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September 3, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 19 (p. 293-305)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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This is bad, thought Nathaniel as he struggled to keep the bitter wind from blowing his car off the bridge; winter, it seemed, was coming early this year. In fact, it, not meaning the weather, was worse than he had thought it might be. A month ago, he had begun to feel people looking at him when he was at the grocery store, subtly, over the tops of magazines or out of the corners of their eyes as if looking at the produce near him. But he had learned much earlier in his life to dismiss these impressions as either conceit or paranoia — the former as when he was a developing teenager and thought the entire world was "checking him out" and the latter as he had felt later, thinking that all of society was conspiring against him. So now he just smiled at those whose eyes lingered too long to escape his and ascribed what few looks he could not deny to his book.

As it had turned out, he was less correct, while closer to the truth, than he had realized. It all came together, however, two weeks before his crossing of the bridges, when he had returned from whatever petty task (he could not now remember what it had been) had taken him away from his home. He had walked through the door with a smile on his lips and a humming melody in his throat only to find Jen crying over a wrinkled copy of Ethos magazine, which lay on her lap like a spent viper.

"It's not true," Nathaniel had lied instantly, not knowing if it was true or not.

The worst of it all, for him anyway, was that it was his own fault: he owed it all to his naive self-denial that the mere mention of his name in certain vicinities could raise the past from its locked coffin. Holden, probably by an ineluctable mixture of accident and luck, had mentioned his name in such a place, and that had likely been all of the work that he had had to do: Nathaniel's past had swept out from under the lid that had kept it superficially incarcerated and had carried Holden along on his curious path of discovery. Nathaniel laughed bitterly as he imagined Holden's disposition as he stumbled from one story to another, mixing his excitement, for he must have felt the appeal that Nathaniel's story would have to the lecherous mass public, with the disgusted surprise and denial that even a brat like Holden must have experienced as the Nathaniel whom he had come to feel as if he knew mutated into a monster.

That's exactly what had happened with Jen; the boy that Nathaniel hardly felt, now, that he had ever really been emerged within her impression of him as if he were being possessed from without. Who he might have once been had become more real to her, more important, than who he was at present.

"I'll put it back the way it was," Nathaniel said out loud to the silent interior of the car, wiping a tear from his right cheek. He sped along the road feeling as if the cows that grazed across the roadside pasture raised their heads as he passed to offer the quiet condolence of Nature. He would go to New York and fix his life, somehow, not knowing what he would do once he got there, but feeling the pull of opportunity and chance.

He looked into his rearview mirror and noted the car behind him. It was a black sedan about one hundred yards back. He sped up, and it seemed to him as if the sedan sped up, as well; he slowed down, and he thought that his follower slowed down, too. But then the black car turned off the road. Nathaniel laughed at his silliness; nobody was following him on this back country road. He looked again and watched as a rusted green pick-up truck appeared from the same street down which the sedan had gone. He laughed again. Silly.

The story of Nathaniel's past had somehow become deemed newsworthy. At first it had been picked up by local sensationalist magazines and then their larger parent publications. Then a handful of fashionable teenage biweeklies (at which, Nathaniel supposed, the staff had had to do some research to discover the book that had put him in the public view at all — and still not likely having read it) found old, unflattering pictures of him to print beside one- or two-line provocative pop culture updates. One had even added an eye-catcher under his picture: "Nathaniel Ariss's smart'n'cute, but watch out!" He had almost felt as if he should be flattered.

Once the adolescents had begun talking about his book as if they had read it, though he was sure that most of them had learned what little they had from brief spurts of hypertext on the Internet, his statement becoming, in their eyes, one of angst and rebellion, their parents and teachers had been eager to use his book as a tool of communication. He wondered, though, how many of these adults, in the dual desire to connect with their children and to protect them, understood his argument at all and how many of those who did approved. The question was, of course, ridiculous: if they had understood they would have approved. He wasn't, after all, a radical. But whatever they had thought of it, the grownups gave the large, reputedly creditable, publications and evening news shows a new story to flash their eyelids about between stories of terrible distress and trite success.

By this point, however, Nathaniel recognized the person about whom they were all speaking even less than he did the boy of his memories. His life was more and more embellished with half-truths and all-out lies in order to be made something new... something breaking... until his entire biography had been pummeled into fiction, with nothing but names and images taken from life.

Nathaniel pulled onto I-95, and the pickup truck continued on the back road, but the increased traffic meant more eyes, passing more quickly, though still seeming to be placed in turning heads. A sports car appeared behind him as if dropped from the sky and honked. Nathaniel held his breath until the car had slid into an impossibly tight space in the fast lane and flown by him.

"What's gotten into you?" Nathaniel spoke out loud, meaning himself.

But he could not control this impression that the entire world was watching him, as if there were a blue-camouflaged helicopter broadcasting his journey for all to see. The idea struck Nathaniel that his public image might be turned entirely around if the reporter in the imaginary helicopter presented the trip to New York as a human quest to restore a damaged life. Why do I even have a public image? Nathaniel asked himself in thought.

He turned on the radio, partly for company, true, but also, he had to admit to himself, to see if he really was on the news. I'm being ridiculous, he thought, but he continued to feel as if he were driving in a spotlight. He changed lanes.

I'm demented. He had to have known, though, that he had been — willingly or not, with whatever secret satisfaction it brought to his dismay — thrown into the very spotlight that he had once striven to find in the darkness of his life's obscurity.

Now that his moment had come, however, Nathaniel felt only confirmed in his more recent resolution to remain unknown. The irony was obvious: he had begun his search for truth, and he had orchestrated it into a painstakingly ingenious book, with always a slight hope that the effort would bring with it fame.

There was always a whisper of varying proximity within his mind that hoped that achieving renown would encourage people to look for his book in his life, almost entirely in order that they might notice that he had lived at all. Now, the whisper was outside of him, in the journals and the magazines, on the television and the radio, being sent along the very phone lines that ran along over him and crossed his path on the highway in conversations and faxes and emails, and all around, it was clear that people were merely looking for his life in his book, though it wasn't really his life that they wanted to find. The book had begun to sell incredibly, despite the shortcuts that he believed most of his "readers" to have taken, but the money felt tainted. He was receiving an artisan's better recompense for his art, a fortune so that an ashtray might be made of his sculpture. His book was no longer read in any sense that reading implies understanding. Its message was lost. "Irretrievably," he muttered.

He turned off the radio with a snap of his wrist. The dessicated garbage they put on the radio these days, he thought.

From here his mind covered all of this ground again, bounding from one thought to the next in ever more chaotic sequences. He seemed to feel as if there were a solution lingering among them, but he kept losing it as some distraction or other diverted his attention and forced him to retrace his intellectual steps, though he never quite succeeded. His car, however, was not diverted from its purpose and rumbled through urban Connecticut, over its highways' cracks and potholes, some of which were the distractions that wrenched his mind along its helter-skelter course.

As he turned left off the highway after White Plains and before the Tappanzee Bridge, he realized that he had come all of this way without a clue as to how he would proceed. Finding the Ethos offices would be fruitless; Holden's story had grown too huge for its opportunistic writer to do anything about it now. Nathaniel was pretty sure, anyway, that Holden had never really had control over anything, let alone the juggernaut of success, his own or anyone else's. He would probably offer Nathaniel an "opportunity" to clear his name through an interview. His father, or some other experienced executive, had probably made that suggestion already.

Nathaniel supposed that tracking down Sybil would be a good way to start. Her firm had to have some kind of public relations team. "Ha!" he blurted, thinking, They probably love all of this exposure. Still, they'd have to pull the book, if he insisted. Or, at the very least, not print any more volumes. He didn't think he had signed away his right to make them do that. He didn't think he had.

As he saw the George Washington Bridge materializing between the trees, his mind drifted into a vision of him disappearing over it and into America. Others had been lost there before, perhaps he could do the same. I really am a selfish man. He wished that he had been able to convince Jen to come with him; she had refused. He hadn't wanted to leave her, but he had to do something... if only to show her that he was trying to do something. What if, he thought, what if I turned around and convinced her to disappear with me. We could elope. We could just continue along the path that we had been following before this summer, or we could take out all of our money and disappear into the Caribbean or something.

He began to envision the cinematic cliché that had helped to spawn this idea, feeling the simple bliss that he used to feel even with no more proximity to the islands than the dreamlike one that comes into the consciousness by way of a lens and a large canvas screen, but the flashing dashboard lights of an unmarked police car behind him tore him from his acquiescent reverie.

He pulled to the side of the road, surprised at his lack of concern. He didn't know how fast he had been going and didn't seem to care; he had been miles away. A large man in street clothes stepped out of the car that had pulled up behind him, and Nathaniel rolled down his window. Without looking, he began to speak when he felt the man looming over him, "I'm sorry officer. Just give me the ticket. I'll pay it. And I'll try not to go so fast anymore."

The man laughed and said, "I'm not going to give you a ticket, Nathaniel. Even if it was part of my job, you were only going about fifty miles per hour. I just need to talk to you."

Nathaniel looked up. It was Jake, looking clean-shaven and official.

Before Nathaniel could respond, Jake looked around and informed him, "This isn't the best spot to have a conversation, though. Just follow me."

With that, Jake strode back to his car, pulled into the slow lane, and passed Nathaniel before he could get his mind to grasp what had just happened. Jake's car pulled into the breakdown lane, and his brawny arm appeared through the window and motioned for Nathaniel to follow.

Jake led Nathaniel past the bridge and along the Hudson River. Nathaniel tried to find the spot that he always envisioned when he heard John telling of his trip to New York. John himself, Nathaniel supposed, would be unable to find it because it was likely just a vision to him, as well. Still, he could forgive it, if it were no more than fiction, because the image was so clear and palpable with the hills and buildings of New Jersey rippling in the water before him.

A beat-up car with impenetrably shaded windows cut him off. He looked away from the water and saw Jake slowing down to force the car that had come between them to swerve into the other lane and go around.

Finally, as they neared the bottom of the island, Jake put on his signal and pulled up to a red light to go left. The two cars made the turn, and Nathaniel became lost in the labyrinth of Greenwich Village, where the orderly streets of Manhattan jumbled into chaos.

But Jake apparently knew where he was headed, and it wasn't long before they were struggling to fit their cars between the riot-like masses of dirty city folk and crisp college students to get across the sidewalk into a parking garage. The parking attendant waved his arms at Jake to indicate that there were no empty spots. Looking into Jake's car through its rear window, Nathaniel saw Jake flash something shiny at the attendant and point to Nathaniel. They were waved on, finding two spots not far from the entrance.

When they stepped out into the smell and reverberating noise of the garage, Nathaniel winced. Jake strode around to him, his shoes clicking against the pavement and the sound bouncing between the cars. He smiled and held out his hand to be shaken, "So how are you, Nathaniel?"

Nathaniel gave the question some thought. "Not bad. Well, things could be better."

"I know what you mean."

Looking up at his friend quizzically, Nathaniel asked, "Do you?"

With a sympathetic nod, Jake told him, "More than you realize. Come on."

Jake started to walk toward the exit, but Nathaniel stopped him with an inquiry, "Where are we going?"

Pointing to the wall, Jake said, "Just next door. There's a quiet bar."

In an attempt to lighten the mood that had been increasingly with him for the past several months, Nathaniel tried a joke, "Not going to drink on duty, are you?"

Jake smiled amicably, "Oh, I'm not on duty." Adding, "And it wouldn't really matter much if I was."

That said, they walked out into the filth of New York. Nathaniel felt his mood crash upon him, and he began to understand what it was. The feeling had only been looming, of late, in a vague corner of Nathaniel's perception, but now he was inside of it, within it, and he recognized his surroundings. He felt unreal, which was a mood and a world that he had managed to escape as a state of being only through years of conscious effort and the luck of finding love. He felt as though he could reach out and pull paper maché from concrete walls that were really only a facade. None of it was real to him now... rather, for now. He held on to the vision of his life as he had been planning it before his trip to the Pequod this past summer. It could still become reality. So he forced himself to lift his head, and he noticed that he was across the street from the Blue Note. He could almost hear the music. Again his memories blurred, and for a moment he was in his youth, and his job, his engagement, and his recent aspirations were but dreams.

Jake tugged at his sleeve, "Are you alright?"

Nathaniel tore himself out of his trance to respond, "Y...Yes. Are we going in here?" He gestured to a filthy wooden door.

"Yup. This is the place."

The bar was sticky, and seedy, and quiet. They sat in the back and ordered beer from a flaccid waitress.

When the beers came, Jake took a deep drink. "What's going on with you, Nathaniel?" he asked, not just making conversation.

"Nobody wants to make small talk anymore," Nathaniel mused.

"What do you mean?"

Nathaniel shook his head mildly, "Never mind. I'm not altogether with it lately for some reason."

"Well from what I've heard, you've got plenty of reason to be out of it."

"Exactly the reason I can't be. So what have you heard? I assume that's what you need to talk to me about."

"You're right there," Jake responded, leaning back in his chair. It squealed under the pressure. "I mostly want to get a sense of whether you have an idea the impact that your book's been having."

"The book isn't having any impact."

Shaking his head, Jake told him, "You're wrong. You're referring to all the press, right?"

"Yeah."

"Well, that's been playing its part, of course, but it's just an annoyance. The book is your real problem right now."

"How so?"

"I've heard people who are worried about the questions that it's making people ask."

"Like what?" Nathaniel asked, a bit confounded.

"Oh, you know, the usual insurgency stuff about society and the government. It's hard to pin down because the reality is that people aren't thinking of anything that they didn't want an excuse to question in the first place."

"You've got that right. I've heard so many statements that I supposedly made in my book that I'm not sure what I actually said. Maybe I should read it."

Jake chuckled and sipped his beer. "Maybe you should, at that. But I don't think figuring out where people aren't understanding your statement will solve any of your problems. The book's become a symbol, or a slogan, for something else. A lot of people are talking about you in ways that are best not to be talked about in."

"Oh, I know this. My fiancé will hardly speak to me. I'm getting strange looks everywhere I go. But really, Jake, I think it'll all fade away with time. I'm on my way to try to take my book out of print, and I'm certainly not going to dignify any of this nonsense with a response. America's attention span is short. They'll all forget me before long."

Jake pursed his lips and thought for a moment. "Normally I think you'd be right," he said at last, "but your timing on this couldn't be worse."

Lashing out without knowing why, Nathaniel hissed between his lips with frustration and said, just shy of a shout, "I didn't time anything. It's all been so random. And as far as my past goes, I did everything but change my name, Jake, to get away from it."

The bartender shouldered a grimy rag and looked toward their table, evidently deciding that there was nothing going on that he should be concerned about, but keeping an averted eye on them now.

"I don't think you understand," Jake answered, leaning forward with his large forearms laid out on the table. "It's not your book or your past. It's not even really your ideas. It's how you're being perceived. What your prominence is being used as an excuse to do."

Nathaniel looked at him bewilderedly.

"I don't understand."

"Look," Jake said, relaxing his tone, "there's a lot of tension out there. Our lives are changing so drastically that everybody's trying to figure out where they're going to fit into the scheme of things, and most of them are either planning on scrambling over everybody else to get out of the path of progress or resigning themselves to being swept away by it. I guess that's where your ideology does come into play. But the real problem is that once you open the door to our collective anxieties, you're no longer dealing with your one issue; you're forced into the whole mixed up argument. Everybody wants to jump on top of the latest hot issue to get their say in even if it has no relevance, or even if they aren't completely sure what the hot issue is all about. What's more, as best as I can tell, there really isn't anybody who wants to fix the larger problems. They either want it to go on or to blow up."

"I've thought the same at times. I tried to get away from..." Nathaniel drifted off.

To snap him out of his torpor, Jake suggested that Nathaniel have some of his untouched beer. "Why not?" Nathaniel asked absently.

When the cool drink seemed to have brought Nathaniel back a little, Jake continued, "It's the last group that's going to present you with a problem. Most of the people who are holding up your name as an example of right or wrong will move on, especially if you do get your book off the shelves. They're only concerned with themselves anyway. But you're being dragged into schemes that you couldn't possibly know anything about by people that you've never met who will keep your name important so that they can continue to benefit." Jake's face became a mixture of dismay and shame, "Well, you might know at least one of the people who are doing this."

"Nick?"

"Yes. I've been right on the edge of busting him for years, I came really close once and had the opportunity, but I guess I didn't have the heart."

"What's he into?"

Jake half-laughed skeptically, "That's just the thing. We don't know. He's a slippery character. He seems to have ties everywhere, but he's not a part of any group. He's not Mafia; he's not what we call a specialist; he never does an old fashioned robbery or murder. But I've got reason to believe that he's up to something big lately, and I think he's been looking to involve you."

"What could I possibly do to help him?"

"I told you..."

"... I'm not really me anymore."

Jake shrugged to indicate that however Nathaniel wanted to phrase it was probably close enough.

Nathaniel pursued, "Seriously though, Jake, what could I possibly do for him? Or what role could this dubious fame play in a crime that would involve me personally in reality?"

"I'll be frank with you: I don't know. I can imagine things that would bring you in personally and physically without even knowing it. There's a ton of money to be made by pitting groups against each other, and I could see Nick using you to do just that. You probably wouldn't need to do more than be seen with him. But the truth is that I can only guess. I just wanted to make you aware of the possibility."

They both leaned back in their chairs and sipped their beers, Jake's sip significantly larger. Nathaniel was distracted; he stared into the dimness around them. Then he mumbled, "Such was the response that the dead man had fancied himself to receive, when he asked of Death to solve the riddle of his life."

Jake had slipped into thoughts of his own and only realized that Nathaniel had spoken after the words had passed. "What was that?" he asked.

"Oh nothing," Nathaniel told him. "It's just that my predicament is becoming so much more complex and worrisome every day, every hour, that it's all blurring together into inconsequentiality."

"Don't talk like that. As you've already said, it'll all fade away back to normal life with time. Nothing's going to end the world. Do you remember Charlotte?"

"Yeah. Why?"

"Well, she disappeared out of your life, and life went on. Hell, she disappeared out of the world, and we're probably the only ones who noticed." Jake twitched slightly as if he had said something he hadn't intended.

Nathaniel caught the twitch and asked, "What do you mean by that?"

"Listen, Nathaniel, you were in a tender state back then, and it really had nothing to do with you, so I never told you."

"Told me what?"

"Look, Charlotte was a prostitute. That winter she was murdered by some," Jake paused to find a word that would not carry an undue insinuation along with it, "by some guy who picked her up."

Nathaniel looked moderately and vaguely distraught at the news, but not surprised. "Did they ever catch him?"

Jake almost laughed, "No. He was just some random... guy. It happens all the time. But listen, what I'm trying to say is that sometimes people are what they seem, and the world treats them accordingly. And sometimes bad things happen to people you know without it having anything to do with you. But the world moves on."

Nathaniel managed a slight, but unconvincing smile, "It didn't go on for Charlotte." He pushed back his chair and stood.

Jake stood, as well. "Where are you going?"

Looking toward the door and then back at his friend, Nathaniel said, "To start the process of stopping."

"Going to your publisher?"

"Yes, that'd be the first step."

"Do you want me to go with you?"

"No, I feel like I should go it alone from here on in."

Jake seemed disappointed, "Do you know where you're going?"

"Uptown, first. We'll see from there."

With this ambiguous plan laid out before him, Nathaniel shook Jake's hand and asked if he could leave his car in the garage for a while. Jake told him it shouldn't be a problem. Nathaniel nodded and thanked him. He started toward the door but turned before he had gone more than a half-dozen steps. "Jake?"

"Yeah?"

"Could you look in on me from time to time?" adding, "Wherever I happen to be?"

"Of course."

"I'd like that."

"You got it."

"Thanks," Nathaniel finished and skated across the greasy floor of the bar. He tapped the bar and waved as he passed the bartender, who said, "Thanks, Nathaniel. Hope to see y'again soon."

Then Nathaniel was gone, and Jake watched for him to pass by the window. He didn't. Looking down at the table then back at the window, Jake pulled out his wallet and threw a ten dollar bill between the unfinished beers and strode toward the door.

Posted by Justin Katz at September 3, 2006 2:44 PM
A Whispering Through the Branches