Everything seemed in place: the random café, the silent street, the stranger passing, the coffee left untasted. The knock at the door first produced an empty hallway, but Donovan expected that, just as he expected a second knock, the stranger’s return, this time carrying, brazenly, an open umbrella. Mr. Muhammad, he said. Donovan nodded and showed him into his three bedroom flat, where the stranger walked the perimeter and tapped every surface with his umbrella before leaving it on the yellow couch.
You understand the exchange? the stranger said
Donovan retrieved the MS in a leather messenger’s bag. The stranger did not look inside. He rubbed his hand on the bag then sniffed it as avidly as a 13 year old back home in Little Rock huffing paint.
When can I expect to see results, Donovan said.
The stranger strapped the bag over one shoulder.
When you are ready for Jorge Luis’s vision.
And when will that begin?
What kind of name is Donovan for a black man? He looked at Donovan as if to say so what, he’d switched script.
Irish, Donovan said blinking his blue eyes as if to charm a redhead back home. On both sides.
The stranger pushed into his chest a book. What do you always do to better grasp an author’s vision, he said, not even trying to sound Argentinian anymore. Read.
Donavan had but one week remaining of his exchange semester in Mendoza. He’d completed both his classes, earning an A in South American Lit, a B in Spanish 3. But he was nowhere nearer his principal aim. Later that afternoon he checked Submittable: Two responses had arrived. “Hopelessly slight,” sniffed the editors of one review. “Suffused with bad faith, try us again,” claimed another faceless team. Always eager for criticism, Donovan did not know what to do with these two manuscripts. He admitted he lacked some unseen quality. Why else did he want to see the world as Borges had? But in the time since the stranger left his apartment, he wished he had had more time or a more responsive conversationalist. Would he see a sudden or gradual transformation? When would he know?
He was also disappointed with the book the stranger left him, Dreamtigers. It lacked the strangeness of Labyrinths, the stunning magic of Ficciones. In fact, Donovan had checked Wikipedia to be sure it was a genuine Borges, not some ersatz copy by a real life Pierre Menard. The cover was particularly vivid–he could see that easily. More rejections arrived. One appeared to be a personal note, addressed, however, to a Mrs. Haines about a story Donovan did not write. Sleep came fitfully. He had no appetite. He read and read and read.
And then a strange thing happened to his copy of Dreamtigers: its words no longer stayed still. They swirled into smoky parabolas or marched together as formal as regiments. They swelled ten times their size and burst. They skipped like dancers and one simile slapped him on the face. After three days of this, Donovan opened the book to find all the letters spilling into a pile. The door to his balcony opened and the letters drifted outside into the street. Some sweeping widows cursed and a skateboarder hollered that a B had fallen into his eye. Donovan shook the book to find, diagonally, on page 122, an address: 245 Calle Ocho.
In the lobby of the bibliotequa the stranger referred to Donovan as the good Reverend Doctor. He wore a nametag like all the other librarians. His said S. Reno but he claimed to be in disguise. Sweaty from running the thirty odd blocks, Donovan apologized for any odor. The stranger assured him this was useful. Then he led Donovan to the reading room and sat him down. S. Reno said, Don’t speak. The room went dark. A rich perfume filled Donovan’s nose, its scent somehow that of an Arabic bazaar, an African hut, a Harlem café; all places he’d never been. Then someone touched his face. Not the stranger. These hands were too smooth, the touch too gentle. The lights came on again and he opened his eyes.
No matter how many times he blinked, his focus did not sharpen. He raised his hands and could see their fawn color but not their dimension or more than a blurry outline. He placed them on what he knew to be a table a few shades darker. He would have cried had laughter not taken over. He’d wanted for nothing but to possess Borges’s vision and now he literally had it, victim of a ruse so complete he could barely see. He supposed he should call the embassy to warn them but how many Americans were likely to fall victim to these predations? How would he find the numbers on his phone?
Someone helped him stand, and just as brusquely as Dreamtigers had been thumped into his midsection, another item was there, along with the command to write. Then he felt a hand guiding him. Whoever was attached to it—he thought the few words he heard sounded as though they came from a woman—guided him the back to his three room apartment where he was placed into bed.
It was no dream.
Yet when he woke that morning, things seemed in place: the random texture, the fleeting thought, the smell of coffee. He could no more see the items in his apartment but he could sense their location and counted the fifteen steps to his kitchen, where he smelled toast and bacon, ran his thumb over the tines of a sturdy fork. His hands drifted to where atop a stack of paper sat a pen. There was a knock. Twenty-two steps lay between him and the door. Who is it, he shouted, resting his hand on the wall before the door opened, smiling because he heard no one reply.
Tom Williams is author of Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, a novel, and the novella, The Mimic’s Own Voice. His stories, essays and reviews have appeared in such publications as Barrelhouse, Boulevard, The Collagist, Florida Review, and South Carolina Review.