Among the Lost — Nathaniel Meals
In early July 20-, just before the heat wave struck that would plague our region with the hottest, driest, most lethal string of days in over a century, I went to the bank and cashed one of my more substantial savings bonds. I inherited the bonds from my paternal grandmother, a woman I never met, nor knew scarcely a thing about save that she almost singlehandedly raised my father and his two brothers after her husband, my grandfather, fell ill to schizophrenia.
Being without a job and without any immediate prospects, I was confronted with the problem of simply surviving in our precarious economy. The savings bond had matured to more than double its original $5,000 value, offering a substantial return. I found a cheap living space with complimentary Internet service and struck a deal with my landlady. I paid a full year’s rent up front and began apportioning funds for my monthly expenditures. My lifestyle was so meager and insipid that expenses were practically nonexistent. I had no long-term plans, no goals, and no close contacts. Since dropping out of college as a philosophy major over two years ago, I was no longer on speaking terms with my parents.
Friends I had none, at least in any traditional sense of the word. There were people I occasionally spoke with on the internet, old acquaintances from college and high school. These perfunctory exchanges offered a vague, fleeting sense of connection. But they were laborious and sporadic because I had little if any news to report, while the people I talked to surged with a continuously replenishing fountain of experiences, anecdotes, events, interests, and ambitions. Faced with composing a response equal in sheer quantity of content to that of their correspondences, I struggled to finish even a single sentence about myself, and eventually I began inventing things about my life to fill space.
At first this was nothing more than a practical way of maintaining ties with certain people who moved away or were so busy with their jobs and families that they lacked the leisure time to meet in person. To keep them interested in me, to keep them invested in our relationship (whatever its nature), I realized I needed to create life scenarios that would impel their interest and investment, since my actual life was devoid of such scenarios. I used memories from my childhood, tweaking this or that detail so the event or experience conformed to my present situation. I adapted elements of whomever’s letter I was responding to at the time, improvising in subtle ways on the tenor and various reports mentioned.
For example, when I read that someone lately vacationed on the South Basin of Puget Sound with his spouse, I began researching the Sound, its history, important features about the surrounding area, and any other facts useful in creating a story. Completing this research, I devised a feasible scenario in which I too had visited Puget Sound. Instead of the South Basin, however, I went farther north, in the area of Fidalgo Island and Deception Pass, where I rowed a boat out on the open water during sunset and watched as the vivid sky, at first streaked with strange turquois-pink cloud formations, slowly faded to a deep ashy gray, and finally went completely dark, as if injected with some jet-black ink. Instead of my spouse, I traveled with my grandfather, and not recently, as my interlocutor had, but as an adolescent. How the years pass by, I wrote, hoping to convey a mood of longing and dreamy nostalgia. And so on.
While this approach proved both easy and successful at first, I soon encountered obstacles necessitating new methods of invention. I had quickly exhausted the resources in my memory. With this depletion, I became more steadily dependent on the content of the messages I was receiving. These messages were not lacking in quantity and variety, but they were the rightful possessions of the very people I had, by then, grown accustomed to calling my friends. This brought a sense of guilt for exploiting the biographical largesse they presented to me.
Besides the guilt, there was the practical problem of coincidence. On my side of the correspondence weird and frankly suspicious coincidences were becoming the norm. I felt these concurrences undermining my own, albeit fictionalized, senses of originality, authenticity, and truthfulness. My messages were portraying me as derivative, possibly even contrived. If every time someone experiences something or feels something, you yourself have experienced or felt some version or spin-off of that same thing, then, in addition to appearing uncannily dubious, you are just plain boring and repetitive.
The problem was I had no new experiences of my own to harness and fashion into a fiction rivaling the richness and novelty of my friends’ lives. I didn’t have the urge or energy to go out and find such experiences, either. So I turned to the world of literature. Here I discovered an almost infinite array of materials I could adapt and graft onto my own existence. For a second I became a blank slate of possibility and potential. But I had to be careful. It was imperative I exercise restraint in my approach to extracting the raw materials with which I would begin assembling my new life (or lives), and more than just restraint. I established a rigorous set of tastes and criteria. I had to ensure that those reading my messages wouldn’t discover they were being duped and the person, me, on the other end of the exchange was a prevaricator and fraud.
In the beginning, I struggled to resist the temptation to maraud every page of every book I read. The pages pulled me into the story’s action and locale, its time period, the character relations, and so on. I was overwhelmed with an inordinate quantity of details. Each detail appealed to the inmost stuff of my humanity (my desires, dreams, and drives), at that time in dire need of replenishment. But these details also seemed to serve, no matter what, as the perfect anecdotal counterpart to the messages I received from my correspondents. It was impossible to segregate useful material. Everything was useful, and therefore nothing was useful.
I stopped reading books altogether. Instead I randomly isolated certain pages of books. Now I could eschew the wearisome and time-consuming task of reading a full-length novel. The risk of getting lured into plots and empathizing with characters disappeared, too. This new isolationist method severed all emotional investment, offering me sufficient intellectual space to appraise the content of each page and determine suitability and relevancy to the circumstances of whatever correspondence I was presently engaged in. Anyone who reads with an even halfhearted seriousness will attest to one fundamental truth: the greater the reader’s knowledge of a book or author, the more forcefully that book or author will either attract or repel the reader. I desired neither fondness nor disfavor for a particular book or author, but unwavering neutrality. Only then could I objectively choose material from a given source. Knowing a book’s title, genre, synopsis, date and place of publication, publisher, original language, even price–all this I foresaw as superfluous and subtly (maybe even unconsciously) manipulative. Even biographical facts about the author–name, age, gender, nationality, biography, honors and distinctions, and so on–could influence the way I used the material. I wanted nothing to do with the authors or the books as such, but only the content. And not even the entire content, only randomly isolated fragments.
This ruled out my own private book collection, scant as it was. I knew it too well. My tastes were written all over it, my predilections, my choices, my habits, my personality. It was exactly this personality, so bland and effaced, that compelled me to invent scenarios in the first place. So I turned elsewhere, the public library. I walked up and down the aisles pulling book after book from the congested shelves. I kept my eyes tightly closed and, in order to stay oriented, let my outstretched arm glide along the hard contours of the stacks. The surfaces I touched were not hard. They possessed a peculiar porous quality. In my opposite hand I clenched a plastic basket that served as a reservoir where each work was deposited. As the books landed in the basket I quickly pulled a dark cover over the opening, a precautionary measure to ensure they remained completely unknown to me. If I did happen to catch sight of a title or author name–after all, I wasn’t actually blind, but was only playing the part, and by force of habit often opened my eyes when I lost my sense of direction–I shoved the book back on the shelf, sometimes in its original slot, sometimes far away. I never gave it more than a second’s consideration. It was entirely likely that chance would lead me to stumble upon this very same book at a future date, and I wanted to be prepared to use it, which meant extinguishing even the faintest trace of it from my memory.
When the basket was filled, I proceeded to the nearest photocopier, inserted a sufficient sum of money, and began making copies of random pages. This was the most tedious stage of the process. It was also the most rewarding. Not only did I have to avert my eyes from the work of my hands, but I also had to ensure the pages I copied were adequate for my purpose. I developed an approach that involved voluntary blindness in the first half of the procedure and a pair of scissors in the second. I closed my eyes and began digging through the basket, taking hold of whichever book fell into my grip first. After thumbing through the pages for a second or two, I laid the book outspread on the copier’s pane of glass, dropped the lid, and pressed the copy button. I listened as the machine’s components clicked and hummed. Sometimes I felt the warmth of the beam of light slide beneath my hand, a comforting sensation reminding me of the machine’s magic, its capacity to reproduce to a T another human being’s creation. When the scan finished and I heard the replica page printing out on the tray, I removed the book and placed it in a second basket, also covered with a black sheet, where it would stay until I completed the session. Finally, I slid the warm, freshly copied pages into a folder. If the book happened to display the title or author’s name in the heading section of each page I used scissors to trim the upper and lower margins of each copied page while it lay face down. Then I discarded the scraps in a waste bin, retaining the body of the page, a perfectly isolated block of text ripe with the seeds of invention. If I copied a title page or an excerpt that included a chapter name, I threw it away immediately. Even knowing the name of a chapter jeopardized the pure neutrality I sought to attain.
After copying the last page from the last remaining book and placing everything in its proper place, I opened my eyes, picked up both baskets, the one empty and the other full, carried them one in each hand to the circulation desk and dumped the used books into the bin. I never checked a single book out of the library, yet I always left with a rich bounty.
In my apartment, I removed the copied pages one at a time from the folder, examining the contents of each excerpt, using a colored highlighting marker to highlight material I intended to adapt. Once satisfied, I placed the page off to the side where I could return to it later during the actual composition phase of the process.
At that time, I was involved in five separate correspondences–three former classmates from college; one of my former professors; and a close friend from high school. Each person had their own highlighting color. This color-coding was integral to keeping track of the material I used. But why didn’t I just reuse the same material for each individual correspondence? After all, such an approach had three seemingly advantageous consequences. One, it promoted a solid consistency and cohesiveness among the various interactions, giving birth to a single, uniform, though no less contrived, self that merely shifted from one conversation to another with an almost real-life constancy. Two, it simplified the research process and source gathering, enabling me to more easily keep track of what I was using for each conversation, when it was used, and the way it was used (i.e. anecdotally, oneirically, affectively, spiritually, as a remembrance, as a wish, as a hope, as a regret, etc.)–after all, a single self is more manageable than a panoply of selves. Lastly, from a strictly quantitative standpoint, it granted more material, and a greater variety of material, to choose from. The bounty I returned to my apartment with twice a week would be the sole possession of one self, rather than divided among a collective of singular, isolated, often contradictory selves.
But for all three of these answers I had an objection. First, consistency among the conversations was not the desired state. Rather, I wanted a vibrant, stimulating, mutually enriching relationship. The best way to engender such a relationship was to build a self specific to each correspondent. I wanted these selves to possess their own histories, personalities, professions, marital statuses, religious affiliations, recent life events, ambitions, and so on, that best harmonized with the same aspects that belonged to the person on the opposite end of the correspondence, aspects shared with me over the course of the exchange. Once realized, this harmony would enhance the relationship enormously, if for no other reason than I–i.e. the specific self that I had built-became engaging, charming, interesting, caring, insightful, worldly, and so on, to my friends.
Second, with respect to the claim that a single consistent self made for a simpler and more orderly process and work environment, I wasn’t concerned with simplification and order so much as the development of enduring and rewarding friendships. This latter aim took precedence over everything else. Additionally, it wasn’t long before I created an efficient method of arranging and organizing the various selves formed. I danced fluidly and quite effortlessly back and forth between them, accessed them whenever I pleased, and ultimately reduced unwanted and counterproductive things like mistakes and stress, confusion and anxiety, forgetfulness and fatigue.
Third, the idea that one self, through some kind of monopolization of content, had at its disposal more, and more varied, material was false. The libraries I entered twice a week for the gathering phase housed enormous reserves of fictional works. It was as if I discovered an unnatural resource whose fount was inexhaustible. I would die before I ran out of materials.
It remains to be said how I came to categorize each conversation as well as each self. Because of the high degree of uniqueness and individuality I strove to create for each self, I realized they best be kept independent of one another, separated by artificial borders or actual tangible barriers. Divisions prevented accidents like repeating an anecdote I shared with one friend in one message to another friend in another message, the latter friend then becoming bewildered because the anecdote didn’t make sense within the context of the conversation.
For example, I used one self to communicate with my former philosophy professor. He specialized in proto-existentialist thinkers like Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. In our correspondence, he referenced a book entitled, The Multivoiced Body: Society and Communication in the Age of Diversity. He explained to me how the book calls the public at large a multivoiced body that “is both one and many: heterogeneous voices that at once separate and bind themselves together through their continuous and creative interplay.” In light of these details, I crafted a message describing an experience with an acquaintance named Ernest who was suffering from mental illness. Ernest and I walked together through a particularly rundown section of the city. Old crumbling buildings struck frightening poses all around us. We then passed a church. Through the open windows we heard a chorus of children singing, the most appealing sounds coming from those who could not quite manage to hit the right notes. At that point, my account continued, Ernest paused. Turning to me, he said, that is a very fine sound, borne upon the air, and uplifts one’s heart.1 The theme of this book, I wrote, now addressing the professor directly, reminds me of my pleasant, though mysterious, encounter with the singing children. In their choral performance, they were both one body and many constituents all interwoven together in a tapestry of song and play. If only people could build on this model, as the book suggests.
If weeks later, over the course of which vast amounts of similar experiences and insights were passed back and forth among all of my friends, I happened to recall this episode with Ernest while writing to another friend (not the professor) and very casually made a passing reference to it, as though my interlocutor knew all about Ernest and the singing children, I would likely alienate whomever I was speaking to at the time. This person knew nothing about Ernest, his illness, our walk, or the singing children.
I sidestepped mistakes like this by sectioning off the walls of my apartment with blue painter’s tape. I applied lengthy strips vertically from floor to ceiling, making a series of large rectangular regions of equal dimensions. The idea being: One region per one self per one friendship. And although friends, selves, and regions all bordered each other in a kind of grid, claiming a certain intimacy by way of proximity, I nevertheless forbade even the tiniest detail from jumping borders. Separate and distinct, separate and distinct, separate and distinct, I often repeated to myself for hours as I arranged material in the grids. Within a single region, using a glue stick, I pasted the extracts I selected from the reserve of copied materials, extracts chosen for their relevancy and value to the ongoing evolution of a respective relationship.
Overall, the work was difficult and time consuming. I rarely slept more than four hours in any given twenty-four-hour cycle. I learned to integrate daily necessities like eating and using the bathroom with the requirements of my work. Initially, I accomplished this by simply bringing my laptop, or a few excerpts and the scissors, into the kitchen with me while I attended to the business of preparing a meal, now snipping out an extract, now boiling a batch of white rice atop the stove.
Soon, however, I had converted both the kitchen and the bathroom into a region just like the ones portioned off on the walls of the living room and my bedroom, pasting extracts and resource material on the refrigerator, the cabinet doors, areas of the countertop, and even the small window located above the kitchen sink. There remained but a few scattered surfaces across the whole inner architecture of my apartment that were not papered over with material pertaining to one self or another. Even the floors became lined with a thick layer of unused paper scraps, excess waste left over from the cutting-and-pasting process. The work was so strenuous, I had neither the inclination nor time to clean up.
Internet communication heightened the numerous pressures from all areas of my operation mounting by the day–gathering and sorting through materials at the library; highlighting relevant passages; cutting these passages out and subsequently pasting the extract in the proper region on the wall; performing secondary research when needed; reviewing the trajectory, timeline, and general history of a self so as to call to mind certain key events and important exchanges that occurred over the course of a friendship; not to mention the actual reading and writing of the messages. How quickly it all grew to titanic proportions, and somehow the enormity invariably itself traced back to the hyper-immediacy of the communications. There was little opportunity to reflect, just work.
Sometimes, and only very briefly, I totally forgot the original “I” even existed, and I struggled to distinguish the contours of my past. Rather than a succession of distinct phases divided by intermediary periods of transition (this was the basic structure of the various hewn selves I had amassed), my own existence, at least from the time I dropped out of college (but sometimes beyond this crucial event), appeared as nothing more than a long uninterrupted blur, a kind of uniform grayish haze flooding the landscape of memory. By mid-August, when the dog days began spilling sultry heat into every crevice of the region, I received an inauspicious message from my old high school friend, N.
But first, the context of this message. Over two years ago, during a boat outing on a reservoir in northern Pennsylvania with a group of professional colleagues, N.’s wife drowned. At the time, I was mired in my own slough of personal troubles. I couldn’t offer N. the kind of consolation I felt he deserved. All I could manage was a terse and dispassionate response: I offered my condolences and regretfully confessed I would not be in attendance at the funeral services. But N.’s loss never completely left my mind. I routinely foisted into our correspondence thoughts and ideas about death, mourning, bereavement, consolation, and healing. This assuaged my own feelings of guilt for not offering N. proper support during this most despairing of crises. It also enriched the conversation. Thus, the stuff of fiction became the blood of friendship.
Because N. had known me since our freshman year of high school and was therefore more familiar with my childhood and family history, I believed it necessary to invent a self drawing on these deeper, more enduring roots. N. knew of my paternal grandfather’s abrupt transformation from respectable neighborhood physician, distinguished WWII veteran, and devoted husband and father to a homeless schizophrenic renounced by his wife, suicidal, destitute, and lost in a labyrinth of delusions. He knew also of my grandfather’s slow trek across the United States, from the Rust Belt to the Pacific Northwest where he fell into the care of his three sisters. He eventually died of a heart attack, just five years before my birth.
All this I told N. when we were still in high school, a time in my life when I spent hours poring over old documents concerning the family history. I grew enamored of a heritage my parents, perhaps out of fear and shame, kept hidden from my eyes. I grew obsessed with the biographies of these forefathers indirectly responsible for my existence. Like me, N. became increasingly fascinated by my grandfather’s story, especially the man’s cross-country journey, a roughly four-month period of his life about which not a single verifiable fact is known. According to the records, my grandfather left the smoky mill-ridden tableau of Pittsburgh in April 1949 and arrived in Seattle in August. N. and I often constructed fabulous convoluted tales detailing what we imagined as the mythical pilgrimage of a madman whose unceasing and incomprehensible inner monologue and bizarre thought process corresponded little to the reality of his immediate surroundings, often a society and culture just as bizarre and incomprehensible as the madman himself.
Thus, using this shared piece of our past, I created a fictitious scenario in the present. Over a series of messages to N., I explained that a former launch pilot hired me as his ghostwriter. We were co-authoring a memoir about his life piloting ferries through the Puget Sound. For research purposes, I explained to N. in one message, I must travel to the Sound with the retired pilot. During my stay in Seattle, I intend to visit my grandfather’s grave, as well as look up his former address. I’ll be gone roughly three weeks.
N.’s response was both logical and unexpected. Since you’re visiting the Sound, he wrote, maybe we can meet and catch up, reunite again as friends. Like old times. It would be nice seeing you in person after all these years. Also, per your recent engagement as a ghostwriter: I still have my wife’s old diary, one of the few belongings I held onto after she died. It contains confessions I can’t bear looking at anymore. Deeply personal confessions. I haven’t read all of it, but what I’ve encountered so far has simply distorted my understanding of our marriage. As long as I keep this diary, my grief will linger. As a writer, maybe you could find some use for it? But we’ll talk more about this when you arrive.
“Like old times,” I repeated to myself over and over, struggling to fathom the import of such a seemingly simple expression. Yet with each quiet repetition of the phrase, the words lost more and more of their meaning, like a body bleeding to death of a self-inflicted wound. The truth was that the so-called old times for me had ceased to exist, replaced instead by a constantly morphing newness fanning out like refracted light into the various selves I fashioned. The selves flourished, along with the friendships, while I myself stagnated, withered, decayed into the muck of oblivion. Suddenly, looking all around at the walls covered in a mosaic skin of variegated paper scraps, each region its own thriving organism, I felt invisible and powerless, hidden behind a living word-tailored costume so expansive, so total and continuous, that it now eclipsed my real self, the true original “I.” This “I” no longer existed. This “I” had become a shadow, a hollow abstractus, something inconsequential and unnecessary, like a tuft of vapor drifting and dissolving through a desolate landscape. If “I” suddenly stopped breathing and died, it wouldn’t make the slightest difference to the selves and their friendships, so long as someone stepped in and replaced the “I” doing the work that kept the friendships alive.
At the same time, the thought of the diary awakened in me a renewed feeling of possibility vis-à-vis my friendships and selves. I would gladly take N.’s wife’s diary. I imagined its content ripe with fodder of an altogether different variety than the fiction I had theretofore adapted for my enterprise. If, by accepting the diary, I was helping N. at last get back on his feet, that was all the better.
But I was still stuck, caught in an intrigue of my own invention, and all the evidence lay before me like an exhibit in a trial. I studied the wall, then scanned my messages to N., then went back to the wall, tracing the strange logic of my imagination, logic that had transformed one species of fiction into another species of fiction disguised as fact. I had no choice but to actually fly to Seattle, meet with N., and live out the fiction I was, until then, keeping quietly contained on the walls in my apartment. I would purchase a round trip plane ticket to Seattle, spend a day or two there, during which time I would meet with N. and accept his wife’s diary, and finally return.
The flight to Seattle took just over four hours, a mere fraction of the miserably protracted four-month trek my grandfather undertook over sixty years ago. Elevated high above the continent inside the plane’s congested cabin, I gazed out the tiny window, trying hopelessly to discern some trace of the physiographic features below. Instead I saw an endless billowing ocean of clouds all painted a uniform white save for a few blotches of gray and slate blue scattered here and there like deserted islands. I felt an overpowering sense of emptiness. This then gave birth to an urgent, anxious longing to land, to clutch solid earth beneath my toes. More than anything, I wanted to see N., to feel his grip as we shook hands, and to hear his voice, whose sound had completely vanished from my memory.
To distract myself from these uneasy feelings, I began wondering, just as N. and I had wondered years before, about my grandfather’s experiences and travails as he pressed westward. I considered all the factors involved: a mind practically torn asunder by insanity; his lack of money or any means of transportation; his lack of an itinerary; the fear and loneliness that arise in the face of a foreign terrain. It was a miracle he survived even a week, let alone four months, and his safe arrival suddenly looked more like a product of fate than the will and fortitude of one man. People must have helped him, people he encountered along the way. They offered him rides, meals, money, lodgings, and whatever else he needed to combat the hazards of such an extraordinary migration.
Despite the temperate climate and heavy precipitation ordinarily associated with Seattle, my stay coincided with a drought-like spell of weather characterized by extreme heat, minimal wind flow, and uncommonly low barometric pressures. Elsewhere severe drought conditions plagued the Southwest, Rocky Mountain, and Great Plains regions. Wildfires tore through wood- and meadowlands up and down the western seaboard, erasing housing communities, blacking out power grids, and staining the sky a permanent ashy gray.
In and around Puget Sound, the many rivers and countless small streams whose freshwater deposits normally provide a rejuvenating source of mountain snowpack during the spring and summer months were suffering low-flow conditions. As I looked out from the rocky banks of Discovery Park on my first day in Seattle, I saw how the streams had dried up, leaving a smeary, muddied water surface across the Sound. The low-flow conditions also produced a higher salinity count in the water and the well-known hypoxia problem. Fish were dying everywhere for lack of oxygen, their pale splotchy corpses ushered by the fluctuating tidal patterns into mass floating grave sites that bobbed and sloshed, spit out spume, and emanated the stench of decay.
In order to prepare for my meeting with N., during which I would combine and inhabit three separate roles simultaneously–that of his old friend from high school; his newer friend from our recent Internet conversation; and finally the ghost writer working on the launch pilot’s memoir–, I took a boat tour of the Main Basin. I carefully recorded notes as the guide informed us about all matters historical, geographical, ecological, and marine. At one point, after circling Bainbridge Island from the North and entering the eerily calm water of Dyes Inlet, our guide pointed to a flock of harlequin ducks gathered on the eastern shoreline near a stream embouchure. The male birds stood out clear as day among the sallow shore grass, dry shrubbery, and beached drift wood. Their vivid black and white markings along the head and neck looked like fresh wet paint applied with insouciant bold brush strokes. By contrast, the dun-colored females blended in with their muted surroundings, the only indication of their presence being a clipped raspy call. It was obvious which of the sexes would survive a predator’s attack. I made a rough sketch of these strange creatures. Beneath the drawing I wrote the Latin name of the species, histrionicus histrionicus, after hearing the guide announce it only moments earlier.
It was later in the tour, as we completed our circuit of the Main Basin, reentering the city from the south through Elliot Bay and crossing the Duwamish River estuary, when the guide explained exactly why the water was so uncharacteristically dirty. Because of the relative dearth of freshwater then being discharged into the Sound, the ratio of saltwater to freshwater was tipped strongly in favor of the former, meaning the colder, denser, heavier saltwater entering the sound from the ocean, which due to its chemical composition flows deep below the surface, was drawing up mud, sand, and silt from the basin floor. Ordinarily this detritus was flushed swiftly out of the sound by the rapid currents of lighter, warmer freshwater provided by the complex system of rivers and streams. But since this system had lately grown parched, the detritus was lingering on the surface. One of my tour mates asked why the rivers were drying up. The guide shrugged. Squinting his eyes southward, he finally answered, “Climate change.” I followed his gaze. Shrouded by the swarthy smoke of the intractable wild fires stood Mt. Ranier, a colossal blur on the horizon.
For the rest of that evening and deep into the early morning hours, in order to prepare for my reunion with N., I reviewed all the materials I brought with me. Our meeting was set to take place the following afternoon. Like the rest of my correspondences, that between N. and myself was safely stored and organized on my laptop. Before the flight to Seattle I went to the library and printed everything connected to N. This allowed me the convenience of traveling with only one item of luggage, a small duffle bag easily fitted in the airplane’s overhead storage compartment. Besides the pages of correspondence, I packed two library books about ferryboats, a change of clothes, and my two remaining savings bonds.
All night I paced back and forth through my hotel room, completely absorbed in the task of becoming the self I had created. I practiced reciting answers to questions I imagined N. would ask about this or that item mentioned during our ongoing correspondence. I committed entire messages to memory, making careful note of key incidents, scenarios, and dates. On the printouts of the correspondences themselves I jotted notes in the margins, underlined passages, and circled critical points of interest. Scanning through the library books, I identified vital information about ferryboats necessary for me to explain to N. the nature of my ghostwriting assignment. I synthesized this with knowledge gained earlier during my tour of the Sound, and I developed a sufficient amount of material about the retired launch pilot.
My appetite for food vanished. I drank water in minute incremental sips, refilling the hotel’s complimentary paper cup only once. Despite this lack of nourishment, I felt an amazing vitality pulse through me. With each new gobbet of information memorized, I saw with heightening clarity the inevitable success of my scheme.
By daybreak, I felt my head full of an enormous quantity of material gained practically overnight. My limbs percolated with a giddy confidence as I strode through the hotel lobby. I was indifferent to the quivering jumble of bodies passing all around me. At one point, a woman knocked into me. Her arm grazed my own, brushing a daub of sweat from skin to skin. But as if by the power of some magical coat, the infinitesimal smudges of perspiration was whisked from my skin without a trace.
I stopped at the counter to return my room key and finalize the checkout procedures. I had half the mind to practice my script on the receptionist, to begin sharing everything I prepared for N., for no other reason it seems than that she addressed me by my first name, something I hadn’t heard issued from the lips of another human being in what felt like an eternity.
Although our meeting time was scheduled for one o’clock, I wanted to arrive well in advance. I wanted to acquaint myself with the setting–the amphitheater at Olympic Sculpture Park. This would reduce the possibility of my being taken by surprise by some unexpected occurrence. To pass the time I travelled through the city by foot. It was only midmorning, but the heat was already unbearable, a viscid, scorching, living substance that constricted motions and stupefied thoughts. Block by block I proceeded toward my destination, accompanied on either side by a line of facades whose shape and symmetry recalled the library stacks I spent so much time blindly navigating.
I stopped to rest near a bench and was overcome by the unavoidable sensation of being pressed firmly and irrevocably into an invisible wall of pure flame. I looked around. To cool off, crowds of people huddled in the umbrage of giant looming buildings whose brick and steel edifices seemed to tilt inward as though buckling with the sheer weight of heat. I hurried on, determined to reach the amphitheater before my companion.
When I got there, however, I saw, to my consternation, N. He sat on the lowest concrete step beyond the descending grass tiers. Before I knew it, he was waving at me, his arm stretched high above his head, dancing like the needle of a metronome. I had no choice but to follow the sloping walkway down to where he sat. My heart clubbed my chest with its intense, nervous beat.
Despite his apparent air of cheerfulness and the almost ecstatic energy with which he greeted me and shook my hand, N. possessed the physical traits of someone beset with disappointment, deprivation, and distress. The loss of his wife and whatever upsetting truth was subsequently revealed to him in the pages of her diary had taken their toll. His eyes made languorous movements, half-hidden behind heavy dripping eyelids. Previously a rich lustrous brown, his hair now held a coarse grainy texture, and random areas had gone gray. He was stiff and gaunt, as one forced to undergo a prolonged and grueling journey. On the wall next to where he stood lay a small black notebook with a frayed thread dangling from its dirtied fringes. His wife’s diary.
“So you couldn’t wait to get here either?” he said. “I was so excited to see you, I barely slept a wink last night.”
“It was the same with me,” I told him, forcing a smile. The truth was, his wan look surprised me. And why had he come so early?
Pointing at my duffle bag, which I completely forgot about, N. asked, “What’s in the bag?”
Amidst all my planning and preparations I hadn’t accounted for such a simple yet portentous question.
“Just my computer and some research materials,” I said. “I’m taking a tour of the Sound and then I have a meeting with the launch pilot later this evening.” I stammered through the response, unable to fully grasp the meaning of the words. The conversation had veered off course even before it had begun. I fumbled through my mind, frantically searching for a way to direct it toward the safety of my preconceived blueprints. But before I could call up anything from the previous night’s hours-long study session, disaster struck.
“When will you visit your grandfather’s grave?” N. asked.
I faltered. “Tomorrow.” My return flight was scheduled to take off in only a few hours.
Like the duffle bag, I had forgotten all about visiting my grandfather’s grave. In fact, since my plane landed I had forgotten all about my grandfather, so consumed was I by my research and preparations.
“Maybe I could join you. Thinking about him always made me feel better. Which cemetery is he buried in?”
I mumbled the name of some made up cemetery.
N. looked puzzled. He seemed to be making an effort to recall the name of the cemetery in question. We both came across it years ago while scouring through my family’s historical documents.
“I thought it was in Gethsemane, down toward Tacoma?”
I felt the full magnitude of the sun’s torrid rays and with it the full magnitude of my own ignominious masquerade. My body burned with shame. A ripple of palpitations shot out in every direction from my heart. A choking thirst ignited inside my throat. I was overheating. I glanced around, anxiously searching for some cool haven of shade where I could shelter and recover my senses. But the sun was at its zenith and there was not a shadow in sight. Everything lay exposed.
Then I saw the inside of my apartment, the walls overgrown with that multicolored membrane of extracts–I was standing there amidst that brilliant layer of fiction, insulated from the brutal heat that swallowed me in its blaze. A split second later all the color vanished, as if sucked out by a vacuum, replaced by a film of gray reducing everything to a foggy blur. The room went pitch black.
When I regained consciousness I was no longer standing but rather lying prostrate. A woman knelt by my side. She lightly dabbed my forehead, temples, and neck with a cold wet rag. My shoes and socks had been removed, as had my T-shirt, and my head supported by a clump of clothing-clothing someone had removed from my duffle bag. I was positioned in a slim bending band of shadow hugging a large upright steel structure, the shape of which recalled the undulating patterns of heat waves rising upward in translucent ribbons. Two more similar structures stood nearby. Three or four faces stared down at me. N. was nowhere to be seen.
“He’s awake!” the kneeling woman announced to the onlookers. “He needs space. Step back. Give him space.” While she spoke she tilted a plastic bottle of water toward my lips with one hand and motioned with the other. The crowd retreated a few steps. Drowsy, my head throbbing, I took slow swallows of water.
“It’s the heat that did it,” someone noted. “If you don’t watch out it will burn you alive,” another voice warned. “He could have had a stroke.” “I haven’t felt like myself lately. These temperatures, they change you.” Everyone nodded in agreement.
When it was evident I would recover without the need of an ambulance, the crowd dispersed, leaving me alone with the woman. I sat up and leaned my back against the gritty steel structure. Where was N.?
My duffle bag lay limp and ruffled beside me. Its contents were both visible and disarranged. The numerous pages of correspondence, all annotated and full of underlines, were missing. The plane tickets were still there, but they had been removed from their envelope, which I was using as a place marker in one of the ferryboat books.
I asked the woman where the man who was with me had gone. She told me that everyone thought he ran off to get more help. She said he left right after she ordered him to dig through my duffle bag and find something that could be used as a pillow and water rag. She apologized for this, but said it was necessary. “We needed to make sure you weren’t a diabetic.” This made sense and I thanked her solemnly. “Is he your friend?” the woman asked. I said nothing, but only began gathering my belongings and stuffing them back into my bag. The woman extended her arm and helped me to my feet. I thanked her again for taking care of me. It was nothing, she insisted. We’re here to help each other.
“What is this place?” I asked, gesturing toward the strange vertical wavelike bodies of steel rising up on either side.
“It’s called Wake. It’s an installation by Richard Serra.”
“But I thought we were in the amphitheater.”
“That’s right over there. We moved you into the shade when you passed out.”
The woman led me through the staggered S-shaped segments as if through a maze. Then we stepped out into the open space where N. and I were previously talking.
“Is that yours, too?” the woman said suddenly. She ran over to the wall and picked up the diary once belonging to N.’s wife. Now it belonged to no one. I hesitated, yet in the end I accepted the diary, zipping it into the side compartment of my duffle bag along with the two savings bonds. Moments later we parted ways. Languid and remorseful, I followed the amphitheater’s ascending walkway up to the street, hailed a taxi, and made off to the airport, bent on never returning to Seattle again.
Back home, darkness had already descended as the taxi drove me back from the airport. Even though I slept the entirety of the flight, because of the time zone differential I felt an insupportable leaden fatigue. When I left Seattle there was still a radiant sun in the sky, but at some point on the way back this sun hadn’t so much set as simply burned out.
We approached the apartment building. A pair of fire engines was parked up ahead and my driver was ordered by a uniformed police officer to stop and turn around. Clearly, something was astir. “Looks like a fire,” said the driver as I passed him the fare. I stepped out of the taxi. Soot-stained streams of water carrying singed debris flowed in the street gutter. The sticky humid air was redolent of smoldering matter and incineration. I looked up and saw the front of my building blanketed in ash, the windows like emptied out square sockets giving way to a hollow blackness. Vertical streaks stained the bricks above each row of windows all the way to the roof, and tracing them with my gaze I almost saw the flames slithering upward like fiery snakes. But the fire was now extinguished. The firefighters were packing everything up, hurrying to and fro with their hoses and equipment. Nearby, onlookers recalled the disaster in hushed excited tones. Someone took hold of my arm. I turned to find the stricken face of the landlady.
“It’s you!” she said. “Everyone thought you were inside. You were my only tenant who wasn’t accounted for. Can you believe it? Such a massive fire and not a single death.”
I explained that I had gone to Seattle to see someone and only just arrived home. “It was fate,” the landlady then told me. “A miracle of fate.”
I imagined the conflagration tearing through the rooms of my apartment, engulfing in great torrents of high heat and flame the thousands of pages I had collected, each region, each falsified self, erupting in a flash of light, my laptop melting in a lava of plastic.
1 Author’s Note: Parts of this passage appear in W.G. Sebald’s Vertigo, page 44 (published by New Directions Books in 2000).
Nathaniel Meals is a native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Currently, he is a second-year MFA candidate at Bowling Green State University where he’s been awarded a Devine Fellowship and has worked as an assistant editor at Mid-American Review. This is his debut publication.