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CHARLES MARVIN

Island of Swine

An imaginary corporation weighed on Mr. Clark's thoughts. Should I export bananas, he wondered, or coordinate the marketing of pork products? He drew a sketch of himself at a desk before a window, with pink clouds behind him filling up the sky. If I direct marketing, he wondered, what do I feel like? His name was continuous, a system for retaining complex ideas--but what would that name sound like, coming from the lips of secretaries and brokers? Mr. Clark, they would say, there's a call for you on line one. Mr. Clark, do you really think we can take these risks if we co-invest?

Up in his loft Clark had dreams he could hardly believe were inside him, where electricity surged across vast underground power networks, and he was transformed into teams of great tortoises that swam at night through the seas. The energy of his dreams surprised him and made him feel strong again, as if all at once he knew his true purpose in life. How was it that he always woke up alone in the suburbs, with no idea who he was?

Before him, on two square feet of paper towel, was a banana wrapped in ham. His loft was empty but new, all white paint and new blue-gray carpeting. It was a good place to bring food. Windows slanted down a long steep wall, where the ceiling sloped from fourteen to seven feet. A rotary fan turned overhead, wafting breezes from a window through the roof. It was his fantasy to build a loft, and so now he had one.

But he couldn't think straight. Everyone was gone. And sometimes even the home computer wasn't fun anymore. There was only so far you could go with games. So with a Saturday before him he lay idle, lying in a sweater and his underwear across the carpet. Watching the blades of the fan turn high overhead, he tried to let his mind go where it liked.

He thought of trichinosis. He could have thought the banana was diseased, teeming with banana fever, but instead the accusation fell on the envelope of flesh that surrounded it. What if the renderers had failed to cook it properly? Was he really in the habit of laying down his life at the hands of blood-smeared strangers, who didn't care whether he lived to eat again or died in agony, doubled up on the floor?

He closed his eyes and opened them again, letting them fill with light. He imagined how Mr. Clark would feel, the imaginary Mr. Clark. His company was giving him an award today, a weird award that they just seemed to have made up. People he'd suspected the worst of seemed newly aware of him, calling him on the phone to offer their congratulations. And yet beneath his office in the clouds, down in the great belly of the consuming public, the same poison Clark was worrying about had already taken root. Last night's shipment of meat had gone through the ovens too quickly, due to a malfunction caused by a man falling into the machinery. Trichinosis was piled up in trucks and shipped out to the motherland. And now the food was about to strike back at the people who had eaten it. Mr. Clark probably was laughing right now, telling jokes to the men at the other urinals, never suspecting that the axe was about to fall.

It was a rough world. The real Clark, just to be safe, peeled the ham away. No more pink bananas. Children were playing outside. He could hear the birds and the wind through the trees. An airplane puttered through the sky. Baseball was fun to listen to on the radio, but the home team was in sixth place, which can be depressing day in and day out.

He wished his wife wouldn't go to these science fiction conventions. When you're thirty, you're supposed to go bowling with your husband, or if you have money, race yachts. But it was all right, actually: he liked being alone. He just didn't know what to do.

"Mrs. Waller?" he asked on the telephone. "Karen?" He lay on his back up in the loft, with the phone cord stretched out from a light blue touch-tone by the wall. "Listen, I know we shouldn't do this, but my wife's gone again. Taken the kids. Do you want to have lunch?"

"Oh, God, Clark," she sighed. "I don't know. I've got this dog running around. He's out of his mind. Could you make it an hour from now?"

-----

They were keeping track of their lives. So far this summer, it was them thirty-two times, and spouses twelve (total). Karen swore she was trying with Alex, but Alex was Alex and he had to have his way: now he was in the South Pacific, staying up nights for Halley's Comet. Clark sifted drink mix with flavor crystals into the mouth of his canteen and filled it with tap water. Karen liked Clark because he was like Alex, and quite frankly, Clark liked the thought of being like Alex. Sometimes she even let him use his name.

For the imaginary Mr. Clark, his own moment of recognition had come. "In view of Mr. Clark's success in promoting pork products to both national and specialized markets," the chairman of the board announced, "we feel more confident than ever that pork can and will become a major element in the American diet."

Everyone clapped, at a ceremony in the Frangipani Room. Mr. Clark rose to the podium, caught in a swirl of motive and ambition. He had had his hair cut this morning, so that he would look sleek and threatening up on the rostrum. And he had one thing to say to the companies assembled: It's a big country out there. It's time to kick some ass.

The real Clark tried on a pair of cut-off shorts, but the fabric pressed at his kidneys: it was time to lose weight. He got out his sweat pants next because they always fit. You just pulled on the drawstring, and you could be a bigger person. He fished through the dryer, out in the laundry room off the kitchen, for a nice warm t-shirt. Karen liked the smell of clean laundry. He sprinkled some food at the fish bubbling up in the aquarium and left the house. Two different keys for two different locks had to be gotten out and fiddled with. One of the locks could be relocked, again and again, by pushing six on the television remote upstairs. This way, he assumed, his wife could keep him at bay if he came home drunk or deranged. He stopped to turn off the faucet outside, to stop the sprinklers in the yard. Across the street two boys were tossing a frisbee, not saying a word.

"So what are you thinking of?" Karen asked, as they walked together down the beach. "Is it your job or are you just looking at the girls?"

The girls were healthy. They greatly impressed him. But they weren't worth thinking about. "I've gotten caught up in something," he tried to explain. Karen was a short woman with big hips who wore jeans. She liked to drink orange soda by the can, but it was her body type, not consumer goods, that made her like this. She was a sturdy little monster. He was thinking about swine. So he tried to think of what to say.

The imaginary Mr. Clark was at the crossroads of his career. He was thirty-three and just treading water in the marketplace, despite the award. The award, in fact, was the board of directors' way of telling him, if you've got something, do it now. Make a miracle. Or start looking for another job.

"You see," he told Karen at the Terrace Cafe, "nobody's actually going to be ruined by the pork market." He took a sip of white wine, enjoying the feel of the mist up from the sea. "But the possibilities for expansion are always limited. There's so many special problems."

"Well, Alex," Karen pointed out, "it's unrealistic to think of the whole world as a bull market. Things stay the same, usually, without a great deal of fluctuation. Otherwise the economy gets way out of balance."

"But it's my job to upset the balance," Clark said, sitting back with his elbows up over the sea railing like a young, attractive businessman. "Otherwise the whole world would be like Omaha. If you let people compete you're going to end up with Switzerland and Calcutta. You're going to have Westchester and Watts. I'd rather take my chances with Adam Smith, lady, if you don't mind. I hear the sugar harvest isn't too good down in Cuba."

Karen smiled mischievously, as the waitress served them a bowl of spiced shrimp on ice. "You're really going all out on this," she said, "aren't you?"

"People are buying breakfast foods made from processed beef and poultry," Clark declared, as if the idea were a plot. "They've noticed that bacon and sausage are mostly animal fat."

"I've seen ads saying some of the cuts are actually rather lean."

"We made those ads," Clark said. "But people simply won't believe them. It's the World War II thing, you know, when they used to fatten them up for lard. People have this image of pigs that they're fat, and it's just not true anymore."

"They're mean as shit, though," Karen pointed out. "And they eat garbage."

"Yes, I know; we did research." Clark tried one of the shrimp, imagining what sort of corruption it crawled up from. "People think they're wicked and depraved. I mean, they betrayed Boxer in Animal Farm. That was mentioned more than once. People get hysterical about things like chemicals in pig feed, too, like we're out to poison them. They think because we're injecting ham with saline solution that we want them to have heart attacks."

"And there's kosher problems," Karen added. "More people are inviting Jews into their homes."

"A lot of young people have been telling us that they're afraid to buy pork," Clark said tersely, "because they might mess up and die of trichinosis."

"It's a bitch, isn't it?"

Clark let another shrimp tail fall into the melting ice. "You don't know the half of it. I'm giving a speech in a little while to the trade association, and I have to think of something to say. I've got to come up with a whole new direction for swine, or my career's shot. They'll hire some kid from Purdue, and I'll be out hustling for a job."

"It's a nasty world you live in, Alex."

He looked up at her, noticing again that she'd said Alex. "It sure the hell is," he replied, watching her eyes.

They watched lobsters arrive at a table down the wharf, steaming and quite impressive. Three older women in hats laughed at each other as the waiter served them their food. Clark's head was swimming with ideas: why don't I commission an artist, he thought, to make ceramic pigs wait on street corners, or look out from city parks?

Karen explained the Halley's Comet thing, in detail, over their baked flounder. It was a cruise sponsored by Alex's alumni association, with a professor of astronomy on board and a chess tournament during the day to pass the time. From the day the brochure came in the mail, Alex was set on going. "I can't let my life go by just because I'm married to you," he said, cooking hamburgers for her out on the barbecue. "You stay at home and relax like you want to. Read your books. I've got different priorities."

Clark took the check up to the cash register and brought her back three little mints. He had three more for himself, safe in his pocket. "People change," he suggested blandly, as they walked together back down the shore. "When you and I were twenty-one, we probably would have hated each other."

"That's what Alex says about us now," Karen said. The sea was calm, lapping up to their feet as if there was nothing wrong in the world. "We're just very far away from each other."

"You can't let it get you down," Clark said, taking her by the hand. "You just have to live and pretend you're happy. It usually works for me."

"It works for me, too," Karen murmured. They passed out of earshot of three girls in bikinis, stretched out in deck chairs over the sand. Clark turned to hold her, to feel her hands reach up around him. As they kissed, radios played, all the way down the beach. Clark's canteen dangled from his neck, and as they embraced, the cool metal pressed between them. "Spanish style," some blonde boy said, passing by on the beach with his friends.

"We knew the potential was there for increased consumption," the imaginary Mr. Clark declared to the darkened Frangipani Room. He thought of trapeze artists, wind-up toys chugging toward precipices. "Our success was in targeting the most promising types of pork at the correct audiences." But why had so many failed, the Clark who was pretending to be Alex wondered, where he had succeeded? "Our strategy," he began carefully, "was to project our imaginations outward, toward the public. We began by interviewing thousands of consumers...."

-----

"Oh, Ronnie!" Karen cried as they arrived home. "God damn it, Ronnie, I can't ever leave you alone."

Karen's dog was in the kitchen, nosing around a box of red and white striped straws that had spilled onto the floor. "Bad dog!" Karen shouted, snapping her fingers. "You go upstairs!"

But Ronnie was too big to be intimidated. He barked, filling the house with the rough sound of his voice. "You go on!" Karen shouted, stamping her feet. The dog broke and ran into the living room. Karen listened to the sound of his paws, padding up the carpeted stairs.

"My husband is never around to take the consequences," Karen said, pouring Clark's canteen out into a clear glass pitcher of ice. "He plays rough with him and then he leaves. It takes a few days for Ronnie to calm down."

"What a bum," Clark said suddenly, listening to the ice tinkle against the glass. "I'llbet he has a girl at every port. Don't you worry he'll bring back some disease and infect us all?"

"Alex isn't like that," Karen insisted. "He's very insecure. And besides, you shouldn't talk that way. He's my husband, not yours."

"I know he's your husband," Clark said. He watched Karen pour two tall glasses full of red liquid, in a cascade of tumbling ice. "You don't have to tell me these things."

She offered him a glass. "Sometimes I think I have to," she said. "I think you get carried away."

Blue jays flashed down from the pines, frightening the sparrows and blackbirds in the yard. Clark paused for an instant, choosing not to fight. He suggested the bedroom upstairs, where Alex slept with Karen when he was home. "We'll take our drinks up there and watch the Munsters in bed," he suggested. "We'll take some pretzels."

Karen looked at him. The kitchen was bright and modern beyond her black hair, with counters of red enamel. Baskets of wire mesh hung down, filled with fruit. "All right," she said slowly. "I'll come with you."

-----

Alex liked long summer evenings, when the sun was still out, to make love. He said intimate things, different than what Mr. Clark would say. His undershirts came from Sears. They varied not only in style but in size--some were medium, others were large. In corporate America a man knew his measurements: the thickness of his neck, the length of his arms, his hat size. Mr. Clark kept track of how many minutes it took him to run a mile, how much weight he could press from a bench, and how far he could swim within certain limits of time. In corporate America a man learned to compete with himself, to judge his progress against imaginary opponents--a bespectacled husband in Singapore who hated the rain, or a young prodigy reading reports on a train from Detroit to Toronto--they all waited unseen, ready to stop the world in its tracks.

"In the coming years," he announced to the assembled of the Frangipani Room, "we're going to be more aggressive about selling pork to the youth market. That's an area we've lagged behind in for too many years. So let's take a look to the future, and wind up ahead of the game for once. Let's start thinking about the flash-freeze revolution."

It was his last, desperate ploy--a move to take pork away from the housewives of the 60's and 70's with their cans of chicken noodle soup, and deliver it to the very children they had struggled to feed. For him it was a departure from safe ground. The board of directors didn't understand a future of flash-frozen entrees, packed fresh at local distribution points to supplant the twice-cooked mediocrity of TV dinners. They had actually missed the TV dinner movement itself, by and large: their vision of America was picnic tables pushed together outdoors, with an extended family feasting on ham, corn on the cob, lemonade and biscuits over red checked tablecloths. They were content to be completely passive about new ideas. To them ideas were fads like the condominiums up over the meadows, soon to be replaced. And so would the gadflies who tried to sell them their bill of goods.

"The scientific problem," he pointed out, nonetheless, "is that pork has to be cooked thoroughly, to kill off any possible trichina parasites." He smiled, taking a drink of water at the podium. "Now just try to imagine the habits and lifestyles of flash-freeze customers. They'll be busy--family, career, entertainment, education and sports will fill their lives. As a group they'll tend to be indifferent about food preparation. They won't necessarily know the dangers. So dealing with them, when you stop to think about pork, is going to be difficult."

The companies pioneering the packaging of flash-frozen dinners were quite adamant on this point, and rightly so. Their own studies showed that nearly a quarter of their customers in test market regions threw away the product packaging before reading the directions, and, being too indifferent or frightened of cockroaches to reach back in the garbage to retrieve them, would undercook their dinners. Other, more knowledgeable consumers balked at flash-frozen entrees such as Pork Hawaii, Tenderloin with Asparagus Tips, and Chops with Apple-Raisin Sauce: they didn't trust their microwave ovens, and they didn't want to die.

"But fortunately there's new technologies," Mr. Clark declared, "operable right at the distribution plants, that can solve this problem once and for all." He glanced down the table over the shining heads of the board members, toward the lighted Exit signs over the doors. "We're all familiar with sectioning, and how it can be used for analysis of meat samples. There are now laser devices that can analyze meat portions so rapidly and with such accuracy that it's now possible to examine each entree as it comes down the line, with no visible damage to the product. All it requires from us is an initial investment."

Several members of the audience broke into spontaneous applause, but it died out quickly into a few forlorn hand- claps. The board members at the banquet table were silent around him, looking out toward the tables. "We've got to have the will," Mr. Clark challenged them, "to move ahead into the Twenty-first Century. We've got to think of our children and grandchildren, in a world of unimaginable choices. Can we really afford to be left behind?"

Some of the men dared to stand up, to clap at the future. Mr. Clark lifted up his arms, despite the scowls at the banquet table. And suddenly, as if he had willed it himself, the room filled with applause. "To the future!" he declared, as all the men rose into the darkness before him.

-----

"Oh, Alex," Karen cried out, as the jays flew up to the trees, "you've outdone yourself!"

Clark was sprawled up on top of her with one of Alex's muscle shirts yanked up over his shoulders, bunched up in Karen's hands. She broke into a smile. "That's neat!" she said. "Where did you learn that?"

"It's an old army trick," he replied, disengaging himself. He wished he had Alex's dog tags, to complete the illusion. "But you've got to have a nice strong girl to do it with. Somebody you can trust."

She got out their notebook from the nightstand and flipped through the pages. As she sat up in bed he watched the weight of her breasts, round and ponderous, gleaming in the light from the pages. "So this is thirty-four," she said, marking it down. "With a star?"

"And a moon."

"You felt younger?"

"I still feel young," he said, getting up from the bed. "Right now, just the way I am."

"That's good," Karen said. "I'm going to make a notation here. War technique."

"A lot of things can happen in a war."

"Apparently so."

He pulled on Alex's jeans, which were big around the waist but came up taut and firm in the butt. "He doesn't wear them," Karen said, stepping into the bathroom to take a shower. "If you want you can take them." Clark nodded, concentrating on the clothes in Alex's dresser. He tried on a green surgeon's jersey, which had been in style a couple of years back. Pausing to look in the mirror, he thought he looked good. Here was a young intern, fresh from summers off the Cape. He noticed Alex's sandals poking out from under the bed, harboring potential foot diseases: after a moment's hesitation, he decided he'd rather go barefoot.

He sat out on a deck chair in the back yard late into the afternoon, until the crickets began to sing from the undeveloped marshes beyond Alex's picket fence. Karen was upstairs reading a novel, but that was all right: it was what she wanted to do. The sky grew pale, there were swallows up on the wires, and if Clark listened carefully, he could hear two boys in a boat off the marshes, talking to one another in hushed voices about Danielle Fern.

Clark wondered how Alex could have lost interest in his wife. Perhaps he had decided, one day as he had watched the parade of girls down the beach, that his wife should be a smaller woman. Clark shut his eyes and let himself drift through the sound of the crickets, drunk with the feel of Alex's life. Perhaps a smaller woman would make Alex feel physically larger, like a football player in high school. Or perhaps he was who he wanted to be, with no special desires: there were girls in Tangiers and Dearborn, Paris and Los Angeles, and some of them were so tall they could reach up and touch ceilings.

Mr. Clark, his counterpart, might have wished there were more women in his life, but in the imaginary realm of business there were only glimpses, fleeting and bittersweet, of the erotic world. All those handshakes and leering jokes with old men like sacks of meat diminished the sexual touch: they made a man clumsy and brisk, as if he were on the assembly line. Mr. Clark went to movies in strange cities where nobody knew him, just to see what sex could be like. But the players were just pretending to have fun. They said ridiculous things, over a background of tawdry music. When their eyes met the camera, they looked confused.

It took a little while for them to replace his feelings. Now he bought magazines in little shops, for whatever small gratification they could bring. The Frangipani Room was, in a sense, a better world. Here, at least, there was passion. The men were standing up and applauding over their tables, with such enthusiasm that the board members up on the rostrum had to join in as well. The overhead lights were turned off, the room lit by candles, so it was impossible to see who was who. In the dark, at least, you were safe.

Then, all at once, nobody was safe. It was like a raid: the fluorescent lights started flickering on, column by column. Mr. Sacks, a mostly bald man with black, thick-rimmed glasses, was pushing his way past the tables, shouting something as the lights took hold. "There's been an infection," he cried, rattling a sheet of paper up at the banquet table. He made his way up to the podium, nearly stumbling up the carpeted steps. "This is bad news," he said, speaking into the microphone. "There's been an outbreak of trichinosis poisoning from our lunch meats this morning. We don't know why this is happening, but it is. We've got stores ready to pull us off the shelves." He paused, out of air: his audience murmured, still blind under the fluorescent panels. Mr. Sacks cleared his throat, and continued his message of doom: there were deaths in Illinois, in Iowa, and out across the Great Plains. Mr. Clark stood behind the man like a vampire, between the flags of the United States and Illinois. He half wondered if this was a ploy, to shut him up. In the world of corporate swine, you could never tell.

Just then the waiters rolled in the serving carts, taking their cue from the lights. Arranged on the carts were great platters of cold cuts, heaped high over beds of bright green leaf lettuce. The first cart was brought out by a small Arabic man with a pencil-thin mustache, the line of his hairnet pulled halfway down his forehead. "THANKS TO MR. CLARK!" announced a banner pinned up on dowels over the food. Two young waitresses with long blond hair bounded up to the stage and drew aside the curtains beyond the banquet table: "THREE CHEERS FOR MR. CLARK!" the colored letters chimed. The waitresses seemed about to sing, but when they looked out toward their audience they stopped, frightened. Mr. Clark looked between them out to the faces staring back at him. It occurred to him, abruptly, that he was in trouble.

"He was going to poison us all!" cried a man in the back of the room, his voice high as a dustbowl farmer's. Several other men in the crowd began to shout, all at once. "He's sabotaged everything we've worked for," another man shouted, blond and well-groomed and pointing at him from one of the tables. "And now he wants us!"

"That's not true," Mr. Clark yelled back, pushing his way between the girls to the microphone. "It's your careless attitude that's brought this about. I don't have to take this from you!"

The hecklers stopped, dumbfounded for an instant by his sheer recklessness. Then they rallied. "Get him!" the man in the back of the room shouted, and the crowd surged forward.

It was remarkable, Mr. Clark noted, how quickly an angry crowd could move toward its victim. Before he had even decided which way to run, they were on to him, whirling him about by his sports jacket and taunting him to fight back. Desperate, he lunged for one of the spectators, a tall, dewy-eyed man who looked like he was only pretending to be angry. The man flinched, and he was through. Mr. Clark ran out through the double doors under the Exit signs, pushing aside carts of poisoned meat. He heard men crying out, toppling over one another to the floor, but he didn't dare look back. The hall was open, clear down to the elevators. The doors there were just beginning to part.

He sprinted with all the strength he had, but his legs were different now, more sluggish than when he ran in school. Back then everything had made sense--he'd fallen in love, played football and basketball, visited hamburger palaces and condemned buildings. It had all seemed very important, like a myth shared by the generations. He passed under a clock and heard the hum of its motor, sweeping through time. Now his life was about pigs, looking out from the slats of moving cattle cars to a midnight of locusts and ragweed. It didn't make any sense. The men were behind him now and getting closer, and he still hadn't figured it out. All he could see were the doors just beginning to close. He jumped, at the doors.

He landed on his face in the elevator. The doors closed just beyond his feet and the floor began to tremble. There was a pounding of fists, which faded abruptly away. So he was all right, for the moment. He felt around the inside of his mouth with his tongue, to make sure there was no blood or fragments. The elevator was lifting him up swiftly, faster than he could believe. He tried to push himself up from the floor, but the gravity was too much. He looked up to the numbers and watched them flicker on and off, in ascending order. The top digits read 105.

-----

Suddenly, he sensed that Alex was up there, waiting by the elevator doors. Or the imaginary part of him did. The real Clark was just coming up from sleep. He took a deep breath of cool night air, and said the name in his thoughts: Alex. He felt something heavy in his lap, wet and cold between his thighs. He opened his eyes and there he was, standing over him in the dark. Clark looked up at Alex from his deck chair and thought, well, there's a real man.

He had a mustache and he was much sturdier than Clark had imagined him. From the clothes in his dresser he had pictured a man quite a bit more worn out, spindled down from ship's rations and too little sleep. But here he was, broad-shouldered and masculine in jeans and a t-shirt, ready for a fight.

He had a bucket in one hand, and in the other, a large brush dripping with bright, whitish paint. It was a punishment for sleeping with his wife. He slapped the brush up into Clark's crotch and slopped paint up his stomach and chest. Clark looked down at himself and realized he'd been sleeping through the best of it: already his shirt was caked, bright and oozing. Now Alex was painting up under his arms and chin, making sure that nothing was being missed. "This," he said in a low voice, "is so my wife will be able to tell us apart from now on." He pushed the bristles up under Clark's throat, pouring the rest of the bucket slowly down his trousers. "I take it you'll know the difference yourself next time," he said, "won't you?"

He tossed the bucket aside, spattering the lawn. Then he bent over Clark and kissed him on the cheek. Clark sensed that it wasn't because he was gay; this was more like lighting a match after soaking somebody in gasoline.

Clark grabbed him by the wrist as he turned away, but the man's arm jerked back and suddenly Clark was on his back, tipped over in his chair. "Come on," Alex said, "I've been in the Army. You don't have any training."

"I'll get some," Clark said, struggling up from the grass. "Then I'll come back for you."

"Don't be stupid," Alex said, walking up to the patio doors. "You'll just have to be more careful next time." He stepped up into the house, turning the patio lights on to illuminate the yard. Suddenly Clark was dripping with yellow, caught in the lights like a boy fallen into horse shit. "Why don't you go home and wash up," Alex suggested. "I'll be here till Thursday, and then you can come back if you want."

"I'll kill you first," Clark said, his voice trembling.

"You watch yourself," Alex warned. "Because if you want a fight, I'll give you one."

"I'll get you next summer," Clark shouted back. "You'll be walking along the beach, checking out the little boys in their suits, and all of a sudden you won't be able to see anymore."

Alex paused, considering the threat. "All right," he said, pushing back the screen doors, "I'll beat the shit out of you. I don't know why you want me to, but it's fine with me."

Clark watched him approach across the lawn. "I think it's interesting that Karen's not out here," he said, backing around under the pines. "I guess she's afraid of what you're going to do to her."

"She gives you more credit than you're worth," Alex said. He reached out suddenly, grabbing Clark by the shirt and yanking him out from the shadows. "She didn't think you'd go this far."

Alex pushed him stumbling to the ground, slapping him in the head as he went down. Satisfied, he stood and waited for him, up in the lights. But Clark wouldn't leave it at that. He rolled up from his bruises enraged, swinging wildly. So Alex knocked him down again, harder. Clark's feet slipped out from under him, and his head jerked back, slamming into the ground.

He looked up and saw Alex, looking down at him from a background of stars. "Look," he said in a deep voice, "I just want to be through with you. Why don't you just go home?"

Clark got up again, slowly, from the lawn. Alex said shit and decked him. Clark fell to the ground again and this time blood crept out from his nostrils. He struggled back to his feet and Alex hit him again, three times, until he fell face down into the garden.

When the police came, Alex said he'd been fighting off an intruder, who he'd known vaguely from work. He didn't want to press charges.

"And what about you, son?" asked the officer, crouching over Clark amid the begonias. "Did you have a disagreement or did he invite you up here, say, on the telephone?"

The officer was an old Irishman, of all things. His partner was blond and quite young; he gave Clark a rag to wipe off the blood from his mouth.

"I'd say a man who's been painted yellow probably has another story to tell," the Irish cop said, standing up to Alex. "Do you think maybe you got a little carried away this evening?"

"I threw the paint at him, but he wouldn't stop. He was going to break the windows."

"Is that right?" asked the officer, prodding Clark with his night stick. "Is that how it happened?"

Clark looked up at the old man, tempted to tell him the truth. It was almost worth it. "I know we've been disturbing the peace," he said, "but why don't you just let us off? To tell you the truth, we're just a little party that got out of control."

The officer smiled and began to write something in his black book. "You'll both be called to appear in court," he said. "I imagine there'll be a fine to pay. Would you like me to read you your rights?"

-----

The walls at the station were white and the ceilings were high, to swallow the noise. Clark looked up at them from the precinct cells and thought that he would never be free. Karen wasn't dealing well with the situation. When he called her all she could say was no, no, a million times, no. How could he do this to her? When she finally came to pay for his release, around midnight, she got into an argument with Alex. In the end she left him to rot in jail, shouting at her from the bars.

Outside there was rain on the streets, and nobody around. Karen asked Clark what he wanted to do. He said they should stop for hamburgers, at a drive-up window; after that was done, they took a ride through the city, up on the highway over the wharfs beyond the fishermen's bridge. There were lighted ferries out in the harbor. They drove out past the mills to the ramshackle taverns of the west side, where men fought all the time. A worn out dog snarled from a hydrant as they passed, its eyes red as a demon's, then lay back down to its dreams.

Clark stood in the shower and watched the yellow flow in ripples down his body. He was in his own home now, with Karen. The paint made him slippery like a porpoise, but it wasn't fun. It made him feel ridiculous and strange. Karen gave him a brush and said try that, if you want to get somewhere. But as she toweled him dry, he saw that there was still a faint caste to his skin. He wondered if there was cancer in the paint, or something that might cause it. Karen looked at him and said come on. Don't be ridiculous.

But he wondered. Had Alex planned to do this, or was it simply a moment of jealous inspiration? Part of being childish was that you never knew what was being plotted around you: everything was a surprise. He sat with Karen on a blanket up in the loft, watching the blades of the fan turn overhead. What if he had tasted the paint? Was it being absorbed through his skin to his bloodstream, to seep into the lining of his stomach?

He asked Karen and she laughed. "I must be in on this, too," she joked, but it was the wrong thing to say. Clark held her by the hands and made her promise to tell the truth: did she love him, or was there a sordid bond with Alex that ran deeper? Karen laughed harder, edging closer to hysteria.

"You've got to be kidding!" she cried out, pulling back from his grasp. "You've got all these fantasies running around your head--how can I keep up with you?"

"Which means--"

"Which means you're nuts. Of course I love you. I left the jerk in jail, didn't I?"

Clark paused, trying to get a handle on himself. He had to admit what had happened at the station: he'd been chosen, plain and simple. Now Alex would probably come over and break his windows. But it did say something.

"I guess I'm just depressed," he said.

He told her about the Mr. Clark in his mind, staggering in his shoes as a great cold wind swept through the elevator doors. He was on the roof now, looking out into the sky. The blades of the fan made a low humming sound, like the clocks down in the halls of the building, and Clark felt connected, somehow, to Mr. Clark and his own experience of dismay. Karen pulled the blanket up around the real Clark and he gathered her up in a slow, wistful embrace: there was nowhere to go but within.

"You have to imagine the wind," he said, "way up in the sky." Halfway out across the roof a great tilted grid of polarized glass sheared up out of concrete to an even higher place, where radio towers winked over the city. The elevator doors closed behind Mr. Clark, before he could turn to stop them. He stood with his hands on the stainless steel, listening to the little room sink down again through the building.

"But he didn't poison anybody!" Karen insisted. The blades of the fan swirled shadows up to the ceiling, beyond her head. "There'll be an investigation, and it'll be a plant manager somewhere who did it, not you."

"But you see," Clark said for Mr. Clark, "my career is over. Pork is done for. They'll hire an agency troubleshooter to take my place, and deep down, they'll blame me." Clark held her closer, frightened of the consequences in his own life, much less Mr. Clark's. They were all set in motion now: Alex, his wife, the children, cancer, a death alone. "I'm the one who wanted to go into flash-frozen entrees," Mr. Clark explained through him, smelling the sweat in her hair. "They think that I've tempted the gods."

He sighed, thinking about the gods. He had never been in such a place before, out in the open so far up in the sky. Beyond the precipice was an ocean of mist, stretching out to buildings sheer and treacherous as walls of ice. The face of his own building dropped straight down to eternity, although beyond the mist that destination was invisible and unknowable. He had to think about what he was doing, but he couldn't, he didn't have time: in a moment the doors would open again, and the men would all come out to drag him underground. If he was to have a choice, he had to make it now.

Karen moved about under the blanket, opening his robe and massaging him with firm strong hands. Mr. Clark took off his jacket, and then his tie. Below him a break appeared in the clouds, and he saw a distant street slick with rain, with tiny pedestrians crossing in front of taxicabs and sedans. He had thrown his life away once down there, after all, and wound up here. This momentary opening in clouds looked like a passage, toward completing the cycle.

He stepped up to the edge. Karen straddled him, still in her jeans but with her shirt unbuttoned to the waist, hanging out over her breasts. Mr. Clark's knees stiffened, and he felt himself begin to sway. He wondered how great a distance it would be, and how much time he would have in the air. Were such moments savored or lost? He felt himself tremble like a virgin boy.

Karen's hands closed around his bare shoulders, her mouth searching out his mouth, waiting for his hands to move up over her body: but there was a sky and a great wind, and Clark found himself struggling against the grip of her thighs. "I'm going to fall," he murmured, grasping her arms. "They're coming across the roof, and I've got to jump!"

"Look up in the sky," she said, finding his lips. "There's a helicopter, with two farmers coming to rescue you."

He closed his eyes, to see if he could find them. Deep in his mind a blue space opened, brilliant with sun. And a helicopter did hover over him, dark and shiny as a limousine. Its blades filled the air with a terrific noise, making its own wind as the craft slowed to its landing. Across the roof the elevator doors opened, but the men stood back, afraid of the gusts.

"We've got a job to do!" cried a man in a black wind-breaker and sunglasses, climbing down from the aircraft with headphones slung around his neck. "Are you coming with us or do we have to lick this trichinosis thing without you?"

Mr. Clark stood on the edge, hesitant. "They're taking you to my farm in Minnesota," Karen said, anxiously. "There's going to be a whole rethinking of market strategy, right down to the grass roots."

She was humoring him, to see if it would arouse him. It was working, too. They had to force him into the helicopter, but actually, he wanted to go. Karen took the real Clark up in her hands and he responded, opening her jeans and peeling them back around her thighs. The aircraft began to vibrate terribly, lifting into the sky. One of the farmers was named Byron, and he had thick, strong hands. "There's no better way out of trouble," he proclaimed, opening a condom for him and passing it back, rolled and slick, from the cockpit. "Now, can you get that thing on yourself, or do I have to do it for you?"

Karen and Clark looked at one another, bewildered. "What are we doing here?" he cried out, above the roar of the engines. It had happened: they had all come together at the last moment, high over the city. Clark wanted to exclaim aloud, but found that his thoughts were controlled by Mr. Clark, or he was Mr. Clark, except that Karen--well, who else would she be, lying naked in the back compartment of a helicopter?

Mr. Clark smiled vaguely at her, taking the condom and sitting back against the bulkhead, to unroll it down the shaft of his penis. It was the same penis, not somebody else's, but it felt better somehow, more resurgent. Karen watched him from across the helicopter, resting seductively among the pillows with the jagged city behind her glittering in the portholes. "You two have fun back there," Byron called back from the cockpit, turning away to pull a black velvet curtain over the doorway. "If you want to, you can drop that thing and make babies. There's plenty of food where we're going."

Below them the clouds were failing, opening up huge chasms to the city below--to its stockyards and tower blocks and expressways, all the way down to its dark, smoking factories. Beyond sprawled a universe of little houses, streets, telephone wires, a woman standing over a barbecue in her back yard--Clark saw it all as he made love to Karen, in brief glimpses through the churning sky. Karen grappled up around him, full of life, and he knew that he had something genuine, more than his imagination could contain. He thought of a little girl inside her, and inside the girl a little man, and inside the man a dowager queen. As he watched the city open up beneath him, he imagined that the actions of his life might make some small shift, unnoticed but binding, in the evolution of his species.

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