TRAVELS IN THE SCRIPTORIUM
for Lloyd Hustvedt
The old man sits on the edge of the narrow bed, palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor. He has no idea that a camera is planted in the ceiling directly above him. The shutter clicks silently once every second, producing eighty-six thousand four hundred still photos with each revolution of the earth. Even if he knew he was being watched, it wouldn’t make any difference. His mind is elsewhere, stranded among the figments in his head as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him.
Who is he? What is he doing here? When did he arrive and how long will he remain? With any luck, time will tell us all. For the moment, our only task is to study the pictures as attentively as we can and refrain from drawing any premature conclusions.
There are a number of objects in the room, and on each one a strip of white tape has been affixed to the surface, bearing a single word written out in block letters. On the bedside table, for example, the word is TABLE. On the lamp, the word is LAMP. Even on the wall, which is not strictly speaking an object, there is a strip of tape that reads WALL. The old man looks up for a moment, sees the wall, sees the strip of tape attached to the wall, and pronounces the word wall in a soft voice. What cannot be known at this point is whether he is reading the word on the strip of tape or simply referring to the wall itself. It could be that he has forgotten how to read but still recognizes things for what they are and can call them by their names, or, conversely, that he has lost the ability to recognize things for what they are but still knows how to read.
He is dressed in blue-and-yellow striped cotton pajamas, and his feet are encased in a pair of black leather slippers. It is unclear to him exactly where he is. In the room, yes, but in what building is the room located? In a house? In a hospital? In a prison? He can’t remember how long he has been here or the nature of the circumstances that precipitated his removal to this place. Perhaps he has always been here; perhaps this is where he has lived since the day he was born. What he knows is that his heart is filled with an implacable sense of guilt. At the same time, he can’t escape the feeling that he is the victim of a terrible injustice.
There is one window in the room, but the shade is drawn, and as far as he can remember he has not yet looked out of it. Likewise with the door and its white porcelain knob. Is he locked in, or is he free to come and go as he wishes? He has yet to investigate this matter—for, as stated in the first paragraph above, his mind is elsewhere, adrift in the past as he wanders among the phantom beings that clutter his head, struggling to answer the question that haunts him.
The pictures do not lie, but neither do they tell the whole story. They are merely a record of time passing, the outward evidence. The old man’s age, for example, is difficult to determine from the slightly out-of-focus black-and-white images. The only fact that can be set down with any certainty is that he is not young, but the word old is a flexible term and can be used to describe a person anywhere between sixty and a hundred. We will therefore drop the epithet old man and henceforth refer to the person in the room as Mr. Blank. For the time being, no first name will be necessary.
Mr. Blank stands up from the bed at last, pauses briefly to steady his balance, and then shuffles over to the desk at the other end of the room. He feels tired, as if he has just woken from a fitful, too short night of sleep, and as the soles of his slippers scrape along the bare wood floor, he is reminded of the sound of sandpaper. Far off in the distance, beyond the room, beyond the building in which the room is located, he hears the faint cry of a bird—perhaps a crow, perhaps a seagull, he can’t tell which.
Mr. Blank lowers his body into the chair at the desk. It is an exceedingly comfortable chair, he decides, made of soft brown leather and equipped with broad armrests to accommodate his elbows and forearms, not to speak of an invisible spring mechanism that allows him to rock back and forth at will, which is precisely what he begins to do the moment he sits down. Rocking back and forth has a soothing effect on him, and as Mr. Blank continues to indulge in these pleasurable oscillations, he remembers the rocking horse that sat in his bedroom when he was a small boy, and then he begins to relive some of the imaginary journeys he used to take on that horse, whose name was Whitey and who, in the young Mr. Blank’s mind, was not a wooden object adorned with white paint but a living being, a true horse.
After this brief excursion into his early boyhood, anguish rises up into Mr. Blank’s throat again. He says out loud in a weary voice: I mustn’t allow this to happen. Then he leans forward to examine the piles of papers and photographs stacked neatly on the surface of the mahogany desk. He takes hold of the pictures first, three dozen eight-by-ten black-and-white portraits of men and women of various ages and races. The photo on top shows a young woman in her early twenties. Her dark hair is cropped short, and there is an intense, troubled look in her eyes as she gazes into the lens. She is standing outdoors in some city, perhaps an Italian or French city, because she happens to be positioned in front of a medieval church, and because the woman is wearing a scarf and a woolen coat, it is safe to assume the picture was taken in winter. Mr. Blank stares into the eyes of the young woman and strains to remember who she is. After twenty seconds or so, he hears himself whisper a single word: Anna. A feeling of overpowering love washes through him. He wonders if Anna isn’t someone he was once married to, or if, perhaps, he isn’t looking at a picture of his daughter. An instant after thinking these thoughts, he is attacked by a fresh wave of guilt, and he knows that Anna is dead. Even worse, he suspects that he is responsible for her death. It might even be, he tells himself, that he was the person who killed her.
Mr. Blank groans in pain. Looking at the pictures is too much for him, so he pushes them aside and turns his attention to the papers. There are four piles in all, each about six inches high. For no particular reason that he is aware of, he reaches for the top page on the pile farthest to the left. The handwritten words, printed out in block letters similar to the ones on the strips of white tape, read as follows:
Viewed from the outermost reaches of space, the earth is no larger than a speck of dust. Remember that the next time you write the word “humanity.”
From the look of disgust that comes over his face as he scans these sentences, we can be fairly confident that Mr. Blank has not lost the ability to read. But who the author of these sentences might be is still open to question.
Mr. Blank reaches out for the next page on the pile and discovers that it is a typed manuscript of some sort. The first paragraph reads:
The moment I started to tell my story, they knocked me down and kicked me in the head. When I climbed to my feet and started to talk again, one of them hit me across the mouth, and then another one punched me in the stomach. I fell down. I managed to get up again, but just as I was about to begin the story for the third time, the Colonel threw me against the wall and I passed out.
There are two more paragraphs on the page, but before Mr. Blank can begin reading the second one, the telephone rings. It is a black rotary model from the late forties or early fifties of the past century, and since it is located on the bedside table, Mr. Blank is forced to stand up from the soft leather chair and shuffle over to the other side of the room. He picks up the receiver on the fourth ring.
Hello, says Mr. Blank.
Mr. Blank? asks the voice on the other end.
If you say so.
Are you sure? I can’t take any chances.
I’m not sure of anything. If you want to call me Mr. Blank, I’m happy to answer to that name. Who am I talking to?
I don’t know any James.
James P. Flood.
Refresh my memory.
I came to visit you yesterday. We spent two hours together.
Ah. The policeman.
Right. The ex-policeman. What can I do for you?
I want to see you again.
Wasn’t one conversation enough?
Not really. I know I’m just a minor character in this business, but they said I was allowed to see you twice.
You’re telling me I have no choice.
I’m afraid so. But we don’t have to talk in the room if you don’t want to. We can go out and sit in the park if you’d prefer that.
I don’t have anything to wear. I’m standing here dressed in pajamas and slippers.
Look in the closet. You have all the clothes you need.
Ah. The closet. Thank you.
Have you had your breakfast, Mr. Blank?
I don’t think so. Am I allowed to eat?
Three meals a day. It’s still a bit early, but Anna should be coming around pretty soon.
Anna? Did you say Anna?
She’s the person who takes care of you.
I thought she was dead.
Maybe it’s a different Anna.
I doubt it. Of all the people involved in this story, she’s the only one who’s completely on your side.
And the others?
Let’s just say there’s a lot of resentment, and we’ll leave it at that.
* * *
It should be noted that in addition to the camera a microphone is embedded in one of the walls, and every sound Mr. Blank makes is being reproduced and preserved by a highly sensitive digital tape recorder. The least groan or sniffle, the least cough or fleeting flatulence that emerges from his body is therefore an integral part of our account as well. It goes without saying that this aural data also includes the words that are variously mumbled, uttered, or shouted by Mr. Blank, as with, for example, the telephone call from James P. Flood recorded above. The conversation ends with Mr. Blank reluctantly giving in to the ex-policeman’s demand to pay him a visit sometime that morning. After Mr. Blank hangs up the phone, he sits down on the edge of the narrow bed, assuming a position identical to the one described in the first sentence of this report: palms spread out on his knees, head down, staring at the floor. He ponders whether he should stand up and begin looking for the closet Flood referred to, and if that closet exists, whether he should change out of his pajamas and put on some clothes, assuming there are clothes in the closet—if indeed that closet exists. But Mr. Blank is in no rush to engage in such mundane chores. He wants to go back to the typescript he started reading before he was interrupted by the telephone. He therefore stands up from the bed and takes a first tentative step toward the other side of the room, feeling a sudden rush of dizziness as he does so. He realizes that he will fall down if he remains standing any longer, but rather than return to the bed and sit there until the crisis passes, he puts his right hand against the wall, leans the full brunt of his weight against it, and gradually lowers himself to the floor. Now on his knees, Mr. Blank pitches himself forward and plants his palms on the floor as well. Dizzy or not, such is his determination to reach the desk that he crawls there on all fours.
Once he manages to climb into the leather chair, he rocks back and forth for several moments to steady his nerves. In spite of his physical efforts, he understands that he is afraid to go on reading the typescript. Why this fear should have taken hold of him is something he cannot account for. It’s only words, he tells himself, and since when have words had the power to frighten a man half to death? It won’t do, he mutters in a low, barely audible voice. Then, to reassure himself, he repeats the same sentence, shouting at the top of his lungs: IT WON’T DO!
Inexplicably, this sudden burst of sound gives him the courage to continue. He takes a deep breath, fixes his eyes on the words in front of him, and reads the following two paragraphs:
They have kept me in this room ever since. From all I can gather, it is not a typical cell, and it does not seem to be part of the military stockade or the territorial house of detention. It is a small, bare enclosure, measuring roughly twelve feet by fifteen feet, and because of the simplicity of its design (dirt floor, thick stone walls), I suspect that it once served as a storehouse for food supplies, perhaps for sacks of flour and grain. There is a single barred window at the top of the western wall, but it is too far off the ground for me to get my hands on it. I sleep on a straw mat in one corner, and two meals are given to me every day: cold porridge in the morning, tepid soup and hard bread in the evening. According to my calculations, I have been here for forty-seven nights. This tally could be wrong, however. My first days in the cell were interrupted by numerous beatings, and because I can’t remember how many times I lost consciousness—nor how long the oblivions lasted when I did—it is possible that I lost count somewhere and failed to notice when a particular sun might have risen or another might have set.
The desert begins just outside my window. Each time the wind blows from the west, I can smell the sage and juniper bushes, the minima of those dry distances. I lived out there on my own for close to four months, wandering freely from one place to another, sleeping outdoors in all kinds of weather, and to return from the openness of that country to the narrow confines of this room has not been easy for me. I can bear up to the enforced solitude, to the absence of conversation and human contact, but I long to be in the air and the light again, and I spend my days hungering for something to look at besides these jagged stone walls. Every now and then, soldiers walk below my window. I can hear their boots crunching on the ground, the irregular bursts of their voices, the clatter of carts and horses in the heat of the unattainable day. This is the garrison at Ultima: the westernmost tip of the Confederation, the place that stands at the edge of the known world. We are more than two thousand miles from the capital here, overlooking the unmapped expanses of the Alien Territories. The law says that no one is allowed to go out there. I went because I was ordered to go, and now I have returned to give my report. They will listen to me or they won’t listen to me, and then I will be taken outside and shot. I am fairly certain of that now. The important thing is not to delude myself, to resist the temptation of hope. When they finally put me up against the wall and aim their rifles at my body, the only thing I will ask of them is to remove the blindfold. It’s not that I have any interest in seeing the men who kill me, but I want to be able to look at the sky again. That is the extent of what I want now. To stand out in the open and look up at the immense blue sky above me, to gaze at the howling infinite one last time.
* * *
Mr. Blank stops reading. His fear has been replaced by confusion, and while he has grasped every word of the text so far, he has no idea what to make of it. Is it an actual report, he wonders, and what is this place called the Confederation, with its garrison at Ultima and its mysterious Alien Territories, and why does the prose sound like something written in the nineteenth century? Mr. Blank is well aware of the fact that his mind is not all it should be, that he is entirely in the dark about where he is and why he is there, but he is reasonably certain that the present moment can be situated sometime in the early twenty-first century and that he lives in a country called the United States of America. This last thought reminds him of the window, or, to be more precise, of the window shade, on which a strip of white tape has been attached bearing the word SHADE. With the soles of his feet pressing against the floor and his arms pressing against the armrests of the leather chair, he swivels right by ninety to a hundred degrees in order to have a look at said window shade—for not only is this chair endowed with the ability to rock back and forth, it can turn in circles as well. This last discovery is so pleasing to Mr. Blank that he momentarily forgets why he wanted to look at the window shade, exulting instead in this hitherto unknown property of the chair. He spins around once, then twice, then three times, and as he does so he remembers sitting in the chair at the barbershop as a young boy and being spun around in a similar fashion by Rocco the barber both before and after his hair was cut. Fortunately, when Mr. Blank comes to rest again, the chair is more or less in the same position as when he started going around in circles, which means that he is once again looking at the window shade, and again, after this enjoyable interlude, Mr. Blank wonders if he shouldn’t walk over to the window, pull up the shade, and have a look outside to see where he is. Perhaps he’s no longer in America, he says to himself, but in some other country, abducted in the dead of night by secret agents working for a foreign power.
His triple revolution in the chair has left him somewhat dizzy, however, and he hesitates to budge from his spot, fearing a recurrence of the episode that forced him to travel across the room on all fours some minutes ago. What Mr. Blank is still unaware of at this point is that in addition to being able to rock back and forth and turn around in circles, the leather chair is further equipped with a set of four small wheels, which would make it possible for him to journey over to the window shade without having to stand up. Not knowing that other means of propulsion are available to him besides his legs, Mr. Blank therefore stays where he is, sitting in the chair with his back to the desk, looking at the once white but now yellowing window shade, trying to remember his conversation the previous afternoon with the ex-policeman James P. Flood. He casts about in his mind for an image, some hint as to what the man looks like, but rather than conjure forth any clear pictures, his mind is once again overwhelmed by a paralyzing sensation of guilt. Before this fresh bout of torments and terrors can build into a full-blown panic, however, Mr. Blank hears someone rapping on the door, and then the sound of a key entering the lock. Does this mean that Mr. Blank is imprisoned in the room, unable to leave except through the grace and good will of others? Not necessarily. It could be that Mr. Blank has locked the door from within and that the person now trying to enter the room must undo that lock in order to cross the threshold, thus sparing Mr. Blank the trouble of having to stand up and open the door himself.
One way or the other, the door now opens, and in walks a small woman of indeterminate age—anywhere between forty-five and sixty, Mr. Blank thinks, but it is difficult to be certain. Her gray hair is cut short, she is dressed in a pair of dark blue slacks and a light blue cotton blouse, and the first thing she does after entering the room is smile at Mr. Blank. This smile, which seems to combine both tenderness and affection, banishes his fears and puts him in a state of calm equilibrium. He has no idea who she is, but he is nevertheless happy to see her.
Did you sleep well? the woman asks.
I’m not sure, Mr. Blank replies. To be perfectly honest, I can’t remember if I slept or not.
That’s good. It means the treatment is working.
Rather than comment on this enigmatic pronouncement, Mr. Blank studies the woman for several moments in silence, then asks: Forgive me for being such a fool, but your name wouldn’t be Anna, would it?
Once again, the woman gives him a tender and affectionate smile. I’m glad you remembered it, she says. Yesterday, it kept slipping out of your mind.
Suddenly perplexed and agitated, Mr. Blank swivels around in the leather chair until he is facing the desk, then removes the portrait of the young woman from the pile of black-and-white photographs. Before he can turn around again to look at the woman, whose name appears to be Anna, she is standing beside him with her hand poised gently on his right shoulder, looking down at the picture as well.
If your name is Anna, Mr. Blank says, his voice quivering with emotion, then who is this? Her name is Anna, too, isn’t it?
Yes, the woman says, studying the portrait closely, as if remembering something with equal but opposite feelings of revulsion and nostalgia. This is Anna. And I’m Anna, too. This is a picture of me.
But, Mr. Blank stammers, but … the girl in the picture is young. And you … you have gray hair.
Time, Mr. Blank, Anna says. You understand the meaning of time, don’t you? This is me thirty-five years ago.
Before Mr. Blank has a chance to respond, Anna puts the portrait of her younger self back on the pile of photographs.
Your breakfast is getting cold, she says, and without another word she leaves the room, only to return a moment later, wheeling in a stainless steel cart with a platter of food on it, which she positions alongside the bed.
The meal consists of a glass of orange juice, a slice of buttered toast, two poached eggs in a small white bowl, and a pot of Earl Grey tea. In due course, Anna will help Mr. Blank out of the chair and lead him over to the bed, but first she hands him a glass of water and three pills—one green, one white, and one purple.
What’s wrong with me? Mr. Blank asks. Am I sick?
No, not at all, Anna says. The pills are part of the treatment.
I don’t feel sick. A little tired and dizzy, maybe, but otherwise nothing too terrible. Considering my age, not too terrible at all.
Swallow the pills, Mr. Blank. Then you can eat your breakfast. I’m sure you’re very hungry.
But I don’t want the pills, Mr. Blank replies, stubbornly holding his ground. If I’m not sick, I’m not going to swallow these wretched pills.
Rather than snap back at Mr. Blank after his rude and aggressive statement, Anna bends over and kisses him on the forehead. Dear Mr. Blank, she says. I know how you feel, but you promised to take the pills every day. That was the bargain. If you don’t take the pills, the treatment won’t work.
I promised? says Mr. Blank. How do I know you’re telling the truth?
Because it’s me, Anna, and I would never lie to you. I love you too much for that.
The mention of the word love softens Mr. Blank’s resolve, and he impulsively decides to back down. All right, he says, I’ll take the pills. But only if you kiss me again. Agreed? But it has to be a real kiss this time. On the lips.
Anna smiles, then bends over once more and kisses Mr. Blank squarely on the lips. In that it lasts for a good three seconds, the kiss qualifies as more than just a peck, and even though no tongues are involved, this intimate contact sends a tingle of arousal coursing through Mr. Blank’s body. By the time Anna straightens up, he has already begun to swallow the pills.
Now they are sitting beside each other on the edge of the bed. The food cart is in front of them, and as Mr. Blank drinks down his orange juice, takes a bite of his toast and a first sip of the tea, Anna softly rubs his back with her left hand, humming a tune that he is unable to identify but which he knows is familiar to him, or was once familiar to him. Then he begins to attack the poached eggs, piercing one of the yolks with the tip of the spoon and gathering up a modest combination of yellow and white in the hollow of the utensil, but when he tries to lift the spoon toward his mouth, he is bewildered to discover that his hand is shaking. Not just some mild tremor, but a pronounced and convulsive twitching that he is powerless to control. By the time the spoon has traveled six inches from the bowl, the spasm is so extreme that the better part of the yellow-and-white mixture has splattered onto the tray.
Would you like me to feed you? Anna asks.
What’s wrong with me?
It’s nothing to worry about, she answers, patting his back in an attempt to reassure him. A natural reaction to the pills. It will pass in a few minutes.
That’s some treatment you’ve cooked up for me, Mr. Blank mutters in a self-pitying, sullen tone of voice.
It’s all for the best, Anna says. And it’s not going to last forever. Believe me.
So Mr. Blank allows Anna to feed him, and as she calmly goes about the business of scooping out portions of the poached eggs, holding the teacup to his lips, and wiping his mouth with a paper napkin, Mr. Blank begins to think that Anna is not a woman so much as an angel, or, if you will, an angel in the form of a woman.
Why are you so kind to me? he asks.
Because I love you, Anna says. It’s that simple.
Now that the meal is finished, the time has come for excretions, ablutions, and the putting on of clothes. Anna pushes the cart away from the bed and then extends her hand to Mr. Blank to help him to his feet. To his immense astonishment, he finds himself standing in front of a door, a door that until now has escaped his notice, and attached to the surface of this door is yet another strip of white tape, marked with the word BATHROOM. Mr. Blank wonders how he could have missed it, since it is no more than a few steps from the bed, but, as the reader has already learned, his thoughts have largely been elsewhere, lost in a fogland of ghostlike beings and broken memories as he searches for an answer to the question that haunts him.
Do you have to go? Anna asks.
Go? he replies. Go where?
To the bathroom. Do you need to use the toilet?
Ah. The toilet. Yes. Now that you mention it, I think that would be a good idea.
Do you want me to help you, or can you manage on your own?
I’m not sure. Let me give it a try, and we’ll see what happens.
Anna turns the white porcelain knob for him, and the door opens. As Mr. Blank shuffles into the white, windowless room with the black-and-white tile floor, Anna shuts the door behind him, and for several moments Mr. Blank just stands there, looking at the white toilet against the far wall, suddenly feeling bereft, aching to be with Anna again. Finally, he whispers to himself: Get a grip, old man. You’re acting like a child. Nevertheless, even as he shuffles over to the toilet and begins lowering his pajama bottoms, he feels an overpowering urge to cry.
The pajama bottoms fall to his ankles; he sits down on the toilet seat; his bladder and bowels prepare to evacuate their pent-up liquids and solids. Urine flows from his penis, first one stool and then a second stool slide from his anus, and so good does it feel to be relieving himself in this manner that he forgets the sorrow that took hold of him just moments before. Of course he can manage on his own, he tells himself. He’s been doing it ever since he was a little boy, and when it comes to pissing and shitting, he’s as capable as any person in the world. Not only that, but he’s an expert at wiping his ass as well.
Let Mr. Blank have his little moment of hubris, for successful as he is in completing the first part of the operation, the second part does not go nearly as well. He has no trouble lifting himself off the seat and flushing the toilet, but once he does so he realizes that his pajama bottoms are still gathered around his ankles and in order to pull them up he must either bend over or crouch down and grab hold of the waist with his hands. Neither bending nor crouching is an activity he feels particularly comfortable with today, but of the two he is somewhat more fearful of bending, since he understands the potential for losing his balance once he lowers his head, and he is apprehensive that if he should indeed lose his balance, he might fall to the floor and crack his skull against the black-and-white tiles. He therefore concludes that crouching is the lesser of the two evils, although he is far from confident that his knees can bear the strain that will be put upon them. We will never know if they can or can’t. Alerted by the sound of the flushing toilet, Anna, no doubt assuming that Mr. Blank has finished the job he set out to do, opens the door and enters the bathroom.
One might think that Mr. Blank would be embarrassed to find himself in such a compromising position (standing there with his pants down, his limp penis dangling between his naked, scrawny legs), but such is not the case. Mr. Blank feels no false modesty in front of Anna. If anything, he is more than glad to let her see whatever there is to see, and instead of hastily crouching down to pull up his pajama bottoms, he begins undoing the buttons of his pajama top in order to remove the shirt as well.
I’d like to have my bath now, he says.
A real bath in the tub, she asks, or just a sponge bath?
It doesn’t matter. You decide.
Anna looks at her watch and says, Maybe just a sponge bath. It’s getting a bit late now, and I still have to dress you and make the bed.
By now, Mr. Blank has removed both the top and the bottoms of his pajamas as well as his slippers. Unperturbed by the sight of the old man’s naked body, Anna walks over to the toilet and lowers the seat cover, which she pats a couple of times with the palm of her hand as an invitation for Mr. Blank to sit down. Mr. Blank sits, and Anna then perches herself beside him on the edge of the bathtub, turns on the hot water, and begins soaking a white washcloth under the spigot.
The moment Anna begins touching Mr. Blank’s body with the warm, soapy cloth, he falls into a trance of languid submission, luxuriating in the feel of her gentle hands upon him. She starts at the top and works her way slowly downward, washing his ears and behind his ears, the front and back of his neck, has him turn on the toilet seat in order to move the cloth up and down his back, then turn again in order to do the same to his chest, pausing every fifteen seconds or so to douse the cloth under the spigot, alternately adding more soap to it and rinsing the soap out of it, depending on whether she is about to wash a particular part of Mr. Blank’s body or remove the soap from an area that has just been cleaned. Mr. Blank shuts his eyes, his head suddenly emptied of the shadow-beings and terrors that have haunted him since the first paragraph of this report. By the time the washcloth has descended to his belly, his penis has begun to alter its shape, growing longer and thicker and becoming partially erect, and Mr. Blank marvels that even at his advanced age his penis continues to act as it always did, never once modifying its behavior since his earliest adolescence. So much has changed for him since then, but not that, not that one thing, and now that Anna has brought the washcloth into direct contact with that part of his body, he can feel it stiffening to full extension, and as she goes on rubbing and stroking it with the warm sudsy water, it is all he can do not to cry out and beg her to finish the job.
We’re feeling frisky today, Mr. Blank, Anna says.
I’m afraid so, Mr. Blank whispers, his eyes still shut. I can’t help it.
If I were you, I’d feel proud of myself. Not every man your age is still … still capable of this.
It has nothing to do with me. The thing has a life of its own.
Suddenly, the cloth moves over to his right leg. Before Mr. Blank can register his disappointment, he feels Anna’s bare hand sliding up and down the well-lubricated erection. Her right hand is continuing to wash him with the cloth, but her left hand is now engaged in this other task for him, and even as he succumbs to the practiced ministrations of that left hand, he wonders what he has done to deserve such generous treatment.
He gasps when the semen comes spurting out of him, and it is only then, after the deed has been done, that he opens his eyes and turns to Anna. She is no longer sitting on the edge of the tub but kneeling on the floor in front of him, wiping up the ejaculation with the washcloth. Her head is down, and therefore he cannot see her eyes, but nevertheless he leans forward and touches her left cheek with his right hand. Anna looks up then, and as their eyes meet she gives him another one of her tender and affectionate smiles.
You’re so good to me, he says.
I want you to be happy, she answers. This is a hard time for you, and if you can find some moments of pleasure in all this, I’m glad to help.
I’ve done something terrible to you. I don’t know what it is, but something terrible … unspeakable … beyond forgiveness. And here you are, taking care of me like a saint.
It wasn’t your fault. You did what you had to do, and I don’t hold it against you.
But you suffered. I made you suffer, didn’t I?
Yes, very badly. I almost didn’t make it.
What did I do?
You sent me off to a dangerous place, a desperate place, a place of destruction and death.
What was it? Some kind of mission?
I guess you could call it that.
You were young then, weren’t you? The girl in the photo.
You were very pretty, Anna. You’re older now, but I still find you pretty. Just about perfect, if you know what I mean.
You don’t have to exaggerate, Mr. Blank.
I’m not. If someone told me that I had to look at you twenty-four hours a day for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t have any objections.
Once again, Anna smiles, and once again Mr. Blank touches her left cheek with his right hand.
How long were you in that place? he asks.
A few years. Much longer than I was expecting to be.
But you managed to get out.
I feel so ashamed.
You mustn’t. The fact is, Mr. Blank, without you I wouldn’t be anyone.
No still. You’re not like other men. You’ve sacrificed your life to something bigger than yourself, and whatever you’ve done or haven’t done, it’s never been for selfish reasons.
Have you ever been in love, Anna?
Are you married?
My husband died three years ago.
What was his name?
David. David Zimmer.
He had a bad heart.
I’m responsible for that, too, aren’t I?
Not really … Only indirectly.
I’m so sorry.
Don’t be. Without you, I never would have met David in the first place. Believe me, Mr. Blank, it isn’t your fault. You do what you have to do, and then things happen. Good things and bad things both. That’s the way it is. We might be the ones who suffer, but there’s a reason for it, a good reason, and anyone who complains about it doesn’t understand what it means to be alive.
Copyright © 2013 by Paul Auster
Travels in the Scriptorium copyright © 2006 by Paul Auster
Man in the Dark copyright © 2008 by Paul Auster