Maps in a mirror, p.14

Maps in a Mirror, page 14


Maps in a Mirror

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  I’m thinking who writes their dialogue for them, do they crib it from Fenimore Cooper? “Their hundred thousand dollars says they want to try. I want them to.”

  “You’ll never get the money, Murphy. And this contract and that screenplay will pass out of existence within the next four days. I promise you that.”

  I ask him, “What are you, a critic?”

  “Close enough.”

  By now I was inside the door and they were on the other side of the threshold. I should have closed the door, probably, but I’m a gambler. I had to stay in this time because I had to know what kind of hand they had. “Plan to take it by force?” I asked.

  “By inevitability,” Tree says. And then he says, “You see, Mr. Murphy, you’re a dangerous man; with your IBM Self-Correcting Selectric II typewriter that has a sluggish return so that you sometimes get letters printed a few spaces in from the end. With your father who once said to you, ‘Billy, to tell you the honest-to-God truth, I don’t know if I’m your father or not. I wasn’t the only guy your Mom had been seeing when I married her, so I really don’t give a damn if you live or die.’ ”

  He had it right down. Word for word, what my father told me when I was four years old. I’d never told anybody. And he had it word for word.

  CIA, Jesus. That’s pathetic.

  No, they weren’t CIA. They just wanted to make sure that I didn’t write. Or rather, that I didn’t publish.

  I told them I wasn’t interested in their suggestions. And I was right—they weren’t muscle types. I closed the door and they just went away.

  And then the next day as I was driving my old Galaxy along the road, under the speed limit, a boy on a bicycle came right out in front of me. I didn’t even have a chance to brake. One second he wasn’t there, and the next second he was. I hit him. The bicycle went under the car, but he mostly came up the top. His foot stuck in the bumper, jammed in by the bike. The rest of him slid up over the hood, pulling his hip apart and separating his spine in three places. The hood ornament disemboweled him and the blood flowed up the windshield like a heavy rainstorm, so that I couldn’t see anything except his face, which was pressed up against the glass with the eyes open. He died on the spot, of course. And I wanted to.

  He had been playing Martians or something with his brother. The brother was standing there near the road with a plastic ray gun in his hand and a stupid look on his face. His mother came out of the house screaming. I was screaming, too. There were two neighbors who saw the whole thing. One of them called the cops and ambulance. The other one tried to control the mother and keep her from killing me. I don’t remember where I was going. All I remember is that the car had taken an unusually long time starting that morning. Another minute and a half, I think—a long time, to start a car. If it had started up just like usual, I wouldn’t have hit the kid. I kept thinking that—it was all just a coincidence that I happened to be coming by just at that moment. A half-second sooner and he would have seen me and swerved. A half-second later and I would have seen him. Just coincidence. The only reason the boy’s father didn’t kill me when he came home ten minutes later was because I was crying so damn hard. It never went to court because the neighbors testified that I hadn’t a chance to stop, and the police investigator determined that I hadn’t been speeding. Not even negligence. Just terrible, terrible chance.

  I read the article in the paper. The boy was only nine, but he was taking special classes at school and was very bright, a good kid, ran a paper route and always took care of his brothers and sisters. A real tear-jerker for the consumption of the subscribers. I thought of killing myself. And then the men in the business suits came back. They had four copies of my script, my screenplay. Four copies is all I had ever made—the original was in my file.

  “You see, Mr. Murphy, we have every copy of the screenplay. You will give us the original.”

  I wasn’t in the mood for this. I started closing the door.

  “You have so much taste,” I said. I didn’t care how they got the script, not then. I just wanted to find a way to sleep until when I woke up the boy would still be alive.

  They pushed the door open and came in. “You see, Mr. Murphy, until we altered your car yesterday, your path and the boy’s never did intersect. We had to try four times to get the timing right, but we finally made it. It’s the nice thing about time travel. If you blow it, you can always go back and get it right the next time.”

  I couldn’t believe anyone would want to take credit for the boy’s death. “What for?” I asked.

  And they told me. Seems the boy was even more talented than anyone thought. He was going to grow up and be a writer. A journalist and critic. And he was going to cause a lot of problems for a particular government some forty years down the line. He was especially going to write three books that would change the whole way of thinking of a large number of people. The wrong way.

  “We’re all writers ourselves,” Meek says to me. “It shouldn’t surprise you that we take our writing very seriously. More seriously than you do. Writers, the good writers, can change people. And some of the changes aren’t very good. By killing that boy yesterday, you see, you stopped a bloody civil war some sixty years from now. We’ve already checked and there are some unpleasant side effects, but nothing that can’t be coped with. Saved seven million lives. You shouldn’t feel bad about it.”

  I remembered the things they had known about me. Things that nobody could have known. I felt stupid because I began to believe they might be for real. I felt afraid because they were calm when they talked of the boy’s death. I asked, “Where do I come in? Why me?”

  “Oh, it’s simple. You’re a very good writer. Destined to be the best of your age. Fiction. And this screenplay. In three hundred years they’re going to compare you to Shakespeare and the poor old bard will lose. The trouble is, Murphy, you’re a godawful hedonist and a pessimist to boot, and if we can just keep you from publishing anything, the whole artistic mood of two centuries will be brightened considerably. Not to mention the prevention of a famine in seventy years. History makes strange connections, Murphy, and you’re at the heart of a lot of suffering. If you never publish, the world will be a much better place for everyone.”

  You weren’t there, you didn’t hear them. You didn’t see them, sitting on my couch, legs crossed, nodding, gesturing like they were saying the most natural thing in the world. From them I learned how to write genuine insanity. Not somebody frothing at the mouth; just somebody sitting there like a good friend, saying impossible things, cruel things, and smiling and getting excited and—Jesus, you don’t know. Because I believed them. They knew, you see. And they were too insane, even a madman could have come up with a better hoax than that. And I’m making it sound as if I believed them logically, but I didn’t, I don’t think I can persuade you, either, but trust me—if I know when a man is bluffing or telling the truth, and I do, these two were not bluffing. A child had died, and they knew how many times I had turned the key in the ignition. And there was truth in those terrible eyes when Meek said, “If you willingly refrain from publishing, you will be allowed to live. If you refuse, then you will die within three days. Another writer will kill you—accidently, of course. We only have authority to work through authors.”

  I asked them why. The answer made me laugh. It seems they were from the Authors’ Guild. “It’s a matter of responsibility. If you refuse to take responsibility for the future consequences of your acts, we’ll have to give the responsibility to somebody else.”

  And so I asked them why they didn’t just kill me in the first place instead of wasting time talking to me.

  It was Tree who answered, and the bastard was crying, and he says to me, “Because we love you. We love everything you write. We’ve learned everything we know about writing from you. And we’ll lose it if you die.”

  They tried to console me by telling me what good company I was in. Thomas Hardy—they made him give up novels and stick to poetry which nob
ody read and so it was safe. Meek tells me, “Hemingway decided to kill himself instead of waiting for us to do it. And there are some others who only had to refrain from writing a particular book. It hurt them, but Fitzgerald was still able to have a decent career with the other books he could write, and Perelman gave it to us in laughs, since he couldn’t be allowed to write his real work. We only bother with great writers. Bad writers aren’t a threat to anybody.”

  We struck a sort of bargain. I could go on writing. But after I had finished everything, I had to burn it. All but the first three pages. “If you finish it at all,” says Meek, “we’ll have a copy of it here. There’s a library here that—uh, I guess the easiest way to say it is that it exists outside time. You’ll be published, in a way. Just not in your own time. Not for about eight hundred years. But at least you can write. There are others who have to keep their pens completely still. It breaks our hearts, you know.”

  I knew all about broken hearts, yes sir, I knew all about it. I burned all but the first three pages.

  There’s only one reason for a writer to quit writing, and that’s when the Censorship Board gets to him. Anybody else who quits is just a gold-plated jackass. “Swap” Morris doesn’t even know what real censorship is. It doesn’t happen in libraries. It happens on the hoods of cars. So go on, become a real estate broker, sell insurance, follow Santa Claus and clean up the reindeer poo, I don’t give a damn. But if you give up something that I will never have, I’m through with you. There’s nothing in you for me.

  So I write. And Doc reads it and tears it to pieces; everything except this. This he’ll never see. This he’d probably kill me for, but what the hell? It’ll never get published. No, no I’m too vain. You’re reading it, aren’t you? See how I put my ego on the line? If I’m really a good enough writer, if my work is important enough to change the world, then a couple of guys in business suits will come make me a proposition I can’t refuse, and you won’t read this at all, but you are reading it, aren’t you? Why am I doing this to myself? Maybe I’m hoping they’ll come and give me an excuse to quit writing now, before I find out that I’ve already written as well as I’m ever going to. But here I thumb my nose at those goddam future critics and they ignore me, they tell exactly what my work is worth.

  Or maybe not. Maybe I really am good, but my work just happens to have a positive effect, happens not to make any unpleasant waves in the future. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones who can accomplish something powerful that doesn’t need to be censored to protect the future.

  Maybe pigs have wings.


  Once there was a man who loved his son more than life. Once there was a boy who loved his father more than death. They are not the same story, not really. But I can’t tell you one without telling you the other.

  The man was Dr. Alvin Bevis, and the boy was his son, Joseph, and the only woman that either of them loved was Connie, who in 1977 married Alvin, with hope and joy, and in 1978 gave birth to Joe on the brink of death and adored them both accordingly. It was an affectionate family. This made it almost certain that they would come to grief.

  Connie could have no more children after Joe. She shouldn’t even have had him. Her doctor called her a damn fool for refusing to abort him in the fourth month when the problems began. “He’ll be born retarded. You’ll die in labor.” To which she answered, “I’ll have one child, or I won’t believe that I ever lived.” In her seventh month they took Joe out of her, womb and all. He was scrawny and little, and the doctor told her to expect him to be mentally deficient and physically uncoordinated. Connie nodded and ignored him. She was lucky. She had Joe, alive, and silently she said to any who pitied her, I am more a woman than any of you barren ones who still have to worry about the phases of the moon.

  Neither Alvin nor Connie ever believed Joe would be retarded. And soon enough it was clear that he wasn’t. He walked at eight months. He talked at twelve months. He had his alphabet at eighteen months. He could read at a second-grade level by the time he was three. He was inquisitive, demanding, independent, disobedient, and exquisitely beautiful, with a shock of copper-colored hair and a face as smooth and deep as a coldwater pool.

  His parents watched him devour learning and were sometimes hard pressed to feed him with what he needed. He will be a great man, they both whispered to each other in the secret conversations of night. It made them proud; it made them afraid to know that his learning and his safety had, by chance or the grand design of things, been entrusted to them.

  Out of all the variety the Bevises offered their son in the first few years of his life, Joe became obsessed with stories. He would bring books and insist that Connie or Alvin read to him, but if it was not a storybook, he quickly ran and got another, until at last they were reading a story. Then he sat imprisoned by the chain of events as the tale unfolded, saying nothing until the story was over. Again and again “Once upon a time,” or “There once was a,” or “One day the king sent out a proclamation,” until Alvin and Connie had every storybook in the house practically memorized. Fairy tales were Joe’s favorites, but as time passed, he graduated to movies and contemporary stories and even history.

  The problem was not the thirst for tales, however. The conflict began because Joe had to live out his stories. He would get up in the morning and announce that Mommy was Mama Bear, Daddy was Papa Bear, and he was Baby Bear. When he was angry, he would be Goldilocks and run away. Other mornings Daddy would be Rumpelstiltskin, Mommy would be the Farmer’s Daughter, and Joe would be the King. Joe was Hansel, Mommy was Gretel, and Alvin was the Wicked Witch.

  “Why can’t I be Hansel’s and Gretel’s father?” Alvin asked. He resented being the Wicked Witch. Not that he thought it meant anything. He told himself it merely annoyed him to have his son constantly assigning him dialogue and action for the day’s activities. Alvin never knew from one hour to the next who he was going to be in his own home.

  After a time, mild annoyance gave way to open irritation; if it was a phase Joe was going through, it ought surely to have ended by now. Alvin finally suggested that the boy be taken to a child psychologist. The doctor said it was a phase.

  “Which means that sooner or later he’ll get over it?” Alvin asked. “Or that you just can’t figure out what’s going on?”

  “Both,” said the psychologist cheerfully. “You’ll just have to live with it.”

  But Alvin did not like living with it. He wanted his son to call him Daddy. He was the father, after all. Why should he have to put up with his child, no matter how bright the boy was, assigning him silly roles to play whenever he came home? Alvin put his foot down. He refused to answer to any name but Father. And after a little anger and a lot of repeated attempts, Joe finally stopped trying to get his father to play a part. Indeed, as far as Alvin knew, Joe entirely stopped acting out stories.

  It was not so, of course. Joe simply acted them out with Connie after Alvin had gone for the day to cut up DNA and put it back together creatively. That was how Joe learned to hide things from his father. He wasn’t lying; he was just biding his time. Joe was sure that if only he found good enough stories, Daddy would play again.

  So when Daddy was home, Joe did not act out stories. Instead he and his father played number and word games, studied elementary Spanish as an introduction to Latin, plinked out simple programs on the Atari, and laughed and romped until Mommy came in and told her boys to calm down before the roof fell in on them. This is being a father, Alvin told himself. I am a good father. And it was true. It was true, even though every now and then Joe would ask his mother hopefully, “Do you think that Daddy will want to be in this story?”

  “Daddy just doesn’t like to pretend. He likes your stories, but not acting them out.”

  In 1983 Joe turned five and entered school; that same year Dr. Bevis created a bacterium that lived on acid precipitation and neutralized it. In 1987 Joe left school, because he knew more than any of his teachers; at pr
ecisely that time Dr. Bevis began earning royalties on commercial breeding of his bacterium for spot cleanup in acidized bodies of water. The university suddenly became terrified that he might retire and live on his income and take his name away from the school. So he was given a laboratory and twenty assistants and secretaries and an administrative assistant, and from then on Dr. Bevis could pretty well do what he liked with his time.

  What he liked was to make sure the research was still going on as carefully and methodically as was proper and in directions that he approved of. Then he went home and became the faculty of one for his son’s very private academy.

  It was an idyllic time for Alvin.

  It was hell for Joe.

  Joe loved his father, mind you. Joe played at learning, and they had a wonderful time reading The Praise of Folly in the original Latin, duplicating great experiments and then devising experiments of their own—too many things to list. Enough to say that Alvin had never had a graduate student so quick to grasp new ideas, so eager to devise newer ones of his own. How could Alvin have known that Joe was starving to death before his eyes?

  For with Father home, Joe and Mother could not play.

  Before Alvin had taken him out of school Joe used to read books with his mother. All day at home she would read Jane Eyre and Joe would read it in school, hiding it behind copies of Friends and Neighbors. Homer. Chaucer. Shakespeare. Twain. Mitchell. Galsworthy. Elswyth Thane. And then in those precious hours after school let out and before Alvin came home from work they would be Ashley and Scarlett, Tibby and Julian, Huck and Jim, Walter and Griselde, Odysseus and Circe. Joe no longer assigned the parts the way he did when he was little. They both knew what book they were reading and they would live within the milieu of that book. Each had to guess from the other’s behavior what role had been chosen that particular day; it was a triumphant moment when at last Connie would dare to venture Joe’s name for the day, or Joe call Mother by hers. In all the years of playing the games never once did they choose to be the same person; never once did they fail to figure out what role the other played.

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