I started writing the book in the wake of the hurricane. It was the end of October and my kids’ costumes lay empty, deflated, and lifeless in their cold rooms. Candies of all sorts never made it to their promised transactions. Instead, we shoveled it down ourselves, joylessly, as we bided our time for The Return of the Power. The town itself didn’t sustain as much damage as the coast, and it certainly didn’t get as much media attention, but there are a hell of a lot of trees lining our streets and a hell of a lot of them came jumping out of the ground in a mad flash of orgy. Huddled together in the living room, we clenched our blankets as they did their broken toe pirouettes outside that night. We listened with dread as they passed out like drunken giants wherever they happened to finally snap.
The rest of the country, I’m told, watched agape as our dead dancers of terra firma took with them their collateral, spinning through power lines the way a capricious child might spin through a spider’s web in a forest. Gutters, fences, super-sized SUVs, mailboxes, trash cans, bicycles, patio furniture, hundred year old homes, you name it, all of our beautiful junk, all injudiciously pulverized and strewn about. In the breathless aftermath, the most insipid of Hollywood’s constipated drivels suddenly revealed themselves to us as the most sagacious of prophets: rows and rows of houses, usually humming with the slow burn of c.o.d. oil and blinking blue with TV, now stood frost-stunned and charcoal-dead, broken and unprotected, by all accounts an apocalyptic vision.
It was a cinematic cliché, yes, we happened to get trapped inside of and the rest of the country, I’m told, gladly consumed their share of endlessly streaming words-from-our-sponsor as the price of admission. We made damn fine entertainment. The ensuing equalization, televised, streamed, or not, was swift and ineluctable, blurring the psychological boundaries between inside and out. The only difference in the fragile climates of our homes from the littered roads beyond was the lack of wind, and that was no great consolation in a certain, very real, sense because inside it smacked of the absence of life, movement. Framed in the gaping mouth of the garage door, holding a perpetually greasy spatula over a Coleman propane grill, I stood wrapped in a racecar blanket and shameless hope. I didn’t think twice about waving to my neighbors in such a state. With mankind’s great alternating-current frontline tending to its wounds, unshowered and unshorn, in the days that followed, I flushed my family’s piss down the toilet with frigid pot-fulls of water.
After five days, however, this novelty wore thin and I considered my capital. I dropped what was left of our stores at the local shelter, swallowing the shock of seeing the members of my own community reduced in countenance to dust bowl refugees and proceeded to negotiate the obstacle course that had been grafted onto the street map of my town. Circumnavigating fallen trees and prostrate power lines, we somehow made it to the highway. Within an hour we had claimed my niece’s princess room. My kids slept in a tiny pink bed, my wife and I, on a slowly wheezing air mattress. We listened to the tiny clangs of the radiator, six inches from our faces, and almost wept as we clutched each other and whispered our fortifications in the nightlight’s impossible glow.
Sometime during the fourteen days that followed, finding my sister’s home bursting with human, I retreated to the only corner of solitude left, the basement. There among the elbowing laundry apparatus and the sideways prison of cast iron plumbing, I began to tell myself the story I always knew I had to tell myself but never thought I’d actually get around to. No, more accurately, I found I had more time on my hands than I had any right to have and my carefully-stitched tableau of procrastination glared at me woefully threadbare. So on a dusty computer older than my son, which I’d unearthed from the crust of my sister’s boxes of Christmas decorations, I pecked out an outline, then an opening sentence.
I hated the planets.
One word followed the next, as I suppose is always the case, and it came. The actual story was familiar enough to me and to everyone else who lived in Atavus Falls for that matter. The murders had been filtered and filed from scraps of dubious newspaper information, supermarket gossip, random conjecture, and the usual other processes by which a community attempts to make sense of tragedy. It had quickly become the stuff of legend, at least for me, and I treated it as such, more or less. What I wrote had a casual relation to the facts, mostly because I had a casual relation to the facts. This was by design, not mine. The cops and the local politicians played dumb as the events unfolded, as the angry constituents hurled their questions at them, and their will was iron-clad. They knew very little. A deranged man. Obvious mental illness. Origin unknown. No kin. Buried.
From my subterranean view of the world, I cobbled the strains of the story together and interjected what I thought was necessary to make it intelligible. I made a few connections that may not have actually existed. Characters were inflated with heaves of air as if they were a crop of dollar store party balloons. That was the easy part, yanking the mannerisms, ideologies, cadences, and flaws from the people I knew (and from myself, mostly myself) and stuffing them into the containers of the poor souls I did not know and to whom these tragedies had actually befallen. It was a sort of ritual CPR. I spoke in their voices with the conceit of a ventriloquist, and I suddenly found my dolls standing around me, in a circle of sorts, looking over my shoulder as I prodded the keys. Nascent but already tarnished, they were waiting dutifully for me. I drank cauldrons of coffee to keep up with their demands. When it wasn’t coffee, it was wine. Sometimes it was rum. Often it was rum. I bumped into my family, immediate and extended, in confused hallways while short-circuiting on a caffeinated booze bender, an army of Frankensteins spinning around on the perpetual carousel of my own personality(ies). The thematic notion of cyclical savagery and the regeneration of the human beast twisted in the air around me like ghosts demanding release. I changed some of the names.
Word came. The lights appeared again, as if by some dark magic conjured by the terrible rage of a legion of dissatisfied power supply company customers, and with great elation I restored my family back to their proper compartments. They readily took back up their abandoned stations in life. Food was stuffed back into boxes, refrigerated and otherwise, and I continued my private, ongoing negotiations with the keyboard.
It was a debate that was alternately giddy and sinister, cathartic and agonizing, vengeful and therapeutic. It was a project of desperate play disencumbered of the self-consciousness that had for so long been my plague. The hurricane had paralyzed my paralysis. Twelve weeks later, the storm was a fading memory, a matter for the politicians to quibble about while we looked on for some sign of being publicly vindicated, and I was finished with the book.
Or so I thought. It was tremulous and scant, very scant, but the tale was told, more or less, and I was willing to let it stand. In fact, I wanted it to stand. I’m a lazy man and I wanted to return to my sloth or perhaps move on to other things. Another half-baked project maybe. Time spent with my family. A re-focusing on my day job, which was, in no uncertain terms, suffering. But there was one little thing, a white tooth in the crooked yellow grin of my Atavus Falls smirking at me. It was a name and the name was Artie Russi.
Let me explain.
The mid-winter months are always tricky business around my house. With the holidays becoming a distant and spent diversion and with the heat in the sun still too faraway a dream to dare to anticipate, a particular tension mounts. It’s inevitable, this wind up. Indomitable, the explosion. The winter doldrums brings to my otherwise lovely, sane wife, the hysterics of the raving insane. She sits before special UV lamps for hours on end to no avail. Strange mixtures of vitamins are ingested with furious inefficacy. Tea kettles scream, levees break, my marriage explodes. The state is temporary and we always pick up the pieces in our best Humpty-Dumpty-esque slap-stick fashion, but when you’re in the midst of the fall, the prospect of reassembly is little more than a joke. When the fall came this particular winter, the wrath was especially bitter. As mentally prepared as I thought I was for it, I felt my own indignant rage build to hot crescendo along with hers. Maybe it was just bad timing, some ill-alignment of two polar psychological constitutions each prone to fits of theater. Whatever the case, I felt my inner attempts at reasoning out the situation with justifications for what was happening to her, and the necessitating allowances, autocratically quashed. I cursed her. I cursed myself. I left in the wake of a slammed door. I cursed the door for good measure.
I found myself at Murray’s Tavern eating greasy bar food out of a red plastic basket lined with wax paper. I was drinking watery beer. This was an angry nourishment, and before long I was duly soused, pathetically unloading my woes upon poor Murray himself. Drunk and flailing, defenses shattered, I acknowledged the inherent truth in drunken sot cliché and assumed the role with great gusto. The topics of lament that surfaced unabashedly were as follows: 1. the absurd and inimitable maelstrom of S. as she smashed her own mother’s heirloom china with her own favorite flower vase just moments before I’d arrived at the tavern and 2. a book about monsters.
The former topic Murray fielded like a pro, he’d heard it all before, of course, and his responses were pitch perfect. The latter topic, however, rubbed Murray’s skin raw, provoking more or less in this order, remorse for the kids who’d been killed and hurt, conjecture about their parents, and theories about what made a man mindlessly kill the upstanding members of our tightly-knit community. Murray expressed concern, in his manner, about re-opening wounds with a pen.
“Wounds that don’t need to be re-opened,” he said, like spitting nails into a hardwood board.
I assured him I changed names, made the story personal, something, I persuaded, that would be unrecognizable to the public.
“It’s really about our private monsters, mine” I said. “Not exploitation. It’s a work of fiction. Nothing more.”
He let me know he thought I was full of shit without exactly articulating the sentiment and left me to brood over the incontrovertible reductive agency of the fact-to-fiction process, the trivialization of the actual when transposed to the entertaining, no matter how pure the intention of mythmaking.
“Another?” he grunted, when he realized I wasn’t going to be leaving any time soon. It wasn’t a question really. He swapped the empty mug for a full one without my answering.
“One thing I don’t understand though,” I said, “was what that guy was doing there that morning. The one who found them there.”
I hadn’t addressed him in my version of the story. He didn’t fit, so I ignored him.
“Looking for his son.”
“The guy who owned the place before.”
“You knew him?”
“How do you know then?”
“That he was looking for his son.”
“A guy was in here a few days before.”
“Asked me if I knew anything. About the doctor.”
“The guy who lived there.”
“His son. This was his father asking.”
“Took him to be a friend of the family. That’s what he said anyway.”
“A few days before the killings, this happened?”
“Yeah. Helping the father. He was old.”
“The guy who found him. The father.”
He nodded. “Too old to look for hisself I thought. He would be.”
“Because Shattuck wasn’t young.”
“Uh-huh. You catch on quick.”
“And you didn’t think this had anything… You didn’t think it worth mentioning. The coincidence. That this friend of the father was in here? Looking just a few days before.”
He tried to lift his shoulders but they just seemed to fall. “No one asked. Figured the guy was there, they could ask him if they had questions what he was doing there.”
I drank. Murray shuffled around through a cluster of papers that were lodged in the grimy crevice between the register and the wall. It looked like a scary place, a place too dangerous to pry around in with a bare hand, but he extracted a business card from it all the same and handed it to me.
“Said to call him if I ever knew anything about Shattuck. I took it he didn’t believe I didn’t when I told him so.”
The card was white, or used to be, and printed in black was Artie Russi. Below that, the telephone number. Nothing else.
“Murray. You know friends of family don’t carry around cards like this.”
He tried to shrug again. He hadn’t complained that I called him Murray either, though I later came to find out that his name was Patrick. Just another feather to put in my joker cap.
I put the card in my pocket. That Murray let me, I took as his way of giving me his blessing. My drunken clown act maybe was endearing. More likely, it elicited pity. He had no idea his act of magnanimity was also a curse. It meant I wasn’t finished.
It also caused my pre-existing, on-going infatuation with Noir to suddenly swing out at me like a blackjack from the murky ink of shadow alley. It smacked me across the head, as real as my rawest instinct, as real as hunger. Chandler, Hammett, MacDonald, Spilane, all those gorgeous bare-knuckled films with their angular shadows and grizzled, crooked grins, they’d been a pet obsession of mine for more years than I knew how to count. And now here it was, right there on a cheap business card ready to unfold itself before me, right there in a name, Artie Russi, to suit my dramatic purposes.
Against my will, my mind immediately started weaving in the image of Ralph Meeker. Chiseled features below a furrowed brow, a suit that got frumpier the deeper he got into his investigation. He appeared as if by magic before my very eyes, and I watched him slap around my new friend Murray in search of answers he was hired to get. The scene was set, the plot came like black rain in a blacker storm. The father Shattuck was looking for the son Shattuck because he had disappeared with the family’s inheritance, a cache of jewels his father had gotten by, we would eventually find out, underhanded and illicit means. I spun a fleece of dissipating morality when exposed to the acid of capitalist greed. Maybe the stones had something to do with the murders, the motives. Local teens involved with fencing jewels for the wayward son? One generation of thieves breeding another, and then another? Eh, I could rework details, nudge the plot to make the elements fit so they felt right. I could brush off my copy of Red Harvest and then…
No, no, no. It was wrong. As blinded and giddy as I was by the possibility of sketching out the trials and tribulations of the American gumshoe in my very hometown, even I could recognize the character’s incongruity with the tale I’d originally set out to tell. But ignoring him wasn’t an option either. It would have been dishonest, even immoral, to look the other way. An injustice to the work and, oh yeah, also to the dead, and the loved ones they left behind. Twelve weeks was one thing. Being nagged for the rest of my life was another.
At some point, I’d have to call the reporters and police again (they’d thoroughly stonewalled me when I made my initial half-assed calls) in an attempt to have an account a little more accurate than a personal story based on and grafted onto hearsay I sort of remembered. That calling card, and the reality/fantasy dichotomy it represented, somehow made accuracy a concern to me. It hadn’t before. I had to start (again) somewhere, sort out what story was actually trying to be told here, and pulling the Hammer out of his conventions would at least wipe the kitsch from my eyes as I set out.
The next day I googled and called five numbers. I stated my case to three voice mails and two secretaries. One of those secretaries belonged to the number attached to the card I had from Murray. I found myself saying into the phone, “I’m a writer writing a story and want to know the ins and outs of their business.” I bungled and stammered. “The only thing I know about private eyes,” I said, “is from books and movies and I want my character to be more…real than that. I could pay for his time. Short interview. Thirty minutes tops.” I explained more than I had to in my blathering attempts to be charming and appear harmless and pathetic, but I didn’t mention anything about the actual subject of the book. My plan was to sit down with one of them, any of them, it didn’t matter which one really, so I’d have a real face to put to the character. A real voice. Mannerisms. I would deal with the problem of figuring out what the character had to do with the town terrorizing monster plot afterwards.
When I got four return calls I was stunned. That the actual Artie Russi was one of those, well, it frightened me a little. I was somehow suddenly closer than I’d ever intended to be. In searching for a tiny bit of verisimilitude for my inspired by actual tale, yes, I was nearer in proximity to the events, but by the same turn, I had the distinct sensation my life was becoming something made up and for a moment. I was flooded with the sense I’d entered into one of the crime noir tales I loved so much. I reminded myself this was not conjecture, not fantasy. The chasm between my imaginings and the real world was so vast it hadn’t even occurred to me that I might get information about the actual case. Instead, I felt that I was entering into a work of fiction. Everything felt quivering. I had for so long taken shelter in the imaginary because the real world, I knew, more often than not, smacks you if you try to hold its hand. The imagination is the refuge of cowards. That’s where I was hiding out.
“Sorry it took so long to get back to you,” the voice said, “I had to make sure you weren’t connected to any of my current cases.”
Though it had dawned on me, during the day or so between my reaching out and getting the return call, that this could be a concern, I couldn’t help immediately adoring the novelty of it. I explained everything again in a near-incoherent, bumbling manner, though I’m sure his secretary relayed the message. He understood. He had consulted with a television show once. Last year, a reality television production wanted to follow him around, an offer which he’d declined. He offered to meet me at a pizzeria in the area. Again, the meeting in a public place motif was not lost on me. As our exchange concluded, he said he’d recognize me.
I knew somehow that he would be there before the scheduled meeting time and he was. It was on the early side of the lunch rush so the place was empty. He sat at a booth in a discrete corner of the room, utterly composed. The diet coke with ice he was drinking was somehow perfectly positioned on the table, he had one pen, a fresh legal pad, and a brochure neatly placed near his right hand. Older than I thought he’d be, that is, older than Philip Marlowe in The Little Sister, he had silver-white hair and a neatly trimmed goatee. The name Russi had conjured up swarthy features in my mind. Heavy shadows painted on the jowls, a deep Mediterranean complexion, warm black eyes that could turn like a flicked switch from imploring compassion to tempestuous fury. I’d envisioned a sort of amalgam of Bogart and my uncles. But nothing of the actual Russi was in accord with the defining characteristics of my family line. He certainly had nothing to do with Bogie. Instead, this Russi was as clean as any good white bread upper management CEO, and his eyes were a sharp, piercing, almost unreal blue, humming on the unemotional fuel of precise intelligence. The only indication of heritage was a gold chain that hung around his neck and settled a crucifix in the white hairs of his chest. I tried to connect the dots but they weren’t cooperating.
He lifted a hand from the surface of the table to indicate he was the man I was looking for, in the event that I was stupid, I suppose, and as I approached the table, he stood up. Again I was struck with incongruity. There was no trench coat or suit, rumpled or not, and there was no fedora. Russi dressed like my father did. White sneakers anchoring jeans a couple years out of touch. A button down shirt that didn’t look none too comfortable. We made an odd pair. Me with five days worth of beard, clad in fashionable though incredibly sloppy attire, and Russi, meticulously composed in white Reeboks circa ten years ago, sitting down for pizza a full half an hour before anyone in their right mind would be thinking about pizza.
We shook hands, firmly, and he tried to put me at ease. I sensed he read me in about half a second and ascertained I was no threat. I was nervous, and what I’d told him about doing research was more or less on the level. I over-compensated by yammering on again about why I wanted to meet him, repeating, stupidly, things I’d already told him and his secretary. I tried to get myself to shut up but it was beyond my capacity to do so. He humored me with vague expressions of acknowledgment here and there. I think I was blathering nervously about a TV show or something equally inane when he mercifully interrupted me to ask what I wanted to know about what he did for a living.
If not jocular, Russi was forthcoming. I didn’t expect that. He was eager to tell me about himself and what he did. If I wasn’t so self-conscious, if I had the wherewithal, I’d probably have recognized my interest in his profession flattered him on some level. Flattery likely explains the surprisingly high percentage of return calls I got from the other investigators as well. Maybe having someone so intent on understanding what he’d been doing for the past thirty years served as some kind of vindication.
I learned that if nothing else, it was a thankless job, and here he had the chance to make the case for what he did to someone who might be convinced, someone who wasn’t paying for his services or who’s life he hadn’t bled like a lamb. Whatever the reasons, I was relieved I didn’t have to pull the information out of him. A single question posed to Russi would trigger a monologue lasting a full four or five minutes. A minor mention about a certain method of surveillance, for example, produced an amusing but long anecdote about staking out a couple screwing in a van, how he’d crawled up to the rear of the van to attach a surveillance mike, and just as he was under the vehicle, the rear door opened and he was stuck there waiting to see what would happen as the couple argued on the street inches from his face.
I soon understood my dilemma was quite the opposite of what I’d feared. I’d have to keep him focused if I was going to get the practical information I needed for my literary purposes.
“I don’t mean to sound braggadocios,” he said darting a furtive glance at me as he unleashed the premeditated word, “but I’m glad I didn’t go into law enforcement when I got out of the military academy.” His father had sent him in order to straighten him out when he was young and wild. “I own four houses. A couple of boats. I make a good living.” I sensed an underlying contempt for public law enforcement. The emphasis he placed on “good” sounded like a blanket insult to anyone who’d ever walked a beat on the public payroll.
He told me about the loss prevention game, going undercover to catch warehouse workers looking the other way when pricey goods fell off the truck. I got an earload about tracking down the slip-and-fallers who were exploiting the disability insurance system. I got not one, not two, not three, but four examples of being hired to catch a cheating spouse in the act in order to just save face more or less, to prove to other family members and their kids who fucked everything up and why he or she did or didn’t deserve a dime in the split.
“There was one case,” he said, “Where I actually had to withhold some of the evidence I got.” An older gentleman, a rich older gentleman with a young trophy wife had hired Russi because he suspected her of cheating. He was right, of course, but Russi had to be careful. “I had the feeling the guy was suicidal,” he said. “I thought maybe if I gave him everything I got…the video footage was pretty graphic… he might do something to hurt himself. It was pretty sad. I had to track down his sister to tell her to keep an eye on him after I gave him the news. He’s still married to the bitch, anyway, last I heard. Probably would have done him a favor showing him those tapes, now that I think of it.”
One anecdote followed another until my head began to spin.
As it turned out, the half hour we’d agreed upon turned quickly to an hour. He didn’t mention it. Didn’t notice it, I suspect. Though I insisted on footing the bill for lunch, he refused payment for his time. I had to get back to my day job.
“I knew a lunch wouldn’t be enough.”
I took this to mean that maybe he’d be open to sitting down again at some point. “Next time, I’ll buy you a beer.”
“Sure. That’ll be good. I got a million of them.”
Pleased, I stood to put on my jacket while he didn’t move. As I knew he’d be sitting there waiting for me when I entered the restaurant, I somehow knew that he would wait for me to leave as well. “You’re from Atavus Falls,” he was saying as I punched my arms through the sleeves, “Should take you, what? Twenty, thirty minutes, no traffic.”
“Yeah. About,” I said.
“I had a job took me up there once.”
What I said next were words produced either by traumatic cognitive dissonance or sheer stupidity: “I’m writing about something that happened there as a matter of fact. A kind of inspired by actual events.” I didn’t look at him when I said almost below my breath, “There were a few murders a couple years ago. Some psycho attacked a family in their home.”
When I looked up, it was clear the frequency had changed. Something worked the lines in his face and the blue in his eyes deepened. The air was burning, making it hard to breathe. With difficulty I managed, “Okay. Thanks again for your time. I appreciate it.”
I held out my hand. He looked at it a moment too long then finally shook it and nodded. He didn’t say a word and I knew not one more was coming nor should one be uttered by me. I walked out of the restaurant. I didn’t know who I was.
A week later I got a call and it was Russi. “I’ll take you up on that beer,” he said. He spit out the name of a tavern a few towns away and a meeting time. I said okay and trembled.
I hemmed and hawed the interval. I argued the reasons to myself of why I shouldn’t go and meet him and it wasn’t long before I had a good case and was thoroughly convinced to stay within the safe confines of my own home. Maybe he wanted to punch me in the nose, after all. Or worse.
In the end, it was S. who’d convinced me to keep the appointment. She was very well aware, of course, of my hermetic tendencies and the inclination for the retreat into the comatose of my own imaginings. She knew how I justified myself out of human interaction. She prods me into real life, my wife, and I always thank her for it. Retroactively, of course. And then, only if good things come of it.
The Quiet Man is a bonafide Irish pub that managed to survive on train commuter traffic since maybe the forties. There were pictures of Ford and Wayne on every wood-paneled wall. A few of Maureen O’hara. The years somehow pasted Sinatra onto them here and there and he looked sad and out of place. Locals with missing teeth connected the dots between the well-dressed transients. I was rattling like a hubcap.
He was there waiting for me, of course, and he was drinking something but it wasn’t beer. I sat down across from him in a sunken booth and the light gained in wattage.
“Who the fuck you think you are?”
“I’m sorry, I—”
“You think I’m a fool?”
“Do you have any connection to those people. The people up there that died?”
“Not directly. No. I have a great respect for you.”
“Except your wife worked with the mother.”
“Yes. She did. That’s it.”
“How did you know I was there?”
“Bartender at Murray’s.”
“Right,” and the way he said it, I knew it just dawned on him. He was a careful man and leaving an end hanging loose, even one as minor as a business card with two small lines of inked information left purposefully, must have acted on him as an irritant. It was not that he left it that irritated him, likely, but that he didn’t have it accounted for and ready for instant recall when the time came.
“I swear what I said to you was the truth,” I sputtered. “I knew you were there when those people died, but I wasn’t going to ask you about the murders. I really just wanted to know what it was like to be…to do your job. That’s all.”
As I stammered, he produced a stack of papers from the folio he had in perfect position on the table. He read a few lines from it. It was my manuscript, Atavus Falls.
He said, “You might owe Faulkner royalties for the multi-first person thing.”
“How’d you get that?”
“Not that you could ever hold a candle to him.” He leaned in and looked directly into my face, “You’ve never really bowled with him, did you, the father?”
He was right on both counts, Faulkner and the father, and my shame swelled in my throat. If I had been left alone, I swear I might’ve had to choke back self-pitying emotion. Meaning I might’ve cried like a four year old who’d been told go to his room. Instead, I shook my head.
“Didn’t think so. I knew I shouldn’t have been stuck on that. Look,” he leaned back. “The case is closed. I’m not a priest or a psychologist.”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
“I can talk about it if I want.”
“You should have asked. You could have just asked. You must see these guys on the talk shows, these P.I.’s with no couth, blabbing for the publicity. The guys selling their one big case to the movie guys. You’re not very good at this, are you?”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t going to…I didn’t think that…”
“Stop apologizing and listen to what I’m trying to tell you, goddammit.”
“I’m willing to talk about it on the condition of anonymity. I have standards. I’m a professional.”
“That and 50/50. I don’t think you’d have any reason not to agree. That’s why I’m here.”
“And repeating yourself. Stop it. If you went against that agreement though, for some dumb reason, life can sometimes become…uncomfortable.” He paused then said, “That’s not a threat.”
I nodded in acknowledgement of the threat and he nodded back almost imperceptibly in confirmation that it indeed was one. He stared at me for a length of time that was immediately unbearable. His thin fingers drummed on the shellacked surface of the table. When I thought maybe I was supposed to start asking questions, just as I was about to open my mouth, in fact, he spoke, cutting me off. I had every right to think that he’d been waiting for me to speak so he could do it.
As he talked, that night and the five or six others it took to get it more or less straightened out in my head, or at least straight enough to bang into shape, I realized that with every passing word he was transforming himself into non-being. The closer I got to accuracy, the more fictitious he would become. He was disappearing as a man and re-materializing as a collection of words, his own mostly. ‘Russi’ became Russi, a literary reincarnation of his own will. He named himself incidentally. I have no idea how much of what he was telling me was a fiction, and I have no idea how much of the truth remained even in the fiction he told himself about what had happened. What I would create, therefore, would be a composition of a composition and whatever hope I’d ever held for objective reality disappeared with the talking man in front of me, if it had ever really existed at all.
“The nature of language,” he said, “is deceit.”
And as he began his tale, tall, truthful or otherwise, washing himself out in the spin cycle of his own phantasmagoria, I thought of the liberating possibilities of erasing myself as well. That is, that I should write myself into the story. I could recount how the meeting with Russi (the person he’s based on) happened, how I came to the information that would change, in retrograde, the story I’d already written. Like Russi, I would be vanished by legal disclaimer, living or dead is purely coincidental. I was surprised to find I didn’t mind. I could write myself any way I wanted. Stoic and self-assured, maybe. A really put together kind of guy. I felt as if I were traveling at breakneck speed on an orbital trajectory around myself.
We had one mooring, however, to keep us from disappearing into the abyss of the page altogether, and it soon proved it was necessary in order to maintain faith, literary perseverance, or, simply, some notion of direction. Our ballast was the collection of videotapes he was able to coax, or outright steal (I never found out which exactly), from the character whom I named Jimmy. The brief clips I was shown were carefully selected by Russi for optimum dramatic impact, of course, but I suspect that even an absolutely random selection would have impressed upon me a dread that was identically harrowing, not only for what they were as taken at face value but for their wider implications as well. I was shown these video images under his strict supervision, in a motel room of all places (one of his points of insight during that first meeting were that he never met anyone in his office the way the silver screen gumshoes did, and I was not to be an exception), during a single, agonizing marathon screening session. Of course, I don’t possess these tapes myself, so I only have the scrambled egg dribble of my handwriting to go on. That and the psychic video impressions that linger like a smoke in my chest, the cancerous tumor that leaks its poison into my dreams almost nightly, still.
Russi said he’d consider releasing the tapes publicly if and when this peachy little record were to produce ink (he had less faith in me than even I do), but I’m not sure I’d like to see those images splayed on the altar. The images are irresistible, of course, and the way we’d gawk, the way that our infinite parade of eyes would gleam, burning with that hungerless hunger present only in our particular brand of creature…well, the voyeuristic frenzy might be understandable, of course, maybe even forgivable, but it would also mean that Shattuck, Jesus, that monster, might have been onto something.