The last day was by far the longest and most drawn out. Not that I was nervous or scared; I had no reason to be. Surrounded by a multilingual crowd, I felt lonely the whole time. No one took any notice of me; even my escorts kept out of sight. Besides, they were total strangers to me. I should actually have felt relieved knowing that by tomorrow I would be shedding my false skin, because not for a moment did I believe I was tempting fate by sleeping in Adams’s pajamas, shaving with his razor, and retracing Ms steps around the bay. Nor was I expecting an ambush along the way—not the slightest harm had come to him on the highway—and during my one night in Rome I was to be given special protection. I was just anxious to get it over with, I told myself, now that the mission had proved a failure anyway. I told myself a lot of other sensible things, but that didn’t stop me from continually upsetting my daily schedule.
After a trip to the baths I was scheduled to be back at the Vesuvio by three o’clock. But at twenty past two I was already heading toward the hotel as if hounded there by something. There was no chance of anything’s happening in my room, so I walked up and down the street for a while. I knew the neighborhood inside out—the barbershop on the comer, the tobacconist’s a few doors down, the travel agency, followed by the hotel parking lot set back in a row of houses. If you walked uphill past the hotel, you passed the boot shop where Adams had left the suitcase with the broken handle for repair—and a small, round-the-clock movie house. The first evening I almost ducked inside, after mistaking the rosy-pink spheres on the posters for planets. Not until I was standing in front of the box office did I notice my mistake: displayed on the poster was an enormous fanny. The stagnant heat was starting to get to me, so I hurried back to the corner and turned, to find a street vendor peddling his almonds—last year’s supply of chestnuts had already run out. After scanning the selection of pipes in the window, I stepped into the tobacconist’s and bought a pack of Kools, even though I was not in the habit of smoking menthols. The hoarse guttural sounds from the movie loudspeakers carried above the noisy traffic, reminding me of a slaughterhouse. Meanwhile the almond vendor had pushed his cart into the shade of the Vesuvio’s sheltered driveway.
Everything testified to the gradual decline of what must have been an elegant hotel at one time. The lobby was practically deserted, and the inside of the elevator was cooler than my room. I scrutinized my surroundings. Packing in this heat would mean working up a good sweat, in which case the sensors wouldn’t stick. I decided to pack in the bathroom, which in this old hotel was nearly as big as my room. The air in the bathroom was just as stuffy, but at least there was a marble floor. I took a shower in a tub supported by lions’ paws; then, without drying off completely, standing barefoot to savor the coolness beneath my feet, I began stuffing things into my suitcases. While I was filling my toilet kit, I came across something solid. The automatic. It had completely slipped my mind. At that moment I would have liked nothing better than to ditch it under the bathtub; instead I buried it in the larger suitcase, under my shirts, then carefully dried off the skin around my chest and stood before the mirror to attach the sensors. There had been a time when my body used to show marks in these places, but they were gone now. To attach the first electrode I located my heart’s apex beat between my ribs, but the other electrode refused to stick in the region of the clavicular fossa. I dried off the skin a second time and fixed some tape on either side, so the sensor wouldn’t stick out beyond the collarbone. I was new at this game; I’d never had to do it on my own before. Next: shirt, pants, and suspenders. I’d started wearing suspenders after my return trip to earth. I was more comfortable that way, because I didn’t have to keep reaching for my pants, which always felt as if they were on the verge of falling. When you’re in orbit your clothes are weightless, but as soon as you’re back on earth the “trouser reflex” sets in; hence the suspenders.
I was ready. I had the whole plan down pat. Three-quarters of an hour for lunch, taking care of the bill, and picking up the car keys; a half hour to reach the highway, which allowed for rush-hour traffic with ten minutes to spare. I checked the chest of drawers, set my luggage down by the door, splashed some cold water on my face, made a final inspection in the mirror to make sure the sensors weren’t visible, and took the elevator downstairs. The restaurant was already packed. A waiter dripping with sweat set a bottle of chianti down in front of me, and I ordered a spaghetti dish with a basil sauce, and a Thermos of coffee. I’d just finished my meal and was checking the time when a garbled message came over the loudspeaker: “Telephone call for Mr. Adams!” I watched as the tiny bristles lining the back of my hands stood on end. Should I go to the phone, or shouldn’t I? A barrel-bellied man in a peacock-blue shirt got up from a small table by the window and headed for the telephone booth. Somebody else with the same name. Adams was certainly a common enough name. I realized now it was a false alarm, but I was still annoyed with myself: it turned out my composure was only skin deep. I wiped my mouth to get rid of the olive oil, swallowed a bitter-tasting pill, washed it down with the rest of the wine, and got up to go to the reception desk. The hotel still prided itself on its plush furniture, stucco ornaments, and velvet coverings, though it wasn’t hard to detect various kitchen odors coming from the back. The hotel: an aristocrat belching with sauerkraut.
That was the extent of my farewell. A porter carried out my bags, and I followed him into the stubborn heat. A Hertz rental car was waiting, with two wheels rolled up onto the curb. A Hornet, black as a hearse. I stopped the porter just in time from loading my luggage into the trunk, where I had a hunch the transmitter was stored, and sent him on his way with a tip. Climbing into the car was like climbing into an oven. I immediately broke out in a sweat and reached into
A women’s underground. Nothing took one by surprise any more. People had lost all capacity to be surprised. What were they fighting against, anyhow? The tyranny of men? I didn’t feel like a tyrant, any more than others did. Woe to the playboys! What were they planning to do to them? Would they wind up kidnapping the clergy, too? I shut off the radio as if slamming shut a garbage chute.
To have been in Naples and not seen Vesuvius—it was almost unforgivable of me. All the more so since I’d always been amiably disposed toward volcanoes. Half a century ago my father used to tell me bedtime stories about them. I’m turning into an old man, I thought, and was as stunned by this last thought as if I’d said I was on the verge of becoming a cow. Volcanoes were something solid, something that inspired trust. The earth erupts, lava spills, houses collapse. Everything looks so marvelous and simple to a five-year-old. I was sure you could reach the center of the earth by climbing down a crater, though my father had disputed that. Too bad he died when he did; he’d have been so proud of me. You don’t have time to contemplate the terrifying silence of those infinite expanses when you’re listening to the marvelous sound of the couplers as they moor the space vehicle to the module. Granted, my career had been a short one, and all because I’d proved myself unworthy of Mars. He’d have taken the news a lot harder than I did. What the hell—would you rather have had him die right after your first flight, so he could have closed his eyes still believing in you? Now, was that cynical or just plain petty of me? Better keep your eyes on the road.
As I was squeezing in behind a psychedelic-painted Lancia, I glanced in the mirror. Not a sign of the Hertz-rented Chrysler. Something had flashed back in the vicinity of Marianelli, but I couldn’t be sure, because the other car had dropped out of sight again. On me alone did this short and monotonous highway, now teeming with an energetic mob on wheels, bestow the privilege of its secret, a secret that had uncannily eluded the police of both the old and new worlds combined. I alone had in my car trunk an air mattress, a surfboard, and a badminton racket intended not for sport and recreation but for inviting a treacherous blow from out of the unknown, I tried to get a little worked up, but the whole affair had ceased to be an adventure, had lost its charm. My thoughts were no longer on the mystery of the deadly conspiracy, only on whether it was time for another Plimasine to stop my constantly runny nose. I didn’t care any more where the Chrysler was; besides, the transmitter had a hundred-mile range. My grandmother once had had a pair of bloomers on the attic line matching the color of that Lancia.
At six-twenty I began stepping on the gas. For a while I stayed behind a Volkswagen with a pair of sheep’s eyes painted on the back that kept staring at me in tender reproach. The car is an amplifier of the personality. Later I cut in behind a fellow countryman from Arizona with a bumper sticker that read: HAVE A NICE DAY. In front and in back of me were cars piled high with outboards, water skis, golf bags, fishing gear, paddle boards, and bundles in all shapes and colors including orange and raspberry-red: Europe was doing its damnedest to “have a nice day.” I held up my right hand and then my left one, as I’d done so many times in the past, and examined my outstretched fingers. Not one of them was shaking. They say that’s the first sign. But who’s to say for sure? No one can claim to be an authority in such matters. If I held my breath for a whole minute, Randy would certainly panic. What a half-assed idea!
A viaduct. The air made a flapping noise along the concrete uprights. I stole a glance at the scenery, a marvelous panorama of desolate green stretching all the way to the mountains that framed the horizon. A Ferrari as flat as a bedbug chased me out of the fast lane, and I broke out in another fit of sneezing that sounded more like swearing. My windshield was dotted with the remains of flies, my pant legs were sticking to my calves, and the glare from the wipers was killing my eyes. As I went to blow my nose, the package of Kleenex slipped down into the gap between the front seats and made a rustling noise. Who can describe that still-life spectacle that takes place in orbit? Just when you think you’ve got everything tied, secured, magnetized, and taped down with adhesive, the real show begins—that whirling swarm of felt-tip pencils, eyeglasses, and the loose ends of cables writhing about in space like lizards. Worst of all were the crumbs, hunting for crumbs with a vacuum cleaner…
Or dandruff. The hidden background of mankind’s cosmic steps was usually passed over in silence. Only children would dare to ask how you pee on the moon.
The mountains loomed up brown and sturdy, serene and somehow familiar. One of earth’s more scenic spots. When the road later changed direction, the sun started shifting around the car’s interior in a rectangular pattern, reminding me of the silent and majestic rotation of light inside the cabin. Day lurking within night, the one merging with the other as before the creation of the world, and then man’s dream of flying becomes a reality, and the body’s confusion, its dismay when the impossible becomes possible…
Although I’d attended a number of lectures on motion sickness, I had my own thoughts on the subject. Motion sickness was no ordinary attack of nausea, but a panic of the intestines and the spleen; though not usually conspicuous, they protested. Their bewilderment evoked only pity in me. All the time we were enjoying the cosmos, it was making them sick. They couldn’t take it from the start. When we insisted on dragging them there, they revolted, though training obviously helped. But even if a bear can be taught to ride a bicycle, that doesn’t mean he’s cut out for it. The whole thing was ridiculous. We kept at it till the cerebral congestion and hardening of the intestines went away, but that was only postponing the inevitable: sooner or later we had to come back down. After landing on earth we had to put up with the excruciating pressure, the painful ordeal of having to unbend our knees and backs, and the sensation of having our heads spin around like bullets. I was fully aware of the effects, because I’d often seen athletically trained men made so uncomfortable by their inability to move that they would have to be lowered into tubs where they could be momentarily freed of bodily weight. Damned if I know what made me think it’d be any different with me.
According to that bearded psychologist, my own case was not exceptional. But even after you regained your sense of gravity, the experience of orbital weightlessness would come back to haunt you as a kind of nostalgia. We’re not meant for the cosmos, and for that very reason we’ll never give up,
A flashing red signal traveled straight to my foot, short-circuiting my brain. My tires made a crunching sound as they rolled over something like spilled rice, only bigger, like hailstones, which turned out to be glass. Traffic was slowing down to a crawl; the right lane was blocked off with traffic cones. I tried to get a glimpse beyond the line-up of cars and caught sight of a yellow helicopter in the process of making a slow landing in a field, the dust swirling under its fuselage like flour. On the ground lay two metal hulks, their hoods up and their front ends rammed into each other. But why so far off the road? And why were there no people around? Again the sound of glass crunching under tires as we drove at a snail’s pace past a line of policemen waving us on with the words “Faster, faster!” Police helmets, ambulances, stretchers, an overturned car with one wheel still spinning and its directional signal still blinking… The highway was under a cloud of smoke. From burning asphalt? More likely gasoline. Cars began switching back to the right lane, and breathing became easier as soon as traffic started picking up speed. A death toll of forty had been predicted. Soon an elevated restaurant came into view. Next door the sparks of a welder’s torch lit up the dark interior of the car repair shops located inside the sprawling
Another curve. At one point I had the chilling sensation of being stared at from below, as if someone were lying on his back and watching my every move from underneath the car seat. The sun had fallen on the magazine cover featuring the blonde with the tongue on display. Without taking my eyes from the road I leaned forward and flipped the magazine over. For an astronaut you lead a pretty rich inner life—I was told by the psychologist after the Rorschach test. I couldn’t remember which of us had started up the conversation, he or I. There were two kinds of anxiety, he claimed—one high, the other low, the first coming from the imagination, the second straight from the guts. Was he serious, or was he just trying to console me by implying I was too sensitive?
A hazy, washed-out film was all that was left of the clouds. Gradually a gas station drew near. I was just slowing down when some crazy old sport, his long hair blowing in the wind, raced ahead of me with a lot of racket and show in a broken-down Votan. I branched off toward the pumps, and while the tank was being filled I finished the rest of the Thermos, with its yellowish-brown residue of sugar at the bottom. No one bothered to wipe off the oil and blood spots on the window. After pulling up next to a construction site, I climbed out of the driver’s seat and stretched my bones. Not far from where I was parked stood the glass-walled shopping pavilion where Adams had stopped to buy a deck of cards, imitation of Italian tarot cards dating from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. The station was in the process of being expanded; a mound of white, unlaid gravel stood surrounding a trench that had been dug out for a new gas pump. A glass door parted and I went inside the shop, which turned out to be deserted. Was it siesta time, I wondered? No, it was too late in the day for that. I wandered in and out of stacks of gaudy boxes and artificial fruit. A white escalator going to the second floor started moving whenever I came near it but stopped the moment I walked away. I saw a profile of myself on the television monitor installed near the front windows. The black-and-white picture flickered in the sunlight and made me look paler than usual. Not a clerk in sight. The shelves were piled high with cheap souvenirs and stacks of postcards all of the same variety. I reached into my pocket for some change. While looking around for a clerk, I heard the crunching of gravel under tires. A white Opel skidded to a halt, and out stepped a blonde in a pair of jeans who made her way around the ditches and into the shop. Though my back was turned, I could see her on the television monitor. She was standing perfectly still, only a dozen or so steps in back of me. From the counter I picked up a facsimile of an ancient woodcut showing a smoking Vesuvius towering above the bay. On the same counter were some cards featuring reproductions of Pompeian frescoes of the sort that would have shocked our fathers. The blonde took a few steps toward me as if trying to make up her mind whether I was a salesclerk. The escalator began moving without a sound, but the tiny figure in pants kept her distance.
I turned around and started for the exit. So far nothing out of the ordinary. She had a childlike face, a blank expression in the eyes, a delicate little mouth. Only once did I slow down while passing her; it was when she fixed me with those gaping eyes of hers, at the same time scratching the neck of her blouse with her fingernail; then she keeled over backward without uttering a sound or batting an eyelash. I was so unprepared for this reaction that before I could lunge toward her she slumped to the floor. Unable to catch her, I managed only to break her fall by grabbing hold of her bare arms as if helping her stretch out on her back of her own free will. She lay there, stiff as a doll. Anyone looking in from the outside would have thought I was kneeling beside an overturned dummy, several of which stood in the windows on either side of me, dressed in Neapolitan costumes. I grabbed her wrist; her pulse was weak but steady. Her teeth were partly showing, and the whites of her eyes were visible as if she were sleeping on her back with her eyelids half open. Less than a hundred meters away, cars were pulling up to the pumps, then wheeling around again and rejoining the steady stream of traffic roaring along the del Sole. Only two cars were parked out in front—mine and the girl’s. Slowly I got up and gazed down at the figure stretched out on the floor. Her forearm, the one whose slender wrist I had just let go of, swung limply to one side; as it pulled the rest of the arm along with it and exposed the light-blond hairs lining her armpit, I noticed two tiny marks resembling scratches or a miniature tattoo. I had seen similar marks once before, on concentration-camp prisoners—runic signs of the SS. But these looked more like an ordinary birthmark. I had the urge to kneel down again but checked the impulse and headed for the exit instead. As if to emphasize the fact that the scene was over, the escalator suddenly came to a stop. On my way out I threw a final backward glance. A bunch of brightly colored balloons stood in the way, but I could still see her prostrate body on the far television screen. The picture jiggled, but I could have sworn it was she who moved. I waited two or three seconds more, but nothing happened. The glass door obligingly let me pass; I jumped across the mounds, climbed into the Hornet, and backed up so I could make out the Opel’s license plate. It was a German plate. A golf club was sticking up out of a motley pile of junk crammed into the back seat.
After merging with the traffic, I found I now had other thoughts to occupy me. The whole thing had the appearance of a quiet epileptic fit,
The heat was beginning to get to me. I should have stayed behind and let myself fall into the trap—assuming it
I was determined to get a firm grip on myself, even if I’d already made a fool of myself. Like a bad but stubborn actor, I went back to playing the role I’d flubbed so miserably. At the next gas station I asked for an inner tube without getting out of the car. A handsome, dark-haired man inspected my tires. “You’re driving tubeless, sir.” But I was adamant. While I paid for the tube, I kept one eye on the highway so I wouldn’t miss the Chrysler. Not a sign of it. Fourteen kilometers down the road I replaced one of the good tires with the spare. I did it because Adams had made a tire change. As I crouched down beside the jack, the heat finally caught up with me. The jack needed oiling and squeaked. Overhead the sky was rent by the screeching roar of invisible jets, reminding me of the barrage of ship artillery covering the Normandy bridgehead. What made me think of that now? Later I had made another trip to Europe, this time as an official showpiece, as one of the crew from the Mars mission—though, as a backup pilot, only a second-rate, make-believe one. In those days Europe had shown me its more flattering side, whereas only now was I getting to know it if not better then at least more informally: the pissy back streets of Naples, the gruesome-looking prostitutes, even the hotel still boasting of its starlets but inwardly decayed and infested with street hustlers; the porno house, which once upon a time would have been unthinkable alongside such a shrine. But maybe it was the other way around. Maybe there was some truth to the rumor that Europe was rotting from above, from the top.
The metal paneling and tool kit were blazing hot. I cleaned my hands with some cleansing cream, wiped them dry with Kleenex, then climbed back into the car. At the last station I’d bought a bottle of Schweppes, but it took me a while to open it, because I couldn’t lay my hands on the pocketknife with the bottle opener. As I swallowed the bitter liquid I thought of Randy, who was listening to me drink while driving along somewhere on the highway. The headrest was scorching hot from the sun’s rays, and the back of my neck felt baked to a crisp. A metallic sheen lay shimmering on the asphalt near the horizon like a pool of water. Was that thunder in the distance? Sure enough, a thunderstorm. Most likely it was thundering that time the jets had roared across the sky, and the constant drone of the highway had drowned out the storm’s fainter rumblings. Now everything was drowned out by the thunder, which cracked through the yellow-gold clouds till a pall of strident yellow hung over the mountains.
Some road signs announced the approach of Frosinone. Sweat was trickling down my back as if someone were running a feather between my shoulder blades. The storm, displaying all the theatricality of the Italians, rumbled menacingly without shedding a drop of rain, while gray tufts of cloud drifted across the landscape like an autumnal haze. Once, as I was starting around a winding curve, I could see where a long diagonal column was trying to pull a cloud down to the road. The sound of the first heavy drops splattering on the windshield was a welcome relief. Suddenly I was caught in a furious downpour.
By this time my windshield had become a battlefield. I waited a while before turning on the wipers. When the last of the insect debris had been washed away, I switched off the wipers and pulled over to the shoulder of the road, where I was supposed to stay parked for a full hour. The rain came in sheets and pounded on the roof, and the passing cars left blurry streaks of iridescent drops and billowing sprays of water in their tracks, while I just sat back and relaxed. Soon the water came trickling through the side vent onto my knee. I lit a cigarette, cupping it with my palm to keep it dry. The menthol left a bad taste in my mouth. A silver-colored Chrysler drove by, but the windshield was so flooded with water I couldn’t be sure it was the right one. The sky was turning darker. First came the lightning, then peals of thunder cracking like sheet metal that was being ripped apart. To pass the time I counted the seconds between a bolt of lightning and a clap of thunder. The highway rumbled and roared; nothing could silence it. The hands on my watch showed it was past seven: it was time. I got out reluctantly. At first the cold rain shower was uncomfortable, but after a while it felt invigorating. All the time I pretended to be fixing the windshield wipers, I kept glancing out onto the road. No one seemed to take any notice of me; not one patrol car came my way. Soaked to my skin, I got back into the car and drove off.
Even though the storm was starting to ease up, it was getting darker by the moment. Past Frosinone the rain let up completely, the road was drier, and the puddles lying on either side of the road gave off a low white steam that mingled with the headlight beams. Finally, as if the land were eager to show itself in a new light just before nightfall, the sun came out from behind the clouds. With everything cast in an eerie pink glow, I drove the car into the parking lot of a Pavesi restaurant arching above the highway. After unsticking my shirt from my body to make the sensors less noticeable, I went upstairs. I hadn’t noticed the Chrysler in the lot. Upstairs, people were babbling away in ten different languages and eating without so much as a glance at the cars shooting by down below like bowling balls. At some point, though I couldn’t say exactly when, a sudden calm came over me, and I gave up worrying. It was as if the incident with the girl had taken place years ago. I relaxed over a couple of cups of coffee and a glass of Schweppes with lemon, and might have gone on relaxing if it hadn’t dawned on me that the building was made of reinforced concrete: the interference might have made them lose track of my heartbeat. When you’re transmitting between Houston and the moon, you don’t have to worry about such problems. On my way out I washed my hands and face in the rest room, smoothed my hair in front of the mirror with a look of self-annoyance, then drove off again.
I still had some time to kill, so I drove as though the horse knew the way and all I had to do was to let up on the reins. I neither wandered in my thoughts nor passed the time daydreaming, but just switched off and pretended I wasn’t there—“the vegetable life,” I used to call it. Still, I must have been somewhat alert, because I managed to stop the car right on schedule. It was a good place to park, situated just below the summit of a gentle rise where the highway knifed through the top of the ridge like a perfect geometric incision. Through this slitlike opening I could see all the way to the horizon, where, with resolute energy, the asphalt strip cut straight across the next sloping hump. The one closest to me looked like a sighting notch, the one farthest like a rifle bead. Before cleaning the windshield I first had to open the trunk, because I’d already used up the last of the Kleenex. I touched the suitcase’s soft bottom, where the weapon was resting peacefully. As though by some unconscious design, practically all the headlights went on at the same time. I scanned the broad expanse below. The route to Naples was streaked with patches of white that turned progressively redder as one approached Rome, where the road was now a bed of glowing coals. At the bottom of the grade, drivers were having to use their brakes, transforming that particular stretch into a vibrant strip of shimmering red—a pretty example of a stationary wave. If the road had been three times as wide, it could have been a road in Texas or Montana. Though standing only a few steps away from the edge of the road, I felt so alone I was overcome by a serene calm. People need grass every bit as much as goats do, and no one knows that better than the goats. As soon as I heard a helicopter churning through the invisible sky, I tossed my cigarette away and got into the car, whose warm interior still preserved traces of the afternoon heat.
Stark neon lights beyond the hills announced the approach of Rome. I still had some driving ahead of me, because my instructions were to circle the city first. The growing darkness obscured the faces of the people in the other cars, and the things piled high on the roofs took on weird and mysterious shapes. Everything was assuming a grave and impersonal aspect, full of hidden implications, as if matters of an extremely urgent nature were waiting at the road’s end. Every backup astronaut has to be a little bit of a bastard, because something in him is always waiting for the regulars to slip up, and if not, then he’s a stupid ass. I had to make another stop. The coffee in combination with the Plimasine, Schweppes, and ice water did the trick. I left the side of the road on foot and was struck by the surroundings. Not only the traffic but time along with it seemed to fade. Standing with my back to the highway, and despite the exhaust fumes, I could make out the scent of flowers in the gently fluttering breeze. What would I have done now if I were thirty? No sense brooding over such questions; better to button your fly and get behind the wheel again. The ignition key slipped between my fingers, and I fumbled around in the dark for it between the pedals, not wanting to switch on the interior light. As I drove along, I felt neither drowsy nor alert, neither edgy nor relaxed, but somehow strange, vulnerable, even a little astonished. The light from the lampposts streamed through the front windshield, turning my hands on the steering wheel white, then gradually retreated to the back of the car. Billboards came and went like phantoms, the concrete road joints drummed softly underneath. Now to the right, to pick up the city bypass that would bring me out onto the same northern route Adams had used to enter the city. He no longer meant anything to me now. He was just one case out of eleven. It was just a fluke that I’d inherited his things. Randy had insisted on it, and he was right: if you’re going to do a job, then do it properly. The fact that I was using a dead man’s shirts and luggage didn’t faze me in the slightest, and if it was a little hard going at first, then it was only because these things belonged to a stranger, not because their owner was dead. While driving down a lonely and deserted stretch, I kept feeling that something was missing. The windows were rolled down, and the breeze brought the smell of flowers in bloom. Luckily the grasses had already retired for the night. Not once did I have the sniffles. They could talk all they liked about psychology; in the end it was the hay fever that had been the deciding factor. Of that I was sure, even though they’d tried to make me believe otherwise. What they’d said made sense, I suppose, because since when does grass grow on Mars? Besides, being allergic to dust is not a defect. Even so, somewhere in my files, in the space reserved for comments, they must have written the word “allergic”—in other words, defective. Because of that diagnosis I became a backup astronaut—a pencil sharpened with the best possible instruments so that in the end it couldn’t be used to make a single dot. A backup Christopher Columbus, as it were.
I was being blinded now by a steady stream of oncoming traffic; I tried closing one eye and then the other. Had I taken the wrong route? I couldn’t find a single exit. A mood of apathy came over me: I had no choice but to keep driving through the night. A towering billboard sign lit at an angle read ROMA TIBERINA. So I was headed in the right direction, after all. The closer I got to the downtown area, the more congested were the lights and traffic. Luckily all the hotels on my itinerary were located close to one another. At each of them I was greeted by the same gesture of outstretched hands—“The season! No vacancy!”—forcing me to get behind the wheel again. At the last hotel there was a vacancy, but I asked for a quiet room in one of the side wings. The porter gave me an inquisitive look; I shook my head with regret and walked back to the car.
The empty sidewalk in front of the Hilton was flooded with light. As I climbed out of the car I couldn’t see the Chrysler anywhere, and it occurred to me that they might have had an accident, which would have explained why I hadn’t seen them on the road. I routinely slammed the car door shut, and as I did I caught a glimpse of the Chrysler’s front end in a fleeting reflection in the window. It was parked just outside the lot in the shadows, between the chains and a NO PARKING sign. On my way back into the hotel I could make out the car’s dark interior, which looked to be deserted, though one of its windows was rolled down. When I came to within five paces of the car, the head of a cigarette lit up the interior. I felt an impulse to wave but resisted, giving my hand only a slight jerk before sticking it back into my pocket and entering the lobby.
This was just a minor incident, magnified by the fact that one chapter was over and another was beginning. The cold night air lent everything a marvelous clarity—the car trunks in the parking lot, the sound of my footsteps, the sidewalk markings—which made my inability to wave even more frustrating. Till now I’d stuck to my timetable as faithfully as a school kid, not giving a single thought to the guy who’d driven the same route before me, stopped off at the same places, taken the same number of coffee breaks, and made the same rounds of the hotels so that he could wind up here, at the Hilton, which he would never leave again alive. At that moment my assumed role struck me as something of a mockery, a willful defiance of fate.
A young punk, swaggering with self-importance, or perhaps only disguising his drowsiness, followed me out to the car, where he grabbed hold of the dusty suitcases with gloved hands while I smiled absently at his shiny buttons. The lobby was deserted. Another bruiser loaded my luggage into the elevator, which traveled upstairs to the sounds of piped music. I was still feeling the rhythm of the road, which, like a haunting tune, I couldn’t shake off. The bellboy stopped, opened a set of double doors, switched on the wall light and overhead lamp, and turned on the living-room and bedroom lights; as soon as he was finished arranging my bags, I was alone again. Though Naples and Rome were no farther than a handshake away from each other, I felt tired, but it was a tiredness of a different kind, more tense, and that came as the next surprise. It was as if I’d polished off a can of beer in spoonfuls—a kind of stupefying sobriety. I made a tour of the rooms. The bed reached all the way to the floor, so there was no point in playing hide-and-seek. I opened all the closet doors, knowing ahead of time I wouldn’t surprise any assassins because that would have been too easy, but I did my duty anyway. I lifted the sheets, the double mattress, and then the headrest, though I didn’t seriously believe I’d never get up out of this bed again. Oh, yeah? Man is an undemocratic institution. His brain center, those voices from the right and the left, are nothing but a sham legislature, because there are also the catacombs, which bully him. The gospel according to Freud. I checked the air conditioner, then tested the blinds by raising and lowering them a few times. The room ceilings were plain and cheerful, unlike those at the Three Witches Inn, where the element of danger was so grimly conspicuous and where the bed canopy looked as if any moment it might collapse and smother you. Here there was no canopy, none of that syrupy, romantic atmosphere. Here everything—armchairs, desk, carpets—was neatly arranged in the usual display of comfort. Had I turned off the headlights?
The windows faced the other way, so I couldn’t see the car. I was pretty sure I’d switched them off, and if not, well… let Hertz worry about it. I closed the curtains and started getting undressed, not caring where my shirt and pants landed. When I was completely stripped, I carefully detached the sensors. After taking a shower I’d have to stick them on again. I opened the larger suitcase, the one with the Band-Aid box lying on top, but I couldn’t find the scissors, Standing in the middle of the room, I could feel a slight pressure in my head and the soft carpet pile beneath my feet. Then I remembered—I’d slipped them into my briefcase. Impatiently I yanked at the clasp, and out fell the scissors, along with a relic of the past—a photo of Sinus Aurorae, mounted in a Plexiglass frame and looking as yellow as the Sahara: landing site number I, the one I never made it to. On the carpet, next to my bare feet, it looked embarrassing, silly, full of nasty innuendo. I picked it up and studied it in the white light of the overhead lamp: ten degrees north latitude by fifty-two degrees east longitude, the patch of Bosporus Gemmatus at the top and the tropical formation below. The places I was to have reconnoitered on foot. I stood there with the photo in my hand, but instead of putting it back into my suitcase, I laid it down on the night-stand, next to the telephone, and went into the bathroom.
It was a jewel of a shower; the water came shooting out in a hundred hot streams. Civilization began with the invention of running water, with the lavatories of King Minos on Crete. For his tombstone one of the Pharaohs ordered a brick made of all the dirt that had been scraped from his skin over the period of a lifetime. And there has always been something vaguely symbolic about washing the body. When I was a teenager, if there was anything wrong with my car I used to put off washing it till after some work had been done to it, restoring its honor with a good wax job. For what could I have known then about the symbolic rites of purity and impurity and the fact that they had survived in all religions? In expensive apartments the only things I care about are the bathrooms. A persons feels only as good as his skin. In the full-length mirror I caught a glimpse of my soap-covered body still showing the imprint left by the electrode, almost as if I were back in Houston. My hips were still white from the swimming trunks. When I turned up the water, the pipes let out a mournful howl. The computation of turbulent flow that causes no resonances is still one of the seemingly unsolvable problems of hydraulics. What a lot of useless facts.
When I had finished drying off, not being too choosy which towel I used, I walked back into the bedroom stark naked, leaving a trail of wet footprints as I went. I taped on the heart electrode, but instead of lying down I sat on the edge of the bed and did some quick calculations: seven cups of coffee, counting what was in the Thermos. I never used to have any trouble going to sleep, but lately I’d acquired the habit of tossing from side to side. In one of my suitcases, unknown to Randy, I’d stashed some Seconal, a medicine prescribed for astronauts. Adams had never used the stuff, being apparently a sound sleeper. For me to take it now would have been an act of disloyalty. I’d forgotten to switch off the light in the bathroom. Though my bones were unwilling, I climbed out of bed. My hotel suite seemed to expand in the dark. Standing there naked, with my back to the bed, I hesitated. Oh, yes—I was supposed to lock the door and leave the key in the lock. Room 303. They’d even seen to it that I was given the same room number. So what the hell. I looked for some sign of fear in myself but was conscious only of something vague and undefined, of something bordering on shame. But I couldn’t tell whether my anxiety came from the prospect of a sleepless night or from that of my own death. Everyone is superstitious, though not everyone is aware of it. I again surveyed my surroundings in the glare of the night light, only this time with genuine suspicion. My suitcases were half open, my clothes were scattered all over the armchairs. A real dress rehearsal. Should I get out the automatic? Nonsense. I shook the self-pity out of my head, then lay down and turned off the night light, relaxing my muscles until my breathing became more regular.
Knowing how to fall asleep on schedule was an essential part of the mission. Especially when two people were sitting down below in a car and watching on an oscilloscope as a luminous white line recorded every move of my heart and lungs. If the door was locked from the inside and the windows hermetically sealed, what difference did it make if he’d gone to sleep in the same bed and at the same time?
There was a world of difference between the Hilton and the Three Witches Inn. I tried to picture my homecoming; I saw myself pulling up to the house unannounced, or better yet, parking the car by the drugstore and walking the rest of the way on foot, as if on my way back from a stroll. The boys would be home from school already; as soon as they saw me coming, the stairs would reverberate with their footsteps. It suddenly dawned on me that I was supposed to take another shot of gin. For a moment I lay there undecided, sitting up on one elbow. The bottle was still in the suitcase. I dragged myself out of bed, groped my way over to the table, located the flat bottle under my shirts, then filled the cap till the stuff started dripping down my fingers. While emptying the small metal tumbler, I again had the sensation of being an actor in an amateur play. A job’s a job, I said by way of self-justification. As I walked back to the bed, my suntanned trunk, arms, and legs merged with the darkness, and my hips stood out like a white girdle. I lay down on the bed, the slug of gin gradually warming my stomach, and slammed my fist into the pillow: so this is what you’ve come to, you backup man! OK, pull up the covers and get some sleep.
Then I fell into the sort of drowse where the final flickerings of consciousness can be extinguished only by a state of total relaxation. A vision. I was sailing through space. Strangely enough, it was the same dream I’d had just before my trip to the orbital station. It was as if the stubborn catacombs of my mind refused to acknowledge any corrections dictated by experience. Flying in dreams is deceptive, because the body never really loses its normal sense of direction and the arms and legs can be manipulated as easily as in reality, though with greater facility. The real thing is another story. The muscles are thrown completely out of whack; if you try to push something away, you find yourself getting shoved backward; if you try to sit up straight, you find yourself tucking your knees under your chin. One careless move and you can knock yourself out. The body goes wild the moment it’s liberated from earth’s beneficial resistance.
I woke up with a choking sensation. Something soft but unyielding was interfering with my breathing. I bolted upright with my arms stretched out as if trying to grab the person who was choking me. Sitting up in bed, I tried to clear my mind, but it was like peeling some horribly sticky wrapper from my brain. A quicksilver glare from outside was streaming into the room through a crack between the curtains; in its shimmering brightness I saw that I was alone. I could hardly breathe any more: my nose felt cemented together, my mouth was caked, and my tongue was all dried up. I must have been snoring dreadfully. It was the snoring that had reached me toward the tail end, just as I was waking up.
I got up, still a little shaky on my feet because even though I was awake my dream kept weighing me down like motionless gravity. Carefully I bent over my suitcase, groping blindly in the side pocket for the elastic band holding the tube of Pyribenzamine in place. The blooming season had reached Rome. The spore capsules in the south are the first to turn reddish-brown, and then gradually the fading process spreads to higher regions, a fact well known to anyone who suffers from chronic hay fever. It was two in the morning. I was a little worried that my escorts might jump out of the car when they saw my heart playing funny tricks on the oscilloscope, so I lay down again and turned my head sideways on the pillow, this being the fastest way to relieve a congested nose. I lay there with one ear tuned to the corridor to make sure no unwanted help was on the way, but all was quiet. My heart resumed its normal rhythm again.
I gave up trying to picture the house. I was no longer in the mood for it, or maybe I realized it was wrong of me to drag the kids into this. A hell of a thing if you couldn’t go to sleep without the help of the kids! The yoga would have to do, the kind adapted especially for astronauts by Dr. Sharp and his assistants. I knew it backward and forward like the Lord’s Prayer. The exercises worked so well that before long my nose began to make a soft whistling sound as the passages opened up to let the air through, and the Pyribenzamine, once it lost its effect as a stimulant, trickled into my brain and induced its familiar but somehow impure sleepiness, so that before I knew it I was sound asleep.