I am alone in the dark, turning the world around in my head as I struggle through another bout of insomnia, another white night in the great American wilderness. Upstairs, my daughter and granddaughter are asleep in their bedrooms, each one alone as well, the forty-seven-year-old Miriam, my only child, who has slept alone for the past five years, and the twenty-three-year-old Katya, Miriam’s only child, who used to sleep with a young man named Titus Small, but Titus is dead now, and Katya sleeps alone with her broken heart.
Bright light, then darkness. Sun pouring down from all corners of the sky, followed by the black of night, the silent stars, the wind stirring in the branches. Such is the routine. I have been living in this house for more than a year now, ever since they released me from the hospital. Miriam insisted that I come here, and at first it was just the two of us, along with a day nurse who looked after me when Miriam was off at work. Then, three months later, the roof fell in on Katya, and she dropped out of .lm school in New York and came home to live with her mother in Vermont.
His parents named him after Rembrandt’s son, the little boy of the paintings, the golden-haired child in the red hat, the daydreaming pupil puzzling over his lessons, the little boy who turned into a young man ravaged by illness and who died in his twenties, just as Katya’s Titus did. It’s a doomed name, a name that should be banned from circulation forever. I think about Titus’s death often, the horrifying story of that death, the images of that death, the pulverizing consequences of that death on my grieving granddaughter, but I don’t want to go there now, I can’t go there now, I have to push it as far away from me as possible. The night is still young, and as I lie here in bed looking up into the darkness, a darkness so black that the ceiling is invisible, I begin to remember the story I started last night. That’s what I do when sleep refuses to come. I lie in bed and tell myself stories. They might not add up to much, but as long as I’m inside them, they prevent me from thinking about the things I would prefer to forget. Concentration can be a problem, however, and more often than not my mind eventually drifts away from the story I’m trying to tell to the things I don’t want to think about. There’s nothing to be done. I fail again and again, fail more often than I succeed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t give it my best effort.
I put him in a hole. That felt like a good start, a promising way to get things going. Put a sleeping man in a hole, and then see what happens when he wakes up and tries to crawl out. I’m talking about a deep hole in the ground, nine or ten feet deep, dug in such a way as to form a perfect circle, with sheer inner walls of dense, tightly packed earth, so hard that the surfaces have the texture of baked clay, perhaps even glass. In other words, the man in the hole will be unable to extricate himself from the hole once he opens his eyes. Unless he is equipped with a set of mountaineering tools—a hammer and metal spikes, for example, or a rope to lasso a neighboring tree—but this man has no tools, and once he regains consciousness, he will quickly understand the nature of his predicament.
And so it happens. The man comes to his senses and discovers that he is lying on his back, gazing up at a cloudless evening sky. His name is Owen Brick, and he has no idea how he has landed in this spot, no memory of having fallen into this cylindrical hole, which he estimates to be approximately twelve feet in diameter. He sits up. To his surprise, he is dressed in a soldier’s uniform made of rough, dun-colored wool. A cap is on his head, and a pair of sturdy, well-worn black leather boots are on his feet, laced above the ankles with a firm double knot. There are two military stripes on each sleeve of the jacket, indicating that the uniform belongs to someone with the rank of corporal. That person might be Owen Brick, but the man in the hole, whose name is Owen Brick, cannot recall having served in an army or fought in a war at any time in his life.
For want of any other explanation, he assumes he has received a knock on the head and has temporarily lost his memory. When he puts his fingertips against his scalp and begins to search for bumps and gashes, however, he finds no traces of swelling, no cuts, no bruises, nothing to suggest that such an injury has occurred. What is it, then? Has he suffered some debilitating trauma that has blacked out large portions of his brain? Perhaps. But unless the memory of that trauma suddenly returns to him, he will have no way of knowing. After that, he begins to explore the possibility that he is asleep in his bed at home, trapped inside some supernaturally lucid dream, a dream so lifelike and intense that the boundary between dreaming and consciousness has all but melted away. If that is true, then he simply has to open his eyes, hop out of bed, and walk into the kitchen to prepare the morning coffee. But how can you open your eyes when they’re already open? He blinks a few times, childishly wondering if that won’t break the spell—but there is no spell to be broken, and the magic bed fails to materialize.
A flock of starlings passes overhead, entering his field of vision for five or six seconds, and then vanishes into the twilight. Brick stands up to inspect his surroundings, and as he does so he becomes aware of an object bulging in the left front pocket of his trousers. It turns out to be a wallet, his wallet, and in addition to seventy-six dollars in American money, it contains a driver’s license issued by the state of New York to one Owen Brick, born June 12, 1977. This confirms what Brick already knows: that he is a man approaching thirty who lives in Jackson Heights, Queens. He also knows that he is married to a woman named Flora and that for the past seven years he has worked as a professional magician, performing mostly at children’s birthday parties around the city under the stage name of the Great Zavello. These facts only deepen the mystery. If he is so certain of who he is, then how did he wind up at the bottom of this hole, dressed in a corporal’s uniform no less, without papers or dog tags or a military ID card to prove his status as a soldier?
It doesn’t take long for him to understand that escape is out of the question. The circular wall is too high, and when he kicks it with his boot in order to dent the surface and create some kind of foothold that would help him climb up, the only result is a sore big toe. Night is falling rapidly, and there is a chill in the air, a damp vernal chill worming itself into his body, and while Brick has begun to feel afraid, for the moment he is still more baffled than afraid. Nevertheless, he can’t stop himself from calling out for help. Until now, all has been quiet around him, suggesting that he is in some remote, unpopulated stretch of countryside, with no sounds other than an occasional bird cry and the rustling of the wind. As if on command, however, as if by some skewed logic of cause and effect, the moment he shouts the word HELP, artillery fire erupts in the distance, and the darkening sky lights up with streaking comets of destruction. Brick hears machine guns, exploding grenades, and under it all, no doubt miles away, a dull chorus of howling human voices. This is war, he realizes, and he is a soldier in that war, but with no weapon at his disposal, no way to defend himself against attack, and for the first time since waking up in the hole, he is well and truly afraid.
The shooting goes on for more than an hour, then gradually dissipates into silence. Not long after that, Brick hears the faint sound of sirens, which he takes to mean that fire engines are rushing to buildings damaged during the assault. Then the sirens stop as well, and quiet descends on him once again. Cold and frightened as he is, Brick is also exhausted, and after pacing around the confines of his cylindrical jail until the stars appear in the sky, he stretches out on the ground and manages to fall asleep at last.
Early the next morning, he is woken by a voice calling to him from the top of the hole. Brick looks up and sees the face of a man jutting over the rim, and since the face is all he can see, he assumes the man is lying .at on his stomach.
Corporal, the man says. Corporal Brick, it’s time to get moving.
Brick stands up, and now that his eyes are only three or four feet from the stranger’s face, he can see that the man is a swarthy, square-jawed fellow with a two-day stubble of beard and that he is wearing a military cap identical to the one on his own head. Before Brick can protest that much as he’d like to get moving, he’s in no position to do anything of the sort, the man’s face disappears.
Don’t worry, he hears him say. We’ll have you out of there in no time.
Some moments later, there follows the sound of a hammer or iron mallet pounding on a metal object, and because the sound becomes increasingly muted with each successive blow, Brick wonders if the man isn’t driving a stake into the ground. And if it’s a stake, then perhaps a length of rope will soon be attached to it, and with that rope Brick will be able to climb out of the hole. The clanging stops, another thirty or forty seconds go by, and then, just as he predicted, a rope drops down at his feet.
Brick is a magician, not a bodybuilder, and even if climbing a yard or so of rope is not an inordinately strenuous task for a healthy man of thirty, he nevertheless has a good deal of trouble hoisting himself to the top. The wall is of no use to him, since the soles of his boots keep sliding off the smooth surface, and when he tries to clamp his boots onto the rope itself, he fails to gain a secure purchase, which means that he has to rely on the strength of his arms alone, and given that his are not muscular or powerful arms, and given that the rope is made of coarse material and therefore chafes his palms, this simple operation is turned into something of a battle. When he finally nears the rim and the other man takes hold of his right hand and pulls him onto level ground, Brick is both out of breath and disgusted with himself. After such a dismal performance, he is expecting to be mocked for his ineptitude, but by some miracle the man refrains from making any disparaging comments.
As Brick struggles slowly to his feet, he notes that his rescuer’s uniform is the same as his, with the single exception that there are three stripes on the sleeves of his jacket, not two. The air is dense with fog, and he has difficulty making out where he is. Some isolated spot in the country, as he suspected, but the city or town that was under attack last night is nowhere to be seen. The only things he can distinguish with any clarity are the metal stake with the rope tied around it and a mud-splattered jeep parked about ten feet from the edge of the hole.
Corporal, the man says, shaking Brick’s hand with a firm, enthusiastic grip. I’m Serge Tobak, your sergeant. Better known as Sarge Serge.
Brick looks down at the man, who is a good six inches shorter than he is, and repeats the name in a low voice: Sarge Serge.
I know, Tobak says. Very funny. But the name stuck, and there’s nothing I can do about it. If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em, right?
What am I doing here? Brick asks, trying to suppress the anguish in his voice.
Get a grip on yourself, boy. You’re fighting a war. What did you think this was? A trip to Fun World?
What war? Does that mean we’re in Iraq?
Iraq? Who cares about Iraq?
America’s fighting a war in Iraq. Everyone knows that.
Fuck Iraq. This is America, and America is fighting America.
What are you talking about?
Civil war, Brick. Don’t you know anything? This is the fourth year. But now that you’ve turned up, it’s going to end soon. You’re the guy who’s going to make it happen.
How do you know my name?
You’re in my platoon, dumbbell.
And what about the hole? What was I doing down there?
Normal procedure. All new recruits come to us like that. But I didn’t sign up. I didn’t enlist.
Of course not. No one does. But that’s the way it is. One minute you’re living your life, and the next minute you’re in the war.
Brick is so confounded by Tobak’s statements, he doesn’t know what to say.
It’s like this, the sergeant rattles on. You’re the chump they’ve picked for the big job. Don’t ask me why, but the general staff thinks you’re the best man for the assignment. Maybe because no one knows you, or maybe because you have this . . . this what? . . . this bland look about you, and no one
would suspect you’re an assassin. Assassin?
That’s it, assassin. But I like to use the word liberator. Or maker of the peace. Whatever you want to call it, without you the war will never end.
Brick would like to run away on the spot, but because he’s unarmed, he can’t think of anything else to do but play along. And who am I supposed to kill? he asks.
It’s not who so much as what, the sergeant replies enigmatically. We’re not even sure of his name. It could be Blake. It could be Black. It could be Bloch. But we have an address, and if he hasn’t slipped away by now, you shouldn’t have any trouble. We’ll set you up with a contact in the city, you’ll go undercover, and in a few days it should all be over.
And why does this man deserve to die?
Because he owns the war. He invented it, and everything that happens or is about to happen is in his head. Eliminate that head, and the war stops. It’s that simple. Simple?
You make him sound like God.
Not God, Corporal, just a man. He sits in a room all day writing it down, and whatever he writes comes true. The intelligence reports say he’s racked with guilt, but he can’t stop himself. If the bastard had the guts to blow his brains out, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
You’re saying it’s a story, that a man is writing a story, and we’re all part of it.
Something like that.
And after he’s killed, then what? The war ends, but what about us?
Everything goes back to normal.
Or maybe we just disappear.
Maybe. But that’s the risk we have to take. Do or die, son. More than thirteen million dead already. If things go on like this much longer, half the population will be gone before you know it.
Brick has no intention of killing anyone, and the longer he listens to Tobak, the more certain he becomes that the man is a raving lunatic. For the time being, however, he has no choice but to pretend to understand, to act as if he’s eager to carry out the assignment.
Sarge Serge walks over to the jeep, fetches a bulging plastic bag from the back, and hands it to Brick. Your new duds, he says, and right there in the open he instructs the magician to strip off his army uniform and put on the civilian clothes contained in the bag: a pair of black jeans, a blue oxford shirt, a red V-neck sweater, a belt, a brown leather jacket, and black leather shoes. Then he hands him a green nylon backpack filled with more clothes, shaving equipment, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a hairbrush, a .38-caliber revolver, and a box of bullets. Finally, Brick is given an envelope with twenty fifty dollar bills in it and a slip of paper with the name and address of his contact.
Lou Frisk, the sergeant says. A good man. Go to him as soon as you get to the city, and he’ll tell you everything you need to know.
What city are we talking about? Brick asks. I have no idea where I am.
Wellington, Tobak says, swiveling to his right and pointing into the heavy morning fog. Twelve miles due north. Just stay on this road, and you’ll be there by the middle of the afternoon.
I’m supposed to walk?
Sorry. I’d give you a lift, but I have to go in the other direction. My men are waiting for me.
And what about breakfast? Twelve miles on an empty stomach . . .
Sorry about that, too. I was supposed to bring you an egg sandwich and a thermos of coffee, but I forgot.
Before leaving to join his men, Sarge Serge pulls the rope up from the hole, yanks the metal stake out of the ground, and tosses them into the back of the jeep. Then he climbs in behind the steering wheel and starts the engine. Giving Brick a farewell salute, he says: Hang in there, soldier. You don’t look like much
of a killer to me, but what do I know? I’m never right about anything.
Without another word, Tobak presses his foot on the accelerator, and just like that he is gone, disappearing into the fog within a matter of seconds. Brick doesn’t budge. He is both cold and hungry, both destabilized and frightened, and for more than a minute he just stands there in the middle of the road, wondering what to do next. Eventually, he starts to shiver in the frosty air. That decides it for him. He has to get his limbs moving, to warm himself up, and so, without the faintest notion of what lies ahead of him, he turns around, thrusts his hands into his pockets, and begins walking toward the city
A door has just opened upstairs, and I can hear the sound of footsteps traveling down the hall. Miriam or Katya, I can’t tell which. The bathroom door opens and shuts; faintly, very faintly, I detect the familiar music of pee hitting water, but whoever has done the peeing is thoughtful enough not to flush the toilet and risk waking the household, even if two-thirds of its members are already awake. Then the bathroom door opens, and once again the quiet tread down the hall and the closing of a bedroom door. If I had to choose, I would say it was Katya. Poor, suffering Katya, as resistant to sleep as her immobilized grandfather. I would love to be able to walk up the stairs, go into her room, and talk to her for a while. Tell some of my bad jokes, maybe, or else just run my hand over her head until her eyes closed and she fell asleep. But I can’t climb the stairs in a wheelchair, can I? And if I used my crutch, I would probably fall in the dark. Damn this idiot leg. The only solution is to sprout a pair of wings, giant wings of the softest white down. Then I’d be up there in a flash.
For the past couple of months, Katya and I have spent our days watching movies together. Side by side on the living room sofa, staring at the television set, knocking off two, three, even four films in a row, then breaking for dinner with Miriam, and once dinner has been eaten, returning to the sofa for another .lm or two before going to bed. I should be working on my manuscript, the memoir I promised to write for Miriam after I retired three years ago, the story of my life, the family history, a chronicle of a vanished world, but the truth is I’d rather be on the sofa with Katya, holding her hand, letting her rest her head on my shoulder, feeling my mind grow numb from the endless parade of images dancing across the screen. For over a year I went at it every day, building up a hefty pile of pages, about half the story I’d guess, perhaps a little more, but now I seem to have lost the stomach for it. Maybe it started when Sonia died, I don’t know, the end of married life, the loneliness of it all, the fucking loneliness after I lost her, and then I cracked up that rented car, destroying my leg, nearly killing myself in the process, maybe that added to it as well: the indifference, the feeling that after seventy-two years on this earth, who gives a damn if I write about myself or not? It was never anything that interested me, not even when I was young, and I certainly never had any ambition to write a book. I liked to read them, that was all, to read books and then write about them afterward, but I was always a sprinter, never a long-distance man, a greyhound working on deadline for forty years, an expert at cranking out the seven-hundred-word piece, the fifteen hundred- word piece, the twice-weekly column, the occasional magazine assignment, how many thousands of them did I vomit forth? Decades of ephemera, mounds of burned-up and recycled newsprint, and unlike most of my colleagues, I never had the slightest inclination to collect the good ones, assuming there were any, and republish them in books that no sane person would bother to read. Let my half-finished manuscript go on gathering dust for now. Miriam is hard at it, coming to the end of her biography of Rose Hawthorne, squeezing in her hours at night, on the weekends, on the days when she doesn’t have to drive to Hampton to teach her courses, and for the time being maybe one writer in the house is enough.
Where was I? Owen Brick . . . Owen Brick walking down the road to the city. The cold air, the confusion, a second civil war in America. A prelude to something, but before I figure out what to do with my befuddled magician, I need a few moments to reflect on Katya and the films, since I still can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing. When she started ordering the DVDs through the Internet, I took it as a sign of progress, a small step in the right direction. If nothing else, it showed me that she was willing to let herself be distracted, to think about something other than her dead Titus. She’s a .lm student, after all, training to become an editor, and when the DVDs started pouring into the house, I wondered if she wasn’t thinking about going back to school or, if not school, then furthering her education on her own. After a while, though, I began to see this obsessive movie watching as a form of self medication, a homeopathic drug to anesthetize herself against the need to think about her future. Escaping into a .lm is not like escaping into a book. Books force you to give something back to them, to exercise your intelligence and imagination, whereas you can watch a .lm—and even enjoy it—in a state of mindless passivity. That said, I don’t mean to suggest that Katya has turned herself into a stone. She smiles and sometimes even emits a small laugh during the funny scenes in comedies, and her tear ducts have frequently been active during the touching scenes in dramas. It has more to do with her posture, I think, the way she slumps back on the sofa with her feet stretched out on the coffee table, unmoving for hours on end, refusing to stir herself even to pick up the phone, showing little or no signs of life except when I’m touching or holding her. It’s probably my fault. I’ve encouraged her to lead this flattened-out existence, and maybe I should put a stop to it— although I doubt she’d listen to me if I tried.
On the other hand, some days are better than others. Each time we finish a movie, we talk about it for a little while before Katya puts on the next one. I usually want to discuss the story and the quality of the acting, but her remarks tend to focus on the technical aspects of the .lm: the camera setups, the editing, the lighting, the sound, and so on. Just tonight, however, after we watched three consecutive foreign films—Grand Illusion, The Bicycle Thief, and The World of Apu—Katya delivered some sharp and incisive comments, sketching out a theory of filmmaking that impressed me with its originality and acumen.
Inanimate objects, she said.
What about them? I asked.
Inanimate objects as a means of expressing human emotions. That’s the language of .lm. Only good directors understand how to do it, but Renoir, De Sica, and Ray are three of the best, aren’t they?
Think about the opening scenes of The Bicycle Thief. The hero is given a job, but he won’t be able to take it unless he gets his bicycle out of hock. He goes home feeling sorry for himself. And there’s his wife outside their building, lugging two heavy buckets of water. All their poverty, all the struggles of this woman and her family are contained in those buckets. The husband is so wrapped up in his own troubles, he doesn’t bother to help her until they’re halfway to the door. And even then, he only takes one of the buckets, leaving her to carry the other. Everything we need to know about their marriage is given to us in those few seconds. Then they climb the stairs to their apartment, and the wife comes up with the idea to pawn their bed linens so they can redeem the bicycle. Remember how violently she kicks the bucket in the kitchen, remember how violently she opens the bureau drawer. Inanimate objects, human emotions. Then we’re at the pawnshop, which isn’t a shop, really, but a huge place, a kind of warehouse for unwanted goods. The wife sells the sheets, and after that we see one of the workers carry their little bundle to the shelves where pawned items are stored. At first, the shelves don’t seem very high, but then the camera pulls back, and as the man starts climbing up, we see that they go on and on and on, all the way to the ceiling, and every shelf and cubby is crammed full of bundles identical to the one the man is now putting away, and all of a sudden it looks as if every family in Rome has sold their bed linens, that the entire city is in the same miserable state as the hero and his wife. In one shot, Grandpa. In one shot we’re given a picture of a whole society living at the edge of disaster.
Not bad, Katya. The wheels are turning . . .
It just hit me tonight. But I think I’m on to something, since I saw examples in all three films. Remember the dishes in Grand Illusion?
Right near the end. Gabin tells the German woman that he loves her, that he’ll come back for her and her daughter when the war is over, but the troops are closing in now, and he and Dalio have to try to cross the border into Switzerland before it’s too late. The four of them have a last meal together, and then the moment comes to say good-bye. It’s all very moving, of course. Gabin and the woman standing in the doorway, the possibility that they’ll never see each other again, the woman’s tears as the men vanish into the night. Renoir then cuts to Gabin and Dalio running through the woods, and I’d bet money that every other director in the world would have stayed with them until the end of the .lm. But not Renoir. He has the genius—and when I say genius, I mean the understanding, the depth of heart, the compassion—to go back to the woman and her little daughter, this young widow who has already lost her husband to the madness of war, and what does she have to do? She has to go back into the house and confront the dining room table and the dirty dishes from the meal they’ve just eaten. The men are gone now, and because they’re gone, those dishes have been transformed into a sign of their absence, the lonely suffering of women when men go off to war, and one by one, without saying a word, she picks up the dishes and clears the table. How long does the scene last? Ten seconds? Fifteen seconds? No time at all, but it takes your breath away, doesn’t it? It just knocks the stuffing out of you.
You’re a brave girl, I said, suddenly thinking about Titus.
Stop it, Grandpa. I don’t want to talk about him. Some other time, maybe, but not now. Okay?
Okay. Let’s stick to the movies. There’s still one to go. The Indian film. I think it’s the one I liked best.
That’s because it’s about a writer, Katya said, cracking a brief, ironic smile.
Maybe. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good.
I wouldn’t have chosen it unless it was good. No junk.
That’s the rule, remember? All sorts of movies, from the wacky to the sublime, but no junk.
Agreed. But where’s the inanimate object in Apu?
I don’t want to think. It’s your theory, so you tell me.
The curtains and the hairpin. A transition from one life into another, the turning point of the story. Apu has gone to the country to attend his friend’s cousin’s wedding. A traditional arranged marriage, and when the bridegroom shows up, he turns out to be an idiot, a blithering numskull. The wedding is called off, and the friend’s cousin’s parents begin to panic, afraid their daughter will be cursed for life if she doesn’t get married that afternoon. Apu is asleep somewhere under the trees, not a care in the world, happy to be out of the city for a few days. The girl’s family approaches him. They explain that he’s the only available unmarried man, that he’s the only one who can solve the problem for them. Apu is appalled. He thinks they’re nuts, a bunch of superstitious country bumpkins, and refuses to go along. But then he mulls it over for a while and decides to do it. As a good deed, as an altruistic gesture, but he has no intention of taking the girl back to Calcutta with him. After the wedding ceremony, when they’re finally alone together for the first time, Apu learns that this meek young woman is a lot tougher than he thought she was. I’m poor, he says, I want to be a writer, I have nothing to offer you. I know, she says, but that makes no difference, she’s determined to go with him. Exasperated, flummoxed, but also moved by her resolve, Apu reluctantly gives in. Cut to the city. A carriage pulls up in front of the ramshackle building where Apu lives, and he and his bride step out. All the neighbors come to gawk at the beautiful girl as Apu leads her up the stairs to his squalid little garret. A moment later, he’s called away by someone and leaves. The camera stays on the girl, alone in this strange room, this strange city, married to a man she hardly knows. Eventually, she walks to the window, which has a cruddy piece of burlap hanging over it instead of a real curtain. There’s a hole in the burlap, and she looks through the hole into the backyard, where a baby in diapers is toddling along through the dust and debris. The camera angle reverses, and we see her eye through the hole. Tears are falling from that eye, and who can blame her for feeling overwrought, scared, lost? Apu reenters the room and asks her what’s wrong. Nothing, she says, shaking her head, nothing at all. Then we fade to black, and the big question is: what next? What’s in store for this unlikely couple who wound up marrying each other by pure accident? With a few deft and decisive strokes, everything is revealed to us in less than a
minute. Object number one: the window. We fade in, it’s early morning, and the first thing we see is the window the girl was looking through in the previous scene. But the ratty burlap is gone, replaced by a pair of clean checkered curtains. The camera pulls back a little, and there’s object number two: potted flowers on the windowsill. These are encouraging signs, but we can’t be sure what they mean yet. Domesticity, homeyness, a woman’s touch, but this is what wives are supposed to do, and just because Apu’s wife has carried out her duties well doesn’t prove that she cares for him. The camera continues pulling back, and we see the two of them asleep in bed. The alarm clock rings, and the wife climbs out of bed as Apu groans and buries his head in the pillow. Object number three: her sari. After she gets out of bed and starts walking off, she suddenly can’t move—because her clothes are tied to Apu’s. Very odd. Who could have done this—and why? The expression on her face is both peeved and amused, and we instantly know that Apu was responsible. She returns to the bed, thwacks him gently on the butt, and then unties the knot. What does this moment say to me? That they’re having good sex, that a sense of playfulness has developed between them, that they’re really married. But what about love? They seem to be contented, but how strong are their feelings for each other? That’s when object number four appears: the hairpin. The wife leaves the frame to prepare breakfast, and the camera closes in on Apu. He finally manages to open his eyes, and as he yawns and stretches and rolls around in bed, he sees something in the crevice between the two pillows. He reaches in and pulls out one of his wife’s hairpins. That’s the crowning moment. He holds up the hairpin and studies it, and when you look at Apu’s eyes, the tenderness and adoration in those eyes, you know beyond a doubt that he’s madly in love with her, that she’s the woman of his life. And Ray makes it happen without using a single word of dialogue.
Same with the dishes, I said. Same with the bundle of sheets. No words. No words needed, Katya replied. Not when you know what you’re doing.
There’s another thing about those three scenes. I wasn’t aware of it while we were watching the films, but listening to you describe them now, it jumped right out at me.
They’re all about women. How women are the ones who carry the world. They take care of the real business while their hapless men stumble around making a hash of things. Or else just lie around doing nothing. That’s what happens after the hairpin. Apu looks across the room at his wife, who’s crouching down over a pot making breakfast, and he doesn’t make a move to help her. In the same way the Italian guy doesn’t notice how hard it is for his wife to carry those water buckets.
At last, Katya said, giving me a small poke in the ribs. A man who gets it.
Let’s not exaggerate. I’m just adding a footnote to your theory. Your very astute theory, I might add.
And what kind of husband were you, Grandpa?
Just as distracted and lazy as the jokers in those films. Your grandmother did everything.
That’s not true.
Yes, it is. When you were with us, I was always on my best behavior. You should have seen us when we were alone.
I pause for a moment to shift my position in bed, to adjust the pillow, to take a sip of water from the glass on the bedside table. I don’t want to start thinking about Sonia. It’s still too early, and if I let myself go now, I’ll wind up brooding about her for hours. Stick to the story. That’s the only solution. Stick to the story, and then see what happens if I make it to the end.
Owen Brick. Owen Brick on his way to the city of Wellington, in which state he doesn’t know, in which part of the country he doesn’t know, but because of the dampness and chill in the air, he suspects that he’s in the north, perhaps New England, perhaps New York State, perhaps somewhere in the Upper Midwest, and then, remembering Sarge Serge’s talk about a civil war, he wonders what the fighting is about and who is fighting whom. Is it North against South again? East against West? Red against Blue? White against Black? Whatever caused the war, he tells himself, and whatever issues or ideas happen to be at stake, none of it makes any sense. How can this be America if Tobak knows nothing about Iraq? Utterly at a loss, Brick reverts to his earlier speculation that he is trapped in a dream, that in spite of the physical evidence around him, he is lying next to Flora in his bed at home.
Visibility is poor, but through the fog Brick can dimly apprehend that he is flanked by woods on both sides, that there are no houses or buildings anywhere in sight, no telephone poles, no traffic signs, no indication of human presence except the road itself, a badly paved stretch of tar and asphalt with numerous cracks and potholes, no doubt un repaired for years. He walks on for a mile, then another mile, and still no cars drive past, no people emerge from the emptiness. Finally, after twenty minutes or so, he hears something approaching him, a clanking, whooshing sound that he is at pains to identify. Out of the fog, a man on a bicycle comes pedaling toward him. Brick raises his hand to catch the man’s attention, calls out Hello, Please, Sir, but the cyclist ignores him and scoots on past. After a while, more people on bicycles start showing up, some riding in one direction, some in the other, but for all the notice they pay to Brick as he urges them to stop, he might as well be invisible.
Five or six miles farther down the road, signs of life begin to appear—or rather signs of former life: burned-out houses, collapsed food markets, a dead dog, several exploded cars. An old woman dressed in tattered clothes and pushing a shopping cart filled with her possessions suddenly looms up in front of him.
Excuse me, Brick says. Could you tell me if this is the road to Wellington?
The woman stops and looks at Brick with uncomprehending eyes. He notes a small tuft of whiskers sprouting from her chin, her wrinkled mouth, her gnarled, arthritic hands. Wellington? she says. Who asked you?
No one asked me, Brick says. I’m asking you.
Me? What do I have to do with it? I don’t even know you.
And I don’t know you. All I’m asking is if this is the road to Wellington.
The woman scrutinizes Brick for a moment and says, It’ll cost you five bucks.
Five bucks for a yes or no? You must be crazy.
Everyone’s crazy around here. Are you trying to tell me you’re not?
I’m not trying to tell you anything. I just want to know where I am.
You’re standing on a road, nitwit.
Yes, fine, I’m standing on a road, but what I want to know is if this road leads to Wellington.
Forget it, Brick says, by now at the limit of his patience. I’ll figure it out for myself.
Figure out what? the woman asks.
Instead of answering her, Brick starts walking again, and as he strides off through the fog, he hears the woman burst out laughing behind him, as if someone has just told her a good joke . . .
The streets of Wellington. It’s past noon by the time he enters the city, exhausted and hungry, his feet aching from the rigors of the long trek. The sun has burned off the early morning fog, and as he wanders around in the fine, sixty-degree weather, Brick is heartened to discover that the place is still more or less intact, not some bombed-out war zone heaped with rubble and the bodies of dead civilians. He sees a number of destroyed buildings, some cratered streets, a few demolished barricades, but otherwise Wellington appears to be a functioning city, with pedestrians walking to and fro, people going in and out of shops, and no imminent threat hanging in the air. The only thing that distinguishes it from your normal American metropolis is the fact that there are no cars, trucks, or buses. Nearly everyone is moving around on foot, and those who aren’t walking are mounted on bicycles. It’s impossible for Brick to know yet if this is a result of a gasoline shortage or municipal policy, but he has to admit that the quiet has a pleasant effect, that he prefers it to the clamor and chaos of the streets in New York. Beyond that, however, Wellington has little to recommend it. It’s a shabby, down-at-the-heels kind of place, with ugly, poorly constructed buildings, nary a tree in
Excerpted from Man in the Dark by Paul Auster
Copyright 2008 by Paul Auster
Published in 2008 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.