Table of Contents

Chapter One

When I finally walk into the living room I try to remember whether I had sensed, even before entering, that something was terribly wrong.

It should have been apparent even as I’d stood at the doorstep, but the evidence had eluded me, engaged as I was in a flurry of movements intersecting in the attempt to shift 3 bags to one arm’s crook, hold them in a balanced crush against my left hip, and grope the keys from my pocket with my free hand. The grocery bags slid down my leg, plummeting like the October 2002 NASDAQ, food scurrying like traders holding long positions, door key slipping through my fingers.

I gathered up the ingredients that Sage asked me to buy for that evening’s kabob dinner: onions, tomatoes, Shahi Persian rice, sumac, and the textured vegetable protein, substituted for beef, that she would palm into spheres and skewer, a substitution that her mother saw as yet another worrisome example of her daughter’s lack of regard for Persian tradition, or any tradition for that matter. When my arms were full again, I hipped the door open and was standing in the tiny space that apologized to the living room for the narrow plank it extended in lieu of a genuine hallway, the living room in an admirable display of honesty refusing to accept the apology because it could only glumly mirror the plank’s claustrophobic pinch – only then did I remember that I hadn’t used the key. The door had been slightly ajar.

I walk into an anxious stillness: the room has lungs and holds its breath too long, 1 minute, 2, beginning to heave. A ripe apple of obstruction wedges itself low on the dry branch of my throat. A CD is playing and in it lingers that naked surprised quality sound has when listeners have long been absent and happen to walk in. It covers itself up quickly, embarrassed by my ears.

The quaver of a scale calibrated into increments more exotic than Western diatonic slides with watery ease through the throat of Omid, a pop star from Iran. Sage listened to and sang along with Persian pop frequently, all the while criticizing the tracks for what she called, “dusted-off antiquation and cheesiness.” The keyboards, she would observe, sounded as though they were still being played on mini Moog synthesizers by musicians in polyester with medallions embedded in button-bursting chest hair. And as for the male musicians, she’d continue to quip, the less said the better.

No mirror hangs on the closet door opposite the front one, but it would have been a good place for a mirror. Had there been one I would have seen my reflection, Peace Datcher’s reflection, dreadlocks lankly disconsolate with the day’s failure, my T-shirt, silk screened with Jean Toomer’s moody face, dangling on a sagging clothesline of clavicle, my six feet of wick-thin height unpacked from some damp cardboard box of poor posture. I would have seen it all and briefly tried to recall what in god’s name could have possibly happened during the day to produce an image of such slack dejection. The reflection would have peeled itself off the glass, gently taking the packages from my arms and placing them on the floor. Reflection would then place sympathetic hands on my shoulders, standing so close I would smell the Gatorade I had drunk about an hour before on his breath. “When you bullshit the days away instead of writing, well, this is the result,” Reflection would say with a sad gesture toward the mirror. I ignore the remark that’s never uttered but often thought, that well-aimed fist in the gut that typically doubles me over. With my heart sprinting feloniously up a fire escape of beats into my throat, stomach climbing in pursuit like an overweight vice cop chasing a crank-fueled dealer, I call out “Sage?” and wait, wait for an answer.

The lack of response presses the blood-red instinct button, and as I step into the living room I’m bent slightly, shoulders drawn into an early evolution era hunch, legs wishboned simian, fingers curled as though clutching a huge turkey-leg-shaped club, some skeletal slab torn from a pterodactyl carcass. “Sage?”

I’m in the living room so it doesn’t make sense to look for her here, unless while I was gone she had discovered a wealth of space beneath the couch and decided to exploit it for some much needed quality time alone. I see the usual living room Jane and John Doe accoutrements. The undisputed pinnacle of America’s inventive and ironic genius, the television set, sits regally on its throne in one corner, while the rest of the room and what it holds seems to radiate from it, subordinate to it, as though summoned from a kingdom behind the screen into 3 dimensions, humble subjects granted regal audience: homemade bookcase fashioned from plank and brick, Toshiba CD player and stereo purchased at a floor-model discount, Dell PC that froze and hung with the dreary tenacity of a stalactite, knickknacks on tables only because we couldn’t afford more high-end electronics. Everything is still here, and for a moment I almost feel disappointed, as though thieves had surveyed the material possessions it had taken Sage and me a year of marriage to accumulate, shook their ski-masked heads in disgust, decided to move on to greener pastures.

“Scherazade? Koja hastee? Knunei?”

That was my crowning strategy, the tactic I always resorted to when I wanted to convey the urgent nature of the matter at hand: I invoked the name she had been born with and spoke to her in my halting Farsi, a demanding language to begin to learn at the age of 29, when my mind’s resiliency and retentive powers had already been stretched to an apex of sorts, if it could be called that, a few years ago in college. Sage understood that the difficulty I suffered in my earnest butchering of the language demanded a matching effort on her part to listen seriously. If she had been playing a game of hide-and-seek or staging a typical Sagesque prank of some kind she would have emerged at that point, eyes wide and dark as northern Wisconsin woods, head tilted to the left in somber inquiry, tongue firing off questions in a dizzying bilingual zigzag.

I couldn't attribute Sage's absence to impromptu casual visits to family, separated as she was from her relatives by distances spanning states and nations – aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, death-defying elders, a buzzing hive-mind that manages to maintain familial cohesiveness though its members were far-flung, honeycombing the United States and Canada. Conquering distance with technology, voices abuzz and dripping sly honey through the telephone, they informed Sage of the status of complex family feuds, shared predictions of doom and failure for new marriages (likely made even before the mullah could speak the ceremony’s closing words), spoke of money made overnight and foolishly squandered by dawn. Or they attempted to sting her with guilt for her shortcomings, the calls always placed well after midnight when a few cents could be saved. Her mother and brother lived in California (Woodland Hills and Calabasas, respectively), where Sage had been expected to return once she had graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, but hadn’t. (It was unlikely that she would have given up her beloved Californian surf and sun for Milwaukee’s muculent winters, or anything at all Milwaukee could be said to offer, without the inducement of a full academic scholarship, a siren call too alluring for her to ignore.) She had no family here in Milwaukee to visit. And while Sage has more than her share of friends, for the most part she politely turns down the numerous invitations to socialize she receives. Maybe giving in to the demands of popularity would have left her little time for herself. Despite appearances to the contrary, she's essentially a private person.

Then I remember that Sage practices yoga and meditation the same time each and every evening without fail, between 5:00 and 6:00 pm. Unemployment as a result of downsizing had left her with ample time to indulge spiritual proclivities that had been buried beneath the daily drudgery of her job as an academic counselor in the university’s Student Services Department. The house could spontaneously combust around her, fire extinguishers sprout legs and leap into her lap, and still you’d find her sitting in full lotus, unfazed, at one with the flames.

It’s 5:45 pm. For a moment the military drumroll of tension in my chest slackness. She’d be in the bedroom, perched on the black meditation zafu we had bought last year from the lavender-scented bookshop a few doors down from the Zen Center on Normandy Street in Los Angeles, when we were in California for a week visiting her mother and brother.

Heading to the bedroom I pass the kitchen.

The bedroom door is closed and I knock. “Baby? I’m sorry, but I’m coming in just for a second.” When I tap it, the door unpeels an orange-slice segment of angled bedroom.

The room is quiet, setting sun a pitcher pouring citrus through the single window, walls splashed the color of Sunkist. On the floor beneath the window the meditation pillow looks incomplete, half-heartedly surprised by the absence of her anchoring weight, a point severed from the exclamation line of Sage’s straight spine.

I get down on my knees, look under the bed as though I expect to find Sage there with a dazed look on her face, maybe balancing her checkbook. I swing on my vine of panic, Tarzan in need of a Zanax, to the closed bathroom door adjacent to the bed. Inside I fling back the shower curtain, as though I expect to find her standing there naked with a dazed look on her face, still balancing her checkbook. Water needles idly from the showerhead’s silver pincushion, stitching Sageless space. My options crumple, like a lottery ticket with no winning numbers in a hand that has just bought hope with the last dollar.

There’s another door, the closet, so I open it. Clothes are strewn on the floor, on their hands and knees, looking for their hangers. Sage never threw her clothes on the closet floor, her penchant for a cozy sort of disorder notwithstanding. I should be able to tell exactly what’s missing, but at this point nothing is exact. Instead I float in a bubble of inexactitude and approximation, where everything is familiar but wrong, as though I’ve been smoking a bowl filled to the brim with hydroponic déjà vu.

I pinball down the hallway back to the kitchen, check the hallway bathroom, veer to the living room, skid outside with a cartoon plume of smoke trailing behind and stand on the curb looking up and down our darkening block.

I look, as though I could reasonably expect to spot her returning from a casual evening stroll. This isn’t the kind of neighborhood where you’d be likely to see body-shaped chalk outlines on the pavement. Perhaps because Milwaukee’s well-budgeted sanitation department could afford to pay municipal workers a little OT for covert after-midnight bucket-and-mop operations. It would be cheaper than urban renewal or gentrification. We live in the territorial limbo where the north side ends and the lower East side begins, and even though the university is only a few miles away and many of the residents in the area are students, you don’t walk in our neighborhood. You run.

At the end of our driveway one of the few trees in the neighborhood, a Dutch Elm so devoured by disease that stray dogs with bursting bladders pass it by without temptation, momentarily shakes off its apathy and perks up a bit, sensing a newfound potential usefulness as the backdrop for a poster that would read Missing – Have You Seen This Woman?

I’m so muddled that I survey the driveway without really seeing, solving the mystery of Sage’s disappearance by my blind conclusion that she must have taken the car. Some New Age maxim states that you see what you’re inclined to see, and to an extent this may be true, but eventually reality asserts itself and you see what’s actually there. Eventually I see the car. We only have one, a geriatric Ford Taurus, and it sits where I had parked it moments ago, resting in an ancient wheelchair-shaped oil spot on the asphalt.

In the house again I sit down at the kitchen table to think. I consider calling the police, then recall that if I do, the size of our bank account would preclude my hiring an attorney or posting the bail that would allow me to await my trial in the relative comfort of my home. There was that high probability that my involving “the authorities” would virtually ensure that when she walked through the door tonight with a perfectly logical explanation for her whereabouts my presence in a county jail holding tank would pretty much ruin any ideas I might have had for any welcome home festivities.

Months ago after I’d been placed on probation rather than imprisoned for what the police had found in the Taurus’s glove compartment, Sage and I had laughed at the predicament: that in the future if I needed to call to the police, for whatever reason, I would have to first make a Medusa-like entanglement of other calls – a call to relatives for money, then a call to the bail bondsman to supplement the money extracted from appalled relatives after I was arrested, then the call to an attorney, followed by the call to secure the services of the psychotherapist whose treatment sessions would serve to mitigate the lingering trauma of the threat of serious incarceration, and so on. At the time it was the HA-HA variety of funny. But sitting alone at the kitchen table, palms wearing the corduroy of worry imprinted by my forehead’s wrinkles, the prohibitive limitations attached to calling the cops for help has lost a good deal of its humorous luster.

Then I see a note I’d missed on my way to and from the bedroom, neatly folded into a cube, propped against a Musil granola box, waxy bag erupting from the lids’ open flaps like an accident in the middle of a 4-way intersection.

I recognize the handwriting immediately:

Much is at stake, Datcher. No, I am not referring to the $20,000 you owe Flowology Publishing. This cash, if I may be so bold to use one of your quaint Americanisms, is certainly nothing to be sneezing at, but this is not what is at stake.

Please, I am asking you now to recall our conversations, okay?

What I saw with these aging old eyes as you sat on the other side of the desk was a young man, eager and excited to burst upon the world with his writing. Ah, I was carried back, as in a magical carriage, to the time of my own earnest dreams, so many of which, alas, have failed to materialize – rather, they have dematerialized. But after reading some of your works, I was convinced that fate would not lead you down the road I had traveled. Fuck my youthful dreams, Datcher, or let them be fucked, whichever is most appropriate!

Why do I say this, why am I saying this? Because in your writing I saw something that I myself never possessed – talent, of a raw and volatile and exotic magnitude. I believed not that you had things to say which had never been said before, but that you were saying these already said things in a way that approached being new. Or if not new, in a way that was yours and yours only. We both believed that, Datcher did we not? For this reason, I gave you the money, I made to you an advance, under the auspices of the fledgling Flowology Publishing, on good faith. With the thought being that now Datcher could devote himself fully to writing, without having his soul sucked dry every and each day by the meaningless work he is forced to do at his insurance company, to make living possible. Certain conditions, we agreed upon them, yeah? Your work to be completed within a certain frame of time, one year, then for Flowology Publishing to have the first look? Simple, simplicity itself. And if the book was not completed, to be repaid, of course.

I see so many young people withering under so much everyday pressure, and I fill with sympathizing. I can and do sympathize. But what has happened, Datcher? Months have passed, and now the year is over. Where is completed work? Do you know what I see happening? You are in danger, you are falling short. I read the few pages you send in irregular and undisciplined installments. I am inflamed by them, ignited. Bravo! Yes, this is what I want, but more, much more, as we discussed and agreed. Sometimes we ourselves cannot know best what we need. I know what you need. My young people think of me, many of them, as an almost paternal figure. So much trust that I must not abuse! Sometimes the things I do may make me seem unkind. But in the end, I am thanked. What is this danger I see you in? The dissipation of potential.

Will you allow an old man like Kodiac to be frank? Even a lovely wife’s love can be a distraction, Datcher. Allow me to suggest to you that all distractions must be removed in the pursuit of high visions.

Will you permit me to say that I am removing all distractions so that you can proceed to your objective? Just for a time, a short time, I am stepping in to remove all distraction.

When you finish, all will be as it was. There is nothing in this for you to worry about; there is nothing nefarious in it, nothing of violence. Think of it in this way, that arrangements have been made to provide you with motivational incentives to assist you in your creative endeavors.

You must think of me as your guardian angel, your winged catalyst.

Maybe you are near to finishing and will now do so in a burst of conviction and then whish, boom, bam, all is returned to you in a few miniscule days. Tomorrow the Boy of Fleece will be there to collect your pages, just as he has come to collect them for the past year, at the usual time. Please, Datcher, he knows nothing substantial of this, so asking this one will prove futile.

So what I am saying is onward, yeah? I know that reading this you are thrown into a fever now, an unpleasant fever state, but in a few moments the phone will ring, and you will answer it, and the fever will subside as I will give you the assurances you need to proceed onward.

I read the note that Kodiac – Nikolai Kodiachevesky – has left a second time, a third, then the telephone on the kitchen countertop rings in a joyless jangle and I answer it, and I turn on the answering machine’s recorder and begin to listen as Kodiac, owner of a dozen nightclubs and reputed to be the biggest dealer of Ecstasy in the Midwest, attempts to give me the assurance I need to proceed onward.

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