cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight.
The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon.
He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties,
feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold,
of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers.
But when the Man-Moth
pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface,
the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges
from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks
and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings.
He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
proving the sky quite useless for protection.
He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb.
Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer's cloth behind him
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.)
But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.
Then he returns
to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits,
he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains
fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly.
The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,
without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort.
He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.
Each night he must
be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams.
Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie
his rushing brain. He does not dare look out the window,
for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison,
runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease
he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep
his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It's all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee's sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you're not paying attention
he'll swallow it. However, if you watch, he'll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.
One summer afternoon Mrs Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party
whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she,
Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one
Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars
in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of
sorting it all out more than honorary. Oedipa stood in the living room, stared at by
the greenish dead eye of the TV tube, spoke the name of God, tried to feel as drunk
as possible. But this did not work. She thought of a hotel room in Mazatlán whose
door had just been slammed, it seemed forever, waking up two hundred birds down
in the lobby; a sunrise over the library slope at Cornell University that nobody out on
it had seen because the slope faces west; a dry, disconsolate tune from the fourth
movement of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra; a whitewashed bust of Jay Gould
that Pierce kept over the bed on a shelf so narrow for it she's always had the hovering
fear it would someday topple on them. Was that how he'd died, she wondered,
among dreams, crushed by the only ikon in the house? That only made her laugh, out
loud and helpless: You're so sick, Oedipa, she told herself, or the room, which knew.
Yet at least he had believed in the cars. Maybe to excess: how could he not, seeing people
poorer than him come in, Negro, Mexican, cracker, a parade seven days a week, bringing
the most godawful of trade-ins: motorized, metal extensions of themselves, of their
families and what their whole lives must be like, out there so naked for anybody, a stranger
like himself, to look at, frame cockeyed, rusty underneath, fender repainted in a shade just
off enough to depress the value, if not Mucho himself, inside smelling hopelessly of
children, supermarket booze, two, sometimes three generations of cigarette smokers, or
only of dust—and when the cars were swept out you had to look at the actual residue of
these lives, and there was no way of telling what things had been truly refused (when so
little he supposed came by that out of fear most of it had to be taken and kept) and what
had simply (perhaps tragically) been lost: clipped coupons promising savings of 5 or 10c,
trading stamps, pink flyers advertising specials at the markets, butts, tooth-shy combs,
help-wanted ads, Yellow Pages torn from the phone book, rags of old underwear or
dresses that already were period costumes, for wiping your own breath off the inside of a
windshield with so you could see whatever it was, a movie, a woman or car you coveted, a
cop who might pull you over just for drill, all the bits and pieces coated uniformly, like a
salad of despair, in a gray dressing of ash, condensed exhaust, dust, body wastes—it made
him sick to look, but he had to look. [...] Endless, convoluted incest.
In Mexico City they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the
beautiful Spanish exile Remedies Varo: in the central painting of a triptych, titled
"Bordando el Manto Terrestre," were a number of frail girls with heart-shaped faces,
huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower,
embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void,
seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the
waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the
tapestry was the world. [...] Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think,
soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her ego only
incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, anonymous and
malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus
except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand
how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall
back on superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or marry
a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of deliverance no proof
against its magic, what else?
Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had
noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she'd wondered if
the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on
and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the
moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears,
those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from
cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a
painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple
thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico,
and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there'd been no escape. What
did she so desire escape from?
She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses
which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and
she thought of the time she'd opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her
first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at
her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she
knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward
patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There'd
seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out);
so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of
her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige
countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd,
religious instant. As if, on some other frequency, or out of the eye of some whirlwind
rotating too slow for her heated skin even to feel the centrifugal coolness of, words were
being spoken. She suspected that much.
Were the squatters there in touch with others, through Tristero; were they helping carry forward that
300 years of the house's disinheritance? Surely they'd forgotten by now what it was the Tristero were to
have inherited; as perhaps Oedipa one day might have. What was left to inherit? That America coded
in Inverarity's testament, whose was that? She thought of other, immobilized freight cars, where the
kids sat on the floor planking and sang back, happy as fat, whatever came over the mother's pocket
radio; of other squatters who stretched canvas for lean-tos behind smiling billboards along all the
highways, or slept in junkyards in the stripped shells of wrecked Plymouths, or even, daring, spent the
night up some pole in a lineman's tent like caterpillars, swung among a web of telephone wires, living in
the very copper rigging and secular miracle of communication, untroubled by the dumb voltages
flickering their miles, the night long, in the thousands of unheard messages. She remembered drifters
she had listened to, Americans speaking their language carefully, scholarly, as if they were in exile
from somewhere else invisible yet congruent with the cheered land she lived in; and walkers along
the roads at night, zooming in and out of your headlights without looking up, too far from any town to
have a real destination. And the voices before and after the dead man's that had phoned at random
during the darkest, slowest hours, searching ceaseless among the dial's ten million possibilities for that
magical Other who would reveal herself out of the roar of relays, monotone litanies of insult, filth,
fantasy, love whose brute repetition must someday call into being the trigger for the unnamable act,
the recognition, the Word. How many shared Tristero's secret, as well as its exile?
She was overcome all at once by a need to touch him, as if she could not
believe in him, or would not remember him, without it. Exhausted, hardly
knowing what she was doing, she came the last three steps and sat, took
the man in her arms, actually held him, gazing out of her smudged eyes
down the stairs, back into the morning. She felt wetness against her breast
and saw that he was crying again. He hardly breathed but tears came as if
being pumped. "I can't help," she whispered, rocking him, "I can't help."
In that place, where they tore the nightshade and blackberry patches from their roots to
make room for the Medallion City Golf Course, there was once a neighborhood. It stood in
the hills above the valley town of Medallion and spread all the way to the river. It is called
the suburbs now, but when black people lived there it was called the Bottom. One road,
shaded by beeches, oaks, maples and chestnuts, connected it to the valley. The beeches are
gone now, and so are the pear trees where children sat and yelled down through the
blossoms to passersby. Generous funds have been allotted to level the stripped and faded
buildings that clutter the road from Medallion up to the golf course. They are going to raze
the Time and a Half Pool Hall, where feet in long tan shoes once pointed down from chair
rungs. A steel ball will knock to dust Irene's Palace of Cosmetology, where women used to
lean their heads back on sink trays and doze while Irene lathered Nu Nile into their hair.
Men in khaki work clothes will pry loose the slats of Reba's Grill, where the owner cooked
in her hat because she couldn't remember the ingredients without it.
It would be here, only here, held by this blind window high
above the elm tree, that she might draw her legs up to her
chest, close her eyes, put her thumb in her mouth and float
over and down the tunnels, just missing the dark walls,
down, down until she met a rain scent and would know the
water was near, and she would curl into its heavy softness
and it would envelop her, carry her, and wash her tired flesh
always. Always. Who said that? She tried hard to think. Who
was it that had promised her a sleep of water always?
If I take a chamois and rub real hard on the bone, right on the ledge of your cheek bone, some of the black will disappear. It will
flake away into the chamois and underneath there will be gold leaf. I can see it shining through the black. I know it is there...
How high she was over his wand-lean body, how slippery was his sliding sliding smile.
And if I take a nail file or even Eva's old paring knife—that will do—and scrape away at the gold, it will fall away and there will
be alabaster. The alabaster is what gives your face its planes, its curves. That is why your mouth smiling does not reach your eyes.
Alabaster is giving it a gravity that resists a total smile.
The height and the swaying dizzied her, so she bent down and let her breasts graze his chest.
Then I can take a chisel and small tap hammer and tap away at the alabaster. It will crack then like ice under the pick, and
through the breaks I will see the loam, fertile, free of pebbles and twigs. For it is the loam that is giving you that smell.
She slipped her hands under his armpits, for it seemed as though she would not be able to dam the spread of weakness
she felt under her skin without holding on to something.
I will put my hand deep into your soil, lift it, sift it with my fingers, feel its warm surface and dewy chill below.
She put her head under his chin with no hope in the world of keeping anything at all at bay.
I will water your soil, keep it rich and moist. But how much? How much water to keep the loam moist? And how much loam will I
need to keep my water still? And when do the two make mud?
Their conviction of Sula's evil changed them in accountable yet mysterious ways. Once the source
of their personal misfortune was identified, they had leave to protect and love one another. They
began to cherish their husbands and wives, protect their children, repair their homes and in
general band together against the devil in their midst. In their world, aberrations were as much a
part of nature as grace. It was not for them to expel or annihilate it. They would no more run
Sula out of town than they would kill the robins that brought her back, for in their secret
awareness of Him, He was not the God of three faces they sang about. They knew quite well that
He had four, and that the fourth explained Sula. They had lived with various forms of evil all their
days, and it wasn't that they believed God would take care of them. It was rather that they knew
God had a brother and that brother hadn't spared God's son, so why should he spare them?
There was no creature so ungodly as to make them destroy it. They could kill easily if provoked
to anger, but not by design, which explained why they could not "mob kill" anyone. To do so was
not only unnatural, it was undignified. The presence of evil was something to be first recognized,
then dealt with, survived, outwitted, triumphed over.
As willing to feel pain as to give pain, to feel pleasure as
to give pleasure, hers was an experimental life—ever
since her mother's remarks sent her flying up those
stairs, ever since her one major feeling of responsibility
had been exorcised on the bank of a river with a closed
place in the middle. The first experience taught her there
was no other that you could count on; the second that
there was no self to count on either.
In a way, her strangeness, her naïveté, her craving for the
other half of her equation was the consequence of an
idle imagination. Had she paints, or clay, or knew the
discipline of the dance, or strings; had she anything to
engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for
metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and
pre-occupation with whim for an activity that provided
her with all she yearned for. And like any artist with no
art form, she became dangerous.
The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through
the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam
sculpture and moved toward the dormitories. The roofs of the station wagons
were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy
clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books,
sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles,
skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed
to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to
begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal
computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph
records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets,
soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled
substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping
bags— onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos
and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the
Let's enjoy these aimless days while we can, I told myself, I fearing some kind of deft acceleration.
At breakfast, Babette read all our horoscopes aloud, using her storytelling voice. I tried not to listen
when she got to mine, although I think I wanted to listen, I think I sought some clues.
After dinner, on my way upstairs, I heard the TV say: "Let's sit half lotus and think about our spines."
That night, seconds after going to sleep, I seemed to fall through myself, a shallow heart-stopping
plunge. Jarred awake, I stared into the dark, realizing I'd experienced the more or less normal
muscular contraction known as the myoclonic jerk. Is this what it's like, abrupt, peremptory? Shouldn't
death, I thought, be a swan dive, graceful, white- winged and smooth, leaving the surface
Blue jeans tumbled in the dryer.
We ran into Murray Jay Siskind at the supermarket. His basket held generic food and drink, nonbrand
items in plain white packages with simple labeling. There was a white can labeled CANNED
PEACHES. There was a white package of bacon without a plastic window for viewing a
representative slice. A jar of roasted nuts had a white wrapper bearing the words IRREGULAR
PEANUTS. Murray kept nodding to Babette as I introduced them.
"Tibetans try to see death for what it is. It is the end of attachment to things.
This simple truth is hard to fathom. But once we stop denying death, we
can proceed calmly to die and then go on to experience uterine rebirth or
Judeo-Christian afterlife or out-of-body experience or a trip on a UFO or
whatever we wish to call it. We can do so with clear vision, without awe or
terror. We don't have to cling to life artificially, or to death for that matter. We
simply walk toward the sliding doors. Waves and radiation. Look how welllighted
everything is. The place is sealed off, self-contained. It is timeless.
Another reason why I think of Tibet. Dying is an art in Tibet. A priest walks
in, sits down, tells the weeping relatives to get out and has the room sealed.
Doors, windows sealed. He has serious business to see to. Chants,
numerology, horoscopes, recitations. Here we don't die, we shop. But the
difference is less marked than you think."
In the morning I walked to the bank. I went to the automated teller
machine to check my balance. I inserted my card, entered my secret
code, tapped out my request. The figure on the screen roughly
corresponded to my independent estimate, feebly arrived at after long
searches through documents, tormented arithmetic. Waves of relief and
gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its
support and approval. The system hardware, the mainframe sitting in a
locked room in some distant city. What a pleasing interaction. I sensed
that something of deep personal value, but not money, not that at all,
had been authenticated and confirmed. A deranged person was
escorted from the bank by two armed guards. The system was invisible,
which made it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal
with. But we were in accord, at least for now. The networks, the circuits,
the streams, the harmonies.
"The no-risk bonus coupon below gives you guaranteed access to
dozens of documented cases of life after death, everlasting life, previouslife
experiences, posthumous life in outer space, transmigration of souls,
and personalized resurrection through stream-of-consciousness
I studied the faces in the semicircle. No one seemed amazed by this
account. Old Man Treadwell lit a cigarette, impatient with his own
trembling hand, forced to shake out the flame before it burned him. There
was no interest shown in discussion. The story occupied some recess of
passive belief. There it was, familiar and comforting in its own strange
way, a set of statements no less real than our daily quota of observable
household fact. Even Babette in her tone of voice betrayed no sign of
skepticism or condescension. Surely I was in no position to feel superior
to these elderly listeners, blind or sighted. Little Patti's walk toward the
warm welcoming glow found me in a weakened and receptive state. I
wanted to believe at least this part of the tale.
She uttered two clearly audible words, familiar and elusive at the same
time, words that seemed to have a ritual meaning, part of a verbal spell or
A long moment passed before I realized this was the name of an
automobile. The truth only amazed me more. The utterance was beautiful
and mysterious, gold-shot with looming wonder. It was like the name of
an ancient power in the sky, tablet-carved in cuneiform. It made me feel
that something hovered. But how could this be? A simple brand name, an
ordinary car. How could these near-nonsense words, murmured in a
child's restless sleep, make me sense a meaning, a presence? She was
only repeating some TV voice. Toyota Corolla, Toyota Celica, Toyota
Cressida. Supranational names, computer-generated, more or less
universally pronounceable. Part of every child's brain noise, the substatic
regions too deep to probe. Whatever its source, the utterance struck me
with the impact of a moment of splendid transcendence.
"Some people are scared by the sunsets, some
determined to be elated, but most of us don't
know how to feel, are ready to go either way . . .
Certainly there is awe, it is all awe, it transcends
previous categories of awe, but we don't know
whether we are watching in wonder or dread, we
don't know what we are watching or what it
means, we don't know whether it is permanent,
a level of experience to which we will gradually
adjust, into which our uncertainty will eventually
be absorbed, or just some atmospheric
weirdness, soon to pass"