Authors: Paul Auster
The day after the explosion, the wire services ran a brief article about the case. It was one of those cryptic, two-paragraph stories they bury in the middle of the paper, but I happened to catch it in
The New York Times
while I was eating lunch that afternoon. Almost inevitably, I began to think about Benjamin Sachs. There was nothing in the article that pointed to him in any definite way, and yet at the same time everything seemed to fit. We hadn’t talked in close to a year, but he had said enough during our last conversation to convince me that he was in deep trouble, rushing headlong toward some dark, unnameable disaster. If that’s too vague, I should add that he mentioned bombs as well, that he talked about them endlessly during his visit, and for the next eleven months I had walked around with just such a fear inside me—that he was going to kill himself, that one day I would open the newspaper and read that my friend had blown himself up. It was no more than a wild intuition at that point, one of those insane leaps into the void, and yet once the thought entered my head, I couldn’t get rid of it. Then, two days after I ran across the article, a pair of FBI agents came knocking at my door. The moment they announced who they were, I understood that I was right. Sachs was the man who had blown himself up. There couldn’t be any question about it. Sachs was dead, and the only way I could help him now was to keep his death to myself.
It was probably fortunate that I read the article when I did, although I remember wishing at the time that I hadn’t seen it. If
nothing else, it gave me a couple of days to absorb the shock. When the FBI men showed up here to ask their questions, I was already prepared for them, and that helped me to keep myself under control. It also didn’t hurt that an extra forty-eight hours had gone by before they managed to track me down. Among the objects recovered from Sachs’s wallet, it seems there was a slip of paper bearing my initials and telephone number. That was how they came to be looking for me, but as luck would have it, the number was for my telephone back home in New York, and for the past ten days I’ve been in Vermont, living with my family in a rented house where we plan to spend the rest of the summer. God knows how many people they had to talk to before they discovered I was here. If I mention in passing that this house is owned by Sachs’s ex-wife, it is only to give one example of how tangled and complicated this story finally is.
I did my best to play dumb for them, to give away as little as I could. No, I said, I hadn’t read the article in the paper. I didn’t know anything about bombs or stolen cars or back-country roads in Wisconsin. I was a writer, I said, a man who wrote novels for a living, and if they wanted to check into who I was, they could go right ahead—but it wasn’t going to help them with their case, they’d only be wasting their time. Probably so, they said, but what about the slip of paper in the dead man’s wallet? They weren’t trying to accuse me of anything, but the fact that he’d been carrying around my telephone number seemed to prove there was a connection between us. I had to admit that, didn’t I? Yes, I said, of course I did, but just because it looked like that didn’t mean it was true. There were a thousand ways that man could have gotten hold of my number. I had friends scattered all over the world, and any one of them could have passed it on to a stranger. Perhaps that stranger had passed it on to another stranger, who in turn had passed it on to yet another stranger. Perhaps, they said, but why would anyone carry around the
telephone number of a person he didn’t know? Because I’m a writer, I said. Oh? they said, and what difference does that make? Because my books are published, I said. People read them, and I don’t have any idea who they are. Without even knowing it, I enter the lives of strangers, and for as long as they have my book in their hands, my words are the only reality that exists for them. That’s normal, they said, that’s the way it is with books. Yes, I said, that’s the way it is, but sometimes these people turn out to be crazy. They read your book, and something about it strikes a chord deep in their soul. All of a sudden, they imagine that you belong to them, that you’re the only friend they have in the world. To illustrate my point, I gave them several examples—all of them true, all of them taken directly from my own experience. The unbalanced letters, the telephone calls at three o’clock in the morning, the anonymous threats. Just last year, I continued, I discovered that someone had been impersonating me—answering letters in my name, walking into bookstores and autographing my books, hovering like some malignant shadow around the edges of my life. A book is a mysterious object, I said, and once it floats out into the world, anything can happen. All kinds of mischief can be caused, and there’s not a damned thing you can do about it. For better or worse, it’s completely out of your control.
I don’t know if they found my denials convincing or not. I tend to think not, but even if they didn’t believe a word I said, it’s possible that my strategy bought me some time. Considering that I had never spoken to an FBI agent before, I don’t feel too bad about the way I handled myself during the interview. I was calm, I was polite, I managed to project the proper combination of helpfulness and bafflement. That alone was something of a triumph for me. Generally speaking, I don’t have much talent for deception, and in spite of my efforts over the years, I’ve rarely fooled anyone about anything. If I managed to turn in a creditable performance the day before yesterday,
the FBI men were at least partially responsible for it. It wasn’t anything they said so much as how they looked, the way they dressed for their roles with such perfection, confirming in every detail the way I had always imagined FBI men should look: the lightweight summer suits, the sturdy brogans, the wash-and-wear shirts, the aviator sunglasses. These were the obligatory sunglasses, so to speak, and they lent an artificial quality to the scene, as if the men who wore them were merely actors, walk-ons hired to play a bit part in some low-budget movie. All this was oddly comforting to me, and when I look back on it now, I understand how this sense of unreality worked to my advantage. It allowed me to think of myself as an actor as well, and because I had become someone else, I suddenly had the right to deceive them, to lie without the slightest twinge of conscience.
They weren’t stupid, however. One was in his early forties, and the other was a good deal younger, perhaps as young as twenty-five or twenty-six, but they both had a certain look in their eyes that kept me on my guard the whole time they were here. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what was so menacing about that look, but I think it had something to do with its blankness, its refusal to commit itself, as if it were watching everything and nothing at the same time. So little was divulged by that look, I could never be sure what either of those men was thinking. Their eyes were too patient, somehow, too skilled at suggesting indifference, but for all that they were alert, relentlessy alert in fact, as if they had been trained to make you feel uncomfortable, to make you conscious of your flaws and transgressions, to make you squirm in your skin. Their names were Worthy and Harris, but I forget which one was which. As physical specimens, they were disturbingly alike, almost as if they were younger and older versions of the same person: tall, but not too tall; well built, but not too well built; sandy hair, blue eyes, thick hands
with impeccably clean fingernails. It’s true that their conversational styles were different, but I don’t want to make too much of first impressions. For all I know they take turns, switching roles back and forth whenever they feel like it. For my visit two days ago, the young one played the heavy. His questions were very blunt, and he seemed to take his job too much to heart, rarely cracking a smile, for example, and treating me with a formality that sometimes verged on sarcasm and irritation. The old one was more relaxed and amiable, readier to let the conversation take its natural course. He’s no doubt more dangerous because of that, but I have to admit that talking to him wasn’t entirely unpleasant. When I began to tell him about some of the crackpot responses to my books, I could see that the subject interested him, and he let me go on with my digression longer than I would have expected. I suppose he was feeling me out, encouraging me to ramble on so he could get some sense of who I was and how my mind worked, but when I came to the business about the imposter, he actually offered to start an investigation into the problem for me. That might have been a trick, of course, but I somehow doubt it. I don’t need to add that I turned him down, but if the circumstances had been any different, I probably would have thought twice about accepting his help. It’s something that has plagued me for a long time now, and I would dearly love to get to the bottom of it.
“I don’t read many novels,” the agent said. “I never seem to have time for them.”
“No, not many people do,” I said.
“But yours must be pretty good. If they weren’t, I doubt you’d be bothered so much.”
“Maybe I get bothered because they’re bad. Everyone is a literary critic these days. If you don’t like a book, threaten the author. There’s a certain logic to that approach. Make the bastard pay for what he’s done to you.”
“I suppose I should sit down and read one of them myself,” he said. “To see what all the fuss is about. You wouldn’t mind, would you?”
“Of course I wouldn’t mind. That’s why they’re in the bookstores. So people can read them.”
It was a curious way for the visit to end—writing down the titles of my books for an FBI agent. Even now, I’m hard-pressed to know what he was after. Perhaps he thinks he’ll find some clues in them, or perhaps it was just a subtle way of telling me that he’ll be back, that he hasn’t finished with me yet. I’m still their only lead, after all, and if they go on the assumption that I lied to them, then they’re not about to forget me. Beyond that, I haven’t the vaguest notion of what they’re thinking. It seems unlikely that they consider me a terrorist, but I say that only because I know I’m not. They know nothing, and therefore they could be working on that premise, furiously searching for something that would link me to the bomb that went off in Wisconsin last week. And even if they aren’t, I have to accept the fact that they’ll be on my case for a long time to come. They’ll ask questions, they’ll dig into my life, they’ll find out who my friends are, and sooner or later Sachs’s name will come up. In other words, the whole time I’m here in Vermont writing this story, they’ll be busy writing their own story. It will be my story, and once they’ve finished it, they’ll know as much about me as I do myself.
My wife and daughter returned home about two hours after the FBI men left. They had gone off early that morning to spend the day with friends, and I was glad they hadn’t been around for Harris and Worthy’s visit. My wife and I share almost everything with each other, but in this case I don’t think I should tell her what happened. Iris has always been very fond of Sachs, but I come first for her, and if she discovered that I was about to get into trouble with the FBI because of him, she would do everything in her power to make me
stop. I can’t run that risk now. Even if I managed to convince her that I was doing the right thing, it would take a long time to wear her down, and I don’t have that luxury, I have to spend every minute on the job I’ve set for myself. Besides, even if she gave in, she would only worry herself sick about it, and I don’t see how any good could come of that. Eventually, she’s going to learn the truth anyway; when the time comes, everything will be dragged out into the open. It’s not that I want to deceive her, I simply want to spare her for as long as possible. As it happens, I don’t think that will be terribly difficult. I’m here to write, after all, and if Iris thinks I’m up to my old tricks out in my little shack every day, what harm can come of that? She’ll assume I’m scribbling away on my new novel, and when she sees how much time I’m devoting to it, how much progress is being made from my long hours of work, she’ll feel happy. Iris is a part of the equation, too, and without her happiness I don’t think I would have the courage to begin.
This is the second summer we’ve spent in this place. Back in the old days, when Sachs and his wife used to come here every July and August, they would sometimes invite me up to visit, but those were always brief excursions, and I rarely stayed for more than three or four nights. After Iris and I were married nine years ago, we made the trip together several times, and once we even helped Fanny and Ben paint the outside of the house. Fanny’s parents bought the property during the Depression, at a time when farms like this one could be had for next to nothing. It came with more than a hundred acres and its own private pond, and although the house was run-down, it was spacious and airy inside, and only minor improvements were needed to make it habitable. The Goodmans were New York City schoolteachers, and they could never afford to do much with the place after they bought it, so for all these years the house has kept its primitive, barebones look: the iron bedsteads, the potbellied stove
in the kitchen, the cracked ceilings and walls, the gray painted floors. Still, there’s something solid in this dilapidation, and it would be difficult for anyone not to feel at home here. For me, the great lure of the house is its remoteness. It sits on top of a small mountain, four miles from the nearest village by way of a narrow dirt road. The winters must be ferocious on this mountain, but during the summer everything is green, with birds singing all around you, and the meadows are filled with countless wildflowers: orange hawkweed, red clover, maiden pink, buttercup. About a hundred feet from the main house, there’s a simple outbuilding that Sachs used as his work studio whenever he was here. It’s hardly more than a cabin, with three small rooms, a kitchenette, and a bathroom, and ever since it was vandalized twelve or thirteen winters ago, it has fallen into disrepair. The pipes have cracked, the electricity has been turned off, the linoleum is peeling up from the floor. I mention these things because that is where I am now—sitting at a green table in the middle of the largest room, holding a pen in my hand. For as long as I knew him, Sachs spent every summer writing at this same table, and this is the room where I saw him for the last time, where he poured out his heart to me and let me in on his terrible secret. If I concentrate hard enough on the memory of that night, I can almost delude myself into thinking that he’s still here. It’s as if his words were still hanging in the air around me, as if I could still reach out my hand and touch him. It was a long and grueling conversation, and when we finally came to the end of it (at five or six in the morning), he made me promise not to let his secret go beyond the walls of this room. Those were his exact words: that nothing he said should escape this room. For the time being, I’ll be able to keep my promise. Until the moment comes for me to show what I’ve written here, I can comfort myself with the thought that I won’t be breaking my word.