Norman Waksler ... Fiction

Ectomorphs page 3

Five minutes later Paul was pedaling toward Jeff Kiloran's place, which, according to the two librarians, was a studio apartment over the Carbury border into a recently gentrified section of Somerville. Fifteen minutes after that he was in front of Jeff's building, a large, late 19th century house turned into a multi-family dwelling as he could see from the number of doorbells in the small foyer. Pushing the button under Kiloran, 1L, produced no results, not even the third or fourth time when Paul held it for almost a minute.

He went back out onto the sidewalk where his bike was locked to a No Parking sign. It was dark evening now, and there were many lights on in the place, but on the first floor left there was only matching darkness from the window in front. He went close and tried to see in. No luck. Tilted his ear below his bike helmet toward the glass. No sound of music or TV or footsteps. Nobody home.

Unless, as the librarians feared, the guy was so sick he couldn't even turn on a light. A ridiculously unnecessary assumption, as far as Paul was concerned, one chance in a hundred against other perfectly ordinary reasons. But even so, Jeff Kiloran could be lying there on the floor, in a fever, delirious. And had been for days? Unlikely in the extreme. Paul turned to go. Turned again, and with a grimace of self-disgust, tentatively tried the window to see if it was unlocked. As it began to slide up, a male voice from behind staggered him, saying, "Hey, Jeff. Locked out?"

Paul gasped out a throaty, "Uh-huh."

"Looks like you left a window open though. Lucky piece of carelessness, hey?"

"Yeah?"

"Need a boost?"

"I got it."

"Ok, then. See you."

"Yeah. See you."

Paul refused to look over his shoulder to check if the other guy had gone — a lose-lose proposition. If the guy saw that he wasn't Jeff, there'd be trouble. If he saw his face and still thought he was Jeff, it would be more aggravating than he could bear.

He hurried to raise the window, lifted himself by pulling, then pushing on the sill, and inserted himself into the apartment where he stood in the dark waiting to believe he'd actually just done this and for Jeff Kiloran to jump up from somewhere yelling whatever it was that innocent apartment dwellers yelled at housebreakers.

But the place had the feel of dis-occupation — the stillness of no breathing, no voluntary or involuntary body movement, no sense of presence at all. Paul said softly, "Hello? Jeff Kiloran? Are you here?" and his words seem to fall away into the emptiness of no ears.

"OK, then," Paul thought, "Time to go."

Yet, there was still the so slight possibility of Jeff Kiloran lying somewhere on the verge of extinction, and because few rooms with windows are so dark that you can't distinguish outlines and bulks, Paul was able to grope his way through the shadows to a standing lamp and switch it on. Why not? If someone saw him from the street, they'd just think he was Jeff, wouldn't they?

The soft light through the milk glass fixture let him see an attractive room, commodious for a studio apartment. Appliances and cabinets and table in shadows at one end. A futon couch across the room, an enormous, black leather easy chair right next to him under the lamp, low wood bookcases as full as you'd expect from someone in the profession, a CD player and small speakers, a small fold-down desk with pigeon holes and an open lap top with a blank screen. The very neat whole pulled together by a single, good sized Oriental style rug, which gave the impression that Jeff Kiloran lived better than he in a similar space.

Well, thought Paul, unless Jeff Kiloran was unconscious or dead in the bathroom probably behind the door on the opposite wall, there was certainly no one here. He crossed the room, pushed open the door to the distinct odor of bathroom — cold tile, plastic shower curtain — flicked on the light: no one; not even a dead body in the bathtub— flicked off the light, closed the door. He stood for a moment, irresolute. This was all very incomplete. Not that he would have preferred to find a moribund Jeff Kiloran, but was life after all neither tragedy nor comedy, just anti-climax? Something conclusive and satisfying should have come from this ridiculous effort instead of it's just being time to leave.

With a small, determined access of irritated contrariness, he recrossed the room and settled himself in the enormous easy chair, giving himself up to the yielding black leather. Without a doubt, it was the most comfortable chair he'd ever sat in — the kind of comfort that was almost fulsome in its embrace and in its way of encouraging you to stay in it forever.

Paul closed his eyes thinking how often Jeff Kiloran must've done the same, given himself over to the luxurious passivity induced by this chair. How did it feel to be Jeff sitting here? he wondered. What better, kinder, more generous, thoughts, feelings, wishes, hopes did Jeff have? Maybe if he sat here as long enough, as long as the chair encouraged he'd find out.

He opened his eyes. This was getting crazy beyond mere irrationality, turning into one of the least healthy things he'd ever done. Hands on the chair arms, he pushed himself up and out of the seat with a vaulting horse effort, turned off the light, headed to the still open window and slipped out one leg at a time, letting himself drop to the ground. He closed the window, thinking that Jeff Kiloran would never know he'd been in the apartment — there wouldn't even be a whiff of ectoplasm to show he'd been there.

Paul reported to the librarians, over the phone, telling the one named Tessa, "I didn't see any sign of him. The apartment was dark. I rang. I looked in the windows. I knocked on the windows. Nothing. No response at all. Not a sound."

"That's not much use. Maybe he's in there too sick to respond. You should get hold of the landlord and see if he'll let you in."

"No. I'm done. Believe me, nobody was home. If you want to waste your time getting in touch with the landlord, feel free. I've done more than it made sense for me to do, given that I've got no connection with the guy."

"I don't admire your attitude. Jeff wouldn't be like that."

"Well there you are."

It was something to resent, accused of not living up to the Jeff standard after his effort, but that was the point, he supposed. Jeff wouldn't have done things in such a way that he couldn't tell anyone about it. Except, by definition, disappear. And what if the guy never reappeared? What if he never saw the guy? As it was he was suffering from that anticlimactic incompleteness, frustrated the same way as when he put an object in a special place for safekeeping and couldn't remember where, the only option to look in all the same places again knowing it would be useless.

When the end came, Paul was moping around the bookstore in a quiet time — Sam Randall out looking over an estate collection. There was work Paul should have been doing, putting up already priced books, filling on-line orders, unpacking deliveries, but he was sitting behind the counter staring down the aisles at the two browsers of the moment — one guy in Lit. Crit., another in Photography. He supposed the latter was looking for nudes, the way he opened, leafed, either put the book back or lingered lustfully over a page. Ordinarily Paul would have been annoyed by this, thought contemptuous thoughts, but today he simply raised eyebrows and tapped fingertips on the countertop. He knew Sam would be displeased at what he hadn't done, and though he cared, irresolution and discontent kept him fixed to his chair.

The distinctive creak of the door opening announced a third customer. Paul sighed and let his head swing to the right, and his distress was instantly replaced by consternation, interest, annoyance, fascination. If it was like looking in a mirror, the mirror was distorted. Jeff Kiloran — who else could it have been? — possibly a few years older than he — yes, had a moustache, but it was lighter. And dipped toward his chin. Which had a small dimple, while his own was smooth. The nose was similar in shape, a scalene triangle, but blunter at the end. Eyes dark brown like his, yet different in a way he couldn't place, while his hair, the same shade and still needing a cut, was beginning to recede just a bit. Facial shape just the same — long and narrow with noticeable cheekbones. Paul thought of the way the plastic Mr. Potato Head always had the same shape, so that whatever features you stuck on, it really never seemed that different. Yet he didn't believe that seeing him and this guy together, anyone would think they were twins or seeing double.

"You must be Paul," said Jeff Kiloran. His voice was cheerful, rich, full of laughter waiting to happen.

"Must I?" said Paul, disconcerted to hear a voice so different from a face so similar.

The laughter happened. "If you mean you're always being taken for me like I'm being taken for you, then maybe not. It's pretty funny, hey?"

"Very amusing."

"I've been wondering exactly how alike we really are, but it's like looking in a mirror isn't it? Where are you from? I know my parents didn't give away any extra kids. Yours didn't, did they?"

"No. I'm a guaranteed only child. But I thought you were missing. Your colleagues at the library said you'd disappeared."

"Yes, and they said you went looking for me, which was very kind of you. Actually, I came here to thank you for that. And finally get a look at you, of course. Anyway the whole thing was a misunderstanding. I came back from biking in Ireland for two weeks, then there was a family emergency followed by the usual administrative miscommunication and confusion, e-mails disappearing into the ether, information not passed on, people left in the dark when all they had to do was turn on a light, so to speak. But Ireland was a wonderful experience. Our group did anywhere from fifteen to forty miles a day. Stayed in country inns, wandered the countryside, drank Guinness in pubs, ate at terrific local restaurants, saw charming villages and towns. It's a beautiful country, green and clean, wonderful people, generous and welcoming, nothing like it anywhere else. You should try it sometime."

How effusive this guy was. Was that what people loved about him, his cheerful volubility? Paul found it overwhelming. "I bike," he shrugged. "Around town. Transportation, not entertainment."

"Oh, you're missing out, believe me. There's nothing like pedaling through a beautiful landscape in wonderful weather with a group of like minded individuals. Of course you've got to be up to the mileage, otherwise it's a disaster. Really, you've got to give a try."

"I'm sure."

"So how long have you worked here? Randall's is really the best used book store in town. Not that there are many left given the big box bookstores and the encroachment of on-line ones. There's, what? — The Dancing Horse, Belknap, and the Book Bazaar, right?"

Jeff Kiloran went on to list the virtues and failings of the other three, though even when citing a gloomy cellar location, a practically non-existent poetry section, ridiculously high prices, he was indefatigably good-natured about it, as if each shortcoming was the forgivable weakness of a well liked extended family member.

Paul began to see that when Jeff Kiloran asked a question, no answer was necessary, because each question was merely the launching pad for a disquisition by the interlocutor. He tried a question of his own, "Hasn't it bothered you at all to have people calling you Paul, and thinking you were me?"

"Not in the least. As Proust pointed out, everyone has a double, so why not me? As I said, I find the whole business pretty amusing. Anyhow, what time do you get off work?"

"6:00. Why?"

"I want you to meet my girl friend. She doesn't believe there could be someone who looks so much like me that we can be taken for one another. We could go to the Golden Dragon for dinner. It's the best Chinese restaurant in Carbury. The spring rolls are perfect — hot, fresh, crisp. When you compare their food to a place like the Jade Pavilion or Mother Chu's, there's no comparison. You must have a girl friend, or are you married? Why don't you invite her along? We'll make a foursome. Who knows, maybe the women will turn out to be lookalikes too. We could meet, say, at 6:30. You know where the Golden Dragon, is don't you? 42 Clayborn near the corner of Essex? Halfway down from the Quaker meeting house?"

Paul supposed that if they weren't physical doubles, he actually might not mind hanging around with Jeff Kiloran. In the end he was just another imperfect ectomorph — a genial know-it-all — no more, no less entertaining or irritating than any of his other casual friends. But just the thought of seeing his own features talking at him from across a table with any regularity gave him intimations of vertigo. "You know," he said. "I don't think that's such a good idea."

"Really? Why not?"

"To tell you the truth, I think sooner or later one of us would have an identity crisis, lose his sense of which is which, start making invidious comparisons, or start seeing the other as his shadow self. Any number of fantastic psychological eventuations, possibly resulting in strange, unacceptably weird behavior. It would be very embarrassing for a rational person, not the kind of thing he'd want to let himself in for."

Jeff Kiloran laughed. "Now that's funny," he said. Laughed again. "And highly unlikely. Well, if you ever change your mind, and you want to get together, you know where to find me. It's good to have met you finally,"

"Oh, yeah. Same here," said Paul. "You have no idea."

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