Thursday, July 03, 2008

Excerpts from a Diary


Explanatory Note


A couple of weeks ago, I came home one afternoon to find a large envelope leaning against the wall beneath my mailbox. It was addressed to me, but had no return address. When I opened it, I found the diary.

Well, not exactly. When I opened it, I found a book with a gray cloth cover, dark green at the binding. The kind of thing accountants might once have used. Except that this one had pictures pasted in. And handwriting, not numbers. Only when I read a couple of pages did I realize it was a diary.

A strange sort of diary. For one thing, it had no dates, and many of its pages had obviously been torn out. For another, the entries that remained were not chronological. But I didn't figure that out until later.

Then, that first afternoon, I was mainly just curious, and a little reluctant to intrude. Who could have sent me such a thing? I had no idea. There was no note, and the events described in the few entries I read were unfamiliar. But there was the envelope, with my name and address on it.

So, over the next few days, I read it. Maybe I shouldn’t have. But I did. At first, I thought an explanation would turn up. A phone call. A letter. As I read further, of course, I understood that none would.

And that it's time to go.

Godspeed.

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Excerpts

Every morning I hear this sound. Like coughing. Outside the window. But not coughing. Too uniform. Two sounds repeated. Over and over for, what? Maybe ten minutes. Every morning. Could be a dog, I guess. Or elderly asthmatics fucking. Elderly German asthmatics. I can hear it now.

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Other mornings D and I go walking under the powerlines. Near the shacks where the flower workers live. There are flowers under the powerlines. I noticed for the first time yesterday how strangely they glow.

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I saw a man spritzing his dog. He had one of those spray bottles, like people use on their plants. Lucky dog. It was hot today. Except that every time the guy spritzed, the dog became a little harder to see. Like he was fading away. Like he was being erased.

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J came to see me yesterday. We sat in the living room for a long while without talking. I knew something was wrong. Finally, she tells me. The light in the room was intense. That kind of orange you see when you close your eyes in the sun. I had no idea what to say to her. On the television, an astronaut got out of his spaceship and walked. On the moon.

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Thanksgiving in Boston. Heroin in the Copley Plaza. Family in the next room. M drinking pepto bismol from the bottle. Didn’t help. Pink splashes all the way to Beacon Street. Like those crumbs in the story.

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In the desert. Small errors add up, said R. That’s the thing about the digital world that’s coming. Everything will be rounded; half of it will be rounded wrong. All we do is supply a little extra. On the margin. Just a little. And there it is. Induced entropy.

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Slug's last night. Scary past the bikers. Afterward, Leon Thomas followed O home to L’s place. They went into the bathroom and didn’t come out.

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Had that dream again. The one about flying. Vast cerulean emptiness. Fast and shiny. A strange smell. Nausea even in sleep. Then jagged corroded metal. Like twisted monuments. Like Europe After the Rain.

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Max’s with J and L. Chickpeas on the tables. Iggy Pop playing upstairs. In the backroom, under my favorite neon sculpture, who do we see but the people from that concert upstate. Pretty chic hangout for folks like that. Later, we went to their place in the West Village. Nice old brownstone. On 11th Street.

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Dropped acid with J. Went to the grocery store to look at the bread. The amazing cellular structure of white bread. There was a little controversy as we were leaving, but we got home okay.

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R, it turns out, teaches at Columbia. Engineering. A geek, but interesting. Came out here to participate in that action. Has some ideas about computers and politics. About engineering and politics. About the future. We listen.

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The beach yesterday. East Hampton Main. Mist everywhere. You couldn’t really see more than a few yards, although, overhead, you could tell it was sunny. Then, late in the afternoon, it started to clear. And there, far down the beach, were parapets. With flags on top. Pennants. Like a carnival. Like a medieval castle. Rich men’s houses. Fading in and out as the mist swirled.

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Standing in front of Gem Spa enjoying an egg cream when a riot breaks out. Urchins roll marbles under mounted cops. Cops go berserk. Dismount, chase urchins, catch one. Crowd gathers, the usual junkies and malcontents. Cops call for reinforcements, who arrive and start bashing crowd. Too bad you don’t have a back door, I say to the Gem Spa guy. Oh but we do, sir, allow me to direct you. At least I think that’s what he said.

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Went to that concert with L. Had to hitch all the way up the Thruway. It was a bust. Rained for three days. All we had was this plastic drop cloth we bought in a hardware store before we left. I hate mud. We met some people though. Let us sit in their tent for a while, out of the rain. Had some interesting ideas about explosives.

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It’s been awhile. In transit since the accident. The presumed accident. The desert is beautiful. City lights far, far away, glowing just below the horizon.

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R was over earlier. Guy comes into his office the other day, says there’s something wrong here. Guy runs the Columbia structural integrity software on the university mainframes up in Connecticut. Been checking the numbers on that project downtown. The world’s ugliest buildings. Says the results are okay, but some of them shouldn’t be. We knew this day would come. Then, strangely, we don’t see the guy again.

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Three nights ago there was a thunderstorm. Couldn’t actually see the city lights with all the atmosphere, but there was still a glow on the undersides of the clouds. About twenty minutes into the storm it goes dark. We think nothing of it. The next night was clear, but we still couldn’t see the lights. Nor the next. S set out this morning in the truck. We need to know what happened.

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Sitting on a bench in Riverside Park, watching some people struggle with a child. Fall. A crow flies down and lands in the leaves near my bench. He’s looking at me, not like a bird but straight on. Then he speaks. I’m so blown away I don’t hear what he says. When I ask, he kind of hops around so his back is to me, shrugs and flies off.

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Bridge over the Mississippi went down last night. One of those retrofits from 1977. The third I know of. Like R said. Small errors, amplified by time.

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S back from the city. Strange guy sleeping in the back of the truck. R, she says. The last of the Pump Handle Gang. From the song. Pump don’t work ‘cause the vandals took the handle. Phreaks fiddling with the power grid. Either the thing got out of hand, or that’s how they planned it, but the lights are still out.

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Hanging at T’s, watching the news in Spanish last night when the guy next to me says you know he’s on drugs, right? Reagan? I say. No doubt. No, seriously, the guy says. I used to sell to Nancy when they were in Santa Barbara. PCP mostly. A little acid when the Bushes came to visit. I cleaned the pool. The Secret Service guys knew me. Let me come and go. The guy finishes his drink and gets up. Don’t believe me? he says. Guy named Hinkley’s going to take a shot at him next week. Except not really. Just an opportunity for a little detox. Stay tuned.

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Guy R is doing his thesis for is some French computer guru. One thing they’re working on is this structural integrity program. Supposedly tells you whether your building’s going to fall down. Or your bridge. They think it might become the architectural engineering standard. Way better than anything you could do with a slide rule, R says. Or those CRC tables. Got a whole team assembled for it.

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Spent some time with my brother last week. We get high, and he gets himself a bowl of ice cream from the fridge. Doesn’t offer me any, though. Thinks I’ve had too many good things already. Or maybe he’s remembering that day I pushed him off the roof. I get my own.

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Went down to R’s lab to meet him the other night and who do I see but the guy from Gem Spa. Don’t know if he recognized me. He didn’t say anything. Neither did I. When I asked R about it he said oh yeah, we put him in charge of rounding. I couldn’t really tell if he was joking.

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I love the idea that metal gets tired. I mean, why wouldn’t it? Stone too. All these natural things conscripted into an unnatural world. They’re sick of us.

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On the Astor Place platform that day, the Lexington local pulled in and stopped but I didn’t get on. I was still standing there when I heard the explosion. Went up the stairs and out onto the street. Back at Gem Spa the cops were getting into their cars and taking off, fast, lights but no sirens. Heading west. I go east to my place. About two hours later, L pulls up in a borrowed pickup truck. Her friend S riding shotgun. Get in, she says. Gotta go.

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Sitting around on the porch with D yesterday evening. Guy comes walking up the path that passes our gate. Stops, opens it, comes in. It’s R. Looking just like he did that day in the desert 30 years ago. Say hello to your uncle R, I tell D’s kids. They look like I just introduced them to the devil. Don’t know what she’s been telling them.

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Naturally, we weren’t surprised when they fell down. They were supposed to fall down. People said it was the gasoline or whatnot. It wasn’t. They would have fallen anyway. Just not right then.

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And so we live here now. In peaceful prosperity. By the greenhouses where the flowers grow. And the tracks. On which every week or so another migrant falls asleep and is cut in half. That’s what the papers say, anyway.

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New Orleans. A new paradigm. In which government, the last bulwark against an entropic sea, ignominiously sinks. Ashes to ashes, all fall down.

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Still, this compartmentalization is a little wearisome. We never see the old faces, never hear from them either. I’d love to know what happened with air traffic control. And monetary policy. It’s okay, though. We don’t need to know. We just stay away from airplanes and banks.

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Testwell, they called it. Thirty-year concrete. Another innovation from those Columbia cadres. Something about the atomic structure of the silica. Stronger than any regular concrete. At least for a while. But then both brittle and tending to crumble. Of all the supposedly peer-reviewed articles in engineering journals advocating its use, only two suggested that possibility. Maybe it was just the Seventies. I mean, everyone was high.

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At the beach yesterday I watched a fat man fishing. He was reeling them in. After a while he sat down and ate his lunch, but you could tell he was still hungry. Suddenly, down by the water, a candy bar. Still in its wrapper. He tears into it. Then staggers a little as the hook rips through his cheek. A strangled sound, and he’s gone. I look around, but no one else seemed to notice.

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Can’t stay here, R says. You’re 50 miles from San Onofre. Trust me. We worked on that project. Even a slight shake will bring it down now. You’ll have about two hours before the plume gets here. That’s not enough. It’s time to go.

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New York was just too hard, D said last night. Too much envy. Too much anger. That’s what we do now. Reminisce about the old days. But she’s right. I don’t know what the last straw was, but for a long time after we left I remembered a scene on East 72nd. Two limos. One had cut the other off. From the back windows, two well-dressed guys screaming fuck you at each other. On one of the few balmy evenings of that year.

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One last thing, he says. Get rid of that book. I understand, of course. I’ve already destroyed most of it. But not all. But I have a plan. Two years ago, not long after we came here, I was walking into T's one day when a guy I once knew walks out. He kind of nodded, but that was it. When I asked the bartender, he said sure, I know him, his name’s G. Lives down in Cardiff.

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Last night we wandered up Park Avenue South to that cafeteria on the corner of 28th. What’s it called? The Belmont? Where all the cabbies eat. A dozen cabs double parked outside. Half with the keys in. We pick a nice one. Couple blocks later someone actually hails us. We take them up to Grand Central. Forgetting, naturally, to turn on the meter. It’s on us, we say. Why not. If they think anything’s wrong, they don’t show it. We ride that cab all the way to Montreal.

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So to finish that story. With the cops pretty close, we duck back through the door, which Gem Spa guy jams with a broom handle. In the back is a store room. In the floor, a trap door. Under the trap door, wooden stairs. Like a ladder almost, or a ship’s stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, a corridor. With a door at its end. He opens it for me with a key and I’m on the Astor Place subway platform, a train just pulling in. Here you are, sir. And godspeed, he says.

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Epilogue




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