na·ture n 1. The intrinsic characteristics and qualities of a person or thing. 2. The order, disposition, and essence of all entities composing the physical universe.
AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY
It seems to be working. Jim mentioned that there was an old typewriting machine in one of the upstairs bedrooms, and I can’t resist trying it out. It seems to have been built in the 1930’s by Royal, and it’s amazing how well it works.
This is oddly enjoyable. What should I type?
When I was very young, I thought perhaps I would be a journalist, so I taught this skill to myself, and that first paragraph was enough to convince me that it is still there. I might enjoy sitting here from time to time and putting marks on paper, if I had anything to talk about. To be a journalist, I think, means to have an eye and a memory for detail. Yet my own memory is sufficiently idiosyncratic that I wonder if I would ever have been capable of creating a coherent article, even had my life gone in that direction. The things I remember seem to come in odd gasps, with a picture here, an emotion there, neither in order of importance nor in order chronological, except for the most recent of events.
I recall, for example, from the Christmas party last week, how Mrs. Lockwitt’s earring dangled against her neck and reflected light from a fixture of four frosted sixty-watt bulbs. This image is very clear, but things from even a few weeks ago are dim, in that I remember they happened, but could not supply the details.
I remember that Mrs. Lockwitt was saying something to me, but not looking at me as she spoke. I think she said, “There’s something foreign about the way you speak,” and then turned so that she was facing me. I took the opportunity to observe: slightly round, late forties, heavily powdered. She wore something peach colored that might have looked all right if we weren’t in a room where everything was blond wood. I couldn’t decide from her remark if she was beginning a conversational gambit or snubbing me, so I gave a brief tight-lipped smile of the sort Miss Manners would have approved of and didn’t say anything. She—Mrs. Lockwitt, not Miss Manners—turned back to studying Professor Carpenter’s library, filled as it was with books, oak furniture, and academicians in several flavors.
She said, “Have you been around here long?”
I started to say yes, reconsidered, reconsidered again, and said, “A few weeks. Maybe longer or shorter, depending upon what you mean by around here.”
There were thirty-five or forty graduate students and instructors in the house, about half in the library, the others divided between the living room where Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain was on the stereo and the kitchen where smoking was allowed. Three or four young students were studying the professor’s collection of books, the others were all talking with each other about the breakup of the Eastern Bloc or the imminence of war, or telling jokes that you had to be a third-year student of German literature to understand.
“But you are with the college?” said Mrs. Lockwitt.
I caught her eye, held it, and said, “You don’t look like an academic.”
“Oh, I’m not,” she said, blushing just a little. She was, as I knew already, the professor’s lover, and had probably paid for a third of the books in this room, as well as the bust of Voltaire and the Degas that was really very fine work for a print. Carpenter, head of the Modern Languages Department, was a bent stick of a bloodless Englishman, and I wondered how often the two of them had sex, and what it was like. You never know; maybe they made the walls rattle.
I was thinking about leaving. The boring but rather pretty girl named, hmm, whatever her name was, who had invited me to the party had already left, and, more important, I had confirmed what she’d told me—the professor owned a house not far from there which had never been rented. The girl (was it Rachel? Rebecca? something like that) had been trying to convince me of the existence of spirits, and claimed that the house was demon-infested, which is how the subject had come up.
Whether it was or not, I had already pumped Mrs. Lockwitt for the location, and she had confirmed that it was deserted, apparently because she had convinced “Arthur” to move in with her. She said nothing about demons. I don’t happen to believe in demons, so I wasn’t surprised. I had found what I wanted, though, and was ready to leave. I took a last look around.
Near the door a tall, serious-looking young man wearing a dark sweater and tan knit slacks was engaged in premating rituals with a long-necked beauty in a tight, slinky black dress that came down to her knees and was held up by straps. It wasn’t all that flattering, as it made her neck seem even longer, almost deformed. I looked at Mrs. Lockwitt’s earring once more, but she didn’t seem inclined to continue the conversation. She helped herself from the punch bowl and offered me some. Who puts punch bowls in the library? In any case, I knew what had gone into it, so I declined, excused myself with a gesture, and headed for the probable lovers-to-be.
“ … several generations,” he was saying. “All in the same family.”
“So you think it’s genetic?” she said, sounding more interested than she probably was. “It doesn’t surprise me. There are whole families of artists and musicians, why shouldn’t mathematics be the same way?”
“Exactly. We’re planning a project now with preschoolers, testing their aptitudes and relating it to their parents’ aptitudes. We’re working on a grant proposal with Timson in Biology.”
“It sounds exciting,” she said, as if trying to convince herself it was. “How far along—” She stopped because I had arrived. They looked at me, holding back their smiles a bit, the way one does with strangers who interrupt a conversation or a mutual seduction. He was half a head taller than I was, and broader; not at all matching the stereotype for people who talk about such things. She was almost my height, but more attractive than I am.
“I don’t believe we’ve met before,” I said, shifting my eyes to include them both. “John Agyar. Jack, if you like.”
They looked at each other quickly, not knowing how to deal with the interruption. As the silence was becoming uncomfortable, he loosened up a little and said, “Don Swaggart.”
I looked at her and performed a frown of recognition. “The artist?”
You could practically see her thaw. “You know my work?” I haven’t always been good at guesswork, but I’ve learned.
“I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing any; but you’ve been spoken of in very complimentary terms.”
“Really? By whom?”
I warmed to her a little; most people would have said “who.” “Several people around the department. I don’t recall any names, but I was certainly intrigued by what I heard. Do you happen to have anything with you?”
“Yes, do you?” said Young Don, no doubt feeling her attention slip away.
“I’m afraid not,” she said, either pleased, disappointed, or both. I couldn’t imagine what sort of artist she would be—her face had no animation whatsoever. That was all right; it wasn’t her face I was interested in.
“Is your work on display at the college?”
“Not at the moment. I have a few pieces at the studio in Berkshire West.”
“I’d love to see them.”
Donald shifted uncomfortably, probably trying to think of something to say other than “so would I.” He settled for asking me, “What department are you with?”
I laughed without showing teeth. “What would you guess?”
She said, “Most people here are Modern Languages, but I’d have guessed you for Drama.”
“Really? I think I’m flattered.”
Young Don said, “I’d have guessed Business.”
I caught his eye and said, “No, I’m afraid not. And you’re Sociology.”
He frowned. “Good guess.”
“No guess,” I said. “You fit the profile.”
He was wise enough not to ask, but she seemed stung on his behalf and said, “Why is everyone down on sociology? I think the study of how people live together is fascinating.”
“People are down on sociology,” I said, “because it was invented by people who felt someone ought to answer Marx, and there’s no answer for Marx outside of religion, a field any civilized person ought to avoid.”
“That’s preposterous—” he began.
“Your contention about sociology.”
“Oh. I thought you meant my contention about religion.”
“What makes you think—”
“Who first popularized the term?”
“Sociology? It was coined by Comte—”
“Who popularized it?”
“I suppose it was Herbert Spencer.”
“And what did he say about Marx?”
“Huh? Almost nothing, as a matter of fact.”
“And what was the strange thing the dog did in the nighttime?”
Jill laughed, which was half the battle won, and Young Don sputtered, which was the other half. “I don’t think you can conclude—”
“Read any Max Weber?” I said.
“Are you a Marxist?” He probably thought it was a good counterattack, but I couldn’t help laughing, both at the question and at his predicament.
“Not likely,” I said. “Merely a student of applied realities. And a lover of art. And a cardplayer.”
Donny frowned as the conversation went completely out of his reckoning. “You’re a gambler?”
“Not when I can help it,” I said. “You?”
It was time to bring Jill back into it. “How about you?”
She gave the question more consideration than it was worth; probably the overintellectual type. “Sometimes,” she said. “Gambling can be exciting.”
“Winning is better, if you know how.”
“You know how?” she said, trying to act a little amused.
“Show me your paintings, and I’ll let you in on the secret.”
“Sure,” she said, laughing. “When?”
“Now,” I said. “Unless you’re finding the party too exciting to slip away from.”
“You have wheels?”
“No, I have feet. It’s a lovely night, and Berkshire isn’t far.”
“Not too cold; there’s no wind.”
She looked up at me through squinted eyes. Her brows were fair and I saw the faint blond roots of her dark hair. Amusing. Our eyes locked for a moment, and I thought I detected a sense of humor down there somewhere, as if she knew what was was happening and thought it was funny. Maybe she thought she was gambling. In any case, Young Don was forgotten. “All right,” she said. We went to the hallway, where I helped her with her parka of some synthetic material. My coat was the authentic English bobby’s coat; very natty. Stylish. We left together, while Donald was carefully looking in another direction.
The night was the cold of Midwestern mid-winter with a big moon, a day shy of full, but mostly hidden by high, fast clouds. There were few streetlights. No one was out, save a howling dog a block away, an owl who darted from tree to tree in a vain search for winter rodents, three rats whom the owl didn’t notice, and one dark gray cat who kept appearing, staring at us, then vanishing behind the houses. The rats smelled like the sewers they lived in; I was pleased when we were past them. Eventually the cat left us alone, at around the same time the dog stopped howling. Either the dog’s master had shut it up, or the cat had killed it. Fine either way.
I offered her my arm and she took it. “What’s the secret, Jack?” she said.
“Always keep a few important cards where no one can see them.”
“That’s it? Cheat?”
“You call that cheating?”
“Where do you live?”
“Off-campus housing. On Fullbright. A big, white house with blue lights coming out of the attic.”
“Do you live in the attic?”
“No. Are you really a gambler?”
“As I said, not when I can help it.”
“All right, then, a cardplayer?”
“I enjoy card games.”
“Is that how you make your living?”
I laughed at that, but didn’t explain why. Her touch on my arm sent the message that she might be getting annoyed, but by then we were practically at Berkshire. She had a key so she opened the door and went inside. I studied the mid-nineteenth century archway. She said, “What are you waiting for?”
“I’m trying to figure out whose work this is.”
“Oh. You’re into architecture?”
“Not really,” I said.
She looked puzzled and held the door open for me. I entered, and she led me down to the studio to show me her etchings. Finis.
I stopped typing a few hours ago, took the last page out of the machine, and set it facedown on the pile to my left, as if I had finished and wouldn’t resume. I’ve spent the intervening time sitting here, staring into space. I suppose I might as well keep typing.
This room, the one with the typewriting machine, seems to have been redone in the 1950’s, then partly redone again in the late seventies, probably just before the house was abandoned. There used to be wallpaper, but now there is bare plasterboard thick with splotches of greenish glue. The windows are boarded shut, and I type by the light of a single candle, one of those thick tall ones that can stand on its own without a holder. It has been scented with what someone thought was apple blossom, and I suppose it is closer to that than anything else, but it isn’t very close, nor is it strong. I can still smell the wood as it collects pockets of moisture and rots. The desk drawers, still full of desk things, are heaped next to me, as if when Professor Carpenter moved away he wanted to take it with him, then changed his mind, not thinking the desk worth the trouble. I guess he was right; it is small and cheaply built of plywood. I wonder why he left the typing machine, though. One of the desk drawers contains most of a ream of paper, however; good enough paper to have survived these ten or fifteen years.
I am pleased at how well my skill at working this machine has returned. The sound of the type bars striking the paper and the little rattle of the keys do not echo, perhaps because of the textured ceiling. There are still a few mice in the walls; I wonder what they live on.
What else to talk about?
I suppose I could continue where I left off a few hours ago, and bring matters up to the point where they stand now.
I left Jill sleeping deeply on the cot in her studio, went back to the train depot, and the next day went and looked at the house. The neighborhood is quiet, not too well lit, and situated not far from Twain. I decided it would do, so I made the arrangements to have my things moved.
Bah. I don’t want to talk about all of that. It was more than a week ago, and old news is dull, even when writing to one’s self. What about last night? That’s more interesting, because I’ve finally heard from Kellem.
I spent all night looking for a place to play cards without finding one. When I finally gave up, I made my way to this place that is home for here and now. I threw my coat over the end table next to the window, closed the window against the increasing chill, and opened the front door. There was a small slip of paper in the mailbox. It was in Gaelic for some reason, and said, “Day after tomorrow, 10:30, outside Howard’s—L.” I went back inside, burned the note in the fireplace, and stretched out in what was left of a bulky stuffed gray chair that someone had decided wasn’t worth moving. The springs on one side of it were broken, so I sat with a list to starboard.
These tenses are interesting. I don’t know whether to write, “the springs were broken,” because they were when I was sitting on it, or, “the springs are broken,” because as I sit here they still are. The first way is somehow more entertaining, like I’m telling myself a nice little story, but it also seems contrived. Funny, the things you never think about until you set about committing them to the page.
For that matter, I hadn’t given much thought to Laura Kellem, although she is the reason I’ve come to this little star in the map next to Lake Erie. Even now, when I think of her, all I get are moments, ripped out of time, with emotional harmonics but no melody for context. I can close my eyes and see her, looking at me with an expression that, at the time, I took for tenderness, but that I later came to believe was only a vague cousin—the fondness one might feel for a cat who lived with a close friend.
Odd, that. How long has it been since I have had a close friend? Will I ever again? Perhaps. Jim and I seem to be hitting it off rather well, I suppose because neither of us has anything the other wants. Which, now that I think of it, was never true of Laura and I, even when we were close—or what passed for close between us.
It was close on my part, I think. I cared for her. I’d have to say that I loved her, with the sort of burning passion that I then knew how to feel, and now know how to inspire. It would probably be trite to say, “What goes around comes around,” but that’s what it feels like.
I remember how I felt, though, when she would escort me through Vienna or Paris. I can still recall the pressure of her hand on my arm. To this day, I don’t know how much affection she felt for me and how much she just found it amusing to have me so infatuated with her. I certainly can’t ask her. And I’m not even sure I want to find out.
And yet I know that she is capable of intense feelings, or, at any rate, she was once. I remember sitting in a cafe in, well, somewhere where they had cafes. It was closed, and the streets were deserted, but we were sitting there nevertheless, and she started telling me about a man named Broadwin or something like that. Her eyes became soft, almost misty, and she said, “He had such big hands, Jack. When he held me he was all the world. I’d look up into his face and see nothing but his eyes looking down at me.”
“Where is he now?” I asked casually, because I felt the stirrings of something like jealousy.
“He’s dead,” she told me. “Years later, he became involved with some bit of fluff in Scotland, and lost his head. Figuratively, at first.” Then her voice changed and she came back to the present. “Take that as a lesson, Agyar János.”
“I will,” I told her. And I did, too. A couple of lessons, in fact. One of them is that, at one time in her life, she felt something. I wonder if it could ever happen again? Probably not.
But where was I? Right. I was sitting in the chair, just at the point when Jim the ghost came noiselessly down the stairs and stood translucently in front of me, nearly six feet tall, well dressed, black, with a round face, thick neck, broad shoulders, and very short white hair. He was dressed, as ever, in his funereal best; white shirt and string tie. “You look disgruntled,” he said.
“This is a boring city.”
“Maybe. You seemed to like the party last week.”
“It wasn’t bad. For a college party. I was surprised at the number of disciplines in attendance.”
“That’s a trademark of Artie. What did you think of him, by the way?”
“Artie? Professor Carpenter?”
“Never really had the chance to talk to him. His mistress let me in. Why?”
“His grandfather was one of my instructors.”
“Is that how you know him?”
“No, he used to live here.”
“Oh. That’s right. Why did he leave?”
“He began to think the place was haunted.”
“Oh,” I said. And, “He has an ugly mistress.”
Jim laughed and looked at the pendant I wear on my chest, which is a large chunk of black petrified wood, polished and set in silver. He was only looking at it because he never looked anyone in the eyes, I suspect even when he was alive. Since I’m an eye-contact person, that always makes conversations with him a little uncomfortable. It was also a little disturbing to see the black vertical line of the fireplace poker through his clothing, as if it were a decoration on his trousers. I should imagine that I’ll become used to this sort of thing, if I remain here for any length of time.
Which subject, in fact, Jim brought up sometime while we were talking. “Do you know how long you’ll be staying?” he said.
“You mean in Lakota? Or in this house.”
“Am I bothering you?”
“Au contraire. I like the company.”
“Au contraire?” I said. “What is this au god damn contraire?”
He winced just a little at the profanity and said, “You forget that I’s a eddicated nigguh.”
“Right. I don’t know how long I’ll be around. Word reached me that an acquaintance was here and wanted to see me. I’ll see what she wants, then be on my way. I prefer bigger cities, in general.”
“Why are you going to her rather than the other way around?”
“She’s older than me.”
“You ask too many questions.”
“What are you going to do, kill me?”
I laughed. “Where and what is Howard’s?” I said.
“I don’t know; find a phone book.”
“Good idea,” I said. “Do you have paper and pens here, in case I want to write to her?”
“Better than that, there’s a typewriter in one of the upstairs rooms. Can you type?”
“I used to. I’ll take a look at it tomorrow. There’s paper?”
“Good,” I said, then yawned.
“Yes. It’s winter. I always get more tired in winter.”
“Seems reasonable. Shall I light the way, suh?”
“Mah two glowin’ eyes.”
“Don’t bother. Just practice up the poltergeist stuff in case anyone tries to wake me.”
“Thanks. I’ll double your salary.”
He probably would have said “Shit,” but, as I had already learned, Jim never, ever swore. I went down to my room and slept.
Here it is, less than forty-eight hours since I left this machine, and I’m back here again, though I’m not certain why.
It is always strange to be in the grip of emotion and not know what that emotion is. Or, to put it another way, to have been through the sort of experience that ought to engender a strong response, to be waiting to feel that response. I’m not sure if I want to set it down at all, yet I feel the need to tap on these keys. It’s addicting, I think, this business of putting one word after another. Byron mentioned something about that once while he was sick from taking too much of some drug or another.
I got up several hours before the appointed hour, so I showered, brushed my teeth (the house, though deserted, has its own well, the pump of which still works), got dressed, then found a flower shop just as it was closing. The proprietor took pity and invited me in, and I ordered a bunch of purple roses to be sent to Jill. I toyed with having a cactus sent to young Don, and I might have done so if I’d known how to reach him.
I took a turn around part of the city, getting to know it the way as a young man I’d gotten to know the twists and turns and buildings at University. I listened in on a few private conversations, just because they were there, but heard nothing worth the trouble of repeating. Eventually I found a phone booth. The difference between Lakota and Staten Island can be expressed in the fact that the phone booth had a city directory in it, looking as if there was no reason for it not to be there. I looked up the address of Howard’s, asked directions of a young man getting into a blue ’86 Ford Pinto, and set out for Woodwright Avenue, called the Ave, which was in the sort of funky part of town, called the Tunnel, that lies between two of the colleges.
Howard’s turned out to be a nightclub on the Ave with a fake wood front and a covered entryway complete with doorman and red carpet, just like in a real city. I think it is what they call “trendy.” A useful word. Whenever the door opened I could hear nonthreatening jazz creep hesitantly out onto the street, then change its mind and slink back inside when the door closed. To my eyes, Kellem blended into the scene the way Bette Midler would have blended into a monastery, yet no one seemed to notice her.
It’s funny how I’d forgotten so much of what she looked like. She is about five feet ten inches tall, has red hair and the pale complexion that goes with it. Her face is thin, with strong bones and very bright blue eyes. She had a thin red scarf wrapped around her throat. Her camel-colored coat was thick, elegant, and short. Beneath it she wore dark trousers and low boots. What I noticed right away, however, was that she had a few bald patches on top of her head. I couldn’t imagine what would cause that, but I made up my mind not to ask unless she brought it up. In any case, the patrons didn’t notice either one of us much.
She saw me at about the same time I saw her, and walked up to meet me. “Agyar,” she said.
“How long have you been in town?”
“A little more than a month.”
“Really? It took you a while to find a place?”
“Yes. I didn’t know you were in a hurry.”
“I’m not. But you’re settled in now?”
“Always.” She smiled without humor. “But let’s just walk and talk.”
“Sure. Your place?”
“You know where I live.”
“That’s different, as you well know.”
I shrugged. “Lead on, then.”
She did, taking us a block away from the Ave, onto a side street called Drewry where there was no traffic and most of the houses already had their lights out. Someone once told me it never really got cold in Northeastern Ohio, but either that someone lied or he was Canadian. A pair of squirrels woke up as we walked by their tree, then went back to sleep. Mama raccoon ducked back into her sewer. She smelled like the rats had.
“Any trouble finding a place to stay?” asked Laura.
I shrugged. “As I said, I took my time. There was no problem keeping everything locked up in the train depot.”
“How did you come across the house?”
“I just walked around and listened to gossip. I heard about Carpenter deserting a house, tracked him down, got invited to a party, found out where the house was, and moved my things in. I had no trouble gaining entry, because no one lived there. So to speak.”
She chuckled. “Does Carpenter know?”
“Well, thanks for coming so quickly.”
“I had nothing pressing. What’s on your mind?”
“Not a bad idea. I’ve done it myself, once or twice.”
“Do you believe in omens?”
“Does the Pope believe in bears?”
“What about dreams?”
“Dreams. I’m not certain about dreams. Why?”
“I’ve been having some odd ones.”
“Children. That is, my own.”
“Have you any?”
“Not in the conventional sense.”
“And that’s the sort you’ve been dreaming of?”
“And it seems significant?”
“In what way?”
“I’m not going to live forever, you know.”
“An axiom, Kellem, without substance.”
“Maybe, but that’s not how it’s been feeling.”
“Is that why you’ve brought me out here? Because you’ve been having dreams?”
“I brought you out here because I knew how to reach you, and I needed to reach someone.”
“To talk about your dreams?”
There were a pair of kids, a boy and a girl, both about seventeen, across the street talking about what they were going to do when the year ended. She’d go to school in town, probably at Twain, and he was going to apply to MIT in Boston. The calendar year would be ending in another few weeks, but I decided they probably meant the school year. That was all right, one is as arbitrary as the other, and the year as measured by the progression of seasons doesn’t really mean anything in a city. Their conversation faded into the background din of man and nature, who keep changing each other and making noise while doing so.
“The dreams have been affecting me,” she said. “I’ve done some strange things.”
“All of that.”
“What sort of chances?”
“The sort you take when you’re desperate, and not really in control of your actions.”
“Can you be more specific?”
“I’m not sure.”
“If you want help, you must tell Doctor Agyar—”
“Cut it out.”
I spread my hands, palms up, and waited. When she didn’t continue I said, “Do you think someone might have noticed?”
“Yes,” she said in a neutral tone, so I couldn’t tell if she was worried, angry, or only vaguely interested.
“Can you cut and run?”
“I don’t want to.”
“I like it here.”
I looked around elaborately. The streets were lined with trees, mostly oak and sycamore. The houses were working-class one-family dwellings, this one blue, that one yellow, that one green, with nothing to choose among them except lawn ornaments.
“You don’t understand,” she said.
“I go into coffee shops and talk with artists who are actually creating something. I go to plays, or movie theaters, and meet people with children who talk about how little Johnny speaks in full sentences and he’s only two years old. I—”
“And you like it?”
“And now and then you do a convenience store or a bank.”
“When I’m desperate for cash; not often.”
“And lately you’ve been committing indiscretions.”
“That’s right. I think I have it under control now, though.”
“That’s good. Then what do you want me for?”
She looked me in the eyes for the first time. Hers were blue, large, and very, very cold. “As I said, the indiscretions have been noticed.”
“So what do you want me for?”
“Someone has to take the fall,” she said. “It’s going to be you.”
The night whispered around us, alive but indifferent.
Copyright © 1993 by Steven Brust