As for me . . . I was up in a high-rise in San Francisco those months ago the morning the demons came.
I had gone to see Professor Paymenz or, to be perfectly honest, to see his daughter under the auspices of seeing the professor. It was housing that San Francisco State had arranged for him—they had a program supplying subsidized housing to teaching staff—and as I arrived I saw another eviction notice from SFSU on the door. Paymenz had refused to teach comparative religion anymore, would lecture only about extremely obscure occult practices and beliefs, and rarely showed up even for those classes. He hadn’t ever had his tenure settled, so they simply fired him. But he’d refused to leave the university housing on the simple but contumacious grounds, as he explained, that he deserved this more than the teacher down the hall, who taught “existential themes in daytime television.”
Vastly bearded, restless-eyed, in the grimy alchemist’s robe that he wore as a nightgown, Paymenz looked over my shoulder into the hallway behind me. Expecting to see someone back there. He always did that, and he never met my eyes, no matter how earnestly he spoke to me.
He seemed almost happy to see me as he ushered me in. He even said, “Why, hello, Ira.” He rarely troubled with social niceties.
I saw that Professor Shephard was there, small-brimed fedora in hand. Shephard seemed poised between staying and going. Maybe that was why Paymenz was happy to see me: It gave him an excuse to get rid of an unwanted visitor.
Shephard was a short, fiftyish, bullet-shaped man in an immaculate gray suit, vest, tie that matched the season. He had a shaved head, eyes the color of aluminum, a perpetual pursed smile, and a jutting jaw.
He put his hat on his head but didn’t go. Standing there in the exact middle of the small living room, with his arms by his sides, his small feet in shiny black shoes neatly together, Shephard looked out of place in Paymenz’s untidy, jumbled apartment. He looked set up and painted like one of those Russian toys, the sort made of smooth wood containing ever-smaller copies. Shephard was an economics professor who believed in “returning economics to philosophy, as it was with our Found- ing Fathers, and, yes, with Marx”—but his philosophy had something to do with “pragmatic postmodernism.” Today his tie was all coppery maple leaves against rusty orange, celebrating autumn.
I knew Shephard from the last conference on Spirituality and Economics he’d put together—he’d hired me to create the poster, with “appropriate imagery,” and paid me three times for doing three versions, each version less definite, blander than the one before. At every poster-design discussion, he’d brought up Paymenz. “I understand you’re his good friend. What is he up to? And his daughter? How is she?”
The questions always felt like non sequiturs. Now, recognizing me, he nodded pleasantly. “Ira. How are you?”
“Dr. Shephard,” Paymenz said before I could reply, “thank you for dropping in—I have guests, as you see. . . .”
Shephard’s head swiveled on his shoulders like a turret, first at me, then to Paymenz. “Of course. I am sorry to have precipitated myself upon you, as it were; perhaps certain matters are of some urgency. Perhaps not. I only wished to plant the seed of the idea, so to say, that, should the conference on Spiritual Philosophy and Economics not come about this weekend for any reason, I do wish to stay in touch—very closely in touch. Please feel free to call me.” He handed Paymenz a business card and was moving toward the door. He startled me by not seeming to move on rollers; he walked as any man his size might. A normal walk seemed odd on him. “I will speak to the board about your housing issue, as promised, one more time. Au revoir!” He opened, passed through, and closed the door with hardly a sound, smooth as smoke up a chimney.
Paymenz irritably tossed the business card onto a lamp table heaped with cards, unopened letters, bills. “That man’s arrogance, the way he just shows up unexpectedly . . . always as if he has no agenda . . . babbling about his conference not coming off—when there’s no reason it shouldn’t . . . I should never have agreed to go to his antiseptic-yet-strangely-septic conference, if he hadn’t offered me a fee . . . but he knows perfectly well I need the money.”
Hoping Paymenz remembered he actually had invited me over for coffee, I looked around for some place to hang my leather jacket. But of course there was no place, really, to put it. The closet was crammed full with clothes no one wore; and with junk. The other apartments in the twenty-story high-rise were underdecorated minimalist-modern affairs, trying to echo the utilitarian, airy curviness that the architects of the building had borrowed from I. M. Pei or Frank Lloyd Wright. Paymenz, however, had covered the walls with an ethnically disconnected selection of tapestries and carpets—Persian and Chinese and a Southwestern design from Sears. He collected old lava lamps, and though the electricity had been turned off, they churned away, six of them crudely wired to car batteries, with lots of electrical tape around half-stripped connections. The lamps sat on the car batteries and on end tables and mantels, shape-shifting in waxen primary colors. A week previous, it was said, the entire SFSU board of tenure review had come out to the university parking lot to find their cars mysteriously inert.
Half a dozen more lava lamps were broken, used as bookends for the many hundreds of books that took up most of the space that wasn’t tapestry. Two candles were burning, and a fading battery.
Cats darted behind chairs and moved sinuously up and down much-clawed cat trees. I counted four cats—no, five: They’d taken in a new one.
There were bits of breakfast toast in Paymenz’s long, shovel-shaped gray-and-black beard; his eyes, red-rimmed gray under bristling brows, rested on me for only a flicker as he spoke. “Many the auguries this morning, Ira. Would you like to see?”
“You know how I feel about medieval techniques, especially any that involve damp, decaying guts,” I said, looking about for Melissa. I was an aficionado of the arcane meta- physical, being the former art director for the now-defunct Visions: The Magazine of Spiritual Life, but I drew the line at peering into rotting intestines.
“It’s fresh pig bladder,” he said, “none of that decaying stuff anymore. Melissa made me promise. I suppose the place is rank enough already.”
The place wasn’t quite rank, but it bore a distinct smell: pipe tobacco and cat boxes and cloying Middle Eastern incense, all vying for dominance.
“I see you have some new lava lamps.”
“Yes. Look at this one—a confection of gold-flecked red ooze fighting its way into a feverish primeval swelling. Unconsciously, the designer was thinking of the philosopher’s stone.”
“I don’t know if they bothered with a designer for these things after the first one.”
“They don’t need one, it’s true—and that’s the point. The lava lamp is protosociety’s purely unconscious expression of the primeval ooze on one level, shaping itself into our most remote sea-slime ancestors; on another level, the lava lamp is the pleroma, the fundamental stuff that gives birth to the existential condition. Hank, down at the antique shop, tells me he likes to smoke pot and look into his lava lamps, and then he sees girls there, apparently, in all those sinuous lava-bubbling curves—like Moscoso drawings—but it’s all quite unconscious . . . tabula rasa for the subconscious. . . . Freud not utterly discredited after all, if we consider Hank and his lamps . . .”
Paymenz noticed my attention wandering; my gaze must have drifted to Melissa’s bedroom door. “Oh good lord. Typical young person today. Post-MTV generation. Internet-surfing brain damage. Attention span of a gnat. Melissa! Come in here, this young man is already weary of pretending he’s here to see me! He’s a-quiver with desire for you!” He clutched his reeking alchemist’s robe about himself—Melissa had made it for him, as a mother will make a Superman cape for her little boy—and stumped off to the kitchen to finish his breakfast. “He’s sniffing the air for your pheromones!” he called to her as he went.
I grimaced, but I was used to the professor’s indifference to social insulation of any kind whatsoever.
Melissa came in then, wearing a long black skirt, no shoes, a loose, low-cut Gypsy-type purple blouse. Her crooked smile was even more to one side of her triangular face than usual in wry deprecation of her father’s vulgarity.
“Shephard is gone?” she asked.
“He is,” I said, “unless he’s somehow watching us through his business card.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me. He makes my skin contract on my body,” she said, locking the front door. “He asked me if he could hear me sing for him sometime! Like to hear my songs, he said.”
I was thinking that Shephard had always had an unhealthy interest in her but decided not to remark on it. My own interest in her, I told myself, was . . . earthy.
She was a few inches taller than me, a big girl with tiny feet; I don’t know how she kept from teetering. Her forehead was high, this only mildly mitigated by the shiny black bangs; long raven wings of hair fell straight to her pale, stooped shoulders and coursed round them. Her large green eyes looked at me frankly; they seemed to coruscate. Her chin was just a little slight. Somehow the imperfections in her prettiness were sexy to me. I suspected, after long, covert inspections from various angles through various fabrics, that her right breast turned fractionally to one side while the other pointed straight ahead. Each small white toe of her small white feet had a ring on it, and her ankles jangled with Tibetan bells. She was thirty, worked in a health food store, and did endless research for her father’s never-finished magnum opus, The Hidden Reality.
“Come into the kitchen with me,” she said, “and help me make tea and toast. You can make it on the gas broiler. We’ve got the gas and water back on.”
“I couldn’t possibly let you take on a big job like making tea and toast alone.”
She stacked up the wheat bread, and I found the old copper teapot and filled it with tap water. As it filled, I said, “I wonder what impurities and pollutants this particular tap water has in it. No doubt some future forensic archaeologist will analyze my body and find the stuff. Like, ‘This skeleton shows residues of lead, pesticides, heavy metal contaminants—’ ”
“Which perhaps weighted down his consciousness so he became doleful all the time. Great Goddess! Ira, you can’t even pour a cup of tea without seeing doom in the offing?”
I listened to her bells jangle as she got the margarine off the cooler shelf in the kitchen window. I washed out some cups. “I see you’ve painted your toenails silver.” I thought of making a joke about how they might be little mirrors allowing me to see up her skirt but decided it would come off more puerile than cute. There were times when it was paradoxically almost sophisticated to be puerile, but this wasn’t one of them.
“I mean, it must’ve occurred to you,” she was saying, looking through a cluttered drawer for a butter knife, “that this prevailingly negative view of the world could attract negative consequences.”
“The butter knife is in that peanut butter jar on top of the refrigerator. My negative view of the world—I would only believe it would attract negative consequences if I were superstitious.” I painted on mystical themes, illustrated for magazines about the supernatural, meditated, and prayed—and I was a notorious skeptic. This irritated some believers; others found it refreshing. I was simply convinced that most of what was taken for the supernatural was the product of the imagination. Most but not all. Sufi masters sometimes say that one of the necessary skills for the seeker is the ability to discriminate between superstition working on the imagination and real spiritual contact. “There are plenty of pessimists who are quite successful in life—look at that old geezer who used to be a filmmaker . . . he was just in the news, saying that his application to be part of the rejuvenation experiments was turned down because of some old scandal . . . what’s-his-name. Horn-rim glasses.”
“Woody Allen, I think. But still, overall, Ira—hand me the bread—overall, people can think themselves into miserable lives.”
“I’m not so miserable. I’ve got work for a month or two ahead, and I’m playing house at this moment with someone who . . .” Suddenly I didn’t know how to finish. She glanced at me sidelong, and I saw her droop her head so that her hair would swing to hide her smile. I’m an idiot when I try to express anything but bile, I thought. “Anyway,” I went on hastily, “the world needs no help from my bad vibes or whatever you call it. The enormity of the suffering in it . . . Should we use this Red Rose tea or . . . you don’t have English Breakfast or something? Okay, fine, I like Red Rose, too . . . I mean, regarding the world’s own negative vibes, simply look at the news.”
“Oh no, don’t do that.”
“Seriously, Melissa—over the last decade or so this country has gotten so corrupt. There was a lot of it already but now we’re becoming like Mexico City. I mean, they discovered that a certain pesticide was causing all these birth defects in the Central Valley—there was a big move to get it banned. But if it was banned the agribusiness and chemicals people would lose money on the poison they kept in reserves. Cut their profit margin. So the ban was killed. And everyone forgot all about it, and the stuff is still choking the ecology out there and no one gives a damn. Then the corruption thing gets worse and worse—the feds just found out that all this federal aid that was supposed to go to vaccinating and blood-testing ghetto kids was stolen by all these people appointed to give it out. They just raked it off and put it in other accounts—they stole millions intended for these kids. . . . And a lot of the people doing the stealing were the same ethnicity as the poor they were supposed to be helping. It wasn’t racism—it was simple corruption. It was greed. It’s like life is a big trough and we’re all looking for a way to elbow in and get at the slops and nothing else matters.”
“Ira, butter these for me.”
“Sure. And did you see that thing on PBS about that country in Central America—the big shots running the country decided that the fast money would come from making it into a waste dump for all these other countries that ran out of room. The entire country is a waste dump! The whole thing, a landfill! The guys who run the country moved to these pristine little islands offshore, and the entire rest of the country works in waste dumps—either they work in them, burning and shoving stuff around with big machines, or they pick through them. Literally millions of people picking through a waste dump thousands of miles across . . .”
“Oh, you must be exaggerating. Surely not the whole country. Bring me that blue teapot.”
“I’m not exaggerating. That country is literally one giant dump—there is no farmland, there are no wetlands, there are no forests, and there are only a few towns left. It’s all dump. Barges come from North America, Mexico, Brazil . . . from the neighboring countries. And people will live and die in that dump. Can you imagine? It’s like a great festering sore on the epidermis of the planet—and it’s not alone. Why, in Asia—”
“Ira?” She touched my arm. Her fingernails alternated silver with black flecks and black with silver flecks. “The sick get better. The world will suffer, and this will make it see what it has done, and it will heal itself. It will.”
I guess we both understood, she and I, that it was a sort of script we had together. The tacit script brought me to her, and I’d tell her that the world was in Hell for this reason or that, and she’d tell me there was hope, that it would someday be all right, and not to give up on life. I guess we both knew that I came to her for a sort of mothering—my own mother had died when I was fifteen, from the amphetamines her boyfriend shot into her. I guess we both knew that when Melissa said there was hope for the world that it really meant there was hope for me.
Melissa always plays along. She is all generosity. She doesn’t seem to mind.
I wonder if she wouldn’t mind if I made love to her.
“There’ll be hard times,” she was saying, “but the world will heal.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Maybe so.”
She took her hand away. “Would you carry the toast plate? I’ll get the teapot and the cups.” Not an allocation of duty made at random: She took the most breakable stuff herself. I was notorious for my clumsiness.
“Sure. I’ll get it.”
We ate breakfast, Paymenz and his daughter and me, out on the molded balcony. Breakfast of a sort: We consumed a stack of margarine-slick toast and bloodred tea at the tilting glass-topped wrought-iron table on their concrete balcony, overlooking a mist-draped west San Francisco, under a lowering sky, listening to pigeons cooing from the roof and sirens sighing from the projects, and the thudding rise and fall, like armies passing, of hip-hop boxes booming in the asphalt plaza below.
I watched the traffic on the boulevard visible between the glassy buildings of the hospital complex. The traffic pulsed one way, then came to a stop; and the traffic from the cross street pulsed by; then the first artery would resume pumping. Cars and trucks and SUVs and vans; about 20 percent of them were electric now. Was the air cleaner with the electric cars? Not much—there were so many more people now, which meant many more cars of both kinds.
The professor spoke of his wrangles with the university personnel board, his demands for back pay; and despite his promise he asked me to look at the bladders and the entrails he had cut open and kept in an ice chest with some of that perma-ice stuff, so that he could scry the patterns that would become the future. And I said no, I would be content if Melissa would bring out her Tarot cards, for Tarot cards have no appreciable smell, and he had just said, “Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong.” Just then, the mist that had been hanging in the air seemed to drift upward over the plaza, and the clouds overhead developed drippy places on their undersides, like the beginnings of tornadoes, but which expanded into thick globules of vitreous emulsion, like drops hanging from the ceiling of a steam bath, getting heavier and heavier. The birds had fallen silent; the air grew turgid with imminence. Dr. Paymenz and Melissa and I found ourselves as silent as the birds, gazing expectantly at the clouds, then at the city, and then again at the strangely shaped clouds, as if the sky had developed nipples that were giving out a strange effluvium. But now the clouds up above bulged and seemed to swarm within themselves. . . .