Friday, October 28, 2011

New Fiction by J.J. Steinfeld

One Last Question

Samuel Prufrock woke up and actually felt good, refreshed. Not even the slightest hint of a hangover. He was never one to hold his liquor and last night he had a half-dozen beers. What was more amazing, he wondered, not having a hangover or being able to perform in bed being drunk, with a woman he had met at the retirement party for the chair of his department less than twelve hours ago. And the wonderment did not stop there. Amazingly, he wasn’t feeling any guilt about what he had done. He thought he’d feel guilty, and when she invited him back to her hotel room and he accepted, he was only half blaming it on the drink.

Samuel looked at the back of the woman in bed with him and couldn’t believe his good fortune. This extraordinary woman had come up to him in the party, handed him a bottle of beer, and said she found him attractive. He was never one for looks. In fact, he had always considered himself unattractive. He felt his head was too large for his small, unusual body. His wife claimed he had inner beauty; at least that’s what she claimed when they dated and married a year later in a memorable ceremony in Buenos Aries. He liked having an Argentine wife. Exotic, he considered her, even though she had spent most of her life in Canada. That’s where she was now, in Buenos Aries, with her critically ill mother. She had taken their daughter and son with her, to be with their dying grandmother who they had never met before.

Now Samuel was waking up in a lavish hotel room, with no hangover and the most extraordinary woman he had ever met who had stirred him in ways he didn’t think possible. Extraordinary if for no other reason than her impressive athletic physique. She was ten inches taller than him and muscular, yet there was an appealing femininity to her. And she could excite him with her talk. Also, when he first told her his name, not only did she know that his surname was the same as in the T.S. Eliot poem, she immediately recited the poem’s epigraph in Italian from Dante’s Inferno and then in English the first two stanzas of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as if she had been waiting for her cue to begin an impressive recitation. "I can’t stand the poem, wouldn’t memorize a sentence of it when I was growing up," he said. "You were born to be an English Lit teacher," she had said, and he told her he was a philosophy professor. She told him she was a niece of the philosophy department’s chair and that her mother and her uncle hadn’t spoken in almost a decade but she had asked her to attend the party and wish he estranged brother her best. Before he left, though, Samuel wished the chair well in his retirement and commented on what an extraordinary niece he had but the chair claimed he didn’t have any nieces, only two nephews who he hadn’t seen in ages. The chair seemed even more drunk than he was, and Samuel hugged him goodbye, the most affection he had ever shown this man who he had always regarded as unfriendly and eccentric.

Samuel touched the woman’s shoulder gently, but she didn’t respond. The woman felt cold, and he pulled the cover over her shoulders. He gave the back of the neck a little kiss of appreciation, and it too felt cold. Too cold.

"We should have breakfast," Samuel whispered. He said it a little louder, then he thanked her for the most incredible night of his life. He looked at the clock and calculated what the time would be in Buenos Aries . He had promised to call his wife and children yesterday to wish his daughter a happy birthday and chat with his son, and to find out how his mother-in-law was doing, but had forgotten to during the day, remembering at the party at eleven Toronto time but that would have been midnight in Buenos Aries, too late to phone. He wondered if his wife had tried to call him at home. He was preparing excuses why he hadn’t been at home, or called earlier. Forgotten to take his cellphone to the party. Early morning walk. He always did his best philosophical thinking during early morning walks. Bumped into an old friend and they went out for a long breakfast. He was starting to feel guilty. The first time he had slept with another woman. In fact, his wife was the first woman he had ever slept with. His wife was certainly no novice. She had dated three other men in their department before she proposed to him during an academic conference they were both at in France. The stories about her in the department. At first he didn’t want to believe them, but then it didn’t matter. She was a lovely woman and a first-rate scholar. He couldn’t believe what she had said and questioned her. All his life he had been asking questions—he liked to say his calling was to professionally ask questions—but usually in his academic work. He had recently been made a full professor. She thought he’d make a good father, had humility despite his academic accomplishments, and had a great sense of humour, which he didn’t unless cracking groaners about metaphysics or epistemology was one’s idea of the humorous but she insisted that was one of the reasons. You’re so exotic he said after her proposal. She insisted he get her pregnant that night, even before they were married. That was the best conference of his life, even if felt the paper he had delivered with not his best.

Amidst his thoughts about his wife and academic career, Samuel gave the woman a slight shake, a little more forceful—Oh God, she was dead. He felt like a bewildered undergraduate who had received a failing grade on the best essay he had ever written. He got out of bed and saw himself in the mirror, thought he had the body of a much older man. He could see the woman’s body on the bed. He looked around the room, as if the explanation for what had happened were hidden somewhere in the hotel room. He touched her clothes that she had thrown earlier on a chair, opened the small purse she had. Found an ID. It wasn’t the name she had given him. Her middle name, Sarah, was the same as his daughter’s first name. Strange, but so what? A meaningless little coincidence. The ID was for an organization he had never heard of: Worldwide Security Enrichment. Maybe he was being set up, lured to this room and the woman killed. What a terrible plot, yet it seemed plausible. But he was no one, at least in the context of world events and national security. He wasn’t a threat to anyone or anything. I’m a philosophy professor, he said aloud, as if preparing to answer the interrogation that was sure to follow. He picked up the woman’s cellphone and his cellphone, trying to decide not only which one to use but whom to call first. He put the cellphones down and dressed quickly, fearing there would be a knock at the door, or even worse, the door would be broken down by members of the organization the woman worked for.

After dressing, and searching around the room further, Samuel decided to call the front desk. There had to be an explanation for her death. A logical, rationale, verifiable explanation. But not for his adultery. Not for going to a hotel room with a strange woman. Unless it was alcohol. He had drunk himself into a meaningless fling. That was how he was rehearsing it for his wife, whom he would call soon. How’s your mother doing?…I love you, darling …Let me talk to our little birthday girl … But he would wait until she returned to Canada to tell her what had happened. By then, he was sure, the identity of the woman and who or what had caused her death would be known, and he couldn’t be held culpable. As for the sexual encounter, maybe he could deny that, but he knew there would be an autopsy and a thorough investigation, and they could certainly determine there had been sexual activity. Despite his belief in rigorous, rational thinking, he even hoped for an irrational moment that his wife and children would not find out.

No answer at the front desk. Samuel tried over and over again, conducting some sort of scientific experiment. He wanted to take a shower first. Just go down to the front desk and tell them to call the police. Or should he call the police himself. What was the organization? Couldn’t find it in the phone book. Checked it on the internet. Put her name in a search engine and all he found were references to her athletic achievements in high school and college until an injury ended her pentathlon career before she had a chance to go to the Olympics, which several articles said had been her lifelong goal.

Samuel called Buenos Aries , already in his mind attempting to sound cheerful for his wife and children but there was no answer. Called the university, but realized no one would be there on a Sunday. Called the police. Called numbers at random. Voice mail and answering machines. Annoying busy signals. Peculiar electronic signals. Combed his hair, took his laptop, and opened the door. This had to be dealt with. He had a marriage and a career to protect. He hurried toward the elevator as though attempting to catch a departing bus, nearly tripping over a tray of food that had been left outside a room’s door. Near the elevator he saw an open door an stepped cautiously inside. An elderly couple were on their bed, unmoving. They looked peaceful, he thought. He spoke to them but neither person answered, and he decided they had died in their sleep just like the woman in his room. Maybe there was some sort of poisoning or lethal gas on the floor. But he felt no ill effects. Not even a hangover. He left the room and pushed the elevator button, watching the numbers, until 20 appeared. The door opened and he rode down in the elevator wondering how many people had died in their rooms in their sleep.

The elevator opened to the lobby, and there was no one in the lobby, only the clerk at the front desk slumped over the counter. Samuel shook the man, hoping he had merely fallen asleep on the job. Obviously it wasn’t just the twentieth floor. The entire hotel, no indication that anyone was alive. He could leave. No need to tell anyone he had been here.

Quickly Samuel went through what had occurred since he met the woman, watching a sped up film. Thinks if he left anything in the room. His fingerprints. Semen. But there was no record of his fingerprints. He had her cellphone with him, and realized it needed to be discarded. What sort of moral and ethical quagmire had he fallen into. He thought of the colleague in the office next to him, an eminent ethicist who would surely chastise him for the decisions he was making. He didn’t want to go back. Everyone in the hotel, he became certain, was in their room in repose…dead.

Samuel stepped outside and took a deep breath. It was a calm, beautiful morning. The temperature seemed much warmer than he recalled the forecast. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except there was no one around.

Samuel walked for blocks, looking through apartment windows, occasionally seeing people asleep inside, sometimes tapping at windows or banging at doors, but no one responded, he concluding that they too had died in their sleep. Tried his cellphone again. Thought of going to the university, his office. Saw a Rolls Royce parked, with the keys in the ignition. He’d never been in a Rolls. He imagined that the owners of the car, a husband and wife deeply in love, went to bed after a night of partying, and never woke up. He didn’t want to believe that no one in the city hadn’t awoken to such a beautiful morning, and still hoped to find others who were greeting a new day, having a Sunday breakfast and perhaps an affirming kiss or exciting, hopeful conversation with someone they loved and cared about. How he wished he were in Buenos Aries now, close to his wife and children.

Samuel started the car and drove to the university. Maybe the deaths and the strange occurrences were only in the downtown area. Nothing on the radio. He opened the glove compartment and found a gun and car registration. Maybe the car’s owner belonged to the same organization as the dead woman in the hotel room. That was preposterous, he decided, and pointed the gun out the window, aiming at nothing in particular. Aside from toy guns as a little boy, he had never handled a gun. First time in a Rolls and first time with a gun, he told himself, and smiles at the absurd juxtaposition of these first-time images. He abruptly put the gun back into the glove compartment, shaking his head at even the thought of carrying a gun.

He didn’t see a single living person on the half-hour drive to the university. There were few cars in the parking lot. It was Sunday, after all. His office was exactly as he left it. No one around. Looked at the photographs of his wife and children. Sat at his desk and turned on his computer. A paper he had been working on. Wanted to watch the episode of The Twilight Zone with the last person left alive. "Time Enough at Last." How he liked that television series and "Time Enough at Last" fascinated him, so much so that he had incorporated that one, along with several other episodes he found philosophically stimulating, into one of his first-year philosophy courses. He even liked to attempt to imitate Rod Serling when he gave the introduction and summation to each episode. He had all the episodes from 1959 to 1964, all 156 of them, on DVD in his office, and had watched them with his children. He wasn’t the last person alive. There were close to seven billion people on the planet. A few weeks ago his son had found a population counter on the internet and showed his father the date the seventh billion person would be born. Now he seemed to be surrounded by death: a hotel of bodies, at least on the 20th floor and in the lobby. Tragic and sad these hotel deaths were, it was a mortality glitch. How could he be the last one left alive? Continued to think about stories and films that dealt with the last person left, but it was The Twilight Zone episode that occupied his thoughts. Wanted to go home and watch that episode. Put the DVD in his computer and watched the episode. Watched it twice.

Samuel drove home, walked around his neighbourhood, went into houses, searched through the lives of people he knew, had some wonderful liquor, a few slices of cold pizza. Found no one alive or any explanation for what had happened. His confusion worsening, he got back into the car and drove toward downtown, wanting to return to the hotel.

Before Samuel reached the hotel, he slammed on the brakes in front of an imposing church. The oldest church in the city. Sensed there would be people alive inside. A church full of people praying and attempting to understand what was happening. Gets out of the car, not bothering to close the door. Strange, he thinks, how he is drawn to this religion’s place of worship. Shouldn’t he go to a synagogue. He was Jewish, after, all. The synagogue where he was bar mitzvahed. No, what’s the difference. Church, synagogue, mosque, temple. Starts thinking of holy places in the city and other places in the world. A mental exercise, fighting to make sense of what was happening all around him.

Inside the church, not a single person present, Samuel looks at the iconography. His wife would be proud of him, he thinks. Attempts to call her again. Starts singing songs from his youth. Thinks about the woman in the hotel room, the chair of the philosophy department’s retirement party. Looks at his watch, and shakes his head. Takes his watch off and hurls it toward the front of the church. Decides to take a drive, a long drive. And when he runs out of gas, then he would decide what to do next. Samuel continued to hold out hope he would find people somewhere.

As he is about to leave the church, Samuel asks one last question: Why am I still alive? He half expected to hear Rod Serling’s voice doing the opening or closing narration of an episode. How he wished he were in a classroom, lecturing to students, attempting his inept imitation. He asks the question again, more like a prayer this time.

All the icons and statues start speaking, but in voices Samuel Prufrock cannot understand.

*

Read TDR's new interview with J.J. Steinfeld.

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