On the subway back to Manhattan, Howard read and reread his notes and tried to understand the lessons of The Errors of Bobo Ashanti, the book that Mr. Wilcox had given to him. Did it contain insights that could help him find his place in the proper realm of existence? Would he finally be able to understand how to return to that time in his life and to Faye? Would he be able to stay there with her? He put a great deal of effort into attempting to decipher a particularly complicated passage which he had copied from the book:
Many is the man who thinks he understands the wonder and the glory of God Eternal, because they believe they have in them the essence of the physical and viewable image of Jehovah and Moses and Tafari Makonnen and the African-Babylonian-Israelite-Ethiopian Mansions of Rastafari. Woe and much infernal misery to him (and to her, if she is so bold) who thinks that infinity is finite and here is now and is forever. Sorrow is the reward for him who sleeps in his hammock when the cock crows, because only through the Toil of Good Men and the blessings of The Angels can man find his way to the Kingdom of Heaven and the redemption of Zion. Only those who understand this are able to break the temporal bonds that lay men low and only they who are unafraid will travel unimpeded back and forth from now and then and here and there and pluck and enjoy the sweet fruit of eternity, both here on earth and in the forever beyond. For all the others, the chains of the here and now will imprison them for all eternity.
Learn this lesson if you endeavour to be a member of the enlightened elect: absorb into your soul the sorrows of all men of all colors and faiths and grieve with them in their times of sorrow and sing and dance with them during their moments of joy so that they know you are a sturdy oak under which they may seek shelter.
However, only by remaining apart from other men will you discover your essence and dream deeply and rid yourself of all the mistaken notions of the false prophets and the scientists and the teachers who pretend they understand the cosmic connection between all things. No man (and no woman) is alone. No time and no place is unchanging. That has never been. Those who do not understand that eternal truth will be left behind to endlessly and aimlessly travel until the blessed time of the Resurrection.
Howard believed the solution to his life problem was contained in that cryptic passage. He broke it down: understanding Jehovah (God); thinking that one is imbued with the spirit of God; having a “viewable image” of “Jehovah and Moses and Tafari Makonnen and the African-Babylonian-Israelite-Ethiopian Mansions of Rastafari.” (He knew that Tafari Makonnen refers to Emperor Haile Selassie, who Rastafarians believe had been the Second Coming of Jesus.); “absorb into your everlasting soul the sorrows of all men and grieve with them”; and the last—the most important lesson—that time and space are fluid and that people travel through planes of existence. He wondered about “only by remaining apart from other men will you discover your essence.”
Feeling uncomfortably warm, overwrought, and fatigued on the crowded subway car, Howard thought of long drinks of cold water and soothing baths. He wondered what it would be like to plunge into the blue blue sea about which Antonin Renard had written. Unlike the others in his neighborhood when he had been growing up, Howard had never gone to the beach or to public pools. In fact, he did not know how to swim. Yet, in the back of his mind, deep within the folds and recesses of his memory, there was an image of a boat and a recollection of looking at the blue blue sea and of feeling ashamed, but he was unable to bring that dusty memory into focus. He thought of rivers, of the East River, under which the subway was probably traveling at that point in its journey to Manhattan. Then he thought of Huck Finn’s passage down the Mississippi. He heard Huck saying, “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. ...”
Howard saw himself on that raft along with Huck and Jim, straining his eyes to peer downriver, dipping a hand in the cold, muddy, swiftly moving water, passing towns and cities and ancient forests and places where fallen trees and logs and debris had come to rest and where countless numbers of people had experienced joy and countless others had suffered grievous misfortunes.
“Life’s a lot like this ol’ river, you know.”
“What? You talkin’ to me, Huck?” Howard automatically used a kind of backwoods Missouri accent.
“Well, Jim’s off in that there corner sawin’ wood and there ain’t nobody else here with us.”
“So, life’s like a river. Explain that to me, Huck.”
“Well, you can fight it or you can get offa it or you can just see where it takes you, but you can’t change its course.”
“Does that mean we’re not masters of our fates?”
“That’s a mighty good question.”
“I’ll give you my answer at the end of the book, or maybe in 50 or 60 years, if I live that long.”
“And, do you think there’s only this river? I mean, might I be traveling on another river too?”
“What you mean by ‘too’?”
“I mean, right now, is it possible I’m traveling on another river in another place at the same time?’
“Oh, you mean like the Ohio or the Missouri?”
“Yes. Is that possible, Huck?”
“Heck, no. If you think that, you’re a jackass.”
Howard was happy because he was with Faye again. It was real, not a dream. Unlike Scrooge, who, not believing what he saw, said to the ghost of Jacob Marley, “You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato,” Howard knew that Faye was there, across the table from him. It was a second chance to be with her. This time, I have to find a way of staying here, and not return to that other variation on my life, where I’m alone and unhappy. They sat at the little kitchen table in Faye’s apartment, eating spinach salad. She talked about a program she was developing at Columbia. Howard smiled because he was pleased and grateful to be with her again and because, this time, he knew how to act.
“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said, have you?” Faye asked.
Remembering that he had to always attempt to demonstrate to Faye that he perceived her as a person with her own unique needs and desires and accomplishments and failures, and not just as a beautiful woman who he always wanted and who made him happy, Howard said, “I was listening. I always listen to you; in fact, I love listening to you talk. You were explaining your new human resources initiative for students transferring to Columbia. It sounds like a great idea. They’re lucky to have you.”
Faye smiled and lightly slapped the side of her head before saying, “Wow! You really were listening. That’s a wonderful, refreshing change. That’s another reason for me to love you.”
“I’ll give you reasons every day, because I love you more than I can ever find words to say.”
“That’s also a first. Oh, Howard, I knew if I gave you enough time you would be able to say it. I’m glad I didn’t give up on you.”
He got up, walked over to her, and said, “I really want to kiss you, but I’m going to brush first. I wouldn’t want a piece of spinach stuck between my teeth to be part of the experience.”
As Howard made his way to the bathroom, Faye called out, “That’s another point in your favor. You’ve become just about perfect. In fact, you are perfect. Let me know when you’re done. I’ll brush my teeth too; then we’ll meet up in the bedroom.”
Hours later, she woke him, saying, “I couldn’t sleep. You want to know why?” Rubbing his eyes and yawning, he nodded. She continued: “I’ve been lying here thinking that things are going so well between us that, if you want, you can move in with me.”
With his heart thrumming loudly in his chest, Howard looked at her through misty eyes and, “Yes. Yes. I’ll keep the store closed tomorrow and I’ll go to Brooklyn and pack up what’s in my room and move in here with you. I’ll make you happy every single day.”
They embraced. Then they kissed. Faye pushed Howard down and, pulling off the sweatshirt she had put on after they had made love hours before, climbed on top of him. Howard lay there, blissful, transported to a place of infinite joy, grateful that he finally understood how to show Faye that he loved her and that he respected her as a human being.
He was in the dark. He was in the bed they had shared in the apartment that had been their home, but he was alone. Again.
Howard looked at the fogged-up bathroom mirror and, through the mist, told himself that he had to be strong. He had to persevere. He had to pull himself together and try to relax so that he would be able to sleep. He had to eat better and control the bizarre, random thoughts that plagued him all day and all night long. He had to concentrate on ... on Faye. Of course. Of course. He needed encouragement; he had to think of an heroic figure. Who? He pictured Henri Charrière, also known as Papillon, who survived more than a decade in a brutal, hellish prison in French Guiana, eventually escaping and finding his way to a better life. As Howard looked at his reflection in the glass he was startled to see a hazy visage behind him. When he turned, he saw that no one was there.
“I guess I’m alone. I’m always alone,” he whispered.
“It was much worse for me, monsieur. You may be alone, but at least you are in your own home. I suffered through a decade of despair in a filthy rat-infested hellhole, where I was brutalized every day.”
“You’re not here,” Howard said as he turned to look behind him.
“I am. Look forward. Always look forward.”
“I see you in the mirror. Why can’t I see you when I turn around?”
“I do not know. It is of no matter. Tell me of you troubles.”
“Why should I tell you?”
“You called for me from another time and place to be here.”
“Tell me about that. How do you move? Are you able to do it at will? Are you able to remain in one place if you want?”
“Je ne sais pas.”
“You have to know.”
“I will say this: one aspect of my being is always in a particular place and other variations on the theme of me are in others. It is the same for you, the same for everyone. However, I have never been in this one before. As I said, I am here because you called.”
“But, how? Let me ask you this: How can I go to a particular time and place in my past and stay there permanently?”
“You are in that time and place; you will always be there and then, just as you will always be here and now. You must endeavor to live a purely internal life, cold, alone, in the dark, because that is the essence of it all. Everything else is fluff. Do that. Stay alone. That is how you will satisfy your heart.”
“Okay, so I’m there right now, but I don’t want to be here. I want to be only in that one, 25 years ago.”
After a moment, during which the hazy face in the mirror slowly evaporated, Howard sighed and turned away. As he walked from the bathroom he intoned, “You must endeavor to live a purely internal life ... because that is the essence of it all.” He understood.
He entered the bookstore through the rear door and scrupulously cut a large rectangle from a book box. On it he wrote Closed For Inventory, and taped it to the inside of the front door. Then he walked out, locked the door, and headed to the nearby Gristede’s, where he filled a shopping cart to overflowing with food and toiletries. After paying, he arranged for the groceries to be delivered to his apartment, saying, “Please make it as soon as possible. I must have that delivery soon, right after I get home.”
Back at his apartment, he unplugged the phone line and all of his clocks, pulled down the blinds, shut the lights, and turned off the radiators. Then he waited. When the delivery boy knocked, Howard answered the door and told him to place the groceries on his kitchen table. He tipped the boy, ushered him out, and double-locked the door. Once he had put away the groceries he sat on his sofa and reread Infinite Journeys, Infinite Possibilities, completing it in the late afternoon, just as the small amount of sunlight that had slipped into the apartment through the spaces between the closed blinds had died out, leaving Howard in the dark. He walked to his dim, gloomy bedroom, removed his shoes, and lay on the bed. He closed his eyes and filled his mind with images and conversations and sounds and the recollection of smells. He had done this many hundreds of times before. He hoped that those memories would, like seeds, germinate and grow into dreams of Faye and their life together or, even better, get caught up in the winds of time and place and carry him back to her. All I want is there and then. I need to dwell in that place and time.
Then he was with her, but only for a moment, and then he awakened. Is dreaming part of reality? Is reality merely a dream? Would I be happier than I am now if I fell into a dream which went on and on forever in which Faye and I were together? Then he was awake for hours on his bed, the one they used to share, in the cold stillness of the night, disturbed only by the occasional sound of water gurgling through pipes and car doors slamming and voices, all of which were the traces of other people, other lives, other instances of sorrow and joy. As slivers of daylight crept into his room and as apartment doors closed and fragments of conversations echoed in the hallway and car horns honked on the street outside, Howard remained in bed, unmoving, maintaining his silent vigil. Later, as the outside sounds of morning transformed into middle-of-the-day noises, he sat up and used the bathroom. Then he ate some fruit because he knew it would be the first to go bad. Still sitting at the kitchen table, he closed his eyes and used his powers of concentration to bring himself to where he wanted to be. He repeated what Papillon had told him: “You must endeavor to live a cold, internal life because that is the essence of it all.” He willed his synapses to open and his soul and core to become small and retreat to the depths of who he was. Then he made his way to his couch, where he sat, focused on his solitary task.
The protracted, shadowy day gradually died, leaving in its wake early evening and then night, and Howard remained where he was. When hunger forced him to eat, he did, in a joyless, mechanical way. When he could no longer ignore his bodily needs, he retreated to the bathroom. When the outside sounds abated and the apartment building grew quiet, he fell onto his bed and slipped under the covers. He dreamed and then found himself awake in what he assumed was the middle of the night.
Morning came, and he moved through the hours as he had on the previous day. And the next and the next and the next.
After a number of days like this—he did not know how many—Howard began to think of himself as a speck of dust. He floated and drifted and landed on horizontal surfaces and was powerless in the face of even the gentlest breeze that penetrated his cold, silent, dark habitat.
Howard looked at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He saw that dust mote, and nothing else. He knew that he was more in touch with his very essence than at any other time in any variation of his life. Then, as focused his vision, he stared, open-mouthed, at his unshaven, disheveled reflection. He took in a whiff of his sour body odor. He mourned his loneliness. As he stared, he tolerated his now-chronic headache, which he considered a pale reflection of the suffering that he had endured for so long. All of this physical discomfort was a small price to pay. He would willingly bear more pain and loneliness and cold and distress because he understood that was the price he had to pay to get to where he wanted to be, where he needed to be.
Faye was there. She understood him and accepted him and guided him and endeavored to teach him how to feel and love and live. She said over and over again, “You can learn to care about me as a soul who is separate from you.”
“I don’t think I can,” he sorrowfully replied.
“Try this: look deeply into my eyes and then say what you feel.”
“When I look at you—”
“No. Not at me, but into my eyes, into my soul. Try it.”
He did. He saw his own reflection. When he started to turn away, Faye placed a warm hand on his cheek and held him and said, “Look into my eyes, Howard. I know you love me. Allow me to reach into you.” He looked deeply, beyond his own reflection and, after a long, long while he shivered with a faint electric spark of pleasure. He thought he saw her essence. Yes. He did. He finally did. He did not want that moment, that warm feeling to end, so he continued to stare so that he would be able to vanish into her and be absorbed by her. He remained there for hours, staring into her, being absorbed by her, absorbing her, becoming part of her. He was weak and tired and dizzy, but he stayed where he was, in front of that mirror, because it contained her and him and all that he had ever wanted, and then he said, “Oh, I do love you, Faye.”
Her smile warmed him through and through. She said, “I know. I’ve always known that.”
“Now, can we stay together forever? I think we should.”
Her face in his bathroom mirror said, “Of course, my love. We will be together in this life and in all of the others throughout eternity.”
And then he was no longer standing in front of the mirror, where she was. He was in bed, alone again. He patted her pillow.