Learning through revision…yeah, there’s nothing like beating your living head against a gossamer of thoughts in the shape of a story. You’d think it wouldn’t hurt a bit, but it does. The thing is–the further I go with this version, the more wrong it feels. Well, maybe not wrong so much as weak, or maybe, ill-conceived. Off-track. My notes for the next revision stack higher and higher, but the story remains the same and nothing really changes about Ike or Fred, just the mechanics of getting to know them. So, thank you for sticking with me as I learn how to tell my story. And now, back to it…
Confessions of a Madman
“My only responsibility is to be absolutely honest with those who are on my side, those who are true partisans of authentic life.”—Raoul Vaneigem
It had been a restless week. Fred walked downtown at lunch, against custom, mainly for the opportunity to be alone with his head. There was little to worry him, in fact, but something gnawed his brain just the same. Work was dull, but that didn’t matter much, especially since he had no financial worries to speak of, just day-to-day living expenses and the new prospect of retirement planning. Ike was excited too about his new project, and his enthusiasm for it was contagious. His former alienation seemed utterly gone, which was a good thing because the tension in the air at FKRS was thick. Rumors abounded, some rather far-fetched, some suspiciously believable. And all continued well with Constantia in spite of his frustrating inability to stave off her tears at the deaths not uncommon in an oncology unit, but at least they were happy together. Really, life was pretty good. The only peg not smoothly fitted in place was his recent meeting with Dakarai Bes, and while it was probably the most auspicious thing that ever happened to him—or likely ever would—it was still rather unsettling.
The brisk air hurried the lunch crowd on their way, a siren wailed in the distance, art students with blue hair and piercings scuffled by with large sketchpads, a hot young mama in spandex raced her orange baby stroller across the intersection, smokers huddled in alcoves out of the wind. This was life in the city; normal living conducted by his ordinary fellow citizens. But if this was real, all the things he could see and hear and smell and taste, then it was also a fact that he’d had an alien over for drinks and conversation last Friday night. Fred believed in his experience, almost certainly he did; yes, it was not a dream, but beyond Ike, to speak of it to anyone else seemed socially suicidal. He scanned the crowd for familiar faces: among the walkers there were none, and among the homeless, few. Bebe wasn’t at her usual spot near the parking lot, but hopefully that meant she was having a warm meal somewhere. The soft-spoken panhandler who hung out by the CVS was grateful for some lunch money, which Fred was always happy to give because when this shadow of a man said he was hungry, it really sounded true. Fred turned aimlessly onto Fourth Avenue and saw ahead of him a homeless man he referred to in his thoughts as The Viking, declaiming to the air as he stalked back and forth before his meager bundle of possessions propped against a chain link fence.
“I was talking about Egyptian art…I was talking about Egyptian art…she showed up at my place…I was talking…”
The man’s face was wind-burn red, blonde hair swept back in tangles and spit flew as he shouted. Fred was passing, intended to, lost as he was in questioning his sanity, but he stopped. Had he heard that right?
“Excuse me,” Fred said, addressing the man. “You speak of Egypt. Perhaps you know Dakarai Bes?”
“Bes! Bes!” The man became even more excited, eyes popping, his blue pupils lost in a sea of white. “She showed up at my place…I was talking about Egyptian art, I showed her the book. But… but…You know!”
“I know,” Fred assured the man, though he was not sanguine he was in meeting this gentleman on a shared wavelength. Passersby were giving them a wide berth. “You are a brave and honest man. We must honor the descent and spread the word. We must live the French tradition.”
The man touched his arm, his eyes welling with tears. Then he looked at the sky, and began his soliloquy again. Fred reached into his coat pocket, unfolded a ten-dollar bill and pressed into the man’s hand. Not that he noticed. But it was an old custom with him, a few dollars every pay set aside for the ones who needed it. Even the crazies belong to the happy community.
That’s it, Fred thought, as if the Total key on his mental adding machine had rattled out the long-awaited sum. It was time to cross the Rubicon with all the brave witches and Frenchmen. He had been a coward long enough. He called Constantia as soon as he returned to the office.
He hadn’t seen Ike all afternoon, so he couldn’t tell him he was on his own for dinner—he had a date with Constantia to grab something to eat on her break. He was bursting to tell her about Bes and the lotus ship and everything that happened to him that night. Esmeralda would be sympathetic he expected and take it seriously, but it was much more important just now that Constantia believed him.
Constantia liberally doused hot sauce over the cheese-covered fries that topped her steak salad. “Let me get this straight. You met an alien on the 5:50 bus who looked like Boy George…with or without the makeup?” It was possible Fred couldn’t tell the difference between a transvestite and an alien.
“—who told me the history of the world and the future of the human race. Yes.” He paused. “No makeup. What does it matter?”
She stared at him, looking for mismatched pupils, slurred speech, any sign that would give her a clue. He looked pretty much the same as ever, maybe calmer, if that was the word for it, his expression less ironical and more serene. The only difference, and it was singular, was that it looked as if he hadn’t shaved in a few days. Fred with stubble was a changed man; he wasn’t the stoic 50s intellectual anymore; it was the 70s in his face and something was terribly wrong. She should have seen it coming, really: Something had to be amiss for Fred to leave a two-word message in her voice mail. ”Let’s talk.” This wasn’t exactly what she had imagined his terse message might imply, and for that, she was thankful. Whatever silliness this was, she could deal with it.
“Listen, Fred,” she said, laying her fingers lightly over his knuckles. “You had a dream, OK? It was a dream. Really cool, I guess, but just a dream.”
“I had thought so as well, at first. There is, however, empirical evidence, witnessed by Ike, that indicates I had had company at the Casa, and that my guest left the premises by an unconventional exit.”
She waited, lifting her brows in what she meant to be encouragement, though skepticism was not far beneath.
“My bedroom window. The screen was propped beside the window. All the doors were locked when Ike came in. I was asleep on the couch.”
“Was there elixir involved?”
“Well, you—and somebody—had quite a few, sat out on the roof for a bit, came back in. He left the usual way; you locked up behind and then fell asleep.”
“That does read as a rational narrative which incorporates all elements, though sitting out on the roof in December is against my usual custom. This does not, however, make it true.”
“I cast no aspersions on your aptitude for rational cogitation, but in this instance, reason has nothing to do with it. We are reaching beyond common experience. It all happened as I’ve said. Besides,” he added. “Ike has evidence.”
“What evidence?” Constantia was less able to cloak her sarcasm.
“He took a sample of the scorched shingles and got them tested at a remediation lab they use at work. He was told it was the burn residue of an unidentifiable fuel.”
“Unidentifiable? Maybe the lab work was faulty or the sample inadequate…”
“Ike thought of that and sent a similar sample to a forensic lab—“
“Since when does Ike know about forensics?”
“People who investigate arson in buildings; it’s called forensics, too. An engineer his dad works with knew of a place.”
“And what did the forensic lab say?” This conversation was exhausting.
“That it was selenium fuel residue, which doesn’t exist, at least not as a non-radioactive isotope. The lab technicians called with further queries, a-babble about Nobel-worthy science.”
“And Ike buys into all of this nonsense?”
“I buy into all this nonsense. What can I say? Selenium is rare in concentration, is unlikely to be on my roof by accident, and it melts at 430 degrees. Something weird happened here, but it happened. It was not a dream, Constantia.”
Fred was stepping beyond anything of the world he had known. Feduciary formulas did not cover this. This was truly a Situation. Whether he had taken a path into imagination, or another dimension—or even madness—if these in fact were different things, he did not know. What he did know was that what was true was what he experienced; all else was illusion. Talking hydrants real? If he experienced them (he had not), and truffles were not real if he had never partaken of them (he had).
He was a man following the real—wherever it took him. His reality was just bigger than he had suspected before. And weirder. Prescient mother of his, who had christened him so appropriately. Perhaps he did need to give her a call.
Perhaps, at last, he had broken free of the Spectacle, to stand beyond the commonplace, but wherever he was, he felt connected to it. He was beginning to understand what Esmeralda had meant when she said it was useless to tell him what she knew. Without experiencing it, he was sure it sounded mad. Still, he needed Constantia to believe him.
“It wasn’t a dream. I can show you the reports.”
She stared into his eyes.
“All right then,” she sighed, extending a hand and receiving a sheaf of papers. “It’s a start anyway. I guess it’s time I start in on those UFO books of yours. It sure is an adventure keeping up with you.”
He nudged his spoon about in his soup. “And I thought you knew where all this was going—it might be helpful if you’d let me in on a bit more of it.”
She smirked. La-la, Mr. Know-It-All. Just you wait.
Start back at the beginning…