I feel rested and refreshed. I am in the private compartment of a
sleeper car, tucked into a very comfortable bed. The ceiling and
the walls are covered in dark brown wood. Right next to my
head, there is an oblong window with rounded corners. I wonder
what time it is. The sun is so high in the sky that I can’t see it
from my vantage point on the bed. It must be way past noon.
Just as I am about to climb out of the bed, I hear someone
knocking on the wall at the far end of the compartment.
“Your breakfast, Sir.”
A concealed door swings open and a liveried attendant enters the
compartment, carrying a tray.
“Good morning, Sir.”
The attendant lowers a drop-leaf table from the wall next to the
bed, sets the tray down on it, and aligns the edge of the tray with
the edge of the table.
“Enjoy your breakfast, Sir.”
Before I can say anything, the attendant disappears. I sit up in
bed to examine the tray. It holds a single white lily in a small
silver vase, a silver coffee pot, a wire rack loaded with three slices
of lightly browned toast, a butter dish, a white coffee cup, a white
plate, a silver spreading knife, and a white linen napkin
embroidered with a pair of crossed keys. I unfold the napkin,
place it on my lap, and pour a cup of coffee. It smells wonderful.
There is nothing like the smell of coffee in the morning to get into
the right frame of mind for the day, whatever it may bring. I take
a sip. The coffee is hot and strong, just the way I like it. I butter a
slice of toast and take a bite. It’s delicious. The subtle sweetness of
the toast and the slight saltiness of the butter are in perfect
balance on my tongue. I alternate between sips of coffee and bites
of toast. I eat all the toast and drink up all the coffee. I put the
empty cup back on the tray, brush the crumbs from the bed, wipe
my lips with the napkin, fold the napkin twice, and place it on the
I peel back the crisp white cover, lower my feet onto the carpet,
and climb out of the bed. I’m wearing a plain white T-Shirt and a
pair of white boxer shorts. My own clothes are on a valet stand in
the corner of the compartment, apparently freshly laundered and
pressed. My shoes, buffed to an impressive shine, are in a clothlined
basket at the foot of the valet stand. A white terry-cloth robe
is hanging from a wall hook near the bed. I put it on.
There is a pair of white waffle-weave slippers with rubberized
soles in one of the outside pockets of the robe. I put them on.
They fit me like they were made for me.
I examine the walls of the compartment and find a second
concealed door that leads to a surprisingly spacious bathroom.
Next to the white porcelain wash basin, there is well-stocked
toiletry shelf. It holds several bars of fragrant soap, a bottle of
shampoo, a bottle of shower gel, a razor, a shaving brush, a
wooden tub of shaving cream, a toothbrush, a tube of toothpaste,
a spool of floss, a comb, a jar of pomade, and a crystal flask of
cologne. On a low wooden table near the window, there is a tall
stack of white towels. I take off the T-Shirt and the shorts and
step into the shower. The water pressure is impressive, and the
warm water feels very good on my skin. When I step out of the
shower, I notice that the floor is heated. I wrap one of the towels
around my waist. I whip the shaving cream into a lather with the
brush and spread the lather all over my face. Just as I put blade to
cheek, the train lurches wildly from side to side, causing me to
cut myself. The cut is deep. It runs all the way from my left ear to
my chin. I black out. When I come around, I am on the bathroom
floor. The floor is warm and clean, but I am cold and messy.
Blood has trickled down my neck and across my chest. The white
towel around my waist is now rimmed in red. I grab the wash
basin, pick myself up, and wipe the blood from my face with a
fresh towel. I splash some cologne onto the cut. It stings. I take
another shower, carefully keeping the water away from the cut. I
clean my teeth, comb my hair, and return to the compartment.
The breakfast tray has been cleared away, the bed has been made
up, and the train has stopped moving. It has pulled into what
appears to be an underground station. I put on my clothes and
my shoes. As I bend down to tie the laces, I notice there is
something in the inside pocket of my jacket. I reach inside to take
it out. It is a plain white notecard.
It reads TAKE THE ELEVATOR.
I put the card back into my pocket, tie my shoelaces, and open the
door the attendant came in through when he brought the
breakfast tray. The door leads to a corridor. On the wall, between
the windows, there are framed engravings of monumental train
stations. I pass Grand Central, Gare de Lyon, and St. Pancras.
Eventually, I reach a part of the car that has doors on either side.
One of them is open. I step out onto the platform. There are no
stairs, but there is an elevator. The elevator door is open. I get
inside. The door slides shut, and the elevator starts to move.
When the door opens again, I find myself in the main hall of the
Tobogán subway station, alive with what appears to be the
afternoon rush. Golden light is filtering in through the tall
windows in the west façade. I turn around to locate the elevator
that brought me here, but the tide of commuters has already
swept me up. It pushes me past the long line of ticket windows,
through the giant revolving door, and out onto Avenida Allende.
I go straight to the Maria Negra. I sit down at my usual table,
between the broken jukebox and the out-of-tune piano. It feels
good to be back on familiar ground. I close my eyes and listen to
the hissing of the espresso machine, the clinking of coffee cups,
and the chatter of conversations conducted at nearby tables.
When I open my eyes, Daniel is sitting across from me. I’m not
surprised. He comes here almost every day. He is wearing dark
brown cowboy boots, a pair of faded jeans, a white shirt, a
shoestring tie, and a corduroy jacket the color of caramel.
“What happened to your face?”, he asks.
“I tried to cut it off.”
“To bring out the real me.”
“And who is that?”
“A character in a story.”
“You sound like a madman.”
“That’s because I am a saint. Saints are mistaken for madmen all
“You’re heading in a dangerous direction.”
“You started it. You made me who I am.”
“What on Earth are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about our game.”
The look on Daniel’s face changes from worry to irritation, as if I
have reminded him of something he is trying to forget.
“Don’t you want to know?”, I ask.
“I have known all along.”
“I know, but don’t you want to know if I got it right?”
“To be honest, I’m done playing games.”
I don’t know what to say to that. I just look at Daniel, waiting for
“It’s time to make something real. Something that lasts.
Something that will still be here when we are gone.”
This isn’t the Daniel I know. The Daniel I know only cares for
fleeting things. Music. Movies. Mysteries.
“Are you serious?”
“You sound surprised.”
“What are you saying? You want to father a child?”
“Then what? Plant a tree? Move a mountain? Build a house?”
Daniel wags his head like he can’t decide, or like I’m close, but
not quite on the mark.
“I want to show you something.”
He gets up.
“We haven’t even had coffee.”
“I’ll make some at my place.”
We take the yellow line to Daniel’s neighborhood. He lives in an
old mattress factory. We ride the freight elevator to the top floor.
Daniel pulls aside the battered metal sliding door. It opens onto
an enormous, high-ceiling-ed room, about the size of a tennis
court. The last time I was here, the room was empty except for a
rug, a couch, a pair of speakers, a turntable, and an amplifier. We
used to spend whole weekends on that couch, listening to jazz
records. Horace Silver. Dexter Gordon. Dizzy Gillespie. Dizzy
Gillespie is Daniel’s favorite. The real thing, he used to say.
Years later, when I was looking for a birthday present for Daniel
in a record store, I discovered that The Real Thing is the title of a
Gillespie album, released on Perception Records in 1969. 1969,
that’s the year Daniel was born. What are the odds of that?
Some days, Daniel let the music play even when we went
outside. When I asked him why he did that, he said that he liked
to hear the crackle of the needle running in the endless loop at the
end of the record when he came home.
That room is gone. Or rather, the room is still there, but what’s in
it now is so different from what was in it before that the room
itself seems transformed. It holds a vast model of the world we
live in, built to scale and rendered in exquisite detail. The model
is mounted on a plywood platform that fills the entire room, save
for a narrow walkway that runs around the perimeter. The model
is not exact or exhaustive in any mathematical or scientific sense,
but it has all the things it takes to make a world. There is a craggy
mountain range, complete with life-like mountaineers on hikes,
skiers on slopes, birds scanning the hillsides for prey, bearded
goats looking for greens on rocky bluffs, and cable cars that move
from peak to peak. In a narrow valley, an avalanche has buried
half a village under snow. A Saint Bernard dog is digging for
survivors. Steam is rising from its body into the frosty air. On the
terrace of a resort hotel, half a dozen people wrapped in woolen
blankets lie motionless like mummies. On the tallest summit,
there is a radio tower topped by a pulsing red light.
There is a sprawling city by a bay, cast in twilight and peppered
with thousands of tiny lights. Elevators are racing up and down
in glass-walled shafts on the sides of high-rise buildings. Dark
green trains are snaking around on elevated tracks. White steam
is wafting up from manholes and ventilation grilles. The city
streets are buzzing with bicycles, buses, trucks, and taxi cabs.
The sidewalks are black with people carrying shopping bags,
walking dogs, pushing prams, looking at window displays,
waiting at bus stops. A policeman in a too-tight uniform is
escorting a man in handcuffs to a patrol car parked at a curb with
flashing lights. An old man in a paper hat is selling hot dogs to
grey-faced people spilling out of an office building. One block
down the street, a boy in dirty clothes is selling newspapers to the
hot dog eaters. A few of the takers read the paper, but most of
them just use it to wipe the hot dog grease and the mustard off
their hands. They crumple up the paper and toss it, unread, into
one of the garbage bins that line the street.
Outside a movie theater, people are standing in line at the ticket
booth. A sandwich man is walking up and down the line of
moviegoers, advertising a special sale, everything 80 percent off.
Around the corner from the movie theater, a bald man in a dark
blue suit is running to catch a bus. Across the street, a boy in
shorts and ankle socks is running in the opposite direction,
chasing a floating balloon. At the back of the movie theater, a
pony-tailed brunette in a red apron is smoking a cigarette. She
watches a man in a long black coat yell into a pay phone across
the street. In a nearby alley, a masked man is dragging a pale girl
into an unmarked minivan. At the zoo, a group of schoolgirls in
pleated tartan skirts is feeding peanuts to a baby elephant.
At the cemetery, a funeral procession is in progress. A group of
mourners is following a marching band to an open grave. Six
men in black suits are carrying the casket. The casket is covered
with white lilies. At the gravesite, a tall priest in a black cassock is
waiting, clasping a book bound in black leather with both hands.
At the hospital, two paramedics in bright red clothes with white
reflective stripes are wheeling a pregnant woman on a gurney up
a ramp. She is clasping a white teddy bear with both hands.
Under a bridge, a solitary figure in a puffy jacket is putting up a
tent. In a tiny square, a girl with a guitar is playing to an audience
of one. In a stadium, a crowd of thousands is roaring with
frustration as the ball misses the goal by the fraction of an inch.
On the outskirts of the city, there is a fairground, but it is
deserted. All the rides are rusty and in poor repair. The
rollercoaster is stuck in mid-looping. The little train has been
derailed. The happy face painted onto the engine’s boiler drum
doesn’t look so happy anymore. The skeleton dangling from the
gallows outside the haunted house has lost almost all its bones.
The shreds of the fortune-teller’s tent are flapping in the wind.
At the waterfront, a small rowboat is getting dangerously close to
the paddle wheel of a giant steamboat. Near the water’s edge, a
drunk clutching a bottle in a paper bag is holding onto a
lamppost to steady himself. A skinny man in shiny shoes is
sitting at a small round table outside a boardwalk coffeeshop. He
is scribbling into a notebook, oblivious to the world around him.
Between the city and the mountains, there is an expanse of
farmland with fenced-in meadows and rolling fields. The fields
are dotted with open-bucket wells, haystacks, barns, and silos. A
girl in a red summer dress and a boy in a white seersucker suit
are walking, hand in hand, down a country lane. A man in a tight
blue outfit is riding a bike with drop handlebars on a winding
road. Down the road, a bearded man in a padded vest is watering
an apple tree with a garden hose. A crew of hot shots in yellow
helmets is fighting a crop fire just outside the suburbs of the city.
At the end of a gravel road, three men are hauling a big square
basket off a flat-bed truck. A rider on a pale horse is watching
them from the edge of a nearby forest. On the far side of the
model, a train is disappearing into a tunnel at the foot of the
mountains. Its red tail lights glow like a pair of blood-shot eyes.
“You made all this?”
“How long did it take?”
“You’ve been gone a long time.”
“I never took you for a tinkerer.”
“I really had no choice.”
“Someone made you make it?”
“Not exactly. I saw it in a dream.”
“The whole thing?”
“Everything. But I don’t trust my memory. Some parts I
remember very clearly, and very vividly. Others are blurry. I
made the model to make a record of the dream.”
“I’ll go make coffee”, Daniel says.
I walk along the perimeter of the model. I find myself drawn to
the city. It is richer in detail than the mountains and the
countryside. One of the neighborhoods looks familiar. Before
long, I discover the mattress factory. I crouch down beside the
model to take a closer look. Behind one of the top-floor windows
of the factory, I see Daniel spooning coffee powder into the stovetop
I suddenly feel dizzy, and then the lights go down.
When I wake up, I find myself in Daniel’s bedroom, lying in his
bed. I’m still dizzy. It feels like my brain is spinning in my skull.
Maybe the latch that normally keeps my brain in place has come
unhooked. Maybe the bed is spinning. I wouldn’t be surprised.
Or maybe both my head and Daniel’s bed are in rotation,
spinning at different speeds, or in different directions.
I close my eyes. After a few minutes, the dizziness subsides.
Maybe the spinning has stopped. Or maybe my head and the bed
are now spinning in sync.
I open my eyes. Everything seems normal. The guillotine window
is half-way up, but the room is very quiet. A black cat is curled
up in my lap. Suddenly, the door swings open. The cat looks up
in alarm, jumps off the bed, and dashes out of the room. Daniel
comes in, carrying a lacquered tray that holds a steaming coffee
cup, a gold-rimmed glass, and a bottle of Perrier.
Daniel sets the tray down on the night stand, opens the bottle,
pours the Perrier, and hands me the glass. I take a big gulp and
hand the glass back to him. He puts it on the tray and sits down
at the foot of the bed.
“How are you feeling?”
“Okay, I guess. A little light-headed.”
Daniel hands me the coffee cup. I take a sip. The coffee is good.
Hot and strong.
“I didn’t know you had a cat.”
“I don’t have a cat.”
“It was just here.”
“Nonsense. You must have been hallucinating.”
“I swear it was here. As real as you and me.”
“What is the last thing you remember before that?”
“I was looking at your model. Next thing I know, I’m in your
“Mountains. Farmland. City streets. You said you saw it in a
“I think you have a concussion. I found you on the floor when I
came back from the kitchen. You were unconscious.”
I take another sip of coffee and hand the cup back to Daniel. He
puts it on the tray.
“I think I should go home. Get some rest.”
“Now you’re making sense. I’ll call you a cab.”
Daniel picks up the tray and leaves the room. As soon as he is
gone, the cat pokes its little head through the door, sniffs the air,
zig-zags across the floor, jumps onto the bed, and curls up at my
feet. I pet it, very carefully, from head to tail. It squints its eyes in
delight and starts to purr. When Daniel’s footsteps are
approaching outside the bedroom door, the cat pricks its ears.
Just before Daniel comes into the room, the cat jumps off the bed
and onto the windowsill. It turns its head to look at me before it
slips out of the window.
“The cab is coming.”
I want to bring up the cat, but if I do, Daniel will make me go the
emergency room. They will shove me into a noisy tube, tell me
I’m fine, and charge me a fortune. What’s the point? So I keep my
mouth shut about the cat. Daniel helps me to my feet. I follow
him into the big room. The model is gone. The room is as it used
to be, empty except for the rug, the sofa, and the stereo.
“One last thing.”
“You said you wanted to show me something.”
“It can wait. Take it easy. Get some rest.”
Daniel walks me to the elevator, but he does not ride down with
Outside, day has turned into night. The cab is already there. I get
into the back seat and tell the driver where to go. As I sink back
into the seat, I notice a small bulge in the outside pocket of my
jacket. I reach inside. It’s a snack pack of Galaxy Minstrels. Daniel
must have slipped it into my pocket while I was unconscious. I
carefully open the pack and eat the Minstrels slowly, one by one,
while I watch the city glide past outside.
The driver takes an unfamiliar route. We pass a construction site
that I have never seen before. A crew of builders in sky-blue hard
hats and white overalls is working under powerful arc lights, but
it is too soon to make out what they are building. Time will tell.
Just when I have put the last Minstrel into my mouth, the cab
pulls up to the curb outside my building. I check the meter on the
dashboard. It says 0.00.
“What do I owe you?”
“The trip was paid for in advance.”
I get out of the cab and unlock the door to my building. I stop to
check the mailbox. In the box, there is a padded white envelope.
I take it out of the box and open it. In the envelope, there is a pair
of keys on a silver ring. I put the keys in my pocket, shut the
mailbox, and cross the lobby to the elevator. A note is taped to
the elevator door. The note reads OUT OF ORDER, set in Abbot
If Daniel would write a story, this is how it would end.