Edgar had been a theology student, and a bicycle messenger, and a junk-bonds trader, and now he was working on his master’s degree. His new ambition was to become a kindergarten teacher. He felt he needed to have a master’s degree in order to teach in a kindergarten.
My neighbor wanted me to spend some time with Edgar. I reminded him of Edgar, he said. We had so much in common. For instance, I had been a janitor, and an exterminator, and a government clerk, and a night watchman, and so on. Neither of us could keep still.
“And you both had fringe-religious childhoods,” my neighbor said. “I’d like to put you two in a room and see what happens.”
This is what happened. Edgar and I went to a café. He was a tall, pale kid with dead eyes. We talked about Las Vegas: he had been there four times already that year to take photographs, whereas I had seen it glowing from far off in the desert night twenty years before and had driven miles out of my way to avoid it.
After half an hour Edgar said, “I’m going to tell you a secret. You can’t tell anyone. Pretend our meeting never happened. Don’t tell my wife.”
“Sure,” I said. When I got home I wrote down every word.
“Last year this friend of mine dared me to apply to law school. I sent my application, a two-page paper about legal and technical issues in circumcision. I guess the board of admissions didn’t approve. They thought it was disrespectful. Their Internet people sent the dogs after me.
“At that time I was working on a photo project. I had made five separate sites, each ostensibly by a different photographer, each of whom had his own biography. Pseudonyms, prismatic refractions of my identity. Kind of precious.
“Their computer men hacked it all to pieces. They took out the knives. They got in the code and changed it, and they began sending me secret messages. Imagine if you picked up the New York Times and your name was in every headline. I had to quit Facebook. I couldn’t use the Internet anymore, it wasn’t safe. They had their agents following my blog under false identities. You have no idea what their technology can do. They tore me down and showed me to myself. Not the five false selves of my photo project, but my real self. In the worst light. Did you ever see a film called The Game?”
“Is that the one,” I said, “where only Michael Douglas is real, and everyone else is a supporting character in an exciting drama made just for him?”
“So you have seen The Game?”
“No,” I said. “But I heard about it.”
“Well, this experience was like The Game. Gradually, from hints that my friend let drop, the same friend who had dared me to apply in the first place, I understood that they were hazing me. Incubating me. Preparing me for something greater. The next phase. Teaching me. I shouldn’t say who. Winding me up like a toy car with a key. The first sign was that people around me kept talking about cars.
“I shouldn’t be telling you any of this. One of them is a MacArthur Fellow, you know, with a genius grant. These Internet kids, they are living in a Blade Runner world. They have figured out that most people are—”
“Replicants,” I said. “False, synthetic androids. And a lot of them don’t even know that they aren’t alive.”
“That’s right,” he said. “When my wife got wind of this, she was pretty upset. Two months ago she asked me to go back into the hospital, and I did, as a favor to her. I love her and I don’t want her to worry. The doctors put me back on my antipsychotic medications. And in this way the game was paused.”
“Yeah. Excuse me,” I said, and I got up and went to the bathroom. I looked in the mirror, almost always a mistake. I closed my eyes. I was tired of my face.
It had been a long time since I’d had a cup of coffee with an insane person. I don’t remember much of my own brief stay in the hospital. I remember seeing a sign on the door to my floor that said LEVEL FOUR RISK OF AWOL and thinking, Christ, these people must be nuts.
Two years of parking cars with Martha and Porsche and Ira and Ralph while I sweated out all the drugs I had eaten: that was what brought me back to reality. When Martha was a little girl and asked her father why she had so many freckles, he told her she had been standing behind the cow when it farted. Porsche, one syllable, porsh, had a pencil mustache and would try to jump your place in line to get the tip he saw coming to you, maybe a dollar. Ira was a small man but a big drunk, and our cramped staff washroom was perfect for him to be hungover in, since it allowed him to sit on the can while he dangled his tiny head in the sink, retching. Ralph had an exit wound high on his back, between his shoulder blades and just to the right of his spine, where his ex-wife had shot him. Years of my life are in this paragraph: reading the book of Deuteronomy behind a cash register in a parking garage, a six-pack and an onion sandwich in my studio apartment. And all of this, they told me, was reality. There are no other worlds than this one. There isn’t even this one.
Another man was with me in the bathroom of the café. He was tying his shoe. He had propped his foot, the foot with the lace he was tying, up on the urinal. One end of his untied shoelace hung in the urinal water. I walked out of the bathroom, through the café, straight out the door. I had other things I wanted to do.
I made my way down to the river. The wind wrinkled the water and the sunlight glinted and flickered. Starlings clacked in the grass. Insects hissed and sawed. Whole geese briefly became three-quarters geese as they ducked their heads underwater. Mallards kicked and fidgeted.
“How did it go at the café last week?”my neighbor said.
“Keep that guy away from me,” I said.
“I thought he might interest you. Him and his potato phobia.”
“We didn’t get that far.”
My neighbor lit a cigarette. “I found a decapitated rabbit on my porch this morning.”
“It’s probably a cat.”
“It’s definitely a rabbit. I haven’t seen Edgar for days. Where’s his wife? Is he just watching television by himself in there? Do you think I should be worried about him?”
“You should be worried about him whether you see him or not.”
My girlfriend ran into Edgar at the café later that week. He wanted to sit with her. “Do I know you?” she said.
“It’s me. Edgar. We met at your neighbor’s party.”
“If you say so.”
“Can I sit down?”
“No,” she said. “I’m expecting friends.”
“Maybe just until they come—”
She reached out with her foot under the table and pulled the chair he was touching closer to her. “No,” she said.
“Extreme but effective,” I said when she told me her story. It was nice that she had anything to say at all. My relationship with my girlfriend was in one of its off-again phases. Her stock of conversational topics was dwindling. She said the same three or four things over and over again. Was she working something out, was she holding a problem at arm’s length? It had happened before. She would take the train to New York to stay with a friend. After a while she would come back, or else one day she wouldn’t.