I was a tank mechanic in Nam, Surly said. “Such a massive instrument of destruction, but remarkably easy to operate.” He drank down his gin and motioned the bartender to pour him another. Soft music flitted about the edges of the shadowed room, an oddly liquid sound but consistent enough to make the few lingering souls in the bar with their slow orchestra of whispers seem like background noise. “Those old M46s, you should’ve seen em. The things they have today make our old babies archaic.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Ninety-mil cannon gun. I never got a chance to fire it in combat but I did in tactical. Just two shots would vaporize those three-story buildings we had dolled up to look like commy churches. If there are such things.” Surly’s gaze deepened and landed on the mirror behind the bar and then swam past it, beyond his own worn reflection to a place shorn of time. The bartender brought him his drink. “Anyway, that was a long time ago and I was a coward back then. My father was a congressman in Pennsylvania and I had him pull some strings to get me back home. Day before I left the bush one of our aerial teams miscalculated and napalmed my whole unit.” He uncuffed his right shirtsleeve and showed me his hand and forearm, the skin warped and melted and patched in odd visceral tones, as if the insides of his arm had burst through to breathe.
“That goes all the way up to the shoulder,” he said, and rolled his sleeve back down. “They grafted the skin from my back and thighs. Only two in my company lived through it and the other guy shot himself a year later. I got a discharge and a medal and came home to a parade, like I was some kind of hero or something. Wasn’t anything heroic came from that war, though.” He looked at me and I looked away but not before seeing in his eyes a flash of deep lasting shame and the force of its decay, but also strength, as if in the wayward course of his life and his incredible sufferings, both in and outside of war, he’d learned to accept that defeat was imminent but dignity was not.
“Forty-five years later, eighteen surgeries, law school, three marriages, a career in politics—I sit here and say with all honesty that I feel like my life’s finally been validated.”
I began to wonder if this was some sort of elaborately staged pep talk to help pedal me through the grief of losing my brother or if it was going to turn into some rambling soliloquy on suffering and the virtue therein, and so I asked myself if I could get away with leaving under the pretense of using the restroom and then never return, just abandon my frail little glass of bourbon and this old man with his scars and his bedtime stories and go upstairs to crisp hotel sheets and fragrant dreams and those meandering songs of night that follow you deep into your own bones.
“I have this memory,” he said, staring into the mirror again. Talking to himself or through himself. His former self. “I don’t know if it’s a memory of how things actually happened or if I’m recalling a dream from back then. But I remember lying in a clearing on my left side and there’s fire and smoke and screaming men all around me. The ground in front of my face is on fire, my body is on fire, even the sky is burning. Fire crawling and hissing and snapping like an alien jungle creature or some other ageless thing suffocating down there in the molten innards of our planet for millions of years and finally come to the surface for air. Fire roaring. I remember lying there melting and knowing I was dying a painful death of slow torment, suffering and agony beyond words or even the thoughts of words, and yet I was calm, relaxed, submissive. Then I suddenly had this feeling that I wasn’t in the bush at all, across the world from home. I wasn’t at war, I wasn’t fighting anything. I don’t know how I knew it or what had brought me there, but I was in the great city of Rome, burning on the ground in the middle of my street in the great fire of 64. This was nineteen hundred years earlier to the date, my friend.”
I finished my drink. “Quite a story,” I said.
“I looked it up years later after thinking about it for so long and found out the dates coincided. It’s almost like the fire had melted into the earth some type of time tunnel or something, I don’t know. Very strange, and I still can’t explain it. I know you don’t believe me, and of course I don’t have any evidence to support it. I don’t even know if the memory is from the waking world or the dream world. But it was real, I’m sure of it. I can still smell it, feel it bubbling on my skin.”
The bartender brought me another bourbon without my requesting it and then Surly said, Do you read literature?
Yes, I said. What are you reading now, he said.
“I’m reading Nietzsche. The transcripts of our enslavement. I’ve been going through his entire catalog again, looking for things I’d missed the first time around. The human mind matures in giant leaps over the course of ten years.”
Yes, indeed, Surly said, studying me. Have you ever heard of Desmond Paul?
Yeah, I said. I’ve never read any of his work, but I know he’s been in the news a lot lately. I’m not even sure what he writes.
Surly took a long pull from his glass and said, He died a few months ago. This is one of the reasons he’s been in the news. Controversy surrounding his death, rumors involving the works he’s left behind.
Was he murdered or something? I asked.
Possibly. No one knows for sure. The initial reports said he died of a heart attack. He was very young for a writer of his potency. Plus there are some people that think he’s not really dead.
I raised my eyebrow at him.
“There’s a lady sitting alone in a booth behind us,” he said. “Go ahead and take a look.”
I turned slowly and saw a woman sitting at a table, watching me. She looked to be about my age, thin with a very potent gaze. She nodded at me and I turned back around. Who is she, I said, and took a drink.
“She’s a journalist from D.C. A very good journalist, actually. So good that she was fired from her magazine for a story she wrote about Mr. Paul. What I want to give you, her and I have to give it to you together.”
“Man,” I said, exasperated. “I ain’t talkin to any reporters right now.”
“She’s not here to interview you. Don’t you understand what’s happening here? You’ve been chosen for something very important, very unique. There are only a handful of people in the world who’ve had this opportunity.”
Then the woman was standing behind us. Hello, gentlemen.
“I’d like to introduce you to Pamela Scott,” Surly said. I turned and shook her hand.
“Let’s all three of us go back to my booth,” she said, and Surly set a fifty on the bar and excused himself while I followed Pamela back to her table. I began to feel like I was treading water except I was meters beneath the surface, unable to breathe, unable to move in any direction, and there were these massive water creatures of immense power and intellect hovering or hunting in slow circles about me, studying me in the dark abyss. Pamela was telling me how she’d recently heard my music, how Surly had bought her one of my records.
“Pretty impressive, but jazz isn’t really my thing,” she said. “I’ve never understood it. I need music to move me, to drive my body into motion. Jazz is music you think to, not necessarily music you move to.”
If you’ve never made love to a jazz record then you’ve never really made love, I said, and Surly, carrying a small package wrapped in brown paper, sat next to Pamela, directly across the table from me.
“In this package,” he said, sliding it toward me, “you’ll find some studying materials along with a novel written by Desmond Paul. You’ll also find contact information for both Pamela and myself, which you’ll need, sooner than you think.”
Why are you giving this to me.
“Well,” he said, sighing deeply, “I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve traveled the world. Countless times. Trying to find peace, find solace. To seek validation. As I told you before, I’ve not always been pleased with my decisions or behavior. And I’ve certainly not been content in my nature. It’s only due to this gift,” his gaze dropping to the package, “that I have finally found that validation. And now I wish to pass it on to you.”
But why me?
Surly leaned forward so that his head burned brightly beneath the white glow of the hanging lamp. His skin was spotted and stained, faded and elasticized, almost translucent. He smiled and brought his burned and deformed hand up above the package and waved it softly in a gesture of indifference and said, “Because I love your music. It’s as simple as that.” Then he leaned back in his seat, smiling.
“Read the materials and then most everything will begin to make sense,” Pamela said. “Then read the novel. It won’t just change your life,” and then both she and Surly slid out of the booth and stood to leave. They shook my hand and wished me a pleasant evening, leaving me alone in that dim room with my eyes trained on the package, waiting for it to shudder and then burst with the black crawling madness borne of it. After a few minutes nothing happened and so I took the elevator up to my room and sat on the bed and just listened, listened to nothing, listened to the atomic rumble of dust like waves of souls gliding in and out of the open window, listened to the sounds of the city and the asphalt burning cold and lifeless in the howling chorus of night. Then I turned on the lamp and ripped open the package and found some papers folded in half atop a bruised black book with an odd radiance seeping from it, the words Jade Visions stamped in faded green foil upon the cover. I began to leaf through the papers and then decided just to read from the beginning, a printed copy of a news brief:
Famous writer found dead
(AP) CHICAGO, IL — Award-winning novelist and short story writer Desmond Paul was found dead in a Chicago hotel room early this morning, according to Chicago police.
A hotel service worker found the body at around 7 a.m. and notified hotel management. Though official autopsy results are pending, the cause of death is an apparent heart attack and no foul play is suspected.
Paul, 40, had been widely recognized in recent years as the leading voice of his generation in American letters. His most recent novel, The Death of Time, was nominated for the Pen-Faulkner and National Book awards after its publication almost a decade ago.
The rest of the papers were stapled together. They looked to be photocopied notes, scraps written by hand and typeset. There was a brief message on the first page:
To read the story in its entirety, you’re gonna have to buy the book when it comes out.