King, Queen, Pnin
And then the very next time I see Jorge he’s strung out twitchy the way informants get terrified of being sent down and away and I feel badly for him until he starts asking me about Audrey and then he goes on about this girl he wants and he says yeah I’m going to end her over in my kitchen and fuck her until she screams ay papi!
He says it with a sharp snap of his tongue busting out each word with a moist thrust and his eyes get big waiting for my reaction. I just look away and stare at the photographs on the walls. We’re in a cafe, a generic nowhere place on the Boulevard in Little Odessa and he’s so nervous he can’t keep still. One minute he’s jitterbugging his legs under the table and the next he’s working a double espresso to his mouth like coffee is about to be outlawed and then he’s watching the door and shifting to me then back to the door and he asks what I think about the girl and bending her over in the kitchen and I say it sounds like Orwell meets Nabokov.
— Yeah, my pal Sebastian knows him.
— You mean the old guy runs the Russian deli over on eighteenth?
He stares at me; mute, confused and full of fear that leaks from his eyes in a steady invisible stream.
— How’s the novel going? He asks.
— What’s it about?
He’s still bouncing his legs and then he starts spooning sugar into his coffee.
— Mistaken identities. Paranoia. Rounding up the usual suspects.
— What’s that mean? You mean like that movie where the guy fakes being a gimp?
— Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern delivering their own letters of transit.
He stares at me uncomprehending, momentarily unable to speak, his lips tembeling, his fingers dancing over and tapping the sides of his coffee cup.
— I don’t understand, he says, what does that mean?
— Those fellows are not friends of the king.
— Does it make a pattern?
— Can you explain it?
— You could count yourself the king of infinite space.
— But, I said and stood up, if you listen to everyone’s conversations, then every conversation suspect and no one can say anything anymore.
He looked sad all of a sudden; sad the way you get when your dog dies and you know it’s never coming back and the victory I had over him was there for a second because it only meant I was immune to him but also irrevocably alone and the air is a rope constricting us all and the air is a great eye that never blinks and watches everyone.
The Cards Reverse
Yffat kisses Audrey for one million, nine-hundred and fifty three reasons, and because Yffat can’t be a man and her father wishes she were a man but she’s not and she keeps trying but it never works, she insists she’s going to make a movie where the lesbians are all beautiful and none of them have hairy chins because she’s sick of it and she likes them white and blonde like Audrey but she’s in lust with Golfidin who is dark (because eight hundred years ago, Godfrey of Lyon raped a girl so Gol has plasma-green eyes that make Yffat forget what day it is) and she wants her precisely because she’s Tunisian and Arab and it excites her and so she kisses Audrey and they make love until lapping at Audrey’s pussy, Yffat brings her out moaning no, no, no and the whole universe quivers.
In the country of the novel there is a junta that rules everything. In the country of the novel there is a general with the head of a rabbit who rules the junta. In the mind of the general there is order. Within that order there is a library of everyone in the world. Every day the general draws a new line on his map of heaven.
I am reading the novel and I am reading about the man from the Ministry who speaks to the general. In the evening, when the cool winds blow across the harbor and the leaves of the banana trees drift back and forth the general likes to sit on the balcony of his palace and sip mint tea. The man from the Ministry whispers in one of the generals fluffy ears.
— Take all the men and bring them to the highest mountain, El Corazon, and throw them into the sea.
— Well, says the general, holding his tea cup and saucer above his lap, if we do as you say, my friend, and we take all the men and throw them from the highest cliff into the sea, who; who my friend, will utilize the women?
The man from the ministry scratches his chin with his right hand, and places his left upon the arm of the general’s chair. He leans close and again whispers in the general’s fluffy ear.
— We will provide advisors.
— As you say, says the general, sipping his tea, as you say.
In the country of the novel the man who is supposed to be me closes the book and watches the author walk into the park. The author is walking into the park. His name is Ariel. I am sitting on a bench and I watch him walk passed a knot of au pairs with children and strollers. Pigeons move in feathery lines of gray along the narrow strip of sand at the edge of the water. Ducks drift along the surface of the water and through the clouds sunlight falls in small splashes making shadows on the lake.
— Well, hello old sport, says Ariel.
He comes at me, squarely, wide shoulders at a slight stoop, his big bush of black-grey hair flopping up and down, and he sits on the bench pulling a gold cigarette case from inside his jacket.
— So, how do you like the book?
— I like it well enough.
He opens the case and nods his head. It is a little after three and the au pairs are taking their children out for a last afternoon walk through the park. Across from us, beyond the lake they stand near the set of swings talking in loud Irish rhythms. Old Russian men sit on benches by the water reading and watching the ducks. The men have made hats from newspapers and are wearing them on their heads. They are men wearing the news on their heads. Their heads are inside the news.
Ariel lights a cigarette with a lighter and takes in a long deep lung-filling blast, then exhales a thick stream of blue-grey smoke that curls inside itself extends out into the air and then fades.
— It is funny, he says, putting the lighter and cigarettes back into his jacket where they live, the way things connect, agreed.
It wasn’t really a question so much as a statement disguised as a question and I said nothing. He worked on his cigarette and the light moved on the water.
— When I lived in Xanadu, he said, I had no sense of the world beyond my street. I lived above my father’s store and that was the farthest reach of the world as far as I knew. Men would come to the store and my brothers and I and my sisters we all existed like bees humming there and the things we sold were honey from the hive and that was the world.
He examined the cigarette. The tip faintly red, extended as the paper burned away back towards his thick fingers. A thin tail of smoke rose upwards describing a curving line that settled into a small cloud above us.
— Men would come and my father served them tea in glasses. He had an ornate samovar. He cleaned it every day. The men would drink tea and play backgammon and talk. Of course for me everything changed when I went to university.
He paused, for effect, and examined the tip of his cigarette, and then took another extravagant drag. He blew three smoke rings and smiled.
— You never should have dropped out, he said. There was such potential for you.
— I had other things I wanted to do.
— Other things, he said, really.
I shrugged my shoulders. The light moved across the water and the ducks drifted in and out of the shadows. The breeze sifted the leaves of the trees and the trees shook sounding like water running from a faucet.
— And look what happened, besides, you know, he said, I am doing you a favor.
— How’s that?
He took a last pull on his cigarette and flicked the dead end out towards the gravel in front of the bench. I watched it turn end over end and land on the ground, a small tail of smoke rising from it.
— I told them it was useless for me to wear a wire; you’d never fall for it. And even if you did, you’d see what I was doing and start one of your insufferable monologues full of irritating and cryptic references to your obscure heroes.
He stopped and coughed. He spit a long phlegm-rich wad out of his mouth. It flew thickly and landed with a snap, stitching itself wetly into the ground, reflecting a snot-green patina.
— What do you want?
He turned and smiled at a woman who jogged passed us. Then he reached into his jacket and pulled out the case and the lighter. He went through the ritual again. A child detached from the knot of au pairs and ran down towards the water. The pigeons rose in a gray column, turned, and filled the air over the lake like a mass of small crosses, then landed where they had been.
— They want to know how you can see them. They believe you understand Katzenberg.
I watched the ducks drifting over the water. I ran my hands over the book. I looked at the cover. The cover detail was from a corner of the Women of Algiers.
— Everything makes a pattern, I said.
— Explain it to them.
— It’s idiocy, he said, and laughed a long thick cloud of smoke. His eyes were big and black. His hands were big and hair curled thickly over his knuckles.
— We’ll get out.
— Oh, Christ, he said, how fucking quixotic of you; you and the fractured muse. Tell me where are you going to go? We are, each of us, inside a vast story that never ends. It just repeats.
I watched a woman with brutally short hair scoop up the child who had raced after the birds. The ducks turned as a fleet and paddled into the center of the lake.
— Away from here, I said.
— Oh, he said, where is that on the map?
— What do you want?
— I told you, they want to know how you can see them. They invest a lot of time in being invisible; time and effort. They think you’re a professional. Or a sport of nature. And they are curious. They are going to find the truth about Katzenberg and they think you know.
— They never fit the pattern. And that generates another pattern which is anomalous.
— Explain it to them.
— This is pointless. Non Servitor. The secret is in the trees.
— You know, he said, crossing one leg over the other, I saw a movie the other day, and it made me think of you.
— I’m thrilled.
— Yes, he said, sucking on his cigarette, this man tells a story, and the man listening says, that’s a hell of a story, and the first man, the man telling the story to the second man, says, no, that’s not a hell of a story; I’ll tell you a hell of a story, and the second man looks, curious and the first man, he says, Charlie Chaplin enters a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest, and comes in third. Now that’s a story.
He smiled wetly and inhaled the smoke burning up from the cigarette. The trees bent a little in the wind and the au pairs drifted further down the path into the park. A man with a newspaper hat stood and pulled a bag from his jacket. He walked to the edge of the water and began to throw pieces of bread to the birds. The ducks and the pigeons came to him and made a great surging mass of feathers.
— Perhaps you can steal that one for your next novel.
— If you didn’t want them to record you, you should have kept your mouth shut.
— And just what do you think they will do with you?
He laughed. He coughed and when he was done he sucked on his cigarette and then coughed again. When he was done he looked at me.
— They will either kill you, he said, or you’ll work for them, or, you will kill your self and save them the trouble of spending a bullet or throwing you off a roof.
His voice was flat but his eyes were big and his lips trembled. A great blue heron came in over the tree tops and glided down towards the tall reeds at the side of the lake. It pulled back its wings to brake and then extended its long wire legs. It was flying and then, all at once, it was stepping through the reeds its long thin neck and tiny head moving back and forth like a piston.
— We’re getting out.
— She’ll leave you first. It’s always that way.
— You’re ridiculous.
— My novels get reviewed. I travel. I contribute to newspapers, magazines; I lecture at the best universities. People give me things I have no use for. I’ve signed a movie deal, fucked models. I have more women than I know what do with. You, you’re broke, depressed, and no one wants your work, and when you do manage to find a gallery, look what happens; they follow your calls, your mail, and find poor Francis; he likes little boys, and does as he’s told. And you waste away with the drunks and the frauds. And I’m ridiculous.
— We’re getting out.
— There’s nowhere to go. Go down any road, you’ll find yourself in the same place. You live in a box. They’ve put you in a box. They watch you all the time. There’s nowhere to go.
— You do not exist.
— Oh, how metaphysical of you; what’s next, no man is an island?
— They own you.
— They own everyone. Empire Incorporated. Murder Incorporated.
— Go fuck yourself.
He laughed. He finished his cigarette. He dropped it on the ground. He looked at it and then he reached into his jacket and pulled out a small box. In the box was a cassette.
— This is for you.
— What is it?
— A story, he said, a fable.
— I don’t want it.
— It’s the fable of Audrey and Yffat, he said, and laughed.
He stood and looked across the water.
— Ducks, he said, by god, ducks.
He looked at me, and smiled.
— Everyone is a spy. Everyone is a spy in their own life and a spy in the lives of others.
— Go to hell.
— Be seeing you, he said.
He walked down the gravel path, his hands in his jacket pockets. I watched him go until he was out of the park. I looked at the birds. The ducks drifted on the water. Finches came and went in orderly gusts. The pigeons moved into the park pecking near the benches. The benches were empty except for one old man wearing a newspaper hat. He was watching the pigeons. In the novel, within the country of itself, time passes. Later in the narrative, things happen that cannot be explained. Existence is sequential but non-linear. In the winter, there is rain. Sometimes, it snows.
The narrator, who is supposed to be me, listens to Coltrane turn Greensleeves inside out, upside down and backwards yet true and going and sentences of music start in the middle and reach for their predicate and subject at the same time, time being elastic; speeding up, slowing down, turning, a circle and a wedge and waves of water form on the surface of the water and jagged light and coffee hands make hungry ideas flap their wings. Tinfoil heart reflects love, warps easily, and rough crevasses encode memory because the savage god is its own piston.
Long after these events, when Audrey had fled, or been taken, or perhaps both, when the narrator had been taken by god to another place in the story, he wrote about coffee hands and how hungry ideas flap their wings. Then, a new character appeared. We will call her Samantha. Perhaps that is her true name. He tells her about flapping ideas and his tinfoil heart.
— I don’t understand, says Samantha. She is confused. She is angry. She is angry because she is confused because the story makes her feel stupid even though she is not stupid. She wants things to make sense.
— If, she says, you ever do get something published, you’ll be one of those guys who gets a ten-thousand dollar advance from some small press no one has ever heard of and no one will ever read it.
She places the pieces of paper on the table in the sudden no-man’s land that has appeared between them. The plates on the table are moats, and the forks and knives are catapults, and the baggage trains for the siege that is their love, stretch for miles into childhoods dimly glimpsed.
Note: This is a work of fiction. It is excerpted from, The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, by Charles Talkoff. We are working on making the entire novel available as a pdf .