I pass out of the Wayfarer’s Tavern through the slot in the back, carrying my strip of paper that still says “Dalton” and is, I have learned, an entrance ticket for an event of some sort. Bouncers in jeans and black T-shirts come out from under lit torches along the walls and glide along beside me in silence like a dance. Behind them, off to the sides, I can hear water lapping and dripping, and, for a moment, I wonder if they’ve recently come up out of the water, amphibious bouncers. It’s too dark, despite the torchlight, to tell if they are wet or dry. After ten or fifteen minutes of undifferentiated walking, a hand grabs me between the shoulder blades and compels me into a side-chamber, a kind of nave. “You wait in here,” he grumbles, and is gone, sliding some rough-sounding panel shut behind him, penning me in. A dim light creeps on, from where I cannot tell. There’s a small box at one edge of the space that looks like a Nickelodeon or a peep show box, on stilts like a tripod. I look in here, adjusting my eyelashes so I can see with my eye pressed against the cold glass of the viewer. Inside transpires an altercation between two pale men in faintly striped shirts, almost like mimes, but neither their costumes nor their mannerisms are quite extreme enough. The film is silent, but one is clearly shouting in a livid state at the other, spittle fuming up onto his lips. The other has more of a slow-burning quality, staring hard as the man yells on and on, in a fit. Finally, apparently unable to bear it any longer, the slow-burning man reaches out with an unhurried but very deliberate finger at the screaming man, and draws it harshly from left to right, apparently aiming at the man’s lips, as if to mime zipping them shut. But he aims too low and, with that horizontal motion, slits the the other man’s throat with the tip of his finger. The slit man sputters and shakes like a man under a fire hose, until he is so drenched in blood that his feet struggle to stay on the floor, and then he topples, and, for a moment, floats. His murderer regards his fingertip curiously, then breathes a luxurious sigh of relief now that the shouting has died down. The film repeats. I watch it one more time, and then move to another part of the dim chamber. In another corner, I find a commode stuffed full with letters, all addressed to “Doctor” or “Professor” Dalton. Many look like they’ve been steamed open. I take up one of these and slide out the letter inside. It’s short, and written in a handsome, modestly italicized cursive. It reads:

Dear Professor Dalton,

I regret the great length of time that has passed since last we’ve corresponded. I can only assume that a great deal has transpired in your life since then, most of it, I hope, of a salubrious and optimistic nature. I can mostly report the same for myself, although, as you may perhaps not know, I committed suicide in the autumn of ’97. It was no tremendous thing, simply a task that had to be attended to. I would have written sooner, were I not such an inveterate procrastination-artist. Anyway, since the suicide, I have resided in a room that is not altogether uncomfortable, although it is not especially remarkable either. “One ought better not expect too much from these sorts of places,” after all. The room looks to have once been a station of some sort, a bus or a train station, for instance, although there are no tracks to be seen. Whether it is some rendition of heaven or hell I cannot say. I have the impression that it is neither, but perhaps some decorator is still en route, and will see to it that the place is hung with more evocative decorations. I do not know whether or not I long for this. There is a newsstand with a rack of belletristic paperbacks, the majority of which I have by this point read. A few I was unable to complete. There is a food stall in one corner that serves reasonably tasty items like calzones and hot pockets, and has chili about once a week. The women who work there wear hairnets and call me “Joven,” which I find amusing. They have at long last agreed to serve me coffee with only a modicum of sugar. There is a chronic shortage of paper napkins, but, with patience, we get by. All in all, at any rate, all is well. I look forward to your reply.

 

The letter was unsigned. I put it back in its steamed-open envelope, and felt momentarily guilty, as if I were the one that had steamed it open. Then the guilt subsided and I wondered what to do next.

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