“What’s it like?”
“To know everything,” I said, half-serious.
“Ha!” he spit. “I have a universe of information and a flyspeck of knowledge. I hear everything they’re thinking, everyone around us, all the time. But that’s not knowledge. It’s excuses and resentment and the lies they tell themselves to avoid whatever they’re afraid to think about.”
He pointed to our left. “The man over here traveled three hundred miles to a specialist; he’s getting the results tomorrow morning. He has cancer—I can feel it in him. I can visualize the tumor, though I don’t know the name of the organ that’s hosting it.” And as he talked, it was like the wall dissolved away and I saw the guy lounging on the bed in the next room, eerie content, leafing through some sales brochures like nothing was wrong in the world. “What is he thinking about—Cancer? No. Living a better life? No. He’s thinking: Plasma or LCD? Plasma can burn-in; that really concerns him. He’s dwelling on it. He won’t live long enough to pay the thing off.”
“Which isn’t a bad reason to buy one,” I said. “He’s scared.”
He turned in the other direction and that wall faded away, leaving a mousy blonde in a negligee and a real unhappy expression, close enough I felt I could reach over and touch her.
“On this side, Ulna from Orangeburg is waiting for her brother-in-law Rick to get back from the office. She asked Rick for a loan to keep her house out of foreclosure. Rick’s doing way better than Ulna and her husband—Early, that’s the husband. Ulna and Early—you can’t make this stuff up. Rick’s always been a little too friendly and now she’s waiting for him at the motel, ready to be friendly herself. She’ll get the loan—she’s a determined girl. Another little everyday tragedy. You know what she’s thinking? Over and over?” He began to sing in a weirdly-pitched voice:
I want a girl
just like the girl
dead old Dad…
And then, all at once, all the walls dropped away. For a few moments, the whole hotel became visible, stacks of rooms full of people, arguing and ignoring one another, watching TV and fucking, eating McDonalds take-out with the kids, counting money or emptying liquor bottles in glee or misery. And all of them saying one thing and thinking another, or a couple anothers. The first second was overwhelming; after ten seconds, I thought my head would split open. I had my hands over my ears until he realized what was happening and made the voices go away. When he continued a second later, his voice was soft, like he was trying to cut me a break.
“As for the rest? I’m getting old. This is someone else’s fault—fill in the blank as to who. Why is my husband/wife/boss/past such a bitch? I want to be happy but I’m afraid to change. Sometimes you get a bundle of ambiguous regret: I wish he was dead. Do I really want to take out a mortgage with him? But the rate is really low.”
He laughed his deep, scraping laugh. “Believe me, I’m making it sound better than it is.” He sat on the edge of the cot, which sagged like he weighed a whole lot more than he looked. “Other people’s thoughts are amazingly banal—what makes them meaningful are the feelings attached.”
“But Tauber said you feel things, you feel like you’re inside the other person.”
“Oh, I feel everything,” he replied. “Which only leaves me farther from any clear notion of truth. Nobody feels one clear, simple feeling at a time. We know what we want to do and twenty reasons it won’t work, all at once. The woman’s too good for us; if only she was more like Angelina Jolie. She loves me-she loves me not isn’t doggerel; it’s the persistent state of the human mind.
“I spent ten minutes once, standing within three feet of one of the world’s billionaires, easy pickings, homed in on him completely. I could have stopped his heart on the spot, given him cancer, shot sparks from his fingers. His conscious mind never let up the whole time: Build this, talk to so-and-so about that, the deadlines have to be tightened, appease the regulators, after this step, the next step is…The entire time, without letup, just one level below, a high, sing-song voice kept chanting in his head, You’ll die in the gutter, you’ll die screaming in the gutter, like a schoolyard chant. This is how everybody works. And from this swamp, I was trained to pull facts, make life-and-death decisions. So yes, I hear things but it’s a very limited gift.”