But away from the computer the details of Pers' life blur; he is a frail figure now, in the long shadow of corporations, consortiums, cabals. Somewhere behind him there are sweatshops and plantations, venture capitalists, contracts and kickbacks, a legacy of transported earth, diverted water, engineered landscapes. Uncle Pers blurs, but behind him are solid things: the infallibility of Science, the harsh laws of Commerce, the power of Money, the unsentimental knowledge of how the world really works.
It's probably obvious to him by now that none of these things is anywhere behind me. He sips his gin, eyeing me over the top of the glass. He seems to find something humorous in the sight. But under the gaze of those pale and watery eyes I blink and look away. What is he seeing when he looks at me like that? Something that isn't there, I keep thinking.
"So. Where did you spend the morning, William?"
"Well, here in the house. Kate and I were in the study, working."
"Still working, eh? I thought you'd finished. Well, then. Your body was in my study, your fingers were flipping through my papers, you were reading. So, where did you spend the morning? Where were you transported?"
"Oh. Well, Indonesia mostly, I guess. After the war, when you were up on the Indragiri. We've still got some big gaps and discontinuities in the manuscript, and I went back through some journals to see what we might have missed."
"Well, that sounds tedious. And haven't you already done that? Incidentally, I finished reading that manuscript last night."
"What did you think?"
"Well, I wasn't transported anywhere. That's not your fault, of course. You and Katy have certainly improved on my organization. Which is what I asked you to do."
"I imagine your editors will have some more suggestions. But at least we've got the structure in place, we know when things happened. We've got things lined up in some kind of order."
Mavis looks up sharply from her conversation with Kate and wags a finger at me. "That can be a trap too, Will. Remember that time is circular. The present is woven into the past. That has been his trouble all along: this urge to impose linear structures. To impose arbitrary, man-made distinctions on things."
Pers nods, still looking at me. "The distinction between past and present, for example, eh? Between memory and imagination. Between symbols and the thing itself. Arbitrary, William, but nevertheless I keep imposing. A long habit, I suppose."
He and Mavis give each other one of their looks, while Kate and I give each other one of ours. The women renew their conversation. I eat a rusk draped with a paper-thin slice of cheese, a thing so insubstantial I might leave it floating in the air beside me while I flick the crumbs from my hand and sip my coffee.
"Do you have a passport, Will?"
"A passport? No. I haven't-"
"You'd better get one. Your, um, wife has one, you know. And you put yourself in a precarious position, if you are married to an impetuous girl with a passport and you haven't got one in hand yourself. Ha-ha!"
"Well, I think-"
"What about immunizations? Yellow fever, typhus, cholera... I don't know what's required anymore, but a young man in your position needs to be current on such things."
His gaze drifts past me and he falls silent, seemingly lost in a study of the wooden figurines on the windowsill - fertility or sex icons from somewhere like Cambodia or New Guinea, which Kate says have perched on that windowsill in the same position for at least twenty years: poised for copulation but perpetually distracted by the view. But what is the old man talking about, my position? I have no position. Though there's no point in reminding him of that, and certainly no point in contradicting him, arrogant and sardonic and knowledgeable as he is. Still, I think he's wrong about Kate. It's true she's full of surprises and prone to act on sudden impulses. But my wife is not the type to light out with no warning for Rio de Janeiro or Madagascar or someplace. My wife -
Reprinted from The Road Builder by Nicholas Hershenow by permission of Blue Hen, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Nicholas Hershenow. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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