While seeking to discover the truth behind his best friend’s disappearance in Pinochet’s Chile, photographer Marten Sorensen ends up playing a game of life and death with the devil.
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The Message from the Window
The Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Poets were gone. The people who inspired those eras had passed from the earth where they were soon remembered like a collection of fancy cameos.
The door had opened for change.
And so, He immersed himself in the new populist democracy and its twin sister, populist fascism, something like a sporting event where the crowds succumb to the rapture of winning and losing until it becomes the new world-religion.
Right wing. Left wing. No wing.
It didn’t really matter.
In the spirit of justice, He tried to approach both sides equally. It was only fitting, after all, that His politics should be transcendent.
That evening, He stood waiting in an alley where garbage cans lined the backs of buildings like so many stunted doormen. The next morning, His newly designated host would see the garbage cans and their surprising contents from his window. An alarm to begin an alarming day.
A wakeup call of a unique kind.
A hint that his life would never be the same.
But now, it was a night you could inhale. It smelled like earth even in the middle of Boston. Dust to dust, ground to ground, another death for the burial mound.
“Quid es homo, qui magnificas eum?
Aud quid apponis ergo eum cor tuum?”
“What is man that Thou shouldst magnify him?
And why dost Thou set thy heart upon him?”
He liked the old medieval Latin with its direct inquiry into the nature of sin.
It made Him feel more at home while He waited at the corner for his secret rendezvous. She would emerge from the bar where she had just performed on her way to her Boston apartment. Conveniently for Him, she hated cabs and liked to walk, assuming the walk was less than a mile. And in just a few minutes, she would walk right in front of Him.
He knew this not only because He was a professional with so many professional connections—from entertainment to politics to the Secret Service. But also, because He had connections of a wholly different sort.
Or was that a holy different sort?
Just an hour earlier He had seen the singer’s show, which was disappointing. A talent squandered for the convenience of packaging. Another example of Career Vanity. Hardly worth inviting her into the vastly overrated afterlife, except that her hypocritical influence was growing with sinful speed.
She was filthy rich while pretending to be poor. She had a luxurious apartment in New York and a house in Foster City, near San Francisco. She wore rags when she sang and bounced across the stage, but she owned three horses and four cars.
When she wasn’t singing, she was always chewing gum. She was also putting on weight and hated to exercise. But she styled herself around attitude and energy when she performed, turning herself into a package that anyone with no real thoughts might come to worship.
That night she did a bluesy imitation of Janis Joplin. He remembered the opening lines of her last song—
“You know it,
You can’t stop loving America.
It can’t stop loving you.
“Freedom is your one true goal,
Don’t sell it off. Don’t pigeonhole…
You’re not in Wall Street’s pocket,
Not in the devil’s hole,
Go venture forth—fly like a rocket
Float free and free your soul…”
He finished it in silence with the words –
“Don’t be a jerk—become a mole!”
Suddenly He heard her steps.
Then He saw the woman approaching.
She had a small nose and not much of a chin and a waist that had gotten thick with age. She couldn’t know that He had something for her. A treat that would transform her evening into something far more than routine.
When He first caught her attention, her eyes gazed up at Him ever so cautiously.
But she wasn’t afraid.
He looked, after all, like a wise, old gentleman.
And this He was, in his own unique way.
But then, as she would soon find out, He was also so much more.
Marten Sorensen had come full circle. He was living in a three-room apartment with a clean, wooden floor like the kind in dance studios. It was a larger replica of the second-floor apartment he had taken after college twenty-seven years before.
In both apartments, his living room window overlooked a cramped back alley lined with trashcans, where a trio of 7 a.m. garbage collectors made a noise fit for a steel-drum Calypso band. But that morning, the banging of cans quickly exploded into a series of screams and yells.
He struggled toward consciousness, still lost to dream and memory.
While trying to reconcile time and place, he remembered how after college, he had moved to the West Village where he got married, found a small gallery to represent his artwork, and enjoyed the happiest years of his life.
But not long after the wedding his personal life was obliterated in two terrible moments. One was a tragic accident in which he lost both his parents and his new wife. The other might have been in some respects an even darker tragedy.
After nearly a year spent trying to navigate inside a sinister vacuum, he found employment in the marketing arm of a mid-sized technology corporation. It took him nearly two decades before he had saved up enough to quit his job and move to the Boston apartment where he renewed his pursuit of art and photography.
Yet he was still pursued by shadows and dreams that he couldn’t bear to face. The demons from his past had returned, albeit in a more veiled or muted form.
Perhaps as a result, his art remained fragmented. Each day he had only a piece of himself to work with, and each day it was a different piece.
He finally managed to stumble out of bed into the living room.
But just before he got to the window, the yelling stopped.
Marten put his hands on the sill, leaned forward and squinted into the intense morning light. There he saw three garbagemen standing in disarray, all glaring at a cluster of trash bins, two of them clutching their iPhones. One of the lids was obscenely askew, pushed upward by the tip of a sneaker attached to someone’s ankle.
Soon he heard sirens and a police car arrived. Two men leapt out.
The garbage workers watched like a stunned Greek chorus as the policemen took off the lid, dropped it on the ground, and peered inside. The duo reached in and lifted up both legs, sliding first the feet, then the ankles, then the calves and thighs out beyond the rim, until the whole woman was revealed before the bedazzled gaze of the audience in the alley.
She was wearing baggy jeans and a tie-dyed sweatshirt. He could tell that she was plump even in her loose clothes. Her glazed expression was partially obscured by the bobbing heads of both policemen while they stood on either side of her searching for clues. But even from his second-story window, he got the impression from her swooning face that she had died instantly, her mind and soul taken from her in a single stroke.
No doubt a victim of something or someone, she seemed to be sleeping. Gone. Lost to a world that Marten had vacated just minutes before where past, present and future all converged into a mixture of memory and nightmare.
With surprising speed, three more patrolmen and two men in white gowns appeared carrying a stretcher and a body bag. One of the uniformed arrivals had a camera and took pictures. He bounced up and down like a bad dancer with a sense of urgency that was oddly slapstick.
In parallel, the tallest policeman, who seemed to be in charge, interrogated the three garbage men. They nodded, gestured awkwardly with their arms, and finally shook the hands of one of Boston’s finest, still wearing his gloves. As they huddled together in the June warmth, the policeman dressed in blue, and the garbagemen dressed in grey-blue pants and white T-shirts, the color-coordinated assembly looked like it could have been selected by central casting.
But central casting for what?
After a hurried examination of the crime scene, the two men in white coats carried the corpse away, one of them stumbling farcically over the misplaced lid of a garbage can.
As Marten tried to assimilate what he’d just witnessed, he felt, quite inexplicably, that the entire spectacle had been staged for him—part of a mystery to try and resolve. A way of getting his attention and pulling him into a story yet larger than the disjointed show in the alleyway beneath him.
A story with a message intended specifically for him.
But what was the message?
A woman found dead and lying in a garbage can? A metaphor for someone who had thrown her life away? Was that a warning to him? A warning to the world? Or merely a delusion?
No matter how much his rational mind sought to persuade him otherwise, he sensed that he was supposed to solve both the woman’s murder and the larger mystery surrounding it. As if the crime was just the first scene in a much longer play in which the victim’s death had nothing to do with anything obvious. Anything probable. Anything normal. Anything ostensibly ‘real.’
It was an impossible idea.
An absurd form of self-inflicted delusion.
Something a child might seriously consider before the age of six or seven.
And yet he still couldn’t dismiss it.