Chapter Twenty-Three

The Sage look-alike’s name is Existensia.

When I returned to my room and saw the light on the telephone unit winking red like a flirtatious hangover, I had expected that the address she left on my answering machine would be attached to a house or apartment.

I had also expected to be met at the door and invited in, led to a seat, maybe even offered the tangible token of her contrition in the form of a leathery low fat chewable, a glass of something sugarless and nondescript – according to Sage, low expectations, from which I unmercifully exempt myself but apply as a standard to people, places and things at large, have always been my forte and defense.

On the drive to the address I had engaged in the idle fantasizing that attempts to connect the dots drawn by hasty first impressions, and in my mind’s eye, I saw her living in a small tidy apartment, the sort of person who might love plants and animals – I saw this for no good reason, or maybe by way of association, because Sage did.

But Existensia doesn’t live in a house or an apartment. The address she had given me is attached to a storefront window beneath a leprous corrugated tin awning with a sign that reads: Existenia’s – The World’s First Viewable-Living, Non-Internet Porthole!

Tufts, spangles, rhinestones, birthstones, synthetic animal skins: a tangle of oddly dressed and accessorized people dangles like a schizophrenic fishing lure in front of the place, hoping what’s behind the curtain will surface soon to take the bait.

From my romp with sleep on the floor, my dreadlocks are a kennel for Dalmatians of lint. My jeans are so wrinkled an observer would have to conclude the blue veins in my legs had migrated to the surface of my skin. I’m wearing a denim work shirt, buttonless cuffs flapping clownishly below my knuckles. Why buttonless? No one bothers to ask, so it’s academic. The AlphaSmart in its black nylon case hangs lamely off my shoulder like a joke in search of a punch line. So I would have to say I fit right in.

The sunlight’s a playful pup that thinks the parched bone of 96-degree weather dropped on the sidewalk at my feet is an occasion for innocent mischief, and I silently curse it as sweat begins its frolic on my forehead. I stare at the window, offering nothing more than the view of a black curtain drawn shut across the width.

A small-framed Asian man with a well developed chest and biceps, sitting in a motorized chrome-plated wheelchair is fiddling with a stick shift on the armrest, rolling forward two feet, backtracking two feet, again, again, again. In his 20s, his face doesn’t reflect his age so much as occupy it illicitly, like a vagrant staking out a floor in a condemned building. He’s too young to accept living in a wheelchair, too old to harbor the hope that it will ever be any different.

“On the one hand, the idea of an intermission is brilliant, but I think it’d be more effective if the curtain stayed open 24 seven,” he tells me. Then he starts typing on a thin black slice of Dell laptop cracked open on his thighs. Another writer. We have paralysis in common: mine mental – save for intermittent bursts – his physical. “On the other hand, the symbolism’s contrived. She doesn’t need it. The stage of life thing isn’t new. What’s she’s doing is new.”

I nod as though I just might know what he’s talking about. The curtain sweeps open and the spectators’ palms splatter Jackson Pollock applause.

The furniture in the room has a damp salvaged look, as though the shabby sofa, armchair, coffee table and threadbare gray throw rug were purchased from a Goodwill of murk open for business at the bottom of the sea. A General Electric refrigerator, streaked with a yellow cellulite of age, its bulk an obesity, fattens one of the room’s corners, while a 40-year-old black-and-white RCA television console squares off another. Mass-produced artwork hangs on the wall, the kind depicting children with moon-sized eyes, tearful clowns.

Existenia slouches on the sofa. She’s wearing gray cargo pants, a white cotton sleeveless top that barely covers her midriff, likely a prop from the movie set of The Incredible Shrinking Item Of Apparel. She’s reading a paperback thick as a gold brick.

“Moby Dick,” the writer observes.

“An ambitious read,” I comment.

He says, “She’s been reading it for two weeks.”

She keeps reading. She extends her legs straight out, crosses them at the ankles. She scratches her neck, gulps a gallon of air from a yawn like a gaping milk carton. She puts the book down and shuffles in a slovenly way across the room in huge furry Donald Duck slippers. There’s a tiny microwave on a table and she uses it to make a cup of tea. As she stands there sipping, she stares out at the crowd on the sidewalk subtractively, eyes canceling out the spectators.

“You said what she’s doing is new. What’s she doing?”

More people pass by on the sidewalk. Some stop to watch Existensia, others keep walking without a glance at the window.

“It’s interesting,” the writer muses. “The responses of the people are as much a part of it as what’s she’s doing. Which, to answer your question, is this: exactly what you see. Nothing more, nothing less.”

“Is that so,” I say.

“Nothing less, nothing more – on the surface. Brilliant. Every question that means anything, played out in front of our eyes. How do we live? What do we do when we’re living?” He’s warming to the subject, jostling forward and backward in the wheelchair, keying as he talks. The wheelchair’s frame is studded with makeshift hooks, pockets, clamps. They secure paper, pens, Snapple Kiwi Strawberry bottles, paperbacks, a bag of trail mix, a flashlight, a portable CD player with headphones, a cell phone, beef jerky, and Magnum condoms like a box of hope divided by 12. As the chair carves out his personal space in treadmilling lurches and reversals, the provisions convulse and quiver like Elvis’s ruined central nervous system. “This thing we’re in called time: how do we pass it? Is one act inherently more significant than another?”

Existensia shifts a knickknack on the coffee table from one place to another. A dust ball scurries after it, finds the prospect of a clean spot scary.

“What does it mean to be alone? And, are we ever really alone, or is the implication that we’re always, at some level, being observed?”

Thin as an incense stick, a spectator wearing a wide black bowtie of mustache ventures an opinion. If bowtie, then his face is a white tux crumpled and soiled, as though just married to a bride of ashes and grime. “What being observed? When we’re alone, we’re alone.”

Existensia sits in the chair, lifts a purse from the floor, removes an emery board and begins swiping her nails. It would sound like Captain Crunch.

“We eat. We sit. We read. We move around,” the writer orates. “Do we do these things because we have to or because there’s nothing else to do? There are biological imperatives, obviously, but what about the rest of it? Choices. What are they? Is there really a reason for sitting on the sofa instead of in a chair?”

“When we’re alone, we’re alone.” Bowtie’s discovered something, stumbled upon a little-known and closely guarded secret: say it twice, it’s an opinion, say it four times in under a minute, it becomes fact.

“Maybe,” the writer challenges, “it’s about exactly what you’re doing: only looking at the surface, not going any deeper.”

The other man watches Existensia for a while. “I don’t know about all that.”

“Not everybody can do the math,” the writer sneers.

Existensia gets on the floor and rolls around.

“Fuck off,” the man says almost dreamily, watching Existensia intently.

“Do we live in cages, isolated from each other? Are we cut off, unknowable? How do we open up to reveal ourselves? What do we risk by exposing ourselves to scrutiny? The privacy we go to all these great lengths to ensure – why do it? Don’t we all do the exact same things she’s doing?”

“I don’t roll around on the floor, I know that much,” the man insists with a kind of stubborn pride.

“And if she were Asian, or African American” – his eyes brush over me, significantly, collusively – “would you see the same thing? Or would you think about it differently? Would you be quick to say she was crazy? Would you see her drinking a glass of water and not be able to relate to it, forgetting you do the same thing?”

This is one I think about.

“What do you mean?” The man is indignant now. “She’s some kind of Middle Eastern something or other.”

The writer laughs all caps, stuttering steely H’s chained by dashes to A’s. “Sure. Maybe you see this as some kind of terrorist act. Could be it is some kind of terrorist act.”

“She’s not Middle Eastern,” I say.

A woman with milky blonde hair and skin the color of Danish furniture decides to speak up. “It’s like performance art.”

“Is it?” the writer asks cunningly. “Then what’s she performing?”

Now I notice a cardboard box filled with balled up T-shirts in front of the door next to the storefront’s window. A wastepaper basket beside the box is half filled with coins and dollar bills. A little banner on a stick behind the wastebasket reads DONATIONS.

The woman walks over to the wastebasket, drops three pennies in, and takes several T-shirts. Maybe she’s saving the single nickel I see in her handful of copper for a real spending spree. Pinning the T-shirt with her chin, she smoothes its length along her torso with both hands. The wrinkles decide to stay put because the distance to the pavement’s daunting. The T-shirt states: ExestensiaTM, Reality TV & Internet Spycams R 4 Pussies.

Existensia wanders to the back of the room and disappears behind a folding screen. She’s gone for a while. She comes back out, tugging up her zipper. This, it appears, is her one concession to privacy, or perhaps to city statutes regarding indecent exposure. She doesn’t realize there’s a fairly long and incriminating trail of toilet paper cinched in the waistband of the pants, streaming behind her.

Or maybe she does.

He types harder than ever now, eyes smashed on storefront’s glass, two 80-mile-an-hour bugs tarred against a windshield. “Damn, I think I’m in love,” he swoons. The sight of the trailing toilet paper has evidently served to supply the links in a deeply subjective chain of erotic associations for the writer.

“Maybe you should tell her.” I don’t know what else to say.

“She’s already got a boyfriend. Most of the time she’s in there alone. Once in a while there’s this guy with her. He’s got this thing about stun guns. Besides, I’ve tried to get in there to do an interview. Nothing doing. I’ve been covering this for The Kaleidoscope for months. She owes me,” he says petulantly. “I’m the one who started using Existensia as her name in my articles.”

The Kaleidoscope is the city’s free alternative lifestyle newspaper. It’s as thin as the evidence demonstrating the existence of an alternative lifestyle subculture in Milwaukee.

“Every week I write a review detailing everything she does, with commentary. Because there’s nothing happening like this anywhere. She’s onto something, all the questions the culture doesn’t ask. She’s a pioneer.”

Existensia is vacuuming the rug.

She trips over the cord and a Donald Duck slipper gyroscopes off her foot, skims window. Someone actually screams and the crowd falls back, like they’re at the zoo and a gorilla who has been feigning sleep has suddenly rushed forward to fist the glass.

A van with the Channel 4 logo on the side panels pulls up to the curb and the back door slides open. Shabby as a third-world beast of burden, a young man oxens out with an ENG video camera. A woman dressed in something like army fatigues busies herself setting up a VTR near the curb. From the front passenger seat, a man in a cheap suit with a head of red hair he should have left at home in a box springs out onto the sidewalk, gripping a microphone as though it’s an endangered phallus. He’s undaunted by the heat, more self-assured than he has a right to be in the cheap suit. This is the anchor for the nightly local news, broadcasting smug attitude disguised as face into Milwaukee’s living rooms.

“Long time no see,” he greets the writer.

“Roger ‘Bringing You The News To Keep You In The Know’ Evans. Should be ‘Bringing You The News Three Months After It Happens.’ Your producers must have been reading old issues of Kaleidoscope. This is quite the scoop for Channel 4.”

“Ricky ‘Sour Grapes’ Chang. Hey, we can’t all be on the cutting edge, working for 89 clams a week on the world renown Kaleidoscope. We’re still holding your old job open for you at the station. All you have to do is show us your rehab clearance papers.”

“Well,” Ricky quips, “guess we’re not all lucky enough to have a quote unquote psychiatrist to write us prescriptions with unlimited refills for Ativan, all nice and legal and everything.”

Roger looks shocked, as if to say “How the hell did you know?”

The storefront curtain closes.

The door opens and Existensia wedges her head out. She points a ring-stacked finger at me. “It’s, Datcher, right? Hey, please come in.”

Ricky accuses me with his eyes, an expression of deep betrayal on his face.

I go in.

Roger Evans is right behind me, but she slams the door in his face.

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