Saturday, April 7, 2012

Stories like those my cousins and I liked to tell one another, those that center on the workings of machines that haven’t yet been invented, must, of necessity, catch the listener’s attention by using facts and details you do not find in the real world, that arise from the imagination as effortlessly as bubbles from the murky waters of a swamp. To insist otherwise is to take the perceptual equivalent of the back pages of a catalog and transfer them to the front where they will be misunderstood by all but the most discerning of patrons. They will cause a disconcerted rumbling among those who rose early just to be wherever the auction the catalog belongs to is going to take place. The Pakistani man turns out to be native born and explains what I took to be his accent as the result of a stroke that nearly felled him when he was very young, that deadened a patch of tissue in his head about the size, his doctors said, of a postage stamp. He is working hard to reinvigorate this patch of gray matter by doing crossword puzzles obsessively and drinking enormous quantities of pomegranate juice. He invites me into the bowels of the boat he works on, lays out the different conch shells, the different pairs of tin earrings on a place mat depicting road maps of various states other than that we occupy at present. I can tell this by the numbers assigned to each of the roads depicted, numbers in the high-forties mostly and corresponding to none of the highways that bisect or meet at the center of town. He tells me he is not that interested in bartering, in accepting even so much as a dime in trade for the conch shells, the earrings. He just wants them out of his sight as quickly as possible. This makes me suspicious, of course, and I begin a line of questioning I observed once when my friend Stepanovich was trying to determine where exactly his wife had been and what she had been doing when she returned home one evening after having disappeared for a week and a half. Her hair was a different color than what it had been before she left, or so Stepanovich insisted despite his wife’s adamant refusal that this could be true. She claimed she hadn’t even been gone and had woken up beside him in the bed that very morning. But he would have none of it. He knew when he was being played for a dupe and so he asked her a series of questions that seemed at first to have nothing to do with the situation at hand, very technical questions concerning how much water volume might be displaced when different objects were lowered into a bucket that had been filled up beforehand with water. If I remember correctly these objects included wind chimes and industrial strength cleaning products still in their original packaging. Soon the brilliance of the strategy became apparent when Stepanovich’s wife slipped up while responding. She admitted to things she obviously didn’t wish to admit to all because of the rapid-fire manner in which Stepanovich asked the questions. She hardly had time to think, to formulate a studied response, and when she did think, she inevitably thought about where she had been when she disappeared and what she had been doing and with whom, and it was these details that snaked their way to the surface and eventually shown through.          

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