Two college students go to Austin to make a movie based on a science fiction love story and find more success than they thought possible.
"A story that will make you want to read it more than once - and what more could you want than that?" - Robb Todd, author of Steal Me For Your Stories
"Expansive tale told in the fewest words possible. The philosophy is there, but not shoved at you. As a writer evaluating a writer, I'd be hard pressed to give higher praise than that." -
Erika pushes play. We dim the lights and settle on the couch as the movie starts.
* * *
Returning from a year of study in Mexico City, her mother picked her up at the airport. She would stay the weekend in Dallas and then travel to Houston and sail to Belize with her father. Erica’s mother wanted to introduce her to a lieutenant of hers in the rehab facility, the Blue Wing, regarding her future and a potential match. Her mother had invited the young man to dinner. "I think you'll like him," she said, "one of our best."
A heroin epidemic rising in Dallas over the past years, Erica's mother was hired as director of the Blue Wing on the strength of her former work as a counselor, to the effect of drug-related arrests dropping throughout all of southwest Nebraska and northwest Kansas, along with law enforcement expenditures. She had worked for years in Kansas to win a state-sponsored broadcast on areawide morning radio. Arrests and expenditures continued tailing off as the program endured for several years. Completing a masters degree, she applied for positions across the country, choosing Dallas for the challenge.
Erica's mother wanted to stop by the supermarket to pick up groceries for dinner. "I want to go home," Erica said, put off by spending another hour away from her bath, its allure over the day becoming an itch. "I won't be long," her mother said, smiling.
"You're always long," Erica said.
"I am, aren't I?" she laughed. "How can this be?" Erica closed her eyes, taking a breath. It was her mother's favorite expression, warmly in the middle of acknowledging and ignoring, interrogating and acquitting, part of her radio personality– how can this be? "How do you say it in Spanish?" she asked. Exhaling and taking another deep breath, Erica spoke without question, "Cómo puede ser." Her mother repeated the translation lightly, paused for mental comparison to English, and repeated the phrase again with gravity. "You sound like a cop," Erica said, keeping her eyes closed, turning into the sunlight falling through the window as the car exited the freeway.
"You say it then,” her mother said, “the way it's best."
Erica groaned, "Ask someone at work." Her mother turned from the boulevard into the parking lot of the massive supermarket. Erica stayed in the car, reclined the seat, expecting her mother to find more than the shopping list called for. She thought of time ahead, wondering what she would do after summer. She had met people there, in Mexico, some on their way back to the states even now, on the bus, even on foot, hitchhiking back the way they had come. Most were students like Erica, but she had made best friends with travelers. One of them wanted to meet her again in the fall, in Austin, in the regency room of an old, abandoned hotel, compacted against the uninitiated and the bad elements.
Erica drifted to sleep despite her discomfort, opening her eyes to the shutting sound of the hatchback and her mother getting back into the car, saying, "Tabby nap?" Erica closed her eyes as the ignition turned and the air conditioning resumed. "I got you an orange juice," her mother said, extending the bottle, nudging it against Erica’s folded hands, whereby enclosing it, she remained reclined and seatbelted. "What about this guy?"
"Richard, he likes the ballet."
"Probably because you do."
"It's on his resumé. Two years in college, with football."
"He cased you out for the job."
"Very funny, but I checked it."
Taking the ramp from the boulevard back onto the freeway, Erica's mother turned the stereo on, selected her favorite track from a compilation of world music, an eastern monastic chorus. "Are you going back to school next semester?" her mother asked. Erica groaned, "Not now." Her mother was silent, increasing the volume enough to hum along with the monks, accelerating to pass another gold sedan.
Richard arrived at six for dinner at the boss's house. He’d been there before, when Rachel gave a dinner party for him when he was hired at the treatment center. Rachel said each new hire merited the dinner party. The guest for the evening was a doctor friend of Rachel’s from a clinic in Houston, seeming to be involved with the boss romantically. The others were there, from the center. During the hiring process, Richard had met the other lieutenants. He’d worked at the center for a week before the dinner party in his honor.
Rachel called the restaurant they had reviewed on her latest broadcast. It was Richard's job to pick the order up and bring it back to the house; part of the ritual, the new hire picking up the order. When he arrived, the others were into a second bottle of wine, feeling warm and gracious to see him there, they each having had a glass or two of wine. He asked the boss what was for dinner, unaware of what he had brought back. Fish tacos, they told him. Someone poured him a glass of wine. Dinner being established on the long table, Richard paused, sipping from the glass, looking at Rachel’s family photographs. She had a daughter, pictured throughout, aged about twenty-one by then. She said she had a daughter, Erica, a junior at UT.
Richard sipped the wine, wanting to compliment Rachel on her beauty, as from looking over the other photographs, appearing down three generations of her family, to Erica. He took another sip. Someone passed him a plate. He looked around the room, a small room for such a large table, wondering if it was extended for the dinner party, assuming the affirmative. The doctor had brought the wine and the cheese platter, he and Rachel rejoining the dinner party from the kitchen, its light blinking off behind them.
The light in the room dimmed, the atmosphere warm and intimate, his new colleagues equally so, treating him as well as expected. Given the reputation of the Blue Wing, Richard felt already at home. Taking a swallow of wine, he looked across to another wall of photographs. Someone asked him about playing football in college. Someone asked him about his interest in the ballet. Someone asked him about the wine and cheese. They liked him. They all liked each other. Richard wondered who was the first in present company to bring back the fish tacos, and heard the story, from one to the next. It was an icebreaking technique Rachel had taken from a book she and a guest reviewed on Rachel's show, How to Make Excellent Impressions.
Richard knew of Rachel through a professor in the social work program at college, that she was described as being “technically magical.” The comment fascinated Richard and he’d come from New Mexico to Dallas to work at the Lexington Center.
A crystal figurine caught his eye, a female figure in the lotus position, containing seven small gems that Richard recognized as the chakras. He asked Rachel about the figurine. She explained that it was a gift from the doctor when she and Erica completed his course on personal energy. Rachel joked that the doctor said if all else fails, “Spin like a whirling dervish to keep your chakras open and your energies in motion.” The doctor laughed as heartily as a lover. Someone poured Richard another glass of wine and he observed the doctor who was clearly in love with Rachel. Or was it clear? He wondered for a moment. It could have been the wine.
Richard took a swallow after finishing dinner and trying a few postage stamps of fine cheese from the silver platter. Taking another swallow and relaxing further, someone queried him about his method of approach at work, toward serious response, catching him off guard. Richard responded agreeably to the ranking lieutenant. Rachel roused them with anecdotes on why they prefer the method in question, here as during the interview, where all of Richard’s new colleagues were present. He felt welcome and fully tried for defect. The colleague inasmuch indicated this, offering a toast, he said, “To Richard, may we share the benefit.”
"May we share the benefit!" the others sang. "Cheers!"
"Cheers," Richard said. "Thank you."
Richard arrived with a stem of red orchids for Erica and early sunflowers for the table. Rachel served them a dinner of rye-crust pizza with morels and artichoke hearts and tomato slices. She uncorked a bottle of red wine and excused herself for a night out. Richard commented on the figurine, saying the two of their mothers would get along, his mother a New Age therapist in Santa Fe. "I love the flowers," Erica said, holding the small branch and turning it slowly. "I go to the botany department's greenhouse at school to look at the orchids."
"Do you study botany?"
"Spanish," she lulled, "just home from a year in Mexico City. I'd like to go back another year, but the degree only gives credit for one, en España o en México."
"Do they offer it for South America?"
"They do for the cultural studies program, but the Spanish major is language and literature."
"I took French in high school but I haven't used it since then."
"Did you take a language in college?"
"The BA requires it but I went the BS route, and then the same degree as your mum."
"Yes," Richard laughed, "it's a mouthful." Asking about her interests, Erica said she liked classical and alternative country and contemporary Jamaican reggae. Richard wondered about the former. "Mainly Jolie Holland and Hank Williams and Willie Nelson and Townes Van Zandt." She placed the branch of orchids into the vase with the sunflowers. "I like Americana, too. Normally it means alternative country, but the picture is larger, say, North American." Richard laughed again and Erica blushed imperceptibly. "My mom says you like the ballet."
"I do, yes," he said.
"That was the first thing she told me about you."
"She must have said good things, since I’m here."
Erica smiled with warmth, sipping her wine. "I took ballet classes for two years," she said, pointing to a picture of herself in the fifth grade wearing a tutu. "Yes," Richard said, "I saw the photos at the dinner party when your mom hired me. You are very lovely."
Erica was silent, sipping her wine. Richard commented on the pizza. "My mom makes a lot of vegetarian pizza," she said. "I think the sauce is some kind of garlic butter and sour cream, so I guess it's not really vegan with the dairy stuff."
"Are you vegetarian?"
"Always," she said, finding a cheese-coated morsel on the pizza and placing it in her mouth, then asking Richard if he liked baseball. "I followed it as a kid," he said, “but I’m not a big sports fan anymore."
"My dad was drafted by the White Sox, then by the war."
"Ouch," Richard said. "What happened?"
"He went to war."
"Did he come back?"
"Did he get to play afterwards?"
"What does he do?"
"He runs an airport and crop dusting business in Kansas. Next week I'm sailing to Belize with him and his new girlfriend."
"Sounds like fun."
"Hum," she said. "What about you? Your mom does therapy?"
"Spiritual, new age energy therapy. Most of her clients feel good, just want to feel even better. Nice work if you can get it. My dad runs a construction company in Phoenix. They divorced when I was ten."
"I took a class on marriage in grad school," Richard said, making a stoic face. "By my favorite professor, so I knew it was worth it."
After dinner, Erica put music on in the front room, seating herself on the couch by Richard. Outside in the street, the neighbor boys were skateboarding, attempting to jump the boards vertically, tottering and falling, rocketing the boards back to the curb. "I used to babysit them when they were little," she said. The boys’ mother looked up from a book and a lawn chair, waved at Erica, the late afternoon sun falling on her through the window. She waved back and Richard stood beside her. The boys in the street looked and waved excitedly, one of them flexing his small, bare torso like a bodybuilder, grinning fiercely at her.
She opened the front door and stepped out on the porch with Richard, greeted the boys as they ran up the steps, their mother following from across the street, introducing herself to Richard. "Look how strong I am," said the boy, flexing again. His mother laughed. "You boys go back and play," then asking Erica about her year in Mexico, then asking about Richard. "It's a blind date," Erica said. "My mom set us up." The woman laughed, saying she'd have to grab Rachel for the whole story sometime, and wishing them a good evening, went back to her book.
Richard wanted Erica to walk around the neighborhood. She went in to change her shoes. "What do you think?" she said, returning, lifting her left foot in a sandal made of canvas straps and used bicycle tires. "I bought them on the street in Mexico City."
"I like it," Richard said. "Looks like a day's work."
"It would surprise you,” she laughed. “There is no end.”
"My mom calls Mexico the gateway to the universe."
"Why is that?"
"I don't know."
"That’s interesting." She and Richard began to walk, the boys making woo sounds at them. There was a park by a pond in the middle of the neighborhood where they sat and talked for an hour or more, making it back to her doorstep by dusk. "Could I see you again?" asked Richard.
"Yes," she said. "When is it?"
Richard kissed her. Erica embraced him.
Rachel was downtown for a drink at a jazz lounge, the circular extolling a new singer in town for the weekend. She stayed for the whole set, one drink turning into another, plus a third on the house, "lady three" as it went, if she inquired.
The lights were out when she got home, except a candle, something Erica brought back from Mexico, the light flickering from a suspended enclosure, floral and less faintly of detergent than she liked. She put the candle out and went upstairs to bed. Erica's door was open. Rachel could see her asleep on the bed, no music simpering as in the custom of her girlhood years. Rachel brushed her teeth in the bathroom, unlit, and heading to her room thought to drink a glass of water to avoid an ill morning, going downstairs to the kitchen.
Erica had put up the leftovers and washed the dishes. Rachel got a glass from the cupboard along with a tub of soluble fiber, rotated the filter on the tap, filled the glass, found a spoon, stirred fiber into the water, took a mouthful to test her stomach, and finished the glass and half of another, rinsed everything and placed it in the strainer and went back up to bed.
Erica woke in the night feeling rested. Had her ring sparkled? She had been wearing it only to bed. They charged her credit card on finding that she wasn't wearing it enough during active hours. There must have been a chime on her computer, a signal from the ring that they had updated the results. The ring sparkled again and the computer chimed again.
The ring shone a deep crimson and gold luster, warm by comparison to its normal reading of pink and grey. She sat up meditatively, enjoying the moment's warmth, and the faint wafting of the air purifier at the foot of her bed, an hour before dawn. She balanced the first chakra before getting up and going over to her desk, opening an application window for the results from the mood ring. A message was welcoming her back to the application. “Hi Erica, We want to say thanks and offer a full rebate in the event that you fulfill your modeling agreement. Our records show that you have 110 days to go in order to reach the goal of 200 total days, required for the final payment. There are 260 days remaining to fulfill the agreement, receive a full rebate for the cost of the product, and receive the final payment to you for your services. Thank you.”
She tapped through to the results, first playing the top song and reading a poem, replaying the song and reading reports about her energies and rhythms. The red and gold application theme, a welcome change from pink and grey, whose reports had been incongruous, the songs dull, the poems dense. So this was better, adequate to her mood.
Erica had put the mood ring aside in Mexico, assuming there was ample time to put it back on and then complete the contract before being charged, but the transmitter reported a month of disuse and the company got full price for the ring and extra services. She liked the mood ring itself, the long, glossy oval display enclosed inside an elegant solar panel. The sales representative talked her into the extras and the modeling agreement, offering them all for free, plus a cash payment upon a year of wear. "Out and about," the representative had said, "just like now."
"What if it breaks?"
"Email us and we’ll replace it, just like a warranty, but it's very durable and resistant."
"How much wear constitutes a day?"
"We hope you'll wear it all the time, but seven active hours counts."
"Do I have to check in every day?"
"Not at all. The transmitter looks for open connections, in addition to the one you establish at home. When it finds a connection, it automatically uploads the data we need for the recommendations."
Back in her apartment on campus, unpacking the product and peeling off the white, opaque film from the display and opalescent panel, Erica logged in to the service, completing their account-creation survey. The ring was popular at school, she fielding questions from her friends, some soon wearing their own.
* * *
Burke, one of Erica’s childhood friends, stepped down and out from the school bus. It was a long ride to school, which took the driver into Nebraska to pick him up, an arrangement granted by the superintendent, due to Burke's mother being the school district’s autism coordinator. They would move to town in Kansas, where he could walk to school, but for now it was an hour on the bus each way.
Instead of going inside to seventh-grade home room or playing touch football with his friends on the playground, he crossed the street, down to the grocery store, one of two stores in town carrying valentines. Burke received no cash allowance, had come to town on Saturday with his mother, who had some office work to do. Burke took a couple hours walking around town in search of snow-deep walkways to clear and earn enough cash to choose from anything the store carried.
At a glance there were many rows of cards with various red and white and pink envelopes. He had to be in class by 8:30. Looking at his watch, it was 8:09, giving little time to make a selection, sign it with love and deliver it by hand, and not be late to home room. He started looking through cards, taking a moment to look at their covers, opening them and reading the messages, but there was too little difference between them. So the minimum was best, a card in flat pink, ‘Love’ embossed in red and white on the cover, the inside blank, and a red envelope.
At the checkout, the store manager said something that Burke was preoccupied not to hear. He put the card in his pack, hurried over to school, entering through a small crowd of harrying eighth-graders, pacing down to the library, across from the second grade. Taking a piece of scrap paper from the librarian’s desk, he sat at the large, empty table and jotted down ideas for a message, wishing he had done this over the weekend. Filling half the sheet with notes, he settled on, simply, “To Erica, Happy Valentine's Day, From Burke,” and set to work then on his unruly cursive, rewriting the message until his hand could reproduce a pleasant version for the card.
Halfway to class, Burke saw Erica talking to friends, ready for home room. He passed the lobby, paused in the peak of his own confidence though years of schooling there and then to come, paused and looked back into the office at a dozen roses. He’d neglected to get a rose along with the card. Entering the office, he moved near the vase on the high countertop, the secretary in the principal’s office. They were talking and the principal was turned in his chair, facing almost away from the window and Burke, who plucked a rose from the vase and swiftly wrapping it inside his coat, paused for a breath, and a slower breath, turning then and walking out. Looking back, he felt a chill to match the gaze of the principal, still talking to the secretary, but looking directly at him. Hesitating for a moment, Burke then continued up the hall to class with fright in his chest. He quickly enfolded the long stem into the card and, stopping curtly, extended the valentine to Erica. She looked at the rose and then to him, accepting and turning quietly into home room. Burke crumpled the red envelope and the scrap sheet, entered the next door, tossed the scraps in the wastebasket and put the matter out of his thoughts.
That summer, her parents divorced and they moved away to Dallas. Her father stayed in town, his longtime family home, rather than selling the business and moving to Belize, where he still owned a house and went for the summer. He was a war veteran, an original Navy SEAL. By junior year of high school, Burke wanted to join the service and sought advice from Erica's father, asking if he knew the famous Marlenko. "Yes I did," he said. "Total psycho." Erica's father's woman emerged from the house with two glasses of unsweetened iced tea. "Burke wants to join the Navy?" She liked him from her elementary art classes, for his small but sharp talent. "Wants to see the world," Erica’s father said, “maybe get himself killed." The woman, having made no gesture to stay outside for the conversation, continued inside without comment. Burke wondered about the benefits of education in the service, saying the Army promised a University of Chicago degree, through satellite campuses around the globe.
"Are you applying to Annapolis?"
"I have bad grades."
"What else do you have going?"
"What do you mean?"
"Besides talking to military recruiters."
"Nothing. I mean, I don't know. I like computers."
"There you are, computers," he inhaled, as avoiding a car accident. "That's something," he said, nodding. "That's something."
Over the winter of senior year, Burke stayed the weekend in juvenile detention for stealing from the country club. Handed to police for several things, but the several unopened bottles from the country club had been incriminating. He was relieved to find himself the largest boy in the center, and the least immediately disturbed. One had taken a baseball bat to his father and he cried when Burke left.
Upon release, the judge assigned a hundred hours of community service. The school sent him to the district psychologist, Dr. Allen. Burke impressed him on a test, and the retired professor wanted to make sure that Burke would stay in school. "You remind me of myself," he said. "My principal hated me," continued the professor, appealing to circumstance. "I got myself into a fix in high school. He didn't know I went on to college, and when he saw me the next time, it was on the bus. I was working on the carburetor of my car. You see, I like to work with my hands, and they were dirty. So he saw me on the bus, asking how I was doing. I told him I was in the PhD program at the university. And he said, 'Allen, you're a liar!' And he died believing that."
Dr. Allen convinced Burke to go to college, citing the merits of the research libraries at either of the major state schools. Burke sent his application to Kansas by the end of the week. It was March. By May it was sure he could attend the university. Also that they would enroll him in remedial math. Burke picked up dated algebra and trigonometry textbooks from the free shelves in the high school library, proceeding through both of them by August. During his first week on campus, having tested into the credit course he wanted, all was well in the world. I love this, he thought, bounding the stairs to the sixth floor, his room overlooking campus from the west.
Burke improved his grades and worked as a cook, part-time. The waitress registered his melancholy, working out his shoulders with her hands between orders, leaning over him from behind, her chest against his head, her long, straight black hair drawn about his face, rustling his cheeks until he smiled. At night he dreamed of her. She kept a dragon and a falcon, sent the falcon up to be followed by the dragon, a child's dream. She was delighted to hear about it.
Burke sent for a credit card and, receiving it the following week, bought a nice camera. He took it to work, aiming the lens at everything in the kitchen, where the light was, or out behind the restaurant in the alley, though interiors won him over. Taking pictures of cooking eggs, hashbrowns and bacon, he arranged their prints in long strips by degree of preparedness for serving, producing artwork for his dorm room walls.
* * *
Early afternoon, four years later, Erica tuned the radio to her mother's show. Part of the deal for Rachel was the radio show, but there was too much competition to give her a morning broadcast, though Saturday afternoon had brought some people in for treatment.
It impressed Erica that her mother's show was not about treating drug abuse. She talked about everything and anything else, featuring diverse conversations, creative reviews and long stretches of ambient, classical and world music, mentioning in closing what she does, and where. Magical to Erica, yet her mother knew it happened the same for good conversation, generally that those involved gravitate afterwards to one another's interests. "Like forming friendships," Rachel had said. "Say two people meet for something they both enjoy, and they have a conversation, they become friends. We just want to make it happen on a larger scale. Friendship is the key to everything."
"There is love," Rachel said, "but there's no unrequited friendship."
"What do you mean?"
"Erica, you have to stand for what you believe. Friendship is always there to be uncovered. Love is always work in progress, there to be cultivated. Friendship is complete."
"Did you learn this in school?"
"I learned how to stand for my beliefs in school. Actually, they taught compassion, which is I think a kind of love, meaning it can be good or bad or in-between. Friendship is always for the best, even when the other person isn't so good. Love isn’t so easy."
Erica's telephone rang. She muted the radio. It was Lauren, her friend with the hotel in Austin. She was there now, inviting Erica to visit. Lauren had left Mexico City days ahead of Erica's flight, making it to Austin as Erica reached Dallas. Erica wanted to leave for Austin, decided to skip a semester to travel farther with Lauren. Agreed to find each other there the next week, Erica called her father, postponing Belize until next summer, explaining she would rather acquaint herself with his new girlfriend somewhere other than on the boat, not sure to herself if that could be true, though liking the staid art teacher more than the idea of a deputy sheriff.
In Austin, Erica met Lauren downtown in a coffee shop. Lauren had covered her hair with a handmade denim and silk hat. "You're wearing that ring again," Lauren said. Erica explained about the vendor and Lauren laughed, "So you're wearing a pink and grey dress?"
Erica blushed, "I'm hoping to throw it off."
"Your dress?" Lauren said confidentially.
"Yeah no, the ring." Their frozen coffees were served, the barista saying, "on the house." Erica looked at the ring, its colors moving amorphously and slowly, the vermilion of a drying chili pepper, the gold streak turning powder blue. Lauren thanked the barista, turned to Erica and looked at the ring, and motioning to the back wall featuring a dragon painted in the same color pattern, asked Erica if she felt interrupted. Erica shook her head, saying it was a western dragon, belly full of fire. Lauren turned away and outward through the shop, looking out onto the street, asking Erica if she felt safe. Erica said so, asking Lauren why she was upset. Lauren said she had a bad feeling, a sense of being observed from below.
"Erica, let's get out of here." Lauren tipped the barista to put their drinks in carry cups, her manner decisive, ready and alert. Outside they started walking, sipping frozen coffee in the heat. Lauren said they had to go out of the way to a fabric store. After crossing the river to the south, heading towards the hotel, Lauren said she could make enough cash to keep herself comfortable by sewing denim and silk headdresses and selling them downtown. She picked three kinds of denim, two of silk, a bleaching kit, and said her other equipment was back in the halo room. "They put up a notice," she said. "In January they're demolishing the hotel. We can stay there through October without a hassle."
Lauren lugged her materials back to the hotel. Erica carried both cups. In Mexico City, Lauren was making purses, presently carrying not her own design, but a reproduction of a special order from the dean of students at the university. About the change in manufacture, Lauren said the denim was easier to work with and the simple headdresses sold better anyhow. She could make two or three styles per day, or a single, unique one, and then have no problems with idle talk of durability and warranty as the purses had garnered. Erica noted restaurants they passed by on the way to the hotel, where she would look for work waiting tables.
They stepped into the lobby of the hotel. There was a guy on watch. Lauren greeted him and introduced Erica. He took a picture of her and printed two copies, placing them in folders, one for the cabinet in the corner, the other on hand for the desk. Erica wondered where they got their electricity. The guy said they had an arrangement with the neighbor, a mom and pop corner store, that in exchange for light duty and errands, they needed little enough power in return, along with running water. "You,” he said to her, “are free," explaining that she was a guest and she could relax until situated.
The halo room is the top floor of the hotel. Lauren heaved her wares onto the table under a bevy of bright windows overlooking downtown Austin, some patched with whiteboard and all of them covered with plastic sheeting to hold warmth in the winter. She put the sack under the table by her chair and sighed relief, shaking out the strain from her arm. "Welcome to the halo room," she said. Erica looked at her expectantly. "Yes," continued Lauren, "this is it, where we do things, our living room." Lauren filled a bottle at the water cooler as she spoke. Erica sat in a deep brown velour couch and glanced over the bookshelves.
The room looked magisterial, touched by the art of dozens of travelers, and not least by the architect at some significance, though the fine details had been absorbed by punk and post-punk feminine rigor. The medial wall was decorated pink and granite grey, portraits of unknown women. Lauren said they stayed in past years, the painter moving on that spring to the northwest. Lauren was portrayed near the end of the wall, smiling in semi-profile with, as she said, a faux representation of her hair made to look Victorian. Each portrait had something humorous or anachronistic, she said, gesturing to one, representing the subject as the bust of an ancient wearing laurels, another featuring a top hat and monocle. The pictures enmeshed like billows of cumulus. The final portrait before the painter moved on had been of Lauren, remaining open space decorated as well, the portraits appearing elevated and like reticulated versions of animal shapes appearing in actual clouds. Erica thought it was done well, yet feeling too photogenic for herself wearing such a dress against this wall.
The hotel was matriarchal, Lauren her designated queen. Erica laughed a marshmallow-coated chuckle of disbelief when made aware of this fact, moreover that there were sovereigns dating back decades, and she, Lauren, would be her final heir. “And your throne?" Erica mused. Lauren replied that residence of the halo room signified this. "Aye, to be queen,” she said, incanting. “It rearranges and reconstitutes my psychic crystalline formations." Continuing, "Erica, will you tell me the golden rule?"
"Do as you would be done by."
"Will you tell me the platinum rule?"
"Do unto others and run like a mother?"
Lauren laughed, "Treat others how they want to be treated."
"Are you a benevolent ruler, Lauren?"
"You miss the point,” she said. “Dear subject, people want to live their lives and we must let them."
"I like that," Erica said, "but it comes from left field."
"I mean it's uncanny or a non sequitur."
Lauren asked what Erica meant by the expression and where it came from.
"Getting thrown out at the plate," she said, "in baseball."
"From left field?" Lauren reiterated.
Lauren laughed off the affectation and showed the rest of the halo room to Erica, where to find things, the password to the laptop and how to work the appliances. Passing by the doorway to the stairs, the bell rung, the baritone of a large bell, someone in the corridor. A resident declared herself through the door to Lauren's query, a girl from downstairs and her boyfriend requesting computer time. Lauren welcomed them and introduced all as if longtime friends, very well by Erica since she disliked formal introductions. Lauren said she had to get back to work at the table. Erica filled a water bottle and headed back downtown on foot to the parking garage and her car, feeling much less removed from her own country, now fully back home and wanting for the small comforts of her phone and pocketbook she'd managed to go without in Mexico, among people of inordinate reception to the whole world of appeal.
Parking the car in the lot behind the corner store, Erica introduced herself to the store's proprietor and bought an orange juice, hearing disappointment in his voice over the coming demolition, as it seemed sure to lose business, even if replaced with another hotel, which would definitely not happen. The arrangement was more than fair to him, exchange of undisclosed services for low addition to the monthly bills. Erica was made welcome to tend the store now and then for cash payment, but she'd stopped into a restaurant downtown and put in an application and the manager had left no room for doubt.
Back in the hotel, Erica said hi to the desk attendant and looked over the expanse of the ground floor, two stories, the rooms of the hotel on a mezzanine similar to old western hotels, the lobby having been at some point a bar and grill. A staircase along the east wall led the way up to the mezzanine along the southern wall, five single rooms. The staircase doubled up to the third story, what as the attendant told Erica was called by the architect, "the regency room," on request of the owner, an eccentric oil man.
Further talk revealed more story of the place, that it was subject to arson decades ago, leaving her unfit for public commerce, but the owner loved it so well as to leave it in the hands of the travelers, given a few ground rules which were followed to this day. The travelers given funding for materials to reinforce the arson-damaged portion of the ground floor, where three of the rooms had been at risk of collapse. The travelers reinforced the mezzanine and patched the floors of the damaged rooms, at which point the hotel passed inspection code. The owner made good on his promise to leave it in their hands. He was greatly fond of the travelers, having married a traveling fortune teller he'd met there in Austin. She had foretold in detail how his oilfield ventures would make him wealthy, given he follow a bit of her advice, which he had, and it worked.
Sadly, said the attendant, the oil man bequeathed the hotel to his heirs and they sold the property, now slated for demolition and redevelopment, likely as an office building. "Do you live here?" Erica said. Yes, the attendant said, pointing out the room at the far side from the staircase on the west end, room five, adding, "If you're a night-owl you'll meet Carol. She does the night watch. She's in room one, fast asleep." The attendant described the couple who requested computer time before she'd gone back to get her car, in room two, and two more couples who were out and about at the moment, normally back around midnight. Erica asked how come, since the building passed code, they were tearing it down, rather than converting it back into a regular hotel. The attendant speculated on the market dynamics and the neighborhood, that maybe it was a bad location for an old-style hotel, or the new development projected to be more profitable anyhow. "It was in his will to keep it available to us," he said, "but there must have been a loophole." He and Erica exchanged salutations and she made her way back up to the halo room, at the door a sign reading in perfect calligraphy, "Pull rope for the bell." She pulled the rope, heard the bell resonate behind the door. Lauren slid the porthole open and, seeing her friend, welcomed her back.
* * *
Davis Marlenko Jr. had followed in his father's footsteps, joining the Navy and pursuing special forces training to become a SEAL commando, a warrior. They put him early through OCS upon his making special forces, and completing OCS, making officer, as his father had done. Enlisting and then making officer, stallions, they were called. Davis, a SEAL stallion by age twenty-two, presently of twenty-four, on leave for a month after a long tour of duty in the middle east, visiting his hometown of Austin.
Visiting a Western boutique, he bought a leather hat and boots, listening patiently but indifferently to the salesman's description of proper care for these items, Davis nodding politely but saying no thanks to the leather care products. Outside the store, he made a few calls to some old friends, looking for someone to watch a matinee out at the new tech plaza, but everyone had plans for the day, so he went by himself. The TV ads said they accommodated the single viewer just as well as two, or ten, or hundreds of moviegoers. Davis put his hat in the pouch on his motorcycle and put his helmet on, started the bike and rode out to the plaza. It opened for business more than a year before, but there were hundreds of cars in the parking lot.
At the box office he paid for a guided tour and waited service for one viewer. A cheerful teenage girl bounced up beside him, introducing herself as his hostess, showing him down a long corridor of entries into large theaters, the corridor opening at length into a great, round room with curtains into individual rooms. "The single viewing hall," she said. "We have booths on the other side for couples and small families, as well as the big screens for general admission." She led him to an available booth, seated him into the viewing chair, handing him a menu and queueing the demonstration video on the convex, parabolic screen, lit by a projector that emerged from above. She played the demonstration, pointing out the cameras about the edges of the screen, saying they register the viewer's expression and body language, and adjust the action for the best experience accordingly, and that one could watch the same movie multiple times and see a different version each time. A pair of actors appeared on the screen, talking to each other about motorcycles and folding origami. "All the acting is computer-generated," she said. "Even a lot of the scenery and music." Explaining further, that the computer took the composite filming of the actors, in various outfits and various readings and scenes, and computed the movie action, for the most part, on the go, information about the viewing uploaded in real time and the play-flow sent back from the datacenter, “Truly a theater of the mind."
Davis ordered a beer and a fresh pretzel. "Coming right up!" she cheered, keying the order to her handheld tablet. "Your waitress will be here in a minute," she said, continuing the tutorial.
"What if I don't like the movie afterwards?" Davis said. "Surely that's possible."
"Yes, of course," the girl said. "It just shows what it thinks you'll appreciate the most, compared to other versions rated by other viewers." She continued that one could rate the experience as the credits begin to roll, or if he wanted to leave early. Davis asked about the length of the show. The hostess informed him that, if he liked, he could set a preference for the duration of the viewing, otherwise payable in twenty-minute blocks. "Without setting the preference, and the computer picking up an interest in the storyline, I've seen people watch more than five hours."
"Set it for ninety minutes, please," he said.
"Sure thing," she chimed. The waitress arrived with his order. The hostess finishing the demonstration and tutorial, inquired what he thought, saying it was all based on his expressions during the time they had been talking. "All of that was made up?" he said and she nodded with glee. "Every bit," saying,"it thinks you like those actors, or that you would."
"How about that."
"None the same viewing twice!” she sang. “Would you like to select a movie, or let it choose for you?"
"Let it choose."
She drew his attention to a selector on the chair-side touch panel, showing how to prefer automatic selection for approximately ninety minutes. After a moment, the lights lowered and a movie started. She showed him how to order service at any time, then bowed happily and left the booth.
Afterward, out in the heat, Davis rode back downtown to the strip, looking to watch a live band and have a couple more beers. It was only four. Most places would not have live music until around seven.
Walking a few blocks to the little river, stopping on the bridge looking over the pedestals across the water, Davis watched some girls leaping about the platforms, turning in the air like ribbons. One of them noticed him watching their activity, hailed him as cowboy and complimented his hat, gingerly placing herself in handstand on one platform and kicking her legs, flipping backwards, landing sure-footed on the next platform in triumphal splay of her arms. Davis smiled and headed back west towards downtown.
At the hostel a young woman sat on the front step. Davis found a bench and watched her from across the street. She glanced at him, then returned her gaze into the middle distance. A man stepped out from the hostel onto the stoop beside the sitting woman, glancing into her periphery, and without gaining her attention, started walking eastward. Davis watched him pass over the little river, heading to the big parking lot. Davis crossed the street and said to the young woman, "How do?" She asked him in a Swedish accent if he was staying in the hostel. He shook his head. Knowing her accent was Swedish, yet so as not to force her to accede the question, he asked whether she was German. "No," she said, "Swedish." He pointed eastward. "Your boyfriend?"
"No," she said, turning herself askance.
"What's your name?"
"Cumbaya," she said, half amused and half serious.
"Is that your road name?”
"Yes, and you?"
"I'm from here," he said. "My name is Davis. Nice to meet you, Cumbaya." He wondered if she would join him for drinks nearby. She declined, saying she had plans with her companions.
* * *
Erica sits up, pausing the movie. We both feel the difference, both of us blushing. She wants to make a joke about the sheer blondness of all the women, and me about the likenesses of the Davis and Richard characters to her parents. "What are you going to bring back to your Swedish girlfriend," she says, “before we win?” We get cozy again and resume play.
* * *
On the problem of the calculation of the moon's orbit of the earth, Isaac Newton is reported to have said, "It causeth my head to ache." The heavenly bodies orbit on ellipses, their primary bodies located at one of the two foci of an ellipse, due to the gravitation of the primary body, as the earth is primary to the moon and the sun to the earth. Due to the sun's interaction with the moon, the problem is not exactly solvable.
I had left school in Kansas and went to visit Texas, or as one might say, changed Coke to Pepsi. It broke my heart to leave school and it's hard to tell the story. So let's put it another way, that I am sleeping, that this is dreaming. It's easy when compared to mythic figures like the age thirty-five hedge fund manager enjoying a Friday night in Manhattan, or the age forty-five billionaire on a Saturday night in Dubai, or the age twenty-five hacker, having received a hundred million dollars in venture capital to grow her company, is hacking away on a new kind of movie experience on a Sunday night in San Francisco. Compared to these folks, I am asleep, sleeping, dreaming, even snoring. It's okay. I get it and I think you will, too. This way I can wake up when finished here, and it will have been a kind of sad dream, an odd occurrence or likely aberration or purgative discourse, waking to follow the yellow brick dust in the wind.
Erica and I are watching an interactive movie, directed by yours truly, compiled for the first time in late October of that year, some twelve ago, about five years before she married Richard. I want you to know foremost that I love beauty. I love it the way we say we love life. It's unfortunate and goes not recommended. One moves onward and upward in this world by loving the power of such things, their use and utility. Love the power of life, the power of love, the power of song. I see I have been in love with beauty qua beauty, neglecting reverence to all her intents and purposes. Do not do this, or you will suffer, shepherd in wolf's garb, political.
So I left school over a beauty of one curious and one beholden eye, as Helen before Troy. You can call me Professor Neko, she said, or Dr. Neko. Let my name equal Johan. One can think of me as Johan Burke. When thinking of Neko, I found it best to use new names to keep myself strong. And so, as it pleases, let ours bespeak ourselves, so that we can better approximate a solution to the problem.
Imagine a binary solar system of two stars. Let the earth orbit these two suns. For ease of mind, imagine there is a great giant invisible star about which the smaller two stars pertain to orbit. In this way we can see an order of magnitude beyond our own sun, earth, and moon system. A giant star, two suns, earth, and moon system. One already feels an import of this variegated dreamlife. We thank the viewer for his time and her nature, regarding our predisposition to establish and perpetuate by order and system, our desire elucidating the want for as much, ingratiating and betrayed as it sounds.
We feel something suddenly and unexpected, a mild frisson of a hint of anger and insight and boredom and realize we are dreaming, though we cannot remember what we were dreaming about just a moment ago. Was it about someone we knew a long time ago? Was it someone in a crowd who resembled another? And the selfsame efflorescence, and briefly we are afloat above the ground, situated in the lotus position, hovering above the sidewalk sketched with oak and maple leaves, rising to crest above obstacles along the way, along the shade in a sense of warmth and peace. Your willpower does the work of raising and stooping your body under branches and over the hedgerows and gateways. It is warm and calm, in the golden evening light. Your will opening your limbs and stretching them out as you begin to swim through the air, swimming through the air along the treetops and over the homes and the parks.
A falcon appears before us, moving quickly but steadily, on intervals soaring and swooping, seeming to allow us to hold pace as it darts downward some distance, catching an updrift then and continuing to soar on outstretched wings, black and sleek and calm. A call is heard to the falcon from below and it darts sideways and we follow in a great arcing parabolic motion back around the other way, towards the calling sound, elevating farther as the falcon sweeps around, encircling the falconer, a dark figure standing on the street, keeping watch on the bird. It is warmer and calmer farther above the street. The dark figure, a woman, chirps a longer call and the falcon expands its course outward and upward and we follow languidly, flying and flowing. The peace and warmth is palpable as fruit.
The falconer chirps twice and the bird careens on a tangent and we follow. For several minutes we drift along behind it, warmth running like the currents of time through us, until we lose track of time and feel only the warmth and the swooping oscillation of the falcon. It takes upward to a great height, the sky darkening and cooling, the stars shimmering, then the falcon angles downward, screeches, angling straight downward. The scream of the falcon breaks our rhythm and we fly harder, willing ourselves after the falcon, knowing it will jut sideways as we pierce the veil into the great below. Through the emerald and ochre canvas into the below, radiating a kind of light that our scales absorb without harming us, towards the glowing lake. Blasting upon the water, diving into the lake, our scales absorbing its burn without harming us. Heaving a stomachful of the fluid it loosens the knots inside of us and we bear down and leap upwards, toward the surface from the bottom, crushing bones underfoot, emerging and rocketing on a line towards the pinhole of twilight in the painted sky, the puncture mending itself behind us as we enter unharmed back into the middle world.
The falcon is spiraling upward in the atmosphere, waiting under the cool, midnight blue of the starlit, shimmering heavens. The falcon leads us to the living world, towards the falconer. We feel our purposes and powers, expectant, brazen and ready for command, encircling the falconer. She has walked outside the city to the airport, calling the falcon to her arm. We touch down on the airstrip, scorching the tarmac. The falconer soothes the falcon, lulling and humming. "Good," she says, opening its cage. She locks the cage and paces toward us. She appears less human and more phantasmic as she approaches, now kaleidoscopic, now cobaltic, a blue dragon. She thanks us for helping her. In the feeling of loving grace, her aspect returns to the shape of her living being, assimilating her living form, becoming human again. We also return to living, human form, as time and gravity, humor and humility, resume, and we remember life as it happens.
"I have something," I said, tired from the flight, handing her a medallion. She wonders about it and I say it's for good luck, that it belonged to my grandmother. "When something good happened to her," I said, "she held it, meditating, asking angels to bless it for good luck." She holds the medal in her hand, asking what is it. "It was my grandfather's, before he died, from the war. He did the same when he got back to base after bombing the Nazis." She looked at me strangely, asking why it should be hers, saying it should better stay in the family. "I like you and I want you to have it." Again she looked at me strangely. "I like you too, Burke."
She drove me back to Lawrence from Kansas City. My roommates were out. She came in and I showered as she watched TV. We both had work in the morning and went to bed early.
Keiko got up an hour before work, stood naked holding the pendant in her hand, the light from street lamps through the window glinting on the silver star. She placed the medal in her jeans-pocket and went to shower. Burke was awake when she got out. She had a change of clothes there. She drove them to work at the diner. She unlocked the doors and let them inside, locking the doors again, half an hour till opening. She set the tables and prepared the coffee makers. Burke lit the grill, turned on the fryer, mixed the pancake batter and put several baked potatoes through the grating press, mixed a dozen eggs in a bowl and set a few pounds of bacon by the grill, heating the oven and starting the water for the gravy, chopping onions and bell peppers and ham for omelets as the water heated, mixing dough for biscuits and stirring the gravy and spooning the biscuits onto a pan, placing it in the oven and setting the timer.
Keiko was reading the newspaper. Burke kissed her on the cheek and slumped opposite her in the booth. The dishwasher got there and Keiko let him in and turned the lights on inside and over the parking lot and the neon sign, OPEN. Some working men got out of parked cars and came in, the first commenting on the chill outside, another greeting Keiko warmly, another picking up a newspaper from the counter. Burke returned to the kitchen, asking the dishwasher if anything eventful happened while he was away. "Funny you should ask," the dishwasher said. "My apartment building burnt down last month."
"I'm sorry," Burke said. "I hope you didn't lose everything."
"We have insurance, so it's not bad."
"Did anyone get hurt?"
"No, they even got the pets out."
"What started it?"
"Bad wiring they said."
"I'm glad you're all right."
"Yeah, thanks, me too."
The owner came and helped Keiko serve tables. The breakfast rush was slower for the cold weather. Lunch was quicker, the Wednesday special a proven favorite, the owner's heirloom chicken and dumplings, mushroom wild rice and cheddar bread, served again on Saturdays. She had posterized a photograph of her mother winning grand prize at the Kansas State Fair for best soup, she a little girl beside her mother, smiling.
After work, Keiko drove Burke over to his place on the way back to her father's house a mile south of town. Burke showered and Keiko talked to Susan, one of his roommates. He met Keiko through Susan. They had taken a class together, Susan saying he should ask her out for a cup of coffee. "He's pre-law," Susan said. "He's smart." Susan invited her over to watch an old-fashioned movie and introduced them. Halfway through the movie, seated beside him on one of the couches, Susan having gone upstairs, Keiko took Burke's hand in hers. Susan had rented a cello and resumed practicing, the sounds filtering down through century-old heating vents no longer in use. Normally all one would hear through them were adolescent rumors about any of the tenants, though mainly by then they were about Burke and his strange and amusing behavior. One of the engineering students laughed, Burke overhearing, "just Burke, king of cards."
He changed out of his work clothes and rode out with Keiko to her house. Her father, Jack, was home, watching the news. "I brought you some chicken soup," she said. "I'll put it on the table." Burke sat on another couch and their Pomeranian yapped until Jack sighed and murmured to the dog, saying they adopted him from an abusive prior owner. "How was Texas?"
"I made a movie."
"So I've heard. What's it about?"
"It's about being on the road and meeting people."
"I don't think so."
"I just went there to meet my real father."
Jack got up, muted the TV and went to the kitchen table for lunch. The little dog huffed and went downstairs to look for Keiko. Burke watched the muted news channel for a moment, then looked over the titles of Jack's latest reading. Keiko said it was Jack's goal to read all the books from the Lawrence Public Library before he died, reading two or three of them by the week.
Burke went downstairs and racked up a game of nine ball. It was a nice, full-sized, granite table, installed with new felt after Jack won it playing poker in a support group for widowers over the summer. Jack gave Burke a handicap of the two and the nine ball when they played, keeping the score closer. Burke practiced drawing from bank shots to side pockets, laying up the next shot lengthwise into a corner pocket, never a sure thing. Jack would sink most of his long bank shots. He took up playing poker and shooting pool with someone he'd met in the group when his wife died in a car crash twelve years ago, along with Keiko's younger sister. Keiko survived the crash, even calling emergency dispatch from inside the wreck, then her father before losing consciousness from shock. Jack took lessons for years afterward but discouraged Burke from practicing or playing regularly, the game incarnating time badly spent.
Burke heard the shower stop and put away the rest of the game and sat in the big recliner, ratcheting it back with the leg support extended, yawning. Through the terrace doors he looked over the lawn covered with sparkling snow. He felt poor, felt want, ignorant of why or for what, yet situated on how and when, where and who. He stared at the sparkling snow and thought of Erica, abandoning school in Texas, traveling back to Mexico for the winter, then to California in the spring. He walked over to the terrace door, two large, sliding glass doors, unlocked them, and stepped out onto the patio. The chill nipped his forearms and he unfurled his shirtsleeves. It was quiet, the sky clear and the snow glittering. "Johan," he heard, looking up to see if it was Jack on the upper deck. No one was there. "Johan!" said the thing, right before him, causing him to backstep and thud against the glass door. He blinked, a fluttering, tiny, humanlike creature before his eyes. "What are you?" he said. "And who is Johan?"
“I,” it said, “am a pixie, and Johan is you."
"I must be dreaming.”
"You are dreaming, but this is not your dream."
"I don't understand."
"You do," it said. "That's why I'm here."
"What do I understand?"
"That this is a dream."
"I'm dreaming, sure. I dream all the time. What do you want from me?"
It was silent, floating off to one side, leaving a trail of pink and violet mist. Burke touched the mist and it sparkled luminously, the colors growing more intense and causing a pleasant sensation in his fingers. He moved to touch the pixie and it giggled, avoiding his touch and appearing in triplicate around his hand. Reaching with both hands, the pixie tessellated into twelve figures, averting Burke's retracting arms and rejoining each other as one figure, chuckling again, asking what he saw. He looked flatly at the luminescing figure, blinking again. The figure began to disappear and reappear, imprinting white, angelic shapes, until there were twelve in the nebulous, purple cloud. Burke reached again to touch them and the shapes conjoined, forming a stretch of paper dolls, materializing in his hands, snow angels. None of the color remaining but the white, yet the misty cloud remained before him as he held the stretch of paper dolls. What appeared to be a small burst of lightning blitzed in the cloud, then again, silently. "What is that?"
"Worldpath," said the pixie.
"It looks like a raincloud, a thundercloud."
"Here it does, Johan, but you are dreaming, and it looks different to everybody."
"What does it do?" Burke said, "and why do you keep calling me Johan?"
"Worldpath is a mix of dreams and memories, Johan."
"I'm not Johan and I don't know who that is."
"Johan is someone I know."
"Who are you?"
"Someone who says who you are."
Burke woke abruptly in the chair, looked in his hands for the paper dolls, finding nothing, craning his neck to the terrace door, but no footprints were on the snow-dusted patio. He could feel the rough paper on his fingerprints, rubbing together, the sense diminishing after a moment. He unfurled his shirtsleeves. Keiko emerged.
Jack had disappeared. Burke went upstairs to get his coat and Jack was gone. There was a red aura surrounding the chair where Jack had sat for lunch. Burke touched the chair and the aura soaked into his hand, and it felt alive, more than before, warm and itching with vitality. Where was Jack? The car was in the garage. The TV was still on, muted over the news channel. Burke turned it off and looked in Jack's open bedroom. Nothing doing. It upset Keiko when Burke asked where he might be. "That's what I get for sleeping in your bed," she said. "Are you taking your meds?"
“Yes,” she scowled, eyes watering. "Those pills that keep you from losing your mind and hurting people? Those meds. Are you taking them?"
"Of course I am, but—"
"I don't need this from you."
"But he was—"
"Shut up, Burke!" He sat perplexed on the couch. She stood over him briefly and walked away, the dog following her back downstairs. "You should take a walk," she resolved. "It's only a mile back to town. Get some air. Clear your head."
When the world expands, it takes a moment to warm up again. What's the question, given a certifiable narrator, dignity or happiness? There are happy and unhappy places. Erica, I love you. And we resume where Burke encounters spirit-beings on the walk back into town in the January chill. He buttoned his coat and left his girlfriend's house without an argument, walked the hundred yards back to the highway, proceeding north along the side of the road. It was clear, cloudless and cold and bright, early winter. One hand warm and eager, the other still and secure in the other pocket. He held his hand up, looking for an aura, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Cars passed by on the highway heading into Lawrence from the south. I should call my doctor, he thought, ask him if everything is okay, if I need new meds or something.
Jack died not one year ago and Burke was ashamed of himself for coming unhinged before Keiko. Burke met Jack a few times before he and Keiko became steady together. Burke wondered for a moment why Keiko tolerated him, but the idea was unbearable and frightful. The truth was unbearable. He slipped back into fantasy and visions of tomorrow and the future, worried for his lost and frightened and small soul. Ashamed for offending Keiko, he choked up and began to sob, slipping on an icy patch and tearing a ligament in his knee, now limping into city limits, his knee inverting painfully on each pace. You're over, Burke, he thought, you make everything over with. Jack died last year and you attended his funeral. Keiko bought you those clothes you wore. You listened to her eulogy. She worked on it for a month with her father in the hospital. You’re really over with, Burke. Now she hates you and you're over with. Everything is done.
None of this was cogent to him in the moment, nothing he could recall. When he got to town he looked back, wondered how the walk had passed by so quickly, looking at his watch, puzzled. He saw a minor devil, fallen recently, looking for a way back into good grace, pushed back down by a minor angel, who marked Burke with neutrality and demilitarized him.
Burke limped into a truck stop and got a cocoa, the bored young clerk asking if it was cold enough outside. I don't know, Burke said. How cold is it?
"It's snowing again."
"It is winter," snarled Burke.
"Yes it is," the clerk dispensed Burke's change, saying, "you have a nice day."
Burke sipped the hot chocolate outside in the diesel fumes and slush of wet snow and motor oil, the smaller, blue sun cresting around from behind the larger, orange sun, low in the sky. The blue sun cast aurora clear across the north and west by dusk, curling around the north, some trick of the magnetosphere in early winter.
It was another mile back to Burke's house. His knee hurt and his hand was crazy. Susan and Jane were home, talking about going out for the evening. Jane had a crush on Burke, especially at his most pathetic. He limped into the living room and fell back on the couch by Susan. "What are you guys doing tonight?" he said.
"Girl stuff," Susan exerted.
"Where is everyone?" Burke said. Jane looked at Susan for support, waiting for her to speak. "They went to Johnny's half an hour ago," Susan said. "Do you want a ride?"
"Oh, no thanks," he said. "I think I'm over with."
"You are thoughtful," she said. "Let's go, Jane. See you later, Burke."
"Bye, Burke," Jane said politely. "Don't hurt yourself."
Burke called the doctor as the women left. "Yes, hello, is Dr. Paulsen available?" There was a pause and the secretary asked if it was a crisis. Burke said so, and another pause, the sound of papers shuffling— "Burke, hello? I'm Nicole Hyatt, on call for Dr. Paulsen. Do you remember me?"
"We talked when I first came in. My meds aren't working. I'm seeing ghosts and angels." The shuffling of papers stopped. He could hear the creaking of a reclining chair. Another pause. "When were you last in to see us, Burke?"
The chair creaked again, papers shuffling. "Hold on a minute," she said. He heard typing, then the chair and the papers. "We only gave you three refills, Burke. Your prescription expired over three months ago." He considered this for a moment, sure he was taking them all along, now not so sure at all. She asked him to hold on the line as she called the scrips into a nearby pharmacy. "You can pick them up again within the hour," she said when back on the line. "Same as before, then I want you to come in at nine on Monday, okay?"
"Okay," Burke said, hung up the phone, and went to bed, waking up in his clothes, the alarm clock reading 3:14 AM. Pi, he thought, three point one four, nauseating. The basement was cold. He thought of Jane in the next room, of how she must feel, pure and serene and peaceful. He felt its terrible envy, anger and frustration because it was too early for all this weird stuff, and because it was really happening and it was disgusting and there was nothing he could do. He rolled onto his back, practicing a breathing exercise, extending his diaphragm with each inhalation, holding it in and exhaling slowly, something Erica taught him in Texas, how to breathe. Don't breathe into your chest, she had said. It makes you anxious. He looked at the clock again, switched the alarm off and stood up, taking a change of clothes to the shower. The hot water washed away yesterday's pains and reinvigorated him, washed away the awful feelings, washed away the dread. Brushing his teeth and shaving, he looked alive in the mirror, clean and calm, just like anyone. Nothing glowered in the shadow. Nothing laughed through the wall. Nothing scratched on the door. Everything was okay.
When you fall far from help, you want to know what to keep sacred, against all hope and fear. What to vouchsafe, or whom, etc... for when the party's over. For Burke it was Erica, but there was a toll. Not a big investment for the future, but a pittance by the day, by the hour. No big upside. Some call it the torch, the passing of the torch, the baton, the namesake... nomenclature without claim on truth or goodness, only for the love of the other. Please, let me continue. I apologize for slowing and stepping aside. And especially if you feel bored by these little sentiments of mine, then I beg your pardon, but we were talking about beauty, the argument or case for beauty, however absurd, over life and love. It's a disaster and we should want to change course. The show must go on.
“Say cut,” the engineer said.
“Cut,” I said.
“Say it like you mean it,” she said.
“Say, that's a take.”
“That's a take.”
Erica paused the viewing. Burke had fallen asleep and started to snore. On waking him, he went to bed and she saved the movie to finish watching later. She had been through it several times and so far, the only new thing the hostel and the engineer. Erica decided to go to bed. Burke was already snoring. Erica climbed into bed with him. She felt warmer towards him than ever before. She had a ten percent take of net revenues from the movie, which already had secured college education funds for both of her small children, as well as paying for a modest home and a new car. People loved the movie, it was clear.
She turned on her side and placed her hand between his shoulders, in a motion tracing the contours of his back, over his dark shirt. He quieted when her hand reached the skin of his arm. A moment passed, where he was awake and he felt her touch upon him, then turning onto his back, another moment. He moved to face her, looking upon her, both of them in the silence. A minute passes, they looking inside each other, then they begin to kiss, and make love.
* * *
Davis sees a woman sitting on the steps of the hostel. He sits on a bench across the street. Her skin is dark and she wears a thin jeans-jacket of a sort, out of fashion by itself, though it’s adorned with embroideries. Someone emerges, speaks to her and picks up something from the corner just out of sight, turns around and goes the other way, probably parked in the lot under the expressway. Davis approaches the woman from across the street and sits beside her, taking off his hat. She looks at him. He asks her name. She palms over his hand hers. “I'm from Kansas City. I'm here with—“ she leans forward, looking down the street for Burke. “I'm here to make a new movie.”
“You don't say,” he pauses. “I just saw my first one, out in the multiplex.”
“How was it?”
Davis expressed astonishment. She tells him how many people have been scanned into the system, available as actors for these movies. “You've seen the studio down the street?” she says. “You can be scanned in there.”
“I might wait.”
She chuckles. Burke approaches, nods to them introducing himself. Davis wants to take them out for drinks, and they agree to go with him.
Lauren and Erica are downtown. Lauren has a headdress for sale for more than Erica made in her shift at the restaurant. A woman and two men approach. Lauren suggests the headdress to her and she fits it on, the denim and rose-colored silk wearing nicely on her. Aside, Erica recognizes Burke after a moment, waits for him to look, but she is off to the side and sees him complimenting the woman trying on the headdress. She purchases the headdress. They have had a few drinks. Erica stands and sidles up to Burke, who turns and looks, almost recognizing her from a decade before, as through a dream. She says his name. He greets her, becomes dizzy, and sits down at her feet.