Audio: Jonathan Lethem reads.

1.

吻胸口解内衣R., a sculptor, rode a shuttle bus to the afterlife. He had no baggage. That the destination was the afterlife was understood, a given. This fact R. couldn’t have explained. He didn’t have to. None of the others on the bus—it was loosely packed, perhaps a third of the seats full—challenged R.’s certainty. They knew as well.

The facility was large. At a glance, all he had time for, R. failed to see its limits. Wide glass doors slid open, and R. and his fellow-passengers moved inside as if swept, yet willingly. Once they were within, the whole matter of the bus seemed irretrievably distant. (Had a movie been playing on an overhead screen? Had R. slept? What caused him to pay so little notice to the scene outside the windows, the journey that had led him here, to the afterlife?) In fact, as R. milled about, he soon lost sight of the doors by which he’d entered.

The central room, if it could be called a room, was almost unimaginably vast. Atrium? That was a word R. knew. This wasn’t an atrium, nor was it a hangar. The ceiling, though high, wasn’t so high as that, or arched. Instead, it was a flat, bland grid, translucent panels concealing the source of light.

Despite the size, R. was almost immediately aware of the presence of side rooms. Continuing to be swept by the general imperative of motion that had guided their entry, he and the others from the bus—which, he’d begun to feel certain, was only the most recent—dispersed and explored. There was room enough. R. turned a corner into one of the side areas, one relatively unoccupied. Windowless and featureless, in other situations it would have been a large room. It was small only in contrast to the larger area at R.’s back. There were at the start only three or four others here, others who, like R., kept moving, circulating across the endless floor, in some cases exchanging words. There seemed to be no prohibition on speech.

2.

吻胸口解内衣R.’s work, his efforts for the past decade or more (the work his gallerist had advertised as his “signature”), consisted of a green-gray oatmeal surface applied over a variety of acutely angled abstract forms. They were sized to stand on the floor, at a height of three or four feet, to stand as unthreatening, enigmatic bodies in public space. The surface was pebbly and matte, neither exactly fleshlike nor vegetal. It was approachable, natural in affect, though actually consisting of polymers and resin. The shapes were derived from elements of functional objects—computer stands, electrical outlets, dish racks, etc.—displaced from their context and enlarged, so as to become unrecognizable. Sculpture was everywhere; it only took his eye to know it, and a few gestures to render it and coat it in the green-gray oatmeal concoction. His eye was good. His work sold in bunches.

In this place, as anywhere, R.’s eye scouted for uncommonly funky or graceful design features—bannisters or handles, sconces or vents, junctures where piping met ceiling or floor. He indexed these wherever he went, and turned the best he found into new sculptures. Here, there were none.

3.

吻胸口解内衣R. began to wonder whether he’d find anyone he knew. Even as he registered the thought, he understood that this was a preoccupation among many of those roaming the floor. In fact, he saw now that it was this imperative that dictated the general movement, the characteristic circular milling. All present had seized on it by instinct, the urge to sort through the faces of others, in search of recognition. R. was party to this. More bodies had moved into the side room, perhaps feeling a kind of reverse claustrophobia, a terror of the vastness of the main space.

He grasped instantly that there was no reason to deny strangers acknowledgment. Or more than acknowledgment—brief, friendly greeting. Yet the hurly-burly militated against doing more. One was driven. There might always be a person one knew from before, if one only kept looking. Under such circumstances, even the briefest acquaintance would signify enormously.

A teen-ager, grinning, reached down, and touched the knees of R.’s pants. The gesture was obscure, not necessarily unfriendly. In any case, the teen mingled into the bodies and was lost. The crowd, loose at the outset, seemed to be growing denser. Was this happening only in the side room he’d entered? Perhaps it had grown crowded with those like R., who’d felt curious to see what it held. It appeared as though at the far end of the side room it opened to another enormous indoor space, one perhaps as without boundary as the one that R. had just left. Yet the density of bodies in the current room made it unappealing to attempt to cross. So R. turned back toward the large room from which he’d come, seeking free space.

Though things had grown generally more crowded, it was looser there, yes. He felt a little animation at this discovery, and a thrill—for the first time? Again?—at the extent of this space, and all the possible encounters contained within it. The smaller room, he saw now, had been a mistake, a waste of time. He resumed energetically milling. The point was to relish the freedom here, to refuse constraint. And among these numbers R. felt certain he’d find, if not actual acquaintances, then those like himself—his tribe, his type, his people.

“I hear—”

“Monsters are us—”

吻胸口解内衣“How long does this go on?”

吻胸口解内衣“Apropos of nothing—”

“Everything happens at parties.”

“Does remembering make you sad?”

“I said to her, if the future of sex is bald men with ponytails, I want no part of it.”

“—songs sung by ghosts—”

吻胸口解内衣“They quit stocking the minibar—”

“Tell me about the time someone gave you money for something crazy.”

吻胸口解内衣“What happens to your shit when you’re gone?”

“—vicarious holiday weekend—”

“I need a date.”

吻胸口解内衣“—perfectly good empty apartment in Bed-Stuy—”

“Funny? Or stupid? Or in bad taste?”

The moment R. attuned to speech, it rose and swirled around him. The fragments jostled his ears like the bodies jostling in this space. If he could have written the words down they’d make epic mediocre poetry, or perhaps lyrics for a post-punk band. Here, now, on the floor, was a man who appeared to be doing just that, writing on a scroll-like piece of paper, but when R. knelt beside him he saw that the page was blank, and what he’d taken for a scribbling pen was only a moving finger. The man had a beard and glasses—he at least resembled a poet. Having gained the man’s attention by joining him on the floor, forming a little haven in the sea of motion, R. thought to salvage the encounter.

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“It doesn’t add up to very much, does it?” R. said, with a shrug and a smile.

“It doesn’t add up to anything at all!” the man said. “Not unless you saw the sequel.”

“The sequel?”

“ ‘Avengers: Endgame’!”

4.

吻胸口解内衣R. understood, barely. The fathomless movie, its fathomless sequel, panoplies of superhuman characters dying and being reborn. A passion for those who cared. R. didn’t, or hadn’t.

“You’re wrong, Ted, this is absolutely the right time to organize three decades of photos.”
Cartoon by Kendra Allenby

吻胸口解内衣“I’m afraid I missed my chance—”

“Of course. You’re like me, you haven’t a clue! I need someone much younger.”

Did the man really mean younger? Perhaps, R. thought, he only meant someone who’d arrived at this place more recently than him. Or had they all arrived here at once? R. couldn’t know. Such thoughts only confused him. What he found sad was the drab common denominator, the franchise film. R. would have liked to discuss something more exalted with the distinguished-looking man. Real cinema, like Welles Orthman’s “The Munificent Unpersons,” say. Or the choreography of Katrina Rausch. That unforgettable long-ago evening at the Boerum Arts Museum, before Trina Mausch had died. But now this all seemed wrong, the signifiers jumbled, and receding into irrelevancy. Knowing the plot of “Revengers: Spendblame” might be the only social capital broad enough to signify here. Even that might be laughably parochial. Yet R. found himself wishing not to disappoint.

“Come, there must be someone.” He offered a hand, drew the man to his feet, back into the game. “Someone must know.”

吻胸口解内衣The density of bodies had increased even since R. knelt. Now the obstacle to communication was less the rapidity with which others moved than the cumbersome nearness of those to whom one spoke. Still, R. worked on the man’s behalf.

“Have you—did you happen to see—” R. found that he arrested no one’s attention whatsoever. He tried leading instead with the hook, calling to the ceiling, rather than to anyone in particular, “ ‘Avoiders: Shamegame’—anyone know how it turns out?”

吻胸口解内衣No reply came, only the rich incomprehensible babble and murmur of other voices, other priorities. When R. turned fully around he saw that he’d lost the bearded man in the movement of bodies. It wasn’t important, after all. He’d wished only to help, but it was a thing that couldn’t be helped.

吻胸口解内衣A middle-aged woman in a sari addressed him. In indirect reply to his query? He wasn’t certain.

吻胸口解内衣“I’m sorry?” he said, cupping his hand to his ear. “Could you . . . I missed—”

She smiled, seeming to relish the scrap of continuity, an actual exchange. “I was just saying how hard this must be for Westerners like yourself.”

吻胸口解内衣“Oh,” R. said. “Yes. Thank you. I mean—”

She was gone before he could ask her to define her terms: what was “this,” really? Then again, didn’t R. know what it was? Had his certainty wavered? Yet what, precisely, had the woman in the sari assumed about him? R. was distracted from his quibbles by a sudden awareness, as if a suppressed frequency in his range of hearing had been nudged open by her suggestion: so many of the surrounding voices were speaking languages other than English. He’d been filtering. R. felt shame at his own assumptions, the limits in his own terms of inquiry.

吻胸口解内衣Ahead, in the great stream of bodies, R. now spotted a kind of island, an area left vacant. He inferred it, as one moving through a landscape might infer the presence of a distant lake or beach from a break in the tree line. What formed this airspace? Why should there be some zone that others here avoided? R. felt compelled toward it. He longed for the elbow room. It really had grown impossible to move without making contact with those edging him on every side, despite how all were invested in the imperative of constant motion.

R. moved for the open space.

5.

The trench was long and wide, the sides banked and smooth. It sloped to water, perhaps to a depth of four feet at the bottom, no more. A handful of people had chosen—or at least R. preferred to think they’d chosen—to slide down. They now cavorted and splashed there, though it was hardly wide enough at the bottom to qualify as a swimming pool.

There was no guardrail. R. teetered briefly at the edge, trying to see. Were those at the bottom truly happy, or were they frantic?

吻胸口解内衣“Can they get out again?” R. asked the person beside him just then, who was too near to distinguish exactly.

“We’d have to help them.” The speaker’s tone was not uncompassionate.

“How?”

“Form some kind of human ladder,” the person mused, then squeezed off under a hedge of bodies, duckwalking to make an escape. The suggestion was adept, R. saw, though this level of organization seemed unlikely.

The waders had the pool to themselves, at least, for now. R., untempted, pushed away.

R. rode into the swirl, which had become almost like a human gear system. He found himself jostled upward, taken off his feet for an instant. His view of the plain of milling heads was instructive: the watery trenches were interspersed regularly throughout the vast concourse. The density of bodies made the gaps unmistakable. Had the floor slid open, at some point, to reveal the pools? Or was it that they’d become noticeable only now?

R. was pushed up against a structure that protruded quite unexpectedly into his path. Nothing so large as the trenches, it had been hidden in bodies until the last second. A kind of bench or table, it stood at elbow height. No—a minibar, a thing he’d heard mentioned earlier. Several bodies clung to it, like a raft.

Here, finally, a thing one might audition as a source for sculpture. Some portion of this bar or pedestal might give formal joy—to R., at least—if he envisioned it isolated from the whole configuration and sealed over with his distinctive green-gray oatmeal polymer. Yet how could he get far enough back to see it in its entirety? Hopeless. Anyhow, now that he bent to examine its join to the floor, the object was flagrantly, remorselessly uninteresting.

吻胸口解内衣He should quit thinking this way.

6.

New people had been continuously arriving, that was the only possible explanation. And R. felt he could judge this fact from their posture, from their murmured inquiries, the frisson of excitement in their tone even as they could locate barely an inch of floor to claim for themselves. You’ll get over it, R. wanted to tell them, but didn’t. He supposed he’d become a kind of veteran of this place, in what felt like little more than an hour. (Time was a ridiculous concept.) Hey, you kids, get off my lawn! he almost joked, but it was hardly funny. He felt both sorry for them and irritated that they could have no idea how easy it had once been to circulate.

吻胸口解内衣At this thought, R. faintly recalled someone, long ago, trying to explain this place to him, the system that prevailed. Of course, he’d paid no attention. You don’t care about that kind of stuff until you’re forced to, mostly. And why should he have cared to listen then? It wouldn’t have done any good. No, be where you are. Be there when you get there. And now he was.

7.

吻胸口解内衣So it came at last, the undistinguished thing. R. was certain he’d been warned. The teeming reached its limit, and R. found himself toppled with a mass of others down a smooth bank, into one of the trenches. The only space that remained. R. had had no idea how near to one he’d been, the instant before. It had become impossible to see beyond the heads and shoulders massing so tightly, there was no one to blame but—R. managed to arrest this thought. No one to blame. It was so obvious. None raised any real protest, despite their bodies struggling pointlessly, a residue of instinct. No, the roar of voices seemed mainly to emanate from above, from those just discovering their nearness to the trench, just losing their foothold at the rim. Down here, among the fallen, it was strangely quiet.

The bodies close—he’d grown accustomed to that. R. found it almost consoling. When the water reached him, though, he felt puzzled by the physics: could the weight and the mass have displaced the shallow pool upward through the crevices? Or had more water been piped in now?

吻胸口解内衣Maybe so. Then again, maybe not important to understand.

8.

吻胸口解内衣R. woke again on the bus. He gathered himself just as they pulled up again, outside the place, the situation he’d so easily recognized, even the first time—curbside entrance, sliding doors, etc.—and allowed himself to be swept, with his cohort, into the afterlife. ♦