September 24, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 19 (p. 315-323)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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The rotating glass door wouldn't budge, so Nathaniel assumed that the building was closed. Still, the rain had turned to mist, and he lingered for a while, looking through the glass with the idea that he might see Sybil passing by inside. One by one the lights in the building went out, dismissing the outside world bit by bit, and with his impatience increasing with time, Nathaniel began to puzzle out what he would do all night. Surprisingly, in a city of so many people doing so many things at so many places, he could not think of a single place to go. It wasn't his home anymore, and he would be a stranger no matter where he went now. Although, he did fancy that he need do no more than step toward the street and somebody that he knew, or rather, who knew him, would appear.

Having no reason to turn his steps in any particular direction, Nathaniel decided that a few paces toward the street would be just as good as any other; thus, he afforded himself a justification for testing his theory. He reached the curb and looked up and down the dark street but saw nothing other than the dim shadow of a pedestrian and the occasional car driving past on an intersecting avenue. No car screeched to a stop before him on the road, nor did any doors open to reveal a faintly familiar face.

Nathaniel laughed at himself for expecting more, and his laughter bounded down the empty street and rebounded from wall to wall, playing its temporary role as the city noise of the moment, seeking any cracks or ears that might be disoriented by a true silence. Nathaniel listened as the echo of his laughter faded; particularly, he waited for the dead silence that is only disturbing where it is rare. But the racket of a loose exhaust pipe filled in the silence before there was truly a silence to be filled, and Nathaniel listened to the rattle, playing the familiar game of trying to figure out from whence the sound was coming. It seemed to come from all around, as if every car in New York were dragging its tail. Then that sound faded, and Nathaniel waited expectantly for the noise that would take up the call. This next sound swelled up from indistinguishable static in the air to the distinctive roll of rubber tires over wet pavement. A large, dark car stopped at the curb beside him. He couldn't laugh now; he couldn't understand what was happening enough to laugh at it. The rear door of the car swung out over the sidewalk.

Nathaniel felt he knew whose legs would appear through the opening, and the face that emerged from the gloom inside the car into the dim light of a streetlamp confirmed his prediction. It was, of course:

"Huck," Nathaniel said, beyond surprise or the need to make a half-humorous inquiry.

"Nate." Huck answered the salutation, flapping open an umbrella.

"So what do you want? Or do you want to help me, too?"

Huck's lips pursed and his brow furled in an expression that bespoke but little wonder. Mostly, the look that Huck offered to Nathaniel now was that of a man who may not know the specifics of another's situation, but knows the larger issues at hand and feels as if it has been laid disagreeably upon himself to tie it all together. He seemed visibly to consider several phrases then spoke with only a hint of a southern accent, "Listen, Nathaniel, I don't know exactly what you've experienced lately, but I can see in your face that you're not sure what to trust anymore. I can only say that it may not be too late to salvage some semblance of reality if you trust me now to help you."

Reluctant to trust anybody, but not wanting to relinquish his last hold on memory by believing that he could not trust such a long-time friend as Huck, Nathaniel felt his mind frozen in a fluctuating circle of too many possible realities because none was any more believable. A tear of frustration moistened the corner of his right eye. "Huck, I..." Nathaniel began to plead, then sat down hard on the cold, damp sidewalk.

Huck was beside him on the filthy pavement in a breath without thought to the trousers of his expensive suit, his arm around his friend's shoulders and the umbrella's protection split between them. "I know you must feel like you're drowning, Nate, and that there's not a gasp of air in all the world, but you have to force yourself to realize that reality's only a plunge away in the right direction."

Nathaniel opened his eyes and looked up at Huck. "Your accent," was all he could muster himself to say.

Almost with a chuckle, Huck told him, "Yes, it's not as strong as I chose to make it when I was playing a part in our vacation from life."

"You never could seem to settle on one dialect."

"No, I guess not. Maybe I'm just not that good of an actor. You had to realize that it was a game among us."

"Of course. I was playing my own role, too."

"Exactly. But it's not to say that it wasn't a strangely real game. Life's exactly like that, only maybe not so obvious. That's what you have to force yourself to realize."

"You're the fourth one I've seen today, and none of it seems to have anything to do with me," Nathaniel said, partly in defense of his confused state and partly in explanation of his feeling a part of a fiction, but mostly because he still wanted some explanation that would put the pieces of the world back in place for him.

"Of course none of it has anything to do with you," Huck responded, perhaps not intentionally avoiding Nathaniel's real question. Even so, his voice was absorbed by Nathaniel as one feels comforted by the steady tones of a narrator. "Everybody's living their own story, and they're picking roles for themselves and for everybody else. Surely you understand all that; why else would you have made all those rules of the house? But now the fact that you're playing a big role in a lot of different stories isn't as under control for you as it used to be. This isn't a world of fiction that you can understand because you've read all the right books; it's the real world, and all you have any control over is the size of the role that you play for somebody else, not what that role is, at least not in any predictable, usable way."

Still, Nathaniel pushed for something concrete, "It couldn't all be coincidence."

"Oh yes, it can be, and it is. I don't know who all you've seen today, but because I know I'm not involved, I can tell you that most of it isn't really about you, Nathaniel. You're just crossing the river in a bad current. Perhaps the only thing that is about you is my wanting to give you an opportunity to get out before you're too far from the shore. You may not be able to jump out of it in one leap and go back to your life, but you can let it blow over and salvage what you can."

Huck had reached some kind of point to which he had been building, and Nathaniel felt suddenly as if, though he didn't have a clue what was going on, there was sense to be made of it all. "What do you know?" he asked.

An indistinct sound from down the street stopped Huck before he had made an answer. He looked over Nathaniel down the dark road. "Why don't we continue this in my car. It's raining," he explained.

Before he could protest, indeed, before he could do more than utter the first syllable of a question, Nathaniel found himself whisked through the rear door of Huck's limousine. The car pulled away from the curb.

"What's going on, Huck?" Nathaniel asked, looking around the interior of the car and noticing nothing distinctive. The automobile yielded nothing extraordinary to his glance, just the faint sense of conspiracy that the barely discernible shape of the driver's head through a closed tinted glass partition helped Nathaniel to contrive in his imagination.

Huck settled back in his seat, having just finished a search of the darkness outside the car. "I have to tell you, Nate, that I don't exactly know what's going on." He noticed Nathaniel's suspicious glances at the driver and stated, "Despite the atmosphere of my car, I'm no more involved in activities of intrigue than one at my, let's say, social elevation must always be. I'm just a business man, and to be frank, the things that I've been hearing and seeing in relation to you leave me feeling a little disoriented and unreal myself."

"Why? What have you seen and heard?" Nathaniel asked, his eyes, desperate to see logic, firmly settled on Huck now.

With a nervously humored exhalation of air through his nose that bespoke both disbelief in his own position and skepticism as to the likelihood of somebody else believing him, Huck told him, "To be honest, nothing solid. Just whispers and hints, really. As I said, I'm not a spy or an agent or anything like that. I'm just a man in a position to overhear conversations between people who are always thinking more and worse than they say."

If he hadn't been able to read so much uncharacteristic nervousness in Huck's disposition, Nathaniel may have been frustrated with the vagueness of his answer. As it was, he only asked, "What have you heard?"

Shifting a little in his seat, Huck told him, "Your book caused a little stir in my world when it was first released, but only enough, as it seemed, to allow me to amuse myself with how little all of my acquaintances understood what you were saying. After Holden's little piece on you..."

"You knew that Holden wrote that?"

"Certainly." Nathaniel seemed relieved, though he wasn't quite sure why. Huck went on, "Once a vague controversy began to surround your name, and therefore your book, people took another look at it and saw the potential to benefit themselves by making you, well, I guess it could be called 'an inverse martyr.' What I'm saying is that they'll make an example of you, if they can."

"An example of what?"

"Whatever they don't want people to admire."

Again Nathaniel felt the need for more specific answers, but this time he suspected that there might not be any, even beyond what Huck himself might know. "I could have written anything or nothing in that book."

"Perhaps," Huck conceded. "The problem is that you wrote it so well."

Nathaniel laughed despite himself. "If only we could go back in time a hundred years or so, and I could be a cobbler or something."

With his own restrained laugh, Huck agreed that he would love such a chance, as well. "I guess this is where I come in," he said. "I want to help you get out of it."


Shaking his head slightly, Huck told Nathaniel, "The only thing I can think of is for you to disappear. I could set you up anywhere you'd like to go."

Nathaniel nodded, "I was thinking of that on my way into the city today." He looked out the window, and Huck let him think. Nathaniel brought his focus back into the car. He looked resigned to something. "I guess it's settled, then. Will you come with me to Rhode Island to help me persuade my fiancé that it has to be done?"

His hands falling into his lap, Huck looked at Nathaniel sympathetically. Huck watched as Nathaniel realized that he had already considered this and understood the conclusion. Nonetheless, the elder man spoke the judgment, "I don't think that's an option. I've looked into it, believe me, and I think you'll agree that she has too many connections to her life to disappear easily."

"She'd do it for me," Nathaniel pleaded.

"Maybe she would, but would it be fair to her to ask? She loves you, I'm sure, so there's hope that you'll be able to explain it all to her later."

"When?" Nathaniel interjected.

Huck paused at the tinge of desperation in Nathaniel's voice. He realized that the same thing that made it possible for Nathaniel, by himself, to disappear would make it next to impossible for him to do it alone: he had only one connection to life. "I'm sorry, Nathaniel. I wish I had the power to make it all go away for you, but I don't. I can only tell you what I think is coming and help you step out of the way. As I said, you have to let it pass over, which it will do, and then you can salvage what you can. It won't be forever. Hell, people are so fickle these days that it may not be more than a couple of months."

"And then what?" Nathaniel all but whispered.

"Excuse me?" asked Huck. He hadn't heard.

Lifting his head to look Huck in the eyes, Nathaniel repeated himself, "Then what do I do?"

"Well, I guess you start putting your life back together."

"But what do I live for?"

Not sure how to respond, Huck returned a question, "What did you live for before all this?"

Nathaniel dropped his head. Huck waited and tried to follow Nathaniel's thoughts. Actually, Huck, being as practical as he was, couldn't understand what was tying Nathaniel up so. He had, after all, made it a point to disappear from his life for several months each year of his adult life. Why would a man who made a habit of stepping away from reality, returning year after year to his life and finding it no less meaningful for his absence, worry about doing so once more? In fact, if Huck's own experience were any testimony, Nathaniel ought to feel as if he would come back to his life with fresh eyes. There was something he wasn't grasping.

Before Huck could give the matter any more thought, Nathaniel lifted his head and spoke so quietly that Huck had to lean toward him to hear. "OK. You win."


Nathaniel repeated himself and nearly shouted, but not at Huck; rather, it seemed as if he were speaking to the city that blurred past beyond the car window, "You win!"

Huck looked confused, "What do you mean?"

"I mean you win. Or they do. Or whoever. But certainly not me. I'm not the winner here."

"Nathaniel, I'm missing your..."

"Don't you see, Huck? I see now. It's all clear. You're right — it has nothing to do with me. I'm just an example. I pushed too hard, and I'm stuck into two choices now: it's either resign the game or lose my queen..."

"That's not necessarily true."

Nathaniel went on with his sentence as if speaking to somebody other than Huck, who felt even more as if he weren't grasping the real reason for Nathaniel's reaction.

"...and then be chased around the board on the endless brink of checkmate until the world gets sick of me and finally cuts me off. So you win," Nathaniel said, again not to Huck. "I resign. So I'll make my choice. I'll go home. I'll do my work for the company — not my little company," he explained, "but the big conglomerate made up of all the little companies and all the littler people — and I'll find meaning in my work by forcing myself to do more of it and more of it and in my family, my soon to be wife, 'cause now that I understand we won't have this distance between us anymore, and my future children, and I'll give them... get them... no, I'll buy them everything that young families need, like a little house with a mortgage and a lawn that I can mow and buy chemicals for, and a microwave to heat my cold fast food while I sip my brand name soda, or better yet, my brand name beer, whichever has the better commercials that month..."

"Nathaniel. Are you alright?"

" that I can forget a little and make myself just dumb enough to stare at the television and the shows of people that I can care about instead of myself while I watch the commercials and figure out what to want, want, want. Then I'll buy the latest exercise equipment, 'cause now I'm getting fat, and I'll even buy designer hiking boots to better feel like I'm experiencing nature. And I'll keep buying, but not so much that I can't pay for an education for my children and get them the best damn diploma that money can buy and let them learn how to pretend, like all the greatest minds of our time, without realizing that they're pretending and how to drink beer and spend money and spend more money than they've got."

Nathaniel stopped ranting for a moment, a slightly crazed look of mixed-up revelation skirting across his face, and Huck was trying to figure out what to say or do when Nathaniel started up again:

"I've got it! That's it! This isn't happening because I wrote a brilliant book, or even a subversive one. It's because I stopped using my credit cards, isn't it?"

He looked at Huck, who just stared blankly back.

"I don't have to disappear, Huck. I have to do just the opposite. My name has to start popping up on people's computers as a spender. So I'll use it. I swear. First thing I'll do when I get home is buy Jen some roses and candy. And a greeting card that says something pithy like," he thought for a quick moment, just enough time, really, to join two words that rhymed, "like, 'Sorry is so hard to say, that's why I put it off until today.' And we'll make up and have that family, and I'll take out a loan to buy a sport utility vehicle so we can put on our designer hiking boots and pretend to be outdoorsy and go out in the mountains to picnic or to ski. Yes, we'll go to some ski lodge in Vermont and rent all kinds of garbage just to fall down in the fake snow. And I'll make sure that one of us breaks a limb so we can occupy the doctors and the insurance people, and we'll all have an extra Tylenol just to celebrate. And all the time, from morning until night, we'll be watching television, or listening to the same damn song over and over and over on the radio, or jumping around the Internet looking for specious trivia or virtual shopping experiences, or looking through magazines and pretending to read the one-sentence reports, but really ogling the half-naked people in the full page advertisements for cigarettes. And all the time we'll stare at the advertisements, everywhere, on the street and the television and the radio and everywhere, and we won't think. I promise. I, myself, will especially force myself to not think."

He stopped and looked at Huck, who was surprised to find that Nathaniel could not have looked more sane. But there was a sadness in his eyes that made Huck wonder if his friend wasn't just being mordant.

"Don't you see, Huck? I don't have to disappear. I just have to go back to my life and stop thinking. Because when I start to think I see how ugly and vicious and greedy the world is. So I won't think. I promise, Huck; I promise not to think."

Not knowing exactly what to say, Huck soothingly spoke a resolution that he didn't think had changed, or could change, no matter what revelation Nathaniel might have: "I don't think you have that option anymore."

Nathaniel frowned. Then laughed. "You're right. I can't do that. I never could." He laughed again, laughing until he felt the need for more air to gasp in in order to laugh it out, so he flung open the car door and rolled onto the blacktop. Luckily, the car had been slowing for a traffic light.

When Nathaniel got to his feet, he saw Huck's head emerging from the car.

"What are you doing?" Huck shouted.

Nathaniel saw the faces turning, with disguised interest, toward him. "Don't you see?" he yelled, not only to Huck, "We can go back. We just can't go forward!"

Then, before Huck had managed to get both feet on the pavement, Nathaniel sprinted around a corner and was gone.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:22 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches

September 23, 2006

The Impossibility of Modest Goals

I can't say I was disappointed at autumn's apparent early arrival. Exhaustion has become the rule for my life, and summer's weight only exacerbated the sensation. Autumn resonates more strongly of history and tradition, and these venerable intonations foster feelings of connection and therefore life and therefore vivacity.

When my goals were fame and fortune — for whatever reason — it was a simple matter to imagine success as imminent. I was able to keep up the work, so all that was wanting was a break, and miraculous things such as breaks, swift and unpredictable, require only wisps of luck to transform from imagination to reality.

Now that my dreams are more mundane — to pay my bills, to keep my family safe and healthy, to write from time to time, to read, to more fully discover the miracle that this world, this life, represents — they seem nigh upon unreachable. Simply to have the liberty, amidst life's constraints, to spend an autumn afternoon swinging on a hammock with a book hovering above my searching eyes seems a blessing to dear to seek.

The incrementalism of achievable goals is the thing. Plot out, with mathematical precision, the rate of improvement against the height of the obstacles, and years of unsustainable effort loom in the wearing of those obstacles down. More likely to wear out myself! More likely to stumble and make no progress at all. Then mounted on the doubt like damnation's last temptation is the insuppressible knowledge that achievable goals would not be enough once reached. But perhaps they oughtn't be.

Perhaps we are made — or I should say, I fervently believe we are made — to be ever-questers, relentless in our drive because that toward which we strive is infinite. Life is not precise, and it is not entirely predictable. Wisps of good fortune are always possible, and gradual improvement so often seems impossible that one can only conclude that it is wisest merely to strive without expectations.

Still, it's easy to regret not having — whatever it is that one doesn't have. They are a contradictory set, lacks. While once we lack time, next we lack resources. While once we lack peace, next we lack drama. It's easy to regret. It's easy to rue the effortless good fortune of others. Difficult not to snarl at the lifelong vacations that others appear to experience. Difficult to remind oneself of the advantage of being humbled in preparation for the equality of Heaven — reached most handily by those, if I may dare to presume, who have achieved an immodest humbleness, an understanding of the achievability of that which is truly impossible.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:21 AM

September 17, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 19 (p. 311-314)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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With the hand that had been pressed against the wet tree, Nathaniel ran his fingers through his hair. He looked at the tree, and the rain water that ran down his cheeks felt like tears. Nature struggling and breaking through the floor of the city depressed him, though he knew that it had been put there, or left there, to evoke the opposite emotion. Nathaniel had never had the ability to force himself to feel as he knew he was supposed to, or even as he wanted to. He realized this about himself and that it was especially true during a time of year that reeks of death anyway.

"This tree was put here for me," he said quietly aloud, speaking broadly, though he wasn't aware that he had spoken. "But I can't fall for it." He looked at the concrete around him. "Any magic that this tree has is only there because it is not that which is around it. It dies in the winter and is cold, yes, but it is still not as cold as the concrete death in which it is buried."

Realizing first that he had been speaking, as if reciting by rote the words from some play that had sunken into his memory, and second that he had raised his voice, he searched for the audience that he hoped wasn't there. He saw no one but a corpulent figure passing through the revolving door of the publisher's building. "This tree has at least the warmth of a promise," Nathaniel whispered to no applause.

The large man was now outside and glancing nervously up and down the street while he tried to pull his collar entirely over his head. His eyes finally came to rest on Nathaniel, and squinting, they dragged his head forward. Similarly, Nathaniel looked more intently at the man, feeling, even from the distance, as if his face were familiar. Abruptly, the man broke the inquisitive mutual stare, shuffled his collar up to his ears, and set off at a rapid pace down the street.

Something in his stride struck Nathaniel as familiar. "Can't be," he told himself.

With no pretense at disguise, Nathaniel scurried down his own side of the street, craning his neck so that his eyes might better peer at the figure across it, who accelerated his pace correspondingly to his nervous twitches and glances at Nathaniel.

"Impossible," Nathaniel rasped against the cold air that struggled into his mouth and nose between each heavy breath. "Martin!" he called out.

The figure froze, as if hoping to blend in with his inert surroundings and be passed over. There was no other motion around them. Nathaniel repeated his call and started across the street. Martin's feet stuttered as if he were tempted to take flight but hadn't the willpower.

Nathaniel hopped up on the curb and asked, "What are you running for?"

Looking away as he spoke, Martin replied, "Wha... oh... I... it's raining."

"So it is." Nathaniel raised his cheek to the drizzle. He knew that there was more to Martin's flight. "So did you guys get together and plan this all, or what?" he pushed.

"What do you mean?" Martin shuffled his feet.

"I mean that already today I've 'bumped into' Jake, Nick, and now you. It just all seems a little too coincidental."

Martin's answer was terse and sincere, "I don't know what the hell you're talking about."

A little taken aback by Martin's uncharacteristic use of a swear word, Nathaniel's line of thought fluttered, and he mumbled, "So I guess it's just coincidence."

"I guess so."

As if the atmosphere had soured around them, Nathaniel found that he had nothing to say. He wanted, of course, to ask Martin what was going on but, surreally, couldn't be sure that it was Martin to whom he was speaking. "Is everything alright?" he finally settled on asking.

"Yes, fine," was the response.

Answering a question that he had anticipated, but that had not been asked, Nathaniel said, "You've just never taken this tone with me before is all."

With a growing look of impatience on his large red face, Martin explained that, "Well I guess I didn't know you well enough then to take this tone."

"Martin, you've known me for years."

"No, apparently I haven't. I didn't know how dangerous you are."

"Dangerous? Martin, I..."

"Yes, dangerous. And, and even if you aren't a dangerous man, you're a dangerous presence. I ran because I don't want to be seen with you; there's no telling what people would think."

"Martin, I don't understand. All I did was write an essay, now Nick's going out of his way to be seen with me, and you're going out of your way to not be seen with me."

"I'm not going out of my way," Martin told him, as if to downplay Nathaniel's significance to him even in a negative sense, adding, "and I'm not surprised that Nick contacted you. You people can always tell your own kind."

"We people?"

"Yes. I haven't even read your book, but I can see it in you. I always could, and I'm surprised that I never acted on it. You: trouble makers, criminals, subversives. The pestiferous."

Nathaniel didn't know what to say. He looked bewildered.

"Well," Martin announced, "I can't afford to stand here in the rain with you any longer."

Then, without so much as a parting glance, he began walking down the street. He had only gotten a few steps when Nathaniel called out after him:

"Martin. What were you doing in my publisher's building?"

Stopping and turning slowly to reveal a face, usually confused and slightly dim, that roiled with disgust. "Not that it's any of your business, but I've been trying to get them to publish my work for years. I knew I recognized that... woman... when she came to the house this summer. I was hoping, now that I know her, that she might give me a chance. But your little chippy just averted her eyes as if I were oleaginous."

Despite himself, Nathaniel chuckled. "Martin," he began, "do you know what 'oleaginous' means?"

"Yes, in fact, as a writer, I do. It means unctuous, or smelly."

"That's what I thought."

Martin stepped toward Nathaniel, pointer finger outstretched. "I may have never noticed it while I was on top of it, but you've been awfully inconsiderate to me over these years — always thinking that you're so much smarter than I. Yeah," he went on, "you may have a book, and I may not, but I guess they don't want real literature anymore. Only subversives get published nowadays."

With that, Martin turned and continued to walk away. Nathaniel couldn't understand how the sequences of this day, and all of the recent days, had brought him to his current state of disconnected melancholy. He was almost beginning to feel apathetic about his book and baneful fame. He was not so disordered that he didn't feel a little saddened to see a long-time acquaintance walk away from him into a stormy night, regardless of any lack of true affection between them. He called out to Martin, who turned, his face divulging a slight, but poorly hidden, hopefulness.

Nathaniel just lifted his arms by his sides and shrugged.

He could almost hear a feigned "Harumph" as Martin turned again and walked, this time until he disappeared around a corner.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:32 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches

September 10, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 19 (p. 306-310)

A Whispering Through the Branches
< Previous | Beginning | Next >

It had been easy for Nathaniel to forget that he had once wandered these streets aimlessly, and the distance of a New York City block, which struck him as much longer than he remembered, superimposed his feeling of the past over the discomfort of the present. He had crossed Washington Square Park, which never looked quite right except in the spring and summer when it was filled with people. He had paused beneath the Washington Arch and stared up 5th Avenue as he used to do often, trying to picture the difference of view that one might have from under the Arc de Triomphe. As before, he pretended to walk down the Champs-Élysées, trying to lose all sense of being in America as he brushed by New Yorkers. He used to wish that he really was in Paris because America's version seemed a poor imitation. He wished the same now, though he was less concerned with authenticity. He had just never seen it.

His old habits continued to return as he walked uptown. He glanced around at the buildings, never looking all the way to the tops because that might mark him as one who did not know the city. But even that, he knew, was regional pretension: Nobody knows this city, he thought. Each building, rather, each room, was a city of its own, and the larger city outside its walls was only a reflection of what was within. Inside some of these buildings were people doing obscene things, the experience of which led the doer to trust that each window shade hid similar lechery. But in the next building, indeed the next room, might be found a shrine to some long departed lover whose partner had remained faithful in uneven death. But it was not a city made up concretely of the sinners and the pious; every degree of each might be rubbing up against Nathaniel in the rolling throng. Some faces, it is true, read only of benignity. Other faces, more forcefully wholesome, all but writhed at the cheeks for all the murky thoughts beneath. Yet there were others away from whom none would be blamed for walking, but who might walk so strangely, themselves, for fear of disturbing even the slightest bit of life.

As in place, so in time. While a moment held for one citizen the realization of untold dreams, another member of the insulated society watched an entire lifetime of tribulation congeal, as if instantly, into a reality-snapping failure.

Just as a business person, high in a conference room, gathered up the articles of his flawless presentation, a hooker gathered up her clothes. He reached out to shake hands; she reached out for wrinkled bills — each gathering the same thing, really, with the gestures: currency. In this very same city, such different lives were lived as the fairy-tale one of the stars and the nightmare horrors of the homeless. For the first, night meant another social gathering, replete with wine, hors d'oeuvres, and habillements so costly that some poor families could live an entire generation through for the same amount. For the second, night meant another trial to survive, replete with frostbite, starvation, and murder.

Though the wealthy, educated group might argue that there is less difference than there might seem between these experiences of the night by adding the word social to the word existence without diminishing the import of the latter, Nathaniel knew the truth. He shivered because of the cold and because he knew that the second group had become so resigned to their position that they nearly justified for themselves the wasteful lives of the stars and better-offs with the fantasies that those lives made so much easier for the have-nots to have.

For Nathaniel, the coming of the city night, as it was coming now, did nothing more nor less than remind him that he was wandering aimlessly, with no clear goal nor sense of process. The windows began to darken around him, and it occurred to him suddenly that behind some of them there had to be dead bodies. With all of the rooms and all of the people, there simply had to be. He wondered how many there were undiscovered in the city. Probably more than one per street; perhaps one per building. Add to that the dead in the cracks and in the subway and in the rivers and in the sewers and in the parks and in their cars and in the cement and in the walls and in the air. "They're all dead," Nathaniel concluded.

He caught a quick movement out of the corner of his eye that, for some reason, stood out among all of the bustling movements of the city evening. He walked on but got the feeling again. A dark car passed by. Knowing that it was highly unlikely, Nathaniel still could not shake the impression that it was the same dark car that had been behind him that very morning over one hundred miles away.

Nathaniel's heart began to rap more loudly inside his chest as the car slowed, but when it moved on, Nathaniel realized that it had only been traffic that had slowed it. He laughed at himself, trying not to worry that he was going crazy. A car horn startled him, and he looked up at a sports car that had stopped beside him blocking traffic. More horns sounded until the racket bounced from cement wall to cement wall up into the atmosphere.

Nick stuck his head out of the sports car's window and shouted for him to get in.

It occurred to Nathaniel that, if it were not his life, but a book or a movie, this sequence of events would seem too unlikely to be plausible. He stepped tentatively off the curb. "How did you find me, Nick?"

Nick responded, "There are so many people looking for you that you're easy to find. Get in."

The shouts and horns, which blended together in one monotonous cry, seemed to be urging Nathaniel to do as he had been told. He glanced up and down the street. It was getting dark. He walked around the car and got in, and they headed back downtown.

Both men remained quiet for a moment, as if to give the built up traffic time to loosen, and it was Nathaniel who spoke first, "So what do you want?"

Looking at him with slight bemusement, Nick replied, "It sounds as if you've had a surfeit of surprise requests of late."

Nathaniel didn't respond, he just looked into Nick's face.

Nick wet his lips, "Well I don't want anything, Nathaniel. I'm only worried about you. A man like you can't be wandering around the streets of New York."

"What do you mean 'a man like me'?"

Gesturing toward the car's front window and the Arch beyond, Nick said, "Hold that thought. Where do you want to go?"

"I was going to my publisher's."

"Alright, then. I'll have to drive around the park."

"Do you know where it is?"

"Of course."

Nathaniel was confused; he felt as if everybody had been privy to the script of his life but him. "How?"

"Oh never mind," Nick comforted with a boyish secretiveness. "As I said, you're really not that hard to find."

"Yeah, I know," Nathaniel said. "A man like me..."

He left the sentence open and looked through the glass as the car circumnavigated the park. Then he continued, "So what do you mean by that?"

At first laughing with measured incredulity, Nick told him, "You really don't understand the ripples you've caused, do you?"


"Of course. You're the all-things-to-all-people guy."

Absently, Nathaniel spoke to himself, "But I thought I had been so clear."

"You had," Nick spoke, having overheard the more or less private comment. "But that doesn't matter. Strange to say, but it almost seems as if the more clear and honest one is, the more misunderstood one will be. I guess nobody believes that anybody is really as they seem. People who want a hero will find one; people who want a villain will find that."

Something in Nick's voice made Nathaniel ask, "So what do you want?"

With a chuckle, Nick responded, "I just want to help."


Now Nick checked his rearview mirror and turned toward Nathaniel, like a character in a movie who drives for miles without looking at the road once, and got down to business, "Nathaniel, you're not going to believe that I've got your best interests in mind, especially if you've spoken to who I think you've spoken to, but I've got some" pause "friends who're used to dealing with people in your situation."

"Like the 'friends' who threw you out of the car when you first came to the Pequod?"

With a laugh that Nathaniel thought was much too hearty for the subject matter, Nick said, "No, no. I don't associate with them any more." Then with sudden seriousness, "This is a different kind of scene. All you'd have to do is be in a couple of pictures and that sort of thing, and you're in with a powerful group of people."

"So what's in it for you?"

Nick shook his head with a salesman's best sincere frown, "I'm not going to lie to you, Nathaniel; I have a vested interest in you, as it happens. But it may not be like you think. There's no money involved... directly... you'll just be helping some of my pieces to come together."

Nathaniel placed his elbow against the armrest on the door and rubbed his forehead.

"You don't have to give me an answer now, you know. It's just something to think about. What was that? I didn't hear you."

"I said, 'No,'" he repeated himself more loudly. "I don't need to think about anything. I'm not interested in your offer or any offer that you or anybody else could make. I'm going to take my book off the market; I'm going to go back to Rhode Island and convince my fiancé that I'm still the same man that I've been; and we're going to get back to our lives. I don't want this. I never did, or if I did, it was because I didn't know what the hell I really wanted."


"I said 'No,' Nick!"

Nick motioned graciously around them. "We're here," he said. The car had stopped.

"Where?" angrily.

"At your publisher's office."

"Oh," Nathaniel said, somewhat ashamed.

"Are you sure that you want to get out in this rain?"

Nathaniel raised his head. It had started to drizzle. He hadn't noticed. His mind drifted.

"... a place where you can stay. They're friends of mine." He heard Nick talking.

"No," Nathaniel spoke himself as if out of a dream, "I'll be fine. Thanks for the ride. And," pause "sorry."

As Nathaniel stepped out of the car, he heard Nick call out from behind him, "Not a problem. I'm mostly trying to help you, and if you don't need it... Hey! Even better! But Nathaniel..."

Nathaniel bent down to look into the car. For some reason he gave himself the impression of a hooker. "What?"

"If you should change your mind..."

Interrupting sarcastically, "I know, I know. I'll find you."

"Actually, I think it'd be easier for me to find you."

That said with a mysterious smile, Nick leaned across the car and pulled the car door closed and drove away.

If you're going to find me, how will you know that I've changed my mind, Nathaniel thought to himself. He thought he could guess what Nick would have said if he hadn't sped away so quickly.

Nathaniel braced his palm against a tree as he paused to think. The tree was gnarled and dead: a city tree. The rain was coming down a little harder now. Freezing rain. Painful rain.

Noticing only fleetingly that a single hair was sticking across his forehead, Nathaniel looked across the street at what was apparently his publisher's building.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:38 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches

September 9, 2006

Amendments, Constitutionality, and Other Tangents

I thought it might serve what readers come by Dust in the Light from time to time to note that I'm participating in an interesting discussion, over on Anchor Rising, concerning proper Constitutional interpretation and the specific import of the ninth and tenth amendments.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:24 PM

The Fuel of the Demagogue

Having been mildly intrigued by the commercials for it, I recently watched V for Vendetta, and as Christian conservatives often observe in the world of contemporary art and entertainment, the particular fantasy most emphasized in film was the liberal fantasy of standing up against conservative tyranny.

The basic outline of the story is compelling (if common) enough. A budding dictatorial politician, while seeking to develop a biological weapon, creates a superhero who will one day topple his regime. The dictator follows a clichéd Hitlerian model both of method and of aesthetic and, in an absolutely believable progression, begins rounding up and executing opposition and activists. Even his portrayal as a religious demagogue is, if predictable and unimaginative, not distracting within the plot (perhaps because it is so completely predictable).

The jarring imposition of the writers' ideology makes its appearance, however, with the unexplained revelation of a homosexual holocaust. One can suppose that the authors leave it as understood that the dictator villified gays in order to tug at public sentiment and redirect proper righteous feelings away from himself. That's believable enough, given all that must be accepted for the sake of the story to that point, but what disrupts the theatrical illusion is the emphasis on the tribulations of that small group.

It also doesn't comport with trends that we actually find in reality (especially in England), which the writers would have us believe could in fact lead to the fantasy world that they have created. Witness:

A police force was caught up in a freedom of speech row after its officers arrested an anti-gay campaigner for handing out leaflets at a homosexual rally.

South Wales police admitted evangelical Christian Stephen Green was then charged purely because his pamphlets contained anti-gay quotations from the Bible. ...

In recent months incidents have included a Metropolitan Police warning to author Lynette Burrows that she was responsible for a 'homophobic incident' after she suggesting on a BBC Radio Five Live programme that gays did not make ideal adoptive parents.

Another warning about future behaviour was delivered by Lancashire police who visited the home of a Christian couple after they complained about their local council's gay rights policies.

The Met Police in London also investigated former Muslim Council of Britain leader Sir Iqbal Sacranie after he gave an interview saying homosexuality was harmful. However, no prosecution followed in that case.

The Hollywooden would do well — not the least because it would make them better artists — to realize that emotions can be stoked from more directions than the right.

I should temper this post with an acknowledgment that the source of my quotation, the Daily Mail, is also recently notable for apparently having concocted friction — or at least unjustifiably embellishing it — between Pope Benedict and an evolution-believing priest, Father George Coyne, Vatican Observatory head for nearly three decades. Indeed, the Mail article in question exposes itself as shoddy work by the incoherency of its storyline's logic.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:45 AM

September 8, 2006

What Celebrities Dare Not Consider

Jonah Goldberg points out the self-denying activism of Brad and Angelina:

Hey, look I can respect people who are pro-gay marriage. I don't think it's an intellectually and morally indefensible position even if I'm opposed to it. But, I don't get it. Do these guys really think their boycott will sway a lot of people? "Gosh, I was against dudes marrying each other before. But if it'll get those two crazy kids together, what they hey, it's worth it."

I'm very reluctant to treat the declarations of the prettier-than-thous with unwarranted intellectual seriousness, but it seems to me Jonah elides an important point by acceding to the subtle code language whereby "everyone else in the country who wants to be married" is presumed to mean only homosexuals. In meaning and in motivation, there are — at best — only tenuous distinctions between this sort of support for marriage privileges for homosexual couples that are alike to traditional marriage in everything but gender (and all of the crucial stuff that "but" entails) and admitting the complete dilution of marriage (and therefore its ruination).

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:34 PM | Comments (14)
Marriage & Family

September 3, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 19 (p. 293-305)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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This is bad, thought Nathaniel as he struggled to keep the bitter wind from blowing his car off the bridge; winter, it seemed, was coming early this year. In fact, it, not meaning the weather, was worse than he had thought it might be. A month ago, he had begun to feel people looking at him when he was at the grocery store, subtly, over the tops of magazines or out of the corners of their eyes as if looking at the produce near him. But he had learned much earlier in his life to dismiss these impressions as either conceit or paranoia — the former as when he was a developing teenager and thought the entire world was "checking him out" and the latter as he had felt later, thinking that all of society was conspiring against him. So now he just smiled at those whose eyes lingered too long to escape his and ascribed what few looks he could not deny to his book.

As it had turned out, he was less correct, while closer to the truth, than he had realized. It all came together, however, two weeks before his crossing of the bridges, when he had returned from whatever petty task (he could not now remember what it had been) had taken him away from his home. He had walked through the door with a smile on his lips and a humming melody in his throat only to find Jen crying over a wrinkled copy of Ethos magazine, which lay on her lap like a spent viper.

"It's not true," Nathaniel had lied instantly, not knowing if it was true or not.

The worst of it all, for him anyway, was that it was his own fault: he owed it all to his naive self-denial that the mere mention of his name in certain vicinities could raise the past from its locked coffin. Holden, probably by an ineluctable mixture of accident and luck, had mentioned his name in such a place, and that had likely been all of the work that he had had to do: Nathaniel's past had swept out from under the lid that had kept it superficially incarcerated and had carried Holden along on his curious path of discovery. Nathaniel laughed bitterly as he imagined Holden's disposition as he stumbled from one story to another, mixing his excitement, for he must have felt the appeal that Nathaniel's story would have to the lecherous mass public, with the disgusted surprise and denial that even a brat like Holden must have experienced as the Nathaniel whom he had come to feel as if he knew mutated into a monster.

That's exactly what had happened with Jen; the boy that Nathaniel hardly felt, now, that he had ever really been emerged within her impression of him as if he were being possessed from without. Who he might have once been had become more real to her, more important, than who he was at present.

"I'll put it back the way it was," Nathaniel said out loud to the silent interior of the car, wiping a tear from his right cheek. He sped along the road feeling as if the cows that grazed across the roadside pasture raised their heads as he passed to offer the quiet condolence of Nature. He would go to New York and fix his life, somehow, not knowing what he would do once he got there, but feeling the pull of opportunity and chance.

He looked into his rearview mirror and noted the car behind him. It was a black sedan about one hundred yards back. He sped up, and it seemed to him as if the sedan sped up, as well; he slowed down, and he thought that his follower slowed down, too. But then the black car turned off the road. Nathaniel laughed at his silliness; nobody was following him on this back country road. He looked again and watched as a rusted green pick-up truck appeared from the same street down which the sedan had gone. He laughed again. Silly.

The story of Nathaniel's past had somehow become deemed newsworthy. At first it had been picked up by local sensationalist magazines and then their larger parent publications. Then a handful of fashionable teenage biweeklies (at which, Nathaniel supposed, the staff had had to do some research to discover the book that had put him in the public view at all — and still not likely having read it) found old, unflattering pictures of him to print beside one- or two-line provocative pop culture updates. One had even added an eye-catcher under his picture: "Nathaniel Ariss's smart'n'cute, but watch out!" He had almost felt as if he should be flattered.

Once the adolescents had begun talking about his book as if they had read it, though he was sure that most of them had learned what little they had from brief spurts of hypertext on the Internet, his statement becoming, in their eyes, one of angst and rebellion, their parents and teachers had been eager to use his book as a tool of communication. He wondered, though, how many of these adults, in the dual desire to connect with their children and to protect them, understood his argument at all and how many of those who did approved. The question was, of course, ridiculous: if they had understood they would have approved. He wasn't, after all, a radical. But whatever they had thought of it, the grownups gave the large, reputedly creditable, publications and evening news shows a new story to flash their eyelids about between stories of terrible distress and trite success.

By this point, however, Nathaniel recognized the person about whom they were all speaking even less than he did the boy of his memories. His life was more and more embellished with half-truths and all-out lies in order to be made something new... something breaking... until his entire biography had been pummeled into fiction, with nothing but names and images taken from life.

Nathaniel pulled onto I-95, and the pickup truck continued on the back road, but the increased traffic meant more eyes, passing more quickly, though still seeming to be placed in turning heads. A sports car appeared behind him as if dropped from the sky and honked. Nathaniel held his breath until the car had slid into an impossibly tight space in the fast lane and flown by him.

"What's gotten into you?" Nathaniel spoke out loud, meaning himself.

But he could not control this impression that the entire world was watching him, as if there were a blue-camouflaged helicopter broadcasting his journey for all to see. The idea struck Nathaniel that his public image might be turned entirely around if the reporter in the imaginary helicopter presented the trip to New York as a human quest to restore a damaged life. Why do I even have a public image? Nathaniel asked himself in thought.

He turned on the radio, partly for company, true, but also, he had to admit to himself, to see if he really was on the news. I'm being ridiculous, he thought, but he continued to feel as if he were driving in a spotlight. He changed lanes.

I'm demented. He had to have known, though, that he had been — willingly or not, with whatever secret satisfaction it brought to his dismay — thrown into the very spotlight that he had once striven to find in the darkness of his life's obscurity.

Now that his moment had come, however, Nathaniel felt only confirmed in his more recent resolution to remain unknown. The irony was obvious: he had begun his search for truth, and he had orchestrated it into a painstakingly ingenious book, with always a slight hope that the effort would bring with it fame.

There was always a whisper of varying proximity within his mind that hoped that achieving renown would encourage people to look for his book in his life, almost entirely in order that they might notice that he had lived at all. Now, the whisper was outside of him, in the journals and the magazines, on the television and the radio, being sent along the very phone lines that ran along over him and crossed his path on the highway in conversations and faxes and emails, and all around, it was clear that people were merely looking for his life in his book, though it wasn't really his life that they wanted to find. The book had begun to sell incredibly, despite the shortcuts that he believed most of his "readers" to have taken, but the money felt tainted. He was receiving an artisan's better recompense for his art, a fortune so that an ashtray might be made of his sculpture. His book was no longer read in any sense that reading implies understanding. Its message was lost. "Irretrievably," he muttered.

He turned off the radio with a snap of his wrist. The dessicated garbage they put on the radio these days, he thought.

From here his mind covered all of this ground again, bounding from one thought to the next in ever more chaotic sequences. He seemed to feel as if there were a solution lingering among them, but he kept losing it as some distraction or other diverted his attention and forced him to retrace his intellectual steps, though he never quite succeeded. His car, however, was not diverted from its purpose and rumbled through urban Connecticut, over its highways' cracks and potholes, some of which were the distractions that wrenched his mind along its helter-skelter course.

As he turned left off the highway after White Plains and before the Tappanzee Bridge, he realized that he had come all of this way without a clue as to how he would proceed. Finding the Ethos offices would be fruitless; Holden's story had grown too huge for its opportunistic writer to do anything about it now. Nathaniel was pretty sure, anyway, that Holden had never really had control over anything, let alone the juggernaut of success, his own or anyone else's. He would probably offer Nathaniel an "opportunity" to clear his name through an interview. His father, or some other experienced executive, had probably made that suggestion already.

Nathaniel supposed that tracking down Sybil would be a good way to start. Her firm had to have some kind of public relations team. "Ha!" he blurted, thinking, They probably love all of this exposure. Still, they'd have to pull the book, if he insisted. Or, at the very least, not print any more volumes. He didn't think he had signed away his right to make them do that. He didn't think he had.

As he saw the George Washington Bridge materializing between the trees, his mind drifted into a vision of him disappearing over it and into America. Others had been lost there before, perhaps he could do the same. I really am a selfish man. He wished that he had been able to convince Jen to come with him; she had refused. He hadn't wanted to leave her, but he had to do something... if only to show her that he was trying to do something. What if, he thought, what if I turned around and convinced her to disappear with me. We could elope. We could just continue along the path that we had been following before this summer, or we could take out all of our money and disappear into the Caribbean or something.

He began to envision the cinematic cliché that had helped to spawn this idea, feeling the simple bliss that he used to feel even with no more proximity to the islands than the dreamlike one that comes into the consciousness by way of a lens and a large canvas screen, but the flashing dashboard lights of an unmarked police car behind him tore him from his acquiescent reverie.

He pulled to the side of the road, surprised at his lack of concern. He didn't know how fast he had been going and didn't seem to care; he had been miles away. A large man in street clothes stepped out of the car that had pulled up behind him, and Nathaniel rolled down his window. Without looking, he began to speak when he felt the man looming over him, "I'm sorry officer. Just give me the ticket. I'll pay it. And I'll try not to go so fast anymore."

The man laughed and said, "I'm not going to give you a ticket, Nathaniel. Even if it was part of my job, you were only going about fifty miles per hour. I just need to talk to you."

Nathaniel looked up. It was Jake, looking clean-shaven and official.

Before Nathaniel could respond, Jake looked around and informed him, "This isn't the best spot to have a conversation, though. Just follow me."

With that, Jake strode back to his car, pulled into the slow lane, and passed Nathaniel before he could get his mind to grasp what had just happened. Jake's car pulled into the breakdown lane, and his brawny arm appeared through the window and motioned for Nathaniel to follow.

Jake led Nathaniel past the bridge and along the Hudson River. Nathaniel tried to find the spot that he always envisioned when he heard John telling of his trip to New York. John himself, Nathaniel supposed, would be unable to find it because it was likely just a vision to him, as well. Still, he could forgive it, if it were no more than fiction, because the image was so clear and palpable with the hills and buildings of New Jersey rippling in the water before him.

A beat-up car with impenetrably shaded windows cut him off. He looked away from the water and saw Jake slowing down to force the car that had come between them to swerve into the other lane and go around.

Finally, as they neared the bottom of the island, Jake put on his signal and pulled up to a red light to go left. The two cars made the turn, and Nathaniel became lost in the labyrinth of Greenwich Village, where the orderly streets of Manhattan jumbled into chaos.

But Jake apparently knew where he was headed, and it wasn't long before they were struggling to fit their cars between the riot-like masses of dirty city folk and crisp college students to get across the sidewalk into a parking garage. The parking attendant waved his arms at Jake to indicate that there were no empty spots. Looking into Jake's car through its rear window, Nathaniel saw Jake flash something shiny at the attendant and point to Nathaniel. They were waved on, finding two spots not far from the entrance.

When they stepped out into the smell and reverberating noise of the garage, Nathaniel winced. Jake strode around to him, his shoes clicking against the pavement and the sound bouncing between the cars. He smiled and held out his hand to be shaken, "So how are you, Nathaniel?"

Nathaniel gave the question some thought. "Not bad. Well, things could be better."

"I know what you mean."

Looking up at his friend quizzically, Nathaniel asked, "Do you?"

With a sympathetic nod, Jake told him, "More than you realize. Come on."

Jake started to walk toward the exit, but Nathaniel stopped him with an inquiry, "Where are we going?"

Pointing to the wall, Jake said, "Just next door. There's a quiet bar."

In an attempt to lighten the mood that had been increasingly with him for the past several months, Nathaniel tried a joke, "Not going to drink on duty, are you?"

Jake smiled amicably, "Oh, I'm not on duty." Adding, "And it wouldn't really matter much if I was."

That said, they walked out into the filth of New York. Nathaniel felt his mood crash upon him, and he began to understand what it was. The feeling had only been looming, of late, in a vague corner of Nathaniel's perception, but now he was inside of it, within it, and he recognized his surroundings. He felt unreal, which was a mood and a world that he had managed to escape as a state of being only through years of conscious effort and the luck of finding love. He felt as though he could reach out and pull paper maché from concrete walls that were really only a facade. None of it was real to him now... rather, for now. He held on to the vision of his life as he had been planning it before his trip to the Pequod this past summer. It could still become reality. So he forced himself to lift his head, and he noticed that he was across the street from the Blue Note. He could almost hear the music. Again his memories blurred, and for a moment he was in his youth, and his job, his engagement, and his recent aspirations were but dreams.

Jake tugged at his sleeve, "Are you alright?"

Nathaniel tore himself out of his trance to respond, "Y...Yes. Are we going in here?" He gestured to a filthy wooden door.

"Yup. This is the place."

The bar was sticky, and seedy, and quiet. They sat in the back and ordered beer from a flaccid waitress.

When the beers came, Jake took a deep drink. "What's going on with you, Nathaniel?" he asked, not just making conversation.

"Nobody wants to make small talk anymore," Nathaniel mused.

"What do you mean?"

Nathaniel shook his head mildly, "Never mind. I'm not altogether with it lately for some reason."

"Well from what I've heard, you've got plenty of reason to be out of it."

"Exactly the reason I can't be. So what have you heard? I assume that's what you need to talk to me about."

"You're right there," Jake responded, leaning back in his chair. It squealed under the pressure. "I mostly want to get a sense of whether you have an idea the impact that your book's been having."

"The book isn't having any impact."

Shaking his head, Jake told him, "You're wrong. You're referring to all the press, right?"


"Well, that's been playing its part, of course, but it's just an annoyance. The book is your real problem right now."

"How so?"

"I've heard people who are worried about the questions that it's making people ask."

"Like what?" Nathaniel asked, a bit confounded.

"Oh, you know, the usual insurgency stuff about society and the government. It's hard to pin down because the reality is that people aren't thinking of anything that they didn't want an excuse to question in the first place."

"You've got that right. I've heard so many statements that I supposedly made in my book that I'm not sure what I actually said. Maybe I should read it."

Jake chuckled and sipped his beer. "Maybe you should, at that. But I don't think figuring out where people aren't understanding your statement will solve any of your problems. The book's become a symbol, or a slogan, for something else. A lot of people are talking about you in ways that are best not to be talked about in."

"Oh, I know this. My fiancé will hardly speak to me. I'm getting strange looks everywhere I go. But really, Jake, I think it'll all fade away with time. I'm on my way to try to take my book out of print, and I'm certainly not going to dignify any of this nonsense with a response. America's attention span is short. They'll all forget me before long."

Jake pursed his lips and thought for a moment. "Normally I think you'd be right," he said at last, "but your timing on this couldn't be worse."

Lashing out without knowing why, Nathaniel hissed between his lips with frustration and said, just shy of a shout, "I didn't time anything. It's all been so random. And as far as my past goes, I did everything but change my name, Jake, to get away from it."

The bartender shouldered a grimy rag and looked toward their table, evidently deciding that there was nothing going on that he should be concerned about, but keeping an averted eye on them now.

"I don't think you understand," Jake answered, leaning forward with his large forearms laid out on the table. "It's not your book or your past. It's not even really your ideas. It's how you're being perceived. What your prominence is being used as an excuse to do."

Nathaniel looked at him bewilderedly.

"I don't understand."

"Look," Jake said, relaxing his tone, "there's a lot of tension out there. Our lives are changing so drastically that everybody's trying to figure out where they're going to fit into the scheme of things, and most of them are either planning on scrambling over everybody else to get out of the path of progress or resigning themselves to being swept away by it. I guess that's where your ideology does come into play. But the real problem is that once you open the door to our collective anxieties, you're no longer dealing with your one issue; you're forced into the whole mixed up argument. Everybody wants to jump on top of the latest hot issue to get their say in even if it has no relevance, or even if they aren't completely sure what the hot issue is all about. What's more, as best as I can tell, there really isn't anybody who wants to fix the larger problems. They either want it to go on or to blow up."

"I've thought the same at times. I tried to get away from..." Nathaniel drifted off.

To snap him out of his torpor, Jake suggested that Nathaniel have some of his untouched beer. "Why not?" Nathaniel asked absently.

When the cool drink seemed to have brought Nathaniel back a little, Jake continued, "It's the last group that's going to present you with a problem. Most of the people who are holding up your name as an example of right or wrong will move on, especially if you do get your book off the shelves. They're only concerned with themselves anyway. But you're being dragged into schemes that you couldn't possibly know anything about by people that you've never met who will keep your name important so that they can continue to benefit." Jake's face became a mixture of dismay and shame, "Well, you might know at least one of the people who are doing this."


"Yes. I've been right on the edge of busting him for years, I came really close once and had the opportunity, but I guess I didn't have the heart."

"What's he into?"

Jake half-laughed skeptically, "That's just the thing. We don't know. He's a slippery character. He seems to have ties everywhere, but he's not a part of any group. He's not Mafia; he's not what we call a specialist; he never does an old fashioned robbery or murder. But I've got reason to believe that he's up to something big lately, and I think he's been looking to involve you."

"What could I possibly do to help him?"

"I told you..."

"... I'm not really me anymore."

Jake shrugged to indicate that however Nathaniel wanted to phrase it was probably close enough.

Nathaniel pursued, "Seriously though, Jake, what could I possibly do for him? Or what role could this dubious fame play in a crime that would involve me personally in reality?"

"I'll be frank with you: I don't know. I can imagine things that would bring you in personally and physically without even knowing it. There's a ton of money to be made by pitting groups against each other, and I could see Nick using you to do just that. You probably wouldn't need to do more than be seen with him. But the truth is that I can only guess. I just wanted to make you aware of the possibility."

They both leaned back in their chairs and sipped their beers, Jake's sip significantly larger. Nathaniel was distracted; he stared into the dimness around them. Then he mumbled, "Such was the response that the dead man had fancied himself to receive, when he asked of Death to solve the riddle of his life."

Jake had slipped into thoughts of his own and only realized that Nathaniel had spoken after the words had passed. "What was that?" he asked.

"Oh nothing," Nathaniel told him. "It's just that my predicament is becoming so much more complex and worrisome every day, every hour, that it's all blurring together into inconsequentiality."

"Don't talk like that. As you've already said, it'll all fade away back to normal life with time. Nothing's going to end the world. Do you remember Charlotte?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"Well, she disappeared out of your life, and life went on. Hell, she disappeared out of the world, and we're probably the only ones who noticed." Jake twitched slightly as if he had said something he hadn't intended.

Nathaniel caught the twitch and asked, "What do you mean by that?"

"Listen, Nathaniel, you were in a tender state back then, and it really had nothing to do with you, so I never told you."

"Told me what?"

"Look, Charlotte was a prostitute. That winter she was murdered by some," Jake paused to find a word that would not carry an undue insinuation along with it, "by some guy who picked her up."

Nathaniel looked moderately and vaguely distraught at the news, but not surprised. "Did they ever catch him?"

Jake almost laughed, "No. He was just some random... guy. It happens all the time. But listen, what I'm trying to say is that sometimes people are what they seem, and the world treats them accordingly. And sometimes bad things happen to people you know without it having anything to do with you. But the world moves on."

Nathaniel managed a slight, but unconvincing smile, "It didn't go on for Charlotte." He pushed back his chair and stood.

Jake stood, as well. "Where are you going?"

Looking toward the door and then back at his friend, Nathaniel said, "To start the process of stopping."

"Going to your publisher?"

"Yes, that'd be the first step."

"Do you want me to go with you?"

"No, I feel like I should go it alone from here on in."

Jake seemed disappointed, "Do you know where you're going?"

"Uptown, first. We'll see from there."

With this ambiguous plan laid out before him, Nathaniel shook Jake's hand and asked if he could leave his car in the garage for a while. Jake told him it shouldn't be a problem. Nathaniel nodded and thanked him. He started toward the door but turned before he had gone more than a half-dozen steps. "Jake?"


"Could you look in on me from time to time?" adding, "Wherever I happen to be?"

"Of course."

"I'd like that."

"You got it."

"Thanks," Nathaniel finished and skated across the greasy floor of the bar. He tapped the bar and waved as he passed the bartender, who said, "Thanks, Nathaniel. Hope to see y'again soon."

Then Nathaniel was gone, and Jake watched for him to pass by the window. He didn't. Looking down at the table then back at the window, Jake pulled out his wallet and threw a ten dollar bill between the unfinished beers and strode toward the door.