“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:”
It was called the Information Age, although Aloysius had never known a time in his life when he felt more cut off from everything. New technology possessed the virtues of speed and transparency, but these attributes not so much got at truth as exposed the politics of a sausage-making enterprise. With supercomputers habitually stuck in remedial reading classes, and NASA quietly returning to the low-tech, low-risk parachute reentry method of Apollo capsules, there should have been cause for doubt, or reason for humility, but there was surprisingly little of either.
Depending whom you asked, the shape of the universe changed weekly. Those who declared a preference had it first flat, then spherical, and then some order of dodecahedron. Yet the cosmic forest could never be seen for the trees, and the happy campers, snug and smug under their little tent of blue, had no idea a bear might be sniffing around the stakes.
It was Halloween. But it was always Halloween in a Midwestern college town. Win or lose the Homecoming game, the students needed little excuse to drink and terrorize the citizenry. Aloysius walked along the dark sidewalk in the certain belief that his lack of costume made him invisible. Only leaves, still crisp like tart apples, kicked up at his shoes to betray his presence among the sodden and unblessed. A familiar derelict was passed in an alleyway. He slept on a flattened cardboard box and was resolutely horizontal when all else struggled to stay vertical. He too wore no costume, only an inadequate windbreaker to stave off the chill of an unseasonably cold October. Homelessness on any other night of the year made him a rarity, but on this night, eccentricity made all men brothers. Mental illness severs the present tense from the past, and in a college town known for its impermanent population, the past was easier to lose track of than in most places.
The pedestrian stepped around the poor fellow and hoped he would have sense to get out of the cold.
Arriving at his coffeehouse, Aloysius had his pick of tables, so settled on one by a plate glass window where he could watch his village of blissful idiots stroll by at leisure. He opened his newest spiral bound notebook and gazed on its first blank page.
Admittedly there was little “there” there in the writer’s life, which meant it was simplest to portray himself as a ghost, or the world and its inhabitants as ghosts. The storylines left him on his de-peopled landscape were necessarily familiar: Every man who is dead and doesn’t know it winds up in a grave; every man who is insane and doesn’t know it winds up in a padded cell; every man whose life is hidden in a dream is rudely made aware of his true ontological state in a tidy conclusion. All monsters begin sublimely in illogic, but by the last page logic requires they all be made incarnate and explained away. There was no way to escape logic that appeases the petulant, ordering mind in these cases, but the soul resists to the bitter end in hope of such redemption. Aloysius’ spectral life was evenly divided between these irreconcilable spheres of heart and head. One might say, too evenly divided.
The homeless man came in during his intractable negotiations. They sometimes gave him free coffee at the counter, and one of the local dead-enders outside would light the trademark soggy cigarette hanging from his mouth. This evening, however, he was satisfied to warm his bones in a plush chair, even while his twitching, hot-wired legs kept him mentally pacing the mean streets. Newspaper lined the soles of his sneakers with below-the-fold headlines, but he had something weightier with which he wanted to part.
“The Universe is no more,” he announced boldly.
Aloysius looked up, mired instantly in the man’s runny yolk eyes.
“I’ve seen it,” he claimed. “Up in the skyscrapers. Up in the windows like stars.”
(There were no skyscrapers for miles.)
He babbled with urgency, gesturing at the ceiling. “Up there! Billions of years to reach our eyes! Lights in windows! Fire in windows! Mothers screaming with babies in windows! Men falling from windows to keep from burning! No one looks up. No one ever looks up to see the end of everything!”
With no coffee, or match, he bounded to his feet and left as abruptly as he came. The patron watched him meld into the inebriated throng to reclaim the balance of his anonymity, yet could not think why he—a scribbler sitting alone at a table in an empty coffeehouse—should have been privy to the odd proclamation. Closing the cover on the first lines of his notebook, Aloysius followed on the disquieted man’s heels.
While the denizen walked in darkness, and just as out of sync and out of time as the down-and-out soothsayer, he thought of another invisible man: the Belgian painter James Ensor.
Ensor lived in a festive seaside resort town called Ostend, and understood what it was like to be a sober man always among drunk strangers. In his masterpiece Christ’s entry into Brussels, he depicted Christ entering a carnival on a donkey. Oblivious revelers in ghoulish masks are presented milling about The Sacrificial Lamb; and Ensor, with an outsider’s eye, chronicled their decadence and banality with an acid brush. No one caught in his painter’s gaze deserved salvation; and yet, Christ came to save all.
Among these beer-guzzling undead, Aloysius doubted he would find a redeemer come “to liberate the miraculous from the mundane,” but where better to look for a miracle than in the last place one would expect to see it.
The wind picked up with a further drop in temperature, and on passing the same alleyway, the writer paused to size up the vagrant once again huddled on his cardboard bed. He was not sure why the pathetic man clung so obstinately to his thin, corrugated edge of oblivion, but a minute was spared to evaluate for any sign of life. Impatient, and freezing, the cautionary tale was approached. A shoe prodded a shin, and a reassuring grunt rose from the open grave.
Victorian houses emerged halfway to somewhere. Their steep-pitched roofs converged along imaginary lines in the sky. Beneath their bulwark of gables, unclouded, unwary windows looked down on the dark sidewalk. There were no stares out of these bright portals—no alarmed faces to clue-in passersby below something was up. A curtained backdrop of stars was equally mute in the conspiracy. Each spear of light, in its pokerfaced way, resembled a ladder without rungs.
Aloysius returned to a colder house than he left and climbed the stairs without benefit of light. He was about to pass a window off the landing when he spied someone standing across the street through the drapes. The man was too far away to see well, but his gaze was squarely on the house. He was not smoking or talking on a cell phone, so it was presumed he was preoccupied with the property.
The resident did not recall being followed, although a sense of fright overtook him while he pondered the voyeur’s motives; nothing could account for the onset of it. Leaning into the glass, a menacing face was made to drive the stranger away. It was unlikely seen since the Moon was on the other side of the house, but one menacing face required another, and another. Each face was intended to be more terrifying than the one before it, but the only one being scared in this exhibition was Aloysius. The loitering man eventually moved on, and the sentry was free to retire.
It was weeks since he slept—really slept. Before dropping his head on the pillow, two melatonin tablets were swallowed and the ringer on the phone was switched off. He did not expect a call, but his lack of sleep was at such a critical stage that he needed to guard against intrusion. A floor fan was turned on to baffle other unanticipated noises, which left him to crawl onto the threadbare mattress with a careworn head full of troubles.
The bruising bed offered little relief, and his ribs ached with each turn. An image of the dark gentleman on the street crossed from one side of his brain to the other, as to underline something missed. Aloysius finally found a place under his elbow that yielded, so eased down into its disintegrating edges. The gentleman stopped again in front of the house when the sleeper committed to falling all the way down. A meatier thought, moving contrarily in the slide, tore loose to float into consciousness:
The man’s eyes were not on the house, or even on the window. He stared at something over the house.
The whirl of the industrial-grade fan rose to drown out the distant shrieks of drunken college students, but not the stilt-legged star kicking at shingles on the roof.
Prologue: A Forgetting / Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.