The traffic drones and sings a hard times song on 65 and there’s poetry there; there’s an artful turn of phrase he’s unable to find anymore and hasn’t known for some time. Things are coming to an end tonight. Strangers coming through, hither and yon, and here he stays dispensing advice and the good word to anyone who stands there long enough.
He’s always flirted with transience. People pass into and out of his life and for the most part he’d been happy to let them, blind to their faults as long as they extended him the same courtesy. He’d never known what to do with people who see too clearly, too piercingly. Let them in, let them stay, until they leave, and he let them.
She’d seen the art of them; he’d heard the poetry of them. Donald had woven them together in something that was a close approximation of love. But they were strangers in the now; there could be no reviving their symphony and song, and no delight would ever win them back to this ephemeral surface existence. As below, so above; the Zero winds through networks of thought and memory and the strangers he meets do so as well. It is the only thing he likes about it. It exists mostly in the world of thoughts, as Joseph Wheattree does.
He tells himself their story is over. He’s told himself that for years. He will continue to tell himself that. There is no closure in his world. The nothing behind his eyes is echoed in his drifting thoughts and persistent writer’s block and in the emptiness of the tanks of gas buried below the earth, but he’s a gregarious soul, and he smiles and tells his tales to those who come and listen and leave again.
He sits still, silent, the joints of him crackling in the moisty draft that blows in and away. His ghosts are still here, standing stolid and silent around the fire, but they offer him nothing that he can’t get from the spore-dreams that he tamps down into his pipe. Their words ran dry long since.
He checks the draw, rendering the distance between them in pixels and polygons. He tamps. He lights the tiny flame with an ember from the larger one, and lets it go out. False light. He knew someone once who would have loved that metaphor. He knew someone once who would have hated it. Both have been gone for a long time, their spark burning dim in the first flame of the caves and gone again.
He lights the pipe again, letting the true light settle into the crumbles and smears of black in the bottom of the bowl. They were false, he tells himself. Only this cavern, the math, the program. It shines like the Zero, beautiful, beguiling as a swipe of gray in her hair or the gleam of discovery in his blind eyes. The pipe smolders and he breathes in the haze, letting it surround him, floating in a dome of pleasure.
The pipe is out. Even the true light cannot stay lit forever, he tells himself, and takes a bitter comfort that he, at least, is still left. He can still light it again.
He saw further than anyone ever had. He sees into that flaring heart of the caves now, in dreams of Xanadu, his only true light in the deeps. The moldering ghosts of Donald’s ambitions still stand thrice-woven around him in silent wonder or dread. Perhaps they know him better now than he knows himself. Perhaps they always did.
She’s buried herself in her work as her mind drove itself in circles back and forth, in and out, around in spirals and out again on the other side, dark, dim, quiet. Wondering. She’s been here a long time. She’s had the chance to go back, break the mold, let what they could have had grow over them and hold her down with him, with them, but that off-ramp has been closed a long time now. There are barriers in place. There are rules: proposals to endorse or deny, or like herself, to hold in abeyance.
Could she ever have stood eye to eye, hand in hand in hand with a blind poet and a visionary? Or was she always tasked to be here, with an un-reclaimed space in her life for their brand of meandering? She’d only wanted to endorse her own bright ambition, to deny the dark fear that she will be lost. She owes it to herself to try again; she is a debt unpaid.
She thinks, “in the end it was always meant to be this way,” but she knows better. There are no ends on the Zero. What was doesn’t end, only fractures outward onto new paths – a fractal spiral of resignation, where the perpendiculars will never meet again, only growing outward into smaller and smaller crevices. They accrete memory like black greasy spores on dusty transistor cells, randomly accessed by lost dreams of simulated paradise.
The caves hum and shine around her. It’s one last recrimination: stay. She will not. She’s a fixture here, an ironic installation of the artist herself. It’s time to reclaim herself, her last act as Senior Clerk Lula Chamberlain, proposal presented, endorsed, processed. The infinite road spins under the music of her tires; caverns measureless to man fall away.
In pixels and polygons, in eroded circuits and memories of other times, she stops on the way out of town; the car door slam alerts the blind proprietor of the only gas station in miles he has a visitor. Together, they greet without surprise a man who spent too long moldering as he climbs a rickety ladder from the depths. They spend the day drinking milky gas station coffee and eating fresh, sticky melon as they drive too fast away, and find what they needed to be strangers no more. There is a kind of paradise waiting for them in that recursive moment, if it lies anywhere, but like the Zero, the ways of its turnings have no map that stays true for long.