Authors: Glen Duncan
Harper, pacing, makes notes, seems eventually oblivious of the guards, one of whom is soon frankly asleep. Augustus makes the information last because he knows what's coming when it dries up. As kids it was the same with an ice-cream or candy bar: Sooner or later no matter your contortions it was gone.
Harper returns to the chair facing him and places his hands on its back. “I'm a fan of yours,” he says. “Narcissistically. You remind me of myself. We've got a lot in common.”
“Apart from good looks?” The survival habit says talk, establish reason, humor, a basis for the appeal to compassion.
“Sure,” Harper says. “Mixed blood for a start. My father was half-Swiss half-English, my mother second-generation Russian-American. Not quite your cocktail but enough to make me impatient with categories.”
One of the guards stretches his legs and his foot nudges the canvas bag. Augustus feels the muffled clink in his teeth, skull, kneecaps, sees televised surgery's clamped open cavity and rubber gloved doctors rootling the organs, shoving a stomach out of the way or holding a satiny heart up to the camera. He wishes he could just for a moment wrap his arms around himself.
“Your mother was Italian,” Harper says.
“Straighten it out for me.”
“Her father was from Dutch immigrants, her mother Italian. I never knew my father but obviously I know what color he was.”
“That's some misbehavior for a white girl in the forties.”
“She got her marching orders for it.”
“She was a resourceful woman,” Augustus says. Harper nods, concedes the bad taste of his allusion. Avoiding the hackneyed matters to him, Augustus perceives. The man's been doing this long enough for an aesthetic to emerge.
“So I'm picturing it,” Harper says. “You grow up at the black end of East Harlem in the fifties. Next door the Italians are giving way to the Puerto Ricans. You're not really Italian and you're not really black. There's your mother, but she's white. Catholic, presumably.”
“So that's your shelter for a while until your own intelligence evicts you. You're looking for a home. Passionate half-breeds always are.”
Augustus says nothing.
“I speak of home metaphorically,” Harper says. “Something abstract to which your concrete self's irrelevant. Anomalous hybrids are acutely susceptible to transcendent systems: creed religions, ideologies, pure logic, mathematics, the occult.”
Because he's had these thoughts himself Augustus can't help feeling another surge of kinship with Harper.
Until your own intelligence evicts you
. It was true. He was “smart” by the time he was eight, reading at least two years ahead of his age, the flower in PS 122's desert. By the time he was twelve, church and the Bible were places he fished for contradictions.
Then one summer when he was fourteen Juliet brought home a battered single-volume encyclopedia. She was high on reefers, moved with slow precision and talked in the sleepy voice he'd started to hate. Puberty was upon him, messing everything up. He'd umpteen times fished out her underwear from the laundry hamper and jerked-off with his face pressed into it. Imperfectly erased the memory for days, sometimes weeks, then he was at it again. What he thought of as his degeneracy (contradictions notwithstanding, Sins of the Flesh and Fear of Hell endured) brought him closer to his mother, allowed the beginning of real forgiveness for what she'd let him walk in on all those years ago. They enjoyed periods of being in jaded cahoots, usually when she got a new job. But the jobs never lasted. There was always some stuck-up bitch or bullying asshole. She'd get depressed, go out dolled-up, come back high or drunk, sometimes not at all. Mornings after her excesses she went to church in spiteful penitence. Augustus refused to go with her. Very occasionally men visited the apartment and took her places. Once an Italian sailor moved in for a week and refused to leave, until a tall zoot-suited black man with a reddish conk came and very calmly pulled a gun out and used it to oversee the sailor's departure. Nonetheless through all this she fed Augustus, erratically and indiscriminately, books.
The Lone Ranger
. If it came within her means she grabbed it and took it home for him. Here, read this. And so the encyclopedia.
“You're probably right,” Augustus says. “I always had the feeling of looking for something.”
He remembers the afternoon he came across the entry for
. He was sitting stewing in the apartment's open window wearing only a pair of knee-length shorts. Practically every word
of the explanation was alien to him but there was an example:
All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore: Socrates is mortal
. The sounds of the kids playing in the street below tickled his bare soles. “Therefore” was a word he'd never considered before but suddenly he felt relieved, as if an inchoate suspicion about the way things were had been confirmed. If all men were mortal and Socrates was a man, then Socrates had to be mortal. There was no argument. That was the thing:
There could be no argument
. He looked up from the book and experienced in addition to the bladder-tingle of the four-story drop an icy rushing outward from himself, though into what he didn't know, hope, maybe. Joy. The street welled with mute encouragement. It meant something that there were things you couldn't argue with. It meantâ¦he couldn't say what it meant, but it was as if he'd been given a crucial clue. He felt a great fondness for Socrates, whoever the fuck he was.
“Truth, certainty, first principles, all the big franchises,” Harper says. “I was reading a movie review the other day,
. It had the phrase âthis tired franchise.' Sometimes you get a big articulation from an absurd little contextâbecause that's what the world is now, a tired franchise. The whole business of being born and working and screwing and getting ill and dying. I'm not just talking about the west. Primitives with clay hair and peyote visions are a tired franchise. Plus you look hard enough one of them's wearing a diver's watch or an Adidas shirt. You go to the movies?”
“What was the last thing you saw?”
“I can't remember.
Harper smiles. “One of a whole genre of American movies that
spends millions of dollars creating utterly realistic visions of America suffering terrible destruction.
Deep Impact. Armageddon. Godzilla. The Day After Tomorrow
. Someone should be doing a Ph.D. on the number of times we need to see Yellow Cabs flying through the air or the Statue of Liberty falling over. Then Baudrillard says the U.S. secretly wished for 9/11 and everyone jumps on him. It's hardly a stretch. The dominatrix's Rolodex is all bankers and judges. Makes you think the administration knew we were ready for it.”
The virus in this conversation for Augustus is that he knows it's going to end. There's a temptation to go with the fantasy that he's got it all wrong, that what he believes is going to happen can't possibly happen if they're going to talk like this, if they're going to get along. But he knows it's pointless. Harper's big enough to contain all the contradictions. As God would have to be.
“Look at the way we consume our science fictions now,” Harper says. “We do it with a bored concession that this is most likely the way the future will be. It used to involve quantum imaginative leaps. Now it's just weary logical extension. This is also the tired franchise, the future. You know they're showing this new soap in Brazil, called
The sudden shift confuses Augustus. “I haven't heard of it,” he says.
“Well it's called
You can imagine. OTM illegals have gone up 400 percent since it started. OTMsâyou're familiar?”
“Other Than Mexicans.”
“Right. Coyotes are smuggling Brazilians into the U.S. door-to-door for ten thousand dollars. If you don't have the franchise you want it, tired or not.”
The adolescent Harper's girl would have been WASP cheerleader to his quarterback, part of the desired franchise, Harper surprised at the sadness and ferocity of himself when her sweater comes off over her head with a click of static. From her hot hair and the smell of her nail polish he's carried back into her childhood's blind exercise of its entitlement to calcium, carbohydrates, proteins. Privilege is arousing, he discovers, but underneath the arousal is something dismal: his first acknowledgment of the contingency of power. She's white, rich, educated, at liberty in the land her fathers calmed with genocide. Your ability to do what you want derives from where and when you find yourself. If you're in the wrong place or time no amount of volition will set you free. In the back of the fogged Buick she straddles him, kisses him with a beery flower-soft mouth while he holds her bare waist and feels the edge of her ribs. Her breath comes through her nose against his face and lowers them to a new level of intensity. Suddenly it occurs to him that he likes herâthere have been moments when their eyes have met and he's seen beneath her posture of baroque boredom a greedy energy and an invitation to allegianceâhe could love her! The realization panics him. His fingers fumble at the hooks of her bra and she breaks off kissing him to say let me get that and uglily reaches round with fluid skill and undoes it and he knows in fact that he hates her. His genuine self rises up: all his lust has contempt at its core because desire makes him weak and it's weakness he hates. The finality of this truth detains him and he knows that if he stays with it he'll lose his erection. So he begins, internally, as the vinyl gasps under their shifting weight,
yeah, that's right you fucking whore, now arch your back, that's it
A soft hum of mechanization from somewhere in the build
ing reveals itself by stopping. The new silence expands like a gas, which when it reaches the guards brings them alert. Augustus loses the image of Harper and his girl, feels as if he's falling, wonders briefly if he's going to faint. He refocuses to find Harper studying him with a slight smile, as if he's been tracking the line of his thought, as if silence is another medium through which information can be made to seep.
“We get to know each other,” Harper says, quietly, and Augustus feels suddenly tired, all but overwhelmed by the desire to capitulate, now, before any of what must happen happens. Years ago, walking Selina home from the antiwar rally in Central Park (to what would be, when they got to her apartment, their first lovemaking) she'd said to him, When I think of the millions of words wasted on the bogus task of working out what the right thing to do is it makes me fucking exhausted. We always know what the right thing to do is. We
know. She was full of absolutes she half-believed. Her political anger was really anger at the violence done to her by her own conscience. Secretly Augustus suspected she was waiting for a morally bankrupt man to seduce her completely so she could stop bothering. The great schism was that her older brother Michael had enlisted in the Marines. Love-hate, she'd told Augustus. It's always been that way between us. He's done this to spite me becauseâ¦She'd gone further than she'd intended, now had to decide. I should have let him fuck me, she said. Least that way he wouldn't be going off to get shot.
We always know what the right thing to do is
. It's a long time since he's thought of her saying that, though it was with him through the late '60s like a flame in his chest. He knows what the right thing to do is, here, nowâor if not that he knows what the old habit dictates.
Drearily enlarged in understanding he feels morality like a presence in the room with him, imagines it as an idiot child he's been conned into looking after all these years. People die without giving up the information because they believe in something, they transcend. Pain is total occlusion yet they see round it. Pain is beyond reason, an obliterating giant stupidity to which all your history of jokes and nuance and ideas and caresses is nothing, simply nothing, yet some people create a space it can't occupy, an alternative dimension where the decision not to talk is held like a pearl in a paperweight beyond reach or harm. Some people you're not one of. You don't have the belief, the big idea, the first principleâonly the motive like a word you've made meaningless by repetition.
“The information you've given us is going to be a big help,” Harper says, tightening out of their reverie. “This is good. Easy for you because these bad guys are your bad guys. The next thing isn't going to be easy because we want your good guys. Your good guys are our bad guys.” He pauses, seems about to continueâthen changes his mind. Their eyes meet again and Augustus sees how little time there is left. Open your mouth now and you know what'll come out:
Please don't do this I beg you I'll tell you anything you want to know please for God's sake don't hurt me please please please
So he jams his teeth together.
fter the first frost Maddoch drives over with a builder and spends the day repairing the croft's roof and chimney stack. The rubble in the fireplace
the chimney stack, according to Maddoch, kicked in by vandals. About half of it is reusable, the rest goes into tough plastic bags hefted into the back of the builder's van.
“You didn't have to do this,” Augustus says. Since waking he's been pleasantly feverish but knows the pleasant phase can't last. The repairs outlay has hurt Maddoch, who occasionally submits to his conscience the way a woman long since disgusted by her husband might occasionally submit to marital sex. The farmer labors in contemptuous silence in the cold, plucking clout nails from his lips and hammering them in with bitter precision. Among other things his face says he's under increased island pressure to find out what in God's name this one-eyed black American's doing here. Augustus nearly tells him: waiting to die. I saw this place in a book once, that's all. It looked like the edge of the world.