Way back—oh, not all that long ago, actually, just a couple of years, but back before I’d gotten a glimpse of the gears and levers and pulleys that dredge the future up from the earth’s core to its surface—I was going to a lot of parties.
And at one of these parties there was a couple, Ray and Christa, who hung out with various people I sort of knew, or, anyhow, whose names I knew. We’d never had much of a conversation, just hey there, kind of thing, but I’d seen them at parties over the years and at that particular party they seemed to forget that we weren’t actually friends ourselves.
Ray and Christa had a lot of money, a serious quantity, and they were also both very goodlooking, so they could live the way they felt like living. Sometimes they split up, and one of them, usually Ray, was with someone else for a while, always a splashy, public business that made their entourage scatter like flummoxed chickens, but inevitably they got back together, and afterwards, you couldn’t detect a scar.
Ray had a chummy arm around me and Christa was swaying to the music, which was almost drowned out by the din of voices in the metallic room, and smiling absently in my direction. I was a little taken aback that I was being, I guess, anointed, but it was up to them how well they knew you, and I could only assume that their cordiality meant either that something good had happened to me which was not yet perceptible to me but was already perceptible to them, or else that something good was about to happen to me.
So, we were talking, shouting, really, over the noise, and after a bit I realized that what they were saying meant that they now owned my painting Blue Hill.
They owned Blue Hill? I had given Blue Hill to Graham once, in a happy moment, and he must have sold it to them when he up and moved to Barcelona. Blue Hill is not a bad painting, in my opinion, it’s one of my best, still, the expression that I could feel taking charge of my face came and went without making trouble for anyone, thanks to the fact that, obviously, there were a lot of people in the room for Ray and Christa to be looking at, other than me.
How are you these days, they asked, and at this faint suggestion that they’d been monitoring me, a great wave of childish gratitude and relief washed over me, dissolving my dignity and leaving me stranded in self-pity.
Why did I keep going to these stupid parties? Night after night, parties, parties—was I hoping to meet someone? No one met people in person any longer—you couldn’t hear what they were saying. Except for the younger women, who had piercing, high voices and sounded like Donald Duck, from whom they had evidently learned to talk. When had that happened? An adaptation? You could certainly hear them.
It was getting on my nerves and making me feel old. I’m exhausted, I told Ray and Christa. I can’t sleep. I can’t take the winter. I’m sick of my day job at Howard’s photo studio, but on the other hand, Howard’s having some problems—last week there were three of us, and this week there are two, and I’m scared I’m going to be the next to go. And as I told them that I was frightened, that I was sick of the winter and my job, I understood how deeply, deeply sick of the winter and my job, how frightened, I really was.
Yeah, that’s terrible, they said. Well, why don’t you come stay with us? We’re taking off for our beach place on Wednesday. There’s plenty of room, and you can paint. We love your work. It’s a great place to work, everyone says so, really serene. The light is great, the vistas are great.
I’m having some trouble painting these days, I said, I’m not really, I don’t know. Hey, everyone needs some downtime, they said; you’ll be inspired, everyone who visits is inspired. You won’t have to deal with anything. There’s a cook. You can lie around in the sun and recuperate. You can take donkey rides down into the town, or there are bicycles or the driver. What languages do you speak? Well, it doesn’t matter. You won’t need to speak any.
Naturally I assumed they’d forget all about their invitation, so I was startled, the day after the party, to get an email from Christa, asking when I could get away. One of their people would deal with the flights. I could stay as long as I liked, she said, and if I wanted to send heavy working materials on ahead, that would be fine. Lots of their guests did that. It could get cool at night, so I should bring something warm, and if I wanted to hike, I should bring boots, because snakes, as I knew, could be an issue, though insects were generally not. I would not need a visa these days, so not to worry about that, and not to worry about WiFi—that was all set up.
I doubted that anybody else who visited them would not know exactly how to prepare, and yet there was Christa, informing me so tactfully of everything, like snakes and visas, that I’d need to know about, by pretending that of course I’d already have thought of those things. A week or so later, a messenger brought a plane ticket up the five flights of stairs to my little apartment, which was when it dawned on me that the good thing Ray and Christa had perceived happening to me was that they now owned one of my paintings, which meant, obviously, that it most likely was, or would soon be, worth acquiring.
My job at Howard’s studio expired, along with the studio itself, at the end of the following month, just in time to save Howard and me from my quitting right before I got on the plane. At least it was no problem to sublet my apartment, even at a little profit, to a guy who liked cats, because, as everyone was observing with wonder, the real estate collapse had not flattened rents one bit.
Howard looked around at all the stuff that represented his last thirty years. “Bon voyage,” he said. He gave me a little hug.
The plane took off in frosty grime and floated down across water, from which the sun was rising in sheer pink and yellow flounces. It was a different time here—must that not mean that different things were happening? I’d brought my computer, but maybe I could actually just not turn it on, and the dreary growth of little obligations that overran my screen would just disappear; maybe the news, which—like a magic substance in a fairy tale—was producing perpetually increasing awfulness from rock-bottom bad, would just disappear.
I had exuded a sticky coating of dirt during the night on the plane, but in the airport, ceiling fans were gracefully turning, and the heat was dry and benign, like a treatment. As everyone exited with their luggage, I kept peering at the email from Christa I’d printed out, which kept saying: Someone will be waiting to pick you up. I had her cell number on my phone, I remembered, and scrabbled in my purse for it, but as I pressed and tapped different bits of it and stared at its inert face, I was struck by how complete the difference is between a phone that works and a phone that doesn’t work.
For a long time, whenever I traveled anywhere, it had been with Graham, who would have thought to deal with the issue of international phone service, even though Christa hadn’t mentioned it. And as I stood there, a lanky apparition ballooned into the void at my side, frowning, mulling the situation over. Graham! But the apparition tossed back its fair, silky hair, kissed me lightly, and dissipated, leaving me so much more alone than I’d been an instant before.
Wheeling my bulging, creaking suitcase here and there as potential disasters stacked up in my mind in great, unstable piles, I located an exchange bureau, and my few sober monochromatic bills were replaced by a thick, fortifying sheaf of festive ones that looked like they were itching to get loose and party. Onward! I thought, and swayed on my feet from fatigue.
I was deciding which exit to march myself to and then do what, when Christa strode up. “The driver and Ray got into some big snarl,” she said, hustling me along. “And he took off. He’s acting out all over the place.”
“He’s, like, crashing into stuff ?” I said.
I wasn’t managing my suitcase fast enough to keep up with her, and she grabbed it from me irritably. “He’s buying something.”
“What? Did you remember to hydrate on the plane? Some subsidiary. It always makes him crazy, but, hey, nerves are a weakness, I’m the one who’s nervous. So this morning Mr. Sang Froid accuses the driver, who by the way is also one of the gardeners and a general handy man, but what difference does it make if everything falls apart, of scratching the Mercedes, which I happen to be one hundred percent certain is something he himself did the other night when he came home blind drunk at dawn and almost demolished the gate. So the driver stormed off, just before he was supposed to leave to pick you up, and then Ray stormed off, too, in a black cloud to god knows where. Plus, the place has been crawling with, just who you want to hang out with, accountants. Well, one of them’s a lawyer, and I think there’s an engineer, too. They look like triplets, or maybe it ’s quadruplets, hard to tell how many of them there are, you’ll see. They’re Ray’s guys, his pets, a week ago they were golden, guaranteed to go for the throat, now all of a sudden they’re a heap of sloths who just lounge around swilling his wine and hogging up his food, which big surprise, and he fucking well better be back for dinner, because I’m not entertaining those turnip heads. Don’t worry, you’ll be okay, though—Amos Voinovich is here, too, except he’s pretty anti-social, which I didn’t really get until he showed up, and it turns out he hates the beach. He says he’s working, which is great of course— maybe he’ll do something for us while he’s here. And anyhow, he’s better than nothing.”
“Amos Voinovich, the puppeteer?”
“Well, I mean, yeah. You know him?”
I didn’t know him, but I’d seen one of his shows, which was about two explorers and their teams. There were puppet penguins and puppet dolphins and puppet dogsleds and of course puppet explorers fighting their way through blizzards and under brilliant, starry skies to be the first to get to the South Pole. Voinovich himself had written the lyrics and the music, which was vaguely operatic, and each explorer sang of his own megalomaniac ambitions, and various dogs from each team sang about doubts, longings, loyalties, resentments, and so on, and the penguins, who knew very well that one explorer’s team would prevail and flourish and that the other explorer’s team would die, down to the last man, sang a choral commentary, philosophical in nature, that sounded like choirs of drugged angels. The eerie melodies were often submerged, woven through the howling winds.
Christa chucked my suitcase into the trunk of her car, and as we sped along upwards on winding roads in the brilliant sunshine, the deluxe night of Amos Voinovich’s puppet show wrapped around me, and while Christa groused about Ray, I kept dozing off, which was something I had not been doing much of for a very long time, and her voice was a harsh silver ribbon glinting in the fleecy dark.
We came to an abrupt stop in front of a smallish house, covered with flowering vines. “This is where you and Amos are. I put you in the same place, because you’re the only two here right now and it’s easier for the staff. You’ll be sharing a kitchen, but I mean nothing else, obviously.”
“Accountants?” I asked, stumbling out of the car.
“They’re staying in the main house with us, unfortunately. Ray insisted, although we could perfectly well have given them a bungalow. They’ve got their own wing, at least, across the courtyard. You’ll see them at dinner, but except for that you won’t have to deal with them. I gather they’re all taking off tomorrow.”
She brought me into the little house, which was divided in two, except, as she’d said, for a kitchen downstairs, which both Amos and I had a door opening onto and which appeared to be very well-equipped, though meals and snacks and coffee and so on would always be available in the main house. She showed me light switches, and temperature control for my part of the house, and where extra blankets and towels were kept. Dinner was early, she said, at eight, and no one dressed, except once in a while, if someone happened to be around. Lunch was at one. And breakfast was improvisatory. The cook would be on hand from six, because sometimes Ray liked to swim early. Did I have any questions?
I gaped. “Guess not,” I said. “Um, should I . . . ?”
“Yeah, come on over whenever you want,” she said, and gave me a quick, squeamish hug. “So, welcome.”
What was not dressing? I was incredibly tired, despite the little nap in the car, but not even slightly sleepy. I opted for jeans, which were mostly what I’d brought, and when the clock on the night table informed me that it was 7:45, I went over to what I assumed was the main house and wandered through empty rooms until I happened upon Christa, who was wearing a little vintage sundress, the color of excellent butter.
Dinner meant helping yourself from a selection of possibilities including some things on platters over little flame arrangements, and then sitting down at a long, polished table, that probably seated thirty. Amos the puppeteer did not in fact show, but the accountants or accountants plus lawyer plus engineer were there. They didn’t wear jackets, but they all wore exhaustingly playful ties, which suggested, I suppose, that Ray’s forthcoming acquisition was so sound that chest-thumping frivolity was in order. Ray had reappeared, and said hello to me, but barely, giving me a bitter little smile as though he and I were petty thugs who had just been flagged down by a state trooper, and that was the last notice of me he took that evening.
I watched, through the glass wall, as evening slowly began to rise in the bowl of the valley below and soft lights glimmered on. Up over the mountains, though, it was still day.
A dramatic terrain. The soft, mauve twilight currents were rising around the table, so you didn’t really have to converse, or you could sort of pretend that you were conversing with someone else. Somewhere in that gently swirling dusk the accountants were talking among themselves—telling jokes, it seemed. Their bursts of raucous laughter sounded like reams of paper being shredded, and after each burst of laughter they would instantly sober up and swivel deferentially around to Ray.
Terrain—was that what I meant? “What language are they speaking?” I whispered to Christa, who was sitting in a darkening cloud of her own.
“You really better drink some water,” she said. “Don’t worry, it’s all bottled. There are cases over at your place, by the way, I forgot to show you, in one of the cupboards, but tap is okay for your teeth.”
It was English, I realized, but specialized. One of them was finishing up a joke that seemed to concern a pilgrim, a turkey, a squaw, and something called credit swap rates.
They all laughed raucously again. Ray was drumming his fingers on the table, making a sound of distant thunder. The accountants etc. swiveled around to him again with sweet, boy’s faces, and he stood up abruptly.
“Gentlemen,” he said, with a tiny bow. “I have a great deal to gain from this transaction, assuming it all proceeds as anticipated. But if at zero hour, by some mishap, it should fall through, let me remind you that, owing to the billable hours clause you were so kind as to append to our contract, only you will be the losers. I salute your efforts. I have the highest hopes, for your sake as well as mine, that your irrepressible confidence in them is justified. But perhaps a moment of sobriety is in order at this point, a moment of reflection about the tenuous nature of careers. Or, to put it another way, don’t think for a moment that if the boat is scuttled I’ll throw you my rope. I’m sure you all recall the Zen riddle about the great Zen master, his disciple, and the duck trapped in the bottle?”
He drained his large glass of wine, glug glug glug. “Everyone recall the Master’s lesson? It’s not my duck, it’s not my bottle, it’s not my problem?” He slammed his empty glass down on the table, and wheeled out.
“What did I tell you?” Christa said.
What did she tell me? I had no idea. Presumably I’d been dozing at the time, soaring aloft on polar winds as the two explorers savagely pursued their pointless goal under the remote, ironically twinkling stars.
“Plus,” she said. “I think he’s seeing someone here.”
“Oh, wow,” I said, and I thought of the bite that every morning would be taking out of her beauty and glamour and how rapidly an individual’s beauty and glamour could be rendered irrelevant by standards that had been embryonic only months before, or supplanted by some girl who was just about to walk through the door. “Oh, wow,” I said again.
“You can say that again,” she said. The accountants etc. had disappeared from the table, I realized. All that was left in their place were crumbs. “Yeah, you can sure say that again . . .”
“Well, so, goodnight, I guess,” I said, as she wandered off. “Guess I’ll just be going back over to the, to the . . .”
Upstairs in my bedroom, I began to unpack, but there was the issue of putting things wherever, so I decided I would leave all that until morning. I set up my laptop after all, though, as tossing out my old life seemed both less plausible and maybe less desirable than it had some hours earlier.
I fished my pj’s out of my suitcase and opened the shuttered windows for the breeze. I was listing, as though I were drunk, which I supposed I was, from all the wine it had seemed appropriate to toss down at dinner, but mainly I was exhausted, though still wide awake, as I was so often—wide awake and thinking about things I couldn’t do anything about. Couldn’t do anything about. Couldn’t do anything about. Also, an unfamiliar, somewhat rhythmic tapping, suggested that there might be a beast, some brash snake for example, in the vines just outside my window, trying to get me to open the screen and let it in.
To account for my snoozing in the car, I had mentioned to Christa my exasperating resistance to sleep, and just before we sat down at the table she gave me a few pills, wrapped in a Kleenex. “What are they?” I’d asked. “They’re Ray’s,” she said. “He won’t notice.”
A few months back, I’d gone to a doctor about sleeping problems, and he’d asked me if I wanted pills.
“I’m afraid they’ll blunt my affect,” I said. He looked a little disgusted, as if to remind me that he had a downtown practice and I was not the first self-obsessed hysteric he’d dealt with that day. “Then your best bet is to figure out why you’re not sleeping,” he said.
“What’s to figure out?” I said. “I’m hurtling through time, strapped to an explosive device, my life. Plus, it’s beginning to look like a photo finish—me first, or the world. It’s not so hard to figure out why I’m not sleeping. What I can’t figure out is why everybody else is sleeping.”
“Everybody else is sleeping because everybody else is taking pills,” he said. So I got a prescription from him, and I took the pills for about five nights running and flushed the rest down the toilet. They got me straight to sleep all right, before I’d even had a chance to boot up the worries, and I would sleep for hours and hours, but then I would wake completely exhausted, having spent my night fighting my way through dark tunnels that stank of a charnel house, thwarted everywhere by slimy, pulsing lumps, my own organs, maybe, and in the morning, when I’d get to work painting, I seemed to be sloppier, or less demanding than I’d formerly been. Maybe my painting wasn’t any worse than it had been, but I sure didn’t mind enough that it wasn’t better.
So then, when I stopped taking the pills and it mattered again that my painting wasn’t better, I had to wonder why it mattered.
I had to face it—my affect was blunted, pills or no pills, unless weariness counted as affect. So, I decided that I’d make myself stop painting for a while, or maybe forever—that I’d stop unless something forced itself on me that I’d dishonor if I didn’t paint better than I was able to. And so I did not send materials on ahead to Ray and Christa’s, because the trip seemed like an ideal opportunity to clear my mind of whatever impediments to that, and even if I was left with nothing in place of the impediments, at least the sun would be shining.
I heaved my suitcase onto a luggage rack—things had been thought of—to get it out of the way of bugs, even though if there were bugs, I’d probably brought them along in my suitcase, and listed on my feet again. I needed to hydrate, probably, I thought, so I went downstairs and opened the door to the kitchen to search for water.
A bony little person wearing a red and black checked shirt and skinny red and black plaid pants was sitting at the table, regarding me with huge black eyes that looked as though they were rimmed with kohl. He had a lovely, large, downward curving nose, and a face so waxen and intense in its penumbra of black curls that it left an afterimage.
“Am I disturbing you?” he said.
“Not yet,” I said. “I mean, we’ve hardly met.”
“The noise?” he said.
Spread out in front of him on the table were scraps of fabric and colored paper and little figures made out of clay and wood and various other materials, a pot of glue, and some tools, including a little hammer—oh.
“Hey, I loved Terra Nova Dreaming,” I said. “I really did.”
“Good,” he said. “Because I could use your opinion on this new one. I want to try running it here, but it’s gotten pretty out of control—there are a lot of characters, including some bats that have to turn into drone aircraft and back again, which is a pretty tricky maneuver. There are a couple of kids from the village who can help me backstage, and Fred can deal with the lights, but I’d appreciate a good supplementary eye out front.”
“Fred?” I said.
“A guy who drives and gardens here and stuff. I don’t know what his name really is. That’s what Ray and Christa call him. He’s good at doing things, but he’s a bit erratic, I think. I don’t want to take too much of your time, though. Christa told me you were coming, and I figured you wanted to get your own stuff done, or why else would you be here.”
“Well, I mean, to relax?”
“Yeah? You must have a really unusual relaxation technique going.”
I furrowed. “Why do you . . .?”
“Hey, even some of the world’s champ relaxers didn’t show this season—haven’t you noticed? The whole crowd has bailed—all the other freeloaders and the usual apparatchiks . . . I’m here because I got evicted from my apartment when the arts program at the school where I was teaching got cut, and what with putting the new show together and not exactly having an income, luxury handouts were definitely attractive, whatever the hidden costs. I figured you were coming for some similar reason. Anyhow, the onus is on us, obviously.”
“The onus . . . ?”
“The onus? To entertain, to distract, to diffuse, to buffer? On us, as in on you and me? Which is why I hardly ever put in an appearance at the main house, and, as I established the policy immediately, it’s been interpreted as a sign of genius, I hear from Fred, if I understand him correctly. Anyhow, I suggest that you adopt my example. ASAP, in fact, as things are clearly just about to get worse.”
“Um . . . I’m kind of way behind you,“ I said.
“Hm.” He looked at me with a blend of interest and distant pity, like an entomologist considering something in a jar.
“Two things,” he said, and he started in, quietly but implacably, like a fortune teller laying out the pitiless cards.
“That can’t be true,” I said, when he had trailed off, gazing sadly out the window behind me. “Is that all true?”
“Have a look,” he said. “See for yourself.” So I went to the window, and sure enough, off in the distance were bobbing lanterns, and I could see, as my eyes adjusted, the small line of people straggling down a dirt road toward the water, hauling little carts piled with bundles of stuff.
“They wait all night for the boats, sometimes longer. First come, first serve, I gather. Even a few weeks ago, you didn’t see this too often, but now there are some almost every night.”
Apparently most of the people in the area had lived for centuries by working little farms. But a few years earlier there had been relentless rain, and the flooding had washed out the crops, and then there was a second year of that. The third year was a drought, and so was the next one, so none of the new planting could establish roots, and it all blew away. People were exhausting their stores of food, but then Ray bought up lots of the farms, which, under the circumstances, he got at a very good price. And instead of planting grain or vegetables, he planted eucalyptus, which roots really fast, as a cash crop and to keep the bluffs from collapsing. So everyone was happy for a while. But in the summer there had been a few lightning storms, and the high oil content of the eucalyptus was graphically demonstrated when they burst into flame, burning down homes as well as whatever crops were still being grown by anyone who hadn’t sold their land to Ray, and food prices were skyrocketing. So naturally local people who could leave were leaving, and a lot of the foreigners, like Ray and Christa, who had places in the area were pulling up stakes, too. “So, that’s thing one,” Amos said.
“Thing . . . one?” I said.
“And thing two is that Zaffran has rented a place about five miles further up the coast.”
“Zaffran? You mean Zaffran the model, Zaffran?”
“But what does that, why should that be, oh.”
“Yeah, it started back in the city, it seems. Or that’s what Christa seems to think. Zaffran’s Roshi is near here, and she comes every few months to study with him. She met him when she was here about a year ago, doing that preposterous spread for Vogue—all those idylls of her and the donkeys and the beaming peasants with the photo-shopped dental work. That’s how that whole donkey ride business started, in fact, with the cute bells and fringe and so on—it was the stylist ’s idea. And anyhow, that ’s when she took up Zen. There weren’t really any tourists here before the Vogue thing, but now there are plenty, so everyone in the village adores Zaffran because the tourist income is about all anybody here has to live on. And a couple of months ago Ray ran into her at some party at home, and she said she needed his advice about buying a place in the area, and, well, so that’s the story.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Anyhow, the cook is great, Marya, and she ’s a real sweetheart. She’ll give you food to bring over here and heat up if you don’t want to eat at the house.”
“Oh, god. Poor Christa. I just can’t do that to her.”
“Suit yourself,” Amos said. “But remember that she’d do it to you.”
His point reverberated through my head like a slammed door. I should go upstairs, I thought, and leave him alone to work, but it was hard to move, so just to stall, I asked him what his new show was about.
“Same old, same old,” he said. “Never loses its sparkle, unfortunately.”
And as Amos began to present the familiar elements and entwine them in a simple moral fable, I began once again to feel that I was falling into a dream. There was the castle, the greedy king, the trophy queen. There were the ravenous alligators, watchfully circling the moat. Soldiers in armor poised at the parapet walls with vats of boiling oil at the ready, and behind them, inside the towers, the king’s generals programmed drone aircraft, whose shadows blighted the countryside.
Who was the enemy? Serfs, of course, potentially, who mined underground caves with the help of pit donkeys, and brought back huge sacks of gold and jewels to swell the royal coffers. Because what if the serfs and donkeys became inflamed with rage? They were many.
“But what the king and queen don’t understand,” Amos said, “is that the serfs and donkeys are already inflamed with rage, and the bats, who fly between the castle turrets and the mines, are couriers. They’re on the side of the serfs, because they love freedom and flying at night and justice, which is blind, too. And the donkeys, once roused, turn out to be indefatigable strategists.”
“Huh,” I said. “Interesting.”
“Yeah? I’m glad. It sure didn’t require much thought. But it’s got possibilities, I guess.”
“What are you going to call it?” I asked.
“What will I call it, what will I call it . . .” His attention seemed to be mainly on one of the little figures, onto which he was gluing something that looked, I noticed, like an orange prison jumpsuit. “Hm. I think I’ll call it The Hand that Feeds You.”
“I’m not sure that’s such a—”
“Yes, it is,” he said. “It’s a great title. Hey, relax, I’ll find something more appropriate to call it for this audience.”
“So how does it end?” I asked.
“I’m not exactly sure yet, but this is what I’m trying out: There’s a huge popular uprising, and for about three minutes, there’ll be a rhapsodic ode, during which the serfs, the donkeys, the bats, and the audience rejoice. The end! everyone thinks. But no, because there ’s a second act, and it turns out that the greedy king and queen are only a puppet government, keeping a client state in order for an unseen, unnamed greater power.”
“You mean, like . . . God?”
“I mean, like, corporate executives. And now that the king and queen have been toppled, a state of emergency has been declared and the laws of the land, such as they were, have been indefinitely suspended, and the corporate executives empower the army to raze the countryside and imprison the bats and the king and queen—everyone in fact, except the strongest serfs and donkeys, who will continue to toil in the mines, but under worse conditions than before.”
“Wow,” I said. “That’s very . . . that’s pretty depressing.”
“Well, yeah, sure. But I mean, these are the facts.”
“You know, I’m so tired,” I said. “Who knows what time it is at home. I think I better go upstairs. Do you have any idea where they keep the water?”
“Here you go,” he said, opening a cupboard that held cases and cases of fancy bottled water. “So, good luck with that relaxing thing.”
Back up in my room, it seemed to me that I could hear a low, steady rumbling, rising up from the village—just regular night sounds, of course. Just . . . the night sounds of anywhere . . .
I studied the small, white pills Christa had given me. They were not very alarming, swaddled there in their tissue. They hardly seemed to count. Not that anything else did, either . . .
I woke up not exactly refreshed, more sort of blank, really, as if the night had been not just dreamless, but expunged. In fact, where was I? I padded across the unfamiliar floor to the unfamiliar window, and the implausible reality reasserted itself. From here, I was looking out at cliffs and the sea, all sluiced in delicate pinks and yellows and greens and blues, as if the sun were imparting to the sleeping rock and water dreams of their youth, dreams of the rock’s birth in the earth’s molten core, the water’s ecstatic purity before it was sullied by life—as if the play of soft colors were the sun’s lullaby to the cliffs and the sea, of endurance and transformation.
There was no trace of the people I’d seen the night before from the kitchen window. Could the whole conversation with Amos have been an illusion? There was not a ripple on the glassy water.
A faint jingling was coming my way. I craned out and could just make out one of the local villagers, I presumed, or farmers—a dark-skinned man, wearing loose white clothing and a colorful broad-brimmed hat—leading a procession of little gray donkeys festooned with bells and fringed harnesses and rosettes, picking their way up a steep track, each carrying a big, sacklike tourist.
I wandered over to my laptop, which, apparently I’d left on, and called up my email—the Wi-Fi worked, just as Christa had promised—hoping for something to indicate that the world still in fact existed so that someday I might return to it. And—good heavens—there was something from Graham!
All the fragrance from the vines outside blossomed in my room, as though there had just been a quenching rain. Happiness slammed through my body. I, in my desolation—despite the distance, despite our estrangement—had evidently succeeded in calling forth the true Graham, not just the apparition who had come to me in the airport. The lavish air enfolded me, and I breathed it in, expanding as though I’d been constricted in cold shackles for a long, long time. I restrained myself for one more voluptuous second, then opened his email.
Prisoner?—it began—The world is large. You’re only a prisoner of your own fears. If you don’t like it in the prison of your fears, go somewhere else. Or stay there if you need to. But don’t blame me. You obviously expect me to be your solution, as if I were an arcane number of some sort by which you were neatly divisible. Why do you think anybody could be that for you? Why do you think anybody could be that for anybody? I’m not someone who falls short of me—I’m me. I’m not a magic number, I’m just some biped. Look, maybe my soul really is dust, but I mean prisoner? Slippers? Granary? Of course, I really don’t get what you’re talking—
What? “Prisoner?” “Slippers?” “Granary?” Was Graham cracking up over there in Barcelona? And yet . . . Had some fleeting thoughts of mine actually reached him, bent, like little bent darts from Cupid? Or what was happening? I’d begun to tingle, as though I were thinning out, strangely; something strange was happening—Oh! No, no, no, no, no, no, no—Graham’s note was a response . . .a response to . . . to an email from me—apparently sent at 3 am:
When you sold me to them—I’d written—did you envision the consequences for me, the wandering in the tunnels, the sunless life underground, lit only by baskets of cold, glittering gems? What did you hope to gain by divesting me? A subsidiary? Gone are my days of sitting at the hearth, embroidering slippers for the little bats—as innocent as the king and queen are vicious—singing all the whilst I adorned the panels of the granary. Your support for their corrupt regime has cost you more than it has cost me! Yes I am a prisoner now, but your soul has turned to dust, these are the facts. The word “l***,” is that what I mean? I “l***” you? I am in a different country and speak a different language, where there is no word for “l***.” Oh Graham, Graham, am I going to die here?
And then I finished reading his note:
—about. (As usual, right? I know, I know.) Anyhow, I’m okay, in case you have the slightest interest in the actual me. Barcelona hasn’t really worked out, though, so it ’s time to move on, I guess. Europe is really expensive, and it ’s hard to get work if you’re not a member of the EU. But Africa is mostly in turmoil, and so is Latin America. Australia? What would be the point? China’s impossible, and Japan is hurting these days, obviously. Maybe I’ll come back to the States just to regroup for a bit, though god knows it ’s finished there, isn’t it—really, truly finished. Well, I hope you’re okay. You really, really don’t sound okay. Maybe you should see somebody and get some pills or something. Oh, by the way, I had to sell Blue Hill. I wish I didn’t, but I couldn’t bring it with me when I moved, and I couldn’t afford to put stuff in storage, and I figured that you might get some benefit out of the sale because the buyers were crazy about it and they own a lot of stuff, and maybe the guy will commission you to do a mural for one of his banks, or something. I’ll let you know if I’m coming back. Maybe we could get together for a drink. xo Graham
“Whilst?” I thought—“singing all the whilst?” No wonder I couldn’t sleep—who would allow themselves to go to sleep, with all the stupid, rotting brain trash that would be waiting for you when you got there! How mortifying, how mortifying—and furthermore, Graham was right, if, in fact, I’d ever l***d him, it was the Graham—his very email made it all too clear—of my own devising. I re-read what he had written, and then I read it again, and when I had recovered sufficiently I steamed over to the main house, where I found Christa and Ray at lunch, apparently not looking at each other or speaking. “What the fuck are those pills!” I said. “I wrote someone an email in my sleep!”
Now Ray looked at Christa. “Did you give her one of my Serenitols? You gave her one of my Serenitols, didn’t you!”
“So what?” she said. “I told you to throw that shit out.”
I was just standing there agape. “You gave me some pills that make you email in your sleep?”
“‘Some!’” Ray yelled. “You gave her some?”
“I’m sorry,” Christa said to me, “but you said you were desperate. And they don’t do anything to most people.”
“They do something to me,” Ray yelled. “They’re the only things that get me to sleep!”
“They fucking decerebrate you!” Christa turned to me. “Ray drives in his sleep.”
“I do not drive in my sleep!”
“Oh, you’re awake when you jump in your car at 2 am and go tearing up the coast to see that loony anorexic bitch?”
“She is not anorexic—that’s just the way she looks! How many of those things do I have left now?”
“In one second you’re not going to have any,” Christa yelled, tearing out of the room after him, “because I’m going to flush them down—”
And then, happily, both of them were out of sight and earshot. So I helped myself to lunch, and it was all delicious. That night there was the first in a long series of freakish storms, and the sky erupted over and over into webs of lightning that crackled across the water and mountains and valley. Ray didn’t show up for dinner, and he didn’t show up the next day, either. In fact, he didn’t return for nearly a month, during which time Christa alternated between shutting herself up in the bedroom, pounding on my door to talk incoherently for hours, and scaring up whatever expats and aimless travellers she could, for wild parties that lasted days. I was pretty worried about her, especially when I realized she was taking not only Crestilin, but Levelal and Hedonalex, too.
When I could, I would hide myself away from the noise and confusion of the parties, and ask Marya for meals to bring to the little house for myself. And sometimes Amos and I would stand together at the kitchen window to watch the storms, and the fires springing up on distant slopes. And I would also sneak peeks at Amos, whose face reflected the flames as an entrancing opalescence, as if the light were coming from his lunar skin.
Ray was still gone, and one day Christa came to my room wearing baggy pajamas and carrying a huge armload of beautiful, beautiful dresses. “Here,” she said. “These are for you. I don’t want them anymore.” In her eyes, tears were welling and subsiding and welling. I took the clothes from her, and we stood and looked at each other, and then she turned away and was gone. Naturally, during that time, I thought about Graham quite a bit, and I longed not for him, but for the apparition he fell so far short of, which I called up over and over, and gradually wore away until there was nothing left of it, though the loss wasn’t exactly a nullity—I could feel an uncomfortable splotch marking its spot, like a darned patch on a sock.
I watched the ravenous flames devouring Ray’s eucalyptus, where there had once been small farms and living crops, and I was sorry that I hadn’t sent myself my paints and brushes. So Fred drove me to the nearest large town, where I spent most of the frisky money that had made me feel so powerful, to acquire some passable materials.
We passed some donkeys on the road, sweet little gray things with eyes as black as Amos’s. “Donkeys!” Fred said affectionately.
Fred spoke only a bit of English, so I’m not sure exactly what he was telling me—I think it was that he had a wife and lots of children, and that his wife was a baker, who made the delicious pastries that Marya served every day, but that the price of flour was now so high that the remaining local people could barely afford to buy her bread.
Fred himself was an electrician, I think he said, but these days there wasn’t much paying work, so he had started to do any sort of thing he could for Christa and Ray, to make ends meet. I’m not sure, but I think he said that he was helping build a generator, too, for the little hospital in the area, and that there were sometimes electrical emergencies, so he had to drop whatever he was doing for Ray or Christa and go attend to the problem.
Anyhow, he was good at doing a lot of things, and he was kind enough to help me stretch some canvasses. Accident had selected me to observe, in whatever way I could, the demonic, vengeful, helpless, ardent fires as they consumed the trees that had replaced the crops—to observe the moment when, at the heart of the conflagration, the trees that sustained it became phantoms, the fire ’s memory.
In those days, I was neither awake nor asleep. The fires, the sea, the parties, Christa, Marya, Amos, and Fred wove through the troubled light, the dusk, the smoky, phosphorescent nights. The water had become rough and gray, and down by the shore a little group of shacks had sprung up, where people waited for a boat to appear on the horizon. Sometimes I thought of my former employer, Howard, just standing there, as I left, not looking at me.
I was getting fed; at home, so was my cat. I arranged to stay another month. Ray returned, and the wild parties came to an abrupt end, though now and again a fancy car would still roar up, and some flashy, drunken teenagers would tumble out at the door and have to be shooed away. I learned, online, that Zaffran had taken up with a young actor. The first few days Ray was back, he was irritable and silent, but soon he became cheery and expansive, as though he had achieved something of note, and Christa began to make plans to redecorate. “Would you like the dresses back?” I asked. “I don’t really have anyplace to wear them.” “The dresses?” she said. She smiled vaguely, and patted me, as though I had barked.
Three weeks of drenching rains kept us all indoors, and by the next week, when the rain began to let up, I had completed almost what I could, and Amos was ready to run his show, which he was provisionally calling State of Emergency.
The dank fires were still smoldering, and several donkeys had slid into a ravine where they died, heaps of blood and shattered bone, though no tourists had been hurt. With the help of Fred and some kids from the village, Amos had constructed a little theatre inside the main house, and we all settled in to watch—Christa and Ray and me, of course, and Marya, and a few Europeans and Saudis, who still had vacation places in the area, and a visitor from Jaipur, who designed software for a big US corporation, and his elegant wife. I wore one of Christa’s lovely dresses for the occasion, the only one that didn’t make me look seriously delusional.
The curtain rose, over a vibrant and ominous bass line. You could hear the plashing of the alligators in the moat and the lethal tapping of the computer keys in the towers. A queasy buzzing of the synthetic string section slowly became audible as the murky dawn disclosed drone aircraft circling the skies around the castle. Fred had done an amazing job with the lights, and the set, with its beautiful painted backdrops, was so vivid and alluring that sitting there in front of it you felt as though you had been miniaturized and were living in the splendid castle, pacing its red stone floors among the silk hangings. In the caves, where the serfs and donkeys toiled, at a throb of the woodwinds, pinpoints of brilliant yellow eyes flicked open, revealing hundreds of upside-down bats.
Amos had made a makeshift recording in his own strange, quavering, slightly nasal voice, of all the vocal tracks laid over an electronic reduction of the score—the forceful recitatives, and the complex, intertwining vocal lines. As the conflict built toward a climax, the powerful despots—the king and queen, the generals, and the alligators in the moat—sang of rage and growing fears. The twilight deepened, and the hills beyond the castle grew pink. Small black blobs massing on them became columns of donkeys and serfs, advancing. The sound of piccolos flared, and Marya grabbed my wrist as a great funnel of dots swirled from the turrets and bats filled the sky, and Amos’s quavering voice, in a gorgeous and complicated sextet, not only mourned the downfall of the brutal regime but also celebrated the astonishing triumph of the innocents.
The curtain dropped, and there was a brief silence until Marya and I began to clap. The others joined in tepidly. “Nicely done, nicely done,” the man from Jaipur said.
“We love to have artists working here,” Christa said to his elegant wife. “It ’s an atmosphere that promotes experimentation. Sometimes things succeed and sometimes they fail. That’s just how it works.”
“That was only the first act,” Amos said. “This is intermission.”
“Ah,” Ray said, grimly. “Well, let ’s all have a stretch and a drink, then, before we sit down again.”
“I’m afraid we won’t be able to stay for the second act,” one of the Saudis said. “An early flight. Thank you. It was a most enjoyable evening, most unexpected.”
So the rest of us had a stretch and a drink and sat down for the short second act.
The curtain rose over a blasted landscape. The bodies of the King and the Queen swung stiffly from barren trees. With a moaning and creaking of machinery, the ruins of the castle rose unsteadily up from the earth. Heaps of smoking corpses clogged the moat.
Three generals, formerly in the service of the hanged royal couple and now in the service of the absent executives, appeared at the front of the stage. One sang of the dangers to prosperity and social health that the conquered rebels had represented. A second joined in, with a lyrical memory of his beloved father, also a general, who had died in the line of duty. And the third sang of a hauntingly beautiful serf rebel, whom he had been obliged to kill.
There was more mechanical moaning and creaking, and up from the earth in front of the castle rose a line of skeletons—serfs, bats, and donkeys—linked by heavy chains. The generals, now in the highest turret, swigged from a bottle of champagne, and as the grand finale, the skeletons, heads bowed, sang a dirge in praise of martial order.
The curtain came down again, heavily. There were another few moments of confused silence, and then Marya and I began to clap loudly, and the others joined in a bit, after which Marya disappeared quietly into the kitchen, to put out the scrumptious dinner she had prepared, and Ray stood up. “Well,” he said. “So.”
I rarely go to parties any longer, but I did go to one the other evening, and there were Ray and Christa, looking wonderful. The milling crowd jostled us together for a moment, and they each gave me a quick kiss on the cheek and moved on, not seeming to remember me, exactly.
In the morning, I called Amos, with whom I have coffee now and again, and we arranged to meet up that afternoon. He had just gotten back from touring The Hand that Feeds You in Sheffield, Delft, and Leipzig, where it had a modest success, apparently. “Gosh, I’d love to see that show again,” I said. “Yeah,” he said, “it’s changed. I’ve worked out some of the kinks, and of course I got together some people who can actually sing to record the music, but I can’t get it put on here. Too expensive. And my former producer says the stuff about serfs is cliché.”
He was thinner than ever, drawn, actually, and I noticed for the first time that his wonderful, pallid luster had dimmed. “Amos, hey, I really cleaned up with my last show,” I said. “Let me take you to a decent dinner.”
“Sure,” he said, in such a concertedly neutral tone that I realized I’d upset him.
“Wow, Christa and Ray,” I said, retreating to more comfortable ground. “I think about them sometimes, don’t you? It’s odd—no matter how you feel about a place, it ’s as though you exchange something with it. It keeps a little bit of you, and you keep a little bit of it.”
I know,” he said. “And the thing you mostly get to keep is leaving.”
A while after we’d both returned home, or so Amos had heard, the last of Ray’s eucalyptus trees had been torn out to prevent further fires, and then the bluffs collapsed, sweeping away the remaining huts of the village in mudslides, and Ray and Christa had shut up the place and left, shortly before it was torched. So we wouldn’t be seeing it again, obviously, and nobody else would, either.
And in fact it was hard to believe, as we sat there in the rather grubby coffee shop about halfway between our apartments, that the place had ever actually existed, and that Amos had first done his show there that evening when the rains finally stopped and the sky cleared and the stars came out and the moon made a path on the sea that looked as though it led straight to heaven.
No one had mentioned the show at dinner, but there was plenty to talk about that night anyway—a new drug against hair loss that was being developed in Germany, an animated film about space aliens that was grossing an immense profit despite its unprecedented cost, and a bestselling memoir detailing a teenager’s abusive upbringing that turned out to have been written by a prankster. And after we’d all had a lot of very good wine and Marya brought out an incredible fruit tart, the man from Jaipur stood to raise his glass and said, “let us be thankful—let us be thankful for our generous hosts, for art, for this beautiful evening, and for the mild, sunny days ahead!”