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.
Listen to the author reading
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 supreme accountability, 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.
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 the singer. 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 it 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 her show, which was disappointing. A talent squandered for the convenience of image and packaging. Another example of Career Vanity. Hardly worth inviting her into the vastly overrated afterlife, except that her popularity obscured everything she pretended to champion by turning good and evil into clichés.
While His role was to do just the opposite.
And now her hypocritical influence was growing with sinful speed.
Moreover, 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. But she styled herself around attitude and energy when she performed.
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.
So venture forth—fly like a rocket
Float free and free your soul.”
He extended the stanza in silence with –
“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 from food and drink.
She couldn’t know that He had a present for her. A treat that would transform her evening into something far beyond the 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 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 photography and 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.
And now 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.
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 moving in disarray, all glaring at a cluster of trash bins, two of them clutching their cellphones.
One of the lids was obscenely askew, pushed up by the tip of a sneaker. He quickly realized that it was the sneaker in particular that had their attention, since it was attached to someone’s ankle.
Within seconds, 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 he had vacated just minutes before where past, present and future all converged into a mixture of memory and nightmare.
With surprising speed, a van arrived from which three more patrolmen and two men in white gowns emerged. The men in white carried 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.
As the two men in white gowns set about their work, the tallest policeman, who seemed to be in charge, interrogated the three garbage men. They nodded, gestured awkwardly with their arms, and after only a few minutes, they each shook the hand of one of Boston’s finest, who was still wearing his gloves.
Then, after a hurried examination of the crime scene, the two men in white coats carried the still-slumbering body away, one of them stumbling over the misplaced lid of a garbage can.
At that point, the policemen put out two plastic barriers and array of cones, roped off the area, and got in their cars, while the garbagemen backed away into their distant truck.
Soon enough the alleyway was emptied of all figures, all noise, all remnants. In a break of what Marten imagined from TV to be normal protocol, no one was left to stand guard.
And with that, the alleyway returned to a ‘new normal,’ looking more like a set for a play than anything resembling its old self.
As he tried to assimilate what he’d just witnessed, Marten felt, quite inexplicably, that the terrible spectacle had been staged just for him. 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 for him to understand.
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? If that was the lesson, was it a warning meant for him? Or a warning for the entire world? Or merely a delusion?
No matter how much his rational mind sought to persuade him otherwise, he couldn’t dismiss the haunting idea that what he’d seen was just the beginning of a much larger narrative. As if the aftermath in the alley were just the first scene in a much longer play in which the victim’s death had nothing to do with anything obvious.
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.