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Noble rot.

smile when he said it.

"Isn't it strange how that happens," Butler said, racking the balls in no particular order, the eight ball on the outside left, which bothered Charles. It felt wrong there, a puncture wound, a morbid ulcer, a negative space, a black hole in time.

"How what happens?" he said.

"Forgetting things. Like drinking the wine. It's like that road you were talking about. Something that's just not there, like you just skipped over that part of your life," Butler said. Charles came into the kitchen to get a glass of cold milk before he left. Clemmie was settling a bottle of white wine into the cooler. On the center island, a tray of canapes--smoked salmon rolled and toothpicked onto crusts of bread, little square cucumber-on-whole-wheat sandwiches. He grabbed a handful to have with his milk. He liked the cucumber especially, the way Clemmie did them, layering filmy slices onto a bed of Hellman's mayonnaise, dashing a sprinkle of salt, sprinkling a dash of fresh pepper.

Clemmie flashed him a look, taking in the tuxedo. It was that quick, wise, dismissive look, the one that women do best, the one that sums you instantly, instantly inventories your many shortcomings, the one that tells you you are in more trouble than you can know, poor dumb dog.

"Get something to eat at the other party," she said.

"Now, Clemmie."

"I don't care," she said. "She asked you a month ago."

"Try two weeks." Lianne had finally quit hinting and asked him directly to sit in on the book club meeting, and he had told her about the May eighth party. She had not seemed surprised. Nor had she burst into anger. Not that things could have gotten any worse between them if she had. They hadn't slept together since when? Since their last night at the lake, he now realized.

"Leaving her alone, as scared as she is," Clemmie said. Clemmie herself looked frightened. She was afraid this was it, this issue would finally take them down.

And it might. They had a joint meeting scheduled for Wednesday with Ian Farber, the therapist she insisted on calling Father Christmas, but the marriage might be finished before they got there. They had not talked to each other about this evening, the division in their plans. They had hardly talked at all. They had managed, nevertheless, to wage an intense subliminal war, whose terms were perfectly clear. This night was a breaking point. And the more sharply she had drawn the line, the more stubbornly he had wanted to step across it.

"What can happen?" he said to Clemmie. "She's going to be surrounded by friends all evening. Anyway, I hate these hen parties, and she knows it."

"It's not a hen party. That detective, remember? And if you were there--"

"Oh, so he's still coming?"

Charles had gotten in touch with Freddy Mayfield, a county cop he had once called as a witness, to see if Mayfield would recommend a detective. Mayfield was a Baptist, but he could be trusted. He had testified against his own department in a wrongful-injury suit. He hadn't wanted to, and he hadn't been promoted since--but in his view the truth was the truth, and you told it all. He and Charles had formed one of those odd-couple friendships, mutual respect across polar differences. Charles was pretty sure Mayfield hoped to convert him someday.

He had told Lianne about his plans to hire another detective, but she had kept on with Rider. Apparently she thought they needed one apiece the way things were going.

"He isn't coming, he's here. They're all here already. Your tie is crooked."

She came over and straightened his bow tie. "Quit fidgeting. You're as bad as a boy getting a haircut." She went back to the wine in the ice bucket, settled a cloth around the bottle. "I don't think you have any idea how hard it is to work in a house where it's always so tense," she said. "I wish the two of you would think of me just once."

"It's not always tense," he said.

She scooped up the tray of canapes.

The doorbell rang. "Phooey," she said. "Get that, will you? I'll just have to make two trips."

"Who is it?" he said. "I thought you said they were all here."

"Probably the author," she said, balancing the tray as she backed the door open. The doorbell rang again, and he went to answer it. The author? he thought.

On the stoop in the twilight, a baby-faced fellow two inches or so shorter than Charles, with disordered brownish-blond hair and helium-blue eyes behind thick lenses in a black frame. He carried a thin green volume with a map on its cover, and a manila folder stuffed with papers. He wore a white cotton shirt whose cloth was too thin, a striped polyester tie in chocolate and navy, an off-cream linen jacket that by its cut was obviously a suit coat, and a pair of raw silk dark brown slacks. The slacks, which were probably his fanciest and most expensive item of clothing, were a mistake: cut pleated and full over his substantial rump, and already losing their shape, they made his short legs seem even shorter. His brown lace-ups were shiny, but heel-worn at the outside edge, and his belt was too wide.

The author said something that sounded like "Ramalam butler," and Charles smiled.

"No," he said. "I'm Charles Morrison. The tux is just for a party."

The author blushed, and made an effort to enunciate. His accent was pure Mississippi mud, thicker even than Tucker's, and he was one of those who had trouble moving their lips when they talked. "I'm sorry," he said. "What I said was my name is Jack Butler." He looked uncertain. "I'm--ah--supposed to be here? For a book club?"

"Come on in," Charles said. "It must be your book they're doing."

He led the author through the huge foyer, down the hall to the kitchen. "You have a nice place," the author said, trying hard not to gawk, but resembling nonetheless a tourist in the Smithsonian. Charles became aware of his house in a curious and pleasant way, as a place rather than an extension of his needs and moods. He felt the light, the space, the sweep of design.

"Yeah, houses are alive, aren't they?" Charles said. "You can feel what kind of living has gone on in them."

They went onto the sun porch, and through it out into the back garden.

It was a perfect tea-party evening, three tables of ladies in light dresses and organdy hats under the mild and cloudy sky. The bugs weren't bad yet, so the club would stay out after the garden lights came on, and there would be chatter, the tinkle of laughter, the tinkle of spoons and glasses. Petits-fours with coffee later.

J.D. leaned back at one of the tables, affecting a bomber jacket this evening in spite of the pleasant weather, his booted feet thrust forward. The talk flowed around him, so that he seemed like a log fallen into a creek, at once included and ignored. He gave Charles a nod.

Charles waved to Dee-Dee, who lowered her eyes and went on talking. So she knew how things stood. Perhaps Lianne had felt them come up, but she did not turn around. Well, fuck her, then. He shivered in a wash of adrenaline. Freedom was just around the corner. Blank madness was just around the corner.

"I always wanted the whole horse, and not just the horse's head," Natalie was saying.

"I liked the flower ones," Dee-Dee said. "They were these English prints; of course, I didn't know that then. But they would be in these darling ceramic pots."

Alison, younger than the rest, sat with her shoes off and her feet curled under, puzzled and big-eyed, listening. She and Greg had gotten back from the island Sunday, but Charles hadn't seen Greg yet, so didn't know how they were doing. But she flashed him a look he would have sworn was gratitude, and he felt warmed. He had his friends. He wasn't entirely the outsider.

"The kittens were my favorite," Carol said.

"Dogs," Lianne said. "Definitely the dogs."

Charles cleared his throat, and Lianne looked around, got to her feet. "You must be," she said, taking the author's hand. He shook awkwardly.

She turned to the women. "This is the author of tonight's book." There was a rustle of interest, and then a patter of light applause. Butler looked nonplussed.

"Have a seat here in the middle," Lianne said, leading him to a chair.

"What were y'all--if you don't mind," Butler said. He looked for a place to put his materials, and Lianne moved a drink table to his elbow. He laid the book and the folder down, and sat. "What were y'all talking about when I came up, those animals and all?"

"Would you like some wine?" Lianne said.

"Trading cards," said Dee-Dee.

"It's a decent chardonnay," Lianne said. "Drier than most, and a bit sunny."

"You used to get them at Heights Variety," Barbara said.

"I never did," Alison said. "I haven't the foggiest what y'all are talking about." Charles hadn't the foggiest either. But he had heard this sort of thing before, and he hated it, the flurry of knickknack, the smother of silly trivial detail.

"Well, toodle-oo to you too," Dee-Dee said. "While you've got the wine out, Lianne--"

Butler ran his hand through his hair, not affecting it much. "Was it a game, or what?"

"No, you traded them," Natalie said.

"You bought packs, and you traded for the ones you liked best," Barbara explained.

"What on earth for?" Charles said, still standing. The women looked up at him blankly.

"Like baseball cards?" Butler said, and one or two of the women nodded.

"Yeah," Charles said, "but those were about somebody. I mean, they had real people on them." The hell with this. It was time to go.

"Well, maybe these were real horses," Natalie said.

"I think some of the flowers were maybe photographs," Barbara said.

"Did they do this everywhere, or was it just Little Rock?" Butler said, and Charles realized he was doing research. Though what use you could make of something like this--

"I have no idea," Lianne said, and a few of the others shrugged. She looked around at them. "I just thought everybody did it."

"Remember poodle skirts?" Reba said.

"Poodle skirts?" Butler said.

That's it, Charles thought. That is absolutely it.

And yet he didn't go. The women were leaning forward to Butler, gesturing, talking, setting each other off in trills of laughter. He looked up, to see Rider watching him watch the others. The garden lights came on, like a signal.

Lianne stood. "We'd better get started," she called. Then, in a quieter voice: "As y'all know, we've been doing Arkansas authors." She turned to Butler. "We've already done Don Harington and Miller Williams and Buddy Portis and Jim Whitehead," she explained. "You're our second poet. Well, Whitehead's a poet too, but we did him as a novel."

"Joiner," Butler said.

"I want to begin by asking you about your book title," Lianne said. "And then other people can ask whatever they want to. How did you come up with that name? I mean, I see the map points to Hollywood, Arkansas, but--" She sat back down, attentive.

"I have this friend named Johnny Wink," Butler said. "And he bet me one time that Los Angeles was east of Reno, Nevada."

A buzz of discussion: No way, You mean west, don't you. Los Angeles California? Let's get a map. Charles laughed, visualizing the longitude lines.

"Sounds like an old bar bet," he said.

"Well, he was right," Butler said. "Which I might have known, because every time I call he does have a flush. I told him next he was going to tell me Iceland was south of the Florida Keys."

"It isn't though, Alison said, looking worried.

"Anyway, the poems were about when I had a cabin out in the woods. And I thought how we think of Hollywood as the most far-out place in America. And geographically as the most far west, because it's on the ocean. So what's even more far out than Hollywood, you see? Maybe what's right in front of you. Maybe when everybody looks at pictures and nobody reads, to write poems. So the cabin was five miles west of Hollywood, Arkansas, and so--"

Charles looked at his watch. Butler caught the motion.

"So I called it West of Hollywood," he finished. "It was my little joke on Johnny Wink."

"How do you get your ideas?" Alison said.

"How do you keep from getting them?" Butler said. He gestured excitedly.

"Americans, maybe because we used to be a frontier, but we're afraid of ideas. We have like a filter, don't think this, don't think that, don't say anything that might upset somebody, and so all our schools are crippled. We can't teach anything interesting because it might upset somebody. It's like--I don't mean this politically, but it's like Frank White and that Act 590, that creation science amendment. And then that letter he sent Governor's School."

Governor's School: the state's annual roundup of the best and brightest, some four hundred high-schoolers sent off to brain camp for six weeks of the summer between their junior and senior years. On the Hendrix campus, because the college held no summer sessions. Begun by Bill Clinton, but now Frank had written Bob Meriwether, the director, a threatening letter, warning against the School's liberal, freethinking, humanistic bias. Meriwether had been Charles's freshman adviser, a huge booming roue, and he smiled now, imagining Meriwether and the governor mano a mano, two giant round white-haired men belly to belly, slugging it out.

Butler would pick up a badly needed couple of hundred as a visiting writer during the School. Of course Frank's letter disturbed him. Nervous now, though, torn between his so-called principles and the fundamental tenet of artistic practice everywhere: Never offend a patron. He probably thought they were all Republicans. He would shit if he knew how many strings Charles had pulled. Frank was going to back off. Give him a few weeks to whip up a menu--sauces and gravies to smother the taste--but the governor was going to eat that crow.

"I mean, to me," Butler faltered, "that just represents the worst thing about--the most unfortunate--Don't-get-me-wrong-I-love-Arkansas-but." He surveyed the indecipherable faces, summoned a breath. "That letter was just flat-out wicked, and put a chill on education here."

"No shit," Dee-Dee said. Butler shot her a look of intense relief.

"You don't have to be vulgar about it," Barbara said.

"No shit shit shit," Dee-Dee said. Now Butler looked embarrassed again--starting a quarrel among patrons, inappropriate behavior. What a case.

That's why he was still here. Charles decided. He was an observer of human nature, and this was a specimen he hadn't seen up close before: The Writer.

"Who are your major influences?" Lianne said, changing the subject. Serious now, the arts critic. Her penetrating look. I can read her like a goddamn book, Charles thought.

His eyes stung, and he felt a tremendous helpless woe, like the lift and downslam of a black wave when you swam off the island at night. That it should come to no more than this: the venality, the tedium, the utter predictability. He didn't want to go, he wanted to be warm and happy and safe at home. But he could not give in now, not on these terms. Standing while the others sat, hovering on the margins of darkness while the others chatted in lamplight. No use prolonging the pain. It was over. He drew in his breath, straightened his coat.

"Science fiction and the Bible," Butler said.

Charles felt his knees go weak. He found a chair. Butler was explaining, but Charles could not follow the explanation. He felt his mind full of spinning things, of a tumbling brightness, a busy movement like fall wind in the brilliant trees, like a spring creek in a canyon.

Butler was going to read something, not poems, he was writing stories now, he wanted to read a new story. Charles could hear the anger in his voice, the hunger to be heard. Yes, Charles thought. Read me a science fiction story: a brand-new sort of story.

He had read Shakespeare, yeah, and he liked it ok, the parts he could understand, and Hemingway, which he understood just fine but didn't see the point of, and some others since college, Ludlum and Cheever and Stephen King and John D. MacDonald, but you know what, it was always the same old quarrels, the same old motives, the same old world. Give him a hollow world of stainless steel, with the trees and the sky on the inside; give him intelligent worms of hyperdense matter that swam in the magma, to whom this crust, these continents, were a wispy near-nothing, less than atmosphere; give him spaceships whose brains were the salvaged brains of humans mangled in accidens, who sailed the eternal void singing an eternal loneliness; give him a world of tall red mountains, in whose green sky hung three blue suns.

Give him, for God's sake, something different.

His mind was racing so hard he couldn't concentrate. Butler's story was about a farm woman, Miriam Bone. He hoped it wasn't going to be one of those sensitive science fiction stories, worn-down rural female protagonist, her hard-bitten suspicious husband, the new neighbors ain't like folks around here, but she brings covered dishes, they turn out to be from Antares or Procyon or Deneb IV, stellar pacifists, the old man sneaks over with a shotgun, sees them undisguised and dies of a heart attack. Having caused his death, even unintentionally, disturbs the aliens so badly they have to spare the earth the shame of their presence, but they leave her some high-tech superproducing seeds to feed her hungry children, and she looks up at the stars at night and knows gentleness is right and she's not alone in the universe.

This story seemed to have a lot of tomatoes in it. Charles kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing ever did, just Jesus and a lot of tomatoes.

Butler had been reading for almost twenty minutes when Charles realized the story was never going to be science fiction. He couldn't figure out why he didn't leave. Lianne was as cold as ever. The war between them was still on. But he no longer wanted to go. He felt confirmed in his chair, immobile but powerful, as if he were stone and gravity had tripled.

This was his place, damn it. Lianne was not going to drive him away. He thought of Tina resentfully, as if she and Lafayette had planned their party for no other purpose than to cause him trouble at home. So he didn't show up, so what? So he had promised Lafayette, so what? He didn't owe the man anything, he was the boss, it was just a favor in the first place.

Butler was still reading, and since nothing was going on, you couldn't tell how long it would be till the end. More tomatoes, and taking an outdoor shit, and then later volunteer tomatoes coming up from seeds in the shit and the woman eating the volunteers.

But then something happened in a pickup, and then the standard brave soul-in-the-blank-void-face-of-darkness ending, and the performance was thank God over.

"That was really interesting," Alison said.

"It was awfully explicit," Barbara said.

"Well I don't think so," Natalie said. "I think it's realism."

"Did that really happen to you?" Alison said.

"No," Butler said. "I don't write autobiographical fiction. I don't think the author belongs in his own stories."

Charles understood that Butler was bragging. But he had so little shrewdness, so little understanding of human nature, that he failed to manipulate his audience to the desired response. "Now, my poetry is autobiographical," he said, learning forward.

Dee-Dee had gotten up and gone over to sit with Lianne. Several of the others were gathering their purses and jackets. Rider had refilled his wineglass and was sitting down again. Dee-Dee and Lianne were talking a mile a minute. Comparing notes on me? Charles wondered. Dee-Dee feeling his attention, glanced his way, kept talking.

Departure became a formal process. The ladies filed by to pat Butler on the arm, thank yew, we just enjoyed that so much. I can't wait till your next book comes out, Reverend.

Slowly, like a statue coming to life, Charles rose and walked over.

"Well," Butler said. "Thanks. --I guess I ought to say goodbye to Mrs. Morrison?"

"Come on," Charles said. They stood at her elbow while Lianne finished what she was saying. Dee-Dee pointed with her eyes, and Lianne looked around. She stood, took Butler's hand.

"Thanks a lot," Butler said. "I've always thought there was a lot more interest in literature out there than people thought there was. It's really encouraging when people like you--"

"Our pleasure," Lianne said, glancing at Charles. He would not have believed there could be so much nothing in anyone's eyes. "Keep up the good work," she said, and retrieved her hand. Dee-Dee leaned back, a loose grin on her flushed face.

"Jayme said to tell you hello," Butler said.

"I'm sorry?" Lianne said.

"You gave her the crown. When you were Miss Little Rock. She was the one after you, and you put the crown on her head. She said to say hello."

Lianne was nonplussed. She didn't like being reminded of her title; she preferred to treat it as the forgotten vanity of a silly young girl.

"June 17, 1961," Butler said.

"Five years before our wedding," Charles said, "less one day." He got the flash of hatred he sought. What are you up to? Is this a test?

Dee-Dee rolled her head back. "All the Former Miss Somebodies," she said. A hurt look crossed Butler's face, cloud shadow on a windy day.

"Of course I remember Jayme," Lianne said. "She's very pretty. Do tell her hello for me."

Rider had come up, and Lianne said to him, "Do you want to go inside?" She turned back to Butler. "I don't mean to rush you off--we have some business we need to talk over."

So, Charles thought. I stayed, but it cuts no ice. Busy busy busy, no time for Charles.

"Oh, no," Butler said. "No, I've got to be going, I just wanted to say thanks."

"Hang around awhile," Charles said. "I don't have any business to talk over." Lianne gave him a brief, incurious look. Not even anger now. Totally absorbed in her mission once more, her paranoia, who had bugged the phone. It was that single-mindedness that infuriated him most deeply, more deeply than the white heat of her anger: the absolute quality of her disregard.

"If you're sure it won't be a problem," Butler said. "Because really it's getting late."

"Sure, stay," he said. "Let's talk science fiction. I'm a fan too, you know."

Butler's face lit up. "For just a little while," he said. "Then I've got to be going."

Dee-Dee yawned and stood up. "I'm out of here," she said. "Bye, J.D." She punched the detective in the shoulder, squinting and peering closely. J.D. bent and kissed her on the cheek. Charles had not known they were friends, and he found it somehow disquieting. Dee-Dee put on her jacket, slapped Charles on the back. Lianne waved vaguely goodbye.

The writer gestured at the littered tables. "Do you need any help?"

Charles laughed. "That's what we pay Clemmie for. Come on with me."

He gave Butler a tour of the house, the writer shaking his head in appreciation, grunting every now and then as if under the impact of a blow: "Mmp. Mmp. That's really fine."

When he saw the library, Charles thought he might cry. They stood on the polished wood of the second floor landing, looking over the rail. Lianne and J.D. had come inside, finally, and were below, Lianne in a chair at one of the desk, J.D. leaning against the edge of the desk, arms crossed, nodding down at her. Neither looked up. "Business to talk over," Charles said.

"I see that," Butler said. He looked overhead, at the vault of the ceiling, where the stained glass of the unlit chandelier hung, glossy and darkly glorious.

"You should see it when the lights are on." Charles didn't offer to throw the switch.

"I bet."

"The legal stuff is on the first floor, and history and biography so on. Science and science fiction up here, where I can just walk out from the bedroom. Clemmie's rooms are right above here. This floor is my fun floor. That wall over there"--Charles pointed across the way, where a reading space projected from the second-floor hearth--"the northeast wall, just to the left of the fireplace--that's my science fiction collection." Butler drew in his breath.

Naturally they had to go look. Butler was excited that someone else had read Asimov's The Currents of Space, Heinlein's Universe or The Puppet Masters, Pangborn's West of the Sun. Charles had the devil of a time getting him away without letting him borrow any of the books.

Finally they went down the hall past the huge office and into the game room, which was, which was. Over the portico? But if it was, then you'd have a central projecting bay on the second floor, and that's not the way the house looks. Is it?

It can't be where the office is, because then you have to push the office into either the sitting room or the exercise room. And it can't be directly over the dining room, the room just off the patio, because that was the sneak-away bedroom, wasn't it? You probably know, you can go back and check page**in its bound state, or jump ahead to ... where the appendices will be ... and look at the floor plan, but think of me, I can't.

You know what this is, don't you? Indeterminacy, that's right. Or maybe relativity, the speed of light. Uncertainty and nonsimultaneity, hey--they're the same thing seen twice.

Help me, Miss Liza. Little Liza Jane! Come down with your several viewpoints, your many-rhythmed italics! Help your poor messenger, your photon, oh succor your little hog!

She answers: You might have let the room's location stay vague, a sort of distribution, a standing probability wave over the house. But you caused him to notice the process, how a thing becomes, how a fiction moves from spirit to being, a human from nothing to fact. Therefore what he must do, what he is doing--which of course changes the velocity of the story--is tell the reader now just precisely where the now room is. Now:

Into the went room came, which over the portico was, a lighted bay o'erhanging all approach, its ceil offering a third-floor balcony to the master bedroom and guest bedroom alike, its pediment the single capital of ten pillars, the ten pillars of the ten-pillared portico.

There like a central altar, the huge green-felted fore-, aft-, and mid-pocketed leather-cupped slat-bedded bulk of a pool--not, thank Liza, billiards--table, a long lamp hanging its length.

Charles went to a telephone beside the hall door. Butler circled the table counterclockwise, trailing his left hand like a child at a garden pool, taking in the rest of the room as he revolved: the broad bay windows on the south; the door into the office, flanked on either side by shelves: the dartboards and racks of darts on the east wall; the rolling chalkboard for scorekeeping: the build-in projection screen, and facing it, three chairs with arm-tables; Charles holding the phone to his ear; the door to the hall; west of the door, the eight-sided leather-topped poker table, with its inset racks for drinks and chips; the glass front of the wall beyond the table, stored with board games, decks of cards, trophies, boxes of cigars, glasses, liquor bottles, and fitted out with a small refrigerator; the cones of white chalk and racks of cues, rakes, and wooden triangles along the southwest wall. The writer moved to this last display, reached up reverently for an 18.

"This is perfect," he said. "Pool tables are so beautiful. And poker."

Charles spoke: "There you are. I thought maybe you already went up. Ok, listen, bring us a bottle of the Chateau d'Yquem. Make it two, the '77." His eyes flickered to Butler. "No, the '79. What? Ok, bring one of those instead. And, let's see, the '73. The game room. Fine."

"Chateau d'Yquem?" Butler said.

Charles hung the phone on its hook and grinned. "Noble rot. Wait'll you taste it."

"Noble rot?"

"La pourriture supreme. This crop of sauternes took a fungus one year, and they were going to throw it out, but then they said what the hell, let's make it anyway, and it did something wild to the wine. So now they cultivate the fungus. The flavors are just incredible--nutty as hell, and they keep coming and going. It's like a wine with rooms in it."

"I love that," Butler said. "The fungus changing the wine that changes the grape."

"Change your brain too," Charles said.

"I love it when one thing rides another like that. To me, that's how the world is. Everything is so--inwrought." He peered to see if Charles understood, as though the word were a special possession, available only to poets. "It's like how sixteenth-century English survives up in the Ozarks," he said. "or how radio waves have songs in them."

"Carrier waves," Charles said, smiling. "Signal-to-noise."

"Or how we carry the stories of our friends in us; or we make the written word carry the sound of the voice, and voices carry thoughts. To me, that's what poetry is, one movement riding another. I have a whole book I called Riders--"

"I read a book one time, these people were trying to build this computer model of the world. They were arguing about whether the people in the model were really alive or not, and one guy thought they were but the others were against him, and then he was driving and the road just ended. It just cut off, not even into empty space. Just into not even nothing. But then suddenly it came back. He stumbled on it, he wasn't supposed to see it not there. And he realizes--"

"I read that!" Butler cried. "Simula ... Simulacrum ..."

"Simulacron-3."

"Yeah!"

Butler had been standing holding his 18 like a staff, gesticulating with his free left hand. Charles took a 16 from the rack, a pitted blue cube from the tray, chalked up. The author came to himself, ground the tip of his cue in the small blue metate of another chalk.

Clemmie appeared, carrying a silver tray on which there rested an unopened bottle of wine, an ice bucket, and a stainless-steel corkscrew. The open mouth of another bottle, draped in linen, canted from the bucket. She set the tray on the poker table. She was wearing a house robe.

"I didn't mean you to go back down," Charles said. He leaned his stick against the wall. "I thought I punched the kitchen."

"You did," she said. "Everybody left, and I got comfortable. You can put the other bottle in your little fridge or whatever. I'm going to bed."

"I thought J.D. was still here," Charles said.

"He is," she said. "I meant everybody else left. Good night."

Charles took the cloth of the chilled bottle, spun it in its bed of ice. He put the other bottle in the fridge and took down two tall crystal flutes. He set them on the tray, flicked one with a nail to make it sing. He poured while the note still hung in the air. It died with the weight of the liquid, the soaring quell of a stilled bell, vanishing to faintest overtone.

"That makes a note like Jayme's voice," Butler still held his cue, Moses in the wilderness.

"Oh, can she sing?"

"Can she sing," Butler said. "Lord, that's pretty stuff."

So can Lianne, Charles thought. And ten times better, I bet. He brought the writer a flute of liquid, the color of sun through a yellow leaf.

Butler took a tiny sip, watching Charles. He rolled it over his tongue. His expression became complex. Charles threw back half of his, then set the flute on the edge of the pool table.

"You ever think maybe we're just simulations in a computer?" Charles said. "It could be a computer inside a computer inside a computer."

Butler took a larger swallow, set his flute down on the edge of the table. "Yeah, I like ideas that make me dizzy. Like spinning around when I was a kid. Did you do that?"

"Yeah, I did that." Charles collected the balls from the pockets, racked them up: a good tight rack, a rigid crystal pointing the spot, bright atoms in matrix.

"Do you still?"

Charles looked up. "No," he said.

"What are we playing?" Then, spotting the black in the center, the perfect alternation of stripes and solids, the game implicit in the array: "Oh, eight-ball."

"Lag for the break," Charles said. He brought the cue ball softly almost all the way back.

"I can't beat that." Butler took another swallow, nearly emptying his glass. "Take a hell of a computer to do this wine," he said. "Christ, it's good." He sighted on the cue ball.

"You know, that's the problem with that concept," he said. He straightened up. "Pleasure. You can simulate pain, it's just warning signals that the system is breaking down. But what's pleasure? It isn't just things working right. Otherwise, how come you can zap one little center, and the whole system feels good? Pleasure is like an epiphenomenon of the whole thing. It only makes sense in terms of an I. A perceiver. I mean, who feels good?"

"I feel good," Charles said.

"But I still like ideas like that," Butler said. "Or like characters in a novel. We're just stories these overbeings read, and when they get to us we feel like we're alive."

"Lag for the break," Charles said. He brought the cue ball softly almost all the way back.

"I can't beat that," Butler said. He brought it too far, bumped off the rail.

"Too hard," Charles said.

"And that would be where deja vu comes from," Butler said.

"I love deja vu," Charles said. He sighted. "So that would make you God," he said. He broke. The twelve and the seven went. "Solids." He got the six and the two, missed on the four.

"You didn't leave me much," Butler said. "It isn't that simple. Or if it is, if you can make that parallel, well, then, God is a lot more helpless than they always say. The nine off the thirteen." He clipped the four instead, bringing it off the rail, out into the open.

"I wouldn't be," Charles said. "Pillage and rapine. I would be Zeus, killing all the men and fucking all the women. I sure wouldn't be that nail-scarred wimp. Let em die for their own sins." He slammed the four, really too hard, so that it rattled and orbited before it lost force and dropped. He missed a long shot on the three, bringing it out to the middle.

"I couldn't do that," Butler said, studying the table. "But I wouldn't be Jesus either. I would be more like a clown. And I wouldn't teach them things, they would teach me things." He sank the nine on a straight shot, got draw for a corner shot on the eleven.

"Why not?" Charles said. "They aren't real."

"But like you say, what if we aren't either. I don't feel superior to my characters. I'm just the space they begin in. Then they can go on living in other spaces." He had spent a long time lining up the eleven. Now he sank it, came off the end rail toward the middle, but not far enough to straighten out the side-pocket shot on the ten. "Maybe."

"Sounds like Jesus to me," Charles said. "If neither one of you is real, what difference does it make? What do you get out of all that equality?"

The fictioneer inhabiting imaginary worlds. Makes him/her a spook in the real, a shade in the fictions--not all there in either case. But our world increasingly imaginary: More and more of it a product of the human mind. So maybe a survival thing, fiction is practice for how to live as the world gets weirder and more metaphysical. We're mortal, which is boundedness, not just we're gonna die. But mortality is beautiful, like a rhyme, and imagination is its burden. In other realms, out of time, we can learn judgment, kindness, beauty, law.

Ask a simple question, Charles thought. But under the hand-waving, the rhetoric, he thought he saw the real answer: the warmth of sentimentality. Butler wanted to feel himself a goodhearted fellow, the ultimate egalitarian, perfected in his humility. Yea, though he slew them, he wanted his characters to trust in him. He wanted to avoid the guilt he felt for twisting their lives according to his desires. He wanted them, by God, to like him.

I need to take another lick at Faulkner, he thought. This shit is easy if you drink enough Chateau d'Yquem.

The ten caught the corner of the pocket, came off to bump the three into a lock on the five.

"Shit," Charles said.

Ramalam trotted past the open door, immense black manifestation. Hundgeist.

"Shit," Charles said again.

"It isn't that bad," Butler said. "Try throw english, it'll go in the side."

"No," Charles said. "its that damn Ramalam. First I start smelling him, and now I start seeing the son of a bitch."

"Ramalam?" Butler said.

"Our dog," Charles said. "But the goddamn dog is goddamn dead."

"We have a dog," Butler said.

"Not like this one," Charles said.

"Ours is half hound and half Great Dane," Butler said.

"Ours is half Saint Bernard and half Doberman," Charles said. "Was."

"Shit," Butler said. He sucked the last drops from his flute.

"You want some more," Charles said.

"Yeah," Butler said.

Charles poured them full again. There was still a third of a bottle left. Good. Butler took a swallow. Charles took a swallow. He was probably going to have to try throw english on the goddamn five ball.

"I thought you said the dog was dead," Butler said.

"So I'm seeing a fucking ghost or something," Charles said.

"No shit?" Butler said.

"Why would I shit you about a fucking ghost?" Charles Said. "I'm not the kind of person that likes to see a fucking ghost. I don't even believe in the fucking things."

"Just now?" Butler said.

"Just this fucking minute," Charles said. "He ran by the fucking door."

"Weird," Butler said.

"Ram a fucking lam," Charles said. He was shivering.

"I've never been around a real ghost before," Butler said. "Are you saying Ramalam?"

"The fucking name of the fucking dog," Charles said.

Butler was off on a story, his buddy the famous Johnny Wink. Who had written a poem, "All the Things That Will Not Happen." Somebody would not get off a plane with a raincoat, and somebody else would not take his picture, and none of it had anything to do with dogs. Or ghosts. "See, it's about possibility," Butler said. "The sadness of possibility."

Charles went to the window. Rider's Bronco was still there, crisp and black on the white chat of the driveway, the floods from the portico throwing its image onto the fountain pool: a trembling shadow car, its windows full of shaken light. "It's your shot," he said.

"No, it's your shot." Butler said. "You have solids."

"Oh yeah," Charles said.

So that was one of the lines of the poem: Jack will not ramalam. It took Charles a second to remember Butler's first name. "I don't get it," he said.

"It's just a nonsense word," Butler said. "It doesn't mean anything."

"I see that," Charles said. "I just don't see why you're telling me about it."

"It's your dog's name," Butler said.

"So what?"

"Well, it just felt like it meant something."

"Throw english on the five," Charles said. "Side pocket."

His shot was close, but too lively: two cushions and back out. That was the trouble with throw: it has to be crisp. Tough to soft touch, with throw.

"I sure thought that would go," Butler said. He had the ten in the side again. This time he made it, drifting the cue ball up between the fourteen and the thirteen snug on the top rail. He took the fourteen down with follow, so that he came off the side with an angle on the thirteen.

The little twit could shoot, Charles realized, if you cleared all your own shit out of his way. You couldn't just play offense with him; you had to defense the man.

Butler snicked the thirteen humming along the rail. It went. "Railwoman!" he cried.

I don't want to know, Charles thought.

Butler had the fifteen straight in for the corner. He put draw on the shot, and came back into the middle with a long angle on the eight.

"Lots of green," Charles said.

"Piece of cake," Butler said. He sent the eight long into the corner, but drew the cue ball left in a spinning curve. It hung on the side pocket, collapsed from view.

"Cottonpicking suck english," Butler said.

I don't want to know, Charles thought. He went to fill his glass, brought the bottle and filled Butler's. He held the bottle to the light. There was a puddle left, half a toroid slipping around the bulge. He drained it. He flipped the bottle like an Indian club, caught it by the neck.

"That's pretty good," Butler said.

"I'm unconscious," Charles said. He set the bottle down on the silver tray.

"You're right about this wine having rooms in it," Butler said.

"Did I say that?"

"Or at least a lot of space. It keeps changing, like the sound of a train in a canyon. Or like walking a mountain road. You hit a warm river of air rising up, and you make a turn and hit a cool river going down, all the leaves full of light and shadow like ripples in shallow water."

It came to Charles that you could use poetry to possess things. Well, then, that made it just another kind of money. "You're just drunk," he said. He racked the balls again.

"I'm drunk, but I'm not just drunk."

Charles broke, sank the eleven. "Stripes," he said. The fifteen top right, but not much after that, solids in front of three pockets. He squared the twelve away, gently, so that it stopped just in front of the pocket. He had applied low right english, to bring the cue ball back along the top rail. It nudged between the six and the rail, bumping the six away from the pocket.

"Whoa," Butler said.

"You ever read that Heinlein story," Charles said. "This contractor built a house, only he accidentally built it in the shape of a hypercube?"

"I think so," Butler said. Charles was sure not. Butler tried a long shot on the seven, bottom right corner. Missed. "But how could he build a hypercube--I mean that's a four--"

"Ok, ok," Charles said. "It was what, a three-dimensional projection of a hypercube." He popped the nine in the side, came out on the ten, top right corner. Laid it gently in front of the pocket. The cue ball settled against the rail, almost exactly where he had put it before.

"You love that rail," Butler said.

"And then an earthquake hit," Charles said, "and it folded up into a real hypercube?"

"I think so," Butler said. He tried to clip the five into his right side pocket, but it was tough shooting over the rail. He got too much: it caromed off the point of the cushion.

"So the house was still ok, it wasn't wrecked," Charles said. "But if you stepped through an outside door, maybe you would fall from the ceiling onto the floor of a bedroom, or you could walk right at a wall and you would suddenly be in the garden, or standing on the roof in the sunshine." He brought the thirteen in front of the side pocket, hooked Butler behind the three. "All of the rooms were hyperconnected," he said, straightening up.

Butler frowned. "There's four sides in a square," he said, looking for some way out of the hook. "Six faces in a cube. Eight cubes in a hypercube, right?"

Charles didn't respond. Butler shrugged, put throw english on the three. It sailed up, clicked the seven away, came off itself. He shrugged again.

"Each side in a square," he said, "connects to two other sides at a corner, which is a point. Each face in a cube connects to four other faces at a vertex, which is a line. So probably each cube in a hypercube connects to six other cubes at a something-or-other, which would connect to six other rooms, one at each surface."

"Pretty good," Charles said.

"I'm unconscious," Butler said.

Charles made the side pocket on the thirteen, came off the top rail with a straight-in on the ten. Low center english, to pull back on the fourteen, long down the rail. He laid the fourteen in, came across to the twelve on a short angle in the corner going the other way.

"I always wished I could visit that house," Charles said. "You could go through it thousands of times and never take the same path twice. Sometimes I feel like I've been there, in a dream, or a long time ago, when I was a kid. I get homesick to go back."

He made the twelve and rolled all the way back, trying for an angle on the eight. But the cue ball wound up so that it and the eight were equidistant from the spot, parallel to the bottom rail.

"Back here off the bank," he said, patting the pocket to his left.

"Watch the scratch," Butler said.

"Never in a million years," Charles bisected the angle. The eight sang off the rail on a line for the pocket. The cue ball banked above the side pocket, came to a wandering stop.

"Wow," Butler said.

"So that's the kind of rooms this wine has," Charles said triumphantly, lifting his flute. "It's hyperwine." He drank. Sweet as the translucent blood of angels.

"I'm not too good at eight-ball," Butler said.

"Any way you choose it," Charles said. He had gone to the window again. The Bronco was still there. "A great big shaggy dog story," he said, turning back. "Just a big long pointless joke." He lifted his flute again, considered the wine. "What I think the world is."

"So who tells the joke? God?"

"He doesn't exist," Charles said. "But it's the only way He would make sense if He did."

"Let's play a game a friend of mine invented." Butler said.

"Let me guess," Charles said. "The famous Johnny Wink."

Butler described something called Little Red Rubber Ball Baseball, a variation called White Little Red Rubber Ball Baseball, a poker game called McGinnis, and some sort of basketball involving the Ouachita Baptist University Tigerettes. He went into detail on a form of pool he described as the Sixty-Second Game. What was the point? Oh, games.

In the Sixty-Second Game, you stationed shooters at the four corners of the table. One broke, and then Wink started counting down. You shot on the fly, any ball off any other ball, the balls never stopped rolling. You had to put them all down before the count ran out.

"We looked like a bunch of cranes," Butler said. "Dipping and shooting and dodging and watching to to mess each other up."

"Sounds like demolition derby pool," Charles said. "Did you ever win?"

"We won a lot ... We won fifty-two times in a row once."

"You were cheating."

"We were not. We wanted to lose, all but one of us, this other friend, the famous Larry Johnson. You've got to meet Larry. We were staggering around the table at two in the morning, dead on our feet, but we were too hot, the game wouldn't let us go."

"So?"

"So we lost finally. But Larry wanted to try for a new record. He was marching around the table and yelling at us: 'You can't quit now! You're chickenshit if you quit now!'"

"Ok," Charles said. "But you do the counting."

"That was just an example," Butler said. "The one I'm talking about playing is called the five game. It's noncompetitive. We help each other."

"Doesn't sound like much fun."

"The only rule is to sink all fifteen with no more than five misses between you. The skill is how you think ahead and set your partner up if you can't make it."

"It sounds awfully easy," Charles said.

"So, if it is, we'll go to the four game," Butler said.

"Are you out of wine?" Charles said.

"Yeah, but I don't remember drinking the rest of it."

"Me either," Charles said. He pulled the other bottle out of the fridge, poured them full.

"So you know what heaven would be?" Butler said.

"What heaven?"

"If it's all a joke. Heaven would be when you get it. Heaven would be the laughing."

Charles held up his glass. "To laughter," he said. He didn't
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Title Annotation:short story
Author:Butler, Jack
Publication:Chicago Review
Date:Jan 1, 1992
Words:8338
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