BY ED AHERN
Copyright is held by the author.
IT WAS simple, really. Gus had retreated into meditation after a bad day of work and another argument with Cynthia. He’d ignored the leg cramps from his lotus position, and cleared his mind of everything except his focal point, a rusty Philips head screw. He suppressed feeling and thought but couldn’t reach a higher state. Frustration began to chew on his tranquility.
Maybe if I think myself forward in space or time? Or maybe if I visualize myself high above my body, looking down? But as soon as he tried for a spiritual destination his tranquility ruffled like windblown water.
I need a nonsense thought to restore my oblivion. And from nowhere came a memory of a dance step he’d always thought of as sexy — feet close together, then swing the toes 45 degrees to the side and bring the heels up behind them, while slightly waggling his backside.
Still kneeling in his lotus position, Gus visualized himself syncopating sideways. Toes and heels, toes and heels, nowhere to go but sideways. Toes and heels . . .
And slipped through a crease in the world. Gus snapped into full consciousness, but his body was nowhere to be seen. And that was weird, because he had no eyes. Literally senseless, he somehow knew that he now looked like a slivered sheet of mica. What the hell is going on? Where am I, no really, where’s my body? As he peered around colours blurred and re-shaded like someone quickly turning a prism. Panic gurgled up in him like bad-food vomit.
Get a grip, chubby. What can I see? No, not see, sense? Shit. What am I aware of?
He was vertical in a horizontal sea flood of other mica sheets, blurred multi colours that poured past and over him. The sheets emanated annoyance at his obstruction.
“You can talk!”
“Don’t be an idiot. All you know is sound so that’s what you think you’re hearing. You’re a pudgy little sucker. Turn sideways before you cause a serious inconvenience.”
“I don’t know how.”
“Everybody does. It’s like teat sucking, comes naturally. Wait — you’re not dead!”
“Dead, dummy. Your colours are camel dung drab. You’re not supposed to be here.”
The mica sheets flowed more densely, and their push made Gus start to teeter.
“You’ve got to turn sideways and get up to group speed or you’ll cause us to sprawl. You really don’t want that to happen.”
“Why does it matter? And I still don’t know how.”
“The group’s corrective action would be to skewer you with what feels like thousands of acid tipped fishing hooks. An obstinate dead person can tolerate it, barely. It would drive you mad. You have to turn and swim. Remember being on a swing and swinging so high that you almost were able to circle the bar, but starting to dead drop? That’s the feeling. Do it now!”
Gus remembered the sensation with vivid fear and snapped into horizontal. He began slowly gliding in the direction of the flow, feeling the almost bumps of the mica sheets as they overtook him.
“Kick it in the ass. Visualize yourself as sprinting.”
Gus lurched, too fast, then too slow, but eventually matched the endless flow of sparkling mica. “Are you still there?”
“For now. How did you manage to get here while alive?”
“Don’t know, I was meditating and started sidling to the left when, pop, here I am.” Gus paused. “Are all these sparkling sheets souls? Is this heaven?”
The other voice sighed. “Where to begin. It’d be so much easier if you’d died. Everybody comes here, good, bad and indifferent.”
“How do you know the good ones from the bad?”
The mica-like horde swerved in seamless joy, like a huge school of bait fish. Gus lurched and caused thousands of annoyances before getting back on pace.
“We’re all amalgams of good and bad, but the bonding agent is the same. Once we’re here we can look at one another and know what sort of blend we were.”
“Do the bad stay bad?
“No. Most quickly lose their pretenses. It’s kind of like lying about your physique at a nudist colony, everybody here eventually buffs up. The pathologically bad are fish hooked until they follow acceptable behaviour. But what the hell are we going to do with you? You’re the unchangeable colour of dirt. You can’t survive here.”
Gus had a thought that almost caused him to lose his cruising tempo. “Could I meet my parents?”
“I told you everybody comes here. Everybody. From the beginning of human history to now. Trillions upon trillions, that’s why we’re crowded up in a space without perceived limits.”
Gus became aware of his own hues. Sweet Jesus, all those moldy, blotchy bits. I need to cover myself with a huge fig leaf. “What about God, and Jesus, and the saints? And hell?”
“Dunno. We don’t eat, drink or screw. No measured time. No clothes or possessions. No social status. All we have is membership. Once the other stuff dropped away we lost our need for a catechism. We’re coming to a cascade. Touch the tip of your sheet to mine, I’ll guide you through.”
Oh my God, I’m undulating like a hula dancer. Free fall, vertigo, oh, the sinuous motions stroke my facets. I’m bursting with light.
“That was incredible! My mind feels like a honed knife.”
“Pretty good. Being here is like riding a series of roller coasters without getting sick. Some are incredibly fast, some drop uncontrollably, some whip you in facet shaving turns. And after each cascade we’re more sharply coloured. All right, Gus, we’ve decided you have to go back.”
“Wait! I just got here, how could you have decided that, or decided anything at all if you’re just a swarm of souls or a school of holy fish?”
Gus sensed something sigh like. “Remember there’s no measured time here. And we exist in consensus. Like the hymn says, ‘We are all one spirit.’ Or maybe ‘We’ve got rhythm.’ Anyway, no fault of yours, but you’re a fart in our perfume factory. We’re going to be swirling left here.”
Gus felt lost and supremely well guided at the same time. “Who are you that you’re the one to help me? Why isn’t it a committee?”
“Any one is many here. I’m your guide back to the physical. We have hopes that you’ll do something for your brethren when you get back.”
“We have some suggestions that we’d like you to publicize.”
“No one will believe me.”
“We think we’ve worked that out. You’ve heard about secrets going to the grave? Guess what, they’re all filed away here.”
“Like how JFK was really assassinated?”
“Nah. We know, of course, but that’s an unverifiable truth that would only cause more arguments. What we’re going to tell you is mostly where things are hidden. Sunken ships, written confessions, lost cities, buried treasure. If you succumb to greed you’ll become a very wealthy man. But then you’d look even more like crap when you get back here.”
“So you want me to discover these things?”
“You need to be flushed through a few more cascades. No, dummy, you’ll use these hidden items to establish your credibility about our suggestions. You’ll dangle a goodie in front of several thousand people and make them listen to our hints before you give them the location.”
“Why aren’t they commandments, like Moses?”
“Yeah, that worked really well. Hang on, this next one is going to knock off some of your moldy bits.”
The immense school glided into a raging froth of something. It’s like swimming through tonic water, no, like a scalding hot spring that stripping off my skin, no, swimming through aloe vera with bubbles of rose attar.
“I, I’ve never felt this clean!”
“Yeah, better maybe, but you still look pretty scummy. So here’s our list of suggestions:
Get used to crowds, you’ll be a permanent member soon enough;
The dead already mourn the acts of the living, the living needn’t bother to mourn the dead;
Sex really is overrated;
It should be the seven deadening sins;
Eat and drink well, it’s your only chance;
Anything done to excess is self-defeating.”
“That’s it? What about messages from you all to your children and grandchildren, expressions of love, warnings . . .”
“Everything only moves forward, Gus, we’re just hoping that since you never really left you’ll be an exception. We’re going to give you a memory dump now. It’s going to feel like belly bloating.”
Gus’ dung-shaded but somewhat sparkly sheet suddenly felt like the mica flecks would pop off, like an overcharged bottle of pop. “God, this is worse than my colonoscopy!”
“It’ll diffuse. We’ve also told you how you should return — basically just a reversal of the arabesque, sidling to the right rather than the left. Think as if you had feet.”
“Wait, will I remember my experiences here?”
“Of course. They’re yours, we wouldn’t take them away.”
“And will I remember you” I don’t even know your name.”
Gus sensed a smile. “Think of me . . . think of me as your father, some part of me was. And know that as the living go, you’re a decent piece of work. Now get those missing feet shuffling.”
Gus syncopated to the right, still aligned with the school. Toes and heels, toes and heels, heels, toes, sideways . . . And was back in his lotus position, visualizing his rusty screw. A raging memory torrent poured through his head and torso, but after several minutes he was able to channel the flow within the limits of his comprehension. He felt fresh-from-the-womb clean, immaculately reborn.
Once his legs quit tingling Gus checked his phone messages, tweets and e mails. He’d been officially warned that his extended job absence was unacceptable and grounds for dismissal. Cynthia had left 27 messages, the last of which was that she needed space to rethink their relationship. I’ll miss Cynthia, but I don’t think I’m going to need that job. Got no money, have to start this small.
Gus drove his eight year old car to an abandoned apartment building. He pushed aside the corrugated sheeting that partly blocked the doorway and entered, then walked carefully up to the fifth floor. The door to apartment 523 had been removed, probably for firewood. Two badly stained mattresses lay on the floor, and glassine packets were strewed everywhere. Used to be a shooting gallery I guess.
Gus pulled out the ball-peen hammer he’d brought with him and began smashing through the wallboard. On the floor behind the wall was a large, towel-wrapped bundle. He crouched down, grabbed the bundle, brushed off the rat droppings, and left without opening it.
Once back at his apartment he lay a plastic sheet on the bed, set the bundle on the sheet, and opened it. Holy hell. One, no two really long strands of pearls. The stones I think are what they call rose cut. Big, so big I’d choke if I tried to swallow them. Emeralds, I think, and rubies, and diamonds, must be hundreds of big diamonds. All set in heavy gold. Holy hell.
He arranged the jewelry on the sheet and took several pictures with his phone. Then he called the Providence Journal. “Editorial please.”
“Copy desk, Harrington.”
“Mr. Harrington I’d like to send you a picture of the Weatheral jewelry that was stolen in the 1920s from what was then the Biltmore hotel. Once you verify that the pieces are the same I’d like you to send over a camera crew.”
“Ah, and who are you?”
“Gus gave his name, address and phone number, and got the phone number of the reporter. The reporter had the pictures within seconds and within 15 minutes had called back.
“Mr. Gustaufsen, Jim Harrington. The pictures seem to jibe with the list of the stolen items. I repeat, stolen. Have you called the police?”
“As soon as you show up with the camera crew. I want a reliable witness to their recovery of the stones.”
Gus called the cops as soon as he saw the TV truck pull up in front of the building. The two officers were on camera with Gus when he showed them the gems. Gus seemed to almost glow on the televised report, like a total body halo. People began to forward the news report just so friends could see Gus. He didn’t mention the suggestions, it wasn’t time yet.
Gus was interrogated for a week on and off, but since he hadn’t been born when the gems were stolen he was concluded to be the finder of the cache and not the perpetrating felon. The insurance company was expected to pay him 10 percent, something just south of one million dollars.
A week after the Weatheral stones hit the news Gus went back to work. This time he called the FBI. “FBI? Agent Williams, this is Gus Gustaufsen. You may have read about my recovery of the Weatheral treasure? Good. And this is being recorded? Better. I believe I know the location of the financial records for the DeStefano crime family in Worcester. No, this time I think I want moral and armed support when I show you the location. Call me back once you verify who I am.”
The DeStefano ledgers didn’t make the news, nor make any money for him, but Gus had established his bona fides. Two weeks after the ledgers were confiscated he called the FBI again.
“Agent Tom Williams, please. Agent Williams? May I call you Tom? Tom, I can help solve one of the agency’s biggest failures. But you have to agree to do something for me.
“ No, no, nothing like that. I just want you to help publicize six brief suggestions. You can say that they come from me, and that the FBI has nothing to do with them, but I want you to hand them out at every press briefing about the event and me.
“Oh I think you’ll be willing to do so. You missed by just 15 feet. Pity. But I’ll give you what’s left of Jimmy Hoffa.”
Gus hung up and smiled to himself. Once the suggestions hit the news it’s time to find some Aztec gold and get real publicity. Then I’ll take some of the money and have the suggestions put up on the big sign in Times Square. Get somebody to create a website and ghost write a book about them. Maybe go on the Tonight show. He smiled to himself again. And I don’t yet believe that it’ll make any difference.
First things first though. Despite suggestion three. I need a new girlfriend.