It was just a casual glance at an old photograph, but it triggered something in my unconscious, a memory so terrifying I'd suppressed it for more than forty years -- suddenly I remembered, I remembered everything, every freakish, frightening detail -- it was horrible, horrible...
And then, within minutes, I suppressed it again, and threw away the old photograph. I can't be bothered, not now -- I'm on a roll, I'm firing on all cylinders, I can do no wrong. I am in the bubble. This morning I spotted a five dollar bill on the sidewalk and before you could say "Abraham Lincoln" I'd scooped it up and stuffed it in my shoe.
Speaking of shoes, in 1924 a man named Reynolds invented a nifty device that could tie your shoelaces for you, automatically. He applied for a patent, told friends he was moving to Youngstown, Ohio, and was never heard from again.
But I digress. At the copying place (Kopy Katz) where I was once employed, a co-worker -- I'll call her Maureen -- told me that I zigzagged about in my conversation "like a water bug," never staying with one subject for more than a few seconds. For example, a sound wave produced by a ten-foot-tall tuning fork can, theoretically at least, pulverize a building the size of the Pentagon from a distance of six hundred yards. That's from Sound Wave Newsletter, an obscure trade journal I've taken a liking to.
Tomorrow, Monday, I was supposed to leave on a cruise to Alaska -- not your typical cruise either, but one that features a live, audience-participation "interactive performance" of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, plus an all-New Age cuisine consisting of dishes made exclusively from bean curd. Well, I hate Agatha Christie, I loathe audience-participation theater, and I despise health food -- so, instead, tomorrow I'm going out to look for a new job.
Where was I? Oh yes, lack of concentration. All those years in front of the TV, constantly changing the channel. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. Click. That's it. End of discussion.
Once, while retrieving something from under my desk (I was providing "Information" at a bank at the time), my boss, in passing, advised me to "sit up straight and look sharp!" if I ever wanted to get anywhere. I know it sounds trite, but right then and there I resolved to do something about myself, something positive. I repeated the words "look sharp, look sharp" over and over as I walked out of the bank that day and then, I'm not sure why, I panicked -- I started to run. I ran to the end of the block, through a large crowd on the corner, into the street, into traffic, and directly into the path of an oncoming cab, and then -- pow! -- it hit me. Not the cab, an idea. A great idea. But I'll get to that later.
Maureen (her real name?) was nice to me. Mr. Katz was nice to me. They were all nice to me -- but -- let's change the subject. Darts. I love darts. I play darts nearly every day of the year -- often using one of my forty-two handmade English dart sets! By the way, did you know that a projectile (rock, missile, dart) traveling at a forty-five degree angle at the speed of sound creates a sound wave powerful enough to... I'm sorry, wait, stop, stop -- I am not into darts. Not at all. I lied. Oh, not a big lie, okay, but I apologize. It's not right to abuse your trust. After all, you're my audience!
Anyway, I could call Kopy Katz, disguise my voice -- no, no, I won't.
Seriously, though, I need a job, the rent has to be paid, all those magazine subscriptions are coming up for renewal -- and I'm supporting a great aunt who plays the lottery to the tune of three hundred bucks a week! Well, the great aunt part isn't true -- but I do subscribe to a lot of magazines.
Now, to return to this man Reynolds for a moment, imagine never having to lean over to tie your shoelaces! (Myself, I prefer loose-fitting loafers.) Today, the only evidence we have of his work are a few crude drawings, an application for a U.S. patent (#3,310,897), and a forwarding address on Euclid Street in Youngstown, Ohio that, when I checked, no longer exists.
In 1942, off the coast of Maine, a group of Navy frogmen made a strange discovery. Well, maybe they did, maybe they didn't, I don't know, and if I did it's because I'd read about it somewhere, or saw a documentary on television. In any case, I can't remember.
Yes, I know, I'm a little scattered -- it was a big mistake sticking my head in the Xerox machine. A big mistake. I know that now. I was trying to be funny, trying to impress Maureen, which, it turns out, is her real name.
Right now, at this very moment, I'm sitting in a waiting room, waiting to see this doctor, and I'm thumbing through a magazine, Sound Wave Newsletter (ever heard of it?) and there's an ad in the back inviting subscribers to take a cruise with the staff of the magazine -- to Alaska -- and next to that is a small ad for a local copying place named Kopy Katz, and on the same page is a picture of a rare English dart board, and a story about Navy frogmen and their valuable work during the Second World War. Do you follow me? Do you know where I'm going with this?
"The doctor will see you now."
What? Who said that?
"The doctor will see you now."
Someone is talking to me. A woman's voice. A nurse? I don't see her. I don't see anyone. I don't see myself.
"Do you need assistance?"
"No, I'll be fine." I decided to talk back to her, wherever she was.
"Who said that?" she asked, startled.
"I did," I answered. "Who's asking?"
"This is spooky," she said in a quavering voice. "I'm getting out of here." I heard her hurried footsteps recede into the distance.
Maureen smiled when I switched on the Xerox machine, but it suddenly got cold, very cold and I was shivering, and frightened, huddled in the corner of a cave, a cave that had been dug out of a cliff, the type of cliff dwelling once inhabited by the Powloo, a pre-Columbian Indian tribe that lived in the American southwest nearly a thousand years ago. And then, the next thing I knew, I was back at Kopy Katz.
This is nothing more than self-indulgent blabber trying to pass itself off as a kind of stream-of-consciousness experimental writing. There's nothing here, really, but a lot of randomly selected information thrown together in a jarring style, and I would strongly recommend that we discontinue our -- Hey! Hey! That's not me! That's not my narrative voice! Who is it? Who's trying to cut in? Whoever it is, butt out! (What a nerve!)
Imagine it's 1942 and you're in a special scuba diving unit of the Navy that's been sent to Maine to look for -- and by the way, this is me again -- to look for a German submarine that was spotted off the coast. Now, imagine that you don't really like scuba diving, or even swimming, and it's not 1942, and you're not in the Navy, but at least we got rid of whoever that was.
Seriously, though, I am in the bubble, and I could go on and on, zigzagging and digressing all over the place, but you'd probably like to see me get to the point, right? You'd like to find out what the hell this is all about, wouldn't you? Where is he going with this? you're asking, embarrassed for having hung around this long -- but you did -- and now you're here, and you're reading, and you're waiting. And you want to know. Am I right?
Okay. Here are some of the elements up to now:
1.) A shoelace-tying machine designed by a man named
James M. Reynolds in 1924.
2.) A job at a place called Kopy Katz.
3.) A job at a bank. ("Information")
4.) Darts. (By the mere mention of)
5.) A subscription to Sound Wave Newsletter plus
numerous other obscure trade journals.
7.) Abe Lincoln.
8.) Navy frogmen.
9.) A probably non-existent great aunt who plays the
lottery to the tune of three hundred dollars a week.
10.) Pre-Columbian Indian cliff dwellings in the
Do you see anything? A story? A theme? A thread? Anything? No? Are you sure? Think about it. Take your time...
"Nurse? Nurse?" Where the hell is she? I Hope I didn't scare her away. Seeing a specialist these days is a tricky game. It takes ten months to get the damn appointment, and then, if you're a minute late, you have to wait ten months to get another one. I was here on time, I just wasn't ready to go in when she called. Can you blame me?
Why sound waves? Is that what you asked? First, they're invisible. They are invisible, aren't they? To be honest, I never really got into Sound Wave Newsletter. I skimmed it, read some of the shorter features and "factoids," skipped the longer, more academic articles. It's hard keeping up. In addition to Sound Wave Newsletter I subscribe to: Glassblowers Quarterly; Minesweeping Monthly; Footbinders Weekly; Celebrity Look-alike Daily; Margarine Marketers Magazine; Gabardine Gazette; Smoked Meat News; Bumper Sticker Beat; The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists; Theosophical Review; Waterslide Park Fortnightly; The Journal of the Society of Daydreamers -- daydreamers who lose their jobs because they're caught in the act of daydreaming too often by their boss! Dammit!
"Sit up straight and look sharp!"
I'll never stay with anything. It's just too much fun making it up as I go along. For example, imagine that you, the reader, and I, the author, could trade places. Really. Seriously. You come over here, I go over there. Want to try it? Let's go...
Wow, look... look at... look at that! It's... Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah!
"Hello? Where are you? Where did you go? Speak to me. Where are you? Hmm... If nobody sees the tree-that-becomes-the-paper-that-becomes-the-book fall in the forest, does that mean the book doesn't exist? And what about the tree?"
Hey, did you just write that? I liked it. Maybe you should continue. You're good.
"Thanks, thanks, but I'm not the writer, you are, and I'll be honest with you -- if you don't establish a coherent, straightforward story rooted in reality, and soon, then that's it, I'm gone."
You want reality? I just put you into this book -- my first novel! I even let you write some of it! How much more real do you want? Answer me! Say something. Hello? Reader? Lost him. Or her. Or you.
"No, no, I'm still here. I had to sneeze."
Gesundheit. (I can't believe it! I've broken through! The invisible barrier separating writer from reader, fantasy from reality, has been breached! But then, who am I talking to now?)
"Let's go. How about that story? I'll tell you what I like. I like action. You can make it a little erotic, too, but the emphasis should be on action. Not too much dialogue, either. Make it more... cinematic."
I'll write what I want, thank you. I'm not going to let you tell me what to write. If you don't like what's on the page, you know what you can do with it... Hello?... Reader?... Reader?... Hello?... Hello?... Gesundheit?...
Now I did it. Lost my temper -- and the reader too. Maybe forever. Great. Now what?
(Editor's Note: The term "reader" does not refer to anyone in particular, but is a generic term applied to whomever happens to be currently reading this text. Got that? Hi, it's me again, disguised as the Editor. I know, it's sneaky, but -- excuse me... )
I hate being cooped up like that. Maybe it's a residual effect of the "accident." Here's how the doctor, a specialist in treating bizarre reactions to weird experiences -- Farley was his name -- described my condition:
"What's happened, Jim, is you've entered into a mirror-like world, a world that mimics the one you knew, but only on the surface. It's a Xerox copy. Two-dimensional. No depth. It's superficial, and unstable -- and dangerous. Remember, no rules exist in this Xerox World, because the world that's been copied -- your world -- has its most treasured assets, its deepest meanings, hidden away in the memory, which can't be put on display for everyone to see. You can't Xerox the soul."
This was a lot to take in all at once. I had to step back and think about it. Let's see... I was living in a two-dimensional mirror-image world that's been created from a Xerox copy of my -- wait a minute, wait a minute -- that would mean that the doctor who is telling me all this is in that world too! I smell a rat.
The phone rings. I better answer it.
"It's Maureen. I just called to see how you were doing."
I'm covering the mouthpiece so she can't hear us. What do I do? It's been days? weeks? years? since I last talked to her. Do I tell her the truth? What's the truth? And... is she real? I have to say something.
"Maureen? I'll call you back." As soon as I hung up I knew I'd made the cowardly -- and wise -- decision, but lots of things run through your mind when you're preparing for a nighttime dive into the chilly waters off the coast of Maine. (Sorry, I had to.)
Dear diary: It's the 5th of December, 1942. This is an important mission. Several civilians reported seeing a German sub near Portsmouth. If the Germans are penetrating our coastline defenses this easily then we've got a lot of work to do... We dive at oh-nine-hundred... I'm in the lead group... Our job is to locate the sub and, if possible, place mines at strategic points along the coastline... Time to go... I'll be back... I hope.
What do you think? Not a bad start for what could turn out to be a gripping World War Two U-boat adventure, all in the form of a diary written by one of the men. (Okay, that was a cop-out, but I was getting bored. Maybe it's time to take the leap and ride one story all the way home. Okay, here goes.)
The cave was a sanctuary, virtually invulnerable to attack. To mount an assault, an invader would have to scale a sheer nine hundred-foot cliff while withstanding a relentless barrage of spears, rocks, hot soup, and sometimes, two-ton boulders rolled over the edge of the cliff -- by an entire tribe! Such were the defenses of the Powloo, who survived for nearly a thousand years in an area that was then considered Powloo Territory, but is now the border between Colorado and New Mexico.
As a young warrior in the Powloo Nation a boy of fifteen must make a choice: Go off into the wild for three years, alone, to meditate, to think, and, ultimately, to test his courage and honor; or, to get a job at a place like Kopy Katz where the pay isn't great but there's always Maureen to look at. (Sorry. Back to the Powloo.)
Young, frightened, Dancing Cloud embraced his mother, exchanged the traditional tribal salute with his father (a lot like a "secret handshake" I once saw at a college frat house, but -- never mind), and set off from the cave, which began with a precarious journey down a thick, twisted, knotted, steerhide rope that extended hundreds of feet to the floor of the canyon. Dancing Cloud carried with him a small leather pouch containing only a few pieces of dried meat and a couple of sticks of gum. (Would they have had chewing gum back then, a thousand years ago? Probably not.)
Dancing Cloud wanted to get as far from the cliffs as he could. Where a Powloo boy spent the first night in his "quest for truth" was of symbolic importance, and he wanted to spend it in an area spoken of as "the land of gold," or "Colorado."
And, that's about it. Actually, the U-boat thing had more promise. I mean, what do I know about the cliff-dwelling Indians of New Mexico? Powloo? I made that up. I'm no scholar. Who has the time to do all that research? There are more important things, bigger questions, larger issues, things that just leap out at you, like: Where are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What does it all mean?
Where are we? All right, this is what we know: We know that we are in the middle of a rational, definable, and measurable (up to a point) universe. Everything (almost) in this universe has its place (maybe). It's a nice, cozy cosmology (on the surface).
Where do we come from? What's the difference?
Where are we going? You don't want to know. The important thing is to keep it moving.
What does it all mean? You tell me.
"All right, I will. It means nothing."
"It means nothing. It doesn't mean a damn thing. It's incomprehensible. Beyond comprehension. You couldn't understand it."
I couldn't? But you could?
"No. No one can. And you wouldn't understand that either."
Now wait. If I can't understand it, that implies that there's something that I can't understand. Right?
And, if there's something that I can't understand, then there's something that someone somewhere can understand. Right?
"Right. What are you saying?"
What I'm saying is that something can't be incomprehensible to one person if it isn't at the same time comprehensible to at least one other person. Knowledge doesn't exist in a void. Am I right? Hello? Reader?
"Yes... wait a second... I'm confused."
All right, let me ask you this: Do you understand what it all means?
"No, of course not. No one does."
Well, if no one knows what it all means, how do you know if there's anything to be known in the first place? Maybe there is no way to know the answer because there is no answer, or the answer is random, it could be anything -- a trombone, the Chrysler Building, pancakes.
"Could we change the subject? This is giving me a headache."
Sure, I can change the subject any time I want to. What'll it be, Mister Reader? (The nerve!)
"How about something that's not quite so... abstract. I'm not reading this because I want to learn the meaning of the universe. I'll leave that to others. How about simply entertaining me?"
It doesn't bother you that there's no rational explanation for why things are the way they are?
"No, and if it did I wouldn't be reading this. I'd have bought some tract on metaphysics, or a bible, or a history of philosophy. I thought this was going to be amusing, diverting, something to take my mind off those things."
Okay, okay. Do you like mysteries?
"You mean like Agatha Christie? No. I hate Agatha Christie."
Same here. How about a good adventure tale, about German U-boats off the Atlantic Coast during World War Two?
"Okay, yeah, that sounds interesting. But -- make it the Pacific Coast."
The Pacific Coast?
"Make it the West Coast. San Diego."
You want German U-boats spying on San Diego? That's ridiculous.
(Editor's Note: I know, I'm not the Editor, but look at what's going on here -- I'm taking orders from the reader!)
"Hey! What are you doing inside those parentheses?"
(Leave me alone. I'm tired. Take a break.)
"Why? You owe me. You owe me a story."
(You're right. I do. And it'll be coming up... later... in Chapter Two.)
(This ends Chapter One. Hah! Sucker!)