He walks down to Station Zero like a dead Jesus dragging his cross back down Golgotha. There are no scars to be seen, no gashes to be probed. He is well fed, well conditioned, reasonably well dressed. He carries himself well for a dead man. But he knows the score, and it is Zero.
There is a bay, and then there are mountains. Long ago the city began pushing itself from the shingle up the mountainside, the narrow shop-lined street bearing signs of the struggle. Finally the street stopped being a street altogether and turned into a stone stairway. He kept going until even the squat old houses gave up the climb. Higher still he saw a shallow niche carved into the solid rock, a green steel trash barrel occupying the protected space where a statue or relic had once stood. From there the stairway steepened and veered to the right, its ascent blocked from view by the bushes and craggy trees that had managed to find a foothold. He took one more step up and scuffed his shoe. Fuck it, he thought: I’m going back.
He stepped into a bakery and pointed to an apricot croissant in the display case, waiting with embarrassed helplessness as the small woman behind the counter sorted brusquely through the coins he held out in the palm of his hand for her inspection. He asked her where he could find a coffee, and she pointed down the street and around the next corner. Toting his pastry in its paper sack, he took the turn and saw the sign above the door: a stylized cross-sectional drawing of a nautilus shell inscribed with one word – Rik’s.
As he pushed the door open he saw maybe ten square wooden tables, each surrounded by four cane-bottomed chairs, all of them empty, and a short hardwood-surfaced bar, unpolished, outfitted with a half dozen stools, also empty. A waiter standing erect and solemn by the kitchen door gestured for him to take one of the tables by the window. Silently the waiter went into the kitchen. A minute later he re-emerged carrying a tray: on it were a cup of coffee, a pitcher of steaming milk, a setting of silverware on a cloth napkin, and an empty plate. The waiter set each of these items on the table in front of his solitary customer, signaling without speaking for him to put whatever he had in the sack onto the plate.
The coffee was excellent, as was the croissant. Not one of the few people walking past the café so much as glanced inside. Looking around the empty café he realized that no paintings or other decorations adorned the grayish-pink interior. No music played; no aromas wafted in from the kitchen. After maybe three minutes another man entered, followed soon afterward by a woman. Both of them carried small paper sacks; both were seated at empty tables and served coffee and empty plates by the stolid waiter. No one said a word.
When he had finished he eventually managed to catch the eye of the waiter, who maintained a silent vigil beside the kitchen door, by pantomiming a writing gesture in the air. The waiter nodded and stepped back into the kitchen. A moment later the waiter returned, accompanied by another man. Not the chef: no apron. The proprietor? Rik? He approached. “Everything is to your satisfaction?” Probably Rik then. His question, spoken in barely-accented English, was directed toward all three patrons. They all nodded, smiling: Americans then. “Excellent,” Rik summarized, walking back toward the kitchen door. Instead of leaving he seated himself at a table at the far end of the dining room. “Now,” he said, rubbing his hands together briskly, “we may begin. Tell me: did any of you enter here this morning because of the Pilgrimage?” No one spoke. “I thought not. Then for each of you this is Station Zero.”
The woman spoke first. “I’m sorry, but I thought this was a café?”
“Yes, of course it is a café, madame,” Rik reassured her from his seat near the kitchen. “You will be asked by your waiter if you would like anything else, and afterward you will receive a thank you and a bill, service compris, just as at any other café. I hesitate to claim that this is more than a café – too much like an advertising slogan, wouldn’t you agree? But in this case it is true.”
The woman reached into her bag, pulled out a piece of folding money, laid it on the table, and stood to leave. The other man, the one who had come in second, started reaching for his wallet, but the woman waived him off. “I’m sure I’ve left enough for both of us,” she told him. “For all three of us.” The second man left with the woman. If we had followed them out the door, would we have seen them discussing the desolate café they had just left and its oddly intrusive proprietor? Would they have noticed the other café on the same street, and would the man have invited the woman to join him for a second coffee in this second café? Would the two of them have discussed what there was to be seen in this city, other places they had been, where they were headed next? Would they have engaged in a brief but lackluster affair while the man attended the final day of his orthopedics convention and the woman wrapped her video shoot? When on their solitary flights home they reflected on the routinely intermittent tawdriness of their lives would they make solemn vows to change for good this time, only to slip back into their lives as easily as slipping behind the wheel of a car parked in the long-term lot at the airport? Or would one of them, the woman say, have gone home, mixed the booze and the pills, ranted about her ex to her daughters, threatening to leave them while they cowered in the older girl’s room and called the police as their father had instructed them to do if their mother ever got like this again? Having slapped one of the policewomen who had responded to the call, would this woman who only the day before had paid for three coffees at Rik’s have found herself strapped to a gurney and hauled off to the psych ward, being charged the next morning with assault after having been deemed sane by the medical resident working the hospital’s graveyard shift? After her arraignment later in the week would she have been released on bail, have taken the rest of the pills, have been readmitted to the hospital? When after a month she was released from rehab would she then have boarded a plane and returned to this city, again found the bakery and the strange little café tucked into the corner of the medieval quarter? This time would she have listened with the flat and diffused attention of the heavily medicated to the proprietor’s introduction to Station Zero and the Pilgrimage? All the while the orthopedist would be keeping his schedule filled with rotator cuffs and ACLs and carpal tunnels until that Saturday morning, cool and sunny, when he would drop dead of a heart attack while playing doubles at the club.
Now only one customer remained in the desolate café. “Station Zero?” he asked.
“Also known as the gateway to the Void,” the man tacitly identified as Rik affirmed. “After the end, and before the beginning.”
“So this is some sort of religious outpost, the first step on the Pilgrimage to eternal life in Jesus?”
“Not the first step. The Zero – before the first step, and after the last step. And no, not religious, or in any event not the sort of religion of which you speak with discernible sarcasm. Passion, mastery, genius: these are our sacraments if you like, and perhaps also our gods, though we worship at no altar and offer no supplications. The Pilgrimage offers no guarantee of eternal life. What it does offer is, perhaps for you, the guarantee itself.”
“And you are…?”
The man stood and bowed slightly toward. “Valmont, Proprietor of this Station. There are many other Stations on the Pilgrimage, many other Proprietors.”
“Not Rik then?”
“Yes, I also happen to be the Rik of this particular café. You will discover also many other Riks on the Pilgrimage.”
The customer hazarded another glance around the sparse restaurant. “And you think this is why I came here, to get sucked into the Void?”
“To balance on the edge,” Valmont clarified as he resumed his seat. “Looking over the precipice, on the lip of the grave. Pilgrimage does not begin until you enter the Void. This is, for you, perhaps the threshold. I must admit that this place, this Rik’s Café, it is not extravagant. But the Void? No, I hardly think so. You must find it, the Void. Or permit it to find you. Perhaps it will open itself for you here in this café. But the Void is not the café itself. Do you understand? This is not the inner darkness; it is at best, or at worst, a corner of the outer darkness.”
“Where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called but few are chosen. So I’m the chosen one for today, am I? The Pilgrim du jour? I suppose I’d have laid pretty good odds that I’d be the one, but I am a little surprised that you could spot me so easily.”
“You are here still, are you not, while the others have left? Would you say that you are a betting man, Mister…?”
“No, not if I can help it, at least not any more. You could say I’ve lost my stake.”
Valmont shrugged. “Or your nerve perhaps.”
“There is no shame either way,” Valmont said, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. “This is Station Zero. If you have not already been reduced to nothing, don’t worry, for soon you will be. This is always the lesson of the Trail, is it not? All the money’s gone, nowhere to go, but oh! That magic feeling. Abbey Road, you know? This Pilgrimage is built on three myths. One is ancient, one is still unfolding, one is yet to come. But come now, tell us a Tale.”
“A Tale. You know Chaucer, yes, from your school days? A Pilgrim Tale. You are the only competitor today, so to win you need only tell. A free coffee shall be your reward, or something stronger if you like.”
“Whiskey, no ice. Hey, it’s five o’clock somewhere, am I right?” Valmont looked at his watch in puzzlement. “It’s an idiom from where I’m from.” Valmont gestured toward the waiter, who moved silently toward the bar. “But I am no Pilgrim.”
“First the Tale, then the Trail,” Valmont intoned somberly – but was that a wink? “An idiom of our own. Even if you do not realize it, you will have begun.”
* * *
I glance over my shoulder at the big-screen image of my own slouching profile and I know it’s over. The faceless throng jamming the arena has remained silent and attentive during my first two hours, but I’m certain that by the end of this evening everything will be different. The arena might be reduced to rubble by air strikes, or maybe gravity will stop working and we’ll all wind up crushed together inside the concavity of the domed roof. Or I’ll turn the page and there will be nothing there.
I’ve always felt uncomfortable looking up from the page. Even on that first night – was it really only two months ago, or has the structure of time changed in some fundamental way? – even then I knew I ought to look up, make eye contact. Certainly I was familiar enough with my material to lift my eyes off the page now and then, try to coax my audience a little farther into the world I was showing them. I had assured myself that the novel isn’t me after all, isn’t even about me really: it’s just something I wrote, as separate from myself as any other book I might pull off the shelf. Still, there I was, making what amounted to a flagrant pass at two dozen strangers, and I was terribly afraid they weren’t looking back.
I enunciate clearly and with inflection. Rarely do I stumble over even the most convoluted syntax, probably because I’ve had plenty of experience reading bedtime stories to my daughter. Sometimes for fun I would look up theatrically from what I was reading to her, my face painted with ersatz emotion, my eyebrows arched, eyes and mouth opened wide. My daughter would laugh and tell me to stop it. That’s when I understood: it’s not necessary to master the arts of locutionary seduction in order to lure someone into another world; you just need to hold the door open and the world itself does the work.
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d never heard about the public readings at the bookstore, never made inquiry. Even after I’d been given a slot on the roster for that Thursday night I almost didn’t make it. People were gathering their things and putting on their coats when someone spotted me standing just inside the doorway and beckoned me forward, asked everyone to please give their attention to the last scheduled reader of the night.
I glanced at my watch as I’d neared the end of my text that first time: right on schedule; no need to hurry getting through the last page before my ten minutes were up. But anxiety had begun to creep over me. I stumbled over a word, then I repeated a line, and still the end came rushing toward me. Two paragraphs, one. Imbued with a strange dread I forced my way through the last sentence of Chapter One.
My finger hovered over the text for a moment longer, then abruptly I raised my head and gazed into the void. I discerned the faces, dispassionate and expressionless. They did not move; they made no sound – as if they were waiting for something. Motion in the periphery captured my attention: a neon light near the door was flickering on and off. I picked up the manuscript, tapped it a few times on the lectern, and replaced it in the accordion folder. I nodded unsmiling toward the silent motionless audience and left.
I was surprised to find a phone message waiting for me at home. “Mr. Molina, this is Karl Shroeder, from the bookstore? I wanted you to know that we really enjoyed, really appreciated, your reading this evening. I wondered, we wondered, if you might come back tomorrow night. You can just keep going where you left off.”
Again the reading went smoothly. I managed to look up a few times and again found myself confronted by attentive but expressionless faces. After finishing my ten minutes I took an empty seat in the second row. The audience members began chatting among one another, preparing to leave – apparently I was the only reader scheduled for that evening. Two young women approached. “We looked for your book on the shelves but we couldn’t find it,” the black-haired one informed me. I acknowledged that it wasn’t published. To my surprise they seemed thrilled. “Then we’re the first ones to hear it?” I nodded. “Well that makes sense then,” the taller one remarked. “See you tomorrow.”
Reading aloud is slow going, but you do get to the end of the book eventually, and now that my nightly readings had been extended to half an hour things were moving right along. By the end of the second week I had begun to feel a little relieved knowing that soon I’d be finished. It saddened me too, of course. Anticipation often exceeds fulfillment, but the reality of reading my own work every night to what had grown into a roomful of people – well, it had changed my life. I actually started thinking again about quitting my job and devoting myself to writing – the craft of it, the art, the truth, the paradoxically diffuse intensity of it. That first night I’d felt like I was on trial; now it seemed as though everyone in the store, reader and listeners alike, were entering together into another world, a world conjured out of nothing but words and imagination.
Soon enough there came that inevitable night, raw and blustery, when I drove to the bookstore with only five unread pages left to go. I’d framed the narrative according the traditional third-person-singular, past-tense convention, but then in the last chapter, Chapter 42, the story shifted abruptly to first person – as if the teller of the tale had suddenly become the main character, stepping out from behind the veil of anonymity. At the same time the story itself took a sharp turn toward the surreal. The previous evening, as I’d begun reading this final chapter, I experienced a momentary visual distortion, or perhaps it was a lapse of attention: the letters arrayed before me wouldn’t congeal themselves into meaningful units. I blinked hard two or three times, and when I looked up every person in the room seemed to have moved a little closer to me, gotten incrementally larger. Their wide-open eyes were locked onto my own, as if by the power of their gaze they could make my eyes see the words as they’d always been meant to be seen…
As I had done for the past 26 nights I extracted the loose-leaf manuscript from the accordion file and set it in front of me on the lectern. With a singular gravity I transposed the written words into sound. I was speaking no louder than usual, but somehow my voice sounded larger to my own ears. Whenever I finish reading a page I place it face-up at the bottom of the stack, so that the top sheet is always the next one to be read. One after another I read those top five pages, delivering them flawlessly; carefully and deliberately I slipped them one by one to the bottom of the stack. I grasped the entire sheaf in both hands and tapped the bottom edge on the lectern, just as I always do at the end of a night’s reading. I was sliding the manuscript back into the accordion file when I noticed that the title page, which should have risen again to the top of the sheaf, seemed to be missing. I scrutinized the top sheet more closely: “Chapter 43,” the heading read. Silently I scanned the opening lines: familiar yet disconcerting. How could I have forgotten? I still had about 15 minutes left. Sweeping a glance across my expectant audience, I read on.
And on. The hallucinatory tone of the narrative intensified as past tense turned the corner into the present. The story, which for its first 42 claustrophobic chapters had taken place almost exclusively inside one room, was chapter by chapter exploding outward: the rest of the house, the neighborhood, the town, the nation, the world. The narrator, who in first revealing himself had born only a generic resemblance to the author, gradually emerged as a distinct character. Sex, age, stature, back story, day job, literary aspirations: more and more the narrator was becoming Edgar Molina, was becoming me. To this fictional Edgar remarkable things were happening. From benumbed obscurity he had risen to prominence; his voice, so long unheard, struck resonant chords in the people’s hearts; the worlds he conjured from imagination began taking on shape and substance. Obscure adventurers crisscrossed the globe; wars ended while others began; world leaders in every sphere of endeavor sought his counsel. If, reading from his magnificent book, the words this fictional Edgar intoned said “let there be light,” then light there was.
In the narrator’s book the crowds swelled to enormous proportions – and it was so. Soon I was reading three, four, five hours a day. My job faded away; reading is what I do now. And yet every night, every time I finish a page and slip it to the bottom of the stack, I have to master the same dread again: what happens now, after the end? Every time another new page awaits me, familiar, expected, predestined. The world into which I speak these words is changing dramatically, but the book seems to keep pace with the changes, even to anticipate them, as if I had known the future when I’d written these astounding pages. And just when had I written them? The book itself explained that Edgar had written it, was writing it, would continue to write it, until the time came when he would not.
And now that time has arrived. As the page draws my eyes to itself I read it to the people, and reading it to them I read it to myself: the time is at hand. Desperation has seized certain pockets of resistance to the grand trajectory laid out by Edgar’s book, by my book. Even now forces are arraying themselves: not just the will of determined and dangerous men, but the very fabric of nature being rent asunder. As I glance over my shoulder to the gigantic image of my profile, my attention is drawn by a ripple in the crowd toward a hooded figure crouching in one of the exit ramps. I feel the air shudder around me as the page falls from my hands…
Centering his target in the crosshairs, the sniper watched Edgar Molina return his attention to the large stack of paper in front of him. Edgar’s mouth stopped moving; half a second later his amplified voice cut off mid-sentence. The vast auditorium fell silent. Edgar’s shoulders shrugged; his features seemed to melt down his face. The sniper had been concentrating his full attention on that face, but now his mission was completed and Edgar’s face had fallen from view. The sniper shifted his left wrist ever so slightly so that the top sheet was framed by the telescopic lens. He couldn’t read the words from there; he would have to go down to the arena floor, stand at the lectern, pick up where Edgar had left off.
* * *
Scattered polite applause greeted the conclusion of Bud’s tale. “That’s deep, Buddy,” was Dave’s brief review. The Amazing Dave, MC for Open Mic night at the bookstore, began picking the strings on the guitar slung around his neck. “I’m not sure I quite get it, but you know, somehow your story brings this little song to mind.” He began strumming a familiar chord sequence, the opening hook to an old rock and roll standard. “Left a good job in the city,” Dave sang with an affected country accent. Bud didn’t even try to imagine what it was in his story that Dave associated with this old Creedence song, other than the fact that the story seemed a bit somber for the occasion and the tune might perk up the mood in the room again. No, wait, Bud thought: Edgar left his day job in my story – there is a connection. The realization made Bud feel just a little bit better about Dave, about his own reading, about the whole Open Mic event. A few of the people seated in the metal folding chairs clapped in rhythm, but by the time The Amazing Dave hit the chorus the audience had reverted to silence. Only a handful put on their coats and left when at the end of the first verse Dave announced a five-minute break. Bud might have taken the audience’s perseverance as a sign of enthusiasm had he not known that this group of maybe two dozen patrons of the literary arts consisted almost entirely of other authors, along with a few spouses and unusually supportive friends. Pleased with his work, Bud strolled to the drinking fountain as Dave bit into the second verse hard. “Nice story, man,” somebody said, slapping Bud on the shoulder. Bud turned around: it was the burly mustachioed guy who looked and talked like a ZZ Top roadie. Just before Bud’s turn this guy, who also happened to be The Amazing Dave’s brother, had read an excerpt from his newly-published fantasy novel, something about a knight with magical powers challenging a vampire at his castle. “Yours too,” Bud lied.
With the Open Mic event more than half over, Bud had to admit to himself that so far his own story was the only one worth hearing. He had written it specifically for this evening, pruning it back to its essence so it would fit into the ten-minute slot he’d been granted. Everyone else read chapters from longer works, presumably hoping to attract the potential buyers or even the literary agents they imagined might show up. Bud though had crafted something intended specifically for his fellow writers. He’d heard a few chuckles as he’d read, but when he’d looked up occasionally from the page his glance had bounced off those same dispassionate and expressionless faces he’d written about in the early part of his story. Is that what I look like while the others are reading, Bud wondered, and he realized it was probably true. He had barely paid attention to the other readings, so absorbed was he in his own performance: the anticipation, then the letdown. Maybe he had witnessed a work of genius without realizing it? No, he was pretty sure that wasn’t true. He wasn’t just preoccupied. Face it: the readings were boring, hackneyed, silly without meaning to be. He looked around the semicircle at the other bodies slouched in the putty-colored folding chairs: Jesus, am I that old too?
After the last of the excerpted texts scheduled for the evening’s “entertainment” had droned to an end, the Amazing Dave mercifully took his bow without imposing another song on the patient and courteous audience. Bud noticed now that many of the other writers seemed to know each other. The three who could claim actual publishing deals had attracted small clusters of admirers. A woman who had read one of the other fantasies, an earnest and wispily poetic but nearly incomprehensible fragment from a work in progress set amidst the ancient Greek pantheon, asked Bud if he’d like to contribute his story to the Association’s annual compilation.
“But you are a member?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Hmm. You know that this event was members only?”
“I thought it was Open Mic.”
“Well, open for members. You mean Dave let you read anyway? He probably just assumed. Although you know, he did seem surprised that your piece wasn’t more, well, commercial. Listen, you might want to ask Dave about joining. Oh, hi Molly.” She walked away to talk with Molly.
Instead of climbing into his car and driving back to his dark empty house, Bud decided to grab a late dinner at one of the chain restaurants down the mall from the bookstore. Walking headlong into the raw wind, Bud wished he had found that woman fantasist attractive enough to invite to join him, although since he’d revealed himself as a party crasher she’d surely have refused even if he had somehow managed to summon the nerve. Tomorrow morning gaped emptily now that he had finally read his story, finally gotten to the other side of that weak climax. He figured he could avoid the morning after completely if he found a bar that stayed open late enough.
He’d have made it all the way to noon if the phone hadn’t rung. Groggily he picked up; it was the realtor. There’s an interested party, a couple with two kids, prequalified for the price range – could she bring them by around noon? He glanced at the bedside clock: that gave him just about an hour to shower, clean up the week’s worth of mess in the kitchen, and clear out. “Great,” he said hoarsely with an inflection that he knew would sound appropriately enthusiastic to the professional optimist on the other end of the line. “Bring them on. Matter of fact, don’t bother calling ahead from now on. I’ll be out of here by tomorrow.”
“That’s great, Bud,” she said, though she had no idea whether it really was great for Bud to be leaving. “Can I call you later today to let you know how the showing went?”
“You know what, why don’t you talk to Barb about that too. You’ve got her number, right? Okay, bye now.” Even before his first coffee Bud began packing. He didn’t know how long he’d be gone. Maybe he wouldn’t come back at all. Still, he wanted to travel light. When the house sold – if it sold – Bud would make arrangements for someone to haul the rest of his junk into storage. Barb could keep the furniture; he’d settle for his half of the sale money, which wouldn’t be much after paying off the mortgage and the realtor. By then it might not matter anyway.
Now, two weeks later, drinking his second free shot of morning bourbon in an obscure European café, Bud realized that he still didn’t know how that showing had gone, or any other showings after it.
“So which is your greater fear?” Valmont asked Bud after attending to his Tale. “To die in obscurity, or to die in celebrity?”
“Fear of failure or fear of success,” Bud said, the smirk disguising an unexpected pleasure that this odd restaurateur had caught the drift. “It would be nice to have the option, wouldn’t it? Fear of the unknown: that’s supposed to be the big fear. I fear being unknown. I already am what I fear. But I don’t fear myself. Mad at myself yes. Sick and tired of myself, disappointed, sometimes enraged, but afraid? Maybe I’ve become what others fear. I am the unknown.”
“Yes, this is a possibility that you could pursue. But you speak of the present – what of the future? Of course: you fear remaining unknown.”
“I used to fear it, yes. But the clouds have parted, and now I see that the future seems to have backed itself right up into the present. I don’t fear that future any more, because I’m already living it.”
“Ah, so you are a fortune-teller. Tell me, seer, which of these instills the greater fear: an unknown future, or one who knows this future?”
“The one who knows but who does not tell.”
Valmont smiled. “Or the one who knows and tells but whom no one can hear?”
“God’s standard complaint. If you’d only listen.”
“And your complaint too, of course. But,” Valmont went on, raising an index finger: “He who has ears to hear. Presumably some do have ears, no?”
“Ears tuned to some frequencies, deaf to others. But the future I know is only mine, only my future.”
“Your future obscurity is assured, whereas the same cannot be said of others?”
“No. I mean yes, of course, nearly everyone is destined to a lifetime of obscurity. But that isn’t their fear.”
“Oh?” Valmont exchanged raised-eyebrow glances with the waiter. “Perhaps this is why you have arrived at Station Zero. Inasmuch as you already know the present and the future, perhaps it is the past which you need to explore.”
“Ah,” Bud said, “so this is some form of psychoanalysis that you practice here. Delve into my repressed memories, perhaps discover why I have unconsciously set myself up for obscurity, what secret pleasures I derive from my own failure, how it makes my mother love me all the more?”
“Yes, perhaps there is something to be learned there, in that obscure inner past, something for your own ears to hear. But you may also tune your receiver outward, to the unconscious of the world. Look out, not in – it is a motto of sorts for our sort of Pilgrimage.”
“And this unconscious of the world you speak of: it is the Void?”
“It can be reached,” Valmont began, looking toward the ceiling for the right words, “if it is to be reached at all mind you, only by entering into the Void, by passing through it. But the unconscious of the world is not itself the Void, any more than this café is the Void. What is important is to encounter the Void not philosophically, not mathematically, but directly. Pilgrimage is a return, and what could we possibly encounter at the end of a Pilgrimage but a beginning of all things? And what is before the beginning? The Void. So that is the where the Trail is headed: the Pilgrim’s quest ends before the beginning. But where can one begin Pilgrimage if the beginning is to be found only at the end? It would seem that we must begin at the end. And what could we possibly encounter at the end of all things but the Void? The Void is the beginning and the end.”
Bud slugged down the rest of his drink. “And there really are people who come into this café who buy into this hopelessly tangled line of tripe?”
“Hopeless? Yes, perhaps,” Valmont replied without a trace of defensiveness or impatience. “ Tangled? Assuredly. Tripe? It seems to me that a person who tells the sort of Tale which you have told me – why, he would be just the sort with ears to hear the tangled line of tripe that we purvey here.” Bud grinned and raised his empty glass in silent salute. “I say it again,” Valmont continued: “You are already poised at the edge of the Void. It is what frightens you, because you do not recognize it for what it is. To you it is the unknown. The path that summons you is not one of enlightenment, not designed to overcome your fear with knowledge, not a way of sealing up the Void. It is the Via Oscura that calls you now. It leads directly into the unknown, into the fear. To immerse yourself in the emptiness that already surrounds you, that washes over you. Instead of drowning in the deluge, you will learn to breathe underwater, to breathe the water itself.”
“Speaking of drowning and voiding myself,” Bud said as he stood, “is there a toilet here somewhere?”
A full glass of bourbon awaited Bud upon his return. Valmont was standing next to Bud’s table now, sipping a glass of red wine. “If I may?” Bud nodded and leaned back in his chair as Valmont took a seat across from him. “Many religions cultivate what the theologians call kenosis,” Valmont continued. “Emptying oneself, setting aside the ego, becoming a passive channel. Presumably it clears an opening in the self through which the Divine can establish its presence. Traditional Pilgrimage is a discipline of kenosis. Day by day the Pilgrim leaves behind all the unnecessary baggage in order to walk freely back into the Source, like a baby crawling back into the womb. Many who set out from Station Zero embark on just such a kenotic path. Invariably they find themselves walking and walking without getting anywhere. It is the way of the dead man, this kenosis, or so I have come to believe. But kenosis plays no part in this Pilgrimage, this Via Oscura, this Black Path onto which you may already have taken your first few steps. And why not? Because every Pilgrim is already empty. One’s ambitions and achievements and memories, the thoughts that fill the head and actions that fill the day – all empty. From the moment of your birth you are a dead man walking, as you say in your country, do you not? You are rushing headlong into extinction. You are a carrier of the Void. What does it take for you to see it, to feel it, to possess it? The Void is inside of you, and you are inside of the Void. The world need not reach Apocalypse to become empty, for it is already so. All of it is doomed for destruction. From the beginning it carries within itself the seeds of its own nonexistence. There is no need to clear away the trees and underbrush, the buildings and the roadways, the animals and the people in order to create an empty field, for the field is already empty. Wherever you stand is the Void; whatever path you take traverses the Void. You are already empty, living in an empty world, at the end of the road. You are already at Station Zero, and you always have been. This place serves only as a reminder.”
Bud had begun to feel as though he had entered into one of his own unpublished novels. “Well that is a cheery outlook. So what now?” he asked Valmont.
“There are other Stations,” Valmont informed him.
“I figured as much. How many? And where is the next one? And why on earth would I want to go there?”
“Traditionally there have been fourteen Stations along the Via Dolorosa. Our founder, Miguel Obispo, was walking the fourteen when he first veered away from that path. Now no one knows how many Stations he has visited on the Via Oscura. Perhaps hundreds, or perhaps only one. We have preserved the ancient tradition in our way. There are many Stations, with new ones perpetually coming into existence while some of the old ones fall into ruin. There are many paths linking them, some of which have never been traversed. And yet for each Pilgrim on the Via Oscura the number is fourteen.”
”But the path must lead somewhere, must end somewhere. Rome, Canterbury, Mecca…”
“I have told you that the Pilgrimage begins at the end. So then, where must it end?”
“You’re saying I’ll end up back here for my fourteenth.”
Valmont shook his head. “No one has yet reached a fourteenth Station.”
“It’s like one of those haunted houses at Halloween: ‘No one makes it out of the thirteenth room – alive! Buahaha!’” Bud grinned at Valmont’s obvious and utter incomprehension. “Never mind,” Bud told him. “But what about you? I’d have thought you’d have to finish the whole circuit in order to be made – what is it? – made Proprietor of a Station.”
“I have completed six Stations,” Valmont explained, fingering the delicate gold chain around his neck. “One could say that my work here is part of my journey toward Station Seven.”
“Well sir, here’s to you,” Bud said, raising his glass and swallowing the last of his drink. “Maybe the rest of my life will constitute my never-ending journey toward Station One. Do you have a brochure describing your project, locations of all the Stations and so on?”
Valmont shrugged. “Occasionally we revisit this issue. But no: no brochures. Perhaps now, having been here, you will be more attuned to the Void. Less resistant to its pull. And so perhaps you will find yourself drawn to Station One. Or come back if you like, and we can talk further.”
Bud rose, surging with a confidence that he thought had long abandoned him even when, like today, he’d had three bourbons to prop it up. The bright and bustling world outside Rik’s Café, however, quickly proved too much for him. He made it back to his room, fell across his bed, and slept until past lunchtime. That meant McDonald’s, the only nonstop eatery he’d seen in town. Bud didn’t really mind though, because its dining area on the second floor afforded a spectacular panoramic view of the beach and the port. He set his tray facing the window, ate some French fries, and took a sip of beer from the plastic cup. His gaze was drawn past the cars inching along the corniche, past the sunbathers, past the mild breakers rolling up the shingled shoreline, past the fishing boats and pleasure craft, out toward the indistinct horizon floating between sky and sea.
Bud had always written for himself. He wrote what he wanted to write, and he wrote what he would want to read if somebody else had written it and he’d happened to find it on a bookshelf. To write for the audience, or for the critics – these were fantasies involving people who might actually exist but who populated Bud’s world only as imaginary beings, fictional angels hovering above the interminably boring novel that was Bud’s life, literary demiurges who subtly but decisively turn the world without ever making a personal appearance. As far as Bud could tell, the heavenly firmament was just another name for the Void. Eventually he had come to a realization about himself: I have only so much juice. If you don’t get a cool drink of water at least once in awhile you’re going to dry up: that had to be true for everyone, didn’t it? Were there really writers who just kept churning out the pages with complete indifference as to whether anyone ever read them? Writing as excretion, vomiting up pages, stories, books, whole libraries: this had to be an urban myth. If not, if there really were people who just couldn’t stop themselves from writing, then Bud had even more reason to feel dry. He found it a hell of a lot easier not to write. If Bud was going to do anything he had to have a motivation. The main character in any story has to be motivated; otherwise there is no story, right? No desire; no action. Paralysis sets in: the heart, the head, the hand. The Void: as above, so below.
Bud finished his burger and looked at his watch: time to meet Carla. Years ago Carla had been as a make-up artist in Hollywood; her husband Mateo was a cinematographer. Carla and Mateo had met on a shoot – apparently the star of the picture showed up for work in a drugged stupor half the time, giving the crew plenty of time to get to know each other. A production assistant on that long-forgotten movie had single-handedly withstood the onslaught of utter chaos and seen the film to completion on time and within budget, an accomplishment that had attained nearly legendary status among industry insiders and that had led to the assistant’s subsequent rise in the industry. Now, fifteen years later, he was a major producer with a film in competition at Cannes. He was gay, and he needed an escort for the red-carpet walk and for the fabulous party his studio would be throwing the night before the screening. Carla and Mateo were living in Florence, a mere hour’s flight away. It was Carla’s email that had pulled Bud out of his post-Open Mic torpor and gotten him onto a flight back to France. He knew some old friends who’d retired to the seaside and who would put him up for a few days, but he didn’t really feel like explaining himself, so he took a week’s rental on a vacation studio apartment two blocks from the beach. He had four days left on the rental place; after that his calendar was wide open.
Sometimes Bud wondered why he had never found himself attracted to Carla. She always looked great, and she flirted flagrantly. According to her testimony, the most unlikely of mutual friends had grabbed her ass repeatedly as they waited for their kids in the grade school parking lot, and Bud didn’t doubt it. It was, he’d frequently had occasion to observe, a rather bony ass – he presumed she had an eating disorder. Not that he had anything against skinny women. She had a ferocity to her that, frankly, scared Bud as much as it aroused him. He could imagine her biting his dick off, then laughing maniacally as she spat it out onto the floor, one scrawny bangled forearm smearing the blood down her chin. Even in his historically arms-length friendship with Carla she had established an intermittent yet persistent pattern of volatility. She would react with verbal violence to perceived slights, and clearly she enjoyed provoking people, even strangers. Even Bud. Toward Mateo she was nearly always caustic; when they were together he usually looked like he had a headache just above his right eye. Bud assumed that Mateo probably enjoyed a fling now and then, and that the extensive travel schedule wasn’t the least among the many things that Mateo liked about his work. Still, Bud couldn’t picture Mateo leaving Carla. He felt fairly sure that if the two of them ever separated it would be Carla’s doing.
The last time Bud and Barb saw Carla she had seemed exultant. Careening through the narrow roads in her little red European car, jabbering animatedly into the cell phone she held in one hand while with the other making obscene gestures out the window at the drivers she cut off, Carla seemed hell-bent on out-Italianing the Italians. Some mutual friends had stayed for a few days at Carla’s and Mateo’s surprisingly austere rental villa overlooking one of the great Renaissance cities of Europe. It was the city in which Mateo had grown up and to which he was trying to return, leveraging his Hollywood credentials to break into a local film industry notoriously closed to outsiders. These mutual friends seemed vaguely worried about Carla. Didn’t it seem that maybe Carla took a little too much wine with lunch and dinner? Bud hadn’t noticed anything. Besides, it’s Europe, for God’s sake – you eat, you talk, you drink. Still, Bud and Barb had observed that Mateo kept a close eye on Carla, sometimes using less than subtle means to register his disapproval of her occasional waywardness. Bud had sent her a hunk of his latest novel. “It’s brilliant, of course,” she had gushed over the phone. He wondered if she still held this exalted opinion of his stuff once he’d told her what the friend-of-a-friend New York literary agent wrote about the first five chapters. In his courteous reply to that pompous bastard Bud had observed that he wasn’t quite sure what was meant by “experimental fiction,” but he figured that unmarketability must be the definitive symptom of the disease.
Bud had printed off a copy of his novel for Mateo too. “How is it being back?” he had asked Mateo, who was trying to ease his professional transition by accepting any commercial or music video gig that his American agent could line up for him. This willingness to go anywhere anytime had taken him everywhere in the world. This time it had taken him home, or at least what had been home for awhile.
“You know how it is,” Mateo remarked, and with continental pessimism they clinked the salt-berimed rims of their margarita glasses. That night, over dinner at a pretty good Mexican restaurant, Bud had tried to engage Mateo in Mediterranean romanticism and in bitching about the ugly American lifestyle. Mateo was having no part of it. Clearly he had already spun out some sort of justification for why the American life was optimal. He knew Bud wouldn’t buy it, but he also wasn’t about to give Bud the satisfaction of acknowledging his own ambivalence. It was an opportunity for Mateo to exercise one of the core American values: singleness of purpose. Bud figured that Mateo was getting himself ready to move back to the States.
“Why don’t we make a movie together?” Mateo casually offered.
“Sure,” Mateo said, though he didn’t sound all that sure. “A short. It’d be fun.” Bud had wondered if the expression on his own face communicated the same skepticism as did Mateo’s distracted half-smile. Mateo had a chronic case of world-class angst, his oscillation between aesthetic delight and dour contempt perhaps characteristic of cosmopolitans who are at home everywhere and nowhere. Two summers before, when he’d moved his wife and daughters overseas, Mateo had said he was finally going home, really home. Bud wasn’t sure whether Mateo ever believed it.
Why, out of the blue, was Mateo proposing to make a movie with Bud back in America? Maybe it was his work. Even though he carried an Italian passport, even though he spoke the language flawlessly, even though he’d gotten himself an Italian agent, Mateo had found it tough getting hired steadily in his new old home. Apparently the directors liked to work with people they know, and it might take years before they knew Mateo, if ever. “They’re a pain in the ass to work with,” Mateo casually observed. “It’s better in L.A.” How long ago was it that Mateo told Bud how much he hated L.A.?
Maybe it was the kids. Their younger daughter was a friend of Bud’s and Barb’s girl, and the two of them yacked incessantly whenever they got together, giving Bud and Barb an occasional bit of inside scoop about living the continental life. Even when they had lived stateside, Carla and Mateo and the girls always spent their summers in Europe, up in the lakes or down at the seaside. When they finally moved overseas the girls had enrolled at an international school, a little Anglo-American outpost that would presumably buffer them to some extent from the foreignness of their new lives. Evidently the cushion wasn’t nearly as soft as they had been led to expect. The girls had found themselves plunged into an institution staffed by characters seemingly pulled straight from Roald Dahl’s nightmares. During their first summer the family had come back to the States for a visit, and the girls had stayed with Barb and Bud for a few nights while their parents went to LA to renew old contacts. With his reliably skewed view of what other people might find entertaining, Bud had brought home from the library a video of The 400 Blows. When he had watched the film in college he’d been horrified by the brutality of the school as Truffaut remembered it. The two international girls just smiled and nodded with familiarity, saying that they kind of liked their new school. They hadn’t learned very much of the language, but evidently they had settled right into the quotidian routines established among the expatriates ensconced in the gated communities of the affluent.
Maybe it was Carla that prompted Mateo to re-imagine America as his true home. Mateo suggested that Carla could be the producer of our little film project – find the acting talent and the technicians, schedule the shoots, maybe wrangle some money from her well-heeled friends. He must have figured that she needed something to do besides driving the kids back and forth to school, shopping, arguing, and drinking. I suggested that maybe Barb could help Carla out. Mateo thought it was a great idea: he knew that Barb had a good eye for aesthetics and for detail. Mateo also knew that Barb worked with élan and persistence, that she knew how to manage people and stick to a budget – skills that Carla lacked. Barb was all for it, even if it meant juggling her overcommitted schedule to make room. “Sounds great,” was Carla’s immediate reaction when Bud and Barb reached her on the phone. “I always thought I needed a collaborator. It’ll be a lot of fun.” Words like these always sounded convincing when Carla said them.
Of course the movie never got made. Bud had sketched out some ideas and Mateo talked about scouting locations in the area, but that’s as far as it went. Bud had written up his preliminary movie ideas as short stories; now those stories shared space with the novel that Mateo never said a word about in a file cabinet back in Bud’s house. Unless, of course, the house had been sold and Barb had moved his stuff to a storage shed. Or worse.
Bud had arranged to get together for coffee with Carla and her producer friend on the zone piétonne, a block up from the beach The day felt familiar: an enjoyable and leisurely interlude seated at an outdoor table watching the meandering crowds of people watching each other. A drunken young Frenchman yelled at them in passable English – “I am a Jewish man, I love America, I have four beers.” Carla’s producer friend seemed amiable if not particularly communicative, “Oh wow” being his usual observation about anything anyone had to say. By contrast Carla’s effusiveness seemed positively manic. She wasn’t quite satisfied with the ensemble she’d brought for the Saturday night following the producer’s premiere, when they would dine with exclusive company aboard the world’s largest yacht, equipped with two helicopters and a small submarine. Carla insisted that she needed another pair of heels, so after coffee Bud steered the three of them toward a boutique managed by Claire, an old friend of Barb’s from her junior year abroad. A totally surprised Claire exchanged enthusiastic two-cheeked air kisses with Bud. He saw that Carla could not focus her attention long enough to look around the shop, let alone buy. She and Claire were obviously sizing each other up. Both were beautiful women, but in very different ways: one muted and subtle and languid, a figure in a Monet; the other sharply edged in black hair, porcelain complexion, blood-red lips. As Carla and her producer browsed through the dress collection, Claire grasped Bud’s elbow. “Barb is all right?” she whispered to Bud with evident concern. Bud nodded. “And you, Bud – ça va?” Again Bud nodded. “You know, of course, that Louis and I are no longer together?” Bud did not know this – Barb was the one who kept up with people – but he wasn’t surprised. Louis was an amusing cad who after a drink or two couldn’t keep his mouth shut or his hands to himself. “You have always deserved better,” he earnestly reassured Claire, who pouted appealingly. She gave his elbow a squeeze and walked over to Carla, casting a look of feigned intrigue over her shoulder at Bud, who wasn’t quite so lost in his own thoughts that he failed to notice. He winked conspiratorially at Claire as she brought out her wares for inspection.
The plan was this: the next afternoon, before the screening, Bud would show up at the door of the exclusive beachfront hotel on the Cap where Carla was staying — the very hotel where, not at all coincidentally, the Fitzgeralds and their entourage had invented the Riviera, or at least the version of the Riviera that captivated the imaginations of two or three generations of Americans. Of course Bud wasn’t on The List, so Carla would have to meet him at the front gate. Then the two of them would have lunch and hang around the hotel together. Bud looked forward to gazing at international stars he didn’t recognize and listening to Carla gossip about the first two days of the festival.
Bud would have proven a grave disappointment to Fitzgerald fans. He had no wardrobe. Also, he had no money. Or, more accurately, every day he had less of it, with fewer prospects for replenishing the dwindling supply. It was hard for Bud to remember sometimes, but for a time he and Barb had talked about launching their own small European life, envisioning it as a kind of deliverance. Bud would not be arriving in style at the grand Riviera hotel, springing from the limousine and lavishly tipping the bellmen who opened all the doors just for him. No, tomorrow it would be the train for Bud.
Carla was going to get her hair and nails done first thing in the morning, after which she would call Bud to arrange their rendezvous. Bud waited until eleven: no call. He figured he’d better get started anyway, so he would be in position when the call finally came. Just before setting off to catch the train he called Carla on her cell: no answer. It’ll be fun, he reassured himself.
The ten-minute walk to the station took Bud down the Rue d’Italie through the African district, its vegetable markets and patisseries and Hallal bucheries lively and boisterous, the unidentifiable aromas from the Moroccan and Reunion Island cafes infusing him with their exotic funk. He climbed the steps to the Avenue Thiers, lined with sex shops and pharmacies and Chinese fast-food joints, then crossed over to the station. At the automated ticket-dispensing machine Bud dialed in his destination – the stop nearest the Cap and the last one before the affluent seaside town where the festival was held. The train pulled in on time and nearly empty – there didn’t seem to be many cinéastes and glitterati riding the rails to the Festival. Now Bud loved trains; to Bud Europe meant trains. Humphrey Bogart smokes in the cold rain at a Paris station, waiting for a woman – this, even more than Scott and Zelda at the beach tossing back too many highballs, was the Europe of Bud’s imagination. Only today Bud wasn’t heading for Paris, the kind of passage where even people like him, with boring clothes and flat American accents, can regard themselves as sophisticated world travelers. Instead he was riding the local commuter run, busy weekdays shunting people to work or school or the shops in Monaco and Nice and the other smaller stops along the Cote d’Azur, but a pretty desolate operation on Saturday at noon. With its grimy windows and gouged seats and spray-tagged walls, the cars looked like they’d be right at home on a southside branch of the Chicago El. The scenery, though, was decidedly different: Bud caught intermittent glimpses of the sea and ancient hilltop villages along the short run through Cagnes-sur-Mer and Antibes to Juan Les Pins.
He called Carla from the train: no answer. He called again when he got off: no answer. Maybe his phone wasn’t working? He found a pay phone just outside the station: no answer. Maybe Carla’s phone isn’t working? A shopkeeper looked up the hotel’s number for him: no answer in her room, monsieur; would you care to leave a message? Sure. Bud began the slow and pointless stroll through Juan Les Pins, heading generally toward the esplanade. From there he could take either a bus or a cab out to the Cap and the splendid hotel. If worse came to worst he could walk, which Bud figured was three kilometers from the train station, tops. It was May, the weather was perfect – what better way to spend a late Saturday morning than promenading along one of the most beautiful stretches of seacoast in the world?
Of course Bud never did make it out onto the Cap. He looked in at a couple of boutiques. He placed another unanswered phone call from the lobby of a small hotel. While weighing his options he watched an elegant Spanish family and a Texan wearing skin-tight jeans and a white cowboy hat check in at the front desk. Eventually he stopped for lunch at an outdoor place where the Cap begins jutting into the sea. He thought about walking the rest of the way, just showing up at the hotel and taking his chances, but decided against it. Instead he headed the other direction, along a walkway embedded with handprints left behind by musicians who over the years had performed at the summer jazz festival in Juan. Louis Armstrong. Django Reinhart. Miles Davis. He placed three more unanswered phone calls.
Sitting on the pier Bud could see the cluster of enormous yachts moored just off the end of the Cap, all of them serviced by tenders shuttling guests between ship and shore. Below the pier, fish glinted sunlit reflections in the clear turquoise phosphorescence. An old man with a cigarette dangling from his lower lip held a fishing line over the side; he shared a tall can of beer with a couple of his copains. Bud stretched out full length, closing his eyes against the midday glare. He may have dozed off. Out of nowhere a pontoon boat pulled up to the end of the pier, disgorging its cargo of American and European tourists. After a time the old pêcheur reeled one in. “Felicitations,” Bud called out to him, and the old man nodded a dignified acknowledgment. He unhooked the fish, laid it carefully in the small styrofoam cooler, and walked slowly away with it.
At about four thirty Carla called. Craziness on the yacht last night, up way too late, took a nap after breakfast, didn’t hear the phone, never got any messages. You know when you call my cell you have to dial the Italy country code first. No? I wish you could have seen Mick ordering a full English breakfast with a martini for lunch. Anyhow, we leave for the opening in forty minutes. Too bad it didn’t work out, maybe next year. Oops, Justin is at the door, he wants to borrow a dress, that nut. Ciao ciao, Buddy boy.
Instead of heading straight to the train station, Bud took a walk along the beach, cluttered during the film festival with billboards and other promotional gimmicks. He picked up a pizza from a guy baking them in a van parked on the street about three blocks from the festival’s headquarters – there was a hole punched in the roof of the van with a chimney sticking out of it, for venting the oven. Bud stopped in at a small grocery and bought himself a can of orange soda. Then he walked back to the pier, where reservations were not obligatory.
He was sitting on the planks, his legs dangling over the side, still eating the first slice, when a motorboat pulled up to the end of the pier. A young man hopped out, pulled the boat to, and tied it off. He looked around: Bud was the only person there. “All aboard, sir,” he said to Bud in what sounded like an Australian accent.
“All aboard,” he repeated, reaching a hand out toward Bud. “If you don’t mind, sir, I’ll give you a boost.”
“But,” Bud said, the half-eaten slice still firmly in hand, “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Well, sir, this is why you might like to come along with us.”
“Where is it that you’re headed?”
“Why, for you, sir, I presume we are headed to Station One.”
Bud hauled himself to his feet. He handed his pizza box and soda to the young Australian, who set them on deck. Bud stepped off the edge of the pier and onto the waiting boat. The Australian untied the rope and reboarded. The engine revved and the boat pulled away from the pier heading west, away from the Cap swarming with yachts and toward the rocky and empty Esterel coastline silhouetted against the gleaming Mediterranean sunset.