Let’s begin. You’re wondering what I’m going to reveal to you. I know. Because I’m reading you every bit as much as you’re reading me. Think about it for a second. All right, I guess it is a bit early for me to task you with much, I mean, you’re still deciding whether to read any further. Please do. If I don’t see you reading me reading you then I don’t exist and I’m pretty sure if I don’t exist, you don’t, either. So it’s in both of our interests for you to keep reading.
I’m talking science. Your eyeballs are scanning my words and sending them as pulses of electricity from neuron to neuron along your optic nerves to the visual cortex which parcels it out to various other parts of your brain which then make sense of them. In this way, your brain is busy turning my words into me. And because your consciousness arises from sensory engagement with the external (sorry, Divine Finger on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel), the process of you reading me actually creates your experience of being alive.
But before we continue, weren’t you about to get something to eat?
Buddy had been about to go out for some tapas and a glass or two of tinto rioja at that place on the corner. How the hell did the notebook know? The rest of its pages were blank. A title, ICUCMe, was scrawled on the flyleaf. He thought, what a bizarre notebook, then his stomach gurgled so he dropped the notebook on the table beside the bed and went out.
It was the summer of 1982 in Madrid. Hot, dry, tourists everywhere. He sat at a table outside the taberna with a glass of the local red, a dish of olives and a platter of pork croquetas wondering if he’d somehow stepped into an episode of Twilight Zone. First Annika disappeared without a word, then that strange notebook she must have left behind claimed to be writing his life. One minute they were walking through the galleries of the Prado babbling on about the point of view wonders in the Velasquez masterpiece, Las Meninas, who is looking at who and how the viewer is sucked into the discourse to become part of the painting.
He entered a side gallery chattering away, assuming she was beside him. But no. He turned to her and she wasn’t there. Did he say something or do something to drive her away so abruptly? They were talking about nothing, a seventeenth century painting. She was just—gone.
He searched the Museo for hours, scanning galleries and halls for her blonde ponytail bouncing above the masses of shorter and darker tourists. He battered his way through the mobs that flooded the galleries following guides holding aloft pennants of many colours, like the painting of a Civil War battle in the entry hall of the Confederate Widows’ Home back in Richmond, a frenzied mob of gray and blue soldiers killing and being killed beneath bullet-shredded flags that tilted at each other as the men tilted at each other.
The uniformed guards were no help. They didn’t notice individuals, only moving masses around the paintings and sculptures.
She was nowhere to be found. Anxious, sensing something bad, Buddy went back to the room they shared hoping she’d returned there. She had, in a way: her stuff was gone except for the notebook peeking out from under the bed where she must have missed it.
And so, sitting at a table on a side street in Madrid, the terra-cotta walls across the street casting longer and longer shadows as the sun dropped towards the horizon, Buddy was awash in strangeness. He watched early strollers along the calle, their shadows grotesquely elongated and twisted on sidewalk and wall, and waited for normalcy to return. It didn’t. He took no pleasure in the wine or the food and after less than half an hour he retreated to his room hoping to hide away from the strangeness. The notebook lay on the table where he’d left it.
He threw himself on the bed and dug his own spiral-bound notebook out of his backpack. It was where he wrote the occasional note on the novel he was supposed to be writing. Buddy stared at a blank page and chewed on the end of a ballpoint pen and nothing came. The same impulse that makes one pick at a scab made him pick up the mysterious notebook. If he was going to stare at a blank page he might just as well stare at a blank page in the notebook and confront one source of his disquiet.
Which he did, only to find that several once-empty pages were now filled with more neat, hand printed text that described him searching the Prado fruitlessly for Annika, discovering her departure from their room, discovering the notebook, sitting at the taberna. In tiny lettering inserted here and there were descriptions of his feelings and thoughts. Buddy read and as he read the fine hairs all over his body stuck up in fear.
You are Bud Faber, Buddy to your family, friends and lovers, Branford Maurice Faber III to the Internal Revenue Service. Twenty-five years old, about five foot nine, 160 pounds and reasonably fit. Your brown hair is fine like his mother’s. You’re a budding (pun!) writer with a couple of short story awards to your credit and one novel published, Reconstruction Follies, based on an event in your family’s history.
The Fabers are among Virginia’s first families, tracing themselves back to John Branford, who arrived on the Godspeed in 1607 and helped found Jamestown. You are savvy enough to know that’s a meaningless distinction in the late twentieth century but it is an unending supply of story ideas for you.
Reconstruction Follies was good enough to be picked up by a boutique paperback house specializing in Southern novels and it sold well enough that the publisher gave you an advance for another one just like the first one only different, not art but commerce. You could see that and figured you could transpose the basic narrative line of the first novel from Reconstruction Richmond to Colonial Jamestown. Formula sells. MGM and Paramount and Warner Brothers survived on much the same swashbuckling story line for most of the first half of the twentieth century.
But you don’t have Hollywood’s immunity to shlock. The work isn’t going well. In fact, it’s crap. It’s so bad you can’t stand to read what you’ve done so far. It’s so bad you haven’t written a line in over two months. Your agent suggested a vacation in Europe. Spain is cheap. Flush the brain, ease the stress. After a few days in Madrid you met Annika Asher from Stockholm and they fell in together. She was remarkably interested in your background and easy to talk to.
The second novel’s deadline looms and you’re now hiding in a rented room with your Day-Glo green spiral notebook full of crap and Annika did a runner on you and this weird notebook (which you’re reading right now) claims it is writing you and everything you’ve ever written so far seems so utterly banal that you just might give up the whole enterprise and go back to Richmond, take a desk job in the family business (investments, in case anyone cares) and forget this writer thing. And so, sitting with your knees folded up to your chin and your arms clasped around your shins you feel himself under siege within and without.
“No!” Buddy yelled at the notebook and flung it into a corner. “That’s not what I was feeling!” Though it was. And then he felt like an idiot for yelling at a notebook. He sat on the bed and stared at the notebook lying face down on the bare wooden floor and counted breaths until his heartbeat slowed and the flush left his face. He watched it for a long time, half expecting it to scuttle across the floor like a great black spider. But it was just a bound notebook, roughly 5” x 7”, with a pebbled soft leather cover. An inanimate object. A thing. He could see that it was handsome in its way.
He slid off the bed and retrieved the notebook. Well-proportioned, conveniently sized, supple and pleasing to the touch. More convenient than his spiral notebook. He leafed through it and yes, there was page after page of writing in neat lettering on the white lined paper. Subsequent pages were empty, waiting to be filled.
“Presumably with my life,” he said. Speaking aloud felt unexpectedly good. Reasonable. Reassuring. So he continued lecturing aloud to himself. “Inanimate objects are just that, not animated. Consider the Latin root, ‘anima’, living, then tack on ‘in.’ Not. And there you are, not living. This notebook, not being a living thing, cannot be creating the words and sentences and meanings that appear on its pages as if by magic. Somebody, some person, must be doing the writing because it sure wasn’t mice. Though mice at least were ‘anima’. And yes, I know I’m a pedant.”
By this time Buddy was feeling much better. The notebook lay in his hand without the slightest twitch. But the next moment his train of thought dropped him at another disturbing destination. There was only one somebody, one person, who could be writing the words that were appearing in the notebook.
Who else could know what he was doing, thinking, feeling? He must be writing out the details of what he’s living in some kind of fugue state for the rest of his mind to discover. He sighed heavily. So he’d gone crazy somewhere between the Prado and the room and never noticed.
Aside: He’s wrong, of course, but how could he know? More to the point, why does he believe he’s lost his mind? Because there is precedent for crazy in his family. Buddy’s always been more than half-convinced he’ll inherit the family’s bent towards insanity like other families pass down genes for diabetes or red hair. His aunt Elizabeth walks and talks with a God nobody else can see. Every day, sometimes in tongues, sometimes all day.
Great Grandfather Faber came home from WWI France a believer in arcane knowledge, secret wisdom he intuited while piloting his scout plane above German lines, illuminated in the frigid glow of a nearer sun. Theosophy; Masonic rituals; Madame Blavatsky; the Kabbalah. All attracted his mind like iron filings to a bar magnet. After he interrupted a session of the Virginia General Assembly to rant about the Illuminati the family was forced to lock him away. His father, perhaps sensing the proximity of madness, turned early to drink.
If you’re beginning to feel these intrusions are annoying, consider who’s making them.
Convinced he had to be the mysterious notebook writer and flooded with a mixture of relief and despair, Buddy headed for the now-dark streets to join the Madrileños in their evening strolls. The nighttime scene was hectic. He wandered from bar to bar along the crowded, narrow, neon-lit streets nibbling on tapas and buying glasses of wine.
Somewhere around midnight, woozy from too much wine, he noticed he’d picked up a new girlfriend, an attentive young woman, dark and small in a gay print summer dress who linked arms with him and guided him through a doorway and up a steep flight of stairs, after which he didn’t remember much—other than a brief memory of his jeans draped over a chair back.
At three in the morning he found himself in his room drunk beyond all prior experience, 11,000 pesetas poorer—all the cash he’d been carrying—and with a dose of clap that would require two rounds of Spanish Penicillin to tame. He collapsed fully clothed on the unmade bed and was asleep in a moment.
Before the sun rose he was rousted by two uniformed officers of the Policia Nacional who broke through the door, yanked him off the bed and dragged him unresisting down the stairs. They took his empty wallet and his passport and the notebook and threw him into the back seat of their Citroën. The assault was so quick and so violent that his brain, still fuzzy from alcohol and sleep, didn’t have time to react.
The back seat of the car smelled like vomit, which triggered Buddy’s stomach to heave up whatever remained in it. The officers up front didn’t react but as he was pulled out of the car his head was slammed against the rear door frame hard enough to knock him out.
They deposited him in an airless, windowless interrogation cube, less than half conscious and smelling like a sewer. His shoes and belt were taken from him and he was left alone handcuffed to a metal table that was bolted to the concrete floor. Barely aware of his surroundings, all he could think was that he was going to be beaten to death in this room and tears formed in his eyes. He touched the throbbing lump on the back of his head and his fingers came away sticky with blood.
After a period of time that Buddy could not fathom a policeman entered the room holding a large brown paper bag. Gold braid on his lapels showed he was a senior officer. He began the interrogation by slamming his fist down on the table and screaming at Buddy in Spanish.
Somewhat recovered and no longer in immediate fear for his life, Buddy squinted up at the senior official and said, “Please call the American Embassy.” He was being reasonable.
Undaunted, the officer paced back and forth, arms and hands flung about wildly, yelling at him in Spanish.
Buddy could make no sense of it. In the face of the officer’s continued assault in a language he didn’t understand, he said, “Please call the American Embassy.” It was the only thing he could think to say.
In response, the officer pulled a ripped white backpack out of the paper bag and dumped it on the table. Buddy recognized it at once by the blue and yellow logo printed on the back, “Video World Sweden.” It was Annika’s backpack.
“What happened?” Something very bad. “Where is she?”
In response, the officer’s manner changed. He dropped into the chair on the other side of the table, sighed, pushed the backpack an inch towards Buddy, and speaking casually, almost companionably though still in Spanish, he pointed out what appeared to be knife slashes and black smears that could be tar or tire tracks. Then he pointed to what looked to be bloodstains discolouring the pack’s shoulder straps.
Buddy gasped. “What happened to her?” he said. “Is she okay?”
The officer shook his head.
Buddy understood. She was dead. He hadn’t known her long or well but they’d traveled around Madrid together, visited nearby tourist sites together, shared a bed for the better part of a week. “No no no no!” He waved his free hand violently. “She disappeared in the Prado yesterday. Before noon. Annika. She left. Gone.”
The officer looked disappointed. Buddy understood he was supposed to confess to murder. It took the officer another half hour to be convinced that Buddy would neither start speaking Spanish, confess to her murder or say anything other than “American Embassy.” So he had Buddy locked up.
He spent the rest of the day the only prisoner in a cell in the station’s basement. The cell had a metal toilet that flushed, a metal sink and faucet. And though the toilet stank, these amenities greatly improved his condition and the locked bars around him were some assurance he wouldn’t be killed outright. Still cowed, the remains of his last night’s binge wore off. He drank from the faucet, rinsed out his vomit-stained pants and shirt and fell asleep in his boxers and tee shirt on a metal shelf bolted to the concrete wall of his cell.
Hours later he woke, his head much clearer, and found half a soft bun and a small slice of cheese on a metal plate on the floor near the cell door. Buddy stretched, used the toilet. He sat on the bare concrete floor, his back against iron bars, ate and wondered: since he couldn’t remember writing the text in the notebook, was it possible that he’d killed Annika and didn’t know it?
So he set about recalling every minute of his life from the moment he turned and discovered Annika wasn’t beside him until his arrest. He was careful. He was honest with himself. By the time they turned out the fluorescent bulbs overhead he was able to account for all his time except for the hours after he’d met the girl. Was it in a bar?
What’s more, he hadn’t changed his clothes since the night before and there was no blood on them anywhere. If he’d killed Annika the way the backpack’s evidence suggested, then her blood would have been all over him and his clothes and there was nothing.
Remembering where he’d been and what he’d done all day also convinced him he couldn’t be the author of what was being written in the notebook, therefore he hadn’t gone mad—yet—and this reopened the mystery of the notebook.
Maybe it was a ghost writer after all. The unconscious pun made him laugh out loud and that lightened his spirits. He lay on the shelf in the dark and when he wondered if he’d get the notebook back.
Aside: Regarding the mystery of the notebook, the question is: in which order are things happening, the writing first or the living first? Which way is the causal arrow flowing?
Buddy was released the following day with no explanation, no apology and no visit from the American Embassy. He woke to the fluorescent bulbs glaring down at him and the sound of his cell door clanking open. After watching him pee and dress, a uniformed guard half-led, half-dragged him up three flights of concrete stairs and through a steel door onto the main floor of the station.
“Wait, what about Annika?” Buddy cried. Ignoring him, another officer grabbed him by the upper arm and led him to a counter where, in return for signing a form–the ballpoint pen they gave him leaked all over his fingers and smeared the paper—he received his wallet, passport, shoes, belt and notebook. Then he was quick-marched to the front door and shoved out into the morning light. Traffic rushed by on a narrow street made narrower by cars parked on both sides, their tires hiked up onto the sidewalks.
Buddy sat and put on his shoes, then slid his belt through the loops of his jeans. He thought of Annika’s body huddled up against the wall of an alley or flung away in a field like a torn Raggedy Ann doll and felt awful. He’d probably never know what happened to her.
Except that he did. Because there, across the street, sitting at a table under an oak tree with a glass of wine in front of her, was Annika. She waved to him. A man stood beside her with a video camera on his shoulder pointed at him. He was being recorded.
She was alive. And well. “What the hell?”
He didn’t understand. The officer told him she was dead. He presented the torn and bloodied backpack. The logo on her backpack: “Video World Sweden.” Evidence of murder and yet there she was, sitting at a table.
But wait, the officer never said Annika was dead. He implied she was murdered.
How could she—? Video World Sweden. Recording him. Not Twilight Zone but Candid Camera. Only much, much crueler. Anger flushed his neck and face.
He stalked across the street and stood beside Annika, positioning himself so that all the cameraman could see was his back. “It was all a scam,” he said.
She looked up and smiled brightly at him. “Hello, Buddy Faber from Richmond, Virginia. This is Johan taping you. Say hello to our viewers.” Johan moved around to frame a two-shot of them talking. Buddy ignored him.
"And there,” she pointed at the entrance to the police station Another large man was coming out holding the backpack waving a sheet of paper at them, “Is Anders. They’re my crew.”
Anders joined them, dug a video cassette out of the ripped and stained backpack, waved it at Buddy and handed the sheet of ink-smeared paper to Annika. She said, “You signed a release.”
“And this is a copy of the interrogation tape,” Anders said.
Buddy looked at her, confused.
“The paper you signed in the station,” she said.
Ah. He hadn’t signed a police form when they returned his possessions to him, he’d signed a release that allowed them to televise him. And they’d waited there so they could record his reactions when they taped the reveal. These people were despicable.
“The police were in on it as well,” he said.
“Of course,” she said. She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together: money paid.
“That’s damn cold.”
“Don’t be like that.”
“Don’t be like what? Angry? Threatened? Beaten?”
“Come on, man,” said Johan. His Americanisms sounded awkward in his Swedish mouth. “We are just making a TV show. No harm done.”
Buddy turned on him. “No harm done? They arrested and interrogated me. Bashed my head.” He felt the scab on the back of his scalp. “Accused me of murder. Threw me in jail for a day and night. What’s wrong with you people?”
Annika smirked. Clearly, she was proud of what they’d done to him.
“But how?” Buddy said.
“Hidden cameras everywhere, man,” Johan said. “Plus two of us following you. You never noticed.”
“And the notebook?” Buddy held up the one he thought he’d signed for. He didn’t have to look inside to know it now included a description of his interrogation and detention. Annika grabbed for it but he yanked it out of her reach.
Anders held up a second, identical notebook. “Two, actually. We swapped them out. Watching your face as you read it will be great television.”
Annika shrugged. “You were there. You were easy. Just another spoiled American stumbling through the world as if it all belongs to you.”
“So you picked me up like any Madrileño whore,” he said. “Air that.” But of course they wouldn’t. They’d edit the tape to make their audience hoot at his humiliation. He turned to leave.
“And you were a boring fuck,” she said.
His ears reddened as he stalked away from them.
Finding his way back to his room, Buddy’s mind churned out revenge scenario after revenge scenario. Sitting at the taberna later that day with his third pitcher of sangria, he took comfort believing that one day he’d be able use the experience for a story, maybe even a novel.
Back in his room a title came to him: ICUCMe. He could twist the story like Velasquez had twisted the narration of his painting, play with point of view, edit the notebook entries, suck the reader into the action. The idea was compelling. Then he thought, no time like the present.
Ballpoint in hand, Buddy picked up the notebook, opened it to the first page and started to write.
Peter Alterman retired in 2012 from the National Institutes of Health and retired again in 2018 from a pharmaceutical industry cybersecurity collaborative. Since 1974 he’s published science fiction, literary fiction, mainstream fiction and literary criticism. A complete bibliography is at www.peteralterman.com.
The Ekphrastic Review
Join us on Facebook: