The Tape Recorder
Roughly mid-night, a few months ago, a tape was given to me by a man seeking somewhere to spend the night. The mud was so thick on him I had the distinct impression that he had rolled in it intentionally, but my, was he fine! Really tall, broad shouldered, big hands, black hair, gentle face, and you can tell I'm single, can't you? I'm still not certain what possessed me to pick him up at the traffic light, but I think it had something to do with the way he looked at me. His glance put me at ease and begged for help at the same time; it felt as though some part of me knew him better than I did.
When we got home, I forced him into the shower and put his clothes into the wash with some delousing detergent. At one point he poked his nose out the door and asked for a towel. (I live in an apartment alone, so I don't keep my towel in the bathroom very often. It lives on my pillow or where ever I end up sitting while drying.) When I gave it to him, he smiled agreeably and said in a very eloquent voice, "My name is David, by the way. Thank-you." Then he looked me in the eyes. They say you can feel it when someone looks right through you; well, he sliced through me to reveal my pitiful little soul; I just about melted onto the floor in one thousand tiny pieces. The funny thing is that I can't even remember what color his eyes were. But I got his message: "Stop peeking through the crack in the door!"
After he was done in the bathroom, I gave him my cousin's pajamas with my eyes politely closed. He thanked me again, and I swore that I could hear a bit of the Oxford lilt in it. He bedded down on the couch, and I hid in the corner with my computer and my Tolkien books, my writing haven. At some point, when I was having an in detail discussion about whether Balrogs could fly, I found David behind me, reading. I jumped about three feet in the air, but luckily, I didn't scream. He tapped the screen and said, "If you were one of the most feared demons in the known universe with a very large wingspan, how could you fly in an abyss with such a narrow width?"
I probably should have been wondering how he would know what the width of the abyss was, but I wasn't. I feared for my life.
Being uninterrupted, he continued. "You are also incorrect in this point: 'If Balrogs (that ought to be Belroeg, if you are careful about the plurals of Elven words) could fly, why didn't the Balrog fly off of the top of Mount Caradhras?' Perhaps the Balrog was injured in the battle with Mithrandir, and couldn't fly as a result?"
He turned to me as though he expected me to argue back. "What do you want?" I asked, squishing myself into the far corner of my chair.
"To point out your mistake there. Belroeg can fly. I know it."
As normal, my mouth started working before my brain, and I said, "You're a bum!"
He straightened up suddenly and looked away. I wanted to melt into a little puddle of water and evaporate into nothing. "Oh yes, I forgot that," he said. "I must have frightened you. Forgive me."
I nodded rapidly, thinking that this was the part where he told me he really was the Baltimore rapist on the run from the police.
"Can you keep a secret?" He walked over to the door, where he left his backpack. "I'm not running away from the police."
My lungs were about to explode.
He tossed a cassette tape to me. "You'll enjoy this, from the looks of your book collection."
That was how my involvement began in this adventure. I don't have much part in it at all, I just typed out the manuscripts.
(The tape is high quality, and when listening to it I could hear echoes, as though they were in a small room. I pictured it as an interrogation room; claustrophobic and so dull it sucks whatever energy you had left into its dirty beige paint. There are two voices: a young man with a really nondescript European accent, and an old man was a deep gravely voice, as though he spent too many years smoking. I've named him Grimvoice. He speaks in bold font. My descriptions are in parenthesis and italicized.)
Please state your name.
-I am Alger Smith.
And your age, for the record.
-I am thirty-one years old.
Really? That's odd, because your driver's license here says that you were born in 1937. That would make you, what, sixty-one?
-That is my father's.
Really? Your faces, weight, and height all just happen to be the same?
-Yes. These things tend to run in family.
Do you know why you're here?
-Not entirely. I doubt that my father's driver's license, and a handful of parking tickets are the true reason I am here.
(I can hear papers being shuffled around. They are of the flimsy copy machine type.)
You're here because you paid the currently incarcerated Mr. John Boulnois to forge a birth certificate for you. Here (Heavier, stiffer pieces of paper, the type photos are printed on, are knocked against the table.) are the surveillance photos of you approaching his car. Here, you exchange money with him and receive your new birth certificate. (The young man doesn't respond, but a chair squeaks as someone stands up.) We're willing to reduce charges against you if you testify against him, and you tell us why you needed a new birth certificate.
-No. I can't tell you that. I refuse to testify.
What's the matter? We know this guy had ties with the mob, if you're worried about-
-I'm not, and you're lying to me. That was a good kid who needed extra money for tuition. He wouldn't take charity. The paper, which is so fuzzy in this picture that you can't make out, is a piece of calligraphy artwork. A picture of a swan using the letters of the word. I bought it from him.
We didn't find a picture of a swan in your apartment, but we did find a brand new birth certificate. Why did you want a new one? We found another one in the trash. According to it, you are in your forties. Got a hot date you wanna trick?
-No. Why are you obsessing over my age?
That accent of yours, is it Polish?
-What is this, the CIA? Why do you care?
Polish, it must be Polish. See, we have uncovered some Nazi files on a prisoner named Algar Smitt, who fits your description to the inch. Apparently this Algar Smitt was a suspected spy for rebels, who escaped their custody. They wanted him caught so badly, they even had a picture of him. Let me see your forearms.
Why not? (A brief pause, and someone else stands up.)
-Keep away from me! You have no right to- (A dull thump echoes in the room, possibly a punch, and I can hear Alger falling against the wall.) Let go of my arm! You have no right!
(Grimvoice wheezes as though he just ran a mile, but triumph is obvious in his voice.) Why would anyone but angsting, crying teenagers want a tattoo like that? (Paper is rustled and flapped about a bit.) The numbers match the prisoner number of Algar Smitt. Are you going to tell me that this is your grandfather? (Grimvoice grunts as he lets Alger go.)
-My grandfather came here because he thought this was a free country. No secret police; no abuse of rights. He barely survived, and now I'm being treated like he was by the Nazis. Is it because I look Jewish? I have this tattoo to remind me of what humanity is capable of. (The chair squeaks as someone sits down again. More laminated papers are plopped down on the desk.) What's this?
1914: A British man by the name of Algar Smith served in the army, but was discharged after being shot up in 1917.
1921: an Algar Smitt applied for citizenship in Poland.
1941: He was collected by the Nazis, and vanishes for quite a while, but then, in 1955, he applies for citizenship in America as Alger Smith.
1968: he gets his first car, and driver's license.
-What are you trying to prove? That you have successfully traced my family history to the First World War?
All without aging a day. This is the same person in each of these photographs.
-That is impossible. We look similar is all.
Do you classify yourself as human?
-(nervous laughter) That is a very odd question. What do you mean?
I mean, what the hell are you?
-This is illegal, isn't it? I want a lawyer.
No lawyers. You aren't human, so we don't have to treat you like one.
-Please explain; if I'm not human, what am I?
You're immortal, and your alias, I find it interesting. Alger Smith. I did my homework. It's a very old name. Ælfgar Smiþ, means Elfspear Smith, and to me, it looks like that was your beginnings. Tell me, do you even have parents?
-Yes. One of each. I'm not the only one in the world with the name Smith, or even with the name Alger. I think you are looking for a way around my Civil Rights. If a judge were to look at me, do you think that this person would see anything more than a crackpot stalker and a man with a few overdue parking tickets? You can't even prove I bought a forged birth certificate!
It won't matter, because no judge will ever see this. You have no rights.
-I see what you want. You want a confession out of me, but not for a crime. You want me to admit I am immortal! (I can hear Alger pacing about the room. He must have been wearing heavy work boots of some sort, because he's very loud.) If I did, would you leave me alone? Would you let me continue to live out my life as quietly as possible?
Not yet. We want to hear about your life. We want to know everything. Your perspective on our history is valuable to us.
-Look me in the eye, and say that again.
Your perspective on our history is valuable to us.
-You lied. What do you really want? Money?
Look me in the eyes, and tell me that you don't want someone to know who you are. Think back to World War One. You told a young man you met there everything, didn't you?
-He was interested in the song I sang for the dead. He wanted to learn my language.
That young man wrote a few books about your homeland, and they still bring his family millions of dollars each year.
-I didn't know that would happen. Is that what you want? To write books? Copyright lawyers would be eating that fortune the second it was printed.
We don't want to just make books. We want someone to help us make sense of the world and where it is heading.
-Not even I can tell you that! I drift downstream, like most people. I don't intend to have an impact on anyone.
You could still help us. With your immortality, you could be a king, and you could overturn the conflicting religions with the proof of Eru!
-This is your world. I shouldn't even be here. I refuse. No.
At least, you could open your life to us.
-No. I want to leave. I look into your soul, and I see greed. I'm not an angel; I'm not a saint; I was born the same way that you were; and I fear death, same as you. I can see that you want something… physical from me. What would happen to me after you have my life's story and political point of view?
That is n-
(At this point, the young man started screaming, so loud and high-pitched that the tape couldn't record it, so there is nothing but loud static for a while, then the sound of shattering glass. Then Alger's breathless voice whispers, "Namárië!" into its microphone, and the tape ends.)