“Errantry” originally appeared in Conjunctions 48, 2007.
“The Folding Man’s stuff was always like that. Things that were never quite what they seemed to be. Sea anemones with eyes and wheels, body parts—vulvas were a popular theme—that sprouted fingers, exotic birds with too many heads and hooves instead of feathers…”
I WAS HANGING OUT IN Angus’s apartment above the print shop, scoring some of his ADHD medication, when Tommy Devaraux ran upstairs to tell us he’d just seen the Folding Man over at the Old Court Grill. This was some years after the new century had cracked open and left me and my friends scrambled, even more feckless than we’d been thirty years earlier when we met as teenagers in Kamensic Village. The three of us had been romantically involved off and on during high school and for a few years afterward, held together by the wobbly gravitational pull exerted by adolescence and the strange, malign beauty of Kamensic, a once-rural town that had since been ravaged by gentrification and whose name had recently been trademarked by a domestic housewares tycoon.
Angus had never left Kamensic; he’d spent the last three decades nurturing a musical career that never quite took off, despite a minor 1977 hit that continued to generate residuals and a ringtone that now echoed eerily across the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. His most recent job had been with a brokerage firm absorbed by MortNet. The three kids from his first marriage were grown, but the younger ones, twins, had just started school, and child support and legal bills from the second divorce had stripped him of almost everything.
His ex-wife Sheila and the twins remained in the MacMansion out by Kamensic Meadows, but Angus lived in a third-floor flat he rented from another old friend who owned the struggling printing company below. The entire rickety wood-frame building smelled of dust and ink, the faintly resinous odor of paper mingled with acrid chemical pigments and the reek of melted plastic. In bed at night in Angus’s room, with the old presses rumbling on the floor below, it felt as though we were on board a train. Walls and floors vibrated around us and a sallow streetlamp coated the window with a syrupy greenish light. A few yards away, real trains racketed between the city and the outer exurbs.
I lived sixty miles north of Kamensic, in the next county, but spent more time in my old stomping grounds than reason or propriety allowed. Angus was my half-brother, the result of what Shakespearean scholars term a bed-trick. We didn’t know of our complicated parentage when we first slept together, but once we learned about it we figured it was too late and what the hell. Few people besides us ever knew, and most of them are now dead. My own career, as assistant professor of Arthurian studies at a small college upstate, had flamed out due to accusations of sexual harassment (dropped when a student recanted his story) and drug and alcohol abuse (upheld). Despite my dismissal, I found work as a private tutor, coaching rich kids on their college admissions essays.
“Vivian,” Tommy said breathlessly when I opened the door. “Angus here?”
I brushed my cheek against Tommy’s as he swept inside and crossed to where Angus sat hunched over his computer. Tommy peered at the monitor and frowned. “Where’s Estelle?”
Tommy had a little obsessive thing that dovetailed neatly with Angus’s frenetic energy, as in their latest collaboration, a thirty-seven-song cycle Angus was writing about Estelle, an imaginary woman based on a real woman, a stockbroker Tommy had dated once. He became obsessed with her, and she eventually hit him with a restraining order and moved to Vermont.
Angus scowled. “I’m taking a break from freaking Estelle.”
“Well, sacrifice that Voidwalker and log off,” said Tommy. “I just saw the Folding Man.”
“At the Old Court?” Angus ground out his cigarette and lit another. “He’s there now? Why didn’t you just call us?”
Tommy glanced at me imploringly. He was tall but sparely built, softer than he’d been but still boyish, with round tortoiseshell glasses on a snub nose, his long dark hair gone to grey; slightly louche in a frayed Brooks Brothers jacket and shiny black engineer’s boots. He was a Special Ed teacher at a private school and dealt with autistic teenagers, many of them violent. He’d been attacked so often by kids bigger and stronger than he was that he’d started to have panic attacks, and now took so much Xanax just to get through the working day that his customary expression was a rictus of mournful, slightly hostile chagrin—he looked like the Mock Turtle after a lost weekend.
“Well, he left,” he said. “Plus my cellphone died. But he gave me this—”
He sank into a swivel chair beside Angus, hands cupped on his knees as though he held a butterfly. The illusion held for an instant when he opened his hands to display a tiny diadem of russet and yellow petals that fluttered when he breathed upon it.
“Nice,” said Angus grudgingly. “He’ll be gone by now.”
I crouched beside Tommy and stared at it. “Can I see?”
I picked it up and weighed it tentatively in my palm. Angus’s Focalin was starting to have its way with me, a diffuse, sunny-day buzz that meshed nicely with the day outside: mid-afternoon, early May, lilac in bloom, kids riding bikes along the village sidewalks. I drew my hand to my face and caught a whiff of the Old Court’s distinctive odor, hamburgers and Pine Sol; but also, inexplicably, a smell of the sea, salt and hot glass.
I blew on the bit of folded paper. It fell onto the floor. Angus grabbed it before I could pick it up again.
“He gave it to me,” Tommy said in an aggrieved tone.
But Angus was already opening it. Tommy and I stood beside him as he carefully unfolded wings, triangles, unveiling creases in once-glossy paper, swatches of azure and silver, topaz, pine-green. The yellow and fawn-colored petals must have sprung from the other side of the page, torn from a magazine or brochure.
“Someone’s been to the beach.” Angus held up a finger dusted with glittering specks, spilled sugar or sand; licked it and smoothed out the paper on his desk.
“What does it say?” asked Tommy.
“‘YOU ARE HERE.’”
I edged between them to get a better look. The paper was four or five inches square, crosshatched with grayish lines indicating where it had been folded countless times. It was almost impossible to imagine it had ever had a shape other than this one, and impossible to remember just what that shape had been—an insect? tiger lilies?
“Beach roses,” said Tommy. “That’s what it’s a picture of.”
“How the hell can you know that?” demanded Angus.
“It’s a map,” I said.
Angus’s cellphone buzzed. He glanced at it, muttered “Sheila” and turned it off. “Let’s see.”
I adjusted my glasses and frowned. “It’s hard to see, but there—those lines? It says Rt. 22.”
“That’s the Old Court there,” Tommy agreed, squinting at a blotch on a smudge of shoreline. “Those dotted lines, that’s the old road that runs parallel to it, out towards that apple farm where they want to put the development.”
Ashes dropped from Angus’s cigarette onto the ersatz map. When he blew them away, a tiny spark glowed in one corner.
“There.” Tommy stubbed out the ember with his finger. “It ends there.”
“Like I said.” Angus finished his cigarette. “X marks the spot. Let’s go check it out. Who wants to get stoned?”
Angus had retained a company car. I never understood how. The back was filled with his stuff, sheet music, CDs, manila envelopes, Happy Meals toy’s, a guitar case. I sat in the front with Angus’s hand on my knee. Tommy shoved stuff aside and sat slumped in the back, his face pressed against the window. He looked like a kid on a long drive, at once resigned and expectant. I thought, not for the first time, how little had changed since we really were kids: still bombing around on a Saturday afternoon, drunk or stoned or generally messed up, still screwing each other when no one else would have us, still singing along with the radio.
“Is there a channel just for your songs?” asked Tommy as we drove over the railroad tracks and headed north to old Route 22. Angus tapped the radio screen until he found something he liked. “Like is there a satellite that just beams, “Do It All Day”?”
Angus nodded. “That would be the Burnout Channel.”
“This is the Cowsills,” I said. “That song about the park and other things.”
“And then I knew,” chanted Tommy, “that she had made me happy.”
“Happy, happy,” echoed Angus. He began to sing his own words.
“I love the Folding Man
He may be just a drunk
And I’m a worn-out skunk …”
Outside the remnants of old Kamensic slid past: stone churches; the sprawling Victorian where Angus had grown up, now a B&B; the ancient cemetery with its strange stone animals; Deer Park Inn, a former dive that had been cleaned up and christened the Deer Park Tavern, its shattered blacktop newly paved and full of SUVs and Priuses. It was easy to blame these changes on Marian Lavecque, the domestic maven whose reign had redrawn the town’s aesthetic and cultural boundaries.
But I knew the decline stretched back longer than that, to the years when Angus and I had first become entangled. So it was hard sometimes—for me anyway, since my academic background had trained me to see patterns everywhere, a subtle tapestry woven into the grungiest Missoni knockoff—not to feel that our folie a deux had broken something in the place we loved most.
One upshot was that we had to go farther afield now to find a bar that suited us. I’d never heard of the Folding Man being anywhere but the Old Court.
I reached to touch Tommy’s knee. “You okay back there?”
“Sure,” he said. “We’re on a quest.” He smiled as Angus’s voice filled the car.
“I love the Folding Man
He may be just a geek
And I’m a burned-out freak …”
Tommy was the one who’d always believed in things. Even though he could never really explain to you exactly what those things were; only trace circles in the air when he was drunk, or go into long rambling exegeses of conspiracies between real estate developers and the Zen Buddhists who’d built a retreat house on what had once been old-growth forest, or the purported sexual relationship, based on a mutual desire to make artisanal cheese, that existed between Estelle, the woman he’d been obsessed with, and a dotcom millionaire who did in fact now live in Vermont. I felt protective of Tommy, although when drunk he could become bellicose, even violent. Asleep he resembled a high school athlete fallen on hard times, his t-shirt riding up to show a slack torso, gray hair, an appendectomy scar like a wincing mouth, a bad tattoo of a five-pointed star.
Whereas Angus retained the body he’d had as a teenager, his skin smooth and unblemished, pale as barley; he slept curled on his side and breathed softly, like a child, occasionally sighing as in some deep regret he couldn’t acknowledge in waking life. Then the deep lines on his face seemed to fade, and his eyes, closed, held no hint of what burned there when he stared at you.
“Let’s stop for a minute,” I said as we crested the hill overlooking the Old Court.
“He won’t be there.” Angus glanced into the rearview mirror. “You said he left.”
“Yeah, he left.” Tommy opened his window. A green smell filled the car, young ferns and the leaves of crushed meadowsweet. “But stop anyway.”
Inside, the Old Court was sunlit, its curved oak bar glossy as caramel and warm to the touch. A few elderly bikers sat drinking beer or coffee and watching the Golf Channel. We sat at the far end, where it was quieter, in front of the brass bowl that held the Folding Man’s handiwork.
“Back already?” Nance, the bartender, smiled at Tommy, then glanced out the window to see whose car was parked there: not Tommy’s, so she could serve him. “You want the same?”
Tommy and I had red wine, Angus a rum and Coke. Tommy drank fast—he always did—and ordered another. I drank mine almost as quickly, then shut my eyes, reached into the brass bowl and withdrew a piece of folded paper.
The Folding Man’s work isn’t exactly origami. Tommy has showed some of it to a woman he knows who does origami, and she said it was like nothing she’d ever seen before. The Folding Man doesn’t talk about it, either, which is probably why Tommy became obsessed with him. Nothing gets Tommy as revved up as being ignored—Angus says he’s seen Tommy get a hard-on when a woman rejects him.
Not that Tommy had ever actually met the Folding Man, until now. None of us had, even though he’d been a fixture at the Old Court for as long as we’d been drinking there. We first began to notice his work in the early 1980s when, before or after a wild night, we’d find these little folded figures left on the floor near where we’d been sitting.
“This is like that guy in Blade Runner,” said Tommy once. He’d picked up something that resembled a winged scorpion. “See?”
I looked at it closely and saw it had the face of Angelica Huston and, instead of pincers, a pair of spoons for claws.
But then Tommy carefully unfolded it, smoothing it on the bar.
“Don’t get it wet,” warned Angus.
“I won’t.” Tommy looked puzzled. He slid the crumpled paper to me. “It’s gone.”
I looked at the paper, and saw it was a square taken from an ad for Yves St. Laurent Opium perfume—the word OPIUM was there, and part of the bottle, and I could even smell a musky trace of the fragrance.
But there was no woman anywhere in the ad. I turned the paper over: nada. No spoons, either.
“Edward James Olmos.”
Tommy and I turned to stare blankly at Angus.
“That’s who played that character.” He took the paper and scrutinized it, then flicked his cigarette lighter and set it on fire and dropped it in his ashtray. “In Blade Runner. Edward James Olmos. Great actor.”
The Folding Man’s stuff was always like that. Things that were never quite what they seemed to be. Sea anemones with eyes and wheels, body parts—vulvas were a popular theme—that sprouted fingers, exotic birds with too many heads and hooves instead of feathers, a lunar lander printed with a map of the Sea of Tranquility, the extravagant effects produced by some infernal combination of paper-folding and whatever was actually printed on the paper. None of them was any larger than the area I could circumscribe with my thumb and forefinger, and some were much smaller.
But if you unfolded them, they were never what they didn’t seem to be, either—you ended up with nothing but a page from a magazine or travel brochure, or a paper menu from MacDonald’s or the Kamensic Diner, or (in the case of the lunar lander) a fragment of the Playbill for “Via Galactica.” They were like origami figures from the Burgess Shale, beautiful but also slightly nightmarish.
And what made it even stranger was that no one except for me and Tommy and, to a lesser degree, Angus, ever seemed to think they were weird at all. No one paid much attention to them; no one thought they were mysterious. When Tommy started asking about who made them, Nance just shrugged.
“This guy, comes in sometimes to watch the game. I think maybe he used to smoke or something, like he wants to do something with his hands. So he does those.”
“What’s his name?” said Tommy.
Nance shook her head. “I don’t know. We just call him the folding man.”
“You don’t know his name?” Angus stared at her, his tone slightly belligerent, as it often was. “What, he never puts down a credit card? You know everyone’s name.”
“He drinks rail whiskey, and he pays cash. Ask him yourself if you really want to know.”
But before now we’d never seen him, not ever, not once, though over the years Tommy had chased down customers and bartenders to receive detailed descriptions of what he looked like: older, paunchy, gray hair; weathered face; unshaven, eyes that were usually described as blue or gray; glasses, faded corduroys and a stained brown windbreaker.
“He looks like a fucking wino, Tommy,” Angus exploded once, when the hundredth customer had been quizzed after a thumbnail-sized frog with match-head eyes and the faces of the original Jackson Five had materialized beneath Tommy’s barstool. “Give it a fucking break okay?”
But Tommy couldn’t give it a break, any more than he could keep from getting obsessively fixated on women he hardly knew. Neither could I, and, after a while, neither could Angus. Though Angus was the one who made the ground rule about never taking any of the folded paper figures out of the Old Court.
“There’s enough crap in my apartment. Yours, too, Tommy.”
Nance didn’t like customers taking them from the brass bowl, either.
“Leave them!” she’d yell if someone tried to pocket one at the end of the night. “They’re part of the decor!”
I knew Tommy had nicked some. I found one under his pillow once, a lovely, delicate thing shaped like a swan, or a borzoi, or maybe it was a Meerschaum pipe, with rows of teeth and a tiny pagoda on what I thought was its head (or bowl). I was going to make a joke about it, but Tommy was in the bathroom; and the longer I lay there with that weird, nearly weightless filigree in the palm of my hand, the harder it was to look at anything else, or think of anything except the way it seemed to glow, a pearlescent, rubious color, like the inside of a child’s ear when you shine a flashlight behind it.
When I heard Tommy come out of the bathroom I slipped it back, carefully, beneath the pillow. Later, when I searched for it again, I found nothing but a crumpled sale flyer from the old Kamensic Hardware Store.
Now I set my wineglass onto the bar, opened my eyes and looked at what I had picked from the brass bowl. A fern, gold rather than green, its fiddlehead resembling the beaked prow of a Viking ship.
“Let’s go.” Tommy stuck some bills under his empty glass and stood.
“We just got here,” said Angus.
“I don’t want to lose him.”
Angus looked at me, annoyed, then finished his drink. “Yeah, whatever. Come on, Vivien.”
I replaced the fern and gulped the rest of my wine, and we returned to the car. I sat in the back so Tommy could ride up with Angus and navigate.
I said, “You didn’t tell us what he looked like.”
Angus spread the piece of paper on his knee. “He looked like a wino.”
“Did you talk to him? Did he say anything?”
“Yeah.” Angus turned to look at me. He grinned, that manic School’s Out grin that still made everything seem possible. “I asked him how he did it, how he made everything. And he said, “Everything fits. You’ll figure it out.””
“‘Everything fits, you’ll figure it out?’” repeated Angus. “Who is this guy, Mr. Rogers?”
Tommy only smiled. I leaned forward to kiss him, while Angus shook his head and we drove on.
We headed north on the old Brandywine Turnpike, a barely-maintained road that runs roughly parallel to Route 22, and connects Kamensic via various gravel roads and shortcuts to the outlying towns and deeper woodlands that, for the moment, had escaped development metastasizing from the megalopolis. The boulder-strewn, glacier-carved terrain was inhospitable to builders, steeply sloped and falling away suddenly into ravines overgrown with mountain ash and rock juniper that gave off a sharp tang of gin.
There were patches of genuine old growth forest here, ancient towering hemlocks, white oaks and hornbeams. Occasionally we’d pass an abandoned gas station or roadhouse, or the remains of tiny settlements long fallen into ruin beside spur roads that retained the names of their founders: Tintertown Road, Smithtown Road, Fancher’s Corner. It was like driving back in time into the old Kamensic, the real Kamensic, the place we’d mapped through all our various lovers and drug dealers and music gigs over the last thirty years.
Only of course we were really driving away from Kamensic, slipping in and out of the town’s borders, until we reached its outermost edge, the place where even the tax maps got sketchy.
This was where Muscanth Mountain and Sugar Mountain converged on Lake Muscanth. The mountains weren’t mountains really, just big hills, but the lake was a real lake. In the 1920s a group of socialists had established a short-lived utopian community there, a summer encampment called The Fallows. Most of the cabins and the main lodge had rotted away fifty years ago.
But some remained, in varying states of decay—Angus and I first had sex together in one of these, in 1973—and two or three had even been renovated as second homes. Zoning covenants designed to protect the wetland had kept the MacMansions away, and some of the same old hippies who had taken over the cottages in the 1960s and 70s still lived there, or were rumored to—I hadn’t been out to the lake in at least a dozen years.
“You know, this is going to totally fuck up my alignment.” Angus swore as the car scraped across the rutted track. To the right, you could glimpse Lake Muscanth in flashes of silvery-blue through dense stands of evergreen, like fish darting through murky water. “Damn it! Tom, I’m sorry, but if we don’t find this place soon I’m—”
“Turn there.” Tommy pointed to where the road divided a few yards ahead of us. “It should be just past where it curves.”
Angus peered through the windshield. “I dunno, man. Those branches, they look like they’re going to come down right on top of us.”
“That’s where the place is, dude,” said Tommy, as I stuck my head between the two of them to get a better view.
Angus was right. The narrow road, barely more than a path here, was flanked by thick stands of tamarack and cedar. They were so overgrown that in spots above the road their branches met and become tangled in a dense, low overhanging mat of black and green. Angus tossed his cigarette out the window and veered cautiously to the right.
The effect wasn’t of diving through a tunnel; more like being under the canopy of a bazaar or souk. Branches scraped the car in place of importuning shopkeepers grabbing at us.
Angus swore as tiny pinecones hailed down onto the roof. “I’m going back.”
Tommy looked stricken. “Hey, we’re almost there.”
“It’s a company car, Tommy!”
“I’ll pay to have it painted, okay? Look, see? There it is, that house there—”
Angus glanced to the side then nodded. “Yeah, well, okay.
There was no driveway, just a flattish bit of ground where broken glass and scrap metal glinted through patchy moss and teaberry. Angus pulled onto this and turned the ignition off.
“So did this guy give you a phone number or something?” Angus asked after a moment. “Are we expected?”
Tommy sat with his fingers on the door handle and stared outside. The place was small, not a house at all but a cabin made of split logs painted brown. It wasn’t much bigger than a motel cottage, with pine-green shutters and trim, a battered screen door that looked as though it had been flung open by someone who’d left in a big hurry and a bad mood. A sagging screened-in porch overlooked the lake. Stones had come loose from the fieldstone chimney and were scattered forlornly beneath the pine trees, like misshapen soccer balls. A rusted holding tank bulged beneath a broken window that had been repaired with a square of cardboard.
“Nice,” said Angus.
No one got out of the car. Angus shot Tommy a bitter look, then took a roach from his pocket, lit it and smoked in silence. When he held it out to me and Tommy, we demurred. I’d become adept at fine-tuning the cocktail of drugs I needed to filter out the world, and Tommy’s school job mandated random drug testing.
“So Tom.” Angus replaced the roach. The hand he’d kept on the steering wheel relaxed somewhat. “Where’s your man?”
Tommy stared at the cabin. His face had that expression I loved, unabashed wonder struggling with suspicion and a long-entrenched fear of ridicule. It was a slightly crazed look, and I knew from long experience what could follow. Weird accusations, smashed guitars, broken fingers. But the alcohol and Xanax had done their job.
“I don’t even care if he’s here or not,” said Tommy lightly, and stepped outside. “Remember when we used to come out to the lake all the time?”
I hopped out and stood beside him. A warm wind blew off the water, bringing the smells of mud and cedar bark. A red-winged blackbird sang, and a lone peeper near the water’s edge. Tommy put his arm across my shoulder, the Folding Man’s map still in his hand. A moment later I felt Angus on my other side. His fingers touched mine and his mouth tightened as he gazed at the cabin, but after a moment he sighed.
“Yeah, this was a good idea.” He looked at me and smiled, then knocked Tommy’s arm from my shoulder. “No hogging the girl, dude. Let’s check this place out.”
Tommy headed towards the front door. Angus walked to the side to check out the broken window.
“Hey.” He grabbed the cardboard by one corner and tried to wrest it from the window frame.
I came up alongside him. “What is it?”
“It’s an album. Well, an album cover. Watch it—”
The cardboard buckled then abruptly popped out from the window. Angus examined it cursorily, slid his hand inside the sleeve and shook his head—no vinyl—then held it up for me to see: a black square with an inset color photo of two guys in full hippie regalia and psychedelic wording beneath.
PROPHETS SEERS AND SAGES
THE ANGELS OF THE AGES
“Is that T. Rex?”
He grinned. “I always, always wanted this album. I could never find it.”
“You could probably find it now on eBay.”
“I never wanted it that much.” He laughed. “Actually, I totally forgot I wanted it, till now.”
I took the cardboard sleeve. It was damp and smelled of mildew; black mold covered Marc Bolan’s face and cape. When I tried to look inside, the soft cardboard tore.
I handed it back to Angus. “Is it worth anything?”
“Not anymore.” He glanced at it then shrugged. “Nah, it’s toast. It doesn’t even have the record inside.”
“I bet it’s been rereleased. You should get it; it might give you and Tommy some ideas for “Estelle.”
Angus grimaced. “Trust me, Tommy doesn’t need any more ideas about goddamn Estelle.”
The song cycle had been my idea. “You’re like a troubadour, Tommy,” I had told him back when his obsession with the broker had spun completely out of control. “Their whole thing revolved around idealized unrequited love. You would have fit right in.”
“Did their whole thing revolve around stalking women at Best Buy?” I remember Angus asked.
“That was an accident,” said Tommy. “A total coincidence, she even admitted it.”
“Did the troubadours ever get laid?” said Angus. “Because that would clinch the deal for me.”
“I think you should channel all this into something constructive,” I suggested. “Music, you guys haven’t written anything together for awhile.”
The first songs Tommy wrote all used the woman’s real name.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Tommy,” I’d said when he played me the CD he’d burned from his computer. “Considering the restraining order and all.”
“But I love her name.” He had appeared genuinely distressed. “It’s part of her, it’s an extension of her, of everything she is—”
“You don’t have a clue as to who she fucking is!” Angus grabbed the CD. “You went out with her once before she dumped you. It was like you dated a blow-up doll.”
“She didn’t dump me!”
“You’re right—you were never involved enough to be dumped. You were downsized, Tommy. Admit it and get over it. Lot of fish in the sea, Tom.”
Tommy got over it, sort of. In the song, he changed the woman’s name to Estelle, at any rate.
It remained a sore point with Angus. He turned and skimmed the album cover towards the lake. I walked to join Tommy on the cabin’s front steps.
I asked, “What’re you doing?
A stoved-in mailbox dangled beside the door. I watched as Tommy prised it open, fished around inside and withdrew a wad of moldering letters, junk mail, mostly. He peeled oversized envelopes away from sales flyers, releasing a fetid smell, finally held up an envelope with the familiar ConEd logo.
“It’s a cut-off notice,” he said in triumph. Angus had wandered back and looked at him dubiously. “It’s got his name on it. Orson Shemeltoss.”
“Orson Shemeltoss? What the hell kind of name is that?”
Tommy ignored him. The wind sent the screen door swinging; he pushed it away, then knocked loudly on the front door. “Mr. Shemeltoss? Hello? Mr. Shemeltoss?”
Silence. Angus looked at me. We both started to laugh.
“Hey, shut up,” said Tommy.
Angus pushed him aside, cracked the door open and yelled.
“Yo, Orson! Tommy’s here.”
Tommy swore, but Angus had already stepped inside.
“It’s okay.” I patted Tommy’s shoulder. “You’re sure this is his place, right? So he’s expecting you.”
“I guess,” said Tommy.
He pushed the door open and went after Angus. I followed, almost immediately drew up short. “Holy shit.”
The room—and what was it, anyway? Living room? hallway? foyer?—I couldn’t tell, but it was so crammed with junk that walking was nearly impossible. It was like wading across a sandbar at high tide, through stacks of newspaper and magazines and books that once had towered above my head but had now collapsed to form a waist-high reef of paper. Things shifted underfoot as I moved, and when I tried to clamber on top of a stack it wobbled then flew apart in a storm of white and gray.
“Vivien, over here!”
I pushed myself up, coughing as I breathed in paper dust and mold. A dog barked, close enough that I looked around anxiously.
But I saw no sign of a dog, or Tommy, only Angus standing a few feet away, surrounded by overflowing bookshelves.
“It’s better over here.” He reached across a mound of magazines to grab my hand, and pulled me towards him. “C’mon, thatta girl—”
“It’s like the print shop exploded,” I said, still coughing. The smell of mold was so strong it burned my nostrils.
“It’s a lot worse than that.” Angus stared in disbelief. “This guy has some issues about letting go.”
Everywhere around us was—stuff. Junk mail and books and magazines, mostly, also a lot of photos—snapshots, old Polaroids—but other things, too. Board games, Bratz dolls, stuffed animals; oddments of clothing, stiletto heels and lingerie and studded collars; eight-track tapes and a battered saxophone, all protruding from the morass of paper like the detritus left by a receding flood. Vinyl record albums filled a wall of buckled metal shelving. Here and there I could discern bits of furniture—the uppermost rungs of a ladderback chair, a headboard.
And, scattered everywhere, the eerie paper figures that were the Folding Man’s handiwork. I dropped Angus’s hand and picked up one of them, a horned creature made of aluminum foil. Inexplicably, and despite the pervasive smell of mildew, my mouth began to water. It was only after I unfolded the little form that I saw the Arby’s logo printed on it.
“Where’s Tommy?” I asked.
Angus turned and began to push his way to the far side of the room. I tossed the bit of foil and grabbed another figure—there were hundreds of them, thousands maybe, so many it impossible not to think of them as somehow alive, burrowing up through those countless layers of junk.
I wondered if it was like an archeological dig, or geological strata: was there a Golden Age buried under there, before People Magazine ruled the earth? If I reached the very bottom, would I find Little Nemo and the Katzenjammer Kids?
I doubted it. I could see nothing but junk. All the magazines seemed to be well worn, and many were torn or missing their covers. The other stuff seemed to be ruined as well, toys cracked or broken or missing parts, clothes soiled or unraveling. The photos were ripped or water damaged, and a lot appeared to be charred or otherwise damaged by smoke or fire.
It was like the town dump, only worse—you could scavenge things from the dump. But it was difficult to imagine there was anything here worth saving, except for the thousands of origami-like figures. I picked one up. It was larger than most, big enough to cover my palm, plain white paper. It resembled a bird of some sort, a heron maybe, with tiny six-fingered hands instead of wings and a broad flattened bill like a shovel. Its eyes were wide and staring: an owl’s eyes, not a heron’s. I unfolded it and smoothed it out atop a heap of National Geographics. A missing flyer, the kind you see in post offices or police stations, with a black-and-white image of a teenage girl’s face photocopied from a high school portrait. Dark curly hair, freckles, dark eyes. Last seen May 14, 1982, Osceola, Wisconsin.
“Oh,” said Angus in a low voice.
I glanced at him, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was leaning against a small bare patch of wall, turning the pages of a small red-bound book.
I picked my way carefully to his side. “What is it?”
“I used to read this to Corey when he was little.” He didn’t look up, just continued to turn the pages, stopping to pull them gently apart where they were stuck together. “Every night, it was the only thing he ever wanted to hear. He knew it by heart. I never knew what happened to it.”
I stood beside him and stared at a picture of a rabbit in a rocking chair, cats playing on a rug, a wall of bookshelves.
“It’s even missing the same page,” Angus said softly. His face twisted. He turned from me, reaching for his pocket. Tommy’s alarmed voice came from somewhere across the room.
“I wouldn’t light up in here!”
Angus frowned, then reluctantly nodded. “Yeah, right. Bad idea.”
I said nothing, and after a moment began to make my way unsteadily towards where Tommy’s voice had come from. A few times I almost fell, and tried to catch myself by instinctively grabbing at whatever was closest to me—handfuls of newspapers, an oversized Sears family photo in a shattered frame, the tip of an artificial Christmas tree.
But this only made it more difficult to move, as the stacks invariably tottered and fell, so that I found myself half-buried in the Folding Man’s junk. I thought of the advice given to hikers trapped in an avalanche—to surf through the snow or, if buried, to swim upwards, to the surface—and pushed back an unpleasant image of what else might be under those layers of mildewed paper and chewed-up toys.
The dog barked again, closer this time.
“Tommy? You see a dog somewhere?” I yelled, but got no reply.
I straightened and looked back. Angus had slumped to sit precariously on a sagging mound of papers, head bowed as he turned the pages of the little book back and forth, back and forth. I shut my eyes and ran my hand across piles of paper till I felt a paper figure, picked it up and opened my eyes. The squarish head of an animal, catlike, with a small snout and large eyes that, as I unfolded it and flattened it, faded into a ripped piece of with paper, dark washes of green and brown and blue and red words beneath.
GOOD NIGHT BEARS
GOOD NIGHT CHAIRS
I dropped it and took a few painstaking steps in the direction of a door. I could hear faint scrabbling, and then Tommy exclaiming softly. I wondered if he’d found the dog. I stopped, listening.
I heard nothing. I glanced down and saw a white cylinder poking up between a copy of Oui Magazine and what looked like the keyboard from an old typewriter. I pushed aside the typewriter, grabbed the cylinder and pulled it free: not a folded figure but a small poster rolled into a tube.
The edges were stuck together, and tore as I unrolled it. The once-glossy paper had been nibbled at by insects or mice, and was dusted with dull green spores that powered the air when I held it up.
But towards the center the image was still clearly visible, vibrant even, and as recognizable to me as my own face.
It was a print of Uccello’s “The Hunt in the Forest.” The original hung in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. I had never seen it, but when I was nine I’d come across the picture in a children’s book about King Arthur and the Middle Ages. The painting actually dated to the Renaissance—the late 1500s—and it had nothing to do with Arthur, or England.
But for me it was inextricably tied up with everything I had ever dreamed or imagined about that world. A sense of immanence and urgency, of simple things—horses, dogs, people, grass— charged with an expectant, slightly sinister meaning I couldn’t grasp but still felt, even as a kid. The hunters in their crimson tunics astride their mounts and the horses rearing from turf whorled with white flowers, pale arabesques in a green carpet; the greyhounds springing joyously, heads thrown back and paws upraised as though partaking in some wild dance; the beaters—boys in tunics colored like Easter eggs, creamy yellow and pink and periwinkle blue—chased after the dogs. To the left of the painting, a single black-clad man—knight? lord? cleric?—rode a horse richly caparisoned as the rest. Dogs and horses and men and boys all ran in the same direction, towards the center of the painting where a half-dozen stags leapt, poised and improbable as the flattened targets in a shooting range.
And above everything, mysterious, columnar trees that opened into leafy parasols, like the carven pillars in a vast and endless cathedral, trees and hunters and animals finally receding into darkness as black and undifferentiated as the inside of a lacquered box.
I had not seen the image, or thought of it, in years. But it all came back to me now in a confused, almost fretful rush, like the memory of the sort of dream you have when sick.
“Vivien.” I started at the sound of Tommy’s voice, calling from inside the next room. “Viv—”
I dropped the poster and pushed my way to the open door. A narrow path led into the room, wide enough that I could pass without knocking anything over.
“Tommy?” I strained to see him over a mound of old clothes. “You okay?”
It must have been a bedroom once, though I saw no furniture, nothing but old clothes and shoes, wads of rolled-up belts like nested snakes.
But I could see the wall, close enough that I could almost touch it, with a closet door that hung loosely where one of its hinges had twisted from the sheetrock. Tommy was crouched beside the door. One hand was extended towards something on the floor inside the closet; the other was pressed against his cheek as he shook his head and murmured wordlessly.
I thought it was the dog. I swore under my breath and felt sick, looked over my shoulder as I called for Angus. I stumbled the last few steps through tangled clothing until I reached Tommy’s side, and knelt beside him.
It wasn’t a dog. It was a woman, nineteen or twenty, lying on one side with her knees drawn up and her clenched fists against her chin. I gasped and grabbed at the wall to steady myself.
“Shh,” whispered Tommy. He reached to touch her forehead, then drew his hand gently down her face, tracing freckled cheekbones, her chapped lower lip. “She’s sleeping.”
Angus staggered into the room behind me. “Holy shit. Is she dead? What are—”
“Shhh.” Tommy turned to look at us. His eyes were wide, not with amazement but something more like barely suppressed rage, or terror, or even pain.
Then he blinked, and for the first time seemed to notice me. “Hey, Vivien. Angus. Look. Look—”
I turned to stare at Angus, too stunned even to be afraid. He stared back, speechless. We both looked at Tommy again.
His hand cradled the girl’s cheek as he crooned to her beneath his breath. Without warning, her eyelids fluttered. I jumped. Angus gasped then grabbed my arm.
“Fucking hell,” he whispered. “Fucking hell, fucking—”
“Shut up.” Tommy’s face was fierce; but then the girl stirred, moaning. He turned from us and set his hands lightly on her shoulders.
“It’s okay,” he said. “You’re okay, I’m here, someone’s here….”
She tried to sit up, then gave a small cry. Her head drooped; she retched and Tommy held her as she spat up a trickle of liquid.
“That’s a girl,” he murmured. “That’s my girl….”
I could see her clearly now, her hair dark and matted, thick, a few curls springing loose to frame her pale face. She wore a man’s white button-down shirt, seamed with dirt and rust stains, blue jeans, white tennis socks with filthy pom-poms at the ankles.
“Is she okay?” said Angus.
“Sure she’s okay,” said Tommy in that same low, reassuring voice. “Sure she’s okay, she’s going to be just fine….”
I stumbled forward to help him carry her. Angus tried to clear a way for us, kicking at old clothes and magazines as we lurched from room to room, staggering between the piles of trash, until finally we all stood by the front door. The girl’s head lolled against Tommy’s shoulder. Angus looked at her in concern, but I also saw how his gaze flickered to her soiled shirt with its missing buttons, the frayed cloth gaping open so you could see her breasts, the spray of freckles across her clavicle and throat.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She looked up. Not at us: at Tommy, who stared down at her with lips compressed, smiling slightly.
“Stella.” Her voice rose tremulously on the second syllable, as though it were a question. “Stella.”
The dog barked again, not inside the house this time but somewhere nearby, just out of sight among the evergreens. Angus ran to the car as Tommy and I helped the girl across the mossy ground.
“There’s so much crap in there, I don’t even know if there’s room.” Angus clambered into the back seat and started shoving stuff onto the floor. “Shit!”
“It’s okay,” said Tommy. He’d removed his jacket and was helping the girl pull her arms through its sleeves. “We’ll make room.”
“Yeah, but what about this!” Angus shook his guitar case. “What about her? We need to call the police, or—”
“Just get in,” said Tommy. He eased the girl into the back seat. Angus hurried to the trunk and shoved in the guitar case. “We’ll make it fit, we’ll figure it out.”
I leaned inside and pulled the seat belt across the girl’s chest. “Thank you,” she whispered. Her eyes were almost black, with irises so dark they seemed to have no pupil. Her breath smelled of leaf mould and cloves.
My heart thumped so hard it hurt. I smiled, then backed away so that Tommy could slide in beside her.
“Let’s go,” he said.
I got into the front with Angus. “Now what?”
He shrugged and tossed something into my lap: the ruined picture book he’d read inside. “I have no fucking clue,” he said, and started the engine. “But I guess we’ll figure out something.”
I rolled my window down and leaned out. A flurry of wings, a keening cry as a pair of wood ducks rose from the lake and flew agitatedly towards the trees. The wind had shifted; it carried now the smell of rain, of lilacs. I glanced into the back seat and saw the girl sitting with her face upturned to Tommy’s. His hand was on her knee, his own face stared straight ahead, to where the road stretched before us, darker now, the dirt and gravel rain-spattered and the ferns at road’s-edge unfurling, pale green and misty white. I heard another bark, and then a second, echoing yelp; the distant sound of voices, laughter. As the car rounded a curve I looked back and saw several small lean forms, white and gray, too blurred for me to discern clearly, racing through the underbrush before they broke free momentarily into a bright clearing, muzzles gleaming in a sudden shaft of sun before they disappeared once more into the trees.
© Elizabeth Hand, 2007. Reprinted with permission of the author.
Elizabeth Hand is the author of fourteen novels and four collections of short fiction. Her work has received numerous honors, including multiple World Fantasy, Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards, and has been shortlisted for the Hugo and The Believer Book Awards. She is also a longtime contributor to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Salon, and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, among other publications. Her most recent book is Wylding Hall, out this summer from Open Road Media (e-book), Blackstone Audio, and PS Publishing (print). Hard Light, third of the acclaimed Cass Neary noir novels, will be published in early 2016. She divides her time between the coast of Maine and North London
About the Artist: Ryan Schultz is a multidisciplinary artist located in Richmond, VA. Ryan’s work + interests fall under the spectrum of illustration, programming, and fashion technology. Currently, Ryan is focused on artistic collaboration efforts, functioning as a member of the following: BIRD CAVE (a collaborative studio practice with Natalie DeMenthon), The Real Creamwives of Richmond, and Sponge HQ: The Participating Body (a six member group for participatory art practice led by Sponge HQ founder Hope Ginsburg). Ryan is open for commissions and internships. See more of his work at ryanschultz.weebly.com and birdcave.weebly.com