The Dream of Perpetual Motion, Page 2Dexter Palmer
Then the virgin queen comes. I can tell she’s coming because, although I still have my gaze fixed on the sky, I have also shifted it to look at the queen as she leisurely walks across the poppy field with their retinue trailing behind her, in that way in dreams that you can look at two things at once and see them both with crystal clarity. The queen is wearing a crystal crown that glitters in the sunlight, and an intricately embroidered dress shot through with threads of gold and silver. She is accompanied by several small boys. Some are naked; some are clothed. Some are dressed like girls, with long dresses and two pigtails tied with red ribbons. Some have human torsos, but haunches and horns and hooves, like creatures out of myths.
Then the queen stops walking and sits in the midst of the poppies and crosses her legs and smiles and laughs, and the boys assemble in front of her and begin to enact some complex kind of dance, taking slow steps, moving in interlaced circles, swaying their bodies to a rhythm that only they can hear. Then the queen turns to look at me, and it’s just before I see her face that I wake up.
Waking up from the dream is the worst part. It always takes a few seconds. It’s like . . . suppose you were underwater and naked and running out of air, deep down where all the light’s gone, and you have to come up for air. And you spend every last precious ounce of your life’s energy in the effort to rise to the surface and take that badly needed breath, and just as your head breaks from the water you remember, too late, to your horror, that you are a fish.
Why don’t you just let me off here. I’ll walk the rest of the way.
In the morning, when the sun is rising, the building that houses the Xeroville Greeting-card Works is eclipsed by the long, yawning shadow of the Taligent Tower. The Tower is the uncontested dominant piece of architecture in the city, the defining element of its skyline, and it is owned by Prospero Taligent, reclusive genius, the richest person in the known world, the inventor of the mechanical man.
Prospero Taligent’s tale is one of the last real entrepreneurial legends of the twentieth century. Not many people that anyone knows have actually been inside the Tower, a forbidding monolithic place with obsidian walls rising straight up to the sky, but it is said that Prospero endlessly walks the darkened corridors inside, that he never sleeps, that he has knowledge and talents that border on wizardry, and that miracles are commonplace within the Tower’s walls. That there are manufacturing devices with tolerances so small that they can be used to make gears and pulleys and cranks that are nearly invisible to the naked eye. That Prospero’s mechanical servants are so intricately and ingeniously constructed that they can play chess competently with masters of the game. That, at this moment, on the top floor of the Tower, a team of engineers and mechanical men under Prospero’s direction are at work on the largest zeppelin ever made, a fantastic flying craft that will have a motor the size of a child’s fist, and that this motor will be powered by the world’s first and only perpetual motion machine.
And, of course, everyone knows about Prospero and his beautiful daughter, Miranda. How one of Prospero’s servants found the toddler crawling about naked and grime-covered in a street in the red-light district and, moved to tears, brought her back to sanctuary in the Tower to sue for Prospero’s help. How the never-married, childless Prospero fell in love with the girl on sight, used his considerable legal muscle to rescue her from her biological father, an abusive alcoholic semipsychotic schizophrenic gruel salesman, and adopted her to raise just as surely as if she were his own flesh and blood. How Miranda’s playroom takes up an entire floor of the Tower, and that it contains creatures for her playmates of all kinds, both human and animal, both living and automatic, including, as the playroom’s centerpiece, a breathing, warm, real, magnificent white unicorn.
I could confirm some of these myths if someone asked me to. When I was a child, I saw that unicorn and rode on its back. But now I am no longer a child, and that unicorn is dead and rotted away.
Ophelia Flavin was six and a half feet tall, and beautiful. “For the first time in years,” she said, “I feel young.”
Ophelia and Marlon Giddings and I were sitting in the writers’ lounge of the greeting-card works. Outside, in the city, it was stifling hot, the immense mirrors of skyscraper walls beaming down the sun’s scorching rays on asphalt streets. Inside the greeting-card works Christmas morning hung suspended in glass.
Marlon slouched in a corner next to a watercooler, wearing a poorly tailored brown suit, the top button of his shirt undone, the knot of his faded tie loosened, lighting a new cigarette off the tip of the one he’d just smoked down to the butt. “I’m gonna suck some neck tonight, Harry,” he said, “you mark my words. I will be sucking neck before dawn tomorrow.”
Sugary Christmas music dripped from tinny overhead speakers. Reclining in her chair, Ophelia reached up with a long arm and absently plucked a long, glittering strand of red tinsel from the festooned Christmas tree behind her, pulling it down and winding it around her neck as if it were a feather boa. Ophelia’s specialty was birthdays, especially the arbitrary lines that we’ve invented to separate youth from old age: thirty, forty, fifty, sixty. Jibes about the loss of eyesight; mean-spirited jokes about gravity’s hands clawing at the bodies of once-beautiful women, stretching them like putty, twisting them out of shape, painting stomachs with marbled scars. “I feel young again, for the first time in years,” she said sleepily. “This morning I had a dream of what it must have been like before the machines. There was a song that you sang when you were young. But only under specific circumstances. The rules were these: if you spotted a male and female alone in each other’s company, frequently and willingly, you were to sing the song, immediately, without hesitation. I cannot exactly remember the lyrics, but the song itself was part accusation, part admonishment, part threat. It began with an insinuation, that the youths had been indulging in certain moderately erotic physical contacts in the false security of arboreal camouflage—”
“I want you to smell my neck,” Marlon Giddings said to me. I was lying on a couch, staring at the ceiling with my gaze unfocused, trying not to think about the machine noises: the refrigeration unit in the watercooler; the hum of the air-conditioning units behind the walls that were doing their damnedest to simulate winter in the dog days of July; the hissing white noise submerged beneath the high strings and horns of Christmas music. “Smell my neck!” Marlon said. Suddenly I found that he was huddling over me as if he were about to embrace me, and the tip of my nose was pressed against the underside of his chin. I blinked.
“Do you smell that?” Marlon said, standing up and taking a drag off his cigarette with a flourish of his hand. “That, my friend, is Love. That is why I’ll be sucking neck tonight. A woman said I looked loveless, and she gave me Love in a bottle.
“This is what happened,” Marlon said. “Listen. I was walking through a department store, and this woman behind a perfume counter, with too much makeup and the plumage of a peacock ready to mate, pointed her finger at me and said, ‘You look loveless.’ I spend a lot of time in department stores because they’re good places to meet women. Women are very open to suggestion when they’re shopping. Their defenses are down. I have a collection of name tags that I stole off the shirts of different workers in department stores. How I steal them is: I just walk up to a clerk all confused-looking like I need help finding something and the guy says, ‘Can I help you?’ and then I say, ‘I’ll take that!” and I rip the tag right off his shirt before he can even blink. And he just looks at me thinking, what the hell, that guy just stole my name tag and now he’s running away, what would he want with that, my shirt is ruined, that was a remarkably irrational act, and I am troubled. Meanwhile I’m ollie ollie oxen free.
“I have a collection of name tags, one for each department store in the city, and I cover up the name that used to be on the tag and put my own name on it. Then I walk into a department store wearing the right tag and just hang out for a while in a
n aisle, maybe straightening merchandise on the shelves or something, and soon enough some babe comes up to me all panicked, saying, ‘Please help me! I don’t know where I can find henleys! Please help me find henleys!’ And I kind of casually slip an arm around her shoulder and stroke it and say, ‘There, there. There, there. No need to fret, honey. I’ll help you find all the henleys you need.’ Then I point to my name tag. ‘My name is Marlon. I can help. Please let me help. I’m going to help you.’ That’s the secret: to get to them when they need help. That’s when they’re vulnerable. That’s when they’re weak. Next thing you know you’re sucking that neck. Actually, that little gambit doesn’t work all the time. Actually it hasn’t worked yet, but it’s bound to soon. Actually, anyway.
“Anyway this woman selling the perfume says to me, ‘You look loveless.’ And I go over to this counter that she’s standing behind, where there’s a bunch of perfumes in this glass case in a bunch of different-colored glass bottles, and I say, ‘Listen lady, you said a mouthful. Let me tell you.’ And then she reaches out with an index finger and puts it to my lips: hush. And I hush.
“Then she reaches under the counter and pulls out the tiniest glass bottle in the case, which is filled with this golden liquid, and a piece of paper that’s about a foot square, and a big glass jar that’s got wasps in it. There’s a bunch of yellow jackets in this jar buzzing around, knocking their heads against the inside over and over again. She puts all this stuff on the counter and then she sprays a little bit of the golden stuff in the bottle on the piece of paper. ‘A concoction distilled from the crushed and liquefied glands of animals from sixteen different species,’ she says. The stuff smells sickly sweet, like honeysuckle, and my eyes start to water. ‘Some are still alive,’ she says. ‘Some were wiped out decades ago.’ Then she puts the piece of paper down on the counter, and she picks up the glass jar and shakes hell out of it, like she’s mixing a martini. Then she unscrews the lid of the jar and lets out the wasps.
“So now I am thinking: you foolish woman, you have just released a horde of angry yellow jackets in a crowded department store, and this will not be good for business. But get this: the wasps fly out of the jar and straight as an arrow they make for the piece of paper. Soon the whole paper’s almost covered up and still there’s more coming, and not one of them flying off on its own to sting somebody, all of them just flying toward the smell of the perfume, crawling all over the paper and I guess probably trying to hump it. And the lady behind the counter, she’s gazing down at this with her eyes all glazed over and she says, ‘Beautiful, isn’t it. Soon the smell will drive them mad and they’ll start to sting each other to death.’ Then she looks at me and smiles. ‘We have different fragrances for men and women.’ And I say, ‘I have got to get me some of that.’ Hey, Ophelia—smell my neck! Smell that? Does that drive you nuts or what?”
Ophelia looked at Marlon, and her bright blue eyes widened and she smiled with the sudden recollection of something long forgotten. “Marlon and Ophelia, sitting in a tree,” she sang with a gentle tremolo. “K, I, S, S, I, N, G. First comes love, then comes marriage. Then comes a baby . . . in a baby carriage!”
“What? Oh, hey, wait a second,” said Marlon, backing off from her as she rose from the chair and started to approach him, grinning and seductively fingering the Christmas tinsel around her neck (and I could look into Ophelia’s twinkling eyes and see that Marlon had paid good money for snake oil). “I’m just joshing—you know you’re too tall for me. I mean, I’m too short for you, is what I meant to say—”
“I’m going to eat you alive,” Ophelia purred, sauntering toward Marlon as she looked down at him, backing him into a corner, spreading out her arms to catch him, should he run. “Mmmm, yes. Yes indeedy.” She licked her lips then, and I couldn’t figure out why Marlon couldn’t see that she was about to burst out laughing. “You look scrumptious,” she said. “Oh, I believe I can barely control myself. I feel so young.”
“Aw—come on,” Marlon said, his voice going high and breaking. “I was just joshing. Stop, Ophelia. Don’t touch me.” Then I couldn’t see him anymore.
After two more hours of staring at a blank page, I threw down my pen, said a cursory good-bye to my coworkers, punched the clock, and hit the street in the middle of the afternoon. I hadn’t written a thing, but if I wasn’t inspired, sitting at a desk was a waste of my time and the company’s money. There’s another thing at which I was a failure: being able to write without being “inspired” by some sort of Muse. Belief in a Muse isn’t conducive to optimal performance in a place like the greeting-card works. I figured my days there were numbered; at any rate, I thought the best thing for my mood that weekday afternoon would be a few mind-numbing hours of radio in my apartment, followed by a slowly sipped absinthe drip in a recliner, with a mask over my eyes and plugs in my ears. Then sleep.
Since I’d spent so much on cab fare that morning, I was forced to take the overground shuttle out of the heart of the city, and the only people who rode the decrepit, outmoded shuttles in the middle of a weekday afternoon were either elderly, mechanical, or crazy. So I wasn’t surprised when a man who was both elderly and crazy sat down next to me, wearing a suit whose cut was several seasons out-of-date. He leaned close to me and whispered, “You look awfully lax, my friend. And I wouldn’t be so lax with so many mechanical men wandering about. Taligent controls all of them. They’re his spies. He controls all of them. One day you’ll see.”
Four tin men were scattered through the shuttle’s passenger car, carrying courier parcels and bags of groceries, staring straight ahead, silent.
“Has he given you your heart’s desire,” the man said.
At that I turned to look at him. “What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean,” the madman said. “I was at the party twenty years ago. So were you. I sat next to you in the banquet hall. I know your name, and I know your work, and I know you. You write greeting cards.” He pointed at himself. “My name is William. And if there is one thing in life that I looooove, it’s morphine.” The tender flesh on the inside of his arm was covered with needle tracks. He wasn’t nearly as old as I first thought. He must have been my age. “Morphine makes me feel so good. Tell me—has he given you your heart’s desire.”
“No,” I said, looking away from him. “No, he didn’t. But that was just talk. Fairy stories for children, to keep us entertained. He didn’t mean a thing he said.”
William hawked loudly and spat a clouded gob of phlegm on the car’s floor. “Oh, that’s what we all thought, once we became adults. We don’t believe in that kind of thing anymore. We think that things like unicorns and heart’s desires are clichés, in spite of what we saw with our own eyes. The ones who got it when they were children were the luckiest. They just got pets, or toys, and they were happy, because they were children and they didn’t know any better. But he waited for some of us to grow up. He’s patient, and he has the resources to bide his time. And he’s been watching all of us, just like he said he would. He has agents, throughout the city, watching. And I watch him watch. And I watch what he watches, when I can.” He grabbed my shoulder. “He ruined my life. I get morphine for free, once a day, delivered to my doorstep in a pretty little carved crystal bottle. Not enough in it to kill me; just enough to make me content. I use up what’s in the bottle by noon and then pawn the bottle in the afternoon to get the money I need for whatever drugs I can get that’ll get me to the next morning and the next bottle. It’s all I think about. Listen—he’s committed crimes. Six of the hundred boys and girls that entered the Tower twenty years ago have died because of these gifts of his. Have you received your heart’s desire. Because if you have, then it’s over. I think you’re the only one left.”
“No,” I said. “Or maybe I have. I don’t know.”
“Oh, you’ll know when it comes,” the madman said. “I guarantee you that. You’ll be dead certain—”
lia talks to herself when she’s alone. Perhaps she sits in front of her bedroom mirror nude, having shed her working clothes and undergarments like second and third skins, thrown in wicker hampers, hanging over chairs. She is six and a half feet tall and beautiful, and in a just world some kind of master artisan would be here to paint her at this moment. But that can never be: part of the beauty of this image results from Ophelia’s knowing that no one is here to capture it and preserve it against time. She sits in the chair in a completely relaxed and unpaintable pose, reveling in the pleasures of inhabiting such a body, silently sounding out the length and the strength of what she is, and she knows that these hundreds of seconds after a day spent toiling in the greeting-card works are hers alone. She has sold them some of her time for the money she needs to live, but hoarded these moments for herself, and each one is precious, to be wasted as she wishes. Ophelia has an obsession with time. Besides, no one paints anything anymore anyway.
Now she leans closer to the mirror to examine her face in greater detail. She tries various poses: propping her chin on her hand and resting her elbow on the mirror’s dresser, looking half-asleep and slightly bored as if she’s on a bad date; then surprise, her eyebrows arched and her mouth forming a ridiculous O; then a flirtatious pout with a coyly tilted head and fluttering lashes; then bug-eyed comic fright. She has removed all of her makeup, and she can see all the tiny little blemishes and nicks and scars that her face has gathered as it’s aged. Dark spots sit under her eyes, which are an almost luminescent blue. Her mouth moves soundlessly, and this is what it silently says: “Where does all the time go? Other lives wind themselves into your own and then leave for distant places or wink out like extinguished lamps, and then all the evidence you have that there was ever any time is a few scribbled words and a few blurred pictures. Then those burn in fire or blow away in wind and you have nothing. So many millions of seconds I’ve misspent. So many people that robbed me of my time and ran away. I tried once to keep a diary to preserve all the seconds of my life likes flies in amber against the future, but the record read: ‘Dear Diary. Today I spent 86,400 seconds writing in a diary. Today I spent 86,400 seconds writing in a diary. Today I spent—,’ and in the time I spent reading the diary I lost more precious time. I had to give it up as a hopeless enterprise. The only reliable record I have to tell the years is my own face, where the spiders etch their careful marks at the corners of my eyes and remind me that I am still human. Still human.”