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 empty plate.
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 the time.”
“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 an explanation.
“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 espresso maker.
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 bed.”
“Mountains. Farmland. City streets. You said you saw it in a dream.”
“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 me.
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 Old Style.
If Daniel would write a story, this is how it would end.