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Authors: Jesse Browner

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BOOK: Everything Happens Today
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The boiler had kicked in since he'd fallen asleep; the ancient radiator hissed and clanked, and the room felt close and too hot. He rose abruptly and opened the window at the foot of his bed. He leaned his palms on the sill and stuck his entire upper body out the casement. It was a crisp late autumn day, with just a hint of wood smoke and woodlands pulling through the air. The sky, cloudless now, retained the promise of magenta it had shown before sunrise, and the sun hung coolly in the naked branches. From here he could see the backyards of just about every house on the block and the jumbled rooftops, chimneypots and water towers of half of Greenwich Village. Some were shabby, unkempt and cankered with ancient wooden sheds, cracked paving of brick or slate, tangles of skeletal briar and vigorous ivy, angled limestone lintels and crumbling mortar. These belonged to the long-term, pre-gentrification residents, like Wes and his family. Others had been remodeled, sporting new rear walls made of thick glass and heavy pivoting doors of brushed steel, stucco additions and terraces lined with cedar planters and expensive garden furniture, Japanese rock gardens or hedges of well-trimmed heritage hydrangeas. These belonged to bankers, hedge fund managers and media moguls.

Wes looked down into his own yard. Nothing grew under the ancient sycamore at the far end; it was just dirt, a farmyard where the dog peed when no one could be bothered to walk her. There was an old, warped wooden school desk and chair where his father sat on sunny days, and a white extension chord running into the basement window. Over the years the yard had been the scene of a number of utopian construction projects: a tree house, chicken coops and rabbit hutches, a wood-fired bread oven. All had reached various stages of completion before being abandoned and cannibalized. Now there was nothing but some unhappy shade borders of variegated hostas and ghost ferns, an outdoor dining set of green rubberized iron and an old kettle grill that was barely able to stand on its tripod. And there, too, was Nora, sitting on the bench that circled the foot of the sycamore, knees up to her chin, a teen magazine in her left hand, her right thumb in her mouth. She rocked as she read—in an absorbed way, not a crazy way.

Wes called down. “Hey cookie!”

Nora looked up and smiled. “Hiya daddy-o.”

“Watcha doing'?”

“Memorizing slang from the old days.”

“Mom up?”


“She get breakfast?”


“Dog walked?”

“Climb it, Tarzan.”

He smiled at her again and blew her a kiss. Wes couldn't help himself. Every time he saw his sister he was filled with love for her. She was the most delightful, easy, dependable, kind and intelligent child on the planet, and all he wanted to do was to protect her from all this, have her call him “daddy-o” forever and make sure that she didn't grow up too fast or around the wrong sort of people. But then Wes remembered that he himself had become the wrong sort of person, precisely the kind of person that little sisters need protecting from, and maybe she needed protecting from him, too. He withdrew from the window and returned to the bed. He slid beneath the covers, lying on his back and cradling his head in his palms, and looked up at the cracked plaster overhead.

“I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in and stops my mind from wandering.” When he was little, Wes had never understood this line. Why would a hole
his mind from wandering? Surely, his mind required a hole to escape
into the outside world. But now that he was older, and had a crack in the ceiling of his own, he thought he understood better. His crack did not let any rain get in, but it had a way of focusing the mind that was not helpful or conducive to unfettered daydreaming. If it should also let rain in, that would be particularly focusing and unhelpful. What a mind needed, if it was to roam freely, and especially if it was to roam productively, was a sealed space in which it was safe, contained and undistracted. That is why Wes had always thought it a mistake for Paul McCartney to paint his room in a colorful way as an encouragement to his wandering mind, because surely plain white walls were a better inducement? Maybe it was a generational thing with color. One thing that Wes and the Beatles had in common, however, was their agreement that his room was right where he belonged. Wes felt that he could live here forever and never grow bored, no matter how faithless and shallow he might be.

Wes thought about his dream; it was not like any other he could remember, and he didn't understand anything about it. It was true that Prince André had been much on his mind lately, but it would be a challenge to figure out how he or any of the rest of it related to Wes's current circumstances. He tried to break it down to its references. Barack Obama—okay, he was on everyone's minds these days. Facebook—same. He'd spent a good deal of time in the Rose Reading Room, maybe his favorite place in the world, so that was explainable. But light bulbs, calligraphy? And what did the airplane mean? Why should a perfectly curious and enigmatic dream suddenly become a nightmare?

Wes had had a genuine nightmare not long before. An atomic war had broken out, and a bomb exploded over New York. Wes found himself in some sort of bleak, cinderblock dormitory, and he knew that he had died and gone to hell. It was explained to the newcomers that they were free to roam the city, but that they absolutely must be back at the dorm by six. The punishment for non-compliance was left to their imagination. Wes didn't remember much of the dream after that, except that his new home was a small rust-belt city under a perpetually overcast sky the color of liver, and that at some point he had found himself on a bus, looking at his watch. It was ten to six, and he had suddenly realized that he was on the wrong bus, had no idea where he was, and that it would be impossible to reach the dorm by six. Wes had woken up with a start, his heart racing. The point, he had figured out later, is that there's a very fine line between real life and hell, just the matter of a missed deadline, and you won't know you've crossed it until it's too late. All you have to do is make one mistake, and for all eternity you will be wandering aimlessly in a desolate landscape, friendless and desperate. Now that was a message he could understand.

And then he remembered that, in his dream this morning, the Rose Reading Room had been not at all like it is in real life; its distant vaulted ceilings with their multiple chandeliers seemed to leap on forever and in all directions above the gleaming tables. It had been a little like the Library of Babel in the short story. That was an interesting twist. Borges described the Library as infinite, which meant it contained not only every book ever written, but every book that could be written, past and future. Wes thought this was interesting because it meant that infinity was a concept where the difference between space and time becomes meaningless. There is no difference between something that is infinitely big and something that is infinitely old, and no difference between something that had existed forever and something that would exist forever. Wes had often daydreamed about walking through the Library, which was made up of an infinite number of hexagonal units, connected horizontally by corridors and vertically by open shafts. In each corridor there was a spiral staircase leading up and down to the adjacent level, and a bathroom facility for the “librarians,” who seemed to be simply the Library's inhabitants, since there was no mention of patrons who might borrow or study the books, which would then require reshelving by the “librarians.” Borges didn't say anything about what the librarians ate or where they slept or their other physical needs. Presumably they were able to wash their clothes in the bathrooms, and hang them out to dry on the railings lining the shafts, but one would imagine that there were considerable winds in the shafts—maybe even entire weather systems—so the librarians would need clothes pegs to secure their laundry, not to mention soap to wash it, and where did those things come from? Some librarians seemed to be territorial, while others were nomadic, spending their entire lives searching for a particular book. How did they replace their shoes when they wore out? Were there male and female librarians, and if so, did they have sex with each other when they met? Did they mate for life, or just hook up? What happened when the lady librarians got pregnant? Were the male librarians steadfast and faithful, or were they weak and unprincipled, and easily led to betray the ones they loved? Borges said nothing about baby librarians, or librarian obstetricians, or about librarian schools. Wes knew this was silly speculation, but it irritated him that Borges had thought to provide the librarians with toilets in every corridor, but with nothing else they would need to get by in their infinite time-space continuum.

Wes had spent a lot of time thinking about the story since he had first read it three years earlier. He had read it many times since and had not tired of it yet. He had always suspected that the endless library was a metaphor for the imagination, for the mind's infinite creative and intuitive power. The story was probably where Wes had first got the idea of his own mind as an infinite—or almost infinite—source of ideas and understanding. The mind was its own ecosystem, creating its own internal weather, like the library, and since it was the exclusive creator of all problems and all solutions, it was very possible that it had, in fact, created the universe itself. And that was precisely why it made no difference at all where it was located in the “real” world—in a sealed room all by itself, in a vast library with infinite chambers and corridors, it all came to the same thing. Wes had always imagined that he could be very happy as a monk. He almost never felt lonely.

But how could any of this help him today? This was a real problem, maybe even a tragedy, not some pseudo-mystical sci-fi conundrum. Wes had betrayed the woman he loved by sleeping with someone he didn't care about or even like very much. Wes's mind hadn't created this problem; it was not something he'd stumbled upon in his wanderings through the labyrinth of his imagination; it was not a metaphysical exercise. It was real—
real, as opposed to fixing-a-hole real. What did that mean? It meant it involved other people and their feelings. It meant it involved actions that could not be revoked. It meant consequences that could not be evaded by shaking the world like a Magic Eight Ball until it gave you the answer you wanted. No matter how much you might want it, life is not a Library of Babel—you can't just wander off down a hallway in search of some elusive intellectual prize. You've got to find somewhere to do your laundry, to repair the holes in your shoes. That was what his father had been doing for decades, and what he had sworn to himself that he would never do. It was what Wes had to look forward to for the rest of his life. Never, ever again—not when he went off to college, not when he figured out how to make a living, not when he wrote the novels he was destined to write, not if he got married and had children of his own—would he be able to say to himself that at least he was better than what his father had been.

Wes shook his head, trying to clear it of all these extraneous thoughts and tangents that were preventing him from examining the problem at hand. He didn't need to be thinking about dreams or libraries, and he especially did not need to be thinking about his father right now. He needed to figure out how he had gotten himself into this terrible situation and what, if anything, he could do about it. He decided that he needed to go over it methodically, step by step, try to remember exactly how it had all gone down, where he had gone wrong, what were the insuperable character flaws that had allowed him to make such an awful mistake. It was too late to take any of it back, and he doubted that he would ever find a way to forgive himself, but he had a vague idea that the fallen can be ennobled, in a pathetic sort of way, by the effort to salvage some trinket of redemption from the wreckage of their moral failure. He needed to start from the beginning.

To say that Friday had dawned full of hope would have been an exaggeration, but there had certainly been nothing to suggest that it would be a day out of the ordinary. He had an advisory with Mrs. Fielding at 7:50, so all his usual morning chores had to be done twenty minutes earlier, but that wasn't difficult for Wes. Unlike almost everyone he knew, he was an early morning person, able to leap from bed in the dark, his mind fully logged on, his thoughts warmed up and flexible before his feet hit the floor. Morning was when Wes did his best thinking, and whenever he found himself gnawing late at night on an instransigeant bone of homework, he knew enough to leave it for the morning, when it would seem more digestible. Sometimes, when he was particularly enjoying a book, he would put it down at midnight, close his eyes, then pick it up again at four as if it were five minutes later. His father had told him once, with his usual wistful bitterness, that you never again read books with the passion and intensity you bring to them as a teenager, and that was easy to believe. And it wasn't only that Wes's mind worked well early in the morning; he also felt better—cleaner, stronger, more moral, the quivering arrow of a powerful compass. He loved to be awake alone in the world, to walk the dog on quiet streets that had not yet been invaded by the trying multitudes, where he could pretend that tourists and bankers and real estate brokers were harmless abstractions. When he was even younger, the sense of a day's untapped potential had been almost physical, it had been so delicious and irresistible Wes had wanted to throw himself into the day as if from a high dive. Now, he still felt that sense of possibility, he still jumped into the day feet first, but there was less passion behind it, it was more like the feeling you get when you climb into a bed made up with freshly laundered sheets, crisp and bleachy. Unpolluted and not yet soiled.

That was what Friday morning at 5:30 a.m. had felt like. Wes had to walk the dog, shower, wake Nora, feed her and see that she was clean and properly dressed. Narita would have done it, but Wes didn't trust Nora's welfare to anyone but himself. Then, if there was still time, he would eat and read the paper and be out of the house by 7.15. These were all things he looked forward to doing, or at least that gave him no sense of being oppressed or put upon. And the feeling only increased later in the week as the
crossword puzzle grew progressively more difficult, until by Friday he sometimes had trouble completing it. Because of his appointment, he would have to put the crossword off until the evening. And there was almost always some fact to look up on Wikipedia that had come to mind in the middle of the night and disturbed his sleep. It had been one such string of searches that had first led him to
The Manual

BOOK: Everything Happens Today
4.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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