Norman Waksler ... Fiction

Ectomorphs page 2

Finally Paul's friend Aaron Fox dropped by the store. They'd met in grad school, which Paul had abandoned with a useless Master's while Aaron had gone on to complete his course work. Presently in the throes of writing his thesis, supporting himself by Adjunct teaching at three schools, he intermittently moaned that he should have followed in Paul's footsteps. Right then was obviously on his way to Carbury College for a class —his traditional elbow patch tweed jacket hanging loose on his lanky torso, his old wide-mouthed leather briefcase swinging from his hand. "Ah, there you are," he said.

"Where else should I be?" said Paul with a suspicion of what was coming.

"That is the question," said Aaron. "Did you know you have a double? There's a guy at the Bellini Branch Library who looks enough like you that I was about to ask why you'd changed jobs without telling me. I said, in a tremulously, dubious voice, 'Paul?', and he said, 'Ah, though I appear to be Paul, in reality I'm Jeff.' As soon as he spoke and I looked at him more intently, it was obvious he wasn't you. But I tell you, the first impression is striking."

"Believe me," said Paul. "I'm well aware of it. I've had mobs of people in here calling me Jeff."

"I tell you, dude, you should check it out. It'll be like looking in the mirror."

"I've got a mirror at home."

"But will your reflection speak to you as well? He seems amused by the whole thing, so it could be an interesting conversation. Everybody calls him Paul or asks if he's changed jobs. He laughs, he says. He seems like a pretty nice guy, voluble though."

"I'm not so sure I find it amusing. Think about the doubles in literature. Claire Quilty, The Secret Sharer, William Wilson, the other Golyadkin. The doubles are always bete noires of some sort, sinister, troubling, difficult, unsound."

"Who knows?" said Aaron, "Maybe you're his bete noire."

"Oh, very nice. You think I'm difficult and unsound?"

"Only when you play chess. Anyway, gotta go. Class in fifteen. Give me a call."

What Paul hadn't told Aaron was how really distasteful he found the idea of this Jeff as his double and how much Aaron's description troubled him. Paul was always at odds with his own less engaging characteristics; he knew himself to be irritable, sometimes ungenerous, broody, unfriendly, even unkind. What if this Jeff was just the opposite? Generous, outgoing, humorous, unfailingly kind, loved by everyone who encountered him as Paul was not. What if this other version of himself was a better, preferable, more successful version? Paul felt weakened, as though this doubling of himself vitiated his essential being; as though rather than being doubled, he was halved.

Sitting at the high counter of the quiet store with its pine cases and tables of specials, its tranquil books thinking the thoughts of their printed words, while browsing customers looked for sentences to match their desires, Paul knew he was being ridiculous and illogical. In a world of with seven billion people, the relative limit on body and facial structure made it a given that everyone would have a double. It was a truism of statistical distribution, not a fact with inherent meaning. That what passed for a double of him happened to be less than three miles away also dealing with books, was a merely a quirk of probability. So in the end you were talking about an accident of physical resemblance without characterological implications; and anyway, the structure of personality was so complicated and varied that it would be crazy to expect either perfect similarity or exact antithesis.

Still, over the next couple of weeks, hearing one of the usual misidentifications, he recoiled as if shrinking from a verbal attack, an unanswerable insult. His responses grew short with suppressed hostility. He mistrusted every customer until the person proved uninterested in resemblances. He'd never expected himself to be so irrational, it wasn't like him, but then he'd never been faced with a crisis of identity comparison either.

His woman friend, Sara Delaney, didn't think the idea of a double was particularly weird in the abstract, but she appreciated how disconcerting the constant misidentification could be. She could hardly not, given how often Paul mentioned the occurrences and with what irritation. Sara was a soft spoken, yoga practicing, non-proselytizing vegetarian who worked for a privately funded arts grant organization. She had a quiet stubborn streak to set against his irritable side, and in addition to their taste in music and a facility with foreign languages, shared an ability to take quick umbrage. "I know," she said. "You just want to be left alone to be yourself, and people keep inserting this other person you've never seen into your life. He's a kind of phantasm, a spectral presence over your shoulder."

They were in Paul's apartment, an ex-attic that was really an open space roughly divided into three rooms by the distribution of: bed and dressers; couch and bookcases; kitchen table and appliances— something like a furniture store showroom, except for the age and quality of the pieces. Sara, in jeans and a blue boat-neck sweater, was sitting on the couch, her legs pretzeled under her as she leaned forward to make her points while Paul paced his irritation in front of her. She said, "Maybe the best way to exorcise him, as it were, is to go see him in his natural habitat. Meet him and talk to him."

Paul stopped pacing to face her. "Why?" Almost angrily, since the idea had the same effect on him as the repulsion of like magnetic poles. "Why do you think that would change anything?"

"Well, maybe if you met him, " Sara said with dryly offended rationality, "it would pin him down to a locale and then you'd have a solid referent. Look, Paul. Right now he's an invisible presence, but if you've seen him on his own turf, when someone says, 'Hey, Jeff,' it'll just be a name for someone someplace else. Who knows? Once you meet him, maybe the whole thing can become a joke between the two of you."

"Ha, ha," said Paul. Though the next day he found the library schedule on line, saw there were nights the branch was open later than the bookstore, and one evening biked the three miles at a leisurely speed that became slower as he came closer and more reluctant and hopeful that this Jeff didn't work these hours.

The library was a long low brick building with tall metal framed windows that gave a view of a section of book shelves and what appeared to be part of a circulation desk with a computer and a rack of some sort of forms. It was an early spring evening and the hard fluorescent interior turned the exterior dusk into a vague no-place.

Paul locked his bike to a Bus Stop sign fully intending to enter the building. He took two steps, stopped when he saw a guy crossing his view inside — Jeff? — no — this guy, tall, bulky and balding, with a tuft of gray beard like a like a bunny tail—was wearing a zippered outdoor jacket — just a library patron.

But before Paul could move again, another guy appeared in the picture, behind the circulation desk, his back to Paul, an arm stretched at an angle from his body and a finger pointing out something to the tall guy who nodded, then changed direction.

It had to be Jeff. Approximately Paul's height, narrow shoulders in a wrinkled, brick red, cotton canvas shirt, dark hair needing a trim (Paul ran a hand over his own too long curls), the wrist poking out of the shirt sleeve thin in the way of someone who worked with books, the back of an ear, curve of a jaw line.

It was fascinating, uncomfortable, dizzying, like seeing himself from behind and being in two places at once. He took a step back as if to regain solid ground. Two more people appeared, facing Jeff, a couple of older women; the tall man came out from between the book shelves, said something, then after a pause in which Jeff spread his hands and shrugged his shoulders, the other three laughed, as though Jeff had said something to amuse them — laughter so warm and appreciative that Paul immediately became depressed. They moved, the tall man one way, the two women another, and at that moment, the Jeff figure began to turn toward the windows — possibly one of those reactions people speak of to being stared at from behind.

Paul panicked, as though should their gazes meet, should they look at one another face to face, there'd be an electrical discharge, little lighting bolts, sparks, smoke, and he would end up a pile of ashes. He fled, skittering around the blank end wall of the building; he knew he was acting like an idiot, but he couldn't help himself.

He reported his failure to Sara. "Too many people there," he said dismissively. "I could have seen him, but you know there would have been a whole story with everybody making comments, blah, blah, blah. Who could stand it?"

"Well, in the end it's not that important, is it? An annoyance, not a problem."

"Nah. Not at all."

Meanwhile, the miss-identifications let up, most of those who frequented both places having erred and been set straight, though there was still the occasional newcomer to the field. But those narrow shoulders, that back in the brick colored shirt, the too long black hair stayed stuck in his mind with an ache of embarrassment, as though the patrons laughing with the Jeff character had been laughing at him.

That this was madly unreasonable didn't escape his notice. He'd turned the existence of Jeff into a zero sum game of which he was the only player. Sara was right, he needed to take this out of his head and go face to face with the real thing. But it was only after a slow dream of being locked out of his apartment, which disturbed him much more than the bland content should have, that he climbed on his bike and pedaled to the Bellini Branch again.

Once finally inside the library, he saw that it was a long, clean single room made unexpectedly bright by the reflection of the fluorescent lights off polished beige floor tiles. There were oak study tables and chairs, racks of magazines and newspapers, public access computers, all in use, and modern metal bookshelves where browsers were poking around, not much different than in the bookstore. The curved circulation counter had two functioning sides, the far end where he'd seen Jeff, and the part nearest the entrance where a woman using a laser scanner was checking out books and DVDs for a guy.

The librarian was slender and tall with the curved shoulders very tall women sometimes develop. Her face, narrow and pale ivory, showed an apparently ingrained skepticism, as if she didn't believe the patrons were ever going to read any of the books they selected. When the guy left with his pile, she turned to Paul and said formally, "May I help you?" Then, in anything but a library whisper, "Oh, look at that. You're Jeff's double, aren't you? Cripes, you look just like him."

"Or he looks just like me."

"That, too. You're dead, well, live ringers for one another. Ah. He'll be sorry he missed you."

"He's not here?"

"He's on vacation this week."

A substantially built, thirtiesh, African-American woman appeared from between a set of bookcases and made her way behind the counter. She was wearing a flowered headband and small round glasses that echoed the shape of her face, which at the moment was deeply contemplative, as if she'd discovered a disturbing enigma in the stacks. The first turned to her and said, "Check this out, Connie."

"What, Tessa?" seeming a little miffed at being taken from her thoughts.

"Him."

She focused on Paul, drew back, smiled incredulously. "Holy ditto, Batgirl," she said, "It's Jeff's doppelganger. So you're this Paul we keep hearing about."

"I am."

She approached to stand beside her colleague, thrust her head forward to examine him more closely through the small glasses. "Definitely twins separated at birth. Are you from the Mid-west?"

"No, no. Born right here in Massachusetts. Jeff's a Mid-westerner?"

"Indiana. Some small town near Muncie."

"What's he like?"

The first librarian said, "Oh, Jeff's the best."

"It's true," said the other. "You couldn't ask for a nicer, more efficient, more willing guy. He's a pleasure to work with."

"That's nice," said Paul.

"And he's pretty amused to have a double," she continued.

"Is he."

"You aren't?"

"It seems a superfluity."

"Well, excuse us if we don't think Jeff is superfluous."

"Hey, I'm sure you don't. Anyway, please tell him I was here looking for him."

"We'll do that," said the first, though more as if it were a warning than a promise.

A few days later, Sam Randall said to Paul, "You know that the brick and mortar used book store teeters on the edge of extinction, right?"

"So I understand."

"In that case, you also understand that every live customer is precious, a treasure to be coddled and catered to."

"Yes?" Knowing what was coming.

"Then I have to ask you, are you aware of how unaccommodating you've been to our poor customers the past week or so?"

Paul's promise of reform was immediate, because he knew Sam was putting it mildly. Since visiting Jeff's library he'd been at his sourest and most irritable, and while Sam often treated customers like adversaries, they found his crankiness endearing. Not so endearing, apparently, was Paul's treating them like intruders as he asked himself for the tenth, or thirtieth time, if Jeff was the best, was he the worst? If Jeff wasn't the superfluous one, was he? He saw that he had to find a convincing negative so he could escape what he knew to be crazy thinking and stop embarrassing himself to himself.

The library was much busier this time, the librarians, Connie and Tessa as he remembered them, both checking books in or out, each at one of the computers. It looked like one of those rushes at Randall's where the customers instead of distributing themselves evenly over time, had apparently conspired to all come at once. Paul made a brief tour of the long single room, from the adult stacks to the children's section, seeing no fewer than five males, none of whom resembled him in the least. He lurked near the front of the counter where the substantial woman, Connie, was working, and eventually, when the rush died down and only a sparsity of potential borrowers were left, she looked up at him and said, "Well, it's the double. I saw you wandering around. Maybe you can tell us where Jeff is."

"Sorry?"

"He came back from vacation for a week, but then he disappeared. He hasn't come to work the past three days and he doesn't answer his phone. Maybe you know what's up with him."

"Now why would I know anything about him?"

"No reason, really, I guess, unless you assume some psychic bond between the two of you."

"I've told you, we're not twins, even assuming there's actually a psychic bond between twins."

"You're sure you're not?"

"I'm sure. Believe me."

The other woman, the tall and slightly stooped Tessa, had left her computer and taken up a post next to the first. "Well, this isn't like him at all."

"I wouldn't know," said Paul. "I've never met the guy. And it's beginning to look like I never will."

"Hey," said Connie, "Bite your tongue."

"Yes," said Tessa. "Instead of being so pessimistic, why don't you make yourself useful and go see if he's OK? He could be so sick he can't get to a phone or help himself."

"Me? What on earth have I got to do with it? Why don't one of you go?"

"I think that should be obvious," said Tessa.

"You know, you two have to be crazy putting this off on me," he said, with real satisfaction in indicating to them their irrationality. "I repeat for immediate and general consumption, I'm not his twin, I don't know him, and I have no responsibility for him. I don't even know his last name."

"Kiloran," said Connie, and then to Tessa, "You know, he's right. We are being rather illogical here. I'm sorry," she said to Paul, "It's just that you do look so much like him that it's hard to keep it clear that it's just some kind of coincidence. You're right. One of us should go. Right, Tessa?"

"I suppose so," the other woman said. "I don't know what we were thinking. I guess we're just so worried about him, and it seemed to make sense. Of course one of us should go."

"Still," said Connie, "It would be a kindness."

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