Writing a novel is truly a journey of discovery. And in the writing of my most recent novel, I came to realize that I had something to say about the entire espionage apparatus in this country that I hadn’t heard talked about before. I wrote it, then rewrote it, then rewrote it again about 80 times. I vacillated between obscurity and obviousness, iconography and narrative, Carl Jung’s symbols and Hemingway’s iceberg theory.
In the story, Cat and Dante are hiding from a man who works in government surveillance who is trying to kill her. They have gone off the grid and taken up residence in the tunnels beneath an upstate New York university.
After a bad night’s sleep, Cat went to bed the next evening at 11. A couple hours later, Cat felt Dante squeeze her foot three times to wake her up, as he sometimes did when she had something scheduled. When she turned her head and looked, no one was there.
Above ground, all was quiet. One campus policeman was watching television 1,000 yards away while another slept two rooms away in a lounge. Finally, Cat took a walk through the tunnels to clear her head. During the day, there were always little noises—clicks inside electrical boxes, the rush of water through pipes—but at night, it all went quiet. Cat made herself a cup of chamomile, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, and walked blindly through the tunnels. Holding her cup of tea, she savored the timeless quality of the night, thinking about nothing in particular except perhaps the hopeless pursuit of sleep, when she turned a corner that she had turned a thousand times before. She stopped short and dropped her cup; it shattered on the concrete walkway.
Sitting next to the opening in the ancient brick wall was now a red chair. It had never been there before. After the cup shattered on the concrete, she realized that there was a small possibility that Dante had put it there, but somehow, she sensed that he hadn’t, and in fact, when she asked him the next morning, he said he had spent the night at his microbiologist girlfriend’s place. It changed everything in the tunnel. Cautiously, she approached it with little steps, glancing around to see if she was being watched. Finally, she reached it and placed a hand on it. It was a wooden straight-backed chair that looked like it had been painted over several times, the final red coat popping red in a way that made it seem like a dream chair.
Suddenly, Cat heard a quiet noise inside the brick enclosure, a place that should not be emitting any noise at all, and smelled a familiar odor. It was a living odor, though, not something that was long dead. Cautiously, she stepped up on the chair and reached herself up to peer inside. She could see only shadows, and at first, nothing was moving. There seemed to be places in the dark where someone could stand, although the rest of it was piled high with skulls and skeletal remains. Then suddenly she saw movement. The idea that someone might be inside there was inconceivable.
“Hello?” she said.
Suddenly, Cat heard a frightening noise in the other direction, like something tall and heavy falling to the ground, and yanked her head around in alarm. She didn’t say anything, and something came into her head but it was a thought, nothing more: What’s that?
The sound of his voice shook her deeply and she nearly fell off the chair. Cat hadn’t heard that voice since he had passed away eleven years earlier.
“What are you….?”
“You didn’t hear anything.”
“I did hear it.”
“You’re always making things up.”
Normally, Cat would be fleeing, but there was something impossible about it all that made her screw up her courage and tell herself that it wasn’t happening, that perhaps the conversation existed only inside her head, although she couldn’t for the life of her see how. She knew she was awake. She knew there was no one in the tomb. Perhaps it was a trick, like hanging a spoon on your nose. She heard the noise behind her again.
“Why are you running?” he said. “If you’re running, you must be guilty.”
“My God, I don’t have a life anymore. I have someone else’s. Some girl who looks like me and talks like me but isn’t me.”
“You should have had my father. He hit my cat in the head with a rake. It crawled under the house and wailed all night till it died. Would you rather I had done that to your cat?”
“God I feel like that cat.”
“Oh stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’re not that important.”
There was a slight rattling of bones and skulls and she saw the silhouette moving to the right, the glow of a cigarette moving with it, and so realized that familiar smell, for in her mind, the smell of burning tobacco had always been inextricably tied to the idea of father. In life, her father had had bags under his eyes, but they had derived more from overwork and smoking and bad thoughts than from genuine aging. He was disappointed at what he hadn’t accomplished in his life but had buried the disappointment in the backyard. It had taken a huge amount of digging. His harangues often boiled down to digging. He had beefs. He had blamed immigrants and welfare mothers. That was also digging. He had lived with his wife in a vodka bottle. That was some serious digging. Everyone was his enemy.
“All I want is not to be chased anymore.”
The falling sound echoed again. She turned around, trying to locate where the sound was coming from. Was it above ground? Was it part of the machinery in the physical plant? Was it in her head? She turned and faced him.
“Tell me what it is.”
“You don’t know?”
He turned in profile, the bones clacking again, and she could feel his intensity like a plate that was too hot to touch. A stepdaughter is like a gift that a stray dog leaves on your lawn. She didn’t hear those words, exactly, but that was the feeling.
“It’s the sound of your body hitting the asphalt, dear, when that man who borrowed my gun shoots you dead.”
She was a patsy. She dropped the rifle. It wasn’t hers. There was a man with a rifle on the grassy knoll, but that would be dismissed as mere conspiracy. Nobody would ever know the truth.
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