Madison by Ted Morrissey

The storm had passed, and brilliant daylight streamed through the separation of the window curtains. A bar of yellow light fell across the pillows to his left and along his neck. He discovered it was merely bright, with no warmth whatsoever. He’d had a couple of hours of restless sleep, literally so, it seemed: sleep without rest. His mind was scattered among the various pieces of the past twenty-four hours. He thought of Beth, whose life circumstances remained behind a veil, and of Katie, who had not sent a follow-up text. There was the single question, the single expression of concern, and that was their only communication in days. And what of Elizabeth Winters? When he’d reconnected to the Web, he was alerted that someone had already uploaded the 753 words—the 753 jpgs of tattooed words—to Elizabeth Winters’s website, the prologue to Meditations on the Word, but of course in no coherent order. No one knew the order, said Marian Tate, except their now-deceased author.

So among the chaotic swirl of his thoughts was the idea of making sense of the 753 words. No doubt a number of Elizabeth Winters devotees, or the merely curious, or the morbidly curious, had been at work on the puzzle for hours already. He imagined the years—decades—of articles and conference papers devoted to deciphering the prologue. Like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the prologue would gain a notoriety, an infamy due to its unintelligibleness. However, Joyce’s opaqueness was deliberate, whereas Elizabeth Winters’s was tragic.

Unless of course it was a hoax, a publicity stunt, which he apparently didn’t believe, for lying there in the comfortable hotel bed he felt the weight of mourning, of bereavement. Unless what he felt was the loss of Katie, or the anticipation of losing his connection to Beth. Perhaps it was the grief of losing all three, a trinity of loss.

He knew he should try to sleep but it seemed pointless. A shower and coffee sounded better at the moment. It wasn’t quite 7:30. In the shower he noticed a touch of redness, pinkness really, around the injection site on his hip. It didn’t hurt or itch, and in fact was barely noticeable even when he was looking for it. He wondered about the piece of Elizabeth Winters’s novel he carried under his skin—a story he would never know. He was connected in a unique way to the other bearers of the tale: the ultimate book club but one that could have no discussion regarding the substance of the book, only vehement speculation. He realized he’d been conjuring narratives of the prologue—almost subconsciously—based on the few words he knew: his and Beth’s words, and the words of his nighttime confederates who tried to find Elizabeth Winters, almost literally characters in search of an author, the surreal made real. The prologues he conjured tended to coalesce into a story about a prep school, something Pencey Prep-like: a place from which all Holden Caufields must escape, its being the natural order of things.

When he returned home, he’d print out the word images and toy with them over time. He imagined frothy debates in hotel bars about the prologue for years, with each verbal pugilist (perhaps at times actual pugilists) convinced his reconstruction was correct. He recalled other literary enigmas. When he was working on his master’s he took a course in Medieval literature, and one of the works they studied was Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxonist who taught the class professed that Anglo-Saxon had practically become a lost language by the time scholars began translating Beowulf into modern English at the dawn of the nineteenth century. The first stabs at translation got the story mostly wrong, and it wasn’t until the 1830s—after more than a quarter century of steady scholarly effort—that they felt they had an accurate understanding of the story. Even more infamous than the Wake, which spawned reading societies around the world devoted to deciphering the Irish author’s final tome.

Would there be such passion devoted to Elizabeth Winters’s final work, Meditations on the Word?

As he was dressing into his jeans and a navy pullover, he noticed that the pad of paper on the bed’s side table was written on. A couple of steps closer and he saw what’d been written: pupils—. He looked about the room and of course no one was there. Could someone have slipped into his room while he was showering and written his word on the hotel pad? He supposed it was possible, but who besides Beth and a handful of people even knew his word? And what would be the point of the prank, other than to give him a sense of uncanniness?

He sat on the unmade bed and picked up the pad. The word was almost certainly written with the cheap hotel pen which lay next to the pad. The handwriting looked familiar. He picked up the pen and flipped to a clean sheet in the pad. He wrote his word as naturally as he could manage. He flipped between the two words: they were virtually identical. He must’ve written on the pad but had no recollection of it. Writing in his sleep, something he’d never done before. As an undergrad he’d experimented briefly with Kerouac’s technique of continuing the plotlines of his dreams upon waking, resulting in Kerouac’s Book of Dreams, but all he gained was a stressful way to wake up in the morning because most of the time he didn’t recall his dreams vividly enough to pick up their narrative threads. The thought that he’d written pupils— himself disturbed him more than the idea of a stranger stealing into his room to scribble it: he, in essence, was the stranger.

He reminded himself how exhausted he’d been when he and Beth returned from the donut shop. On the brief walk he began to see strange shapes on the periphery of his vision, undefined objects that closed in on him suddenly then just as suddenly disappeared. He attributed it to sleep deprivation as he walked alongside Beth, who was strangely quiet. Perhaps she had finally crashed. He felt himself to be in a half-asleep, dreamy state. For a second or two he might think it was Katie at his side before recalling more lucidly where he was and with whom. In a moment the process would repeat. While walking with Katie he once or twice nearly reached over to take her hand.

Or did he at one point hold Beth’s hand? Seated on the hotel bed, remembering, it almost seemed he had, but surely not. He would recall it with certainty if he had. He looked again at pupils— written on the pad in his own hand, it would seem, even though he had no recollection of it. Being certain of anything appeared unwise. He couldn’t recall undressing and crawling under the bed covers.

His cellphone face flared to life to let him know he had a text. Katie? He checked. Beth: Hopefully you’re sound asleep but if not you want to do breakfast? Developments.

He typed, I’m awake. Hotel bistro? When?

Immediately. Sounds good. 20?

K

He didn’t need twenty minutes to slip on his Nikes. He picked up his phone and iPad and headed for the lobby for coffee and to catch the headlines before Beth arrived. In the elevator he looked at his reflection in its mirrored interior. He probably should shave before the memorial. Or maybe he would grow a beard, something he hadn’t done for years. The timing seemed off since it was nearly spring, but something felt right about the not-rightness. He was feeling the rough stubble of his chin as the doors opened to the lobby.

He went directly the bistro, where only about a half dozen tables or booths were occupied. The one where he and Beth had had their Irish coffee was open so he took it, sitting on the opposite side so that he could watch for Beth.

There appeared to be one waiter working, Mario, said his name badge. He ordered a latte with an extra shot of espresso and told Mario he was expecting one more for breakfast. Mario left two menus, single laminated sheets.

He opened Safari on his iPad to check the morning news. The world no longer considered Elizabeth Winters’s death significant, not with a bomb threat at the Met in New York, a school shooting in Tennessee, an airliner landing on the wrong runway at LAX, the Dow diving nearly a hundred points, a hostage situation at a market in Madrid, an assassination attempt in Syria, a tsunami with Tokyo in its sights, a power outage affecting a hundred million in India. . .  .

He had to search Elizabeth Winters to locate any updated information. There was little to report. They’d released the name of the other fatality in the crash, the pilot Meredith Overturf. Wait, what? Meredith Overturf? It was the name of one of the central characters in Orion. He quickly read the news report. There was no commenting on the connection. The nagging fear that it was all some elaborate (and cruel) hoax began to stir again. Beth had mentioned a development. Could this be it? Evidence of a hoax would be more than a development, however.

He decided to direct his attention elsewhere on his tablet: the weather, that’s always a good, utilitarian distraction. Warmer today, mid forties, but rain beginning by noon and lasting … basically forever. He was about to check his hometown forecast when Beth arrived. Hair pulled back, black yoga pants, zip-front sweater, red-orange, orange Nikes. She could’ve passed for a college student. She slid into the booth opposite him just as Mario was bringing his latte.

That smells wonderful, she said, waving some of the espresso aroma toward her face.

Low-fat latte, an extra shot, he said.

She opened her eyes. I’ll have one too, please.

Here. He pushed the colorful, overlarge cup and saucer toward her and nodded at Mario to bring another.

Really? said Beth. You’re a prince. She put her hands around the warm cup and blew on the foam froth before sipping. Oh my God—that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Thank you. She sipped again.

Let me guess, he said, the development is that the pilot who died in the crash is named Meredith Overturf. Pretty suspicious.

That does sound suspicious, but look up Meredith Overturf Aviation Magazine. She sipped, giving him a moment.

The first item that popped up was a story in Aviation Magazine about a private pilot and his relationship with an eccentric author. Apparently the pilot discovered he had the same name as a character in the novel Orion by Elizabeth Winters. He contacted her through her website, not expecting to hear form her, but she did reply, which began a correspondence then a friendship, said the article. It turned out they actually lived fairly close to one another. Meredith had flown Elizabeth Winters to some readings and events in California, Washington, Nevada and Arizona (including, most likely, her infamous reading in Sedona). The article was nearly seven years old.

So, the pilot had the same name as the planetarium director in Orion. He was finished skimming.

Yup, so not as suspicious as it sounds. Weird, and tragic, but not suspicious.

They took a moment to look over the single-page menus. When Mario returned with the other latte they placed their orders.

Veggie omelet, and toss in some turkey sausage, said Beth. I need some protein—and the fruit cup.

Mario didn’t bother to write down the order.

Plain omelet, he said, with a bowl of oatmeal, cinnamon and walnuts, please.

Mario nodded and left to put in their order.

So, the development?

Right. Beth adjusted her glasses, sliding them unnoticeably higher on her nose. I crashed for a couple of hours then I woke up super thirsty for a cold drink, so I tossed on some clothes and toddled down the hall to the machines for a bottle of water and some ice, and I ran into the Aussie, Here (whose real name, by the way, is Cameron, she adds parenthetically); he was just going to bed—they ended up admitting poor Deliberately for further observatons, so he and Too had come back to the hotel. Anyway, while they were waiting for their ride, a limousine service arrives and who should saunter out (well, saunter is my word, I don’t think Cameron used such a freighted verb), who should saunter out of the ER doors and into the back of the limo? Marian Tate and the distinguished-looking guy, but no third person. She must’ve been admitted to the hospital too, or she left some other way.

Interesting.

It is interesting. And that’s not all, Beth said almost under her breath before taking a sip of latte.

What?

Ok, it’s more weird than plain old interesting, and maybe a little creepy—or maybe nothing, just me being overtired. It did kind of freak me out for a while though.

What?

So I got my water and ice and was having a nice cold drink before going back to bed and hopefully sleeping for a couple more hours. I put my glass on the nightstand and I notice something is written on the hotel notepad—

Let me guess: the word radiant. Your word.

Holy crap. That’s right.

Holy crap indeed. And it’s your handwriting.

Yeah, maybe, I guess. I don’t know. Otherwise somebody came into my room and wrote it while I was talking to the Aussie. It really weirded me out. I thought about calling hotel security. Instead I poked around my room. I even did the classic horror-movie procedure and looked behind the shower curtain. I’ve always wondered, What would a chick do if there really was an axe-murderer hiding behind the curtain? Pretend not to notice before casually backing out of the bathroom, whistling a show tune for effect, and then making a mad dash to the door? What, are you clairvoyant?

No—it’s just that I had an uncannily similar experience. After taking a shower I saw that someone—me I guess—had written pupils on the hotel notepad.

No way. And you’re positive it’s your handwriting.

Not a hundred-percent positive but pretty darn positive. What about you? Your know for sure it’s your handwriting?

Like you, pretty sure. I mean, the alternative doesn’t make any sense: someone knows all the Logos’ words, someone who’s a master forger and accomplished at B&E? And to what purpose other than to give us all the willies?

True, true, all true. I suppose we had essentially identical experiences yesterday and were more or less equally exhausted. I suppose we could’ve both scribbled our words on the pads while still mostly asleep, asleep enough not to recall it the next morning. It’s possible. Stranger coincidences happen all the time.

You don’t sound convinced.

I’m working on it. It’s a process.

You don’t think we’re being programmed by the chip, surely. Do you? Beth asked.

I don’t know. No . . . and yes. Not in some science-fictiony way. But clearly bearing the chip inside of us, and having had the experiences we’ve had so far because of it, plus the knowledge that we’ll never know the story that we carry along with us, literally to our graves—all of that has in a sense been programming us, or re-programming us. But, no, I don’t think there’s some deliberate and mysterious revision of our brainwaves happening. I don’t think.

Beth seemed to consider it all for a moment while she sipped. I trust you were able to change your train ticket.

To five o’clock, which might be pushing it if the memorial goes past four. I may have to step out a bit early.

A silence blossomed like a bomb at the end of his statement: the concrete reality of their parting suddenly perched there on the table between them, as ominous as a darkly contoured thunderhead.

Mario brought their breakfasts.

They ate in the shadow of that silence for a while. He wondered if she sensed it too, the weight of their leave-taking. He thought she did.

Well, said Beth, we have several hours before the memorial. Normally Sundays are all about The New York Times, especially the Book Review, and more coffee than could possibly be good for me. But here we are in the big city. Surely there is plenty to do, even today. A great indie bookstore to pillage, something like that. What do you think?

A great bookstore sounds, well, great. We have one fair indie bookstore back home.

In Madison, we’re in better bookstore shape than that, but I’m up for being wowed.

His tablet was next to him on the table. He entered the passcode then pushed it toward Beth. Here, it’s your brainstorm. You should have the honor of choosing.

What a gentleman. She put her fork down long enough to type in a search, then returned to eating while she studied the results.

Meanwhile, the distraction afforded him the opportunity to study her. As he watched her scrolling and reading, a quizzical determination about her sculpted brow, absently replacing a strand of hair behind her ear, a life with Beth unfolded in his imagination like a game board which had been folded down to a square inside the box, now taken out and revealing the intricate mysteries of the contest, geometric section by geometric section.

Madison. A place he’d never been. It seemed a place of farm fields carefully stitched onto hills, a place where cows, black and white and sonorously belled, were forever lowing. Sky and hill met in a perfect pleat, perfect enough to tear-fill Betsy Ross’s patriotic eyes. The blue was blue, and the green green. There were coffeehouses and bookstores, and coffeebookhousestores, some with eclectic foci, one, perhaps, named for Bukowski, which only trafficked in aggressive poetry, another only in the cozy mystery, Murder by the Mug or Quilts and Culprits, yet another the indie store’s indie store, bearing only the original owner’s name, now long dead, Walcott’s or Wallace’s, est. 1947, a bookshop so serious readers must sign a waiver before browsing among the dangerously weighty titles, written by authors who have only coteries and cult devotees, writers who would slit their wrists, consumed with shame, if one of their works stumbled onto the Times bestsellers list. Art galleries, too, of course, and local theatre (-re, not -er), and free lectures at the university by award-winning economists and mathematicians and entomologists who’ve discovered a new species of flea, one that only lives on a particular species of bat which only lives in a single cave deeply recessed in a mountain pass among the Andes, only rarely accessible to humans and then only at great risk. And he and Beth would attend the openings, ask provocative questions at the readings, hold hands in the lecture halls, supportively attend each other’s events as their careers bloomed always-upward like sunflowers, their creative chi nourished in a warm, lilac-scented bath of affection and sex through the years. And connecting them at the cosmic level was their mutual connection to Logos. Online discussions with the Logos community, one of the smallest and most select on the planet—regional get-togethers, national and international conferences, a palpable spirit of camaraderie based on the words inked into their derma and deposited beneath it. There would be a scholarly journal, Logos Notes or The Elizabeth Winters Quarterly, he and Beth would be regular contributors, or guest editors. They shared it all, births in the Logos community, professional milestones, and each devastating death throughout the years as time marched toward the release of Elizabeth Winters’s greatest book, Meditations on the Word.

This looks like the place: Orville’s. I saw a woman at Revelation yesterday carrying an Orville’s bag. I didn’t know what it was. All I could think of was popcorn.

Sounds good . . . the place, not popcorn—well popcorn too.

Great. It says they open at eight on Sunday. I need to go to my room for a bit—meet you in the lobby in, say, forty-fiveish minutes?

That’ll work. I trust the idea is to return before checkout at noon.

Oh hell. I nearly forgot about that pesky detail, but, yeah, we’ll have to be mindful. The timing isn’t great, is it? With the memorial at two. I probably better pack while I’m at it, just in case. Better give me more like an hour then. It ain’t easy being a chick.

I sympathize. An hour.

Mario brought their checks.

I got this, he said. Lunch is on you.

Fair enough. Beth drank down the last of her latte and left to return to her room.

Mario used a handheld to read his card at the table and send him a receipt.

He didn’t need an hour to pack—something closer to five minutes—so he had Mario add a black coffee to the bill before paying. When it arrived he took the mug of Hawaiian to the lobby to drink in a comfortable chair while skimming through his tablet.

He felt the impulse to write, though that wasn’t normally a Sunday-morning thing. It didn’t feel like Sunday morning. He was out of sync, in many ways. He wrote in the mornings, yes, Monday through Friday, doggedly. If for some reason several days elapsed during which he didn’t write (while traveling, for example), he’d become anxious and even a little irritable. The nearest sensation was being horny, the ever-present itch to have sex for which there was only one relief. If he’d been celibate from writing for a few days, the urge to touch pen to paper began to burn in him. Composing creatively was a kind of meditation which kept him centered. He filtered the world through the point of his pen and the inky vortex it created on the paper. Absent the act of writing, the thoughts and feelings, the impressions, the signs and symbols began to well up in his psyche, swimming furiously but contained, seeking the only outlet that would serve their purpose.

This morning he felt especially restless. He imagined the chip beneath his skin as a kind of stimulant but instead of stimulating muscle growth or hair regeneration, it spurred language production. The Logos Project had literally planted words beneath his skin, and they were growing and multiplying, doubling, tripling and quadrupling in linguistic tumult, verbs and nouns, adverbs, adjectives, gerunds and infinitives, all manner of phrases and clauses coursing through his blood seeking some weakened barrier to breach. That’s how it felt.

He drank his coffee and tried to breathe evenly. He wasn’t in a position to write exactly, but he thought of something which might somewhat satisfy the craving. On his tablet, he went to the Logos site and began downloading the tattoo-word jpgs. Just fifteen for now. It was unlikely that these fifteen words went together at all—in fact, it was highly likely that they did not—but toying with them was a start. He opened a new memo on the tablet’s memopad and pecked out the group of words in the same random order in which he’d downloaded their images. Then he set about trying to arrange them in an order that made some sense.

dive                           hark                           gold

strange                       under                         bones

teeth                          flood                          gently

unfold                       toes                            keep

hourly                       they                           rats

gold teeth gently unfold bones under rats they hourly keep

rats hourly dive under flood toes gold bones

gold bones keep strange rats under flood dive

gently gold flood rats hourly

teeth bones hark strange toes unfold gold rats

teeth bones keep gold rats

dive under strange flood hourly

dive under gold flood gently

they dive toes under rats

they unfold toes under gold rats

teeth hourly gently keep flood rats gold

under bones dive strange teeth rats

rats toes gently keep strange good teeth under flood bones

hark gold bones flood under strange dive teeth hourly

The random words took on more and more meaning the longer he toyed with them. Nouns put on the mantel of adjectives, adjectives verbs. He recalled the Zombie Poetry Project website a colleague had developed, zombie as in insects who take over a dead host’s body, reanimating them into something different, some other species altogether. The way it worked, on the site, you typed a poem—any poem, a classic or an original poem you’d just written—and the zombie program chopped it into bits, reatomized them, absorbed them into its ever-expanding database, then combined parts of your poem with bits and pieces of others’ poems—to arrive at a different poem entirely, one in which you could recognize, here and there, your original, but the randomizing and juxtapositioning with other texts cast even the recognizable words and phrases into altered shades of meaning, lighting and obscuring contours of the original text—perhaps calling attention to possibilities of revision if you were working with an original poem. Or sometimes this newly created zombie poem was a thing of beauty or a thing of resonance itself, an object worth keeping in the world. If nothing else, you’d altered the database’s DNA, changed it forever with the addition of your text, now in a position to migrate to others’ poems, infecting them and zombiefying them with traces of you.

He received a text. Katie: Still ok?

It wasn’t like her to be so staccato in her text messaging. The altered tone of her texts was the kith and kin of her altered tone face to face: the filter of texting only amplified her confusion, her teetering between versions of their relationship. Only twenty-four hours ago signs of her indecisiveness about their breaking up would’ve been heartening. Now he didn’t know what he felt.

He sensed his own wavering between possible futures, none of which was fully in his control. He didn’t believe Katie was toying with him, leading him on—but if they resumed their relationship, what would be different? For that matter, what was wrong in the first place?

He heard the Norwegian’s pleasantly blond baritone. Too was speaking to the young woman at the front desk, asking about the hotel’s shuttle service to the airport. Apparently he wouldn’t be staying for the memorial.

When Too finished his conversation and turned, he noticed him in the lobby. He strode over, smiling broadly, a lumberjack about to fell a tree.

I would guess that you and Radiant would be sleeping still.

I would guess that, too . . . Too, but it’s not the case. We just had breakfast. He stood to speak with him, but still had to cast his gaze up. He considered mentioning the bookstore plan but felt protective of his outing with Beth. He didn’t want anyone else tagging along. Too’s itinerary would likely prevent his joining them; still, he was reluctant to advertise their plans. Instead: You must’ve gotten next to no sleep. How’s Deliberately?

In truth I haven’t been to bed. I should be at the airport to check in. I’ll be sleeping soundly on my flight. They admitted Deliberately, so he is still there. His wife is flying in later today. There was something they didn’t care for in the bloodwork and wanted to run other tests.

That’s terrible. Hope it turns out to be nothing.

Indeed. Well, I must pack a bag and drink some coffee.

Of course. Have a safe flight.

Safe travels to you as well. Let’s stay in touch—remember the hashtag, EWLogos. At Twitter I’m BigSwedeToo.

Thought you were from Norway.

I am but BigNorwegianToo doesn’t have the same, what, resonance?

True. It’s the assonance, the internal rhyme. I’ll find you.

Too clapped him on the shoulder then strode toward the elevators.

He watched him enter one just as its twin was opening. Beth emerged, having traded her yoga pants for jeans. He stood still as she walked toward him, buttoning her coat and adjusting her scarf and hair.

Ready? she asked. It was a single word but there was something about her tone that seemed changed, not so much an added coolness but the absence of chirpy warmth, communicated in her face (sterile of expression) and the way she held herself (stiff and guarded) as much as in her voice (tone of simple interrogation).

We should be able to grab a cab out front. He motioned for her to lead the way, with a hint of gallantry, which would have been more exaggerated if Beth weren’t suddenly different. Maybe he only imagined a change or maybe the events of the past day caught up to her. Perhaps the bookstore would restore the brightness to her mood. Already, instantly, he was thinking of the day, the moment, when Katie was no longer Katie, when the edge entered her voice: the moment she became something of a stranger. And the change occurred due to no visible stimulus. Nothing upsetting had happened between them, and as far as he could see nothing upsetting had happened to Katie at all. The shift in the tectonic plates of her emotions had taken place unseen, caused by some observation, some deduction, some decision about the world; and she wasn’t inclined to let him in on it, whatever it was. In fact, when he first broached the subject, she denied anything was wrong, even that anything had changed.

Still, the iciness wouldn’t completely thaw, though its edges became less sharply frigid. He sometimes would compare old messages to recent ones to reassure himself he wasn’t imagining her change in tone. For one, Katie’s messages had frequently been spiced with sexual innuendo before the chill.

You’ve been in my thoughts, thinking about what you can enter. LUMU.

Rainy day. Meet you in bed. LUMU.

Hope your head is feeling better—I could work wonders with it.

TGIF time—F for Friday optional.

Enjoyed the shower this morning. Girls have never been this clean. LUMU.

Then one day the flirtations just stopped. Katie’s messages became as mundane as market reports (soybeans up, pork futures down). For a time he tried to initiate the sexy exchanges (efforts that had always been repaid in kind), but they were met with banality or not answered at all. When he tried to discuss with her what was happening, he mentioned the altered tone of her texts (almost like exhibits in a trial). Katie insisted he was imagining the change. Over time he slipped into the rhythms of this cooled iteration of their relationship. When he thought of before, it was like recalling another relationship, with someone else. Meanwhile even this tepid kind of coupling further crumbled. Katie wanted something—something that wasn’t this, them—but she couldn’t articulate it, even to herself it seemed.

The recollections played on the taxi’s window glass as he and Beth sped through the city streets, still oddly quiet and white, in spite of the large raindrops that plummeted from the colorless sky. Before long the snow would be washed gray by the rain; then washed away.

He looked at Beth, who was watching out her window and likely reflecting inwardly also. Reflections of a similar theme to his own? Her left hand rested on the seat. He thought of holding it. On the taxi’s black seat, her hand appeared whiter than the white sleeve of her coat—not cadaverous or pallid, however: baptismally white, clean and fresh, unblemished. He wanted to touch her skin, its warmth or its coolness—it didn’t matter—but he had no pretense for holding her hand, for connecting to her in so intimate a way.

The taxi rolled to a stop in front of the bookstore. He swiped his card to pay, then they hurried to the maroon-colored awning through the big drops of rain. Inside, Orville’s was heaven: café, bakery, books, books, books. A significant portion of the main floor was devoted to the café, but there was a half second-floor fully devoted, it appeared, to print. To their right were stacks of Sunday papers, luring them toward the café area. The fresh ink of the newspapers was intoxicating. One wanted to lay one’s face on the cool sheets, cool and smooth, and huff the powerful aroma.

First things first, said Beth. I need to keep my caffeine buzz going. As she passed the stacks of newsprint, arranged neatly in wooden bins, she let her fingers trail across the New York Times. Tempting, my pet, but you’re waiting for me at home.

It was good to see her more animated—more her old self, the Beth he’d known less than a day—yet still there was something different. He didn’t follow immediately but stood watching her, thinking of her as an odd portrait, one captured from behind, framed by the quaint interior of Orville’s. His mind eased into interpretation, analyzing the subject via the composition within the frame: Beth’s white coat, among the darker elements of the store, stood out as a snowy scape, or perhaps, even, an imperceptibly inching glacier. Given the point of view, it was impossible to say if she were drifting away from or toward greater isolation. Not isolation, he revised: greater autonomy, independence—the clearly defined lines of the central figure suggested power and strength of will, not mere drift due to capricious currents.

Suddenly point-of-view reversed, and he had the vertiginous sensation it was he who was moving, sliding backward. He caught himself on the nearest stack of papers, the Tribune. As his balance returned he noted the front-page story about Elizabeth Winters’s death and the Logos Project. In addition to the author’s portrait there was a crowd shot of Logos waiting in the snow to enter the Dance Center. He and Beth were the focal point of the photo. He’d had no awareness their picture was taken. The photographer may have been quite a distance off using a powerful lens. However it happened, there they were, immortalized, forever linked to the event.

He wanted to tell Beth but she’d already gotten in line for her coffee. Maybe he’d point it out later. He joined her in line.

After they got their French roasts, they began drifting among the aisles and aisles of books, most of which were displayed cover facing out. He was on the lookout for unfamiliar titles and authors, yes, but he also liked to find favorites among the stacks as spotting them provided a certain reassurance about the world: it was still a place wherein lived Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Slaughter-House Five and Breakfast of Champions, The Old Man and the Sea and Death in the Afternoon, as well as all the Austens and Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. In the poetry section, Ariel, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Howl, Mountain Interval, The Dream of a Common Language, Leaves of Grass, and The Waste Land. He found the Elizabeth Winters section, and it was nearly sold out. A single copy of Orion remained and a handful of her early collection, Wirds of a Feather. As he watched, a woman picked up a copy of Wirds and headed toward the registers. On the one hand, he was gratified that more and more readers had suddenly discovered Elizabeth Winters, but he also felt a subtly hostile possessiveness of her and at the macabre audacity of those who only came to appreciate her upon her death. Elizabeth Winters’s devotees were something between a coterie and a cult. Death threatened to make her conventionally popular. At least the Logos would maintain her uniqueness among American authors, among all authors.

Without thinking why, he set down his cup of coffee and reached out with both hands to touch the covers of Orion and Wirds of a Feather, which felt like completing a circuit with Elizabeth Winters’s words swimming in his circulatory system, though the encrypted prose remained embedded at this hip. Still, he experienced a sensation akin to electricity flowing from Wirds to Orion through him, perhaps even recoding his DNA, turning him into something other than what he had been, something more he hoped.

He released the books, or they released him, and he moved on to further browsing with his coffee.

He turned a corner and ran into Beth, who was studying a paperback. He thought of not interrupting but she said without looking at him, William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life—I think I’ve heard about this book. Are you familiar?

Only marginally, I’m sorry to admit. I have one of my grad seminars read and respond to “The Artist and Society,” one of the pieces.

The final piece. I just saw it. Beth turned to it. Good?

I think so. It’s about the purpose of art, writing as an art form, or what its purpose ought to be. Gass wrote it during the Vietnam era but, to me, it seems relevant to any time, to all times. It’s universal and eternal.

Hmm. You’ve piqued my curiosity. Stay here for now, sweet book. Mama will probably be back.

Beth continued sipping and browsing. He wandered in a different direction. He came across a section of books grouped together because of their association with the city: novels and collections of poetry and fiction either set in the city or about the city or written by a local author. It was the store’s City Celebration section. There was Harrison Gale’s seminal collection, El Is for Loss and Other Poems, placed next to the poet who’d most inspired Gale, Carl Sandburg. Then there were the Bronzeville poets and writers, Gwendolyn Brooks prominent among them. And Richard Wright. He spied a copy of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. He felt a restlessness he hadn’t felt for a long while but knew well: it was the restlessness to write something noteworthy, something remarkable, something great. Not simply to write, to just get words on a page competently enough rendered to find publication somewhere. Rather, to produce something special, truly magnificent and powerful—something worthy of sitting here on these exalted shelves with Sandburg and Brooks and Wright and Gale, Hemingway and Cisneros. He felt the words welling in him, swimming, flailing for release into the world. Yet, it would not be a single seismic explosion of inspiration—some mythical Kerouacean geyser of prose—but a sustained period of creative intensity, over months, over years if necessary. Even still, he was antsy to begin. Here, perhaps? No, but on the train home. He would go to the dining car, where there were tables, and he would begin this great work, something about the city and Elizabeth Winters and the entanglement of lives. Would it be poetry or prose? Something that was both, and neither?

He would need something to begin his work. He scanned the bookstore and located the section of journals and pens . . . and there was Beth perusing them. Maybe she too had been inspired. He mused about this attraction he felt for Beth, if it had been something else all along: the beginning blossoming of his writing welling inside of him: this kindled passion for Beth was really a renewed urgency to create, to bring forth into the world something worthy of it. Worthier even. His desire to create a life with Beth—a thought barely beyond pure fantasy—was a displaced desire to create a work of literature for the ages.

He migrated toward the journals and notepads and pens. There were journals of varying sizes, some with lined pages, most with unlined. They had leather covers and cloth covers and covers of heavy, decorated boards. In some a vibrant ribbon could mark your place. There were all manner of pens: ballpoints, fountain, and calligraphy, in wood, plastic and metal. By the time he arrived at the section Beth had sauntered on. Her coat was over her arm so he couldn’t say for certain if she’d selected anything to purchase. He was attracted to the leatherbound journals, but they seemed too precious (as if one would be afraid of making a mistake). He selected an unlined clothboard journal in aqua blue and a gun-metal gray pen. He knew he could just as easily write his great work on a cheap Mead pad with a Pilot pen, as he always had, but he wanted to make a statement to himself: he wanted to mark a new commitment to his writing life. He didn’t need a Katie or a Beth to be complete, to be whole: he needed a revitalized artistic aspect of his life, he needed to be devoted to something that would last beyond him.

He glanced back at the section where he’d just been, the section devoted to the city’s authors and books. No one was there. In fact, there was an absence around it like a bubble. Elsewhere customers browsed, reading book jackets and pages opened to at random. There was a glossy poster of James Patterson, ballcapped and pseudo-sage, above a display of his mass-produced mysteries, blatantly co-written by one of his stable of co-authors; and bookstore patrons milled there especially thickly. The hum of activity, the hum of commerce, seemed particularly electric when juxtaposed with the small section devoted to city-connected authors. Readers clambered for James Patterson, not Richard Wright; for Janet Evanovich, not Gwendolyn Brooks; for Nora Roberts, not Ernest Hemingway. For him, it wasn’t simply a matter of not wanting to write for popular appeal: he literally didn’t know how: producing such banality was beyond him.

He drank from his cup, the coffee finally sufficiently cooled, and gripped his journal and pen more securely as he moved toward another unpopulated part of the store, a section devoted to the city’s university and independent presses. Here were the story and poetry collections, the novels, the monographs, and the art books that attracted almost no one’s attention. He noted the small presses’ names imprinted on the book’s spines: Tortoise, Twelve Winters, Woolfsword, Haymarket, Knee-Jerk, Artifice, Lake Street, Dancing Girl, Sundress, Agate, and (his instant favorite) Readerless Press (because of its brutal honesty). From this last press he perused a collection of prose poems, written and illustrated via collage by E. B. Bishop, whose enigmatic author’s note said only that she or he grew up in a small Midwestern town and attended the Art Institute. The unusual little book was titled Malcontent. The cover, rendered in shades of red, featured an unsettling image of a creature that was part crow and part human. He added the prose poems to the journal and pen to purchase.

He thought about what separated Elizabeth Winters from these avant-garde authors. How had she achieved a level of notoriety, of fame even? It helped that she’d emerged at a time when there was still some interest in writing worth reading. Also, she’d always lived in metropolises where she could cultivate devoted readers, due to her writing, yes, but also her charismatic personality, and—he had to admit to himself—her ability to promote her work. His thinking was dancing dangerously close to Katie’s criticism of Elizabeth Winters. The one distinction remained: Elizabeth Winters’s charisma and media savvy drew attention to her superior talent.

He came to the classic mysteries section: Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dick Francis, Dorothy Sayers, P. D. James, Dashiell Hammett. As a boy he’d liked mysteries—and it was his father’s genre of choice, which perhaps influenced his tastes—but as he matured he found the writing itself, divorced from the page-turning plots, was too basic: it was about providing information, clearly and succinctly, like newspaper accounts, detached entirely from artfully complex language. Every so often he would pick up a mystery, nostalgic for the comforting mood of his youthful reading, sitting on the floor of his bedroom, leaning against his bed, the rag rug beneath and the pillow behind providing just the right amount of cushion; the book, with the smell and the feel of its pages, angled just so to catch the light from his desk lamp, angled just so; meanwhile knowing his father was in his room, stretched on his bed, reading too, a mystery, his after-dinner pastime.

He’d try to evoke all those feelings, but the book wouldn’t hold his attention, in spite of the murder or kidnaping or jewel heist. The language itself failed to engage him. In high school he discovered and devoured Kurt Vonnegut—Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions left their mark of course, as did Mother Night, Galapagos and Jailbird. It was Vonnegut’s genre bending that most appealed to him, and the author’s wit and wisdom.

In college it was Kerouac and the Beats, the lyricism of On the Road, which transitioned into the poetry of Mexico City Blues and Dr. Sax, leading naturally to Ginsberg’s Howl, hooking him on poetry just in time to switch his emphasis and initiate his tunneling backward into its tropes and traditions, its history and its heroes and heroines. By the time of his MFA he’d returned to the twentieth-century poets: Plath and Hughes, Heaney and Larkin, Lorca and Neruda, Nemerov and Giovanni, Gale and Wilson, Eliot, Rilke, Valéry, Bishop and Moore.

Then there was the poetic prose of Elizabeth Winters and her determination to do something different. If there was nothing more to do with language and its shape, according to narrative theory, then the new ground must be transmission. How will readers’ reception of a text affect their processing of it? And what if that text remains largely hidden and readers can only process the hint of it, its mere shadow on the surface? Elizabeth Winters seemed to want to take Hemingway’s iceberg principle, which dominated twentieth-century prose, to a new depth in the new century. Hemingway felt the characters’ stories—their motivations—should remain mostly below the surface of what appeared on the page, directing the action from the characters’ hidden depths. Elizabeth Winters went further: the narrative itself should disappear from view, leaving only its opaque outline for the reader, leaving their processing of the faintest fragments nearly the whole of the narrative itself.

He sat in a comfortable chair—with his coffee, and his newly purchased journal and pen and book of prose poems—considering it all as Elizabeth Winters’s last novel seethed beneath his skin.

Meanwhile Beth continued to browse about the store. It appeared she’d collected at least two books she intended to purchase.

He read the introduction to the prose poetry book in which the author attempted to clarify the murky genre of prose poetry. The very term, she or he said, communicated the cultural privileging of prose over poetry, evidenced by the fact that most people, even nonreaders—the aliterate—could name a few well-known novelists but the names of poets, especially still-living ones, would be much more of a challenge, especially if the names of children’s poets, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, for example, were cordoned off. But, also, on its surface prose poetry appeared to be just prose. It tended to be parsed into paragraphs, if parsed at all, then separated into sentences, not stanzas and lines, the most readily visible indicators of poetry on the page. However, once one began reading, began processing, wrote the prose-poet in her or his introduction, then the poetry would (or should) dominate the textual landscape with its telltale tropes: alliteration, assonance, repetition, caesura, onomatopoeia, internal rhyme. Prose poetry was really mainly poetry—poetry masquerading as prose.

Why not then simply write a poem? (the author asked rhetorically) Because prose offers expansion opposed to ellipsis, the availability of more conspicuous connective tissue between images, and the opportunity for a hierarchy of ideas, layered in degrees of dominance as if by syntactic trowel.

Oriented chiefly as a poet, he was dubious of the final claims, but the form attracted him and he was willing to reserve judgment.

He watched Beth on the far side of the store. She had several more books under her arm and was still perusing. Perhaps she was shopping for her library as well. A figure crossed behind Beth, and he realized it was Beth: he’d been observing a look-alike, and side by side not even with that much similarity. He attributed his confusion to his need for more sleep.

He continued gazing at the pages of the prose poetry book’s introduction, but only gazing, not reading: the black letters on the off-white page, the uniformity of them, the abundance of them, all served to comfort him. A kind of textual security blanket, text-ile.

After a time—he couldn’t say how long—Beth was standing by his chair. Ready to check out? she asked. She’d retrieved the Gass after all, and two other books.

He rose in affirmation and they stepped in line for the cash registers. It should only take a minute or two, he surmised. The checkout employees were spritely and efficient, like Santa’s elves in grownup, bookstore form. He glanced toward Orwell’s front windows and realized he and Beth were reflected there, their ghostly images holding their books and cups of coffee. He wondered briefly if their ghosts had the same reading tastes.

Then a woman by the newspapers said, It’s you. You’re Logos. Her hand was resting on the Tribune’s front-page picture.

He realized they were standing in line in a more or less identical pose as the one depicted in the paper. Others were now staring at them, including the cash-register elves, momentarily fazed into inefficiency. You’re Logos, repeated the woman, whom he realized was the one he mistook for Beth. From here, now, with so little resemblance, the mistake was difficult to fathom. The woman was considerably older for one thing, and heavier set, perhaps at best a matronly version of Beth, or grandmatronly, perhaps a glimpse of the future Beth Winterberry.

Yes, said the younger Beth—we’re Logos. She patted her hip.

Interesting, said much-older Beth, colorlessly, and went about her business.

The elves returned to their task, their sprightliness reanimated. Everyone did. Yet the previous moment remained. Their sudden celebrity lingered like a scent, or the after-image of a dazzling flash. He and Beth were separate and apart from everyone in the shop who’d been within the sphere of their recognition. Suddenly three planes of people existed: those who didn’t know them at all, those who knew them now as Logos, and there was the plane wherein only he and Beth resided, the only one which felt to him normal and natural. He looked toward the window for their doppelgangers, to maybe double the population of their sparse plane, but something had changed—the light, or the angle from which he gazed, something—and their reflected selves had disappeared, as ghosts will, to be replaced by the rainy city sidewalk beyond, umbrellaed strangers now and then hurrying past.

Madison

The storm had passed, and brilliant daylight streamed through the separation of the window curtains. A bar of yellow light fell across the pillows to his left and along his neck. He discovered it was merely bright, with no warmth whatsoever. He’d had a couple of hours of restless sleep, literally so, it seemed: sleep without rest. His mind was scattered among the various pieces of the past twenty-four hours. He thought of Beth, whose life circumstances remained behind a veil, and of Katie, who had not sent a follow-up text. There was the single question, the single expression of concern, and that was their only communication in days. And what of Elizabeth Winters? When he’d reconnected to the Web, he was alerted that someone had already uploaded the 753 words—the 753 jpgs of tattooed words—to Elizabeth Winters’s website, the prologue to Meditations on the Word, but of course in no coherent order. No one knew the order, said Marian Tate, except their now-deceased author.

So among the chaotic swirl of his thoughts was the idea of making sense of the 753 words. No doubt a number of Elizabeth Winters devotees, or the merely curious, or the morbidly curious, had been at work on the puzzle for hours already. He imagined the years—decades—of articles and conference papers devoted to deciphering the prologue. Like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the prologue would gain a notoriety, an infamy due to its unintelligibleness. However, Joyce’s opaqueness was deliberate, whereas Elizabeth Winters’s was tragic.

Unless of course it was a hoax, a publicity stunt, which he apparently didn’t believe, for lying there in the comfortable hotel bed he felt the weight of mourning, of bereavement. Unless what he felt was the loss of Katie, or the anticipation of losing his connection to Beth. Perhaps it was the grief of losing all three, a trinity of loss.

He knew he should try to sleep but it seemed pointless. A shower and coffee sounded better at the moment. It wasn’t quite 7:30. In the shower he noticed a touch of redness, pinkness really, around the injection site on his hip. It didn’t hurt or itch, and in fact was barely noticeable even when he was looking for it. He wondered about the piece of Elizabeth Winters’s novel he carried under his skin—a story he would never know. He was connected in a unique way to the other bearers of the tale: the ultimate book club but one that could have no discussion regarding the substance of the book, only vehement speculation. He realized he’d been conjuring narratives of the prologue—almost subconsciously—based on the few words he knew: his and Beth’s words, and the words of his nighttime confederates who tried to find Elizabeth Winters, almost literally characters in search of an author, the surreal made real. The prologues he conjured tended to coalesce into a story about a prep school, something Pencey Prep-like: a place from which all Holden Caufields must escape, its being the natural order of things.

When he returned home, he’d print out the word images and toy with them over time. He imagined frothy debates in hotel bars about the prologue for years, with each verbal pugilist (perhaps at times actual pugilists) convinced his reconstruction was correct. He recalled other literary enigmas. When he was working on his master’s he took a course in Medieval literature, and one of the works they studied was Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxonist who taught the class professed that Anglo-Saxon had practically become a lost language by the time scholars began translating Beowulf into modern English at the dawn of the nineteenth century. The first stabs at translation got the story mostly wrong, and it wasn’t until the 1830s—after more than a quarter century of steady scholarly effort—that they felt they had an accurate understanding of the story. Even more infamous than the Wake, which spawned reading societies around the world devoted to deciphering the Irish author’s final tome.

Would there be such passion devoted to Elizabeth Winters’s final work, Meditations on the Word?

As he was dressing into his jeans and a navy pullover, he noticed that the pad of paper on the bed’s side table was written on. A couple of steps closer and he saw what’d been written: pupils—. He looked about the room and of course no one was there. Could someone have slipped into his room while he was showering and written his word on the hotel pad? He supposed it was possible, but who besides Beth and a handful of people even knew his word? And what would be the point of the prank, other than to give him a sense of uncanniness?

He sat on the unmade bed and picked up the pad. The word was almost certainly written with the cheap hotel pen which lay next to the pad. The handwriting looked familiar. He picked up the pen and flipped to a clean sheet in the pad. He wrote his word as naturally as he could manage. He flipped between the two words: they were virtually identical. He must’ve written on the pad but had no recollection of it. Writing in his sleep, something he’d never done before. As an undergrad he’d experimented briefly with Kerouac’s technique of continuing the plotlines of his dreams upon waking, resulting in Kerouac’s Book of Dreams, but all he gained was a stressful way to wake up in the morning because most of the time he didn’t recall his dreams vividly enough to pick up their narrative threads. The thought that he’d written pupils— himself disturbed him more than the idea of a stranger stealing into his room to scribble it: he, in essence, was the stranger.

He reminded himself how exhausted he’d been when he and Beth returned from the donut shop. On the brief walk he began to see strange shapes on the periphery of his vision, undefined objects that closed in on him suddenly then just as suddenly disappeared. He attributed it to sleep deprivation as he walked alongside Beth, who was strangely quiet. Perhaps she had finally crashed. He felt himself to be in a half-asleep, dreamy state. For a second or two he might think it was Katie at his side before recalling more lucidly where he was and with whom. In a moment the process would repeat. While walking with Katie he once or twice nearly reached over to take her hand.

Or did he at one point hold Beth’s hand? Seated on the hotel bed, remembering, it almost seemed he had, but surely not. He would recall it with certainty if he had. He looked again at pupils— written on the pad in his own hand, it would seem, even though he had no recollection of it. Being certain of anything appeared unwise. He couldn’t recall undressing and crawling under the bed covers.

His cellphone face flared to life to let him know he had a text. Katie? He checked. Beth: Hopefully you’re sound asleep but if not you want to do breakfast? Developments.

He typed, I’m awake. Hotel bistro? When?

Immediately. Sounds good. 20?

K

He didn’t need twenty minutes to slip on his Nikes. He picked up his phone and iPad and headed for the lobby for coffee and to catch the headlines before Beth arrived. In the elevator he looked at his reflection in its mirrored interior. He probably should shave before the memorial. Or maybe he would grow a beard, something he hadn’t done for years. The timing seemed off since it was nearly spring, but something felt right about the not-rightness. He was feeling the rough stubble of his chin as the doors opened to the lobby.

He went directly the bistro, where only about a half dozen tables or booths were occupied. The one where he and Beth had had their Irish coffee was open so he took it, sitting on the opposite side so that he could watch for Beth.

There appeared to be one waiter working, Mario, said his name badge. He ordered a latte with an extra shot of espresso and told Mario he was expecting one more for breakfast. Mario left two menus, single laminated sheets.

He opened Safari on his iPad to check the morning news. The world no longer considered Elizabeth Winters’s death significant, not with a bomb threat at the Met in New York, a school shooting in Tennessee, an airliner landing on the wrong runway at LAX, the Dow diving nearly a hundred points, a hostage situation at a market in Madrid, an assassination attempt in Syria, a tsunami with Tokyo in its sights, a power outage affecting a hundred million in India. . .  .

He had to search Elizabeth Winters to locate any updated information. There was little to report. They’d released the name of the other fatality in the crash, the pilot Meredith Overturf. Wait, what? Meredith Overturf? It was the name of one of the central characters in Orion. He quickly read the news report. There was no commenting on the connection. The nagging fear that it was all some elaborate (and cruel) hoax began to stir again. Beth had mentioned a development. Could this be it? Evidence of a hoax would be more than a development, however.

He decided to direct his attention elsewhere on his tablet: the weather, that’s always a good, utilitarian distraction. Warmer today, mid forties, but rain beginning by noon and lasting … basically forever. He was about to check his hometown forecast when Beth arrived. Hair pulled back, black yoga pants, zip-front sweater, red-orange, orange Nikes. She could’ve passed for a college student. She slid into the booth opposite him just as Mario was bringing his latte.

That smells wonderful, she said, waving some of the espresso aroma toward her face.

Low-fat latte, an extra shot, he said.

She opened her eyes. I’ll have one too, please.

Here. He pushed the colorful, overlarge cup and saucer toward her and nodded at Mario to bring another.

Really? said Beth. You’re a prince. She put her hands around the warm cup and blew on the foam froth before sipping. Oh my God—that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Thank you. She sipped again.

Let me guess, he said, the development is that the pilot who died in the crash is named Meredith Overturf. Pretty suspicious.

That does sound suspicious, but look up Meredith Overturf Aviation Magazine. She sipped, giving him a moment.

The first item that popped up was a story in Aviation Magazine about a private pilot and his relationship with an eccentric author. Apparently the pilot discovered he had the same name as a character in the novel Orion by Elizabeth Winters. He contacted her through her website, not expecting to hear form her, but she did reply, which began a correspondence then a friendship, said the article. It turned out they actually lived fairly close to one another. Meredith had flown Elizabeth Winters to some readings and events in California, Washington, Nevada and Arizona (including, most likely, her infamous reading in Sedona). The article was nearly seven years old.

So, the pilot had the same name as the planetarium director in Orion. He was finished skimming.

Yup, so not as suspicious as it sounds. Weird, and tragic, but not suspicious.

They took a moment to look over the single-page menus. When Mario returned with the other latte they placed their orders.

Veggie omelet, and toss in some turkey sausage, said Beth. I need some protein—and the fruit cup.

Mario didn’t bother to write down the order.

Plain omelet, he said, with a bowl of oatmeal, cinnamon and walnuts, please.

Mario nodded and left to put in their order.

So, the development?

Right. Beth adjusted her glasses, sliding them unnoticeably higher on her nose. I crashed for a couple of hours then I woke up super thirsty for a cold drink, so I tossed on some clothes and toddled down the hall to the machines for a bottle of water and some ice, and I ran into the Aussie, Here (whose real name, by the way, is Cameron, she adds parenthetically); he was just going to bed—they ended up admitting poor Deliberately for further observatons, so he and Too had come back to the hotel. Anyway, while they were waiting for their ride, a limousine service arrives and who should saunter out (well, saunter is my word, I don’t think Cameron used such a freighted verb), who should saunter out of the ER doors and into the back of the limo? Marian Tate and the distinguished-looking guy, but no third person. She must’ve been admitted to the hospital too, or she left some other way.

Interesting.

It is interesting. And that’s not all, Beth said almost under her breath before taking a sip of latte.

What?

Ok, it’s more weird than plain old interesting, and maybe a little creepy—or maybe nothing, just me being overtired. It did kind of freak me out for a while though.

What?

So I got my water and ice and was having a nice cold drink before going back to bed and hopefully sleeping for a couple more hours. I put my glass on the nightstand and I notice something is written on the hotel notepad—

Let me guess: the word radiant. Your word.

Holy crap. That’s right.

Holy crap indeed. And it’s your handwriting.

Yeah, maybe, I guess. I don’t know. Otherwise somebody came into my room and wrote it while I was talking to the Aussie. It really weirded me out. I thought about calling hotel security. Instead I poked around my room. I even did the classic horror-movie procedure and looked behind the shower curtain. I’ve always wondered, What would a chick do if there really was an axe-murderer hiding behind the curtain? Pretend not to notice before casually backing out of the bathroom, whistling a show tune for effect, and then making a mad dash to the door? What, are you clairvoyant?

No—it’s just that I had an uncannily similar experience. After taking a shower I saw that someone—me I guess—had written pupils on the hotel notepad.

No way. And you’re positive it’s your handwriting.

Not a hundred-percent positive but pretty darn positive. What about you? Your know for sure it’s your handwriting?

Like you, pretty sure. I mean, the alternative doesn’t make any sense: someone knows all the Logos’ words, someone who’s a master forger and accomplished at B&E? And to what purpose other than to give us all the willies?

True, true, all true. I suppose we had essentially identical experiences yesterday and were more or less equally exhausted. I suppose we could’ve both scribbled our words on the pads while still mostly asleep, asleep enough not to recall it the next morning. It’s possible. Stranger coincidences happen all the time.

You don’t sound convinced.

I’m working on it. It’s a process.

You don’t think we’re being programmed by the chip, surely. Do you? Beth asked.

I don’t know. No . . . and yes. Not in some science-fictiony way. But clearly bearing the chip inside of us, and having had the experiences we’ve had so far because of it, plus the knowledge that we’ll never know the story that we carry along with us, literally to our graves—all of that has in a sense been programming us, or re-programming us. But, no, I don’t think there’s some deliberate and mysterious revision of our brainwaves happening. I don’t think.

Beth seemed to consider it all for a moment while she sipped. I trust you were able to change your train ticket.

To five o’clock, which might be pushing it if the memorial goes past four. I may have to step out a bit early.

A silence blossomed like a bomb at the end of his statement: the concrete reality of their parting suddenly perched there on the table between them, as ominous as a darkly contoured thunderhead.

Mario brought their breakfasts.

They ate in the shadow of that silence for a while. He wondered if she sensed it too, the weight of their leave-taking. He thought she did.

Well, said Beth, we have several hours before the memorial. Normally Sundays are all about The New York Times, especially the Book Review, and more coffee than could possibly be good for me. But here we are in the big city. Surely there is plenty to do, even today. A great indie bookstore to pillage, something like that. What do you think?

A great bookstore sounds, well, great. We have one fair indie bookstore back home.

In Madison, we’re in better bookstore shape than that, but I’m up for being wowed.

His tablet was next to him on the table. He entered the passcode then pushed it toward Beth. Here, it’s your brainstorm. You should have the honor of choosing.

What a gentleman. She put her fork down long enough to type in a search, then returned to eating while she studied the results.

Meanwhile, the distraction afforded him the opportunity to study her. As he watched her scrolling and reading, a quizzical determination about her sculpted brow, absently replacing a strand of hair behind her ear, a life with Beth unfolded in his imagination like a game board which had been folded down to a square inside the box, now taken out and revealing the intricate mysteries of the contest, geometric section by geometric section.

Madison. A place he’d never been. It seemed a place of farm fields carefully stitched onto hills, a place where cows, black and white and sonorously belled, were forever lowing. Sky and hill met in a perfect pleat, perfect enough to tear-fill Betsy Ross’s patriotic eyes. The blue was blue, and the green green. There were coffeehouses and bookstores, and coffeebookhousestores, some with eclectic foci, one, perhaps, named for Bukowski, which only trafficked in aggressive poetry, another only in the cozy mystery, Murder by the Mug or Quilts and Culprits, yet another the indie store’s indie store, bearing only the original owner’s name, now long dead, Walcott’s or Wallace’s, est. 1947, a bookshop so serious readers must sign a waiver before browsing among the dangerously weighty titles, written by authors who have only coteries and cult devotees, writers who would slit their wrists, consumed with shame, if one of their works stumbled onto the Times bestsellers list. Art galleries, too, of course, and local theatre (-re, not -er), and free lectures at the university by award-winning economists and mathematicians and entomologists who’ve discovered a new species of flea, one that only lives on a particular species of bat which only lives in a single cave deeply recessed in a mountain pass among the Andes, only rarely accessible to humans and then only at great risk. And he and Beth would attend the openings, ask provocative questions at the readings, hold hands in the lecture halls, supportively attend each other’s events as their careers bloomed always-upward like sunflowers, their creative chi nourished in a warm, lilac-scented bath of affection and sex through the years. And connecting them at the cosmic level was their mutual connection to Logos. Online discussions with the Logos community, one of the smallest and most select on the planet—regional get-togethers, national and international conferences, a palpable spirit of camaraderie based on the words inked into their derma and deposited beneath it. There would be a scholarly journal, Logos Notes or The Elizabeth Winters Quarterly, he and Beth would be regular contributors, or guest editors. They shared it all, births in the Logos community, professional milestones, and each devastating death throughout the years as time marched toward the release of Elizabeth Winters’s greatest book, Meditations on the Word.

This looks like the place: Orville’s. I saw a woman at Revelation yesterday carrying an Orville’s bag. I didn’t know what it was. All I could think of was popcorn.

Sounds good . . . the place, not popcorn—well popcorn too.

Great. It says they open at eight on Sunday. I need to go to my room for a bit—meet you in the lobby in, say, forty-fiveish minutes?

That’ll work. I trust the idea is to return before checkout at noon.

Oh hell. I nearly forgot about that pesky detail, but, yeah, we’ll have to be mindful. The timing isn’t great, is it? With the memorial at two. I probably better pack while I’m at it, just in case. Better give me more like an hour then. It ain’t easy being a chick.

I sympathize. An hour.

Mario brought their checks.

I got this, he said. Lunch is on you.

Fair enough. Beth drank down the last of her latte and left to return to her room.

Mario used a handheld to read his card at the table and send him a receipt.

He didn’t need an hour to pack—something closer to five minutes—so he had Mario add a black coffee to the bill before paying. When it arrived he took the mug of Hawaiian to the lobby to drink in a comfortable chair while skimming through his tablet.

He felt the impulse to write, though that wasn’t normally a Sunday-morning thing. It didn’t feel like Sunday morning. He was out of sync, in many ways. He wrote in the mornings, yes, Monday through Friday, doggedly. If for some reason several days elapsed during which he didn’t write (while traveling, for example), he’d become anxious and even a little irritable. The nearest sensation was being horny, the ever-present itch to have sex for which there was only one relief. If he’d been celibate from writing for a few days, the urge to touch pen to paper began to burn in him. Composing creatively was a kind of meditation which kept him centered. He filtered the world through the point of his pen and the inky vortex it created on the paper. Absent the act of writing, the thoughts and feelings, the impressions, the signs and symbols began to well up in his psyche, swimming furiously but contained, seeking the only outlet that would serve their purpose.

This morning he felt especially restless. He imagined the chip beneath his skin as a kind of stimulant but instead of stimulating muscle growth or hair regeneration, it spurred language production. The Logos Project had literally planted words beneath his skin, and they were growing and multiplying, doubling, tripling and quadrupling in linguistic tumult, verbs and nouns, adverbs, adjectives, gerunds and infinitives, all manner of phrases and clauses coursing through his blood seeking some weakened barrier to breach. That’s how it felt.

He drank his coffee and tried to breathe evenly. He wasn’t in a position to write exactly, but he thought of something which might somewhat satisfy the craving. On his tablet, he went to the Logos site and began downloading the tattoo-word jpgs. Just fifteen for now. It was unlikely that these fifteen words went together at all—in fact, it was highly likely that they did not—but toying with them was a start. He opened a new memo on the tablet’s memopad and pecked out the group of words in the same random order in which he’d downloaded their images. Then he set about trying to arrange them in an order that made some sense.

dive                           hark                           gold

strange                       under                         bones

teeth                          flood                          gently

unfold                       toes                            keep

hourly                       they                           rats

gold teeth gently unfold bones under rats they hourly keep

rats hourly dive under flood toes gold bones

gold bones keep strange rats under flood dive

gently gold flood rats hourly

teeth bones hark strange toes unfold gold rats

teeth bones keep gold rats

dive under strange flood hourly

dive under gold flood gently

they dive toes under rats

they unfold toes under gold rats

teeth hourly gently keep flood rats gold

under bones dive strange teeth rats

rats toes gently keep strange good teeth under flood bones

hark gold bones flood under strange dive teeth hourly

The random words took on more and more meaning the longer he toyed with them. Nouns put on the mantel of adjectives, adjectives verbs. He recalled the Zombie Poetry Project website a colleague had developed, zombie as in insects who take over a dead host’s body, reanimating them into something different, some other species altogether. The way it worked, on the site, you typed a poem—any poem, a classic or an original poem you’d just written—and the zombie program chopped it into bits, reatomized them, absorbed them into its ever-expanding database, then combined parts of your poem with bits and pieces of others’ poems—to arrive at a different poem entirely, one in which you could recognize, here and there, your original, but the randomizing and juxtapositioning with other texts cast even the recognizable words and phrases into altered shades of meaning, lighting and obscuring contours of the original text—perhaps calling attention to possibilities of revision if you were working with an original poem. Or sometimes this newly created zombie poem was a thing of beauty or a thing of resonance itself, an object worth keeping in the world. If nothing else, you’d altered the database’s DNA, changed it forever with the addition of your text, now in a position to migrate to others’ poems, infecting them and zombiefying them with traces of you.

He received a text. Katie: Still ok?

It wasn’t like her to be so staccato in her text messaging. The altered tone of her texts was the kith and kin of her altered tone face to face: the filter of texting only amplified her confusion, her teetering between versions of their relationship. Only twenty-four hours ago signs of her indecisiveness about their breaking up would’ve been heartening. Now he didn’t know what he felt.

He sensed his own wavering between possible futures, none of which was fully in his control. He didn’t believe Katie was toying with him, leading him on—but if they resumed their relationship, what would be different? For that matter, what was wrong in the first place?

He heard the Norwegian’s pleasantly blond baritone. Too was speaking to the young woman at the front desk, asking about the hotel’s shuttle service to the airport. Apparently he wouldn’t be staying for the memorial.

When Too finished his conversation and turned, he noticed him in the lobby. He strode over, smiling broadly, a lumberjack about to fell a tree.

I would guess that you and Radiant would be sleeping still.

I would guess that, too . . . Too, but it’s not the case. We just had breakfast. He stood to speak with him, but still had to cast his gaze up. He considered mentioning the bookstore plan but felt protective of his outing with Beth. He didn’t want anyone else tagging along. Too’s itinerary would likely prevent his joining them; still, he was reluctant to advertise their plans. Instead: You must’ve gotten next to no sleep. How’s Deliberately?

In truth I haven’t been to bed. I should be at the airport to check in. I’ll be sleeping soundly on my flight. They admitted Deliberately, so he is still there. His wife is flying in later today. There was something they didn’t care for in the bloodwork and wanted to run other tests.

That’s terrible. Hope it turns out to be nothing.

Indeed. Well, I must pack a bag and drink some coffee.

Of course. Have a safe flight.

Safe travels to you as well. Let’s stay in touch—remember the hashtag, EWLogos. At Twitter I’m BigSwedeToo.

Thought you were from Norway.

I am but BigNorwegianToo doesn’t have the same, what, resonance?

True. It’s the assonance, the internal rhyme. I’ll find you.

Too clapped him on the shoulder then strode toward the elevators.

He watched him enter one just as its twin was opening. Beth emerged, having traded her yoga pants for jeans. He stood still as she walked toward him, buttoning her coat and adjusting her scarf and hair.

Ready? she asked. It was a single word but there was something about her tone that seemed changed, not so much an added coolness but the absence of chirpy warmth, communicated in her face (sterile of expression) and the way she held herself (stiff and guarded) as much as in her voice (tone of simple interrogation).

We should be able to grab a cab out front. He motioned for her to lead the way, with a hint of gallantry, which would have been more exaggerated if Beth weren’t suddenly different. Maybe he only imagined a change or maybe the events of the past day caught up to her. Perhaps the bookstore would restore the brightness to her mood. Already, instantly, he was thinking of the day, the moment, when Katie was no longer Katie, when the edge entered her voice: the moment she became something of a stranger. And the change occurred due to no visible stimulus. Nothing upsetting had happened between them, and as far as he could see nothing upsetting had happened to Katie at all. The shift in the tectonic plates of her emotions had taken place unseen, caused by some observation, some deduction, some decision about the world; and she wasn’t inclined to let him in on it, whatever it was. In fact, when he first broached the subject, she denied anything was wrong, even that anything had changed.

Still, the iciness wouldn’t completely thaw, though its edges became less sharply frigid. He sometimes would compare old messages to recent ones to reassure himself he wasn’t imagining her change in tone. For one, Katie’s messages had frequently been spiced with sexual innuendo before the chill.

You’ve been in my thoughts, thinking about what you can enter. LUMU.

Rainy day. Meet you in bed. LUMU.

Hope your head is feeling better—I could work wonders with it.

TGIF time—F for Friday optional.

Enjoyed the shower this morning. Girls have never been this clean. LUMU.

Then one day the flirtations just stopped. Katie’s messages became as mundane as market reports (soybeans up, pork futures down). For a time he tried to initiate the sexy exchanges (efforts that had always been repaid in kind), but they were met with banality or not answered at all. When he tried to discuss with her what was happening, he mentioned the altered tone of her texts (almost like exhibits in a trial). Katie insisted he was imagining the change. Over time he slipped into the rhythms of this cooled iteration of their relationship. When he thought of before, it was like recalling another relationship, with someone else. Meanwhile even this tepid kind of coupling further crumbled. Katie wanted something—something that wasn’t this, them—but she couldn’t articulate it, even to herself it seemed.

The recollections played on the taxi’s window glass as he and Beth sped through the city streets, still oddly quiet and white, in spite of the large raindrops that plummeted from the colorless sky. Before long the snow would be washed gray by the rain; then washed away.

He looked at Beth, who was watching out her window and likely reflecting inwardly also. Reflections of a similar theme to his own? Her left hand rested on the seat. He thought of holding it. On the taxi’s black seat, her hand appeared whiter than the white sleeve of her coat—not cadaverous or pallid, however: baptismally white, clean and fresh, unblemished. He wanted to touch her skin, its warmth or its coolness—it didn’t matter—but he had no pretense for holding her hand, for connecting to her in so intimate a way.

The taxi rolled to a stop in front of the bookstore. He swiped his card to pay, then they hurried to the maroon-colored awning through the big drops of rain. Inside, Orville’s was heaven: café, bakery, books, books, books. A significant portion of the main floor was devoted to the café, but there was a half second-floor fully devoted, it appeared, to print. To their right were stacks of Sunday papers, luring them toward the café area. The fresh ink of the newspapers was intoxicating. One wanted to lay one’s face on the cool sheets, cool and smooth, and huff the powerful aroma.

First things first, said Beth. I need to keep my caffeine buzz going. As she passed the stacks of newsprint, arranged neatly in wooden bins, she let her fingers trail across the New York Times. Tempting, my pet, but you’re waiting for me at home.

It was good to see her more animated—more her old self, the Beth he’d known less than a day—yet still there was something different. He didn’t follow immediately but stood watching her, thinking of her as an odd portrait, one captured from behind, framed by the quaint interior of Orville’s. His mind eased into interpretation, analyzing the subject via the composition within the frame: Beth’s white coat, among the darker elements of the store, stood out as a snowy scape, or perhaps, even, an imperceptibly inching glacier. Given the point of view, it was impossible to say if she were drifting away from or toward greater isolation. Not isolation, he revised: greater autonomy, independence—the clearly defined lines of the central figure suggested power and strength of will, not mere drift due to capricious currents.

Suddenly point-of-view reversed, and he had the vertiginous sensation it was he who was moving, sliding backward. He caught himself on the nearest stack of papers, the Tribune. As his balance returned he noted the front-page story about Elizabeth Winters’s death and the Logos Project. In addition to the author’s portrait there was a crowd shot of Logos waiting in the snow to enter the Dance Center. He and Beth were the focal point of the photo. He’d had no awareness their picture was taken. The photographer may have been quite a distance off using a powerful lens. However it happened, there they were, immortalized, forever linked to the event.

He wanted to tell Beth but she’d already gotten in line for her coffee. Maybe he’d point it out later. He joined her in line.

After they got their French roasts, they began drifting among the aisles and aisles of books, most of which were displayed cover facing out. He was on the lookout for unfamiliar titles and authors, yes, but he also liked to find favorites among the stacks as spotting them provided a certain reassurance about the world: it was still a place wherein lived Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Slaughter-House Five and Breakfast of Champions, The Old Man and the Sea and Death in the Afternoon, as well as all the Austens and Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. In the poetry section, Ariel, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Howl, Mountain Interval, The Dream of a Common Language, Leaves of Grass, and The Waste Land. He found the Elizabeth Winters section, and it was nearly sold out. A single copy of Orion remained and a handful of her early collection, Wirds of a Feather. As he watched, a woman picked up a copy of Wirds and headed toward the registers. On the one hand, he was gratified that more and more readers had suddenly discovered Elizabeth Winters, but he also felt a subtly hostile possessiveness of her and at the macabre audacity of those who only came to appreciate her upon her death. Elizabeth Winters’s devotees were something between a coterie and a cult. Death threatened to make her conventionally popular. At least the Logos would maintain her uniqueness among American authors, among all authors.

Without thinking why, he set down his cup of coffee and reached out with both hands to touch the covers of Orion and Wirds of a Feather, which felt like completing a circuit with Elizabeth Winters’s words swimming in his circulatory system, though the encrypted prose remained embedded at this hip. Still, he experienced a sensation akin to electricity flowing from Wirds to Orion through him, perhaps even recoding his DNA, turning him into something other than what he had been, something more he hoped.

He released the books, or they released him, and he moved on to further browsing with his coffee.

He turned a corner and ran into Beth, who was studying a paperback. He thought of not interrupting but she said without looking at him, William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life—I think I’ve heard about this book. Are you familiar?

Only marginally, I’m sorry to admit. I have one of my grad seminars read and respond to “The Artist and Society,” one of the pieces.

The final piece. I just saw it. Beth turned to it. Good?

I think so. It’s about the purpose of art, writing as an art form, or what its purpose ought to be. Gass wrote it during the Vietnam era but, to me, it seems relevant to any time, to all times. It’s universal and eternal.

Hmm. You’ve piqued my curiosity. Stay here for now, sweet book. Mama will probably be back.

Beth continued sipping and browsing. He wandered in a different direction. He came across a section of books grouped together because of their association with the city: novels and collections of poetry and fiction either set in the city or about the city or written by a local author. It was the store’s City Celebration section. There was Harrison Gale’s seminal collection, El Is for Loss and Other Poems, placed next to the poet who’d most inspired Gale, Carl Sandburg. Then there were the Bronzeville poets and writers, Gwendolyn Brooks prominent among them. And Richard Wright. He spied a copy of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. He felt a restlessness he hadn’t felt for a long while but knew well: it was the restlessness to write something noteworthy, something remarkable, something great. Not simply to write, to just get words on a page competently enough rendered to find publication somewhere. Rather, to produce something special, truly magnificent and powerful—something worthy of sitting here on these exalted shelves with Sandburg and Brooks and Wright and Gale, Hemingway and Cisneros. He felt the words welling in him, swimming, flailing for release into the world. Yet, it would not be a single seismic explosion of inspiration—some mythical Kerouacean geyser of prose—but a sustained period of creative intensity, over months, over years if necessary. Even still, he was antsy to begin. Here, perhaps? No, but on the train home. He would go to the dining car, where there were tables, and he would begin this great work, something about the city and Elizabeth Winters and the entanglement of lives. Would it be poetry or prose? Something that was both, and neither?

He would need something to begin his work. He scanned the bookstore and located the section of journals and pens . . . and there was Beth perusing them. Maybe she too had been inspired. He mused about this attraction he felt for Beth, if it had been something else all along: the beginning blossoming of his writing welling inside of him: this kindled passion for Beth was really a renewed urgency to create, to bring forth into the world something worthy of it. Worthier even. His desire to create a life with Beth—a thought barely beyond pure fantasy—was a displaced desire to create a work of literature for the ages.

He migrated toward the journals and notepads and pens. There were journals of varying sizes, some with lined pages, most with unlined. They had leather covers and cloth covers and covers of heavy, decorated boards. In some a vibrant ribbon could mark your place. There were all manner of pens: ballpoints, fountain, and calligraphy, in wood, plastic and metal. By the time he arrived at the section Beth had sauntered on. Her coat was over her arm so he couldn’t say for certain if she’d selected anything to purchase. He was attracted to the leatherbound journals, but they seemed too precious (as if one would be afraid of making a mistake). He selected an unlined clothboard journal in aqua blue and a gun-metal gray pen. He knew he could just as easily write his great work on a cheap Mead pad with a Pilot pen, as he always had, but he wanted to make a statement to himself: he wanted to mark a new commitment to his writing life. He didn’t need a Katie or a Beth to be complete, to be whole: he needed a revitalized artistic aspect of his life, he needed to be devoted to something that would last beyond him.

He glanced back at the section where he’d just been, the section devoted to the city’s authors and books. No one was there. In fact, there was an absence around it like a bubble. Elsewhere customers browsed, reading book jackets and pages opened to at random. There was a glossy poster of James Patterson, ballcapped and pseudo-sage, above a display of his mass-produced mysteries, blatantly co-written by one of his stable of co-authors; and bookstore patrons milled there especially thickly. The hum of activity, the hum of commerce, seemed particularly electric when juxtaposed with the small section devoted to city-connected authors. Readers clambered for James Patterson, not Richard Wright; for Janet Evanovich, not Gwendolyn Brooks; for Nora Roberts, not Ernest Hemingway. For him, it wasn’t simply a matter of not wanting to write for popular appeal: he literally didn’t know how: producing such banality was beyond him.

He drank from his cup, the coffee finally sufficiently cooled, and gripped his journal and pen more securely as he moved toward another unpopulated part of the store, a section devoted to the city’s university and independent presses. Here were the story and poetry collections, the novels, the monographs, and the art books that attracted almost no one’s attention. He noted the small presses’ names imprinted on the book’s spines: Tortoise, Twelve Winters, Woolfsword, Haymarket, Knee-Jerk, Artifice, Lake Street, Dancing Girl, Sundress, Agate, and (his instant favorite) Readerless Press (because of its brutal honesty). From this last press he perused a collection of prose poems, written and illustrated via collage by E. B. Bishop, whose enigmatic author’s note said only that she or he grew up in a small Midwestern town and attended the Art Institute. The unusual little book was titled Malcontent. The cover, rendered in shades of red, featured an unsettling image of a creature that was part crow and part human. He added the prose poems to the journal and pen to purchase.

He thought about what separated Elizabeth Winters from these avant-garde authors. How had she achieved a level of notoriety, of fame even? It helped that she’d emerged at a time when there was still some interest in writing worth reading. Also, she’d always lived in metropolises where she could cultivate devoted readers, due to her writing, yes, but also her charismatic personality, and—he had to admit to himself—her ability to promote her work. His thinking was dancing dangerously close to Katie’s criticism of Elizabeth Winters. The one distinction remained: Elizabeth Winters’s charisma and media savvy drew attention to her superior talent.

He came to the classic mysteries section: Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dick Francis, Dorothy Sayers, P. D. James, Dashiell Hammett. As a boy he’d liked mysteries—and it was his father’s genre of choice, which perhaps influenced his tastes—but as he matured he found the writing itself, divorced from the page-turning plots, was too basic: it was about providing information, clearly and succinctly, like newspaper accounts, detached entirely from artfully complex language. Every so often he would pick up a mystery, nostalgic for the comforting mood of his youthful reading, sitting on the floor of his bedroom, leaning against his bed, the rag rug beneath and the pillow behind providing just the right amount of cushion; the book, with the smell and the feel of its pages, angled just so to catch the light from his desk lamp, angled just so; meanwhile knowing his father was in his room, stretched on his bed, reading too, a mystery, his after-dinner pastime.

He’d try to evoke all those feelings, but the book wouldn’t hold his attention, in spite of the murder or kidnaping or jewel heist. The language itself failed to engage him. In high school he discovered and devoured Kurt Vonnegut—Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions left their mark of course, as did Mother Night, Galapagos and Jailbird. It was Vonnegut’s genre bending that most appealed to him, and the author’s wit and wisdom.

In college it was Kerouac and the Beats, the lyricism of On the Road, which transitioned into the poetry of Mexico City Blues and Dr. Sax, leading naturally to Ginsberg’s Howl, hooking him on poetry just in time to switch his emphasis and initiate his tunneling backward into its tropes and traditions, its history and its heroes and heroines. By the time of his MFA he’d returned to the twentieth-century poets: Plath and Hughes, Heaney and Larkin, Lorca and Neruda, Nemerov and Giovanni, Gale and Wilson, Eliot, Rilke, Valéry, Bishop and Moore.

Then there was the poetic prose of Elizabeth Winters and her determination to do something different. If there was nothing more to do with language and its shape, according to narrative theory, then the new ground must be transmission. How will readers’ reception of a text affect their processing of it? And what if that text remains largely hidden and readers can only process the hint of it, its mere shadow on the surface? Elizabeth Winters seemed to want to take Hemingway’s iceberg principle, which dominated twentieth-century prose, to a new depth in the new century. Hemingway felt the characters’ stories—their motivations—should remain mostly below the surface of what appeared on the page, directing the action from the characters’ hidden depths. Elizabeth Winters went further: the narrative itself should disappear from view, leaving only its opaque outline for the reader, leaving their processing of the faintest fragments nearly the whole of the narrative itself.

He sat in a comfortable chair—with his coffee, and his newly purchased journal and pen and book of prose poems—considering it all as Elizabeth Winters’s last novel seethed beneath his skin.

Meanwhile Beth continued to browse about the store. It appeared she’d collected at least two books she intended to purchase.

He read the introduction to the prose poetry book in which the author attempted to clarify the murky genre of prose poetry. The very term, she or he said, communicated the cultural privileging of prose over poetry, evidenced by the fact that most people, even nonreaders—the aliterate—could name a few well-known novelists but the names of poets, especially still-living ones, would be much more of a challenge, especially if the names of children’s poets, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, for example, were cordoned off. But, also, on its surface prose poetry appeared to be just prose. It tended to be parsed into paragraphs, if parsed at all, then separated into sentences, not stanzas and lines, the most readily visible indicators of poetry on the page. However, once one began reading, began processing, wrote the prose-poet in her or his introduction, then the poetry would (or should) dominate the textual landscape with its telltale tropes: alliteration, assonance, repetition, caesura, onomatopoeia, internal rhyme. Prose poetry was really mainly poetry—poetry masquerading as prose.

Why not then simply write a poem? (the author asked rhetorically) Because prose offers expansion opposed to ellipsis, the availability of more conspicuous connective tissue between images, and the opportunity for a hierarchy of ideas, layered in degrees of dominance as if by syntactic trowel.

Oriented chiefly as a poet, he was dubious of the final claims, but the form attracted him and he was willing to reserve judgment.

He watched Beth on the far side of the store. She had several more books under her arm and was still perusing. Perhaps she was shopping for her library as well. A figure crossed behind Beth, and he realized it was Beth: he’d been observing a look-alike, and side by side not even with that much similarity. He attributed his confusion to his need for more sleep.

He continued gazing at the pages of the prose poetry book’s introduction, but only gazing, not reading: the black letters on the off-white page, the uniformity of them, the abundance of them, all served to comfort him. A kind of textual security blanket, text-ile.

After a time—he couldn’t say how long—Beth was standing by his chair. Ready to check out? she asked. She’d retrieved the Gass after all, and two other books.

He rose in affirmation and they stepped in line for the cash registers. It should only take a minute or two, he surmised. The checkout employees were spritely and efficient, like Santa’s elves in grownup, bookstore form. He glanced toward Orwell’s front windows and realized he and Beth were reflected there, their ghostly images holding their books and cups of coffee. He wondered briefly if their ghosts had the same reading tastes.

Then a woman by the newspapers said, It’s you. You’re Logos. Her hand was resting on the Tribune’s front-page picture.

He realized they were standing in line in a more or less identical pose as the one depicted in the paper. Others were now staring at them, including the cash-register elves, momentarily fazed into inefficiency. You’re Logos, repeated the woman, whom he realized was the one he mistook for Beth. From here, now, with so little resemblance, the mistake was difficult to fathom. The woman was considerably older for one thing, and heavier set, perhaps at best a matronly version of Beth, or grandmatronly, perhaps a glimpse of the future Beth Winterberry.

Yes, said the younger Beth—we’re Logos. She patted her hip.

Interesting, said much-older Beth, colorlessly, and went about her business.

The elves returned to their task, their sprightliness reanimated. Everyone did. Yet the previous moment remained. Their sudden celebrity lingered like a scent, or the after-image of a dazzling flash. He and Beth were separate and apart from everyone in the shop who’d been within the sphere of their recognition. Suddenly three planes of people existed: those who didn’t know them at all, those who knew them now as Logos, and there was the plane wherein only he and Beth resided, the only one which felt to him normal and natural. He looked toward the window for their doppelgangers, to maybe double the population of their sparse plane, but something had changed—the light, or the angle from which he gazed, something—and their reflected selves had disappeared, as ghosts will, to be replaced by the rainy city sidewalk beyond, umbrellaed strangers now and then hurrying past.

Madison

The storm had passed, and brilliant daylight streamed through the separation of the window curtains. A bar of yellow light fell across the pillows to his left and along his neck. He discovered it was merely bright, with no warmth whatsoever. He’d had a couple of hours of restless sleep, literally so, it seemed: sleep without rest. His mind was scattered among the various pieces of the past twenty-four hours. He thought of Beth, whose life circumstances remained behind a veil, and of Katie, who had not sent a follow-up text. There was the single question, the single expression of concern, and that was their only communication in days. And what of Elizabeth Winters? When he’d reconnected to the Web, he was alerted that someone had already uploaded the 753 words—the 753 jpgs of tattooed words—to Elizabeth Winters’s website, the prologue to Meditations on the Word, but of course in no coherent order. No one knew the order, said Marian Tate, except their now-deceased author.

So among the chaotic swirl of his thoughts was the idea of making sense of the 753 words. No doubt a number of Elizabeth Winters devotees, or the merely curious, or the morbidly curious, had been at work on the puzzle for hours already. He imagined the years—decades—of articles and conference papers devoted to deciphering the prologue. Like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the prologue would gain a notoriety, an infamy due to its unintelligibleness. However, Joyce’s opaqueness was deliberate, whereas Elizabeth Winters’s was tragic.

Unless of course it was a hoax, a publicity stunt, which he apparently didn’t believe, for lying there in the comfortable hotel bed he felt the weight of mourning, of bereavement. Unless what he felt was the loss of Katie, or the anticipation of losing his connection to Beth. Perhaps it was the grief of losing all three, a trinity of loss.

He knew he should try to sleep but it seemed pointless. A shower and coffee sounded better at the moment. It wasn’t quite 7:30. In the shower he noticed a touch of redness, pinkness really, around the injection site on his hip. It didn’t hurt or itch, and in fact was barely noticeable even when he was looking for it. He wondered about the piece of Elizabeth Winters’s novel he carried under his skin—a story he would never know. He was connected in a unique way to the other bearers of the tale: the ultimate book club but one that could have no discussion regarding the substance of the book, only vehement speculation. He realized he’d been conjuring narratives of the prologue—almost subconsciously—based on the few words he knew: his and Beth’s words, and the words of his nighttime confederates who tried to find Elizabeth Winters, almost literally characters in search of an author, the surreal made real. The prologues he conjured tended to coalesce into a story about a prep school, something Pencey Prep-like: a place from which all Holden Caufields must escape, its being the natural order of things.

When he returned home, he’d print out the word images and toy with them over time. He imagined frothy debates in hotel bars about the prologue for years, with each verbal pugilist (perhaps at times actual pugilists) convinced his reconstruction was correct. He recalled other literary enigmas. When he was working on his master’s he took a course in Medieval literature, and one of the works they studied was Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxonist who taught the class professed that Anglo-Saxon had practically become a lost language by the time scholars began translating Beowulf into modern English at the dawn of the nineteenth century. The first stabs at translation got the story mostly wrong, and it wasn’t until the 1830s—after more than a quarter century of steady scholarly effort—that they felt they had an accurate understanding of the story. Even more infamous than the Wake, which spawned reading societies around the world devoted to deciphering the Irish author’s final tome.

Would there be such passion devoted to Elizabeth Winters’s final work, Meditations on the Word?

As he was dressing into his jeans and a navy pullover, he noticed that the pad of paper on the bed’s side table was written on. A couple of steps closer and he saw what’d been written: pupils—. He looked about the room and of course no one was there. Could someone have slipped into his room while he was showering and written his word on the hotel pad? He supposed it was possible, but who besides Beth and a handful of people even knew his word? And what would be the point of the prank, other than to give him a sense of uncanniness?

He sat on the unmade bed and picked up the pad. The word was almost certainly written with the cheap hotel pen which lay next to the pad. The handwriting looked familiar. He picked up the pen and flipped to a clean sheet in the pad. He wrote his word as naturally as he could manage. He flipped between the two words: they were virtually identical. He must’ve written on the pad but had no recollection of it. Writing in his sleep, something he’d never done before. As an undergrad he’d experimented briefly with Kerouac’s technique of continuing the plotlines of his dreams upon waking, resulting in Kerouac’s Book of Dreams, but all he gained was a stressful way to wake up in the morning because most of the time he didn’t recall his dreams vividly enough to pick up their narrative threads. The thought that he’d written pupils— himself disturbed him more than the idea of a stranger stealing into his room to scribble it: he, in essence, was the stranger.

He reminded himself how exhausted he’d been when he and Beth returned from the donut shop. On the brief walk he began to see strange shapes on the periphery of his vision, undefined objects that closed in on him suddenly then just as suddenly disappeared. He attributed it to sleep deprivation as he walked alongside Beth, who was strangely quiet. Perhaps she had finally crashed. He felt himself to be in a half-asleep, dreamy state. For a second or two he might think it was Katie at his side before recalling more lucidly where he was and with whom. In a moment the process would repeat. While walking with Katie he once or twice nearly reached over to take her hand.

Or did he at one point hold Beth’s hand? Seated on the hotel bed, remembering, it almost seemed he had, but surely not. He would recall it with certainty if he had. He looked again at pupils— written on the pad in his own hand, it would seem, even though he had no recollection of it. Being certain of anything appeared unwise. He couldn’t recall undressing and crawling under the bed covers.

His cellphone face flared to life to let him know he had a text. Katie? He checked. Beth: Hopefully you’re sound asleep but if not you want to do breakfast? Developments.

He typed, I’m awake. Hotel bistro? When?

Immediately. Sounds good. 20?

K

He didn’t need twenty minutes to slip on his Nikes. He picked up his phone and iPad and headed for the lobby for coffee and to catch the headlines before Beth arrived. In the elevator he looked at his reflection in its mirrored interior. He probably should shave before the memorial. Or maybe he would grow a beard, something he hadn’t done for years. The timing seemed off since it was nearly spring, but something felt right about the not-rightness. He was feeling the rough stubble of his chin as the doors opened to the lobby.

He went directly the bistro, where only about a half dozen tables or booths were occupied. The one where he and Beth had had their Irish coffee was open so he took it, sitting on the opposite side so that he could watch for Beth.

There appeared to be one waiter working, Mario, said his name badge. He ordered a latte with an extra shot of espresso and told Mario he was expecting one more for breakfast. Mario left two menus, single laminated sheets.

He opened Safari on his iPad to check the morning news. The world no longer considered Elizabeth Winters’s death significant, not with a bomb threat at the Met in New York, a school shooting in Tennessee, an airliner landing on the wrong runway at LAX, the Dow diving nearly a hundred points, a hostage situation at a market in Madrid, an assassination attempt in Syria, a tsunami with Tokyo in its sights, a power outage affecting a hundred million in India. . .  .

He had to search Elizabeth Winters to locate any updated information. There was little to report. They’d released the name of the other fatality in the crash, the pilot Meredith Overturf. Wait, what? Meredith Overturf? It was the name of one of the central characters in Orion. He quickly read the news report. There was no commenting on the connection. The nagging fear that it was all some elaborate (and cruel) hoax began to stir again. Beth had mentioned a development. Could this be it? Evidence of a hoax would be more than a development, however.

He decided to direct his attention elsewhere on his tablet: the weather, that’s always a good, utilitarian distraction. Warmer today, mid forties, but rain beginning by noon and lasting … basically forever. He was about to check his hometown forecast when Beth arrived. Hair pulled back, black yoga pants, zip-front sweater, red-orange, orange Nikes. She could’ve passed for a college student. She slid into the booth opposite him just as Mario was bringing his latte.

That smells wonderful, she said, waving some of the espresso aroma toward her face.

Low-fat latte, an extra shot, he said.

She opened her eyes. I’ll have one too, please.

Here. He pushed the colorful, overlarge cup and saucer toward her and nodded at Mario to bring another.

Really? said Beth. You’re a prince. She put her hands around the warm cup and blew on the foam froth before sipping. Oh my God—that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Thank you. She sipped again.

Let me guess, he said, the development is that the pilot who died in the crash is named Meredith Overturf. Pretty suspicious.

That does sound suspicious, but look up Meredith Overturf Aviation Magazine. She sipped, giving him a moment.

The first item that popped up was a story in Aviation Magazine about a private pilot and his relationship with an eccentric author. Apparently the pilot discovered he had the same name as a character in the novel Orion by Elizabeth Winters. He contacted her through her website, not expecting to hear form her, but she did reply, which began a correspondence then a friendship, said the article. It turned out they actually lived fairly close to one another. Meredith had flown Elizabeth Winters to some readings and events in California, Washington, Nevada and Arizona (including, most likely, her infamous reading in Sedona). The article was nearly seven years old.

So, the pilot had the same name as the planetarium director in Orion. He was finished skimming.

Yup, so not as suspicious as it sounds. Weird, and tragic, but not suspicious.

They took a moment to look over the single-page menus. When Mario returned with the other latte they placed their orders.

Veggie omelet, and toss in some turkey sausage, said Beth. I need some protein—and the fruit cup.

Mario didn’t bother to write down the order.

Plain omelet, he said, with a bowl of oatmeal, cinnamon and walnuts, please.

Mario nodded and left to put in their order.

So, the development?

Right. Beth adjusted her glasses, sliding them unnoticeably higher on her nose. I crashed for a couple of hours then I woke up super thirsty for a cold drink, so I tossed on some clothes and toddled down the hall to the machines for a bottle of water and some ice, and I ran into the Aussie, Here (whose real name, by the way, is Cameron, she adds parenthetically); he was just going to bed—they ended up admitting poor Deliberately for further observatons, so he and Too had come back to the hotel. Anyway, while they were waiting for their ride, a limousine service arrives and who should saunter out (well, saunter is my word, I don’t think Cameron used such a freighted verb), who should saunter out of the ER doors and into the back of the limo? Marian Tate and the distinguished-looking guy, but no third person. She must’ve been admitted to the hospital too, or she left some other way.

Interesting.

It is interesting. And that’s not all, Beth said almost under her breath before taking a sip of latte.

What?

Ok, it’s more weird than plain old interesting, and maybe a little creepy—or maybe nothing, just me being overtired. It did kind of freak me out for a while though.

What?

So I got my water and ice and was having a nice cold drink before going back to bed and hopefully sleeping for a couple more hours. I put my glass on the nightstand and I notice something is written on the hotel notepad—

Let me guess: the word radiant. Your word.

Holy crap. That’s right.

Holy crap indeed. And it’s your handwriting.

Yeah, maybe, I guess. I don’t know. Otherwise somebody came into my room and wrote it while I was talking to the Aussie. It really weirded me out. I thought about calling hotel security. Instead I poked around my room. I even did the classic horror-movie procedure and looked behind the shower curtain. I’ve always wondered, What would a chick do if there really was an axe-murderer hiding behind the curtain? Pretend not to notice before casually backing out of the bathroom, whistling a show tune for effect, and then making a mad dash to the door? What, are you clairvoyant?

No—it’s just that I had an uncannily similar experience. After taking a shower I saw that someone—me I guess—had written pupils on the hotel notepad.

No way. And you’re positive it’s your handwriting.

Not a hundred-percent positive but pretty darn positive. What about you? Your know for sure it’s your handwriting?

Like you, pretty sure. I mean, the alternative doesn’t make any sense: someone knows all the Logos’ words, someone who’s a master forger and accomplished at B&E? And to what purpose other than to give us all the willies?

True, true, all true. I suppose we had essentially identical experiences yesterday and were more or less equally exhausted. I suppose we could’ve both scribbled our words on the pads while still mostly asleep, asleep enough not to recall it the next morning. It’s possible. Stranger coincidences happen all the time.

You don’t sound convinced.

I’m working on it. It’s a process.

You don’t think we’re being programmed by the chip, surely. Do you? Beth asked.

I don’t know. No . . . and yes. Not in some science-fictiony way. But clearly bearing the chip inside of us, and having had the experiences we’ve had so far because of it, plus the knowledge that we’ll never know the story that we carry along with us, literally to our graves—all of that has in a sense been programming us, or re-programming us. But, no, I don’t think there’s some deliberate and mysterious revision of our brainwaves happening. I don’t think.

Beth seemed to consider it all for a moment while she sipped. I trust you were able to change your train ticket.

To five o’clock, which might be pushing it if the memorial goes past four. I may have to step out a bit early.

A silence blossomed like a bomb at the end of his statement: the concrete reality of their parting suddenly perched there on the table between them, as ominous as a darkly contoured thunderhead.

Mario brought their breakfasts.

They ate in the shadow of that silence for a while. He wondered if she sensed it too, the weight of their leave-taking. He thought she did.

Well, said Beth, we have several hours before the memorial. Normally Sundays are all about The New York Times, especially the Book Review, and more coffee than could possibly be good for me. But here we are in the big city. Surely there is plenty to do, even today. A great indie bookstore to pillage, something like that. What do you think?

A great bookstore sounds, well, great. We have one fair indie bookstore back home.

In Madison, we’re in better bookstore shape than that, but I’m up for being wowed.

His tablet was next to him on the table. He entered the passcode then pushed it toward Beth. Here, it’s your brainstorm. You should have the honor of choosing.

What a gentleman. She put her fork down long enough to type in a search, then returned to eating while she studied the results.

Meanwhile, the distraction afforded him the opportunity to study her. As he watched her scrolling and reading, a quizzical determination about her sculpted brow, absently replacing a strand of hair behind her ear, a life with Beth unfolded in his imagination like a game board which had been folded down to a square inside the box, now taken out and revealing the intricate mysteries of the contest, geometric section by geometric section.

Madison. A place he’d never been. It seemed a place of farm fields carefully stitched onto hills, a place where cows, black and white and sonorously belled, were forever lowing. Sky and hill met in a perfect pleat, perfect enough to tear-fill Betsy Ross’s patriotic eyes. The blue was blue, and the green green. There were coffeehouses and bookstores, and coffeebookhousestores, some with eclectic foci, one, perhaps, named for Bukowski, which only trafficked in aggressive poetry, another only in the cozy mystery, Murder by the Mug or Quilts and Culprits, yet another the indie store’s indie store, bearing only the original owner’s name, now long dead, Walcott’s or Wallace’s, est. 1947, a bookshop so serious readers must sign a waiver before browsing among the dangerously weighty titles, written by authors who have only coteries and cult devotees, writers who would slit their wrists, consumed with shame, if one of their works stumbled onto the Times bestsellers list. Art galleries, too, of course, and local theatre (-re, not -er), and free lectures at the university by award-winning economists and mathematicians and entomologists who’ve discovered a new species of flea, one that only lives on a particular species of bat which only lives in a single cave deeply recessed in a mountain pass among the Andes, only rarely accessible to humans and then only at great risk. And he and Beth would attend the openings, ask provocative questions at the readings, hold hands in the lecture halls, supportively attend each other’s events as their careers bloomed always-upward like sunflowers, their creative chi nourished in a warm, lilac-scented bath of affection and sex through the years. And connecting them at the cosmic level was their mutual connection to Logos. Online discussions with the Logos community, one of the smallest and most select on the planet—regional get-togethers, national and international conferences, a palpable spirit of camaraderie based on the words inked into their derma and deposited beneath it. There would be a scholarly journal, Logos Notes or The Elizabeth Winters Quarterly, he and Beth would be regular contributors, or guest editors. They shared it all, births in the Logos community, professional milestones, and each devastating death throughout the years as time marched toward the release of Elizabeth Winters’s greatest book, Meditations on the Word.

This looks like the place: Orville’s. I saw a woman at Revelation yesterday carrying an Orville’s bag. I didn’t know what it was. All I could think of was popcorn.

Sounds good . . . the place, not popcorn—well popcorn too.

Great. It says they open at eight on Sunday. I need to go to my room for a bit—meet you in the lobby in, say, forty-fiveish minutes?

That’ll work. I trust the idea is to return before checkout at noon.

Oh hell. I nearly forgot about that pesky detail, but, yeah, we’ll have to be mindful. The timing isn’t great, is it? With the memorial at two. I probably better pack while I’m at it, just in case. Better give me more like an hour then. It ain’t easy being a chick.

I sympathize. An hour.

Mario brought their checks.

I got this, he said. Lunch is on you.

Fair enough. Beth drank down the last of her latte and left to return to her room.

Mario used a handheld to read his card at the table and send him a receipt.

He didn’t need an hour to pack—something closer to five minutes—so he had Mario add a black coffee to the bill before paying. When it arrived he took the mug of Hawaiian to the lobby to drink in a comfortable chair while skimming through his tablet.

He felt the impulse to write, though that wasn’t normally a Sunday-morning thing. It didn’t feel like Sunday morning. He was out of sync, in many ways. He wrote in the mornings, yes, Monday through Friday, doggedly. If for some reason several days elapsed during which he didn’t write (while traveling, for example), he’d become anxious and even a little irritable. The nearest sensation was being horny, the ever-present itch to have sex for which there was only one relief. If he’d been celibate from writing for a few days, the urge to touch pen to paper began to burn in him. Composing creatively was a kind of meditation which kept him centered. He filtered the world through the point of his pen and the inky vortex it created on the paper. Absent the act of writing, the thoughts and feelings, the impressions, the signs and symbols began to well up in his psyche, swimming furiously but contained, seeking the only outlet that would serve their purpose.

This morning he felt especially restless. He imagined the chip beneath his skin as a kind of stimulant but instead of stimulating muscle growth or hair regeneration, it spurred language production. The Logos Project had literally planted words beneath his skin, and they were growing and multiplying, doubling, tripling and quadrupling in linguistic tumult, verbs and nouns, adverbs, adjectives, gerunds and infinitives, all manner of phrases and clauses coursing through his blood seeking some weakened barrier to breach. That’s how it felt.

He drank his coffee and tried to breathe evenly. He wasn’t in a position to write exactly, but he thought of something which might somewhat satisfy the craving. On his tablet, he went to the Logos site and began downloading the tattoo-word jpgs. Just fifteen for now. It was unlikely that these fifteen words went together at all—in fact, it was highly likely that they did not—but toying with them was a start. He opened a new memo on the tablet’s memopad and pecked out the group of words in the same random order in which he’d downloaded their images. Then he set about trying to arrange them in an order that made some sense.

dive                           hark                           gold

strange                       under                         bones

teeth                          flood                          gently

unfold                       toes                            keep

hourly                       they                           rats

gold teeth gently unfold bones under rats they hourly keep

rats hourly dive under flood toes gold bones

gold bones keep strange rats under flood dive

gently gold flood rats hourly

teeth bones hark strange toes unfold gold rats

teeth bones keep gold rats

dive under strange flood hourly

dive under gold flood gently

they dive toes under rats

they unfold toes under gold rats

teeth hourly gently keep flood rats gold

under bones dive strange teeth rats

rats toes gently keep strange good teeth under flood bones

hark gold bones flood under strange dive teeth hourly

The random words took on more and more meaning the longer he toyed with them. Nouns put on the mantel of adjectives, adjectives verbs. He recalled the Zombie Poetry Project website a colleague had developed, zombie as in insects who take over a dead host’s body, reanimating them into something different, some other species altogether. The way it worked, on the site, you typed a poem—any poem, a classic or an original poem you’d just written—and the zombie program chopped it into bits, reatomized them, absorbed them into its ever-expanding database, then combined parts of your poem with bits and pieces of others’ poems—to arrive at a different poem entirely, one in which you could recognize, here and there, your original, but the randomizing and juxtapositioning with other texts cast even the recognizable words and phrases into altered shades of meaning, lighting and obscuring contours of the original text—perhaps calling attention to possibilities of revision if you were working with an original poem. Or sometimes this newly created zombie poem was a thing of beauty or a thing of resonance itself, an object worth keeping in the world. If nothing else, you’d altered the database’s DNA, changed it forever with the addition of your text, now in a position to migrate to others’ poems, infecting them and zombiefying them with traces of you.

He received a text. Katie: Still ok?

It wasn’t like her to be so staccato in her text messaging. The altered tone of her texts was the kith and kin of her altered tone face to face: the filter of texting only amplified her confusion, her teetering between versions of their relationship. Only twenty-four hours ago signs of her indecisiveness about their breaking up would’ve been heartening. Now he didn’t know what he felt.

He sensed his own wavering between possible futures, none of which was fully in his control. He didn’t believe Katie was toying with him, leading him on—but if they resumed their relationship, what would be different? For that matter, what was wrong in the first place?

He heard the Norwegian’s pleasantly blond baritone. Too was speaking to the young woman at the front desk, asking about the hotel’s shuttle service to the airport. Apparently he wouldn’t be staying for the memorial.

When Too finished his conversation and turned, he noticed him in the lobby. He strode over, smiling broadly, a lumberjack about to fell a tree.

I would guess that you and Radiant would be sleeping still.

I would guess that, too . . . Too, but it’s not the case. We just had breakfast. He stood to speak with him, but still had to cast his gaze up. He considered mentioning the bookstore plan but felt protective of his outing with Beth. He didn’t want anyone else tagging along. Too’s itinerary would likely prevent his joining them; still, he was reluctant to advertise their plans. Instead: You must’ve gotten next to no sleep. How’s Deliberately?

In truth I haven’t been to bed. I should be at the airport to check in. I’ll be sleeping soundly on my flight. They admitted Deliberately, so he is still there. His wife is flying in later today. There was something they didn’t care for in the bloodwork and wanted to run other tests.

That’s terrible. Hope it turns out to be nothing.

Indeed. Well, I must pack a bag and drink some coffee.

Of course. Have a safe flight.

Safe travels to you as well. Let’s stay in touch—remember the hashtag, EWLogos. At Twitter I’m BigSwedeToo.

Thought you were from Norway.

I am but BigNorwegianToo doesn’t have the same, what, resonance?

True. It’s the assonance, the internal rhyme. I’ll find you.

Too clapped him on the shoulder then strode toward the elevators.

He watched him enter one just as its twin was opening. Beth emerged, having traded her yoga pants for jeans. He stood still as she walked toward him, buttoning her coat and adjusting her scarf and hair.

Ready? she asked. It was a single word but there was something about her tone that seemed changed, not so much an added coolness but the absence of chirpy warmth, communicated in her face (sterile of expression) and the way she held herself (stiff and guarded) as much as in her voice (tone of simple interrogation).

We should be able to grab a cab out front. He motioned for her to lead the way, with a hint of gallantry, which would have been more exaggerated if Beth weren’t suddenly different. Maybe he only imagined a change or maybe the events of the past day caught up to her. Perhaps the bookstore would restore the brightness to her mood. Already, instantly, he was thinking of the day, the moment, when Katie was no longer Katie, when the edge entered her voice: the moment she became something of a stranger. And the change occurred due to no visible stimulus. Nothing upsetting had happened between them, and as far as he could see nothing upsetting had happened to Katie at all. The shift in the tectonic plates of her emotions had taken place unseen, caused by some observation, some deduction, some decision about the world; and she wasn’t inclined to let him in on it, whatever it was. In fact, when he first broached the subject, she denied anything was wrong, even that anything had changed.

Still, the iciness wouldn’t completely thaw, though its edges became less sharply frigid. He sometimes would compare old messages to recent ones to reassure himself he wasn’t imagining her change in tone. For one, Katie’s messages had frequently been spiced with sexual innuendo before the chill.

You’ve been in my thoughts, thinking about what you can enter. LUMU.

Rainy day. Meet you in bed. LUMU.

Hope your head is feeling better—I could work wonders with it.

TGIF time—F for Friday optional.

Enjoyed the shower this morning. Girls have never been this clean. LUMU.

Then one day the flirtations just stopped. Katie’s messages became as mundane as market reports (soybeans up, pork futures down). For a time he tried to initiate the sexy exchanges (efforts that had always been repaid in kind), but they were met with banality or not answered at all. When he tried to discuss with her what was happening, he mentioned the altered tone of her texts (almost like exhibits in a trial). Katie insisted he was imagining the change. Over time he slipped into the rhythms of this cooled iteration of their relationship. When he thought of before, it was like recalling another relationship, with someone else. Meanwhile even this tepid kind of coupling further crumbled. Katie wanted something—something that wasn’t this, them—but she couldn’t articulate it, even to herself it seemed.

The recollections played on the taxi’s window glass as he and Beth sped through the city streets, still oddly quiet and white, in spite of the large raindrops that plummeted from the colorless sky. Before long the snow would be washed gray by the rain; then washed away.

He looked at Beth, who was watching out her window and likely reflecting inwardly also. Reflections of a similar theme to his own? Her left hand rested on the seat. He thought of holding it. On the taxi’s black seat, her hand appeared whiter than the white sleeve of her coat—not cadaverous or pallid, however: baptismally white, clean and fresh, unblemished. He wanted to touch her skin, its warmth or its coolness—it didn’t matter—but he had no pretense for holding her hand, for connecting to her in so intimate a way.

The taxi rolled to a stop in front of the bookstore. He swiped his card to pay, then they hurried to the maroon-colored awning through the big drops of rain. Inside, Orville’s was heaven: café, bakery, books, books, books. A significant portion of the main floor was devoted to the café, but there was a half second-floor fully devoted, it appeared, to print. To their right were stacks of Sunday papers, luring them toward the café area. The fresh ink of the newspapers was intoxicating. One wanted to lay one’s face on the cool sheets, cool and smooth, and huff the powerful aroma.

First things first, said Beth. I need to keep my caffeine buzz going. As she passed the stacks of newsprint, arranged neatly in wooden bins, she let her fingers trail across the New York Times. Tempting, my pet, but you’re waiting for me at home.

It was good to see her more animated—more her old self, the Beth he’d known less than a day—yet still there was something different. He didn’t follow immediately but stood watching her, thinking of her as an odd portrait, one captured from behind, framed by the quaint interior of Orville’s. His mind eased into interpretation, analyzing the subject via the composition within the frame: Beth’s white coat, among the darker elements of the store, stood out as a snowy scape, or perhaps, even, an imperceptibly inching glacier. Given the point of view, it was impossible to say if she were drifting away from or toward greater isolation. Not isolation, he revised: greater autonomy, independence—the clearly defined lines of the central figure suggested power and strength of will, not mere drift due to capricious currents.

Suddenly point-of-view reversed, and he had the vertiginous sensation it was he who was moving, sliding backward. He caught himself on the nearest stack of papers, the Tribune. As his balance returned he noted the front-page story about Elizabeth Winters’s death and the Logos Project. In addition to the author’s portrait there was a crowd shot of Logos waiting in the snow to enter the Dance Center. He and Beth were the focal point of the photo. He’d had no awareness their picture was taken. The photographer may have been quite a distance off using a powerful lens. However it happened, there they were, immortalized, forever linked to the event.

He wanted to tell Beth but she’d already gotten in line for her coffee. Maybe he’d point it out later. He joined her in line.

After they got their French roasts, they began drifting among the aisles and aisles of books, most of which were displayed cover facing out. He was on the lookout for unfamiliar titles and authors, yes, but he also liked to find favorites among the stacks as spotting them provided a certain reassurance about the world: it was still a place wherein lived Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Slaughter-House Five and Breakfast of Champions, The Old Man and the Sea and Death in the Afternoon, as well as all the Austens and Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. In the poetry section, Ariel, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Howl, Mountain Interval, The Dream of a Common Language, Leaves of Grass, and The Waste Land. He found the Elizabeth Winters section, and it was nearly sold out. A single copy of Orion remained and a handful of her early collection, Wirds of a Feather. As he watched, a woman picked up a copy of Wirds and headed toward the registers. On the one hand, he was gratified that more and more readers had suddenly discovered Elizabeth Winters, but he also felt a subtly hostile possessiveness of her and at the macabre audacity of those who only came to appreciate her upon her death. Elizabeth Winters’s devotees were something between a coterie and a cult. Death threatened to make her conventionally popular. At least the Logos would maintain her uniqueness among American authors, among all authors.

Without thinking why, he set down his cup of coffee and reached out with both hands to touch the covers of Orion and Wirds of a Feather, which felt like completing a circuit with Elizabeth Winters’s words swimming in his circulatory system, though the encrypted prose remained embedded at this hip. Still, he experienced a sensation akin to electricity flowing from Wirds to Orion through him, perhaps even recoding his DNA, turning him into something other than what he had been, something more he hoped.

He released the books, or they released him, and he moved on to further browsing with his coffee.

He turned a corner and ran into Beth, who was studying a paperback. He thought of not interrupting but she said without looking at him, William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life—I think I’ve heard about this book. Are you familiar?

Only marginally, I’m sorry to admit. I have one of my grad seminars read and respond to “The Artist and Society,” one of the pieces.

The final piece. I just saw it. Beth turned to it. Good?

I think so. It’s about the purpose of art, writing as an art form, or what its purpose ought to be. Gass wrote it during the Vietnam era but, to me, it seems relevant to any time, to all times. It’s universal and eternal.

Hmm. You’ve piqued my curiosity. Stay here for now, sweet book. Mama will probably be back.

Beth continued sipping and browsing. He wandered in a different direction. He came across a section of books grouped together because of their association with the city: novels and collections of poetry and fiction either set in the city or about the city or written by a local author. It was the store’s City Celebration section. There was Harrison Gale’s seminal collection, El Is for Loss and Other Poems, placed next to the poet who’d most inspired Gale, Carl Sandburg. Then there were the Bronzeville poets and writers, Gwendolyn Brooks prominent among them. And Richard Wright. He spied a copy of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. He felt a restlessness he hadn’t felt for a long while but knew well: it was the restlessness to write something noteworthy, something remarkable, something great. Not simply to write, to just get words on a page competently enough rendered to find publication somewhere. Rather, to produce something special, truly magnificent and powerful—something worthy of sitting here on these exalted shelves with Sandburg and Brooks and Wright and Gale, Hemingway and Cisneros. He felt the words welling in him, swimming, flailing for release into the world. Yet, it would not be a single seismic explosion of inspiration—some mythical Kerouacean geyser of prose—but a sustained period of creative intensity, over months, over years if necessary. Even still, he was antsy to begin. Here, perhaps? No, but on the train home. He would go to the dining car, where there were tables, and he would begin this great work, something about the city and Elizabeth Winters and the entanglement of lives. Would it be poetry or prose? Something that was both, and neither?

He would need something to begin his work. He scanned the bookstore and located the section of journals and pens . . . and there was Beth perusing them. Maybe she too had been inspired. He mused about this attraction he felt for Beth, if it had been something else all along: the beginning blossoming of his writing welling inside of him: this kindled passion for Beth was really a renewed urgency to create, to bring forth into the world something worthy of it. Worthier even. His desire to create a life with Beth—a thought barely beyond pure fantasy—was a displaced desire to create a work of literature for the ages.

He migrated toward the journals and notepads and pens. There were journals of varying sizes, some with lined pages, most with unlined. They had leather covers and cloth covers and covers of heavy, decorated boards. In some a vibrant ribbon could mark your place. There were all manner of pens: ballpoints, fountain, and calligraphy, in wood, plastic and metal. By the time he arrived at the section Beth had sauntered on. Her coat was over her arm so he couldn’t say for certain if she’d selected anything to purchase. He was attracted to the leatherbound journals, but they seemed too precious (as if one would be afraid of making a mistake). He selected an unlined clothboard journal in aqua blue and a gun-metal gray pen. He knew he could just as easily write his great work on a cheap Mead pad with a Pilot pen, as he always had, but he wanted to make a statement to himself: he wanted to mark a new commitment to his writing life. He didn’t need a Katie or a Beth to be complete, to be whole: he needed a revitalized artistic aspect of his life, he needed to be devoted to something that would last beyond him.

He glanced back at the section where he’d just been, the section devoted to the city’s authors and books. No one was there. In fact, there was an absence around it like a bubble. Elsewhere customers browsed, reading book jackets and pages opened to at random. There was a glossy poster of James Patterson, ballcapped and pseudo-sage, above a display of his mass-produced mysteries, blatantly co-written by one of his stable of co-authors; and bookstore patrons milled there especially thickly. The hum of activity, the hum of commerce, seemed particularly electric when juxtaposed with the small section devoted to city-connected authors. Readers clambered for James Patterson, not Richard Wright; for Janet Evanovich, not Gwendolyn Brooks; for Nora Roberts, not Ernest Hemingway. For him, it wasn’t simply a matter of not wanting to write for popular appeal: he literally didn’t know how: producing such banality was beyond him.

He drank from his cup, the coffee finally sufficiently cooled, and gripped his journal and pen more securely as he moved toward another unpopulated part of the store, a section devoted to the city’s university and independent presses. Here were the story and poetry collections, the novels, the monographs, and the art books that attracted almost no one’s attention. He noted the small presses’ names imprinted on the book’s spines: Tortoise, Twelve Winters, Woolfsword, Haymarket, Knee-Jerk, Artifice, Lake Street, Dancing Girl, Sundress, Agate, and (his instant favorite) Readerless Press (because of its brutal honesty). From this last press he perused a collection of prose poems, written and illustrated via collage by E. B. Bishop, whose enigmatic author’s note said only that she or he grew up in a small Midwestern town and attended the Art Institute. The unusual little book was titled Malcontent. The cover, rendered in shades of red, featured an unsettling image of a creature that was part crow and part human. He added the prose poems to the journal and pen to purchase.

He thought about what separated Elizabeth Winters from these avant-garde authors. How had she achieved a level of notoriety, of fame even? It helped that she’d emerged at a time when there was still some interest in writing worth reading. Also, she’d always lived in metropolises where she could cultivate devoted readers, due to her writing, yes, but also her charismatic personality, and—he had to admit to himself—her ability to promote her work. His thinking was dancing dangerously close to Katie’s criticism of Elizabeth Winters. The one distinction remained: Elizabeth Winters’s charisma and media savvy drew attention to her superior talent.

He came to the classic mysteries section: Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dick Francis, Dorothy Sayers, P. D. James, Dashiell Hammett. As a boy he’d liked mysteries—and it was his father’s genre of choice, which perhaps influenced his tastes—but as he matured he found the writing itself, divorced from the page-turning plots, was too basic: it was about providing information, clearly and succinctly, like newspaper accounts, detached entirely from artfully complex language. Every so often he would pick up a mystery, nostalgic for the comforting mood of his youthful reading, sitting on the floor of his bedroom, leaning against his bed, the rag rug beneath and the pillow behind providing just the right amount of cushion; the book, with the smell and the feel of its pages, angled just so to catch the light from his desk lamp, angled just so; meanwhile knowing his father was in his room, stretched on his bed, reading too, a mystery, his after-dinner pastime.

He’d try to evoke all those feelings, but the book wouldn’t hold his attention, in spite of the murder or kidnaping or jewel heist. The language itself failed to engage him. In high school he discovered and devoured Kurt Vonnegut—Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions left their mark of course, as did Mother Night, Galapagos and Jailbird. It was Vonnegut’s genre bending that most appealed to him, and the author’s wit and wisdom.

In college it was Kerouac and the Beats, the lyricism of On the Road, which transitioned into the poetry of Mexico City Blues and Dr. Sax, leading naturally to Ginsberg’s Howl, hooking him on poetry just in time to switch his emphasis and initiate his tunneling backward into its tropes and traditions, its history and its heroes and heroines. By the time of his MFA he’d returned to the twentieth-century poets: Plath and Hughes, Heaney and Larkin, Lorca and Neruda, Nemerov and Giovanni, Gale and Wilson, Eliot, Rilke, Valéry, Bishop and Moore.

Then there was the poetic prose of Elizabeth Winters and her determination to do something different. If there was nothing more to do with language and its shape, according to narrative theory, then the new ground must be transmission. How will readers’ reception of a text affect their processing of it? And what if that text remains largely hidden and readers can only process the hint of it, its mere shadow on the surface? Elizabeth Winters seemed to want to take Hemingway’s iceberg principle, which dominated twentieth-century prose, to a new depth in the new century. Hemingway felt the characters’ stories—their motivations—should remain mostly below the surface of what appeared on the page, directing the action from the characters’ hidden depths. Elizabeth Winters went further: the narrative itself should disappear from view, leaving only its opaque outline for the reader, leaving their processing of the faintest fragments nearly the whole of the narrative itself.

He sat in a comfortable chair—with his coffee, and his newly purchased journal and pen and book of prose poems—considering it all as Elizabeth Winters’s last novel seethed beneath his skin.

Meanwhile Beth continued to browse about the store. It appeared she’d collected at least two books she intended to purchase.

He read the introduction to the prose poetry book in which the author attempted to clarify the murky genre of prose poetry. The very term, she or he said, communicated the cultural privileging of prose over poetry, evidenced by the fact that most people, even nonreaders—the aliterate—could name a few well-known novelists but the names of poets, especially still-living ones, would be much more of a challenge, especially if the names of children’s poets, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, for example, were cordoned off. But, also, on its surface prose poetry appeared to be just prose. It tended to be parsed into paragraphs, if parsed at all, then separated into sentences, not stanzas and lines, the most readily visible indicators of poetry on the page. However, once one began reading, began processing, wrote the prose-poet in her or his introduction, then the poetry would (or should) dominate the textual landscape with its telltale tropes: alliteration, assonance, repetition, caesura, onomatopoeia, internal rhyme. Prose poetry was really mainly poetry—poetry masquerading as prose.

Why not then simply write a poem? (the author asked rhetorically) Because prose offers expansion opposed to ellipsis, the availability of more conspicuous connective tissue between images, and the opportunity for a hierarchy of ideas, layered in degrees of dominance as if by syntactic trowel.

Oriented chiefly as a poet, he was dubious of the final claims, but the form attracted him and he was willing to reserve judgment.

He watched Beth on the far side of the store. She had several more books under her arm and was still perusing. Perhaps she was shopping for her library as well. A figure crossed behind Beth, and he realized it was Beth: he’d been observing a look-alike, and side by side not even with that much similarity. He attributed his confusion to his need for more sleep.

He continued gazing at the pages of the prose poetry book’s introduction, but only gazing, not reading: the black letters on the off-white page, the uniformity of them, the abundance of them, all served to comfort him. A kind of textual security blanket, text-ile.

After a time—he couldn’t say how long—Beth was standing by his chair. Ready to check out? she asked. She’d retrieved the Gass after all, and two other books.

He rose in affirmation and they stepped in line for the cash registers. It should only take a minute or two, he surmised. The checkout employees were spritely and efficient, like Santa’s elves in grownup, bookstore form. He glanced toward Orwell’s front windows and realized he and Beth were reflected there, their ghostly images holding their books and cups of coffee. He wondered briefly if their ghosts had the same reading tastes.

Then a woman by the newspapers said, It’s you. You’re Logos. Her hand was resting on the Tribune’s front-page picture.

He realized they were standing in line in a more or less identical pose as the one depicted in the paper. Others were now staring at them, including the cash-register elves, momentarily fazed into inefficiency. You’re Logos, repeated the woman, whom he realized was the one he mistook for Beth. From here, now, with so little resemblance, the mistake was difficult to fathom. The woman was considerably older for one thing, and heavier set, perhaps at best a matronly version of Beth, or grandmatronly, perhaps a glimpse of the future Beth Winterberry.

Yes, said the younger Beth—we’re Logos. She patted her hip.

Interesting, said much-older Beth, colorlessly, and went about her business.

The elves returned to their task, their sprightliness reanimated. Everyone did. Yet the previous moment remained. Their sudden celebrity lingered like a scent, or the after-image of a dazzling flash. He and Beth were separate and apart from everyone in the shop who’d been within the sphere of their recognition. Suddenly three planes of people existed: those who didn’t know them at all, those who knew them now as Logos, and there was the plane wherein only he and Beth resided, the only one which felt to him normal and natural. He looked toward the window for their doppelgangers, to maybe double the population of their sparse plane, but something had changed—the light, or the angle from which he gazed, something—and their reflected selves had disappeared, as ghosts will, to be replaced by the rainy city sidewalk beyond, umbrellaed strangers now and then hurrying past.

Madison

The storm had passed, and brilliant daylight streamed through the separation of the window curtains. A bar of yellow light fell across the pillows to his left and along his neck. He discovered it was merely bright, with no warmth whatsoever. He’d had a couple of hours of restless sleep, literally so, it seemed: sleep without rest. His mind was scattered among the various pieces of the past twenty-four hours. He thought of Beth, whose life circumstances remained behind a veil, and of Katie, who had not sent a follow-up text. There was the single question, the single expression of concern, and that was their only communication in days. And what of Elizabeth Winters? When he’d reconnected to the Web, he was alerted that someone had already uploaded the 753 words—the 753 jpgs of tattooed words—to Elizabeth Winters’s website, the prologue to Meditations on the Word, but of course in no coherent order. No one knew the order, said Marian Tate, except their now-deceased author.

So among the chaotic swirl of his thoughts was the idea of making sense of the 753 words. No doubt a number of Elizabeth Winters devotees, or the merely curious, or the morbidly curious, had been at work on the puzzle for hours already. He imagined the years—decades—of articles and conference papers devoted to deciphering the prologue. Like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, the prologue would gain a notoriety, an infamy due to its unintelligibleness. However, Joyce’s opaqueness was deliberate, whereas Elizabeth Winters’s was tragic.

Unless of course it was a hoax, a publicity stunt, which he apparently didn’t believe, for lying there in the comfortable hotel bed he felt the weight of mourning, of bereavement. Unless what he felt was the loss of Katie, or the anticipation of losing his connection to Beth. Perhaps it was the grief of losing all three, a trinity of loss.

He knew he should try to sleep but it seemed pointless. A shower and coffee sounded better at the moment. It wasn’t quite 7:30. In the shower he noticed a touch of redness, pinkness really, around the injection site on his hip. It didn’t hurt or itch, and in fact was barely noticeable even when he was looking for it. He wondered about the piece of Elizabeth Winters’s novel he carried under his skin—a story he would never know. He was connected in a unique way to the other bearers of the tale: the ultimate book club but one that could have no discussion regarding the substance of the book, only vehement speculation. He realized he’d been conjuring narratives of the prologue—almost subconsciously—based on the few words he knew: his and Beth’s words, and the words of his nighttime confederates who tried to find Elizabeth Winters, almost literally characters in search of an author, the surreal made real. The prologues he conjured tended to coalesce into a story about a prep school, something Pencey Prep-like: a place from which all Holden Caufields must escape, its being the natural order of things.

When he returned home, he’d print out the word images and toy with them over time. He imagined frothy debates in hotel bars about the prologue for years, with each verbal pugilist (perhaps at times actual pugilists) convinced his reconstruction was correct. He recalled other literary enigmas. When he was working on his master’s he took a course in Medieval literature, and one of the works they studied was Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxonist who taught the class professed that Anglo-Saxon had practically become a lost language by the time scholars began translating Beowulf into modern English at the dawn of the nineteenth century. The first stabs at translation got the story mostly wrong, and it wasn’t until the 1830s—after more than a quarter century of steady scholarly effort—that they felt they had an accurate understanding of the story. Even more infamous than the Wake, which spawned reading societies around the world devoted to deciphering the Irish author’s final tome.

Would there be such passion devoted to Elizabeth Winters’s final work, Meditations on the Word?

As he was dressing into his jeans and a navy pullover, he noticed that the pad of paper on the bed’s side table was written on. A couple of steps closer and he saw what’d been written: pupils—. He looked about the room and of course no one was there. Could someone have slipped into his room while he was showering and written his word on the hotel pad? He supposed it was possible, but who besides Beth and a handful of people even knew his word? And what would be the point of the prank, other than to give him a sense of uncanniness?

He sat on the unmade bed and picked up the pad. The word was almost certainly written with the cheap hotel pen which lay next to the pad. The handwriting looked familiar. He picked up the pen and flipped to a clean sheet in the pad. He wrote his word as naturally as he could manage. He flipped between the two words: they were virtually identical. He must’ve written on the pad but had no recollection of it. Writing in his sleep, something he’d never done before. As an undergrad he’d experimented briefly with Kerouac’s technique of continuing the plotlines of his dreams upon waking, resulting in Kerouac’s Book of Dreams, but all he gained was a stressful way to wake up in the morning because most of the time he didn’t recall his dreams vividly enough to pick up their narrative threads. The thought that he’d written pupils— himself disturbed him more than the idea of a stranger stealing into his room to scribble it: he, in essence, was the stranger.

He reminded himself how exhausted he’d been when he and Beth returned from the donut shop. On the brief walk he began to see strange shapes on the periphery of his vision, undefined objects that closed in on him suddenly then just as suddenly disappeared. He attributed it to sleep deprivation as he walked alongside Beth, who was strangely quiet. Perhaps she had finally crashed. He felt himself to be in a half-asleep, dreamy state. For a second or two he might think it was Katie at his side before recalling more lucidly where he was and with whom. In a moment the process would repeat. While walking with Katie he once or twice nearly reached over to take her hand.

Or did he at one point hold Beth’s hand? Seated on the hotel bed, remembering, it almost seemed he had, but surely not. He would recall it with certainty if he had. He looked again at pupils— written on the pad in his own hand, it would seem, even though he had no recollection of it. Being certain of anything appeared unwise. He couldn’t recall undressing and crawling under the bed covers.

His cellphone face flared to life to let him know he had a text. Katie? He checked. Beth: Hopefully you’re sound asleep but if not you want to do breakfast? Developments.

He typed, I’m awake. Hotel bistro? When?

Immediately. Sounds good. 20?

K

He didn’t need twenty minutes to slip on his Nikes. He picked up his phone and iPad and headed for the lobby for coffee and to catch the headlines before Beth arrived. In the elevator he looked at his reflection in its mirrored interior. He probably should shave before the memorial. Or maybe he would grow a beard, something he hadn’t done for years. The timing seemed off since it was nearly spring, but something felt right about the not-rightness. He was feeling the rough stubble of his chin as the doors opened to the lobby.

He went directly the bistro, where only about a half dozen tables or booths were occupied. The one where he and Beth had had their Irish coffee was open so he took it, sitting on the opposite side so that he could watch for Beth.

There appeared to be one waiter working, Mario, said his name badge. He ordered a latte with an extra shot of espresso and told Mario he was expecting one more for breakfast. Mario left two menus, single laminated sheets.

He opened Safari on his iPad to check the morning news. The world no longer considered Elizabeth Winters’s death significant, not with a bomb threat at the Met in New York, a school shooting in Tennessee, an airliner landing on the wrong runway at LAX, the Dow diving nearly a hundred points, a hostage situation at a market in Madrid, an assassination attempt in Syria, a tsunami with Tokyo in its sights, a power outage affecting a hundred million in India. . .  .

He had to search Elizabeth Winters to locate any updated information. There was little to report. They’d released the name of the other fatality in the crash, the pilot Meredith Overturf. Wait, what? Meredith Overturf? It was the name of one of the central characters in Orion. He quickly read the news report. There was no commenting on the connection. The nagging fear that it was all some elaborate (and cruel) hoax began to stir again. Beth had mentioned a development. Could this be it? Evidence of a hoax would be more than a development, however.

He decided to direct his attention elsewhere on his tablet: the weather, that’s always a good, utilitarian distraction. Warmer today, mid forties, but rain beginning by noon and lasting … basically forever. He was about to check his hometown forecast when Beth arrived. Hair pulled back, black yoga pants, zip-front sweater, red-orange, orange Nikes. She could’ve passed for a college student. She slid into the booth opposite him just as Mario was bringing his latte.

That smells wonderful, she said, waving some of the espresso aroma toward her face.

Low-fat latte, an extra shot, he said.

She opened her eyes. I’ll have one too, please.

Here. He pushed the colorful, overlarge cup and saucer toward her and nodded at Mario to bring another.

Really? said Beth. You’re a prince. She put her hands around the warm cup and blew on the foam froth before sipping. Oh my God—that’s exactly what the doctor ordered. Thank you. She sipped again.

Let me guess, he said, the development is that the pilot who died in the crash is named Meredith Overturf. Pretty suspicious.

That does sound suspicious, but look up Meredith Overturf Aviation Magazine. She sipped, giving him a moment.

The first item that popped up was a story in Aviation Magazine about a private pilot and his relationship with an eccentric author. Apparently the pilot discovered he had the same name as a character in the novel Orion by Elizabeth Winters. He contacted her through her website, not expecting to hear form her, but she did reply, which began a correspondence then a friendship, said the article. It turned out they actually lived fairly close to one another. Meredith had flown Elizabeth Winters to some readings and events in California, Washington, Nevada and Arizona (including, most likely, her infamous reading in Sedona). The article was nearly seven years old.

So, the pilot had the same name as the planetarium director in Orion. He was finished skimming.

Yup, so not as suspicious as it sounds. Weird, and tragic, but not suspicious.

They took a moment to look over the single-page menus. When Mario returned with the other latte they placed their orders.

Veggie omelet, and toss in some turkey sausage, said Beth. I need some protein—and the fruit cup.

Mario didn’t bother to write down the order.

Plain omelet, he said, with a bowl of oatmeal, cinnamon and walnuts, please.

Mario nodded and left to put in their order.

So, the development?

Right. Beth adjusted her glasses, sliding them unnoticeably higher on her nose. I crashed for a couple of hours then I woke up super thirsty for a cold drink, so I tossed on some clothes and toddled down the hall to the machines for a bottle of water and some ice, and I ran into the Aussie, Here (whose real name, by the way, is Cameron, she adds parenthetically); he was just going to bed—they ended up admitting poor Deliberately for further observatons, so he and Too had come back to the hotel. Anyway, while they were waiting for their ride, a limousine service arrives and who should saunter out (well, saunter is my word, I don’t think Cameron used such a freighted verb), who should saunter out of the ER doors and into the back of the limo? Marian Tate and the distinguished-looking guy, but no third person. She must’ve been admitted to the hospital too, or she left some other way.

Interesting.

It is interesting. And that’s not all, Beth said almost under her breath before taking a sip of latte.

What?

Ok, it’s more weird than plain old interesting, and maybe a little creepy—or maybe nothing, just me being overtired. It did kind of freak me out for a while though.

What?

So I got my water and ice and was having a nice cold drink before going back to bed and hopefully sleeping for a couple more hours. I put my glass on the nightstand and I notice something is written on the hotel notepad—

Let me guess: the word radiant. Your word.

Holy crap. That’s right.

Holy crap indeed. And it’s your handwriting.

Yeah, maybe, I guess. I don’t know. Otherwise somebody came into my room and wrote it while I was talking to the Aussie. It really weirded me out. I thought about calling hotel security. Instead I poked around my room. I even did the classic horror-movie procedure and looked behind the shower curtain. I’ve always wondered, What would a chick do if there really was an axe-murderer hiding behind the curtain? Pretend not to notice before casually backing out of the bathroom, whistling a show tune for effect, and then making a mad dash to the door? What, are you clairvoyant?

No—it’s just that I had an uncannily similar experience. After taking a shower I saw that someone—me I guess—had written pupils on the hotel notepad.

No way. And you’re positive it’s your handwriting.

Not a hundred-percent positive but pretty darn positive. What about you? Your know for sure it’s your handwriting?

Like you, pretty sure. I mean, the alternative doesn’t make any sense: someone knows all the Logos’ words, someone who’s a master forger and accomplished at B&E? And to what purpose other than to give us all the willies?

True, true, all true. I suppose we had essentially identical experiences yesterday and were more or less equally exhausted. I suppose we could’ve both scribbled our words on the pads while still mostly asleep, asleep enough not to recall it the next morning. It’s possible. Stranger coincidences happen all the time.

You don’t sound convinced.

I’m working on it. It’s a process.

You don’t think we’re being programmed by the chip, surely. Do you? Beth asked.

I don’t know. No . . . and yes. Not in some science-fictiony way. But clearly bearing the chip inside of us, and having had the experiences we’ve had so far because of it, plus the knowledge that we’ll never know the story that we carry along with us, literally to our graves—all of that has in a sense been programming us, or re-programming us. But, no, I don’t think there’s some deliberate and mysterious revision of our brainwaves happening. I don’t think.

Beth seemed to consider it all for a moment while she sipped. I trust you were able to change your train ticket.

To five o’clock, which might be pushing it if the memorial goes past four. I may have to step out a bit early.

A silence blossomed like a bomb at the end of his statement: the concrete reality of their parting suddenly perched there on the table between them, as ominous as a darkly contoured thunderhead.

Mario brought their breakfasts.

They ate in the shadow of that silence for a while. He wondered if she sensed it too, the weight of their leave-taking. He thought she did.

Well, said Beth, we have several hours before the memorial. Normally Sundays are all about The New York Times, especially the Book Review, and more coffee than could possibly be good for me. But here we are in the big city. Surely there is plenty to do, even today. A great indie bookstore to pillage, something like that. What do you think?

A great bookstore sounds, well, great. We have one fair indie bookstore back home.

In Madison, we’re in better bookstore shape than that, but I’m up for being wowed.

His tablet was next to him on the table. He entered the passcode then pushed it toward Beth. Here, it’s your brainstorm. You should have the honor of choosing.

What a gentleman. She put her fork down long enough to type in a search, then returned to eating while she studied the results.

Meanwhile, the distraction afforded him the opportunity to study her. As he watched her scrolling and reading, a quizzical determination about her sculpted brow, absently replacing a strand of hair behind her ear, a life with Beth unfolded in his imagination like a game board which had been folded down to a square inside the box, now taken out and revealing the intricate mysteries of the contest, geometric section by geometric section.

Madison. A place he’d never been. It seemed a place of farm fields carefully stitched onto hills, a place where cows, black and white and sonorously belled, were forever lowing. Sky and hill met in a perfect pleat, perfect enough to tear-fill Betsy Ross’s patriotic eyes. The blue was blue, and the green green. There were coffeehouses and bookstores, and coffeebookhousestores, some with eclectic foci, one, perhaps, named for Bukowski, which only trafficked in aggressive poetry, another only in the cozy mystery, Murder by the Mug or Quilts and Culprits, yet another the indie store’s indie store, bearing only the original owner’s name, now long dead, Walcott’s or Wallace’s, est. 1947, a bookshop so serious readers must sign a waiver before browsing among the dangerously weighty titles, written by authors who have only coteries and cult devotees, writers who would slit their wrists, consumed with shame, if one of their works stumbled onto the Times bestsellers list. Art galleries, too, of course, and local theatre (-re, not -er), and free lectures at the university by award-winning economists and mathematicians and entomologists who’ve discovered a new species of flea, one that only lives on a particular species of bat which only lives in a single cave deeply recessed in a mountain pass among the Andes, only rarely accessible to humans and then only at great risk. And he and Beth would attend the openings, ask provocative questions at the readings, hold hands in the lecture halls, supportively attend each other’s events as their careers bloomed always-upward like sunflowers, their creative chi nourished in a warm, lilac-scented bath of affection and sex through the years. And connecting them at the cosmic level was their mutual connection to Logos. Online discussions with the Logos community, one of the smallest and most select on the planet—regional get-togethers, national and international conferences, a palpable spirit of camaraderie based on the words inked into their derma and deposited beneath it. There would be a scholarly journal, Logos Notes or The Elizabeth Winters Quarterly, he and Beth would be regular contributors, or guest editors. They shared it all, births in the Logos community, professional milestones, and each devastating death throughout the years as time marched toward the release of Elizabeth Winters’s greatest book, Meditations on the Word.

This looks like the place: Orville’s. I saw a woman at Revelation yesterday carrying an Orville’s bag. I didn’t know what it was. All I could think of was popcorn.

Sounds good . . . the place, not popcorn—well popcorn too.

Great. It says they open at eight on Sunday. I need to go to my room for a bit—meet you in the lobby in, say, forty-fiveish minutes?

That’ll work. I trust the idea is to return before checkout at noon.

Oh hell. I nearly forgot about that pesky detail, but, yeah, we’ll have to be mindful. The timing isn’t great, is it? With the memorial at two. I probably better pack while I’m at it, just in case. Better give me more like an hour then. It ain’t easy being a chick.

I sympathize. An hour.

Mario brought their checks.

I got this, he said. Lunch is on you.

Fair enough. Beth drank down the last of her latte and left to return to her room.

Mario used a handheld to read his card at the table and send him a receipt.

He didn’t need an hour to pack—something closer to five minutes—so he had Mario add a black coffee to the bill before paying. When it arrived he took the mug of Hawaiian to the lobby to drink in a comfortable chair while skimming through his tablet.

He felt the impulse to write, though that wasn’t normally a Sunday-morning thing. It didn’t feel like Sunday morning. He was out of sync, in many ways. He wrote in the mornings, yes, Monday through Friday, doggedly. If for some reason several days elapsed during which he didn’t write (while traveling, for example), he’d become anxious and even a little irritable. The nearest sensation was being horny, the ever-present itch to have sex for which there was only one relief. If he’d been celibate from writing for a few days, the urge to touch pen to paper began to burn in him. Composing creatively was a kind of meditation which kept him centered. He filtered the world through the point of his pen and the inky vortex it created on the paper. Absent the act of writing, the thoughts and feelings, the impressions, the signs and symbols began to well up in his psyche, swimming furiously but contained, seeking the only outlet that would serve their purpose.

This morning he felt especially restless. He imagined the chip beneath his skin as a kind of stimulant but instead of stimulating muscle growth or hair regeneration, it spurred language production. The Logos Project had literally planted words beneath his skin, and they were growing and multiplying, doubling, tripling and quadrupling in linguistic tumult, verbs and nouns, adverbs, adjectives, gerunds and infinitives, all manner of phrases and clauses coursing through his blood seeking some weakened barrier to breach. That’s how it felt.

He drank his coffee and tried to breathe evenly. He wasn’t in a position to write exactly, but he thought of something which might somewhat satisfy the craving. On his tablet, he went to the Logos site and began downloading the tattoo-word jpgs. Just fifteen for now. It was unlikely that these fifteen words went together at all—in fact, it was highly likely that they did not—but toying with them was a start. He opened a new memo on the tablet’s memopad and pecked out the group of words in the same random order in which he’d downloaded their images. Then he set about trying to arrange them in an order that made some sense.

dive                           hark                           gold

strange                       under                         bones

teeth                          flood                          gently

unfold                       toes                            keep

hourly                       they                           rats

gold teeth gently unfold bones under rats they hourly keep

rats hourly dive under flood toes gold bones

gold bones keep strange rats under flood dive

gently gold flood rats hourly

teeth bones hark strange toes unfold gold rats

teeth bones keep gold rats

dive under strange flood hourly

dive under gold flood gently

they dive toes under rats

they unfold toes under gold rats

teeth hourly gently keep flood rats gold

under bones dive strange teeth rats

rats toes gently keep strange good teeth under flood bones

hark gold bones flood under strange dive teeth hourly

The random words took on more and more meaning the longer he toyed with them. Nouns put on the mantel of adjectives, adjectives verbs. He recalled the Zombie Poetry Project website a colleague had developed, zombie as in insects who take over a dead host’s body, reanimating them into something different, some other species altogether. The way it worked, on the site, you typed a poem—any poem, a classic or an original poem you’d just written—and the zombie program chopped it into bits, reatomized them, absorbed them into its ever-expanding database, then combined parts of your poem with bits and pieces of others’ poems—to arrive at a different poem entirely, one in which you could recognize, here and there, your original, but the randomizing and juxtapositioning with other texts cast even the recognizable words and phrases into altered shades of meaning, lighting and obscuring contours of the original text—perhaps calling attention to possibilities of revision if you were working with an original poem. Or sometimes this newly created zombie poem was a thing of beauty or a thing of resonance itself, an object worth keeping in the world. If nothing else, you’d altered the database’s DNA, changed it forever with the addition of your text, now in a position to migrate to others’ poems, infecting them and zombiefying them with traces of you.

He received a text. Katie: Still ok?

It wasn’t like her to be so staccato in her text messaging. The altered tone of her texts was the kith and kin of her altered tone face to face: the filter of texting only amplified her confusion, her teetering between versions of their relationship. Only twenty-four hours ago signs of her indecisiveness about their breaking up would’ve been heartening. Now he didn’t know what he felt.

He sensed his own wavering between possible futures, none of which was fully in his control. He didn’t believe Katie was toying with him, leading him on—but if they resumed their relationship, what would be different? For that matter, what was wrong in the first place?

He heard the Norwegian’s pleasantly blond baritone. Too was speaking to the young woman at the front desk, asking about the hotel’s shuttle service to the airport. Apparently he wouldn’t be staying for the memorial.

When Too finished his conversation and turned, he noticed him in the lobby. He strode over, smiling broadly, a lumberjack about to fell a tree.

I would guess that you and Radiant would be sleeping still.

I would guess that, too . . . Too, but it’s not the case. We just had breakfast. He stood to speak with him, but still had to cast his gaze up. He considered mentioning the bookstore plan but felt protective of his outing with Beth. He didn’t want anyone else tagging along. Too’s itinerary would likely prevent his joining them; still, he was reluctant to advertise their plans. Instead: You must’ve gotten next to no sleep. How’s Deliberately?

In truth I haven’t been to bed. I should be at the airport to check in. I’ll be sleeping soundly on my flight. They admitted Deliberately, so he is still there. His wife is flying in later today. There was something they didn’t care for in the bloodwork and wanted to run other tests.

That’s terrible. Hope it turns out to be nothing.

Indeed. Well, I must pack a bag and drink some coffee.

Of course. Have a safe flight.

Safe travels to you as well. Let’s stay in touch—remember the hashtag, EWLogos. At Twitter I’m BigSwedeToo.

Thought you were from Norway.

I am but BigNorwegianToo doesn’t have the same, what, resonance?

True. It’s the assonance, the internal rhyme. I’ll find you.

Too clapped him on the shoulder then strode toward the elevators.

He watched him enter one just as its twin was opening. Beth emerged, having traded her yoga pants for jeans. He stood still as she walked toward him, buttoning her coat and adjusting her scarf and hair.

Ready? she asked. It was a single word but there was something about her tone that seemed changed, not so much an added coolness but the absence of chirpy warmth, communicated in her face (sterile of expression) and the way she held herself (stiff and guarded) as much as in her voice (tone of simple interrogation).

We should be able to grab a cab out front. He motioned for her to lead the way, with a hint of gallantry, which would have been more exaggerated if Beth weren’t suddenly different. Maybe he only imagined a change or maybe the events of the past day caught up to her. Perhaps the bookstore would restore the brightness to her mood. Already, instantly, he was thinking of the day, the moment, when Katie was no longer Katie, when the edge entered her voice: the moment she became something of a stranger. And the change occurred due to no visible stimulus. Nothing upsetting had happened between them, and as far as he could see nothing upsetting had happened to Katie at all. The shift in the tectonic plates of her emotions had taken place unseen, caused by some observation, some deduction, some decision about the world; and she wasn’t inclined to let him in on it, whatever it was. In fact, when he first broached the subject, she denied anything was wrong, even that anything had changed.

Still, the iciness wouldn’t completely thaw, though its edges became less sharply frigid. He sometimes would compare old messages to recent ones to reassure himself he wasn’t imagining her change in tone. For one, Katie’s messages had frequently been spiced with sexual innuendo before the chill.

You’ve been in my thoughts, thinking about what you can enter. LUMU.

Rainy day. Meet you in bed. LUMU.

Hope your head is feeling better—I could work wonders with it.

TGIF time—F for Friday optional.

Enjoyed the shower this morning. Girls have never been this clean. LUMU.

Then one day the flirtations just stopped. Katie’s messages became as mundane as market reports (soybeans up, pork futures down). For a time he tried to initiate the sexy exchanges (efforts that had always been repaid in kind), but they were met with banality or not answered at all. When he tried to discuss with her what was happening, he mentioned the altered tone of her texts (almost like exhibits in a trial). Katie insisted he was imagining the change. Over time he slipped into the rhythms of this cooled iteration of their relationship. When he thought of before, it was like recalling another relationship, with someone else. Meanwhile even this tepid kind of coupling further crumbled. Katie wanted something—something that wasn’t this, them—but she couldn’t articulate it, even to herself it seemed.

The recollections played on the taxi’s window glass as he and Beth sped through the city streets, still oddly quiet and white, in spite of the large raindrops that plummeted from the colorless sky. Before long the snow would be washed gray by the rain; then washed away.

He looked at Beth, who was watching out her window and likely reflecting inwardly also. Reflections of a similar theme to his own? Her left hand rested on the seat. He thought of holding it. On the taxi’s black seat, her hand appeared whiter than the white sleeve of her coat—not cadaverous or pallid, however: baptismally white, clean and fresh, unblemished. He wanted to touch her skin, its warmth or its coolness—it didn’t matter—but he had no pretense for holding her hand, for connecting to her in so intimate a way.

The taxi rolled to a stop in front of the bookstore. He swiped his card to pay, then they hurried to the maroon-colored awning through the big drops of rain. Inside, Orville’s was heaven: café, bakery, books, books, books. A significant portion of the main floor was devoted to the café, but there was a half second-floor fully devoted, it appeared, to print. To their right were stacks of Sunday papers, luring them toward the café area. The fresh ink of the newspapers was intoxicating. One wanted to lay one’s face on the cool sheets, cool and smooth, and huff the powerful aroma.

First things first, said Beth. I need to keep my caffeine buzz going. As she passed the stacks of newsprint, arranged neatly in wooden bins, she let her fingers trail across the New York Times. Tempting, my pet, but you’re waiting for me at home.

It was good to see her more animated—more her old self, the Beth he’d known less than a day—yet still there was something different. He didn’t follow immediately but stood watching her, thinking of her as an odd portrait, one captured from behind, framed by the quaint interior of Orville’s. His mind eased into interpretation, analyzing the subject via the composition within the frame: Beth’s white coat, among the darker elements of the store, stood out as a snowy scape, or perhaps, even, an imperceptibly inching glacier. Given the point of view, it was impossible to say if she were drifting away from or toward greater isolation. Not isolation, he revised: greater autonomy, independence—the clearly defined lines of the central figure suggested power and strength of will, not mere drift due to capricious currents.

Suddenly point-of-view reversed, and he had the vertiginous sensation it was he who was moving, sliding backward. He caught himself on the nearest stack of papers, the Tribune. As his balance returned he noted the front-page story about Elizabeth Winters’s death and the Logos Project. In addition to the author’s portrait there was a crowd shot of Logos waiting in the snow to enter the Dance Center. He and Beth were the focal point of the photo. He’d had no awareness their picture was taken. The photographer may have been quite a distance off using a powerful lens. However it happened, there they were, immortalized, forever linked to the event.

He wanted to tell Beth but she’d already gotten in line for her coffee. Maybe he’d point it out later. He joined her in line.

After they got their French roasts, they began drifting among the aisles and aisles of books, most of which were displayed cover facing out. He was on the lookout for unfamiliar titles and authors, yes, but he also liked to find favorites among the stacks as spotting them provided a certain reassurance about the world: it was still a place wherein lived Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Slaughter-House Five and Breakfast of Champions, The Old Man and the Sea and Death in the Afternoon, as well as all the Austens and Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. In the poetry section, Ariel, Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, Howl, Mountain Interval, The Dream of a Common Language, Leaves of Grass, and The Waste Land. He found the Elizabeth Winters section, and it was nearly sold out. A single copy of Orion remained and a handful of her early collection, Wirds of a Feather. As he watched, a woman picked up a copy of Wirds and headed toward the registers. On the one hand, he was gratified that more and more readers had suddenly discovered Elizabeth Winters, but he also felt a subtly hostile possessiveness of her and at the macabre audacity of those who only came to appreciate her upon her death. Elizabeth Winters’s devotees were something between a coterie and a cult. Death threatened to make her conventionally popular. At least the Logos would maintain her uniqueness among American authors, among all authors.

Without thinking why, he set down his cup of coffee and reached out with both hands to touch the covers of Orion and Wirds of a Feather, which felt like completing a circuit with Elizabeth Winters’s words swimming in his circulatory system, though the encrypted prose remained embedded at this hip. Still, he experienced a sensation akin to electricity flowing from Wirds to Orion through him, perhaps even recoding his DNA, turning him into something other than what he had been, something more he hoped.

He released the books, or they released him, and he moved on to further browsing with his coffee.

He turned a corner and ran into Beth, who was studying a paperback. He thought of not interrupting but she said without looking at him, William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life—I think I’ve heard about this book. Are you familiar?

Only marginally, I’m sorry to admit. I have one of my grad seminars read and respond to “The Artist and Society,” one of the pieces.

The final piece. I just saw it. Beth turned to it. Good?

I think so. It’s about the purpose of art, writing as an art form, or what its purpose ought to be. Gass wrote it during the Vietnam era but, to me, it seems relevant to any time, to all times. It’s universal and eternal.

Hmm. You’ve piqued my curiosity. Stay here for now, sweet book. Mama will probably be back.

Beth continued sipping and browsing. He wandered in a different direction. He came across a section of books grouped together because of their association with the city: novels and collections of poetry and fiction either set in the city or about the city or written by a local author. It was the store’s City Celebration section. There was Harrison Gale’s seminal collection, El Is for Loss and Other Poems, placed next to the poet who’d most inspired Gale, Carl Sandburg. Then there were the Bronzeville poets and writers, Gwendolyn Brooks prominent among them. And Richard Wright. He spied a copy of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories. He felt a restlessness he hadn’t felt for a long while but knew well: it was the restlessness to write something noteworthy, something remarkable, something great. Not simply to write, to just get words on a page competently enough rendered to find publication somewhere. Rather, to produce something special, truly magnificent and powerful—something worthy of sitting here on these exalted shelves with Sandburg and Brooks and Wright and Gale, Hemingway and Cisneros. He felt the words welling in him, swimming, flailing for release into the world. Yet, it would not be a single seismic explosion of inspiration—some mythical Kerouacean geyser of prose—but a sustained period of creative intensity, over months, over years if necessary. Even still, he was antsy to begin. Here, perhaps? No, but on the train home. He would go to the dining car, where there were tables, and he would begin this great work, something about the city and Elizabeth Winters and the entanglement of lives. Would it be poetry or prose? Something that was both, and neither?

He would need something to begin his work. He scanned the bookstore and located the section of journals and pens . . . and there was Beth perusing them. Maybe she too had been inspired. He mused about this attraction he felt for Beth, if it had been something else all along: the beginning blossoming of his writing welling inside of him: this kindled passion for Beth was really a renewed urgency to create, to bring forth into the world something worthy of it. Worthier even. His desire to create a life with Beth—a thought barely beyond pure fantasy—was a displaced desire to create a work of literature for the ages.

He migrated toward the journals and notepads and pens. There were journals of varying sizes, some with lined pages, most with unlined. They had leather covers and cloth covers and covers of heavy, decorated boards. In some a vibrant ribbon could mark your place. There were all manner of pens: ballpoints, fountain, and calligraphy, in wood, plastic and metal. By the time he arrived at the section Beth had sauntered on. Her coat was over her arm so he couldn’t say for certain if she’d selected anything to purchase. He was attracted to the leatherbound journals, but they seemed too precious (as if one would be afraid of making a mistake). He selected an unlined clothboard journal in aqua blue and a gun-metal gray pen. He knew he could just as easily write his great work on a cheap Mead pad with a Pilot pen, as he always had, but he wanted to make a statement to himself: he wanted to mark a new commitment to his writing life. He didn’t need a Katie or a Beth to be complete, to be whole: he needed a revitalized artistic aspect of his life, he needed to be devoted to something that would last beyond him.

He glanced back at the section where he’d just been, the section devoted to the city’s authors and books. No one was there. In fact, there was an absence around it like a bubble. Elsewhere customers browsed, reading book jackets and pages opened to at random. There was a glossy poster of James Patterson, ballcapped and pseudo-sage, above a display of his mass-produced mysteries, blatantly co-written by one of his stable of co-authors; and bookstore patrons milled there especially thickly. The hum of activity, the hum of commerce, seemed particularly electric when juxtaposed with the small section devoted to city-connected authors. Readers clambered for James Patterson, not Richard Wright; for Janet Evanovich, not Gwendolyn Brooks; for Nora Roberts, not Ernest Hemingway. For him, it wasn’t simply a matter of not wanting to write for popular appeal: he literally didn’t know how: producing such banality was beyond him.

He drank from his cup, the coffee finally sufficiently cooled, and gripped his journal and pen more securely as he moved toward another unpopulated part of the store, a section devoted to the city’s university and independent presses. Here were the story and poetry collections, the novels, the monographs, and the art books that attracted almost no one’s attention. He noted the small presses’ names imprinted on the book’s spines: Tortoise, Twelve Winters, Woolfsword, Haymarket, Knee-Jerk, Artifice, Lake Street, Dancing Girl, Sundress, Agate, and (his instant favorite) Readerless Press (because of its brutal honesty). From this last press he perused a collection of prose poems, written and illustrated via collage by E. B. Bishop, whose enigmatic author’s note said only that she or he grew up in a small Midwestern town and attended the Art Institute. The unusual little book was titled Malcontent. The cover, rendered in shades of red, featured an unsettling image of a creature that was part crow and part human. He added the prose poems to the journal and pen to purchase.

He thought about what separated Elizabeth Winters from these avant-garde authors. How had she achieved a level of notoriety, of fame even? It helped that she’d emerged at a time when there was still some interest in writing worth reading. Also, she’d always lived in metropolises where she could cultivate devoted readers, due to her writing, yes, but also her charismatic personality, and—he had to admit to himself—her ability to promote her work. His thinking was dancing dangerously close to Katie’s criticism of Elizabeth Winters. The one distinction remained: Elizabeth Winters’s charisma and media savvy drew attention to her superior talent.

He came to the classic mysteries section: Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dick Francis, Dorothy Sayers, P. D. James, Dashiell Hammett. As a boy he’d liked mysteries—and it was his father’s genre of choice, which perhaps influenced his tastes—but as he matured he found the writing itself, divorced from the page-turning plots, was too basic: it was about providing information, clearly and succinctly, like newspaper accounts, detached entirely from artfully complex language. Every so often he would pick up a mystery, nostalgic for the comforting mood of his youthful reading, sitting on the floor of his bedroom, leaning against his bed, the rag rug beneath and the pillow behind providing just the right amount of cushion; the book, with the smell and the feel of its pages, angled just so to catch the light from his desk lamp, angled just so; meanwhile knowing his father was in his room, stretched on his bed, reading too, a mystery, his after-dinner pastime.

He’d try to evoke all those feelings, but the book wouldn’t hold his attention, in spite of the murder or kidnaping or jewel heist. The language itself failed to engage him. In high school he discovered and devoured Kurt Vonnegut—Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions left their mark of course, as did Mother Night, Galapagos and Jailbird. It was Vonnegut’s genre bending that most appealed to him, and the author’s wit and wisdom.

In college it was Kerouac and the Beats, the lyricism of On the Road, which transitioned into the poetry of Mexico City Blues and Dr. Sax, leading naturally to Ginsberg’s Howl, hooking him on poetry just in time to switch his emphasis and initiate his tunneling backward into its tropes and traditions, its history and its heroes and heroines. By the time of his MFA he’d returned to the twentieth-century poets: Plath and Hughes, Heaney and Larkin, Lorca and Neruda, Nemerov and Giovanni, Gale and Wilson, Eliot, Rilke, Valéry, Bishop and Moore.

Then there was the poetic prose of Elizabeth Winters and her determination to do something different. If there was nothing more to do with language and its shape, according to narrative theory, then the new ground must be transmission. How will readers’ reception of a text affect their processing of it? And what if that text remains largely hidden and readers can only process the hint of it, its mere shadow on the surface? Elizabeth Winters seemed to want to take Hemingway’s iceberg principle, which dominated twentieth-century prose, to a new depth in the new century. Hemingway felt the characters’ stories—their motivations—should remain mostly below the surface of what appeared on the page, directing the action from the characters’ hidden depths. Elizabeth Winters went further: the narrative itself should disappear from view, leaving only its opaque outline for the reader, leaving their processing of the faintest fragments nearly the whole of the narrative itself.

He sat in a comfortable chair—with his coffee, and his newly purchased journal and pen and book of prose poems—considering it all as Elizabeth Winters’s last novel seethed beneath his skin.

Meanwhile Beth continued to browse about the store. It appeared she’d collected at least two books she intended to purchase.

He read the introduction to the prose poetry book in which the author attempted to clarify the murky genre of prose poetry. The very term, she or he said, communicated the cultural privileging of prose over poetry, evidenced by the fact that most people, even nonreaders—the aliterate—could name a few well-known novelists but the names of poets, especially still-living ones, would be much more of a challenge, especially if the names of children’s poets, Dr. Seuss and Shel Silverstein, for example, were cordoned off. But, also, on its surface prose poetry appeared to be just prose. It tended to be parsed into paragraphs, if parsed at all, then separated into sentences, not stanzas and lines, the most readily visible indicators of poetry on the page. However, once one began reading, began processing, wrote the prose-poet in her or his introduction, then the poetry would (or should) dominate the textual landscape with its telltale tropes: alliteration, assonance, repetition, caesura, onomatopoeia, internal rhyme. Prose poetry was really mainly poetry—poetry masquerading as prose.

Why not then simply write a poem? (the author asked rhetorically) Because prose offers expansion opposed to ellipsis, the availability of more conspicuous connective tissue between images, and the opportunity for a hierarchy of ideas, layered in degrees of dominance as if by syntactic trowel.

Oriented chiefly as a poet, he was dubious of the final claims, but the form attracted him and he was willing to reserve judgment.

He watched Beth on the far side of the store. She had several more books under her arm and was still perusing. Perhaps she was shopping for her library as well. A figure crossed behind Beth, and he realized it was Beth: he’d been observing a look-alike, and side by side not even with that much similarity. He attributed his confusion to his need for more sleep.

He continued gazing at the pages of the prose poetry book’s introduction, but only gazing, not reading: the black letters on the off-white page, the uniformity of them, the abundance of them, all served to comfort him. A kind of textual security blanket, text-ile.

After a time—he couldn’t say how long—Beth was standing by his chair. Ready to check out? she asked. She’d retrieved the Gass after all, and two other books.

He rose in affirmation and they stepped in line for the cash registers. It should only take a minute or two, he surmised. The checkout employees were spritely and efficient, like Santa’s elves in grownup, bookstore form. He glanced toward Orwell’s front windows and realized he and Beth were reflected there, their ghostly images holding their books and cups of coffee. He wondered briefly if their ghosts had the same reading tastes.

Then a woman by the newspapers said, It’s you. You’re Logos. Her hand was resting on the Tribune’s front-page picture.

He realized they were standing in line in a more or less identical pose as the one depicted in the paper. Others were now staring at them, including the cash-register elves, momentarily fazed into inefficiency. You’re Logos, repeated the woman, whom he realized was the one he mistook for Beth. From here, now, with so little resemblance, the mistake was difficult to fathom. The woman was considerably older for one thing, and heavier set, perhaps at best a matronly version of Beth, or grandmatronly, perhaps a glimpse of the future Beth Winterberry.

Yes, said the younger Beth—we’re Logos. She patted her hip.

Interesting, said much-older Beth, colorlessly, and went about her business.

The elves returned to their task, their sprightliness reanimated. Everyone did. Yet the previous moment remained. Their sudden celebrity lingered like a scent, or the after-image of a dazzling flash. He and Beth were separate and apart from everyone in the shop who’d been within the sphere of their recognition. Suddenly three planes of people existed: those who didn’t know them at all, those who knew them now as Logos, and there was the plane wherein only he and Beth resided, the only one which felt to him normal and natural. He looked toward the window for their doppelgangers, to maybe double the population of their sparse plane, but something had changed—the light, or the angle from which he gazed, something—and their reflected selves had disappeared, as ghosts will, to be replaced by the rainy city sidewalk beyond, umbrellaed strangers now and then hurrying past.

Ted Morrissey is the author of seven works of fiction, including the novel Crowsong for the Stricken, winner of the International Book Award in Literary Fiction, as well as the American Fiction Award, from Book Fest 2018, and a Kirkus Reviews Best Indie Book of 2017. His stories and novel excerpts have appeared in more than sixty journals. “Madison” is from his work in progress, The Isolation of Conspiracy. Other excerpts have appeared in Floyd County MoonshineLakeview Journal, and two issues of Adelaide. Visit tedmorrissey.com and follow @t_morrissey.

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