A short story about voicemail, voyeurism, and stupidity.
Sea-Tac at high noon is a cold saucepan, everyone sitting in it and the burners waiting. The occasional flash-boom of a jet outside. Blue-white daylight through ceiling-high windows. Static crackle of dust remover on plastic. The burnished coffee stand curdling the air around it with sour French Roast. Far away, someone shouts into a phone. It’s always like this.
Waiting for the next thing in the Seattle airport is like waiting for the saucepan to cook. Major airport, major risk: one moment, cold metal emptiness; the next, shitfire and everybody burns. Terror. Screaming. Bullets. Anything could happen at any time. Jim Fowler sat up in the black plastic seat and thought this as calmly and easily as he thought of anything, whether he should take a flight sedative, for instance, or whether to call his voicemail before boarding.
Today, Jim was wearing a coal-gray three-button DKNY, one of his traveling suits—really decent, actually, but not impressive. The impressive suits, the ones he’d bought through a consultant, were too good to wear on the plane. The two Jim had taken to Seattle were wrapped in plastic inside a reinforced Kevlar valise that could withstand a three-hundred-pound anvil dropped on it. Jim knew this because he’d gone to the corporate demonstration where they’d dropped the anvil.
So far, he’d noticed two other men in the airport wearing his same coal-gray suit, but that wasn’t why he was sitting in a desolate part of Sea-Tac, staring out a wall of windows. Jim was three hours early for his flight and no one else had arrived at the gate.
He opened his cell and speed-dialed: his voice, There is no one here to receive your call, in sterile monotone. Had he taken something before recording the outgoing message? It was possible. Something to make him sleep. And then the permanently programmed machine girl sounding more human than Jim: You have . . . zero . . . messages. He loved her voice: frowsy, smart, with just a touch of humor. You have . . . zero . . . messages, as if it were a personal compliment. They knew something over at that cell phone factory. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe there was no girl like this on any other voicemail in the known world.
Girls. The trouble with girls. He never knew what to say. They made him nervous, shaky. Always judging, picking out his mistakes, noting the every hard swallow, every flat joke—always on record. Jim kept his hands in his pockets and avoided eye contact: they’d see him again somewhere, sometime—and they’d know: he was the creepy one, the one with that look. The windows rattled as a 757 shot down a runway.
That morning, Jim had woken up at 5:00, as always, unable to go back to sleep, and soon got bored with the Weather Channel loop from the edge of his hotel bed. So he called a cab and wound up watching the sky over Seattle lighten from the inside of Sea-Tac.
Jim had wandered for a while, glancing in the tourist stores and the lousy restaurants, at the determined expressions of people already in a hurry. And he’d stopped to look up at a 15-foot steel sculpture of a praying mantis that had been temporarily installed by his gate. It was burnished just like the coffee stand, the railings, the oblong strips of metal that had replaced whatever bland paintings used to line the jetways.
Beside him, a little girl with rings around her eyes and a dirty-looking teddy bear stared up at the mantis as if it might suddenly bound off its circular metal platform. Its front legs were pressed together in the classic mantis pose, sharp spines sticking out sideways from its body—hundreds of tiny daggers waiting for someone running late to trip and fall over the red velvet stanchion-ropes.
“What is it?” the girl asked, pointing at the mantis.
Jim squatted down beside her and looked up. “That’s a sculpture. Somebody made that and put it in here so we can look at it.”
“Did God make it?”
From the girl’s vantage point, the mantis seemed twice as big. It’s blank stare passed through him and Jim imagined it springing to life, its steel claws ripping him in half.
“Yes,” he said. “How did you know?”
“No,” said her mother, putting her hands on the girl’s shoulders from behind and staring down at him. “It’s a bug, honey. Just some bug.”
Jim stood and watched them go to a far gate. He’d seen the mother in the leper smoking room, where the glassed-off air looked pale gray and so did the people sucking down their morning tobacco. She had frosted hair, gold rings, and a faint desperation in how she’d crossed her arms and concentrated on her cigarette. They’d made eye-contact as Jim passed by the room.
She was pretty in a removed, angry sort of way, and he’d gotten ideas. What were the chances of them being on the same flight, in the same row, sitting together? He’d let the possibilities play out for a few moments, then forgot all about her. And this is what it came to: Jim transformed to an insect, squashed under a forty-dollar pump. How often could this sort of thing happen to one person?
Now, in the empty block of seats facing the windows, Jim didn’t have to speak to anyone. If he stayed medicated for the flight, he’d be able to avoid any further human nastiness. Of course, he didn’t always try to avoid people. His real reason for coming to Seattle was to meet someone. But, as usual, things didn’t work out that way. The National Convention of Law Librarians had been something.
Frenzy: everyone single paired-up immediately, then everyone married-but-open-minded, and then anyone else who got a randy thought toward the end of “Comparative Search Diagnostics” or “Alternate Systems of Citing Primary Authority.” Unfortunately, there were a small number of people who always missed out on the librarian bacchanalia. Jim had now been in this group two years in a row.
Bored, he watched a fuel truck creep like an orange beetle through tarmac heat wobbles. The truck didn’t look like it was moving very fast but, if he aligned a wingtip in the foreground with a distant pole out on the airfield, he could measure the fuel truck’s progress. Jim did that for a while, imagining how it would be if the truck suddenly exploded, how it would look from his position—the flames curling up around the tank in wreathes or maybe shooting around the truck in all directions, hanging in the air for a heartbeat, like a fiery octopus.
By expecting the worst, you’re prepared. Lose all hope, lose all fear. Jim wouldn’t mind losing fear. He was turning thirty-five next month, had no family left, and the college girlfriend who had once come close to marrying him was now an interior decorator in Singapore and no longer returned his calls. His hair was gray above the ears, which seemed to have already put him in the geriatric crowd. When he looked at girls in their early twenties—long hair, midriff, belly button ring, little tattoo over delicate ankle—he saw worlds forever closed to him. After thirty, he no longer showed up on their radar. Or, if they had to deal with him, it was the thank-you-excuse-me, the pasty smile, the consolation laugh right before they escaped to the other side of the room.
But what to do. Back home in Irvine, Jim tried to face it. Mind over matter: he answered personal ads and went on nightmarish exploratory dates. The single mother who left the pictures of her ex-husband face-up on the restaurant’s table like a challenge and spoke earnestly to him about becoming a lesbian. A bird-thin waitress with strands of colored string braided into her hair who cried at Neruda’s love poems and had dreams about the devil. A middle-aged professor of economics who said she’d never orgasmed and wanted to know what he thought about pissing.
“Pissing?” he asked.
“It can be a lot sexier than you’d think,” she said.
In the end, they all seemed as disappointed with him as he was with them. And now Jim had just wasted all three convention nights in his hotel room and voicemail was still his best friend.
Behind him, the girl had wandered back to the praying mantis, seemed fascinated with it, staring up into its metal face like it was about to tell her something. Jim felt the urge to walk over and talk to her again, but he didn’t want a second encounter with the mother. The girl was right at the edge of the red velvet ropes and was reaching out tentatively toward one of the mantis’s folded-down claws.
Jim turned back toward the wall of windows. It wasn’t his business if she cut herself. When he looked again, she’d slipped under the ropes and was standing directly under the claws, looking up. The sharp leg-spines pointed all around her, only an inch on either side of her face.
Jim turned and vowed not to look anymore, staring at the fuel truck, now an orange speck in the distance. He was sure that soon the screaming would start. He fished a sedative out of the plastic pill case he always kept in his vest pocket and swallowed it dry. His hands were shaking slightly so he crossed his arms and closed his eyes. It would take a moment for the pill to kick in.
Irvine. Yuppietopia of southern California. Yet, there was something about it, thought Jim, something to love. The palm trees were bio-engineered. The streets were angled for maximum runoff. There would never be a major septic horror. There were no alligators in the sewers. Or, if there were alligators, they were ecologically appropriate. Maybe there were no sewers. In Irvine, the sun was sunnier. The kids were kiddier. Birds cartwheeled through height-zoned eucalypti.
Whatever wasn’t working was cavorting and every car came internet-ready. Jim looked down from the 22nd floor and listened to the absolute silence of Gould, Dien, and Strunkmeyer’s law library, his library. Mirrored office towers flashed in the new light and Newport Beach glittered in the distance, blue like a perfect sky.
Today, he was wearing a rust cardigan-slacks combo with pale cream button-down and burgundy Ungaro tie. On the fashion e-calendar provided by his consultant, this ensemble was dedicated to putting a spin in June’s gloom with the earthy tones of fall. Theoretically, one was supposed to stay just ahead of the season: when everybody was still wearing grays, you crept into the browns. At this time, said the calendar, accessories with polka-dots are recommended. Recommended but not required, thought Jim. That was key. Not everybody could get away with polka-dots.
Dark thoughts on this Monday morning: where was Scafandra, his assistant? He got to work at 7:00; he expected her at 7:30. Lateness was the devil, the root of all vice. Jim was never late. Even this morning: mesmerized by the Weather Channel again for a whole hour, then the sudden shock of lost time, the pressured zip down the 73 from his condo, Prussian blue Acura revving 80, barely making it, iced coffee through a straw, email on car-screen, no messages, no messages. It was too soon to start calling his voicemail. But now, sitting at his desk in the library, he felt like he’d left something back in Seattle. His watch read 7:34.
The library’s holdings were extensive—as good as any public law library, in some respects better—and when Jim ascended from assistant to head librarian, he redesigned the floor plan: Federal Cases to the north, California Appellate Reports to the south, taxation, intellectual property, Uniform Commercial Code to the east, transactions, forms and business practices around the big window in the west.
GDS rented a storage annex in the basement as big as a supermarket for everything else. And in the center of the library: his oak desk on a raised dais flanked by both editions of the Annotated California Code. If the lawyers needed to know the law of the land, they had to approach—supplicants at Jim’s altar, where a fat brass desk lamp made him glow like Moses fresh off the mountain.
Then Scafandra came in through the library’s oak double-doors, her eyes already shrink-wrapped in tears, and Jim knew it would be like this. He could have predicted it. Forecasting Scafandra’s tears on a day she was late was about as hard as guessing rain after a week of darkness.
“You have no idea what I’ve gone through this morning. It’s . . . I can’t even talk about it.” She was a thin woman with delicate pale features and auburn hair, the sleeves of her mustard knit sweater rolled up into gigantic cuffs. Her sweaters were psychic shields—always massive, always making her seem like she was dissolving into them, in need of assistance.
Scafandra Theory 101: any reaction at all will feed standard traumatic breakdown. Any little cooing sounds that would normally mean sympathy and commiseration will cause one to be immediately sucked into 30-minute-long lateness-justifying vortex of pain.
“I was read-ended. Rear-ended. I don’t know what I’m gonna do. I love that car. That car is my life.”
“My god. What is this world coming to? It’s just . . . life is just . . . sometimes, it’s too much. Sometimes, I think I could, you know . . .”
“Rear-ended you say?”
Her cheeks were wet with tears. Scafandra had skills, but there it was, the split-second glance, scanning Jim’s expression to see if she was making progress.
“Weren’t you listening? It’s alright. I don’t expect you to understand. No one ever does.”
“You’re right,” said Jim. “Some things are more important than being on time.”
Scafandra nodded, daubing her eyes with Kleenex from her purse.
He watched her go to her desk in the glass cubicle near the east wall, where the architects had originally meant the head librarian’s desk to be. Jim knew that by lunch she’d be chipper again, tapping out messages to internet chat friends and humming to herself. When he could see her sitting at her computer in the little glassed-off space, he unlocked a drawer and took out a sheet of GDS letterhead. Below a long list of excuses, Jim made another entry complete with date, time, what she’d said, and how he’d responded.
When he got to the bottom of the page (one more excuse to go—he hoped it would be good—lightning setting her dog on fire, all four tires blowing out spontaneously, abduction, smoking fissure opening beneath her straight to Hades) Jim would type a memo, circulate it to the partners of the firm, and that would be the end of Scafandra. Until then, Jim would wait, serene, detached: 22nd floor law library bodhisattva. Nothing bothered him. Kung Fu. The e-calendar’s icon, a radiant sun, smiled and winked at him from the corner of his computer screen.
It was strange the way he felt about Seattle. Unpacking, he’d gone over everything. All his bags had arrived, plastic-wrapped shirts layered and locked into place. Nothing heavier than an anvil had been dropped on his valise. Nothing lighter than socks came out. No surprises. No unsolved mysteries. And yet, driving through Newport, Jim felt dreamy, detached, felt a nagging something in the back of his mind. He called his voicemail. You have . . . zero . . . messages.
No emergency phone calls from the hotel or Sea-Tac about lost credit cards. So . . . what? Jim didn’t know. But there was something going on here. Something bothering him. He called his voicemail again, as if the solution might have been in the beautiful scrollwork of her voice. First, his own: There is no one here to receive your call. The more Jim listened to it, the more it seemed like he had taken a sedative before recording the outgoing message.
Newport Center Drive was wide and full of BMWs. Being on it was like docking at the galactic spaceport—everything huge, slowly pulling you in. To the right, huge white office buildings like great latticeworks of bone with mirrors in the sockets. To the left, a shopping center bigger than a city: Relax, we have you in a tractor beam. The streets were full but traffic circulated with a low pulse. People instinctively knew when it was their turn to glide. They didn’t have to check. At the light, a pigeon-haired man in a 745i gazed absently into his AC blast. His face looked creamy tan like his leather interior. He glanced at Jim, then shot ahead.
Jim parked and walked into the mall—past the Towne Bistro that had waiters with white dinner jackets and its own domesticated tiger, past the koi pond, past the Venetian fountain with marble cherubs climbing over each other in a gigantic heap, the topmost one spitting up at a non-offensive slant, past the store that only sold toys guaranteed to raise a child’s IQ by a minimum of fifteen points. It was Consumer Never-Never Land: Peter Pan, all grown up, buys a cell phone and a Bimmer, spends his time in boutiques with names like Anthropologie and Un Petit Cadeux.
Jim didn’t mind the ambiance, always a faint tinkling in the air, a freshness, trellises of red Bougainvillea and tiny ornamental catwalks that only a cat could walk on. But there were no cats, no birds, nothing that might offend. Even the kids were well-behaved. Something in the atmosphere weighed them down, made them walk dutifully, quietly beside their parents. A group of them stood around the koi pond in silence, watching the thick golden fish swoop furiously back and forth without making the slightest ripple.
The shopping center was called Fashion Island, and it had one really great quality, one thing that made it different and better than most of the hulking malls of the world: Dream Houses. Jim spent a hundred dollars there every time he visited. Dream Houses was nestled on the other side of the rose atelier between Middle America and Anja’s Day Spa.
He stopped at Middle America’s floor-to-ceiling window. Inside, a fat, red-faced man in shirtsleeves was all smiles as he drove a pair of oxen across a plot of land. Off to the side, his wife and son cheered. He’d stop to wave and get his picture taken or have the attendant put new bandages on his hands—already bleeding from the wooden plow handles. He loved it. Off to the side, the manager, looking like she’d just stepped out of Anja’s in black Von Furstenberg chiffon, her hair at a wicked slant, sipped a cup of coffee and stared into infinity.
People paid to help cultivate the land then got a gift basket later in the year full of the beets or turnips or kohlrabi they’d helped produce. You could hear them happily going on about their crop in the Towne Bistro over a light wine and spanakopita, fresh white gauze across their hands.
But Dream Houses was different. Ultimately, it was about people, about real life and its challenges. Deep down, Jim liked to think of himself as a people person, and Dream Houses was where he interfaced with humanity. This was the human condition. And, for the price of a gold-plated sink faucet or a pair of high-toned brass knobs, it came dirt cheap.
An extremely thin girl with burgundy hair sat at the DH front desk. Her name was Leda. In the year and a half he’d been a customer, Leda had never said more than two words to Jim, but those two words were enough.
“An hour would be good,” said Jim.
She smiled as if that was just right and gave a little Asian nod, even though she wasn’t Asian, tapping something into a computer that was part of the flat surface of her desk. It looked like she was practicing scales, her purple-black nails ticking.
Jim walked past the desk and sat down on a twisted Sköna Hem sofa with green and white stripes. This week was part of the Hide-a-Way Den series and the furnishings had a lush sink-into-me feeling, despite the pastel motif. There were two sofas, a pale blue Italian divan, and a Yamakawa end-table engineered to slowly change its elevation as the wood aged. Somehow, the designers had managed to sink the floor two steps down, and Jim wondered whether they’d built a whole new temporary level above the old one or simply exposed the original floor. He stretched his legs and crossed them at the ankles.
It started as a small home furnishings outlet with a different set interior every month. But it grew into something more. Now time inside was billed and there was a new interior every week. One was expected to buy something, but that’s not why you came to Dream Houses.
It was, quite simply, the best way to meet people. Voyeurs and the occasional tourist excepted, DH had its regulars—people who appreciated style. And the designers were gods. Most of Dream Houses Online was dedicated to the twists and turns of their dramatic lives in exotic cities—Casablanca, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, St. Croix—one was cheating on his wife with a Finnish model; one might have been gay or a woman or a gay woman (10 gigs of posted speculation said the photos were fake); one had a club of Japanese schoolgirls dedicated to group suicide if he ever stopped cheating.
Actors showed up at Dream Houses. Rock stars got photographed in the secret exclusive DH franchise that operated by invitation only. It wasn’t just a showroom, it was a way of life. And, for one or two hours, you could become witty and graceful on your molded Italian chaise lounge; you could flirt provocatively over Ting dragon-cisterns filled with white roses and come away with a handsome mother-of-pearl sconce or an authentic Karastan throw as a memento. The idea was to bring a little bit of it home with you every time. Someday you’d reach perfection.
Jim knew he was far from perfect, but he also knew that the blonde on the other sofa was named Tiffany. At least that was the name she used in Dream Houses. And, every week, they bridged the gap to perfection together. Always, at their time, she’d be waiting—long straight hair, blue eyes, some cream Atsuko Kudo polymer shift that revealed just enough as it clung to her curves. Was she married? Did it matter? Contact wasn’t allowed. DH had its rules: no touching, no smoking, and no food—nothing that would jeopardize the merchandise. It was that simple, and it was never a problem.
“You’re late,” said Tiffany.
“No. You know that’s not true.”
“I’ve been waiting here forever.” Her smile became a pout. She tilted her head to smell roses in an onyx vase beside her without looking away. “Where have you been?”
“Around,” said Jim. “Why does it have to matter?”
“You know it matters. It matters to me.”
“I’ve been at work. Where else would I be?” He folded his hands in his lap and looked down the long interior. Beyond a silk partition of cranes in flight, a different couple was having a conversation, voices only murmurs in the stillness.
Tiffany and he had carried on this romance for nearly a year, and she was incredibly talented at keeping him interested. One week, she’d be jealous, the next, bubbly and vivacious, the next, depressed. The situation encouraged this behavior. Relationships in Dream Houses depended on talking, on never letting things rest, never letting the conversation get predictable. Boredom was a constant threat and mood swings, unlike in the outside world, were an asset here. Tiffany was brilliant. Sometimes Jim admired her ability so much he thought he actually was in love with her.
“Did you get my email?”
Sometimes they sent each other email as a way to keep things going. It was a good way to stay consistent or to let each other know of a time conflict. But in her last message, Tiffany had very tentatively asked him out, said there was a mime who did the Rodney King beating to Japanese Butoh music. He was exclusive. She had tickets. Did Jim want to go? Et cetera. She’d been off-hand, embedding it in a long discussion of DH’s bleached llama carpets and whether they were treating the llamas right.
Jim was getting vaguely interested in the issue—whether Dream Houses ran clandestine llama farms, exporting glue and steaks to South America when the animals stopped putting out quality fiber—until she popped the question. It sickened him. Tiffany was willing to throw it all away, to violate the purity of what they had. And for what? Dinner and the usual? She was missing the whole point. He wrote her a long response, saying as much, then re-wrote it, then deleted it. All he had to do was not respond, right? He’d stay quiet, and things would continue. Right?
“No,” he said. “I haven’t checked.”
“I am the way I’ve always been. I don’t change. I’m like the ocean, always there.”
“Like the distance, you mean. Always over there.”
“Close your eyes. You can sense me.”
“I’d rather feel you.”
“Don’t.” He stared at the silk cranes. The other couple’s conversation rose and fell like quiet tide. Jim wished Tiffany and he could stop talking and just listen to it. But she was changing. Their situation was changing. He tried to focus on a set of long black-dipped teak chimes that didn’t really chime, though they always looked about to. And he knew that what had been good about Tiffany was drawing to an end.
“Well.” She looked toward the lime-tinted storefront windows, where Leda was talking to what looked like three gigantic Swedes in jogging suits. “I don’t know what I’m getting this time.”
“I’ve had my eye on that brass curtain-rod,” said Jim.
“I could say a lot . . . in response to that.” Tiffany smirked—inappropriate on her porcelain features. Women like her, thought Jim, should be cold and poised, removed, like high mountain snow that never melts.
And then, completely without warning, Tiffany did the unthinkable. She sat down next to him and planted a wide warm kiss on the side of his neck. It was a direct violation of the rules. Jim froze. They could both be permanently banned for something like this.
She had her arms around his neck and kissed him a second time before he thought to tell her to get back to the other sofa, that Leda might see them through the surveillance camera.
Leda was already standing there when he looked up.
“This has to stop,” Leda said, “right now.”
Tiffany sneered but let go of him and sat back.
“Wait. It’s not what you think,” said Jim.
“I’m putting a violation in both of your accounts. And I think your time is up.” She stalked back to the front desk, her purple-black skirt swishing.
Jim sighed. A violation meant no more discounts, no more updates, no more promotional offers or exclusive events. Another violation and he’d be barred permanently, worldwide.
“I have to be somewhere,” he said and stood up.
Tiffany crossed one knee over the other and gave him a blank stare.
Jim bought the brass curtain rod from Leda without looking at her. He told himself he wouldn’t come back for a long, long time, but he knew that wasn’t true. In the car, he started shaking, so he took a Hydrocodone from the plastic pill case in the glove-box. One of the lawyers he worked with was a walking pharmacy and Jim helped bankroll his habit. It was amazing how steady and calm he became with the help of synthetic opiates.
Voicemail told him he had zero messages; Jim stood in his darkened entryway and listened to the voice repeat a few times. His apartment complex was shaped like a honeycomb—twelve-inch-thick cement walls, units angled so you didn’t have to look at anyone else. Everyone had a balcony and could, in theory, see a shred of Newport Pacific; though, the apartments started on the fourth floor and went high enough that braving the balcony would have been a major undertaking for most of the retirees there.
As far as Jim knew, he was the only resident under fifty. His complex was always completely silent. Everything was sound-proofed. But tonight he couldn’t relax. He kept thinking of Seattle. What had he accomplished there? He hadn’t met anyone—hadn’t even had the opportunity. No one had paid any attention to him. He’d passed through the convention like a heavily medicated ghost.
He went into the bedroom closet, took off his suede windbreaker, and hung it up. It was half-past nine, almost time for bed. Jim had let dinner drag out, sipping jasmine tea in Bao Voce—a new restaurant that served Vietnamese and Italian dishes together—and pretended to go over a research file from work, while eavesdropping on three drunk lawyers from Quill Collins, one of GDS’s rivals. He hadn’t learned anything useful, but it helped pass the time.
He took off the rest of his clothes, folded them neatly, placing the stack in the sky-blue hamper at the back of the closet. His apartment was completely dark except for the weak moonlight that glanced across the carpeting, making everything black or pale gray. He never closed the drapes. His unit was on the fifteenth floor. Besides, the windows were an inch thick, didn’t open, and polarized automatically on sunny days. He took down a shoebox from the closet’s top shelf and carried it out to the bed.
This wasn’t something Jim did every night, but he did it often enough that it had become like tacit punctuation at the end of a hard day. He sat on the bed and took out a pair of Newcon NZT-22 hands-free night vision goggles. They were SWAT issue from the 1980s: secured by a head strap, starlight technology, could be rotated up, away from one’s eyes along the canvass strap, which came down to Jim’s forehead and made his hair stick out to the sides like a cartoon scientist. He clicked them on and the world turned bright green. Jim looked strange in his bedroom mirror, naked and goggled with glowing green eyes, which, he knew, were being magnified by the starlight effect and were actually tiny points.
He’d bought them through a catalog years ago but hadn’t used them until he moved into this apartment. Now he used them all the time because the old man who lived one unit down and two to the right was great entertainment at night. Jim walked out onto his balcony. It was warm, no wind. Most of the other units were dark. You could do anything on that balcony. No one would see—commit murder, seal the body in the apartment; by the time anyone checked, it would be dust and teeth.
Jim had to stand at the very edge of the balcony and lean over in order to see into the old man’s unit, but it was a small price to pay for such good entertainment. Jim didn’t know what the old man did during the day; no one ever saw anyone in the building coming or going.
The dim hallways seemed to absorb all sound, and movement wasn’t easy—every floor required a numerical pass code, as did the elevator, the parking garage, the trash chutes. Jim figured most of the residents simply stayed in their apartments, had their groceries delivered, kept their televisions turned up. But the old man led a double life. During the day, he did whatever he did, and at night he became a railroad magnate.
Without the night vision, Jim would still have been able to see the electric train moving through the hills and forests. But he would have missed the important details: the small dog running beside the tracks while a boy called to it and waved his hands; the miner on a stretcher being carried out of an opening in a hill; a wooden bridge sagging and broken over the river; hobos hunched around a campfire behind the rock quarry.
Above it all, the old man hovered in a tie and a pressed suit, keeping track of everything, wringing his hands, squinting through the gloom of his faintly lit apartment, talking to the train and then listening to it intently. His entire living room had been turned into an electric set, and he noted all changes on a green chalkboard that was propped up at one end of the room—precipitation, supply and demand, date, time in fifteen-minute increments, profit, loss, employment, and “Projected Expenses for Next Fiscal Term.”
The train curved into other rooms where, Jim assumed, there were other wooden towns like the one in the corner of the living room—something like depression-era Kansas: old dirty buildings, drifters shuffling through the streets, shadowy train yards and tumbleweeds.
The detail was astounding. Jim was sure the ceiling of the living room was painted. The walls were done as perfect three-dimensional extensions of the landscape, hills like the old man’s balding head sloped up from forests. There were four bridges: two of wood, two of rusted iron. And the river that ran beneath them went all over the landscape, widened where logs floated down toward the mill outside of town, and carried a boy on a small skiff.
The old man was deeply involved in the lives of his people. He gestured dramatically to the hobos, gave advice to the boy on the skiff, moved the dog farther down the tracks and then consoled its owner as best he could. He was the guardian spirit of the world he’d created. The real entertainment wasn’t the train or the set. It was the old man himself.
When he’d turn the speed all the way up, the train would eventually derail, and he’d weep at the destruction—pine trees smashed, one of the drifters knocked to the other side of the mountain, the miner clattering down the slope with his stretcher-bearers. The train would go over the half-broken wooden bridge and the old man would cover his mouth in worry.
Jim could watch him all night—how he held forth like Cato before the senate, making passionate speeches, gesturing, long unruly wisps of white at his temples and his fingers stained with chalk. He’d been someone in his life, probably someone with a lot of responsibility, thought Jim. And now he went through a full range of emotions every night.
Buildings were destroyed and rebuilt the next day. Hobos and drifters moved around the terrain, disappeared into other rooms, showed up days later at the edge of the trees or leaning against the wall of the train station. Occasionally, the old man receded into the background so that, even with the night vision, Jim could only make out his silhouette, black-on-black, in the short hall that went to the other rooms.
And so it went: the old man in a pressed suit and the train circling through the rooms. It did occur to Jim that he was equally ridiculous, perhaps more so, standing buck-naked on his balcony wearing night vision goggles. But who cared? A day in the life. Jim only knew these things amused him.
This was a night when the old man wouldn’t stop the train to unload or link up new cars. He just let it go and followed it around his apartment, drawing a hash mark in the corner of the chalkboard every time it made a complete circuit. Jim wasn’t sure what the hash marks were supposed to accomplish, if they were building up to something or not.
It didn’t matter. The important thing was that the old man was there, doing what he loved, in deep conversation with the train. Every so often, he’d gesture at it with an open hand, admonishing it, as if to say What did you expect?
Jim watched until he got his fill of smirking at the old man’s pained looks as he bent over the train and clasped his hands together, full of anxiety. Jim leaned out over the balcony railing, enjoying every minute of it, the glowing green eyepoints of his goggles like tiny anonymous stars.
Of course, he was wearing a double-breasted Zegna with classic pleats today. The e-calendar had laid it out in no uncertain terms: the moment is auspicious for Prada, Fendi, or Zegna as surely as Gladiolus blooms like the midday sun. Jim was not completely sure what that meant, but his wardrobe Feng Shui was clear: Zegna in, everything else out. The e-calendar’s radiant sun icon smiled and winked at him from the corner of his computer screen: friendly guardian spirit. The ancients lit incense at the feet of icons, Jim double-clicked them. It made sense.
The real question was why Scafandra had suddenly been possessed by the Daemon of Work. She’d already cite-checked and proofed a 40-page pleading that one of the lawyers had left in the to-do tray the night before, and it didn’t look like she was even going to break for lunch. This was not normal Scafandra behavior.
Jim unlocked his desk drawer and looked at his List of Scafandra’s Excuses. Had she picked the desk’s lock and found it or had she just reformed? This morning, for the first time ever, she’d come in before Jim. There she was behind the glass partition, eyes riveted on her computer screen, sections of the pleading in neat stacks across her desk.
But, of course, nothing ever changed; people certainly didn’t—always the same, whether cite-checking into the blurry gum-eyed afternoon, running only on coffee and the fear of getting axed, or banned from Dream Houses. People, Jim knew, were as reliable as the California sky, static, dedicated body and soul to the usual—which presented certain fundamental truths about Scafandra, certain unquestionable realities. Jim wondered if the stacks of paper on her desk were even real documents.
Catlike, he made a long circuitous path through the oak-paneled stacks, suddenly pretending to be interested in California Real Estate Law 3d, then pirouetting through California Jurisprudence into the Federal Supplement shelves. Pure stealth. He snuck up behind her glass cubicle, walking only on the blades of his shoes so the carpet wouldn’t swish, and peered over her shoulder at the computer screen.
There was the pleading in all its tedious majesty. Could it be that she was actually working? Impossible. He cleared his throat.
“Yes?” Scafandra kept typing, didn’t turn, the day’s voluminous sweater making strands of her short auburn hair stick to her neck. She’d had too much coffee and was sweating. Jim stared at the back of her neck and imagined kissing it but banished the thought. Scafandra was a problem. One didn’t fantasize about kissing sweaty problems.
She stopped and swiveled. “Yes?”
“Aren’t you hot in that?”
She cocked her head to the side. “What do you need?”
Jim hadn’t planned in advance. “Well, I’ve been thinking.” His mind raced.
“That’s always good.”
“Right, well, do you eat? Lunch?”
Scafandra glanced around the cubicle then back up at him. “Is there a problem?”
Problem? What did “problem” mean in this context? Jim tried to focus.
“Are you alright?” She crossed her arms and rolled back a few inches.
“No, I mean, are you going to take lunch?” He noticed her eyes were the same light brown as her hair.
“Look,” he said, “I’ll buy you lunch.”
Scafandra seemed wary, half-shocked, like he’d just offered her a deal on some stolen TVs. But she said okay and they were both suddenly relieved, each retreating back to their private spaces—Jim to his desk, furiously reading a random section of the California Code on dog bites, Scafandra making busy noises and clicking her mouse.
How had this happened? His nerves. Suddenly Scafandra had morphed from irritating assistant to woman. What did one do with a woman? What would it mean to see her every day now that this had happened? Jim thought: if I’m going to have a nervous breakdown, now would be the time. A few minutes later, Scafandra sent him an email and disappeared with her purse in hand.
Jim’s inbox bleeped just as the library’s double-doors closed silently behind her. She said she’d meet him at Gordon Yow’s, an all-Hawaiian grill, just off Irvine Spectrum, where you could eat poi out of wooden bowls. Jim made a mental note to surreptitiously check her car for rear-end damage when the moment presented itself.
He stared blankly at the email until the screensaver blinked on and passworded itself. He was going to have to do this. Any possible excuse Jim could have cooked up was now worthless. There was no way she could be expected to check her email in the thirty minutes until they were supposed to meet.
Jesus, he thought, spending social time with Scafandra . . . it was crazy, unthinkable. Jim ordered his desk, locking his briefcase in a bottom cabinet. He’d never been to Gordon Yow’s. He didn’t know the terrain, possible distractions, possible escape routes. At least at the Towne Bistro, they could watch the pet tiger and not speak.
He walked out of the library, between the glass-partitioned offices. The world was busy sending faxes and barking into cell phones. No one looked at him. All internal walls were glass and Jim always got the feeling he was walking through a cross-section cutaway entitled “Law Firm.”
One of the associates paced back and forth running his fingers through his hair over and over. Another sat on the corner of his desk, gesturing at a webcam mounted on top of his computer screen, papers across desk and floor like a carpet of snow. On the far side of the room, the smoked glass walls of the partners’ offices stood out like blackened teeth. Jim saw the outline of someone leaning back in a chair, speaking to a silhouette on the other side of a desk.
Absolute truth: visiting the restaurants of Irvine is like visiting the smaller cities of eastern Europe one at a time. You’re aware of the differences until you aren’t, until all the minarets and cathedrals look the same, until the soul-deadening sameness of the landscape signifies exactly that and nothing more.
So: poi in wooden bowls. There was a luau at Gordon Yow’s and Jim suddenly realized this wasn’t foreign terrain. He knew everything about the place without ever having been there: the bartender, who he knew, knew, was named Chaz or Troy or Blair, who used to be a pro skater and now, you know, was, uh, trying to break into the entertainment business.
The waitress in the silver ass-pants, just this side of whorish, who’d snap if you went a hair over her line—a line re-drawn so often she was practically occult. But Jim didn’t want to flirt with her. Jim didn’t want to flirt with anybody. And, luau or not, lunch would have to be short and crisp with a straight shot clear back to the loading entrance if Scafandra started to make any sort of scene whatsoever. Somewhere in the back, there would be a busboy willing to keep her busy for a twenty while Jim hit the freeway at speed.
He almost hoped it would come to that, peeking around an oversized fake palm at Scafandra, who was trying to do the same thing from a different palm ahead of him. She hadn’t seen him yet. Jim had arrived a half-minute before her and, instead of taking a table, he’d said he was meeting a friend. The one who sat first would be the one who got observed, the one under the scope. Hence this double-sneak, while grass-skirted Kanakahanaleya did a greased-up belly dance under a platter of roast pineapple and the coconut was flowing.
But minarets, they keep pointing.
And cathedral bells, they ring.
And this landscape was never going to change. Absolute truth. Look at it forever, he’d see the same thing. The sad part was that Jim knew it, maybe he’d always known it, like knowing burnished Sea-Tac in an upbust of fiery dawn when none of what happens is new and none of it any good. Jim walked. It was all too much. He found three pills at the bottom of his pocket and swallowed them dry without looking.
The energy was all wrong, nerves in his face twitching, hands getting cold like he was about to hyperventilate. Wooden left-right, one step then another. The glass doors, etched in gigantic Gordon Yow’s, opened to harsh parking lot light. The moment was auspicious for escape as surely as Gladiolus dies in Orange County hardpan. And his Acura: a glittering Prussian blue lifeboat amid all that space.
It was hot. Shimmers reared up at the street’s vanishing point, making the distance look wet. Jim pulled over. He’d drifted across Irvine in a haze. Somewhere along the way, his hands had started shaking bad. Nerves. Scafandra was back there under a latex palm, now hating him twice as much. A parti-colored mass of University High students moved across the street. In the shade of the tree-lined sidewalks, they looked like gumballs in a quarter machine, all the bright colors clumping through patches of light.
Jim dialed his apartment: There is no one here to receive your call. It felt like the vents were blowing hot air but the AC light was on. Tiny fires kept starting inside his veins. He didn’t know if it was nerves or pills. Jim clicked the AC off and on, rolled down his window. You have . . . zero . . . messages. Someone a block over was pissed, beeping long streams of angry car horn into the air. Jim got out, left his cell phone on the seat. Now there would be a message to play back—a long sustained car horn. It was something.
And then there was Hegemon: a store-front café, now owned by Starbucks, that was filled with loud furniture and no longer sold coffee. He sat at the wooden counter and ordered a carbonated chocolate sundae. It looked like normal ice-cream but, when you put it in your mouth, it had a faint fizz. At least that’s what the little chalkboard over the register said.
The pink-aproned woman behind the counter repeated a dollar amount for the third time, but Jim couldn’t focus. He put down the loose bills that were in his pocket. He wished he’d brought his phone. It would’ve been really nice to hear her voice right then, to murmur something sweet back to her. Yeah, baby, I know, I know.
The place was full of senior citizens. In a puce loveseat, a skeletal grandmother spooned heaps of carbonated ice-cream into her mouth, mobile oxygen machine parked next to her like a robot companion. On the stool beside Jim, an old man with wisps of white hair and a pressed blue suit sat down with a Register and a tumbler of peach frappe.
“Don’t I know you?” said Jim.
The old man unfolded his newspaper and scanned the front. “Nope.”
Jim leaned toward him. “No. I do know you. You live in my complex.”
“Nope. Sorry,” said the old man, turning a page.
“You’ve got this incredible train—”
“Look, sport,” said the man, still not turning toward him, “I come in afternoons for a quiet frappe. I don’t know what you’re on.” He glanced quickly at the woman behind the counter. “Excuse me,” he said, taking frappe and paper over to a purple velour sofa, where he sat between a cadaverous 80-year-old man in a straw hat and a fat woman in a sweat suit with an unlit pipe clamped between her lips.
“I don’t know what I’m on.” Jim thought: Valium, Xanax, Librax, Tranxene, baby-blue Vicadin, apple-green Hydrocodone. The floor tilted when he stood up.
The woman behind the counter stared at him.
Out front, the bus from the old folks’ home was still unloading. Jim staggered around a woman’s walker toward his Acura.
Valium, Xanax, Tranxene, baby-blue Vicadin, apple-green Hydrocodone: the mantis was gone and Jim was stoned. These are the facts of life in Sea-Tac at dawn when you don’t know what you’ve taken. The pinwheel of memories behind him was still rolling through disjointed hours of the flight-time dark that put him here. And nothing, nowhere, at no time would ever be auspicious again.
Jim had lost track. He didn’t know how much of what he had taken pre-flight, during-flight, in what combinations. Somewhere, in a medical reference, there was probably an entry for what was working inside him, but the mantis was gone so it didn’t matter. He’d never know whether the little girl had blinded herself, impaled herself on the sculpture or not. Or maybe there had never been a combination of chemicals like this in any person’s body in the known world. Maybe he was beyond reference, off the map. Maybe he’d become the map. Jim staggered back a step, hugged himself.
He stood in front of the spot where the mantis had been. The velvet stanchion ropes were still in place, cordoning-off a circle of empty carpet. A passing janitor gave him a look. His Zegna jacket had an ice cream stain up the right sleeve. He’d gotten a few nosebleeds, and there were splotches of blood where he’d used his tie to wipe. Jim’s shirt was out, left shoe undone. He thought he should sit down; he had nowhere to go. The familiar bulge of his wallet was missing from his pockets. All he had left was his phone.
Jim walked to the same bank of plastic window seats he sat in before. Had the mantis ever really been there? If he turned around right now in his seat, would he see it again, all burnished chitinous mandibles and razor-sharp spines? If the girl had killed herself, had tripped against it or gotten pushed back against the spines in his dream, would it have been any less tragic? Jim would have asked someone, but there was nobody around—empty seats to vanishing points, black morning-dark windows—and words weren’t moving right in his mouth anyway.
He speed-dialed home. If this was all a drug hallucination, maybe this time she’d say something to him, something affectionate, understanding. The phone slid out of his hand, down his wrinkled shirt as the peal of a miniature car horn came out of the speaker. In the distance, the first flight of the day touched down. And a fuel truck on an empty stretch of tarmac suddenly exploded: a marble-sized fireball from where Jim was sitting. But he didn’t see it. He was asleep.