Karen, strangely, is daydreaming. It will take some getting used to, a husband named Kim. She has known girls named Kim since she was a squirt in a sunsuit. Quite a few really. Kimberleys and plain Kims. Look at his hair gleaming in the sun. My husband, weird as it sounds. They will pray together, whole-skinned, and memorize every word of Master's teaching.
The thousands stand and chant. Around them in the world, people ride escalators going up and sneak secret glances at the faces coming down. People dangle teabags over hot water in white cups. Cars run silently on the autobahns, streaks of painted light. People sit at desks and stare at office walls. They smell their shirts and drop them in the hamper. People bind themselves into numbered seats and fly across time zones and high cirrus and deep night, knowing there is something they've forgotten to do.
The future belongs to crowds.
He walked among the bookstore shelves, hearing Muzak in the air. There were rows of handsome covers, prosperous and assured. He felt a fine excitement, hefting a new book, fitting hand over sleek spine, seeing lines of type jitter past his thumb as he let the pages fall. He was a young man, shrewd in his fervors, who knew there were books he wanted to read and others he absolutely had to own, the ones that gesture in special ways, that have a rareness or daring, a charge of heat that stains the air around them. He made a point of checking authors' photos, browsing at the south wall. He examined books stacked on tables and set in clusters near the cash terminals. He saw stacks on the floor five feet high, arranged in artful fanning patterns. There were books standing on pedestals and bunched in little gothic snuggeries. Bookstores made him slightly sick at times. He looked at the gleaming best-sellers. People drifted through the store, appearing caught in some unhappy dazzlement. There were books on step terraces and Lucite wall-shelves, books in pyramids and theme displays. He went downstairs to the paperbacks, where he stared at the covers of mass-market books, running his fingertips erotically over the raised lettering. Covers were lacquered and gilded. Books lay cradled in nine-unit counterpacks like experimental babies. He could hear them shrieking Buy me. There were posters for book weeks and book fairs. People made their way around shipping cartons, stepping over books scattered on the floor. He went to the section on modern classics and found Bill Gray's two lean novels in their latest trade editions, a matched pair banded in austere umbers and rusts. He liked to check the shelves for Bill.
On his way out of the store he saw a man in a torn jacket come stumbling in, great-maned and filthy, rimed saliva in his beard, old bruises across the forehead gone soft and crumbly. People stood frozen in mid-motion, careful to remain outside the zone of infection. The man looked for someone to address. It was a large bright room full of stilled figures, eyes averted. Traffic pounded in the street. One of the man's trouser legs was mashed into a battered rubber boot; the other dragged on the floor in strips. A security guard approached from the mezzanine and the man lifted thick hands in a gesture of explanation.
"I'm here to sign my books," he said.
Everyone waited as the words traveled across the room, slowly unfolding their meaning.
"Bring me a pen so I can sign my books already."
The guard moved in, not actually looking at the man, who drew back quickly.
"Watch with the hands. There's no right that you should touch my person. Just, that's all, don't put no hands on me."
People saw it was all right to move again. Just another New York moment. The guard followed the man out the revolving door and Scott went out behind them. He was running a little late but wanted to look at the Warhols only a few blocks away. The museum lobby was crowded. He went downstairs, where people moved in nervous searching steps around the paintings. He walked past the electric-chair canvases, the repeated news images of car crashes and movie stars, and he got used to the anxious milling, it seemed entirely right, people eager to be undistracted, ray-gunned by fame and death. Scott had never seen work that was so indifferent to the effect it had on those who came to see it. The walls looked off to heaven in a marvelous flat-eyed gaze. He stood before a silk screen called Crowd. The image was irregular, deep streaks marking the canvas, and it seemed to him that the crowd itself, the vast mesh of people, was being riven by some fleeting media catastrophe. He moved along and stood finally in a room filled with images of Chairman Mao. Photocopy Mao, silk-screen Mao, wallpaper Mao, synthetic-polymer Mao. A series of silk screens was installed over a broader surface of wallpaper serigraphs, the Chairman's face a pansy purple here, floating nearly free of its photographic source. Work that was unwitting of history appealed to Scott. He found it liberating. Had he ever realized the deeper meaning of Mao before he saw these pictures? A subway rumbled past in the stony dark nearby. He stood and looked a while longer, feeling a curious calm even with people moving steadily in and out. The surge of bodies made its own soft roar.
Outside, a woman in a padded jacket followed him down the street. He had the impression she was small, with close-cropped hair, carrying some kind of animal in her coat. He picked up the pace but she kept on him, saying, "You're from out of town so I can talk to you."
He almost turned and looked at her but then thought no.
Saying, "Don't be ascared of me, mister, I only want to talk."
He walked faster, looking straight ahead, and she was still there, at his shoulder, saying, "I picked your face out of the air as this is someone I can trust."
He pointed to a blinking traffic-sign, hoping she'd understand he was pressed for time and this was goodbye and no hard feelings please, but she hurried across the street right behind him and moved alongside as they reached the curbstone. That's when she tried to give him the animal. He didn't turn to see what it was. Something dark and sick was his impression. He was almost running now but she kept up, saying, "Take it, mister, take it." He would listen to her but would not reply and would not let her touch him or give him anything she had touched. He thought of the wrecked man in the bookstore who recoiled when the guard reached for him. Neither side wanted to be touched.
Saying, "Take it outside the city, where it's got a chance to live."
When there is enough out-of-placeness in the world, nothing is out of place. He rode to the eighth-floor lobby of a midtown hotel, an atrium palace in the Broadway ruck, with English ivy hanging off the tiered walkways, with trelliswork and groves of trees, elevators falling softly through the bared interior, a dream that once belonged to freeway cities. He saw her at a table near the bar, an overnight bag and a carrying case on the floor by her chair. She was in her late forties, he figured, with whitish blond hair, thick and rigid, shooting out of a sea-bleached face. Her eyes were light blue, so clear and nearly startling he knew it would take an effort not to stare.
"You have to be Brita Nilsson."
"It's the look. I don't know, professional, accomplished, world traveler, slightly apart. Not to mention the camera case. I'm Scott Martineau."
"My guide to the frontier."
"In fact I got lost several times on my approach to the city and then got rattled by traffic even though it's only weekend traffic and I finally got straightened out and even found a place to park but there were unsettling moments yet to come, psychic intruders, sort of living shadows, and they speak. I haven't been to New York in years and wouldn't mind sitting and chatting a while before we hit the streets. Are you staying here?"