What happened is that we got Merge…an operation that enables you to take mental objects [or concepts of some sort], already constructed, and make bigger mental objects out of them. That’s Merge. As soon as you have that, you have an infinite variety of hierarchically structured expressions [and thoughts] available to you.
— Noam Chomsky
I know words. I have the best words.
— Donald Trump
Thundering down, a cataract from a high plateau, raising billows of dust, manes, tails, whinnies rippling like banners, a glamorous species, captive yes, but not entirely subdued, they—oh, no, a fellow in that ridiculous getup pops up from behind a rock and pulls out a—bink! That’s enough, goodbye stupid old show, time for a cup of tea. Pulls out—bang, bang, bang. Yes, sensible Cordis decides, not a drink, time for a nice cup of tea.
The dog, a parting so-called gift from unfortunate Mrs. Munderson, peers at the blank screen, baffled, then paws at Cordis. Moppet is not glamorous, except in the most trivial sense; Moppet is cute. What does Moppet want? A treat? A tickle? A furlough?
Moppet wants whatever she can get. Moppet is a cornucopia of lacks, a prisoner—no, an overbred parasite, poor thing, entirely dependent on her hostess, Cordis.
You and I are stuck with each other, Cordis comments to Moppet subverbally as she puts the teakettle on to boil. “But winning ways have taken your kind far,” she comforts aloud, “and soon they’ll take you, as an individual, to the park. Assuming that boy ever shows up.”
Park! Moppet’s ears twitch. She sits, gazing meltingly up at Cordis. Her little tail thumps against the floor.
Cordis’s mailbox is jammed. Keith has to pry the stuff out, and what wasn’t already mashed and tattered is mashed and tattered now. All this paper! Cordis is singlehandedly keeping the post office alive.
Why can’t she pay her bills online, why can’t she look at catalogs online, why can’t she get announcements online, like everyone else? He can easily teach her how. But the other day when he offered, she just waved a hand in her vague, languid, dotty way, and said, “Strange, but I prefer people.” As if Keith preferred electrons.
All right, she’s old, she can’t be expected to understand things. But it’s not as if digital communication is some outlandish new fad that she’s going to outlast.
And to what might she prefer people? There’s no indication that Cordis likes people at all! Nobody seems to call, she doesn’t even use e-mail let alone social media, and as far as Keith knows, the only person who has ever come by is his…his what? His friend? His girlfriend? His…? Anyhow, Celeste. But as Celeste’s apartment is just down the hall, not a whole lot of preparation or anxiety would have been occasioned by those visits. And in any case, Celeste has been away for weeks now.
Really, Cordis’s life would be so much better if she’d only acquire some rudimentary skills, skills that every kindergarten child is able to acquire. She’s got a perfectly good computer, a recent hand-me-down from Celeste. And at least Keith has managed to convince her to use it for something. She could read the news, he’d cajoled; she could look at things—she could see anything there on that little screen: photos, magazines, movies, old TV shows—practically any rerun she wanted, going back to the dawn of time! Push a button, power over all re-creation! The goddess Cordis!
Predictably, she just stood there, an unsturdy tower, hands clasped tensely and eyebrows slightly raised, as if waiting for a child to conclude a tantrum, while he’d demonstrated, grinning and waving his arms like a used-car salesman. But obviously she’d taken something in, because since then he’s caught her hunched over all kinds of weird stuff—clips of ancient comedy shows, cowboy movies of all things, nature documentaries. Just yesterday when he came up with the mail there were elephants behind her on Celeste’s old screen, playfully squirting water at one another while some fool prattled on about them like a proud dad.
The damn catalog he’s lugging in must weigh five pounds. For this, a tree was torn limb from limb. Not that he, personally, much cares, but Cordis ought to. On the occasions Cordis deigns to speak to him, it’s usually to air some peevish apocalyptic pronouncement—trees, habitats, resources, hurricanes, guns, polar bears, pollinators, this, that.
Get Cordis off these mailing lists, teach her how to find her catalogs and bills online—tasks of pleasing clarity to add to this ostensible job, a job as ridiculous as it is unremunerative and ill-defined. For what does Cordis need a personal assistant? My assistant will take care of it; I’ll get my personal assistant right on that. To whom would Cordis say such things?
During the weeks that Keith has been working for Cordis, he has brought in the mail, sorted her few bills, made some appointments with an acupuncturist, ferried her identical white shirts and black trousers to and from the laundry, and tried to organize a box of old photos—or rather, he started to try, but almost as soon as he lifted the lid she gently and wordlessly disengaged a snapshot from his hands, returned it to the box, replaced the lid, lifted the box back onto a high shelf, and went into the other room.
He’s also walked the dog, picked up bottles of vodka and vast quantities of dog food, replaced a lost corkscrew, run out to the supermarket for a lemon and some teabags, to the pharmacy for ibuprofen…. Four years at Princeton!
Humiliating, but for the moment it will have to do. And at least he can take satisfaction in doing Good. Yes, at least he can assist Cordis with navigating the vast seas of cultural ignorance where the elderly are cast adrift, each solitary on a decomposing life raft.
Celeste will see, when she gets back—which she is slated to do anytime now—and returns to her pro bono tending of Cordis, how unselfish he’s been, how responsible and thoughtful.
For a moment he basks in the halo of warmth throbbing out from his heart. Yes, Celeste will be delighted by the irreproachable way he’s conducted himself. And by then he’s sure to have snagged a real job, and his father will no doubt have dropped all the fuss about that borrowed money, too.
And anyhow, Celeste has promised to take him back in if he still hasn’t found an apartment. In short, soon everything will be okay, all the wayward elements of his life will have snapped into place, making a seamless map for him to peruse and follow into his future.
In the elevator up to six, Keith shuffles through the armload of mail: the giant catalog, other junk to go immediately into the trash, bills…and hey, look, an envelope, a real envelope, addressed by hand! Who could be writing to Cordis? But—
Wait! The envelope is addressed to him—to him care of Cordis.
He slips it into his Italian calfskin messenger bag, muffling its faint black drumroll, just as Cordis opens the door of her apartment and he breaks into a sweat.
“Oh, good,” she says, looking at him myopically over her glasses and reaching for the catalog. “Moppet was becoming concerned.”
What? He’s not late! He checks his watch. “Oh, hey, sorry,” he says.
“It’s all the same to me,” she says, leafing through the catalog. “Speak to Moppet.”
Five fucking minutes, big fucking deal, he could reasonably point out, plus given the condition of the subways, it’s a miracle he made it at all. But—a template of genial maturity, mutinous impulses in check—he manages to affect a chuckle and says, “So, how are we all today, good?”
“Better would be impossible,” Cordis says, without looking up from the catalog. “And how are we?”
Keith suspects that Cordis is not entirely the loon she staunchly affects to be. Maybe, it occurs to him, her outlandish persona—like the large, strange, theatrical pieces of jewelry made apparently of rock and bone that she sometimes wears and that lie in artful heaps around her apartment—is designed to snare the attention so that she herself can be left in peace to wander through her realms of mental weirdness.
Cordis has slammed the catalog shut and is staring at him severely, as if detecting his thoughts. Look neutral, he instructs himself, you have nothing to hide, but his heart is now racing in all directions, like the cockroaches last night when he got back to the apartment he’s renting and turned on the light.
“It seems that feral horses revert to the behaviors of their wild ancestors, just as if they had never been domesticated,” she says.
“Huh.” His heart relaxes—those were not his thoughts at all! “Interesting.”
“Well, that’s what they’re saying, anyhow. But tell me, you’ve just gotten out of college—”
“Okay…” he concedes warily.
“So presumably you’re familiar with what we believe these days. Do we consider ourselves to be domesticated? And if that’s the case, do we think our brains have gotten smaller again?”
What is she talking about? “See, that’s what your computer is for,” he tells her. “You can look that up!”
“Because they say that domesticated animals have smaller brains than their wild progenitors.”
“Yeah?” Keith says. “That’s insane.”
“I’ll tell you what’s insane,” she says, holding the catalog in front of him accusingly, as if it were irrefutable proof of his turpitude. “The whole thing.” She heaves the immense shiny waste of wood pulp into the lovely basket she uses for trash. “Here you go,” she says, and hands him Moppet’s leash.
What could be less dignified than following this springy white puffball down the street like a courtier and placing its turds in a plastic bag? When Keith attempted to suggest to Cordis that the plastic bag part was beyond the scope of his office, she hardly bothered to respond. “Oh, please,” she’d said. “When something that size shits, it’s practically abstract.”
“Chill for a minute, you,” Keith instructs Moppet as he leans against some plutocrat’s fancy, forbidding wrought-iron gate to balance dog and self well enough to fish out the envelope that’s been gestating there in the dark confines of his messenger bag. Very awkward—does this genteel block with its row of lovingly tended brownstones not place at intervals a bench to welcome the weary flaneur?
A bench! Ha! When has Keith last seen a bench in this town? Do people younger than he is even know what a bench is? The senseless thought pellets ricochet off his brain as he struggles to open the envelope without either ripping its contents or strangling the dog: a bench! Some homeless person might misunderstand—some homeless person might feel entitled to sit down.
Keith loops the leash around his wrist, causing Moppet to leap, choking, in protest. But better an affronted dog than the wad of fur and gore he’d have to present to Cordis after a critical moment of inattention, and the envelope seems to spring open, leaving a vicious little cut on his finger—an incriminating streak of blood, a tiny crime scene marking a mortal struggle with a piece of paper.
The handwritten address on the envelope, now smeared and dripping, is shocking. The letters, formed in black ink, are as personal as fingerprints—more intimate than any previous contact he’s had with Celeste, though one might have thought that there could hardly be anything more intimate than their previous contact. Unnerving, he reflects, to be so familiar with someone’s body and yet never to have seen her handwriting.
And yet, how would you come to see a person’s handwriting? Nobody has written anything by hand for, like, hundreds of years. Except maybe a check. But a letter? He might as well be clutching an illuminated manuscript! Hmm, it’s not a letter, it’s a postcard…
And in the same ink, the same curves and lines, precise and delicate as the tracing of a heartbeat or a brainwave, meaning unfurls:
Hmm. So much for meaning. What is the matter with these two, Cordis and Celeste! Could it be the water in the building? Well, sure—not for nothing does he always bring his own.
But what does she mean, she’s moved on? That project of hers is finished, she says; it’s time for her to come back. This seems to be some kind of cryptic rebuke, does it not?
What is it this girl is trying to get across to him, and why doesn’t she just say it! He knew—even before he opened the envelope he knew it would contain a rebuke.
Though actually it’s her own fault that she’s so disappointed in him. He never lied to her, he never tried to pass himself off as some kind of saint. But it’s impossible for her to think that there might be anybody alive who wouldn’t share her overheated notions (evidence to the contrary) about—about absolutely everything, so she’s shocked when that supposition turns out to be erroneous. She made certain assumptions about him and his attitudes, which he failed to correct promptly. But how could he have corrected those mistaken assumptions of hers promptly? How is that his fault? He didn’t even realize she was making them!
Calm down, he urges himself. Why is he so agitated? It’s as if every little thing these days activates some new, anxiety-producing source he’s tapped into!
He turns the postcard over, but there’s no explanatory text, no view from any window—no colorful depiction of a carousel or even of anything that looks like a rutabaga. In fact, there’s no image at all—it’s just a generic blank postcard of the sort you can get at any post office. Where could she have sent it from? He peers at the envelope—the postmark is indistinct, and the stamp is inscrutable.
The card is unsigned, of course—a trite move to alarm or intimidate or assert domination, though Keith understood, as he was obviously meant to understand, the instant he saw the envelope in the stack of innocent bills and flyers that it was from Celeste. Who else would know to address something to him at Cordis’s?
Except for the National Security Agency, come to think of it, though the NSA has other things on its mind. Or at least it ought to. And except for maybe a couple of his father’s underlings, or his father’s accountant, Sam. And possibly except for some regional law enforcement units, too. Theoretically, anybody can find anybody these days, even if you toss your phone into the sea, which Keith did, and follow the reams of advice you can find about disappearing from the grid. They know you’ve looked for that advice. They know that you’ve looked for it, they know how you’ve looked for it, from where, and exactly when. These days a person cannot simply disappear.
Moppet is jumping up and down on all fours, looking like an automated cleaning implement gone awry, and glaring at Keith. Why this glare? Why this bark?
Sure, sure, everything is his fault. He glances at the postcard again and then stuffs it back into his messenger bag.
He relinquishes his comfortable leaning position against the gate, gives Moppet’s leash some more play, and ambles on, whistling carelessly, a suave movie star from days of yore. There were probably security cameras beaming down on the fence anyhow, squadrons of armed goons poised to burst out of the air and gun him down. Self-defense, they’d claim later over his bullet-riddled body; the dog was going for the throat. Keith crumples the envelope with its darkening bloodstain and lobs it into a pile of trash; Moppet flings herself indiscriminately at every curiosity. A water bug will do. She’s managed to find one just about her size. She barks happily, but it doesn’t want to play with a dog any more than Keith does, and scoots away. Oh, well, resilient temperament or short attention span, she’s on to the next thing. Oops, it’s a pit bull—Keith scoops her up before she is swallowed, and now everyone’s glaring at him—Moppet, the pit bull, the pit bull’s owner, whose giant arms are enrobed with pulsing prison tattoos. “Heh, excuse,” Keith says, making a getaway with his handful of yipping fluff and a bright smile.
He can hardly remember his life before Celeste. Actually, it was only a few months ago that he met her, but since then, things have taken some pretty surprising turns.
And to be honest, he does owe Moppet, because he never would have looked twice at the, what, rather soft-looking girl with the abstracted expression and the badly cut hair falling over her big, round glasses if the tiny dog she was walking had not lunged at a Great Dane, entangling Keith in her leash.
“Okay, hold still,” the girl had said.
“No worries,” he said. The dog quivered while she held it, unwinding. “But while you’ve got me here, do you happen to know of any, like, real-estate place in the neighborhood that deals with rentals? I mean, cheap, relatively?”
She did, in fact, but the directions were involved. “Say again?” he asked.
“So, use your phone,” she said.
“No phone,” he said. “No phone, no laptop—I was staying at my dad’s while I look for an apartment, but he’s a pretty horrible guy, actually, and I couldn’t deal with him anymore.”
“Logic?” she said.
“Oh, sure. What it is, is I left kind of hurriedly and he’s pretty furious, so all my—”
“Whatever you say,” she said. “None of my business.”
She wasn’t his type at all. Of course, he wasn’t such an idiot as to have a type, he reminded himself, but she certainly wasn’t the type of any guys he knew. And detaining her had been far from his mind—he really was looking for an apartment in the area, though there were probably none available, she assured him as they walked.
It was the vestiges of obsolete grandeur that had attracted him to the neighborhood, really—the few old, incongruously swanky brownstones, for instance, like the one whose fence he had just been propping himself up on, that remained standing among all the dilapidated remains of the last building boom. If he had to sacrifice his father’s apartment, he might as well retrench to someplace where at least it looked like a person could lead a reasonable life.
It was a beautiful day, he remembers, unseasonably warm—not that there actually were seasons any longer, as the girl observed rather ritually—so they’d lingered outside the Realtor’s for a bit, basking in the worry-evaporating sunshine while the dog appraised the ankles of passersby.
“Listen, thanks for your help. I really appreciate it,” he said.
Actually, he did appreciate it. Everything had been sliding around, roughing him up since he’d left his father’s apartment so precipitately, and her air of certainty was bracing—she just seemed to have been put together more on purpose than other people. Anyhow, more on purpose than he’d been.
She turned away—exercising no wiles, and yet he felt a slight tearing sensation. “Can I at least get you a coffee?” he’d said to his own surprise, indicating an attractive café across the street. He glanced around—not that some guy from school would just happen to be walking by and observe this!
“No thanks,” she said. “Moppet? Come on, Moppet.” But the dog was stubbornly inspecting Keith’s boot. “Moppet? Oh, well, coffee, why not.”
“I guess I don’t seem charming enough to be a psychopath, huh,” he said.
“Cheer up,” she said. “Sure you do. It’s just I could really use some caffeine, so I’ll take my chances.”
Her name was Celeste, he learned; she was four or five years older than he was, though she sort of looked like an eight-year-old, brooding about what flavor of ice cream cone to get. She worked at something she called a humanitarian crisis management center, it seemed that she lived alone, she referred to no boyfriend or girlfriend, and she was walking the dog, now curled up in her lap, for someone who lived down the hall.
Her office would be sending her to Europe soon, she told him. The project would take about a month, and then she’d be given some time off. “During which I’ll probably just sleep for a few weeks. It’s pretty tiring work.”
“Wow, a job in Europe,” he said. “That sounds great. I don’t suppose they need someone else?”
“I’m kind of trained? But they always need volunteers. You could definitely be plugged in someplace if you want to be a volunteer.”
A volunteer! The exact opposite of what he meant.
But still, a volunteer job in Europe would address both his lodging and his father issues. And how long could it take to rise up in the ranks? “So where’s this gig taking you, exactly?”
“Slovakia,” she said.
Slovakia? That was what she meant by Europe?
“Guess I’d just get in the way,” he said.
“Could be,” she agreed.
“Well, listen,” he said. “If you hear of any jobs or any apartments here in the city, would you let me know? I’m pretty desperate.”
She looked at him intently, as if she were adding up columns of figures. “Well, okay,” she said after a moment, “I’ll ask around. Give me your number in case I do hear of something. Oh, right—no phone. So, how do I get in touch with you?”
“What about—well, could you meet me here on, say, Thursday?”
Again she considered him.
What was going on with her, he’d wondered—girls generally jumped at the chance to see him!
She shrugged. “Okay, why not. I’ll be walking the dog, anyhow.”
His father had decreed: Yes, Keith could take a year off before law school or business school. But only on condition that he move out. He was to get his own apartment and a job. You’re twenty-two years old. By the—
Yes, yes, by the time his father was twenty-two, et cetera, et cetera.… Had his father memorized some script?
Had he studied his lines at schools for rich thugs? Well, come to think of it, sure—at the same schools he’d gotten Keith into.
But this same man—the CEO of SynthAquat Solutions, the lord of irrigation and crops, who could divert rivers and move lakes, who could flood fields for thousands of acres or leave them to be scorched, who could squeeze a stone and make coins come clattering out of it—this very same man was unable to grasp certain elementary facts: These days positions were not just sitting there the way they used to be, waiting to be filled by personable young men like Keith; these days apartments were not just sitting there, waiting to welcome personable young men like Keith.
With the best will in the world but without a phone call from his father, whose name was the key to all locks, how was Keith supposed to manage? And his capricious father was suddenly not about to pick up the phone.
“I’m sick of doing every single fucking thing for you.” His father had looked at him as if he had only just noticed his presence. “Get you into this school, get you into that school, send you skiing here, send you sailing there. Just like that hopeless fucking train wreck from whose dainty loins you sprang. What are you going to do if some girl gets me to leave everything to her, huh? Happens, you know—it happens. When you’re old and gaga. That’s what they do, unsheathe their little talons, tie you up, drug you, sweet-talk your crooked lawyers into changing the will—how are you going to survive then, kiddo? Are you a pancake? Could I have produced a pancake? Now, take some initiative for once, just go on out there, do what you have to do, and don’t clutter up my life with your ‘Gee, Dad’”—and his father had produced a cruel, treble whine—“‘how do I do this, Dad, how do I do that?’”
But to rent even the filthiest burrow it turned out that it was necessary to show one’s bank and employment records, to present affidavits, letters, proofs of eternal solvency—in fact, to demonstrate that a year’s worth of rent money was sitting around in one’s bank account!
He was a pancake? He took no initiative? The great man didn’t want to be bothered? Fine. There would be plenty of future opportunities (Keith had been thinking, as he extracted a check from one of the checkbooks his father kept in the top right-hand drawer of the desk in his home office) for father-pleasing displays of acumen, innovation, leadership, public speaking—all that sort of thing. Taking things in hand like this was at least an indisputable display of initiative. Who could say he was not going out there and doing what needed to be done?
How could he have anticipated that Sam, his father’s private accountant, would notice a discrepancy so slight as $10,000 in one of his father’s zillions of accounts, or that he would question the signature, so zealously studied, so faithfully reproduced, on check #8703? Or that his father would fail to recognize the spirit of playful creativity exemplified by Keith’s minor—and temporary, obviously!—redistribution of funds?
He certainly hadn’t spent all that money yet, but the longer he searched for a place to live, no matter how frugal he was, the less of it was left. And therefore the less likely that any landlord would accept him. It was one of those paradoxes, he later observed to Celeste, that philosophers study.
Without his electronics he was a virtual amputee. Or more like someone who had awakened nearly blind and nearly deaf. The fine mesh of chats, e-mails, postings, and so on that had buoyed him along shriveled away overnight. He strained to receive the world’s breeding influx, which had sustained him as plankton sustains a whale, but it was—nowhere!
One good thing at least—not only could his father not find him, Tish couldn’t find him, either. Tish was a nice girl, he’d meant every word he’d said to her, he was sorry he’d gotten tired of looking at her, but that nonstop texting! It had been driving him nuts.
For a while, featureless clouds of static filled his ears, his lungs, hung in front of his eyes. How strange it was to find himself in this barren expanse! But just as the other senses are said to intensify when vision goes, in the absence of his accustomed interface the bare, sharp vividness of things had begun to assail him; he felt like he was being etched. How great coffee was! How gross that gunk around the baseboards was! One morning he realized he was staring at his hand, marveling, as if it belonged to a stranger, to an alien creature. And was that him, sitting in the café with this Celeste person? Each time he met up with her, the moment would come when, to his amazement, he asked to see her again.
An irony had begun to bother him, he eventually mused to her. People were drawn to what they thought of as him, but it wasn’t really him, he now understood. What people were drawn to was an aggregation of qualities he’d had little hand in making or choosing, that he himself might not, as he was noticing, have a lot of respect for: his appearance, his reasonably good manners, his passable education, his general range of circumstantial, historical, evolutionary, whatever, ornaments. But he had a persistent sensation—and didn’t she agree?—that there was some rubbery little nub through which those more superficial qualities were routed—his self?
“I don’t know,” Celeste said. “All that stuff is pretty inalienable. I mean, it’s all you, qua person, isn’t it? But obviously you’re in process. It’s interesting. Maybe you’re just turning into you. Or maybe you’re changing course. Or maybe you want to change course, or maybe you’ve got to change course because there’s an obstacle in your path or because something’s not right about the path.”
Not right? Definitely something was not right! Like, maybe he was on his way to prison? Maybe he was a congenital pancake?
“Anyhow,” she said, “one thing about all those ornaments that fate hung on you—they give you the luxury to make some choices.”
Luxury! He was a guy who didn’t even have his own apartment!
It was after their seventh date—or meeting, as Celeste called those pleasant occasions—that she invited him to move in with her. Well, not move in, exactly, but to bunk with her until he found a place of his own.
A haven, the cozy little apartment at the back of the building, with Celeste curled up, late, late, overlapping him. Was this happiness? he wondered. He felt like a pioneer; he was expanding outward toward his own confines—toward his infinitely elastic confines. Exciting. Scary.
It was soothing to stroke her soft hair; after tumults of love, their breathing phased into serene alignment.
Beyond the apartment’s walls, in the night sky of his closed eyes, little lights charted the streets and broad avenues, the apartments and clubs of late revelers, the tall towers, where five or six guys he knew, guys only a few years ahead of him, would be toiling, even at this hour, in their big chairs, the vast windows of their offices overlooking the city, overlooking the planet with its mines and wells, its fields and great waterways, as they steered Earth’s course by the graphs and instruments of their predecessors’ devising into the hidden future.
Hidden also from those guys was Celeste’s wild ocean of sheets, calming again now, and bleached lunar white by the film of night light that slipped in at the window, where he and she floated, safe.
…like a boat, Celeste murmured, as they moved off on slow waves of sleep, farther and farther from shore.
The second postcard arrives in Cordis’s mailbox about a week later, also in an envelope, which he tucks firmly away until he’s gotten out on the street with Moppet. Moppet’s little toenails, or whatever they’re called, skitter on the hall tiles in her haste to be out the door. His heart pounds.
Moppet makes for the sad little patch of earth in front of the building where a scrawny tree grows, no thanks to her, and pees as he tears open the envelope:
And what’s that supposed to mean, “the city barns?” Oh, wait—it must be “burns.” The city burns.
During the days, while Celeste was at her office, Keith continued to send out his threadbare CVs and look for a job. But the magic name he shares with his father was suddenly a liability. Because why, the personnel department at one prosperity mill, and then the next, must have wondered, had the dad not supplied an introduction? No calls back. Not one.
“Okay, so your father won’t help you out,” Celeste had said. “But that doesn’t mean he’s a criminal.”
“He’s got really, really a lot of money, though. He’s got extra money. He’s got mountains of it, he’s famous for money. He’s SAS.”
“SAS? SynthAquat Solutions? The people who poisoned all that water in Malaysia?”
Oops—maybe that wasn’t exactly how he should have explained his father to Celeste. And anyhow, it wasn’t the point. “Well, they do plenty of other stuff, too,” he protested.
“SynthAquat Solutions! No offense meant, but your father actually is a criminal.”
Tears stung his eyes—yes, his criminal father! How was he ever going to recover from the way his father spoke to him that day? He’d heard his father unleash his wrath on employees, on wives, but he’d never imagined what that would really feel like. It still sometimes flashed through his body like pain.
And in fact, if his good luck hadn’t bumped him into Celeste…
A terrible thought struck him. “Listen,” he said. “I can stay in your apartment while you’re gone, right?”
“Excuse me? That is, obviously I had to rent my apartment out. I mean, sorry, but to people who can pay something? I’ve already set it up through SpacesCadet. People are scheduled to be in and out the whole time I’ll be gone.”
She was leaving. She was really leaving. And bad enough that she was leaving, but the apartment would be, in a sense, leaving with her!
“Sorry,” Celeste said again. “But it’s not for all that long. And if you haven’t found a place by the time I’m back, I guess you can stay again. This isn’t news, is it?”
“News? I mean, you have to do what you have to do. But you know, I’ve got to get a job—I’ve got to get a job right now, any job.”
She patted him and let a little interval of silence cushion his panic. “Well, listen, you know the lady whose dog I walk?”
“That lady you work for down the hall?”
“Cordis? I don’t work for Cordis.”
“Well, but you walk her dog.”
“She’s my friend. She hates to go out, so I walk her dog.”
“Why did she get a dog if she hates to go out?” He seemed to be tumbling through the air, clawing at it for a hold.
“She didn’t get a dog. The dog was Mrs. Munderson’s, from 4B. But she forgets to eat.”
“Mrs. Munderson forgets to eat if she’s got a dog?” Oh, why couldn’t something other than this be happening? Out of all the possibilities, why would life have bothered to invent this?
“No, Cordis forgets to eat. Look, I’m really sorry. So I bring her stuff sometimes. And help her out with her bills, that kind of thing.”
“You pay that lady’s bills?”
“No, I keep track of them. Sometimes she just stacks them up and forgets about them. She’s had some hard times. Her husband disappeared almost twenty years ago. And she used to run a great bookstore, one of the very last in the city, but obviously that had to close sooner or later. Anyhow, it would be good if she had someone to check up on her and walk the dog and stuff while I’m away.”
“Like—what, like a personal assistant?”
Celeste looked at him, then shook her head briefly, as if she’d gotten water in an ear. “Okay, personal assistant, whatever.”
PA for the old weirdo down the hall? Well, but at least it would be something sufficiently chest-thumping to put on that pathetic CV of his: Personal Assistant. Personal Assistant to Cordis Whoever.
“Hey, but what’s this story with the husband? Did he go off with the lady in 4B, or what?”
“Mrs. Munderson? Why would he have gone off with Mrs. Munderson? They took Mrs. Munderson away.”
And that was how Keith had learned about Ernst Friedlander and Friedlander’s quest to study the origin of language.
“The origin of language?” This, too, was confusing. “Didn’t it just come in the kit? Tool-using, bipedalism, language?”
Other animals were bipedal, Celeste reminded him, and lots of other animals, as it turned out, used tools. And obviously other animals were capable of communicating with members of their own species—in some cases even further, apparently, beyond the taxonomic divides humans had worked out for them.
And although some animals were capable of figuring out how to use some human symbols to communicate with humans (though oddly humans couldn’t much figure out how to use animal techniques to communicate with animals), evidently no species but their own—humans, modern humans, Homo sapiens sapiens (an awkward classification necessitated by some initial miscalculation)—shared an innate capacity for using a flexible system of abstractions that was amenable to complex elaborations. No other species had a capacity for fitting together elements—thought entities, so to speak, mental units that could be expressed as words or phrases—to make larger expressible thought entities.
For example, Celeste said, two of these thoughtish/speechish units could be linked together—via this system, grammar!—to create a new, more precise, and more complex unit, which itself could generate other, even more complex units, all governed by the laws inherent to that spectacular innate capacity.
“Like noun ‘Cordis’ and verb ‘remembers.’ ‘Cordis remembers.’ Or ‘Cordis remembers her husband.’ ‘Cordis remembers her husband although he disappeared twenty years ago.’ ‘Cordis remembers her husband, who disappeared twenty years ago, although she forgets to eat the cupcake on the counter.’
“So we can formulate a lot of content—ideas, relationships between ideas, nuanced relationships between ideas, all that—with these little things, words. Grammar’s, like, an operating system?”
“Sounds valid,” he conceded.
But Celeste’s eyes were shining. “Of all the different humans and humanish beings they keep finding, it seems like we’re the only ones who were ever able to do this! And the most amazing thing is that even though various kinds of humans were around for maybe almost 2 million years, this language thing really only kicked in probably around 100,000 years ago, or even less.”
Only? Even? Those were big numbers Celeste was tossing around—100,000, 2 million…hard to tell the difference between them if you weren’t some kind of expert.
“So, if we weren’t talking for that first 1,900,000 years, how did anybody know what was going on?” Keith asked. “And what were we doing? Just kind of goofing around with the dinosaurs?”
“Dinosaurs died off about 60 million years ago?” Celeste reminded him. “First grade? There was a comet, or maybe they just became extinct because they were really big?”
“My dad’s really big,” Keith said gloomily, “but he’s not extinct.”
No, it never would have occurred to him to wonder if that fateful leash hadn’t looped his destiny to Celeste—language…what exactly was it, and how did it happen?
Celeste shrugged. “Some people think it was just business as usual—mutation, adaptation, selection, mutation, adaptation, selection, a slow continuity kind of thing, for hundreds of thousands of years. But other people think it happened incredibly fast, within about 40,000 years. And that this capacity that made it possible—this built-in capacity for the operation that lets us merge expressible things into other expressible things to make more and more complex expressible things—appeared in an instant! Which makes complete sense, even though it could not be more bizarre. One tiny molecular irregularity in one tiny fetus, in a very small population of humans somewhere in Africa! One instant! A universe-altering mutation!”
“But what about…” he began, but ran aground. “What about the other stuff? The stuff we can’t manage to think?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Or…well, I mean, yeah.”
“Uh-huh, that’s a problem. Actually, Friedlander was pretty interested in that. In his opinion, language developed as a way for us to deceive ourselves into believing that we understand things, so then we can just go ahead and do stuff that’s more ruthless than what any other animal does. According to him, we can formulate like a fraction of what’s inside our heads and that what’s inside our heads is mostly…drainage, basically, sloshing around, that doesn’t have too much to do with what’s actually out there.”
They looked at each other, and vague shapes, like amoebas, rose, morphed, blended, and faded between them. “But at least it’s all ours,” she said. “It’s the main unique thing we’ve got. It’s our gift.”
So, Celeste brought him down the hall to meet Cordis. “That kind of money is a joke,” Keith said when they were alone again. “How can anyone work for that kind of money?”
“It’s not a joke to Cordis,” Celeste had said.
Celeste, it turned out, knew a fair amount about this Friedlander who had disappeared. Keith was surprised to learn that she had grown up in the very apartment, the somewhat cramped paradise, from which he was soon to be expelled, down the hall from Ernst and Cordis Friedlander.
Her mother, she told him, had been a good friend of theirs, and the three of them often sat around one apartment or the other, laughing and talking till all hours, over delicious dinners and glass after glass of wine, and often she had hung out with them, too.
Friedlander went on long expeditions, and it was always a party when he came back, always a party when he was around. He was very good-looking—rangy and graceful like Cordis—they were an intense, matched set. His face was a constant play of expressions, as Celeste remembered, but he didn’t much say what he was thinking about. He had black, black eyes and a lot of black hair. His clothes were sometimes frayed. He didn’t care at all. And he didn’t need to; he set the rules—no rules, mostly, and he seemed to change shape, alternately filling up a lot of space and slipping between spaces. His laugh was loud and sudden, and a little dangerous. He was even taller than Cordis.
And Cordis was different back then, Celeste said—way different, always doing things, always cheerful. The three of them, Cordis and Friedlander and her mother, would sometimes just bundle her up in the middle of the night, or it seemed like the middle of the night, and embark on some impromptu adventure. She vaguely recalls a carnival, or a fair, with brightly painted rides, a merry-go-round with the most beautiful horses imaginable.
Sometimes Friedlander brought things back from his expeditions, strange and marvelous salvagings. The little thing she wore around her neck? It was a piece of glass he’d found in some ancient forgotten city buried beneath another ancient forgotten city buried beneath another ancient forgotten city. He gave it to her because it was the exact color of her eyes, he’d said.
Yes? Keith peered at Celeste’s eyes. Well, okay, but so were a lot of things.
While Friedlander traveled, she was saying, Cordis always stayed put to take care of the bookshop, and Celeste had hazy memories of the suspended sweetness of those long stretches, the gauzy, slightly melancholy quality of early spring light—playing cards with her mother and Cordis. At those times she was like a grown-up woman herself, waiting. She was only about eight when he disappeared, evidently for good.
Keith had frowned with lofty sympathy and put an arm around her. “Well, at least he was spared getting old and decrepit.”
She’d looked at him for a moment. “Right,” she said. Apparently he’d committed another faux pas.
Sometimes Cordis seems to Keith like that vaporous picture in Celeste’s mind—far away, even when she’s right in front of him, down a tunnel of time, she and the serious little girl in big, goggly glasses and the little girl’s mother, each studying a hand of cards, all three dissolving as they wait for something that isn’t going to happen—just three blurs, indistinct stains of their future selves left on a memory that isn’t even really his.
It’s Friedlander, though, the one absent even from this scene, who has left the most vivid impression: tall, laughing Friedlander, as curious and lawless as…as a monkey, thinks Keith, clambering around ruins, plucking from the debris shiny things with which to charm. Obviously all three of them were obsessed with him, the two women and the little girl, sitting there, waiting and waiting. Those three and who knows how many others.
It’s irritating to spend so much time in a place that’s draped in this guy’s absence. Maybe a few well-angled questions to Cordis would let in some fresh air to dispel the guy’s clingy remnants. But he can’t just ask Cordis a lot of questions. Or, rather, he can’t manage to. It almost seems that she can detect a question as it forms itself in his brain, and she swerves like a toreador, before he’s even found the words.
However, thanks to the internet’s admittedly not completely reliable but nonetheless far-ranging knowledge, he has been able to fill in what Celeste has told him with what information and misinformation is out there.
Back in the day, he’s read, Friedlander’s grandfather made a fortune manufacturing steel. And while Friedlander’s father, brothers, and sister devoted themselves single-mindedly to amplifying the fortune, staying just inside the limit of the law—usually (like Keith’s own father) by getting the law’s limit altered to fit their needs—Friedlander dabbled in a series of eccentric, quasi-scholarly enterprises, as only the useless child of a wealthy family can. A wealthy, generous, intelligent, kindhearted, tolerant, appreciative family, that is.
He’s read, also, about Friedlander’s purported habits of shutting himself up alone for months at a time, of swimming in ice-cold water, of encoding his charts and records in notations that look more like arcane architectural exercises than academic findings. And he’s read that Friedlander is said to have been involved in the discovery of a prehistoric site, now vanished again, on some island somewhere between India and Myanmar, where he had hoped to find evidence supporting his hypotheses.
During a botched attempt at an initial excavation, Friedlander along with his teammates, Jack Brisbane and Helmut Ogilvy, disappeared. Rumors and speculation cited the militias that roamed the region, uncontacted tribes, coastal flooding, an earthquake.… But whatever actual knowledge might have existed twenty years ago about that episode has by now dissipated into a haze of fabrications and fantasies and misunderstandings.
In any event, it seems that nobody has been able to locate the site that lured the three dreamers east.
What clowns. Whatever the three crackpots (or “maverick archeologists,” they’re sometimes called) were up to (looting, essentially, is what it sounds like), it appears that in no way did they take reasonable precautions, either in regard to their own safety or to avoid damaging precious clues—for many millennia hidden away under the earth’s custody—concerning the development of the chattering species.
From the evidence of the few relevant newspaper articles he was able to find, Keith has also gathered that Friedlander’s evolving ideas about human speech, once provisionally regarded as original—his opaque musings concerning some convoluted, indirect relationship between language, thought, and power—were ultimately dismissed outright by serious linguists.
In fact, serious linguists (of which there seem to be a stupefying variety—psycholinguists, sociolinguists, neurolinguists, paralinguists, archeolinguists, biolinguists, computational linguists, morphologists, phonologists, and structural linguists, to name just a few) as well as philosophers, archeologists, ethnobotanists, anthropologists, biologists, geneticists, and primatologists of many sorts, have continued to close ranks against Friedlander, denying him entry even now into their rarified company.
It’s Celeste’s handwriting, that’s for sure, but it’s strangely shaky.
It’s dark. Or maybe she hasn’t opened her eyes. Has she opened her eyes? She must have opened them, because when she tries to open them she can’t. She feels around for a light switch—last night there was one near her, just above her flat little pillow. Was that last night? Oddly, her bed seems to have moved. It’s now blocking the door—nowhere near the light switch. But that cannot be true, so her eyes must not be open. She needs some water badly. She struggles to open her eyes, and now she succeeds. But her bed is outside in the corridor, with all those women padding by, speaking whatever it is they speak, their heads wrapped in brightly colored lengths of cloth, their long, beautiful bare feet slapping softly on the linoleum floor.
But the women are gone, and now she’s burning, burning up—she must have water. She wills her eyes to open, really to open, and she finds that she’s alone, back inside the room. But where is that dim light coming from? Because now there’s no window.
Let me wake up, she prays, please, please let me wake up. But she cannot.
Many hours later—a day or so later?—her eyes do open, her bed is where it ought to be, maybe eight feet from the door, and a grimy morning light is coming in from the high little window. She’s slippery with sweat. Her fever seems down, but her skin feels sore and whatever that stuff is inside her skull seems to have swelled up.
There’s a sink in the room. She could drink from the tap.… The tap! What is she, crazy? If she can just hold out until she gets downstairs…
Several days earlier, when she arrived, there was a man, presumably the owner, or a manager, seated at what seemed to be a school desk in the bare space that serves as the lobby. If she can get some clothes on, maybe she can make it down the stairs and get him to understand that she needs water. She tries to sit, but she’s a marionette whose strings have been severed, and she can’t hoist herself up.
No one’s going to help you, she thinks. No one. You’re a migrant.
One day, maybe her fourth or fifth in this place, she wakes up hungry, very, very hungry, and she feels as though she has shed a heavy, suffocating hide. The loveliness in things has never been so apparent—the loveliness of the bedstead’s raw wood and of the mattress ticking exposed by the soaked, twisted sheets, the loveliness of the rough walls and the dented metal doorknob, the loveliness—the effervescent freshness—of the light, spreading out from the high window. Each material is radiant with the soul of itself.
She raises her hands to catch the loveliness of the air as it runs sparkling through her fingers.
There’s an open, half-filled bottle of water by the bed. It must have been brought during the night by the young woman she dreamed, thought she dreamed, maybe the manager’s wife.
Later she’ll get up from bed to wash at the sink, but now she’ll finish the bottle of water. A collection of empty bottles sits on the floor near the small wood table by her bed, the only feature of the room aside from the bed and a wardrobe and the sink and a toilet.
Heading east—an impulse too furtive to formulate into an idea, let alone a plan. But that was what she’d found herself doing, heading east. After all, she was already across the ocean and she had a few free weeks. They’d known she wasn’t one of the best, she thinks with sorrow, they’d known she would need time to recover if she was to have any use left in her.
Spontaneous Structures of Authority Among Refugee Populations. She’d thought she was prepared, but it was only during one instant and then another that she could take in what was in front of her, things that ought to be impossible—the miles of cardboard and plastic, rotting garbage, sewage, the clashes at the margins and in the adjacent towns, clashes in the bus and train stations…every port sealed. Each child a little bundle of twigs, not one thing for anyone to do except wait, and hope for food, the women huddled for safety in ineffectual little bands.
Of course she’d known what to expect—she was trained as an Observer, she was trained to take testimony, she’d seen it before. But if what she observed was real, how could she be real?
Money moves across the globe at the speed of thought, at the speed of poison in water, but when will these people be allowed outside the wire enclosures?
The giant machines crushing the plastic roofs and cardboard walls, plowing them into the mud—she can still see it! She can still hear it! It sounds like your own bones. The rain pelts down, and the people look on, silently, at the plastic and tin and splintered boards soaking into the mud.
Now they can go. Now they have to go. Now. But go where? Not here. Not here. Not here.
Time to get out of bed, time to wash at the sink.
But that is apparently not possible.
Look—someone has left something for her beside the bed! A fresh bottle of water and something roundish, with a slightly bumpy, mottled, copper-colored surface. Could it be? Yes—the covering peels right off, disclosing a globe composed of tiny, iridescent segments. Juice bursts out as she bites into it, and an intoxicating fragrance flares into the room like daybreak. Ah, thank heaven!
She feels the nutrients going here and there in her body, patching things, easing things. But that’s enough, a couple of bites—she doesn’t have the strength to finish it. Really, she would love to be at home—she has a home! And that’s what she would like best of all. Home. Does that boy miss her? “Miss”—miss—what does that mean? Is there a little hole in him where she was?
Unfortunately, she can’t seem to scrape him off her mind, entirely. Or, not her mind, exactly, but her something. In fact, on the contrary, he is more present to her now, here, than he was when she was back there. Home. His molecules have mingled with hers in some creepy way, with her mental molecules. That’s what happens when you get to know somebody, even slightly—or even if you just catch a glimpse of someone on the street, or even if you just hear about someone! If you try to pull them out of your mind, you make a raggedy little hole.
Once someone enters your mind, no matter where he is, you can dream about him—someone can dream about you, whether you’ve given permission or not.… If someone dreams about you, does it keep you alive?
Sure, she wanted him to be someone else, or at least sort of someone else. Pretty much everyone wants everyone else to be at least sort of someone else, don’t they?
And evidently he himself wants to be sort of someone else. He’s trying. He deserves credit for trying. His effort is exhausting, she can feel it—but she must not try to help him. She must not try to hamper or influence.
Oh, she’d been blinded—worse, she’d been enchanted—by what even he knew was the trashy, low-grade pixie dust of undeserved advantages. And she’d been even more enchanted by her own—quite possibly entirely unfounded—conviction that there was a noble something or other beneath all that, struggling to exist! And now she was giving him extra credit because he was trying!
She was going to help him become a human being? Classic narcissistic self-serving fantasy!
He had tried to tell her how incomplete he is—she’d refused to understand. He’d had to force her to understand, the very night before she left! Though of course he couldn’t admit he was admitting what he was admitting.
“You stole from your father?” she’d said, incredulous.
“I borrowed. Anyhow, I didn’t ask to be born—he started it, so he’s kind of obliged to keep it going, don’t you think? I mean, you could say he owes me my upkeep, couldn’t you, morally, until I’ve finished grad school anyhow.”
“You happen to be one of the few people on the planet your father doesn’t owe anything to!”
“Right. Well, that’s actually my point, really. You can’t exactly call what I did stealing, because my father shouldn’t really have all that money—he’s ruthless, he’s cruel, he doesn’t care how he treats anyone, he’s a criminal, you said so yourself.”
“Great, now you both get to be criminals. What do you think, this is some kind of Robin Hood situation? Robin Hood stole from the rich and gave to the poor.”
“I’m the poor,” he’d objected.
“You actually are a psychopath!” she’d said.
“Look, you’re entitled to your low opinion of me, and I understand why you’d feel this way, but it’s fundamentally unfair. Or it’s only temporarily fair. I just haven’t been in a position recently to exercise my potential for decency much. But listen, by the time you come back, I’ll…”
Her stare seemed to have stopped his words. “By the time I come back you’ll what?” she’d said.
He’d been sitting at the edge of the bed with his head in his hands. After a moment he spoke indistinctly. “I’ll what—good question. Yeah, what am I saying.”
His father had destroyed whole harvests and swaths of villages—his father had sent people scurrying across the face of the earth, but this kid’s problem was that he’d been more or less kicked out of the guy’s apartment?
She’d moved to the couch, where she’d spent the night. In the morning he packed his things and she gave him a pitiful little goodbye kiss—a little dried flake of affection—and then they were both on their way.
Even in her sleep she feels her way along the surface of the day’s banalities for some rough patch that indicates something hidden, something buried, a sealed door behind which, if she is alert, she will be able to hear Friedlander’s heartbeat. Even in her sleep she watches for the ephemeral shapes, rising above the dark horizon like iridescent soap bubbles, of the first words to be uttered on the planet.
She’s all sticky with the juice of that fruit, but it has given her strength. Soon she’ll be able to get up, walk around, get on another bus to somewhere else. Somewhere that wants her to be there. It’s as if she’s attached to a cord that’s being reeled in from far away, no matter how much she wants to go home. Across from the bed where she lies, the pale light on the wall is turning rosy. That thing in her head begins again, and now the wall runs red. Illness has entered, beating its dirty wings as it devours the soul in the light, the wood, the doorknob.
The women are pattering down the corridor in their bare feet, and time is passing rapidly in one direction or another. She has some postcards left. Where are they? The information hangs just outside her head. She lies still, to let it float in. Yes, the postcards are sitting right on the little table. If the quiet woman returns with water, Celeste can give her one to mail.
There’s no doodle on this one—just a sticky sort of splotch.
This city is crazy expensive! His money—his borrowed money—is disappearing fast. But his hours for Cordis, even given Moppet’s episodic requirements, are flexible, so he’s been able to fit some additional wage earning around them. And he’s had to.
Any old job, people say. But what do they mean, “any old job”? It’s no joke, it turns out, to flip burgers or bus tables or stock shelves or move furniture, let alone clean toilets.
Sorry, it’s not working out, he’s been told more than once. You bet it’s not working out! That stuff is incredibly boring, and it’s also, weirdly, hard to do it right. Who can stand doing it? And for what? You could hardly call that money—it’s no more than he’s making as Cordis’s PA!
And now he’s tired all the time. Has he ever been tired before?
Not this kind of tired. He’s been tired after skiing, he’s been tired after sailing, he’s been tired after excellent nights out. But with that kind of tired, he always had a feeling of accomplishment. This kind of tired comes with nothing good at all, no feeling of accomplishment, just the dread of how tired he’ll be again tomorrow. The dread of the endless exhausting, boring chores he has to perform to keep himself alive. Now walking Moppet is the high point of his day.
He no longer has the sensation that he’s being hunted by his father’s people, but neither does he hope any longer for a message from any of them—some indication that his father has forgiven him. It’s more as if he’s been forgotten—abandoned…
“Heard anything from Celeste?” he asks Cordis—casually, he hopes.
Cordis has not. Funny he should ask just now—she tried Celeste’s number just this morning, but wherever Celeste is, she’s apparently not getting phone service.
Cordis lets him use Celeste’s old laptop, so every once in a while he checks his e-mail from her IP address, but he checks it without hope. And thanks to the bounce back he put on it right before he left his father’s apartment (au revoir, love you guys!), his former friends have given up. All he gets is spam.
Always, now, as he takes in Cordis’s mail or goes in and out with Moppet, there are new people—people around his age, he judges, and even younger, certainly the youngest people in the building by far—squealing behind Celeste’s door or tumbling around in the hall, glorying in his loss. New renters, every few days—who-knows-whos.
He himself is a who-knows-who, renting by the week through the filthy little real estate office Celeste directed him to the first time they met. As he watches the agents smugly scrolling through the possibilities online, his head comes near exploding with rage. He could do so much better if he could only deal with the matter online himself.
But he can’t deal with it online himself—thanks to his father, he’s powerless; he’s been forced to kill his online identity, he’s only a body now, a ghost.
And the apartments that fit into the budget of the pittance he has left aren’t a tenth as nice as Celeste’s. When he turns on the kitchen lights, there are those roaches again—the cockroaches scattering like a hallucination.
Kitchen! He’s lucky if he finds a place with a hot plate. All night long he’s awakened by scavengers crashing through the garbage out front. And if one more bug bites him, he’ll fall into shreds.
Maybe it’s this heat—there hasn’t been heat like this ever in the summer, people keep saying. The streets are clogged with ambulances and fire trucks. Just yesterday there was shouting and then smoke was filling the apartment where he’s staying for a few days. Flames were shooting out the window of the building next door.
By the time the fire trucks got through, the entire top story of the building was charred. And when he got to Cordis’s place an ambulance was blocking the entrance. They were carrying an old woman out on a stretcher. Cordis! he thought for a sickening second—but no, it was just one of the other old ladies who were still left in the building.
So many sirens! Have there been so many sirens all along?
Where is Celeste! Where is Celeste! She was due back weeks ago. Why doesn’t she just come back? How could he possibly send for her? He doesn’t know where she is!
They had a really nice dinner together the night before she left. He had bought a bottle of wine, not the greatest, maybe, but wine. He made spaghetti. He washed and dried the dishes, and then they tumbled around together, listening to music.
She lay with her head in his lap, and they mused, he remembers, about language. Language—what does it clarify, what does it obscure? Is a person a person without it? Is all that stuff inside your head there whether you have language or not? Do chimps have all that stuff inside their heads? Is the stuff you can figure out how to say the same as the stuff inside your head? Is the stuff inside your head the same as the stuff inside the world? And when you say something, why is there always extra stuff inside your head that doesn’t fit into the words at all?
He made little braids in her hair. An idyll! He was free, elated, exhilarated, as if he had run away from home.
“You did run away from home,” she said.
And then—stupidly, stupidly!—he confided the precise circumstances in which he had.
He hadn’t exactly intended to? But as he spoke, two things happened: He felt a great burden sliding up out of his body, a burden he hadn’t known he was hauling around with him; and almost right at the same time he heard the story of borrowing that money in his own voice, just as she would have been hearing it. Yes, he had studied his father’s signature. Yes, he had gone into his father’s private things and violated his father’s trust.
How could it have happened so fast? One moment he was one person, an instant later he was another. Was he only a set of reflections—pancake-like specters with shifting features—staring at one another from ghostly mirrors? He was choked with indignation and sorrow, as though his good qualities had been stripped from him by a rough hand, like medals.
Moppet stretches out in Cordis’s lap to watch the animal shows. Sometimes she leaps to her paws and barks with what seems to be an anguished longing. It’s the old cowboy movies that seem to affect her most—especially the shots of cattle. Something about those cows…
She barks and barks, but the cows pay no attention. Poor lonely thing—she must miss Mrs. Munderson so much.
Cordis often leaves a movie playing for Moppet to watch on her own, but she has to admit that she likes the animal shows herself. All these years, with no screen of any sort whatsoever, and now this wealth of animals for herself and Moppet. Well, she does have to thank her dog walker for that.
Though she still isn’t accustomed to having this diabolical machine around. Obviously she knew—probably before the dog walker, Keith, was born—that it’s possible to read the news on a computer. But why would she want to do that? Even the sight of Celeste’s laptop sitting there quietly all closed up is a bit ghoulish. All that idiocy, all that violence, all that confusion coursing through its tiny electronic veins—whether you happen to be looking at it or not. Bang, bang, bang. Bang, bang, bang. Why bother to have four walls around you?
It’s irritating to be considered a curiosity, even by someone as young as Keith, and it’s hard for Cordis not to be impatient with the boy. At first, whenever Cordis tried talking to him, things seemed to contort somewhere between her brain and her larynx. Was that what she meant? she wondered as she spoke.
Even to herself she seemed like the crazy old lady he believed himself to be gawking at. And when it was his turn to talk, she couldn’t understand him any better than he had seemed to understand her—it was all a bit wrong, as if she’d left her head out in the rain.
At first she was mystified that a woman like darling Celeste would have taken up with that kid. Though he is very attractive, she recognizes, in a sort of formulaic way. What would Ernst have made of the boy? Oh, dear—she can just imagine!
But heaven knows Celeste has never been able to resist a challenge. And clearly, it’s a seller’s market in this city for men these days.
In any event, he’s been looking tired—exhausted, really. She knows that he’s taken on a few other, very undemanding little jobs, but that can’t entirely account for his fatigue, let alone his haunted look. He seems to be engaged in some profound internal struggle. Her heart goes out to him, at least partway.
Just yesterday he seemed so tired that she offered to let him take a nap while she went out with Moppet, but to her surprise, he drew himself up gallantly, gave her a wan, reassuring little smile, and soldiered on to the door, clutching Moppet and her leash.
Hopeless, the poor boy, really. The pity in the little smiles he sometimes wrings from her must be all too discernible.
An odd consequence of having him around is that she finds herself thinking about Ernst all the time. Not that there was ever a time when she didn’t think about Ernst—after the early, annihilating pain, the clock simply stopped, and he has been with her at every moment, though muffled—neither receding nor clamoring.
But it’s as if this clueless young person has let time slip in through the door of the apartment, turning her well and truly old in an instant, turning to dust all the beautiful things Ernst brought back—the remarkable carvings and adornments—letting light and air decompose all her precious photographs of the two of them, the boy’s fingerprints on their decades together. Leaving Ernst stranded, far, far—just about twenty years—away.
Oh, shouldn’t Celeste be back by now? Celeste is a grown woman, she doesn’t need somebody fussing over her—but still, Cordis hasn’t been able to restrain herself from trying Celeste’s number a few times recently.
Because Celeste is still the infant in Miriam’s arms, the child down the hall, the small visitor perched in an armchair, chomping her way seriously through a cookie as they all discussed the metaphysical matters that preoccupy children: Does the color we call blue look the same to all of us? If God created the world, who created God? How do I know that you’re real? Or that I am? Ernst had almost as much an appetite for Celeste’s questions as she had for his answers.
Cordis has a sudden memory of a caressing summer evening. They all—she and Ernst and Miriam and Celeste—went out to some grimy, festive little fair for children. Celeste would have been scarcely two. They stood in line for the merry-go-round, and Celeste gazed, intent and puzzled. Suddenly she turned around to them. “Horsey!” she shouted, and they had laughed, elated as if at a major scientific discovery. “Horsey!” they echoed.
The tool that doesn’t work, Ernst called language. Or at least it worked to further comprehension and communication in only the most restricted ways. An extremely plastic faculty, amenable to many uses, but it developed to serve the pressing demands of malice, vengefulness, and greed—humanity’s most consistent attributes—providing individuals with the means, through lies, boasts, propaganda, fearmongering, advertising, derision, and outright threats, to subjugate others. If that’s what you want to call intelligence, go right ahead, he said; how proud we were to be able to articulate our misconceptions, our limited, distorted views and visions!
Conversation? She had reminded him—poetry? Byproducts, he said. In his view, language was mainly for bullies.
The other day she went out for the first time in weeks, and just outside the door of Celeste’s apartment was a heap of old food wrappers and some discarded drug paraphernalia. It looked like a murder scene.
Out on the street the people seemed to be emanations from a grainy silent movie of long ago. Is she getting sick? What will happen to poor Moppet if they come for her, too?
She pours herself a glass of vodka and stands at the window, as if she were watching for Ernst and Celeste approaching, hand in hand. Apparently it has suddenly become late. Or maybe there was to have been a big storm today. Or an eclipse. She’s forgotten, but the sky is an occluded gray.
Is she waiting for a great catastrophe, or only the minor personal one?
The sun is at its zenith when Celeste gets off the bus, but it’s surprisingly mild. And the trail through the jungle glides along underfoot.
Apparently no humans have hunted or harmed the animals here, because they observe Celeste placidly as they go about their business. Large striped and spotted cats flow down from their perches in trees and pad by, close enough to touch. Their jewel eyes gleam through the foliage. Bright parrots flash into the sky.
How nice it would be to sit down on one of these big, gnarled roots and watch the animals, but there’s no time to spare. In fact, it’s already late afternoon when she arrives at the council. She seems to be the last, but that’s probably all right, as the others seem in no great hurry to start up.
A preoccupied-looking orangutan is brachiating nervously through the vine-laden trees encircling the clearing, but all the other hominids are just milling around or lounging on the rocks that appear to have been designated for them, grooming one another, as Celeste slips quietly into the circle and assumes her seat.
She notes with interest that there is a significant representation of humans. She spots a few she recognizes, mostly among the younger members of the crowd. There are some mild-mannered Neanderthals, she sees, and an absolutely adorable Homo floresiensis. Oh! And there’s a rather alarming Homo heidelbergensis! She’s glad she hasn’t been seated next to him!
There are so many others, though, much older and looking rather the worse for wear—all kinds of australopithecines, she conjectures. All in all, there’s an absolutely bewildering variety. Who knew?
Naturally chimps and bonobos have turned out for the event, as well as gorillas, and things must be starting up, because an anticipatory rustling and gibbering ripples through the crowd. The participants frown with concentration—empty conveyances form in their heads and line up, preparing to receive their cargo of mental plasma. Word, Celeste thinks, encouraging—word, and the Homo floresiensis scowls, fluttering a hairy hand, as if batting away a swarm of pests.
One of the chimps is dragging out some large placards. They keep getting stuck on a root, but eventually the chimp gets them propped up against a tree in a stack, in such a way that everyone can see the top one clearly.
Rays of the setting sun come slashing through the vegetation—it’s impossible to make out what is written on the placard. Celeste squints. It just looks like gibberish.
A couple of other chimps run up and fuss with the placard—oh, it was upside down. And although the handwriting is a bit shaky, now Celeste can see that it says, introducing.
One of the chimps pulls the placard away with a flourish, as if it were a flash card, to reveal the next one, on which is written, our.
The maneuver is repeated, and the third card is revealed: first.
And then—the final card: speaker!!!!!!!!!
There’s another expectant ripple through the crowd as a man appears and takes his place at the podium, smiling and nodding magisterially. He looks familiar to Celeste.… She knows the face from somewhere or other…
Oh, yes, that’s Keith’s father, isn’t it? He clears his throat and glances irritably around. One of the Neanderthals is wandering around the assembly holding a glass of water. Keith’s father clears his throat again, snatches at the glass of water, opens his mouth, and shouts, “Hey you, that’s mine!”
And in case there’s any doubt about who that glass of water belongs to, he pulls out a gun. The deafening blast sends the barefoot women running down the corridor as the confused-looking Neanderthal drops to the ground, clutching himself and streaming with blood, and Celeste falls into the night.
So that’ll be the last of those cards, obviously—can’t get further back than the beginning. It must mean that Celeste will be home soon.
About time. And wait till she sees what a shambles the latest renters are sure to have made of her apartment. Well, he’ll help her get it back together.
Cordis is not looking good. “Eat,” he tells her. “I’ll go out and pick something up for you, anything you like.”
“Thanks,” she says. “I’m fine.” She looks at him with something like affection, he thinks.
He pats her soft, old cheek. “Celeste is going to be well pissed off at me when she gets back unless you start eating again,” he wheedles, to no effect.
In this punishing heat, she seems to be shaking with chills. He brings over a blanket to wrap around her before he goes out with Moppet.
“Mind if I check my e-mail?” he asks when he and Moppet return, but of course Cordis never minds.
Spam spam spam spam spam spam spam. He’s just about to sign out, and there it is! What he’s almost forgotten he’s been waiting for all this time.
It’s from—not exactly his father, but close enough. It’s from Kelly, the current wife:
Hi Keith, you can crawl out of whatever hole you’re cowering in, all is forgiven ϑ your fathers calmed down and called off the dogs. Mainly we want to sell the apt so would you please come by and pick up all those stinking sneakers and your other crap or should I through it all out because the RE people have to stage and they say that your sty could knock at least 1.5 off the price.
He stares at the message for a moment.
Kelly is trying, with one hand, to zip up her dress, a ridiculous long sparkly thing, as she opens the door with the other. It’s been a while since he’s seen her, and she seems abruptly an entirely different age than she was a second ago, before the door opened. She’ll be way over thirty by now in fact—too old for his father. Time for a trade-in, probably.
Too old for his father, but just about the right age for him, yum. Except for the dress, she looks better than ever. “Can I help you out with that?” he says as she struggles with the zipper.
“Nooooo-oo?” she says, as if he’d just said history’s stupidest thing.
But she doesn’t protest when he pivots her around by the shoulders and pulls up the zipper. “There you go,” he says. Right—there he goes.
She smiles, and pats her hair. “What do you think? I’m considering this for some damn children’s foundation thing this week that your dad sprang on me. I’ve worn everything I’ve got.”
He stands back to survey her. “You look fantastic,” he says truthfully.
She looks fantastic, even though the dress looks like a migraine. What could it cost, with all that sparkly shit on it? Probably more than he owes his father. Ten thousand dollars is not even latte money around here.
So he’s been summoned back. How tired he is! How much he’s been through! He walks past Kelly into the huge living room to gaze out at the panoramic view of the city.
“Hey,” she says.
“It’s okay—I’m just here to pick up that stuff,” he says.
Up here, in his father’s serene realm, you can’t even hear the sirens. “Listen, Dad knows I’m going to pay him back—he believes me, right?”
“Nobody believes you. Ten thousand dollars? Where are you going to come up with that?”
There’s no call for her to talk to him this way. And whether she knows it or not, she’s basically on probation. “That’s my business, wouldn’t you agree?” he says.
“Oh, come on now,” Kelly says. She giggles uneasily. “Hey, you’ve gotten taller, haven’t you? Sure, Rick knows that you want to pay it back. Well, that you intend to pay it back. He’s tired. Your old man’s an old man now. He wants you to be happy, he wants you to be strong and okay. Rick loves you, you know that. Why else would he have made sure your mother couldn’t get her hands on you?”
His mother wafts between them, her sweet faded gold, her sweet soft arms, musical voice, distant now, with its faint gold shine…
Kelly shakes her head, as if at some sorrow beyond words. “Somehow you’re his only kid. Anyhow, that’s what he says.” Poor Kelly—any moment she’s going to be in his mother’s shoes herself, along with Patti and Georgiana. “Listen, Kelly, tell him—”
“Oh, never mind, actually.”
He doesn’t need an intermediary. He doesn’t need anyone. He’ll call his father, like a man, and say what he has to say. He’s ready to go to law school, or to business school if need be, right away. Whichever his father thinks best.
His head is clearing, up here—the white carpets, the clean architectural lines.… And fortunately his dad seems to have dropped that idea about moving. But no wonder he’d been pissed off! What stupid thing had Keith been trying to prove? Home. Yes, he’s home. He opens up one of the craft beers that Kelly has laid in for him and flops himself out on the sofa. The noisy, confused dream of the past months is dissipating; though it has left, he observes, an unpleasant stain in his mind, the residue of a disturbing dream.
What sort of strange delusion had he gotten tangled up in? It was as if he’d glimpsed himself as a different Keith—two different Keiths, ten, an infinite number, as if Celeste had refracted him through a three-way mirror…where glimpses of her now linger.
And she hasn’t even bothered to let him know when she’s returning! Celeste! He instructs his mind to wrench her out from the reflections, from remote regions of his mind, to gather her up and consolidate her—and then to release her to dissipate in the pure, climate-controlled air of his dad’s apartment.
And fold up that mirror now, please. Okay.
For a moment, a leaden, melancholy boredom seizes him. Ah, well, anyhow, no more pranks for him. Just a few more years of school, and then…. He surveys the supplicant city so far below.
His sleek new phone rests on the coffee table. He reaches for it and fiddles with it idly. What should he have it do? Not much it can’t.
Oh, here’s a thought. “Call Tish,” he orders Jeannie, who lives inside it, and Jeannie responds obediently, in that bland, untroubled voice. “Calling Tish for you.”
Won’t Tish be amazed to hear from him!
Even though he’s on the other side of town now and it’s not easy for him to check up on Cordis, he isn’t neglecting his responsibilities in that quarter. Of course he won’t take a salary from her any longer, but he stopped by just yesterday to see how she was doing and bring her a bottle of the vodka he knows she likes.
She really didn’t look great, he has to say. He’ll go back in a week or so to make sure she’s okay, but when he left, he knocked on the door of Celeste’s apartment and instructed the kids who are currently staying there to look in on her in the meantime.
“Yes, sir!” one of them said. Had the kid snickered? Keith looked at him sharply, but his face was expressionless.
“By the way,” Keith said. “Have you heard when Celeste is coming back?”
The kid stared at him, and he felt himself blush. “Celeste,” he said. “The tenant?”
A group of girls seemed to be lounging on Celeste’s bed in a heap of clothing and, possibly, food. “Don’t worry, mister,” one of them said. “Everything’s under control.”
Mister! The girl, though heavily made up, looked like she was about fourteen.
But to his surprise, there had been one more postcard waiting for him at Cordis’s, written in some nasty-looking reddish-brown ink.
it said, in letters that rippled like flame.
Pure drama, that Celeste. He shook his head, fondly after all. Well, anyhow, evidently she’ll be back soon. And as he attached Moppet’s leash—because since he was there, why not perform this little act of kindness—he smiled up at poor old Cordis, thinking how unlikely it was, the way this had all worked out. “Weird, huh,” he said. And Cordis smiled gently back, as if she understood exactly.
It’s not impossible that Ernst is alive, Cordis thinks, but it is impossible that he has become old himself. There he is at the site, sweating in the heat, pausing as he digs to grin at her and wave, shielding his eyes from the sun before he goes down, down, down—city beneath city, beneath city, beneath city—past the gigantic stone forms, the oldest mud dwellings, down to the early savannahs where the animal with the big brain first made its appearance, the big-brained animal so stupid—as her darling never failed to point out—that it’s burning down its own home, along with everyone else’s.
But it was never possible to know when he was really serious. And certainly, if she didn’t have words to use, how could she have borne his absence? It’s as if she’s moving across a vast meadow. The fierce summer heat is spent now. Veils of gold light drift through the intense blue of the sky, and there’s an inebriating scent of apples. For a moment, a bee hovers lazily, then is gone. A few leaves are already beginning to turn. A leaf detaches from its branch and flutters toward the grass. Leaf, she thinks, arresting it in midair, where she contemplates it. Leaf, she thinks, and lets it fall.