Colin Laney, sensitive to patterns of information like no one else on earth, currently resides in a cardboard box in Tokyo. His body shakes with fever dreams, but his mind roams free as always, and he knows something is about to happen. Not in Tokyo; he will not see this thing himself. Something is about to happen in San Francisco.
The mists make it easy to hide, if hiding is what you want, and even at the best of times reality there seems to shift. A gray man moves elegantly through the mists, leaving bodies in his wake, so that a tide of absences alerts Laney to his presence. A boy named Silencio does not speak, but flies through webs of cyber-information in search of the one object that has seized his imagination. And Rei Toi, the Japanese Idoru, continues her study of all things human. She herself is not human, not quite, but she’s working on it. And in the mists of San Francisco, at this rare moment in history, who is to say what is or is not impossible...
About the Author
Hometown:Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Date of Birth:March 17, 1948
Place of Birth:Conway, South Carolina
Education:B.A., University of British Columbia, 1977
Read an Excerpt
THROUGH this evening's tide of faces unregistered, unrecognized, amid hurrying black shoes, furled umbrellas, the crowd descending like a single organism into the station's airless heart, comes Shinya Yamazaki, his notebook clasped beneath his arm like the egg case of some modest but moderately successful marine species.
Evolved to cope with jostling elbows, oversized Ginza shopping bags, ruthless briefcases, Yamazaki and his small burden of information go down into the neon depths. Toward this tributary of relative quiet, a tiled corridor connecting parallel escalators.
Central columns, sheathed in green ceramic, support a ceiling pocked with dust-furred ventilators, smoke detectors, speakers. Behind the columns, against the far wall, derelict shipping cartons huddle in a ragged train, improvised shelters constructed by the city's homeless. Yamazaki halts, and in that moment all the oceanic clatter of commuting feet washes in, no longer held back by his sense of mission, and he deeply and sincerely wishes he were elsewhere.
He winces, violently, as a fashionable young matron, features swathed in Chanel micropore, rolls over his toes with an expensive three-wheeled stroller. Blurting a convulsive apology, Yamazaki glimpses the infant passenger through flexible curtains of some pink-tinted plastic, the glow of a video display winking as its mother trundles determinedly away.
Yamazaki sighs, unheard, and limps toward the cardboard shelters. He wonders briefly what the passingcommuters will think, to see him enter the carton fifth from the left. It is scarcely the height of his chest, longer than the others, vaguely coffin-like, a flap of thumb-smudged white corrugate serving as its door.
Perhaps they will not see him, he thinks. Just as he himself has never seen anyone enter or exit one of these tidy hovels. It is as though their inhabitants are rendered invisible in the transaction that allows such structures to exist in the context of the station. He is a student of existential sociology, and such transactions have been his particular concern.
And now he hesitates, fighting the urge to remove his shoes and place them beside the rather greasy-looking pair of yellow plastic sandals arranged beside the entrance flap on a carefully folded sheet of Parco gift wrap. No, he thinks, imagining himself waylaid within, struggling with faceless enemies in a labyrinth of cardboard. Best he not be shoeless.
Sighing again, he drops to his knees, the notebook clutched in both hands. He kneels for an instant, hearing the hurrying feet of those who pass behind him. Then he places the notebook on the ceramic tile of the station's floor and shoves it forward, beneath the corrugate flap, and follows it on his hands and knees.
He desperately hopes that he has found the right carton.
He freezes there in unexpected light and heat. A single halogen fixture floods the tiny room with the frequency of desert sunlight. Unventilated, it heats the space like a reptile's cage.
"Come in," says the old man, in Japanese. "Don't leave your ass hanging out that way." He is naked except for a sort of breechclout twisted from what may once have been a red T-shirt. He is seated, cross-legged, on a ragged, paint-flecked tatami mat. He holds a brightly colored toy figure in one hand, a slender brush in the other. Yamazaki sees that the thing is a model of some kind, a robot or military exoskeleton. It glitters in the sun-bright light, blue and red and silver. Small tools are spread on the tatami: a razor knife, a sprue cutter, curls of emery paper.
The old man is very thin, clean-shaven but in need of a haircut. Wisps of gray hair hang on either side of his face, and his mouth is set in what looks to be a permanent scowl of disapproval. He wears glasses with heavy black plastic frames and archaically thick lenses. The lenses catch the light.
Yamazaki creeps obediently into the carton, feeling the door flap drop shut behind him. On hands and knees, he resists the urge to try to bow.
"He's waiting," the old man says, his brush tip poised above the figure in his hand. "In there." Moving only his head.
Yamazaki sees that the carton has been reinforced with mailing tubes, a system that echoes the traditional post-and-beam architecture of Japan, the tubes lashed together with lengths of salvaged poly-ribbon. There are too many objects here, in this tiny space. Towels and blankets and cooking pots on cardboard shelves. Books. A small television.
"In there?" Yamazaki indicates what he takes to be another door, like the entrance to a hutch, curtained with a soiled square of melon-yellow, foam-cored blanket, the sort of blanket one finds in a capsule hotel. But the brush tip dips to touch the model, and the old man is lost in the concentration this requires, so Yamazaki shuffles on hands and knees across the absurdly tiny space and draws the section of blanket aside. Darkness.
What seems to be a crumpled sleeping bag. He smells sickness
"Yeah?" A croak. "In here."
Drawing a deep breath, Yamazaki crawls in, pushing his notebook before him. When the melon-yellow blanket falls across the entrance, brightness glows through the synthetic fabric and the thin foam core, like tropical sunlight seen from deep within some coral grotto.
The American groans. Seems to turn, or sit up. Yamazaki can't see. Something covers Laney's eyes. Red wink of a diode. Cables. Faint gleam of the interface, reflected in a thin line against Laney's sweat-slick cheekbone.
"I'm deep in, now," Laney says, and coughs.
"Deep in what?"
"They didn't follow you, did they?"
"I don't think so."
"I could tell if they had."
Yamazaki feels sweat run suddenly from both his armpits, coursing down across his ribs. He forces himself to breathe. The air here is foul, thick. He thinks of the seventeen known strains of multi-drug-resistant tuberculosis.
Laney draws a ragged breath. "But they aren't looking for me, are they?"
"No," Yamazaki says, "they are looking for her."
"They won't find her," Laney says. "Not here, Not anywhere. Not now."
"Why did you run away, Laney?"
"The syndrome," Laney says and coughs again, and Yamazaki feels the smooth, deep shudder of an incoming maglev, somewhere deeper in the station, not mechanical vibration but a vast pistoning of displaced air. "It finally kicked in. The 5-SB. The stalker effect." Yamazaki hears feet hurrying by, perhaps an arm's length away, behind the cardboard wall.
"It makes you cough?" Yamazaki blinks, making his new contact lenses swim uncomfortably.
"No," Laney says and coughs into his pale and upraised hand. "Some bug. They all have it, down here."
"I was worried when you vanished. They began to look for you, but when she was gone"
"The shit really hit the fan."
Laney reaches up and removes the bulky, old-fashioned eyephones. Yamazaki cannot see what outputs to them, but the shifting light from the display reveals Laney's hollowed eyes. "It's all going to change, Yamazaki. We're coming up on the mother of all nodal points. I can see it, now. It's all going to change."
"I don't understand."
"Know what the joke is? It didn't change when they thought it would. Millennium was a Christian holiday. I've been looking at history, Yamazaki. I can see the nodal points in history. Last time we had one like this was 1911."
"What happened in 1911?"
"It just did. That's how it works. I can see it now."
"Laney," Yamazaki says, "when you told me about the stalker effect, you said that the victims, the test subjects, became obsessed with one particular media figure."
"And you are obsessed with her?"
Laney stares at him, eyes lit by a backwash of data. "No. Not with her. Guy named Harwood. Cody Harwood. They're coming together, though. In San Francisco. And someone else. Leaves a sort of negative trace; you have to infer everything from the way he's not there ..."
"Why did you ask me here, Laney? This is a terrible place. Do you wish me to help you to escape?" Yamazaki is thinking of the blades of the Swiss Army knife in his pocket. One of them is serrated; he could easily cut his way out through the wall. Yet the psychological space is powerful, very powerful, and overwhelms him. He feels very far from Shinjuku, from Tokyo, from anything. He smells Laney's sweat. "You are not well."
"Rydell," Laney says, replacing the eyephones. "That rent-a-cop from the Chateau. The one you knew. The one who told me about you, back in LA."
"I need a man on the ground, in San Francisco. I've managed to move some money. I don't think they can trace it. I dicked with DatAmerica's banking sector. Find Rydell and tell him he can have it as a retainer."
"To do what?"
Laney shakes his head. The cables on the eyephones move in the dark like snakes. "He has to be there, is all. Something's coming down. Everything's changing."
"Laney, you are sick. Let me take you"
"Back to the island? There's nothing there. Never will be, now she's gone."
And Yamazaki knows this is true.
"Where's Rez?" Laney asks.
"He mounted a tour of the Kombinat states, when he decided she was gone."
Laney nods thoughtfully, the eyephones bobbing mantis-like in the dark. "Get Rydell, Yamazaki. I'll tell you how he can get the money."
"Because he's part of it. Part of the node."
LATER Yamazaki stands, staring up at the towers of Shinjuku, the walls of animated light, sign and signifier twisting toward the sky in the unending ritual of commerce, of desire. Vast faces fill the screens, icons of a beauty at once terrible and banal.
Somewhere below his feet, Laney huddles and coughs in his cardboard shelter, all of DatAmerica pressing steadily into his eyes. Laney is his friend, and his friend is unwell. The American's peculiar talents with data are the result of experimental trials, in a federal orphanage in Florida, of a substance known as 5-SB. Yamazaki has seen what Laney can do with data, and what data can do to Laney.
He has no wish to see it again.
As he lowers his eyes from the walls of light, the mediated faces, he feels his contacts move, changing as they monitor his depth of focus. This still unnerves him.
Not far from the station, down a side street bright as day, he finds the sort of kiosk that sells anonymous debit cards. He purchases one. At another kiosk, he uses it to buy a disposable phone good for a total of thirty minutes, TokyoLA.
He asks his notebook for Rydell's number,
"HEROIN," declared Durius Walker, Rydell's colleague in security at the Lucky Dragon on Sunset. "It's the opiate of the masses."
Durius had finished sweeping up. He held the big industrial dustpan carefully, headed for the inbuilt hospital-style sharps container, the one with the barbed biohazard symbol. That was where they put the needles, when they found them.
They averaged five or six a week. Rydell had never actually caught anyone shooting anything up, in the store, although he wouldn't have put it past them. It just seemed like people dropped used needles on the floor, usually back by the cat food. You could find other things, sweeping up in the Lucky Dragon: pills, foreign coins, hospital identification bracelets, crumpled paper money from countries that still used it. Not that you wanted to go poking around in that dustpan. When Rydell swept up, he wore the same Kevlar gloves that Durius was wearing now, and latex underneath that.
He supposed Durius was right though, and it made you wonder: all the new substances around to abuse, but people didn't forget the ones that had been around forever. Make cigarettes illegal, say, and people found a way to keep smoking. The Lucky Dragon wasn't allowed to sell rolling papers, but they did a brisk trade in Mexican hair-curler papers that worked just as well. The most popular brand was called Biggerhair, and Rydell wondered if anyone had ever actually used any to curl their hair. And how did you curl your hair with little rectangles of tissue paper anyway?
"Ten minutes to," Durius said over his shoulder. "You wanna do the curb check?"
At four o'clock, one of them got to take a ten-minute break, out back. If Rydell did the curb check, it meant he got to take his break first, then let Durius take one. The curb check was something that Lucky Dragon's parent corporation, back in Singapore, had instituted on the advice of an in-house team of American cultural anthropologists. Mr. Park, the night manager, had explained this to Rydell, ticking off points on his notebook. He'd tapped each paragraph on the screen for emphasis, sounding thoroughly bored with the whole thing, but Rydell had supposed it was part of the job, and Mr. Park was a definite stickler." 'In order to demonstrate Lucky Dragon's concern with neighborhood safety, security personnel will patrol curb in front of location on a nightly basis.'" Rydell had nodded. "You not out of store too long," Mr. Park added, by way of clarification. "Five minute. Just before you take break." Pause. Tap. "'Lucky Dragon security presence will be high-profile, friendly, sensitive to local culture.'"
"What's that mean?"
"Anybody sleeping, you make them move. Friendly way. Hooker working there, you say hello, tell joke, make her move."
"I'm scared of those old girls," Rydell said, deadpan. "Christmastime, they dress up like Santa's elves."
"No hooker in front of Lucky Dragon."
"'Sensitive to local culture'?"
"Tell joke. Hooker like joke."
"Maybe in Singapore," Durius had said, when Rydell had recounted Park's instructions.
"He's not from Singapore," Rydell had said. "He's from Korea."
"So basically they want us to show ourselves, clear the sidewalk back a few yards, be friendly and sensitive?"
"And tell joke."
Durius squinted. "You know what kinda people hang in front of a convenience store on Sunset, four in the morning? Kids on dancer, tweaked off their dimes, hallucinating monster movies. Guess who gets to be the monster? Plus there's your more mature sociopaths; older, more complicated, polypharmic ..."
"Mix their shit," Durius said. "Get lateral."
"Gotta be done. Man says."
Durius looked at Rydell. "You first." He was from Compton, and the only person Rydell knew who had actually been born in Los Angeles.
"Size ain't everything."
"Sure," Rydell had said.
ALL that summer Rydell and Durius had been night security at the Lucky Dragon, a purpose-built module that had been coptered into this former car-rental lot on the Strip. Before that, Rydell had been night security at the Chateau, just up the street, and before that he'd driven a wagon for IntenSecure. Still farther back, briefly and he tried not to think about it too often, he'd been a police officer in Knoxville, Tennessee. Somewhere in there, twice, he'd almost made the cut for Cops in Trouble, a show he'd grown up on but now managed never to watch.
Working nights at the Lucky Dragon was more interesting than Rydell would have imagined. Durius said that was because it was the only place around, for a mile or so, that sold anything that anyone actually needed, on a regular basis or otherwise. Microwave noodles, diagnostic kits for most STDs, toothpaste, disposable anything, Net access, gum, bottled water ... There were Lucky Dragons all over America, all over the world for that matter, and to prove it you had your trademark Lucky Dragon Global Interactive Video Column outside. You had to pass it entering and leaving the store, so you'd see whichever dozen Lucky Dragons the Sunset franchise happened to be linked with at that particular moment: Paris or Houston or Brazzaville, wherever. These were shuffled, every three minutes, for the practical reason that it had been determined that if the maximum viewing time was any more, kids in the world's duller suburbs would try to win bets by having sex on camera. As it was, you got a certain amount of mooning and flashing. Or, still more common, like this shit-faced guy in downtown Prague, as Rydell made his exit to do the curb check, displaying the universal finger.
"Same here," Rydell said to this unknown Czech, hitching up the neon-pink Lucky Dragon fanny pack he was contractually obligated to wear on duty. He didn't mind that though, even if it did look like shit: it was bulletproof, with a pull-up Kevlar baby bib to fasten around your neck if the going got rough. A severely lateral customer with a ceramic switchblade had tried to stab Rydell through the Lucky Dragon logo his second week on the job, and Rydell had sort of bonded with the thing after that.
He had that switchblade up in his room over Mrs. Siekevitz's garage. They'd found it below the peanut butter, after the LAPD had taken the lateral one away. It had a black blade that looked like sandblasted glass. Rydell didn't like it; the ceramic blade gave it a weird balance, and it was so sharp that he'd already cut himself with it: twice. He wasn't sure what he should do with it.
Tonight's curb check looked dead simple. There was a Japanese girl standing out there with a seriously amazing amount of legs running down from an even more amazingly small amount of shorts. Well, sort of Japanese. Rydell found it hard to make distinctions like that in LA. Durius said hybrid vigor was the order of the day, and Rydell guessed he was right. This girl with all the legs, she was nearly as tall as Rydell, and be didn't think Japanese people usually were. But then maybe she'd grown up here, and her family before her, and the local food had made them taller. He'd heard about that happening. But, no, he decided, getting closer, the thing was, she wasn't actually a girl. Funny how you got that. Usually it wasn't anything too obvious. It was like he really wanted to buy into everything she was doing to be a girl, but some subliminal message he got from her bone structure just wouldn't let him.
"Hey," he said.
"You want me to move?"
"Well," Rydell said, "I'm supposed to."
"I'm supposed to stand out here convincing a jaded clientele to buy blow jobs. What's the difference?
Rydell thought about it. "You're freelance." he decided, "I'm on salary. You go on down the street for twenty minutes, nobody's going to fire you." He could smell her perfume through the complicated pollution and that ghostly hint of oranges you got out here sometimes. There were orange trees around, had to be, but he'd never found one.
She was frowning at him, "Freelance."
She swayed expertly on her stacked heels, fishing a box of Russian Marlboros from her pink patent purse. Passing cars were already honking at the sight of the Lucky Dragon security man talking to this six-foot-plus boygirl, and now she was deliberately doing something illegal. She opened the red-and-white box and pointedly offered Rydell a cigarette. There were two in there, factory-made filter tips, but one was shorter than the other and had blue metallic lipstick on it.
She took out the shorter one, partially smoked, and put it between her lips. "Know what I'd do if I were you?" Her lips, around the tan filter tip, looked like a pair of miniature water beds plastered with glittery blue candy coat.
She took a lighter from her purse. Like the ones they sold in those tobacciana shops. They were going to make that illegal too, he'd heard. She snapped it and lit her cigarette. Drew in the smoke, held it, blew it out, away from Rydell. "I'd fuck off into the air."
He looked into the Lucky Dragon and saw Durius say something to Miss Praisegod Satansbane, the checker on this shift. She had a fine sense of humor, Praisegod, and he guessed you had to, with a name like that. Her parents were some particularly virulent stripe of SoCal NeoPuritan, and had taken the name Satansbane before Praisegod had been born. The thing was, she'd explained to Rydell, nobody much knew what "bane" meant, so if she told people her last name, they mostly figured she was a Satanist anyway. So she often went by the surname Proby, which had been her father's before he'd gotten religion.
Now Durius said something else, and Praisegod threw back her shoulders and laughed. Rydell sighed. He wished it had been Durius' turn to do curb check.
"Look," Rydell said, "I'm not telling you you can't stand out here. The sidewalk's public property. It's just that there's this company policy."
"I'm going to finish this cigarette," she said, "and then I'm calling my lawyer."
"Can't we just keep it simple?"
"Uh-uh." Big metallic-blue, collagen-swollen smile.
Rydell glanced over and saw Durius making hand signals at him. Pointing to Praisegod, who held a phone. He hoped they hadn't called LAPD. He had a feeling this girl really did have herself a lawyer, and Mr. Park wouldn't like that.
Now Durius came out. "For you," he called. "Say it's Tokyo."
"Excuse me," Rydell said, and turned away.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey what?" He looked back.
LANEY hears his piss gurgle into the screw-top plastic liter bottle. It's awkward kneeling here, in the dark, and he doesn't like the way the bottle warms in his hand, filling. He caps it by feel and stands it upright in the corner that's farthest from his head when he sleeps. In the morning, he'll carry it under his coat to the Men's and empty it. The old man knows he's too sick now to crawl out, to walk the corridor every time, but they have this agreement. Laney pisses in the bottle and takes it out when he can.
He doesn't know why the old man lets him stay here. He's offered to pay, but the old man just keeps building his models. It takes him a day to complete one, and they're always perfect. And where do they go when he finishes them? And where do the unbuilt kits come from?
Laney has a theory that the old man is a sensei of kit-building, a national treasure, with connoisseurs shipping in kits from around the world, waiting anxiously for the master to complete their vintage Gundams with his unequaled yet weirdly casual precision, his Zen moves, perhaps leaving each one with a single minute and somehow perfect flaw, at once his signature and a recognition of the nature of the universe. How nothing is perfect, really. Nothing ever finished. Everything is process, Laney assures himself, zipping up, settling back into his squalid nest of sleeping bags.
But the process is all a lot stranger than he ever bargained for, he reflects bunching a fold of sleeping bag to pillow his head against the cardboard, through which he can feel the hard tile wall of the corridor.
Still, he thinks, he needs to be here. If there's any place in Tokyo Rez's people won't find him, this is it. He's not quite sure how he got here; things got a little fuzzy around the time the syndrome kicked in. Some kind of state change, some global shift in the nature of his perception. Insufficient memory. Things hadn't stuck.
Now he wonders if in fact he did make some deal with the old man. Maybe he's already covered this, the rent, whatever. Maybe that's why the old man gives him food and bottles of flat mineral water and tolerates the smell of piss. He thinks that might be it, but he isn't sure.
It's dark in here, but he sees colors, faint flares and swathes and stipplings, moving. Like the afterimages of the DatAmerica flows are permanent now, retinally ingrained. No light penetrates from the corridor outsidehe's blocked every pinhole with black tapeand the old man's halogen is off. He assumes the old man sleeps there, but he's never seen him do it, never heard any sounds that might indicate a transition from model-building to sleep. Maybe the old man sleeps upright on his mat, Gundam in one hand, brush in the other.
Sometimes he can hear music from the adjacent cartons, but it's faint, as though the neighbors use earphones.
He has no idea how many people live here in this corridor. It looks as though there might be room for six, but he's seen more, and it may be that they shelter here in shifts. He's never learned much Japanese, not after eight months, and even if he could understand, he guesses, these people are all crazy, and they'd only talk about the things crazy people talk about.
And of course anyone who could see him here now, with his fever and his sleeping bags, his eyephones and his cellular data port and his bottle of cooling piss, would think he was crazy too.
But he isn't. He knows he isn't, in spite of everything. He has the syndrome now, the thing that came after every test subject from that Gainesville orphanage, but he isn't crazy. Just obsessed. And the obsession has its own shape in his head, its own texture, its own weight. He knows it from himself, can differentiate, so he goes back to it whenever he needs to and checks on it. Monitors it. Makes sure it still isn't him. it reminds him of having a sore tooth, or the way he felt once when he was in love and didn't warn to be. How his tongue always found the tooth, or how he'd always find that ache, that absence in the shape of the beloved.
But the syndrome wasn't like that. It was separate from him and had nothing to do with anyone or anything he, Laney, was even interested in. When he'd felt it starting, he'd taken it for granted that it would be about her, about Rei Toei, because there he was, close to her, or as close as you could get to anyone who didn't physically exist. They'd talked almost every day, Laney and the idoru.
And at first, he considered now, maybe it had been about her, but then it was as though he'd been following something back through the data flows, doing it without really thinking about it, the way your hand will find a thread on a garment and start pulling at it, unraveling it.
And what had unraveled was the way he'd thought the world worked. And behind that he'd found Harwood, who was famous, but famous in that way of being famous for being famous. Harwood who they said had elected the president. Harwood the PR genius, who'd inherited Harwood Levine, the most powerful PR firm in the world, and had taken it somewhere seriously else, into a whole other realm of influence. But who'd managed somehow never to become prey to the mechanism of celebrity itself. Which grinds, Laney so well knew, exceedingly fine. Harwood who, maybe, just maybe, ran it all, but somehow managed never to get his toe caught in it. Who managed, somehow, to be famous without seeming to be important, famous without being central to anything. Really, he'd never even gotten much attention, except when he'd split with Maria Paz, and even then it had been the Padanian star who'd made the top of every sequence, with Cody Harwood smiling from a series of sidebars, embedded hypertext lozenges: the beauty and this gentle-looking, secretive, pointedly uncharismatic billionaire.
"Hello," Laney says, his fingers finding the handle of a mechanical flashlight from Nepal, a crude thing, its tiny generator driven by a mechanism like a pair of spring-loaded pliers. Pumping it to life, he raises it, the faintly fluctuating beam finding the cardboard ceiling. Which is plastered, inch by inch, with dozens of stickers, small and rectangular, produced to order by a vending machine inside the station's west entrance: each one a different shot of the reclusive Harwood.
He can't remember going to the machine, executing a simple image search for Harwood, and paying to have these printed out, but he supposes he must have. Because he knows that that is where they are from. But neither can he remember peeling the adhesive backing from each one and sticking them up on the ceiling. But someone did. "I see you," Laney says and relaxes his hand, letting the dim beam brown and vanish.
FORMAL ABSENCES OF PRECIOUS THINGS
IN Market Street, the nameless man who haunts Laney's nodal configuration has just seen a girl.
Drowned down three decades, she steps fresh as creation from the bronze doors of some brokerage. And he remembers, in that instant, that she is dead, and he is not, and that this is another century, and this quite clearly another girl, some newly minted stranger, one with whom he will never speak.
And passing this one now, through a faint chromatic mist of incoming night, he bows his head some subtle increment in honor of that other, that earlier passing.
And sighs within his long coat, and the harness he wears beneath that: a taking in and giving up of one resigned breath, thronged around by the traders descending from their various places of employment. Who continue to emerge into the October street, toward drink or dinner or whatever home, whatever sleep, awaits them.
But now the one with whom he will not speak is gone as well, and he awash in some emotion, not loss exactly but a very particular awareness of his own duration in the world and in its cities, and this one most of all.
Beneath his right arm, reliably concealed, depends a knife that sleeps head down, like a vampire bat, honed to that edge required by surgeons, when surgeons cut with steel.
It is secured there with magnets set within a simple hilt of nickel silver. The blade's angled tip, recalling a wood carver's chisel, inclines toward the dark arterial pulse in the pit of his arm, as if reminding him that he too is only ever inches from that place the drowned girl went, so long ago, that timelessness. That other country, waiting.
He is by trade a keeper of the door to that country.
Drawn, the black blade becomes a key. When he holds it, he holds the wind in his hand.
The door swings gently open.
But he does not draw it now, and the traders see only a gray-haired man, wolfishly professorial, in a coat of grayish green, the color of certain lichens, who blinks behind the fine gold rims of his small round glasses and raises his hand to halt a passing cab. Though somehow they do not, as they easily might, rush to claim it as their own, and the man steps past them, his cheeks seamed vertically in deep parentheses, as though it has been his habit frequently to smile. They do not see him smile.
THE Tao, he reminds himself, mired in traffic on Post Street, is older than God.
He sees a beggar seated beneath a jeweler's windows. In those windows are small empty pedestals, formal absences of precious things, locked away now for the night. The beggar has wrapped his legs and feet in brown paper tape, and the effect is startlingly medieval, as though someone has partially sculpted a knight from office materials. The trim calves, the tapered toes, an elegance calling out for ribbons. Above the tape, the man is a blur, a spastic scribble, his being abraded by concrete and misfortune. He has become the color of pavement, his very race in question.
The cab lurches forward. The man in the loden coat reaches within it to adjust the knife against his ribs. He is left-handed, and he has thought often about such subtle polarities.
The girl who drowned so long ago has settled now, swept down in a swirl of toffee hair and less hurtful memories, to where his youth turns gently, in its accustomed tides, and he is more comfortable that way.
The past is past, the future unformed.
There is only the moment, and that is where he prefers to be.
And now he leans forward, to rap, once, upon the driver's tinted safety shield.
He asks to be taken to the bridge.
THE cab draws up before a rain-stained tumble of concrete tank traps, huge rhomboids streaked with rust, covered with the stylized initials of forgotten lovers.