The Chain of Chance (4 page)

The empty sidewalk in front of the Hilton was flooded with light. As I climbed out of the car I couldn’t see the Chrysler anywhere, and it occurred to me that they might have had an accident, which would have explained why I hadn’t seen them on the road. I routinely slammed the car door shut, and as I did I caught a glimpse of the Chrysler’s front end in a fleeting reflection in the window. It was parked just outside the lot in the shadows, between the chains and a
NO PARKING
sign. On my way back into the hotel I could make out the car’s dark interior, which looked to be deserted, though one of its windows was rolled down. When I came to within five paces of the car, the head of a cigarette lit up the interior. I felt an impulse to wave but resisted, giving my hand only a slight jerk before sticking it back into my pocket and entering the lobby.

This was just a minor incident, magnified by the fact that one chapter was over and another was beginning. The cold night air lent everything a marvelous clarity—the car trunks in the parking lot, the sound of my footsteps, the sidewalk markings—which made my inability to wave even more frustrating. Till now I’d stuck to my timetable as faithfully as a school kid, not giving a single thought to the guy who’d driven the same route before me, stopped off at the same places, taken the same number of coffee breaks, and made the same rounds of the hotels so that he could wind up here, at the Hilton, which he would never leave again alive. At that moment my assumed role struck me as something of a mockery, a willful defiance of fate.

A young punk, swaggering with self-importance, or perhaps only disguising his drowsiness, followed me out to the car, where he grabbed hold of the dusty suitcases with gloved hands while I smiled absently at his shiny buttons. The lobby was deserted. Another bruiser loaded my luggage into the elevator, which traveled upstairs to the sounds of piped music. I was still feeling the rhythm of the road, which, like a haunting tune, I couldn’t shake off. The bellboy stopped, opened a set of double doors, switched on the wall light and overhead lamp, and turned on the living-room and bedroom lights; as soon as he was finished arranging my bags, I was alone again. Though Naples and Rome were no farther than a handshake away from each other, I felt tired, but it was a tiredness of a different kind, more tense, and that came as the next surprise. It was as if I’d polished off a can of beer in spoonfuls—a kind of stupefying sobriety. I made a tour of the rooms. The bed reached all the way to the floor, so there was no point in playing hide-and-seek. I opened all the closet doors, knowing ahead of time I wouldn’t surprise any assassins because that would have been too easy, but I did my duty anyway. I lifted the sheets, the double mattress, and then the headrest, though I didn’t seriously believe I’d never get up out of this bed again. Oh, yeah? Man is an undemocratic institution. His brain center, those voices from the right and the left, are nothing but a sham legislature, because there are also the catacombs, which bully him. The gospel according to Freud. I checked the air conditioner, then tested the blinds by raising and lowering them a few times. The room ceilings were plain and cheerful, unlike those at the Three Witches Inn, where the element of danger was so grimly conspicuous and where the bed canopy looked as if any moment it might collapse and smother you. Here there was no canopy, none of that syrupy, romantic atmosphere. Here everything—armchairs, desk, carpets—was neatly arranged in the usual display of comfort. Had I turned off the headlights?

The windows faced the other way, so I couldn’t see the car. I was pretty sure I’d switched them off, and if not, well … let Hertz worry about it. I closed the curtains and started getting undressed, not caring where my shirt and pants landed. When I was completely stripped, I carefully detached the sensors. After taking a shower I’d have to stick them on again. I opened the larger suitcase, the one with the Band-Aid box lying on top, but I couldn’t find the scissors, Standing in the middle of the room, I could feel a slight pressure in my head and the soft carpet pile beneath my feet. Then I remembered—I’d slipped them into my briefcase. Impatiently I yanked at the clasp, and out fell the scissors, along with a relic of the past—a photo of Sinus Aurorae, mounted in a Plexiglass frame and looking as yellow as the Sahara: landing site number I, the one I never made it to. On the carpet, next to my bare feet, it looked embarrassing, silly, full of nasty innuendo. I picked it up and studied it in the white light of the overhead lamp: ten degrees north latitude by fifty-two degrees east longitude, the patch of Bosporus Gemmatus at the top and the tropical formation below. The places I was to have reconnoitered on foot. I stood there with the photo in my hand, but instead of putting it back into my suitcase, I laid it down on the night-stand, next to the telephone, and went into the bathroom.

It was a jewel of a shower; the water came shooting out in a hundred hot streams. Civilization began with the invention of running water, with the lavatories of King Minos on Crete. For his tombstone one of the Pharaohs ordered a brick made of all the dirt that had been scraped from his skin over the period of a lifetime. And there has always been something vaguely symbolic about washing the body. When I was a teenager, if there was anything wrong with my car I used to put off washing it till after some work had been done to it, restoring its honor with a good wax job. For what could I have known then about the symbolic rites of purity and impurity and the fact that they had survived in all religions? In expensive apartments the only things I care about are the bathrooms. A persons feels only as good as his skin. In the full-length mirror I caught a glimpse of my soap-covered body still showing the imprint left by the electrode, almost as if I were back in Houston. My hips were still white from the swimming trunks. When I turned up the water, the pipes let out a mournful howl. The computation of turbulent flow that causes no resonances is still one of the seemingly unsolvable problems of hydraulics. What a lot of useless facts.

When I had finished drying off, not being too choosy which towel I used, I walked back into the bedroom stark naked, leaving a trail of wet footprints as I went. I taped on the heart electrode, but instead of lying down I sat on the edge of the bed and did some quick calculations: seven cups of coffee, counting what was in the Thermos. I never used to have any trouble going to sleep, but lately I’d acquired the habit of tossing from side to side. In one of my suitcases, unknown to Randy, I’d stashed some Seconal, a medicine prescribed for astronauts. Adams had never used the stuff, being apparently a sound sleeper. For me to take it now would have been an act of disloyalty. I’d forgotten to switch off the light in the bathroom. Though my bones were unwilling, I climbed out of bed. My hotel suite seemed to expand in the dark. Standing there naked, with my back to the bed, I hesitated. Oh, yes—I was supposed to lock the door and leave the key in the lock. Room 303. They’d even seen to it that I was given the same room number. So what the hell. I looked for some sign of fear in myself but was conscious only of something vague and undefined, of something bordering on shame. But I couldn’t tell whether my anxiety came from the prospect of a sleepless night or from that of my own death. Everyone is superstitious, though not everyone is aware of it. I again surveyed my surroundings in the glare of the night light, only this time with genuine suspicion. My suitcases were half open, my clothes were scattered all over the armchairs. A real dress rehearsal. Should I get out the automatic? Nonsense. I shook the self-pity out of my head, then lay down and turned off the night light, relaxing my muscles until my breathing became more regular.

Knowing how to fall asleep on schedule was an essential part of the mission. Especially when two people were sitting down below in a car and watching on an oscilloscope as a luminous white line recorded every move of my heart and lungs. If the door was locked from the inside and the windows hermetically sealed, what difference did it make if he’d gone to sleep in the same bed and at the same time?

There was a world of difference between the Hilton and the Three Witches Inn. I tried to picture my homecoming; I saw myself pulling up to the house unannounced, or better yet, parking the car by the drugstore and walking the rest of the way on foot, as if on my way back from a stroll. The boys would be home from school already; as soon as they saw me coming, the stairs would reverberate with their footsteps. It suddenly dawned on me that I was supposed to take another shot of gin. For a moment I lay there undecided, sitting up on one elbow. The bottle was still in the suitcase. I dragged myself out of bed, groped my way over to the table, located the flat bottle under my shirts, then filled the cap till the stuff started dripping down my fingers. While emptying the small metal tumbler, I again had the sensation of being an actor in an amateur play. A job’s a job, I said by way of self-justification. As I walked back to the bed, my suntanned trunk, arms, and legs merged with the darkness, and my hips stood out like a white girdle. I lay down on the bed, the slug of gin gradually warming my stomach, and slammed my fist into the pillow: so this is what you’ve come to, you backup man! OK, pull up the covers and get some sleep.

Then I fell into the sort of drowse where the final flickerings of consciousness can be extinguished only by a state of total relaxation. A vision. I was sailing through space. Strangely enough, it was the same dream I’d had just before my trip to the orbital station. It was as if the stubborn catacombs of my mind refused to acknowledge any corrections dictated by experience. Flying in dreams is deceptive, because the body never really loses its normal sense of direction and the arms and legs can be manipulated as easily as in reality, though with greater facility. The real thing is another story. The muscles are thrown completely out of whack; if you try to push something away, you find yourself getting shoved backward; if you try to sit up straight, you find yourself tucking your knees under your chin. One careless move and you can knock yourself out. The body goes wild the moment it’s liberated from earth’s beneficial resistance.

I woke up with a choking sensation. Something soft but unyielding was interfering with my breathing. I bolted upright with my arms stretched out as if trying to grab the person who was choking me. Sitting up in bed, I tried to clear my mind, but it was like peeling some horribly sticky wrapper from my brain. A quicksilver glare from outside was streaming into the room through a crack between the curtains; in its shimmering brightness I saw that I was alone. I could hardly breathe any more: my nose felt cemented together, my mouth was caked, and my tongue was all dried up. I must have been snoring dreadfully. It was the snoring that had reached me toward the tail end, just as I was waking up.

I got up, still a little shaky on my feet because even though I was awake my dream kept weighing me down like motionless gravity. Carefully I bent over my suitcase, groping blindly in the side pocket for the elastic band holding the tube of Pyribenzamine in place. The blooming season had reached Rome. The spore capsules in the south are the first to turn reddish-brown, and then gradually the fading process spreads to higher regions, a fact well known to anyone who suffers from chronic hay fever. It was two in the morning. I was a little worried that my escorts might jump out of the car when they saw my heart playing funny tricks on the oscilloscope, so I lay down again and turned my head sideways on the pillow, this being the fastest way to relieve a congested nose. I lay there with one ear tuned to the corridor to make sure no unwanted help was on the way, but all was quiet. My heart resumed its normal rhythm again.

I gave up trying to picture the house. I was no longer in the mood for it, or maybe I realized it was wrong of me to drag the kids into this. A hell of a thing if you couldn’t go to sleep without the help of the kids! The yoga would have to do, the kind adapted especially for astronauts by Dr. Sharp and his assistants. I knew it backward and forward like the Lord’s Prayer. The exercises worked so well that before long my nose began to make a soft whistling sound as the passages opened up to let the air through, and the Pyribenzamine, once it lost its effect as a stimulant, trickled into my brain and induced its familiar but somehow impure sleepiness, so that before I knew it I was sound asleep.

Rome-Paris

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