Reaching the Water
"What does 'do it' mean?" Bert interrupted. "I'm telling you, you experience the sensation. Isn't that the same as doing it? And you get the same results."
I was staring out the second-story window of my warehouse onto fifty-first Street. I had purchased the building in nineteen fifty-two, directly after arriving in New York from London.
"Listen, Milas," Bert continued, "we can't just leave corpses lying around in the gutters like we used to."
"I watched the pedestrians on the street, the way they moved. I stared at their clothing, their dyed hair, their body piercings. Where had all the years gone? I felt like a cornstalk in the path of a bulldozer.
"I know this is difficult," Bert went on, "but it's not as if you haven't been through it before. The horse and buggy to the automobile, the--"
"That was different," I snapped.
"The point is, you're putting everyone at risk." Bert was doing his best to be polite, but I could hear his thoughts: <<We're tired of your crap.>> "If you won't at least try, maybe you should leave the city, go somewhere more rural."
"Leave New York?" Who was Bert to speak to me so condescendingly, I thought.
Granted, I liked him. But when had he undergone the change? A mere twenty years ago? Thirty years ago, perhaps? I reflected on the day when I was made, June third, seventeen eighty-seven. The Revolution was already beginning to rumble. I was a student at the university in Paris, attending a speech at the college amphitheater. I can't recall the speaker's name, but I remember that he was very unpopular at the time. At some point during his lecture, the crowd began to taunt and threaten him; before long, people were throwing things at him and stampeding toward the stage. Someone plowed into me, knocking me off balance. An elbow dug into the small of my back. I was falling. A knee slammed into my forehead, and I saw stars.
An enormous hand wrapped around my neck. I immediately felt as if I were in a dream or under hypnosis. I was lifted out of the crowd, carried into a secluded alley. The man--I still thought of him as a man--towered over me. I felt his breath on my cheek, his teeth sinking into my throat. I was reeling, growing weak, fading.
Then I tasted the drip and drank for what seemed like hours, until I lost consciousness. When I woke up, I began to change. Every night after that, the prowl, the kill, the warmth. The corpses left in the streets and fields. Paul, I now thought, you who made me, mentored me, who threw yourself into the flames in the face of merciless change, am I fated to follow in your footsteps?
"So, will you try?" Bert insisted. It could have been hours since he last spoke.
"Okay, okay, I'll try, sure. Why not? Next thing you'll tell me is that we no longer have to fear the heat of the sun."
"Well, to be honest--"
"What?" I shouted.
"You have to understand, we're no longer living on the fringes of society. We don't have to hide in empty warehouses anymore. You don't have to live like this, Milas. It's a new time now, an amazing time. We're becoming scientists, lawyers, physicists. Great discoveries are being made. Think of what you yourself could accomplish."
"So what are you saying, we'll actually be able to function during the day?"
"It's just a matter of time. Research has been going on for at least ten years. I've heard there are already some who can walk in the sun, some of the ones who volunteered for the studies. I haven't seen it, but--"
"And you would welcome this?"
"Of course I would. Why wouldn't I?"
I glanced at Bert's face. He had had the work done, the facial surgery, the repigmentation. There was something horrifying about it, the way he looked almost human.
"Listen," Bert went on, "no one is denying what you have to contribute. But try and bring yourself up to the times. <<We're all really tired of your crap.>> Think about it, it's the year two thousand."
Would I be around in 2001, I wondered.
"We value your experience and knowledge. But, I mean, you've got to free yourself."
"Bert, I said I'd try, didn't I?" My God, I thought, what would it be like to walk in the sun?
"All right, then, tonight we'll try something new. Get ready to experience the future, Milas." He glanced at me, raised his eyebrows. "Your future," he added.
We were out the door and on the street, moving through a stream of pedestrians, down Broadway, past the theaters, neon throbbing all around us.
The hunger was building. Would I no longer drink from the necks of mortals? In the old way? I felt an urge to leap into the crowd, to drink from as many humans as I could, to wreak havoc for one more night.
Bert lead me down Thirty-sixth Street. We approached a door. He unlocked it, and we walked up three flights of stairs.
"This is it," Bert said, as we walked into an apartment. I looked around and saw all the trappings that any average human might have. The television, toys, props. Bert could have been a mortal, just another young guy living in a bachelor pad. There was that odd, imposing apparatus, the module. I wondered where he slept.
"Hmm," I muttered, "nice."
He was standing beside the module, holding several wires in his hand, each of which had a small pair of pincers at the end of it. "It's really easy," Bert said. "We just hook you up to these." He held out one of the wires and waved it. "You sit right here." He pointed at a large metal chair.
I sat down in it.
"And that's it. I'll go with you. I have setups for up to five people."
I found it peculiar that he used the word "people." Is that what we were now, "people?"
"And listen to this," he continued. "There are numerous programs. I mean, you can go all over the world, if you want. There are programs set in the present for areas of Paris, London, Rome. Or right here in New York."
"You have ... we can go into the past, too?"
He picked up a manual, started to read from it. "Sure can. There's Rome in seven hundred forty-two. I've done that one, it's pretty good. Here's New Orleans in eighteen hundred and seven. This is an interesting one: Dallas, Texas in nineteen sixty-three, the day John Kennedy was killed. There are others, too. Here's New York, nineteen fifty-nine. What sounds good?"
You weren't even changed yet when Kennedy was shot, I thought. "How should I know?" I snapped.
"Well, just pick one. I mean, they're all--"
"Whatever. New York's fine. What did you say, New York in nineteen hundred fifty-nine?"
Bert studied the manual. "New York, New York," he read. "New York, Nineteen hundred fifty-nine. East Village. Tompkins Park."
"You sure? There are others."
"It doesn't matter, Bert." I was growing impatient. I recalled an incident from my childhood. I was ten, maybe eleven, still living in the country with my parents. It was a humid summer morning. Two of my friends showed up at my house. They were excited and told me they wanted to show me something. As I had already finished my chores, my mother allowed me to leave with them, warning me not to get into any trouble. We walked for about two miles until we arrived at an abandoned shack on one of the banks of Lake Ariel.
"Come on," they said. We climbed up the side of the shack, crawled onto the flat roof. My friends immediately took off their shoes and shirts. One after the other they sprinted to the end of the roof, leapt into the air,
plunged into the water below.
"Now you do it," they yelled.
I walked toward the end of the roof and peered over the edge. There was a long dock jutting into the water.
"What are you waiting for?"
"You scared or something?"
Everything inside me begged me not to do it. I didn't think I'd be able to leap out far enough to clear the dock. I imagined myself falling onto the wood planks. I could almost hear my bones snapping, feel my spinal column
being driven into my brain.
"Give him another minute, he'll probably start crying."
"Yeah, he's not going to do it. He's too scared."
I retreated from the edge, walked to the far side of the roof. I took off my shoes and shirt. I ran as fast as I could, leapt and closed my eyes, prayed as I soared through the air.
I crashed through the water and opened my eyes. Everything around me was murky and green. I kept sinking. The deeper I went, the colder the water became. My feet touched the mushy lake bottom. Something slimy wrapped around my ankles.
I rose toward the surface, the light. I emerged, gasping for air, feeling as if I deserved a trophy. I had done it. I again belonged.
Now I felt that way again, like the mortal boy compelled to leap from the high roof.
"Okay," Bert said, "we're almost ready." He reached under my shirt and clipped pincers onto each of my nipples. He did the same for himself. "I'll be over here." He walked to an office chair on the opposite side of the module and sat down. "All right, New York it is," he announced. "
Nineteen hundred fifty-nine, East Village. You ready?"
"I guess. What do I do?"
"You just sit there," he said. "I'll get us in."
He was pushing buttons, adjusting knobs. "We'll be there in a couple of minutes," he said. "Just breathe now. Breathe smoothly, evenly. Relax."
I inhaled, exhaled, counted my breaths.
We were there, Ninth Street and Avenue A. Above us, the moon was full. There were lightning bugs in the air. I saw it, Tompkins Park, people singing, drumming, sitting lotus position in the grass. "Beatniks," I
"Yeah, Milas, Beatniks. Nineteen hundred fifty-nine, man." Bert began snapping his fingers in the customary Beatnik manner.
I smiled at him. I had to admit, it really was as if we were in Tompkins Park, as if it were Nineteen hundred fifty nine. The place, the people, everything was pretty much how I remembered it.
"It's not 'as if'," Milas, Bert said, obviously having heard my thoughts, "it is. Think of it that way. We're here. We see, we smell. We can taste. This is reality, at least for right now."
"Uh huh," I said. I was amazed to hear my own voice.
"You have to think of it that way, Milas. Let's go." I followed Bert into the park.
"Damn," I said, "that's--"
"Looks like Allen Ginsberg to me. And over there--"
"It's very convincing. This whole thing is very real."
"It is real. Why would you consider this experience to be any less real than any other experience you might have?"
I thought of Paul again, the way he threw himself into the fire. Tears began to trickle down my cheeks. A longhaired man, dressed in ragged clothes, yelled out to me. "That's right, man, cry for America."
I managed to pull myself together. "Bert," I said, "I have to eat. How does this work?"
"You just do it, just like you've always done it."
"But ... who? Where?"
"Who do you want?"
I looked around. There was Burroughs. He was sitting underneath a burned-out streetlight. His eyes were glazed over, and he was smoking a joint. There was Ginsberg, sitting by himself, writing in a notebook.
"Do you want him?" Bert asked.
I wiped the moisture from my eyes. I recalled that after reading "Howl" I had seriously considered changing Ginsberg. I thought about how he died of cancer, how he was so emaciated at the end. "I could have saved you from all that," I mumbled.
Bert was gone, walking toward a grassy area where a young girl was standing, staring at a tree. I approached Ginsberg. I could see sweat glistening on his skin, veins in his bearded neck. Bert, I thought, what am I supposed to do now? I glanced at him. He was talking to the girl. I saw them shaking hands.
I sat down next to Ginsberg, put my hand on his leg. He put his pen and notebook down, placed his hand on top of mine. It felt like real flesh. I could almost hear Bert's corrective voice. "It is real, Milas, it is real."
"I love you," I whispered into Ginsberg's ear.
His eyes were closed now. I nuzzled his neck. He reached over and ran his fingers along my thigh.
I sank my teeth. Blood shot into my throat. I swallowed it, mouthful after mouthful. He clutched my leg, digging his fingers into my thigh. His heartbeat was growing fainter. I took one more drink, pulled away. I heard him exhale his last breath. I positioned his head in such a way that it was leaning toward his right shoulder, hiding the wound on his neck.
"All right, Allen," someone cheered. "Blew your mind, huh?"
I saw Bert about fifty yards away. He was waiting for me. I got up and walked toward him. "You full?" he asked.
"Uh--" It occurred to me that I wasn't sure if I was full or not, everything had happened so quickly. "Yeah, I think so."
"Me, too." He nodded at the girl, who was now lying facedown in the grass, looking as if she were blissfully asleep. "Well, we should go, then," he went on, "before we're noticed."
"You mean, they can--"
"Oh yeah, it's not all controlled. There's a randomness here. Several of us have been confronted while--"
"Let's go, then."
"Relax," he said. "Just relax. Breathe, like you did before."
I stared at Allen Ginsberg's limp body. Could I have changed him? Even in here? Was this my experience only? Or was it also, somehow, Allen's?
We were back in Bert's apartment. Bert was removing the pincers from my body. I realized that the hunger was completely gone. I was utterly satiated.
"Pretty good, huh?" Bert asked.
"It was so real," I replied. I stood up, felt the hard floor beneath my feet. "Right, right," I added, anticipating Bert's response, "it was real."
"Now you're catching on. Ready to buy your own module?"
The thought had not even occurred to me. "Well," I stammered, "I guess I--"
"Don't get nervous, I'll go with you. When do you want to go?"
I was on top of that roof again. I ran, leapt, opened my eyes. I was going to clear the dock. I was going to reach the water. "I guess we can go tomorrow evening. Unless you want to meet for lunch," I added. "Hey, maybe we could have a picnic, get a little tan?"
"Yeah, right," Bert said, but he didn't smile. He was perusing his calendar. "That works fine for me." He looked up, glanced at the door. "I'll see you tomorrow evening, then."
John Amen has published poetry and fiction in various magazines, including Struan, Sanskrit, C Magazine, and Independence Boulevard. In addition, he has co-coordinated two national research projects, the results of which were published in The High School Journal. He is a prolific songwriter and musician, and has produced three recordings, Wild but Willing, Eat Mine, and 444. John is the editor in chief of the online literary quarterly, The Pedestal Magazine, the URL of which is www.thepedestalmagazine.com