Elvisseyby Jack Womack
“Jack Womack is another of the heirs of cyberpunk, one of science fiction’s most interesting new writers.” –Los Angeles Times
“Jack Womack is another of the heirs of cyberpunk, one of science fiction’s most interesting new writers.” –Los Angeles Times
At once a biting satire and a taut, fast-paced thriller, Elvissey is the story of Isabel and John, a troubled couple who voyage from the year 2033 to a strangely altered 1954. They are on a desperate mission—to kidnap the young Elvis Presley and bring him back to the present day to serve as a ready-made cult leader. He proves, however, to be a reluctant messiah, and things do not work out quite as planned.
Although Womack’s tale is a bleak one—of personal failings and corporate greed—his novel is a dazzling exercise and a lesson for those who wonder where the English language might go next. In the tradition of A Clockwork Orange, and even of some of Womack’s other works, he presents his readers with a new way of speaking and, in turn, a new way to view the world.
“Nazi flying saucers over an alternate 1950s Memphis, your basic cross-time godhead abduction of Elvis Presley, and what must surely be one of the flat-out weirdest Fisher King inversions yet perpetuated in American literature. Achingly sad, downright alarmingly funny, and just about as serious as any of us can presently afford to be, Elvissey is one jarringly potent kick in the head. I can only urge you to put yours cleanly in its way.” –William Gibson, author of Neuromancer
“Jack Womack is another of the heirs of cyberpunk, one of science fiction’s most interesting new writers.” –Los Angeles Times
“Womack’s book is different in tone and content from anything you may have read.” –The Financial Times
“Womack’s prose shows where our language may be headed, much as the books themselves demonstrate what our culture as a whole could become. . . . In his novels, Jack Womack has invented a machine, a metaphoric engine, that in principle can encompass and examine everything–serious sociological extrapolation, high and low comedy, pulp adventure, pop iconography. . . . I’m glad to have a dangerous man like him around.” –Omni
Winner of the Philip K. Dick Award
“Elvis died several years before he saved me from drowning. My late husband’s chihuahua, Betty, fell off the pier and I dove in after her, forgetting I couldn’t swim. As I sank beneath the waves a strong hand pulled me out. Though the glow of His suit blinded me I saw His face, bathed in beatific light. Averting my eyes before His glory burned me I realized that without my having to ask He’d washed me in His love and I’d walk with Him ever after. As I dropped to my knees He ascended into the clouds, shining like the evening star. I didn’t understand why He didn’t save Betty but I know there must be a reason, there has to be.” –from “Postludinal Testimonies, The Book of E (Vegassene)
Ascension, I craved; my husband dreamed of descent. At our meet that set our seal.
“Zen,” Conrad repeated. “Zen, not zinc. Zen, zen, zen.”
“Think philosophy, not metal, to correctly phrase,” said Weber.
Aware that present is bearable only when future makes it past, my husband and I often found ourselves creating images of what we believed our marriage had been, or of the people we once thought we were. But I was unable any longer to take comfort from holograms of the spirit, for when I tried clasping their shimmers against me, they dissolved under touch as reflections in water.
“Cruisin” –” I replayed, following my teachers’ lead.
“Zen,” Weber said.
We’d tried timeover to regood ourselves; perceived, we thought, that we never would. Then our company gifted us, heaving an assignment our way, rippling our stasis; we believed it our last chance to recover what we’d had as we plunged in, heedless of depth.
“Cruisin” –” I repeated; they nodded. Conrad and Weber were forensic philologists, adept in resuscitating dead languages so that, once alive again, the words might be appropriately vivisected. For my husband and myself, in preparation for our assignment, they ran their class, Slang Lab–Slab, I rephrased. Slab underwayed on Philosophy Hall’s fifth, at Columbia, on Morningside Heights, under Dryco aegis. We all worked for Dryco, for whom there were no betters to work; no others, in truth, whether regooded or not. “Cruisin” for a bruisin”.”
Words skidded smooth off my tongue, however their friction, at intervals, burned my tutors’ ears. This time, having mimed proper, I’d delighted them. “AO,” said Conrad, offering what John called a switchblade smile. ‘demetaform.”
Metaphor meaning, they meant; I considered all likely interpretations, deciding upon one that personally pleased. “One finds trouble when and where it’s sought,” I said. But why seek trouble when it finds you so easily?
“Apt,” said Weber. “Next,” he requested of his monitor; its blue eye refused to wink. “Phrase me.”
“Moderate tone to effect interface–” Conrad began to say.
“Phrase,” Weber commanded, his voice and color deepening. “Please,” he added; at last received response. Hieroglyphs emerged from the blue as Venus rose from the sea. Staring doorways as Weber deciphered, longlost argot ringing twixt my ears, I glimpsed a woman hallwayed, down-bound, carrying a veiled container; one of the artists, I reckoned. A workperson, too, strolled amid students, bloodying her orange coverall with reddened hands. During the month my husband and I trained oncampus, razored vines were loosed from all college walls that ivy might again shoot unslashed veins along clot-colored brick, revealing regooded structures fit to house regooded souls. Regooding proposed to make all that was long-wrong rainright once more.
“Ah,” Weber murmured, studying the text at last revealed. “Comprehended.”
By regooding, Dryco proclaimed to all that security was assured. In my mind it unimagined that security could ever be secure. “Bonney,” Weber continued, addressing me. “Hear and replay.”
Isabel, my mind rephrased; my name is Isabel, that name is my own. Isabel Bonney overran my boundaries; admitted my husband, my other who sat so near, too dangerously deep into my being. I loved him; there were none I loved as I loved my husband, but his is not my name. Call me Isabel.
“I be boppin” –” Weber began.
“I be boppin” –” I replayed. My husband–John, his name–said I knacked lingo; he didn’t, and sat lipstill in Slab, eating apricot slices from his bag of dried fruit, which almost exclusively made up his daylight diet. One of us had to master background; it essentialled plain that we understand what the natives were saying when we confronted.
” –at the high school hoop,” Weber concluded.
“I be boppin” at the high school hoop–”
“Hold,” Conrad interrupted, extending a hand the shade and texture of undyed surimi. “Errored.”
Weber’s face so reddened that stroke seemed readied to cut him free. ‘sourced here, sourced there,” he said, fingertapping the screen.
“Don’t,” his monitor voiced in woman’s gentle tones.
“Excuse. Sourced all the same, Conrad,” Weber went on. ‘midfifties term, present in all media. In High School Confidential, plus–”
Conrad shook his head. “1958 cinescript jumbled into low vernacular black English, urb class.” He paused, as if only now noting my own urb class; eyed my lightening darkness, the yet-evident kink of my hair. Convincing himself he’d not offended, he proceeded sans exegesis or afterword. “Inapplicable for situation. Next.”
“Demonstrable proof available,” Weber insisted. ‘stand corrected.”
“Ignore, Bonney,” said Conrad. “Proceed, Weber.”
That linguists so incomprehensibled as they did didn’t surprise; their degreed specialty v/as the Elizabethan period, not America’s nineteen-fifties. But if we were to return to our world with anyone–as Dryco intended–it wouldn’t be Shakespeare; at Dryco’s demand, they adapted for the duration of our prep.
“Proof postsession,” Weber said. “Waste time, want time. Next, then. Phrase me, please.”
John’s hands trembled as if palsied; his rising fear evidenced pure. I watched as he attempted meditation, appearing, after a moment, not to breathe.
“Complexities,” Weber warned, examining the screen. ‘replay tripartite with ongoing phrasing. Set?” I nodded. ‘my baby. Iterate, Bonney.”
“My name’s so unpronounceable?” I asked; wasn’t answered. They so deafened to my words that I felt no greater than a lesser preposition.
“My baby,” Conrad said. “Iterate.”
“Not be-be,” he corrected. “Bay-bee. Replay.”
“Bay-bee,” I replayed. ‘my bay-bee–”
John so stilled that others might have marveled that he be alive. A fly settled on his nose; stroked its legs against themselves as if to self-immolate, then wandered across his closed eyes; buzzed, and flew away. When John lapped his hands his knuckles whitened more than I’d ever seen them pale.
” –with a steady roll,” concluded Weber.
“With a steady roll.”
“Replay in toto,” said Conrad.
“My bay-bee rocks me with a steady roll.”
“She’s got, she’s got,” said Weber.
“Demetaform,” said Conrad.
If Dryco could regood itself–regood, therefore, our world–there was naught to believe that my husband and I would not eventually regood ourselves as well, in like manner, to like effect. This we told ourselves, timeover time, until we almost believed it.
“Ears open, Bonney,” said Conrad, jarring me. ‘demetaform phrase given as requested.”
“Love bites when it strikes,” I suggested. Again, they nodded. John’s eyelids peeled open; he shuddered, seeming beaten by his dreams out of a restless sleep. He unpocketed a bottle of small blue pills; Dryco’s standard eyedots and smile were imprinted upon each tablet. Three hours sole could pass between dosings, no more, no less. Swallowing dry, he fixed a doorways stare; shook, and resettled. There was so much he could have seen if he hadn’t looked so hard. Meditation, medication; both essentialled, neither changed. Regooded or not, his unscratchables still itched.
* * *
“Which is the universe? Fortean or Joycean? Who tells?” asked Professor Mora, who taught Historical Inference; Guess and Grab, I rephrased. “The shadow world is, by its nature, shadowed.” His room was on Schermerhorn Hall’s ninth. The building was once a science center; in its womb the Manhattan Project conceived. “Notions of two spatial structures at once independent and interrelated were intolerable concepts until reality demonstrated other, fifteen years past.”
We surely inhaled so much radiation, interiored, as exteriored. John and I transversed the campus topside, strolling along ramps inset for the physically challenged. Our fellow students formicated through tunnels underneath, battening their stores for winter. That afternoon, John and I stared into Jersey sunset, as if seeking literal, rather than metaphorical, blindness; sighted instead a herald, an unforecast spark, appearing as a match Godness struck against heaven.
Wish I may, John whispered as the spark faded. Wish I might.
We wished; in lieu of the doable that was all to be done. Fate, chance, kismet, term it as willed: to have seen, as we had, an old missile erasing itself against the atmosphere as its orbit knew inevitable decay was a vision as rare as that of a robin in springtime; most often they lowered over desert or taiga or sea, sprinkling the clouds with isotopes to later baptize us in soft burning rain. I fancied, at its sight; imagined Venus, rising on her own accord, the morning star slipped free of her perpetual transit’s unbreakable noose.
“Science explains rotational balance essentialed to superimposed earths,” Mora continued. “Accounts for observable non-Keplerian orbital dynamics. Explanations for similarity divergence between worlds and nonconcurrent progression of their respective human timelines are the concern of art, mayhap, rather than science. Certainly nothing in our history explains.”
Nothing in history explains why something goes wrong.
John and I stared into the curtain before which Mora paced, seeing in its nub’s sparkling texture a moonshadowed beach’s color. Scrawling its dune with tracings of light, he inscribed dates; they washed away as he wrote them.
“What occurs there seems not always what happened here. Less so, as time passes. In the other world it is presently late April, 1954. Peopled expeditions previous-yeared yielded inconsistent data owing to mortality of all responsive participants save three. From the two Russians, little forth-came and less was told. From the third, Biggerstaff, we gained such awareness as we’ve possessed of that world’s existence, one summer weekend in 1939. Their 1939.”
In our fifteen-year transit through cosmic haphazards John and I slid across surfaces seeming smooth from afar, suffering irreparable scars in the flames our contact raised. Our similarity divergence developed as unexpectedly as it had for the two worlds, for like reasons undoubted: multitudinous though unguessable, foreseen yet Cassandraed, known because ignored.
“Mayhap inference and induction gained us not enough, it was thought. There inhered challenge, thus. How to answer unanswerables?”
Where did love for John end, and hate begin? How deep did each lie buried beneath anger’s eversettling mud? Did love essential a coeval hate? Must those emotions deepen from acute into chronic so synchronically? Must only enough love linger to so pain its inevitable decay?
“Last month, in correlation with the E project, we at last broke off a new shard of their glass,” Mora said. “An icicle fallen from a plane overhead.”
Did we want our love to end? Did we need it to end? Did it matter?
“A minireceiver was guided through the Flushing Window, across the zone, for sixteen minutes, seizing and relaying the other world’s radio transmissions in immediate range.”
Chance attracted us, experience repelled; what bound us was as enigmaed as the true nature of that only-imaginable world.
“Reception peripheralled. Static and fade were unavoidable, enhancement notwithstanding. Keep minded of this, giving ear,” said Mora.
As John’s medication, taken the hour earlier, soaked into its hold, he first expressed nothing but inexpressible rage; then his look became no look at all. I turned from him, feeling my own anger flower; I couldn’t save him from himself, by myself, and the assistance of others only hurt all the more. Underdesk I took my husband’s hand, in my grasp feeling a fish snatched from water. Pressing my fingers into his numbness I fought to draw his blood through his veins anew, warming his graying skin if but for a shard of history, a shiver of time.
“Insert your present into theirs,” said Mora, petting his machine as if hoping he could bring it to climax. “Hear the unseeable. Quilt the patchwork assembled. This is what awaits.” Disarticulate voices spurted from the speakers, near yet afar, shouts across canyons lowed into ears. We heard silence; then, a song.
Lessons memorized in Antecedental Ur-Beat class awared me that these voices, white as bones, were Crew-Cut notes, and not those of the Chords. Their song faded; medleyed vocalese drifted across the range.
“Pepsi-Cola hits the spot–”
” –every day at this time by Listerine–”
” –that doggie in the window–”
John’s eyes refocused as he drew further inward, stealing from Mora, from me, from another world’s words. He un-jacketed a worn black book; studied its pages as if seeking answers to questions never guessed applicable.
” –and the prices go down, down, down–”
” –dozens reported seeing the saucers in the skies over Washington last night, and on radar screens–”
Jake oversaw Security during John’s initiation, seventeen years past; upon graduation, following the blooding, John and all acceptables were gifted with Jake’s hymnal Knifelife. In its pages Jake provided for his charges’ inspiration enabling enough that they might ignore the day presently entrapping and look ahead to the one that, likely, would follow: one perhaps better, perhaps worse; a fresh day regardless, its evanescent security as yet unaborted by event.
” –as we join Reg Berman and the gang at the Marine barracks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard–”
Days after meeting John, at once knowing the love I’d never lose, however hard I tried, I met Jake, who avoided the look of others’ eyes. Overhanging him I fancied a cloud so black as his suit was white; I realized only afterward that I was taller than Jake. He said little, and that gnomic; John told me that in justifiable mood Jake killed with a wink, and though I prodded, he left that remark to be taken as metaphor to be demetaformed as I chose. Jake vanished soon after, coming back from the place where we’d be going: in his class Mora had earlier recounted how Jake accompanied Biggerstaff on that initial transgression into that other world; how, returning, he’d been somehow lost, somewhere inbetween. Whether he lingered there, no one could say.
” –that the Spirit of Light should overwhelm the Sons of Darkness–”
” –nine out of ten doctors recommend Camels–”
John had been Dryco’s Security Head for three years. He oversaw what had been, implemented that which was becoming; forever provided security to all save himself. Mora frowned, seeing John ignore the lesson; yet attempted no punishment, surely recalling responses of other guards, seen at other times. In the classroom dim Mora’s face appeared so livid as John’s, as if for his chieftain’s funeral he’d painted it with ash.
” –travel the Interstate, you’ll be glad you did–”
“In Berlin, Chancellor Speer–”
Regooding of Dryco Security’s five hundred departmental units necessitated that they begin a program of medication to assist in curbing their long-conditioned reactions. One hundred and seventy-four had suicided in the six months since.
“Now’s the time for Jell-O–”
Indirectly and overtly, my husband smothered me beneath more emotions than I could bear, killing me so surely, if not so slowly, as they killed him: still I stayed with him; couldn’t abandon, felt compelled to accompany, wherever he went.
Whenever he went.
“Why, then, with all this strength,” the voice said: Eisenhower’s voice. President there too, we induced, and sounding enough like ours as to chill; again I remembered what was first told, that their world was no less real, nor more unreal, than ours. “Why should we be worrying at times about what the world is doing to us?”
Worry, rather, about what we’d allowed it to do. John continued to regard Jakeisms; I vizzed the page he studied, saw its single printed line: Sharpest knives leave sweetest wounds.
” –this increase of power from the mere musket and the little cannon,” their Ike went on, “to the hydrogen bomb in a single lifetime is indicative of the things that have happened to us.”
What wounds had we inflicted upon ourselves that we didn’t even feel? Which had we asked for? Which, wanted? Which, needed? Which, deserved?
“They indicate, rather, how far the advances of science have outraced our social conscience.”
Many moments lately passed when I dreamed of conclusion so immediate, and so thorough, as John desired. His pain destroyed us–my pain destroyed us–and all I could do in response was love: but love didn’t limit darkness, wouldn’t shape shadow. Our world shrifted love, ran screaming from its presence, at night turned from its light to fasten gaze upon the dark, lonely bed. We favored a notion so free of science as a history class: that the other world held the answer we needed, if not the one we wanted; that, smashing through our looking-glass, we might on the other side see ourselves true, neither as we wished nor as we feared we were, and so be able to decide, at last, whether we should disunite.
” –solution to the Negro problem cannot be found in legislation, but in the minds–”
Static exploded, shattering their world; all silenced, as if it’d never been. Mora stroked his machine to a stop.
“At that point the device was apparently observed. Expected response surely ensued. Prospects,” Mora summed, “fascinate.”
Not always sure I’d had one, I wanted life; John felt sentenced to his. As we sat there, while Mora gathered his papers, I saw John reread the book’s closure, a quote attributed to John Donne. Once I’d been to London, and in St. Paul’s seen the preacher’s statue, his image sculpted as he’d desired: wrapped within windings, eyeshut as if asleep, smiling as if dreaming of every funeral followed; foreseeing his own, mayhap–the end of a long trial, with the outcome of the appeal ahead assured.
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
and all my pleasures are like yesterday.
Jake’s deconstruction followed; succincted. When time comes, he’d writ, act.
* * *
Class ended; before homing we descended into the crypt of Columbia’s St. Paul’s to attend an artshow. A marble spiral led to the display; at stairfoot stood artists, smoking and drinking cups of wine, chatting technik. By their abdominal convexities I gathered that they endeavored new projects even while conversing. The other designers, including the woman I’d earlier spotted, had galleried, hovering round their containers. Their sculptures, too, were tabletopped; among them were interspersed bowls of ikebana, lending color no less artificial, however natural.
“Ugly,” an appreciator noted to his companion. Their first date, I inferred; each wore a forced disinterest in anyone’s affairs other than their own.
“Art,” she replied, ecstasized.
Background essentials: inbody pregnancy, when accidental, was inevitably if circumventially terminated; regooding upheld the edicts forbidding the wombed from being untimely ripped, amniotic forecast irregarded. Only through tubed cultures, suitably outbodied, was birthed perfection assured. Mutative nature’s inescapables–chemical rain rich with acid and deviant ray, unseeables in food and drink, our radium-blue heaven–certified that trad gestation inevitably delivered into our world fresh deformities, sometimes quick, most often dead.
“One pill at daybreak, sixteen weeks running,” an artist whispered to one of her protegees. Each wore earrings made of tiny silverplated feet, toes splayed apart by diamond chips. ‘resulting varietals are of nobler invention than thalidomide’s.”
“Side effects?” asked a listener. “Yours, meant.”
Fetal artists conceived as was once the rule, as deliberately exposing themselves to select media during pregnancy to most appropriately flesh their concepts, which could live only after they’d died.
“Solipsizers,” said John, bareglancing, his eyes so deepsocketed that, had I not known, I could never have guessed them to be blue. “Let’s shortterm.”
“Hang cool,” I said, forever now practicing, in speech, the rephrasing essentialled for our upcoming travels. “Loose, rather. Hang, loose.”
“Oh, Iz,” he said, frowning so that only I would see. ‘straightspeak with me if no other.”
“Forgive,” I said; could he? I wondered if for reasons other than chemical my eyes showed so drawn as his; began persuing what was displayed. Within each mother’s tabled glass belly floated a freeform manifest, a maternal expression. Some were lava-lit, making the jars’ small ones appear self-luminescent as they drifted amid glowing plasmas, resembling warning balloons lofted in advance of toxic clouds, giving all in harmway reason enough to run. Other babies presented to admirers internal organs origamied outward, or the look of ones dissembled and reconstructed by mechanics uncertain of the original arrangement.
“Unoriginal,” a critic noted of one who was unlit, and bore a face emerging direct from a stubbed neck. The baby’s arms drifted through its gel as if it attempted to fly.
“How so?” asked his accompaniment.
“Similar seen live, begging on Mercer Street, six months past.”
In the eyes of some exhibits I saw duped the eyes of lovers longlost reincarnate, no less painful to stare into now than they’d been when I’d last taken leave of them. All the jugged children carried a feel of specimens recovered from those more distant worlds once imagined extant, far beyond visible stars, stolen from Edens as yet untarnished by the slither of snakes.
“Postambient,” the holoed gallerist explained, her image afloat in room’s midst. “As cubism rose from trad Afro styles. Brancusi, exampled. Prim remade proper; rebirth becomes any art.”
The sculptures, I favored; those employed the interior frames so that the design’s more profound aspects might be fully revealed. The ribcage of one draped down over its femurs. Several small skulls evidenced cyclopean features; holiday lights were inserted within the expected openings, to whimsify onlookers. One sculpture, hued waste-green, stood balanced, seeming weightless upon its fourth foot’s third, longest toe.
“Iz, I beg–” John murmured. I kissed; calmed, if didn’t settle.
“Por fav, moment,” I said; took his hand in mine, feeling no feeling. “Let’s see who’s cookin”.”
The exhibit’s centerpiece was wrought by an artist named Tanya, a provincial who’d been living in the Bowl, near the great Indiana dunes; no others so fertiled as she, either in idea or in technik. Tanya bore a look resembling my husband’s, that of one who suffered for their art. Her child, whom I took to be one of outbodied origin, sat smiling nearby; she had honey hair, thick and tousled in the back, and skin so pink as to have been boiled.
“Wordless,” others muttered, eyeing Tanya’s bodiwork. ‘doublestunned.”
Half mobile, half collage, the art was contained within two transparent cones poised tiptipped; the topmost revolved unceasing by way of the gyroscopic motion of two intertwined catherine-wheels afloat within, both armspoked with ten bony lengths, digits directed viewer-outward, striking balance nature neither offered nor intended. In the lower cone four small ones, fullbodied if emptyfaced, circled roundrosied, their dance forever macabring.
“Years, making,” Tanya said, responding to another’s question. “I despaired, sometimes.”
“How’d you bleach the bones?” I asked.
“China White,” she explained. “After beetling.”
Her little girl’s face lit as if it, too, generated its own glow, reflecting much more than her mother’s glory. ‘she loves her brothers and sisters,” Tanya said, stroking her daughter’s perfect hair and hands. “When you’re old enough, sweetie.”
“Cost?” I inquired.
Tanya shrugged; smiled. “If you have to ask–”
I thought myself no artist; imagined I could have been a good mother, but our marriage’s anesthetic was unmarred by creativity. When I wed John I was awared at moment one that we were to remain childless. Though insistent guards, such as John, were allowed conjunction, Dryco’s concern for familial stability demanded that from Security unions no progeny might spring, to be too early orphaned. By directive, not even seed could be gathered in advance to later plant, pre- or post-retirement; all guards were clipped before being diplomaed, the vasect required before they could receive Jake’s book. Often before learning there was one I dreamt of a parallel world, where John was a good father and I, a good mother.
“Iz,” he said, with stiff fingers touching my arm with fly’s lightness; as had his old overseer, he avoided my eyes, as if undesiring to see what was lost. “Homeaway now. Age befalls the legs. I beg.”
In that other world, would our counterparts be birthed? If they were, and if they married, would they create? Or, once joined, would they live as we had, sans art, a cozy couple separate yet equal, sharing an isotope’s halflife, clinging to madness to which they’d most familiared, shielding themselves against vaster insanities whirling without?
Was that love? What was its cost? If you have to ask . . . Before homing I charged up an exhibit disk that I could review later at leisure, discerning what I’d overlooked; finding those unintended truths artists so well as critics failed to see even when shown, the ones most meaningful, because most disturbing.
“Love you,” I told my husband, “overmuch.” He nodded; he knew.
Aiming Bronxward up Broadway our car carried us home; through smoked windows we eyed tripleshifters deconstructing the walls between Harlem and Washington Heights as the northern, higher parts of Manhattan underwent their own regooding. So few still lived on either side of the walls that such security had for years been so superfluous as those who’d once lived there; I’d lived there, as a child. We’d grown together in Washington Heights, me and Judy and poor lost Lola, inloading info, streetsmarting, grasping our world’s way in a moment’s breath if and when essentialled; I regooded myself, once I left.
Looking upward through the roof I gazed toward God-ness; saw no spark, no sign, no flare of St. Elmo’s fire. Mundanities blotted the night: clouds aglow with searchlight-shine coagulated on high, no sooner taking the shape intended by those directing groundbound than breezes conspired to deface the fog-scrawled designs. Environads, when successed, allowed Dryco to emboss its logo upon land, sky and sea; that if tongues stilled, and screens blanked, the rocks themselves would forever sing a song of Dryco. Airtravelers descending through the yellow zone into the apparent clear vizzed highwayside forests grown on demand, controlling erosion while, in engraven greenery, foliating the corporate sign; streams raced along rechanneled courses that from far vistas the interested might glimpse our name writ in water; knolls were shaved and shifted into the familiar face’s leer, eyed with boulders, smiled with a shrubbery curl, and spelling out in hedges circled round our company’s rephrased ethos: Do Good. Feel Real. The word was too much with us, too soon: Dryco was the word, and our world was of the word, and with the word, and the world was the word.
“Watch–!!” John shouted. Our driver swerved slidelong, rushing through the reds; at 156th escaped blindsiding by another Bronxbound limo. John clasped the man’s shoulders, steering him curbways as he slowed to a stop. “You’re risking,” he told the driver, a reassigned Security staffer; as he told him that I knew that it was my safety, not their own, that so concerned my husband.
“Known,” the man mumbled, barely audible.
“I’ll cruise us,” John said. ‘shift.” Stepping out, wheeling himself, John eased our driver into shotgun position; spoke to the dash so kindly as to his co-worker, and when the car responded we moved on: righting, lefting, rivercrossing, passing from the gone world into the one which would be.
Under Dryco guidance, at inestimable cost, our city rebuilded atop the Bronx hills, designed half trad, half in the style Eurotrenders termed Dreizinuovy. New New York’s nightlight made lurid its host of shades, pastel and primary: apricot and aubergine, lemon and lilac, cerise and cerulean and deep emerald green. Betowered and lowdomed, the city showed so spired as a bed of nails; tubes bridged street-canyons eighty floors over, sodastraw elevators ran along building-sides toward rich azimuths bedecked with faux-curlicue and neo-arabesque. Clouds of tiny copters circled midge-like round those grown and growing hothouse flowers, our garden town. The Met, at intervals, displayed fading comic panels, whereupon more conservative appreciators of art would see inked, half a century past by those in the know, our city’s image: sealed within a bottle, one candid among many miniatures lifted from a farrago of worlds.
Old New York would in time be sea-swallowed, as Chicago would go Nineveh as each daily dust-storm laid down another coat, as LA would in time smother beneath its Jovian atmosphere’s weight; Moscow might crumble, Lagos and Karachi burn anew with nuclear fire, Cairo and Bangkok and Brazzaville depopulate at one hundred souls per hour. Yet as in Tokyo, as in Berlin and London, new New York would–upon completion–show as all in our world should have shown, had so many not slowed along the roadway to view the accidents previous onlookers caused.
New New York would hold a million. Its presentiment screamed the unstated, that its inhabitants had been retrofitted as well, to assure perfection. In outlanders’ minds–in the Bowl and among the Coasters and down in the vast Southern delta–New Yorkers underwent a most complete regooding: they were reimagined as reflections, new Atlanteans plucked landward from water; their wet hair so blond as mine was becoming, their moist eyes so blue as my contacts feigned. We who lived here knew true; our hills’ city provided only new jars for old specimens, who, when pricked, yet gushed red and not gold-vermilion.
John and I had a fiftieth floor place in a Concourse tower; twenty other families lived in our building. We sidewalked ourselves, watching empty trolleys race down the boulevard’s gardened aisles, their ads’ neon belettering the dark, the bulbed glow of Dryco’s face tracklighting fore and aft, the sign of its word; everybody heard about the word. Our driver, deafened, sped into his night, two red lights on behind.
“How long?” I asked, watching his meteors skid out of sight.
“Week,” John said. “He’s edged. Let’s up ourselves, Iz.”
The seven million of old New York could have roomed here in comfort, high atop the hills. Mooted: in new New York, those not regooded weren’t there anymore.
We lay in our single bed’s separate worlds. John’s wide white back lifted high on my left, its crags appearing as an iceberg around which I could never maneuver in time. He shivered; mayhap his own coldness chilled too bonedeep. Stroking him, pulling our comforter around us, I warmed him as I could.
‘sleepaway,” he murmured. ‘deepdead shagged, Iz. Dream time calls. Listen.”
“Talk to me, John,” I said. “Talk.”
‘sleepaway, Iz,” he repeated. “Places to go, people to be. Sleepaway.”
Rolling off I eyed our ceiling’s slate, an unreadable heaven too close to comfort. We lay separate but equal, together yet apart, one and divided; I wished he was with me, fearing he’d never be again. The living room’s TVC came on by itself; it needed rechipping but a workperson essentialled for that and so we let it play as it wished. From the words I gathered that a speaker representing one sect of the C of E–that is to say, the Church of Elvis–was preaching; the congregants called out for their imagined savior, crying for him to step from his world into ours.
“E,” they chanted, intruding themselves throughout our space. ‘save us, E.”
As I lay there I listened to wind scratching the window; then I heard the wind drop to the carpet and land on a shoe. Pressing on the light I soaked our room until all appeared freefloating within an amber sea. A mouse sought succor beneath my dressing-table.
“John,” I said, shifting him with no greater ease than if I’d tried pushing a mountain. “The room’s wildlifed. Heard and seen, present and accounted.”
“Wildlifed,” he replayed. “Two feet or four?”
“We’re verminized,” I said. “A mouse, undertabled. Go, do, please–”
“Untouchable, Iz,” he said. “It’s life.”
“It’ll breed and bedcrawl,” I said. “Cruise it and bruise it, John. I beg.”
The mouse’s head appeared, resembling a shoetip; it froze, seeming fixed by my stare. I didn’t move; it did, racing crossroom, vanishing under our bed. Awakened full I bounded high, tumbling John floorways.
“Godness, Iz–” His insomnia disrupted, John rose with clear, if troubled, mind.
“Ex it, John,” I said. “It’ll warm itself with us.”
He stared bedways, considering my question even as I asked it. “Impossibled, Iz. Even with peewees. Can’t think–”
“A mouse!” I shouted, balancing myself upon our mattress, alerted to sounds of scratch. “Try, John. Show it what for.”
My husband stamped his good foot, rocking the room. Our intruder darted out, shooting into the quarter-meter’s width between dresser and console. Kneeling, grasping one of my boots, I tossed it, jamming the heel into the mouse’s only exit. Isolate now, it attempted to scramble up the surrounding smoothness, seeking grip, finding none, sliding floorways again and again, outsplaying tiny feet no larger than earrings.
“Send it up the flagpole and fly it, John,” I screamed. “John, please, I beg, I don’t want to have to–”
“Can’t think. Can’t. No–” he began to say; leaning forward, his sentence pending, clutching himself stomachways, he balled inward as if to keep his innards from gnawing themselves free. A medication side-effect was tenfolded gastric output at mere notion of violent response; if the notion prolonged, even sans action, he’d be eaten away so physically from within as I had been emotionally.
“Living must live,” he said, replaying his new-learned lessons. “Live with purpose. Must live. Must–”
“John–” I cried, aware of what necessaried, were we to know peace. Something in the mouse kept it living against every odd; I’d hoped it would keel, but it didn’t. John’s white face drew deathshade as his blood streamed inward, seeking release.
“Iz,” he said, sinking his teeth lipways, reddening them, “I can’t. Can’t, can’t, can’t–”
“I’ll settle,” I said, climbing down, smoothing his damp hair. He attempted to go blank, eyeshutting, surely constructing in mindeye images of sunshine and meadows and all else neverseen, that he could recover enough to lie at rest without hemorrhage. I hated him so for my having to do what essentialled; pushed deeperdown my own rage with the ease experience brings. I was never so good at hurting as was John. ‘rest, angel. I’ll settle.”
In my bedside drawer were scissors; my choice of weapon was no less impromptu than any guard’s. I trod gentle-footed to where the mouse flung itself against the walls within which it was bottled. I clenched; lifted my scissors. Bringing them down, I realized I’d grasped them widdershins, as if to safely present them to another, who might then with ease stab me with my own gift. Feeling the points sharp within my hand, closing my eyes, imagining myself as a child again, I struck the mouse with the rounded handles; hit it repeatedly, allowing myself sight enough only to certify my strikes, that I didn’t overdraw another’s pain overlong, regardless of my own.
Done, then: the mouse lay fetuscurled upon the darkened carpet as if sleeping, its nostrils crimsoned. Cringing from sight of my handiwork, feeling no satisfaction of artistic accomplishment, I saw John rub his face sweatless against our sheets; wondered for whom I felt sorriest, feeling possessed with numbness I hadn’t remembered I could so easily summon.
“It’s doornailed,” I said. My eyes were wet as the mouse’s nose, as our sheets, as John’s hair. “Angel?”
“Sorry,” he said. “Forgive.”
“No,” I said. “Forgive me.” No response. If John cried, his tears streamed unseen within. Standing, feeling my own head light of blood, I tore open two dusty condoms taken from the drawer and rolled them over my fingers; grasped the mouse’s tail and ran with it to the bathroom, to jet it down the toilet. I watched the pink water swirl away; washed and rewashed and rewashed my hands, feeling as Lady M herself. Then I returned to our room, bedding again beside my husband. He lay wide-eyed; some nights, lately, he only halfslept, thrashing through undreamt dreams, recalling none at morningside.
“I’ve done unforgivables,” I said. “I have.”
“You weren’t trained for such, even streetways–”
“No, John. With you, I mean.”
“Nada,” he said; I stared at his back. “Guilt undeserved scars spirit and soul, Iz. Never know guilt sans reason.”
“You do constant,” I said.
“Sans reason, said.”
“You’re lying, not truthing,” I said; sighed. ‘saming, not changing.” I fit myself anew into my spot alongside him, touching his skin; he couldn’t stop shaking, and I wondered if this was a hitherto undetected side-effect. “Better or worse, John. Love. You slay me.”
“Never!” he shouted, rising as if to slap me down. “Never. Disallowed.”
“Not literal, John. Misinterpreted. I’ll demetaform–”
“Never hurt,” he said. “Not you,” he added. “No one,” he sighed. “None.”
“You’re abandoning you, John,” I said. “And me. Without fault of yours–”
“No. Oh, John, it hurts–”
“Mutualities,” he whispered, “best unsaid.”
“Least said soonest known.”
“Over there,” he said. ‘difference will become us again as it did. I know it’ll be so, over there.”
“So hoped,” I said. Pressing closer, I felt him warm: again glimpsed the shimmers, our bright reflections, the heatshine above the highway; imagined for an instant that Godness might indulge our prayers. He shifted, as if to face me; suddenly reached downward, his face wrinkling as if at once he showed a hundred years, each unwanted.
“What hurts, John?” I asked. “What–?”
Asiding our damp sheets, he flailed and pounded his knee with his fist, reslotting his joint. Since the ninth operation the implants never quite took, and rarely responded as desired, however much he concentrated when guiding their action. Guards, heretofore, forever required refitting; artificialities had merits but permanence was not among them. John’s add-on leg would suffice several months to a year sans problems: then fluid dried, the marrow-channels bubbled, the cables knotted; down to the clinic he’d hobble, knowing well inevitable obsolescence’s inescapable pain. He stilled anew, pillowing his head, gasping for breath.
“Are you AO?” I asked. He nodded. “I love you. I’m sorry.”
‘sometimes,” I said.
His lips downturned, as if they’d been pinned. “Known,” he said. “Understood. I love, too. Overmuch contained within. Overmuch to bear.”
He nodded. ‘spillage unavoidable, sometimes. Hurt to avoid hurt, unavoidable,” he said. “Ergo, implode within. Better, because safer.”
We’d had a friend in the trade; after graduation she was implanted with finger-razors which, commanded, sprang from undernail that with them she might lunge and slash. One afternoon while she was grating cheese for dinner they unexpectedly emerged, freezing in extremis. At her operative time, years before, such gear was bonegrafted direct; only through amputation could she have been loosed of her superfluous knives. Still, Dryco found her retainable for special use; in time such acts as turning doorknobs again came naturally to her. Upon regooding’s instilling she foresaw her unavoidable obsolescence; the edict passed, and a week passed, and then one night she lay full-uniformed in her tub; resting there for a time, she must have made motions as if to adjust her collar. John once loved her, before our meet; I never jealoused. Love was love, however manifest.
“It’ll remake us. I’ll exemplarize, and protect sans harm. The change’ll come, over there,” he said. I clasped his shimmer, fearing–his words notwithstanding–he was lost to us both, if not till endtime, at least for our present. Curling inward, feeling mouse-size, small and dark and bottled within smooth walls, I stared out into a wide white world. “Peace yourself meantime with dreams, Iz. Sleepaway.”
Once sex netted us tight, giving life, renewing our souls as Godness so hoped; our love was Godness. Now I fancied that John thought if we were to swive he’d only shoot into me unneeded poison, embodying me overmuch with a readjusted virus. He shivered: I rubbed his stomach, felt his muscles and the curls of his hair, and held his penis in my hand. He never told me how he’d lost the tip.
The TVC switched on again. “E,” the desparate called throughout our rooms; their pleas rebounded soft against my ears as I lay there, unswived, unsaved. ‘return to us. Cleanse. Renew. We beg.”
E would return to them, if and when we found his double in the shadow world; if our mission accomplished, and we stole that world’s E away, bringing him into ours where he was so wanted, Dryco would present him returned anew, its soothing gift for its regooded world. Some at Dryco wanted–needed, in truth–E more than any of his believers ever had.
I wanted John so much; I couldn’t say how much I still needed him. Avoiding my eyes, he looked elsewhere now. One suicidal stares at death to see who’ll soonest blink. Too soon, morningshade eked through our bamboo curtains, and so I ascended. Mayhap, heavenbound, my husband could ride me.