Special Agent Zero leaned up against the back wall of the nightclub. In his right hand he held a bottle of Miller Genuine Draft. Over and over again, he knocked the rim of the bottle against his teeth, absorbed by the barely audible ping.
He removed a tape recorder from the back pocket of his jeans and spoke softly but clearly:
I want to hear the music that beats inside her throbbing hips as she moves her flesh through the smoky air, breasts slipping out of her skin-tight dress
When the music from the loudspeaker stops, she keeps on bouncing from toe to toe, swiveling her large hips back and forth, displaying the soft tan of her thighs and the bulge of her buttocks
I want to hear the deranged geometry of her smile -- to gorge myself on the tonic note of her fresh-shaved underarms and their mystical vibrations --
to comprehend the brilliant corners of the beat that makes her thrust --
He clicked the tape recorder off. The faster the woman danced, the harder he knocked the rim of the bottle against his teeth. Eventually it started to hurt. He guzzled the rest of the beer and put the bottle down.
The woman was tired; she left the dance floor and walked over to the bar to order a drink. Her boyfriend, with whom she had been dancing, headed toward the mens' room. Special Agent Zero sensed a golden opportunity.
Special Agent Zero walked over to the mens' room, following close behind the boyfriend. He waited for the boyfriend to go in. Then he removed from his back pocket a tube of industrial-strength superglue. He opened the door a bit, and drippedthirteen drops of glue on the edge of the door. Then he shut the door and held it for fifteen seconds.
He walked over to the woman, and said, "Let me buy you a drink."
She shook her head no.
"Okay," he said, "then you buy me one."
She looked around nervously for the bartender, who was busy talking to his friends at the other side of the bar. Special Agent Zero reached over the bar and grabbed a bottle of Bailey's Cream. "Here you go," he said to the woman. "It's on the house." He took a swig from the bottle, then put down in front of her.
She grinned and took a long drink. The bartender was oblivious. Special Agent Zero put his arm around her waist, and she moved a little closer. He took another drink, and she took another one.
"Let's get out of here," he suggested.
She nodded yes.
After they made love, she fell asleep. Their clothes were lying by the side of the bed; he reached his arm over and removed his tape recorder from the back pocket of his jeans. He spoke in a tired voice, as though discharging a moral duty:
The ferrous tunnel of her breath, the luminous cathedrals of her fingertips, the vigorous earthy laughter of her muscled thighs. Between her legs, the folds and wrinkles, the intangible details -- the smell! the violence! the greed! the fire! the hatred!
The world expands and then contracts with her body's motion
The stretch marks on her belly are a range of fleshy mountains, and the crinkles on the wing of a radiant butterfly
The spiral of her navel is a whirlpool in a sea of boiling blood
Special Agent Zero was lucky. He had found a live one, an uncorrupted specimen. I myself was not so fortunate. My girlfriend read the Greek philosophers, and was addicted to a variety of drugs. She laced the milk in my breakfast cereal with hallucinogenic toadstools, and then seduced me.
She said, "When I was too young to be sick of the flesh, there was a certain smart violence in conceiving of myself as a shadow."
I replied with a kick to her voluminous posterior. She undid the buttons of her shirt.
I inquired regarding the symbolic dynamics of her breasts. She laughed, and on her tongue appeared the face of a lizard. "Today my motions are an amorous science. My understanding is nearly crippled by the thought that somewhere beyond this is something solid."
I grabbed her firmly around the neck and squeezed until her face turned violet. She dropped her skirt and with a giggle softly poked me on the chest. I toppled backwards, overwhelmed by the force of her anger.
I lay there sprawled on top of the ghastly orange bedspread. She stripped her panties off and, grinning, ran her fingers through her short hairs. She said, "Your tongue thrusts in and out of my pink madness."
I spat in her face. She kicked me in the balls, again and again and again. When I came back to my senses I was staring up at her buttocks. She said, "Delirium is the only sizeless number." I threw her off of me, and turned her body over my knee. I whacked her again and again, until I couldn't stand the screaming. She took my cock in her mouth and clenched my balls in her fingers, whispering "Relax." Defrauded, I reflexively obeyed her.
I felt the burning fluid surge up through my stalk. Andthen her teeth dug in, and I squeezed her neck so hard I thought her eyes were going to pop out. She lay there limp, as if in the deepest dreamless slumber. I spread her out on the floor and entered her.
After ten or fifteen minutes, I felt some motion in her thighs. Her eyes peeped open for a moment. She rolled me over and writhed rhythmically on top of me, palms flat on my chest, eyes up toward the ceiling. She said, "I feel that I am moving toward something big. I feel very good about this union." I clenched her buttocks with a drained, exhausted smile. "The equations of emotion are insoluble," she continued. "There is solidity in the overwhelming moment."
She twisted around in tiny circles, faster and faster, until she was sure that I was dead. My body gave one final thrust, which cast her halfway across the room. We got up, showered, and dressed in silence.
As she passionately kissed me goodbye, it felt as though her lips were mouthing words. I asked her what she was saying, and she removed a switchblade from the back pocket of her Levis. She made a small slit in the tip of her tongue, and kissed me again, this time with even greater vigor. I said, "You are an angel." As she walked away, the swaying of her buttocks made me dizzy.
When she left, the toadstools were just beginning to sink in. I hate to trip alone, so I left my apartment, walked down the hall and knocked on Special Agent Zero's door. There was no answer, but I tried the handle and it turned, so I let myself in.
The woman was lying on the bed asleep, and he was standing at the bedroom window, his nose pressed up against the glass, speaking into his tape recorder:
The contours of her flesh are an invisible planet. The sun removes itself from view. Her eyes are hideously undefined, her mouth a deep red vault of rock. The temperature: two degrees above absolute zero. Her arm moves toward me slowly, slowly. Civilizations rise, collapse along the crease of her breast. Her thighs creak open like an old door in the wind.
I looked at the woman more closely. Her flesh was pale and motionless. She appeared to be dead.
"Have you ever fucked a dead woman?" Special Agent Zero asked me quietly.
I felt dizzy all of a sudden. "No," I said. "No, I haven't."
"You should try it sometime."
I looked at her again. She was beautiful.
"Physically it's not that great; there's certainly something to be said for warmth. But psychologically, there are definite advantages. You don't have to worry about pleasing her -- she doesn't give a fuck, she's dead. Think about it. You can do anything you want to her, without worrying about her reaction."
I stood there staring for perhaps half a minute. "Did you kill her?" I asked finally, regaining a bit of my composure.
I couldn't take my eyes from the pores of her skin. They were all of a sudden as big as I was; tremendous canyons like inverted breasts, heaving and shuddering. Dead, dead, dead, dead.
Special Agent Zero shook his head disapprovingly. "You know me better than that. It was alcohol poisoning."
I heard a distant yell. It was my girlfriend. "She's come back again," I said. "I have to go. I'll be back later."
Special Agent Zero nodded. "I won't be alone."
I gestured towards the body. "She's not much company."
He waved me away, saying "That's not what I mean."
I looked at him curiously, but he just said, "Go on, go to your woman."
When I turned to leave he took out his tape recorder again. He spoke with a strange lilt in his voice:
Invisible people live among us, communicating by psychicradio ... blind, invisible, deaf and silent, growing invisible crops, making invisible love, working invisible machines. They brush against us now and then, but we ignore it, ascribe it to nerves or to the wind. Each one of us has an identical twin in the invisible world. Occasionally an invisible woman will give birth to a visible child, but within seconds such a child inevitably explodes, destroying invisible trees, houses, and villages, killing hundreds of invisible men and women. This explosion is felt in the visible world as a psycho-social disturbance: we beat each other, insult each other, murder each other, suddenly are possessed by an urge to wring necks or to scream at total strangers. Invisible scientists have discovered us and determined that we are the dark side of creation, that contact with any one of us would be an experience synonymous
with an eternity in hell.
I didn't leave Special Agent Zero until he was done recording. By the time I made it to my apartment, my girlfriend was shrieking like a banshee.
"I have a scenario," she told me, soaked with sweat.
"That's what I said. Listen."
I listened. She was silent.
"Close your eyes."
I obeyed her. I heard her move a chair up next to me. She removed her shirt, then placed her nipples in her mouth to wet them. She stood on the chair and traced her damp nipples across my face.
As she performed this sensual ritual, I heard Special Agent Zero walk into the room, and click on his tape recorder. He spoke in a low voice:
The wind throws my hair in my face, and my curls look like diamonds. For a moment the air smells of white wine. Drunk on the glow of the sun, I turn my face to yours, smiling. I acceptyour ovarian assault. Your lips touch my neck and your leg slips between mine. In the language my pain has devised, I salute your lost cunning. Something moves from me to you, across the sea of invisible blood, and I reach out to grab it but find only a vivid silence.
"You can open your eyes now," she said. She stepped down from the chair, but did not put on her shirt.
"That was quite a scenario," I said.
I pulled her toward me, but she resisted. "Where were you?" she asked accusingly. "When I went out. Where did you go? Did you go to see another woman? You went to see another woman, didn't you. Did you make love with her? Answer me -- did you make love with her? Was she good in bed? She was good in bed wasn't she. Was she good in bed? Was she better than me? Answer me, will you! Was she better than me?"
"I went to see Special Agent Zero," I replied. "He just killed a woman. He poisoned her."
She kissed me hard on the mouth. "You're a liar."
"Believe what you want," I said. "There's no way to convince you."
"The toadstools are kicking in," she observed. "I can see it in your eyes; your pupils are dilating. You'll be peaking soon."
"I really wish you wouldn't do that."
"What? Look into your eyes?"
I laughed. "You really are crazy."
She was seriously annoyed. It was a pet peeve of hers; she couldn't stand to be called crazy. "Will you please tell me what you're talking about!"
I said, "I really wish you wouldn't put toadstools in my breakfast cereal."
She pouted. "I can't talk to you when you're straight. You're too judgemental."
"You mean when you've got me all fucked up on toadstools I can't see the holes in your logic. In your crazy scenarios. But the holes are still there, whether or not I have the presence of mind to detect them."
She smiled and touched her breasts. "It's kicking in," she giggled. "You can talk all you want, but you can't stop it."
"Make love to me," I said.
She rubbed her chest against mine. "Not yet."
"First you have to listen."
She promised me to rip apart the web of thought and language.
Squatting on the toilet, she told of a vision of a golden fairy goddess who gave birth to herself, then became entangled in her own umbilical cord and died.
She caressed her breasts and called them magic lanterns.
She promised me liberty from illusions, a purer life!
She fed me delicate crystal images of enchantment.
She took her nipples between her fingers and asked me to suck the genies out.
She promised me everything. She left me in a cave without a flashlight, smashing my head against the stalactites and the walls.
She called her marvelous buttocks launching pads for invisible alien starships. She promised me, for Christmas, an asteroid of my very own.
She called me a walking apocalypse. She told me the juice between her legs was an ancient elixir, derived from fruits that vanished with the continent of Mu.
Her muscles promised me allegiance in twenty languages.
She left in a symphony of shadows, forgetting nothing but
Track 3, Reel 5
About two weeks after Karen left, William received a phone call from Harold P. Taver of the State Department. "She was found unconscious on a small boat in the Black Sea, just north of Sunny Beach, Bulgaria," Mr. Taver explained. "We found your name on the emergency card in her wallet."
"I see," he said. "The emergency card in her wallet."
"This was yesterday morning. They haven't been able to revive her."
William paused, trying to think of the appropriate questions. He had just lost two thousand dollars playing the five dollar poker machines, and was not in the best possible mood. "Where is she now?" he came up with, finally.
"She's in the hospital in Sofia, Bulgaria."
"You've got to get her back here right away!"
Mr. Taver paused uncomfortably. "I understand you'd like to see her, but I'm not sure what...."
"You don't understand the situation," William said firmly. "Just before she left the country, she took an experimental drug called White, which is known to induce severe hallucinations. Two related cases -- incidentally, two of her best friends -- are being studied in Sunrise Medical Center here, at this very moment. Let me give you the numbers of the doctors involved...."
Within seventy-two hours Karen was in the same room as Nell and John. William's suspicion was that the three of them would now have exactly the same brain wave patterns. This turned out to be incorrect. But the real situation was, in a way, even more interesting. Karen's brain waves were highly active, and they were correlated with the brain waves of Nell and John in a very complex way -- as though the composite entity Nell/John were interacting with Karen in some alternate plane of existence.
The doctors studied the three of them intensively for several months, but failed to make any progress. Eventually theywere simply left alone, like all the other comatose patients. Family members visited, and Nell's family requested that she be moved nearer to their home, but the doctors prevailed: they needed the three together, for their "research." A little over two years passed.
William married a slight Mexican woman, who brought her family to live with him. He got his master's degree and went on toward his Ph.D, studying under Dr. Sluzhyak.
Jim Allison had disappeared entirely; there was an open warrant for his arrest on suspicion of murder one.
And then one day the unexpected happened. The three of them awakened, simultaneously. The doctors examined them and found nothing unusual: it was just as though they had emerged from a long night's sleep. Each of them independently and automatically lied to the doctors, reporting absolutely no memories from the past two years. In fact, each of them remembered the events of the last two years perfectly well. The last two years had been spent, not lying in Sunrise Hospital, but rather exploring the untamed jungles of a distant planet, eating fruit and fish in the company of an android named Percival. Their muscles felt lame and useless, but they had memories of plenty of exercise -- of swimming and playing childish games, and taking advantage of Percival's limitless sexual prowess.
They spent two days in the hospital; but the doctors had no medical reason to keep them there even that long. Three days after they awakened, the three of them rented a condo across the street from William's place. Bracemer was kind enough to hire John back into his old job, and Karen returned to the Crazy Horse Too. Nell decided to be a housewife for a while.
For John and Nell, life was just about as it had been before the whole scene with Jim Allison. The only difference was, previously they had argued now and then. Now the concept was completely foreign. They went out dancing at night, or stayed at home and watched movies; they made love vigorously and often. In short, they were prototypical newlyweds.
Karen, on the other hand, could not return to her old routines -- since, for one thing, they had been based on the abuse of alcohol and other drugs. Her experience with White had changed her attitude toward drugs. She could no longer tolerate the thought of using them to escape the world. She was, rather, attaining a new level of comfort with her life and with the world -- a level of inner harmony that she had never expected to come across. She rarely felt angry or confused anymore. Mostly she just accepted the events of her life with mild amusement: not quite taking them seriously, but not belittling them either.
Of the three of them, Karen was in the most awkward position by far. Nell and John had the exact same memories of the past two years; they had literally been one. Now they were more closely bound together than they had ever imagined possible. Karen, on the other hand, was alone. She had vivid memories of another world, which she could share with Nell and John and no one else. But these poignant reminisces would always be insignificant compared to what Nell and John had to share with each other.
John and Nell were so wrapped up in each other that they hardly noticed the psychological changes in Karen. But they did notice when she started playing with John's music equipment. Karen had never shown an interest in music before, but now she was programming complicated patterns into John's sequencer, implementing orchestrations far more intricate than anything John used for his jazz fusion.
"That's really weird stuff," observed John the first time he heard one of Karen's compositions. "Definitely postmodern. You know who might be interested in it."
"Joseph," said Karen thoughtfully. "Joseph Przenciewicz."
A few weeks later, Karen gave Joseph a call. "I've been hearing music in my head all my life," she explained. "Now, for the first time, I've been trying to get it out of my head. But it's not that easy."
Joseph laughed. "It is not easy at all. The mind is bigand the world is big, but the interface is much too small. You have to break something into tiny little bits to push it through."
"I'd love some constructive criticism," Karen continued tentatively.
"Why don't you bring some tapes over?" suggested Joseph.
"I'd love to!" exclaimed Karen. "What time...."
"Come on over right now, if you want," said Joseph. "Whenever you want to. I don't work outside the home; I'm always here."
"I don't work till eleven," said Karen. "Sure, why not?"
"You remember where I live?" he asked, after a pause.
"I'll never forget."
When she arrived at his apartment, he asked for her tape and popped it into one of his tape decks. As soon as he heard the first few notes he smiled. "This is White music," he said slowly.
She nodded shyly.
"Structure without predictability," he continued. "A model of the cosmos."
"I have a secret to tell you," Joseph said, as the music grew ever more convoluted, pulsing from 8/19 time into 3/23 time into 4/4 into 5/7.
"Mmmm hmmm," said Karen.
"Promise you won't be mad."
"How can I do that?" protested Karen. "Maybe I will be mad."
"I can't tell you then," said Joseph. They stared at each other for a minute.
"I promise," said Karen suddenly. "Come on, Joseph, fuck this bullshit."
"I invented White," said Joseph simply. "I invented the drug and I gave it to my neighbor, Jim Allison. I also gave it to your drug dealer and paid him to supply it to you. You werethe only one he sold it to. I gave him a very small supply."
"You gave it to Jim Allison?!" exclaimed Karen, her face turning red.
"I didn't realize how crazy he was," said Joseph. "Like LSD, it's a very personal drug. It affects everyone differently."
"Did you give it to Nell and John also?" Karen asked, trying to form a coherent picture of the situation.
"No," said Joseph. "The only two were you and Jim Allison."
"You didn't take it yourself?"
"I took it and it had no effect," said Joseph, a note of regret in his voice. "It doesn't work for everyone."
"But then ... what happened to John and Nell?" asked Karen uncertainly.
"They were swept up in your trip," said Joseph. "The White in your mind created the alternate universe which the three of you experienced. They were forced into it by the power of your creative unconscious."
"But they were in the alternate universe before I was," Karen pointed out. "They were unconscious before I was."
"Doesn't matter," said Joseph dismissively. "The linear time axis is illusory. It can be bent around."
"This is a little hard to buy," said Karen carefully.
Joseph stood up. "I can understand that," he said. "But it really doesn't matter whether you buy it or not. Come here, let me show you something." He gestured her to follow him into the back room. "This is what I was going to show you guys the day John and Nell got hit. Before Jim ran into the house and started smashing things. A machine I've built; it's taken me nearly a decade, but it was worth every minute.
"It allows one to share the experiences of someone existing in an alternate universe. Not only, that is allows one to interfere -- one's own free will mingles with the free will of one's host. It allows one to play demigod."
Karen studied his face. He talked crazy but he didn't lookcrazy. His body language was that of a person who was absolutely sane.
"It has other functions too," he said vaguely. "But we'll get into that later.... Let me hook you up."
She looked at him hesitantly.
"Come on; it's no big deal."
Karen sat down where he indicated, and let him place a special helmet over her head. "Bioelectromagnetics," he muttered triumphantly.
Suddenly she wasn't Karen anymore. And she wasn't in Las Vegas; she was in Philadelphia. Her name was Leah. Leah Armstrong. She was lying on the couch in her apartment, in her nightgown, reading a novel while Nell -- no, Ellen Cambridge -- danced naked to a Jean-Luc Ponty album, Cosmic Messengers.
The album ended. "It just won't work," said Ellen, flopping down on the couch next to Leah. "I've got to leave. I've got to go somewhere. I've got the insurance money; I can go anywhere I want to."
"I guess you can," said Leah. "But what's the point of running away...."
"We've been over this before," said Ellen testily. "I'm going. I'm going to Europe. The only question is whether you want to come with me. It's my treat -- it's the chance of a lifetime for you. You're graduating in a few days anyway -- what else are you planning on doing?"
"Absolutely nothing," Leah admitted.
"One week from today," said Ellen. "You coming?"
Leah grinned. She put her hand on Ellen's nude thigh and said, "Not yet."
Suddenly Karen was back in Joseph's studio with a helmet on her head. "Beautiful, no?" asked Joseph.
"Incredible," said Karen. "I really felt like I was her."
"You felt it because it was true," Joseph said. "You were her."
"I'm not sure I understand that," admitted Karen. "But itwas one hell of an experience. Can I go again? You cut me off just when things were getting good."
"Let me fast forward just a little," suggested Joseph. "We might as well get to the good part." He punched a couple buttons and flicked a switch. Leah and Ellen were walking into the Saint Vitus Cathedral, in the Royal Palace in Prague....
Karen felt herself getting sucked into the illusion. But even as her mind was in a different world, her arms whipped the helmet off her head. She heard Joseph walking toward her, and she turned toward him. She pulled a revolver out of her purse and shot him in the forehead.
She immediately sensed that she had done something very important, something with consequences beyond the death of a single man. She felt her memories subtly shifting, as though reconfiguring themselves to adapt to -- not a different past, but rather a condition of coexistence of several different pasts. The feeling didn't make much sense to her.
Nell and John walked into the room. "Things are going to be all right," Nell said. "I think I'm beginning to understand."
"That makes one of us," said John.
"Remember that paper I read you, about quantum theory?"
"I remember it," said John.
"About how looking at the world changes it. Well, there's a paradox there, right -- because we all look at the world, and we're all part of the world, so if by looking at the world a person changes it, then every time a person looks at the world he changes the other people in the world, and hence the way they look at the world, and hence the way they change it...."
"I get your drift," said John. "So what."
"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others," injected Karen.
Nell laughed. "Exactly."
"You mean ... some people have more effect than others. Everyone is constantly re-forming everyone else and the rest of the physical universe, but some people are stronger ... forces?"
Nell nodded slowly.
Karen said, "Joseph must have found a way to artificially increase his effect on reality. Some sort of amplifier, I guess you could call it."
"But then by shooting him, you solve everything?" asked John skeptically. "It's as simple as that? Why couldn't he program the world so he wouldn't get shot?"
"He wasn't all-powerful," said Nell simply.
"I don't think we're getting to the bottom of it yet," said John.
"The two of you are really the same person," Karen said all of a sudden. "Your separation into two is an illusion." She pulled out her revolver again, and shot Nell in the head.
"You can't get rid of an illusion by shooting it," protested John. But yet he knew that she was right. He automatically felt no grief at the loss of Nell, because he realized instinctively that she had never been a separate being. She had been redundant. If anyone had asked him to predict his reaction to the death of Nell, he would have said "terrible, terrible anguish." But he had been in the grip of an illusion. He would have been wrong.
The two of them stood there staring at each other for a while. "There's still something missing," said John. "It's still not absolutely clear."
Karen walked up to him and locked his mouth in a passionate kiss. "Jealousy," said Karen. "You're so naive." She ran her fingers along his body with a desperate sensuality that roused him despite his fears and doubts.
John turned the issues over and over in his head, again and again. Finally, he resolved to temporarily stop thinking about it.
After they made love, Karen said "Let's go swimming."
"Sure," replied John. "But I don't have my bathing suit here. I'll have to take one of Joseph's."
"Not here," said Karen. "I want to go to the Tropicana. Where Nell and I used to hang out."
"Okay," said John. "Doesn't matter to me. But I want to ask you one thing...."
"Mmmm hmmm. What is it, honey?" She ran her hands along his chest and kissed his shoulder. "I love your neck ... God,
what a neck!"
"You're sounding like a vampire."
She clamped her mouth on his neck and gave him a huge hickey. "What did you want to ask me?"
"Well, I mean, what about the police?" he said nervously. "You just shot two people. Don't you think it would be best to, like, leave the country before they put out a warrant for you...."
"You just don't get it, do you?"
"I guess not."
"Joseph's dead. But his amplifier's still here. We have the power."
"Not the power to protect ourselves," pointed out John, still not sure what Karen was talking about. "Joseph didn't have that."
"Please, honey, let me do the worrying," said Karen, stroking his face. She got out of the bed and stretched. John couldn't help but stare at her body: so full and strong, so different from Nell's. "You like?" said Karen, grinning.
"You'd make a hell of a centerfold."
"Flattery will get you everywhere," Karen cooed, bending over and brushing his face with her large, firm breast. "Now get out of bed, you lazy bum. Here's a bathing suit for you, lying out here on the floor. How convenient."
They dressed and drove down to the Tropicana. John still felt a bit uneasy, but Karen was so confident and forceful; the easiest thing was just to play along. They walked through the casino area, then down the stairs to the pool. They sat on a lounge chair by the side of the pool and stripped down to their bathing suits. Then John picked Karen up and jumped into thepool.
When he came up from underwater, John realized immediately that everything was all wrong. The first thing he did was to look at Karen, to see if she saw what he did, and to see if she was surprised.
She was as shocked as John. The pool was exactly the same, and the hotel was exactly the same. But the air smelled different -- saltier. And the guests looked different -- they were no longer Americans, they were Germans and Eastern Europeans.
Karen turned her head to the side and saw the Black Sea, about a hundred yards away. She looked up at the hotel again and saw one difference. The sign no longer just said TROPICANA; it said TROPICANA SUNNY BEACH. Next to it, in Cyrillic, a sign said TROPICANA SLUNCHEV BRYAG.
Karen said, "We're in Bulgaria."
"Tropicana Sunny Beach," murmured John.
"I was in Slunchev Bryag," said Karen. "There is no Tropicana there."
"Who has the power here?" asked John bitterly. "I want some answers."
Karen got out of the pool and sat down on the lounge chair where they'd left their clothes. "We can't leave the country without our passports," she observed. "We'll have to go to the American consulate."
"We can bribe our way across the border, if we have to," said John. "I have four hundred dollars in my wallet. That's the least of our problems. The main point is, what's the point of going anywhere anyway. Where do you want to go?"
"I've been an idiot," said Karen quietly. Her wide blue eyes looked suddenly frightened. "Playing with forces I don't understand."
"Nell's theory makes more sense than anything else," said John slowly. "The alternative is to admit that the universe is in no way rationally ordered."
"I shot Nell in the head."
"That's true," said John. "Or at least, it appeared to be true at the time."
Karen took off her bikini top. "We're in Europe now; I'm allowed to bathe topless."
"That was the start of all this," recalled John. "The dream I had, that Nell and I were the same person. That I was the mind in Nell's body."
"That dream was what caused you to take the gig at the El Rancho."
"That was a long time ago."
"So it would seem."
"So it would seem."
"Fucking goddamn." John cradled his head in his hands and sighed.
"Let's make love in the water," suggested Karen.
"Not the pool, the sea."
They walked, hand in hand, to the shore. The water was crystal clear and warm as a bath. They walked in until it came up to their necks.
"Nell's theory was one thing," said Karen as she wrapped her legs around his waist. "A furry creature told me another version."
John grabbed her buttocks tightly and rolled them slowly from side to side. "Tell me more, do go on."
Karen giggled. "Another theory, which was told to me on the airplane from Detroit to Frankfurt, is that what we are witnessing is a natural cosmological phenomenon."
"God, that feels good!"
"That the universe, being composed of two dichotomousaspects, mind and reality, is analogous to two people having sexual intercourse."
"The two people, or two aspects, start out as separate entities. But as their exchange of sensations and emotions intensifies, they increasingly grow closer. They become more and more one organism. Oh!"
"Until that moment ... that fleeting instant when they totally combine."
He bends his head down and grabs her nipple in his teeth. She writhes on top of him so vigorously it's all he can do to keep her from slipping off. She yells, and to quiet her down, he envelops her mouth in a kiss.
"And then what?" asked John, lifting her off him. "After mind and reality combine in that perfect moment. Then what happens."
"The stewardess offers you a drink."
"The creature didn't tell me. The stewardess interrupted it; she offered me a drink."
"After orgasm," observed John, "comes postcoital bliss. Then things return to normal for a while, after which the whole game starts again."
She kissed him hard on the mouth. "I know what we have to do."
"Nell. We have to find Nell."
"You shot her," John reminded her.
"She's in Saint Vitus's Cathedral."
"That wasn't her, Karen. That was a drug-induced illusion."
" Everything is an illusion, you stupid fool. That's sort of beside the point."
"Don't get hostile on me."
"Look, I've just got a feeling, okay?"
"Hey," said John, "it's fine with me. I'm not really worried about where we go or what we do. It's all the same to me."
She kissed him again. "You're so easygoing; that's what I like about you."
They got out of the water. There was a band on the stage by the pool. An overweight middle-aged Bulgarian man, singing American hits in badly broken English. The backup band was three scruffy-looking teenagers, playing a tiny drum kit, a beat-up guitar, and a lousy two hundred dollar Casio keyboard. They had John and Karen in stitches. First, Strangers in the Night, sung with such an accent (StrEN Gerzengernipe ... Esschezzig gasses
... StrEN Gerzenrgernipe... ) that they hardly recognized it. Then, The Green Green Grass of Home. And, finally: Karma Chameleon, a 1980's pop hit from the junky transvestite Boy George and his band Culture Club. "Kumma kumma kumma kumma kumma kameeleeuuuh," the man repeated over and over again. He obviously had no idea what he was singing about; he was just repeating the sounds the way Boy George made them, and not very well at that.
"Look, he's like a broken record!" laughed John. "He can't stop repeating that line. He must have said it fifty times now."
"It's the extended dance remix version," said Karen.
"No, seriously -- listen. I think there's something seriously wrong with him. The song doesn't go like that -- there's supposed to be other words in there."
After three or four minutes Karen was inclined to agree with John. Almost everyone was looking strangely at the singer -- including the members of the band. Finally the band stopped playing and he kept on singing. As the drummer and guitarist carried him away, he kept repeating the same phrase.
"Karma chameleon," said Karen thoughtfully. "That's oddly appropriate, don't you think?"
"You mean to our situation? I guess so."
"The thing is, you just can't...."
"Just can't tell exactly when something's actually impossible?"
"Right. Was that an ordinary occurence, or was it a violation of the rules of reality?"
"It wasn't impossible, like going under the water in Vegas and coming up in Slunchev Bryag."
"No, it wasn't impossible. But still...."
"I want to get to Saint Vitus's Cathedral as fast as possible."
Karen knew the route. They took the hovercraft to Bourgas, then the overnight train to Sofia. At the airport, John slipped the customs officer a hundred dollar bill, and he let them through. There was no plane to Prague or Budapest till the next day, but there was one to Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, inbetween the two. They charged two tickets on John's credit card and hopped on board.
After landing in Bratislava, they looked at the list of departing flights. In six hours there was a flight to Prague. John bought two tickets, and suggested that they go into Bratislava for the day, rather than waiting around in the airport.
Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, turned out to be rather dull. Their first stop was the Bratislava Castle, which was grey and dingy, a depressing contrast to the Royal Castle in Prague. Unlike the Royal Castle, the Bratislava Castle was actually in use; it was the meeting site of the Slovakian parliament.
They had a remarkably tasty lunch at a Hungarian restaurant, and then walked around the city for a while. Eventually they came across a building with lots of tourists rushing in and out. It was the old "Bratislava Town Hall," now a museum. The exhibits were interesting but not spectacular. But then they saw a narrow, winding stairway leading down into the basement. A guard saw John eyeing it curiously and made a gesture indicatingthat they were allowed to go down.
At the bottom of the stairs was a perfectly preserved medieval torture chamber. Racks, pits, whips, balls-and-chains, huge spiked metal rolling pins ... old and rusty but still intact, stained with mold and dirt and perhaps even hundreds-of-years-old blood. Some of the torture devices were incomprehensible, but most were familiar from old folk tales. For one T-shaped apparatus there was an explanatory diagram: a person was strung upside-down by their feet then sawed in half from the crotch down. For some reason there were dozens of tourists upstairs but none in the most interesting exhibit.
John was interested, but Karen was enchanted. "It's just like in a fairy tale!" she exclaimed.
"These things were actually used."
"Probably dozens ... or hundreds of times," said John. "God, that's disgusting."
"You always read about dungeons, but I never thought I'd actually see one."
Karen explored every corner of the dungeon, paying particular attention to the back end, the part most distant from the stairs.
"Come here," she called to John, who was pacing restlessly, obviously ready to leave.
He walked to the back of the dungeon, from where her voice had emanated, but he couldn't see her anywhere. "Where are you?"
"Down here," she said.
He looked around. She was in a pit off to his left, about fifteen feet beneath the floor he was standing on. "I don't want to come down there," he said. "I think we're supposed to stay up here."
"Come down anyway," she said sharply.
He reluctantly obeyed her, and lowered himself into the pit. There was a rack installed in the wall of the pit, which could be seen only from within the pit; it was invisible from the floorabove. It was about nine feet tall, with manacles dangling from the top and from the bottom, and a handle to turn to pull the top manacles away from the bottom ones.
"I want to see how this thing works," said Karen. "Here, put your hands in here."
"It's obvious how it works," John said disapprovingly. But he let her manipulate his wrists, placing them into the open manacles that dangled from short chains at the top of the device.
"Now put your legs in here...." She nudged his ankles into the open manacles attached to the bottom. She stepped back to the opposite wall of the pit and looked at him curiously. He started to move, and she said "Stop."
He said, "I don't want to stand in this fucking rack all night, Karen."
"The cuffs aren't closed, John, there's nothing to worry about. I'm just curious what it would look like, you know."
"Well, you better satisfy your curiousity fast."
She said, "I think you look awfully sexy like that.... Don't move." She walked toward him, unbuttoning her dress to expose her naked breasts. She kissed him, pressing tight against his chest. He began to move toward her, and then she hit some kind of lever with her right hand. The manacles were locked. He couldn't get out. She stuffed some cloth in his mouth and tied a gag around the back of his head, and started turning the crank. She stretched him further and further out, until it felt like his arms and legs were about to break. Then she unbuttoned his pants and began to press up against him. He started to feel faint. Despite the excruciating pain, he was getting an erection. She made love to him for forty minutes as he hung there motionless, at the point of breaking. As she reached her orgasm, she wrenched his body back and forth so violently that his wrists and ankles began to bleed. Then, without saying a word, she took her airline ticket from his pocket, climbed out of the pit and left the museum.
She got back to the airport an hour and a half early. Theflight to Prague was quick and uneventful, and instead of bothering with the metro she took a cab directly from the Prague airport to the Royal Palace. She walked into the Saint Vitus Cathedral and looked at the panel where she had seen Nell's face. Now it was nothing. Nothing special. The face did look a bit like Nell's, but it wasn't coming alive; it wasn't doing anything. She looked around in desperation, hoping to see the little man who had spoken to her the last time, who had elliptically encouraged her to kill Nell. Nothing but pacing, yakking tourists.
Disillusioned, she left the Palace and walked down the hill and across the river, to the Nove Mesto. She reached in her purse and took out the photograph she'd purchased when in Prague before. The man with the scarf over his head, and a fish for a penis.
Now she saw something unusual about the photograph, something she hadn't seen before. It was made with very strange techniques. The scarf was not part of the photograph; it was painted on, over the photograph. With her nail she tried to scratch it off.
The process was slow but it worked. Soon it was clear to her that the face behind the scarf was none other than Jim Allison's.
Now she was determined to return to the gallery where she had bought the photograph. But she couldn't remember where it was. She walked around and around the narrow cobblestone streets, growing angrier every minute. Four or five times she passed the "Franz Kafka in the Head" exhibit which she'd visited before, but never the gallery she was looking for.
Eventually she noticed that the "Franz Kafka in the Head" exhibit appeared on more than one block. One time it would be next to a bakery, the next time it would be next to a shoe store. One time the cobblestones out front would be whitish, the next time they would be dark grey, verging on black. After two or three hours of this, she succumbed to the inevitable and walkedinto the exhibit.
It was upstairs, as it had been before, in the rooms adjoining a small theater. The exhibits had not changed: dummies, clothes, shoes, books and clocks in odd positions. Nothing in any way emotionally gripping. After three or four minutes she decided to leave.
But she couldn't seem to find her way out. When she had visited it before, there had only been three or four rooms in the exhibit. But now she walked from room to room to room -- dozens of rooms, each one slightly different. She seemed to be the only person in the gallery -- just her and literally thousands of different clocks, books, clothes, shoes and dummies.
Finally, after hours of exploration, she came upon a room that seemed a little different than the others. There was a small wooden door between two display cases, covered with flaking lavender paint. She opened it up, and there were narrow, winding stairs leading down.
She knew exactly what awaited her at the bottom. She walked down the stairs and found herself in a dungeon identical to the one in Bratislava. She walked to the end of the dungeon and lowered herself into the pit. There was Jim Allison, on the rack, with a shiny grey fish instead of a penis. The fish spoke. "I tried to warn you on the airplane," it said, in the voice of the furry creature. "I tried to tell you you were courting danger. But you wouldn't listen! Nooooo!
"You can't get away with it. You know that. You'll have to pay."
The fish stuck its tongue into John Allison's navel, which then began shooting out flames. Karen screamed herself hoarse and threw her limbs about hysterically, but could not collect the energy to climb up out of the pit. Her clothes burned off.
After exactly one hour, the fish stuck its tongue into John's navel again, and the flames stopped. "You have greatly overestimated your own power," said the fish. "You will not make that mistake again, I trust."
Karen looked at herself. She was naked, save for a handful of singed fragments; but her skin was absolutely intact.
"Get out of the pit," said the fish.
She did not move.
"Get out of the pit," the fish repeated.
Karen obediently climbed out. But then, as she was about to walk away, she heard a strange sound coming from the pit. It didn't sound like the fish at all; it sounded like a person. It sounded like ... John.
She climbed back into the pit. Jim Allison was gone; the fish was gone. John was exactly as she'd left him. She pulled the lever to release him. He put his hands around her throat. "You're fucking insane! You almost killed me! How long have I been here?!!! How long??!! How fucking long??!!!"
He pulled his hands so tightly together that she couldn't breathe. But he didn't have the will to kill her. When she regained her breath she whispered, "I don't know how long."
John climbed out of the pit, and Karen followed him. They climbed the narrow stairs out of the dungeon, and emerged into the Town Hall museum in Bratislava. "I'm going back home," said John wearily.
Karen nodded, and put her arm around his waist. "Let's fly direct from here."
"We can't do that," pointed out John, "we'll have to change planes in Frankfurt or Vienna or Prague or somewhere, and then in New York or Detroit."
"You know what I mean."
"I don't know what I know," he sighed. "Good fucking god."
"Explanations," she murmured.
They walked for a while, arm in arm.
"If we go back home, will I be put in jail?"
"You can claim it was self-defense."
"But next time we go swimming at the Tropicana, will we wind up in Slunchev Bryag?"
He laughed. "That could get expensive. A lot of plane tickets."
She took his hand. "Honey, your wrists...." They were bleeding profusely.
"Well what the hell do you expect?! I was stretched on a rack for hours and hours!!"
"I'm sorry," she said sincerely. "I don't know what came over me."
"'I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me,'" he mimicked bitterly. "Jesus fucking Christ."
"Well, I don't," she said darkly, tears welling up in her eyes. "I'm not lying. I'm just as confused as you are."
She told him about her brief trip to Prague, about the "Franz Kafka in the Head" exhibit, about Jim Allison and the talking fish and the fire.
"So you admit now," he said slowly, "that this is totally out of our control."
"I admit it," she said quietly. "You were right and I was wrong."
They flew back to Las Vegas, changing planes in Prague and New York, and sleeping through most of the trip. The customs people in Prague gave them very little trouble, since they were obviously Americans returning home.
The first thing they did in Vegas was to drive to Joseph's apartment. They found the door wide open, and the apartment totally cleaned out. When they went to the landlord to ask what had happened, the landlord professed not to know what they were talking about. He had never heard of Joseph, and he said the apartment had been vacant for months.
So John and Karen drove to the 7-11 on the corner, and called the police to ask about Nell and Joseph. The police didn't know a thing.
Then they drove home to their condo, and called Nell's parents. The number was "not in service." They called information: no luck.
It appeared as though Joseph, Nell and perhaps Nell's family had simply vanished. Karen decided to file a missing persons report. She needed a photograph, so she looked in her old U. Chicago yearbook. Nell's photo was missing.
Try as they might, they could find no record of the existence of either Joseph or Nell.
John decided to quit his job at Bracemer. With the nature of the universe in such serious doubt, he found it hard to take money seriously. He asked the math department to give him his usual two classes for the fall semester. He would have barely enough to pay his share of the bills, but that was all right. Karen was making pretty good money at the Crazy Horse Too.
John and Karen lived their lives on edge for a couple months, waiting for something else bizarre to happen. But after a while they settled down. They bought a house about two miles east of the university, just on the edge of the Town of Paradise. Karen got pregnant, and they bought five hundred dollars of baby toys, clothes and furniture in advance.
Track 1, Reel 4
Structurer B-7G embraced Sharer Z-0G, and placed a sloppy wet kiss across her lips. "You were absolutely right," he said. "I admit it. I was a fool."
She put her arm around his waist and giggled.
"It's a unique complex of sensations, exactly as you said. There's something particularly ... satisfying about it. It's hard to explain."
She nodded, and put her hand over his mouth. "Be quiet and touch me."
He did as she said....
Afterwards, they reclined on the grass, sniffing the pleasant summer breeze. "It's ... there are no words for it," he said.
She stood up and took his hand; they walked together through the tall grass, staring toward the horizon.
Track 8, Reel 3
Excerpted from the note-files of Zeb Arens
One must, I say, be a visionary, make oneself a visionary.
The poet makes himself a visionary through a long, a prodigous and rational disordering of all the senses. Every form of love, of suffering, of madness; he searches himself, he consumes all the poisons in him, keeping only their quintessences. Ineffable torture in which he will need all his faith and superhuman strength, the great criminal, the great sickman, the accursed, -- and the supreme Savant! For he arrives at the unknown! Since he has cultivated his soul -- richer to begin with than any other! He arrives at the unknown: and even if, half-crazed, in the end, he loses the understanding of his visions, he has seen them! Let him be destroyed in his leap by those unnameable, unutterable and innumerable things: there will come other horrible workers: they will begin at the horizons where he has succumbed.
So then, the poet is truly a thief of fire.
Humanity is his responsibility, even the animals; he must see to it that his inventions can be smelled, felt, heard. If what he brings back from beyond has form, he gives it form, if it is formless, he gives it formlessness. A language must be found....
This eternal art will have its functions since poets are citizens. Poetry will no longer accompany action but will lead it.
These poets are going to exist!
-- Arthur Rimbaud
Knowing all we do about perception, we must take Rimbaud seriously when he speaks of "the prodigous and rational disordering of all the senses." During his years of poetic activity, Rimbaud was perpetually on one drug or another -- opium, hashish, alcohol, and probably others as well. And he behaved so outrageously that he even offended other young poets. We know that a great deal of the construction of a person's subjective world takes place in the sense processing centers oftheir brain. And we know that drugs can modify the operation of various levels of sensory processing, as can "natural" insanity.
Most people who take drugs and act crazy are, it would seem, trying to force themselves to perceive the world differently. But Rimbaud's case was unusual, in that his motivation was not merely hedonistic but artistic as well. He wanted to stretch his mind to the limits, in the service of art. He wanted to get rid of the preconceptions by which we perceive the world: to penetrate to a deeper, more magical level, and then to bring some of the magic back to the rest of humanity.
Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity; for this he was punished with an eternity of torture. When Rimbaud describes the poet as a thief of fire, he means that the poet is a martyr, sacrificing himself to give humanity magical power. Somehow, he seems to imply, the reader of the poetry can experience a bit of divine magic, without the anguish of stealing it from the land of the gods. To put it more concretely, the poetry can loosen the bonds of language and perception, of consensus reality, on the mind. The poetry is not a static artifact but an active, dynamic process; and once it enters the mind it sets to work at changing it.
The way I read "Drunken Morning" is a description of precisely the state of sensory disorganization which Rimbaud sought to achieve. What is this "poison," which elicits opposite emotions simultaneously? It brings tremendous exuberance ("O my Good! O my Gorgeous!"); and it brings an"appalling fanfare" every time he fails to stumble. What is this "poison," which will continue to infect him even as his present state fades into "the old disharmony"... which makes him a "superhuman promise" of going beyond morality, beyond the strictures of "tyrannic respectability", of "burying in darkness the tree of good and evil." This poison which promises to transcend all these things which restrain "our love so very pure." Certainly, the poison is alcohol or some other drug. But it is also the "other world," the world of the supernatural, the mad, fierce, fiery world from which inspiration springs. The other world promises deliverance from the restrictions of ordinary life, it promises the release of pure love; but it always fades and then only the poison remains. The task of the visionary poet is to grab something of this superhuman promise, of this transcendent life, and bring it back to this world.
All this is not just the fancy of one poet....
Track 5, Reel 6
It was toward the end of a long, revealing conversation. Sometime in late August. Susie was visiting us in Las Vegas....
It started when Susie, Rocky, Molly and I came back from the pool. Rocky headed toward the other room to change, and Susie said "What's the matter, Rocky, you don't want me to see you naked? I've seen Andy naked! And he's seen me naked! But you haven't seen me naked! C'mon, Rock, let me see you naked!"
Rocky gave a little smile, said "I've seen you naked," and started to leave the room.
"No you haven't!"
"Yes, I have!"
"No you haven't!"
"Yes I have!"
"Forget about it, will you? What are you...!"
"You started it -- you said I've never seen you naked. But I have."
"When? When did you?"
"You know when."
"When?! When did you see me naked?! Hmmmm?! C'mon, Rock, tell me?! When did you fucking see me naked?!!"
"You know when."
"C'mon," she said, yelling now -- "when???!!"
"What does it matter?!"
"You said you've seen me naked; I want to know when!"
"Two times," Rocky said, a little annoyed. "The first time, I guess, was January third... then it was, uh, March sixteenth." His face was absolutely expressionless.
"How do you know?! Hmmmm? How do you know that?!"
"It was fourteen days after your period."
She sucked the air vehemently and waved her palms. "Fuck you, you fucking asshole! You're disgusting!" She spat and stomped out of the room. Rocky, Molly and I all looked ateachother. Then she came back in to glare at him, and stalked away again.
"I don't know why she's so upset," said Rocky. "She asked me so I told her."
"If it upsets her so much I don't know why she brought it up," I agreed halfheartedly.
"I guess I should get out of here," he said, and I drove him home. The whole business didn't compute. There had to be some missing variable. Rocky had always been obsessed with numbers, but it still struck me as rather odd that he remembered the exact dates he'd seen her naked. Over all the months they were roommates, he'd seen her naked only twice -- and he remembered the dates? No one was that obsessed with numbers....
I let the facts float through my mind for a couple minutes, and then I remembered a story Malik had told me months before. A certain curious event, which had allegedly occurred last Christmas. Molly and I had gone to Paris, and had a blissful two weeks wandering through the parks and streets and art museums. Meanwhile, Susie, Malik and Rocky had been sharing our apartment....
Susie, according to Malik, had gotten out of the shower, dropped her towel and lay down naked across their laps. She had asked them if they wouldn't please suck her pussy. Immediately, of course, Malik had obliged -- he had bestowed upon her the most miraculous, world-shattering orgasm of her life. Now, Malik was always babbling nonsense, and I paid little attention to him. I recalled having asked Rocky about it -- he'd laughed in surprise. But then, he always was an excellent liar. I hadn't exactly dismissed the story out of hand, I'd just forgotten it. But what if it were true? Then Rocky would have a reason for remembering the date. And if it had happened once, it might as well have happened twice.
I remembered now that we'd told Susie Malik's story -- strictly as a point of amusement. I remembered what she'd said:
"At least Rocky can keep a secret...."
The facts were fitting together with admirable logic. And as for the business about her period, I recalled that I had actually suggested to Rocky -- more than half in jest -- that he keep a chart of her menstrual cycle. We were curious to see whether it actually corresponded with her mood. He'd actually done it! Well, he never did any homework; he had to spend his time on something!
So, anyway, that night ... we started off talking about her relationship with Rocky, how they'd started off friends and then ... "well, I started calling him Cocky, not just because he was cocky, cause I am too, but cause it seemed like he thinks with his cock, not his brain, you know...."
"You never really told me what went on between you."
"I know. I just basically figured you were on his side and had your opinion set against me automatically, so I just said fuck it, man, you know."
"Well, yeah, I guess I can understand that... I mean, we did grow up together. But I don't know why you thought that. I mean, I guess we were biased against you because you had roommate problems before. But so did Rocky, when he was at boarding school. To tell you the truth, neither of you are all that easy to get along with. Not that I'm so easy either, I mean...."
"No, it's just that ... I thought you could tell him to open up more and be more honest, you know, but you didn't.... I mean, I'm sorry, but he...."
"You can't just tell someone to change their whole personality, Susie."
"I just thought he would listen to you."
"It's true, he listens to me more than he does to most other people. But that doesn't mean he ever does what I tell him! With him your best bet is to say something once, explain all your reasons, and then let him think it out. If you harp on something, you know, repeat yourself over and over, he just gets pissed."
"Well I guess I did that a lot."
"With Molly, like, it's totally different -- she's so easily coaxed into things. Now, I don't know how to coax Rocky, but...."
I smiled. "I was about to say, I guess you probably do. But unless he and I turn gay...."
"The thing was, I guess I was being a bitch to him. I can be an aggressive bitch, you know, but...."
She grinned brightly. "But no matter how bitchy I was, he wouldn't talk to me about it, he was just oh no, everything's fine, just don't worry about it. I just knew he was lying. I mean, I'm not that stupid, that kind of shit I was doing would annoy anyone, you know, man!"
"Well he would always complain about it to me. In great detail. So I guess he was bothered... he was just afraid to admit it to you, I guess, cause he knew you'd yell at him even worse."
"Yeah, you're right, at that point I probably would have."
"At any point. That's just the way you are. Molly is afraid to confront you with things too, because she doesn't want a fight. See, I don't care. I'll confront you with something, and I get yelled at for a few minutes, but then you always calm down eventually."
"Well, that's how it would've been with Cocky, but he wouldn't just come out and say what was on his fucking mind! I just don't like that kind of person, you know, when he just covers up what he's actually thinking, pretends to like me when he doesn't. I mean, that was the thing -- he'd hug me every time he came in, and he'd always make passes at me and everything, but he didn't seem to care for me that much as a person, you know... whenever it seemed like he couldn't get me sexually, he just started being totally rude to me, like cursing at me all the time, getting really cocky and shit."
"I think he did care about you, though. I know he did inthe beginning...."
"Yeah, well, maybe he did in the beginning but it hardly even seemed...."
After we'd dissected their relationship for about an hour, I decided it was time to spring the question. "I always thought you judged Rocky too harshly," I said. "You were always criticizing him for watching TV too much, and being immature and so on. Things that you should be able to live with in a roommate.... It seemed like you were judging him as a lover, or a potential lover at any rate. Which is partially explained by the fact that he was constantly trying to get into your pants. But... I've been meaning to ask you about this story that Malik told me...."
I recounted it briefly. She looked down at her feet and said quietly, "Well, Andy, it's true. I didn't want you to know because I thought you'd look down on me for it."
"Come on, Susie, your sex life is none of my business. You sort of gave it away when I told you Malik's story in March or whenever. You mumbled under your breath that at least Rocky could keep a secret. But I'd almost totally forgotten about it until this shit happened today."
"Well I was wondering when you'd bring it up. I mean, I was thinking, he's not stupid, he can put two and two together, you know.... But it didn't happen exactly like Malik said. I didn't ask them to do it -- they were begging me constantly, for the whole time we were there. It was like two weeks or something, constantly asking me if they could have me ... saying why not, are you chicken? you've never done it with two guys before have you? what are you afraid of? and on and on and on like that so I just figured fine! you can eat my fucking pussy if you want, if it'll make you shut the fuck up! And it did accomplish that ... it was a success in that respect -- they shut the fuck up! They didn't say anything for hours after that! I've never seen Rocky look so satisfied... that was the first time. Rocky didn't even do anything...."
I looked at her and smiled sympathetically. "So was Malik as awesome as he always says he is? You know how he's always talking about how he gave so many women the first orgasm of their lives, about his incredible sexual powers...."
"Actually it wasn't ... he did it all wrong. I mean, I enjoy a massage, you know ... sure, it felt good! But, I mean, I wasn't going to give him the pleasure of giving me an orgasm! I just wiggled around a bit and squealed and then he tried to climb on top of me and I pushed him off. I mean, you know, that's how it usually is when a guy asks to eat a woman's pussy -- he really wants to fuck her, but he figures once he eats her out she'll do anything he says. And... well, the second time, we were watching an X-rated movie, and they were going on and on and on about it again, so I just said fine, do it, I don't care. I mean I didn't really have to do anything, I was just lying there and they were doing all the work, just giving me pleasure, you know, just serving me. I don't know why I did it then, really...."
"Well, I mean, if you felt like it at the time, there's no reason to feel bad about it now...."
"But I do, you know, sometimes I feel like a fucking whore! I'm so ashamed to tell you guys about it, I mean obviously, that's why I didn't! But what was that shit about my period man, I don't know what the fuck he was talking about! That just...."
"Oh, that ... well, I think he was keeping a chart of your cycle or something, you know, to see if it correlated with your moods.... I mean, not an actual physical but... in his head, you know.... That's not so strange."
"That fucking bastard! Fucking goddamn asshole! I'm glad I beat him up now, man! What a fucking dick!"
"It's not that bad ... I think I may have discussed it with him... he's always calculating numbers, you know Rocky...."
"The fucking bastard! That is so ... so disrespectful -- so -- oooh!!! Don't you think ... don't you think any woman would be so disgusted!!!"
"Probably not ... but I don't know; I'm not a woman. Iwouldn't be surprised if the chart worked though."
"But that's not the fucking point, Andy! Keeping track of me like that! You know, it makes more sense now ... I remember some days when he'd get these weird looks, like he'd be looking at me really weird, and I couldn't figure out why... I bet that was it! I bet it was!!! The fucking bastard!"
I tried to calm her down ... one o'clock rolled around; we'd been talking since before six. Molly was working as a change girl at the Golden Goose casino; her shift ended at quarter after two. I was on a roll. "So, Susie, while we're on the subject of things I've always wondered about -- how about the followers? Remember when you first came to Philly from Syracuse, you said there were all these people following you all over ... and then you said they followed you to Allentown on vacation...."
"Andy, this is gonna sound totally crazy." Her face ignited like a charcoal briquet. Slowly simmering... the earthy darkness giving way to a dim red light. "It's the strangest thing that's ever happened to me. You wouldn't believe...."
"You'll think I'm totally crazy."
"I do anyway."
She smirked at me deliciously, impertinently.
"I mean," I said, "I always thought that follower business was sheer paranoia. It really makes no sense to me at all ... a lot less sense than this business with Rocky. When you said there was a conspiracy between the social work department at Syracuse, Overeaters Anonymous, and I forget what else ... the social work department here at Temple! I mean, that's classic paranoia -- thinking there's a conspiracy hiring someone to follow you! How much more Freudian can you get?!"
"It had to do with my bulimia. It's not the kind of thing you'll read about in books ... it's just something women do to other women. They'll follow you around, lock the doors of bathrooms in restaurants...." Her face hit a perfect pitch of tawny, iridescent crimson; her narrow cheeks jutted out.
"So you can't throw up in them?"
"Right.... I went to a lawyer about it just to see what I could do and he said 'I've heard of this kind of thing before. They're not following you; they're looking after you.' So I was just like so relieved -- I mean, in the back of my mind I was thinking I was crazy, but...."
"So you're telling me this is standard procedure among groups that deal with eating disorders...." I don't believe her more than .01 percent -- but I know I have to keep a straight face to keep the information flowing. "I mean, how would they run it? I mean, to follow you to Philly and follow you around occasionally there -- maybe ... they knew you were moving there, you left a forwarding address I guess .... they could've called OA there, and called the school. But to follow you to Allentown on vacation?! They would've had to keep incredibly close tabs on you! It just doesn't seem plausible...."
"Well, probably that was paranoia.... But they were definitely following me in Philly."
"Interesting," I shrugged, grinning. "Molly should be home soon."
"Yeeeah.... Uh, don't tell her about the thing with Rocky, okay, Andy? I want to tell her myself."
"Fine. But I mean, eventually I'm going to tell her of course."
"Yeah, okay, sure, I understand. I just ... I didn't want you guys to know about this."
"But why? You don't really seem to feel ashamed about it...."
"I really wish I hadn't done it. I'd think a lot more of myself if I hadn't. But it did accomplish one thing -- it got them to shut the fuck up. I mean, after that they really shut the fuck up!! I've never seen them so goddamn quiet!"
"So you felt all right with your decision at the time.... You're just second-guessing...."
"At the time ... at the time, I didn't feel bad about it atall." As she spoke her entire body became rigid. Her spine snapped straight, her tiny breasts stood up, and her eyes grew almost unbelievably wide. Even her pencil-thin lips seemed to swell a little. I was ashamed to feel my cock creep up through the waistband of my underwear. "It was like I was some evil witch, you know, just having them service me ... I wasn't giving them anything, I was just letting them please me and then I was throwing them away ... I felt so much power ... they were always trying to push me around, but I was really in control of them ... they had begged me and begged me just for the privilege of serving me, you know...."
"No it doesn't!" someone laughed.
"What?!" I said, startled.
"You said zero times u equals u. It doesn't, it equals zero."
I chuckled, and remembered that I was standing in front of a class. Nothing like an arithmetic error to restore me to reality. "It would've been more interesting to prove the theorem the other way," I smiled, stifling the urge to scratch my nuts.
"Yeah," said the student, thinking he'd won a couple brownie points. I hardly even noticed who he was. I said to myself: concentrate. The solution set of a homogenous system of linear equations is a vector space under the standard addition and scalar multiplication on n-dimensional Euclidean space. Once I'd collected myself I said, "I don't know what happened there. I guess it was all that acid I took in college!" The students all cracked up. They couldn't read my smile.
Track 2, Reel 5
So, that completes the tale of my affair with Molly -- the strangest, most beautiful and most painful episode in my admittedly short life. As I look over what I have written, I must confess that I am far from satisfied. But I suspect that revising my account would only wind up making it even less true. No, I refuse to change one word or to delete anything.
I haven't yet lived very long -- not even two decades. Yet I am absolutely certain that, even if I live to a hundred and fifty, I will never again experience any passion half as strong as my love for Molly. You may say that such love is sick and demented; that no healthy mind could ever love anyone or anything that much. Maybe so -- but I have a reply. My reply is: well then, health can go to hell! I have even coined a maxim for the occasion: 'Tis better to have loved and cracked, than never to have loved at all!
I started out these notes talking about finding a "way out" from my obsession with Molly's memory. But I find that I have dramatically failed. Far from escaping your memory, Molly, I have somehow managed to amplify it. You were my entire world, my reality -- that was the beginning and end of our love. I wrote these notes with the aim of putting you in perspective, of learning to view you as just another element of the world. But what has happened is just the opposite. Instead of perceiving you as the world, Molly, I have learned to perceive the world as you. Everything around me is a part of you, Molly -- the sky out my window, the computer screen in front of me, the heart pumping blood through my veins,.... That magic look of recognition, which you were the only one to possess, is at this moment staring out at me from everywhere. A man just glanced at me through the window of my apartment -- and I saw the magic in his eyes. I see the magic in the shapes of the letters in front of me; in the latticework of cracks in the paint on the wall; even in the tinywhite sores on the tip of my tongue. Today I have uncovered a brand new secret, one that resolves all my childhood dilemmas in one fell swoop. I am forever inside you, Molly -- that is my secret! That is my truth! Oh, Molly, Molly, Molly! How stupid I am, with all my famous intelligence! I truly did not realize until now what these notes actually are: a love letter to you!
Track 3, Reel 6
It was March 17, the date Karen was due to have her baby.
John was in the checkout line at the Vons supermarket at Twain and Swenson. Dr. Sluzhyak was in the next one over. John picked up the Weekly World News, as usual, to browse through it as he waited.
The headline was:
MAN WITH FISH IN PLACE OF GENITALS FOUND DEAD IN CZECH DUNGEON
The cover picture was Jim Allison, stretched out on the rack in the pit -- exactly as Karen had described him to John on that memorable day.
John brought the paper home to show Karen, and while she was looking at it there was a knock on the door. It was a UPS deliveryman, bringing six large cardboard boxes. The return address was some lawyer's office. John opened one of the boxes and found an incomprehensible mess of wires and instrument panels.
There was a note of explanation inside. It appeared that, in Jim Allison's will, John was listed as the recipient of the radio with no component parts.
John unpacked the other boxes and began trying to assemble the radio. But meanwhile, Karen was moaning and groaning. "I think this is it," she said, grabbing his arm and trying to drag him toward the door.
He helped her down to the car and they raced to the Women's Hospital, on East Sahara -- only a couple miles. "I think it's coming now," she said to the receptionist. "You'd better show me to the delivery room."
"We'll have to have a nurse look at you first," said the receptionist calmly. "Why don't you follow me." She led John and Karen past a large room full of babies in incubators, down a narrow hall and into a tiny room with nothing in it but a cabinetand a bed. She handed Karen a hospital robe. "You can lie down here, and put this on."
The receptionist disappeared. Karen took off her clothes, but before she could get the simple robe on she shrieked at the top of her lungs: "It's coming!"
Indeed it was. John found a buzzer and frantically pushed it, hoping to summon a nurse. But no one came. He positioned himself between her legs and caught the baby as it came out. Then he picked it up and watched as the delivered the placenta.
It was a boy. John laid him gently on Karen's shoulder. Their son was covered with warm mucous; John methodically brushed him off. Karen turned her head over to look at his face.
John jumped back in horror as Karen threw the baby across the room, then jumped out of the bed and stomped up and down on the baby's skull. "Its face!!! Did you see its face???!!! That's not our baby, that's Jim Allison!!!!!"
She withdrew her pistol from her purse and shot herself in the head.
Finally the nurse came. John said, "She killed herself and the baby." He was amazed at his composure. He was tremendously upset, but it did not impair his ability to function. In fact, it hardly showed at all in his facial expression. He looked at his watch, and thought: look on the bright side, John, you have a class to teach. You had thought that you would miss it, due to the birth, but now you'll make it after all.
The nurse ran away to get help, and John left the building. All he could think about was the quadratic formula, which he had to lecture on in fifteen minutes.
Then something happened. It was sort of like waking up from a dream, but a million times more intense. As he rushed from the hospital to the car, his mind filled up with a whole different reality, a whole different texture of existence. The buildings and the air and the ground, even the body in which he was running, lost all semblance of reality -- he knew with an absolute conviction that they were just constructs, just piecesof data, just deliberate fakes. Ten thousand interrelated facts tumbled into his mind in the space of a second. Everything was viscerally, intuitively, clear to him now; everything that had happened to him was integrated in a qualitatively different way.
And then, before he could organize his memories, he felt some sort of force sweep through his mind, like a sponge wiping a blackboard clean, leaving no trace of what had been written. Only the memory of remembrance remained.
He knew, he was absolutely certain, that what he had remembered had been the truth. Yet he could not recall a single bit of it; not even one of the ten thousand facts.
John got in the car and started it up. He drove out of the parking lot, and turned north -- the opposite direction from school. He drove through the wide Las Vegas streets without a single thought in his mind, until he reached the entrance to the expressway. Then he pushed the accelerator to the floor.
He watched the speedometer obsessively, until it settled at 100: the high end of the dial. A few minutes past the city limits, he turned off the highway. The car was pointed toward the middle of Nevada, the emptiest region in the United States. He just kept on driving into the desert, at 100 miles an hour or more, stirring up massive clouds of dust.
Track 2, Reel 6
It has been nine months since I left off writing these notes. I still have heard nothing from Molly -- but I think about her every day. Whether I'm sitting at my desk here, walking down the city streets, or talking with my friends, there is always something that reminds me of her.
You have already found out, Hypothetical Reader, what I have decided to do with these notes of mine. When I completed the task of writing down the story of my love for Molly, I found that I missed the daily routine of writing. I suppose I had become addicted to the process. So I decided to undertake the arduous task of typing in some of the hallucinations which overtook me during that tremendous acid jag that ended my bout of depression. As might be expected, writing about my crazy visions was a lot more fun and a lot less emotionally taxing than writing about Molly. And, I believe, Hypothetical Reader, that you will find it also makes more interesting reading. However, it seems somehow fitting to interweave these hallucinatory tales with my notes regarding Molly. I have not attempted to "psychoanalyze" my hallucinations in any systematic way -- this would be much too big of a task, far beyond my limited abilities. However, I encourage you, hypothetical reader, to draw your own conclusions regarding the relationship between my love for Molly and my psychotic delusions....
I suppose I should close this unwieldy confession off with some sort of comment on my present life and state of mind....
My girlfriend Susan is spending her junior year in Switzerland -- she just left two months ago. We've beencorresponding regularly, but I'm not sure what the status of our relationship will be when she returns. She talks as though we'll be together forever, but to be honest, I won't be terribly surprised if she runs off with some Swiss ski stud. I'm not saying that to put her down; that's just my understanding of her personality.
I've lost my enthusiasm for writing here; right now I'm forcing myself. The ruse of the "Hypothetical Reader" has lost its potency, now that I realize that, from the beginning, I was writing for one reader alone. And, to be frank, the hallucinations get repetitive after a while. The only thing I really want to say today is that I have given up on my misguided quest to "put Molly's memory in perspective." I have decided that some events cannot be put in any kind of perspective: they just exist, they have their own life, independently of whatever interpretations you seek to place on them.
As for the "epiphany" of my penultimate entry, it was real enough. Ever since the day when I wrote those feverish lines, I have looked at the world a little differently. The nihilism that I "invented" in my early youth is really gone. In its place I see a world composed of tiny flecks of Molly. I see a world in which every person, every object has its own little piece of magic life, its own reality. Even Susan, whom I do not love as I loved Molly, is invested with her own little fragment of that magic look. Where before I saw nothing but illusion, today I see millions of tiny realities, fighting, playing and exchanging information with one another in an indescribable dance. I guess this dance is not "real" -- it is not logically, empirically there -- but what does that matter?
Oh, Molly, Molly, I suppose this strikes you as a bunch of rambling nonsense. Here is Solomon, who always hated mysticismand religion more than anyone, holding forth about the universal life force like some demented African priest. But I swear to you, I'm not just stringing together words. I may have been guilty of that in the past, but things are different now. Only a little bit different, of course, but different enough....
Before I found you, I lived on hope. When you ran away, you left me with nothing. But nothingness is as good a start as any. If I have somehow managed to mold my twisted ideas and emotions into a marginally healthy outlook on the world -- I owe it all to you, Molly. And there is one thought that cheers me more than any other: that perhaps I have repaid my debt to you already, without even knowing it. I know, Molly, that you understand my meaning.
There is nothing more to say. As the proverb goes, I have said too much and not enough. Ah, if only I knew where you were! If only, if only! If I found out you were living in Timbuctu, I would pawn everything I own and buy a plane ticket, leaving tonight! But anyhow, that is neither here nor there. And I, too, am increasingly neither here nor there. The truth is, Molly, as newly well-balanced as I feel, in the back of my mind I still have the urge to take another hundred hits of acid, to transport myself back to the world of the Sharers and the Allocators, to the world of philosophizing mutants and Special Agent Zero and White Heat and White Light and Neural Growth Stimulant and Share 21. Oh, God, Magnificent Molly! Molly, Molly!
Converted by Andrew Scriven