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?
“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 professional connections across the board—from entertainment to politics to the secret service. But also because He had connections of a wholly different sort.
Or was that a 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.
She was also putting on weight and hated to exercise. When she wasn’t singing, she was always chewing gum. But she styled herself around attitude and energy when she performed, turning herself into a package that anyone with no 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 West Village apartment he had taken after college nearly thirty years before.
His living room window overlooked a small street where the major daily event was the morning garbage pickup, while twenty-seven years ago his window in the West Village exposed a cramped back alley with a similar lineup of trashcans. Between 7:00 and 7:15 in both places a trio of garbage collectors made a noise fit for a steel drum Calypso band.
But that morning, the banging of cans reached a crescendo with a sudden series of screams and yells.
He sat up in bed, while his brain still lost to dream and memory.
Before it would allow him to get to the window, it insisted on reminding him why it was that he had returned to virtually the same setting nearly thirty years later.
After college, he moved to the West Village where he had found a small gallery to represent his photographs and drawings. There he enjoyed the happiest years of his life.
Soon he got married and began to plan a family.
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, although without knowing the details, he could only speculate.
After nearly a year spent trying to navigate inside a sinister vacuum, he sold his house and decided to look for a new career—a different workplace where he might escape from what haunted him. He soon found employment in the marketing arm of a mid-sized technology corporation.
At first, it made him feel a part of America’s mainstream corporate life.
But after ten years he sensed that he was on one of those highways that you can’t get off, stuck driving forward for miles beyond your intended destination.
It took him nearly another decade before he had finally saved up enough to quit his job and move to his current apartment where he could renew his pursuit of art and photography.
He was already forty-eight years old.
Despite all the financial risks, he believed it was the right thing to do.
Yet now he seemed to be pursued by shadows and dreams that he still couldn’t bear to face. The demons from his past 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.
Well before he finally got to the window, the yelling had stopped.
Instead, what he heard were the punctured voices of men trying to reconcile an irreconcilable scene.
As he put his hands on the sill, leaned forward and squinted into the already intense morning light, he saw three garbage men standing in disarray and glaring at the trash bins where one lid was obscenely askew, as the tip of a sneaker projected beyond the rim.
Then he heard police sirens.
Within minutes a police car arrived, and two men leapt out.
The taller of the two policemen called on his phone, presumably for backup.
The two uniformed men barely acknowledged the garbage workers, who watched like a stunned Greek chorus as the policemen, both wearing gloves, knocked off the lid and pulled on the sneaker.
First Marten saw a foot, then an ankle, and soon a calf—all revealed beneath the bedazzled gaze of the audience in the alley. As they reached in and pulled up the other leg, soon the whole woman soon became exposed. She was wearing baggy jeans and a tie-dyed sweatshirt. Marten could see 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 he got the impression from her swooning face that she had died almost instantly—her mind and soul taken from her in a single stroke.
With surprising speed, three more patrolmen and two men in white gowns appeared with a stretcher and a body bag. One of three uniformed arrivals had a camera and took pictures. His awkward sense of urgency was almost slapstick.
She lay there in the alley, while the police interrogated the three garbage men, who nodded, gestured with their arms, and finally shook the hands of Boston’s finest. The woman, presumably a victim of something, whoever she was, 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 dream and nightmare.
After a hurried examination of the crime scene, the two men in white coats carried the corpse away, still oddly farcical and all but scripted, like it had all been a shoddy theatrical production.
As Marten tried to assimilate what he’d just witnessed, he felt, quite inexplicably, that the whole scene 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 spectacle in the alleyway beneath him.
And what was the message?
A woman found lying in a garbage can? Apparently dead. A metaphor for someone who had thrown her life away?
Was that a warning to him? A warning to the world? Or a mere 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 might be explained more through art than forensics. And moreover, that 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 couldn’t dismiss it.