A SCANNER DARKLY -- CHAPTER 14
When the senile patient awakens in the morning and asks for his mother, remind him that she is long since dead, that he is over eighty years old and living in a convalescent home, and that this is 1992 and not 1913 and that he must face reality and the fact that
A resident had torn down the rest of the item; it ended there. Evidently it had been clipped from a professional nursing magazine; it was on slick paper.
"What you'll be doing here first," George, the staff member, told him, leading him down the hall, "is the bathrooms. The floors, the basins, especially the toilets. There're three bathrooms in this structure, one on each floor."
"Okay," he said.
"Here's a mop. And a pail. You feel you know how to do this? Clean a bathroom? Start, and I'll watch you and give you pointers."
He carried the pail to the tub on the back porch and he poured soap into it and then ran the hot water. All he could see was the foam of water directly before him; foam and the roar.
But he could hear George's voice, out of sight. "Not too full, because you won't be able to lift it."
"You have a little trouble telling where you are," George said, after a time.
"I'm at New-Path." He set the pail down on the floor and it slopped; he stood staring down at it.
"In Santa Ana."
George lifted the pail up for him, showing him how to grip the wire handle and swing it along as he walked. "Later on I think we'll transfer you to the island or one of the farms. First you have to go through the dishpan."
"I can do that," he said. "Dishpans."
"Do you like animals?"
"We'll see. We'll wait until we're acquainted with you better. Anyhow, that'll be a while; everyone is in the dishpan for a month. Everyone who comes in the door."
"I'd sort of like to live in the country," he said.
"We maintain several types of facilities. We'll determine what's best suited. You know, you can smoke here, but it isn't encouraged. This isn't Synanon; they don't let you smoke."
He said, "I don't have any more cigarettes."
"We give each resident one pack a day."
"Money?" He didn't have any.
"It's without cost. There's never any cost. You paid your cost." George took the mop, pushed it down into the pail, showed him how to mop.
"How come I don't have any money?"
"The same reason you don't have any wallet or any last name. It'll be given back to you, all given back. That's what we want to do: give you back what's been taken away from you."
He said, "These shoes don't fit."
"We depend on donations, but new ones only, from stores. Later on maybe we can measure you. Did you try all the shoes in the carton?"
"Yes," he said.
"All right, this is the bathroom here on the basement floor; do it first. Then when that's done, really done well, really perfect, then go upstairs -- bring the mop and bucket -- and I'll show you the bathroom up there, and then after that the bathroom on the third floor. But you got to get permission to go up there to the third floor, because that's where the chicks live, so ask one of the staff first; never go up there without permission." He slapped him on the back. "All right, Bruce? Understand?"
"Okay," Bruce said, mopping.
George said, "You'll be doing this kind of work, cleaning these bathrooms, until you get so you can do a good job. It doesn't matter what a person does; it's that he gets so he can do it right and be proud of it."
"Will I ever be like I was again?" Bruce asked.
"What you were brought you here. If you become what you were again then sooner or later it'd bring you here again. Next time you might not make it here, even. Isn't that right? You're lucky you got here; you almost didn't get here."
"Somebody else drove me here."
"You're fortunate. The next time they might not. They might dump you on the side of the freeway somewhere and say the hell with it."
He continued mopping.
"The best way is to do the bowls first, then the tub, then the toilets, and the floor last."
"Okay," he said, and put the mop away.
"There's a certain knack to it. You'll master it."
Concentrating, he saw before him cracks in the enamel of the basin; he dribbled cleaner down into the cracks and ran hot water. The steam rose, and he stood within it, unmoving, as the steam grew. He liked the smell.
After lunch he sat in the lounge drinking coffee. No one spoke to him, because they understood he was withdrawing. Sitting drinking from his cup, he could hear their conversation. They all knew one another.
"If you could see out from inside a dead person you could still see, but you couldn't operate the eye muscles, so you couldn't focus. You couldn't turn your head or your eyeballs. All you could do would be wait until some object passed by. You'd be frozen. Just wait and wait. It'd be a terrible scene."
He gazed down at the steam of his coffee, only that. The steam rose; he liked the smell.
A hand touched him. From a woman.
He looked sideways a little.
"How you doing?"
"Okay," he said.
"Feel any better?"
"I feel okay," he said.
He watched his coffee and the steam and did not look at her or any of them; he looked down and down at the coffee. He liked the warmth of the smell.
"You could see somebody when they passed by directly in front of you, and only then. Or whichever way you were looking, no other. If a leaf or something floated over your eye, that would be it, forever. Only the leaf. Nothing more; you couldn't turn."
"Okay," he said, holding the coffee, the cup with both his hands.
"Imagine being sentient but not alive. Seeing and even knowing, but not alive. Just looking out. Recognizing but not being alive. A person can die and still go on. Sometimes what looks out at you from a person's eyes maybe died back in childhood. What's dead in there still looks out. It's not just the body looking at you with nothing in it; there's still something in there but it died and just keeps on looking and looking; it can't stop looking."
Another person said, "That's what it means to die, to not be able to stop looking at whatever's in front of you. Some darn thing placed directly there, with nothing you can do about it such as selecting anything or changing anything. You can only accept what's put there as it is."
"How'd you like to gaze at a beer can throughout eternity? It might not be so bad. There'd be nothing to fear."
Before dinner, which was served to them in the dining room, they had Concept time. Several Concepts were put on the blackboard by different staff members and discussed.
He sat with his hands folded in his lap, watching the floor and listening to the big coffee urn heating up; it went whoop-whoop, and the sound frightened him.
"Living and unliving things are exchanging properties."
Seated here and there on folding chairs, everyone discussed that. They seemed familiar with the Concept. Evidently these were parts of New-Path's way of thought, perhaps even memorized and then thought about again and again. Whoop-whoop.
"The drive of unliving things is stronger than the drive of living things."
They talked about that. Whoop-whoop. The noise of the coffee urn got louder and louder and scared him more, but he did not move or look; he sat where he was, listening. It was hard to hear what they were saying, because of the urn.
"We are incorporating too much unliving drive within us. And exchanging -- Will somebody go look at that damn coffeepot to see why it's doing that?"
There was a break while someone examined the coffee urn. He sat staring down, waiting.
"I'll write this again. 'We are exchanging too much passive life for the reality outside us.'"
They discussed that. The coffee urn became silent, and they trooped over to get coffee.
"Don't you want some coffee?" A voice behind him, touching him. "Ned? Bruce? What's his name -- Bruce?"
"Okay." He got up and followed them to the coffee urn. He waited his turn. They watched as he put cream and sugar into his cup. They watched him return to his chair, the same one; he made certain he found it again, to reseat himself and go on listening. The warm coffee, its steam, made him feel good.
"Activity does not necessarily mean life. Quasars are active. And a monk meditating is not inanimate."
He sat looking at the empty cup; it was a china mug. Turning it over, he discovered printing on the bottom, and cracked glaze. The mug looked old; but it had been made in Detroit.
"Motion that is circular is the deadest form of the universe."
Another voice said, "Time."
He knew the answer to that. Time is round.
"Yes, we've got to break now, but does anyone have a fast final comment?"
"Well, following the line of least resistance, that's the rule of survival. Following, not leading."
Another voice, older, said, "Yes, the followers survive the leader. Like with Christ. Not vice versa."
"We better eat, because Rick stops serving exactly at five fifty now."
"Talk about that in the Game, not now."
Chairs screaked, creaked. He rose too, carried the old mug to the tray of others, and joined them in line out. He could smell cold clothes around him, good smells but cold.
It sounds like they're saying passive life is good, he thought. But there is no such thing as passive life. That's a contradiction.
He wondered what life was, what it meant; maybe he did not understand.
A huge bunch of donated flashy clothes had arrived. Several people stood with armfuls, and some had put shirts on, trying them out and getting approval.
"Hey, Mike. You're a sharp dude."
In the middle of the lounge stood a short stocky man, with curly hair and pug face; he shifted his belt, frowning. "How do you work this here? I don't see how you get it to stay. Why doesn't it loosen?" He had a three-inch buckleless belt with metal rings and he did not know how to cinch the rings. Glancing around, eyes twinkling, he said, "I think they gave me one nobody else could work."
Bruce went over behind him, reached around him, and cinched the belt looped back through the rings.
"Thanks," Mike said. He sorted through several dress shirts, lips pursed. To Bruce he said, "When I get married I'm going to wear one of these."
"Nice," he said.
Mike strolled toward two women at the far end of the lounge; they smiled. Holding a burgundy floral shirt up against himself, Mike said, "I'm going out on the town."
"All right, go in and get dinner!" the house director yelled briskly, in his powerful voice. He winked at Bruce. "How you doing, fella?"
"Fine," Bruce said.
"Sound like you got a cold."
"Yes," he agreed, "it's from coming off. Could I have any Dristan or --"
"No chemicals," the house director said. "Nothing. Hurry on in and eat. How's your appetite?"
"Better," he said, following. They smiled at him, from tables.
After dinner he sat halfway up the wide stairs to the second floor. No one spoke to him; a conference was taking place. He sat there until it finished. Everyone emerged, filling the hall.
He felt them seeing him, and maybe some spoke to him. He sat on the stairs, hunched over, his arms wrapped around him, seeing and seeing. The dark carpet before his eyes.
Presently no more voices.
He did not stir.
"Bruce?" A hand touched him.
He said nothing.
"Bruce, come on into the lounge. You're supposed to be in your room in bed, but, see, I want to talk to you." Mike led him by waving him to follow. He accompanied Mike down the stairs and into the lounge, which was empty. When they were in the lounge Mike shut the door.
Seating himself in a deep chair, Mike indicated for him to sit down facing him. Mike appeared tired; his small eyes were ringed, and he rubbed his forehead.
"I been up since five-thirty this morning," Mike said.
A knock; the door started to open.
Very loudly, Mike yelled, "I want nobody to come in here; we're talking. Hear?"
Mumbles. The door shut.
"Y'know, you better change your shirt a couple times a day," Mike said. "You're sweating something fierce."
"What part of the state are you from?"
He said nothing.
"You come to me from now on when you feel this bad. I went through the same thing, about a year and a half ago. They used to drive me around in cars. Different staff members. You met Eddie? The tall thin drink-a-water that puts down everybody? He drove me for eight days around and around. Never left me alone." Mike yelled suddenly, "Will you get out of here? We're in here talking. Go watch the TV." His voice sank, and he eyed Bruce. "Sometimes you got to'do that. Never leave someone alone."
"I see," Bruce said.
"Bruce, be careful you don't take your own life."
"Yes, sir," Bruce said, staring down.
"Don't call me sir!"
"Were you in the Service, Bruce? Is that what it was? You got on the stuff in the Service?"
"You shoot it or drop it?"
He made no sound.
"'Sir'" Mike said. "I've served, myself, ten years in prison. One time I saw eight guys in our row of cells cut their throats in one day. We slept with our feet in the toilet, our cells were that small. That's what prison is, you sleep with your feet in the toilet. You never been in prison, have you?"
"No," he said.
"But on the other hand, I saw prisoners eighty years old still happy to be alive and wanting to stay alive. I remember when I was on dope, and I shot it; I started shooting when I was in my teens. I never did anything else. I shot up and then I went in for ten years. I shot up so much -- heroin and D together -- that I never did anything else; I never saw anything else. Now I'm off it and I'm out of prison and I'm here. You know what I notice the most? You know what the big difference is I notice? Now I can walk down the street outside and see something. I can hear water when we visit the forest -- you'll see our other facilities later on, farms and so forth. I can walk down the street, the ordinary street, and see the little dogs and cats. I never saw them before. All I saw was dope." He examined his wristwatch. "So," he added, "I understand how you feel."
"It's hard," Bruce said, "getting off."
"Everybody here got off. Of course, some go back on. If you left here you'd go back on. You know that."
"No person in this place has had an easy life. I'm not saying your life's been easy. Eddie would. He'd tell you that your troubles are mickey mouse. Nobody's troubles are mickey mouse. I see how bad you feel, but I felt that way once. Now I feel a lot better. Who's your roommate?"
"Oh yeah. John. Then you must be down in the basement."
"I like it," he said.
"Yeah, it's warm there. You probably get cold a lot. Most of us do, and I remember I did; I shook all the time, and crapped in my pants. Well, I tell you, you won't have to go through this again, if you stay here at New-Path."
"How long?" he said.
"The rest of your life."
Bruce raised his head.
"I can't leave," Mike said. "I'd get back on dope if I went out there. I've got too many buddies outside. I'd be back on the corner again, dealing and shooting, and then back in the prison for twenty years. You know -- hey -- I'm thirty-five years old and I'm getting married for the first time. Have you met Laura? My fiancee?"
He wasn't sure.
"Pretty girl, plump. Nice figure?"
"She's afraid to go out the door. Someone has to go with her. We're going to the zoo ... we're taking the Executive Director's little boy to the San Diego Zoo next week, and Laura's scared to death. More scared than I am."
"You heard me say that?" Mike said. "That I'm scared to go to the zoo?"
"I never have been to a zoo that I can recall," Mike said. "What do you do at a zoo? Maybe you know."
"Look into different cages and open confined areas."
"What kind of animals do they have?"
"Wild ones, I guess. Normally wild. And exotical ones."
"At the San Diego Zoo they have almost every wild animal," Bruce said.
"They have one of those ... what are they? Koala bears."
"I saw a commercial on TV," Mike said. "With a koala bear in it. They hop. They resemble a stuffed toy."
Bruce said, "The old Teddy bear, that kids have, that was created based on the koala bear, back in the twenties."
"Is that right. I guess you'd have to go to Australia to see a koala bear. Or are they extinct now?"
"There're plenty in Australia," Bruce said, "but export is banned. Live or the hides. They almost got extinct."
"I never been anywhere," Mike said, "except when I ran stuff from Mexico up to Vancouver, British Columbia. I always took the same route, so I never saw anything. I just drove very fast to get it over with. I drive one of the Foundation cars. If you feel like it, if you feel very bad, I'll drive you around. I'll drive and we can talk. I don't mind. Eddie and some others not here now did it for me. I don't mind."
"Now we both ought to hit the sack. Have they got you on the kitchen stuff in the morning yet? Setting tables and serving?"
"Then you get to sleep to the same time I do. I'll see you at breakfast. You sit at the table with me and I'll introduce you to Laura."
"When are you getting married?"
"A month and a half. We'd be pleased if you were there. Of course, it'll be here at the building, so everyone will attend."
"Thank you," he said.
He sat in the Game and they screamed at him. Faces, all over, screaming; he gazed down.
"Y'know what he is? A kissy-facy!" One shriller voice made him peer up. Among the awful screaming distortions one Chinese girl, howling. "You're a kissy-facy, that's what you are!"
"Can you fuck yourself? Can you fuck yourself?" the others chanted at him, curled up in a circle on the floor.
The Executive Director, in red bell-bottoms and pink slippers, smiled. Glittery little broken eyes, like a spook's. Rocking back and forth, his spindly legs tucked under him, without a pillow.
"Let's see you fuck yourself!"
The Executive Director seemed to enjoy it when his eyes saw something break; his eyes glinted and filled with mirth. Like a dramatic stage queer, from some old court, draped in flair, colorful, he peeped around and enjoyed. And then from time to time his voice warbled out, grating and monotonous, like a metal noise. A scraping mechanical hinge.
"The kissy-facy!" the Chinese girl howled at him; beside her another girl flapped her arms and bulged her cheeks, plop-plop. "Here!" the Chinese girl howled, swiveled around to jut her rump at him, pointing to it and howling at him, "Kiss my ass, then, kissy-facy! He wants to kiss people, kiss this, kissy-facy!"
"Let's see you fuck yourself!" the family chanted. "Jack yourself off, kissy-facy!"
He shut his eyes, but his ears still heard.
"You pimp," the Executive Director said slowly to him. Monotonously. "You fuck. You dong. You shit. You turd prick. You --" On and on.
His ears still brought in sounds, but they blended. He glanced up once when he made out Mike's voice, audibly during a lull. Mike sat gazing at him impassively, a little reddened, his neck swollen in the too-tight collar of his dress shirt.
"Bruce," Mike said, "what's the matter? What brought you here? What do you want to tell us? Can you tell us anything about yourself at all?"
"Pimp!" George screamed, bouncing up and down like a rubber ball. "What were you, pimp?"
The Chinese girl leaped up, shrieking, "Tell us, you cock sucking fairy whore pimp, you ass-kisser, you fuck!"
He said, "I am an eye."
"You turd prick," the Executive Director said. "You weakling. You puke. You suck-off. You snatch."
He heard nothing now. And forgot the meaning of the words, and, finally, the words themselves.
Only, he sensed Mike watching him, watching and listening, hearing nothing; he did not know, he did not recall, he felt little, he felt bad, he wanted to leave.
The Vacuum in him grew. And he was actually a little glad.
It was late in the day.
"Look in here," a woman said, "where we keep the freaks."
He felt frightened as she opened the door. The door fell aside and noise spilled out of the room, the size surprising him; but he saw many little children playing.
That evening he watched two older men feed the children milk and little foods, sitting in a separate small alcove near the kitchen. Rick, the cook, gave the two older men the children's food first while everyone waited in the dining room.
Smiling at him, a Chinese girl, carrying plates to the dining room, said, "You like kids?"
"Yes," he said.
"You can sit with the kids and eat there with them."
"Oh," he said.
"You can feed them later on like in a month or two." She hesitated. "When we're positive you won't hit them. We have a rule: the children can't never be hit for anything they do."
"Okay," he said. He felt warmed into life, watching the children eat; he seated himself, and one of the smaller children crept up on his lap. He began spooning food to the child. Both he and the child felt, he thought, equally warm. The Chinese girl smiled at him and then passed on with the plates to the dining room.
For a long time he sat among the children, holding first one and then another. The two older men quarreled with the children and criticized each other's way of feeding. Bits and hunks and smudges of food covered the table and floor; startled, he realized that the children had been fed and were going off into their big playroom to watch cartoons on TV. Awkwardly, he bent down to clean up spilled food.
"No, that's not your job!" one of the elderly men said sharply. "I'm supposed to do that."
"Okay," he agreed, rising, bumping his head on the edge of the table. He held spilled food in his hand and he gazed at it, wonderingly.
"Go help clear the dining room!" the other older man said to him. He had a slight speech impediment.
One of the kitchen help, someone from the dishpan, said to him in passing, "You need permission to sit with the kids."
He nodded, standing there, puzzled.
"That's for the old folk," the dishpan person said. "Babysitting." He laughed. "That can't do nothing else." He continued by.
One child remained. She studied him, large-eyed and said to him, "What's your name?"
He answered nothing.
"I said, what's your name?"
Reaching cautiously, he touched a bit of beef on the table. It had cooled now. But, aware of the child beside him, he still felt warm; he touched her on the head, briefly.
"My name is Thelma," the child said. "Did you forget your name?" She patted him. "If you forget your name, you can write it on your hand. Want me to show you how?" She patted him again.
"Won't it wash off?" he asked her. "If you write it on your hand, the first time you do anything or take a bath it'll wash off."
"Oh, I see." She nodded. "Well, you could write it on the wall, over your head. In your room where you sleep. Up high where it won't wash off. And then when you want to know your name better you can --"
"Thelma," he murmured.
"No, that's my name. You have to have a different name. And that's a girl's name."
"Let's see," he said, meditating.
"If I see you again I'll give you a name," Thelma said. "I'll make one up for you. 'Kay?"
"Don't you live here?" he said.
"Yes, but my mommy might leave. She's thinking about taking us, me and my brother, and leaving."
He nodded. Some of the warmth left him.
All of a sudden, for no reason he could see, the child ran off.
I should work out my own name, anyhow, he decided; it's my responsibility. He examined his hand and wondered why he was doing that; there was nothing to see. Bruce, he thought; that's my name. But there ought to be better names than that, he thought. The warmth that remained gradually departed, as had the child.
He felt alone and strange and lost again. And not very happy.
One day Mike Westaway managed to get sent out to pick up a load of semi-rotten produce donated by a local supermarket to New-Path. However, after making sure no staff member had tailed him, he made a phone call and then met Donna Hawthorne at a McDonald's fast-food stand.
They sat together outside, with Cokes and hamburgers between them on the wooden table.
"Have we really been able to duke him?" Donna asked.
"Yes," Westaway said. But he thought, The guy's so burned out. I wonder if it matters. I wonder if we accomplished anything. And yet it had to be like this.
"They're not paranoid about him."
"No," Mike Westaway said.
Donna said, "Are you personally convinced they're growing the stuff?"
"Not me. It's not what I believe. It's them." Those who pay us, he thought.
"What's the name mean?"
"Mors ontologica. Death of the spirit. The identity. The essential nature."
"Will he be able to act?"
Westaway watched the cars and people passing; he watched moodily as he fooled with his food.
"You really don't know."
"Never can know until it happens. A memory. A few charred brain cells flicker on. Like a reflex. React, not act. We can just hope. Remembering what Paul says in the Bible: faith, hope, and giving away your money." He studied the pretty, dark-haired young girl across from him and could perceive, in her intelligent face, why Bob Arctor -- No, he thought; I always have to think of him as Bruce. Otherwise I cop out to knowing too much: things I shouldn't, couldn't, know. Why Bruce thought so much of her. Thought when he was capable of thought.
"He was very well drilled," Donna said, in what seemed to him an extraordinary forlorn voice. And at the same time an expression of sorrow crossed her face, straining and warping its lines. "Such a cost to pay," she said then, half to herself, and drank from her Coke.
He thought, But there is no other way. To get in there. I can't get in. That's established by now; think how long I've been trying. They'd only let a burned-out husk like Bruce in. Harmless. He would have to be ... the way he is. Or they wouldn't take the risk. It's their policy.
"The government asks an awful lot," Donna said.
"Life asks an awful lot."
Raising her eyes, she confronted him, darkly angry. "In this case the federal government. Specifically. From you, me. From --" She broke off. "From what was my friend."
"He's still your friend."
Fiercely Donna said, "What's left of him."
What's left of him, Mike Westaway thought, is still searching for you. After its fashion. He too felt sad. But the day was nice, the people and cars cheered him, the air smelled good. And there was the prospect of success; that cheered him the most. They had come this far. They could go the rest of the way.
Donna said, "I think, really, there is nothing more terrible than the sacrifice of someone or something, a living thing, without its ever knowing. If it knew. If it understood and volunteered. But --" She gestured. "He doesn't know; he never did know. He didn't volunteer --"
"Sure he did. It was his job."
"He had no idea, and he hasn't any idea now, because now he hasn't any ideas. You know that as well as I do. And he will never again in his life, as long as he lives, have any ideas. Only reflexes. And this didn't happen accidentally; it was supposed to happen. So we have this ... bad karma on us. I feel it on my back. Like a corpse. I'm carrying a corpse -- Bob Arctor's corpse. Even while he's technically alive." Her voice had risen; Mike Westaway gestured, and, with visible effort, she calmed herself. People at other wooden tables, enjoying their burgers and shakes, had glanced inquiringly.
After a pause Westaway said, "Well, look at it this way. They can't interrogate something, someone, who doesn't have a mind."
"I've got to get back to work," Donna said. She examined her wristwatch. "I'll tell them everything seems okay, according to what you told me. In your opinion."
"Wait for winter," Westaway said.
"It'll take until then. Never mind why, but that's how it is; it will work in winter or it won't work at all. We'll get it then or not at all." Directly at the solstice, he thought.
"An appropriate time. When everything's dead and under the snow."
He laughed. "In California?"
"The winter of the spirit. Mors ontologica. When the spirit is dead."
"Only asleep," Westaway said. He rose. "I have to split, too, I have to pick up a load of vegetables."
Donna gazed at him with sad, mute, afflicted dismay.
"For the kitchen," Westaway said gently. "Carrots and lettuce. That kind. Donated by McCoy's Market, for us poor at New-Path. I'm sorry I said that. It wasn't meant to be a joke. It wasn't meant to be anything." He patted her on the shoulder of her leather jacket. And as he did so it came to him that probably Bob Arctor, in better, happier days, had gotten this jacket for her as a gift.
"We have worked together on this a long time," Donna said in a moderate, steady voice. "I don't want to be on this much longer. I want it to end. Sometimes at night, when I can't sleep, I think, shit, we are colder than they are. The adversary."
"I don't see a cold person when I look at you," Westaway said. "Although I guess I really don't know you all that well. What I do see, and see clearly, is one of the warmest persons I ever knew."
"I am warm on the outside, what people see. Warm eyes, warm face, warm fucking fake smile, but inside I am cold all the time, and full of lies. I am not what I seem to be; I am awful." The girl's voice remained steady, and as she spoke she smiled. Her pupils were large and mellow and without guile. "But, then, there's no other way. Is there? I figured that out a long time ago and made myself like this. But it really isn't so bad. You get what you want this way. And everybody is this way to a degree. What I am that's actually so bad -- I am a liar. I lied to my friend, I lied to Bob Arctor all the time. I even told him one time not to believe anything I said, and of course he just believed I was kidding; he didn't listen. But if I told him, then it's his responsibility not to listen, not to believe me any more, after I said that. I warned him. But he forgot as soon as I said it and went right on. Kept right on truckin'."
"You did what you had to. You did more than you had to."
The girl started away from the table. "Okay, then there really isn't anything for me to report, so far. Except your confidence. Just that he's duked in and they accept him. They didn't get anything out of him in those --" She shuddered. "Those gross games."
"I'll see you later." She paused. "The federal people aren't going to want to wait until winter."
"But winter it is," Westaway said. "The winter solstice."
"Just wait," he said. "And pray."
"That's bullshit," Donna said. "Prayer, 1 mean. I prayed a long time ago, a lot, but not any more. We wouldn't have to do this, what we're doing, if prayer worked. It's another shuck."
"Most things are." He followed after the girl a few steps as she departed, drawn to her, liking her. "I don't feel you destroyed your friend. It seems to me you've been as much destroyed, as much the victim. Only on you it doesn't show. Anyhow, there was no choice."
"I'm going to hell," Donna said. She smiled suddenly, a broad, boyish grin. "My Catholic upbringing."
"In hell they sell you nickel bags and when you get home there's M-and-M's in them."
"M-and-M's made out of turkey turds," Donna said, and then all at once she was gone. Vanished away into the hither-and-thither-going people; he blinked. Is this how Bob Arctor felt? he asked himself. Must have. There she was, stable and as if forever; then -- nothing. Vanished like fire or air, an element of the earth back into the earth. To mix with the everyone-else people that never ceased to be. Poured out among them. The evaporated girl, he thought. Of transformation. That comes and goes as she will. And no one, nothing, can hold on to her.
I seek to net the wind, he thought. And so had Arctor. Vain, he thought, to try to place your hands firmly on one of the federal drug-abuse agents. They are furtive. Shadows which melt away when their job dictates. As if they were never really there in the first place. Arctor, he thought, was in love with a phantom of authority, a kind of hologram, through which a normal man could walk, and emerge on the far side, alone. Without ever having gotten a good grip on it -- on the girl itself.
God's M.O., he reflected, is to transmute evil into good. If He is active here, He is doing that now, although our eyes can't perceive it; the process lies hidden beneath the surface of reality, and emerges only later. To, perhaps, our waiting heirs. Paltry people who will not know the dreadful war we've gone through, and the losses we took, unless in some footnote in a minor history book they catch a notion. Some brief mention. With no list of the fallen.
There should be a monument somewhere, he thought, listing those who died in this. And, worse, those who didn't die. Who have to live on, past death. Like Bob Arctor. The saddest of all.
I get the idea Donna is a mercenary, he thought. Not on salary. And they are the most wraithlike. They disappear forever. New names, new locations. You ask yourself, where is she now? And the answer is --
Nowhere. Because she was not there in the first place.
Reseating himself at the wooden table, Mike Westaway finished eating his burger and drinking his Coke. Since it was better than what they were served at New-Path. Even if the burger had been made from ground-up cows' anuses.
To call Donna back, to seek to find her or possess her ... I seek what Bob Arctor sought, so maybe he is better off now, this way. The tragedy in his life already existed. To love an atmospheric spirit. That was the real sorrow. Hopelessness itself. Nowhere on the printed page, nowhere in the annals of man, would her name appear: no local habitation, no name. There are girls like that, he thought, and those you love the most, the ones where there is no hope because it has eluded you at the very moment you close your hands around it.
So maybe we saved him from something worse, Westaway concluded. And, while accomplishing that, put what remained of him to use. To good and valuable use.
If we turn out lucky.
"Do you know any stories?" Thelma asked one day.
"I know the story about the wolf," Bruce said.
"The wolf and the grandmother?"
"No," he said. "The black-and-white wolf. It was up in a tree, and again and again it dropped down on the farmer's animals. Finally one time the farmer got all his sons and all his sons' friends and they stood around waiting for the black-and-white wolf in the tree to drop down. At last the wolf dropped down on a mangy-looking brown animal, and there in his black-and-white coat he was shot by all of them."
"Oh," Thelma said. "That's too bad."
"But they saved the hide," he continued. "They skinned the great black-and-white wolf that dropped from the tree and preserved his beautiful hide, so that those to follow, those who came later on, could see what he had been like and could marvel at him, at his strength and size. And future generations talked about him and related many stories of his prowess and majesty, and wept for his passing."
"Why did they shoot him?"
"They had to," he said. "You must do that with wolves like that."
"Do you know any other stories? Better ones?"
"No," he said, "that's the only story I know." He sat remembering how the wolf had enjoyed his great springing ability, his leaping down again and again in his fine body, but now that body was gone, shot down. And for meager animals to be slaughtered and eaten anyhow. Animals with no strength that never sprang, that took no pride in their bodies. But anyhow, on the good side, those animals trudged on. And the black-and-white wolf had never complained; he had said nothing even when they shot him. His claws had still been deep in his prey. For nothing. Except that that was his fashion and he liked to do it. It was his only way. His only style by which to live. All he knew. And they got him.
"Here's the wolf!" Thelma exclaimed, leaping about clumsily. "Voob, voob!" She grabbed at things and missed, and he saw with dismay that something was wrong with her. He saw for the first time, distressed and wondering how it could happen, that she was impaired.
He said, "You are not the wolf."
But even so, as she groped and hobbled, she stumbled; even so, he realized, the impairment continued. He wondered how it could be that ...
Ich unglucksel get Atlas! Eine Welt,
... such sadness could exist. He walked away.
Behind him she still played. She tripped and fell. How must that feel? he wondered.
He roamed along the corridor, searching for the vacuum cleaner. They had informed him that he must carefully vacuum the big playroom where the children spent most of the day.
"Down the hall to the right." A person pointed. Earl.
"Thanks, Earl," he said.
When he arrived at a closed door he started to knock, and then instead he opened it.
Inside the room an old woman stood holding three rubber balls, which she juggled. She turned toward him, her gray stringy hair falling on her shoulders, grinning at him with virtually no teeth. She wore white bobby socks and tennis shoes. Sunken eyes, he saw; sunken eyes, grinning, empty mouth.
"Can you do this?" she wheezed, and threw all three balls up into the air. They fell back, hitting her, bouncing down to the floor. She stooped over, spitting and laughing.
"I can't do that," he said, standing there dismayed.
"I can." The thin old creature, her arms cracking as she moved, raised the balls, squinted, tried to get it right.
Another person appeared at the door beside Bruce and stood with him, also watching.
"How long has she been practicing?" Bruce said.
"Quite a while." The person called, "Try again. You're getting close!"
The old woman cackled as she bent to fumble to pick the balls up once again.
"One's over there," the person beside Bruce said. "Under your night table."
"Ohhhh!" she wheezed.
They watched the old woman try again and again, dropping the balls, picking them back up, aiming carefully, balancing herself, throwing them high into the air, and then hunching as they rained down on her, sometimes hitting her head.
The person beside Bruce sniffed and said, "Donna, you better go clean yourself. You 're not clean."
Bruce, stricken, said, "That isn't Donna. Is that Donna?" He raised his head to peer at the old woman and he felt great terror; tears of a sort stood in the old woman's eyes as she gazed back at him, but she was laughing, laughing as she threw the three balls at him, hoping to hit him. He ducked.
"No, Donna, don't do that," the person beside Bruce said to her. "Don't hit people. Just keep trying to do what you saw on TV, you know, catch them again yourself and throw them right back up. But go clean yourself now; you stink."
"Okay," the old woman agreed, and hurried off, hunched and little. She left the three rubber balls still rolling on the floor.
The person beside Bruce shut the door, and they walked along the hall. "How long has Donna been here?" Bruce said.
"A long time. Since before I came, which was six months ago. She started trying to juggle about a week ago."
"Then it isn't Donna," he said. "If she's been here that long. Because I just got here a week ago." And, he thought, Donna drove me here in her MG. I remember that, because we had to stop while she got the radiator filled back up. And she looked fine then. Sad-eyed, dark, quiet and composed in her little leather jacket, her boots, with her purse that has the rabbit's foot dangling. Like she always is.
He continued on then, searching for the vacuum cleaner. He felt a great deal better. But he didn't understand why.