Whatever I may be
I meet him.
He is no other than myself
Yet I am not he.
1: MAX TRADER
If dreams can be portents of what is to come, then I had my fair share of forewarning before my life was stolen away.
Each night, for the week preceding the event, I found myself returned to the workshop of my old mentor. Janossy, ten years dead, the workshop in the old out-building long gone, man and farm swallowed by the past, yet here he stood before me. Here was the sunlight spilling in through that splendid skylight high overhead, diffused and muted a hundred shades of green and yellow by the boughs of the maples overhanging the workshop. Here was the long pine workbench, covered with wood, shavings, tools and sawdust, the back of a guitar the only recognizable shape amidst the clutter.
I remember that guitar. Janossy never did finish it, but I did. He was working on it when he died, the top and sides, braces and bridge, a one-piece back. It was the perfect guitar body and deserved the perfect neck. I came close, but I couldn't match his workmanship, couldn't match the neck he would have given it. In the dreams, he's still working on it.
Sandor Janossy had been an enormous man with a temperament to match, embracing everything that touched his life with a huge enjoyment that was evenly matched in its intensity by the strong contemplative side of his nature. He had lived with the immediacy of a Zen master in an ever-present now, viewing the world through the artless eyes of a child, seeing, rather than looking. Which wasn't to say that he was simple-or at least not in a pejorative sense. Instead he resisted complications, refused to be drawn into their snare.
"When you understand how everything in the world connects to everything else," he told me once, "you have little patience for more divisive points of view."
Case in point: the luthier's craft. Everything connects. Janossy was able to read the wood with a kind of feng-shui geomancy, finding in its grain energy nodes connected by lines as invisible, but no less potent, than the ley lines or Chinese Dragon paths that dowsers have found criss-crossing the earth. Building the perfect instrument is a matter of connecting those nodes, maintaining the energy flow between back and top and sides, neck and finger board and the main body of the instrument. When the nodes connect favourably, when the alignment of the ley lines within the wood are at their optimum, the instrument becomes a mirror that reflects the spirit of the music called up from it in the same way that the adherents of feng-shui believe what we do here on earth is mirrored by the astrological powers of the heavens.
Heady stuff for the young man I was when I first came to study under him-more so when I finally understood the ability firsthand.
"The master woodworkers all know this," Janossy would tell me. "Perhaps not in so many words, but they know when a wood will work with another and when it won't. They know that it's not simply the design or the thickness of the wood or the varnish that gives an instrument its heart and soul, but something else that lies hidden deep in the grain, something visible only when you know to look for it. Something that connects only when you understand the connection."
I've missed working with him, missed hearing his voice, missed viewing the world with that vision peculiar to his way of seeing that he was always willing to share with me. Returned to his company, howsoever briefly, even through dreams, I realized just how much.
But I knew I was dreaming. All the time, I knew. Not because I have the clarity of moving through my dreams the way a lucid dreamer does, but because Nia was in these dreams as well, sitting in a corner of Janossy's workshop the same way she sits in that corner of mine most afternoons after school, a misplaced figure of Gothic Bohemia here, all pale skin and black clothes and dark hair starkly juxtaposed against the warm buttery colours of the workshop.
Her presence was what told me I dreamed. Nia was barely out of her diapers by the time Janossy died which would make it impossible for her to meet him in this way. And consider this: while she loves to hold forth while I'm working, in these dreams she'd be remarkably quiet, sitting there, hands folded almost primly on her lap, listening to Janossy with the same happy interest as I did.
What did he tell us? It's difficult to articulate because what he said faded the same way that dreams can once you waken, the way my dreams almost invariably do. But I remember he seemed to be concerned about something. Seemed to be warning me about something. Or maybe that's only the meaning I gave the dreams later. I can't be sure now. All I knew then was that I'd wake up disappointed every morning, wake up and know it had been a dream, no more. Janossy was still dead, the farm was sold and gone and all I had of him is what he left me: the tools he passed on to me and my memories. Nothing has changed. Everything remains the same as always.
Until one night I wake from that dream to find myself in a stranger's room.
* * *
I sit up slowly, taking in my surroundings with mounting confusion. I know the momentary disorientation that can come from traveling or sleeping over at a friend's, that moment of half-asleep shock that quickly dispels once you realize where you are. But this is different. I haven't been traveling or visiting anyone. I'd spent the evening in my workshop, designing the inlay pattern for a mandolin that I was in the final stages of completing, then I went to bed in my own apartment, above the shop.
The stuttering light that comes in from the red neon sign outside the window of this room illuminates nothing even vaguely familiar. Not the bed, the furnishings, the posters on the wall. I don't know how anyone could fall asleep with a poster from one of the Aliens movies hanging over their bed. I certainly couldn't have-if I'd ever been in this room before, which I hadn't.
So this is impossible. More of the dream, I think, that's all, except now I've left Janossy and Nia behind and moved on to something new. But this dream has what the other didn't: I can taste my fear. I can smell the room. A trace of aftershave I don't use or recognize. The vague locker-room odor of a room that hasn't been aired in too long.
There were no smells in the dreams of Janossy.
But it must be a dream for nothing else makes sense. I pinch myself, but it does no good and feels too real. It doesn't help at all. I'm still not where I should be, in my own bed.
I look slowly from the grotesque poster to my reflection in the dresser mirror across the room. I can't look away. My heartbeat goes still and a deathly silence thickens around me. My ears fill with pressure. My lungs refuse to work and added to the room's unpleasant smell is the sudden sour odor of wet clay.
Deliberately I lift my arm. The reflection follows suit. I let the arm fall to my side again. I shake my head, unwilling to accept what I'm seeing. I want, more than I've ever wanted anything before, to turn away from the mirror, but my gaze is locked on the reflection I cast upon its surface with the same numbed fascination as one might view the scene of a particularly grisly accident. This goes beyond the impossible.
The face looking back at me isn't my own. It doesn't belong to anyone I have ever seen before in my life. Instead of my own features, I see those of a stranger reflected in the glass: early thirtysomething, which makes him at least five years younger than my own thirty-eight; hair, thick and dark, unruly from a night's sleep; face, handsome with chiseled features, cheeks and chin bristly with dark stubble; eyes appearing almost black in the poor light; nose, prominent and wide at the base; lips, sensual, but the mouth a bit too wide for the face. I feel like one of Rod Serling's hapless characters from an episode of The Twilight Zone. Slowly I get out of a stranger's bed and walk towards the mirror in a stranger's body. I lean close up to it, fingers stretched out until they meet the fingers of the stranger reflected on the cool surface of the glass.
I have to be dreaming, but I know in my heart I'm not. Not anymore. Janossy's workshop is long fled. So that means...that means I....
My lungs, once so still, begin to hyperventilate, drawing air in and out of the unfamiliar body I'm wearing at such a rapid rate that I sink to my knees in front of the dresser. I have to lean my head down upon its wooden top. The faint mahogany smell helps to center me. Something is wrong. Something is terribly wrong here, but the smell of the wood assures me that however alien the world has become, I'm not crazy. I might not recognize this room, or the body I'm wearing in it. The situation in which I find myself might be impossible. But it doesn't disprove what I know to be real. I have a past that doesn't incorporate this body or room. I have memories of an entire other life-my real life. I have no explanation for what's happened to me, but that doesn't change what I know to be true.
I'm not the man in the mirror. This isn't my bedroom. My name is Max Trader. I'm a luthier. I live some place else. No matter what my senses are telling me, those are the facts and they can't be changed. They're irrefutable. The smell of the wood assures me they're true for it was the smell of the wood that seduced me as a boy and so became the underlying mainstay of my life, defining who I am. If I can't believe the wood, then everything I've ever known is a lie and that I refuse to accept.
No. I know this: Wood, the smell of it, doesn't lie. Freshly-cut, with a saw, a chisel, a knife, roughly planed or sanded as smooth as a child's cheek. The sappy aroma always rises up into my nostrils, crowding out all other impressions. And if I mean to work that wood, then I apply what I've learned from my father and Janossy. First I have to crawl inside the wood and understand it from the inside out, for each piece is particular to itself. The swirling whisper of its grain, the resonance of its molecules vibrating against my fingers, and always the smell, the forest, the wood, the tree, distilled into that deep rich scent that rises from the smallest sliver that might lie in the palm of my hand.
Wood, its smell, working with it, handling it, taking tools to it, shaping it, once saved my life. Or at least saved what was left of my family which, at the time, was pretty much the same thing.
My mother's name was Abigail and she died when I was nine. She was found to have abdominal cancer, the growth was removed, the operation successful. But a year later, a check-up revealed the cancer had spread all over her internal organs. Her dying took several months. The loss of her broke my father, broke the bond that had knitted my family together the way disparate threads are woven together on a loom, entwined until they become one piece of cloth. When she died, the cloth unraveled into shreds.
My father's name was Jacob and he was a cabinetmaker, from a long line of cabinetmakers, but there was little work for him in his craft in those days. After the death of my mother, he returned to working on construction sites by day, a silent and withdrawn figure now, distanced from the rough camaraderie of his co-workers, but a hard worker. It was only in the evenings that he could retreat to his workbench in the basement and if not ease, at least temporarily forget his grief through the use of his tools and the richly ornamented furniture he made.
One evening, when I was eleven, I closed my schoolbooks, turned off the television set and went down the basement stairs to my father's workshop. My father looked up, but I said nothing. I sat down on a wooden stool in a corner, out of the way, hands folded on my lap-as quietly attentive as Nia in my dreams. My father regarded me for a long moment, then nodded slowly and returned to his work.
That was where the smell of the wood had first seduced me. That was where the familial bond was reknitted, where the distance between my father, myself and the memory of my mother was healed, not through words, but through the wood. Butternut, lacewood and mahogany. Bird's eye maple, red birch and hickory. We worked there together, boy and man, side by side at the long bench, making the cabinets and cupboards that grew increasingly more in demand until my father could quit the chancy employment at construction sites and devote his days to cabinetmaking full-time. Until I realized that it wasn't furniture that I wanted to wake from the wood, but music. I already played the guitar and, though not as well, a half-dozen other related stringed instruments; now, I slowly came to understand, I needed to learn how to actually build the objects that produced the sounds.
I could tell my father was torn between disappointment that I wanted to abandon the family business, and pride that I would continue to work in a demanding woodcraft. He was the one who contacted Janossy, a Hungarian luthier of his acquaintance, and arranged for me to apprentice under him.
I studied under Janossy for nine years, living on his farm outside the city, surrounded by wood-the forest, the log cabin, the weathered outbuildings, the firewood in winter, the shade trees in summer, the cedar pole fences, the apple orchard, and always the wood underhand in the workshop, sitting at the bench, hickory-handled tools, ryoba saw, slivers of wood curling up from the square blades of the chisels, sawdust underfoot.
I loved Janossy as I loved my father. They were of a kind, Old World men who took pride in their work, in the details. It was no surprise to me that this large and exuberant instrument-maker should also harbour the soul of a deep thinker, for in that he was like my father, too. But where Janossy shouted his emotions to the world in a voice bigger than life, my father kept his more private, and in that I took after him.
Now that I am a man myself, those that meet me will often describe me as solemn, thoughtful, even pensive, not realizing that the joy I gain from the details of my life lie inside me, like the smell of fresh-cut wood, instead of manifesting itself in boisterousness the way Janossy's did. I'm not an unhappy man. I'm not even particularly serious. I'm willing to accept everything at face value, by what it is rather than what it seems to be, which is, perhaps, why I think I'm able to handle my current predicament better than most might.
"So, no. I don't panic, though panic's waiting for me just beyond the careful ordering of my thoughts as I finally lift my head to face the stranger in the mirror once more. I don't panic, though I can feel the hysteria in my chest, a swelling presence that pushes against my hard-held calm. I don't panic, but once I've assured myself again that I am in fact awake and not dreaming, I have to seriously consider the possibility that if I haven't gone crazy, then the world around me has.
I try to be objective as I study the stranger I've so literally become, but I find objectivity has slipped away. It's become a capricious fancy dancing just beyond reach, something easy to imagine but impossible to embrace. If this nightmare is real, then the reality I've always accepted as the foundation upon which the world is constructed is now proven to be a lie. The principles of what can and can't be no longer hold. Nothing can be taken at face value again. Nothing can be trusted. Because if this can happen to me, then anything can happen. And it means that fate, god, whatever it is that oversees the running of the world, is not merely unpredictable, but malevolent.
That realization leaves me unable to do anything but stare at the reflection. It renders me immobile until the panic finally claws up my throat, a stifled scream finally freed.
"Wake up, damn you!" I shout.
I pick up the closest thing at hand-a small Inuit-styled stone sculpture-and throw it at the mirror. The glass shatters, spraying across the top of the dresser and onto the rug on which I'm kneeling. The sculpture bounces once off the mahogany top, then hits the floor and rolls into a corner. I pay no attention to where it goes. All I can do is stare at the scattering of mirror shards closest to hand where my stranger's features are reflected back at me, ten, twenty times. Dozens of tiny strangers regard me. Their only resemblance to the man I know myself to be is the hysterical terror I can see twisting the features of each of their unfamiliar faces.
2: ZEFFY LACERDA
Zeffy didn't want to get up. The digital glow of her alarm clock told her it was just past four in the morning and while it might be June, you'd never know it by the cool breeze coming in from the window she'd forgotten to close when she went to bed. But after she woke from a second dream of searching desperately for a bathroom, she finally pushed back the covers and slipped out of bed. She fumbled in the dark until she found and put on her slippers and the oversize flannel shirt that served as her housecoat. Hugging herself to keep warm, she opened the door to her bedroom and stepped out into the hall.
The light coming down the passageway from the kitchen on her right caught her gaze. She blinked at it in surprise, wondering sleepily what Tanya was doing up at this hour.
But first things first, she told herself. Another few moments and she'd be mopping up the hall.
She turned away from the light and made her way to the bathroom. Afterward, she walked back past her bedroom door, continuing on down the hall to the kitchen. Tanya was slouched at the kitchen table, facing her own reflection in the darkened window across from her. She didn't appear to be looking at it or anything else in particular. Her dark eyes had an unfocused, distant aspect about them.
Zeffy paused in the doorway to study her, struck as always by just how pretty her roommate was. For all her diminutive size, Tanya had the elegant beauty of the fashion model and actress she'd once been, a delicate, waifish quality that in no way diminished her womanly attributes. Zeffy was a slender, five-two herself, an inch taller than Tanya, but beside Tanya she always felt overweight-a little too top-heavy, a little too wide in the hips-even though she weighed slightly less than she should for her height.
It didn't help that Tanya could wear anything and look good in it. Adding insult to injury, or perhaps it was the real reason for her inherent appeal, Tanya had also been naturally blessed with traits that most women had to struggle to attain: a glowing complexion, luminous dark brown eyes and silky hair that was always perfect and never lost its shine. Looking at her, you'd never know that she'd once been a junkie.
Zeffy herself had to put up with the odd mix made by the coppery cast of her skin set against violet eyes and a tousled blaze of thick red hair that fell in corkscrew curls past her shoulders. She was sure that her heart-shaped face, combined with the wide set of her eyes and her slight overbite, had cosmeticians wanting to throw their hands up in helplessness whenever she came for advice to a make-up counter-if only in their minds.
But tonight Tanya's glow was diminished, swallowed by the obvious down turn of her mood, and she was smoking-something she only did when she was upset or depressed. She didn't even seem to be aware of Zeffy's presence until Zeffy finally pushed a stubborn lock of red hair out of her face and stepped into the kitchen.
"Hey," Zeffy said, taking one of the empty chairs.
"Hey, yourself," Tanya replied, looking up. "You can't sleep either?"
"Actually," Zeffy said, "I was pleasantly lost in dreamland except I had a cup of tea before going to bed and the curse of the Lacerda bladder did the rest. I was actually considering having a pee in an alley off Lee Street at one point."
Tanya's eyebrows rose. "When was this?"
"In my dream," Zeffy explained.
Tanya smiled. "Oh, one of those."
"What about you?"
"Just thinking," Tanya told her.
"Johnny call you again?"
Tanya shook her head. "No. That's just the problem."
"You've got to put him behind you," Zeffy told her. "All he's ever brought you is trouble."
""I know that." Tanya sighed. A stream of blue-grey smoke escaped from between her lips. "At least my head knows it. The message just hasn't got through to my heart yet."
"He told you he'd call?"
Tanya nodded. "But it's not like you're thinking." She got a rueful look. "Though maybe you'll think this is worse. I lent him some money and-"
"His rent was due and he was going to pay me back this weekend. What was I supposed to do?"
Zeffy got a sinking feeling. "How much did you lend him?"
"Just a couple of hundred dollars. He said he'd pay me back."
"Tanya, our rent is due on Wednesday."
Tanya looked so miserable that, as soon as she'd spoken, Zeffy wished she'd kept her mouth shut.
"I know," Tanya said.
"Do you have any money?"
Tanya shook her head. "Not till payday."
Well, wasn't that just perfect, Zeffy thought. Johnny Devlin gets to keep his apartment while they were probably going to be out on the street in his place. She did a quick mental calculation, but already knew that she couldn't cover Tanya's share as well as her own.
"I'm so sorry," Tanya told her. "I really thought he'd pay me back."
"It's okay," Zeffy said. "You meant well. I'm not mad at you, but if I had Johnny's neck in my hands right now...."
Zeffy had often cursed the day that Johnny Devlin walked into Kathryn's Café where she and Tanya worked as waitresses. They'd both been there for a few years now, ever since they'd finished college, appreciating the flexible hours which allowed them to have a little more freedom in their lives than they could find in the normal nine-to-five that most people had to face every day. It allowed them to "follow their own muses," as Wendy, one of other waitresses, put it.
Even if Johnny had simply come in to have a meal, it would have been all right. They'd seen him out and about in the clubs, hanging around the Market and Gracie Street, just another good-looking guy with big dreams and not enough energy to actually do anything about them. He hadn't paid much attention to them, nor they to him. Same social circles, but a different coterie of friends. If he'd come in, had something to eat and then left, everything would have been different. Except he'd wanted to order something from the specials board and then he had to know who'd written it up.
There was a running joke at Kathryn's with the specials board. When they'd first started working at the café, Tanya had gotten stuck with the job of writing up the day's specials and bright though she was, she'd always been an atrocious speller. The joke had started with her "crab sandwishes" and degenerated from there to "pee soup" and the like. At first Kitty, the owner, had made an effort to proof the boards before they went up, but everyone got such a kick out of them, from the staff to the customers, that Tanya's misspellings had become a part of the café's tradition. It had gotten to the point where they'd sit around during breaks and after hours, thinking up deliberately funny variations on the next day's specials.
Tanya had gotten a lot of teasing about it at first, though not from Zeffy. After all, who was she to ridicule somebody else's spelling when her own father, in a moment of hippie bliss, had decided to name his daughter Zeffer after what he thought was the spelling for the literary term for the west wind? But it could have been worse. He could have named her after the French word for seal.
The night Johnny came in they'd been offering "breaded soul and Trench fries" for the day's special. After Tanya owned up to it, she and Johnny got to talking. Johnny was so taken by her that he poured on the charm as only he could and they were an item within a week. The honeymoon lasted for a couple of weeks after that and then their relationship went into the first of its many downward spirals. Johnny was never abusive, so far as Zeffy could tell; his main crime was inconsideration. Not being where he said he'd be. Not calling when he said he would. Shamelessly running after girls who, god knew why, mistook his innate cunning for intelligence, his ability to always land on his feet for charm.
"What are we going to do?" Tanya said.
"Besides thump him on the side of the head?"
"I am being serious."
"I mean about our rent."
Zeffy sighed. "I don't know. We'll think of something."
"I really screwed up this time, didn't I?"
"You're just too trusting," Zeffy told her. "Especially when it comes to him."
"I always think, this time he really means it. This time he's going to change."
Well, guess again, Zeffy thought. She watched Tanya light up yet another cigarette. She hated to see Tanya smoking, but it sure beat having her cranking junk into her veins again.
"We'll work something out," she said. "Maybe we can even get the money back from him. When was his rent due?"
"Well, scratch that idea. But we're not going to let him get away this. We'll go by his place first thing in the morning-you're working the breakfast shift this week, aren't you?" When Tanya nodded, Zeffy went on. "Me, too. So we'll stop by on the way to work."
"You're not going to get all pissed off at him, are you?"
How someone could be as intelligent as Tanya, yet so blind when it came to Johnny Devlin, Zeffy just couldn't understand.
"What can you still see in him?" she asked. "What's he ever done for you but bring you grief?"
"I know. I guess I just feel sorry for him."
"That is not a good basis for a relationship," Zeffy said.
"I don't think there is such a thing as a good relationship."
"Sure there is. We just haven't found one yet, that's all. The thing to do is to be happy with yourself, with what's in your own life, then if a relationship comes along it's a bonus, something to enjoy instead of the thing your life revolves around."
"Easier said than done," Tanya said.
She lit a new cigarette from the one she was smoking, stubbing the old butt out in an already over-flowing ashtray. Zeffy watched a thin thread of smoke rise from the old butt. By the time the top of the thread reached the light overhanging the table, the bottom of it had already come apart, disappearing the way of an unfulfilled dream.
Zeffy sighed. "This is true. I guess it's one of those things that only sound good in theory."
"Like being in love."
"Are you really in love with him?" Zeffy asked.
Tanya took a moment to consider the question.
"I don't think so," she said finally. "It's more like the equation's incomplete. It's not exactly over, but it's not really on anymore either."
"You know what I think?" Zeffy said.
Tanya shook her head.
"I think you should try to get some sleep and we'll work this all out tomorrow."
"You think I'm being stupid, don't you?"
Zeffy smiled. "Stupid's such a harsh word. I think confused is more the way I'd describe you right now."
"I can be such an ass."
Zeffy's smile faded. "Don't beat up on yourself, Tanya. There's only one person to blame for this mess and we'll deal with him tomorrow morning."
"Okay." Tanya butted out her cigarette. "I'll try. But don't expect any miracles."
"No miracles," Zeffy agreed. "Just your money. And maybe an apology."
Tanya started to hum the old Buddy Holly hit That'll Be the Day. When Zeffy flung a napkin at her and headed off to bed, she launched into the lyrics as only Tanya could-lines out of order, melody slightly off-key. Lying in her bed once more, Zeffy could still hear the song as Tanya washed up in the bathroom. She folded her pillow over her ears and tried in vain to get to sleep, but it was only when Tanya finally broke off singing and went into her own bedroom that Zeffy thought she could. She burrowed deeper under the covers, then sat up in frustration.
"Damn," she muttered.
She had to go the bathroom again.
I don't wake up.
I don't wake up because I'm not dreaming. I know for sure when I finally get up from the floor. Using the dresser as leverage, I push myself to my feet and immediately cut my foot on one of the mirror shards that scattered across the rug earlier. I sit down on the edge of the bed to assess the damage, lifting my foot to my knee. The cut's on my instep and doesn't appear to be deep, but I have trouble concentrating on it. Everything's wrong: the unfamiliar shape of the foot, its toes, the ankles, the calf resting on a knee bonier than I know mine to be, the fingers of the hand holding the foot in place.
Don't, I tell myself. Don't look at the differences, don't even think about them.
But it's impossible not to. I force myself to study the cut, wiping blood away from it with my finger. A drop falls free, staining the beige carpet underfoot. I don't look at it. Instead, I lift my finger to my lips. The faint metallic taste of the blood and the ebbing pain of the cut are what convince me to accept that this is real. That I'm not dreaming. That impossible though it might be, I'm inhabiting someone else's body, bleeding somebody else's blood onto their carpet.
I get up and go looking for a bathroom. Avoiding the mirror, I find a box of bandages in the medicine cabinet and take one out of it. I lower the toilet seat cover and sit down, wash the cut, dry it with toilet paper, cover it with the bandage. When I finally dare a look at the mirror, the stranger is still there on the other side of the glass, putting a lie to who I think I am.
Maybe my memories are the lie, I find myself thinking. Maybe I have a mental disorder, some sort of schizophrenia. Maybe I suffer from multiple personalities and live any number of different lives.
Then I study my hands. These aren't the hands of a woodworker. There are no calluses on these hands from using tools, no cuts or scrapes from all the little unavoidable accidents that happen in even the most organized workshop. They aren't even the hands of a musician-at least not one who plays a stringed instrument. The tips of the fingers are as devoid of calluses as the rest of the hands.
But I know how to work wood and play an instrument. The memories, the knowledge of my craft and tools, are too clear for me to be imagining them. No one could construct an entire lifetime the way I hold the past in my head. No one could make that much up, with so much detail.
"I can't deal with this," I say.
I put a hand to my mouth, startled by the sound, by the stranger's voice that echoes in the confines of the bathroom. Panic arises again, shortening my breath, tightening my chest, making me dizzy, but this time I fight it off successfully.
I have to adapt to the situation, I tell myself. I have to keep a clear head so that I can find out what was going on, so that I can get my own life back. I think of something my father told me once. "We're an adaptable species, Max. That's how we survive. We can put up with the most horrendous, disorienting experiences and pretend they're normal, just to survive. We might not like where we are, or what's happening to us, but we deal with it. God knows, we even get used to it. Those that don't, don't survive."
I suppose it's true. It's not something I ever thought much about-never had the need to. But my father was right. I have to learn to deal with this. Or at least try. But I'll never get used to it. Not and stay sane. I can only deal with it as a stop-gap measure, as a way to get back the life that belongs to me.
Determined to do something constructive, I leave the bathroom and go looking for something to tell me whose apartment this is, whose body I'm borrowing.
There isn't much to the apartment. I flick on lights as I explore, recognizing nothing I see. Besides the bedroom and the bathroom I just left, there's a living room and kitchen. Going through the fridge and kitchen cupboards, I have to assume the apartment's owner ate most of his meals out because there's nothing much here. He also appears to be a serious movie buff, since the only decorations are movie posters, even here in the kitchen.
I go on into the living room and take in its spartan furnishings. An inexpensive Ikea couch and chair set, pine frames, striped blue cushions. A pine coffee table. An entertainment center holding a fairly impressive stereo, VCR and television set. The center itself is made of pressboard, covered with a black veneer. There are no books, but plenty of video tapes. The titles of the movies, like the posters on the walls, run mostly towards action/adventure and horror. I sift through the scattering of CDs on the coffee table. The majority are contemporary heavy metal with a few old dinosaur bands thrown in for good measure: Aerosmith. Pink Floyd. ZZ Top.
I'm not learning much, I realize as I go back into the kitchen, except that the owner of this apartment and I have very little in common. I find an empty paper bag under the sink and take it back into the bedroom where I fill it with the broken glass from the mirror. The Inuit statue was made of soapstone and it's broken, too, so I add the pieces to the glass already in the bag. The statue was the only incongruity. I know next to nothing of the apartment's occupant, but it doesn't seem to go with the rest of the man's taste. Must have been a gift.
I leave the bedroom and put the bag of glass beside the garbage under the sink. That task completed, I begin to explore the bedroom.
The closet seems to belong to two different people. Office wear and casual, I decide. One side holds a half-dozen dark suits, white shirts and ties, the other casual shirts with a stack of blue jeans folded on the floor. Suddenly conscious of my relative nudity-all I'm wearing are the boxer shorts I woke up in-I take a pair of jeans from the top of the stack. They look too small, but I try them on anyway. Naturally, they're a perfect fit. Returning to the dresser, I find a white T-shirt in one of its drawers, stuffed in amongst a tight wad of underwear, socks and other T-shirts, and put it on as well.
Since I only ever wear socks with my cowboy boots in the winter, I close the drawer and pick up the pair of sneakers that are standing beside the bed. As I sit down to put them on, my gaze falls on what I've been looking for all along: a worn brown leather wallet that's lying with a pile of loose change beside the digital alarm clock.
I finish tying my laces, then pick up the wallet. The first card I take out is a driver's license. The familiar stranger I keep seeing in mirrors looks out at me from the laminated photograph on the license. I read the name: John Devlin. Thirty-one years old. The address is on Grasso Street, just off Palm. A hop, skip and a jump north of the heart of the Combat Zone, which makes sense, considering the red neon sign outside the window.
The other identification confirms the first piece. There's no automobile license or insurance, so it seems that Devlin doesn't own a car, but what is here all bears the same name. Credit cards. A birth certificate. Odd to carry that around. At his age, Devlin wasn't likely to get carded going into a bar. There's seventy-six dollars in cash. Some scraps of paper with unfamiliar names on them, accompanied by phone numbers. First names, all women.
So who are you, John Devlin? Did you do this to me, or are you waking up somewhere, feeling just as confused as I am?
Waking up somewhere....
The implication of that hits me. Was this John Devlin sitting in my apartment, going through my wallet right now, trying to figure out what had happened to him? It makes sense-as much as anything can in this situation. Surely the phenomenon is restricted to only the two of us. Surely the whole world hasn't woken up inhabiting somebody else's body...has it?
I glance at the clock, then laugh at myself. What does it matter if it's just past five in the morning? I'm not about to stand on protocol at a moment like this.
Going back to the closet, I take a sports jacket off a hanger and put it on, stuffing the wallet into my pocket. Like the jeans, it looked too small, but it's a perfect fit. So I'm ready to go and then the doorbell rings.
I jump, startled at the sound, not even recognizing it for a long moment. Disorientation hits me again. I've been feeling guilty the whole time I've been snooping through the apartment. I know it makes no sense, given my circumstances, but I can't help it. Now I feel caught. Trapped.
When the doorbell sounds again, I'm expecting it, but no more willing to answer it than the first time it rang. What would I say to whoever's at the door? How can I tell if I'm even supposed to know the person?
Whoever's standing out in the hall is leaning on the bell now. The sound of its ringing goes through the apartment in a continuous, irritating peal and I get the feeling that it's not anyone that John Devlin would want to see either.
I go out into the living room and stand in front of the door, not knowing what to do. There's no peep-hole, so I can't even see who's out there. Not without opening the door.
When the bell finally stops, the silence seems infinite.
"Bastard!" I hear a woman say on the other side of the door, her voice muffled but still clear enough to make out.
I step closer, leaning my head near the wood to hear what else she might say. She kicks the door, making me jump again.
"I'll bet he's in there," the woman goes on, obviously talking to someone with her. "I'll bet he's standing on the other side of this door right now, laughing at us." The door shakes as she kicks it again. She raises her voice. "Aren't you, Johnny?"
I don't dare breathe. The time might come when I'll have to interact with Devlin's friends and be forced to pretend I'm Devlin-something I'll have to do or they'll think I'm crazy. But there's no way I'm going to deal with whatever woman-problems Devlin might have as well.
These women...why don't they just go away?
But the one at the door doesn't appear at all ready to give up. I back away from the door when she gives it another kick.
4: TANYA BURNS
"Maybe this isn't such a good idea," Tanya said.
She felt really uncomfortable and kept looking up and down the hall, waiting for someone to yell at them as Zeffy kicked at Johnny's door. Zeffy had a lot of endearing qualities, but keeping her temper in check wasn't one of them. Nor was patience.
Tanya touched Zeffy's arm. "Let's come back after work."
"No way," Zeffy told her, obviously in high confrontation mode. "I'll be damned if I'll let him think he's getting away with it this time."
"He's probably asleep."
"With all the lights on?"
Tanya shrugged. "So maybe's he's not home. Let's just go."
"Uh-uh," Zeffy said. "If I had to get up a half-hour early to get here, he can at least have the decency to bloody well get up and tell us he hasn't got your money."
"But we already know that...."
"Oh, please," Zeffy said.
She turned her attention back to the door, arms akimbo. Drawing back her foot, she gave the door a good kick with her combat boot, adding another dent to the ones she'd already put there in the cheap wood.
"Zeffy, don't," Tanya tried.
"Don't what? If he's not there, what does it matter what I do or say? And if he is, maybe it's time he learned that he can't smooth-talk his way out of everything. Besides, I think he's there." Bang. She kicked the door again. "Why else would his lights be on? Isn't that right, Johnny? Are you getting off on this?"
The door took another thump. All Tanya wanted to do was leave. She appreciated what Zeffy was trying to do, but it was just no good with Johnny. He operated on his own time and besides, Zeffy was probably going to put her foot right through the door any minute and then where would they be? Johnny'd probably sue them in small claims-or his landlord would. She was considering leaving on her own and hoping Zeffy would follow when she heard a door open down the hall and her worst fear was realized.
She turned to look at the man standing there in his underwear-boxing shorts and muscle shirt, neither of which looked particularly appealing on him because he was grossly overweight. But big. And angry. His broad face had gone red and he was glaring at them.
"You want to shut the hell up?" he said. "People are trying to sleep."
"Don't get me started on you," Zeffy told the man.
Tanya could tell that all fired up as she was at the moment, Zeffy was beyond any sense of propriety-or common sense. This was so embarrassing.
"Started with what?" the man asked, the threat obvious in his voice.
"Zeffy...." Tanya tried.
"Okay, okay," Zeffy said. "Listen, I'm sorry we got you up, mister, but we've got a problem here."
"Only problem I see is you and the noise you're making."
"So we're going already," Zeffy told him, mimicking his voice. "That make you happy?" She turned back to the door. "But we'll be back, Johnny," she added and gave it another kick.
"That does it," the man said.
He came barreling down the hall and before either of them knew what to do, he'd grabbed Zeffy by the shoulder and shoved her up against the wall.
"Punks like you need to be taught a little respect," he said.
"Hey," Zeffy said, pawing at his arm. "I said we were going."
She tried to get out from under his grip but he shoved her again, hard enough to make her head thump against the plaster. Tanya winced. That had to have hurt.
"You leave her alone!" she cried.
The man turned to look at her, holding Zeffy pressed against the wall with one hand on her back.
"Or you'll do what?" he asked.
Before Tanya could think of something conciliatory to defuse the situation, Zeffy kicked the man in the back of the knee. His leg gave out, making him stumble to one side, against the wall. This time it was his head that banged on the plaster. By the time he turned from the wall, Zeffy hadscooted over to where Tanya was standing. The man's face got redder, his hands clenched into fists.
Oh shit, Tanya thought. This was way out of hand.
"Okay, little lady," the man said. There was a mean glint in his eyes now that made Tanya shiver. "I guess I'm going to have to teach you a serious lesson."
There was no where to run. The hall behind them ended in a closed door and the man was blocking their escape to the stairwell. Tanya could hardly breathe she was so scared. When she glanced at Zeffy, she saw that her roommate was still mad-but there was fear in her eyes, too. Still, Zeffy was never one to give up.
"Look," she tried. "Why don't we just all calm down-"
She had to duck to one side as the man swung at her. The sudden movement made her lose her balance. Tanya tried to stop her from falling, but somehow they both ended up on the floor in a tangle of limbs with the man looming over them.
"So you like to kick people, do you?" he said, drawing a foot back.
I can't catch everything that's being said-not without putting my ear to the door and risk being deafened as the woman named Zeffy keeps kicking at the door. Zeffy. What kind of a name is that? But I hear enough to realize that the two women aren't friends of Devlin's. All the more reason to pretend I'm not here.
I try to remember if there's a fire escape outside any of the apartment's windows. Discretion being the better part of valor and all, I figure the best solution at this point is to find an alternative exit and leave the women out in the hall to direct their anger at an empty apartment. It seems like a terrific idea until I hear a man's voice, telling the women something I can't make out. That's followed by a sound I can't identify, a kind of scuffling, and then the hollow thump of something hitting a wall.
Not something, I realize, but someone. It's not my business, but I can't ignore what's going on now. I've got no idea what any of this is about, who's to blame, but I know I can't leave the women out there on their own-not if they're being assaulted. So much for keeping a low profile, I think.
I take a deep breath and open the door. It's gotten more out of hand than I'd thought, but my sudden appearance freezes the participants in mid-tussle. The women lie in a struggling heap on the floor, trying to disentangle themselves from each other as the man aims a kick at them. Three faces turn to me, none of them familiar. For a long moment I can't take my gaze from the redhead-I've never seen such violet eyes before-then I step out into the hall, in between the women and the man threatening them. The man has a mean look in his eyes that I've seen before on other faces. He's enjoying this-or at least he was until I interrupted him.
"Let's all just calm down," I say, startled again at the unfamiliar sound of my voice.
"Look, buddy," the man begins. "If you can't keep your girlfriends from-"
I fix a smile on my lips. Holding up a hand, I concentrate maintaining a sense of calm, hoping to forestall the man from working himself up any more than he already has. In his present state, he won't need much of an excuse to just start in swinging.
"I'm sorry," I say. I keep my voice pitched low, my stance non-threatening. "I was sleeping and I didn't realize there was anything going on out here until just a moment ago."
I turn slightly to help the women to their feet without looking away from the man. The dark-haired women takes my hand, but she's quick to let go once she was standing. The redhead refuses my help. They're all looking at me a little oddly, which doesn't surprise me. They obviously expected me to know them. I wish I could play the game out convincingly, but I'm not that good of actor and I don't know my part. I can't hide my lack of recognition. I wonder which one of them is Zeffy and what their relationship to Devlin is. The man isn't too hard to figure out. He obviously came from the apartment down the hall where a door's still standing ajar.
"Let's just call it a night, okay?" I say.
The calming effect I'm aiming for seems to be working. The red flush of anger is fading from the man's face and he's beginning to look a little sheepish.
"I'm a working stiff," he says. "I need my sleep."
I nod. "And no one meant to disturb you. We'll keep it down, I assure you."
"Yeah, you'd better do that," the man says, regaining some of his bluster. He rolls his shoulders and I expect him to start flexing his muscles next, but he backs off instead and slowly makes his way back to his apartment.
I wait until the man has closed his door before returning my attention to the two women once more. Now what do I do?
"'I assure you'?" the redhead says, looking at me like I've grown a third eye. "Well, doesn't that have a nice ring to it."
I don't know what to say. I step back from the doorway to Devlin's apartment.
"I suppose you'll want to come inside," he say, ushering them in.
Neither of them moves towards the door.
"I...I think we should go," the dark-haired woman says.
The redhead stares at me as though she's trying to figure something out. The other woman looks like she's on the verge of tears, but there's something else in her eyes as well, a whisper of fear that makes me feel a little sick. She's a beautiful woman. There's something almost angelic about her, which makes the fear I can see in her seem all the more out of place. Had the man whose body I'm occupying treated her badly? And just how badly? I can't see any bruises. She's wearing a loose-fitting jacket over a pair of dark slacks. Who knows what they're hiding.
The redhead puts a comforting hand on the other woman's arm.
"We'll go," she says to her friend. "But not just yet." She straightens her shoulders and faces me, head on. "First we want the money you owe Tanya."
By the way the redhead glances at her companion as she speaks, I assume the dark-haired woman is Tanya. Which makes the redhead Zeffy. I can't get over her amazing eyes. They're like bright violet amethysts, made more startling by the way they stand out against the slightly copper cast of her skin and contrasting sharply with the flood of her red hair. She doesn't have the same immediate beauty as Tanya-her appeal comes from deeper inside her-but I feel a surge of attraction towards her that I don't feel towards her friend. I haven't had this kind of instant reaction to a woman in a long time. Unfortunately, the appreciation obviously isn't being reciprocated.
"Earth to asshole," she says. "Are you still there?"
I blink. "I'm sorry. What money was this?"
Zeffy gives me a disgusted look. "Jesus, you really are a piece of work, aren't you?"
You're blowing it, I tell myself. Considering what I have to work with, it isn't really surprising, but I try to recover.
"No," I say. "I know the money you're talking about. It was kind of, uh, Tanya, to be as patient as she's been. I mean, you've been kind," I add, managing to look away from Zeffy and include the other woman in the conversation. "What I was trying to say was, how much was it that I owe you? I, uh, I've forgotten the amount."
They're both looking at me strangely-Zeffy's confusion coloured with irritation, Tanya's with hurt. The whisper of fear I saw in Tanya's eyes is growing. She tugs at Zeffy's sleeve.
"I just want to go," she says. Her voice is small, as though the words are choking in her throat.
Zeffy nods, but doesn't look at her. "It was three hundred dollars," she tells me.
I remember the money I counted in Devlin's wallet. "I've got-I think it was seventy-six dollars."
"That'll do-for starters."
I pull out the wallet and hand over Devlin's money. "I'm sorry I don't have the rest of it yet."
"When will you have it?" Zeffy asks.
"I...." Tell her anything, I think. "In a week?"
"Zeffy, please," Tanya says.
Zeffy's features are noticeably warmer when she turns to her friend. "We're going now," she says. She stuffs the money in the pocket of her jacket. The coldness returns to her eyes as soon as she looks back at me. "We'll be back for the rest."
"In a week," I repeat.
I feel safe with that time-frame. This is Devlin's problem, so let him deal with it. I can't imagine the situation I'm in lasting out the day, little say dragging on for a week. Though I don't mind having had the chance to meet this Zeffy. I like her spunk, the way she won't back down, not to the man in the hall earlier and not to me now. I just wish I'd been able to meet her under different circumstances, that I could be myself and not have her so angry with me-or rather, so angry with Devlin. I'm just the one who has to stand in for the jerk.
This is one you owe me, Devlin, I think.
"You've got your week," Zeffy tells me. "Your tab's now standing at two-hundred-and-twenty-four dollars."
"We should be charging you interest."
She looks at me as though she's just come upon a bug, a nightcrawler skittering around the rim of her bathtub, a cockroach that scurried deeper into her bedclothes as she turned back her bed. I want to say something, to explain that I'm not this John Devlin and would never treat anybody the way he'd obviously been treating them, but what can I say that won't make me sound like a lunatic? So I stand there, accepting her disapproval in silence. Finally, she shakes her head, speaking a volume of censure in that simple movement. Taking Tanya by the arm, she leads her off down the hall.
I watch them go. Not until they've turned at the stairwell and are lost from sight do I step back inside the apartment.
Well, I think as I close the door. That went really well, didn't it?