Note: This piece of fiction takes off from several real events. There was, in fact, a little bit of telepathy, and it made an impression on me.
During the summer of 1962, I was living in a borrowed studio on 19th St. in Manhattan. At the end of the day, I’d stroll up to Times Square and pick up a few newspapers—the tabloids, with their loud crazy headlines. I’d sit in Central Park and read one horrible bloody story after another. I imagined a great wheel turning in a cavern, where the reporters and editors and proofreaders and typesetters and pressmen did their work, feeding a ravenous beast, knowing that if they fell behind, the creature might tear them limb from limb. Of course, this didn’t quench the workers’ enjoyment; it brought it to a peak of ecstasy. For them, things couldn’t get any better. Give up the ghost? Never! The Church of the Newspapers was always lit up, always functioning, twenty-four hours a day, pumping out a parade of stories about humans committing unspeakable acts upon each other. And behind this whole operation, in remote offices, there were the professional peeping toms, deformed perverts, and aristocratic felons, well-coiffed, their limousines on tap, lunches planned at the best restaurants. Just as the modern king of cities, Las Vegas, thrives because it shouts Money from every pore of its being, with no reservation, the New York of those days announced: Crime. Boldly and with no shame. We are the crime city, and we dare you to escape! This was a proud Church. There were no prophets, there was no messiah, except possibly the Mayor, but he was in bed with the Mob.
…I had submitted a short story to a magazine, and the editor called me and invited me to have a drink at an uptown hotel bar.
He came on with an earnest air, saying the magazine was turning down the story but that I should ‘keep writing.’ At some point he mentioned going to school at Andover. I saw the cliches: the summer house on Long Island, the father who got him his job at the magazine after he graduated from an Ivy League college, the pretty wife, the kids, the failed attempts at writing a novel, the growing booze habit, the ‘interest’ in a young writer. And then I saw something quite different, don’t ask me how. A car accident on a road at night, someone in his family dying at the wheel. I looked at his sallow doughy face, I watched him pick up his glass of whiskey. He didn’t take a sip. He looked at me. He said, “I’m going to work for a newspaper. Can you believe that? I’m going to edit stories about murders and rapes. Unless I say no. Do you think I should turn down the job?”
For a moment, I thought his life was hanging in the balance and I was supposed to make a decision for him. He took a sip of his drink, glanced around the bar, and said, “How many levels of Hell do you think I’ll be descending if I take the job?” He shook his head. “When somebody in your family dies, you change your ideas. I stayed home that night. I wanted to finish Catcher in the Rye. I thought it was a silly book, and I wanted to figure out why everyone was so excited about it.”
Sitting there, I sensed I was in a hypnotic play. My role was set. I was supposed to speak my consoling lines, he would say his, and then we would part and take separate routes home. He had put me in this play. He had a certain kind of power.
I shook myself off like a dog coming out of the rain.
“No,” I said.
He raised his eyebrows. “No?”
“You’re asking me for advice, but you’re not really asking me. Look, you can do goddamn anything you want to.”
“I wish that were true,” he said.
It occurred to me his real mission, in this little meeting, was to discourage me, because he found something in my story that irked him. God knows what. That was why he’d invited me for a drink. And undoubtedly his cynicism was rooted in more than the death in his family. He was a poor little rich kid with a mean streak.
Was I wrong?
“Take the job with the newspaper,” I said. “You’ll learn to like it. You’ll fit in.”
He sneered at me. “You really think so?”
“I’m sure of it.”
He reached over and tried to grab my shoulder. I swatted his hand away.
He drew back, stood up, reached into his pocket and dropped a few bills on the bar. He turned and walked out without another word.
After a minute, the bartender came down and said, “What was all that about?”
I shrugged. “Some guy trying to sell me a bill of goods.”
He grinned. “He’s in here a lot. He’s a drunk. Don’t pay any attention to him. Did he say one of the tabloids wanted to hire him?”
“He wants the job, but they won’t give it to him.”
Over the next few days, I did a bit of research at the Fifth Avenue Library. The man did come from a wealthy and well-known family, but I found no indication there had ever been an accident, or that anyone had died suddenly.
Had I telepathically viewed that car accident, even though the editor had invented it as part of his life-story? Was he able to broadcast his inventions?
A strange little piece of magic.
Ten years later, a friend in Los Angeles put on an exhibition of my paintings in her home. At one point during the afternoon, lo and behold, the editor walked in and looked around. He’d gained some weight. His face still had that washed-out blank look.
“Remember me?” he said.
“Of course I do,” I said. “Go home.”
He broke out in a laugh, nodded, turned around and walked right out the door.
He got into his car and sat there. I watched him for a few minutes, then I went down and asked him what he was doing.
He looked straight ahead through the windshield. As if no time had passed since our last meeting, he said, “I rejected your story for the magazine because it was too close to the kind of writing I wanted to do. I did the same thing with a few young writers in those days. Now I’m working in real estate. I wanted to see you again, because something happened in the bar the day we had a drink. You knew I was lying to you about a few things. How did you know?”
“You’re a good liar,” I said. “A professional. You have a little bit of telepathy. People get your message before you give it to them.”
He looked straight at me. “You mean about the accident?” he said. “The ‘death’ in my family?”
He smiled. “I thought that’s what happened,” he said. “I’ve always had that ability since I was a child. I never knew what to do with it.”
“It’s not necessarily a curse,” I said.
“I should have been an actor. It’s the only place for a person like me. The stage.”
“Maybe you could pull it off,” I said.
“Well,” he said, “lying is what actors do. They raise it to an art, if they’re good.”
“Stick to real estate,” I said. “You don’t have what it takes to be an artist.”
Anger flared up in his eyes.
“Don’t play me,” he said. “I’m the one who plays people.”
It was my turn to laugh. “You’re a rat caught in your own trap. You deserve what you get.”
He drove off.
A few weeks later, I had a dream about him. Somewhere in the Midwest, he was starring in a repertory production of O’Neill’s The Ice Man Cometh. He was playing the lead role of Hickey, the drunken con man who’s suddenly gotten sober and visits his old alcoholic pals to convert them to a life stripped of illusions—with disastrous results. I was sitting in the audience, watching him give the performance of his life. Near the end of the play, he suddenly broke from the script and began talking about his childhood fabrication of a family tragedy, a death on the road at night. He looked straight at me as he recounted how he’d made up the whole thing one day, during summer vacation from school, because he was bored. He gotten some of the details from a newspaper story, which had been published under grisly photos. He said, “It suited me. It was just the kind of lie I wanted. I don’t know why, to this day. I’m a liar playing a liar right here, in front of you, and I’ve never been happier in my life. If I can just keep this up long enough, if you and your friends will just keep coming back to watch me, I’ll burn it all out of my system! I’ll rise up into the clouds and look down and see my whole life stretched out in a straight line, and it’ll vanish, and I’ll know what it was for. We need a place where the worst thing that can happen to us is the show closes, and we try it again with a different play. I swear to God, I think that’s why we’re here.”
I noticed he was holding a paper bag. He took out a bundle of dynamite sticks.
“I could just blow you all up,” he said.
I had a gun in my hand.
People in the audience shifted their attention to me, as if I were the threat. A man next to me tried to grab the gun. I shook him off.
I said to the editor, “You had it right just before you took out the dynamite.”
He shook his head. “Maybe, but I can’t stay with it. Do you understand? One step forward, two steps back. My métier is self-pity. Haven’t you figured that out by now?”
I raised the gun.
He nodded at me.
“I knew from the first moment I read your story,” he said, “that you could be the one to do it. That’s why I keep coming back to you. Go ahead.”
I shot him three times, and he fell on the stage. I could see he was trying to laugh, but he couldn’t make a sound.
His blood ran out into the sea. I looked up and saw him walking on a cloudbank. He was wearing a fedora cocked at a jaunty angle, and he was carrying a salesman’s sample case. He touched the brim of his hat, saluted the horizon, and thrust his arm out ahead of him.
Suddenly, in the dream, it was morning, and I was outside my apartment, and I saw his car. He was sitting in it. His lips weren’t moving, but he was speaking to me:
“If I were able to write the book, the one I started twenty years ago—but how is that possible? I need to disappear now and begin another life. It doesn’t matter how. Growing up the way I did, maybe I should have become one of those prime movers who operates from behind the scenes shaping the world. But the idea bored me. I was an actor. This is my nature, to be a role player adapting to circumstances, pointing out the destructive seeds embedded in all things. Good luck, my friend. Remember me if you can.”
Then, in the dream, I come across a small item in an Arizona newspaper. The piece describes a retirement party at an accounting firm.
He’s there in a photo, with a group of employees. They’re standing around a picnic table in a park. He’s smiling.
As I look at him, I try to remember the story I submitted to him in 1962. For some reason, it seems to me it’s this story, the one I’m finishing now.
And I tell him, “Go back to that night on the road where the accident didn’t happen, where there was no blood, and just change what you made up. It’s simple. Just cook up a different tale, and things will work out differently. Can’t you see that?”
But he doesn’t move. He doesn’t come out of the newspaper photo and speak. He stays there.
The whole dream waits, in a state of suspension. Finally, the photo begins to come to life. He walks forward, a glazed grin on his face. It’s as if someone has done surgery on him, taken out part of his brain, or drugged him into submission. His gait is unsteady. He’s wandering in a garden, letting his hand drift across yellow flowers. In the distance sits a low white building. A mental hospital. The psychiatrists have had their hooks into him.
The decision falls to me. Which do I prefer, the character he made himself into, or the addled person he is now, after his treatment?
I try to shout, but only a murmur comes out. “Let him go!”
Now we’re in a forest, walking side by side.
“A close one,” he says. “Thanks for bailing me out.”
He’s alert. The glaze in his eyes is gone. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of money and hands to me.
“Did you ever think you’d be advocating for me?” he says. “Did I tell you? Looks like I’ve got that job at the Mirror. An editor. I’ll be overseeing the stories about car crashes, murders, rapes, the whole shooting match. The higher ups finally realized I’m the man to handle an assignment like that. I’ve got the right personality. This is a mission. Feed the people what they want. Satisfy their appetite until they reach their limit, and then keep stuffing it down their throats. There comes a point where they rebel against their own prurient desire. Alchemy. They begin to transform. I’ve always wanted to be a martyr. Sacrifice myself on the altar. I’m needed. I’m needed in the trenches. I’m a transitional character. I’m the in-between man, the bridge to a new society. Midway upon the journey of our life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost. But I can see the road ahead, and the light. We’re not dealing with small things here, my boy. This is the trial. This is where the exhaustion of the soul bottoms out, and the unthinkable happens. A renewal. A blast of fresh air. But no shortcuts. The whole foul drama has to be played to the end. We have to eat the bitter root.”
Now he was a gaunt figure on a sea-foamed rampart, his jacket flapping, his white hair blowing in all directions. He was trying to talk above the clamor.
There comes a time in dreams when you know you’re participating, you know you can change whatever is happening at will.
So I brought us back to that bar, long ago, and we were sitting there sipping our drinks, and he said, “I liked your story. I wanted to publish it, but you see, I’m a jealous bastard. I have my limits. When I read a line, a few lines that exceed my expectation, a warning light goes on. So I intercede. I’m not trying to make things better, I’m trying to make them worse. You wouldn’t understand that, you’re too young. Try not to be too tough on me. You’ll do just fine. I thought I owed it to you to explain how things work in my world. It’s crazy, and it’s upside down, but there it is.”
“Which lines were they?” I said. “What set off your alarm?”
He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. You’ll keep going.”
He put down a few bills on the bar.
“Drinks on me,” he said. “The least I can do. Consider it a peace offering.”
He grinned, winked, tapped me on the shoulder and walked out of the place.
I watched him wait for the light to change at the corner. He strolled across the street. I thought of having a bus run him down, but I let it go.
He reached the other side, and my control of the dream slipped away. A brawl broke out in an alley. Suddenly, the editor was set up on the sidewalk with a tripod and a camera. He was snapping pictures of the bloody fight. No one seemed to notice. He was smiling. Tears of joy were running down his cheeks.
He leaned back and thrust his arms toward the sky. “Praise all the saints and sinners!”
It began snowing. The flakes came down fast the thick, and I couldn’t see him anymore. The last lines of Joyce’s The Dead floated in: A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight…Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.
I walked out of the bar.
He was gone. The street was empty and quiet and white.
The storm was over. I was alone.
I started to walk home and realized I didn’t know where I lived. Was I in the right city?
With a rush, I woke up in bed.
The shades were closed. I didn’t know whether it was morning or night. I dressed quickly and walked outside. The sun was shining. The street was unfamiliar to me. I had never been there before.
The buildings, the shops, the people…where was I?
I walked to a nearby café. The outdoor tables were empty, except for one, where the editor sat. He motioned me over. I sat down across from him.
“Look,” he said, “we don’t have much time. This whole scene is going to dissolve in a minute. But I wanted to tell you there is another level operating here. I wanted you to break through and see it. That was what your original story was about, the one you submitted to me all those years ago. Don’t you remember it? It was about an old man reading a newspaper in Central Park. He’s sitting on a park bench and it’s snowing. He’s reading the paper and all of a sudden he sees words behind the words, new stories, other stories. There was one about an explosion of crime across the country. Staged events, and real events, too, and the embrace of media…do you see? A wave of crime, and the media covers it, and in the process, the whole nation becomes demoralized. Society changes. I’m talking about a plan, a long-range plan. Don’t you remember writing about it?”
“No, I don’t. Are you sure? It was a long time ago.”
“Of course I’m sure! What’s the matter with you?”
The scene begins fading. He’s fading out. He’s disappearing into the table and the table is disappearing into the sidewalk, and the street is folding up like some kind of toy. I sit there watching all this, wondering how far it’ll go…
And then I’m sitting in my car. I’m sitting at a light at the corner of Lincoln Boulevard and Wilshire, in Santa Monica, and I hear horns blowing. My friend, RG, sitting next to me, says, “It’s green. Drive.”
I drive through the intersection heading north on Lincoln.
“Are you okay?” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “I was just remembering something.”
“Listen,” she says, “I’m doing copy editing at the LA Press, part-time. It’s a new free weekly paper. They’re looking for writers. Not the usual crap. They want investigative pieces. Ever think about being a reporter?”
“Not really,” I say.
“Well you should. What are you working on?”
“A short story about a magazine editor.”
“Just try it,” she says. “Come up with an idea and I’ll pitch it to the editor. They pay actual money. They’re interested in scandals. What’s going on behind the scenes.”
“How far behind the scenes?” I say.