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Stone Mattress
Excerpt

ALPHINLAND
The freezing rain sifts down, handfuls of shining rice thrown by some unseen celebrant. Wherever it hits, it crystallizes into a granulated coating of ice. Under the streetlights it looks so beautiful: like fairy silver, thinks Constance. But then, she would think that; she’s far too prone to enchantment. The beauty is an illusion, and also a warning: there’s a dark side to beauty, as with poisonous butterflies. She ought to be considering the dangers, the hazards, the grief this ice storm is going to bring to many; is already bringing, according to the television news.

The tv screen is a flat high-definition one that Ewan bought so he could watch hockey and football games on it. Constance would rather have the old fuzzy one back, with its strangely orange people and its habit of rippling and fading: there are some things that do not fare well in high definition. She resents the pores, the wrinkles, the nose hairs, the impossibly whitened teeth shoved right up in front of your eyes so you can’t ignore them the way you would in real life. It’s like being forced to act as someone else’s bathroom mirror, the magnifying kind: seldom a happy experience, those mirrors.

Luckily, on the weather show the personnel stand well back. They have their maps to attend to, their broad hand gestures, like those of waiters in glamorous films of the ’30s or magicians about to reveal the floating lady. Behold! Gigantic swaths of whiteness plume across the continent! Just look at the extent of it!

Now the show moves outside. Two young commentators--a boy, a girl, both of them wearing stylish black parkas with halos of pale fur around their faces--hunch under dripping umbrellas as cars grind slowly past them, windshield wipers labouring. They’re excited; they say they’ve never seen anything like it. Of course they haven’t, they’re too young. Next there are shots of calamities: a multiple car-crash pileup, a fallen tree that’s bashed off part of a house, a snarl of electrical wires dragged down by the weight of the ice and flickering balefully, a row of sleet-covered planes stranded in an airport, a huge truck that’s jackknifed and tipped over and is lying on its side with smoke coming out. An ambulance is on the scene, a fire truck, a huddle of raingear-clad operatives: someone’s been injured, always a sight to make the heart beat faster. A policeman appears, crystals of ice whitening his moustache; he pleads sternly with people to stay inside. It’s no joke, he tells the viewers. Don’t think you can brave the elements! His frowning, frosted eyebrows are noble, like those on the wartime bond-drive posters from the 1940s. Constance remembers those, or believes she does. But she may just be remembering history books or museum displays or documentary films: so hard, sometimes, to tag those memories accurately.

Finally, a minor touch of pathos: a stray dog is displayed, semi-frozen, wrapped in a child’s pink nap blanket. A gelid baby would have been better, but for lack of one the dog will do. The two young commentators make Aw cute faces; the girl pats the dog, which wags its sodden tail feebly. “Lucky guy,” says the boy. This could be you, it’s implied, if you don’t behave yourself, only you wouldn’t get rescued. The boy turns to the camera and solemnifies his face, even though it’s clear he’s having the time of his life. There’s more to come, he says, because the main part of the storm hasn’t even hit! It’s worse in Chicago, as it so often is. Stay tuned!

Constance turns off the tv. She crosses the room, dims the lamp, then sits beside the front window, staring out into the streetlight-illuminated darkness, watching the world turn to diamonds--branches, rooftops, hydro lines, all glittering and sparkling.

“Alphinland,” she says out loud.

“You’ll need salt,” says Ewan, right in her ear. The first time he spoke to her it startled and even alarmed her--Ewan having been no longer in a tangibly living condition for at least four days--but now she’s more relaxed about him, unpredictable though he is. It’s wonderful to hear his voice, even if she can’t depend on having any sort of a conversation with him. His interventions tend to be one-sided: if she answers him, he doesn’t often answer back. But it was always more or less like that between them.

She hadn’t known what to do with his clothes, afterwards. At first she left them hanging in the closet, but it was too upsetting to open the door and see the jackets and suits ranged on their hangers, waiting mutely for Ewan’s body to be slipped inside them so they could be taken for a walk. The tweeds, the woollen sweaters, the plaid work shirts?.?.?.?She couldn’t give them away to the poor, which would have been the sensible thing. She couldn’t throw them out: that would have been not only wasteful but too abrupt, like ripping off a bandage. So she’d folded them up and stored them away in a trunk on the third floor, with mothballs.

That’s fine in the daytimes. Ewan doesn’t seem to mind, and his voice, when it turns up, is firm and cheerful. A striding voice, showing the way. An extended index-finger voice, pointing. Go here, buy this, do that! A slightly mocking voice, teasing, making light: that was often his manner towards her before he became ill.

At night, however, things get more complex. There have been bad dreams: sobbing from inside the trunk, mournful complaints, pleas to be let out. Strange men appearing at the front door who hold out promises of being Ewan, but who are not. Instead they’re menacing, with black trench coats. They demand some garbled thing that Constance can’t make out, or, worse, they insist on seeing Ewan, shouldering their way past her, their intentions clearly murderous. “Ewan’s not home,” she’ll plead, despite the muted cries for help coming from the trunk on the third floor. As they begin to tromple up the stairs, she wakes up.

She’s considered sleeping pills, though she knows they’re addictive and lead to insomnia. Maybe she ought to sell the house and move to a condo. That notion was being pushed at the time of the funeral by the boys, who are not boys any more and who live in cities in New Zealand and France, too conveniently far for them to visit her much. They’d been backed up in spades by their brisk but tactful and professionally accomplished wives, the plastic surgeon and the chartered accountant, so it was four against one. But Constance stood firm. She can’t abandon the house, because Ewan is in it. Though she’d been smart enough not to tell them about that. They’ve always thought she was slightly borderline anyway because of Alphinland, though once such an enterprise makes a lot of money the whiff of nuttiness around it tends to evaporate.

Condo is a euphemism for retirement home. Constance doesn’t hold it against them: they want what is best for her, not merely what is simplest for them, and they were understandably perturbed by the disorder they’d witnessed, both in Constance--though they’d made allowances because she was in the throes of mourning--and in, just for example, her refrigerator. There were items in that refrigerator for which there was no sane explanation. What a swamp, she could hear them thinking. Awash in botulism, a wonder she hasn’t made herself seriously ill. But of course she hadn’t, because she wasn’t eating much in those final days. Soda crackers, cheese slices, peanut butter straight from the jar.

The wives had dealt with the situation in the kindest way. “Do you want this? What about this?” “No, no,” Constance had wailed. “I don’t want any of it! Throw it all out!” The three little grandchildren, two girls and a boy, had been sent on a sort of Easter egg hunt, searching for the half-drunk cups of tea and cocoa that Constance had left here and there around the house and that were now covered with grey or pale-green skins in various stages of growth. “Look, Maman! I found another one!” “Ew, that’s gross!” “Where is Grandpa?”

A retirement home would provide company for her, at least. And it would take away the burden from her, the responsibility, because a house like hers needs upkeep, it needs attention, and why should she be saddled with all those chores any more? That was the idea set forth in some detail by the daughters-in-law. Constance could take up bridge-playing, or Scrabble, they suggested. Or backgammon, said to be popular again. Nothing too stressful or exciting to the brain. Some mild communal game.

“Not yet,” says Ewan’s voice. “You don’t need to do that yet.”

Constance knows this voice isn’t real. She knows Ewan is dead. Of course she knows that! Other people--other recently bereaved people--have had the same experience, or close. Aural hallucination, it’s called. She’s read about it. It’s normal. She isn’t crazy.

“You’re not crazy,” Ewan says comfortingly. He can be so tender when he thinks she’s having some anguish.

He’s right about the salt. She ought to have stocked up on some form of ice melt earlier in the week but she forgot, and now if she doesn’t get some, she’ll be a prisoner inside her own house because the street will be a skating rink by tomorrow. What if the layer of ice doesn’t melt for days and days? She could run out of food. She could become one of those statistics--old recluse, hypothermia, starvation--because, as Ewan has pointed out before now, she can’t live on air.

She’ll have to venture out. Even one bag of salt mix will be enough to do the steps and the walk and keep other people from killing themselves, much less herself. The corner store is her best bet: it’s only two blocks away. She’ll have to take her two-wheeled shopping bag, which is red and also waterproof, because the salt will be heavy. It was only Ewan who drove their car; her own licence lapsed decades ago because once she got so deeply involved in Alphinland she felt she was too distracted to drive. Alphinland requires a lot of thought. It excludes peripheral details, such as stop signs.

It must be quite slippery out there already. If she tries this escapade, she might break her neck. She stands in the kitchen, dithering. “Ewan, what should I do?” she says.

“Pull yourself together,” Ewan says firmly. Which isn’t very instructive, but which was his habitual way of responding to a question when he didn’t want to be pinned down. Where’ve you been, I was so worried, did you have an accident? Pull yourself together. Do you really love me? Pull yourself together. Are you having an affair?

After some rummaging, she finds a large zip-lock freezer bag in the kitchen, dumps out the three shrivelled, whiskery carrots inside it, and fills it with ashes from the fireplace, using the little brass fireplace shovel. She hasn’t lit a fire since Ewan ceased to be present in visible form, because it didn’t seem right. Lighting a fire is an act of renewal, of beginning, and she doesn’t want to begin, she wants to continue. No: she wants to go back.

There’s still a stack of wood and some kindling; there are still a couple of partially burnt logs in the grate from the last fire they had together. Ewan was lying on the sofa with a glass of that disgusting chocolate nutrient drink beside him; he was bald, due to the chemo and the radiation. She tucked the plaid car rug around him and sat beside him, holding his hand, with the tears running silently down her cheeks and her head turned away so he couldn’t see. He didn’t need to be distressed by her distress.

“This is nice,” he’d managed to say. It was hard for him to talk: his voice was so thin, like the rest of him. But that isn’t the voice he has now. The voice he has now is back to normal: it’s his voice of twenty years ago, deep and resonant, especially when he laughs.

She puts on her coat and boots, finds her mittens and one of her woolly hats. Money, she’ll need some of that. House keys: it would be stupid to lock herself out and be turned into a frozen lump right on her own doorstep. When she’s at the front door with the wheeled shopping bag, Ewan says to her, “Take the flashlight,” so she trudges upstairs to the bedroom in her boots. The flashlight is on the nightstand on his side of the bed; she adds it to her purse. Ewan is so good at planning ahead. She herself never would have thought of a flashlight.

The front porch steps are sheer ice already. She sprinkles ashes on them from the zip-lock, then stuffs the bag into her pocket and proceeds down crabwise, one step at a time, holding on to the railing and hauling the wheeled shopper behind her with the other hand, bump bump bump. Once on the sidewalk, she opens the umbrella, but that’s not going to work--she can’t manage those two objects at once--so she closes it again. She’ll use it as a cane. She inches out onto the street--it’s not as icy as the sidewalk--and teeters along the middle of it, balancing herself with the umbrella. There aren’t any cars, so at least she won’t get run over.

On the especially sheer parts of the road she sprinkles more of the ashes, leaving a faint black trail. Perhaps she’ll be able to follow it home, if push comes to shove. It’s the kind of thing that might occur in Alphinland--a trail of black ashes, mysterious, alluring, like glowing white stones in a forest, or bread crumbs--only there would be something extra about those ashes. Something you’d need to know about them, some verse or phrase to pronounce in order to keep their no doubt malevolent power at bay. Nothing about dust to dust, however; nothing involving last rites. More like a sort of runic charm.

“Ashes, bashes, crashes, dashes, gnashes, mashes, splashes,” she says out loud as she picks her way over the ice. Quite a few words rhyme with ashes. She’ll have to incorporate the ashes into the storyline, or one of the storylines: Alphinland is multiple in that respect. Milzreth of the Red Hand is the most likely provenance for those spellbinding ashes, being a warped and devious bully. He likes to delude travellers with mind-altering visions, lure them off the true path, lock them into iron cages or shackle them to the wall with gold chains, then pester them, using Hairy Hank-Imps and Cyanoreens and Firepiggles and whatnot. He likes to watch as their clothing--their silken robes, their embroidered vestments, their fur-lined capes, their shining veils--are ripped to shreds, and they plead and writhe attractively. She can work on the intricacies of all that when she gets back to the house.

Milzreth has the face of a former boss of hers when she worked as a waitress. He was a rump-slapper. She wonders if he ever read the series.

Now she’s reached the end of the first block. This outing was maybe not such a good idea: her face is streaming wet, her hands are freezing, and meltwater is dribbling down her neck. But she’s underway now, she needs to see it through. She breathes in the cold air; pellets of blown ice whip against her face. The wind’s getting up, as the tv said it would. Nonetheless there’s something brisk about being out in the storm, something energizing: it whisks away the cobwebs, it makes you inhale.

The corner store is open 24/7, a fact that she and Ewan have appreciated ever since they moved to this area twenty years ago. There are no sacks of ice melt stacked outside where they usually are, however. She goes inside, trundling her two-wheeled shopping bag.

“Is there any salt left?” she asks the woman behind the counter. It’s someone new. Constance has never seen her before; there’s a high turnover here. Ewan used to say the place had to be a money-laundering joint because they couldn’t possibly be making a profit, considering the low traffic and the state of their lettuces.

“No, dear,” the woman says. “There was a run on it earlier. Be prepared, I guess is what they had in mind.” The implication is that Constance has failed to be prepared, which in fact is true. It’s a lifelong failing: she has never been prepared. But how can you have a sense of wonder if you’re prepared for everything? Prepared for the sunset. Prepared for the moonrise. Prepared for the ice storm. What a flat existence that would be.

“Oh,” says Constance. “No salt. Bad luck for me.”

“You shouldn’t be out in this, dear,” the woman says. “It’s treacherous!” Although she has dyed red hair shaved up the back of her neck in an edgy style, she’s only about ten years younger than Constance by the look of her, and quite a lot fatter. At least I don’t wheeze, thinks Constance. Still, she likes being called dear. She was called that when very much younger, then not called it for a long time. Now it’s a word she hears frequently.

“It’s all right,” she says. “I only live a couple of blocks away.”

“Couple of blocks is a long way to go in this weather,” says the woman, who despite her age has a tattoo peeking up above her collar. It looks like a dragon, or a version of one. Spikes, horns, bulgy eyes. “You could freeze your ass off.”

Constance agrees with her, and asks if she can park her shopping bag and umbrella beside the counter. Then she wanders up and down the aisles, pushing a wire store cart. There are no other customers, though in one aisle she encounters a weedy young man transferring cans of tomato juice to a shelf. She picks up one of the barbecued chickens that revolve on spits inside a glass case, day in and day out like a vision from the Inferno, and a package of frozen peas.

“Kitty litter,” says Ewan’s voice. Is this a comment on her purchases? He disapproved of those chickens – he said they were probably full of chemicals – though he’d eat one readily enough if she brought it home, back in his eating days.

“What do you mean?” she says. “We don’t have a cat any more.” She’s discovered that she has to talk out loud to Ewan because most of the time he can’t read her mind. Though sometimes he can. His powers are intermittent.

Ewan doesn’t expand – he’s such a tease, he often makes her figure out the answers by herself – and then it comes to her: the kitty litter is for the front steps, instead of salt. It won’t work as well, it won’t melt anything, but at least it will provide some traction. She wrestles a bag of the stuff into the cart and adds two candles and a box of wooden matches. There. She’s prepared.

Back at the counter she exchanges pleasantries with the woman about the excellence of the chicken – it’s an item
the woman likes herself, because who can be bothered with cooking when there’s only one, or even only two – and stows her purchases in her wheeled shopper, resisting the temptation to get into a conversation about the dragon tattoo. This topic might swiftly veer into complexities, as she’s learned from experience over the years. There are dragons in Alphinland, and they have numerous fans with many bright ideas they are eager to share with Constance. How she ought to have done the dragons differently. How they would do the dragons if it was them. Subspecies of dragons. Errors she has made about the care and feeding of dragons, and so on. It’s astonishing how folks can get
so worked up over something that doesn’t exist.

Has the woman overheard her talking to Ewan? Most likely, and most likely it didn’t bother her. Any store that’s open 24/7 must get its share of people who talk to invisible companions. In Alphinland, such behaviour would call for a different interpretation: some of its inhabitants have spirit familiars.

“Where exactly do you live, dear?” the woman calls after her when Constance is halfway out the door. “I could text a friend, get you a walk home.” What sort of friend? Maybe she’s a biker’s girl, thinks Constance. Maybe she’s younger than Constance thought; maybe she’s just very weathered.

Constance pretends she didn’t hear. It could be a ruse, and next thing you know there will be a gang member bent on home invasion standing outside the door with the duct tape ready in his pocket. They say their car has broken down and can they use your phone, and out of the goodness of your heart you let them in, and before you know it you’re duct-taped to the banister and they’re inserting push-pins under your fingernails to make you cough up your passwords. Constance is well informed about that sort of thing: she doesn’t watch the television news for nothing.

The trail of ashes is no use any more – it’s iced over, she can’t even see it – and the wind is stronger. Should she open the kitty litter bag right here in mid-journey? No, she’ll need a knife, or some scissors; although there’s usually a pull string. She peers inside the shopper with the flashlight, but the battery must be low because it’s too dim in there to see. She could get chilled to the bone struggling with such a bag; better to make a dash for it. Though dash is hardly the word.
 
 
 
The ice seems twice as thick as when she started out. The bushes in the front lawn look like fountains, their luminous foliage cascading gracefully to the ground. Here and there a broken tree branch partially blocks the road. Once she’s reached her house, Constance leaves the shopper outside on the walk and hauls herself up the slippery steps by clinging to the railing. Happily the porch light is shining, though she can’t remember turning it on. She wrestles with the key and the lock, opens the door, and tramps through to the kitchen, shedding water. Then, kitchen scissors in hand, she retraces her route, descends the steps to the red shopper, cuts open the kitty litter bag, and spreads lavishly.

There. Wheeled shopper up the steps, bump bump bump, and into the house. Door locked behind her. Drenched coat off, soaking wet hat and mitts set to steam on the radiator, boots parked in the hall. “Mission accomplished,” she says in case Ewan is listening. She wants him to know she got back safely; he might worry otherwise. They’d always left notes for each other, or else messages on the answering machine, back before all the digital gadgets. In her more extreme and lonely moments she’s thought of leaving messages on the phone service for Ewan. Maybe he could listen to them through electric particles or magnetic fields, or whatever it is he’s using to throw his voice through the airwaves.

But this isn’t a lonely moment. It’s a better moment: she’s feeling pleased with herself for carrying out the salt mission. She’s hungry too. She hasn’t been this hungry ever since Ewan has failed to be present at meals: eating alone has been too dispiriting. Now, however, she tears off pieces of the broiled chicken with her fingers and wolfs them down. This is what people do in Alphinland when they’ve been rescued from something – dungeons, moors, iron cages, drifting boats: they eat with their hands. Only the very upper classes have what you’d call cutlery, though just about everyone has a knife, unless they happen to be a talking animal. She licks her fingers, wipes them on the dishtowel. There ought to be paper towels but there aren’t.

There’s still some milk, so she gulps it down right out of the carton, spilling hardly any. She’ll make herself a hot drink later. She’s in a hurry to get back to Alphinland because of the trail of ashes. She wants to decipher it, she wants to unravel it, she wants to follow it. She wants to see where it will lead.
 
 
 
Alphinland currently lives on her computer. For many years it unfolded in the attic, which she’d converted to a workspace of sorts for herself once Alphinland had made enough money to pay for the renovation. But even with the new floor and the window they’d punched through, and the air conditioning and the ceiling fan, the attic was small and stuffy, as the top floors of these old brick Victorians are. So after a while – after the boys were in high school – Alphinland had migrated to the kitchen table, where it unscrolled for several years on an electric typewriter – once considered the height of innovation, now obsolete. The computer was its next location, and not without its hazards – things could diappear from it in an infuriating manner – but they’ve improved the computers over time and she’s become used to hers now. She moved it into Ewan’s study after he was no longer in there in visible form.

She doesn’t say “after his death,” even to herself. She doesn’t use the D-word about him at all. He might overhear it and be hurt or offended, or perhaps confused, or even angry. It’s one of her not-fully-formulated beliefs that Ewan doesn’t realize that he’s dead.

She sits at Ewan’s desk, swathed in Ewan’s black plush bathrobe. Black plush bathrobes for men were cutting edge,
when? The ’90s? She’d bought this bathrobe herself, as a Christmas present. Ewan always resisted her attempts to make him cutting edge, not that those attempts had lasted much beyond the bathrobe; she’d run out of interest in how he looked to others.

She wears this bathrobe not for heat but for comfort: it makes her feel that Ewan might still be in the house physically, just around the corner. She hasn’t washed it since he died; she doesn’t want it to smell of laundry detergent instead of Ewan.
Oh Ewan, she thinks. We had such good times! All gone now. Why so fast? She wipes her eyes on the black plush sleeve.

“Pull yourself together,” says Ewan. He never likes it when she sniffles.

“Right,” she says. She squares her shoulders, adjusts the cushion on Ewan’s ergonomic desk chair, turns the computer on.

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Excerpt

The Bleak Shall Inherit

We were so happy. It was miserable.

Although it was briefly marvelous and strange to see a car parked outside an office, the wide hallway used like a street, many stories above the city.

The millennium had turned. The planes had not fallen from the sky, the trains had not careened off the tracks. Neither had the heart monitors, prenatal incubators, nor the iron lungs reset themselves to some suicidal zero hour to self-destruct in a lethal kablooey of Y2K shrapnel, as feared. And most important, the ATMs continued to dispense money, and what money it was.

I was off to see some of it. Like Edith Wharton's Gilded Age Buccaneers, when titled but cash-poor Europeans joined in wedlock with wealthy American girls in the market for pedigree, there were mutually abusive marriages popping up all over the city between un-moneyed creatives with ethereal Web-based schemes and the financiers who, desperate to get in on the action, bankrolled them. The Internet at that point was still newish and completely uncharted territory, to me, at least. I had walked away from a job at what would undoubtedly have been the wildly lucrative ground floor (1986, Tokyo) because it had seemed so boring, given my aggressive lack of interest in technology or machines, unless they make food. Almost fifteen years later, I was no more curious nor convinced, but now found myself at numerous parties for start-ups, my comprehension of which extended no further than the free snacks and drinks, and the perfume of money-scented elation in the air. The workings of "new media" remained entirely murky, and I a baffled hypocrite, scarfing down another beggar's purse with creme fraiche (flecked with just enough beads of caviar to get credit), pausing in my chewing only long enough to mutter "It'll never last." It was becoming increasingly difficult to fancy myself the guilelessly astute child at the procession who points out the emperor's nakedness as acquaintances were suddenly becoming millionaires on paper and legions of twenty-one-year-olds were securing lucrative and rewarding positions as "content providers" instead of answering phones for a living, as I had at that age. Brilliant success was all around.

So, so happy.

The surly Russian janitor (seemingly the only other New Yorker in a bad mood) rode me up in his dusty elevator in the vast deco building in the West Twenties, which was now home to cyber and design concerns that gravitated to its raw spaces and industrial cachet. The kind of place where the freight car and the corridors are both wide enough that you'd never have to get out of your Lexus until you'd parked it on the fourteenth floor.

Book publishing is always portrayed as teddibly genteel and literary: hunter-green walls, morocco-bound volumes, and some old codger in a waistcoat going on about dear Max Perkins. Worlds away from the reality of dropped-ceiling offices with seas of cubicles and mail-cart-scarred walls. But the Internet companies were coevolving with the fictionalized idealization of themselves. The way they looked in the movies was also how they looked in real life, much like real-life mobsters who now behave like the characters in the Godfather films.

The large industrial casement windows were masculine with grime, looking out over the rail yards on the open sky of West Side Manhattan. The content providers sat side by side at long metal trestle tables--the kind they use in morgues--providing content, the transparent turquoise bubbles of their iMacs shining like insect eyes. It was a painfully hip dystopia, some Orwellian Ministry of Malign Intent whose sheer stylishness made it a pleasure to be a chic and soulless drone; one's personal freedoms happily abrogated for a Hugo Boss jumpsuit.

I was there to interview the founders of a site that was to be the one stop where members of the media might log on to read about themselves and the latest magazine-world gossip, schadenfreude-laden items about hefty book advances and who was seen lunching at Michael's, etc. I will stipulate to a certain degree of prejudicial thinking before I even walked in. I expected a bunch of aphoristic, McLuhan-lite bushwa, something to justify the house-of-cards business model. But as a reporter, I was their target audience as well as a colleague. I was unprepared to be spoken to like an investor, as if I, too, were some venture capitalist who goes goggled-eyed and compliant at the mere mention of anything nonnumerical. I was being lubed up with snake oil, listening to a bunch of pronouncements that sounded definitive and guru-like on the surface but which upon examination seemed just plain old wrong.

"What makes a story really good and Webby," said one, "is, say, we post an item on David Geffen on a Monday, and then one of Geffen's people calls us to correct it, we can have a whole new version up by Tuesday." This was typical Dawn of the New Millennium denigration of print, which always seemed to lead to the faulty logic that it was not just the delivery system that was outmoded but such underlying practices as authoritative voice and credibility, fact-checking, editing, and impartiality that needed throwing out, too. It was a stance they both seemed a little old for, frankly, like watching a couple of forty-five-year-olds in backward baseball caps on skateboards. In the future, it seems, we would all take our editorial marching orders from the powerful subjects of our stories and it would be good (Right you are, Mr. Geffen!). It was a challenge to sit there and be told that caring about such things as journalistic independence or the desire to keep money's influence at even a show of remove meant one was clinging to old beliefs, a fossil in the making. Now that everything and everyone was palliated by the never-ending flow of revenue, there was no need to get exercised about such things, or about anything, really.

"We basically take John Seabrook's view that what you have is more important than what you believe. Whether you drive a Cadillac says more about you than if you're a Democrat or a Republican," said one, invoking a (print) journalist from The New Yorker.

Added the other: "That you watched The Sopranos last night is more important than who you voted for."

They weren't saying anything terribly incendiary. It's not like they were proposing tattooing people who have HIV the way odious William F. Buckley did (I'm sorry, I mean brilliant and courtly, such manners, and what a vocabulary! Nazi . . .). But we had just been through an electoral experience that had been bruising, to say the least. Who one voted for had almost never seemed more important, and they were saying it all so blithely. I felt like a wife who has caught her tobacco-and-gin-scented husband smeared in lipstick, a pair of silk panties sticking out of his jacket pocket, home after an unexplained three-day absence, listening to his giggling, sloppily improbable, and casually delivered alibi and being expected to swallow it while chuckling along.

We were silent for a moment, the only sound the keyboard tappings of the hipster minions. I finally managed to say, "I've just experienced the death of hope."

We all three laughed: me, in despair; them, all the way to the bank. Said one of them, "No, David. We are the very opposite. This is the birth of hope!"

Down in the rattling freight elevator. I couldn't face going home just then, where I would have to immediately relive this conversation by transcribing my tape. I turned right out of the building, crossed Eleventh Avenue, and sat on a concrete barrier facing the river. The cynicism of the interview, the lack of belief coupled with the enthusiastic tone in which the bullshit was being slung, the raiding-the-granaries greed dressed up in the cheap drag of some hollow dream of a Bright New Day of it all. The Hudson bleared and wobbled before my eyes, which were swimming with furious tears. I wasn't angry to the point of almost crying because they were wrong but because they were right.

It might seem a bit much to pin the woes of the age on the fairly modest landgrab of the two men I had just interviewed, but they were symptomatic of something. In blithe defiance of some very real evidence out there that we still had reason for some very real concern, rampant optimism, fueled by money and a maddening fingers-in-the-ears-can't-hear-you-lalala denial, was now carrying the day. There seemed no longer to be any room in the discourse for anything but the sunniest outlook.

Contrarianism needed restoring to its rightful stature as loyal opposition and so I found myself, some four months later, on my way to Wellesley College to interview a psychologist named Julie Norem.

Norem's book, The Positive Power of Negative Thinking, was about to come out and the same magazine, for whom I had shed my Hudson River tears, was now sending me to document this emotional market correction. It was one I welcomed, and judging from the title, one my editors were hoping--as editors must--would present as a forceful linchpin theory, a reductive cudgel of a book that would advocate wholesale crankiness, a call to arms that we all rain on each other's parades, piss in one another's cereal, kick puppies, and smack babies.

As the schoolgirl said to the vicar, it was a lot less meaty up close. The book was terrifically smart and well-wrought, but Norem had emphatically not written a book against happiness. Her research dealt with a specific kind of anxiety-management technique known as "defensive pessimism." Defensive pessimism is related to dispositional pessimism--that clinical, Eeyore-like negativity--but it is, at most, a first cousin. One who is kickier and more fun to be around; played by the same actress but with her glasses off, a different hairstyle, and a "visiting for the summer from swinging London" accent.

Both dispositional and defensive pessimists face life with that same negative prediction: "This [insert impending experience, encounter, endeavor here] will be a disaster." But where the dispositional pessimist sees that gloomy picture as a verdict and pretext to return to or simply remain in bed, the defensive pessimist uses it as the first of a three-part process: 1) the a priori lowered expectations (the previously mentioned presentiment of disaster) are followed by 2) a detailed breakdown of the situation (the "this will suck because . . ." stage), wherein one envisions the specific ways in which the calamity will take shape. A worst-case scenario painted in as much detail as possible. The process culminates in 3) coming up with the various responses and remedies to each possible misstep along the way ("I will arrive early and make sure the microphone cord is taped down," "I'll have my bear spray in my hand before I leave the cabin," "I'll put the Xanax under my tongue forty minutes before the party and pretend not to remember his name when I see him," etc.). A sea of troubles, opposed and ended, one nigglesome wave at a time. Defensive pessimism is about sweating the small stuff, being prepared for contingencies like some neurotic Jewish Boy Scout, and in so doing, not letting oneself be crippled by fear. Where a strategic optimist might approach a gathering rainstorm with a smile as his umbrella, the defensive pessimist, all too acquainted with this world of pitfall and precipitation, is far more likely to use, well, an umbrella.

This mental preparation is just an alternate means of coping with a world where--in the pessimist's view of reality--there is often little difference between "worst possible outcome" and "outcome." A world seen as worse than it actually is. Through such eyes, the optimist looks hopelessly naive. As Prohibition-era newspaperman Don Marquis put it in 1927, another age when unwarranted exuberance and eye-off-the-ball hubris led to its own inevitable disaster, "an optimist is a guy that has never had much experience." But Norem explains that optimists, too, have their own mental strategies of navigating a world that seems far better than it is in reality. They need to sustain a cognitive conundrum known as "ironic processing," a willful "whatever you do, don't think about it" ignorance, blind to even the possibility of negative outcome. In a study where subjects were made to play darts, defensive pessimists who were robbed of their time for mental rehearsal and instead made to relax, free of thought, were thrown off their game. Conversely, optimists also found their anxieties increase and their performances suffer by being made to contemplate strategy and contingency before taking aim.

It might seem that the twain shall never meet and at best one might achieve some grudging mutual understanding, but cognition and its styles exist on a continuum. Pessimists are born, true, but they also can be made. Two social psychologists out of Cornell named Justin Kruger and David Dunning bore this out to a degree in a study where they asked subjects to assess their skill levels in a number of areas, on which they would be tested. What they found was that those who scored lowest had rated themselves highest. The same held true in reverse: high-scoring subjects had underestimated their skills and how well they compared with others. When the over-raters received instruction, namely, when they became intrinsically more skilled than before, their sense of their own competence diminished. Experience had shown them how much more there was to learn, how far they still had to go, and their self-assessments reflected this.

Given all of this--that one need but point out the ways in which we were royally screwed to have the scales fall from people's eyes--how was it possible for Norem's book not to be the antidote to all the unchecked and unearned exuberance of the age? This volume would finally wake folks up, I thought. The bleak would inherit the earth!

(I had chosen that moment, it seems, to forget yet again my unique incapacity for identifying trends. If I think something is going to happen, it invariably results in the very opposite nonevent. Conversely, if I smell doom, there will be nothing but brilliant success. My finger is securely off the pulse. Walking away from the Internet in 1986 is just one instance in an illustrious resume of bad calls.

In 1982, as a freshman in college, during a brief and ultimately fruitless attempt at inhabiting my own skin, I went one evening to Danceteria, a club in downtown Manhattan. I didn't drink at the time, so there was nothing to buffer the noise, the dark, the crowded stairwells, the too-long wait for both the coat check and the urinals, and especially that evening's entertainment: a whiny, nasal girl in torn lace and rubber-gasket bracelets who bopped around to an over-synthesized and generic backbeat.

"Well, she's lousy," I thought to myself, happily envisioning my departure from this throbbing club, my subway ride uptown to my dorm room and bed, and this girl's return to the obscurity whence she sprung. The world, however, had different plans for Madonna. "Hey David, have you seen that fellow in the marketplace inveighing against the Pharisees and the money-changers? You know, the one who calls himself the Son of God?" "That idiot? He'll burn off like so much morning fog, mark my words . . ."

Bet against me, and I will make you rich. I am the un-canary in the mine shaft. (Gas? I don't smell no gas!)

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Waiting for Columbus
Excerpt

Chapter One

Sevilla Institute for the Mentally Ill

Sevilla, Spain

The passage from freedom to incarceration is never an easy one. The passage from an unacknowledged, untested sanity to a diagnosed insanity is equally problematic. The first time Nurse Consuela Emma Lopez entered his world, it was with nervousness--with the trepidation of a sparrow pecking the ground a few meters in front of a perfectly motionless cat. He was immobile on a bed in the admitting area, restrained and drugged. He'd arrived at the institute kicking and screaming.

Consuela heard the shouting, wondered who it was and what it was that had him so upset. She could have written this off as just another ugly and loud admittance in a long string of ugly and loud admittances. But the sound of someone in pain or distress always gets through to her heart. The sound of this man's voice caused her to pause, to look up from her work and ache a little. The timbre of this particular voice vibrated in her. She cared, immediately. This is not something she likes about herself. Not that there's anything wrong with caring. It's a good quality for a nurse. It's just that she wishes she were tougher, more thick­skinned.

Consuela almost tiptoes into the room--silently but not so timidly as to suggest she is uncomfortable in the admitting room. The lights have been dimmed and a curtain drawn around his bed. They've drugged him, she thinks, and they're waiting for the drugs to kick in. She peeks through a slit in the curtain. It's difficult to say how old he is but she would guess thirty­five, maybe thirty­eight, despite the graying-verging-on-white hair. He has a kind, narrow face but he's obviously been through something, some sort of trying experience, an ordeal of some kind. There are bags under his eyes, and there are scratches--some deeper than others--across his forehead. His jaw has been bandaged.

Consuela finds his chart hanging on the far wall. She flips it open and finds an exercise in ambiguity. Scant details about where he was found. The words "Strait of Gibraltar" and "Palos." No name. A notation on the sedative he'd been given--a hefty dose of Rohypnol. And a number.

Nurses talk. They tell stories at coffee. Two hours earlier a black van had arrived and out climbed three members of the National Police Force with the new patient wedged between them. They delivered him, wrapped tightly in a straitjacket, to the admitting area. His clothes were bloodstained, his shirt ripped. Despite the restraints, he was wild. He'd broken the nose of one of the policemen with a lurching head butt to the face. They'd said something about his name being Bolivar and that he'd been found in the Strait of Gibraltar. "In the strait?" a nurse asks. "Surely you mean near the strait?" The policeman looked at her with dehumanizing, flat disdain, signed the papers that were thrust toward him, dropped the pen on the counter, and departed quickly. It seemed that the transport and handoff of this patient had been a trying experience for these men. They were glad to be rid of him. Consuela saw them as they were leaving--remembers thinking they were very serious, severe--if they'd had clowns in both pockets of their trousers, they wouldn't have smiled. They reminded her of her ex. The black, stiff uniforms. Those intensely earnest faces. The type that follow orders unquestioningly.

* * *

When Bolivar opens his eyes two days later, he is calm and seems rational. He's restrained in the bed and there is still one policeman outside in the hallway--just in case. The guard sits straight in a wooden chair to the left of the door. He checks identification badges of everyone who enters, makes a note on his clipboard. This is Consuela's fifth time in, and the guard barely looks at her.

"Que dia es este? Por favor." The new patient stares at Consuela. His voice is demanding, almost commanding. It's a voice that is perhaps used to giving orders. His head is lifted and he's trying to see what it is that's keeping him down in the bed.

"Que?"

"Que dia es este? What day is it?"

"It is Sunday," Consuela says.

"Sunday? What date?" He pulls at his wrist restraints, still checking.

"Sunday, the fourth day of April."

"April? You mean August. Where am I?" He flexes against the ankle restraints.

"Sevilla."

"How did I get here? What happened to me?"

"You were brought here--" She stops. What exactly can she tell him? She's not sure.

"I was in Palos. It all went sideways. There were two girls. Are they all right? Everything went horribly wrong?.?.?." But his voice trails off as if he is slowly finding the answers to his own questions.

"I was in Palos. I remember broken glass. People shouting. The ships were in the harbor." He stops. He looks at her with such expectant eyes. "And?" he says. "And?"

What did this man want? And what? What is he looking for? What was he expecting to hear? Consuela shrugs and looks at him hopefully, looking for help.

"Why am I tied to this bed? I'm perfectly fine. My ships, though. Have they?.?.?.?have they sailed?" He's irritated. Yanks at the wrist ties.

"Ships?" She's thinking she should probably not say any more. There ought to be doctors here. The psychologists at this asylum are some of the best in the world. In the institution's lengthy history, they'd had people from all over Europe as patients--even a couple of kings and a few wayward princesses called this place home for brief periods of time. This is one of the first asylums in the world to actually attempt to help the mentally ill--to get at the root cause of an illness. When it first opened, ­so-­called treatments in other parts of Europe were still muddled in the casting out of devils or burning people or drowning them as witches--remarkably final and fatal cures--when the Sevilla Institute was actually caring for the mentally ill. This place, this hospital of innocents, had been a relatively safe haven for many, many years.

"I'll get a doctor," Consuela says, turning.

"Wait."

She stops.

"Get me a phone," he snaps. "I want to make a call."

"Pardon?"

"A phone, damnit. Look, I am Columbus. Christopher Columbus. I know the queen, the queen and the king. They can vouch for me. I am to lead three ships across the Western Sea. We've got a deal, damnit! Just get them on the phone."

Whoa, she thinks. Consuela can hear the earnest certainty of his voice. He believes what he's saying. "You want to fall off the edge of the Earth?" Consuela is performing her own little experiment. "You want to die?"

"You don't believe that. Nobody but a simpleton would believe that old wives' tale. Try not to underestimate my intelligence and I'll do the same for you."

"I'll let Dr. Fuentes know you're awake."

"Yes, let your doctor know that I'm hungry, and I have to piss, and I'm not crazy."

She shuts the door--the click echoes in the stone hallway. Consuela walks past the admitting desk and around the corner to Dr. Fuentes's office. She knocks on his door. Waits. Knocks again.

The door squeaks open, slowly. "Yes. What is it?" He says this with the proclivity of someone who has been doing something frustrating and this intrusion is the icing on the annoyance cake. Dr. Fuentes is a tall, ­clean-­shaven man who is a fastidious bureaucrat. He's just been appointed chief of staff at the institute. Consuela is honestly uncertain about his skills as a doctor.

He holds the door open with one hand and fumbles with his lab­coat buttons with the other. The sound of a chair scraping on a tiled floor comes from inside the office.

"Patient 9214 is awake." Consuela decides she does not want to know who else is in there. Damnit! She hates stuff like this--office politics. Knowing the human contents of Doctor Fuentes's office would put her in the middle of something. There was no scraping sound, she tells herself. It was nothing. There was no scraping.

"Thank you." The doctor releases the door but catches it immediately. "Wait. Is he still sedated?" She nods. Fair enough. There was no way to know for sure if this new patient was going to explode again or if he was done.

* * *

Consuela wakes up at her usual time, thinking about this patient who wanted her to call a king and queen who've been dead for nearly five hundred years, on a telephone. She's intrigued. Regardless of his ranting, she liked the color of his voice. It sounded like burnt sienna, and at the bottom, the color and texture of fine sand.

She does not work today, and so she grinds the coffee beans, boils water, and makes a leisurely French press. She pushes the kitchen window open and is immediately aware of the difference in the quality of air. It never really cooled off overnight. The air­conditioning in her flat is now at cross­purposes with this open window. The warm, dry air pushes up against the cool, forced air of her apartment.

She's been moving around her apartment, waiting for sunrise on the Guadalquivir. This riverside flat has been her home for six years and sunrise is one of the benefits. She loves her mornings with the fine, dusty­orange color inching its way up her walls. This apartment came with a wall of bookshelves in the living room, which Consuela had no problem filling. She added two more stand­alone shelves in her bedroom. She pauses this morning in front of a row of her to­read books--books she's bought because of a review, a mention in another book, or a recommendation, or because the cover spoke to her. She pauses at Calvino's Invisible Cities. She runs her finger down the spine of Riddley Walker. She tilts a book called Tropisms and the Age of Suspicion by Nathalie Sarraute as if to slide it off the shelf--this was a recent addition, found in a bookstore in Madrid, bottom of a pile, hideously ugly cover but there was something about the title. She eventually picks Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. But decides mornings are not for starting novels. She takes the Bulgakov into her bedroom--places it on the bedside table.

In the kitchen, she opens the newspaper and immediately wants a cigarette. The coffee, the newspaper, and the time spark a memory of smoking. Four years of not smoking and still the cravings come. Less frequently now, but still. Consuela performs a mental checklist of the places where she's stashed cigarettes in the past. Ridiculous because her stashes have long since been pillaged or abandoned. She knows, positively, there are no secret stashes of cigarettes in her flat. But she remembers where they used to be.

The sparrows are playing in the orange trees and palms along the river. Flirting with the dark river, thrilled at the prospect of light, as if they have the most ridiculously brief memories and sunrise is always an excited surprise. Do birds remember days? There are no clouds in this pink­tinged, predawn sky. It will likely be another blistering hot day.

It seems the front section of her newspaper is always about bombings and killings and scandals. The ramifications of bombings and killings. Accusation of scandals, and the fear of more actual bombings. Consuela flips to the entertainment section where there are movies, some stupidly violent and even one about bombings--this makes her smile a bit--but for the most part, the news here is pleasant. In fact, it's not really news at all.

Consuela pushes the ­French-­press plunger and pours herself a mug of coffee. She looks across the river, across the city, and wonders what it was like five hundred years ago, before the New World was discovered by Europeans, before Columbus sailed out of Palos. Why would this new patient go there? Why Columbus? Why not Genghis Khan or one of the Roman emperors, or keeping with Spain, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí, or Ferdinand of Aragon? Christopher Columbus doesn't seem like much fun. Obsessed with the prospect of discovery. Desperate for people to believe him. Pigheaded to the point of ignoring all those absolutely correct scholars who repeatedly told him that China was too far--that he'd never make it. Not fun.

She takes a big gulp of coffee. Ah, we don't pick our delusions, she thinks.

Consuela can't tell if she actually knows about Columbus, or if she's simply half recalling the Hollywood renditions of Columbus from the movies about him.

"God, I could use a cigarette," she says to the sun as it pushes its way onto the river, into the sky, and splashes yellow into her eyes.

* * *

Consuela wasn't at that first meeting, but she could see the change in her patient. Columbus went from lucid and slightly outlandish to frenzied and implausible--from conversational to incoherent. Must have been a hell of a session. Afterward, it seems he truly went mad inside a steady, overprescribed lineup of sedatives and antipsychotics, some of which were so obscure that Consuela had to look them up. They threw everything and anything at Columbus to keep him quiet, harmless, and sedate. Columbus refused to wear clothing. At most, when in the hallways and gardens and courtyards, he wore a robe. He just didn't care. In his room, he was naked, always. He spent days and weeks as a drooling idiot in a corner of his room, slumped over and muttering to himself. He would stare at the stone wall, rock back and forth, and mutter, "Ships to sea. Ships to sea. This is me. This is me. Ships to sea! Me! Me! ME!" This became his mantra--this, and his constant inquiries as to what day it was. The passage of time was important to Columbus. He was diligent about it--obsessive. Even when he was hazy on some new adjustment to his meds, he found a way to know what day it was and how long he'd been at the institute.

The orderlies dreaded going into this cell. Room. They dreaded going into this room. Dr. Fuentes insists his staff call the cells rooms. They're far more like cells than rooms, but the doctor is the boss. Patient 9214 was crafty and fast. Further, he hadn't weakened. At least, not physically. When they had to get in to clean or check on Columbus, Consuela would dope him up on as much diazepam as she could safely administer. Even then, while slower, he was still dangerous. He was always good for one crazy lunge or kick. There were times, in the weeks following his arrival, when Consuela had to swallow fear as she looked at him; she had to will herself to be calm, to breathe with long, even inhalations. She remembers being scared silly.

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The Silent Land

The Silent Land

A Suspense Thriller
edition:Paperback
More Info
Excerpt

one

It was snowing again. Gentle six-pointed flakes from a picture book, settling on her jacket sleeve. The mountain air prickled with ice and the savor of pine resin. Zoe pulled the air into her lungs, feeling the cracking cold of it before letting go. And when the mountain peak seemed to nod and sigh back at her, she almost thought she could die in that place, and happily.

If there are few moments in life that come as clear and as pure as ice, when the mountain breathed back at her, Zoe knew she had trapped one such moment and it could never be taken away. Everywhere was snow and silence. Snow and silence; the complete arrest of life; a rehearsal for and a pre-echo of death.

But her breath was warm and it said no to any premature thought of death. She pointed her skis down the hill. The tips of her skis looked like weird talons of brilliant red and gold in the powder snow as she waited, ready to swoop. I am alive. I am an eagle. Nearly two miles below lay the dark outline of Saint-Bernard-en-Haut, their Pyrenean resort village; across to the west, the irregular humps and horns of the mountain range. The sun was up now; in a few minutes there would be more skiers to break the eerie morning spell. But right now they had the powder and the morning entirely to themselves.

There was a whisper behind her. It was the effortless track of Jake’s skis as he came over the ridge and caught up with her.

He cruised to an elegant stop beside her. In contrast to her fashionable ski suit of lilac and white he wore black, and the morning sun burst on his bulbous black sunglasses in an iridescent flare. He stood still, sharing the moment with her. She fancied she could see his breath rising from him like a faint oyster-colored mist. He took off his sunglasses and blinked back at her. Jake had close-cropped black hair and baby-blue peepers that she’d fallen in love with instantly, even if his large ears had taken her a little longer. A single, enormous snowflake floated onto his eyelashes.

Jake fractured the silence with a whoop of pure pleasure. “Whooo-hooooo!!!!” He held his ski poles aloft and offered his dancing behind to the mountain. The sound of his shriek echoed around the crags, a celebration and a violation of nature all at the same time.

“You shouldn’t do that. You don’t show your ass to the mountain,” Zoe said.

“And why not? I like my ass.”

“I don’t know why,” she said playfully. “You just don’t.”

“Couldn’t help myself. This is perfection.”

It was. It was flawless. Immaculate, shrink-wrapped perfection on sticks.

“You ready to go?” she asked.

“Yep. Let’s do it.”

Zoe was the more accomplished skier of the two. Jake could be faster, but in a reckless way—skiing right at the razor edge of his ability. She could always thrash him over a distance. To ski down to the village without a pause would take minutes. An hour and a half to get up on the combination of chair- and drag lifts, and fifteen minutes to get down. They’d gotten up early to beat the vacationing hordes for this first run of the morning. Because this—the tranquillity, the silence, the undisturbed powder, and the eerie feeling of proximity to an eagle’s flight—was what it was all about.

Jake hit the west side of the steep but broad slope and she took the east, carving matching parallel tracks through the fresh snow. Her skis whispered to the powder in thrilling intimacy as she plunged down the slope. Just the sound coming from her own skis was like having some creature or supernatural being racing behind her, trying to speak a story into her ear.

But at the edge of the slope, near the curtain of trees, she felt a small slab of snow slip from underneath her. It was like she’d been bucked, so she took the fall line to recover her balance. Before she’d dropped three hundred meters the whisper of her skis was displaced by a rumble.

Zoe saw at the periphery of her vision that Jake had come to a halt at the side of the trail and was looking back up the slope. Irritated by the false start they’d made, she etched a few turns before skidding to a halt and turning to look back at her husband. The rumble became louder. There was a pillar of what looked like gray smoke unfurling in silky banners at the head of the slope, like the heraldry of snow armies. It was beautiful. It made her smile.

Then her smile iced over. Jake was speeding straight toward her like a dart. His face was rubberized and he mouthed something as he flew at her.

“Get to the side! To the side!”

She knew now that it was an avalanche. Jake slowed, batting at her with his ski pole. “Get into the trees! Hang on to a tree!”

The rumbling had become a roaring in her ears, drowning Jake’s words. She pushed herself down the fall line, scrambling for traction, trying to accelerate away from the roaring cloud breaking behind her like a tsunami. Jagged black cracks appeared in the snow in front of her. She angled her skis toward the side of the slope, heading for the trees, but it was too late. She saw Jake’s black suit go bundling past her like clothes in a dryer as he was turned by the great mass of smoke and snow. Then she too was punched off her feet and carried through the air, twisting, spinning, turning in the whiteout. She remembered something about spreading her arms around her head. For a few moments it was like being agitated inside a barrel, turned head over heels a few times, until at last she was dumped heavily in a rib-cracking fall. Then there came a chattering noise, like the amplified jaws of a million termites chewing on wood. The noise itself filled her ears and muffled everything, and then there was silence, and the total whiteness faded to gray, and then to black.

Total silence, total darkness.

She tried to move but couldn’t. Then she felt herself choking, because her mouth and her nostrils were packed with snow. She hawked some snow out of her throat. She felt the snow trickling cold at the back of her nasal passage. She coughed again and was able to gasp a lungful of air.

She had expected to come around in the whiteness of snow, but everything was black. She could breathe, but could barely move. She flexed her fingers inside her leather ski gloves. There was micro-movement. She sensed her hands were locked in position about a foot in front of her face. Her fingers were splayed wide inside the gloves. She tried to wriggle her fingers but nothing would move beyond that micro-flexing inside the glove. She stuck out her tongue and felt cold air.

Zoe heaved her body with no result, and instantly descended into a panic in which she was hyperventilating and feeling the booming of her own heart. Then it occurred to her that she might have only a pocket of trapped air to depend on, and so she slowed her breathing down. She told herself to be calm.

You’re in a snow tomb, be calm.

She breathed gently. Her heart stopped banging.

A snow tomb? You think that’s good?

There was almost a split inside herself as the part of her that wanted to succumb to panic argued with the side that knew if she wanted to survive she should stay composed.

Are you calm now? Are you? Are you? Right, when you are calm, call for your husband. He will come.

“Jake!”

She shouted his name, twice. Her voice sounded alien, distant, muffled, like something down a poor telephone line. She figured that her ears were plugged tight with snow.

She flexed her fingers again and still nothing gave way. She tried every joint, like a warm-up exercise in the gymnasium, starting with her toes, moving on to her ankles and her knees, hips, elbows, shoulders. There was no relief. The snow had packed her hard.

There was a tiny movement at her neck. That and the clear space in front of her mouth made her think that her instinct to fold her arms in front of her face had saved her thus far. She figured that she’d made an air pocket.

Call him again. He will come.

“Jake!”

You’re going to die. In a snow tomb.

She didn’t even know which country she was going to die in. They were right on the mountain border between France and Spain and the local people spoke a language that belonged to neither. She remembered that the Pyrenees were named for a tomb by the ancient Greeks.

No, you’re not in a tomb. You’re going to get out. Call him again.

Instead of calling again she tried to move the fingers of her left hand, one by one. Her thumb and forefinger were paralyzed, as was her middle finger, but as she pressed with her ring finger she sensed a minute crumbling and a tiny movement in one fingertip. Something infinitesimal gave way, and she was able to retract her finger perhaps a centimeter. The movement was matched by a painful strontium flare at the back of her retinas. Then a rainbow of sparks. Then blackness again.

But the message of tiny movement flew from the nerves in her finger to quicken her heartbeat.

Calm. Calm.

She continued to work her ring finger and after a while she found she could move it against her middle finger in a scissor motion. She exercised this scissor movement between her wedding finger and her middle finger. That’s right; you’re cutting your way out. Snip snip snip. Good girl. Cutting yourself free.

She had no idea how long she would be able to breathe, how much air she had. She tried to be economical with her breathing, keeping it shallow, sipping at the air. Her head was banging with pain.

She continued to try to scissor away at the snow around her fingers until the muscles in her fingers cramped. She rested them, flexed them, and began again. Snip snip snip. Good girl.

And with no prospect of movement, something suddenly fell away and her other fingers became free, until she was able to flex all of them, back and forth. Then she felt her moving fingers brushing the side of her face.

Now she made tiny karate-chopping motions with the upper digits of her newly flexible fingers, trying to find her other hand, hoping it had also come to rest close to her face. She was able to extend into and retract from the small space she had made. At last the free hand made contact with the other one. She worked away until she was able to lay the palm of her free hand over the back of the other. Then she pushed back into the snow, full force. Her first guess had been about right. She’d cradled a small pocket of air in front of her. She still had no idea how long this air would last. A minute? Three minutes? Ten minutes?

Don’t think about that. Good girl.

She tried to wriggle her hand out of the glove, knowing her fingernails would make the best tools for scraping her way out. But the gloves were strapped tight at the wrist to prevent the entry of snow. In the immovable dark she tried to loosen the right wrist strap, but the gloved fingers weren’t sensitive enough to allow her to grab it.

Perhaps Jake would come. Unless he too was trapped. Perhaps someone else would come. Perhaps they had helicopters circling overhead even as she thought these things. But no one else had been on the slope. It was likely that if the avalanche had been quite small no one would even know that it had happened.

Tomb. Greeks. Pyre means fire. You know. You know. Pyrenees. Shut up shut up.

“Jake!”

Her voice sounded a little louder in her own ears this time; but it also sounded helpless.

She tried again to grab at her wrist strap in the blackness. She heard the sound of Velcro parting, and the strap loosened. Grabbing the tip of her right glove with her left hand she managed to inch it off. There was nowhere for the glove to go: the thing was scratching her face, but she released it anyway and began to scrape with her fingernails at the snow just above her head.

Her breathing was coming shorter now. She was scratching at the packed snow but making no progress. The snow came free but didn’t move. It had nowhere to go. She scratched harder.

She coughed again. There was something trickling at the back of her throat, making her cough. Then she stopped scratching and focused on the trickling. The fluid, melted snow or saliva or whatever it was, was running from her nose into her throat. Instead of snot falling from her nose it was running backward. She had a sudden, panicked realization.

You are upside down.

She knew now with absolute certainty that she had been buried upside down and vertically. Her feet were nearest to the surface of the snow, not her head. This meant that by scratching on the snow she’d been digging down, deeper into the snow, not up and out. That was why the snow wasn’t flaking free. She’d been digging the wrong way.

She tried flexing her toe inside her boot. It moved a fraction, but the snow around her leg was packed too hard to let her move her leg. She inched her ungloved hand to her neck and found she could reach her hand through the snow to her chest. By scratching she could push her hand to her hip, and the snow fell in clumps toward her face. Then her hand hit a solid object.

It was her ski pole.

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Don't Get Too Comfortable

Don't Get Too Comfortable

The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never- Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil, and Other First World Problems
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Excerpt

LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT

George W. Bush made me want to be an American. It was a need I had not known before. A desire that came over me in a rush one day, not unlike that of the pencil-necked honors student suddenly overwhelmed with the inexplicable urge to make a daily gift of his lunch money to the schoolyard tough. I have lived in the United States, first as a student then as a resident alien, under numerous other administrations, including what I once thought of as the nadir of all time: the Cajun-scented, plague-ravaged Reagan eighties in New York; horrible, black years of red fish and blue drinks. A time when greed was magically transformed from vice to virtue. And after that the even greedier nineties, when the money flowed like water and everybody's boat rose with the tide (except, of course, for those forgotten souls who had been provided not with boats but with stones, and no one told them. Oh well, tra la), and all through that time, aside from having to make sure not to get myself arrested at demonstrations, I was sufficiently satisfied with a civic life of paying taxes and the occasional protest.

But George changed all that. Even though I am not a Muslim and I come from a country that enjoys cordial relations with the United States, I no longer felt safe being here as just a lawful permanent resident. Under the cudgel-like Patriot Act, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later bit of legislation, there are residents who have been here since childhood, other folks who sired American-born children, who have found themselves deported--often to countries of which they have almost no firsthand knowledge--for the most minor, not remotely terrorist-related infractions. Those people are never coming back, at least not during this administration. I don't want to be put out of my home, and like it or not this is my home. I have been here longer than I haven't. After twenty-two years, it seemed a little bit coy to still be playing the Canadian card. I felt like the butt of that old joke about the proper lady who, when asked if she would have sex with a strange man for a million dollars, allows that yes she would do it. But when asked if she would do the same thing for a can of Schlitz and a plastic sleeve of beer nuts, reels back with an affronted, "What do you think I am?" to which the response is, "Madam, we have already established what you are. Now we're just quibbling about the price." Becoming a citizen merely names a state of affairs already in place for a long time.

Even so, once I reach my decision, I don't make my intentions widely known. I tell almost no one, especially no one in Canada. You can only know this if you grew up in a country directly adjacent to a globally dominating, culturally obliterating economic behemoth, but becoming an American feels like some kind of defeat. Another one bites the dust.

The naturalization application can be downloaded directly from the government's website. It is ten pages long but can be filled out over the course of an industrious day or two. It takes me four months and one week. I got delayed twice, although not by the usual pitfalls of questions requiring a lot of documentation from over a long period. I have no problem, for example, with Part 7, Section C, in which I have to account for every trip I have taken out of the United States of more than twenty-four-hours' duration for the last ten years, including every weekend jaunt to Canada to see the family. I have kept every datebook I have ever owned. I pore over a decade's worth of pages and list all of my travels from most recent backward. I create a table with columns, listing exact dates of departure and return, plus my destination. It is a document of such surpassing beauty, it is virtually scented. Not since I threaded puffy orange yarn through the punched holes of my fourth-grade book reports have I so shamelessly tried to placate authority with meaningless externals.

No, my first hang-up occurs at Part 10, Section G, question 33: Are you a male who lived in the United States at any time between your 18th and 26th birthdays in any status except as a lawful nonimmigrant? I make my living with words and yet I cannot for the life of me begin to parse this question with its imbedded double negatives and hypotheticals. How are any nonnative speakers managing to become citizens, I wonder? Part of my clouded judgment is due to fear. I don't want to piss them off, and I am worried that a wrong answer will immediately feed my name into some database for a wiretap, a tax audit, or an automatic years-long "misplacement" of my application; some casual gratuitous harassment that a thuggish administration might decide to visit upon someone they identified as a troublemaker. I spend an entire afternoon trying to map the grammar and come away with nothing but a headache and no idea. This is in early March. I put the form away in my drawer and forget about it, my dreams of inalienable rights felled by just one question. I put all thoughts of citizenship out of my head, until one evening in July, four months later, when, as I'm dropping off to sleep, the clauses fall into place and the lock turns and I realize the answer is a simple "no." With inordinate self-satisfaction, I soldier on. Have I ever been a habitual drunkard? I have not. A prostitute, a procurer, or a bigamist? Nuh-uh. Did I in any way aid, abet, support, work for, or claim membership in the Nazi government of Germany between March 23, 1933, and May 8, 1945? Nein! Do I understand and support the Constitution? You betcha. If the law required it, would I be willing to bear arms on behalf of the United States?

Again I stop. The same headache as before marches its little foot soldiers across my cranium. I put the application back into the drawer and return to my bed, not picking it up again until seven days later when I surprise myself by checking "yes."

I figure it's grass soup. Grass soup is exactly what it sounds like. It's a recipe for food of last resort that my father apparently has squirreled away somewhere. I have never actually seen this recipe, but it was referred to fairly often when I was a child. Should everything else turn to shit, we could always derive sustenance from nutritious grass soup! At heart, it's an anxious, romantic fantasy that disaster and total financial ruin lurk just around the corner, but when they do come, they will have all the stark beauty and domestic fine feeling of a Dickens novel. Young Tiny Tim's palsied hand lifting a spoon to his rosebud mouth. "What delicious grass soup. I must be getting better after all," he will say, putting on a good show of it just as he expires, the tin utensil clattering to the rough wood table.

A grass-soup situation is a self-dramatizing one based on such a poorly imagined and improbable premise as to render it beneath consideration. Michael Jackson saying with no apparent irony, for example, that were he to wake up one day to find all the children in the world gone, he would throw himself out the window. Mr. Jackson's statement doesn't really take into consideration that a planet devoid of tots would likely be just one link in a chain of geopolitical events so cataclysmic, that to assume the presence of an intact building with an intact window out of which to throw himself is plain idiotic. As for grass soup itself, from what I've seen on the news, by the time you're reduced to using the lawn for food, any grass that isn't already gone--either parched to death or napalmed into oblivion--is probably best eaten on the run.

All by way of saying, that if there ever came a time when the government of my new homeland was actually calling up the forty-something asking-and-telling homosexuals with hypo-active thyroids to take up arms, something very calamitous indeed will have to have happened. The streets would likely be running with blood, and such moral gray areas as might have existed at other times will seem either so beside the point that I will join the fight, or so terrifying and appallingly beyond the pale that I'd either already be dead or underground.

For most of my life, I would have automatically said that I would opt for conscientious objector status, and in general, I still would. But the spirit of the question is would I ever, and there are instances where I might. If immediate intervention would have circumvented the genocide in Rwanda or stopped the Janjaweed in Darfur, would I choose pacifism? Of course not. Scott Simon, the reporter for National Public Radio and a committed lifelong Quaker, has written that it took looking into mass graves in former Yugoslavia to convince him that force is sometimes the only option to deter our species' murderous impulses.

While we're on the subject of the horrors of war, and humanity's most poisonous and least charitable attributes, let us not forget to mention Barbara Bush (that would be former First Lady and presidential mother as opposed to W's liquor-swilling, Girl Gone Wild, human ashtray of a daughter. I'm sorry, that's not fair. I've no idea if she smokes). When the administration censored images of the flag-draped coffins of the young men and women being killed in Iraq--purportedly to respect "the privacy of the families" and not to minimize and cover up the true nature and consequences of the war--the family matriarch expressed her support for what was ultimately her son's decision by saying on Good Morning America on March 18, 2003, "Why should we hear about body bags and deaths? I mean, it's not relevant. So why should I waste my beautiful mind on something like that?"

Mrs. Bush is not getting any younger. When she eventually ceases to walk among us we will undoubtedly see photographs of her flag-draped coffin. Whatever obituaries that run will admiringly mention those wizened, dynastic loins of hers and praise her staunch refusal to color her hair or glamorize her image. But will they remember this particular statement of hers, this "Let them eat cake" for the twenty-first century? Unlikely, since it received far too little play and definitely insufficient outrage when she said it. So let us promise herewith to never forget her callous disregard for other parents' children while her own son was sending them to make the ultimate sacrifice, while asking of the rest of us little more than to promise to go shopping. Commit the quote to memory and say it whenever her name comes up. Remind others how she lacked even the bare minimum of human integrity, the most basic requirement of decency that says if you support a war, you should be willing, if not to join those nineteen-year-olds yourself, then at least, at the very least, to acknowledge that said war was actually going on. Stupid fucking cow.

So that's why I answered "yes." But, like I said, it is grass soup. (I hope.)

There has been much talk about a post-September 11 backlog of applications and how I should expect to wait far longer than the usual year. But ten months after filing, I am notified that I have been provisionally approved, pending an interview. I am to report to the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services at Federal Plaza. It is a scorcher of a May day when I go downtown. Even now there are equivalents of first class and steerage. Those of us with scheduled appointments are immediately ushered inside and through the metal detectors, while the line of people who have just shown up snakes around the block. I check in at the window and am asked if, before starting the official process of my glorious, butterfly-like transformation into David Rakoff, American, I'd like to change my name. The hairy-knuckled, pinkie-ringed lawyer for a Vietnamese fellow behind me nudges his client and says, "Hear that? You wanna change your name? To George Bush? Saddam Hussein? Anything you want. Haw haw," he laughs, clapping his client on the back. The young man shoots me an apologetic look to suggest that, yes, even with the obvious cultural and language barriers, he knows that he has unwittingly hired a shithead.

There are about fifty of us waiting for our interviews. Many people are in their best clothes. I wonder if I've adversely affected my chances by having opted for comfort in Levi's and sneakers, but so long as the Russian woman in her early forties is across from me, I have nothing to worry about. She wears painted-on acid-wash jeans, white stilettos, and a tight blouse of sheer leopard-print fabric. The sleeves are designed as a series of irregular tatters clinging to her arms, as if she's just come from tearing the hide off of the back of an actual leopard. A really slutty leopard.

My name is called, and Agent Morales brings me back into her office. From her window I can see the Brooklyn Bridge, hazy under a humid sky the color of a soiled shirt collar. Agent Morales's desk is crowded with small plaster figures of cherubic children holding fishing poles, polka-dot-hankie hobo bundles, small wicker picnic baskets, etc. The walls, however, are almost completely bare. Perhaps it's bureau policy, but all of those typical examples of office humor--that in other work environments might get their own piece of paper, perhaps with Garfield or Dilbert saying them--have all been printed onto the same 81Ú2 5 11 sheet and listed like bullets in a PowerPoint presentation. There are old standbys like "You don't have to be crazy to work here, but it sure helps," along with some gags that are new to me: "Chocolate, coffee, men: some things are just better rich" and "I'm out of estrogen and I have a gun!"--the latter which frankly seems to push the envelope for acceptable discourse in a government office.

She has me raise my right hand while swearing to tell the truth. That's it, no Bible, no Koran, no sacred text of any sort to solidify my oath. Perhaps the increased blood flow from my upheld arm down into my heart is enough to safeguard against perjury. She questions me about any potential criminal past. (A boy could get ideas, or at least a distorted view of his own allure, seeing as how regularly I am asked if I have ever turned tricks.) Agent Morales then administers my citizenship test. Along with my application, I downloaded the list of one hundred possible questions, any handful of which they might choose to ask. Some of them are incredibly basic, like when is Independence Day, while others delve more deeply into the three branches of government, or ask you to name some of the better-known amendments.

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