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Zero K(6)
Don DeLillo

Soon I was turning a corner and going down a hall with walls painted raw umber, a thick runny pigment meant to resemble mud, I thought. There were matching doors, all doors the same. There was also a recess in the wall and a figure standing there, arms, legs, head, torso, a thing fixed in place. I saw that it was a mannequin, naked, hairless, without facial features, and it was reddish brown, maybe russet or simply rust. There were breasts, it had breasts, and I stopped to study the figure, a molded plastic version of the human body, a jointed model of a woman. I imagined placing a hand on a breast. This seemed required, particularly if you are me. The head was a near oval, arms positioned in a manner that I tried to decipher—self-defense, withdrawal, with one foot set to the rear. The figure was rooted to the floor, not enclosed in protective glass. A hand on a breast, a hand sliding up a thigh. It’s something I would have done once upon a time. Here and now, the cameras in place, the monitors, an alarm mechanism on the body itself—I was sure of this. I stood back and looked. The stillness of the figure, the empty face, the empty hallway, the figure at night, a dummy, in fear, drawing away. I moved farther back and kept on looking.

Finally I decided that I had to find out whether there was anything behind the doors. I dismissed the possible consequences. I walked down the hall, chose a door and knocked. I waited, went to the next door and knocked. Waited, went to the next door and knocked. I did this six times and told myself one more door and this time the door opened and a man stood there in suit, tie and turban. I looked at him, considering what I might say.

“I must have the wrong door,” I said.

He gave me a hard look.

“They’re all the wrong door,” he said.

It took me a while to find my father’s office.

•  •  •

Once, when they were still married, my father called my mother a fishwife. This may have been a joke but it sent me to the dictionary to look up the word. Coarse woman, a shrew. I had to look up shrew. A scold, a nag, from Old English for shrewmouse. I had to look up shrewmouse. The book sent me back to shrew, sense 1. A small insectivorous mammal. I had to look up insectivorous. The book said it meant feeding on insects, from Latin insectus, for insect, plus Latin vora, for vorous. I had to look up vorous.

Three or four years later I was trying to read a lengthy and intense European novel, written in the 1930s, translated from the German, and I came across the word fishwife. It swept me back into the marriage. But when I tried to imagine their life together, mother and father minus me, I came up with nothing, I knew nothing. Ross and Madeline alone, what did they say, what were they like, who were they? All I felt was a shattered space where my father used to be. And here was my mother, sitting across a room, a thin woman in trousers and a gray shirt. When she asked me about the book, I made a gesture of helplessness. The book was a challenge, a secondhand paperback crammed with huge and violent emotions in small crowded type on waterlogged pages. She told me to put it down and pick it up again in three years. But I wanted to read it now, I needed it now, even if I knew I’d never finish. I liked reading books that nearly killed me, books that helped tell me who I was, the son who spites his father by reading such books. I liked sitting on our tiny concrete balcony, reading, with a fractional view of the ring of glass and steel where my father worked, amid lower Manhattan’s bridges and towers.

•  •  •

When Ross was not seated behind a desk, he was standing by a window. But there were no windows in this office.

I said, “And Artis.”

“Being examined. Soon to be medicated. She spends time, necessarily, in a medicated state. She calls it languid contentment.”

“I like that.”

He repeated the phrase. He liked it too. He was in shirtsleeves, wearing his dark glasses, nostalgically called KGBs—polarized, with swoop lenses and variable tint.

“We had a talk, she and I.”

“She told me. You’ll see her again, talk again. Tomorrow,” he said.

“In the meantime. This place.”

“What about it?”

“I knew only what little you told me. I was traveling blind. First the car and driver, then the company plane, Boston to New York.”

“Super-midsize jet.”

“Two men came aboard. Then New York to London.”

“Colleagues.”

“Who said nothing to me. Not that I minded.”

“And who got off at Gatwick.”

“I thought it was Heathrow.”

“It was Gatwick,” he said.

“Then somebody came aboard and took my passport and brought it back and we were airborne again. I was alone in the cabin. I think I slept. I ate something, I slept, then we landed. I never saw the pilot. I was guessing Frankfurt. Somebody came aboard, took my passport, brought it back. I checked the stamp.”

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