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John Barth

Countdown: Once Upon a Time

12. Any line at all

. . . can start a story. It doesn't have to be Once upon et cetera.


Take the proposition just proposed, for example. Hang it between quotes like dialogue and tag it somewhere along the road, like this: "Any line at all," Sheila's new lover declared to her on the balcony of her parents' condo in Perdido Key, Florida, where the young pair had run off together for a long spring weekend and were currently lounging naked in mid-March forenoon sunlight, "can start a story." See what I mean?


In fact, strictly speaking, the quotes and tag material aren't necessary.

"We suspected as much."

Throw me a line. Any line at all.

"Dearest friend, you asked for it: Try this." Wherewith trim fortysomething Sarah, an amateur of physics who has taken up story-writing as a pastime and found in it what she now believes might be her real vocation, dashes off from memory (with a Delta Airlines ballpoint pen on a sheet of our hotel's stationery) Erwin Schrödinger's equation for the evolution over time of the wave functions of physical systems, an axiom of quantum mechanics:

[here is the formula]

"The ball," she then declares, rolling pertly onto her tum, "is in your court."

Nothing to it, replies her unfazed bed-companion. I'm going to use quotes again, although we understand et cetera:

"[first formula]," Jerry scribbled across his half-dozing lover's tidy left buttock with a felt-tipped Kelly green marking pen; on that young lady's equally appealing right he then added "[second formula]," bridging her cleft and channeling its dainty semicolon with an elongated equal sign.

Sarah flexes her butt. "That tickles. What is it?"

It's Schrödinger's wave-function equation, which happens also to be the first element of Bohm's Alternative Theory, I believe, as well as the opening line of some other couple's story.

"No, I mean that."

Thanks to you, that is what it is. On with our story?

"Maybe. Is it Jerry talking now, or Joe or John or who?"

Your call.

"On with it, then, dear Fred. Where'd you learn physics, by the way?"

Relax just a quantum, and I'll tell you. Where'd you learn storytelling?

"Oh . . ."

There we are. I picked up physics from my friendly. Local. Physics teacher. Okay?

"Easy does it."

Endings, on the other hand, not-so-young Frederick feels obliged to recaution his not-so-young friend, ex-teacher and -protégée, are another matter.

"Another story? Ouch."

Sorry. Better?


Et cetera, one supposes.


11. From time to time

. . . we talk like this, even now. One needs anyhow to imagine a couple so speaking: late-afternoon late-life lovers, postcoitally lassitudinous and sweat-wet, skin to skin. Pillow talk, however, you know . . . you really have to be there in the ardent flesh, else it's liable to come across as ponderously winking or terminally cute, if it comes across at all. Joan and Frank Pollard are seasoned partners and old best friends: storms weathered, delights delighted in, ups downs ins outs, thousands of shared meals and matings under their still-trim belts. They've seen their several offspring through college, parents through their last age, professional careers through their gratifying peaks onto plateaus and thence into acceptably gentle decline and/or retirement, like their high-mileage bodies and sundry well-gratified appetites. Large surprises no longer either likely or hankered after, themby, at this stage of their game. Eros be praised, therefore and however, for certain small ones, such as their easeful making of love earlier today, at afternoon's end or evening's commencement, however one looks at it.

It's a rainy November Friday in Philadelphia, raw and wretched though not yet wintry and, in its wet gray way, handsome. The couple have motored to the city from their Delaware Valley country seat for the opening of Joan's watercolor show this evening at her dealer's gallery in Society Hill. The artist herself drove their van, as she has come regularly to do this fall except for local errands; Frank is much weakened lately by his illness, belatedly diagnosed (his own procrastination) as pancreatic cancer and found already to have metastasized. Prognosis grim indeed, but he has declined heroic measures in favor of palliatives while he considers how and when to end his story before it turns excruciating and/or undignified. The pair have discussed this subject both gravely and lightheartedly; they're in accord as to principle. Frank judges himself to have proceeded successfully, over the past months, right through "DABDA," the medical mnemonic for the stages of mourning as described by the psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. Having dwelt so long a while in the first of these, he likes to declare, he would readily have spent more time in the second and third, if there'd been more time, before arriving at the fourth and fifth. As for Joan, they agree that she's stalled in the neighborhood of B, with occasional relapses into Anger or even Denial and prolapses into Depression, but nary a smidgen yet of Acceptance of her partner's impending death.

After checking in at a favorite small hotel of theirs not far from the gallery, at Frank's insistence they strolled instead of driving or taxiing those few and handsome old brick blocks through the eased-off rain, to inspect Joan's dealer's mounting of the exhibition. Water Watercolors, it's being billed, although the series includes a number of pen-and-wash items as well: two dozen studies of that ubiquitous element in sundry modes and moods, from sun-fired rain splatters on the windows of Joan's rural studio to a waterspout raging along the Atlantic horizon near their rented summer cottage. While his wife discussed with a gallery assistant some details of lighting and labeling as well as the program for the evening, Frank admiringly reviewed the works themselves, so intimately familiar to him and yet so splendidly official now, like one's children or students at graduation-time. It is the dozenth or so such opening that he has proudly attended over the years as Joan Pollard's stock rose slowly but steadily to its present comfortable level among collectors in the region; it will doubtless also be his last, as he has of necessity recognized many other recent things to have been, whether in retrospect or at the time: his last summer at their Fenwick Island cottage, last Perseid meteor shower, last set of tennis as his debilitation grew, last glorious October foliage-change in "their" valley, and now in all likelihood his final visit to this handsome city. Unthinkable, his still-Bargaining mate would insist if he spoke of it thus; but Frank's best evidence that he has attained DABDA's terminal A is that these recognitions, while inevitably saddening, afford him on balance these days as much gratification as dismay; that he has been blessed for so considerable a while (though less considerable than expected) if not with wealth or fame anyhow with the respect of his prep-school students and colleagues during his teaching years, the affection of his grown-up daughter and of Joan's grown-up son by each's previous marriage, and above all the loving companionship of his second life-partner, whose talent and belated recognition give him at least as much satisfaction as if they'd been his own.

In particular he paused before Puddled Dew, a study of that homely phenomenon in late-morning light on the deck of their seashore cottage. In the brochure of the exhibition, a critic-friend of Joan's has praised "certain dark suggestions between her bright lines, so to speak: turbulences on the verge of erupting through serene, even pretty surfaces." The critic instances specifically "the unnatural calm of Waterspout Off Fenwick Island, its surfless sea and insouciant bathers blithely unaware of or indifferent to the approaching funnel-cloud"; also "the disquietingly bloodlike tints of Puddled Dew." Overdramatizings, in the Pollards' joint opinion: Squall lines and twisters don't normally approach East Coast beaches from offshore, for one thing, and so that waterspout will most likely have belonged to a storm already passed (Joan hadn't had heart to point out to her obliging critic-friend that, as anyone who knows beaches can see, the sunlit sand is still wet from a recent shower-an optical effect in which the artist justifiably takes pride); and while the critic herself is a Main Line blueblood, who ever saw the vital stuff in lavender? All the same, Frank thought now, the woman was onto something, as the literary critic Lionel Trilling had been in speaking of the "terror" lurking in Robert Frost's poetic rusticity: In retrospect, at least, Waterspout epitomizes the Pollards' "last summer"-a golden season of sweet work and play while Frank's undetected cancer busily colonized his body. And while nothing sanguinary had been implied in the delicate wash of lavender light that Puddled Dew's painter had taken such pleasure one August morning in capturing, that view from their sun deck happens to be toward the neighboring cottage, where-the very night after the picture was finished, perhaps while artist and spouse were watching Perseid meteors from that deck-a young divorced mother of two small children had been bound, raped, and robbed by the infamous "Duct Tape Rapist" of Wilmington and environs, still at large. The Pollards had heard nothing until the courageous young woman, whom they'd befriended over the summer, woke them by telephone at two a.m., after her attacker had finally left the premises and she'd managed to cut through her bonds with a kitchen knife, to ask whether one of them would please baby-sit her still-sleeping children while the other drove her to the nearest police station and emergency room, so that she could report and be treated for her rape with minimal effect on the kids. The assault itself had drawn no blood, but in sawing awkwardly through her duct-tape manacles (behind her naked back) she had sliced the skin of one forearm with the serrated sandwich-knife, and so Frank had quietly cleaned up red spots and pudlets on the kitchen tiles while Joan chauffeured and comforted the victim through the rest of the night, and had played his grandfatherly part in next day's difficult charade of normalcy-for-the-children's-sake. Thus had there come indeed to be, though never consciously intended by the artist, "dark suggestions between her bright lines" and "turbulences on the verge of erupting" from the innocently puddled dew, as if some microscopic amplifier were picking up the roar of nuclear energy latent in placid molecules of the universal solvent. It is the same feeling that Frank gets these days from reviewing their photographs from that season: There's lively Marjorie on the beach, still inviolate and prettier even than his own daughter, with those two darling children; there he himself poses astride his bicycle, still unaware that his pancreas has set about to kill him in short order.

"Peg's one of those critics who like to think they've found an artist's secret key," Joan piffed when Frank spoke of this, en route back to their hotel. Meanings, she likes disingenuously to declare, bore her; virtuosity is what matters.

"I suppose they do find such keys now and then," her husband allowed-and leaned on her arm a bit as a spasm of his now-permanent gut ache threatened to double him over. "Secret . . ." he added in the most normal voice he could muster, "even from the artist herself."

"And sometimes there's no damn lock to be unlocked," stoutly maintained Joan Pollard, her heart constricting at his pain: "just a funky little key to hang on the critic's charm bracelet. Can you make it?"

"No problem. These things pass." But he stopped them still for a bit on the brick sidewalk, until the worst of it did. "All passes," he intoned meanwhile; "art alone endures. Matthew Arnold?"

"Chautauqua Institute," his wife reminded him-and Frank now remembered their having once shaken their heads, years ago, at that portentous inscription over the auditorium stage, on which a much-flawed production of a second-rate opera was in tedious progress. For better or worse, they had agreed should be added to the inscription.

By chance their pause was before a bookshop window featuring, among other displays, works on sundry linkages between science and art: Leonard Shlain's Art & Physics: Parallel Visions in Space, Time & Light; Susan Strehle's Fiction in the Quantum Universe; coffee-table albums of gorgeously intricate Mandelbrot fractals, both computer-generated and photographed in their many natural manifestations; and, mirabile dictu, a calendar for the upcoming year illustrated with da Vinci's drawings of turbulent water.

"Gotta have it," Frank decided on the spot, and notwithstanding Joan's mild complaint that beside Leonardo her Puddled Dew looks like piddled doo-doo (and the stabbing realization that she'll be a widow before that calendar has run), they went in and bought the thing to hang in Frank's study, used these days chiefly for family bookkeeping and medical-insurance paperwork.

On then to their hotel, in plenty of time to shower and change for the opening: a three-hour wine-and-cheeser, after which Joan's dealer has scheduled dinner with one of her principal Main Line collectors. It is in this leisurely interval of dishabille-Frank's gut-pain having subsided, but not Joan's soul-pain-that they found themselves agreeably aroused by the cozy ambiance, among other factors, and presently embracing, caressing, and making gentle but vigorous love. When they had been a new couple in their early forties, the degree of their ardor and the proximity of their names (genders switched) to the "Frankie and Johnny" of Tin Pan Alley fame had made that old song a running tease between them. Oh lordy, how they could love! Belly-down on the mattress now with her spent friend full-length atop her, the woman half-growled, half-sighed into her pillow, "He done her right."

Alas, in their subsequent joint shower the man's abdominal cramp returned, with such severity that he was obliged to wrap himself in a bath towel and lie down before even drying himself, his knees clutched up toward his chest. "It'll pass; it'll pass," he insisted, dreading that this time it might not.

"Hospital," counterinsisted Joan. "Never mind Donato [her dealer and the gallery owner]; I'll call for an ambulance."

But Frank wouldn't hear of that; they've agreed he'll have the final say in these matters for as long as he can, and he is resolved not to let things reach the point where he can't. He forbade her even to telephone Donato that they'll be late: If he's still out of action when get-dressed time comes, she'll show up as scheduled and he'll join her later. In the worst case, she'll go on from the gallery to dinner with the others and he'll order up something light from Room Service.

"Sexy small hotels don't have room service," Joan tearfully reminded him.

"So I'll diet, and you'll bring me a doggie bag from Le Bec Fin."

"Tiramisu?"-which they had become enamored of a dozen years past at a pleasant gay restaurant in Key West; pretended was the name of a Puccini aria; have found only inferior versions of in their subsequent travels, even in Italy.

"Chocolate Decadence," Frank counterproposed, "with raspberry sauce. Uh oh . . ."

Just when his cramp seemed to be easing, he was seized by an urgent diarrhetic spasm and dashed half-doubled toiletward. Joan's legs went weak; she sat on the bed-edge, hearing him. "Are you managing?" she called in presently.

"Within the parameters. Bit of chocolate turbulence." He'd better sit this one out, so to speak, he decided and declared: "Get yourself dressed and out of here, s.v.p."

For his sake she did, and now dutifully has done, lord knows how. Three hours-two and a half, anyhow-of shmoozy small talk, her heart the whole time clenched fist-tight with concern. Donato, bless him, had kept the chitchat going and her wineglass filled, seeing to it she didn't get cornered overlong unless the cornerer was a likely customer. She had even managed to tease Peg, her critic-friend, with that "dark suggestions" business in the brochure (at the same time stroking her with Frank's comparison to the late eminent Professor Trilling), and Peg had cheerily responded, "Deny it till the cows come home, Joanie; Frost did the same thing, but the critics were right: 'Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening' is a poem about death."

Come restaurant-time, however, she could take it no longer, despite Frank's considerately phoning the gallery at six-thirty to tell her not to worry; he was in no pain and managing fine, but had decided to sit tight-"Sit loose," he had corrected himself-and let the trots run their course, excuse the expression and don't forget the tiramisu. She couldn't imagine that a collector's decision to buy or not to buy might hinge on the artist's physical presence at dinner (well, she could, actually, in Harry and Flo Perkins's creepy case), but if so, tant pis. Her husband was ill, and that was that; she told them as much, begged off dinner, and with some misgivings granted Donato's requested permission to confide "the truth" to the Perkinses once she was out of there. He was, after all, her dealer; had been so for years before his faith in her paid off, and she prays he'll remain so despite this evening's smallish turnout. If anything gets her through what lies ahead, it will be her work, and while she would no doubt paint even without a dealer to market the output, her professionality is at least as important to her as the income from her efforts.

Now she is out of there, by cab this time to make the short hop shorter yet. The driver's previous fare has left the daily Inquirer on the seat; Joan couldn't care less just now about dreadfulnesses in Bosnia, Rwanda, Haiti, but a more local headline catches her eye: DUCT-TAPE RAPIST SUSPECT ARRESTED. So brief is the ride, she has time to read only the lead paragraph by ambient street-light, to the effect that Delaware State Police have arrested a forty-nine-year-old white plumbing and heating contractor in suburban Wilmington on suspicion of being the notorious serial "duct-tape rapist" of New Castle County and Delmarva beach resorts. Suspect declares innocence. She adds a quarter to her tip and takes the paper with her, to share the welcome news with Frank.

Having elevatored to their floor, she fumbles for but fails to find her room key in the clutter of her bag, then remembers that in her scattered exit from the hotel she dropped it into her pants-suit pocket. She must ask Frank sometime, her all-purpose infobase, why it is that whereas American hotel patrons customarily take their room keys with them on sorties from the premises, European hotel patrons customarily check theirs (with their massive pendants to reinforce the custom) at the front desk. She bets he'll know.

She is suddenly smitten with apprehension at what she'll find when she enters their room; actually closes her eyes for a moment, compresses her lips, then decisively turns key and doorknob and goes in. The space is dimly lit. Their bed's out of sight from the short entry-hall leading past the bathroom, but the television is turned on, its sound muted. Tropical reef-fish swim gorgeously across the silent screen; both Pollards are great fans of underwater cinematography. Lest her husband be sleeping, Joan suppresses her urge to call out to him.

Frank is, indeed, she finds, asleep: pajama'd, propped on his pillow against the headboard, looking altogether old and dead with his rumpled gray hair, closed eyes, and slacked-open mouth, the da Vinci calendar open on his blanketed, lamplit lap. So light is his respiration, it's the closed eyes that tell her he's merely sleeping after all; the day she finds him really dead, she supposes, his eyes will be open. The calendar, she sees now, is turned to February next, its graphic a meticulously rendered maelstrom. Leonardo, boy-oboy. Which famous physicist was it, Joan hopes she'll remember to ask Frank along with the hotel-key question, who on his deathbed declared his intention to query God in Heaven on two matters, quantum electrodynamics and turbulence, and expressed his optimism that the Almighty might actually be able to shed some light on the former? Frank will know. Won't you, Frank.

Won't you, Frank.

Against Australia's Great Barrier Reef, where it must be midmorning now, the serried waves smash in from the Coral Sea. Viewed submarinely, each explodes in a chaos of bubbles, their swirls unpredictable though perhaps retrospectively explainable; they sweep the unalarmed tangs and wrasses brilliantly this way and that, alert but mindless and at home in their awesomely complex, vast and protean, utterly mindless element.


10. He agrees to continue,

. . . does our narrator, stipulating only that she do likewise, and he'll readily take her silence for assent.

"Agrees with whom?"

Aha: With the late Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis, for one, author of Zorba et cetera, who, in a letter to his second wife, Eleni, expresses his hope that on his deathbed he'll have the opportunity to bid good-bye to, perhaps even kiss good-bye, the various fruits of the Mediterranean that he has so relished through his decades. It is a happily pagan wish, a sort of thanksgiving, altogether more life-affirming (if that's the proper adjective for a hypothetical dying wish) than extreme unction or even "setting one's affairs in order." One's dying wish, after all, so far from being a death-wish, may well be the wish for life, even where there is no further hope therefor. One imagines the old Cretan bussing a peach and exclaiming "Good-bye, dear peaches!"; a pear: "Thank you, sweet pears!"; a plum: "Plump plums, epharisto!"; then a persimmon, a pomegranate, and he's still only in the P's, having kissed his way already from apples through oranges, and with quinces through zucchinis yet to go.

Not so, you'll say: Zucchini stretches the category Fruits in the direction of metaphor, as in "fruits of the earth," thence to fruits of the sea, fruits of knowledge, Fruit of the Loom underwear, etc.-no problem for this fareweller, who has in fact rather enjoyed a lifetimesworth of stepping into and out of undies both boxer and brief, the latter both flied and flyless, and of assisting love-partners out of and into theirs: Mwah, dear delicate deliciosas! Stretch away, say some of us-as, after all, old Zorba there may be said to be stretching his category the other way, letting one papaya stand poetically for the class Papayas, as if there weren't differences among individual specimens of each variety-between Joe Papaya and Fred Papaya, for example, not to mention Fred and Gladys-in some instances as significant as their Linnaean similarities. Would he, bidding sad adieu to only one of his several children (if several he had, if any he had, which, as it happens, Kazantzakis did not), say, "That does it for the fruits of my loins"? Or, last-embracing his dear Eleni, "That takes care of Human Beings"? Of course not, unless she were-as, come to think of it, would be the likely case-the last on his list (because the most important) in that category.

This point made, one might in fact lay down reasonable parameters of valediction: Among human beings, farewell to individuals as individuals, not as representatives of classes, although even here there will be not only categories but hierarchies-one's spouse or other most-significant other, the rest of one's immediate family, one's closest friends and associates, one's extended family, and on to one's less close but still valued friends, neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances as far as time permits. Among nonhuman animals, individual pets (excepting perhaps the egg-laying tropical fish in one's tropical-fish tank, which tend to come in anonymous schools of half a dozen or so, as opposed to the more individualized live-bearing couples) but class representatives of whatever other species one inclines to valedict: a single blue crab or monarch butterfly or black-capped chickadee for the lot, etc. Likewise trees except for certain much-prized specimens such as the spreading Kwanzan cherry and perfect Zumi that grace one's waterfront lawn; house plants ditto, and all other objects and artifacts, always allowing for separable bye-byes to both individuals and their classes where called for: good-bye, e.g., to particular poems but also to Poetry; to particular places but also to Geography, Terrain, Locale; to Swiss Army knives in general but in particular to the trusty Tinkerer in one's trouser-pocket. One cloud of each sort-cirrus, cumulus, cumulonimbus, and the rest-should do for all; likewise one sample of each weather-fine, showery, warm, cool, humid, dry, still, brisk (and their sundry combinations, fine-warm-dry-still, fine-warm-humid-still, etc.) for all individual days (and nights) of that weather, notwithstanding that a foggy mild still early morning is surely a pleasure differentiable from that of the same conditions at noon or happy hour.

And so forth. Having agreed on the "rules," however, one ought surely to feel free to take every legitimate advantage themof, as one does in preparing one's income-tax return. Granted that the orange enjoyed this morning is not the orange enjoyed the morning before, and further that in the nature of the case one cannot kiss good-bye the oranges enjoyed but only their memory as embodied in the orange one kisses and therefore has yet to enjoy except in nostalgic anticipation (or in nostalgia tout court if one be at this point no longer permitted to partake of what one has valedicted), it may nevertheless be argued that to let one orange stand for Oranges is to ignore not only Charles and Chiquita Orange, so to speak, but the distinguishable pleasures of the subset Jaffas versus Mandarins, Floridas, Californias, and the rest. Who would maintain that to bid adios to the oranges of Seville is to do likewise to those of Valencia, or that Bloods are the same as Navels, kiss-good-byewise? As well deny the difference between navels themselves: those that one has once upon an excited time kissed hello and must tenderly now kiss good-bye as opposed to those that one has enjoyed the more-or-less-innocent mere sight of, live or photographed, on beach or movie screen or Playboy centerfold or newspaper lingerie advertisement-and not forgetting, in the "hello there" category, the dear bellybuttons of one's children, be they (the buttons) Innies or Outies, before they (the children) attain the age of parental-pipik-kissing protest. One dainty, tonguable, sea-salt- and sun-lotion-tasting navel stand for all? Just ask your current bedmate whether hers/his may represent to you its serial predecessors!

To what end, a certain sort might ask, these protracted, fractalized, interminable adios, like the tubercular soprano's in Traviata or Bohème? To the end, it goes without saying, of postponing the end; and their ground-perspective on this matter divides good-byers into two camps, each calling for its own farewell though not necessarily on its own terms. Faced with the facts that all things end and that good-byes to life's pleasures have about them an inevitable component of sadness, there are those who would abbreviate or even avoid valediction; who, indeed, feel that what must end in any case (i.e., everything, even unto art) had as well be dispatched in short order, if even begun. We know of whom we speak, who would bid a curt good-bye to such bittersweet good-byes as Kazantzakis's, for example. And then there are those who, accepting the inevitable, are however in no rush to attain it; who on the contrary find that valediction hath its own mournful pleasures (if pleasant mourning be not forbidden), and who therefore et cetera. Take as a thought-experiment the case of those Florentine assassins of whom Dante is reminded in Canto XIX of his Inferno (Circle VIII, Ditch iii, lines 49-51), executed by live burial, trussed headdownward in a hole. Thus positioned for quietus, they are permitted their last confession to the priest, who must bend low to hear it as Dante bends to hear the simoniac Pope Nicholas III and, bending, is put in mind of those condemned assassins. Your former sort of valedictor in this pass would say simply, "Nunc dimittis; get it done with." Your latter, on the other hand-to which category belong the wretched Nicholas, also Kazantzakis, one imagines, and most certainly the present narrator-will draw his confession out, so to speak, simply so to speak, perhaps even fabricating a few peccadilloes to pad the catalogue and thus adding the sin of lying to the list of his factual lapses to be confessed.

Not that any one of those three aforespecified fictors, mind, might be taken as "standing for" the others, whether rightside up or upside down, and therefore kissed good-bye in their stead. Bear in mind our Rule of Individuals, not to mention the diplomacy of love: One is oneself, one prefers to believe, not the surrogate of one's analogs and forerunners, and would be kissed only as such. . . .

Unless, of course, it is one's last kiss, the kiss-good-bye-to-good-bye-kisses kiss, in which case by all means kiss one (this one, anyhow) not only as himself in propria persona but as each and every of his lucky avatars, real and fantasized, in every mood/mode/venue/weather, to the end of love and breath and language and beyond, the end of this story and of all stories, the end of this agreed-upon continuation and its attendant stipulation-

"No stipulations."


9. Very well, then, damn it,

. . . they'll play it her way: Nunc dimittis, wham- bamthankyoumaam. No proper closeout of their visit; no last reveling in the limpid light of their ultimate resort, no celebratory bye-bye breakfast of ultimate sesame-seed bagels on their seaside balcony, no final exercise laps in the pool, last set of tennis, last light lunch in the annex restaurant, last skinny-dip-snorkel out to the reef off their pet pocket-beach, no subsequent drowsy lounge-chair beach-out, last Jacuzzi, last late-afternoon retreat to make last love in love's last mode, snoozing off skin to skin in each other's arms; no final wake-up call therefrom, final hors d'oeuvres and fin du vin. They'll simply suitcase their stuff, maybe not even that, hell with it, just throw on their get-out-of-here duds, button buttons snap snaps zip zippers lock locks and drop their room key in the Express Checkout slot, that's for them, all right, old Mr. and Ms. Prepaid, or not even that, just pop it into any letterbox down the line, return postage guaranteed, hell with it, time to go.

"No. He's jumping to conclusions."

Name of the game, yes?

"No. But Carrying On for Its Own Sake isn't the name of the game, either."

Tell him all about it; he has an infinite attention span.

"No. Anyhow, they can't lock locks drop key et cet yet."


"No. They've lost their key."

Lost their key?

"No: mislaid it. Would he mind awfully searching high and low for it? She's pooped beyond pooped."

His pleasure. Is it here?

"No. Stop that."


"No no no no no no no. What part of No needs clarification?"

This part?




Hear hear.

"Story of their life."

On with it, then.


8. What in this pass they dream,

. . . this terminally playful pair, when presently they drowse, shall be passed over: Dream-sequences are a no-no in their house, be it only a rented resort-room on some Caribbean or Florida key, latest and last of a fortunately extended series over the hardworking decades of their coupled life-stories, or story of their coupled life. Let them sleep much-needed sleep now, rest as best they can in peace, while the author of this rhizomatic tale hunts randomly high and low among sundry other losses, his own included, for their missing key. As with any such search, we'll not be surprised if this turns up surprising items other than its object. Is it here? Nope. Here? Nah. Here, perhaps? Unh-unh-but hey, look what we've found instead:

A few blocks from where these words and I find each other like more or less predestined lovers, astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute search for the lost Dark Matter of the universe-no trifling loss, as it theoretically comprises some ninety percent of the whole shebang and is the key to whether that shebang goes on shebanging, achieves some equilibrium, or with a mighty sigh relapses into the Big Crunch. With the aid of the Hubble Space Telescope, they'd hoped to find what they're after in the form of plenteous Red Dwarf stars too dim to see with ground-based instruments; when however the mighty Hubble scanned likely large voids in our Milky Way galaxy, instead of revealing them to be red-peppered with the missing matter it showed them dark and empty as Mother Hubbard's cupboard or the pocket in which you're sure you put those keys, and by the way turned up another head-scratcher: evidence that the universe is several billion years younger than its oldest stars, as we're accustomed to measuring their respective ages. Go figure-and don't be surprised if, searching for a lost thread, you find instead the Lost Chord, the Lost Generation, the Lost Battalion of World War One, the ten lost tribes of Israel (toting in their backpacks the missing two books of the original Septateuch), the lost continent of Atlantis, Louis XVII (the Lost Dauphin) of France, the thousands of desaparecidos from Latin-American dictatorships in our time, the works of classical antiquity lost to the Christian Dark Ages, the lost masterpieces of art and science that expectably would have been produced by victims of the Nazi Holocaust, the lost cities of Africa, assorted lost illusions, opportunities, and causes, lost youth and sleep, arts and languages, lost time never to be recaptured or made up for, and all the wax ever lost by Benvenuto Cellini while casting jewelry by the method called cire perdue, of which yours truly is irreverently reminded whenever he sees advertisements for the product of the Maryland poultry magnate Frank Perdue. When will all those poules perdues come home to roost?

Here one comes now, a-cluck from Memory's brooder or a-clink from the scattered treasury of lost coins: le franc perdu of the only literal key that I can recall ever having lost: In July 1983, my wife and I rented a funky little Renault wagon in Tangier, Morocco, whither we had flown for me to lecture on Scheherazade's menstrual calendar as a key to The 1001 Nights. From our lodgings in the Grand Hôtel Villa de France, where Matisse had been inspired to paint his odalisques, in the city that had earlier inspired Rimsky-Korsakov to compose his Scheherazade, we had explored on foot the bustling, redolent Medina, the Saccos both Grand and Petit, and the Kasbah; preferring to lose ourselves without professional assistance, we had shaken off disagreeably sticky would-be guides and had shrugged off a startling anti-Semitic tirade from one such reject; we had been serenaded morningly by urban roosters and five times daily by the muezzin's amplified prayer-calls from the neighborhood mosque-minaret; and we had decided to extend down-coast our innocent first foray into Islam. Aficionados of shores and beaches, points and promontories, corniches and capes and coastlines, once I had mastered the Renault's exotic gearshift-lever we drove on the last day of Ramadan through bougainvillea and dazzling sunshine east from Tangier to the cliffs of Cap Spartel, where the Strait of Gibraltar meets the Atlantic, thence alongshore southward through fish-rich Asilah to an off-road beach park called La Forêt Diplomatique, where we paused for a swim. At the djellaba'd beach-warden's direction, I parked (and locked) our squat little wagon among the pines, and faute de mieux (or perhaps a touch OD'd on Arabiana: camels on the beach, a scattering of cabanas like nomads' tents, some of the older women black-veiled as well as -caftaned) dropped the keys into my swim-trunks pocket, whence in course of our romping in the surf they joined the vast inventory of the lost-at-sea.

Dismay; indeed, alarm, as we were a considerable way from anywhere, in a forêt sans telephones or helpful park rangers, on a plage sans lifeguards or other officials except the elderly, perhaps self-appointed, director of parking, who was sternly sympathetic when in faulty French we reported our loss, but unable to assist us in any fashion. Few other picnickers/bathers about, and they by the look of them deeply local; no Arabic at our command beyond a naughty glossary picked up from Scheherazade, and while most Moroccan businessfolk speak French or Spanish or English, ordinary workfolk often don't. Anyhow, Tangier was several hours distant; even the main coastal highway (where there might be buses) was a few kilometers from the beach, and the afternoon was running, and we were scheduled for dinner back at the American School before my p.m. lecture-which, given the subject, I had to hope would at worst be merely lost on the Tangerines in my audience and not offensive to them.

A dozen years later, upstreet from the Hubble astronomers, I pen these words: Ergo, we are not still stranded in Morocco's Forêt Diplomatique, our infidel bones a-bleach in the Afric sand while our rented Renault rusts 'neath yonder pines. No matter the mechanics of our and the car's retrieval (helpful Brit motorcyclist to the highway; even more helpful Arab family, out for an end-of-Ramadan holiday drive, to Tangier with a pair of grateful middle-aged Yank tourists; helpful and well-tipped driver from the rental agency next day, who of course had copies of the keys; steadfast beach-warden, who with pained dignity let the agency-chap know that my eight-dirham tip was incommensurate to his having kept watch "all night" over our now finally unlocked wagonette, but that another two DH would do the trick); the point of this lost-key anecdote, which I had scarcely since thought of until this temporizing digression recalled it to me, is . . .

But in refinding the story, I find I've lost its point. Better to lose than to be lost? That depends. Better the key lost than the car? For sure, in this instance anyhow. But although a roman à clef, for example, ought to be at least reasonably intelligible without its clef, a code without its key is as meaningless as a key without its code. And if, moreover, as has elsewhere been proposed, the key to the treasure may be the treasure, then . . .

Well. Unlike Anton Chekhov, Ernest Hemingway, Ralph Ellison, and other scribblers too numerous to catalogue, I have never lost a manuscript (the Lost Original, or "Mother of the Book," is a tradition as old as writing, echoed in the East by the lost six-sevenths of the Katha Sarit Sagara, or Ocean of Story, and in the West by the aforenoted lost two-sevenths of what's since been the Pentateuch), neither my own nor any of my four decadesworth of students'. At age twelve or so I was myself once briefly lost in a funhouse, and a quarter-century later found a story in that loss, which however is in no respect a conte à clef. My first marriage proved a net loss, but the net that lost it holds still some valued souvenirs. To Caribbean condo-burglars I lost my journal of certain post-Moroccan travels, and later recovered it from, of all unlikely places, the bottom of a beachside Jacuzzi-but that, too, is a tale to be found in another once upon a time than this; ditto that of the loss of my favorite hat, a Basque boina, into the awesome Tajo de Ronda in Andalusia, and its improbable, consequential recovery. Life, I do not doubt, is a game that affords its players only different ways to lose; that being the case, vive la différence. Sometimes, Q.E.D., what we've lost we may refind, although we shall most surely lose it again, one way or another. Christian scripture teaches that one must lose one's life in order to find it, and that's no mere Lost & Found gospel sophistry, for in truth one may find what thitherto had not been one's to lose: a coin in the grass; a bottled message to whom it may concern; a perfectly satisfactory pair of women's sunglasses five meters deep on a coral reef and, lolling near it in the lazy current, a palimpsestic page from some novel or short story (more legible than intelligible, at least out of context, despite its immersion), as if some mermaid had been interrupted in mid-read; a splendid new life-partner; a narrative voice wherewith not only to commence but to go on, on, on with the surmisable story.

Or we may not, serendipitously, so find. "Perdido," sings persistently the old swingband tune of that name: "Perdido, perdido, perdido [two, three, four]; perdido, perdido, perdido . . ." et cet. ad lib. ad inf.


7 & 6. "Waves explained

. . . are not explained away," she presently declares; "likewise particles," and he's not inclined to argue. End-of-their-tether body-and-soulmates, still-ardent skin to skin, their meter ticking even as Time's taxi waits. Have they, for example-while brooding over hadrons and leptons, fermions and bosons, sparticles and photinos-sportively removed each other's underpants with their teeth?

"Goes without saying."

So it would've gone, anyhow, once upon a time.

"And so it went." Then, presently: "So what? Please?"

Ah, so, he ventures. Then, presently: Complementarity is the nub of it, wouldn't she say? The key to Father Time's cupboard?

"Not impossibly, once explained. Or possibly not."

Or possibly so until explained.

"So . . ."

So let's explain till the cows come home, understanding that what fails to account for those cows may nevertheless fetch 'em, no? What fails to explain away may anyhow explain into real presence.

"She's all ears, I guess."

By no means, but we have to start somewhere. They've made love, this couple of ours-

"Start there. Couple of hours?"

"Couple of minutes here, couple of half-hours there. It adds up."

"Couple of decades, till the cows et cetera. But not ad infinitum. Never enough."

Because besides lovemaking, they've loved making: their life together; kids and connections, headway and leeway. . . .

"Better people of their students; better students of their people."

Meals and music, hay and whoopee, beds and voyages and decisions.

"A living, jointly and severally. Trouble and messes now and then."

They never enjoyed those. But they did clean them up, best they could; we'll say that for them.

"Making sense and nonsense, he was saying . . ."

Even trans-sense, now and then. Despite or because of or notwithstanding which, here they are: last-resorted, at sixes and sevens. . . .

"He mentioned complementarity."

She mentioned waves and particles.

"On with their story, then, s.v.p., moving their bodies as little as possible. Don't make waves while we're riding one."

Wavehood, then, he'll presently remind her, and particlehood: In the microworld, those are as inescapably complementary as momentum and position-or momentum versus position, one might as well say. Your innocent, minding-its-own-business photon or electron has both until we mind its business, whereupon, as has been demonstrated, its wavehood gives way to particality, and momentum to position, or vice versa.

"Is he suggesting, maybe, that couplehood and individuality are like that? Is he hinting that she has her herness and he his hisness, but that then there's their theirness, in which she partakes of his hisness, long may it wave-"

And he all but eats and drinks her herness. . . .

"What's this all but?"

Slip of his distracted tongue. The point just now is that it's not only their theirness that's both complementary to and comprised of her herness and his hisness. After so much skin-talk, pillow talk, talk-talk, and busy cohabitation; so much Sturm und Drang und fun and games, her herness comprises a fair share of his hisness, and vice versa.

"Mi palapa es su palapa, all but."

Or as they say at our Institute for Narrative Physics, his and her shared space-time equals their worldline, and here's where things get dizzy-making.

"May the cows not come too soon. She's enjoying this, more than not, under the circumstances."

He likewise-despite their being, as aforeremarked, at sevens and sixes. Their particality is at critical odds with their wavehood, let's say, and yet . . .

"Thanks be to the muse of physical narrative for that and yet. . . ."

And for the suspension points thereafter: their only hope. Think of their life-stories, separate and joint, as an extended though alas not infinite string of past such points, at any one of which each of them might have done A instead of B, or had X happen to her/him rather than Y. Their worldline-which we'll take the liberty of calling their storyline-


-is the sum of all such points thus far.

"So few to go! Maybe only one more."

Or maybe more than one only. In any case, what he'd have the pair of them perpend is that in physics and fiction alike, at any of many of those waypoints in space-time, alternative worldlines are not only imaginable but evidently quite possible-some, of course, more consequential than others. It seems, at least, that she could've ordered the gambas a la plancha at lunch instead of the chipirónes, or the vino tinto instead of the blanco-

"With chipirónes? Not her! But she might very well have gone to Macy's instead of to Bloomingdale's on a certain afternoon twelve chapters ago, or to Macy's before Bloomingdale's, or straight to Bloomie's Bedding department without detouring through Housewares, and thus would never've remet him there amid the Krups coffeemakers. That's a scary one."

Indeed-always remembering, however, for perspective's sake, that the Rwandan and Bosnian disasters and the rest would no doubt have happened despite all the Butterfly Effects from that handshake among the Krupses. And yet the contingency of this couple's remeeting is less sobering than the consideration that in at least as many storyworldlines as not, it didn't happen. B happened instead, or C or D, and he and she went on with their separate stories separately.

"Do we have to? Multiverses?"

We do: It all starts with neutron decay, I'm afraid.

"So is she! Too late in the day to start with the neutrons! Too late in their story!"

Not in this their-story. Any cows in sight?

"Only a couple of geckos cuddling on the wall up there. On with the neutrons, she supposes; she'll let him know."

The short version, then. Back at the Institute of Love Among the Quanta, when we watched for a neutron to decay into a proton or an electron or an antineutrino, our watch was nearly always in the neighborhood of twenty minutes, right? Give or take five or ten. On the other hand, once in a while the thing would pop off immediately, and now and then we had to wait for it fucking forever.

"Holding hands the whole time. Particle physics is such a turn-on."

One goes on to remind her that in the "multiverse" reading of quantum mechanics, for each moment at which that neutron might decay, there's a universe in which it does or did, and a fortiori there's a version of ourselves the observer who observes that decay of that particular neutron at that particular moment in that particular universe.

"Holding hands."

In some universes yes, in others no, tant pis.

"The bottom line, guys, is that whatever can happen, physically speaking, does happen, in some actual alternative version of 'our' universe. In this one, meanwhile (she quotes her erstwhile mentor skin to skin), 'Quantum theory is probabilistic in predicting the chance of a given outcome in some particular universe, but it's deterministic in prescribing the proportion of universes in which that particular outcome comes out.' Did any real lovers in the history of the world ever pillow-talk like this?"

In most universes no; in some yes, and brava. So to get right to it-but why hurry?

"Because their clock is running. So to get right to it, there are universes in which we never met, and others in which we met but didn't remeet. Her and him."

And plenty more in which we met and remet, but some crucial next plot-corner wasn't turned: no follow-through, no rising action.

"No Her introducing Him to sashimi and Erik Satie and mountain-biking."

No Him introducing Her to X and Y and Z.

"She's been hooked on them ever since."

Universes in which, even as you and I lie here now like a couple of burned-out geckos, they never became lovers.

"Universes in which they not only became lovers but married, in some cases happily, in others not. Had children; didn't have children . . ."

Had children whom they treasured and were treasured by at every stage of the kids' development and their own, including even American adolescence and middlescence, believe it or not, respectively.

"That's the universe for me."

Next time, for sure.

"There is no-"

Of course there is, maybe: Closed Timelike Loops, Spacetime Wormholes between scenarios. I'll loop back to those.

"Next time, maybe. Meanwhile, chez l'Institut . . ."

This just in: There are universes in which the best of all those possible world-lines comes to pass, but only in some fiction within that universe: a made-for-TV movie, maybe, or a stage play, or a novel or short story. In those universes, She and He are mere words on a page.

"Not words on a page!"

Well: not mere, for sure.

"This and this, words on a page? These?"

Hard to accept, but quite possibly so. Quite probably, even. Necessarily, in fact, we suppose, since such a thing can be imagined within the bounds of physical reality.

"Not by her. Speak for himself."

He's speaking for all those other selves of theirs: the other usses going on with our other stories in those other universes.

"Stories with better endings, is what he's thinking."

Let him think it. The point is, in the story they're in, up to its denouement he wouldn't change a word.

"Thanks for that. She might edit a couple here and there, she supposes. Not the couple-couple, though. Not the Him of them, anyhow."

He wouldn't even diddle the denouement, come to that-

"And they have come to that."

-he'd only postpone it, unspeakable as it is. The best of all worldlines that come to pass does come to pass-and then it passes.

"Art alone endures. Thomas Carlyle? Frank Lloyd Wright? But art passes, too."

For sure. Art passes to Mort-

"Who passes to Irving, who goes in for the score."

Seven-six Mort d'Art, in the bottom of the twelfth.

"What game is this?"

Till the Cows Come Home: A Love Story.

Presently: "Dearest friend, they're home. They never left, she suspects."

Cows Explained, then.

"But not explained away. Like quantum electrodynamic dramaturgy."

QED, muse be praised. Likewise love.

Presently: "Q.E.D."


5,4,3,2. "On

. . . with the story," he would have her insist, however spent the pair of them at this point in this version of their coupled worldline, were he its author instead of its provisional narrator: "Once upon a time ad infinitum," while we rest upon each other crown to sole.

"Hey: They're soixante-neufing?"

In some versions. But what he meant was brow brow arms arms chest chest belly belly thighs thighs et cet, she draped atop him doggo in the dark; not sixty-nining but five-four-three-twoing, except when some story puts their count on Hold. Once upon a time, he'd tell her . . .

Once upon a time, he tells her, there was this couple freeze-framed in spacetime, or as if freeze-framed, the way you and I would be if we were flying cross-country again, east to west at six hundred miles per hour while the USA zips under us west to east at a thousand per, carrying with it Earth's atmosphere and our DC-10 at a net speed of minus four hundred, while our planet chugs around the Sun at sixty-six-thousand-plus and our solar system laps the Milky Way at half a million mph and our galactic Local Group sprints en bloc toward the Great Attractor at maybe a million und so weiter, but the effect for us is as of sitting still in the dark with our plastic tumblers of Mendocino chablis at thirty-two thousand feet over the Mississippi, let's say-which point like any point could be considered for us just then the Stillpunkt at the center of our universe and all others, their vertiginous motions and countermotions reckoned relatively therefrom. Ignoring the in-flight movie more or less in progress (appropriately freeze-framed just now in midst of a special-effect chase scene), we click glass-rims in the muted cabin light and toast our Story Thus Far, perhaps only just begun in consequence of each's noticing that her/his attractive seatmate happened to be scanning the same inflight magazine photospread as her-/himself-"Island Hideaways," it's called, let's say-and discovering in bemused conversation that each in an earlier life-chapter had once sojourned in the other's favorite themof, almost though not quite at the same time but in fact at the same resort complex, Cayo Olvidado, and further-get this-that each in course of said romantic escapade (the one then-couple married but not honeymooning, the other honeymooning but not married) had found and retrieved, while snorkeling the coral reef just off the beach, a page torn or unglued or otherwise detached from some paperback novel and bottled like a message of distress, hers bone-dry on the sea-floor in a well-capped former rum-fifth inexplicably half-filled with pebbles to make it sink, his paradoxically afloat in a likewise well-capped wine-jug filled with sea water and perched high and dry on an exposed coral ledge. Quelle coincidence! Quel cute meet, now that we've met! So what'd hers say?

"Hard to tell, 'cause it was like just the closing words of some story and not even in complete sentences: Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda. The web of the world. Go figure. Yours?"

Some shlock SF or semi-cyberpunk thing, as he remembers: The Dream-Park Project, let's call it, from which across the years bits still come back to him: Alura, their shapely cave-guide, tugged at Fred's sleeve and cried, "Must go now!" Ariana, however, watched the approaching lava-flow with the practiced eye of one who has worked this Reality-Level before. "The missing key," Walt muttered, dot dot dot et cetera.

"Got it," his seatmate says, and sips and chuckles, and permits herself to wonder whether those two pages mightn't constitute their passkey to a new and liberating connection, if joined like the sundered moieties of an old-time indenture bill.

"Sundered moieties?"

We talk like that now and then, pour le sport, sometimes even with our own last-lapped indentures postcoitally still snugged. Anyhow they used so to speak, she and he, once upon. Once upon another time, he tells her now, there was this chap alone in his shoreside digs, yet not alone in being alone there: great mother hurricane approaching, say; end of the world, maybe; hatches all battened, all storm-preps prepped, nothing left but to wait 'er out, maybe pop a cold one while there's still one cold to pop, tell himself a couple couple-stories in the dark: the one, e.g., about the youngish neighbor-lady every bit as independent as he, likewise battened down next door to ride out the blow with no company more interesting than her saddle-brown Chesapeake retriever. He spins out versions of their possible story as the wind off the bay begins to pipe in earnest: She he, he she, hi ho, ho hum, and then one day aha-

"The end," she'd say. No way, 'd say he: There're narrative options still unforeclosed, other storyworldlines wormholing through the multiverse. "Happy endings are all alike," she'd retort, were she the retorting sort, "but in this universe, at least, delta rho times delta q equals or exceeds Planck's constant, and so while it may seem that Achilles can never reach the tortoise nor any tale its end, he does and theirs did, amen."

Maybe once upon a time it did, he grants, amending her amen, but that's another story: the one in which a terminal brace of longtime lovers checks into what they're grimly calling their Last Resort. There's a thing to be done, but they're in no rush. They've time yet. . . .


Time time time time; never enough, but some still yet . . .


No end-stops in their love-story; only semicolons, suspension points . . .


. . . between any one such which and the next, space-time to spare; still space, still time . . .


Tales unended, unmiddled, unbegun; untold tales untold; unnumbered once-upons-a-



1. Checkout

. . . time come and gone long since; she likewise, his without-whom-nothing.

There is, he nevertheless tells her presently, a narrative alternative universe, an alternative narrative universe in which by this time at this point in this particular wormholed worldline the pair of them are laughing, although what's come to pass is anything but a laughing matter. He had all but forgotten that laugh of hers, of theirs, ours-unbuckled and unabashed, merry beyond pain, beyond merriment, existential yet gut-deep-but he hears it now, all right: They're laughing freely, almost helplessly, the way they used so often to find themselves laughing, sometimes despite themselves even in circumstances grim or solemn, or anyhow wanting so to do, back in the beginning: their so-fortuitous, staggeringly contingent, richly consequential once upon.



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