Ellen Terris Brenner
Especially in a small town, people who are at all unusual draw attention whether they like it or not. And someone who is incredibly different...
I awake from a night made restless by my usual stew of fragmented dreams to an early morning full of fog and the effortless song of birds. Some people hate foggy days, but I adore them. There's something about the acoustics of fog that make bird-song, and all outdoor sounds, more intimate--held close by all that opacity instead of flying away into the unobstructed air. One tends to notice things like that when one is held as still as I am.
I lie there awhile, enjoying the birds and the patch of sky I can see through the window without moving. I'm not quite ready yet for the ordeal of getting my outlandish body out of bed. In some ways this is the hardest part of my day. Not that any part of my day is exactly easy, but every morning tempts me with the appeal of just staying in bed and evading all my little daily struggles. I do love life enough, despite my problems, that getting up wins out most of the time. There is, however, that occasional morning when I go ahead and let temptation win. And I don't feel any too guilty about it either--even though every single time I do stay in, someone inevitably comes looking for me, worried that I've had one of my mishaps.
That's life in small-town New England for you, everyone minding your business as well as their own, especially when one happens to stick out like the proverbial sore thumb. Heh. But I don't mind. In fact I find it rather comforting because, truth to tell, I really do just barely manage on my own. I mean, I try not to make a habit of falling down or getting stuck somewhere or otherwise getting myself in a fix, but it has been known to happen, and it's not a whit less terrifying to me each time it does. It's really only the confidence that somebody will come looking for me that allows me to go about my doings with any semblance of serenity. So I bless every one of those beloved busybodies, even the ones who would make me laugh out loud if I were capable of it.
Despite the hangover from my bad dreams, this is not a day from which I really desire to play hooky. So I steel myself and commence with the maneuvers required to get me off my stomach and onto my feet. Glasses next--the usual moment of frustrated groping, wondering if I have undone myself by putting them someplace dumb, until finally my hand connects with them and I nearly explode with relief. Like most visually impaired people I'm perforce a creature of habit, so my glasses are nearly always on the dresser where they're supposed to be. Well I remember, though, one particularly ghastly morning that I simply could not find them anywhere. Eventually Millie came looking for me when I was an hour late for work, to find me nearly in hysterics, having spent that hour methodically feeling every horizontal surface in the house without success. Why I didn't just break down and call her, I'll never know; I can get pigheaded sometimes. We never did find that pair of glasses, incidentally-- it's still a mystery where they went. Joel made me another set that very day, while Millie sat with me the whole time, reassuring me that I was not being a silly ninny for having worked myself into such a state. I just love Millie. And Joel, too, of course.
Glasses found and strapped on so that I can at least somewhat see where I'm going--now into the shower, and on with my robe. My cane and my vocoder are right by the door where I usually leave them, thank God. I grab the cane, sling the vocoder's carrying strap over my shoulder, and carefully head out the door.
The village of Mumford is a tiny thing. The business district, such as it is, comprises six blocks worth of Main Street. Its storefronts maintain a balance between the utilitarian and the picturesque: Joel's True Value and Rodding's Feed & Grain coexist with Millie's rambling bookstore and a gaggle of antique emporia. The cross streets are lined with wood frame houses under elderly maples. Most of the structures are plain little cottages, but a sprinkling are grand Victorian wedding cakes festooned with verandas and cupolas, though their grandeur is nearly all broken into flats these days. I live in one of the plain cottages, though a room in one of the wedding-cakes would have been more aesthetically pleasing. I just couldn't have borne facing all those diabolical steps every single day.
The fog has nearly all burned off by now. I make my slow progression down the block to Main Street.
"Hey! Pole!" a cheerful voice greets me just as I round the corner. Since I can neither speak nor turn my head nor acknowledge a greeting in any other normal way, I simply come to a halt and wait until the person accosting me swims into my field of vision.
Of course I've already recognized the voice long before I set eyes on the fellow. It's Crandell, one of my "biggest fans," as I often joke to Millie--one of those people who seem especially to enjoy my company because I offer the least resistance to their desire to talk. Crandell's a dear, and mostly harmless, but the volume of his outpourings never matches the import of their content, so I don't even bother to power up my vocoder (just as well--it's a real chore to walk and type at the same time). I proceed on my slow way once he's caught up to me, and let him blather on at my side, reflecting yet again on how I'm saved from constant social disgrace by my inability to laugh out loud.
Thankfully, he has no business he can think of in the bookstore, so he leaves me in peace at the entrance, heading off to the cafe in search of more victims to harangue. The bell jingles and the comforting book-smell wafts out at me as I negotiate my way through the door, and Millie yells a hello from somewhere in the back. This is my real home, even more so than the cottage that serves as my domicile. Here I feel enfolded and supported; here I can more than hold my own.
Millie comes over and leans convivially over the top of my computer hutch as I get myself settled. I can see her out of one of the mirror-lenses of my glasses; she's giving me her "concerned mother" look. "You seem a little tired," she observes. "Didn't you sleep okay?"
I have the vocoder on at this point, and stop to type in my reply. The voice that flows out of the little notebook-sized machine lacks something in inflection and nuance, but it is more natural-sounding and beautiful than I ever would have expected of a bunch of microchips. Emory worked really hard to get it that way--one reason why he is another one of the people I love.
"Frankly, no," I type. "I had another one of my patented nights of surrealistic dreams. Definitely fueled by this upcoming interview foolishness--at one point there was a bright green lizard in a pink business suit shoving a microphone in my face, asking how it felt to go through life with a pole up my butt."
"You know you can always back out of it," says Millie. She's now making her endearingly wry face--lips compressed, eyebrows up into her bangs, head cocked to one side. She's forty-five, an independent divorcee, and this bookstore is her baby of ten years. She moved from Boston to this village just to birth it. She takes great pride in being considered almost a local now after a mere decade's residence.
"Just because my unconscious is throwing temper tantrums does not mean I don't want to go through with it," I type back. "And it's hardly as if it's my first time. Though I sure hope it gets easier with repetition. Hang on a bit."
I have to stop typing because I need my hands free to carefully lower myself into my chair. Another one of Joel's handyman fixes for the peculiarities of my body. With Millie's blessing, he cut a circular hole in the floor just in front of my computer workstation, and affixed a cushioned bench equipped with sturdy armrests above it. The bench has a slot cut into its seat, perfectly aligned with the floor hole. This arrangement provides me one of the few places in the world where I can sit on a chair like a normal human being, for which I'm profoundly grateful. But actually getting myself into that seat requires a few tricky moves, to get that pole of mine properly inserted into that hole and slot.
Yes. A pole. Really.
It's nearly impossible to explain myself to anyone who has not yet heard the tale, without sooner or later hitting something so ludicrous that the hearer bursts into laughter, insisting he or she is being put on--it's a joke, right? Nothing so ridiculous could ever exist. Hell, I live with it, and I often want to laugh--when I don't feel like screaming, that is. (I wish I could do either.) Even my unconscious seems to find it funny--"a pole up my butt" indeed.
But that's exactly what I have. Not just up my butt, but clear through my body. About four inches in diameter, about six and a half feet long, straight as the proverbial ramrod, made of an amazingly hard organic material that has been shown by analysis to be at least somewhat related to normal human cartilage; spitting me clean through the long axis of my body so that it issues from my mouth at one end and my anus at the other, completely occluding thereby my throat, my esophagus, large portions of my GI tract--
Totally revolted yet? Nobody can figure out how this could have happened, and nobody can say how it is that I am alive. The scientific types have unhelpfully concluded that, technically speaking, I'm not really alive--not, at least, in any regular sense of that word. I don't breathe, nor take in nourishment, nor seem to especially need either. And a good thing too, as I couldn't have managed either in the normal way; and thinking about how I would have handled elimination only invites more of the nervous laughter my predicament breeds like toadstools.
Suffice it to say that I do keep functioning, sustained by some mechanism and energy that cannot be determined by the white coat brigade. They've poked and they've prodded, they've taken pictures and scans and God knows what else, and all they come up with is a great big nothing. A mystery of science and a prisoner of absurdity, sibling to Kafka's cockroach but with nowhere near the dignity or pathos--heh. That's what I am.
Living or not, I have to put up with some pretty gruesome realities. That unforgiving pole rules my body, forcing it into a painfully undeviating alignment. My head it jams back at a grotesque angle; my face it crams into a eternal gaping grimace. My eyes wind up permanently fixed upon a spot on the ceiling behind me--in other words, I am functionally as good as blind. The upper end of the pole juts out a good eight inches before my face, just long enough to make it a challenge to go through doorways without fetching it a teeth- rattling whack. The nether end extends to about two inches above my ankles, so that I can walk, however awkwardly; but if the ground is any less that perfectly flat I get completely tangled. Stairs become an obstacle course. Sitting is completely out of the question, except through Joel's exotic arrangements. And now you see why lying down, or more accurately getting up from lying down, is such a production. What else? I've already mentioned I can't speak, can't make any kind of sound; I can barely move either--it's astonishing how much one's range of movement is limited if one's torso is rendered completely rigid.
Is this horrifying enough? How about the fact that they can't remove it? Turns out it's sensate, an integral part of my body. It has the weirdest sensitivity to knocks and pings, like a huge exposed funny-bone, as I've discovered to my agony from the thousands of times I've smashed one end or the other against something. Some bright-eyed whitecoat tried digging at it early on, and I went into such deep shock that the whole brigade feared for a bit that they had lost me--not that I felt they had any qualms about my well-being, mind you, but they surely didn't relish the embarrassment of killing such a promising subject before they'd figured out how he was alive.
Oh, and how about the fact that I have no more idea of where I come from than anybody else? I have no memory at all of my life prior to that night three years ago when I woke up-- naked, disoriented, transfixed--in the woods outside Mumford, and dear old Janeen Colver, seeing some strange commotion out in her back woodlot, threw a coat over her nightgown and went out with a flashlight to investigate.
It was pretty easy to determine that I was not from Mumford. But so far, I don't seem to be from anywhere else, either. My fingerprints have been sent around the world and have produced no match. Nobody has come forward with as much as a missing-persons report. My traces of memory would seem to point to the life of a typical middle-class American--but I must have been a loner, and too nondescript to have had my fingerprints recorded anywhere. I might as well have been dropped from the sky--punted out of the heavens by a renegade deity with a particularly sadistic sense of humor.
I found myself a man without a past, and with the most laughable excuse for a present, and with a future that would have been very grim indeed, had I not been adopted by the inimitable residents of Mumford. Dedicated eccentrics all, closely bound and yet self-reliant, they felt an instant, unanimous pang of compassion for this changeling that Fate had dropped into their backyard. Without a moment's hesitation, they took me into their hearts.
A moment I shall never forget: caught in Janeen's flashlight beam, unable to see whether I had found friend or foe, vainly clutching at my distended silenced throat as this unseen other swore under her breath in astonishment; and then her surprisingly strong arm around my shoulders, her gruff voice in my ear: "Lord bless you, son, I think you've been run through with a--well, I don't know what--but just you take it easy and lean on me, my house is just a few yards away."
And then lying there in a daze across her big old four-poster, shivering hard against this unyielding spear through my flesh, listening to Janeen on the phone to old Dr. Harvey: "Harv, you better come on out here. I've just found this young man in my woods and he... well, I don't think I can do it justice, but it's the closest thing you've ever seen to a feller swallowing a telephone pole... I'm sorry, Harv, I can't explain it any better than that... Well, then I suppose you'll just have to get out of bed and come see the poor feller for yourself, then, won't you?"
And then the strange procession of days that followed, in which, by degrees, the entire cast of characters in this little family theater called Mumford passed through Janeen's house, come to see this poor stranger to whom such a dreadful thing had happened--some wise, some foolish, some sensitive and some less so, but all uniformly possessed of the most astonishing sense of empathy. Empathy? How could one possibly empathize with something so bizarre? But that's the only word for it. Maybe after years of living together in a small town, sharing each other's tragedies and coping with each other's foibles, the spectacle of this man with something like a telephone pole through his body was not all that much stranger to them than their own existences. Just another poor devil with his particular cross to bear. Or so they seemed to be taking it.
Further, since I had materialized in their woods, they as one assumed that I was now their responsibility, and my predicament their task to alleviate. They took me in hand with characteristic country ingenuity. It was Janeen who first noticed my vision problem and called in Joel, who took some wire and some convex mirrors and rigged up the first, rough edition of my now ever-present "glasses." Joel, in turn, called in Emory, his nephew with the "fancy-pants technical-institute degree," who turned an obsolete notebook computer and some off-the-shelf voice-synthesis chips into a serviceable vocoder in an afternoon. And Janeen herself, pragmatically realizing that trousers were out of the question for me, sewed up some warm flannel into a kind of loose-fitting caftan-like robe. She's made my clothes ever since.
But it was Millie who did me the most beneficial service of all, if the least tangible. She sat by my side as I discovered (rediscovered?) my voice, talking me down from my initial shock into some semblance of sanity. How I remember lying there, typing on that little makeshift vocoder, venting all my anguish at this reality into which I'd been thrown: adrift in a freak's body, with no memory of who I was, and no name except that ghastly epithet "the telephone- pole man." "Well, then, what do you want to be called?" I remember her asking me. "I don't know," I typed back, and then I couldn't type any more because I was crying too hard to see. And she held my hand and stroked my head until I stopped crying, and we talked no more about my name that day. By the time I was in any state to think clearly about a name the nickname "Pole" had grown up around me and I simply accepted it. Somehow the sting had gone out of it by then, because the people who had planted that handle on me were no longer strangers.
Meanwhile, Dr. Harvey--after many persistent attempts to persuade various specialists they were not being handed a hoax--finally convinced some big-name city doctor to come down and look at me, and suddenly I was in a whole new kind of trouble. I was now up to my eyebrows in authorities, and under their callous ministrations I began to get in touch with the destiny of a freak. That was the period in which I nearly died from some damned fool of a specialist trying to take a sample from my "chondralloplasia," as they were pleased to call it. With no name and no concerned next-of-kin to fight for me, I was terrified I was about to be hauled off to some sort of dismal facility, where I would be the subject of endless research papers and most likely never see the light of day again.
But I reckoned without the good people of Mumford, who got their dander up at this treatment of their ward. Harv, chagrined at what he had unleashed, talked to the town elders, and they called a town meeting, and the town voted that the specialists couldn't have me. Bang. Just like that. New England town meeting style at its best. I have another indelible memory, this of a scene somewhere on the edge of farce, played out in Janeen's front parlor. All the specialists on one side, nervously perched on Janeen's old horsehair settee in their proper conservative suits; all the town elders on the other side, in their flannels and denims, grim looks all around; and me propped up in a corner, Millie and Janeen standing guard over me like a pair of possessive she-bears. The specialists left without me. I now belonged to the town.
And I have belonged here ever since.
I finish settling myself into my seat without any major upheavals. I boot the computer, plug my vocoder into it, and log into the net--by these actions I now can communicate with the entire globe of computer networks. This is what I live for, these days. It started out as a simple thing, just trying to be useful and taking a stab at earning my keep, getting the bookshop's finances on the machine and plugging into a few of the basic news services. But then, with Emory's help, I began to play around on the various networks. And then I discovered my gift.
At first all I did was talk--it was a pleasure to communicate on bulletin boards, where nobody needs to know who you are or gives a damn what you look like. Then, I began to play some of the on-line games of chance, and was startled to find I had an uncanny ability to second-guess the games. I would just look at a poker hand--remember, we're talking video images here, not even the paper cards favored by psychics--and I'd know what the next draw cards would be, I would know the whole draw pile and the dealer's hand. I was beating the odds to splinters; if I'd been doing this in Vegas they'd have sent the bruisers after me for card-counting.
Emory could barely contain himself as he tried me out on stock-market predictions. Soon, I was taking my modest little paycheck from the bookstore and turning it into some astonishing amounts of money. These days, I'm earning so much money that it's a significant effort to keep it quiet. Only a very few people know yet: Emory, of course, and also Millie, both of whom I trust implicitly. But the venture is just about ready to go public. And then there's that little interviewing gambit, which will also prove to be most usefully lucrative....
"Pole?" Millie is now favoring me with her penetrating look. "Why are you doing this interview? I mean, the real reason. You hardly need the money, right? Or have you had a change of luck that you haven't wanted to worry me with?"
"Don't be silly. If I did have a problem, you'd be the first person I'd be blubbering all over--you know that. I just need that one last hunk of cash for--well, I'll tell you, but only on condition that you keep it a secret until the meeting tonight."
"You're aiming to buy out Lowry."
"Damned right I am. I am not having any slick bastard of a developer come along and mess with my town. Not if I can help it. And I think I can help it. For a change."
"Va-va-voom! I just love it when you talk tough!" She gives my shoulder a playful squeeze. Her voice is teasing but her smile is full of admiration.
"Hey, last of the true macho men, that's me," I banter back. I love that smile of hers so much, sometimes I can barely look at it.
We're interrupted by the jingling of the doorbell. She goes to greet the customer; I return my attention to the computer with a certain sense of relief. I scroll through the various networks on which I have membership. Several of my transactions from yesterday have completed, all quite gainfully indeed. I sit and sense the way of things, changing some of the orders still outstanding, rescinding others and putting in new ones. In a dozen brokerage firms around the world, transaction codes for a "T. Pole" flash in. The yields add up in my head as I scroll along--definitely enough, with the fee for the exclusive, to run Lowry right out of town. And good riddance. I derive a deep satisfaction out of this one power I can manifest over my environment.
Some key phrase from Millie's customer pulls me out of my reverie--I think it was the standard, "Say, isn't that the guy I heard about on TV...?" This, of course, is the downside of my giving interviews, however infrequently; I become the modern Elephant Man, the stuff of tabloid sensationalism. Millie dutifully offers to introduce me. I know she hates these gawkers, but I've forbidden her to be rude to her customers on my account. The gawker swings into view: a typical tourist in a lurid green windbreaker. His frank desire to gape is barely concealed beneath a layer of gee-whiz reverence. His name is something like Dobbs or Bobs--it goes through my head without a trace.
"Pleased to make your acquaintance," I type. He gets really excited by my use of the vocoder.
"Boy, I just have to hand it to you, your courage..." he gushes on. All the while he stares and stares. No amount of simpering he can muster can disguise the voyeuristic tension in that gaze. Eventually he runs out of platitudes and takes his polyestered self out of the store.
"Auugggh!" Millie groans theatrically as soon as the door clatters shut after him.
"Actually, I'm thinking of charging these guys ten bucks a pop to touch the pole," I type. "Or do you think that's just so completely Freudian that even the polyester set would catch wise?"
Millie groans even louder.
Eventually we both get back to work. The day passes uneventfully. I finish my stroll through the gardens of high finance and turn to my "real work." Millie does all the mobile things--caring for the stock, waiting on customers. This is Saturday, so there's a fairly steady stream of bodies through the door. There's one more obnoxious-gawker type; the rest, for the most part, are manageable, the kind who pride themselves on being too liberal and sophisticated to patronize someone with a deformity. These try their damnedest to look like they're taking me completely in stride, but still steal discreet glimpses when they think nobody is looking. It's a testament to how badly they conceal their curiosity that even I can catch them doing it.
Six o'clock, and we close up. Millie and I walk on down to the cafe. A chorus of familiar voices greets us as we enter. I love the smells of old Ciro's cooking--I have told him many times how deeply I regret that I can't experience his food firsthand. He simply laughs, and promises to see if I can be driven crazy by the smell of his best avgolimono soup. (It really does drive me crazy, but what a pleasant torment it is.)
Joel has made a seat for me here, too, so that I can better enjoy this hub of the village's social network. People make way for me, teasing me cheerfully as I lower myself into place and lay out my vocoder. Joel himself arrives, a mountain of rumpled flannel crowned with a wild forest of hair. "Ah, Pole, my friend," he rumbles at me, "the faith of the pious is being sorely tested today."
"Look, that's what you get for being a Red Sox fan," I retort. "Now if you'd only see reason and switch to a truly worthy object of worship like the Yankees--"
"Sacrilege! Don't you go forgetting that this is a family restaurant, you heathen!" Joel keeps threatening to load me in his pickup someday and haul my unwieldy carcass to the "sacred ground" of Fenway Park. Frankly, I'm not sure who would get more stares: him or me.
More people roll in. The TV's on to the middle of the second game of the doubleheader, and the Sox by a miracle are not snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. People argue baseball, people fret about the growing season, people share the latest gossip over a cold beer or a hot coffee. I luxuriate in the combined sound of their voices. Each and every one of them makes a point of coming over to me to say hello.
The game ends with the Sox modestly triumphant. Someone says, "It's getting on toward time for the meeting, isn't it?" I pry myself up, and we all troop on over to the Congregational meeting house. I manage to get on up the time-warped wooden steps without seriously banging myself more than once. Here is the third and last place in the world outside of my cottage that is equipped to let me sit--sixth pew back on the left, just in the right place to give me a full view of Pastor Bob in the pulpit on Sunday morning.
Tonight it is not Pastor but old Cummings, the senior town elder, who is in the pulpit. Pastor is down in the pew area, working the crowd and pressing the flesh. When Cummings gavels us to order, Pastor slips in next to me, on the side not already occupied by Millie.
I hear a surly growl go up from the crowd. "Lowry's lawyer just came in," murmurs Pastor in my ear like a gently purring old tiger-tabby.
"What, he couldn't be bothered to come himself?" hisses Millie in my other ear, sounding more like an offended Siamese.
The lawyer's way out of my line of vision, but I know him well from prior sightings-- polite, cosmopolitan, and completely underwhelmed by any Main Street that has a grain and feed store where there should in his opinion be an espresso bar. Lowry never deigns to grace us with his own company, but he always receives a detailed summary of every nuance of these meetings from his dog's-body and his ever-present microrecorder. I know; I have rifled the lawyer's reports via my computer. (Don't go thinking I'm that pure. All's fair in love and land wars.)
There is considerable fussing and fretting at this meeting. Lowry has offered a significant sum of money for a large portion of the town's common land. In this lousy economy, with tourism flat and farming more a picturesque holdover from a bygone century than a significant source of livelihood, such a sum cannot be treated lightly. People are coming thick and fast up to the podium in front of the chancel, working themselves and each other into an uncomfortable state of anxiety. But I'm not ready to plunge in with my offer just yet. I know if I do it too early, before everyone has had time to get their feelings aired, they just won't be able to hear or accept it.
Finally, every last avenue has been explored, and there is a pause. A distressing whiff of gloom wafts through the room. It hurts me to see these people I've come to love in such pain, but I'm also pleased. It means I have a chance of making these proud folk accept my gift.
I raise my hand to be called on, and a murmur goes up as I laboriously get to my feet. I suppose nobody would take it amiss if I chose to speak from my seat, but I feel this matter is too important for half-measures. I can sense all eyes upon me as I make my way forward and place my vocoder on the podium. And I commence to address my people.
"I would like to offer a modest counterproposal to that set forth by Lowry Development Associates," I type.
"Most of you are no doubt aware that I have found a rewarding livelihood in my computer work. However, you may be surprised to learn just how rewarding that work has been. I've been making some investments, and they've been doing pretty well. In fact, I am happy to report that I currently have some five million in solid income from current investments alone." A gasp runs around the room. "Further, I have just negotiated an exclusive contract with a publisher who wishes to put out a book about me, with an anticipated income from that project of another five million in the next two years." More gasps.
My hands are shaking. I have to stop a moment. I continue.
"Friends, this town is home to all of us, and none of us wants it to change. But I have an especially strong and admittedly selfish interest in preserving it as it is. I simply don't think I could exist anywhere else. I think you all know what I mean by that. If Mumford stopped being the town I now know, and turned into a fancy condo development full of strangers with big cars, I just don't know how I could manage..."
I have to stop again. The hall is completely silent, waiting for me.
"It is obvious to me that the funds I have just described are far more than I could ever possibly need to support myself. I would thus like to propose, with your consent, to donate a sufficiently large proportion of these funds to set up a perpetual trust, dedicated to the preservation of our town as it is. That way, we will never have cause to regret turning down any offer from any outsider, who, however well-intentioned, can't possibly know what our town is really about. We can keep our home the way it is, the way we need it to be..."
Now I really can't go on any further. I am shaking so hard I have to clutch at the podium to keep my balance. Someone has leapt to their feet and started applauding wildly. In a flash everyone is standing and applauding; they are pounding on the pews with their fists and on the floor with their feet, it sounds like a thunderstorm and it won't let up. Pastor is suddenly at my side holding me up, and Millie's doing the same at my other side. "I'm so proud of you," Millie whispers fiercely in my ear. I shake and shake, I can't seem to stop shaking.
Cummings gavels the crowd to silence eventually. "Our friend Pole has just made an exceedingly generous offer," she says portentously. "I will assume that Pole knows exactly what he is doing, and thus will not insult his intelligence with silly questions about whether he really means it. I am now open to entertaining a motion from the floor."
"Move to accept Pole's offer!" Joel's roar shakes the rafters.
"Second!" cry several voices simultaneously.
"Move we vote to accept by acclamation!" cries old Janeen.
"Second!" Another chorus of voices.
"Do we have acclamation?" cries Cummings. The hall thunders back uproariously.
"Three cheers for Pole!" roars a stentorian voice. I soak myself with tears as they commence an old-fashioned hip-hip et cetera. I wonder distractedly what Lowry's lawyer is doing during all this tumult. Probably coolly buffing his nails as his microrecorder spools on and on. No skin off his nose. Development corporations like the one he works for never put all their eggs in one basket. I know for a fact they're working on at least six other village buy-outs; that Mumford fought them off will not bother them in the least, as long as they get a handsome yield from their other projects. Which is exactly why they need to have their greedy paws kept off our town; to them, we're not a skein of tightly woven lives but a convenient framework for a resort concept.
But they're gone now, they're gone, they're gone, the battle has been won; the Huns have been beaten back from our gates, and I the one who did the beating.
Much later--after many hugs and back-poundings that jar my body no end but do wonders for my soul; after an impromptu party back at the cafe, where I am toasted with champagne Ciro unearths from God-knows-where, the look and smell of which makes me glad I can't taste it; after more hugs, and some tears, and many goodnights from friends not yet finished with savoring this moment with me--I find myself before my own front door, having been walked home by an ebullient Millie.
We pause there a moment, silent. The crickets sound abnormally loud. "I really am proud of you, you know," she says. Of all the many looks she wears, the one she has on now makes me feel the most awkward by far. I decide to turn partly away from her in order to balance the vocoder on a railing for a reply. I feel a little less vulnerable that way.
"I'm rather proud of myself, to tell the truth," I respond. God, did that sound fatuous or what? "I really wasn't sure I had it in me." Better.
"You have so much in you, I wish you could really believe that." She comes around to my front and hugs me. My face goes hot. My hands sweat. Not all of the rigidity in the hug I return can be blamed on the pole in my flesh.
She releases me eventually. I can't make out whether I am relieved or regretful. "Thanks, Millie," I type, grateful for the cheerfully neutral voice of the vocoder. "You know I love you very much, don't you?"
"And I love you too," she replies, a warm smile in her voice. But I'm at the wrong angle to see her face.
We part and I let myself into the house. I suddenly realize I'm emotionally drained, even less equipped than usual to handle confused feelings towards my dearest friend in the world. I get all my props returned to their rightful places only by a massive effort of will, and fall into bed exhausted.
For some unknown period my sleep is deep and undisturbed. And then I dream, and for perhaps the first time in three whole years the dream is full, lucid, and unfragmented.
I am in a dimly-lit, cavernous room. In the air is the faint hum of power pumping through sophisticated machinery. I am standing on some sort of a platform that looks a bit like a hangman's scaffold, and the impending sense of doom I feel suits it perfectly.
A figure with brilliant emerald skin and a flowing crimson robe stands by a control panel, hand poised on a great lever. Two other figures stand by; they are too deep in shadow for me to make out. "This is it, Cory," says one of the shadows. "Last chance to reconsider."
"You know I've got to go through with it," I say. "Do it. Get it over with. Before I lose my nerve."
A shadowy figure makes a sign to the emerald being, who nods solemnly and throws the lever. A beam of light stabs down at me from the ceiling and another stabs up at me from the platform, trapping me in a column of light that shoots through my body and up my spine and out my mouth. My head is thrown back and I am screaming--a beam of light--
I come awake to the pale dawn fog and the unconcerned songs of the birds.
The dream was so very real. My waking surroundings almost seem like a dream in contrast. And there was a damn-fool alligator in a pink suit, and what did the other one call me? Cory? Why does that name ring such a clamorous bell within me, as if...
And I didn't have the pole.
But then came the beam.
I am not handling this dream very well, nor the rush of strange thoughts that it has set loose, swirling the more frantically around in my head the more I focus on them. I don't think I want to handle any of this. I think I need some help, and fast.
Oh, dear. No. Not this time. I think, now, I need some help with that situation too, and I've been putting it off for far too long.
I know who.
The meetinghouse bell is just beginning to toll as I approach those trying wooden steps. Millie never comes here for services; she's a hardened atheist. But I'm here every Sunday, and I need it today more than ever. So distracted am I that, when the first person who spots me comes up and starts thanking me profusely, I need a minute to remember what it is I'm being thanked for. God, I can't believe I'm that rattled! Once again I'm glad I am possessed of the literal poker-face. More people approach me as I make my way to my pew. I'm a bit more composed now, so I am able to give them such acknowledgment as I can. It's soothing to talk with them about my recent triumph, it takes my mind away from its new discoveries.
Once the service starts, though, I'm back alone with my thoughts, troubling companions with which to try to worship. This is an old Puritan church, so there are no florid pictures of Biblical scenes, and the simple wooden cross has no martyred figure upon it. But how to be at Sunday service and avoid the mental picture of the Teacher on his sacrificial tree? And how, once it manifests, to keep that image from getting all tangled with my dream of getting nailed by a beam of light?
I sit and hear, and sit and hear, convinced that either I'm beginning to remember a past that is far more disturbing than I could ever have imagined, or else that I am finally cracking up.
The soothing voice of Pastor Bob's preaching calms me somewhat, and by the end of the final hymn I've got myself partway convinced that I was overreacting. Yet when I finally speak to Pastor at the door, having waited until almost everyone else has left, there must be something in my manner that suggests I'm not quite right. Pastor gives me a sharp look, has me wait until the last few others have left, and then marches me immediately right back to his study.
"I regret I don't have a good place for you to sit in here," he says as he closes the big oak door to the outside world, "but at least here we can have some privacy."
"I appreciate that," I type. I have placed the vocoder on top of one of the more stable piles of books on his desk, and am resting my weight on my feet and the pole in the manner of a three-legged stool. It's not my favorite position, as the pressure and shifts of weight on the pole send some truly weird vibrations through my body; but it's better than nothing, especially when I'm feeling so unsteady on my feet, so to speak.
"Pastor," I type, "do you think I have been acting... peculiar lately?"
Another sharp look. "Peculiar? Not any more so than usual, that I've noticed. Unless you count giving away ten million dollars peculiar--which I of all people don't. Why--were you looking for some suggestions?" His ribbing is softened with a just-kidding smile. He is no simple country parson, our Pastor. He'd put in a long illustrious career serving several urban, social-action-oriented churches, and then taught social ethics at a prestigious seminary; he took this call upon his retirement "just to keep his hand in," as he put it. So this town has not only a most joyful servant, but a particularly brilliant and worldly one.
"Thanks, no," I answer him. "I'm feeling quite peculiar enough already. I just--how do I explain...?" I describe my dream in detail. He listens carefully, rubbing his chin, occasionally emitting a "uh-hum." He sits for some time after I finish, still rubbing his chin and emitting a few more "uh-hums."
"Why do you think this dream you had means you're getting 'peculiar'?" he asks at last.
I hesitate. "Because," I respond, my hands trembling slightly on the keys, "the only interpretation that suggests itself so smacks of hubris, it makes me fear for my sanity just to contemplate it."
"And that interpretation is...?" He's not going to let me get away without saying it in so many words.
"That--if the dream is not just a dream, but a true memory of my prior life--that I somehow volunteered for this... existence. In order to save the world or some such nonsense."
"Why does it trouble you so to contemplate being a savior? After all, you just saved Mumford last night." He's smiling at me very faintly.
I come to a complete halt. Why, indeed? "It strikes me," I type, thinking carefully, "that saviorhood is something much more sensibly proclaimed by others than proclaimed of oneself. Otherwise it smacks of hubris. Or of delusional thought patterns."
"Perhaps. To a certain extent. But one can also err in the direction of keeping one's light stowed under a bushel, you know. Strikes me you've always bent so far over backward to deny your considerable gifts and graces that it's a wonder to me you haven't snapped that pole of yours in two."
I feel uncomfortably found out. "I wasn't expecting the conversation to go in this direction."
"I'm sure you weren't. And I'm not ready to let you change the subject yet. Now I have to admit, I have never in my life had the experience of looking anything other than unrelentingly average, so I can't know how it must feel to carry the burden you do every day. But I've been meaning to say this to you for years, and you've finally given me the opportunity: you have got to be one of the bravest, gentlest souls I have met in all my long years of ministry, and it breaks my heart to see how you won't let yourself accept what a wonderful person you are. Why do you have to drive yourself crazy the way you do? Don't you know there are people all around you who absolutely love you? Not because they pity you, for God's sake--because they genuinely love you and need you. Millie, just to name one prominent example."
I feel even more deeply found out. "What about Millie?"
"What about Millie?" He laughs uproariously. "Son, a man of the cloth doesn't gamble, but if I wanted to I could join any number of pools in town taking bets on the day you'll finally wake up and take that woman to the altar. What--you think people don't have eyes? It's been the talk of the town for over two years. And I'll tell you something else--though it may seem I'm taking a considerable liberty with my ministerial privilege--not two weeks ago, Millie was standing almost exactly where you're standing now, all at wit's end over you, because she's loved you desperately since almost the first time she laid eyes on you! And you, you're so terrified at the very idea of getting involved that she hasn't dared to as much as breathe a word of it to you, for fear of scaring you out of eight years' growth!"
"Millie came to church?" Somehow that just adds the final, perfect touch of improbability to the matter.
"I know; doesn't that suggest what lengths she's willing to go to for you? Seriously, she thought I might have some in with you that she wouldn't have, her being the source of the threat, so to speak. So--what is it, son? What's the big holdup? Do you want me to say that out loud for you, too? Or can I get you to say it for yourself?"
"Pastor, consider me laughing uproariously right now. No, I'll say it myself. It's the obvious, of course. I mean--me? In love? Me, inviting a person whose opinion matters more to me than anything in the world, to enjoy physical intimacies with this body? I'm not even quite sure if my body is capable of such intimacies, if you catch my drift. The very idea of risking this friendship--risking the rejection, the confused feelings, maybe the very friendship itself--of course I'm terrified! I just haven't been able to do it, though don't think I haven't agonized over it. But now, if what you say is true--"
"Would I lie to you? So now you'll get out there and go after her?"
"I will. I'm still scared out of my wits, mind you, but I will. Now about my dream--"
"Your dream, if the truth be known, I'm rather less concerned about. Knowing where you come from can be empowering, but not nearly so much as knowing where you're going."
"But do you think the dream was true?"
"How should I know? For what it's worth, by the evidence of your own body you are a unique occurrence on the face of this earth. It is thus safe to assume that your origin is also unique. And maybe someday we'd know the truth of where you come from--and maybe not--but in either case you still have a life you need to live. Perhaps your dream is true. But what does it matter? Does your life become any more sensible by discovering you fell off a flying saucer or whatever? You still have to live.
"Now--does that help you at all?"
"Well, it does lessen my fears for my sanity."
"If your sanity is dependent on my word, son, you're in trouble deep." He laughs again, and stands. "Go to her, son. She's a good woman. She loves you. And I'll tell you a secret: I think she needs you every bit as much as you need her, if not more. Now get out of here, and God bless."
I ponder Pastor's words all the way down Main Street. I don't feel any less unsettled, but somehow I feel a little more at peace with being unsettled, if that makes any sense. Actually, the only thing that is making sense, and is gradually forcing its way through the miasma of my conflicted thoughts, is Pastor's message about Millie: "Go to her, she loves you."
I begin to feel a wild strange euphoria pulsing through my usually-placid veins. If I were capable of running, I would break into a sprint right now. But I do speed up as much as I am able, and commence to make a beeline for Millie's place.
She lives about two streets over from me, in a flat on the second floor of one of the most charming wedding-cakes. I can see its stately roofline peeping out from behind the maples-- the elaborately tiled mansard roof, the cupola with the stained-glass mullions. A faint wind stirs the trees, and a wind chime tinkles unseen on the wraparound veranda.
I am getting closer. My normally sluggish heart is beating madly. I actually feel alive, for the first time in the three years of my known life. Here I am, I feel like singing, the ill-made knight proven at last, fresh from securing my homeland from the Huns, returning now in triumph to ask for the hand of the lady who has always believed in me. The air in fact does seem to be singing, humming with the sound of thousands of bees.
There is something like a crack of thunder, and it is only as I am falling to the ground that I realize that the corresponding bolt of lightning has just struck me. It has shot right down the pole as if I were a living lightning rod.
I hit the ground with a crash, and lie there a moment, stunned. The world has darkened-- have I suffered a concussion? All my insides, the length of my body, are cramping uncontrollably. They are trying to knot themselves around something that no longer seems to be there. I find myself writhing on the ground and groaning aloud with the pain of it--
Wait a minute.
"Thank the gods. And not a moment too soon. Come on, Cory, snap out of it. We haven't a minute to spare."
"Sabin--won't you back off a bit? The man's obviously shaken up. Give him a moment to compose himself."
"Look, Lucas--you're the one's been making all the noise about how unstable this hiatus is, you're the one's been ragging on about how difficult it's going to be to keep it open long enough for us to do the intervention--"
"Sabin. Leave Lucas alone. We're all under a lot of stress, but just please try to stay focused. Cory, do you understand me? Do you remember me? Please--speak."
"My voice," I croak. My face feels like sprung elastic, my jaw as if it has rust in its hinges. I am helped into a sitting position. I am in the cavernous room of my dream, sprawled upon the scaffold-like platform. The column of light juts down from the ceiling, but comes to an abrupt halt about ten feet above my head, like a piston poised and waiting to come crashing down again. Two figures are leaning over me; I'm having trouble getting my eyes to focus on them. A third stands over by the control panel; I see a glint of brilliant green in the low light.
"The pain you feel is from the removal of the physical distortion you suffered when you were projected out onto your target plane," says the owner of the last voice to speak. "It will lessen somewhat with time. Though I fear time is not something we have a lot of."
My head wobbles on the pivot of my neck as I turn to face the speaker. "Dana?" I say wonderingly, my memories fluttering in and out like shuffled cards. "What--I don't understand--"
Dana smiles, visibly relieved; there are more lines in the wise old face than I remembered. "Good. Your memory is beginning to return. I'm sorry, Cory. We had a disaster during your transmission. An interference from the inter-dimensional void. The carrier beam went through, but we lost all communications contact with your mind. Your memory went into stasis. We've spent three years trying to reestablish contact."
"Three years." My memories are now sliding back into place so fast that it's making me dizzy. I shake my head to clear it--bad move; my much-abused spine screams in protest. "Of course. Three years of fighting it. Fighting assimilation into the milieu. Fighting that ghastly physical manifestation. Until just this past twenty-four hours, when I finally began to relax and accept it all."
"Congratulations," Dana replies. "That will go down in the training manuals--adaptation to milieu under extraordinary stressors of physical distortion and amnesia."
"Look, this is all very warm and fuzzy, but may I point out that the clock is ticking away?" Sabin. How could I have possibly forgotten that abrasive tone of voice?
"How much time do we have, Lucas?" asks Dana calmly.
The glittering emerald cyborg consults its screens and readouts before replying in its golden voice. "I can give you about five more minutes before the connection begins to degrade dangerously, ma'am."
"It will have to do. Cory, listen. It's all well and good that you established the linkage even under such harsh conditions, but I can't in good faith let you go back there unless you completely understand what the situation is. There was, as I said, catastrophic interference with your original transmission. It took three years for us to find you--for awhile, we weren't even sure if your mind was still functioning. It was all we could do to pull you back in, even for this brief hiatus. If we send you out to the same target once more, I can't but wonder if the same thing will happen to you all over again. Not only is that a hell of a way to run an inter- dimensional mission, but I'm not one bit happy with the idea of submitting one of my best operatives to that kind of punishment--"
"You realize," I croak, "that the interference is probably symptomatic of the larger problem."
"Don't I ever. The inter-dimensional stress has accelerated since you've been gone. At this rate, we're going to have to add at least a dozen more linkages to this one sector alone to prevent it shearing off from the Continuum completely."
"Which means you can't very well abandon this link of mine right here."
Dana looks at me, silent. What goes unspoken is the underlying enormity of this mission, this generations-long project that all of us have pledged our very souls to. With all the powerful technology and knowledge possessed by this, our home dimension, we have yet to find a more effective way to stave off the fragmentation of the Continuum than to throw our very bodies into the breach. We serve as the living linkages between worlds. We are the only hope.
Hubris? Perhaps. But what other society is in any position to make this kind of sacrifice? Most of the other dimensions, like the one in which I have just spent three years of pain and confusion, are Pre-Contact; they don't even possess the technology to detect the Trans- Dimensional Continuum, let alone deal with the growing fissures in their realities. All they know is that their civilizations suffer from a subtle but increasing malaise, which is nothing less than the fragmentation syndrome's manifestation on the level of the communal psyche. A few other dimensions possess at least the basic technology to have achieved Contact, but their cultures are either not yet mature enough to produce more than the occasional true altruist, or else they are already so infected with the malaise that they can barely summon up the will to keep their worlds from self-destructing. And a few dimensions, both pre- and post- Contact, have already self-destructed, having sunk into any of the all-too-numerous forms of cultural suicide.
No, it's up to us, hurling ourselves bodily across the void, anchoring all the dimensions to Continuum Core with the very fibre of our beings. What is it one of the subcultures in my target milieu calls that? A Kamikaze mission. Banzai--live ten thousand years. But, actually, we do. Only, there are certain risks to that kind of lifestyle.
"I'm going back." I rise unsteadily to my feet, aware that this may be the last time in a long, long time that I'll have an unencumbered body.
"Cory." Dana's eyes are glistening. Even Sabin is respectfully silent.
"I didn't say I'm looking forward to it," I continue. "But I'm doing it. Besides, I'm pretty sure I might actually keep my mind intact this time. I made a very powerful link back there, you see. Very deep on the emotional level. I think I have a chance." Millie. I feel the smile grow on my face.
Dana nods, smiling faintly. "Yes. I sense you have. The gods go with you, then, Cory." She and Sabin get clear of the platform. She nods to Lucas. The emerald-green gatekeeper gives me a deep bow of honor. And then it pulls the switch--
The beam snaps back through my body so hard and fast that I don't even have time to scream. And then, I no longer can.
I hit the ground with a crash, and lie there, stunned.
This hitting the deck is getting very old very fast.
I am lying in dappled sunlight on a concrete sidewalk. Birds are singing with blithe unconcern. The pole is still vibrating, like a cold-sensitive tooth stung by ice-water, only this tooth is shooting its displeasure the entire length of my body.
I understand now. The transmission beam, the linkage, of which I am the living anchor on this plane--somehow, because of the interference, it is concretely manifesting as an organic part of my body, instead of an intangible thread back to my home dimension as it's supposed to do. No wonder it's so damned sensitive. And all I've been using its power for is to second- guess the stock-market and other intuitional parlor-tricks. That's so funny, I truly wish I could laugh out loud.
"Pole! Oh my God! Are you all right?"
Good lord, it's Millie. What did she see? Did she catch any glimpse of my retrieval and retransmission? God knows it was noisy enough--thunder and lightning indeed! But these are the kinds of unfortunate glimpses that can really screw up a pre-Contact milieu--
I hear feet pounding down the steps of the veranda, and then she is upon me in a flash, picking me up off the sidewalk, brushing me off, gathering up my cane and glasses and vocoder from where they've scattered in my fall. She gets me up onto the veranda and stretched out on my stomach across her landlady's chaise lounge, and sits on the floor near my head, where I can actually look her right in the eye without resorting to my mirror glasses. I have a weary headache from all the energy and emotions that have coursed through me this momentous day, and the feel of a few places on my body suggests I'm going to have some spectacular bruises.
She ruffles my hair playfully, smiles her relief into my eyes. "There. None the worse for wear, once again. I think maybe you should take some of that ten million and install rubber matting on all the town's sidewalks, for all the times you take a header on a stretch of perfectly flat concrete."
"Forget about it," I type--thank God I didn't bust the poor little vocoder in the fall. "Can you just see me taking a bounce off something like that?" Apparently, she has seen nothing more than me taking a splat. Good. I don't need to muck up this situation with any complex explanations that will just sound like B-grade science fiction--even if they are all true. I just want, for now, to be a normal, run-of-the-mill village oddity.
"No, I'll live," I type. "I was just in too much of a hurry is all. I was just down to the meetinghouse speaking to Pastor, and... I'm really sorry, Millie, that it's taken me all this time for reality to come and hit me over the head, but--Millie, will you marry me?"
She gasps, and just sits there a moment, stunned. I'm seized with panic--oh God no, I can't have been wrong, Pastor assured me.... But then she bursts into tears, and throws her arms around my head, babbling on and on and on about how I have just made her the happiest woman in the entire world.
I hug her back as best I can, feeling the tears welling up out of my own eyes. The afternoon sun is slanting down in golden shafts onto the veranda. A warm and beautiful woman is in my arms, her flesh soft and inviting under my hands. The living antenna in the heart of my being is singing to full life at last, singing a song of healing across all the dimensions, a song that enfolds little Mumford and its world in its protection, a song that is echoed by the birds in the maples.
Ellen Terris Brenner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is (in no particular order of importance) a writer, computer geek, les/bi/gay/trans community activist, Unitarian minister, singer, Clarion West alumna, and newbie air-cooled VW camper enthusiast. She lives in Seattle with an obstreperous cat named Jimmy Dean, the Rebel Without a Clue.
InterText stories written by Ellen Terris Brenner: "Home" (v4n1), "Gone" (v6n2), "The Mirror of Aelitz" (v7n2).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Ellen Terris Brenner.