East to Meet the Sunset
By John M. Keller
“…You have incredible, extraordinary talent,” he said. That was the end of his speech, a long, desultory, near-professorial lecture, when at the end he breathed out the length of it―this much rather more simple statement.
Mind him, he hadn’t understood entirely all of the words that had come before, but what did that matter when at the end, this came?
He acknowledged that any response would only show the master to the contrary, and he wanted to believe it; to ask questions would have been evidence of vanity, so he said nothing. He didn’t even let his face change in any manner that would suggest to the master a reaction of relief, happiness―or even defeat.
The day before had been tumultuous, tempestuous―the debts that sat not only on the corner of his room but in the mind where these numbers lingered, the mantra of the minus sign echoing as if music, never too far from allowing a note to slip out into the random shuffle of thoughts. He’d been to a place where people had gathered, where there was drink and things like opium and cocaine that he’d never touched and pledged he never would―the woman, too young for him even, had followed him around throughout the night listening to his thoughts, the witty ways he delivered them, and then just when he was about to kiss her (but still before in fact), she needed the bathroom, and he watched her walking away, thinking, Yes, this one, and never saw her again.
Well, no, he saw her again maybe forty-five minutes later in a dark and red-lighted corner, in a hallway, sitting on the floor with a joint in her mouth sucking in all of the air and weed and nicotine, in the sort of dimensions appropriate to a closet under a staircase, talking with the bartender. The stacks of debts whirled through him―the bartender was younger by four or five years―he looked okay, maybe not too unattractive. She, the girl, was giggling―she laughed far more vivaciously now than she had before with him; he grabbed his coat from under the other coats, finding it quickly when he knew that he should not have, and he left. The friend followed after him―Sorry, were you just going to leave me by myself?
He explained what had happened. He said, I want to kill myself, and he placed the nearly full plastic cup of drink on the ground and kicked it, watching it spill along the illuminated cement and the rocks and the dried manure―the trod-upon, mangled road that people had walked upon for centuries.
His friend did the same―he punted his own plastic cup five meters into the future. The actor said, What did you do that for?
Solidarity, the friend said. And then they walked along the banks of the river, and they talked for a while a seamless dribble of nonsense, and thirty minutes into the brewing heat of morning, they passed out on the same bed.
The light continued throughout the day; like a slightly amplified sound, the heat of the light of the afternoon caused him to eventually stir, and he left the house to look for some coffee and an aspirin and anything else the old merchant would suggest as cures.
And that’s when he saw pass in front of him, in the complete daylight of the afternoon, the master.
I will not say hello, he said to himself, as he watched the master pass, as unaware of the human cameras following him as in scenes in his films, almost as if he were acting. But something sent the actor after the master, caused him to follow him to the same coffee shop, where he quickly learned the man was a regular; and he pretended he hadn’t seen him in the street and said, Excuse me, but you are a great actor and, as an actor struggling through a time not so propitious in my life, you have been a huge inspiration―I’m sorry to bother you.
He said it in a convincing accent, a local accent easily placeable.
Thank you, the master said. Of course he lived here, the actor thought. But who would ever have thought I would run into him? And then, I am standing in front of the master. He just spoke to me. I have, in a sense, entered onto the stage and am reading lines with one of the greats, in fact, my very own favorite. I am happy to hear you say that. But I really must go, he said, drinking down the shot of coffee that he had been passed by the woman on the other side of the counter.
Yes, of course, the actor said. And then he did the only thing in the world he could have done that would improve upon the hopeless situation. I am in a play, he said and, pulling the flyer from his pant pockets, he said, It’s very different―you might enjoy it. And then he turned and left.
The master sat toward the back of the theater wearing a hat from another decade, and no one saw him. He waited outside in the cold for him to emerge, and he said, as soon as he was nearly alone with the actor on the dark street, I’d like to buy you a glass of wine. And when they got to the cave, the master began, and for the first ten minutes the actor wasn’t even listening and thought the moment had more to do with everyone else he knew than himself.
Let me order us a bottle, he heard himself say. He got up to the bar, paid with money he knew that he should have been spent on debt and returned with the bottle, now-uncorked, of the best local red.
The master did not take in the magnanimousness of the gesture and offered a toast that was purely irrelevant.
I would be happy to introduce you to some people, the now slightly drunk man said, a youthful excitement beaming through him.
The evening went so quickly the actor could hardly even begin to register it. He watched the man walk across the street under the hat, a drizzle of diagonal rain knocking against him.
The actor looked at the half-full bottle and then across the room, where he saw a woman, and he invited her to sit with him. This was the only moment in his life when he was completely sure a woman would accept.
Later that night, while he lay in bed, he played and replayed the situation over and over, until it completely disappeared under sleep.
* * * * * *
I do not know her―no, he said.
She’s a legend. She’s been in every film, he said, making a list.
I’ve seen some of those, but I don’t know her.
She’s absolutely fantastic. She can do five accents perfectly, three of which are entire languages―she worked with the master, she uses her body like a marionette.
With the master? he said. Yet, for some reason, he chose not to mention the night before.
At any rate, she’s going to be in my production.
Do you have anything yet?
A director? A financier?
Not quite, but I’m talking to some people. And now that I have this actress on board…
This is wonderful. A toast! He held his secret inside him so that it would remain for longer a source of eternal happiness. I am so happy for you.
Of course, there is a part for you. But you have to read it. You must. In fact, you’ll even have a few lines with her.
This made him happy, even though he felt it would never happen. The actor put down the phone and placed it on the receiver.
It was night again―he met his friend from the night before, and they strode through another part of the city, near the old lighthouse. The sky bristled with stars, everything within view tonight, when suddenly they saw a red light moving through the sky at such a slow pace it could not have been an airplane.
What is that? the actor asked.
I don’t know, the friend said. But this is really, really strange.
The light got closer, and they could see that it looked like a red ball of fire.
Where can we take cover?
Then, suddenly, there were two more, advancing.
The actor and his friend were filled with great and powerful fear. What, the actor thought, does anything I am dealing with today mean in the context of what could very well be the end of the world? And: where do we take cover where we can still watch? If this is the end, I want to live the end.
But the flames grew smaller, they scuttled across the sky, away and eventually, minutes later, were gone.
I wanted to go to a basement, the friend said. But does anyone have basements here?
Not in this town, the actor said. Not so close to the sea. I don’t think so, he said.
They were quickly to a bar, a band playing a local sound, the darkness answered to by long, thick candles held by empty wine bottles like necks, a coldness in the tavern filtering through the stone walls. Three girls. The two men. And then he felt himself rise up, and he knew he was performing:
Immediately, there were then three, he said. He loved the local word for immediately, and he beamed at his mastery of the language, a mastery that had turned his less-fluent friend, who was from the same country, taciturn and quiet, while in their native language he was the more effusive. And they looked as if they were coming toward us. But we were on the side of the sea, and there was nowhere to escape to, so we stayed and watched, awaiting our fates as the balls of fire moved across the horizon.
The girls, all friends, were amused. And he sat down finally, getting up only moments later to order another round of drinks that stretched his numbers deeper into a poverty that in moments like this weighed on him even in their theoretical apocrypha.
He had held back telling everyone, including his friend, the story of the master. He didn’t entirely know why, but he liked the idea of having a secret. If nothing came of it, he wouldn’t have to say anything in response when everyone asked him how things were. If his life changed, he could explain later or tell the story as if it had just happened. Or he could simply invite the master to the next party, telling none of his guests in advance that he would be there so that only his true friends would find themselves in his presence.
But he let it slip as he was walking drunk, staggering and singing with his friend down one of the main streets in front of the entrance to the theater district.
I met the master, he said. I shared a bottle of wine with him. He went to see my show.
The master! What did he say?
He liked the show. He liked my performance. He said he’s going to introduce me to some people.
How will you see him again?
He said he would come again to another night of the show.
And if he doesn’t? The show only goes for another week. Why didn’t you get something more concrete?
The actor suddenly felt a sharp sense of regret for having shared his secret with his friend. Still, deep within him, he knew that the master was in earnest when he explained that he would return. I don’t know, he said. He said he would return.
Did he know the show was up in a week?
It says so on the flyer I gave him, the actor said.
Eventually, the two parted ways, the actor tromping the extra twenty minutes back to his home in the solemn quiet of the moments before dawn, the empty residential streets caked in apocalyptic silence, a blend of depression and intoxication he knew only too well and that threatened sleep slipping past him as his footsteps against the cobblestone streets reverberated against the buildings, and he grew sluggish and overpowered with a lethargy too dirty and painful to be christened by sleep.
* * * * * *
Time passed, and now he was with long hair and a beard grown for a role. His two-year anniversary in the country had come and gone, and he had celebrated it in distinctive fashion. The locals put together the party in his honor―not too many foreigners spoke the language without an accent (impossible as this was), lived as they did, only occasionally mingled with people from their native countries; the actor had, and this was yet another indication of his future success―everyone agreed he was waiting for a breakthrough, for something to happen, for someone to see him on stage in one of his many diverse roles and call for him to appear in a film or in a role in the theater district. That night the family he lived with, where he was the boarder, was present, as was the friend from his country and the three girls, among many others, including, in fact, a few other artists of some success, most notably a mainstay actor of the old school who had appeared in several important roles of some of the more famous longtime runs in theater in the country, and a screenwriter whose first film was due for release the next year. In the case of the screenplay, the part had been written with the intention that the actor play the role, but it was later taken by a slightly younger man who had already appeared in several films, once as a younger brother, another time as a witness of a crime and a third time in a children’s film where he traveled the countryside with a small dog. The actor felt no enmity toward him. At the end of the night, a woman whom the actor had not forgotten about but whom he had not seen for months entered the restaurant, nodding to the regulars and the waiters and the owner―she quickly became conscious of his gaze and then breached the boundaries of their circle, coming close to him and saying, You. He had of course remembered her from the night he met the master, when she had sat with him and shared the rest of his bottle. Join us, he said, and she sat and was soon taken up by the joviality of the night, the conversations that centered almost exclusively on art and artists, and when there were only three or four more people left at the table, she asked him if he wanted her to leave. Why? he asked. Because of ***her***, she said, looking across at one of the three girls who had been with them on the night of the fireballs. Don’t be silly, he said. It was then that the girl they had been talking about lifted herself up from the table, saying nothing, but removing herself from the evening. You are speaking louder than you thought, his friend said, leaving as well, running after a girl for whom he had no romantic aspiration. They left shortly after together, walking along the street near the university, down past one of the theaters and near saloons still open and cats crying out from alleyways for food and sex. They entered the house quietly, tiptoeing, up three flights of stairs―the apartments were dark, and no sounds came from under the door of the living space, where the family’s father fell asleep to the sound of the radio. They entered the actor’s room. She went to the bathroom. The actor opened the door to see if he could see light underneath the door of the other boarder, who lived across the hall. The light was on. The other boarder was a man in his sixties who left for work each day in a suit and drove people around in an expensive car. When the actor asked his landlord why this man did not live on his own, he was told that the man was a drunk and a womanizer, and his wife had kicked him out a few years before and he had let the room there since.
The woman emerged from the bathroom completely undressed, and by then the actor had uncorked a bottle of red wine and was drinking from its mouth. They took turns taking swigs from the bottle, watching it spill to the floor, and then kissing and fucking. When they finished, he said he felt happy, and she told him that her name meant happiness. And then she told him that her husband was the master.
No, he said. I don’t want to know that.
I was supposed to bring you home, with me, today, but I―She read his thoughts: No, it’s because you are talented that he is so attracted to you. That, in addition to his love for men from your country, she admitted.
What does it matter? she said, after some time had passed. You think it seems the only thing you are good for is to be an amusement to the local people…your face is wet with tears, but somehow it is as if you are only acting.
The locals aren’t locals either, she continued. They came here like you did. We took this language from another one. The people who spoke the other language are gone. Their legacy is the remnants of their language and their tradition of violence. We are still fighting their never-ending wars.
But I am change, not repetition, he said. I am not a piece of recycled history. I will not be a man with an accent whose children do not understand him.
We are all recycled. And besides, you are an actor. You are emulsive―you will always be on the outside.
I want to fuck you, and you want to talk, she interrupted. She was naked in a room eviscerated by a superfluity of light. She took a swig of wine and pushed her ass into his face and then moved backward onto him.
* * * * * *
I was on the top of a hill and someone had just been selected to roll the boulder off the precipice. I was glad it hadn’t been me, as I was afraid the boulder would hit the man below, but it didn’t. The boulder bounced five times, each time as high as the precipice itself before it cracked and became a thousand different pieces, each rather viscous and elastic―elastic to the point that it could fold into and disappear into itself. I grabbed one of the pieces, but it slipped through my hands, and I told myself that I was happy I hadn’t been the one to reclaim it. It occurred to me immediately that the person who reclaims the substance is the one who has to stand at the base of the precipice the next year, the next time the ritual is enacted.
Why can’t you dream of women? his friend asked.
You’re not listening to me, the actor said. This game is all about chance. And you can roll the boulder. You can try to dodge it. Or you can watch.
That’s what I wanted to do in the dream. But maybe it’s time I gamble, the actor said, and he was suddenly filled up with passion, which became certitude and confidence. Then, for some reason, only a few moments later, he suddenly disbelieved everything he had said before and a flash of anger pulsed through his body.
He slammed his hand down onto the table and, noticing that all the heads in the cave turned to face him, he said, this time much more quietly, I am waiting for my life to begin, but the lower volume of this last statement did not keep the others in the cave from looking at the foreigners scornfully.
* * * * * *
The actor said good-bye to everyone one by one, and then there was a truly spectacular speech made by his fellow expatriate, who was staying behind, a speech for which the actor was especially grateful. A girl looking for sex mentioned to him that she had always been in love with him but said it with so little conviction he wished she had talent as an actress. Another, an actress, told him she was happy he was returning to his native country―she did, in fact, love him. She told him that sorrow was such a bewitching temptress and suddenly left him and the party behind. The family with whom the actor lived did not go to the party because they sensed debauchery and were growing weary of the actor’s relationships with the some of the local picaresque.
He removed himself from the party to take a final walk on the beach. He thought about his time there and tried to make a short inventory of the things he would miss and came up with a few things he remembered from his first years in the town but that he hadn’t tasted during the past year. He began to think: I’ll nurture my art in my spare time, but avarice and the accumulation of wealth must be the new order of things. He thought of the many jobs he could take and be successful doing, thanks to his charisma and skills as a performer.
It wasn’t long before he returned to his home country and, because of the devaluation of the currency and the lack of jobs, he was forced to begin working a menial job, a job that required use of an apron and where he would spend the day washing his hands.
He had slowed his actions. He had begun to drink less. He had taken a final plunge into monotony and disappeared. There, back at home, he called no one from the past, and he began to perform his daily functions without calling special attention to himself―by then he had already reinvented himself as a reserved man with no past, whose present in its enormous inconspicuousness looked so much like the opposite of the existence he had once known that at times he was tempted to stride down to the places of the past and identify himself to his old friends, to tell them he had come again and was there for their amusement.
In the country he had just left, they would wonder, he thought, mostly at their gatherings―in the heat of the summer in caves, in the midnight dark, doubled dark the darkness of the hour and its business, what had happened to him, when he had left and stopped sending word—they would wonder it in the streets when they came upon one another and in the theaters and on the boardwalk of the sea, whether he had gone on to the successes that had been his to turn up and simply claim, or whether he had simply disappeared into some other place somewhere down the endless road, into a town or country of the elsewhere beyond.
One day a married couple he had once peripherally known, friends of artists, did recognize him, but, because the time had passed, they instead told him that they had once known someone who had looked much like him. Did they, identifying him, mistake him for himself, he wondered, or did they recognize him because they saw that he was pretending to be someone else?
I’m afraid you are mistaken, he said.
The resemblance is uncanny, the woman said.
* * * * * *
I looked for you everywhere, his friend said. I went to your mother’s house—where I had remembered you said it was—but the only thing that was there was a candy store. I went into the hotel next door, and the man there told me he hadn’t seen you since before you left. I looked in every newspaper I could find, and for a day I sat in the window of the players’ bar, asking everyone who came through the door. I didn’t meet anyone who knew you or who had heard of you or could even vouchsafe a response other than that I was looking for someone they had never heard of. I told them of my certainty, showed them a photograph of you in costume, knowing that anyone who had met you would immediately recognize you with the dark makeup in your eyes, the villainous curl of your lips.
A few days ago, he went on, I met a strange woman in the street who nodded at me as if we knew one another. Perhaps the greeting of familiarity alone was enough to make this true. She looked a lot like the master’s wife and was roughly her age. Later, when we were alone, she told me what had happened to her, that she was born exactly ten years to the date of the fireballs in the sky, that for thirty years the date had belonged to her alone, and how she had come to an important realization about how aging was not about getting older but its unexpected marks. I told her I had never heard anyone speak of the fireballs before, not anyone who wasn’t in our company that night—she said she was sure we had met before but didn’t remember where or when but had never been to the place where you and I lived, where I still live, from which I arrived just three days ago, looking for you. When I took her to her bed, she asked me what I did for a living. I told her that I was a mimic and was here for her amusement. She said that the person I was looking for was dead. She told me that the majority of people carried problems deep in their souls, that the greatest burden humanity had ever known was that all that was innate and instinctual was taboo and it had been replaced with what had instead turned the body into a prison, and everything was hidden deep within people because that’s what they were used to. I asked her where she had gotten these ideas, and she said that actors were emulsive, recycled, that we will always be on the outside.
What did you say? I said, petrified, a substance and fear filling my throat. Where did you hear those words?
Which words? she asked. Will you take me to bed? I cannot bear so much talk. In my work, I don’t speak. I copy movements. I mime actions. I am gifted with my body.
Where did you hear those words? I said, shouting, suddenly seeming quite unreasonable.
She made a gesture with her body that communicated to me that she had finished speaking. When I left her alone in her apartment, I saw that the sun was already on its way up.
* * * * * *
He had mastered the local dialect. He insisted on speaking in it, but so much time had passed in which the actor hadn’t read a book or a newspaper in that language that he found himself tired by the performance and said, We always spoke to each other in our native language. Why do you insist on speaking to me in this language now?
His friend had become quite well known in television, speaking with a strong accent but with relatively few errors. People stop me in the streets to talk to me, to tell me strange things. It is always about them, that they saw my show, that they were there. It is very rarely interesting. It reminded me of when you approached the master. I have never forgotten that story.
Why are you here? the actor said.
I wanted to see you, he said. Isn’t it obvious? he said, defensively.
I’m sorry, the actor said. Life has become so rough recently in this part of the world, as you know, that we have grown suspect of everything and everyone. It’s good to have you here, he said, putting his arm around his friend.
Let’s have a nice meal, his friend said. I’ll pay for everything obviously. And you can tell me what you’ve done with yourself, and maybe share with me your plans. You know, you were the most gifted of us all—surely, you haven’t forgotten that.
He told his friend, I am working on a new type of art. It’s called failure, for a crowd of one. Or: “Failure: For a Crowd of One.” Failure is a saccharine, blissful thing. In the old days, there were artists who lived inside their art like snakes in their shed skin, poor humans of the earth who lived and died in alleyways, because this was the fate of us all. Because why live if only to be remembered? How long will this memory last? The world imbues you with a spirit, and then it rips that spirit out.
No, his friend said, growing worried that the actor had forgotten everything, most of all himself and his past, his successes and his promise and promises. You can’t leave yourself behind, he said. Life is not a role.
* * * * * *
He found he no longer tolerated the look of most faces. There was a certain smile he detested even more than anything, because it wasn’t really a smile. It was the smile of civility, in a civilized world. And now everyone had it on their faces.
He walked at night among the streets. It was the time when they lay empty, under leaves and trash and scattering, schizophrenic vermin, where the locales still open played the sound of the night’s entertainment in the corner of the room.
Now time passed unravished, listless; when the seventeenth or eightieth season had passed, he knew he was by then living in someone else’s city, the place showing its seams and gutters in the deluge, the blackened snow, the smeared makeup and bills and the smile of civility worn on faces he’d seen on his face too. He’d drawn strength from his dispossession, from the contrast to his intensity and intimacy, his capability to transform the air through the simple projection of his voice, the identity that had been spread across time that could, without notice, reclaim itself.
And the others told him they liked him better the way he was now, the way he was to them, when he was himself as he was with them. They didn’t, he thought, realize that the world on the stage was an actual stand-in for the real one, and so they didn’t seek to look behind the curtain to see what they might discover. He lingered after. He touched the purple velvet to his skin.
With a woman he met, a customer at the restaurant where he worked, he had a child, who lived with her and who would come to stay with him every two weeks and occasionally also on other days and evenings when the mother was meeting new men, searching for someone who could be a permanent father for the little girl. Recognizing the reality of the situation, and the legitimacy of everyone’s needs, he didn’t complain or ask for more than was offered to him. After some time, he started seeing the little girl more often, while the mother spent her evenings with a man she would marry, before she married him and they left the country.
He followed them to the new place. He went to classes at a bookstore, where he began to learn the local language, quickly and incomprehensibly, especially for his age, mastering the accent. He drove away from the center of town into villages where only the locals lived, and he found one place he visited daily, where they cooked an array of local dishes that he loved and that cost him far less than it would to eat at home, because the ingredients at the local supermarket were expensive, as all of the local people had small gardens and trees that produced everything they needed to sustain themselves and only foreigners bought things at the grocery stores, where he would have had to purchase not only the main ingredients for the dish, but also all of the oils and spices and salts necessary to maintain a kitchen.
One evening he was given a flyer for a show, and he attended it, curious how plots in this country’s life would look like on stage, and how the local music would be used (curiously, it seemed all of the country’s music derived from a single tune). To his surprise, it was a dark, troubling piece about the recent history of the country, the coup d’état, the murder of the establishment and the dismemberment of the limbs of the hero of that war, whose death brought about the revolution that restored the country to its greater population. It is strange, he thought, how often a place needs such a death, to carry on, how there is no story greater than one with a hero, or martyr beloved by his contemporaries.
After the play, he wrote a letter to its director, who responded in a long letter answering his individual points. A few months later, the woman, a few years older than him, and he met for dinner at the restaurant he visited daily, where, by the restaurant owner, a bottle of wine was brought out for the occasion, and at the end of the night, the woman walked hand-in-hand with him through alleyways on both sides surrounded by the sound of water draining, semi-permanent rivers in the rain-laden country where everything grew whether you liked it or not. He opened a door to his room, and she said, I have never seen a foreigner live like this. Not even the locals live this way.
Let me be the judge, she said.
No, he said. It’s not that I fear failure, it’s that I insist upon it. But it is not actually failure because failure is personal, disconnected from the notions of others, and judges like you. That’s how some of the greatest successes of our age are seen as failures in their own eyes.
Please, she said. Stop speaking. I want to write all of this down.
Every day I attempt to live slower. Often, I am surprised by how well I have managed to do so. This is the great challenge. I’m interested in very little else.
But, she said. Then that’s the irony: you are ready for the stage. You no longer have any need of it.
That’s right, he said.
Well, perhaps now it has need of you, she responded.
* * * * * *
One year he was approached by a young man in the street and given a flyer for his show later that evening. He decided to go, thinking that he could stand to see something new, and what the flyer and the young actor were promising seemed interesting. Toward the end of the piece the young actor had been aged considerably with trick-makeup, and he moved with the speed of a man whose relationship to the ground was unstable. The story was about an old man who had once been a young man and who had, without notice, abandoned his youth and had instead become a sort of performance artist, but a performance artist for a crowd of one, in his own life. His voice was shaky, and it was impressive that a young man could inhabit old age so convincingly.
As he watched the performance, he recognized the degree to which the story, like all of life, rested on premature conclusions and mistaken messages about a future that had not yet happened and a present that was too diffuse to be understood―all else be damned. He began drafting a toast he would make for the young actor to this effect.
After the show, he scanned the faces of the audience and realized that some he knew and many he didn’t, but a few were looking in his direction. He saw him out of the corner of his eye, and he waded through the room to the delight of the crowd―of no more than twenty―who were congratulating him for the performance that had turned him into an old man.
But, before he could say to the young actor what he felt it was he needed to say, or even to thank him for the invitation to see the spectacle, he noticed that he had been left alone in the room with the crowd, who, at this late hour, was hungry and beginning to make its way to the streets.
He began to walk down the streets looking for the young actor, as the crowd disassembled and went their separate ways, and he peered into the new caves and looked at the light now standing above shops revealing below itself the paint and typography of the future. This filled him with a sudden disquiet, as he wouldn’t have enough time to know them all.
For a moment he fell under a spell. He was beginning to grow dizzy. And then he looked up at the sky and saw the sun, setting as it always had, in the west.
What I see is an illusion, he thought. Since we see the world through our eyes, the screen is directed away from us, in one lens, as in a camera, through a convex lens that reads everything upside down. But, on the inside, I look as I wish to, or as I would like to imagine, and even my imagination inside me is the one thing without an age―my soul is paved with streets with lights and the insides of caves; the moment I walk into one of these places in front of me, there is no difference between me and the owner, I who rent the place with my glass, the owner who waits on me and pays the lease.
Does it matter that I must leave and return to the place that I call home? I cannot own the earth or time itself. All that I might think I can own but am only fit to lease lies in the wrong place, directly in front of me, which I mistake for the present.
At that moment, he looked in front of him past the vitrine and into a cave, where he saw the young actor, who was waiting for him to recognize him.
* * * * * *
One day he met a woman who was born the same day as the master, and her child had been born on his own birthday. It happened when the sun was set, when he’d found himself at the theater watching a drama in which the characters travelled through time. She told him she’d never heard of the master, now long dead. He spoke of his time in the other country many years before, thinking back to that moment, explaining this encounter, the intimate details of his time with the master’s wife, his friend, the fireballs, and many other things, all of which had, until a short time before, belonged to a more recent past.
You loved that place, she said.
Imagine, he said, to have tapped into the very source of life only to have to push a stone up a hill.
She told him that would be better than standing at the bottom of a hill dodging stones.
He was astonished she knew of his dreams and told her so.
It’s a recurring dream, she said.
That’s something you don’t realize in the beginning, he said. Something has to happen once first, before it can repeat. And now when I am atop the hill it feels familiar—as familiar to me as a street I’ve lived on, or as familiar as your face is becoming to me, especially as I have asked myself to remember it so that I can see it again later when we’re not together. I have forgotten many of my times on stage except the most recent ones, or they blur into one, but I have never forgotten the first time. The wind was blowing. I had two lines, and I was outside, facing east.♦
John M. Keller is the author of five books of fiction, including Johnny Allan, a novel released on New Year’s 2019, and A Bald Man With No Hair, a story collection. This story belongs to an as-yet-unpublished collection entitled Tic Tac Toe.
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