MY NEW NEIGHBOR AND I get to talking through the wall between our Rooms:

 

“In the course of my wanderyears following the dissolution of my anal marriage to that nun and the crossing of God’s DNA with mine,” he begins, in a tone like it’s a long story he’s gearing up to tell, “I was imprisoned in one of the towns I passed through.”

 

Opening the last beer from my Room’s mini-fridge while tasting my willpower not to drink it dying inside me, I resolve to listen though there’s no way my neighbor can tell whether I’m actually up at the wall unless I ask questions or grunt in understanding.

 

“It was one of those situations,” he continues, “where I hadn’t actually committed the crime they booked me for, but since there were so many crimes from previous towns that I had — and gotten away with — it seemed more or less fair to do some time here. Kind of make up for all of them, you know?”

 

I nod, inaudibly.

 

“So they locked me away and I thought that was it, like a life sentence. They wanted to watch me rot, more for who I was than for what I’d done.”

 

He pauses here long enough that I sigh to prove I’m listening.

 

“So I started doing my time, and before long these photos of me in there, deep in my cell, surfaced on the Internet. A man from the apartment next door had been photographing me, shooting straight into the prison.”

 

“Shooting into the prison? It wasn’t in a … like, secure location?” I ask, proud that I can picture what he’s talking about.

 

“Nope. It was right on Main Street, above an Indian restaurant.”

 

AS MY NEIGHBOR pushes the story forward like a cart along an alley, I find myself drawn into the Internet, picking up the story there, looking at the prison pics rather than listening to him describe them. His voice sounds like the humming of a generator in the background, powering my computer while I search.

 

In the pics he looks much younger but not much healthier … though I can’t say what he looks like now, since I’ve only ever heard his voice.

 

The fact that I’ve never actually seen him starts to seem weird and menacing, not least because it hasn’t occurred to me until now.

 

I get frightened and part of me wants to go back to listening to him, in case he starts casting spells, but I’m too deep in the photo gallery to climb out. I get that water-filling-the-room feeling, but try to keep my breathing even and push past it.

 

I keep scrolling through pics and reading digests of what happened:

 

Lester Mance, the guy in the apartment next to the prison, started out taking pictures of all the prisoners, in the most predictably compromising positions — shower stuff, beat-off stuff, some submission and punishment stuff, whatever he could manage through the windows … his aim was low.

 

BUT SOMETHING MORE PROFOUND MANIFESTED IN HIS SHOTS OF MY NEIGHBOR: total resignation covered my neighbor’s face like a skin condition, an apartness from the usual grim flux of prison life, too sad and peaceful to be called despair, though it wasn’t enlightenment either. More like the profound knowledge that he was right where he deserved to be, in a cell the size of all the space he deserved on this planet after all the waste he’d laid to the spaces he’d passed through on his way here … and a humble, almost reverential acceptance of this knowledge.

 

“A sort of beatification through confinement, the limits of his soul expressed in terms of the limits of his cell,” according to the Artforum article which first popularized the pics in the art world.

 

“A man who knew he had God in him and yet had used that God for nothing but the most predictable sort of debasement,” the article, by Rachel Kushner, elaborated.

 

Soon collectors were coming to town, eager to get up close to the source, in on the ground floor.

 

When the demand to possess my neighbor in the flesh got high enough, the art world submitted a petition for his release to the judge who’d put him away.

 

This judge, aware that he was being offered a rare chance to put his hand in art-world greatness, released my neighbor after taking the minimum requisite time to appear as though he were weighing a grave decision.

 

When my neighbor got out, the art world hosted a Release Day Parade to welcome its newest celebrity onto the open market. The expectation was the he’d take his saintly face on an international tour, posing as a modern-day Augustine, bloated with a Dead God decaying in his tissue.

 

*****

BUT AS SOON AS HE WAS RELEASED into the arms and lap of Larry Gagosian and prepped for his first junket in Paris, my neighbor reverted.

 

He simply went back to how he’d been before prison, like he’d been on PAUSE.

 

The beatitude that had crowded his face when all alone in his cell facing a lifetime in there cleared up like a bout of teenage acne and the full skeeze of his previous self seeped back to the surface.

 

As the art world had no use for a man like this, Larry Gagosian sent him to Cleveland with a bus ticket and $35 in spending money.

 

Lester Mance, who’d been held on retainer as the official photographer of my neighbor’s saintly passage into the art world, was let go. He pulled a Jerzy Kosinski soon thereafter.

 

The original photos of my neighbor in prison, sweating soul-sickness, sold for tens of millions while my neighbor, in his present incarnation, kept along the path he’d been on until it deposited him next door to me in Dodge City.

 

*****

I close my computer and find that my Real/Not-real circuitry is too scrambled for comfort: I’m suddenly less than certain about whether what I’ve just read refers to the person who actually lives next door to me, or to some historical figure as remote as Marlon Brando.

 

Part of me wants to get up and knock on the wall and try to rouse my neighbor so I can ask him to vouch for his story, but another part can’t shake the fear that, were I to knock on the wall, it’d cave in and I’d fall through into some pit-dream where I’d just keep falling.

 

So I end up dozing in a hammock-like middle zone stretched between one decision and the other, flexing my abs with the prayer that morning will come if I hold this position long enough.

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