Maps in a mirror, p.13

Maps in a Mirror, page 13

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  Besides, I hadn’t really completely failed. There was still hope. Elaine wasn’t really gone. She was still there, hidden in her own mind, looking out through this imaginary person she had created to take her place. Someday I would find her and bring her home. After all, even Grunty the ice pig had melted.

  I noticed that she was shaking her head. “You won’t find her,” she said. “You won’t bring her home. I won’t melt and disappear. She is gone and you couldn’t have prevented it.”

  I smiled. “Elaine,” I said.

  And then I realized that she had answered thoughts I hadn’t put into words.

  “That’s right,” she said, “Let’s be honest with each other. You might as well. You can’t lie to me.”

  I shook my head. For a moment, in my confusion and despair, I had believed it all, believed that Anansa was real. But that was nonsense. Of course Elaine knew what I was thinking. She knew me better than I knew myself. “Let’s go outside,” I said. A failure and a cripple, out to enjoy the sunlight, which fell equally on the just and the unjustifiable.

  “I don’t mind,” she said. “Whatever you want to believe: Elaine or Anansa. Maybe it’s better if you still look for Elaine. Maybe it’s better if you let me fool you after all.”

  The worst thing about the fantasies of the mentally ill is that they’re so damned consistent. They never let up. They never give you any rest.

  “I’m Elaine,” she said, smiling. “I’m Elaine, pretending to be Anansa: You love me. That’s what I came for. You promised to bring me home, and you did. Take me outside. You made it stop raining for me. You did everything you promised, and I’m home again, and I promise I’ll never leave you.”

  She hasn’t left me. I come to see her every Wednesday as part of my work, and every Saturday and Sunday as the best part of my life. I take her driving with me sometimes, and we talk constantly, and I read to her and bring her books for the nurses to read to her. None of them know that she is still unwell—to them she’s Elaine, happier than ever, pathetically delighted at every sight and sound and smell and taste and every texture that they touch against her cheek. Only I know that she believes she is not Elaine. Only I know that I have made no progress at all since then, that in moments of terrible honesty I call her Anansa, and she sadly answers me.

  But in a way I’m content. Very little has changed between us, really. And after a few weeks I realized, with certainty, that she was happier now than she had ever been before. After all, she had the best of all possible worlds, for her. She could tell herself that the real Elaine was off in space somewhere, dancing and singing and hearing songs, with arms and legs at last, while the poor girl who was confined to the limbless body at the Millard County Rest Home was really an alien who was very, very happy to have even that limited body.

  And as for me, I kept my commitment to her, and I’m happier for it. I’m still human—I still take another woman into my bed from time to time. But Anansa doesn’t mind. She even suggested it, only a few days after she woke up. “Go back to Belinda somtimes,” she said. “Belinda loves you, too, you know. I won’t mind at all.” I still can’t remember when I spoke to her of Belinda, but at least she didn’t mind, and so there aren’t really any discontentments in my life. Except.

  Except that I’m not God. I would like to be God. I would make some changes.

  When I go to the Millard County Rest Home, I never enter the building first. She is never in the building. I walk around the outside and look across the lawn by the trees. The wheelchair is always there; I can tell it from the others by the pillows, which glare white in the sunlight. I never call out. In a few moments she always sees me, and the nurses wheel her around and push the chair across the lawn.

  She comes as she has come hundreds of times before. She plunges toward me, and I concentrate on watching her, so that my mind will not see my Elaine surrounded by blackness, plunging through space, gathering dust, gathering songs, leaping and dancing with her new arms and legs that she loves better than me. Instead I watch the wheelchair, watch the smile on her face. She is happy to see me, so delighted with the world outside that her body cannot contain her. And when my imagination will not be restrained, I am God for a moment. I see her running toward me, her arms waving. I give her a left hand, a right hand, delicate and strong; I put a long and girlish left leg on her, and one just as sturdy on the right.

  And then, one by one, I take them all away.

  PRIOR RESTRAINT

  I met Doc Murphy in a writing class taught by a mad Frenchman at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I had just quit my job as a coat-and-tie editor at a conservative family magazine, and I was having a little trouble getting used to being a slob student again. Of a shaggy lot, Doc was the shaggiest and I was prepared to be annoyed by him and ignore his opinions. But his opinions were not to be ignored. At first because of what he did to me. And then, at last, because of what had been done to him. It has shaped me; his past looms over me whenever I sit down to write.

  Armand the teacher, who had not improved on his French accent by replacing it with Bostonian, looked puzzled as he held up my story before the class. “This is commercially viable,” he said. “It is also crap. What else can I say?”

  It was Doc who said it. Nail in one hand, hammer in the other, he crucified me and the story. Considering that I had already decided not to pay attention to him, and considering how arrogant I was in the lofty position of being the one student who had actually sold a novel, it is surprising to me that I listened to him. But underneath the almost angry attack on my work was something else: A basic respect, I think, for what a good writer should be. And for that small hint in my work that a good writer might be hiding somewhere in me.

  So I listened. And I learned. And gradually, as the Frenchman got crazier and crazier, I turned to Doc to learn how to write. Shaggy though he was, he had a far crisper mind than anyone I had ever known in a business suit.

  We began to meet outside class. My wife had left me two years before, so I had plenty of free time and a pretty large rented house to sprawl in; we drank or read or talked, in front of a fire or over Doc’s convincing veal parmesan or out chopping down an insidious vine that wanted to take over the world starting in my backyard. For the first time since Denae had gone I felt at home in my house—Doc seemed to know by instinct what parts of the house held the wrong memories, and he soon balanced them by making me feel comfortable in them again.

  Or uncomfortable. Doc didn’t always say nice things.

  “I can see why your wife left you,” he said once.

  “You don’t think I’m good in bed, either?” (This was a joke—neither Doc nor I had any unusual sexual predilections.)

  “You have a neanderthal way of dealing with people, that’s all. If they aren’t going where you want them to go, club ’em a good one and drag ’em away.”

  It was irritating. I didn’t like thinking about my wife. We had only been married three years, and not good years either, but in my own way I had loved her and I missed her a great deal and I hadn’t wanted her to go when she left. I didn’t like having my nose rubbed in it. “I don’t recall clubbing you.”

  He just smiled. And, of course, I immediately thought back over the conversation and realized that he was right. I hated his goddam smile.

  “OK,” I said, “you’re the one with long hair in the land of the last surviving crew cuts. Tell me why you like ‘Swap’ Morris.”

  “I don’t like Morris. I think Morris is a whore selling someone else’s freedom to win votes.”

  And I was confused, then. I had been excoriating good old “Swap” Morris, Davis County Commissioner, for having fired the head librarian in the county because she had dared to stock a “pornographic” book despite his objections. Morris showed every sign of being illiterate, fascist, and extremely popular, and I would gladly have hit the horse at his lynching.

  “So you don’t like Morris either—what did I say wrong?”

 
Censorship is never excusable for any reason, says you.”

  “You like censorship?”

  And then the half-serious banter turned completely serious. Suddenly he wouldn’t look at me. Suddenly he only had eyes for the fire, and I saw the flames dancing in tears resting on his lower eyelids, and I realized again that with Doc I was out of my depth completely.

  “No,” he said. “No, I don’t like it.”

  And then a lot of silence until he finally drank two full glasses of wine, just like that, and went out to drive home; he lived up Emigration Canyon at the end of a winding, narrow road, and I was afraid he was too drunk, but he only said to me at the door, “I’m not drunk. It takes half a gallon of wine just to get up to normal after an hour with you, you’re so damn sober.”

  One weekend he even took me to work with him. Doc made his living in Nevada. We left Salt Lake City on Friday afternoon and drove to Wendover, the first town over the border. I expected him to be an employee of the casino we stopped at. But he didn’t punch in, just left his name with a guy; and then he sat in a corner with me and waited.

  “Don’t you have to work?” I asked.

  “I’m working,” he said.

  “I used to work just the same way, but I got fired.”

  “I’ve got to wait my turn for a table. I told you I made my living with poker.”

  And it finally dawned on me that he was a freelance professional—a player—a cardshark.

  There were four guys named Doc there that night. Doc Murphy was the third one called to a table. He played quietly, and lost steadily but lightly for two hours. Then, suddenly, in four hands he made back everything he had lost and added nearly fifteen hundred dollars to it. Then he made his apologies after a decent number of losing hands and we drove back to Salt Lake.

  “Usually I have to play again on Saturday night,” he told me. Then he grinned. “Tonight I was lucky. There was an idiot who thought he knew poker.”

  I remembered the old saw: Never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play poker with a man named Doc, and never sleep with a woman who’s got more troubles than you. Pure truth. Doc memorized the deck, knew all the odds by heart, and it was a rare poker face that Doc couldn’t eventually see through.

  At the end of the quarter, though, it finally dawned on me that in all the time we were in class together, I had never seen one of his own stories. He hadn’t written a damn thing. And there was his grade on the bulletin board—A.

  I talked to Armand.

  “Oh, Doc writes,” he assured me. “Better than you do, and you got an A. God knows how, you don’t have the talent for it.”

  “Why doesn’t he turn it in for the rest of the class to read?”

  Armand shrugged. “Why should he? Pearls before swine.”

  Still it irritated me. After watching Doc disembowel more than one writer, I didn’t think it was fair that his own work was never put on the chopping block.

  The next quarter he turned up in a graduate seminar with me, and I asked him. He laughed and told me to forget it. I laughed back and told him I wouldn’t. I wanted to read his stuff. So the next week he gave me a three-page manuscript. It was an unfinished fragment of a story about a man who honestly thought his wife had left him even though he went home to find her there every night. It was some of the best writing I’ve ever read in my life. No matter how you measure it. The stuff was clear enough and exciting enough that any moron who likes Harold Robbins could have enjoyed it. But the style was rich enough and the matter of it deep enough even in a few pages that it made most other “great” writers look like chicken farmers. I reread the fragment five times just to make sure I got it all. The first time I had thought it was metaphorically about me. The third time I knew it was about God. The fifth time I knew it was about everything that mattered, and I wanted to read more.

  “Where’s the rest?” I asked.

  He shrugged. “That’s it,” he said.

  “It doesn’t feel finished.”

  “It isn’t.”

  “Well, finish it! Doc, you could sell this anywhere, even the New Yorker. For them you probably don’t even have to finish it.”

  “Even the New Yorker. Golly.”

  “I can’t believe you think you’re too good for anybody, Doc. Finish it. I want to know how it ends.”

  He shook his head. “That’s all there is. That’s all there ever will be.”

  And that was the end of the discussion.

  But from time to time he’d show me another fragment. Always better than the one before. And in the meantime we became closer, not because he was such a good writer—I’m not so self-effacing I like hanging around with people who can write me under the table—but because he was Doc Murphy. We found every decent place to get a beer in Salt Lake City—not a particular time-consuming activity. We saw three good movies and another dozen that were so bad they were fun to watch. He taught me to play poker well enough that I broke even every weekend. He put up with my succession of girlfriends and prophesied that I would probably end up married again. “You’re just weak willed enough to try to make a go of it,” he cheerfully told me.

  At last, when I had long since given up asking, he told me why he never finished anything.

  I was two and a half beers down, and he was drinking a hideous mix of Tab and tomato juice that he drank whenever he wanted to punish himself for his sins, on the theory that it was even worse than the Hindu practice of drinking your own piss. I had just got a story back from a magazine I had been sure would buy it. I was thinking of giving it up. He laughed at me.

  “I’m serious,” I said.

  “Nobody who’s any good at all needs to give up writing.”

  “Look who’s talking. The king of the determined writers.” He looked angry. “You’re a paraplegic making fun of a one-legged man,” he said.

  “I’m sick of it.”

  “Quit then. Makes no difference. Leave the field to the hacks. You’re probably a hack, too.”

  Doc hadn’t been drinking anything to make him surly, not drunk-surly, anyway. “Hey, Doc, I’m asking for encouragement.”

  “If you need encouragement, you don’t deserve it. There’s only one way a good writer can be stopped.”

  “Don’t tell me you have a selective writer’s block. Against endings.”

  “Writer’s block? Jesus, I’ve never been blocked in my life. Blocks are what happen when you’re not good enough to write the thing you know you have to write.”

  I was getting angry. “And you, of course, are always good enough.”

  He leaned forward, looked at me in the eyes. “I’m the best writer in the English language.”

  “I’ll give you this much. You’re the best who never finished anything.”

  “I finish everything,” he said. “I finish everything, beloved friend, and then I burn all but the first three pages. I finish a story a week, sometimes. I’ve written three complete novels, four plays. I even did a screenplay. It would’ve made millions of dollars and been a classic.”

  “Says who?”

  “Says—never mind who says. It was bought, it was cast, it was ready for filming. It had a budget of thirty million. The studio believed in it. Only intelligent thing I’ve ever heard of them doing.”

  I couldn’t believe it. “You’re joking.”

  “If I’m joking, who’s laughing? It’s true.”

  I’d never seen him looked so poisoned, so pained. It was true, if I knew Doc Murphy, and I think I did. Do. “Why?” I asked.

  “The Censorship Board.”

  “What? There’s no such thing in America.”

  He laughed. “Not full-time anyway.”

  “Who the hell is the Censorship Board?”

  He told me:

  When I was twenty-two I lived on a rural road in Oregon, he said, outside of Portland. Mailboxes out on the road. I was writing, I was a playwright, I thought there’d be a career in that; I was just starting to try fiction. I went out one m
orning after the mailman had gone by. It was drizzling slightly. But I didn’t much care. There was an envelope there from my Hollywood agent. It was a contract. Not an option—a sale. A hundred thousand dollars. It had just occurred to me that I was getting wet and I ought to go in when two men came out of the bushes—yeah, I know, I guess they go for dramatic entrances. They were in business suits. God, I hate men who wear business suits. The one guy just held out his hand. He said, “Give it to me now and save yourself a lot of trouble.” Give it to him? I told him what I thought of his suggestion. They looked like the mafia, or like a comic parody of the mafia, actually.

  They were about the same height, and they seemed almost to be the same person, right down to a duplicate glint of fierceness in the eyes; but then I realized that my first impression had been deceptive. One was blond, one dark-haired; the blond had a slightly receding chin that gave his face a meek look from the nose down; the dark one had once had a bad skin problem and his neck was treeish, giving him an air of stupidity, as if a face had been pasted on the front of the neck with no room for a head at all. Not mafia at all. Ordinary people.

  Except the eyes. That glint in the eyes was not false, and that was what had made me see them wrong at first. Those eyes had seen people weep, and had cared, and had hurt them again anyway. It’s a look that human eyes should never have.

  “It’s just the contract, for Christ’s sake,” I told them, but the dark one with acne scars only told me again to hand it over.

  By now, though, my first fear had passed; they weren’t armed, and so I might be able to get rid of them without violence. I started back to the house. They followed me.

  “What do you want my contract for?” I asked.

  “That film will never be made,” says Meek, the blond one with the missing chin. “We won’t allow it to be made.”

 
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