I was to meet a man called Bai about getting safe passage out of the city for Plaskett’s Star, the viewing of which, the newspapers warned, was sure to be drowned in our urban glare. The address was on the far north side, so I set out from the center well before sunrise to keep the noon rendezvous. If I made it, then luck was mine and I’d go where it took me; if not, so be it. Well into life’s final downswing, I made such efforts merely to beat the boredom.
I hadn’t seen the stars in ages, much less one passing (young scientists claim they talk to us in pulses and beats). Also, I had in mind several related questions that could only be answered in the field. For example, just how much noncity lies between the perimeter of this city and the next? Is there any direction one might take from here to there and not bump into another urban splotch? Is open space an enjoyable place?
These questions pressed, a little. Got me out of bed and off to answer an ad, something no sane person ever did anymore.
There was a thick mist that morning, salty to the tongue, that grew quite dense as I crossed the big park, and I nearly walked straight into the carp pond. The thought of such a mishap distracted me altogether from my errand and enticed me to sit a while and count my blessings, as it were, there in the damp red glow of the failed dawn.
It was once an Olympic pool, they say. Now it is home for some tremendously old and large fish.
I have spent whole days there. Enjoying a rest from the boom of tools high in rotten buildings. To contemplate, try to dream, to pass gas or doze until, inevitably, someone comes along.
This time, the intruder wasted no time, landing as quietly as a sparrow on the far end of my bench. His face sagged like a fat rain cloud ready to burst. Wisps of dark green smoke trailed from his nostrils.
I knew who it was.
It is the custom of their people to open a conversation with a recent dream fragment.
Softly, and very slowly, he said: “The boy climbs up a mound of loose, black earth to a hole near the top where bees are pouring out. He is not afraid, jams his hand inside and, as if he knew it was there, unearths a piece of skull and quickly tosses it down the slope. It stops at my feet and I pick it up. Half a coconut shell, dried out. ‘There’s your dead man,’ he sneered. ‘And to think you got me out of bed for this!’ ”
I laughed at the tale, as is the custom. And he stared at me coldly a moment, then burped, as is the rule.
A light gray carp the size of a footlocker burst the algae, flopped over, its great orange spots flashing, then sank again.
“The name is Bai,” he said.
I tried to think of my last dream. But all was a blank. It has been that way for years. I could have made up something or mentioned how much I was looking forward to seeing the stars, but stopped myself. They know when you’re dressing up reality in a jute suit.
He did not seem to take offense, however. His people well know this deficiency of ours, the dry legacy of centuries of the acute stress that goes hand-in-hand with the struggle to cling to power. They do not blame us, for that would be a simple, easy pastime. Rather, they simply hold, gracefully but surely, the upper hand in the long-term. Who doubts it?
“There is the matter of payment, Mr. Teal.”
He produced a wad of tattered red and blue bank notes from a greasy little waist satchel and began to thumb through them at high speed.
“How did you find me?” I asked. “It is hours until noon as well.”
“I always know here my clients are. I prefer working early and I see you are an early riser, so … You do want to go, no?”
“Tell me more.”
“All these years they believed very firmly that Plaskett’s Star was 2,700 light years away. They even believed it was one of the brightest stars! (Actually, they believed Plaskett’s to be two huge stars of the O-type that orbit a common gravity center every 14.414 days at a distance of some 50 million miles.) Why, Sir Jim Jeans himself wrote, ‘Every square centimeter of surface emits sufficient energy to run a locomotive at full speed for millions of years.’ Bombast! Plaskett’s Star is no more than a highly reflective snow pea straying among the inner orbits, not quite a comet, not an asteroid, not quite anything save a minor showboat that knows neither whether it is going up the river or down the river or anywhere at all! Shoot the damn thing down, I say! Now that would be a sight!”
“But then when would you be?” I inquired. “You’re no salesman.”
“I never claimed to be! Are you still interested or not?”
“I wouldn’t miss it — ”
“For the world, yes, yes. You better hope it misses the world.”
“A snow pea?”
“I have no idea, in truth. It may be as big as a house. Then where will we be?”
I dug for my pouch, drew it out. The change jingled loudly.
“Ah, no coins, Mr. Teal.” He wagged his wad of bills at me. “Le vrai thing, please. Compris?”
I hadn’t heard even bad French since my childhood in an immigrant’s hostel in Kansas back during Les Pluies. The one word lifted dozens of long-buried images, like the floods did caskets.
Bai sensed my pain, though not its origin, and scooted a little closer, assuming the posture with me.
“Vous êtes triste?”
“Even the vaults,” I said, “some weighing up to 1,500 pounds, will float a while if they have air trapped in them. But they soon sink.”
Bai meditated a moment, then shook his head in agreement. “Physics.”
“Caskets, however, have been known to float across oceans after particularly strong deluges.”
“Noah and the Ark,” he said. “Bible school. Preachers with hard-ons. Perfume and farts in the pews. All that. I’m sorry.”
I was a dead-ringer for a Midwestern river boy with an densely ethnic background. Somehow strangely unperturbed at the leftovers of ordinary white folks skimming past on the roiling muck. Nothing but an ice-cold stick in the mud, staring out over drowned heartland.
“I recall a dream now.”
He was counting his money again. “You don’t have to.”
I said: “The sky is black in the daytime and full of stars. Tall white people with red faces stand in the low, black grass covering rolling hills. A white horse appears and gallops toward me making a thunder. It has stars in its eyes so bright that I can’t help but look at them. A hard blue metal light burns into my eyes and opens up another venue of seeing. What do I see? My French mother over a pot of mashed potatoes in the kitchen. It is my Bulgarian father kissing her on the neck while she stirs mashed potatoes and the rain comes down another day on Kansas.”
“Yes, yes,” he said impatiently. “Just like Plaskett’s.”
“Plaskett’s Star, today’s pretty boy in the sky, conjures up all-seeing horses’ eyes, psychotic visions of worlds within worlds, that kind of thing. It’s all the rage. Why can’t people just be content with old-fashioned boredom? Do you know?”
I said I didn’t.
“Let’s finish our business, then, shall we?” Bai asked.
“How much, then?”
“The nominal fee is 9,500. Such is the path to pleasure.”
“Greed erases good.”
“Who are you people to talk?”
“Hypocrisy and false pretense leave one loveless.”
“Are you calling me a liar?”
The needle in, I rammed the plunger. “Cochinchine fell to the French in what year?”
“What difference does it make? Do you want to see Plaskett’s Star or not? Acouche!”
“1867,” I announced. “Not a centime more.”
He made a sound with his lips like a punctured tire.
I counted out the bills into his tiny hands, paying the last 67 chits in tin whether he liked it or not.
Sneering, he flung the change into the pond, where it floated a moment on the scum before some of the big-daddy navy blue carp rose to feast. It seemed cruel, somehow, and I wanted to admonish Bai for intentionally poisoning the creatures, but I looked and saw the bench was empty again.
“Bai?” I called into the fog.
I looked left and right. No one.
Was it fraud? Was there no Plaskett’s Star? What kind of fool was I?
I went and stood by the pond with my arms crossed, highly annoyed. Every carp seemed to rise from the depths, to come straight to me, to bump and wallow at my feet as if vying for my attention. Blinded by my anger, I hissed at them. Went shoo and clapped my hands.
A policeman’s whistle sounded at my ear and I nearly fell in.
“Back from the pond!” he bellowed. “Back from the pond!”
He stood only a foot away, a flat, cardboard-like man, and when I failed to immediately respond to his order, he blasted his whistle again several times, turning green as a fig in the process.
“Back from the pond!”
“Stop shouting, will you?”
Visibly astonished at my resistance, he turned sideways, a move that rendered him quite invisible, and remained quiet. So quiet that very soon I was sure that he wasn’t even there, although I went ahead and inquired as regards the rules of the pond, feeding times, estimates of the total population, average age, range of names, incidents of illegal fishing and whether he had seen a smiling man called Bai leaving the park.
He never answered a thing, and the one-sided conversation continued until I became aware of many others trudging pondside, all staring at the sky in a particularly uninviting manner that appeared to unhinge the head from the neck and lay it back, mouth agape, as if wishing to be filled.
Of course, I, too, looked up in this manner through the hole in the fog and saw Plaskett’s Star. A diffuse tache about the size of your thumbnail. Some mumbled about the absence of a tail. Others complained about its dishwater color. Still others reached up and tried to touch it, or claimed they could read some writing on it, or that it wasn’t there at all. More than one tripped into the pond before the star blinked twice and went out with an audible pop. Only to immediately come back on, dull as ever.
Was that it? A passing Christmas tree light? And an old, dying one at that?
I stood there, yes, a little poorer, but nevertheless amazed. Not by Plaskett’s five-and-dime show. But by the people.
To my everlasting amazement, they had actually given up the hallowed ritual of elbowing and shoving their way around the park on their quests for patches of ground upon which their bloated pets might relieve themselves, and all around everyone was actually speaking cordially to everyone else, making light of the goofy phenomenon and all those idiots who paid all those tremendous sums to be escorted all the way to the countryside, of all places, for what? To see a chunk of old marquee float by? Why, you could see the wires holding the damn thing up! Plaskett’s Rig is more like it!
Highly earnest discussions dragged on and on and many a critter twined its leash around its master’s legs. In one case, an elderly woman suddenly had her fill of such foolery and booted her arthritic bag of worms into the drink. There was light applause and the day seemed worth it after all.