When the announcement came that he was being called up, Marek didn’t even own a suitcase. His neighbors and regular customers pooled their money and bought him one. He let them think it was happiness that took his voice away.
It was, everyone told him, an honor. A miracle.
He’d had to read the letter three times but still didn’t understand why he needed to bring anything with him– after all, he’d be pure mind, all electronic, after he went up. Whether he wound up in the place between planets or the place between stars, it’s not like he’d bring the picture of his late wife, the framed first dollar their kiosk had earned, his daughter’s bronze star, or the flag they’d given him at her funeral.
But the cab driver, who loaded the suitcase into the trunk so gently that nothing clinked, explained it: the memories would be anchors, digitized and uploaded, that his personality could hold onto.
“Otherwise,” said the cabbie, “you’ll lose who you were and just be a machine.”
Marek stared at the city sliding past.
He’d spent days distracted by all things that he couldn’t put in the suitcase — the way the kiosk looked, when all the flowers were fresh and all the buckets were full, first thing in the morning, when the light seemed to come from inside the petals. The pressure of Tina’s hand on his; the weight of their daughter in his arms. When he explained, none of his friends understood.
“I’ve taken lots of folks to the up station,” said the driver. She tried to catch Marek’s eyes in the rearview mirror. He knew that tone of jealousy-edged pride from his friends’ voices.
On the dashboard, a pair of picture-sculptures morphed though what looked like snapshots of the driver, her friends, her family. Between them, a dried, unopened rose bud; a string of pebble-beads; a sea shell; and a flag Marek didn’t recognize.
“Yeah,” said the driver, “I’ve taken paying uploaders and five or six lottery winners like yourself.” This time she was the one who looked away from the rearview. “The luck hasn’t worn off yet.”
Marek squeezed his hand out of the shimmering holoprinted paper and held the wristband over the seatback.
“Here,” he said, “You go.”
He had to repeat himself.
“You can use the suitcase,” he said, and, somehow, that was the thing that convinced her.
My friend is sad. He is driving us to a poetry reading. I have just shown him the glossy back-cover photo of the poet reading tonight. My friend holds his head in his hands and rubs his face. One would think driving in this posture would be difficult. Grabbing the steering wheel, I ask, what ails you, my friend?
I am sick and tired, he says, of being sick and tired behind the wheel of this vehicle.
I allow him to wallow in his misery in peace. People need peace with their misery. Like donuts need grease.
He cries dry tears. I know because he will lift his face, and it will be dry because I will do something he will not like that will cause his face to lift. His eyes will, however, be red from rubbing them with his palms. The only time he has ever cried wet tears was over Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. When the peaceful misery passes, I say, tell me what makes you so sad.
If you don’t know, I am not going to tell you.
I release the steering wheel. My hands cover my face. I say nothing. I need peace with my misery though misery gives no peace. Come here, I say; let me kiss and make it feel better. I gesture for his face.
He lifts his face. His eyes are red, his face is dry, and his elbow, apparently, does not like my gesture (nor does my gesture like his elbow). He says, we will not. We are men.
I forgot, I say rubbing my gesture; I only wished to comfort your misery.
Let us go, you and I, to a poetry-etherized reading.
Let us, I say, and afterwards we can gobble a steak dinner and salad at the casino buffet on the river. The food may not be good, but there is a lot of it, which is good for us manly men who don’t know what we want to eat.
Yum, he says.
Besides, I say, a river is the universal, unidirectional symbol for time because it can’t change directions–except in earthquakes. We will eat on a river of time until our guts explode. Like true artists: everything done in excess.
Thyme, he asks.
Exactly, I say.
My friend cuts across traffic, because we are late, heading the wrong way down a one-way on Dodge Street, which is poetic because the cars have to dodge us. We live art.
There was a miser who had a cat.
The miser, that is.
The cat was fine.
The miser, who’d hoarded, cheated, and loaned at exorbitant and inflexible rates, left all his wealth to the cat.
Had this been strictly a matter of what was written in his will, his lawyer (whom he’d swindled) and the judge (whom he’d nearly bankrupted) would gladly have mislaid or invalidated anything bearing the miser’s signature.
But the miser had guaranteed his wishes by locking his fortune in a brass-bound trunk he buried beneath the oldest, tallest tree in the forest, and by hanging the trunk key on the cat’s collar.
Now, you’ve heard that cats have nine lives, but that doesn’t mean a string of lives lived one after another. Cats live all nine at once. And only one is a cat life. For instance, the miser’s cat was also a riverboat captain, a seamstress, an itinerant mole, a mathematician, an angel, and several other things.
On a cloudy day, the lawyer and the judge finished decoding clues the miser had left in his will, and dug around the roots of some old, tall trees until they struck the brass-bound trunk with a shovel-bending clang! At the very same moment, in a nearby field, the cat wriggled through an inconvenient fence and snagged its collar there, key and all.
While the lawyer and judge rested from their excavations, a seamstress and a mathematician were crossing a fence-divided field from different sides. These two women spotted the key at the same moment they spotted each other.
Don’t mistake this for coincidence–this kind of thing happens all the time. In that country, there’s an expression, “They’re two lives of the same cat.” So it was with the seamstress and the mathematician.
It began to rain, softly, but as if it weren’t planning to stop, so they took refuge in the forest. Following the map on the inside of the collar, they found the trunk, opened it, and lived happily for many years.
The lawyer and the judge, whose schemes to defraud each other the treasure had given way to fisticuffs and blunt objects, regained consciousness and stumbled back to find the trunk empty. The lawyer was convinced that the judge had taken all the treasure, and vice versa, beginning a feud that would last generations.
The cat, meanwhile, was fine.
I grew up in a tenement that looked out on the back of the minotaur’s head. The minotaur statue is older than the city and taller than any building in it. Our tenement is nearly as tall, not nearly as old, and in far worse repair.
The statue gazes out across the plain of salt, which the scholars say was a sea that dried up years ago, and my siblings and I gaze with it into the hazy horizon.
The scholars don’t know who built the statue, or why, but everyone else says it’s a marker to guide travelers over the salt plain. However, everyone, including the scholars, agrees the plain is impossible to cross–too vast, too empty of landmarks. With all the wind-stirred dust, you can’t navigate by stars; by day, you can barely guess where the sun is.
My brothers and sisters and I do go out onto the plain at daybreak and dusk, when the twilight seeps into everything, and we might be walking on a flat of sky. It’s the one advantage we’ve got in the salt quarter. The old city has history; the river districts have trade and communication with distant lands; and the elite quarter has the evening cool of the mountains. A half hour at either end of the day to explore an empty blue world doesn’t seem like much in comparison.
We find our way back by the broken silhouettes of the mountains, and the prongs of the minotaur’s horns above them. One night, we found a man collapsed at the base of the minotaur statue, covered in salt dust. Under the white coating, we saw his glasses and boots were the blue of twilight on the plain.
We went for a healer and returned to find the man gone. The scholars and city guard told us he was a lunatic who’d wandered out onto the plain. We didn’t believe them; we knew the impossible when we saw it.
They built his pyre on our rooftop–our building was closest, and they didn’t want to move him far, which made us even more suspicious. We knew secret ways, so we crept up and stole his boots and glasses.
We argued all night and drew lots. In the predawn twilight, the glasses show me trails on the plain. I set my foot on one to see where the boots will take me…