Feb 17 2011 4:40pm
The Dream of Perpetual Motion (Excerpt)
aboard the good ship chrysalis
Into. The. Sea?
spiraling slowly down and crashing into the open sea?
Morning, and the voice has already begun. It was speaking even before I awoke. It has never stopped.
If my reckoning of time is still accurate, the day on which I begin to write this journal marks the one-year anniversary of my incarceration aboard the good ship Chrysalis, a high-altitude zeppelin designed by that most prodigious and talented of twentieth-century inventors, Prospero Taligent. It has also been a year since I last opened my mouth to speak. To anyone. Especially my captor. I refuse to speak to my captor precisely because it is the one thing that she desires, and my silence is the only form of protest that remains to me.
Writing, however, is a different thing altogether from speaking. The written word has different properties, and different powers. If I learned anything in the world before my imprisonmenthere, it was certainly that.
The only person aboard this ship besides myself is Prospero Taligent’s adopted daughter, Miranda. For this past year I have been unable to escape from the sound of Miranda’s voice. It follows me relentlessly through the corridors of this zeppelin’s immense gondola as I continue to seek out her hiding place, where I hope to confront her, face-to-face. Her voice never stops: even when I sleep, it is a shining silver thread running through most of my dreams and all my nightmares, whispering, beseeching, threatening: One word from you is all I want. Just speak one word, and we’ll begin. Name, rank, and serial number, perhaps the misquoted lyrics from a pop u lar song: anything will do. From there we’ll move with slow cautious steps to gentle verbal sparring, twice-told tales, descriptions of the scarred and darkest places of our old and worn-out souls. I’ll love you back; I’ll tell you secrets—
Miranda’s father was kind to me when he built the place that would become my prison. Th is craft is what one might call a miracle of engineering, fully staffed by a crew of mechanical men who wordlessly go about the hundreds of tasks necessary to keep the Chrysalis in the sky: tending to the small garden whose fruits keep me alive; interpreting the readouts of the dozens of instruments that continue to claim that this ship will never crash, despite my growing fears that they’re wrong; repairing each other, sometimes even harvesting their own limbs to replace the malfunctioning arms and legs of their metal colleagues. And somehow through Prospero’s craftsmanship the sounds of all the machines in the ship have been muffled to silence, a sharp contrast to the world beneath me where mechanical noises fill the air, day and night, never ceasing. So the only sounds that I have heard for the past year are the echoes of my footsteps as I drift down the gondola’s walkways, and the bell-clear voice of Miranda emanating from what may well be thousands of speakers scattered throughout the ship, inset in the floors, hidden behind paintings and secret panels, swinging on wires hanging from the ceilings, so that not one placehere goes untouched by her endless lunatic stream of words: Soon our culture’s oldest dreams will be made real. Even the thought of sending a kind of fl ying craft to the moon is no longer nothing more than a child’s fantasy. At this moment in the cities below us, the first mechanical men are being constructed that will have the capability to pilot the ship on its maiden voyage. But no one has asked if this dreamwe’ve had for so long will lose its value once it is realized. What will happen when those mechanical men step out of their ship and onto the surface of this moon, which has served humanity for thousands of years as our principal icon of love and madness? When they touch their hands to the ground and perform their relentless analyses and find no measurable miracles, but a dead gray world of rocks and dust? When they discover that it was the strength of millions of boyhood daydreams that kept the moon aloft, and that without them that murdered world will fall, spiraling slowly down and crashing into the open sea?
She begs me to speak, but I won’t. We live in our own little universe, she and I, and she is mad, and I am sane. This is the one thing that I know for sure. Prospero Taligent drove her mad: thirty years of being his daughter broke her mind, but I won’t let the same thing happen to me. She is mad, and I am sane. To speak to her, even the first word, would be an acknowledgment and an accep tance of her madness, and from there I would have no choice but to follow her down the hole until both of us would behere alone in this ship among the clouds, endlessly circling the earth, our needs carefully ministered to by mechanical men, howling ourselves hoarse and counting off the ticks of the clock before the moon falls out of the sky.
I am going to try to tell a story now, and though I’ve made a life out of writing words, this is the first time I have told a story. There are no new stories in the world anymore, and no more storytellers. There is nothing left but the fragments of phrases that signaled their telling: once upon a time; why; and then; the end. But these phrases have lost their meanings through endless repetition, like everythingelse in this modern, mechanical age. And this machine age has no room for stories. These days we seek our pleasures out in single moments cast in amber, as if we have no desire to connect the future to the past. Stories? We have no time for them; we have no patience.
Sometimes I have a little trouble holding things together. It seems strange and inaccurate, when writing of what oneself once was, to speak of oneself as “I,” especially when I find it difficult to own up to some of the actions performed by the people I once was: the ten-year-old boy who played innocent games on Miranda’s magic island; the twenty-year-old who returned to that island when he had no business there; the thirty-yearold who committed the crime for which I have been imprisoned aboard this ship, with the madwoman. In this last year I’ve spent time with all of my past incarnations (oh, yes, they have their voices, too, they have just as much to say to me as Miranda), and we have decided that the only way to make sense of our existences is to set the stories of our lives down on paper, to try to make one tale that shows how the twentieth century turned Harold Winslow into Harold Winslow into Harold Winslow into me.
Any story told in this machine age must be a story of fragments, for fragments are all the world has left: interrupted threads of talk at crowded cocktail parties; snatches of poems heard as a radio dial spins through its arc; incomplete commandments reclaimed from shattered stones.
Every story needs a voice to tell it though, or it goes unheard. So I have to try. I still have enough faith left in language to believe that if I place enough words next to each other on the page, they will start to speak with sounds of their own.
nightfall in the
Hello. My name is Harold Winslow. Yes. I need help.
Yes, I’ve used your services before.
Don’t tell me everything’s going to be fine. It’s not. You can guess I know better than that.
I need help. This is one of my bad mornings. Some of the dreams I have are worse than others. This one isn’t the worst, but it’s bad enough for me to need your services.
I need to be taken to the Xeroville Greeting-card Works. I have to get to work.
No—no I still don’t have insurance. I’ll pay cash.
No—no I don’t have a voice of my own.
But if you need a voice I can give one to you. It’s the thing that I do best.
Some of the dreams I have are worse than others, and though the one I had last nightwasn’t one of those especially vivid ones that keep me riveted to the bed and soaked in sweat for a half hour after I’ve woken from it, it was bad enough to warrant placing the call for a shrinkcab. It is there waiting for me by the time I hang up the phone, dress for work, and descend to the lobby of my apartment building—except for the light on its roof, white instead of the usual yellow, it is indistinguishable from the hundreds of other cabs that clog the city’s downtown streets each rush hour. The drivers of shrinkcabs usually make a gesture toward dressing a bit better than the usual cabbie, and as I slide into the backseat, I see that this one is wearing a starched shirt with silver cuff links—unfortunately, the intended eff ect is spoiled by a sleeve sporting scattered stains of ketchup and scrambled egg, the remnants of a breakfast sandwich whose foil wrapper lies discarded in the passenger seat.
Without a word the shrinkcabbie starts the meter and pulls off . Then, unconscionably, he turns on the radio, as if he intends to listen to me with one ear and the news of the world with the other. This is not the grade of service I expect. Periodic static interrupts a parade of voices as he twiddles the dial.
—ff ff fsssssff ff f—
“—aft er fi fteen years of marriage you can see her disgust whenever she looks at you. You know her heart’s a block of ice.”
—ff ff fsssssff ff f—
“—full fadom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made—”
—ff ff fsssssff ff f—
“Hello out there! I just want you to know that I’m just like you, and, just like you, sometimes I have a little trouble holding things together.”
—ff ff fsssssff ff f—
“—but then you give her the greeting card. And she opens it, and she reads it, and the color comes back into her cheeks. And the smile spreads across her face that youhaven’t seen since both of youwere young. And she bakes the casserole that you like. And she enters your bedroom and kneels before you.
“The Xeroville Greeting-card Works. When you need a reliable immediate intense targeted emotional response—”
—ff ff fsssssff ff f—
“—those are pearls that were his eyes: nothing of him that doth fade—”
—ff ff fsssssff ff f—
“—and I’m just like you. And between a seventy-hour workweek and a romance that’s crumbling before my eyes, who can spare an hour to go to a therapist to get the help we all desperately need, every once in a while, to help us hold things together? To stave off the oncoming specter of insanity? Not me, I tell you! Not me. That’s why, every once in a while, only when I need it, I pick up the phone and call a Shrinkcab. Shrinkcab’s fleet of drivers are all rigorously trained in clinical psychiatry and licensed to dispense prescriptions, and will happily help you combine your necessary psychological therapy with your morning or eve ning commute for the maximum in twentieth-century conve nience. Our cabs are handsomely upholstered in soothing colors and completely soundproofed for the ultimate in comfort. You just sit back, open up your head, and—”
—ff ff fsssssff ff f—
“—our proprietary emotional-provocation technologies. Xeroville Greeting-card Works. The key to the human heart. The best in the business.”
—ff ff fsssssff ff f—
“—sea nymphs hourly ring his knell. Hark: now I hear them. Ding- dong bell.”
—ff ff fsssssff ff f—
“—relax. We’ll help you hold things together.”
I lean forward and tell him to turn offthe radio in a tone meant to be peremptory, but the intended note of command in my voice has too much squeak and quiver. Nonetheless, after looking at me for a moment in his rearview mirror, he reluctantly shuts off the radio, leaving us in soundproof silence.
Then I begin.
This is costing me a lot, isn’t it. By the time we make it into downtown Xeroville I will have spent two days’ pay in cab fare. So I guess I’d better start talking, and get my money’s worth.
My name is Harold Winslow. I’m in the sentiment-development division of the Xeroville Greeting-card Works. Right nowwe’re working on Christmas cards. That’s right—even though it’s the middle of July, we’re working on the Christmas cards for next season. Time is always out of joint in the greeting-card works. Outside the works heat- shimmers rise from concrete; inside the works it’s ice-cold, that special kind of ozone-fl avored cold that machines make, andwe’ve got Styrofoam snow strewn across the floors and red and green tinsel hanging from the walls. For inspiration. You’d be surprised: it’s hard to summon the Christmas spirit in the middle of July. We hired a group of dwarves to dress up in elf outfits and run up and down the hallways, carrying lovingly handcrafted wooden toys and singing high-pitched, cloying songs of holiday cheer.
I’ve become disillusioned with my job: that’s part of my problem, I think. I am a failed writer. I went to a university, hoping to become a successful writer, but I failed. Miranda, back then, tried to tell me that terrible thingswere in store for me, for all of us. But even though she was wise beyond her years, she was still young, and so was I, and all of our wordswere drowned out by the noise of our beating hearts, screaming at us that wewere, aft er all, creatures of flesh and blood. So instead of taking our only chance of escape, we went back to her magic island when we had no business there. In a life full of failures, that was yet another.
I’m a failed writer with no voice of my own. What I do at the greeting- card works is this: I try to guess what kind of voice a voiceless person would choose if he could have any voice he wanted, and then I try to speak with that voice. I speak the words of love and affection that people would speak for themselves if they could. If they weren’t paralyzed. If their lips didn’t lock every time they even thought of expressing their own love for themselves. You have seen them, drifting up and down drugstore aisles like ghosts, their hands shaking, their teeth grinding, their jaws locked as they try to find the words that say the thing they mean to say. They are blind and dumb. I don’t know what they’d do if they were confronted with greeting cards thatwere blank on the inside. Paralyzed. Blind and dumb.
My special talent is greeting cards that are designed to be given by boys between the ages of nine and sixteen, when they are too old for naïve sentiments that tumble clumsily off the tongue, and too young for cookie-cutter blank verses about love that perseveres through ravaging Time. My masterpiece is a greeting card I wrote for the Father’s Day season three years ago, a large two-dollar affair that opened out into three panels, illuminated on both sides in brilliant pastels. As far as greeting cards go, it was an epic. The text was in iambic pentameter. The son, the implied speaker and the person presenting the card, details a fantasy in which his father is a monster, and the son is a smaller version of his father, a monster as well. And the father and son do monstrous things together, like throwing around automobiles and knocking down buildings and breathing fire and biting the heads off innocent bystanders. Then on the climactic final panel, the son thanks his father for being a “monster of a dad!” and for making him a “monster of a son!” It was a big seller. It went into several printings.
I know what little boys like. Little boys like monsters.
I have a recurring dream that goes something like this. I am lying naked on my back in the midst of an endless field of poppies, staring up at a blue sky. It is dead quiet, the way it is never quiet in the world anymore, now that machines are everywhere. Even when you think a room is quiet, there’s always some damned machine in it, making some kind of noise: plumbing; an air conditioner; a fluorescent lamp. But in this endless field of poppies it’s dead quiet, as it must have been when the world was still young.
Then the virgin queen comes. I can tell she’s coming because, although I still have my gaze fixed on the sky, I have also shifted it to look at the queen as she leisurely walks across the poppy field with their retinue trailing behind her, in that way in dreams that you can look at two things at once and see them both with crystal clarity. The queen is wearing a crystal crown that glitters in the sunlight, and an intricately embroidered dress shot through with threads of gold and silver. She is accompanied by several small boys. Some are naked; some are clothed. Some are dressed like girls, with long dresses and two pigtails tied with red ribbons. Some have human torsos, but haunches and horns and hooves, like creatures out of myths.
Then the queen stops walking and sits in the midst of the poppies and crosses her legs and smiles and laughs, and the boys assemble in front of her and begin to enact some complex kind of dance, taking slow steps, moving in interlaced circles, swaying their bodies to a rhythm that only they can hear. Then the queen turns to look at me, and it’s just before I see her face that I wake up.
Waking up from the dream is the worst part. It always takes a few seconds. It’s like . . . suppose youwere underwater and naked and running out of air, deep down where all the light’s gone, and you have to come up for air. And you spend every last precious ounce of your life’s energy in the effort to rise to the surface and take that badly needed breath, and just as your head breaks from the water you remember, too late, to your horror, that you are a fi sh.
Why don’t you just let me off here. I’ll walk the rest of the way.
In the morning, when the sun is rising, the building that houses the Xeroville Greeting-card Works is eclipsed by the long, yawning shadow of the Taligent Tower. The Tower is the uncontested dominant piece of architecture in the city, the defining element of its skyline, and it is owned by Prospero Taligent, reclusive genius, the richest person in the known world, the inventor of the mechanical man.
Prospero Taligent’s tale is one of the last real entrepreneurial legends of the twentieth century. Not many people that anyone knows have actually been inside the Tower, a forbidding monolithic place with obsidian walls rising straight up to the sky, but it is said that Prospero endlessly walks the darkened corridors inside, that he never sleeps, that he has knowledge and talents that border on wizardry, and that miracles are commonplace within the Tower’s walls. That there are manufacturing devices with tolerances so small that they can be used to make gears and pulleys and cranks that are nearly invisible to the naked eye. That Prospero’s mechanical servants are so intricately and ingeniously constructed that they can play chess competently with masters of the game. That, at this moment, on the top fl oor of the Tower, a team of engineers and mechanical men under Prospero’s direction are at work on the largest zeppelin ever made, a fantastic flying craft that will have a motor the size of a child’s fist, and that this motor will be powered by the world’s first and only perpetual motion machine.
And, of course, everyone knows about Prospero and his beautiful daughter, Miranda. How one of Prospero’s servants found the toddler crawling about naked and grime-covered in a street in the red-light district and, moved to tears, brought her back to sanctuary in the Tower to sue for Prospero’s help. How the never-married, childless Prospero fell in love with the girl on sight, used his considerable legal muscle to rescue her from her biological father, an abusive alcoholic semipsychotic schizophrenic gruel salesman, and adopted her to raise just as surely as if she were his own flesh and blood. How Miranda’s playroom takes up an entire floor of the Tower, and that it contains creatures for her playmates of all kinds, both human and animal, both living and automatic, including, as the playroom’s centerpiece, a breathing, warm, real, magnificent white unicorn.
I could confirm some of these myths if someone asked me to. When I was a child, I saw that unicorn and rode on its back. But now I am no longer a child, and that unicorn is dead and rotted away.
Ophelia Flavin was six and a half feet tall, and beautiful. “For the first time in years,” she said, “I feel young.”
Ophelia and Marlon Giddings and Iwere sitting in the writers’ lounge of the greeting-card works. Outside, in the city, it was stifling hot, the immense mirrors of skyscraper walls beaming down the sun’s scorching rays on asphalt streets. Inside the greeting-card works Christmas morning hung suspended in glass.
Marlon slouched in a corner next to a watercooler, wearing a poorly tailored brown suit, the top button of his shirt undone, the knot of his faded tie loosened, lighting a new cigarette off the tip of the one he’d just smoked down to the butt. “I’m gonna suck some neck tonight, Harry,” he said, “you mark my words. I will be sucking neck before dawn tomorrow.”
Sugary Christmas music dripped from tinny overhead speakers. Reclining in her chair, Ophelia reached up with a long arm and absently plucked a long, glittering strand of red tinsel from the festooned Christmas tree behind her, pulling it down and winding it around her neck as if it were a feather boa. Ophelia’s specialty was birthdays, especially the arbitrary lines thatwe’ve invented to separate youth from old age: thirty, forty, fi fty, sixty. Jibes about the loss of eyesight; mean- spirited jokes about gravity’s hands clawing at the bodies of once- beautiful women, stretching them like putty, twisting them out of shape, painting stomachs with marbled scars. “I feel young again, for the first time in years,” she said sleepily. “Th is morning I had a dream of what it must have been like before the machines. There was a song that you sang when youwere young. But only under specific circumstances. The ruleswere these: if you spotted a male and female alone in each other’s company, frequently and willingly, youwere to sing the song, immediately, without hesitation. I cannot exactly remember the lyrics, but the song itself was part accusation, part admonishment, part threat. It began with an insinuation, that the youths had been indulging in certain moderately erotic physical contacts in the false security of arboreal camoufl age—”
“I want you to smell my neck,” Marlon Giddings said to me. I was lying on a couch, staring at the ceiling with my gaze unfocused, trying not to think about the machine noises: the refrigeration unit in the watercooler; the hum of the air-conditioning units behind the walls thatwere doing their damnedest to simulate winter in the dog days of July; the hissing white noise submerged beneath the high strings and horns of Christmas music. “Smell my neck!” Marlon said. Suddenly I found that he was huddling over me as if hewere about to embrace me, and the tip of my nose was pressed against the underside of his chin. I blinked.
“Do you smell that?” Marlon said, standing up and taking a drag off his cigarette with a flourish of his hand. “That, my friend, is Love. Th at is why I’ll be sucking neck tonight. A woman said I looked loveless, and she gave me Love in a bottle.
“This is what happened,” Marlon said. “Listen. I was walking through a department store, and this woman behind a perfume counter, with too much makeup and the plumage of a peacock ready to mate, pointed her finger at me and said, ‘You look loveless.’ I spend a lot of time in department stores because they’re good places to meet women. Women are very open to suggestion when they’re shopping. Their defenses are down. I have a collection of name tags that I stole off the shirts of different workers in department stores. How I steal them is: I just walk up to a clerk all confused- looking like I need help finding something and the guy says, ‘Can I help you?’ and then I say, ‘I’ll take that!” and I rip the tag right off his shirt before he can even blink. And he just looks at me thinking, what the hell, that guy just stole my name tag and now he’s running away, what would he want with that, my shirt is ruined, that was a remarkably irrational act, and I am troubled. Meanwhile I’m ollie ollie oxen free.
“I have a collection of name tags, one for each department store in the city, and I cover up the name that used to be on the tag and put my own name on it. Then I walk into a department store wearing the right tag and just hang out for a while in an aisle, maybe straightening merchandise on the shelves or something, and soon enough some babe comes up to me all panicked, saying, ‘Please help me! I don’t know where I can fi nd henleys! Please help me find henleys!’ And I kind of casually slip an arm around her shoulder and stroke it and say, ‘There, there. There, there. No need to fret, honey. I’ll help you find all the henleys you need.’ Then I point to my name tag. ‘My name is Marlon. I can help. Please let me help. I’m going to help you.’ That’s the secret: to get to them when they need help. That’s when they’re vulnerable. Th at’s when they’re weak. Next thing you know you’re sucking that neck. Actually, that little gambit doesn’t work all the time. Actually it hasn’t worked yet, but it’s bound to soon. Actually, anyway.
“Anyway this woman selling the perfume says to me, ‘You look loveless.’ And I go over to this counter that she’s standing behind, where there’s a bunch of perfumes in this glass case in a bunch of diff erent-colored glass bottles, and I say, ‘Listen lady, you said a mouthful. Let me tell you.’ And then she reaches out with an index finger and puts it to my lips: hush. And I hush.
“Then she reaches under the counter and pulls out the tiniest glass bottle in the case, which is filled with this golden liquid, and a piece of paper that’s about a foot square, and a big glass jar that’s got wasps in it. There’s a bunch of yellow jackets in this jar buzzing around, knocking their heads against the inside over and over again. She puts all this stuff on the counter and then she sprays a little bit of the golden stuff in the bottle on the piece of paper. ‘A concoction distilled from the crushed and liquefi ed glands of animals from sixteen different species,’ she says. The stuff smells sickly sweet, like honeysuckle, and my eyes start to water. ‘Some are still alive,’ she says. ‘Somewere wiped out decades ago.’ Then she puts the piece of paper down on the counter, and she picks up the glass jar and shakes hell out of it, like she’s mixing a martini. Then she unscrews the lid of the jar and lets out the wasps.
“So now I am thinking: you foolish woman, you have just released a horde of angry yellow jackets in a crowded department store, and this will not be good for business. But get this: the wasps fly out of the jar and straight as an arrow they make for the piece of paper. Soon thewhole paper’s almost covered up and still there’s more coming, and not one of them fl ying offon its own to sting somebody, all of them just flying toward the smell of the perfume, crawling all over the paper and I guess probably trying to hump it. And the lady behind the counter, she’s gazing down at this with her eyes all glazed over and she says, ‘Beautiful, isn’t it. Soon the smell will drive them mad and they’ll start to sting each other to death.’ Then she looks at me and smiles. ‘We have different fragrances for men and women.’ And I say, ‘I have got to get me some of that.’ Hey, Ophelia—smell my neck! Smell that? Does that drive you nuts or what?”
Ophelia looked at Marlon, and her bright blue eyes widened and she smiled with the sudden recollection of something long forgotten. “Marlon and Ophelia, sitting in a tree,” she sang with a gentle tremolo. “K, I, S, S, I, N, G. First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes a baby . . .in a baby carriage!”
“What? Oh, hey, wait a second,” said Marlon, backing off from her as sherose from the chair and started to approach him, grinning and seductively fingering the Christmas tinsel around her neck (and I could look into Ophelia’s twinkling eyes and see that Marlon had paid good money for snake oil). “I’m just joshing—you know you’re too tall for me. I mean, I’m too short for you, is what I meant to say—”
“I’m going to eat you alive,” Ophelia purred, sauntering toward Marlon as she looked down at him, backing him into a corner, spreading out her arms to catch him, should he run. “Mmmm, yes. Yes indeedy.” She licked her lips then, and Icouldn’t figure out why Marloncouldn’t see that she was about to burst out laughing. “You look scrumptious,” she said. “Oh, I believe I can barely control myself. I feel so young.”
“Aw—come on,” Marlon said, his voice going high and breaking. “I was just joshing. Stop, Ophelia. Don’t touch me.” Then Icouldn’t see him anymore.
After two more hours of staring at a blank page, I threw down my pen, said a cursory good- bye to my coworkers, punched the clock, and hit the street in the middle of the afternoon. I hadn’t written a thing, but if Iwasn’t inspired, sitting at a desk was a waste of my time and the company’s money. There’s another thing at which I was a failure: being able to write without being “inspired” by some sort of Muse. Belief in a Muse isn’t conducive to optimal performance in a place like the greeting-card works. I figured my days therewere numbered; at any rate, I thought the best thing for my mood that weekday afternoon would be a few mind-numbing hours of radio in my apartment, followed by a slowly sipped absinthe drip in a recliner, with a mask over my eyes and plugs in my ears. Then sleep.
Since I’d spent so much on cab fare that morning, I was forced to take the overground shuttle out of the heart of the city, and the only people who rode the decrepit, outmoded shuttles in the middle of a weekday aft ernoon were either elder ly, mechanical, or crazy. So Iwasn’t surprised when a man who was boThelder ly and crazy sat down next to me, wearing a suit whose cut was several seasons out-of-date. He leaned close to me and whispered, “You look awfully lax, my friend. And Iwouldn’t be so lax with so many mechanical men wandering about. Taligent controls all of them. They’re his spies. He controls all of them. One day you’ll see.”
Four tin menwere scattered through the shuttle’s passenger car, carrying courier parcels and bags of groceries, staring straight ahead, silent.
“Has he given you your heart’s desire,” the man said.
At that I turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” the madman said. “I was at the party twenty years ago. Sowere you. I sat next to you in the banquet hall. I know your name, and I know your work, and I know you. You write greeting cards.” He pointed at himself. “My name is William. And if there is one thing in life that I looooove, it’s morphine.” The tender flesh on the inside of his arm was covered with needle tracks. Hewasn’t nearly as old as I fi rst thought. He must have been my age. “Morphine makes me feel so good. Tell me— has he given you your heart’s desire.”
“No,” I said, looking away from him. “No, he didn’t. But that was just talk. Fairy stories for children, to keep us entertained. He didn’t mean a thing he said.”
William hawked loudly and spat a clouded gob of phlegm on the car’s floor. “Oh, that’s what we all thought, once we became adults. We don’t believe in that kind of thing anymore. We think that things like unicorns and heart’s desires are clichés, in spite of what we saw with our own eyes. The ones who got it when they were childrenwere the luckiest. They just got pets, or toys, and they were happy, because they were children and they didn’t know any better. But he waited for some of us to grow up. He’s patient, and he has the resources to bide his time. And he’s been watching all of us, just like he said he would. He has agents, throughout the city, watching. And I watch him watch. And I watch what he watches, when I can.” He grabbed my shoulder. “He ruined my life. I get morphine for free, once a day, delivered to my doorstep in a pretty little carved crystal bottle. Not enough in it to kill me; just enough to make me content. I use up what’s in the bottle by noon and then pawn the bottle in the afternoon to get the money I need for whatever drugs I can get that’ll get me to the next morning and the next bottle. It’s all I think about. Listen— he’s committed crimes. Six of the hundred boys and girls that entered the Tower twenty years ago have died because of these gift s of his. Have you received your heart’s desire. Because if you have, then it’s over. I think you’re the only one left .”
“No,” I said. “Or maybe I have. I don’t know.”
“Oh, you’ll know when it comes,” the madman said. “I guarantee you that. You’ll be dead certain—”
The Dream of Perpetual Motion copyright © 2010 by Dexter Palmer