As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
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Documenting the gate by video or photo is prohibited
We’re walking through the centered skylight spaces of the mall. I drop back on the cloud-white floor tiles, holding my phone up to record a video. Beautiful in its own way to watch in reality, but when I replay the video, following Alice into a store selling soap, the video doesn’t show Alice, only oval shaped air heat-trembling at the edges. I replay it three times, shocked each time when I’m unable to see her.
I walk into the store. A woman in a blue dress holding a steel tray of lotions, each one in a fingertip-sized cup asks in a Scottish accent if I need help and I say no, walking the perimeter, pretending to shop for glitter-encrusted soap. I check back around the entrance, and then back inside, smiling at both the woman in the blue dress, and now, a security guard who is suddenly present.
“Got you!” shouts Alice from behind me and slaps my shoulders. The security guard rolls his eyes and turns around and makes a throat-slashing gesture to the cashier.
“Where were you?”
“Here,” she laughs. “Shopping. Where were you?”
“I was right here.”
Her face scrunches up. “What?”
The skylights are now filling with summer light. If you’re a child, you can drive tiny tugboats around a fake lake for a dollar, and ride a red jeep that seesaws for thirty seconds, for two dollars. The kids really like the fake lake with the tugboats. The parents like it too because they move randomly even if you don’t put a dollar in, so the three-year-olds can turn the shiny metal wheels for hours and it’s free.
Why didn’t we have kids? We talked about it early in our marriage and came to the conclusion it would change our life “too much” which, really, now that I think about it, doesn’t mean anything. What’s wrong with having kids to save the marriage? Sometimes I wonder what our baby would look like, what traits of mine would it have for a lifetime. I like to think she would have a great sense of humor so very little could hurt her.
Do not control the gate
Alice wants to get our photos done in one of those booths located randomly around the mall. Parents are pushing toddlers in carts shaped like cop cars and the retired are exercising with two-pound weights. A woman hitting a Starbucks with a straw is yelling, “Meeting at Dunkin Donuts! Meeting at Target! Meeting at Burger King! Meeting at Taco Bell!” Her belt is broken Christmas lights. I think I’m in love. A man in sunglasses is walking by dragging his body along the wall. He kind of slides and slips, slips and slides, repositioning himself if he slopes too low. A Best Buy supervisor is berating a worker about her shirt that she is frantically trying to tuck in. Down a grim hallway leading to the bathrooms someone is moaning. A baby vomits into her mother’s hands. How is everyone not screaming?
Alice tries to grab my wrist to pull me into the photo booth and her hand slips through. She has no reaction, but continues into the booth where she closes the curtain. Only her sandals are visible. She’s humming a familiar song, but I can’t place it.
“Vincent,” she says from behind the curtain.
Do not attempt to escape the gate
I’m walking toward the glowing letters of MACY’S and a stage with Fourth of July colors set-up for a dog fashion show. I slide my feet on the tiles and tell myself it’s okay, I have to break this rule, leaving is necessary.
Inside the pet store, a crowd of dogs press their wet noses against the glass, trying to get the attention of the dogs being assembled on the stage. The show starts in an hour and people are already sitting in the front row on white plastic chairs, their hands folded on their laps.
I make a U-turn at the MACY’S entrance with a man who looks identical to me, just older and more bald. He checks his gold watch as he completes another lap of power walking.
On my way around to the other side of the mall I notice it’s raining on the skylights. For a place so interested in consumption, I’m surprised they took the time for skylights. I wish the Zone had one. Elderly could use one in the hospital. Every structure should have a skylight, doesn’t seem right closing off the sky. Ambulances should definitely have skylights.
I continue walking with the old version of me swerving through the crowd far ahead. I’m heading toward the exit. Passing the lake with the tugboats, I turn to the right and I’m back at the photo booth, Alice’s sandals visible below the curtain. I look around because it’s impossible, I went a different way to avoid coming back to this spot. I had a plan. I can’t see where we came in.
She pulls the curtain to the side and peeks her head out. “You coming in? Everyone does a loooooovvvvveeeee picture.”
Do not confront the gate about its plausibility
The seat inside the photo booth barely fits our hips. Alice has selected a space cats theme for our five vertical pictures. As the screen counts down from five, I’m into the destruction. Looking at the camera fogged over with kids fingerprints I take a deep breath then tell her she isn’t real.
“Ouch,” mocks Alice.
On the next picture I say this life isn’t possible. She pretends to be punched in the stomach and smiles. I go into extreme detail, conference call style, about how implausible and temporary the gate is. For each light-blast of the camera I attempt to close her.
“I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” she says as we wait for the pictures to print, “but it’s not working.”
The printed strip falls into a plastic scoop with a clear door. She grabs it first, says they look good, then hands them to me as she walks ahead into the colors of the mall.
In each block, each photo, there’s a border with cats hovering in space wearing astronaut gear, one planting the flag on the moon, and below, in the five pictures, no Alice. Sitting with my wife, I’m alone. In the first photo I have my arm propped up and around an imaginary person. In the second I’m being kissed by a black hole. The third, no one on my lap, but I’m contorted like there is. In the fourth I’m tenderly touching heads with a void. And in the last photo I’m being shoved, my eyes closed as if flinching, by hands and arms not there.
Do not question humans inside the gate
I walk in a daze with no Alice near. I don’t know if this is a good thing, Alice gone again. I’ve lived years of my life doing nothing but missing her. I tell myself yes, it’s a good thing, you have the real Alice to concentrate on now and put your energy into. Think about the future. Think about your retirement
The sun is shining on the wet skylights and big globs of rain are streaking away. In the food court a man sitting alone lifts his face toward the light. I stumble through the tables and chairs filled with families. It smells like Chinese food, Wendy’s, and plastic tables sprayed with lemon scent.
“In the war,” says the man warming his face, “Sergeant Conway called sex P-Touch. You believe such a thing? We’re in Paris and he’s asking any set of legs Excusez moi, fancy a game of P-Touch? You believe such a thing? By your expression, you don’t believe such a thing. Why not?”
I’m hyperventilating, wondering what’s real and what isn’t. How can this man be real? How can his story be true? Right, he’s off the ride, lucky, on a different plane of joy. He doesn’t need a job, a retirement, reality. Maybe Dorian, PER, had something to do with what happened to Elderly, a way for me to not interact with such a person on a daily basis. I don’t think I’ll ever know.
“Oh my, oh yes,” the man continues. “Conway. Tough son of a bitch. Head like a soup can. After the war drove a forklift in a carrot factory, if you can believe such a thing. I can tell from your face that you don’t believe such a thing,” he says, now cleaning his front teeth with his finger. “A veteran in this country is no better off than a bum. Conway spent years begging for money and asking for P-Touch, using baby powder as deodorant, praising Jesus, oh the things we do. You do realize there is really nothing to do?”
Let the gate guide you
Through the atrium style windows the clouds are bunched in slate-gray levels, but the sun still cuts through ending in a block of shadow at the food court’s midway point. Near an Orange Julius in the far corner Alice appears. She’s standing motionless with her arms by her sides.
Turning around, wanting to leave, those doors are the exit we came in from, I’m sure, not really, Alice walks behind a kiosk selling discounted calendars.
The gate is collapsing.
Alice is standing in a store trying on shoes. Alice is walking into a store selling candy by the pound. Alice is crouched and rummaging in her purse. Alice is powerwalking with a group of Alices. As I move toward the exit, they all disappear. On the skylights, thirty Alices on all fours wave at me before being blown away by the wind or film yanked across the roof. I’m sweating in the air conditioning of the mall. Two more versions of Alice run past me holding hands. They disintegrate into a jewelry kiosk.
“Vincent!” shouts Alice from the upstairs level.
Alice is leaning over the balcony and her hair is falling around her face. What else, what other rules should I break to close my gate before tomorrow’s dinner with Alice? I’ve hit them all. I’ve tried my best to create room for the real and I’ve failed. I’m near the exit so I could run. I couldn’t hear it during the rain, there’s music playing in the mall, but why?
“Wait there,” she says, “I’ll come down to you.”
I get through one set of doors in a burst and there’s the roof of my car, blinding white with beads of rain in the sunlight. Alice comes through the door to my right extending her hand to my face. “Hey. You okay?” she asks, slightly out of breath. “I said wait up.”
Maybe PER Alice is messing with me. But a man is holding the second door open, not for me, but for her. “Oh, I’m good,” she says, and he lets go of the door, irritated. I love my life. I hate my life. I ask if we’re still on for dinner tomorrow. She says of course, why would it change. Her head tilts. She asks if I’m feeling okay, mentions my eyes, and I say yes, I’m fine, thank you, I’m fine.
At my car with my keys in my hand I look toward the mall. The only person at the entrance is a woman bent in half, holding a metal walker.
I’m not one for dramatic emotions. My parents, when forced to hug someone after a family gathering, used only their upper bodies. Feeling like crying, I never cry. Finding out Pluto wasn’t a planet was depressing. Never slam dunking a basketball, of course. A horror movie has never made me scream. When I was a kid, Dad took us camping on an island and I got lost. I thought it was the end of my life, but I didn’t scream. I sat under a tree for hours until he found me. But I scream, a kind of embarrassing yelp, when I get into the car.
“Never do that again,” says Alice, reaching over and starting the car.
“Disappear like that.” She puts the AC on just face, full blast. “What’s going on with you? What’s going on with us? The weekends are torture. All week I dread the coming weekend because I know you’ll be there, chewing. I hate my life because you’ve trapped me in A-ville with your job. I could have done things. I’m smart you know. I was smart. Now I just stay home and feed you. I fucking can’t stand it.”
Her shoulder is translucent and inside is a swirling storm of stars. If I look closely enough I can point out all the constellations I know, which is every single one.
“But what about RISSE? You wanted to do that,” I say as I reverse the car. A family of five in T-shirts holding Best Buy bags pass by in the rearview window.
“For a few days a week, yes, thank you for reminding me,” she says, sarcastically. “Thank you for telling me to be happy. But I couldn’t take the promotion because of you. I couldn’t do what I wanted to do because I’m with you.”
Instead of arguing, I drive. I’ve experienced this Alice before, and I sense this Alice ready to explode further. Everything she is telling me she has told me before. She keeps talking and it all feels true, it all hurts, the Alice of those closing months still alive.
Driving northbound, the highway on the southbound side is on fire in one football field length section. We drive silently under the weaving ramp system with trucks above hauling poisonous goods.
A block from home we pass a construction site with ten men in orange vests staring into a sinkhole. “It’s unbelievable,” she says into the window, “that everything is built by men.”
Shane Jones is the author of three previous novels. Vincent and Alice and Alice will be published July 9, 2019.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.