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September 24, 2006

Recapitulation, Chapter 19 (p. 315-323)

A Whispering Through the Branches
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The rotating glass door wouldn't budge, so Nathaniel assumed that the building was closed. Still, the rain had turned to mist, and he lingered for a while, looking through the glass with the idea that he might see Sybil passing by inside. One by one the lights in the building went out, dismissing the outside world bit by bit, and with his impatience increasing with time, Nathaniel began to puzzle out what he would do all night. Surprisingly, in a city of so many people doing so many things at so many places, he could not think of a single place to go. It wasn't his home anymore, and he would be a stranger no matter where he went now. Although, he did fancy that he need do no more than step toward the street and somebody that he knew, or rather, who knew him, would appear.

Having no reason to turn his steps in any particular direction, Nathaniel decided that a few paces toward the street would be just as good as any other; thus, he afforded himself a justification for testing his theory. He reached the curb and looked up and down the dark street but saw nothing other than the dim shadow of a pedestrian and the occasional car driving past on an intersecting avenue. No car screeched to a stop before him on the road, nor did any doors open to reveal a faintly familiar face.

Nathaniel laughed at himself for expecting more, and his laughter bounded down the empty street and rebounded from wall to wall, playing its temporary role as the city noise of the moment, seeking any cracks or ears that might be disoriented by a true silence. Nathaniel listened as the echo of his laughter faded; particularly, he waited for the dead silence that is only disturbing where it is rare. But the racket of a loose exhaust pipe filled in the silence before there was truly a silence to be filled, and Nathaniel listened to the rattle, playing the familiar game of trying to figure out from whence the sound was coming. It seemed to come from all around, as if every car in New York were dragging its tail. Then that sound faded, and Nathaniel waited expectantly for the noise that would take up the call. This next sound swelled up from indistinguishable static in the air to the distinctive roll of rubber tires over wet pavement. A large, dark car stopped at the curb beside him. He couldn't laugh now; he couldn't understand what was happening enough to laugh at it. The rear door of the car swung out over the sidewalk.

Nathaniel felt he knew whose legs would appear through the opening, and the face that emerged from the gloom inside the car into the dim light of a streetlamp confirmed his prediction. It was, of course:

"Huck," Nathaniel said, beyond surprise or the need to make a half-humorous inquiry.

"Nate." Huck answered the salutation, flapping open an umbrella.

"So what do you want? Or do you want to help me, too?"

Huck's lips pursed and his brow furled in an expression that bespoke but little wonder. Mostly, the look that Huck offered to Nathaniel now was that of a man who may not know the specifics of another's situation, but knows the larger issues at hand and feels as if it has been laid disagreeably upon himself to tie it all together. He seemed visibly to consider several phrases then spoke with only a hint of a southern accent, "Listen, Nathaniel, I don't know exactly what you've experienced lately, but I can see in your face that you're not sure what to trust anymore. I can only say that it may not be too late to salvage some semblance of reality if you trust me now to help you."

Reluctant to trust anybody, but not wanting to relinquish his last hold on memory by believing that he could not trust such a long-time friend as Huck, Nathaniel felt his mind frozen in a fluctuating circle of too many possible realities because none was any more believable. A tear of frustration moistened the corner of his right eye. "Huck, I..." Nathaniel began to plead, then sat down hard on the cold, damp sidewalk.

Huck was beside him on the filthy pavement in a breath without thought to the trousers of his expensive suit, his arm around his friend's shoulders and the umbrella's protection split between them. "I know you must feel like you're drowning, Nate, and that there's not a gasp of air in all the world, but you have to force yourself to realize that reality's only a plunge away in the right direction."

Nathaniel opened his eyes and looked up at Huck. "Your accent," was all he could muster himself to say.

Almost with a chuckle, Huck told him, "Yes, it's not as strong as I chose to make it when I was playing a part in our vacation from life."

"You never could seem to settle on one dialect."

"No, I guess not. Maybe I'm just not that good of an actor. You had to realize that it was a game among us."

"Of course. I was playing my own role, too."

"Exactly. But it's not to say that it wasn't a strangely real game. Life's exactly like that, only maybe not so obvious. That's what you have to force yourself to realize."

"You're the fourth one I've seen today, and none of it seems to have anything to do with me," Nathaniel said, partly in defense of his confused state and partly in explanation of his feeling a part of a fiction, but mostly because he still wanted some explanation that would put the pieces of the world back in place for him.

"Of course none of it has anything to do with you," Huck responded, perhaps not intentionally avoiding Nathaniel's real question. Even so, his voice was absorbed by Nathaniel as one feels comforted by the steady tones of a narrator. "Everybody's living their own story, and they're picking roles for themselves and for everybody else. Surely you understand all that; why else would you have made all those rules of the house? But now the fact that you're playing a big role in a lot of different stories isn't as under control for you as it used to be. This isn't a world of fiction that you can understand because you've read all the right books; it's the real world, and all you have any control over is the size of the role that you play for somebody else, not what that role is, at least not in any predictable, usable way."

Still, Nathaniel pushed for something concrete, "It couldn't all be coincidence."

"Oh yes, it can be, and it is. I don't know who all you've seen today, but because I know I'm not involved, I can tell you that most of it isn't really about you, Nathaniel. You're just crossing the river in a bad current. Perhaps the only thing that is about you is my wanting to give you an opportunity to get out before you're too far from the shore. You may not be able to jump out of it in one leap and go back to your life, but you can let it blow over and salvage what you can."

Huck had reached some kind of point to which he had been building, and Nathaniel felt suddenly as if, though he didn't have a clue what was going on, there was sense to be made of it all. "What do you know?" he asked.

An indistinct sound from down the street stopped Huck before he had made an answer. He looked over Nathaniel down the dark road. "Why don't we continue this in my car. It's raining," he explained.

Before he could protest, indeed, before he could do more than utter the first syllable of a question, Nathaniel found himself whisked through the rear door of Huck's limousine. The car pulled away from the curb.

"What's going on, Huck?" Nathaniel asked, looking around the interior of the car and noticing nothing distinctive. The automobile yielded nothing extraordinary to his glance, just the faint sense of conspiracy that the barely discernible shape of the driver's head through a closed tinted glass partition helped Nathaniel to contrive in his imagination.

Huck settled back in his seat, having just finished a search of the darkness outside the car. "I have to tell you, Nate, that I don't exactly know what's going on." He noticed Nathaniel's suspicious glances at the driver and stated, "Despite the atmosphere of my car, I'm no more involved in activities of intrigue than one at my, let's say, social elevation must always be. I'm just a business man, and to be frank, the things that I've been hearing and seeing in relation to you leave me feeling a little disoriented and unreal myself."

"Why? What have you seen and heard?" Nathaniel asked, his eyes, desperate to see logic, firmly settled on Huck now.

With a nervously humored exhalation of air through his nose that bespoke both disbelief in his own position and skepticism as to the likelihood of somebody else believing him, Huck told him, "To be honest, nothing solid. Just whispers and hints, really. As I said, I'm not a spy or an agent or anything like that. I'm just a man in a position to overhear conversations between people who are always thinking more and worse than they say."

If he hadn't been able to read so much uncharacteristic nervousness in Huck's disposition, Nathaniel may have been frustrated with the vagueness of his answer. As it was, he only asked, "What have you heard?"

Shifting a little in his seat, Huck told him, "Your book caused a little stir in my world when it was first released, but only enough, as it seemed, to allow me to amuse myself with how little all of my acquaintances understood what you were saying. After Holden's little piece on you..."

"You knew that Holden wrote that?"

"Certainly." Nathaniel seemed relieved, though he wasn't quite sure why. Huck went on, "Once a vague controversy began to surround your name, and therefore your book, people took another look at it and saw the potential to benefit themselves by making you, well, I guess it could be called 'an inverse martyr.' What I'm saying is that they'll make an example of you, if they can."

"An example of what?"

"Whatever they don't want people to admire."

Again Nathaniel felt the need for more specific answers, but this time he suspected that there might not be any, even beyond what Huck himself might know. "I could have written anything or nothing in that book."

"Perhaps," Huck conceded. "The problem is that you wrote it so well."

Nathaniel laughed despite himself. "If only we could go back in time a hundred years or so, and I could be a cobbler or something."

With his own restrained laugh, Huck agreed that he would love such a chance, as well. "I guess this is where I come in," he said. "I want to help you get out of it."

"How?"

Shaking his head slightly, Huck told Nathaniel, "The only thing I can think of is for you to disappear. I could set you up anywhere you'd like to go."

Nathaniel nodded, "I was thinking of that on my way into the city today." He looked out the window, and Huck let him think. Nathaniel brought his focus back into the car. He looked resigned to something. "I guess it's settled, then. Will you come with me to Rhode Island to help me persuade my fiancé that it has to be done?"

His hands falling into his lap, Huck looked at Nathaniel sympathetically. Huck watched as Nathaniel realized that he had already considered this and understood the conclusion. Nonetheless, the elder man spoke the judgment, "I don't think that's an option. I've looked into it, believe me, and I think you'll agree that she has too many connections to her life to disappear easily."

"She'd do it for me," Nathaniel pleaded.

"Maybe she would, but would it be fair to her to ask? She loves you, I'm sure, so there's hope that you'll be able to explain it all to her later."

"When?" Nathaniel interjected.

Huck paused at the tinge of desperation in Nathaniel's voice. He realized that the same thing that made it possible for Nathaniel, by himself, to disappear would make it next to impossible for him to do it alone: he had only one connection to life. "I'm sorry, Nathaniel. I wish I had the power to make it all go away for you, but I don't. I can only tell you what I think is coming and help you step out of the way. As I said, you have to let it pass over, which it will do, and then you can salvage what you can. It won't be forever. Hell, people are so fickle these days that it may not be more than a couple of months."

"And then what?" Nathaniel all but whispered.

"Excuse me?" asked Huck. He hadn't heard.

Lifting his head to look Huck in the eyes, Nathaniel repeated himself, "Then what do I do?"

"Well, I guess you start putting your life back together."

"But what do I live for?"

Not sure how to respond, Huck returned a question, "What did you live for before all this?"

Nathaniel dropped his head. Huck waited and tried to follow Nathaniel's thoughts. Actually, Huck, being as practical as he was, couldn't understand what was tying Nathaniel up so. He had, after all, made it a point to disappear from his life for several months each year of his adult life. Why would a man who made a habit of stepping away from reality, returning year after year to his life and finding it no less meaningful for his absence, worry about doing so once more? In fact, if Huck's own experience were any testimony, Nathaniel ought to feel as if he would come back to his life with fresh eyes. There was something he wasn't grasping.

Before Huck could give the matter any more thought, Nathaniel lifted his head and spoke so quietly that Huck had to lean toward him to hear. "OK. You win."

"Pardon?"

Nathaniel repeated himself and nearly shouted, but not at Huck; rather, it seemed as if he were speaking to the city that blurred past beyond the car window, "You win!"

Huck looked confused, "What do you mean?"

"I mean you win. Or they do. Or whoever. But certainly not me. I'm not the winner here."

"Nathaniel, I'm missing your..."

"Don't you see, Huck? I see now. It's all clear. You're right — it has nothing to do with me. I'm just an example. I pushed too hard, and I'm stuck into two choices now: it's either resign the game or lose my queen..."

"That's not necessarily true."

Nathaniel went on with his sentence as if speaking to somebody other than Huck, who felt even more as if he weren't grasping the real reason for Nathaniel's reaction.

"...and then be chased around the board on the endless brink of checkmate until the world gets sick of me and finally cuts me off. So you win," Nathaniel said, again not to Huck. "I resign. So I'll make my choice. I'll go home. I'll do my work for the company — not my little company," he explained, "but the big conglomerate made up of all the little companies and all the littler people — and I'll find meaning in my work by forcing myself to do more of it and more of it and in my family, my soon to be wife, 'cause now that I understand we won't have this distance between us anymore, and my future children, and I'll give them... get them... no, I'll buy them everything that young families need, like a little house with a mortgage and a lawn that I can mow and buy chemicals for, and a microwave to heat my cold fast food while I sip my brand name soda, or better yet, my brand name beer, whichever has the better commercials that month..."

"Nathaniel. Are you alright?"

"...so that I can forget a little and make myself just dumb enough to stare at the television and the shows of people that I can care about instead of myself while I watch the commercials and figure out what to want, want, want. Then I'll buy the latest exercise equipment, 'cause now I'm getting fat, and I'll even buy designer hiking boots to better feel like I'm experiencing nature. And I'll keep buying, but not so much that I can't pay for an education for my children and get them the best damn diploma that money can buy and let them learn how to pretend, like all the greatest minds of our time, without realizing that they're pretending and how to drink beer and spend money and spend more money than they've got."

Nathaniel stopped ranting for a moment, a slightly crazed look of mixed-up revelation skirting across his face, and Huck was trying to figure out what to say or do when Nathaniel started up again:

"I've got it! That's it! This isn't happening because I wrote a brilliant book, or even a subversive one. It's because I stopped using my credit cards, isn't it?"

He looked at Huck, who just stared blankly back.

"I don't have to disappear, Huck. I have to do just the opposite. My name has to start popping up on people's computers as a spender. So I'll use it. I swear. First thing I'll do when I get home is buy Jen some roses and candy. And a greeting card that says something pithy like," he thought for a quick moment, just enough time, really, to join two words that rhymed, "like, 'Sorry is so hard to say, that's why I put it off until today.' And we'll make up and have that family, and I'll take out a loan to buy a sport utility vehicle so we can put on our designer hiking boots and pretend to be outdoorsy and go out in the mountains to picnic or to ski. Yes, we'll go to some ski lodge in Vermont and rent all kinds of garbage just to fall down in the fake snow. And I'll make sure that one of us breaks a limb so we can occupy the doctors and the insurance people, and we'll all have an extra Tylenol just to celebrate. And all the time, from morning until night, we'll be watching television, or listening to the same damn song over and over and over on the radio, or jumping around the Internet looking for specious trivia or virtual shopping experiences, or looking through magazines and pretending to read the one-sentence reports, but really ogling the half-naked people in the full page advertisements for cigarettes. And all the time we'll stare at the advertisements, everywhere, on the street and the television and the radio and everywhere, and we won't think. I promise. I, myself, will especially force myself to not think."

He stopped and looked at Huck, who was surprised to find that Nathaniel could not have looked more sane. But there was a sadness in his eyes that made Huck wonder if his friend wasn't just being mordant.

"Don't you see, Huck? I don't have to disappear. I just have to go back to my life and stop thinking. Because when I start to think I see how ugly and vicious and greedy the world is. So I won't think. I promise, Huck; I promise not to think."

Not knowing exactly what to say, Huck soothingly spoke a resolution that he didn't think had changed, or could change, no matter what revelation Nathaniel might have: "I don't think you have that option anymore."

Nathaniel frowned. Then laughed. "You're right. I can't do that. I never could." He laughed again, laughing until he felt the need for more air to gasp in in order to laugh it out, so he flung open the car door and rolled onto the blacktop. Luckily, the car had been slowing for a traffic light.

When Nathaniel got to his feet, he saw Huck's head emerging from the car.

"What are you doing?" Huck shouted.

Nathaniel saw the faces turning, with disguised interest, toward him. "Don't you see?" he yelled, not only to Huck, "We can go back. We just can't go forward!"

Then, before Huck had managed to get both feet on the pavement, Nathaniel sprinted around a corner and was gone.

Posted by Justin Katz at September 24, 2006 11:22 AM
A Whispering Through the Branches