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Table of Contents

Chapter Twenty-Four

Existensia offers me baked low fat Lays chips when I sit on the sofa. She must have discovered the toilet paper because it’s gone now.

I turn down the low fat chips, decide not to waste any time. “You look almost exactly like Sage. Cosmetic surgery to alter your nose, enlarge your eyes, what.” Immediately I realize that the what is Kodiac’s, as though he’s the ventriloquist and my words are his wooden and woe begotten Larry. My head fevers with his inflections, my brain wears the Toucan of his shirt. This is no good, so I try it once more. “The color of your hair, your hairstyle is the same, everything. Why?” This is not much better, why instead of what, but it’s the standard and provokes the desired response.

“Kodiac paid for the procedure,” she replies. “I met him at one of his floats, and we started talking. I told him …”

“You met him at what?”

“Floats, floaters, floating clubs. Instead of a warehouse, some wiped out building someplace – I mean, sometimes he does do that – but what he does a lot is sets up a tent, this huge tent like they use for revivals, you know, but it’s black, so helicopters or whatnot can’t see it so good at night? Menomonee Falls one time, or sometimes farther, Kettle Morraine, Spooner, way north, places in northern Wisconsin.”

Floaters: reticulated degenerative cells, vision playing now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t in eyes veiled by a Houdini of biologic blotches. I close mine, open them, see some, drifting. Existensia looks more and more like Sage and therefore less and less like someone I shouldn’t resist kissing. A taste test: if she kisses cerulean blue she’s Sage, pretending to be Existensia. No one or nothing else could possibly kiss blue, except the sky when it parts its lips to breathe love on a cloud. Sage and I had a discussion the night we were married. It was a night when rain fell so beautifully and ineluctably that I wished I had invented it. It fell from a height I would never ascend to, that height from which, at times, when I was weary, I longed to exquisitely fall. It sliced the world with tender aborning blades, repaired the necessary damage inflicted by cleansing, then stitched the world back together again inside its ceaseless salvific mummer, and the night outside our window was a polished singing jewel. And in our tiny bedroom, we spoke to one another in whispers, in the language of whispered waters, the only acceptable sound to make because it fell from the high shingles of the heart’s vastness and mirrored droplets of rain. We spoke in an intimate espionage of love, spies striking dangerous and provisional covenants, acutely aware that these were days and times in which eternal promises were difficult to make, impossible to keep. So we tried to be pragmatic, all the while knowing that pragmatism and love did not go hand in hand. “We’ll let love take care of itself, we’ve got to trust that much,” she said. “We can’t see into the future and say that ten years from now we won’t change in a way that makes us grow apart.” “No,” I said, her face chaliced in my hands. “I suppose we can’t.” “But what we can promise is that if you ever feel any different, if you ever fall out of love, you’ll be honest and tell me. You won’t take me through all that other crap.” I wanted to say that would never happen, never in years that exceeded armies of numbers marching into infinity, but instead I reluctantly said, “And the same goes for you.” She immediately broke the promise. “For my part, it’ll never happen. But one more thing. Men are men. If for whatever reason you’re ever with someone else, and it doesn’t mean anything, a one-night-stand kind of thing, well, don’t come teary-eyed confessing to me. To mefahmeed? You understand? I’m not a big enough person to live with it. If you do it, keep it to yourself.”

I stare at Existensia, the Sage look-alike. If ever I would have a reason to slip, to step on fidelity’s thin ice and shatter it with the weight all weak men bear on their shoulders, it would be now, with this woman who had been re-made in Sage’s likeness and image. I lean over and put my hand out. She’s next to me on the couch and doesn’t pull back. With two trembling fingers I lightly touch her cheek. Because she still doesn’t pull back, I pull back. “I miss her. I miss Sage. Where is she? Anything you can tell me …”

“If you touch her that way, she’s gotta be missing you, too.” Her smile is tender with understanding, a Hallmark sympathy card folding open from her lips, though the smile seems sincere enough. She tilts her head to Sage’s left, a gesture that seems connected to a sense of timing is perfect and uncanny. “I don’t know where she and I’ve never seen her in person. Let me explain. I had this idea. I wanted to do something new. I had been thinking of The World’s First Viewable-Living, Non-Internet Porthole bit for a while. Girls already had webcams in their houses online where you could watch all the time, but it was all soft porn, and I wanted to do something like that but with the porn element. More in the line of making a statement, or expressing something. But I needed money. One night, I met Kodiac at a club. He listened to my idea. He really understood what I was trying to do. So he financed me, but there were conditions. I had to get plastic surgery to look like this chick – sorry – this woman. I thought, hell, why not, so I agreed and he paid for it: minor stuff they did to the nose, cheekbone, eyes. To be able to do what I wanted to do was more important than my looks. Where had my looks gotten me in the first place? He told me what I was doing sounded like performance art and that made me a sort of actress, didn’t it? Well, he said, they might be making a movie based on her, and if I could get her gestures and stuff down, maybe I could play the role. He wanted me to learn Farsi, that’s her native tongue, right? I’m learning it, I practice it all the time in my head and stuff but I’m real slow.”

Now it made sense, the tentative procession of Farsi caravanning through Sophiala’s head.

“What was on the tape?”

“She was eating at a table and it looked like it was in a garden. I couldn’t really see anything in the background, like a house or a landmark. She’s left handed, she was eating rice and kebobs.” She pauses to think, tilting her head to the left once again. “It looked good.”

“Nobody else was there?”

“Nobody I could see, at least nothing in frame. Maybe they were spy shooting her. We were at the club and Kodiac was telling me what to watch, pointing things out. He also gave me this list of her gestures, things she says, stuff she wears, what shampoo she uses, and like that. I’m supposed to get it down pat.”

“What about the Federrakt? Are you a part of it? I mean, you were there.”

There’s a thump against the glass, shouts outside, and Existensia crosses the room to peek through the curtain. “Check this out.”

When I peek through the curtain, I see a taffy of spectators disentwining to reveal Ricky Chang, the anchorman, and the guy with the bowtie on his lip in a fracas of flying fists and feet, twisted faces on braided necks. Ricky Chang, though wheelchair-bound, has the anchorman in a headlock, as though symbolizing the pugilistic and hard won superiority of the word over easy visual image. The man with the moustache is trying to kick the wheelchair, foot connecting only with nimble wheelchair afterimage.

Existensia pulls the curtain closed, returns to the sofa, and I follow her, trailing behind as though cinched by waistband – Ricky Chang would no doubt regard my toilet paper-like trailing with envy. “You know you’re on the right track when people are beating each other to a pulp over the meaning of what you’re doing,” she reflects. “Controversy, the mother of PR. I was only there to dance, that’s part of the deal. I wandered into the room looking for Kyle.”

“Part of the looking-like-Sage deal?”

“Right. The only see Kodiac sometimes is if I’m dancing at Flowology and he just shows up. I dance for a couple of hours in a disco cage on the second floor three nights a week – another condition. Flowology’s the club downtown, on Michigan Street, by the bridge? There’s never any raves there or anything because he keeps it legit. Maybe like a front, I guess. You ever been there?”

I tell her yes, I’ve been there. Then I try to recall how many times I had visited Flowology. The first time I sat next to Kodiac at the bar, listening to an inspired elaboration of his fledgling publishing company’s mission statement that was ecumenical in scope and more intoxicating than the Courvoiser he had insisted on buying me. Those eyes, tunneling hypnodisks, spun me by slow degrees to that happy abdication of will and reason I’m now paying for now in the illegal tender of inflated consequences, each Sage-less moment, like a worthless coin, paving my way to discredit and ruin. The second time I sat across a dour metal desk in the office, a room the size of Kodiac’s emptied lungs, just big enough to accommodate the small cloud of dim blue contained in the Sobranie Russian cigarette Kodiac nursed like a nicotine breast, next to the men’s room with its bladdery exude in the back of the club. It was there that I hurled my hand out for the large manila envelop stuffed with $20,000, plump as a sow on a spit, my stupidity the spit’s crank, my hunger for an escape from muse-slaying employment the sow’s crisping flame. After I was given the advance there were at least a dozen times during the months that followed that I’d looked for Kodiac at the club, hoping to get clarification on the notes he’d written on the pages the Boy of Fleece delivered, but I never found him there. According to the barman, the waitresses, anyone who looked as though they might be in Flowology’s employ, Kodiac made it a point never to leave a number where he could be reached or an address where he could be found. I had seen the cage at Flowology, a much less ambitious version of the one I’d seen at the old brewery, more like an oversized birdcage hanging in the corner of the room on the second floor, but on these occasions a girl wearing a cowgirl outfit had been dancing in it, waving a toy six shooter in one hand, twirling an unruly lasso in another.

“Okay, I understand all this. But why? Why does he want you to dance at the club?”

Her shrug is the answer to my riddle, shoulders lifting and sagging with the burden of the unknown. “He never said why, and since he was paying me, I didn’t really care.”

I decide to try another approach, because maybe the answers lie in the angles, in the tangents and digressions, in the ellipses or at the edges, in the fringe forgotten by the eye as it gravitates to find the patterns woven at the tapestry’s center. People often reveal what they don’t know they know, in response to panther-like solicitations slinking along the perimeters of verbal seductions.

“How did you get into all this?” I sweep the air with a room-wide gesture. “Where did the idea for this come from?”

She settles deeper in her spot on the sofa and begins riding a gentle pendulum forward and back. This is the motion children make when they sit on the floor alone, lulled in a cradle of imagination. I don’t have the time or the interest but act as though I do, pulling my eyes from their pools of pink quicksand, shaping my lips from the somber clay of lower face into something resembling a smile, reaching out to draw a single leathery chip from the twisted Lays bag gagging its contents across the cocktail table.

“Isn’t all this like too weird? It would have to be, because the origins of it were weird.” This doesn’t surprise me, and in fact I’d be disappointed to hear anything else. “When I was seventeen, we went on this trip to the Sierra mountains in California. Me, my mother and my father. It was this big deal, this yearly family ritual. They were so into it and I was so not, but they always made me go. The only summer we didn’t do the camping thing was when I was 15 and came down with pleurisy. So, we’re there to participate in the universal 4 B’s of camping: bugs, bears, boulders, bullshit. My dad wanted to be the undisputed king of campers or something. He didn’t want to camp in the Sierra National Forest because there’d be too many people. He had all these ideas he’d picked up from Thoreau, you know, the whole Walden thing? He’d been this hot-shot philosophy major in college, but he ended up making a living as a car salesman, selling Volvos. My mom? She likes to paint, but she’s only got one subject: retired Beanie Babies. Pretty grotesque if you ask me.

So anyway, we’re in the mountains, he’d gotten his fire permit for dispersed camping, which is for going to undeveloped wilderness sites, we left the car at a trail head, packed everything on our backs, and hiked up. We ended up where the peaks were at about 8,000 feet, I think. The air was like weird until you got used to it. We found this old site where a ranger station used to be on the remains of a concrete foundation and that’s where we set up camp. There was this slope, with a trail that went down into a valley. Behind where we camped was elevated. Off the ridge you look across forever and see mountain ranges. They were like rows and rows of tobacco teeth. And there was a river, too. That was cool, but other than that there was nothing much to do after you’d wandered around and the whole explorer’s thing got old. I had brought a couple books. At night, the moon was so bright you could read by it. But if there were clouds, forget it, you couldn’t see shit. Then, you had to be careful, because you could be walking along, think you were walking on a trail, and walk off the edge of something.

So one night I had hiked down into the valley and into this grove of trees. Actually, I didn’t ‘hike’ which makes it sound like I was into it, I just walked. It was pretty bright out because of the moon and I hadn’t gone too far. I mean, of course you had to be careful because you didn’t want to be totally isolated if ran into a bear. ‘Oh, hi big fuzzy guy, I’m out here all alone. By the way, here’s my face, feel free to fucking maul it with impunity.’ No thanks. Most of the time if you came across one it wasn’t too interested in you, but still. I guess there were mountain lions, but I never saw one. Maybe the bears had eaten them. I would, if I were a bear. So I could still see my mom and dad at the campsite sitting around the fire, cooking beans and bacon by the tents. They just loved that whole Sterno scene. The smoke of it was drifting around. I sat down against this boulder to read. This part of the valley was filled with pine trees, and the needles covered the floor of the forest. I had sort of scooped them all up to make a soft spot, so I was good to go. The only thing I saw that came from people ever being there was this old moldy-looking brown shoe on top of this moldy black stump on the other side of the creek. It was a narrow creek behind the bolder, and I could hear it running over rocks, it had little rapids. I heard the wind blowing and sometimes the branches would rustle like wind chimes, organic wind chimes that sounded green. Nice, huh? And so I just started listening to everything, my mom and dad laughing once in a while, and it would echo, almost like little kid’s voices when they play when you hear them in a dream, and branches cracking in fidgety noises from little animals darting, doing their thing. Night birds with flutes stuck in their throats. I started to get sleepy so I just, like, dug my legs under the pine needles and scooped a little pillow for my head and dozed off.

I don’t know how long I was sleep.

I wake up all of a sudden. It’s black now, and real still. These big clouds had blown in, dark ones, and so the moon’s just barely this smear. The birds are gone and I don’t hear any more little animals rustling. I listen hard. The creek is flowing but it isn’t rushing over the rocks in little rapids anymore, it’s just going over them, like a slow quiet escalator. I can’t hear it. I look over to the campsite. It’s so dark I can hardly see it. It’s misty up there, maybe mist had drifted off the river way down behind the campsite ridge, I don’t know. But the fire’s out and I figure they’d probably checked on me when I was sleep and went in their tent.”

I’m alert now as though I’m in the forest, listening for sounds that have vanished because they’re dressed in their camouflage fatigues, their faces painted with the black war paint of near-moonless night, sounds that had flanked the enemy of silence and been defeated, and now withdrew, skulking, planning the next maneuver. I’m alert now because she’s turning it into a story and I extend a frisson of antennae, vibrating with anticipation. I wait like an insect weary of its life among weeds and pine needles for the hiking boot of her story to crush me flat. The boot is on its way down because Existensia’s eyes are the laces, pulling tight with faraway inward gaze.

“Then behind the grove where the trees thinned out, I see something. I’ll never forget this. Light’s pouring down from somewhere above the treetops, sort of a smoky green. You could tell it wasn’t natural. It’s not like it was because of the sky, the moonlight or anything like that. For one thing, remember, the sky’s black and the moon is barely there. It’s more like it’s manufactured. The color isn’t like the green from the trees, it’s almost like a dim green color you’d see in an animated movie, a cartoon. Then I hear it. The light is humming. A smooth barely there humming.”

Existensia lays both her hands on her throat, throwing her head back. She tries to reproduce the hum she heard, but it pretty much sounds normal, like a humming throat would sound even without the hands. Frustrated, she says, “That’s not it. That’s not even close.”

For some reason the sight of her hands on her throat makes me feel sorry for her. It’s something I no longer care to witness. “Maybe you don’t need the hands,” I suggest. “Maybe the hands take away from it.”

“Fuck the hands,” she says.

When she flops her hands down, I breathe a sigh of relief that by any standard would be deemed out of proportion to the sight of hands on a throat. “Go on.”

“I start to walk toward it, the green light. But when I get to where I think it’ll be, it’s not there, it’s further on. So I keep walking. I know I shouldn’t go too far, but I can’t help it. Finally, the trail ends and I come to a clearing, and the light stays. I had been walking with my eyes on the ground, more or less, because it was black immediately in front of me. The green light that kept not being there isn’t strong enough for me to really see, and I don’t want to fall down into some gorge somewhere. But I’m in the clearing now, and for the first time I look up, because the light isn’t so diffuse anymore. Now it’s in shafts, I count eight of them, wide and broad shafts, but still dim. I follow them up with my eyes.

Now, get this. The shafts go up and I see this huge flat surface, like the bottom of an iron, iron-shaped. And that’s where the lights are coming from. Spotlights like moons stuck in the bottom of this flat surface. And it’s just fucking hanging there, I mean, it’s hovering, moving a little to stay in place. I’m not at the edge of the clearing anymore. I guess I had, with my head back and my mouth open, just wandered right into the middle of the clearing. Listen, before I go on with this, I want you to tell me something. How do I seem to you? Do I seem, like, though it’s relative, normal? Normal enough, I mean? Or does it seem like I’m one of those people who thinks she’s normal but is totally bizarre and is taking sledgehammer medication which doesn’t really do anything except let the person think she’s almost normal, but normal in a heavily medicated way?”

She had a name that had been given to her by a journalist and lived in a storefront with a curtain that I’d been told was open most of the time, day or night, and she lived there while people on the sidewalk watched her doing everyday things, eating, sleeping, going to the bathroom and walking around with toilet paper hanging from her pants, and she had taken money for having the face she was born with altered by plastic surgery to resemble an Iranian woman she’d never met, and she danced in a cage when she wasn’t in the storefront room shuffling about in Donald Duck slippers and – I can’t help fixating on this once again in an unhealthy way that Ricky Chang might deeply identify with – she had toilet paper that sometimes hung from her pants and, of course, she had sighted the bottom of an iron floating somewhere in the sky, in a forest at 8,000 feet. If this is not the ultimate heteroclite assortment of facts widely and bowleggedly sidestepping even the most slipshod definition of normalcy, seeming to arise from ferociously medicated and sledgehammered states of consciousness, then I’m not the Sageless Peace Datcher. “It seems” – and I take my time with this, wanting to get it right, shuffling phraseology in a mental shell game, not wanting to appear to be insanity’s ready advocate – “like you’re normal … in an intensely-creative-person sort of way.”

Face beaming appreciation, she lunges forward, kissing me on the forehead, a lip-shaped lantern of imprint flickering wet warmth on my skin. Now I know: the kiss is not cerulean blue. “Okay then. I was where? Yeah, the hovering iron.”

I want to ask, but do not, if steam had been hissing from the bottom of the iron.

“I stand there for a while, just looking up. I feel like I could have moved if I’d wanted to, I could have run off, but I don’t want to, so I’m like in this stuck but not really state. The next thing that happens is freaky. Something hits me on top of the head. It hits me hard, but it doesn’t hurt. I’m surprised by it, it’s a solid impact, but there’s no pain. Know what it was like? Like I’d been hit in the head with a bat of soft water, or hit hard with a bat of talcum powder. I can feel my eyes close completely but I can still see. It’s the same as before – I could have opened them if I wanted to, but I don’t want to, because with everything still visible there’s no need to open them to see. Then there’s a jump, like if you were watching a film that was a movie of exactly everything that was going on that you were in the middle of, and the film broke, and instantly fused back together again. I want to laugh, but I don’t feel like it. And the next thing is that I’m in two places at once. I’m still standing looking up, but the main … volume or whatever, the bulk, of my consciousness, has been siphoned off and is in now in another place. This new place, I’m present in it with three-quarters clarity, with one-quarter of clarity still left in me on the ground. Fuck it, I think. It’s too late. Let go. When I do, the ground quarter of me leaves the clearing and fully joins the three quarters.

In the new place, I feel whole in a way I’d never felt in all my life. Like parts of me that have been hidden or missing have been put back.

And what I also feel is that every thought you have is really real. That only something very thin and ghostly prevents every thought you have from stepping out and becoming solid and real in three dimensions. We believe there has to be an effort to make thoughts real, right? Like, you have this idea of a house, a thought, and if you want to make it real, you have to build it, bit by bit, with work and effort? But I now I understand that the work and effort aren’t really necessary. I don’t exactly know how to explain how I knew this.

Where I’m at is a room without walls. There’s these tables that are iron-shaped and they’re floating waist high. The surface of them is green. When I walk, they follow behind me, floating after me. I start running, not because I’m afraid but because I feel like it. The running is like I’m drinking water, it’s some kind of nourishment-running, or eating-running. When I finally stop, I’m surrounded by people. Every person who had ever meant anything to me was there and some who hadn’t meant much to me at all, every person I’d met and talked to, or was connected to someone I’d met and talked to … and some of them were dead and still some living – I mean, they had died, down here, or are still living today. Tinsel was there, my best friend from third grade on, who used to steal stuff with me, we’d go to malls and she would ask the salesman all sorts of questions as a diversion while I’d stuff my clothes with anything I felt like stealing. She was overweight and was mostly ignored by everybody but me, and I think I hung out with her because of that at first, but I actually came to like her a lot. When she was 14 she went mad anorexic, and nobody could stop it, and eventually they found her in her backyard where her heart had just stopped. And now she says to me, ‘You know what, Megan, our friendship could have been so much more if you hadn’t pitied me. But thank you for not telling me to eat, like everybody else.’ She doesn’t mean it in a sarcastic way, either. And every one of them says something like that. Sometimes I could understand what they were telling me, the meaning of it, and sometimes I couldn’t. An old man I had sat next to on a bus once had fallen asleep and his head slipped over on my shoulder and I just let it stay there. ‘Because you didn’t wake me, I got a chance to dream of my dead wife, Irene, who told me something very important in the dream. If you had pushed me away …’ That was an easy one and I could understand that he seemed to be saying what I had done was good. But sometimes it wasn’t negative or positive. There was Teddy Donner, from when I was in 12th grade, and he says to me, ‘Remember that time we 2 years ago we got high in your bedroom and talked about how cool it would be to rob a bank? Well later on I was in Idaho and needed money real bad and robbed this credit union. This one teller who was the mother of twins quit, and the day after she quit another guy robbed the same credit union, but he lost it and shot everybody who worked there.’ I guess he read her story in the newspaper. At first, I thought what he meant was that in some weird way because of some weird way he prevented the woman with the twins from being killed. But then, the teller woman was there in the ship with all these people telling me things, and she told me that a year later she’d died of an overdose on black tar heroin, so I don’t know what the point of it all meant. Donner had a point, but then again he didn’t.”

“Maybe it was the year she spent with her kids. Maybe that was the point.”

“I’ve thought of that as a possible maybe. But at the time, after she told me, I had the feeling that anything could be the point. Or nothing. It was my choice.

So now these quasi people just fade away. They had looked solid until you stood close to them. From up close, you could see that inside the outline of their bodies there was all this light. The light was all these tiny dots, sort of stuck together in a mass, but each dot was moving slowly. It was like looking at cells, or smaller than cells, under a microscope. Then they all just disappear.

I wander around. It’s a landscape and as I walk through it, sections of it slowly rise from flat planes out of the floor and sink back down flat again. It’s like a kid’s pop up book, the plane rising up in these sculpted shapes that were intensely colorful. The shapes, when they had risen to their full height, are similar to sculptures, and a lot of them seem to be sculptures of like ancient animals. You know how you’ve seen pictures of fish so far down on the bottom of the ocean that they look deformed and monstrous? Some are that way. Mythological. Maybe it was the history of their own myths. They’re rising not in front of me so that they block my way, but to the side of me as I pass. Some are big, maybe 10 feet tall, bulky. They come up, slow, glide alongside me, pacing me, and sink back down just as slow, like horses on a merry-go-round. After they sank back to flat planes, they merge back with the flat floor again, and if you look down at it, you don’t see the design of what they had been or anything, just the blank floor. Some of the shapes, when they were rising, were things I can’t explain. The colors I said before? They’re not real colors. They’re more ideas of colors.

They had their own reality in the ship. It was theirs, but they were trying to put it in a context I could sort of relate to, they were trying to water it down, but they hadn’t gotten my context right.

They were watching me. They were coming to conclusions.

When I see them, I know it’s them. Not the pictures or movies of aliens. They’re strips about twice as tall as me but the same width, without limbs or heads. They’re strips of aluminum foil, cut into perfect elongated rectangles, bending backward and forward in a breeze I can’t feel but know is there. They’re praying me forward. They’re silver, like aluminum foil, but without the wrinkles and facets. They’re blank, thin as paper.

I had never had sex before this. At least, as the joke goes, not with another person.

I had all these ideas about saving myself for the right guy and stuff that my mom had drilled into me. Because she always said how the wrong guy could have tragic consequences. She had met my dad when she was 19 and they were both students at Penn State. She told me that the first time she’d ever had sex was with him and it seemed okay at the time, but that they got married and things went downhill fast. This wasn’t stuff I really wanted to hear, but that’s my Mom. She said it got to the point where he only wanted have sex with her if she put rubber bands on his wrists and ankles because, he was convinced, it drove the blood into his penis. Then he wanted them around his neck and torso and arms. Since he couldn’t find rubber bands that big, he started using the rubber O rings from small machines, vacuum cleaner belts, even fan belts. It got to where he was so rubber banded up that every inch of him was covered except his penis. My mom said the sight of his penis, all erect, sticking out while the rest of him was obscured by rubber bands was like having sex with a box of rubber bands. Like, as you can imagine, disgusting. One day, I guess this belt around his neck was too tight and they couldn’t get it off and he passed out. His heart stopped. It stopped long enough for him to be legally dead for a while, but the paramedics were able to bring him back. She told me that he claimed to see the whole tunnel of white light thing, except the tunnel was made of rubber bands.

He didn’t want have sex anymore after that. He took all the furniture that had been in his office and dumped it in the backyard, and he made the empty room totally devoted to collections of rubber bands from different countries around the world. Amsterdamian rubber bands. Chilean rubber bands. Arabian rubber bands.

I guess I mention all that because these creatures sort of reminded me of rubber bands, the way they were flexibly bending backward and forward.”

On one side of my brain is an image of the aluminum-strip aliens genuflecting in ethereal silver prayer, while the other side of my brain loops itself around an image of a man cocooned in rubber bands, the images running discrete and parallel until imagination, like a projectionist on crack, splices the two together and I’m watching a film where something possibly sacred is spliced onto the profane, a penis rushing toward me with the gaudy velocity of coming attractions, in a hosanna of rubber bands and depraved silver tumescence and buttered popcorn. My own father was enamored of stereotypes and when he was drinking they gushed through his lips as from an axe-split backwoods still, and it was then he offered to anyone who would listen his moonshine, the most favored served in a keg of demonization, well-aged, pungent, unadulterated: “White people take the Z in crazy and turn it into an A, then letter by letter build up a whole new alphabet, a new dictionary of illustrated insanity.” He readily admitted that his own people were crazy, too, but their delusions fell short of induction into insanity’s Hall of Fame, were of a magnitude that lacked competitive stature – though according to him there were always stray exceptions. I think of my father because what I don’t want is to build a wall around my attempt to listen to Existenia no matter how farfetched or crazy her story might sound.

“One of these strips came up to me and while I was standing there, it pressed itself against me. It had an odor like sweet chemicals, sort of like grape Fizzies, the candy you drop in water?”

“Do they still sell those things?”

“Sure. Now you can get it with Nutrasweet.”

This is an idea that Sugarboy could easily have come up with, had he not been busy inventing bottles on little stands with timers that watered your plants by automatically lifting and tipping the bottle and pouring the water in it over the rim of the flower pot.

“So it’s pressed against me, rounded around me, and then this vibrating starts. I feel this pressure building up in me, and I start breathing hard, and then my legs are weak and I have to lower myself to the floor and I’m on my back, with the alien still wrapped around me in a tube. Something is pulling inside me, where my ovaries are, but as soon as I feel this, there’s a release and I realize I’m having an orgasm. But I know that the orgasm is to cover up what’s really going on, a diversion from what’s really happening. Because what was really happening is, I’m being harvested. They’re extracting eggs from my ovaries and don’t want me to know it and they’re trying to cover it up by giving me this orgasm that’s so intense that it makes me see red stars … when the alien unbends from me and goes back to floating, I see this pouch where the abdomen would be. My eggs are in there. That’s what I thought at first, anyway. I was halfway right. The alien floats off and the others follow.”

This seems like the perfect moment to offer her a polite mint from my tidy tin can of skepticism. To completely withhold the sort of questions it would be natural to pose when presented with an account straying so far off the path of plausibility could only appear to be an act of placation. The likelihood, already dim, of Existensia revealing anything useful disappears altogether if she believes I’m humoring her and she short-circuits, letting her light fade completely into a blown bulb of ebony silence. “But how could you have really known that’s what was in the pouch?”

Standing, she lifts her shirt. Her stomach is a pale skid of flesh, a runway pounded flat by 747s of calisthenics. A darker lane of pink stretches from her navel, jets down somewhere inside the floppy cargo pants. “This is a scar.”

“It looks like a surgical scar.”

“That’s right. But guess what? I never had surgery.”

Leaning closer, I examine the skin. My first thought is that the scar was the result of a childhood accident, some mishap of glassy play, or a tearing tumble down splintered stairs. Yet the incision, edgeless, has been smoothly fused as though caressed by a loving laser’s finger.

“That’s what was there after it was over and I was back on the ground. There was this faint pain for a while, or not pain, but more like a feeling of pressure. So I went to doctor Siegal. He examined me, took X-rays and everything. He says to me, ‘Megan, when in god’s name did you have this done?’ I’m all like, have what done? He’s angry and thinks maybe I went to another doctor and since he’s the family doctor and all, he should have known about it. ‘Have what done? When and why did you have your left ovary removed?’

“So what did you tell him?”

“What could I tell him? He’s thinking this is some sort of post-traumatic amnesia stress hysteria episode or something because of what happened to my parents. What could I tell him? I was one step away from the nuthouse he was about to send me to. I said the first thing that popped in my head, told him I’d been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and I got the hell out of his office.”

She sits again, repositions her weight to rest on legs folding up beneath her with a kind of loose-hinged floppy efficiency, like a card table used in 3,000 insomniac poker games. I stare into her eyes for biology’s give-away, pupils dissolving like Fizzies in water, eaten to pinpoints by an effervescence of lies. As though offering those eyes for open inspection, she scrolls an obscuring symbol of strands, a dark and dangling treble cleft, away from her face with her finger, tucks it resolutely behind her left ear. The pupils open like lily pads floating on the surface of her gaze without wander or ripple. Then it occurs to me that to search for evidence of the truth this way is meaningless, so long as she believes she’s telling the truth. My natural tendency is to extend the implications of this thought into epistemology’s nether regions, but I can’t afford to spend the next 3 years in Existensia’s room.

“What happened to your mom and dad?”

“That’s jumping ahead. I have to get down first, which I did, because I was on my back, laying there, and this time I couldn’t have moved even if I wanted. I was lowered like that back down, like I was on a platform or something, to the ground. Show’s over in the iron-shaped ship. Okay. The mom and dad part.

That night, and this ended up getting in the newspaper, there were 13 different reports from people in the area who said they saw this thing. There were 13 sightings. Everybody described it as huge. Some said it had lights on the side or top, some said the lights were green. The next part’s even harder to believe.”

This I seriously doubt, but we both wait in silence, preparing ourselves for the unbelievable next part.

“I went back. Their tent was empty. I spent a long some time looking around and yelling for them. It was 3 in the morning. I hiked back to the car and they weren’t there either.

Finally, I drove down and at the first ranger station I found I told them my parents were missing. Do rangers put out an APB? I don’t know what it’s called, but every ranger in the Sierras must have been rounded up for the search. That whole thing was also in the newspapers. The search went on for days. I didn’t tell anybody about the ship I’d seen. I couldn’t really tell them what I knew: that they’d been taken.”

“What you’re saying is, you’re saying they were abducted. By these … aliens.”

The breath she lets out is a plow pulled through the shallowness in her lungs, leaving a fallow harvest of air. “Yeah, it sounds ridiculous. But it’d make a killer tabloid headline: Aliens Kidnapped My Parents. Look, the only thing I have to go on is my feelings. It’s all anybody has, really. So yes, that’s what I’m saying. You know what? For a long time afterward, living that last year with my aunt, I was just numb. Then I realized what I felt. Violated.”

Words march in and out of vogue, starched and shining for a time in their new uniforms beside the platoons of tired clichés we use, and then they lose their crispness and snap and we see them for what they are: inadequate soldiers fighting the daily battle to find ways of lifting our besieged emotions from the trenches they recline in, fighting to find ways of making fear and fury communicable, fit for civilization. Violated is one such shell-shocked word, frequently used by those who appear on afternoon talk shows to explain the feeling that churns to the surface when you walk into your home or apartment and find that your precious DVD player has been stolen. But in this instance I think the word is apt and has been well used. I don’t know what to make of her story but now I can see that while her eyes are fertile-crescent brown like Sage’s the similarity ends there. Existensia’s are tracked with trespass, imprinted with the footprints of something hunched and feral glimpsed slipping like Saskwatch through the mind’s Himalayas, something that happened or almost happened but didn’t, something that could not have happened but did.

“The more I thought about it, that we weren’t alone in the universe, the more scared I got. Isn’t that the reverse of what they say it should be?” Her face tightens around a rusty screw of rictal distress. “People who’ve had these experiences say it, maybe not the ones who talk about anal probes and the rest, but the ones who claim that it’s comforting to learn we aren’t the only ones here. Okay, so we’re not alone, big deal. How does that lead to this big religious realization? These aliens, they’re just another they. One more they to add to all the other theys. You’re already a they to me, I’m a they to you, my mom and dad were theys, everybody’s a they to everybody else. You’re still in your body and I’m still in mine, right? Because if there was a god, it wouldn’t be that way – all these bodies separated from one another. And each one of them has to die, separated from every other one that dies, each in its own way. Death sliced up into billions of little packages. It wouldn’t be so sad if there were one death everybody could share. Anyway, that’s it. End of story.”

“But it’s not the end of the story,” I say, and I parenthesize the room with my arms.

“Oh. This.” She does the same with her arms. “I got so freaked out by everything that I couldn’t leave the house. I couldn’t take the idea that they were floating around out there, watching. I became one of those people who stay inside 24 hours a day. But it’s lonely when you’re afraid to go out. People are theys, but they’re not alien theys. I don’t like to go out, but I can let the outside in. I guess that’s how I came up with the idea for the world’s first non-internet porthole. People can see me and I’m not alone.”

“But you do leave the house – the storefront – when you go to Flowology’s to dance …”

“I do, but I found a way around that.” Lifting the cushion she’s sitting on, she drags out a black bandana, ties it around her forehead, tugs it over her eyes. With the eyes elided by the censor of the scarf, her face loses its animating locus, becomes all surface, reflects a sort of frozen, pornographic anonymity. She could be anybody now, or nobody. “Kyle or one of my friends take me to the club and bring me back. When I’m there, I pretend the disco cage is the storefront and I never left it.”

When she resumes talking, she doesn’t take the bandana off.

“That’s my world, for now.”

It’s time for me to go. I’ll think about all this, come to no conclusions, like a box without corners. stand and she remains sitting. I walk away and my hand is eager on the doorknob, turning it. “See you around, Megan. Thanks and … listen, good luck with everything. And please call me if you find out anything connected to Sage.”

“Datcher? The only other thing I can think of, but it probably doesn’t matter, is you know how you hear people talk? I don’t know if it’s true, but I’ve heard that it’s not Kodiac’s money. The whole club and ecstasy thing. Supposedly this rich kid backs him, some kid named Dodge.”

Through two inches of cracked door, a plutonium surge of heat from outside decimates my skin, my face falling like Hiroshima.

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