Saturday, August 04, 2007

Chapter 30. Tourists

Linda and Max walked the cobbled streets in silence. The town was essentially as Max recalled it, with stone buildings on either side that were vaguely reminiscent of a classical ancient city, like a schoolbook rendering of the Roman forum during it’s heyday, or an artist’s reconstruction of the courtyards of Pompei before Vesuvius smothered it in ash. The streets, however, were no longer empty.



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People meandered aimlessly and milled about on corners lost in conversation. They were clearly tourists, dressed in everyday clothes that clashed with the classic architecture.

They were everywhere. Arched doorways opened through bright white walls to reveal them seated at long wooden tables with their arms draped over each others shoulders like long lost brothers and sisters at a family reunion. A little farther along, groups of them lounged on a wide flight of marble stairs that rose up from the street to an obelisk perched high at the top. Snatches of guitar music drifted down from a musician who, even from this great distance, looked out of place in a red and white Hawaiian shirt as he sat on the uppermost step and lazily strummed a guitar to an attentive audience of young lovers.

Linda stopped and cupped her ear to listen to the tune for a moment.

She dropped her hand to her side, and tilted her head as she scanned the scene. “Who are these people?” she asked.

“I have no idea.”

There was nothing particularly remarkable about them. They looked like any collection of people out to enjoy a lazy afternoon in the sun {{Pause=0.25}} – some in shorts and tee shirts, some in skirts. Others were wearing business suits, or jeans, or slacks. A few were clad in uniforms, as though they had just stepped away from their jobs as police officers, crossing guards, or sales clerks. If there was anything unusual about them, it was that there were no children, and no infants. People who go out on beautiful days such as this sometimes bring children. There were none here, or anywhere else on the street for that matter, as far as Max could see now or recall from their walk.

“Do you notice anything strange?” she asked.

“About the music?” said Max. “No.”

“Look at them up there,” she said, waving her hand broadly at the people on the steps. “Everyone is touching someone else.”

Considering the setting, it didn’t seem unusual to Max. It was perhaps a bit too idyllic, but no different than a spring day in the streets of Paris, Rome, or Atlanta.

“It’s all part of the sugar-coated illusion, I guess.”

“No it’s not just couples holding hands. They are all connected.”

Linda was right. It was hard to discern at first, but like someone pointing out a subtle pattern on a tiled wall or a lifelike shape in a cloud, it suddenly became obvious. Groups sat crowded together. Pairs of entwined lovers reached out to touch other pairs. Here and there, it was no more than one casually placed ankle against another, or an extended hand resting on an arm. In other places a woman’s head might lay on one man’s shoulder while her legs rested on someone else’s lap. Tight groups were connected by long chains of people brushing hair, massaging calves, or leaning back to back. It was an orgy of semi-intimate contact. The chains broke from time-to-time when someone stood and wandered off, sometimes up the stairs and sometimes down. Inevitably, the gap was closed as people on the steps turned and stretched, or another person shuffled in to fill the space. But as a rule, it was all one broad and connected web, from the musician high above to a girl with long red hair at the very bottom of the stairs who leaned back against the shins of the boy on the step behind her. She wore a white blouse and tight blue jeans on her slender legs, which she hugged to her chest in a kind of upright fetal position as she gazed at the sky.

“Yuck,” Max grimaced. “They’ve lost their sense of personal space.”

“It’s not very American of them.”

Max nodded absently. “Maybe they’re Italians.”

The people walking the streets as well appeared inclined to keep in contact with their companions, though not quite as closely or extensively as the crowds on the steps. The street people mostly stood in small bunches with arms linked or hands on shoulders. Others walked in two's and threes, holding hands as they drifted from corners to benches to cafes, always ending up literally in touch with one group or another. Now and then, a small cluster would make their way up the steps to blend into the lounging audience.

Linda asked, “What do you suppose they’re doing?”

Max recalled the mind-opening experience he’d had when Neumann held his hand.

“I think I know, but I’m not sure how to explain it. I’m guessing they’re communing. That’s probably the best way to put it.”

Linda approached the red haired girl. “I’ll find out what’s going on.”

“Hi,” she said as she stood over the girl.

She smiled slightly in response. Linda sat cross-legged next to her and reached toward the girl’s crooked leg with the kind of caution she might have shown in trying to pet a stray kitten. When the tips of her fingers made contact with the girl’s knee, Linda tilted her head as though she were listening to an unfamiliar sound, and then smiled in much the same way the girl had.

“Are you OK?” asked Max.

Linda pursed her lips and nodded.

“What’s it feel like?”

“Very . . .” she crinkled her nose as she grasped for an adjective, “It’s very broadening.”

Yes, thought Max, broadening is a good word, and deepening and elevating {{Pause=0.25}} – and above all, seductive. As Max recalled, it was also informative.

He squatted down in front of Linda. She looked through him with peaceful blankness. Her pupils were dilated and the muscles in her face were slack.

“Are you in control?” he asked. “Can you let go?”

“Yes, I could,” she said as the slightest frown flickered across her lips, “I think. But I’m not sure I want to. Not yet.” Her eyelids fluttered.

Max reached out and grasped her free hand. In a rush, the thoughts and sensations of all the hundreds of people on the steps flowed through him. His thoughts and sensations flowed through them as well.

He was whisked away, like a raindrop that had fallen into a pond, losing itself to become a small part of a much greater whole. Although he sat only inches from Linda, in this swirling cauldron of experience she seemed both miles away and intimately entwined in his mind along with everyone else in the tortuous chains of contact.

When he’d held Neumann's hand, he had shared the thoughts and a reasonably defined point of view with a single entity. Now, linked to so many people, there was no central focus, only a liquid multiplicity of existence. It was an omni-dimensional panorama that embraced the collected being of the crowd.

The guitar music caught his attention. He listened to it with the composite hearing of all the people on the steps. He focused on how it sounded to the young man who sat just below the musician’s feet, then listened from the perspective of the musician himself, and finally from the point of view of the redheaded girl next to Linda.

Max marveled that he could experience so much without losing his mind. He wasn’t overwhelmed so much as empowered. It was like concentrating on the sensation of his big toe pressed against the inside of his shoe, then thinking about the slickness of the enamel as he ran his tongue across the backs of his teeth. Only now he could focus on the toe of the old man seated twenty steps up, or the teeth of the woman cuddled against the musician’s leg, or any part of anyone else in the assortment of humanity spread before him.

He sensed that there was something more to this conglomeration than simply artificial nirvana. He pushed the thought aside. There were more important things to worry about.

Max scanned the city through the shared eyes of all the people on the steps. They had to be here somewhere {{Pause=0.25}} – the boy, Perske, Linus, and Spencer. It was startling how far he could see, and with such extraordinary resolution. Dust specks on benches and roofing tiles on distant houses all came into focus simultaneously.

A pair of ripples traveled with steady determination along a sidewalk back up the street. The disturbances would surely have been imperceptible to his normal vision. Now he could see them, and somehow know that they had traced the path he and Linda had taken from the acropolis. The collective vision, it seemed, included a collective memory as well. He had no idea what the ripples could be, but it was clear from the path that the ripples were following them - that they were stalkers of some kind. He was not surprised; it would have been inconceivable that he and Linda could have made it this far un-observed.

That’s the place, he thought as he peered at a walled courtyard just beyond the amphitheater where he had played chess with Neumann and where Minus had skewered his thigh.

He stood without letting go of Linda’s hand, watching himself through dozens of eyes. His clothes hung on him more loosely than he remembered.

I’ve lost weight, he thought.

He pulled Linda away from the red headed girl. Her fingertips slipped off the girl’s leg, and the communal perspective snapped shut with the suddenness of a psychic mousetrap. Max teetered on his feet from the abrupt transition. Linda lurched onto her side, wrapping her arms over her ears, pulling her knees to her stomach and groaning.

“Linda, we have to go.” His voice sounded so large and booming inside his head, as if there was less space inside his own skull than there should have been.

“Are you all right?” he asked, wincing at the volume of his words.

She lifted herself gingerly to lean against the bottom step, careful to avoid touching the girl. “The exit was kind of abrupt.”

“Sorry.”

“I could really learn to like that,” she said, jerking her thumb at the people on the stairs behind her. She propped her elbows on her thighs and buried her face in her hands.

A minuscule tremor disturbed the stones beneath Max’s feet.

“We have to go,” he said softly. “They’re on to us.”

“Anything that feels that good has got to be bad,” said Linda. She straightened up and fondled the pendant on her necklace. “Let’s do what we came here for.”

“Yes,” said Max, “let’s.”

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