Excerpts from Plato’s Screw, a forthcoming novel (2013) on love, work and surveillance.
Only a few people knew about Brancusi’s study on the pathology of windows. But no one knew what it involved. Myself included. At the Cafe Fig, I lingered at the counter with my coffee drink.
Brancusi sat alone at a table staring with intensity out the window. Anyone else watching would think his attention focused on the activity outside, mostly people walking by in ordinary ways. But I knew those outside interested him only in their relationship to the window.
“Here’s a fact,” he said after we greeted and I took a seat across from him.
I leaned forward to hear him over the loud talking in the Cafe Fig.
He turned off his cell phone lying on top of a small notebook already stuffed with several napkins. Pouring himself more coffee, Brancusi ordered French press because he didn’t like other people pouring his coffee.
“If anything,” he continued in his reticent exuberance, “there are too many facts, even in dead things.”
Brancusi spoke sparingly and quietly, with a refinement that comes with the privilege of not desiring to accumulate friends or things.
Yet, he couldn’t sit still in public. Even now, in the middle of talking, he paused, jumped up and returned with more napkins. It’s possible such momentary escapes were characteristic of scientists. But Brancusi always seemed to be disappearing even when he looked right at you and if asked, could state back every word you spoke for the past hour. He had that kind of a memory. I sipped on my coffee and opened my notebook.
Brancusi hired me to follow him around, to collect impressions. On the day I took the job, he insisted, “Keep track of irrelevant details. Make impromptu guesses. We have the empirical stuff covered.” After one year on the job, I now felt lost in my notes.
Leaning forward in his chair, he told me about his recurring dream. Isaac Newton suddenly appears at a window. Wearing glasses, he wants Brancusi to bring him a pair of glasscutters and pliers. Brancusi brings him a pair of blue swimming trunks and goggles instead. Insulted, Newton grabs Brancusi’s wrist and they struggle.
Brancusi said he wanted to get as far away from Newton as he could. Newton and his associates. The dead Newton with his either-or apple. Brancusi wanted to bury the science of the Enlightenment with its overgrown profundity and resistant geometric shapes.
He poured more coffee for himself. Mentioning that Newton left out certain equations to maintain his system, Brancusi excused himself and got up for clean napkins. He scribbled all of his notes on napkins, sometimes before he spoke. At the counter, he paused and lingered before he returned. Taking his seat again, Brancusi said, “Newton had optic shrewdness but myopic alchemy. It made him dishonest.”
That’s about all he had to say about running from Newton. That and the fact he thought Newton still ruled the way we looked in and out of windows.
Brancusi told me about the dream only because I had complained that to get to impressions that made fictional sense, which was my secondary goal, I still needed clear facts to muse over. Not that I blamed just my paltry notes on the missing facts. I blamed problems in my personal life more.
Brancusi stuffed the napkins in his notebook. I never knew what happened to them. I suspected he burned them.
“What about the Dot Vault?” I asked. I especially wanted facts about the Dot Vault and why Franklin S. Pecks, its overseer, kept postponing my tour of it.
Brancusi insisted the postponements were not personal. But Maggie Foo-coy, the one person whom I could count on for information about Brancusi, said everything was personal with Franklin S Pecks. Maggie and I met now and then for lunch or for a walk at the river, along the rose garden path. Sweeping even the air aside, she had that kind of confidence that kept a person like me in the background, always listening to what she had to say, always picking up the nuances of others she shed so effortlessly. It was she who told me about the Dot Vault and its latest addition, the last sounds before the first civilized utterance. Even as she said it, I felt overcome with a burst of desire and energy to hear those sounds.
It Always Comes Down to the Architecture
(Near the Beginning)
It started at the unveiling of Plato’s Screw. The elevator door opened on the top floor of the Free American Bank building. I huddled in the back of the elevator in my dark glasses and didn’t move to get off with the others. Instead, I rode back down to the lobby. Not because I suffered from indecisiveness or had changed my mind about viewing the screw or because of any impending danger (no armed guards looked back at me as the door opened), but because I wanted to finish a thought about the vacuum cleaner I remembered.
The vacuum cleaner incident went back years. Barely four, I stood with my mother in a slow line in the basement of Sears to return a vacuum cleaner with poor suction. I tried to wander off to daydream, but my mother warned the surveillance cameras didn’t care for that. In front of us, a tall woman in spike heels kept tapping her shoe in some kind of social Morse code. When she reached the clerk, he kept apologizing as if the line had betrayed them both. And then she and her shoes left.
Now wandering about the lobby of the bank building, I tried to finish thoughts of the Sear’s incident, so I could view the unveiling of the screw undistracted. Lately, thoughts of the project and my real life were intermingling too much, so I couldn’t keep focused on either when I needed to.
In the concession area of the lobby, I stood in line for a bottle of water.
I already knew the vacuum cleaner incident had its effects. Not long after the incident, I began pretending to stand in lines around the house while in my mother’s shoes with the highest heels. I stood in front of doorways, stairways, the refrigerator, the toilet, the TV. I stood in front of couches and chairs and family photos. I even stood in front of the door to my own bedroom and in front of the vacuum cleaner. “What are you doing?” my mother would ask, exasperated smile, tight around the lips. Even if I wanted to explain it, no words that came to mind seemed adequate. How could I explain I pretended to be in a line with that woman in Sears? I stood behind her. Sometimes in front of her. Sometimes I played her. A few times I played overcoming her.
I began to see the vacuum cleaner itself as the second half of the story. The Sears clerk had announced suction as the key to cleanliness. But like higher speed it cost more. So did the sleeker vacuum cleaners at the top of the line. Almost in passing the clerk mentioned cord length while my mother examined several vacuum cleaners one last time. Finally, she pulled out her credit card and made the exchange.
We left Sears a success story—as far as I knew.
How could I know the new vacuum cleaner duplicated the vacuum cleaner we returned except for the longer cord? Hadn’t I heard my mother insist at dinner the night before that the suction of the original vacuum cleaner failed her? In a single moment of misconception, then, adequate suction power and longer cords linked together for me throughout most of my life. I now wondered what else I had gotten wrong along the way.
Whether Sears or my mother should be held responsible for the misconception I cannot say.
On the way back to the elevator in the lobby of the Free American Bank Building, I caught a glimpse of the same woman in black I had seen upon entering the building. Her shoes earlier triggered the memory of the vacuum cleaner incident. She wore mismatched stiletto heels, one a leopard skin design and the other one black with white dots. When I now looked up to see her face, she lifted the Time magazine over her eyes and stood almost statue-like. On the cover, a blown up village in the Middle East. If the bank building blew up in the next moment, I would die without ever outsmarting my inherited inadequacy. In such instances of the unfulfilled quest one returns as a toad in some reincarnation beliefs. Oddly, mud ran up the back of her left stiletto. Had it been there and I missed it earlier? I walked over to the water fountains for a different angle, thinking the mud a shadow. But no. The mud ran up her leg as if coming out of her shoe.
Still reading Time, the strange woman in black strolled over to the lobby pharmacy, where she bought a bottle of water and aspirins. Wandering over to the yellow tape, she watched workers hoist a gigantic lobby window in place. There had been an accident a few weeks before. Someone committed suicide by driving through the glass window.
I got to the unveiling taking place on the top floor of the building late. On the list as Brancusi’s biographer—more of a lie than truth—I showed my IDs to the guard. Elevated and tilted on a transparent stand on the ebony table sat a large crystal cube twice the size of one of those blocks of ice you used to buy at a 7-Eleven on the way to the beach. Inside the cube someplace laid the invisible Plato’s Screw.
Brancusi stood off to the side in an alcove surrounded by large windows overlooking the city. I remained near the door so as not to disturb. I had missed the formal presentation.
“What’s the exact functionality at this time?”
“How will it advance medicine or security? The military?”
“Do you have an illustration or photograph for us today?”
Freddy kept raising his hands as if to stop the questions.
At one end of the group, Dick Bootable from public radio stepped forward. “Can you tell us why this invisible screw isn’t just another one of those distracting reset buttons that keep popping up to fool us into thinking we’re making some real technological progress?” He had a controversial show that tried to expose fraud, lies, and corruption in business and governments. Brancusi had invited him as well.
Freddy Pecks, a big man with extraordinary small eyes, and hands for such a large man, drank his water and then cleared his throat. He pointed his finger at Dick Bootable. “We’re not going to screw ourselves, Dick,” he said, laughing at his own joke. Taking a step back from behind the table, he gave a quick glance at the monitor that lighted up and presented his father, Franklin S. Pecks.
“Good question and brilliant response,” said Franklin S. Pecks from the monitor. “What Freddy means is that we have reached the enigmatic unstable apex and—stabilized it in its very motion. It’s a giant step for American Screw and thus for America. Nothing can be the same after this new global moment.”
But seeing something as nothing, the mind wanders. I felt I had missed something essential in coming late. Trying to spot the surveillance devices embedded in the walls, I thought I should ask if Brancusi could get me access to the surveillance footage, out of curiosity, just to see what I missed, but more perhaps to see angles of him I had missed or couldn’t see. Or see if I looked sheepish coming in late or looked out of place standing among the press, who unlike me came to tell or find the real truth of the screw. I fluffed my hair and wet my lips. That too I wanted to see. Did I look eager to appear attractive? I wanted to see the difference in Brancusi’s expressions and their change from looking in the room to looking at the windows. It seemed a reasonable request. Franklin S. Pecks just about owned surveillance research and production. Some people called him the Global Eye.
“As I said, the screw measures so small that no other screw can ever be made smaller in any direction without losing the essence of a screw,” Freddy read from his notes. “Think of the screw as our mascot into the next technological revolution, the invisniatechno revolution with American Screw in the lead. America in the lead.”
I noted that father and son looked alike even when one appeared in the virtual world and one appeared in the flesh. Both wore white shirts, blue ties, black suits. Both sported punctuated eyebrows. The father’s hands though loomed considerably bigger as if they belonged on Freddy’s body, which I knew from photos stood much taller than his father’s. Descended from the Prussian monarchy, they both wore its coat of arms ring.
Gotten sick. Text received from Felix.
“Isn’t that right, Brancusi?” asked Franklin S. Pecks.
Not only had Brancusi’s theories laid the foundation for the invisible screw at its apex, but they also laid the foundation for the Nano-MMMM stabilizer, also patented by American Screw, one of Pecks subsidiaries, to maintain not only the screw at its apex but also all of the apexes that American Screw patented with non-negotiable contracts.
“We’ll have to see. As you know, nothing is one-hundred percent before it happens,” said Brancusi.
Freddy starting acting strange in the front of the room. Clapping his hands together, he turned one way then the other, started to walk away but stepped back into his place at the table. He looked to be straightening his shoulders and stretching his neck up. Only the surveillance tapes would tell me if he also lifted himself up on his toes to appear taller. Grabbing his pen off the table, he wrote something in his notes with the greatest concern on his face. I had never seen him in person before but Maggie said Freddy had trouble hiding his jealousy of Brancusi, who Franklin S. Pecks had early on taken in as a kind of son and even tried with deliberation beyond measure, and nearly succeeded, to make a son-in-law.
“I appreciate your caution and modesty,” Franklin S. Pecks said. He turned to us. “That’s why he works for me. His precision is impeccable. Nothing inadequate about it.”
Because of Brancusi’s study on apexes, which led to the design of the screw, a lot of people wondered whether he, just twenty-six, would be the next Einstein. But even with three Ph.Ds., he looked more like a student than the next possible Einstein. With uncombed hair and in need of a shave and haircut, he wore jeans, a misshaped white t-shirt, and ripped red sneakers. On a closer look, he displayed a sophisticated air of discomfort. But if you watched him long enough you sensed him poised in the sublime of an exquisite unrealized thought at its earliest stages. Because he cared so little for the judgments of other people, he made you regret you had wasted so much of your youth in trying to follow orders and get the conventions right. Nevertheless, he admitted to me he suffered from his own inadequacies.
None of us acted stupid or suspicious at seeing nothing. But Dick Bootable would not leave Freddy alone.
“What are its inadequacies?” Dick Bootable said.
“We love controversy,” Franklin S. Pecks said. “As my guests and the first to view our latest invention, feel free to examine the cube containing our latest screw.” With that the monitor went black.
After that Brancusi turned his attention back to the windows. Maggie called Brancusi’s study on the pathology of windows his quiet obsession. His monumental concern. Even a kind of modus operandi. She said he distrusted going through the main door of any idea, believing main doors only perpetrated his own inadequacies. Time would prove her right. Never again would I observe Brancusi all in or all out in public if I ever had. Time would prove that Brancusi preferred the background more and more once he began withholding his ideas from Franklin S. Pecks, who owned his ideas under contract, or before his present interest in windows, a study he confined to napkins and memory. She called him a background public person. I agreed and mentioned that Brancusi and I had that in common. Indisputable, Brancusi and I often vied for the background, which generated an underlying confusion when out in public together working.
Felix sent another text. At a convention out of town, he said he napped too long and missed a flight. He wouldn’t be back until the next day.
A text from my ex-therapist said when I felt ready to see her again to bring my present vacuum cleaner to our next session.
Before she had taken her leave a couple of years back, my ex-therapist had become obsessed with my vacuum cleaner incident and the first part of the story, the woman in the stiletto heels standing in front of my mother. Texting me whenever it pleased her, she demanded more and more details. Then before asking me to leave her office for not looking at problems more deeply, she warned I not get overly enthused and especially not get possessive about my condition. Having her own version of inherited inadequacy, she too suffered from it. All of her clients suffered from it. Everyone she knew suffered from it. Whole countries suffered from it, America included. Inherited inadequacy qualified as the human condition of contemporary civilization, she concluded. So certain, she shut down her office and departed the country to write a book on it. Back in business, she had her Out Finesse Your Inherited Inadequacies best seller lining an entire bookcase in her office.
I looked around but didn’t see Brancusi.
At the exit, a guard handed me one of those ring boxes. Inside, a memento of the event, a miniature Plato’s Screw on a key chain. Scrolled across the velvet box in gold lettering it read, “The Unveiling, Plato’s Screw” followed by today’s date. I dropped the box into my satchel. Once outside the lobby, I thought I saw Brancusi getting into a cab. I started to raise my hand to yell, “wait.” But the cab took off. So when I said it started at the unveiling, I’m talking about more than one thing. I’m talking about Brancusi’s sudden escapes, which became even more frequent after the unveiling. Second, and not necessarily second on the list, I’m talking about the resurfacing of the memory of the vacuum cleaner, a key animism for me at a key moment in my clear attempt to get out from under my inherited inadequacy. It would take some time, though, before I decided to pay my ex-therapist a visit.
(Four Converging Moments)
Almost as quickly as I sat on the bench, four things converged into one. The commotion in the pond. The formation of a cloud in the shape of two brutish warriors. A man bursting out of the building and stopping to straighten his tie before heading down the marble steps. Brancusi’s second call from inside Pecks Credit Verification Center let me know a mechanical failure inside the Dot Vault would delay our tour for yet another hour. He assured me, however, the tour would take place today even though I could feel the light, a sign that things would not work out for me.
In the pond, one of the male ducks pushed another one out of the way, and that got the other ducks to fight back, which led to the water splashing on the flamingo, and soon the whole pond and its shoreline seemed in flight or battle. Meanwhile, a lone female duck, with a pale blue bill, paddling away from several males with dark blue bills in pursuit, made it to the shoreline in front of the bench and stopped. I jumped up and yelled at the male ducks to get away.
I noticed her very blue underside. She grabbed a chip I had earlier dropped on the ground. In her mouth, she scurried under my bench to eat it undisturbed in the shade.
“Do you like chips?” I asked and dropped a few more on the ground near her. “Stay as long as you wish.”
I would have returned to my book, de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, but the man in the suit from the building bolted toward me like Kafka’s defeat, Linnaeus’s defeat, Paine’s defeat. The defeats of Lincoln and Debs, Jesus and Buddha, Trotsky, Freud and Marx, Shakespeare, and Lao Tzu and King. Each one, slamming against the ceiling of their era before falling back down, each one steadfast in their own kind of Sisyphean task. For all that, he stood a small man who looked too eager to feel at home. His whole being seemed to say, “We’re all doomed anyway. Here is my defeat. What does it matter which list of people you’re on?” I put the book away and pulled out my notebook.
He held out his hand. “I’m Wally Wallyhed. From India. Head of public relations here.”
“Good afternoon,” I said. Our hands barely grasped. Pulling out my notebook, I gave it a little wave in the air. “I’m enjoying the pond.”
“Beautiful day… I often come here myself.” But he looked pale, as if he never got any sun. He sat on the edge of the bench.
Whatever did he want? Did he have news from inside? Had they resolved the mechanical problems? Did Brancusi send him? I hardly needed company.
My first impression, he didn’t look like a Wally, even without the Indian accent. My mechanic looked like a Wally. The clerk at Office Depot looked like one. Even Wally Shawn fit his name. This Wally rolled out the word Wally, unsteady, as if in training for his own name.
The next thing you noticed about him, he had one of those familiar PR smiles. Kind of frozen even while changing shape. You see them everywhere, especially in retail. My mother, who liked to teach her children how to present themselves in a variety of situations, had at least twenty such smiles, slight variations, in a Rolodex of smiles she kept on the same table with the answering machine. “A smile is like a credit card. It keeps us civilized,” it read on an embossed card above her kitchen phone. I never understood how the Rolodex of smiles functioned as a bank of credit cards. She never explained. But my sister and I went along with it. We at least owed her one fetish without question for bringing us in the world.
“I’m with Brancusi,” I said.
“Yes, I thought as much.”
So, Brancusi hadn’t sent him.
After tossing the duck more chips and hoping this Wally would disappear, I picked up my notebook and buried myself in it. I had no talent for small talk and always hated myself whether I failed or succeeded at it. I found occupying myself with urgency the best way to keep small talk at a distance. Not that waiting outside came without its drawbacks. Franklin S. Pecks housed his surveillance hub, a kind of spying playground, on the mountain above the grounds. Brancusi had already warned me that state of the art instruments registered your pulse and mood changes. Every sigh, belch or fart got categorized into a classification system for future research on the sounds of human waste, and their effects on debts, credit, and even the flow of productivity, lowering the standard of priorities and what is.
“They’re lounging around in there,” Wally volunteered. “We can’t have that… It makes me nervous when things break down.”
Who was he talking about? The workers? The people in charge of fixing the breakdown?
“What should we blame? For the ruin? For the ruin fueled by the unpredictable?” he said and excused himself. After making his way to the pond’s edge, he stepped onto a nearby boulder in the water. He looked unequivocally at home on the boulder. I thought it a shame he ever had to leave his rock and go inside the credit verification center. “Have you ever seen a transparent fish before?” he turned and yelled to me.
I had not.
In following Brancusi around, I often came in contact with odd sorts of people. Once I stood next to an organ grinder with one arm in front of a department store window. He kept calling me Jolly, his wife, and started beating me with a stick.
Opening my journal randomly to the last thing I wrote, it read,
In her book The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir says that according to the Platonic myth in Plato’s Symposium, each individual had two faces, four arms, four legs, and two conjoined bodies. Eventually, they split in two. Another notation read that St. Thomas assured people that women played no significant role in creating offspring. Aristotle explained that an offspring rose from male sperm and female menstrual blood. Those fantasies. Brancusi standing in front of a window to a department store finds solace in its pathology. That effort.
Which pathology? I hardly remembered writing it.
I wrote in my journal,
Be more diligent. No wonder you’ve ended up with a secondary life. Stop looking for your primary life and live it.
From over at the rocks, Wally got my attention in high shrill excitement. “The Masheer. The Masheer. It’s the star of the pond, the smallest Masheer in existence. I hardly expected it today. We will have an extraordinary day.”
I stood up and craned toward the pond. Water bugs made small dents. A fresh water crab crawled out of sight.
Sliding off the boulder into the water, Wally yelled, “A miracle. Impossible. Here comes the Glassy Fish, too? In the same day? But look here swims the one I prayed for.” He scooped the water for the fish. Knee deep, he finally caught it and held it up triumphantly. In his hand a sluggish looking Glassy Fish. About eight inches long, you could see its bones. “It shall be a miraculous day for my sick father. He will be cured,” he said, and he gently put the transparent fish back in the water. After walking back out of the water, he said to me, “You are the bringer of good luck. He sat back on the bench. “That is the first time I have ever held it in my hands since my uncle sent the fish here for me.”
“Your clothes aren’t wet,” I said.
“No,” he said, marveling at his dry suit. He shook his sleeves and freed hundreds of small beads of water. The rest of the beads rolled off his clothes as fast he brushed them off with his dry handkerchief.
He inhaled deeply and said he could smell change in the air.
“How come your clothes are dry?”
He pulled from his pocket one of those invisible Plato’s Screw replicas housed in a crystal cube wrapped in a large handkerchief. With the handkerchief, he wiped his face. Then with as much precision as he could apply, he wrapped it back around the crystal cube exactly as it had been wrapped and put it back into his pocket.
“I feel I know you. Did you ever work for Pecks?”
I truly disliked strangers striking up a conversation with me. They never tell you enough. Or they tell you too much. Grabbing my satchel to put my notebook back inside, I dusted the crumbs from my off my lap. “No,” I assured him. “Anyway, nice meeting you. I hope your father recovers.”
“You’re leaving? For inside?”
“I usually take a walk at this time of the day.”
But in bending to put my dangling shoe back on, the shoe slipped off my foot and Wally and I both grabbed for it.
“Please,” he said. “Let me show you a trick.”
“No, really,” I said. “It’s a superstitious thing I have about new shoes. They’re kind of a compass for me. It’s a personal thing. Only I can touch them when they’re new.” I already regretted saying too much.
With great speed, this Wally looked at the sky and yelled something out in his native tongue. Lifting himself slightly up like an acrobat, he held onto my shoe. Now on one knee, he said, “I know what you mean…I know exactly what you mean… I think fate meant for us to meet. I could feel it when I saw you from the window.” He fondled his tie. He talked fast, words spilling over each other. “Please. I come from a family of inventors. My uncle discovered how to position a dangling shoe on your foot, so that it never falls off.”
I had to give a strong tug, maybe verging on a yank to get my shoe loose from him. “I don’t want my shoe to dangle,” I said. “I want to walk.”
Trying to throw his certainty all over me, he insisted I give him the shoe. Throwing mine back at him, I held on tight. Proximity does not mean you have the right to someone’s ear or shoe.
Luckily, the ring on his phone went off.
“I must take this call,” he relented and stood up. “It’s from inside.” He listened into his phone then cupped it and turned back to me. “It’s very important I talk with you. I will be right back.” Excusing himself, he hurried toward the building.
I immediately called Brancusi. “Did you send this guy out to see me?”
“That PR guy. Wally Wallyhed from India. Can you see out here? Are you at a window? What does he want?”
“I don’t see him out there.”
“Can you see the front steps from your where you are? Anyway, what does it matter where he is now? A minute ago he was sitting here on the bench. Now he’s on the platform. He’s on the phone talking to someone. This whole place ruins reality.”
“What did he say to you?”
“Nothing really. He seemed to be having some kind of transcendental experience, in a dry suit, with fish in the pond… And then he wanted to put on my shoe… Wait, someone is coming out the front door.”
On her phone and dressed fashionably in white and stiletto heels, the emerging woman floated through reality. “Oh, it’s Io Pecks. Is she giving the tour?” The only daughter of Franklin S. Pecks, she had one of those power personalities everyone feared if you crossed it. Wally wiped his brow and seemed to be explaining something to her, a defense to some accusation. He looked powerless in Io’s presence. No defense was adequate if she ruled against it. “Wait, she just grabbed him by the tie. Can you see any of this from the window? He’s pleading.” Wally grew smaller. He kept straightening the bottom of his suit jacket and sleeves. “He keeps lowering his head,” I said. “There it goes again… Have they fixed whatever they need to fix inside so I can take the tour?”
Brancusi said they were working on it.
“Io just grabbed his tie. She’s dragging him toward the building by his tie… He’s pleading again. She seems very upset. How pathetic.”
“She probably wants him to fight back,” Brancusi said. “She hates weakness in men.”
“It’s his position, don’t you think? The insecurity that goes with an underling.”
“Her brother Freddy has taken a liking toward him. I think he wants to make him his personal PR man of some sort.”
“What do you think he wanted?”
“Maybe a breath of fresh air. Everybody needs that.”
Brancusi invited me to come inside and wait, but I declined after he said it wouldn’t influence whether I’d get the tour or not. Settling back on the bench, I looked at the time on my cell and then on my watch. No time had passed since Wally had sat down. Not possible. I called Brancusi back. “Were we just talking?”
“About Wally Wallyhed?”
Satisfied, I hung up.
The duck confirmed time had transpired. She had already eaten a half bag of chips.
Few people ever got into the Dot Vault and no one had ever seen the entire Dot, not even Brancusi. For over twenty years, the senior Pecks had argued that the Dot’s air quality had not yet been stabilized enough for more than a handful of visitors each year. Owner of much of the collection and the rest on indefinite loan to him, Pecks entitled himself full control over some of humanity’s most treasured artifacts. At the same time, he let his son Freddy keep the Dot air regulated and his daughter Io the Dot light regulated. Either way, some people questioned the value and intelligence of giving one person and one place so many of our prehistoric and historical treasures even though such personal collections had become commonplace among billionaires trophying them as tax write offs.
I wrote in my journal,
No point in going on and on about Wally, who did not return but fell passive as Io Pecks dragged him back into the building by his tie. Perhaps Wally’s presence could be cleared up and categorized as nothing more than a case of mistaken story. For a moment I even suspected Wally nothing more than a character in Pecks’ story, an official who wandered into my impressions to expand his possibilities or exposure. Maybe even get himself a second job.
While I took my walk around the pond and the duck followed behind me, I still felt mesmerized by the outside of the building, designed in the shape of a moth in flight, not Rorschach intended but architecturally, radiating modernity’s beauty in all directions as if the notion of architecture itself sat perched, suspended at its apex.
Three layers of glass and steel floors jutted out on either side of a vertical rock and steel column. A kind of glass in flight and stasis, moving and not moving. The floors made up the spread wings of a moth. A delicate illusion. Somewhere in the vertical band, the entrance to the Dot Vault. At least three miles up the mountain, the building, mostly on flat ground, overlooked the sea. On the highest ridge the security center.
Maggie had told me over lunch one day that Franklin S. Pecks referred to ordinary people as moths in stasis or in flight. He considered the shape of his credit verification center, the moth, a primitive mask against the ordinary workers who might betray him, and he feared that as moths in movement, workers had the capacity to unexpectedly fly into his light and consume it without anyone knowing how it happened. The architect Piano had designed it.
Busy in its mystique, Pecks Credit Verification Center hovered out of the side of the mountain, inside it our debts and personal records immortalized. Franklin S. Pecks’ selection of our history preserved in the Dot Vault.
(The Bluebill Duck)
On the bench, I shared more chips and my sandwich with the duck.
I pulled out my notebook and flipped to the last entry.
Maggie Foo-coy told me that Simone de Beauvoir calls the body a situation. In turn, Beauvoir says Merleau-Ponty says rather than a natural species, humans are a historical idea. Maggie herself said gender is an interference of the truth. Somebody’s always quoting someone as if that’s full confirmation.
Before writing anything of my experience on the bench, I texted Brancusi to see what progress was being made inside but he texted back none as of yet.
Maybe another postponement. Text sent to Felix.
Show outrage! Received from Felix.
If the first civilized word were a mournful cry, would that justify the Garden of Eden, wars, marriage, the dictionary? Sent to Felix.
A dictionary works like an untuned violin if you let it. Received from Felix.
Felix and I were having one of those crises of marriage moments in which he avoided talking directly about it. Everything came in coded messages. I couldn’t picture a dictionary as an untuned violin, but I felt he might be trying to tell me something about the way we communicated with each other about our marital problems. We had the words but hadn’t yet put them together in a way that would get us to the truth of our emotions. By now the duck reappeared from its hiding place under the bench. She gave me one of those innocent and trusting looks, so I spoke it her. I thought it hardly mattered what I said. It was the tone that counted. “Maggie wants to know, like Beauvoir before her, what humanity has made of the human female,” I said and jumped to my feet. “It’s best to walk. The zookeepers won’t leave us alone.”
But I had scared the duck and she scurried back toward the water, where the male ducks with the blue bills waited for her. “It’s all very complex, this Pecks Credit Verification Center,” I told the duck after she chose to return to me. “Anyway, when it comes to debt, we’re all lumped in this together…It’s silly, mad really, the way credit and debts determine whether we can progress or not, or even live or die.” Leaf blowers started up, but I knew they couldn’t prevent the duck from hearing me. “Inside that building, they can immediately find out how old you are and where you live. Imagine a duck living in that world.” I couldn’t help but wonder how one explained accumulated debt to a duck. You start with the pond. “Tomorrow begins a new rule: No dunking for free bugs. Each time you want to eat a bug, you have to pay another duck to dunk. Not any duck. You pay the master duck, which now owns the pond. Master duck can be called queen duck, king duck, lord duck, or purpose creator duck. Let’s say the price to dunk is a leaf. Now it gets complicated. What if you don’t have any leaves? Well, you could starve to death, you could steal, or you could beg. But how long can that go on before something tragic happens? Your safest route is to dunk for bugs but turn them over to the owner of the pond. In return, you get just enough bugs to survive on. Invariably, one day the cost of one bug jumps from one leaf to six leaves. You only have one leaf. Now what? The best route is to get some credit from some duck with a stockpile of leaves. For every leaf you borrow you have to pay the lender five leaves back. And there you have it,” I told the duck. “Credit to go reaches the duck pond. To be clear, under the new plan you can’t eat a bug you haven’t paid for even if it lands on your beak… I can never make sense of it. But that’s what we’ve done with it all.”
I thought to fictionalize Pecks Credit Verification Center, I’d have to change its name to Pecks Scoring Spa and Coliseum, one in which it doesn’t just keep your identity current or score your credit rating, but score your imagination, hopes, desires, memories. You’d get scored daily against others. They’d revise your days while you slept and erase your histories before they happen. They’d grab at your sex lives and children. They’d peer inside your body and inside your homes and cars. They tantalize you with increased credit limits or punish you by increasing interest rates. Too low a score, they’d give you the option to outrun a Ford Taurus or suffer the consequences.
Dot tour delayed till 4 or 5. Text received from Brancusi.
That was eight or nine hours away.
A few minutes later, I looked up. On the steps, Io stood watching me. She waved and I waved back. Would she come to the bench to harass me as well? She turned and waved her arms as a conductor might. Not far away, three pianists began playing Glen Gould’s Goldberg Variations of Bach to the open air. The fast, happy ones that make you want to move around. After a few moments, Io turned and headed back into the building. I never knew what to expect from her. Partly because she had privileges that gave her additional options I couldn’t see.
The female duck fluttered between my legs as three male ducks with blue bills swam closer to us. They stopped in the shade under a dwarf weeping willow. Their beaks moved as if quacking, but no sound came from them. One of the males, the largest, floated closer performing strange antics for the female. It twisted its neck and one of them did a kind of flip somersault.
“To escape, one must take risks and get out of range,” I told the duck. Putting my notebook under one arm, I stooped down, and in one quick motion I picked up the duck. I covered her as best I could with my bag and she ducked into her feathers and did not fight against the escape.
First they steal your shoes and impressions. Then they go after your words and intentions, a metastasizing claw to gain control of your inherited inadequacy.
I headed back into the parking lot. On the way out, I waved good-bye to the guard. The duck remained quiet on the floor of the passenger side of the car.
We passed the same four road workers still standing around and talking just as they were when I arrived. No work had yet been done. The same rock pile sat unmoved.
A few blocks away and in heavy traffic, I stopped at a red light and turned on the radio. The Four Tops sang about their imagination on the oldie station. I turned it off.
The duck must have sensed my desire for quiet for it fluttered up to the passenger seat and went to sleep. How could I not get caught? The whole act must have been recorded on numerous devices, including those thousands of feet above the earth. Petty thief in dark blue car, license number la de da. They probably thought I wanted to eat or sell the duck. That’s the way they think.
I stole one of Pecks’ ducks. Be back for tour. Keep me posted. Text sent to Brancusi.
Going for a walk along the river. Sent to Maggie Foo-coy.
Made friends with a duck. Sent to Felix and my ex-therapist.
Bring vacuum cleaner and duck to session. Received from ex-therapist
Some constellations are not tuned. Some are out of tune.” Received from Felix.
Doodling impressions for fictional account. Sent to Brancusi.
(Ex-Therapist and the Vacuum Cleaner)
“And you’re jealous of it?” she asked.
Always some angle, some question that veered us away from the point I wanted to get to. My ex-therapist got up and moved her own chair back a few inches. She said to move mine any time I felt the urge. I noticed her retro white stiletto heels.
“Of Fog?” I asked.
“The lacunae in your marriage.”
Why bring that up? Hadn’t we just been talking about Fog the cat?
She gave me one of her suspicious looks, a slight tilt of the head and squint of the eyes. “If you want paint-by-number therapy, I have several people I can recommend.”
I fell into one of my brief sneezing attacks. While the vacuum cleaner buzzed with a light roar between us, the duck splashed around in a small child’s blue wading pool. Seemingly not bothered by the noise, it looked content going around the pool in circles, playing with a plastic duck that it nudged along.
“Find out what you’re really jealous about,” she said.
I should have known we’d get off to a bad start, reminding me of why I had stayed away. I had only myself to blame. Almost as if another me had pulled out another agenda, I made the mistake of telling her first thing about the stray cat. I had come to talk about the DVD that came in the mail that led to Felix moving out one box at a time.
I moved my chair to the right.
Taking off her glasses and putting them in the case on the table beside her chair, she asked if I had stopped sneaking into the backyard pagoda.
“I sneak around everywhere,” I told her. “Even in grocery stores.”
She uncrossed her legs, stood up and began walking around the office.
“Come on. Get up. You too,” she demanded.
“What are we doing?”
“Don’t follow me. You go that way. I’ll go this way. And don’t stop.”
“Some new technique?” I laughed, but I felt confused, even frightened.
I could already see her sizing things up her way to lead me somewhere I didn’t want to go yet. She couldn’t help herself. She always dragged everything back to Felix’s pagoda. She called the pagoda the pivot point manifestation of my marital inheritance. She walked seamlessly around the room while I stumbled into the desk, losing the rhythm in my steps. I withheld telling her I had twice driven the stray across town and dumped it at a senior mobile park. Not irresponsibly. Both times I left it with a one hundred dollar bill in a little locket in its collar. A failed attempt. Both times it returned with locket intact but the money missing. We walked at our own pace, keeping a comfortable distance. When I walked around the swimming pool, she walked around the desk. Or when I walked around a chair, she walked around the swimming pool. Although she never seemed to dodge me, I dodged her to great distraction. What was the point? I wanted to ask. But only once did I stop to tell her that Fog, the stray cat, seemed to live in two worlds simultaneously, Felix’s and mine.
“So, why do you think the Chinese monks, who invented gunpowder, mistook it for the elixir of life?” she asked.
“I thought you ghostwrote a rather lengthy essay on it.”
True. I had. It seemed so long ago I had almost forgotten.
“You tend to dismiss your achievements, don’t you?”
I passed a large photo of her white husband and five bi-racial children, her certificates of awards, her diplomas, a large painting of a misty sea, and photographs of her book covers, including her upcoming one, The Pathology of Pathology.
“Can we talk about the DVD and Felix moving out one box at a time?” I asked.
“I’d rather talk about the gunpowder or the pagoda.”
I stopped. “Why?”
“Keep walking. Come on. Don’t stop. Walk, walk, walk.”
“Why bring up gunpowder?” I moved around the desk again.
“Errors share a commonality.” She paused at the window. “The direct way is never the best. Have you considered the addition above the garage in the equations?” She headed over to her chair and walked around it in circles.
Back at the window, she touched its glass before she resumed walking. “That contractor who fell off the roof. What happened again?”
I tried to hide my resistance behind a neutral tone. “He broke his leg.” I hated all this catching up. We weren’t girlfriends.
“How convenient for you and Felix.”
“The man came drunk.” Wasn’t it enough for me to feel responsible for Felix moving out one box at a time? Did I have to feel sorry for the builder’s self-pity and sloppiness? I had no idea he had just gotten divorced and his son had returned from the war with his leg blown off. But that did explain the gun the son often showed up with to threaten his father.
Intensifying things after Felix’s father’s funeral, Felix burned the suit he wore at the funeral, climbed up on the roof and spent nights trying to determine how the psychological relationships of the planets and constellations led to failures in understanding human relationships and the iris of the eye. Felix said all his patients showed symptoms of weakening irises. Should I be responsible for all that’s gotten stuck in place in the universe as well? I stood as much a pawn as anyone else.
By now we had developed some kind of pattern in which we moved around the room more to stay out of each other’s way than to meet face to face. Forcing myself to speak evenly without the slightest inflection one way or the other, I told her again the reason for the addition. Felix’s present study next to the laundry room and hot water heater proved too small. The washer and dryer on the other side of the wall rattled and distracted him, preventing him from giving full attention to his research on the constellations. I thought it best not to remind her that Felix needed these extra spaces as extensions of his inner life, ports to satisfy the sailor in him. I would have told her of the pending doom I felt from the start about the addition project, but it seemed disloyal to Felix to bring it up. He had such enthusiasm for the addition. His momentum to get it built seemed a force strong enough to withstand any obstacles, external or interior. But I underestimated the power of forces that worked unseen until it was too late to do anything about them. In truth, the contractor’s fall happened with me present. I had gone out to the mailbox that day. The contractor, near the edge turned and waved. I opened the mailbox and pulled out the DVD. It’s true that I wondered how I looked to the contractor, how attractive he found me or if he had fantasies. I might have pushed at my hair, the way I do for surveillance cameras. With the package in hand, I saw it happen in slow motion. His feet lost their grip. I yelled for him to stop. But his hammer flew out of his hand and he fell on his ass and slid down, luckily feet first.
“The vacuum cleaner, the pagoda and addition, the cat, the Dot Vault and the DVD. What’s the payoff for you? If you don’t want to find it, what’s the point of me wasting my time?”
I knew she had been building up to this very moment.
“What do you think?” I asked throwing the question back at her.
“It’s not my movie running backwards.”
Looking over at the duck, I had the urge to grab it and leave before I’d have to spend weeks, even months, reestablishing my good image to it.
I started to laugh and then my ex-therapist did. When I stopped she did.
Looking at the clock, I saw nearly no time had passed.
I hit my thigh on the edge of the desk.
I spoke quickly after that. Did she think I crossed some line? That’s all I wanted to know. Could she listen between the lines and in my tone for that? I had to know that much.
“I regret ever opening the envelope addressed to me and slipping the DVD into the drive of my computer. But when I accept my regret, I hate myself for regretting. Should I regret it? Is all this regretting and hating the regretting part of my inherited inadequacy? I regretted watching the ten-second pornographic scene all the way through.” Of extremely poor quality, the footage came from some kind of surveillance camera. In profile, the alleged Felix, dressed as a painted knight, had his foot up on a chair, while a naked woman painted like a 14th century court lady had her mouth at the porno knight’s naked ass. I blew up the figures as far as I could before the distorted images crossed over into little more than pixilated colors and shapes. When I couldn’t make a clear determination, I aligned photos I had of Felix with bare legs next to the porno knight on the computer screen and viewed them simultaneously.
“I can’t dismiss it. Most of the knight’s eyes are hidden behind a mask.”
“If I recall, he has a fetish for the medieval period?”
I remembered telling her that Felix fell asleep every night during his entire pre-teen years reading the tales of the Knights of the Round Table. At eighteen, he traveled to Provence to kiss the hem of a dress in a museum draped on a dream figure because one of his heroes had. For the past few years, he kept a map of Medieval Europe on his study wall. “Yes, yes. But did I go too far?” I explained that I had pulled out my camera and demanded Felix pose for me in the same pose as the knight in the video. We argued over it for days but he finally gave in and began posing. I made stills of the footage as well. But after days of photographing turned into weeks without having sex, Felix became exasperated and packed his first box. “I can’t—I can’t do this—live like this anymore,” he insisted. “These photo sessions are becoming our sex life.” He had a small point but not the entire point, not even most of the point. True each time he posed, his penis swelled, which did turn me on a bit as well. There we’d stand looking at each other over some wide abyss circumstance itself created. He’d speak first. “Was I satisfied?” I wanted to be. But I feared that’s exactly what he wanted, to drop the whole matter, so I insisted on just a few more photos. I even bought a better lens for better detail. Meanwhile, I decided if Felix took down the Medieval map from his wall without me saying a word, I’d let the matter rest. On the other hand, I hoped he wouldn’t. I had the right to know the truth. We close our eyes at night and fall asleep together, don’t we? And yet, I regretted ever sharing the footage with Felix.
By now we walked smoothly around the room, rarely navigating out of the way of the other.
“What do you like best about the DVD?”
“Like best? You think I pleasure myself with it?”
She sat back down in her chair and yawned. “How will we ever get past the one-upmanship?”
When I headed back to my chair, she told me to keep walking. She probably had a tape recorder running for her next best seller on the therapeutic use of walking in circles with your therapist. Not that I didn’t have my own hidden tape recorder in my pocket.
“Why did you bring the vacuum cleaner again?”
“You told me to.”
“Bring it back the next time… You are coming back?”
When I didn’t say anything, she said. “There’s an apex here. Let me know if you want me to fit you in… Did you bring one of those Plato’s Screws and one of those Swanson’s Way game?”
Before leaving, I pulled them from my satchel and gave them to her. While I carried the vacuum cleaner, she carried the duck to my car. Neither of us talked. She mumbled things to the duck though and it seemed to gesture back to her.
“By the way, she said, we all suffer from inherited inadequacy. You must suffer from it more. Find your apex.” Assuming the last word, she turned and walked back into her office.