambling digression trying to explain the fact that the universe is very complex and in order to function properly and in order for humans to exist in it the universe must work according to certain laws, laws that are for the most part intractable, and one of these laws says you cannot get energy from emptiness. When I finished she screwed up her face as if I had just belched at the dinner table and asked me to explain it again. I did. She looked at me, then at the imaginary circle, then at the ash, then at me again.
And she said, in a haunting, taunting tone, "No. I don't believe you."
A lucent hurricane has invaded the Superstore. Everything ruptures and rushes together in one electric-white swirl. I am freezing cold. My ears ring with a high-pitched buzz. I close my eyes. I can see through my eyelids. Through the turbulent, blazing, super-spin of the Superstore I see Raissa walk up to me, and although the outline of her body is indistinct, she is somehow holding a tenuous form.
"So what's up with Deedee?" she mocks before really seeing me. And then she switches tone. "Hey, are you sure you're okay?"
I flash her the mean eyes and nod. I just want to leave.
She sighs. "I know you think you're mean, but you're not as mean as you think." She reaches up and brushes a bit of hair away from her forehead. Her voice, the simple quality of her voice, makes the spinning slow and easy, the buzz quieter and less pronounced. "And I know you like Deedee, I shouldn't make fun of you for that. And you shouldn't let that, me doing that, stop you from listening to me, because whatever you say, I know you like listening to me. For whatever reason." She's all of a sudden shy, showing her age. "So will you please listen to my poem? I mean," she toed the ground. "I wrote it for you."
I feel warmer. I nod.
"Great! Great! You'll love it." A wild alteration comes into her body. "Now be still and listen, okay?" She throws her shoulders back and levels her head and when she opens her mouth to say the title I spot a faint auric glow at the back of her throat:
not as you and i speak, one day i
will speak at the ant's funeral, the
leafcutter ant i crushed with my
sole in the grass when stepping
back. in my haste to the wake i
get lost, i listen to lavender shrubs
discuss the state of the soil, the
origin of a mushroom worming
up from cow shit. i solicit tree roots
for directions which i receive like
raindrops, and find the queen, and
stop her stridulations so my
eulogy will be well received by
the billions in silence. would
you like to learn the language?
here is your first simple lesson:
a woman met a woman on a mountain.
i could describe their dress, i
could describe their faces in
history, their surroundings. one
speaks of fish along the reef, of
auroras at black noon, of earthrise
from the surface of the moon. one
speaks of childhood floating by
eyelids, of electric telepathy, of
the lackluster vistas of space.
Every word, as it was released from her lungs and molded by her mouth and received by me, every word brought the world back. The discreteness of her thin fingers returned with "bullhorn" and "raindrops" tinted the amber into her eyes. "State of the soil" reassembled the color of the carpet below me—a fern green struck by sunlight—while "origin" caused a nearby stack of shelves to solidify among the spinning and "eulogy" threw into stark relief the album cover of a telepathic pianist, prominently displayed apart from the others. The vague splotch on the opposite side of the room—"billion"—became a human form—"mountain"—a heavy old woman—"black"—tying her shoelaces. And when Raissa says "space" a bootstomp reverberates in my skull. Nothing spins. Nothing disintegrates. Nothing falls apart.
"How'd you like it?" she asks.
I am awestruckdumb and wouldn't you know it? She misunderstands my shock for rejection. She storms off up the spiral muttering something under her breath. I want to speak, I can't believe I feel it, but I want to speak, and I go after her. This bring back the hurricane, the cold, the ringing with twice the force. I seem to move, yet can no longer tell where I am. I will myself forward (I think) and reach the first floor (I think) and see her walking (I think). I shout but there is no air. When I grasp my chest to catch my breath my body is as transparent as the Superstore, and my hands slip through my skin, through the blood and bone and muscle and I realize I am constricting the very beating of my heart. I fall to the ground. Or rather, my body falls to the ground. "I" float away. "I" am blessedly warm and normal. "I" see my body on the floor, see Raissa and Stainslav and a half dozen other people huddle around it, see someone giving the body a few pumps on the chest, a few breaths through the mouth, see Mademoiselle X stand but not walk as "I" retreat from the scene like a retractable telescope, the Superstore dissolves, and time and space, as concepts, as constructs and perceptions, effortlessly evaporate into the light.
I am outside. The bum is there. He waves me over. I am at his side. He stands with a potent smile, handing me a small corked glass bottle from within the folds of his overcoat. I take a mighty swig and return it. Some sort of singing radiates from the parking lot, a multitude of high and low voices in vast harmony, and within them I hear the distinctive pitch of Prati's voice, but as I make a move towards it the bum blocks my way with a no-no shake of his head, a shoo-shoo flap of his wrist, beckoning me back, in the direction of the doors.