Maps in a mirror, p.15

Maps in a Mirror, page 15


Maps in a Mirror

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  Now Alvin was home, and that game was over. No more stolen moments of reading during school. Father frowned on stories. History, yes; lies and poses, no. And so, while Alvin thought that joy had finally come, for Joe and Connie joy was dead.

  Their life became one of allusion, dropping phrases to each other out of books, playing subtle characters without ever allowing themselves to utter the other’s name. So perfectly did they perform that Alvin never knew what was happening. Just now and then he’d realize that something was going on that he didn’t understand.

  “What sort of weather is this for January?” Alvin said one day looking out the window at heavy rain.

  “Fine,” said Joe, and then, thinking of “The Merchant’s Tale,” he smiled at his mother. “In May we climb trees.”

  “What?” Alvin asked. “What does that have to do with anything?”

  “I just like tree climbing.”

  “It all depends,” said Connie, “on whether the sun dazzles your eyes.”

  When Connie left the room. Joe asked an innocuous question about teleology, and Alvin put the previous exchange completely out of his mind.

  Or rather tried to put it out of his mind. He was no fool. Though Joe and Connie were very subtle, Alvin gradually realized he did not speak the native language of his own home. He was well enough read to catch a reference or two. Turning into swine. Sprinkling dust. “Frankly, I don’t give a damn.” Remarks that didn’t quite fit into the conversation, phrases that seemed strangely resonant. And as he grew more aware of his wife’s and his son’s private language, the more isolated he felt. His lessons with Joe began to seem not exciting but hollow, as if they were both acting a role. Taking parts in a story. The story of the loving father-teacher and the dutiful, brilliant student-son. It had been the best time of Alvin’s life, better than any life he had created in the lab, but that was when he had believed it. Now it was just a play. His son’s real life was somewhere else.

  I didn’t like playing the parts he gave me, years ago, Alvin thought. Does he like playing the part that I have given him?

  “You’ve gone as far as I can take you,” Alvin said at breakfast one day, “in everything, except biology of course. So I’ll guide your studies in biology, and for everything else I’m hiring advanced graduate students in various fields at the university. A different one each day.”

  Joe’s eyes went deep and distant. “You won’t be my teacher anymore?”

  “Can’t teach you what I don’t know.” Alvin said. And he went back to the lab. Went back and with delicate cruelty tore apart a dozen cells and made them into something other than themselves, whether they would or not.

  Back at home. Joe and Connie looked at each other in puzzlement. Joe was thirteen. He was getting tall and felt shy and awkward before his mother. They had been three years without stories together. With Father there, they had played at being prisoners, passing messages under the guard’s very nose. Now there was no guard, and without the need for secrecy there was no message anymore. Joe took to going outside and reading or playing obsessively at the computer; more doors were locked in the Bevis home than had ever been locked before.

  Joe dreamed terrifying, gentle nightmares, dreamed of the same thing, over and over; the setting was different, but always the story was the same. He dreamed of being on a boat, and the gunwale began to crumble wherever he touched it, and he tried to warn his parents, but they wouldn’t listen, they leaned, it broke away under their hands, and they fell into the sea, drowning. He dreamed that he was bound up in a web, tied like a spider’s victim, but the spider never, never, never came to taste of him, left him there to desiccate in helpless bondage, though he cried out and struggled. How could he explain such dreams to his parents? He remembered Joseph in Genesis, who spoke too much of dreams; remembered Cassandra; remembered Iocaste, who thought to slay her child for fear of oracles. I am caught up in a story, Joe thought, from which I cannot escape. Each change is a fall; each fall tears me from myself If I cannot be the people of the tales, who am I then?

  Life was normal enough for all that. Breakfast lunch dinner, sleep wake sleep, work earn spend own, use break fix. All the cycles of ordinary life played out despite the shadow of inevitable ends. One day Alvin and his son were in a bookstore, the Gryphon, which had the complete Penguin Classics. Alvin was browsing through the titles to see what might be of some use when he noticed Joe was no longer following him.

  His son, all the slender five feet nine inches of him, was standing half the store away bent in avid concentration over something on the counter. Alvin felt a terrible yearning for his son. He was so beautiful and yet somehow in these dozen and one years of Joe’s life. Alvin had lost him. Now Joe was nearing manhood and very soon it would be too late. When did he cease to be mine? Alvin wondered. When did he become so much his mother’s son? Why must he be as beautiful as she and yet have the mind he has? He is Apollo. Alvin said to himself.

  And in that moment he knew what he had lost. By calling his son Apollo he had told himself what he had taken from his son. A connection between stories the child acted out and his knowledge of who he was. The connection was so real it was almost tangible and yet Alvin could not put it into words could not bear the knowledge and so and so and so.

  Just as he was sure he had the truth of things it slipped away. Without words his memory could not hold it, lost the understanding the moment it came. I knew it all and I have already forgotten. Angry at himself, Alvin strode to his son and realized that Joe was not doing anything intelligent at all. He had a deck of tarot cards spread before him. He was doing a reading.

  “Cross my palms with silver” said Alvin. He thought he was making a joke but his anger spoke too loudly in his voice Joe looked up with shame on his face. Alvin cringed inside himself. Just by speaking to you I wound you. Alvin wanted to apologize but he had no strategy for that so he tried to affirm that it had been a joke by making another. “Discovering the secrets of the universe?”

  Joe half-smiled and quickly gathered up the cards and put them away.

  No Alvin said “No, you were interested: you don’t have to put them away.”

  “It’s just nonsense.” Joe said.

  You’re lying. Alvin thought.

  “All the meanings are so vague they could fit just about anything.” Joe laughed mirthlessly.

  “You looked pretty interested.”

  “I was just you know wondering how to program a computer for this wondering whether I could do a program that would make it make some sense. Not just the random fall of the cards you know. A way to make it respond to who a person really is. Cut through all the


  “Just wondering”

  “Cut through all the ?”

  “Stories we tell ourselves. All the lies that we believe about ourselves. About who we really are.”

  Something didn’t ring true in the boy’s words, Alvin knew. Something was wrong. And because in Alvin’s world nothing could long exist unexplained he decided the boy seemed awkward because his father had made him ashamed of his own curiosity. I am ashamed that I have made you ashamed, Alvin thought. So I will buy you the cards.

  “I’ll buy the cards. And the book you were looking at.”

  “No Dad.” said Joe.

  “No it’s all right Why not? Play around with the computer. See if you can turn this nonsense into something. What the hell, you might come up with some good graphics and sell the program for a bundle.” Alvin laughed. So did Joe. Even Joe’s laugh was a lie.

  What Alvin didn’t know was this: Joe was not ashamed. Joe was merely afraid. For he had laid out the cards as the book instructed, but he had not needed the explanations, had not needed the names of the faces. He had known their names at once, had known their faces. It was Creon who held the sword and the scales. Ophelia, naked wreathed in green, with man and falcon, bull and lion around. Ophelia who danced in her madness. And I was once the boy with the starflower in the sixth cup, giving
to my child-mother, when gifts were possible between us. The cards were not dice, they were names, and he laid them out in stories drawing them in order from the deck in a pattern that he knew was largely the story of his life. All the names that he had borne were in these cards, and all the shapes of past and future dwelt here, waiting to be dealt. It was this that frightened him. He had been deprived of stories for so long, his own story of father, mother, son was so fragile now that he was madly grasping at anything; Father mocked, but Joe looked at the story of the cards, and he believed. I do not want to take these home. It puts myself wrapped in a silk in my own hands. “Please don’t,” he said to his father.

  But Alvin, who knew better, bought them anyway, hoping to please his son.

  Joe stayed away from the cards for a whole day. He had only touched them the once; surely he need not toy with this fear again. It was irrational, mere wish fulfillment, Joe told himself. The cards mean nothing. They are not to be feared. I can touch them and learn no truth from them. And yet all his rationalism, all his certainty that the cards were meaningless, were, he knew, merely lies he was telling to persuade himself to try the cards again, and this time seriously.

  “What did you bring those home for?” Mother asked in the other room.

  Father said nothing. Joe knew from the silence that Father did not want to make any explanation that might be overheard.

  “They’re silly,” said Mother. “I thought you were a scientist and a skeptic. I thought you didn’t believe in things like this.”

  “It was just a lark,” Father lied. “I bought them for Joe to plink around with. He’s thinking of doing a computer program to make the cards respond somehow to people’s personalities. The boy has a right to play now and then.”

  And in the family room, where the toy computer sat mute on the shelf, Joe tried not to think of Odysseus walking away from the eight cups, treading the lip of the ocean’s basin, his back turned to the wine. Forty-eight kilobytes and two little disks. This isn’t computer enough for what I mean to do, Joe thought. I will not do it, of course. But with Father’s computer from his office upstairs, with the hard disk and the right type of interface, perhaps there is space and time enough for all the operations. Of course I will not do it. I do not care to do it. I do not dare to do it.

  At two in the morning he got up from his bed, where he could not sleep, went downstairs, and began to program the graphics of the tarot deck upon the screen. But in each picture he made changes, for he knew that the artist, gifted as he was, had made mistakes. Had not understood that the Page of Cups was a buffoon with a giant phallus, from which flowed the sea. Had not known that the Queen of Swords was a statue and it was her throne that was alive, an angel groaning in agony at the stone burden she had to bear. The child at the Gate of Ten Stars was being eaten by the old man’s dogs. The man hanging upside down with crossed legs and peace upon his face, he wore no halo; his hair was afire. And the Queen of Pentacles had just given birth to a bloody star, whose father was not the King of Pentacles, that poor cuckold.

  And as the pictures and their stories came to him, he began to hear the echoes of all the other stories he had read. Cassandra, Queen of Swords, flung her bladed words, and people batted them out of the air like flies, when if they had only caught them and used them, they would not have met the future unarmed. For a moment Odysseus bound to the mast was the Hanged Man; in the right circumstances. Macbeth could show up in the ever-trusting Page of Cups, or crush himself under the ambitious Queen of Pentacles, Queen of Coins if she crossed him. The cards held tales of power, tales of pain, in the invisible threads that bound them to one another. Invisible threads, but Joe knew they were there, and he had to make the pictures right, make the program right, so that he could find true stories when he read the cards.

  Through the night he labored until each picture was right: the job was only begun when he fell asleep at last. His parents were worried on finding him there in the morning, but they hadn’t the heart to waken him. When he awoke, he was alone in the house, and he began again immediately, drawing the cards on the TV screen, storing them in the computer’s memory; as for his own memory, he needed no help to recall them all, for he knew their names and their stories and was beginning to understand how their names changed every time they came together.

  By evening it was done, along with a brief randomizer program that dealt the cards. The pictures were right. The names were right. But this time when the computer spread the cards before him—This is you, this covers you, this crosses you—it was meaningless. The computer could not do what hands could do. It could not understand and unconsciously deal the cards. It was not a randomizer program that was needed at all, for the shuffling of the tarot was not done by chance.

  “May I tinker a little with your computer?” Joe asked.

  “The hard disk?” Father looked doubtful. “I don’t want you to open it, Joe. I don’t want to try to come up with another ten thousand dollars this week if something goes wrong.” Behind his words was a worry: This business with the tarot cards has gone far enough, and I’m sorry I bought them for you, and I don’t want you to use the computer, especially if it would make this obsession any stronger.

  “Just an interface, Father. You don’t use the parallel port anyway, and I can put it back afterward.”

  “The Atari and the hard disk aren’t even compatible.”

  “I know,” said Joe.

  But in the end there really couldn’t be much argument. Joe knew computers better than Alvin did, and they both knew that what Joe took apart, Joe could put together. It took days of tinkering with hardware and plinking at the program. During that time Joe did nothing else. In the beginning he tried to distract himself. At lunch he told Mother about books they ought to read; at dinner he spoke to Father about Newton and Einstein until Alvin had to remind him that he was a biologist, not a mathematician. No one was fooled by these attempts at breaking the obsession. The tarot program drew Joe back after every meal, after every interruption, until at last he began to refuse meals and ignore the interruptions entirely.

  “You have to eat. You can’t die for this silly game,” said Mother.

  Joe said nothing. She set a sandwich by him, and he ate some of it.

  “Joe, this had gone far enough. Get yourself under control,” said Father.

  Joe didn’t look up. “I’m under control,” he said, and he went on working.

  After six days Alvin came and stood between Joe and the television set. “This nonsense will end now,” Alvin said. “You are behaving like a boy with serious problems. The most obvious cure is to disconnect the computer, which I will do if you do not stop working on this absurd program at once. We try to give you freedom, Joe, but when you do this to us and to yourself, then—”

  “That’s all right,” said Joe. “I’ve mostly finished it anyway.” He got up and went to bed and slept for fourteen hours.

  Alvin was relieved. “I thought he was losing his mind.”

  Connie was more worried than ever. “What do you think he’ll do if it doesn’t work?”

  “Work? How could it work? Work at what? Cross my palm with silver and I’ll tell your future.”

  “Haven’t you been listening to him?”

  “He hasn’t said a word in days.”

  “He believes in what he’s doing. He thinks his program will tell the truth.”

  Alvin laughed. “Maybe your doctor, what’s-his-name, maybe he was right. Maybe there was brain damage after all.”

  Connie looked at him in horror. “God, Alvin.”

  “A joke, for Christ’s sake.”

  “It wasn’t funny.”

  They didn’t talk about it, but in the middle of the night, at different times, each of them got up and went into Joe’s room to look at him in his sleep.

  Who are you? Connie asked silently. What are you going to do if this project of yours is a failure? What are you going to do if it succeeds?

  Alvin, however, just nod
ded. He refused to be worried. Phases and stages of life. Children go through times of madness as they grow.

  Be a lunatic thirteen-year-old, Joe, if you must. You’ll return to reality soon enough. You’re my son, and I know that you’ll prefer reality in the long run.

  The next evening Joe insisted that his father help him test the program. “It won’t work on me,” Alvin said. “I don’t believe in it. It’s like faith healing and taking vitamin C for colds. It never works on skeptics.”

  Connie stood small near the refrigerator. Alvin noticed the way she seemed to retreat from the conversation.

  “Did you try it?” Alvin asked her.

  She nodded.

  “Mom did it four times for me,” Joe said gravely.

  “Couldn’t get it right the first time?” Father asked. It was a joke.

  “Got it right every time,” Joe said.

  Alvin looked at Connie. She met his gaze at first, but then looked away in—what? Fear? Shame? Embarrassment? Alvin couldn’t tell. But he sensed that something painful had happened while he was at work. “Should I do it?” Alvin asked her.

  “No,” Connie whispered.

  “Please,” Joe said. “How can I test it if you won’t help? I can’t tell if it’s right or wrong unless I know the people doing it.”

  “What kind of fortuneteller are you?” Alvin asked. “You’re supposed to be able to tell the future of strangers.”

  “I don’t tell the future,” Joe said. “The program just tells the truth.”

  “Ah, truth!” said Alvin. “Truth about what?”

  “Who you really are.”

  “Am I in disguise?”

  “It tells your names. It tells your story. Ask Mother if it doesn’t.”

  “Joe,” Alvin said, “I’ll play this little game with you. But don’t expect me to regard it as true. I’ll do almost anything for you, Joe, but I won’t lie for you.”

  “I know.”

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