Science Fiction & Fantasy

FEAR CITY by F. Paul Wilson

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Fiction

Snow

I don’t think Georgie would ever have got one for herself: She was at once unsentimental and a little in awe of death. No, it was her first husband—an immensely rich and (from Georgie’s description) a strangely weepy guy, who had got it for her. Or for himself, actually, of course. He was to be the beneficiary. Only he died himself shortly after it was installed. If installed is the right word. After he died, Georgie got rid of most of what she’d inherited from him, liquidated it. It was cash that she had liked best about that marriage anyway; but the Wasp couldn’t really be got rid of. Georgie ignored it.

In fact the thing really was about the size of a wasp of the largest kind, and it had the same lazy and mindless fight. And of course it really was a bug, not of the insect kind but of the surveillance kind. And so its name fit all around: One of those bits of accidental poetry the world generates without thinking. O Death, where is thy sting?

Georgie ignored it, but it was hard to avoid; you had to be a little careful around it; it followed Georgie at a variable distance, depending on her motions and the numbers of other people around her, the level of light, and the tone of her voice. And there was always the danger you might shut it in a door or knock it down with a tennis racket.

It cost a fortune (if you count the access and the perpetual care contract, all prepaid), and though it wasn’t really fragile, it made you nervous.

It wasn’t recording all the time. There had to be a certain amount of light, though not much. Darkness shut it off. And then sometimes it would get lost. Once when we hadn’t seen it hovering around for a time, I opened a closet door, and it flew out, unchanged. It went off looking for her, humming softly. It must have been shut in there for days.

Eventually it ran out, or down. A lot could go wrong, I suppose, with circuits that small, controlling that many functions. It ended up spending a lot of time bumping gently against the bedroom ceiling, over and over, like a winter fly. Then one day the maids swept it out from under the bureau, a husk. By that time it had transmitted at least eight thousand hours (eight thousand was the minimum guarantee) of Georgie: of her days and hours, her comings in and her goings out, her speech and motion, her living self—all on file, taking up next to no room, at The Park. And then, when the time came, you could go there, to The Park, say on a Sunday afternoon; and in quiet landscaped surroundings (as The Park described it) you would find her personal resting chamber, and there, in privacy, through the miracle of modern information storage and retrieval systems, you could access her, her alive, her as she was in every way, never changing or growing any older, fresher (as The Park’s brochure said) than in memory ever green.

***

I married Georgie for her money, the same reason she married her first, the one who took out The Park’s contract for her. She married me, I think, for my looks; she always had a taste for looks in men. I wanted to write. I made a calculation that more women than men make, and decided that to be supported and paid for by a rich wife would give me freedom to do so, to “develop.” The calculation worked out no better for me than it does for most women who make it. I carried a typewriter and a case of miscellaneous paper from Ibiza to Gstaad to Bial to London, and typed on beaches, and learned to ski. Georgie liked me in ski clothes.

Now that those looks are all but gone, I can look back on myself as a young hunk and see that I was in a way a rarity, a type that you run into often among women, far less among men, the beauty unaware of his beauty, aware that he affects women profoundly and more or less instantly but doesn’t know why; thinks he is being listened to and understood, that his soul is being seen, when all that’s being seen is long-lashed eyes and a strong, square, tanned wrist turning in a lovely gesture, stubbing out a cigarette. Confusing. By the time I figured out why I had for so long been indulged and cared for and listened to, why I was interesting, I wasn’t as interesting as I had been. At about the same time I realized I wasn’t a writer at all. Georgie’s investment stopped looking as good to her, and my calculation had ceased to add up; only by that time I had come, pretty unexpectedly, to love Georgie a lot, and she just as unexpectedly had come to love and need me too, as much as she needed anybody. We never really parted, even though when she died I hadn’t seen her for years. Phone calls, at dawn or four A.M. because she never, for all her travel, really grasped that the world turns and cocktail hour travels around with it. She was a crazy, wasteful, happy woman, without a trace of malice or permanence or ambition in her—easily pleased and easily bored and strangely serene despite the hectic pace she kept up. She cherished things and lost them and forgot them: Things, days, people. She had fun, though, and I had fun with her; that was her talent and her destiny, not always an easy one. Once, hung over in a New York hotel, watching a sudden snowfall out the immense window, she said to me, “Charlie, I’m going to die of fun.”

And she did. Snow-foiling in Austria, she was among the first to get one of those snow leopards, silent beasts as fast as speedboats. Alfredo called me in California to tell me, but with the distance and his accent and his eagerness to tell me he wasn’t to blame, I never grasped the details. I was still her husband, her closest relative, heir to the little she still had, and beneficiary, too, of The Park’s access concept. Fortunately, The Park’s services included collecting her from the morgue in Gstaad and installing her in her chamber at The Park’s California unit. Beyond signing papers and taking delivery when Georgie arrived by freight airship at Van Nuys, there was nothing for me to do. The Park’s representative was solicitous and made sure I understood how to go about accessing Georgie, but I wasn’t listening. I am only a child of my time, I suppose. Everything about death, the fact of it, the fate of the remains, and the situation of the living faced with it, seems grotesque to me, embarrassing, useless: And everything done about it only makes it more grotesque, more useless: Someone I loved is dead; let me therefore dress in clown’s clothes, talk backwards, and buy expensive machinery to make up for it. I went back to L.A.

A year or more later, the contents of some safe-deposit boxes of Georgie’s arrived from the lawyer’s: some bonds and such stuff and a small steel case, velvet lined, that contained a key, a key deeply notched on both sides and headed with smooth plastic, like the key to an expensive car.

***

Why did I go to The Park that first time? Mostly because I had forgotten about it: Getting that key in the mail was like coming across a pile of old snapshots you hadn’t cared to look at when they were new but which after they have aged come to contain the past, as they did not contain the present. I was curious.

I understood very well that The Park and its access concept were very probably only another cruel joke on the rich, preserving the illusion that they can buy what can’t be bought, like the cryonics fad of thirty years ago. Once in Ibiza, Georgie and I met a German couple who also had a contract with The Park; their Wasp hovered over them like a Paraclete and made them self-conscious in the extreme—they seemed to be constantly rehearsing the eternal show being stored up for their descendants. Their deaths had taken over their lives, as though they were pharaohs. Did they, Georgie wondered, exclude the Wasp from their bedroom? Or did its presence there stir them to greater efforts, proofs of undying love and admirable vigor for the unborn to see?

No, death wasn’t to be cheated that way, any more than by pyramids, by masses said in perpetuity. It wasn’t Georgie saved from death that I would find. But there were eight thousand hours of her life with me, genuine hours, stored there more carefully than they could be in my porous memory; Georgie hadn’t excluded the Wasp from her bedroom, our bedroom, and she who had never performed for anybody could not have conceived of performing for it. And there would be me, too, undoubtedly, caught unintentionally by the Wasp’s attention: Out of those thousands of hours there would be hundreds of myself, and myself had just then begun to be problematic to me, something that had to be figured out, something about which evidence had to be gathered and weighed. I was thirty-eight years old.

That summer, then, I borrowed a Highway Access Permit (the old HAPpy cards of those days) from a county lawyer I knew and drove the coast highway up to where The Park was, at the end of a pretty beach road, all alone above the sea. It looked from the outside like the best, most peaceful kind of Italian country cemetery, a low stucco wall topped with urns, amid cypresses, an arched gate in the center. A small brass plaque on the gate: PLEASE USE YOUR KEY. The gate opened, not to a square of shaded tombstones but onto a ramped corridor going down: The cemetery wall was an illusion, the works were underground. Silence, or nameless Muzak-like silence: Solitude—whether the necessary technicians were discreetly hidden or none were needed. Certainly the access concept turned out to be simplicity itself, in operation anyway. Even I, who am an idiot about information technology, could tell that. The Wasp was genuine state-of-the-art stuff, but what we mourners got was as ordinary as home movies, as old letters tied up in ribbon.

A display screen near the entrance told me down which corridor to find Georgie, and my key let me into a small screening room where there was a moderate-size TV monitor, two comfortable chairs, and dark walls of chocolate-brown carpeting. The sweet-sad Muzak. Georgie herself was evidently somewhere in the vicinity, in the wall or under the floor, they weren’t specific about the charnel-house aspect of the place. In the control panel before the TV were a keyhole for my key and two bars: ACCESS and RESET.

I sat, feeling foolish and a little afraid, too, made more uncomfortable by being so deliberately soothed by neutral furnishings and sober tools. I imagined, around me, down other corridors, in other chambers, others communed with their dead as I was about to do, that the dead were murmuring to them beneath the stream of Muzak; that they wept to see and hear, as I might, but I could hear nothing. I turned my key in its slot, and the screen lit up. The dim lights dimmed further, and the Muzak ceased. I pushed ACCESS, obviously the next step. No doubt all these procedures had been explained to me long ago at the dock when Georgie in her aluminum box was being off-loaded, and I hadn’t listened. And on the screen she turned to look at me—only not at me, though I started and drew breath—at the Wasp that watched her. She was in mid-sentence, mid-gesture. Where? When? Or put it on the same card with the others, she said, turning away. Someone said something, Georgie answered, and stood up, the Wasp panning and moving erratically with her, like an amateur with a home-video camera. A white room, sunlight, wicker. Ibiza. Georgie wore a cotton blouse, open; from a table she picked up lotion, poured some on her hand, and rubbed it across her freckled breastbone. The meaningless conversation about putting something on a card went on, ceased. I watched the room, wondering what year, what season I had stumbled into. Georgie pulled off her shirt—her small round breasts tipped with large, childlike nipples, child’s breasts she still had at forty, shook delicately. And she went out onto the balcony, the Wasp following, blinded by sun, adjusting. If you want to do it that way, someone said. The someone crossed the screen, a brown blur, naked. It was me. Georgie said: Oh, look, hummingbirds.

She watched them, rapt, and the Wasp crept close to her cropped blond head, rapt too, and I watched her watch. She turned away, rested her elbows on the balustrade. I couldn’t remember this day. How should I? One of hundreds, of thousands…. She looked out to the bright sea, wearing her sleepwalking face, mouth partly open, and absently stroked her breast with her oiled hand. An iridescent glitter among the flowers was the hummingbird.

Without really knowing what I did—I felt hungry, suddenly, hungry for pastness, for more—I touched the RESET bar. The balcony in Ibiza vanished, the screen glowed emptily. I touched ACCESS.

At first there was darkness, a murmur; then a dark back moved away from the Wasp’s eye, and a dim scene of people resolved itself. Jump. Other people, or the same people, a party? Jump. Apparently the Wasp was turning itself on and off according to the changes in light levels here, wherever here was. Georgie in a dark dress having her cigarette lit: brief flare of the lighter. She said, Thanks. Jump. A foyer or hotel lounge. Paris? The Wasp jerkily sought for her among people coming and going; it couldn’t make a movie, establishing shots, cutaways—it could only doggedly follow Georgie, like a jealous husband, seeing nothing else. This was frustrating. I pushed RESET. ACCESS. Georgie brushed her teeth, somewhere, somewhen.

I understood, after one or two more of these terrible leaps. Access was random. There was no way to dial up a year, a day, a scene. The Park had supplied no program, none; the eight thousand hours weren’t filed at all, they were a jumble, like a lunatic’s memory, like a deck of shuffled cards. I had supposed, without thinking about it, that they would begin at the beginning and go on till they reached the end. Why didn’t they?

I also understood something else. If access was truly random, if I truly had no control, then I had lost as good as forever those scenes I had seen. Odds were on the order of eight thousand to one (more? far more? probabilities are opaque to me) that I would never light on them again by pressing this bar. I felt a pang of loss for that afternoon in Ibiza. It was doubly gone now. I sat before the empty screen, afraid to touch ACCESS again, afraid of what I would lose.

I shut down the machine (the light level in the room rose, the Muzak poured softly back in) and went out into the halls, back to the display screen in the entranceway. The list of names slowly, greenly, rolled over like the list of departing flights at an airport: Code numbers were missing from beside many, indicating perhaps that they weren’t yet in residence, only awaited. In the Ds, three names, and DIRECTOR—hidden among them as though he were only another of the dead. A chamber number. I went to find it and went in. The director looked more like a janitor or a night watchman, the semiretired type you often see caretaking little-visited places. He wore a brown smock like a monk’s robe and was making coffee in a corner of his small office, out of which little business seemed to be done. He looked up startled, caught out, when I entered.

“Sorry,” I said, “but I don’t think I understand this system right.”

“A problem?” he said. “Shouldn’t be a problem.” He looked at me a little wide-eyed and shy, hoping not to be called on for anything difficult. “Equipment’s all working?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “It doesn’t seem that it could be.” I described what I thought I had learned about The Park’s access concept. “That can’t be right, can it?” I said. “That access is totally random …”

He was nodding, still wide-eyed, paying close attention.

“Is it?” I asked.

“Is it what?”

“Random.”

“Oh, yes. Yes, sure. If everything’s in working order.”

I could think of nothing to say for a moment, watching him nod reassuringly. Then, “Why?” I asked. “I mean why is there no way at all to, to organize, to have some kind of organized access to the material?” I had begun to feel that sense of grotesque foolishness in the presence of death, as though I were haggling over Georgie’s effects. “That seems stupid, if you’ll pardon me.”

“Oh no, oh no,” he said. “You’ve read your literature? You’ve read all your literature?”

“Well, to tell the truth…”

“It’s all just as described,” the director said. “I can promise you that. If there’s any problem at all…”

“Do you mind,” I said, “if I sit down?” I smiled. He seemed so afraid of me and my complaint, of me as mourner, possibly grief crazed and unable to grasp the simple limits of his responsibilities to me, that he needed soothing himself. “I’m sure everything’s fine,” I said. “I just don’t think I understand. I’m kind of dumb about these things.”

“Sure. Sure. Sure.” He regretfully put away his coffee makings and sat behind his desk, lacing his fingers together like a consultant. “People get a lot of satisfaction out of the access here,” he said, “a lot of comfort, if they take in the right spirit.” He tried a smile. I wondered what qualifications he had had to show to get this job. “The random part. Now, it’s all in the literature. There’s the legal aspect—you’re not a lawyer are you, no, no, sure, no offense. You see, the material here isn’t for anything, except, well, except for communing. But suppose the stuff were programmed, searchable. Suppose there was a problem about taxes or inheritance or so on. There could be subpoenas, lawyers all over the place, destroying the memorial concept completely.”

I really hadn’t thought of that. Built-in randomness saved past lives from being searched in any systematic way. And no doubt saved The Park from being in the records business and at the wrong end of a lot of suits. “You’d have to watch the whole eight thousand hours,” I said, “and even if you found what you were looking for there’d be no way to replay it. It would have gone by.” It would slide into the random past even as you watched it, like that afternoon in Ibiza, that party in Paris. Lost. He smiled and nodded. I smiled and nodded.

“I’ll tell you something,” he said. “They didn’t predict that. The randomness. It was a side effect, an effect of the storage process. Just luck.” His grin turned down, his brows knitted seriously. “See, we’re storing here at the molecular level. We have to go that small, for space problems. I mean your eight-thousand-hour guarantee. If we had gone tape or conventional, how much room would it take up? If the access concept caught on. A lot of room. So we went vapor trap and endless tracking. Size of my thumbnail. It’s all in the literature.” He looked at me strangely. I had a sudden intense sensation that I was being fooled, tricked, that the man before me in his smock was no expert, no technician; he was a charlatan, or maybe a madman impersonating a director and not belonging here at all. It raised the hair on my neck and passed. “So the randomness,” he was saying. “It was an effect of going molecular. Brownian movement. All you do is lift the endless tracking for a microsecond and you get a rearrangement at the molecular level. We don’t randomize. The molecules do it for us.”

I remembered Brownian movement, just barely, from physics class. The random movement of molecules, the teacher said; it has a mathematical description. It’s like the movement of dust motes you see swimming in a shaft of sunlight, like the swirl of snowflakes in a glass paperweight that shows a cottage being snowed on. “I see,” I said. “I guess I see.”

“Is there,” he said, “any other problem?” He said it as though there might be some other problem and that he knew what it might be and that he hoped I didn’t have it. “You understand the system, key lock, two bars, ACCESS, RESET…”

“I understand,” I said. “I understand now.”

“Communing,” he said, standing, relieved, sure I would be gone soon. “I understand. It takes a while to relax into the communing concept.”

“Yes,” I said. “It does.”

I wouldn’t learn what I had come to learn, whatever that was. The Wasp had not been good at storage after all, no, no better than my young soul had been. Days and weeks had been missed by its tiny eye. It hadn’t seen well, and in what it had seen it had been no more able to distinguish the just-as-well-forgotten from the unforgettable than my own eye had been. No better and no worse—the same.

And yet, and yet—she stood up in Ibiza and dressed her breasts with lotion, and spoke to me: Oh, look, hummingbirds. I had forgotten, and the Wasp had not; and I owned once again what I hadn’t known I had lost, hadn’t known was precious to me.

The sun was setting when I left The Park, the satin sea foaming softly, randomly around the rocks.

I had spent my life waiting for something, not knowing what, not even knowing I waited. Killing time. I was still waiting. But what I had been waiting for had already occurred and was past.

It was two years, nearly, since Georgie had died; two years until, for the first and last time, I wept for her—for her and for myself.

***

Of course I went back. After a lot of work and correctly placed dollars, I netted a HAPpy card of my own. I had time to spare, like a lot of people then, and often on empty afternoons (never on Sunday) I would get out onto the unpatched and weed-grown freeway and glide up the coast. The Park was always open. I relaxed into the communing concept.

Now, after some hundreds of hours spent there underground, now, when I have long ceased to go through those doors (I have lost my key, I think; anyway I don’t know where to look for it), I know that the solitude I felt myself to be in was real. The watchers around me, the listeners I sensed in other chambers, were mostly my imagination. There was rarely anyone there.

These tombs were as neglected as any tombs anywhere usually are. Either the living did not care to attend much on the dead—when have they ever?—or the hopeful buyers of the contracts had come to discover the flaw in the access concept—as I discovered it, in the end.

ACCESS, and she takes dresses one by one from her closet, and holds them against her body, and studies the effect in a tall mirror, and puts them back again. She had a funny face, which she never made except when looking at herself in the mirror, a face made for no one but herself, that was actually quite unlike her. The mirror Georgie.

RESET.

ACCESS. By a bizarre coincidence here she is looking in another mirror. I think the Wasp could be confused by mirrors. She turns away, the Wasp adjusts; there is someone asleep, tangled in bedclothes on a big hotel bed, morning, a room-service cart. Oh, the Algonquin: myself. Winter. Snow is falling outside the tall window. She searches her handbag, takes out a small vial, swallows a pill with coffee, holding the cup by its body and not its handle. I stir, show a tousled head of hair. Conversation—unintelligible. Gray room, whitish snow light, color degraded. Would I now (I thought, watching us) reach out for her? Would I in the next hour take her, or she me, push aside the bedclothes, open her pale pajamas? She goes into the john, shuts the door. The Wasp watches stupidly, excluded, transmitting the door.

RESET, finally.

But what (I would wonder) if I had been patient, what if I had watched and waited?

Time, it turns out, takes an unconscionable time. The waste, the footless waste—it’s no spectator sport. Whatever fun there is in sitting idly looking at nothing and tasting your own being for a whole afternoon, there is no fun in replaying it. The waiting is excruciating. How often, in five years, in eight thousand hours of daylight or lamplight, might we have coupled, how much time expended in lovemaking? A hundred hours, two hundred? Odds were not high of my coming on such a scene; darkness swallowed most of them, and the others were lost in the interstices of endless hours spent shopping, reading, on planes and in cars, asleep, apart. Hopeless.

ACCESS. She has turned on a bedside lamp. Alone. She hunts amid the Kleenex and magazines on the bedside table, finds a watch, looks at it dully, turns it right side up, looks again, and puts it down. Cold. She burrows in the blankets, yawning, staring, then puts out a hand for the phone but only rests her hand on it, thinking. Thinking at four A.M. She withdraws her hand, shivers a child’s deep, sleepy shiver, and shuts off the light. A bad dream. In an instant it’s morning, dawn; the Wasp slept, too. She sleeps soundly, unmoving, only the top of her blond head showing out of the quilt—and will no doubt sleep so for hours, watched over more attentively, more fixedly, than any peeping Tom could ever have watched over her.

RESET.

ACCESS.

“I can’t hear as well as I did at first,” I told the director. “And the definition is getting softer.”

“Oh sure,” the director said. “That’s really in the literature. We have to explain that carefully. That this might be a problem.”

“It isn’t just my monitor?” I asked. “I thought it was probably only the monitor.”

“No, no, not really, no,” he said. He gave me coffee. We’d gotten to be friendly over the months. I think, as well as being afraid of me he was glad I came around now and then; at least one of the living came here, one at least was using the services. “There’s a slight degeneration that does occur.”

“Everything seems to be getting gray.”

His face had shifted into intense concern, no belittling this problem. “Mm-hm, mm-hm, see, at the molecular level where we’re at, there is degeneration. It’s just in the physics. It randomizes a little over time. So you lose—you don’t lose a minute of what you’ve got, but you lose a little definition. A little color. But it levels off.”

“It does?”

“We think it does. Sure it does, we promise it does. We predict that it will.”

“But you don’t know.”

“Well, well you see we’ve only been in this business a short while. This concept is new. There were things we couldn’t know.” He still looked at me, but seemed at the same time to have forgotten me. Tired. He seemed to have grown colorless himself lately, old, losing definition. “You might start getting some snow,” he said softly.

ACCESS RESET ACCESS.

A gray plaza of herringbone-laid stones, gray, clicking palms. She turns up the collar of her sweater, narrowing her eyes in a stern wind. Buys magazines at a kiosk: Vogue, Harper’s, La Mode. Cold, she says to the kiosk girl. Frio. The young man I was takes her arm: they walk back along the beach, which is deserted and strung with cast seaweed, washed by a dirty sea. Winter in Ibiza. We talk, but the Wasp can’t hear, the sea’s sound confuses it; it seems bored by its duties and lags behind us.

RESET.

ACCESS. The Algonquin, terribly familiar morning, winter. She turns away from the snow window. I am in bed, and for a moment watching this I felt suspended between two mirrors, reflected endlessly. I had seen this before; I had lived it once and remembered it once, and remembered the memory, and here it was again, or could it be nothing but another morning, a similar morning. There were far more than one like this, in this place. But no; she turns from the window, she gets out her vial of pills, picks up the coffee cup by its body: I had seen this moment before, not months before, weeks before, here in this chamber. I had come upon the same scene twice.

What are the odds of it, I wondered, what are the odds of coming upon the same minutes again, these minutes.

I stir within the bedclothes.

I leaned forward to hear, this time, what I would say; it was something like but fun anyway, or something.

Fun, she says, laughing, harrowed, the degraded sound a ghost’s twittering. Charlie, someday I’m going to die of fun.

She takes her pill. The Wasp follows her to the john and is shut out.

Why am I here? I thought, and my heart was beating hard and slow. What am I here for? What?

RESET.

ACCESS.

Silvered icy streets, New York, Fifth Avenue. She is climbing, shouting from a cab’s dark interior. Just don’t shout at me, she shouts at someone; her mother I never met, a dragon. She is out and hurrying away down the sleety street with her bundles, the Wasp at her shoulder. I could reach out and touch her shoulder and make her turn and follow me out. Walking away, lost in the colorless press of traffic and people, impossible to discern within the softened snowy image.

***

Something was very wrong.

Georgie hated winter, she escaped it most of the time we were together, about the first of the year beginning to long for the sun that had gone elsewhere; Austria was all right for a few weeks, the toy villages and sugar snow and bright, sleek skiers were not really the winter she feared, though even in fire-warmed chalets it was hard to get her naked without gooseflesh and shudders from some draft only she could feel. We were chaste in winter. So Georgie escaped it: Antigua and Bali and two months in Ibiza when the almonds blossomed. It was continual false, flavorless spring all winter long.

How often could snow have fallen when the Wasp was watching her?

Not often; countable times, times I could count up myself if I could remember as the Wasp could. Not often. Not always.

“There’s a problem,” I said to the director.

“It’s peaked out, has it?” he said. “That definition problem?”

“Actually,” I said, “it’s gotten worse.”

He was sitting behind his desk, arms spread wide across his chair’s back, and a false, pinkish flush to his cheeks like undertaker’s makeup. Drinking.

“Hasn’t peaked out, huh?” he said.

“That’s not the problem,” I said. “The problem is the access. It’s not random like you said.”

“Molecular level,” he said. “It’s in the physics.”

“You don’t understand. It’s not getting more random. It’s getting less random. It’s getting selective. It’s freezing up.”

“No, no, no,” he said dreamily. “Access is random. Life isn’t all summer and fun, you know. Into each life some rain must fall.”

I sputtered, trying to explain. “But, but …”

“You know,” he said. “I’ve been thinking of getting out of access.” He pulled open a drawer in the desk before him; it made an empty sound. He stared within it dully for a moment and shut it. “The Park’s been good for me, but I’m just not used to this. Used to be you thought you could render a service, you know? Well, hell, you know, you’ve had fun, what do you care?”

He was mad. For an instant I heard the dead around me; I tasted on my tongue the stale air of underground.

“I remember,” he said, tilting back in his chair and looking elsewhere, “many years ago, I got into access. Only we didn’t call it that then. What I did was, I worked for a stock-footage house. It was going out of business, like they all did, like this place here is going to do, shouldn’t say that, but you didn’t hear it. Anyway, it was a big warehouse with steel shelves for miles, filled with film cans, film cans filled with old plastic film, you know? Film of every kind. And movie people, if they wanted old scenes of past time in their movies, would call up and ask for what they wanted, find me this, find me that. And we had everything, every kind of scene, but you know what the hardest thing to find was? Just ordinary scenes of daily life. I mean people just doing things and living their lives. You know what we did have? Speeches. People giving speeches. Like presidents. You could have hours of speeches, but not just people, whatchacallit, oh, washing clothes, sitting in a park …”

“It might just be the reception,” I said. “Somehow.”

He looked at me for a long moment as though I had just arrived. “Anyway,” he said at last, turning away again, “I was there awhile learning the ropes. And producers called and said, ‘Get me this, get me that.’ And one producer was making a film, some film of the past, and he wanted old scenes, old, of people long ago, in the summer; having fun; eating ice cream; swimming in bathing suits; riding in convertibles. Fifty years ago. Eighty years ago.”

He opened his empty drawer again, found a toothpick, and began to use it.

“So I accessed the earliest stuff. Speeches. More speeches. But I found a scene here and there—people in the street, fur coats, window-shopping, traffic. Old people, I mean they were young then, but people of the past; they have these pinched kind of faces, you get to know them. Sad, a little. On city streets, hurrying, holding their hats. Cities were sort of black then, in film; black cars in the streets, black derby hats. Stone. Well, it wasn’t what they wanted. I found summer for them, color summer, but new. They wanted old. I kept looking back. I kept looking. I did. The further back I went, the more I saw these pinched faces, black cars, black streets of stone. Snow. There isn’t any summer there.”

With slow gravity he rose and found a brown bottle and two coffee cups. He poured sloppily. “So it’s not your reception,” he said. “Film takes longer, I guess, but it’s the physics. All in the physics. A word to the wise is sufficient.”

The liquor was harsh, a cold distillate of past sunlight. I wanted to go, get out, not look back. I would not stay watching until there was only snow.

“So I’m getting out of access,” the director said. “Let the dead bury the dead, right? Let the dead bury the dead.”

***

I didn’t go back. I never went back, though the highways opened again and The Park isn’t far from the town I’ve settled in. Settled; the right word. It restores your balance, in the end, even in a funny way your cheerfulness, when you come to know, without regrets, that the best thing that’s going to happen in your life has already happened. And I still have some summer left to me.

I think there are two different kinds of memory, and only one kind gets worse as I get older: the kind where, by an effort of will, you can reconstruct your first car or your serial number or the name and figure of your high school physics teacher—a Mr. Holm, in a gray suit, a bearded guy, skinny, about thirty. The other kind doesn’t worsen; if anything it grows more intense. The sleepwalking kind, the kind you stumble into as into rooms with secret doors and suddenly find yourself sitting not on your front porch but in a classroom. You can’t at first think where or when, and a bearded, smiling man is turning in his hand a glass paperweight, inside which a little cottage stands in a swirl of snow.

There is no access to Georgie, except that now and then, unpredictably, when I’m sitting on the porch or pushing a grocery cart or standing at the sink, a memory of that kind will visit me, vivid and startling, like a hypnotist’s snap of fingers.

Or like that funny experience you sometimes have, on the point of sleep, of hearing your name called softly and distinctly by someone who is not there.

***

© 1985 by John Crowley.
Originally published in Omni
Reprinted by permission of the author.

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John Crowley

John Crowley

John Crowley’s first published novels were science fiction: The Deep (1975) and Beasts (1976). Engine Summer (1977) was nominated for The American Book Award; it appears in David Pringle’s authoritative 100 Best Science Fiction NovelsLittle, Big (1980) won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel; Ursula Le Guin described as a book which “all by itself calls for a redefinition of fantasy.” In 1980 Crowley embarked on a multi-volume novel called ÆgyptThe Solitudes, Love & Sleep, Dæmonomania, and Endless Things. This series and Little, Big were cited when Crowley received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature.  His recent novels are The Translator, recipient of the Premio Flaianno (Italy), Lord Byron’s Novel: The Evening Land, which contains an entire imaginary novel by the poet; and Four Freedoms. He has also worked in film and television and written scripts for historical documentaries, many for Public Television; his work has received numerous awards and has been shown at the New York Film Festival, the Berlin Film Festival, and many others. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Boston Review, The Yale Review, Conjunctions, Tin House, Lapham’s Quarterly, and other venues.