This whole minced Rublev movie theater scene I was so down with last week is getting to be too much, or too something. All that mist is ghosting off the screen onto the sleeping man in the front row, whether Lutz or another, and I don’t want to be here when it’s sheathed him entirely.

 

I send up a distress signal from my seat, a mild one, but there it goes.

 

An employee escorts me into a side area.

 

He hands me a towel, thoughtfully warmed, and a cup of lemony brine.

 

“I haven’t seen you since you were a boy and your father was younger than you are now,” he shudders, when I’ve handed him back the towel bunched up in the mostly empty cup, warming up, I can tell, to unstopper on me a reverie of action comics and baseball cards, bats and mitts, borrowed bikes, hot rods with someone’s uncle on Saturday afternoons in spring, the garage door open to all that fresh pollen, malted milkshakes, somebody’s brother’s Telecaster and a litany of what used to cost a nickel, all mutated freakish by the wringer that capped off the century.

 

“I’m feeling none of that,” I put my foot down, one at a time, tipping the other side to side to slosh off the maudlin that has begun to condense from the air.

 

He shakes his head at the world-mystery, rummages in his pocket for what he says are the tears he would like to cry. The tag on the chest of his blue jumpsuit says Pawprint.

 

“That you?” I ask, nudging at it.

 

He seems to think I mean him in general, his whole person. He nods in the affirmative.

 

He looks curiously at the damp rag I handed him, like maybe this is, after all, what he pulled from his pocket. Then he remembers a scripted question. “Would you like to go someplace else?”

 

“Can I just leave?”

 

“Not until the film is over.”

 

I nod, someplace else it is.

 

He nods too, and off we set down a hall, doors with names and degree abbreviations lining our way.

 

“How far you wanna go?” he asks.

 

“Keep going,” I say, and we do.

 

“Nice hall, eh?” he pipes up, a few hours later.

 

A few hours after that, we come to the end.

 

“Okay,” he pats my elbow. “There you are then. More lemon water? Another warm towel?”

 

I decline and he’s gone.

 

Through the door is an interval of climbing. Up I go, through a hot, dusty afternoon, not quite hand-over-hand but my feet have to wedge in at diagonals to retain purchase. At first it’s thrilling, then I get to wishing it over. It’s too far, too high, I don’t like it anymore.

 

I can tell it’s somewhere in Southeast Asia, Thailand or Vietnam, and that I won’t get to stop climbing until I reach China. I can see it way overhead, far to the North, higher by some brusque power of ten than I’ve ever climbed before.

 

*****

After what feels like years, I arrive in China. I have a thick beard now, a new accent, and something wrong with my back.

 

A medicine man near the top heals me into a green meadow.

 

Families picnic all around me, children chase balls through grass and air. Kites tangle, beget new kites.

 

I am fantastically hungry. Carts with steaming metal slabs are set up on all the margins, grilling meat and dough, selling light summery drinks anchored in cups with gummy lumps.

 

I am about to buy as much as whatever currency I may find in my pockets will let me, when I remember what happened last time I ate street food in China. I sit down, realize, with the disappointment of a child realizing that he’ll have to return to the store another day as the [ ] is not about to get bought for him right here and now, that I’m going to have to think this through.

 

I lose the afternoon in thought.

 

The picnics abate, remembered in monuments of plastic wrap and beer bottles.

 

Alone in the evening, I spy, just down the hillside from me (as if I hadn’t yet thought to look in this direction), a gas station with a convenience store. There will be my dinner, and dessert, safely irradiated and sealed up fresh for my gringo valve.

 

I laugh at the simplicity and roll to my feet.

 

As I set out toward the store, some older men, dressed in robes, press in at the sides, whisper behind and beside me, to me or one another.

 

“You shall find that difficult,” one says, after much conference, in the first English since Pawprint took his leave. “You shall not reach that place,” he warns.

 

And it’s true. I’ve been walking at least an hour, and am no nearer than when I started. It has, however, gotten darker, as though I’ve made progress through time but not through space, though I suppose that’d likely prove equally achievable sitting still, asleep even.

 

As it gets dark, it tends toward red, not black. As it gets redder, these men begin taking their seats, and more file in, their jocular voices fading as they draw near.

 

It’s now red all over. The picnic meadow and gas station spread has been rolled up, replaced by banks of folding chairs under a low ceiling, at the end of a corridor with nooks cut into the wall, faces peering out through hanging ranks of devotional paraphernalia.

 

I am shown to a seat as well, and do not refuse it. A bowl of steaming tea is placed in my hands, and a plate of grilled meat on sticks is laid out on a low table. The man beside me motions to take some and, reasoning that I may never eat again if I do not, I do.

 

In front of us, through a pane of tempered glass, is an even redder place, sealed off at all its edges except for a door on the side directly across from the glass.

 

There is an audience of fifty or sixty people around me now, all of them trained on the glass.

 

From far down the line one whispers something, and I can hear the whisper approaching me, ear to mouth to ear, until the man next to me spits out a mouthful of English: “This is a Red Chamber. It is a room where something must happen. For this, we wait.”

 

When I hear “room” and “happen,” my thoughts stray to evisceration, vivisection, the dyeing of ventricles, Benn’s kleine Aster. I let these thoughts paw the ground, plant something in it, retreat. Then I ask how long they’ve all been waiting, entering my whisper back into the Translation Centipede in the other direction.

 

It comes back, “Thirty thousand years.”

 

Later on, waking me up, I am asked if I would like more snacks. I check my fingers, my heart, tell him sure, please.

Advertisements