Herve was snoring—a little whir-whir on the rollaway—when Walt turned off the TV and the light. I can hear myself think, Walt thought. Or not think. I can lie here and hear myself not think. The snow outside caught his attention: it fanned out, reconvened, made circles around the neon WELCOME sign. A couple made a love cry in the adjoining room. Then again. Then, from the same room, there was a third voice. Welcome, Walt thought. Welcome, welcome, welcome.
Walt and Herve had been at the Motel 66etc. for nearly a week, and Walt hadn’t slept well. Reasons included the lure of the remote control (Court TV! The Jeffersons!), the love cries from room 10 (“Oh Count Chocula!” “My little Booberry!”), and Walt’s terrible dreams. Herve’s snoring was a non-issue. In some ways it soothed Walt, the way a train’s motion might soothe him, or a creaky porch swing, or a debate between a bum and a sparrow. Walt found room 11’s wallpaper—that old hunter and quarry pattern, in cream and teal—soothing. He found the sounds from the ice machine soothing. Even the snow—so desirous to shape itself into a lamppost, or a highway, or a station wagon—he found soothing.
But the dreams were relentless. “I’m the wrong guy!” he’d cry, as giant black birds enfolded him in their wings. The birds wanted to take him away from Arkansas, wanted to drop him in Togo, or Denmark, or places cartographically suspicious. Was there really a land where the moon was kept locked in a giant swamp? Or where dogs dominated the watercolors market? Or where the body temperatures of women were twice that of the men? Walt would have liked to ask Herve, but the dwarf snored on and on and on. The ever-constant Herve: undisturbed, impervious, something like a lord.
“Motherfucker can’t read,” Herve said. “Can’t tell liposuction from leprechaun.” Walt looked up, trying to imagine a sentence where the two words might coexist. The blind dwarf had already run through four Reading Angels, and Walt considered taking on the worst client in Word Up’s short history himself. But it was July, and the sun was on fire, and the bees were making their electric-bee racket, and what Walt really wanted to do was take off his Rockports and Dockers and Nordstrom’s Big Man’s jacket and just go outside, feel the New Angeles day on his skin. The phone rang. Could Walt round up a copy of 200 Home Runs: A Magical Season! for the Eagelton boy? This is what I do, he reminded himself. I bring people the news. The stories. Welcome. Welcome to storyland. Can I take your story?
The Eagelton boy, Walt suspected, could probably manage the story of Tiny Bonds on his own. The kid wore glasses as thick as doorknobs and was always eyeing the Fitzbister twins. But Walt would find the book, and he’d find an Angel (maybe Dolores? She liked reading stories with exclamation points), and Word Up would get another gold star in someone’s tally book. The situation with Herve was harder. Herve wanted Blake, and he wanted Cervantes, and he wanted sociological studies like The Rules and Growing up in New Guinea and Oprah on Oprah on Oprah. And Herve wanted Angels who would inhabit the stories, who would become, for an hour or so, Los or Dulcinea del Toboso or some forgotten South Seas pygmy. Most of the Angels were retirees, or househusbands, or bored teenagers, or women who felt they hadn’t done enough during the war. Actors, they weren’t. Poor Herve. He wanted sweaty frenzy and legs-in-the-air shrieks. Word Up offered a chaste peck on the cheek.
When Walt turned forty, he made a list of things up with which he would no longer put: deliberate cruelty, Churchill jokes, warm yoghurt, the comic strip “B.C.,” suicide threats from relatives, sagging upholstery (in a car.) He would refuse to sit in awkward silence with someone on a sofa. He would wear an article of clothing at least twice during the year, or else he would throw it out. No more cheap tableware. No more generic soap. No more staring at his unshaven face in the bathroom mirror at 3 a.m., wondering what little gypsy boy (on the bus in Rome? and there had been signs!) had stolen his soul and sold it for a bag of anchovies or nectarines. He wrote the list on a purple legal pad, which he then slid under his futon mattress. Every so often he thought he could feel the pad, thick with pronouncements, jutting under him as he wrestled with sleep. It was like a pea, Walt decided. A flattened, rectangular pea. And Walt was a princess. Welcome to storyland. Can I take your story?
“It’s not like I couldn’t have been of use, man,” Herve was saying. “A blind guy, especially a little blind guy—he’s like a bat, man. Swoop, swoop.” Herve had military diagrams spread on Walt’s desk with sloppy X’s marked over places like Uzbekistan and Chad and the People’s Republic of Florida. He was dressed in designer fatigues; Walt wondered how many offices of institutional patience Herve had exhausted before arriving at the doors of Word Up. “You target the industries no one thinks about,” he continued. “Band-aids. And toothpaste. And eyeglasses. Then you get a bunch of guys running around with pus dripping out of open cuts and breath so bad that nobody wants to talk with anybody. And they’re doing that blind man’s walk—arms out, tentative, not knowing who to shake hands with, who to shoot. That’s an army primed for a New Angeles whooping. And an honest-to-God, been-used-to-it-for-a-while blind guy could be of a lot of use.”
Walt didn’t see it. But the weather had turned ugly: an oil-slick sky, shapeshifter clouds, birds hurling themselves against traffic helicopters. Herve could talk all he wanted. Later Walt would read him “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” and the president’s latest warning, and the youth-league basketball scores. John Wesley Harding spun discreetly in the CD player. “John Wesley Harding was a friend to the poor,” Walt heard, and he thought, Yes, that’s what I am, too. He looked over at Herve—poor Herve, barely four feet tall, bright purple shades under a mat of glossy black hair. Who was going to love Herve in this lifetime? Who was going to hold the photograph that was Herve in their heart?
Sometimes Walt felt that he was living in wartime, and sometimes he didn’t. He’d gone along with the security measures—no travel east of the Mississippi; scannable tattoos; restricted usage of powdered sugar, white flour, craft sparkles, carpet cleaner—but his attention was always elsewhere. When was the last time, he wondered, that he’d heard a really good joke? And why couldn’t the New Angeles Scattershots ever close out a playoff series? OK, there was the joke about the therapist and the patient dressed in Saran Wrap. And the NA team’s woes could be traced to its relief pitcher (a shell-shocked war hero was a nice rallying idea, but the results, which included the poor guy covering his head every time the umpire called “strike,” were discouraging). Other people built spore-proof community shelters, or sent patriotic ditties to the online newspapers, or raised money for the troops at lasagna and cannoli bake-offs, but Walt just went to work, brooded, sometimes dreamed. Was it crazy to spend one’s day fiddling with time tables and reading recipes for wartime blintzes to blind people who were also, as often as not, asleep people? Welcome. Welcome to therapy. I can clearly see your nuts.
By mid-August the news stations stopped running weather forecasts. “Magic 8-Ball forecasts”—that had been the joke, and like most experiments with the Magic 8-Ball, you could get good results if you shook it enough times. At 11 a.m. the day might be toaster-oven bright; by late-afternoon there’d be oak trees in the streets. Walt took to bringing shorts, a peacoat, and emergency flares to work. “Hot enough for you?” some wit might say in an elevator, and by the time you reached your floor, the temperature would have plummeted thirty degrees. “No, it’s not,” you’d shrug. Small talk shrunk to microscopic proportions.
Walt’s feelings about the weather mirrored his feelings about the war. Were there really three-armed people being harvested in the former states of Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee? Walt certainly hadn’t met any. Electronic news updates scrolled over the NA intersections: 72 killed in Moray eel mishap; British policeman exposed as spy; Mayor-for-life Andrew Giuliani receives kidney, heart, and left hand transplants. Walt read the news like a visitor from another planet might: curious but detached. He found himself thinking more about Herve. What did the dwarf do for entertainment? Had he joined in the skijoring craze? (The bipolar weather allowed for huskies to be running two or three times a week, even in August.) The picture of Herve careening wildly behind sled dogs struck Walt as unlikely; there was something too measured about the man. Herve’s theories, of course, were often madcap (three-armed men designed to be super-lovers? No, impossible)—but his self-possession was total. If asked what piece of furniture Herve most resembled, Walt would have chosen a butcher’s block. Solid, handsome, knew its role—well, maybe not the last one. But hard to move. Unless on wheels.
One benefit of the war, Walt sometimes thought, was the improved quality of the downtown graffiti. Gone were idiocies like “Snookums in the hood” and “High-hatted hammer boys”; instead, taggers were constructing elegant ideograms and cautionary koans. Some were left unsigned, and when was the last time that had happened? And then there were the swooping birds, the exploding musical notes, the faces breaking apart in laughter, and the signature, always the same: “voices of the diseased and despairing, and of thieves and dwarfs.” When the weather allowed for it, Walt would take his lunch—a pastrami sandwich, two pickles, a box of grape juice, a bag of Oompahs—and sit by the abandoned buildings. He’d memorize those birds, terrible in their painted weight.
Room 11 of the Motel 66etc. had no working clock. Or else the time really was 88:88. The snow had stopped; Walt focused his entire attention on the snoring Herve. What did the meditation teachers always say? Start with the breath. Walt started with Herve’s breath. In, out. In, out. In, out. Soon the sound wasn’t just coming from the dwarf on the rollaway; the room itself was breathing, and Walt joined in. There were two Walts, in fact: the chorus member Walt (in, out; in, out); and the Walt who got to watch everything, who monitored the breathing—this breathing that was keeping the world whole. Herve made it look easy: a suck and a sigh. At some point the snow again started battling the chokeberry bushes and circling birds. When, Walt couldn’t say.
Think of it as a very short film. Walt wanders away from a Labor and Employers’ Day rave and lies on his back in the New Angeles night. It’s about two in the morning; Monkey Fizzes race through the big man’s bloodstream. The stars are looping in their double-helix way, and Walt has a thought. No one sees the stars like I do this instant. No one has this exact relationship with them. If I can’t ask anyone to see the stars as I do, then I can’t ask anyone to see anything as I do. Monkey fizzes or no, it seems important. New Angeles is quiet—no woodchucks chuck, no grasshoppers prance, no birds sing. Now, the cinematic moment: the sky explodes. Not bombs, but meteors—the Leonid shower, with its three centuries of cosmic dust. Over 4,000 shooting stars, striking the Earth’s atmosphere at 160,000 miles per hour. Welcome! Welcome! Meteor streams from 1767, 1699, and 1866. If the earth and, what, space? can’t worry about chronology, then Walt won’t either. He’s an infant Walt. And a right-now Walt. And a future Walt, wizened and careless. But he’s no other Walt. And no other Walts are he.
September was designated the sixth consecutive What-Have-You-Done-For-The-War-Effort? Month, and already the testimonials were filling Word Up’s holding room. Quickie publishing efforts from psychics and chefs, hockey players and scandal-plagued senators, with titles like I’m Visualizing the Enemy Making an Unbelievable Mistake and Check This! What I’d Like to Do to Those Slimy Motherpuckers, arrived and arrived and arrived. Walt hired seven more Angels (who, the following month, made a bundle off a book called How We Read Pantry of Courage and Damn If I’m Letting the Enemy and a Lying Fourteen-Year-Old Bring Down This Country to Blind People in Anticipation of Publishing Opportunities During the Seventh Consecutive What-Have-You-Done-For-The-War-Effort? Month, a work so tonally baffling that rubber-stamp reviewers and jaded critics alike praised it). Herve got interested in the I’ve Done Five Things chapbook series, a staple-job published every few weeks under the nom de plum Whacka Tack. Author Tack’s early-September entry included the following chapter headings: (1) I’ve Renamed the Sparrows in the Red Maple Trees “Liberty Sparrows”; (2) I’ve Thrown Out My Shirt That Says “Evil Evil Devil Devil”; (3) I’ve Written Three More Chapters in This Edition of the I’ve Done Five Things Chapbook Series; (4) I’ve Had Bad Thoughts, and Then Replaced Them with Good Thoughts, Twice; and (5) I’ve Dusted the Blinds, To Better Keep a Watch on the Neighbors. Tack’s fourth chapter, which included the admission that he had momentarily suspected the president of being a corporation-sponsored hologram, won the author a place on the administration’s Suspicious Persons list. “Read it again,” Herve would demand of whatever Angel was on hand. Walt looked on, counting invoices and brooding.
Stop the music of the day-to-day and the world continues in pantomime. Walt’s hands, it’s now clear, are outside his control; they move as birds move: swoop, swipe, hover. He’s a sorcerer’s apprentice in a large man’s frame, and he’s muttering something: a rote prayer. On the other side of the room, Herve receives news. The news comes in the form of a three-hour aria. A relative is dead, or a train has been misrouted, or a currency transfer hasn’t worked. Herve responds by drawing circles in the air—key chains, balloons, little solar systems. He might have a heart attack at any time. Outside, on the sidewalk, a thousand people dance in the silent midday rain.
September also sees the debut of a new television show: Robot Bob. Bob joins the battle against the Southeastern Aggressors, braving grenades, bullets, and the taunts of paying “war-watchers” from neutral countries such as Iceland and East Timor. At four-feet five-inches, Bob becomes something of a small man’s celebrity; Herve listens religiously. Each episode involves a heroic escape: dental assistants and rodeo clowns and reformed pimps come to Bob’s aid. The show’s theme song, “Bobbing for Justice,” plays in auto shops and government buildings and urban malls. Some nights it’s the last thing Walt hears before he surrenders to sleep.
Birds. Butterflies. Balloons. Things that start with a B. Things that bob. Things that are buoyant. Things that live in the blue beyond.
Walt makes a list: Audubon’s warbler, bobolink, chiffchaff, dipper, English sparrow, finch, grackle, honeycreeper, indigo bunting, jackdaw, kite, lily trotter, merlin, nightjar, oriole, plover, quetzal, razorbill, solitaire, towhee, Ugandan shrike, vulture, waxbill. It doesn’t help. All the clocks in his room have stopped—their insides pecked apart by tiny beaks.
When Walt was a child, his mother took him to Mexico, in winter, to see the Monarch butterflies breed. Outside of Valle de Bravo, the mother and child hiked to an elevation of 7000 feet. Walt remembers the adjustment his lungs had to make: the longer breaths (in, out), his mouth agape at the air. At the top of the trail: butterflies, butterflies (“Five trillion; I counted,” Walt told friends on his return). Wherever Walt turned, he saw glints of orange light, covering the treetops, petaling the pathways, hogging the sky. “A regal ruckus,” the guide said, three times. If they weren’t so pretty, Walt thought, we’d all be running. Substitute bark beetles. Bats. Blue boobies.
In the Word Up office: balloons. Lots of them. It’s September 26. Walt’s half-birthday.
One hundred years later, the postcard might be captioned “War celebration (?).” The card’s designers, sticklers for accuracy, won’t commit. Balloons bunch in one corner, exclaiming “40 1/2!”; a large-print edition of Biotoxins: Worse Than They Sound lies on a glass coffee table. People are caught in that open-mouth snapshot moment, just about to say, “Exactly,” or “Under the right circumstances,” or “Maybe if I were an imprisoned and double-jointed yoga instructor.” A man with graying stubble and broad shoulders stares out a window, focusing on . . . —but here the card announces its border.
Winner of the 2013 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Michael Martone