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Zero K(4)
Don DeLillo

And years later, it felt like a lifetime later, I began to know the woman who now sat before me, leaning into the light shed by a table lamp nearby.

And in another lifetime, hers, she opened her eyes and saw me sitting there.


“Arrived late yesterday.”

“Ross told me.”

“And it turns out to be true.”

I took her hand and held it. There seemed to be nothing more to say but we spoke for an hour. Her voice was a near whisper and so was mine, in accord with the circumstances, or the environment itself, the long hushed hallways, the sense of enclosure and isolation, a new generation of earth art, with human bodies in states of suspended animation.

“Since coming here I’ve found myself concentrating on small things, then smaller. My mind is unwinding, unspooling. I think of details buried for years. I see moments that I missed before or thought too trivial to recall. It’s my condition, of course, or my medication. It’s a sense of closing down, coming to an end.”


“Do you have trouble believing this? Because I don’t. I’ve studied the matter,” she said.

“I know you have.”

“Skepticism of course. We need this. But at a certain point we begin to understand there’s something so much larger and more enduring.”

“Here’s a simple question. Practical, not skeptical. Why aren’t you in the hospice?”

“Ross wants me nearby. Doctors visit regularly.”

She had trouble dealing with the congested syllables in this last word and spoke more slowly from this point on.

“Or I get wheeled along corridors and into dark enclosures that move up and down in a shaft or maybe sideways or backwards. In any case I’m taken to an examining room where they watch and listen, all so silently. There’s a nurse somewhere in this suite, or nurses. We speak Mandarin, she and I, or he and I.”

“Do you think about the kind of world you’ll be returning to?”

“I think about drops of water.”

I waited.

She said, “I think about drops of water. How I used to stand in the shower and watch a drop of water edge down the inside of the sheer curtain. How I concentrated on the drop, the droplet, the orblet, and waited for it to assume new shapes as it passed across ridges and folds, with water pounding against the side of my head. I remember this from when? Twenty years ago, thirty, longer? I don’t know. What was I thinking at the time? I don’t know. Maybe I gave a certain kind of life to the drop of water. I animated it, cartooned it. I don’t know. Probably my mind was mostly blank. The water that’s smacking my head is damn cold but I don’t bother adjusting the flow. I need to watch the drop, see it begin to lengthen, to ooze. But it’s too clear and transparent to be a thing that oozes. I stand there getting smacked in the head while I tell myself there is no oozing. Ooze is mud or slime, it’s primitive life at the ocean bottom and it’s made chiefly of microscopic sea creatures.”

She spoke a kind of shadow language, pausing, thinking, trying to remember, and when she came back to this moment, this room, she had to place me, re-situate me, Jeffrey, son of, seated across from her. I was Jeff to everyone but Artis. That extra syllable, in her tender voice, made me self-aware, or aware of a second self, more agreeable and dependable, a man who walks with his shoulders squared, pure fiction.

“Sometimes in a dark room,” I said, “I will shut my eyes. I walk into the room and shut my eyes. Or, in the bedroom, I wait until I approach the lamp that sits on the bureau next to the bed. Then I shut my eyes. Is this a surrender to the dark? I don’t know what this is. Is this an accommodation? Let the dark dictate the terms of the situation? What is this? Sounds like something a weird kid does. The kid I used to be. But I do it even now. I walk into a dark room and maybe wait a moment and stand in the doorway and then shut my eyes. Am I testing myself by doubling the dark?”

We were quiet for a time.

“Things we do and then forget about,” she said.

“Except that we don’t forget. People like us.”

I liked saying that. People like us.

“One of those small divots of personality. This is what Ross says. He says that I’m a foreign country. Small things, then smaller. This has become my state of being.”

“I make my way toward the bureau in the dark bedroom and try to sense the location of the table lamp and then feel or grope for the lampshade and reach under the lampshade for the on-off thing, the knob, the switch that will turn on the light.”

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