He comes up in an email from Kelly, no name, just "that crazy friend of urs" who she tells me is in the latest Westword. I disbelieve. In the middle of a piece describing the acting career - kids movies, mostly - of the Chechnyan prime minister. Dull work.
Call the secretary (he hates that word) who's out to lunch. Useless. Abandon the cramped cluttered corner office and take the elevator down. Light spring rain soaks my hair flat. Streets of Mentirosa are crowded. One of the few 20th century suburbs that grew into something worth a shit. Little slice of fabricated life in the chaparral-covered foothills. Big-box retailers, meticulously-planned subdevelopments. High rise hotel and offices in the miniscule downtown.
The first Westword box says SOLD OUT. An irony. Next block over has one of the free papers. Sure enough on page five there's a picture of him. I know it's him by the shorts and t-shirt amidst all the suits before I even read his name in the caption.
Those are the president's shoulders his arm is around on the runway in front of Marine One.
I leave a soaked trail on cheap blue carpets through the nearly-empty lobby. Second floor, back to my desk, stacking papers in no particular order to make some room. Flatten the newspaper out on my desk and stare at the picture for a few minutes.
A knock, one of the other editors standing at my door. Jim with the curly red hair and boyish face. "Doing research?" he asks.
"Something like that." I don't even look up.
He steps closer to my desk, checks out what I'm looking at. "Oh man, contraband!"
"Shut up," I mutter. "I'm investigating a lead."
"Yeah, well," he says, and lets that hang for a second as he usually does. "I won't tell Hank, he doesn't like seeing the competition in the workplace."
"Screw him. Did you need something?"
"Not really," he says with a lazy smile. "Hank's got me on horoscopes this week. Kinda cool. Want to know yours?"
"No," I say.
"Whatever. What's the big story?" he asks with that self-loathing that can only come from this dying business.
"This guy," I say, pointing at the guy treating the prez like some chick he met at a bar. "An old friend."
Jim leans in to check out the picture. "No shit? I heard about him. Saved, uh, some kids or something."
"A dog," I say. "The First Pooch."
Jim laughs, a halting kind of chuckle that makes my teeth clench. "Yeah, he was at that Burning Man story I covered."
"The one where Burning Man burned early?"
"Yeah, it was a drag," Jim says. "They tried to press arson charges but nobody could figure out who owned it."
This begins to make sense. "Did they catch the culprit?"
"Nah," Jim says with a shrug. "But everyone knew it was him."
He's pointing at the picture.
I convince him to leave me alone and I fire off a reply to Kelly. "Where did you hear about this?". She's an old college friend, keeps better company than me these days.
How did she even remember? I can't forget. White smock, like so much else. White coats, white lights. White pills white paper cup. White beds white walls white smiles.
His long blonde locks. Cut your hair, keep you from hanging yourself. Not him. He was special.
I have a story. Hank, the lead editor with the shaved head - scorched earth campaign against male pattern baldness - and rimless glasses gives me three weeks, but it's a tough sell.
"I honestly don't think there'll be anything else for you to do around here," he says with a yawn. "If you find something worthwhile, great."
Maybe not so tough.
After I got out of the hospital Hank was the one who convinced me to work for him. I was bagging his groceries. Told me it would be easy money. Good line of work for a journalist. You sat around, scribbled a few things, took some pictures, and got paid. I was skeptical. I was wrong.
The catch. There always is one. Wouldn't last five years. "We're condemned," he was fond of saying. "You might as well enjoy your days on death row."
Local millionaire who owned our free rumor-rag supported us on general principle. Only excuse he had left. Freedom of press. Fighting the good fight. All that bullshit. Couldn't last forever.
Always someone at the center of a story. A victim. A perp. Politician or an actor or someone that somebody out there wants to think the worst about. Catalyst. I write about them. Make it interesting. People need heroes and villains but they don't exist anymore. Give them the next best thing. Build them out of straw.
I take my lead and let everyone assume it's three weeks of paid vacation. But I have a mission.
Sigma Pi Zeta hasn't done anything for me lately. Call in a favor. Follow up with Kelly in meatspace. Nice coffee shop with a scenic view: tiny sliver of dusty beige mountainside between two concrete behemoths of low-rent office space. Chippers and genees, unlicensed body mod docs and genetic editors. Info retrievals from obsolete optical storage next door. Upstairs, dry cleaner and a Vietnamese restaurant, same space. Great pho.
Startling blue sky for three pm. Only decent extra-dry cappucino in town. She's in a neat gray business suit-skirt and a modest strand of pearls. Tasteful red pumps. Better fashion sense than her j-school days in fishnet and studded black leather. Sips at her soy chai and asks me how I've been.
"Great," I lie.
"It's so good to see you again! Why haven't we done this sooner?" Sold her grammar to the devil for that sense of style.
"Been busy," I say.
"Me too, but we'll have to do lunch some time."
Do lunch. Cucumber-related obscenity comes to mind. "Sure," I say. I sip. I need a spoon. "How'd you find out about our friend and the chihuahua-in-chief?"
"Isn't that just wild?" Kelly giggles. "I heard it from Sandra." Photographer and partner-in-crime back in school. "Didn't believe it, you know."
"Most of the rumors about him were hard to swallow."
"Like the time he staged an orgy on-stage during that film festival?" she asks, green eyes glittering over the white plastic top of her cup. Something artificial. Staged.
"It was just two girls," I say. "I was there."
"See what I mean?" Collagen-perfect lips curl into a practiced pout.
"So, uh, what are you doing for a living these days? I thought you went into screeenwriting." I recall her fox.com email address. Maybe she'd made it big and was churning out blockbusters for cutting-edge optic nerve interfaces.
"Oh that never panned out. You can't break into that business. They have computers generate those scripts these days."
"Haven't they been doing that for years?"
She smiles whitely at me. Have to press my hand hard into the chill metal grate of the table to keep from screaming. "I went into news," she says. "I'm a TV anchor. I do the weather."
"Must be an interesting line of work."
Remember my aunt asking me, back in college, what I was studying. I told her.
"What on earth will you do with a journalism degree? Teach?" Condescension so thick you could choke on it.
Always the same question, so I stopped telling the truth.
They used to call these things tabloids. Stalked people and reported every little rumor and mishap and took unflattering pictures and called it news. Sounds like an awful lot of work. You can get a tabloid channel online now. Through a neural jack if you're rich and bored. But those aren't one-way. Last thing anyone needs is output from my brain. Low signal to noise ratio. Faulty wiring.
Used to be so much harder to do this. Had to vet things, or sync your story up with someone else's. Now there's too much info to cross-check. Overloads the brain. Forces people to pick a side of the story and believe it. So much for the market of ideas.
Walk back to my office is pensive. Hundred thousand lives cross paths with mine in five minutes. Notice a handful. Do they notice me? Crumpled bio-plastic shopping bags tumble past - vague images of films of dust and blood and guns I saw decades ago as a kid - on their way to decay into nutrient-rich soil in a few days time.
The stories I make are a lot easier. Take a coincidence and spin it. Connect it with others. What you thought was an accident was deliberate. Rinse render reconstitute repeat. Nobody questions. Suspension of disbelief is a way of life.
Trick is figuring out what's just coincidence and what's real. Filter out the real stuff and leave that for the honest rags, the online ones still making money. I build comforting lies. Bring purpose to the world. Make sense out of chaos. Priestess of wishful thinking in the church of willful ignorance.
Doesn't sell so well anymore.
"It's official," Hank greets me in his cheeriest voice back at the Mill. "We're one of the last hundred!" Jim waves over from his desk, phone cradled on his bony shoulder.
"Was it the Revue?" I ask. Had my five bucks on that one. Kearney, Nebraska.
"Nope, the Investigator."
Cincinnati. "Jim's pick."
Last hundred papers in the country. Ours only alive because a stubborn rich man wanted his legacy to be a defiant fuck-you to the death of the physical world. Wouldn't let them pull the last plug.
Try to make headway on another story. Two sides of one. Opinion page debate about the rights of sentient GPS software. Housewife from Kansas for. Businessman in Philadelphia against. Writing both sides is tricky.
"Hey, thought you were gone," Jim asks suddenly. When did he get off the phone?
"I had to finish a few things," I say. "Haven't figured out where I'm going yet." I stop.
"You okay?" Jim asks.
"Yes. I just forgot something."
"Sure. Anything I can help with you just lemme know. And have a fun trip."
"Wherever it is."
Wander out in the office for a cup of coffee. Need to find him and never let go. One person changed my life and then left and never spoke to me again, and now he's out there. To be found. Can't forget someone who changes your life like that. Can't forgive them either.
Back to the closet-sized office with the boardroom-sized desk. Throw all my papers and posters into a trash bag and leave it in the hall for someone else to use. Fresh start. Bare white walls make me claustrophobic.
How did I forget to ask? Click on the computer and email Kelly again. "Do you know where he is?"
Thirty seconds later. "no". Of course.
"but i can try n find out for u"
On the way out Hank catches me again. "If you need, say, six or eight weeks instead just say so, alright? It's no big deal."
Ours might be the last one when all others have gone. Monument to not giving a shit.
First week is futile. Haven't done a real story since j-school. Out of practice.
Try tracking down family, his mom's still around but hasn't returned my calls. Had a brother who went off the grid after the last election. Dad's obituary comes up and I don't even read it.
Kelly finds an ex-girlfriend of his, Ellen. Invites me to her classy studio apartment in Anaheim for an interview. Traffic out of Mentirosa is light, desert highway cleaving the world in two until the ugly rash of urban sprawl erupts before me.
"Didn't think you guys did this kind of thing anymore," she saye after we're seated with cups of bad coffee. Polished pine table with brushed aluminum accents. Scandinavian decor. Shiny black plastic appliances. Very turn of the century.
"Digging up dirt on people. It's so," she pauses to search for a word, "old-fashioned." She has the most perfect blonde hair I have ever seen.
"They still do, some of them," I say. "But this is private research."
"Oh? Writing a book?"
"I don't know how much I can help."
Not much. Ask her questions. Remind myself she hasn't seen him in eight years, before I'd even met him. Startle myself with seething jealousy.
She just talks. Haven't said anything in a while. Haven't listened much either. "I have pictures of him," she says.
"Can I see them?"
Ellen gets up, leaves me alone with the frigid decor for a moment. No signs of life. Words have a hollow echo here. But no white. I can deal with this.
Know a picture of him when I see it. Man in a suit carrying a briefcase riding a skatebaord down the street. Blonde hair and glasses. Next one: curly dark hair, at the wheel of a military-issue Humvee painted fuschia. One more: helmeted, leaning out of an airplane door, parachute on his back, scuba flipperss on his feet, otherwise naked.
"You said he left you?" Sip at my cup. Awful coffee is better when it's cold.
"He told me he was going to live in a commune in Oregon. That's the last I heard from him." Ellen take the half-empty cups and goes to the sink to rinse them. Faucet curves like a swan's neck, graceful and lonely.
"When he leaves, he never comes back."
"Yeah," Ellen says sadly.
Hadn't meant to say that out loud.
Thirty-seven floors is a long elevator ride. Ellen's phone number, another sounding board.
Laptop in the apartment foyer. Email Kelly. "Commune in Oregon?"
Reply comes too fast. Suspect she got the hole in her head. "heard he went 2 nrth cali 2 grow pot 4 a living"
Leads trickle in.
"He paid his way through business school driving a delivery truck for the New Soviet mafia," a former roommate tells me from behind a desk in a trillion-dollar investment bank in San Francisco. "Wait. Is any of this on the record?"
"No such thing," I say. Check him off the list. No help.
Retired professor disagrees from a hospital bed (actually his deathbed but the doctors haven't told him yet and I don't have the heart). "Bullshit, he just worked for some sleazy Estonian who owned a moving company. Totally above-board."
"Anything else?" I ask.
A cough. "He got really interested in cults and shit before he graduated. Manson, Hubbard, Stone and Parker after they went underground. You know the type."
Charisma and a total lack of conscience. Anathema to him. "Thanks. Feel better."
One more check on the list. Two to go.
"Business? I thought he dropped out in his freshman year to go to Japan and code video games," says an ex-boyfriend of his. "And for the record, he wasn't really gay. He was just experimenting." Decline to ask for more details.
Trail of lives he's touched. They all remember him. Every one. All the lies.
Bakery clerk in Humboldt: "He gave me a two dollar bill for a tip."
"That doesn't sound so weird," I say.
He snorts. "It was counterfeit. No, don't get the brownie. They're weak as shit. Get the ice cream, honey."
Stay in a tiny motel atop a crumbling cliff that's one good mudslide away from oblivion. Overlooks the pacified Pacific and a riotous sunset. Eat my ice cream. See geometric shapes in the puffy pink and orange clouds spelling out my destiny, lay naked on the balcony and feel myself connecting to the splintery wood beneath my back in a perfect communion with all matter. Vibrate your atoms just right and you can walk through walls. The stars are speaking to us and we can hear but we cannot comprehend. They sing. The music of the universe will awaken our souls and we will be forever changed.
Wake at four AM. Devil's hour. Something's gone wrong. Day is fucked.
Sober. Recall clearly: his smile. Off-white. Defect in a sea of perfection. He burns brightly, and we are mere moths. What chance did I have?
Pray for a mudslide. Right here, right now.
Get a hot bath going and soak. Bathroom paneled in wood, nice and dark. Relax. Moments like this there is only the body, and it must be appeased.
He isn't like the rest. He's done things I couldn't make up. Seen him in stories about political protests and scientific breakthroughs and nascent wars in southeast Asia. I always know it's him. Details are three shades too strange to be real. But they are.
And I met him once. Never found out why he came to me. Felt like a dream, like dreaming you can fly and you never want it to end. Then I woke up.
Nobody remembers these stories. Bit-sized, digestable, forgettable. Thirty seconds of sly amusement or benign disgust, that's all you aim for. Stories evolve and these are hyper-adapted predators who prey on slow lubmering fictions like they were dodos. They went extinct for a reason. Sacrifice at the altar of efficiency. Words won't buy you immortality anymore.
Make it up to Portland on a tip from an old man he once asked for directions. "Your man was going to get into the beer business. Ain't no other place for that like Portland. He said he was from Monterey."
My man. Don't I feel special.
Aquarium story comes back to me. Check it with Ellen over the phone. "The one down in Monterey? Oh, we went there a couple of years ago. He put food coloring in the jellyfish tank and turned it purple."
"Did he get in trouble for that?"
"No, it was spectacular. I think they dye it purple some days just to get that effect again. You should have /seen/ it."
Ask Kelly about Portland. She checks with an affiliate there. "lots of places to get brews there lol."
I ask. "Did you get a neural jack?"
Instant reply tells me more than the message. "ya company policy. they want u online when ur on air 2 feed u msgs"
Cut out the middleman. Put me out of a job. Feed the newspeople the news they tell everyone else. Consistent agenda. Flawless echo chamber. Never need to report real news again. Just shadows and lies.
Smile to myself in the upstairs room of a dank-smelling bed and breakfast on the river. Brilliant when you think about it. Beautiful. Elegant. Like spiderwebs stretching across continents trapping the unwary in webs of forged truths.
Bartender in Portland tells me he got pulled over for speeding on Canyon street.
"And?" I ask. There's always an and.
He sighs. "Canyon Street's a pedestrian mall."
"Some kind of protest?"
"Knowing him it could be anything." Pours my third free beer. Not going to argue.
"Where did he go from there?"
He chuckles with a practiced, well-worn laugh that puts me at ease. Or maybe it's the beer. He says, "Told each of the bartenders on this block he had a suborbital ticket to somewhere different. Australia, Sri Lanka, Lithuania, oh and Peru. He said he wanted to build a house out of stones from Macchu Picchu."
"Sounds like him," I say. I drink. A thought. "Didn't those rocks get moved already?"
"In the civil war, yeah. Most of them anyway. You'd have to steal them from a museum, now."
Tipsy on the walking mall at three in the afternoon. Sit on a wooden bench mass-produced to look like a hand-carved Indian artifact. Watch a sparse crowd in various states of distress: some hurrying, some strolling, none knowing where they're going. The faithful at a temple of retail.
He got that ticket a year ago. Trail's gone cold.
If I stopped a random passer-by they would have a story of their own about him. They all do. It leads nowhere. Could be in Indonesia rallying coffee pickers to strike. Could be in Prague selling a forged Pollock at auction. Maybe in Oslo cross-country skiing down a major highway after an ice storm.
Trick is figuring out what's just coincidence and what's real.
None of it is. Or all of it is. The distinction is meaningless. Tautology.
Call Jim at the Mill. "Hey there," he says amiably. "How goes the story?"
"Working on it," I say. "I wanted to ask you my horoscope."
A grunt on the other end. "You can just look that up yourself," he says.
"Not the official ones. Yours."
A pause. Then, "Alright. Let me see." A click of typing. "Virgo's in Saggitarius and the moon's full. So buy a lottery ticket with your birthdate as the first three numbers and you'll win."
"That's it?" Twelve twenty-two... ninety-one? "They don't go up that high for the years," I say.
"Flip the digits."
"Any time. That it?" Sounds hopeful.
"I'll be back in a while. See you." Hang up.
Gas station lottery ticket. People poor enough to play the lottery can't afford to go online anymore. Mexican-looking clerk can't be older than fifteen. "What numbers?"
"One two three four five."
He doesn't even blink, prints my ticket, hands it over for three bucks. A day's food (or a beer) if I was buying this out of desperation. Small price to pay buying it out of curiosity.
Back to the decaying b-and-b at dusk, upstairs, crash dizzily on the sagging mattress.
Familiar. The white smiles again. White hands. Soothing voices. White noise.
His blonde ponytail. No chaperone for him. Talking to the others in smocks and vacant stares. Laughing. Joking. They smile back. Yellow and tobacco-brown and gapped and vacant and one-sided from a paralyzing stroke. Flawed smiles for flawed people. Ignores me the whole time. Speaks to everyone else. Then leaves.
Wake up breathless. Didn't play out that way. Came to me. Me alone. Soothed me. Brought me back. Wasn't like that. My Orpheus.
I'm slipping. Have to give up the chase. Four AM again. Devil will have his due.
Lottery drawing was at midnight. Fumble in the dark for my laptop, click it on, bleary-eyed search for the numbers. One glance tells me my ticket's a loser. All is right with the world.
Look closer. Twelve. Nineteen.
Trick is figuring out what's just coincidence and what's real.
Slam the laptop shut and try to get back to sleep but dawn chases it away.
Where are we now? Sixty? Forty-eight? Twenty-one? Half a year changes everything. Can't tell. Mentirosa looks unchanged, static. Like everything is pickled in formaldehyde.
Mill offices look dark when I walk past. No desire to go in. Maybe they lost the good fight. Maybe they went underground. Maybe the world just moved past them and they forgot to keep up. White snow smothers the world. So much for global warming
Imagine Hank in a basement office still printing copies on an ancient laserjet one at a time. Distributing them by hand on a street corner. Scraggly beard (but the meticulously shaved head). Crazy fucker or the last sane man in the world? I never knew. Maybe there's no difference.
Hotel room in my home town. Stranger in a familiar land. Affectionate hum of the laptop, but I can't work. No such thing as freelancing anymore. White sheets; I sit on the floor.
Drink half a bottle of Stoli in the dark of early morning waiting for something to happen. Four AM.
He made me think I was special. He made me think I was sane. Taught me to smile and lie and get out but I wasn't ready. Should have stayed.
Should go back.
Deep breaths. Too drunk to decide anything but I don't care. Shrink in the contact list; lucky, office opened early. East coast. His secretary (he hates that word) connects me.
Not the doctor says, "It's good to hear from you."
/"Who are you?"/ I don't ask. I know.
"I need to talk to you," I say. "Where can I find you?"
"You know why."
No, I don't. I don't know anything. "I'm not doing well," I say.
"I can't help you. You don't need me anymore."
"I do. I need you."
A sigh. "You need to let me go." Pause. "I'll be disappearing for a while. Don't try to find me. You already know you can't."
"Don't go. Please."
"You'll be fine," he says.
Anything but. "Just," I say. "Just come back to me, sometime?"
"Goodbye. You'll be fine."
Maybe. I can't say anything.
Click, dial tone.
Phone buzzes in my hand. Answer. "Sorry about that," the secretary says. "New phone system must have dropped you. I'll get the doc on the line."
I hang up. Feel sorry for myself for an hour. Take a bath. Clean soft white hotel towels.
Flick on the laptop and sit all alone on the bed. Dawn seeps insidiously through thick curtains and I start thinking about new stories.
Go looking for Hank that afternoon. Maybe he has another job for me.
Ask the clean-cut college kid at a coffee shop what happened to the Mill. "It looks like it was closed down."
"Yeah, I think so. The guy who ran it - Hank right? - he said he was going off to New York to start some kind of anarchist newspaper."
Oh god. Not him too.