Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Encounter 2/9

Note: colors added for those who complained that the narrative is hard to follow. All conversations are simultaneous; follow a color to follow a conversational thread.


By Yehuda Berlinger. Copyright 2005, Yehuda Berlinger. All rights reserved.

(Chapter 1 is here.)

Chapter 2: Phantom

Sarah stripped the cloth from her head and walked through the small stained door of NYU Hillel. Gary, the Hillel director, looked up from his desk.

“Hey, Gary”

(Hi, Gary.)

Sarah dragged herself downstairs to the kitchen in her bathrobe. Her mother was sitting at the kitchen table, a mug of coffee in one hand and her blue bookpod in the other. A large brown cardboard box was on the table in front of her, bits of costume material poking haphazardly out of the top.

"Hi, Mom," Sarah said, feigning brightness.

(Hi, Mom.)

Sarah considered the colors on her paper under the bright studio lights. Sharply defined orange, green, and yellow patterns danced a drama around the fuzzy figure of an old woman, listening, laughing, half-hidden behind a painted curtain.

Sarah stepped out of the classroom and saw Mitchell’s back halfway down the busy hallway. She flung him a message, “Wait.”

Sarah ate her pita without interest, while the screen showed the evening news, while her brother played with his friends, while her mother talked in the kitchen to somebody else, somewhere else. Conversations - the news, her mother, her brother, her other selves - mixed up in her mind as the logos and images mixed, dimmed, and flashed across the screen and her face.

“Hi, Sarah,” Gary said. “What’s up with you?” Gary was tall, dark, and, in Sarah's estimation, goofy looking. He wore a leather motorcycle helmet over his too long and unwashed hair, and a denim jacket over a black tee with a picture of a plastic helmet under a large red circle with a line through it. The rest of his outfit completed the rebel-cyclist look: some metal studded gauntlets, blue jeans tucked into dirty leather boots. And a flat black beard that always had a twig or a leaf stuck in it. Today it was a small piece of paper.

Sarah had known him for the better part of three years. Even though they worked together, he didn't spend much time with her after hours. In the last few months, however, he had occasionally run into Queens at the Jazz clubs on odd evenings.

"Hey, sweetie," replied her mother. She looked up from her pod and turned to Sarah with concern. "How are you feeling?" Barbara had had a hard time giving up on calling her daughter Miriam. She still wasn't able to call her ‘Sarah’ without feeling like she was talking to someone else's daughter. She avoided the whole issue by calling her "sweetie" whenever possible. When she was angry, this changed to "young woman."

Sarah reached her thin black brush out towards the paper.

Mitchell looked around and saw Sarah waving her hand by the classroom door. He turned around, and began walking back down the hall. “Hey, beautiful. ???” he messaged as he walked. Sarah began walking toward him.

(Cheeky, isn’t he?)

“She doesn’t know. No, she just sits around. OK, roll to hit. What did you get? Police are on high alert with warnings of a possible terrorist attack.”

Sarah replied, “Oh, still sick in West Hempstead, getting better. Still lonely in Jerusalem. Not much else, otherwise.”

"I'm fine, Mom. Thanks for cleaning up. I have to get out of here, I'm going crazy."

She mixed more brown into a muddy puddle of gray and pink. It was hard to get the skin tones right. She could do everything except skin.

“Game night? And dinner first?” Sarah looked him directly in the eyes. Mitchell was about an inch taller than her, with curly black hair, bright teeth, a black cardigan, and black jeans. He carried a soft black leather briefcase. Mitchell was always dressed as pressed and as neatly as she was. This was his first year at NYU. He had transferred from Santa Cruz on a scholarship of some sort. Sarah had seen him sitting in the first row when she had walked into class on the first day of Sophomore year and had sat down beside him. He wasn’t shy, and neither was she. Still, he had learned more about her than she had about him.

(Say ‘yes’, Mitchell.)

Sarah fed her AI comp to the screen, overriding the news program. She scrolled up and down a few times and then flipped back to the news.

“Feel better,” said Gary. “Check the calendar. We moved the board meeting to next Tuesday at 8:00 pm. Hope you can make it. Also check out the Jcafe entry.”

"Oh, honey, you're not well enough to go out, yet. Are you hungry?" her mother asked.

She chopped the brush on the pallet.

“Oh, mmmm. What time?” Mitchell asked. He smiled a bright smile. “Which of you are going?”

(All of me. Of course, I’ll be asleep.)

“I don’t think so. I guess I would hear about it if she had one. Aw, dumbhead! You missed! I can’t believe you missed! Give me those dice. Meanwhile, the Secretary of State, meeting with the Israeli prime minister, urged Israel to make further far-reaching concessions to help boost the struggling peace process.”

Sarah put her fingertips to her temple. “Moment. Oh, Gary, noon on Thursday? Why not Thursday night? Or a weekend? Could she have picked a worse time?”

"Not really." Sarah turned around and opened the fridge, taking out the water bottle. Behind her, her mother set the coffee mug on the table, swiped her hand across the bookpod, and picked her mug back up. Sarah poured herself a glass of water and looked out at the backyard.

(Go outside.)

Her hand swirled the brush against the brown paint. The fluorescents blinked erratically as her hand brought the paint to the paper using the thin brush. Her face focused with the concentration necessary to create age around the eyes of the old woman.

“Five thirty at Dougie’s. It’s at 79th and Broadway.” She cropped and messaged the menu to him. “Do you eat meat? It will be me, Queens, and Jersey; I’m sick in Long Island.” Sarah looked at him, hopefully, cocking her head and holding her palm out at shoulder level. “C’mon, yesterday you said you wanted to come.”

(Same as usual? I’ll order.)

Sarah flipped to her AI comp, scowling. She unfolded the keyboard on the coffee table and began entering and erasing some sentences. She split the screen into three: Google on the left, comp on the right, news on top. David Lanz in her ear.

“Conflicts. Check the calendar,” answered Gary. He shifted on his seat uncomfortably while he defended Stephanie, shuffling some member’s receipts and pushing them into a drawer. As he stood up and pulled on a chain hanging from his jacket pocket, he added, “Anyway, we don’t want to keep pushing it off. We’ll just have to push for attendance.”

"I have to get out of here," she repeated. "I'm going outside."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, Mom." Sarah moved to the back door. Barbara had to lean forward for Sarah to get outside.

The touch of a brush on paper, like a mind reaching out to itself.

Mitchell was still smiling. “OK, Five thirty.” He turned around and resumed his journey down the hallway, whistling. The afterimage of a white smile in a black face hung before her eyes.

“Not until ten, you know how it is. Of course he isn’t, he’s doing residency. The ghast hits you for twenty-two points and paralysis. I’m minus twelve. I’m dead. The pop singer Madonna has announced that she will be coming to Israel to study at the Jerusalem Kabala center, adding that she is not afraid to come at this time of heightened tension.”

She sighed. “I’ll message her. Maybe I … we … can find a better time.”

Sarah squeezed past her mother, pulled the inside door inwards, pushed the latch on the screen door and the door itself outwards, and stepped across the great divide between safe and free.

The brush paused in midair.

Sarah looked down and smiled.

Sarah looked up and frowned.

Gary pulled out his keys, which were attached to the other end of the chain, and locked the desk drawer. He said, “C’mon Sarah. She’s not doing a bad job. Not everyone can be Sarah, you know. Only five of you!” And he laughed.

(Oh, he’s a riot.)

Sarah rolled her eyes. “See you later Gary.” Sarah sent Stephanie a quick message asking her to get in touch.

"Keep warm, dear," her mother's voice traveled after her. "We’re having the Millers over for a barbeque tonight. You can stay in bed if you want to."

Like I would want to, Sarah thought to herself, breathing in the clean outdoor smells of the clipped lawn, dogwoods, and dappled sunshine.

Eyes still on the paper, she dipped the muddy brush into the half empty bag of twists standing open beside a paint-dripped jar of muddy water.

A message. “My cats will kill me when I get home, I hope you know. :-)” She looked up and saw a dark figure waving a hand over a retreating shoulder, stepping out of the hallway and into the sun.

(Too bad he’s not Jewish.)

A picture of Madonna showing at the top of the screen. Esther, Sarah thought. She reached her hand out towards the image, but in a second it was gone.


Peter said...

Sorry Yehuda, I can see it's beautifully written, but I just can't follow it. You need to simplify the interleaving structure a bit, much bigger blocks with enough cues in each block to let us know which thread we're reading.

Coldfoot said...

The addition of color for each Sarah is a great help. And I still think the concept is unique and interesting.

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Can't please everyone.

Actually, the narrative without color is similar to the opening to Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

Part of the idea behind this is that even Sarah doesn't always know whom is speaking. Colorizing the conversations would ruin this dichotomy, as josh indicated.

Nevertheless, I'll make a color version and provide a link.

I of course know who said what, so it is harder for me to grasp just how difficult it is for others. I would like to think that the personality behind the statements makes the attribution to each Sarah clear enough, but I could be wrong.

Unfortunately, my editor (wife) was on vacation for a month and only returned last night.


Yehuda Berlinger said...

Colorized link of first chapter:


Joe Gola said...

Ambitious. William Faulkner meets Philip K. Dick.