Chapter 4

Insolent Rabbit! Raging Duck! You were bested! See I did not forget to take a left turn at Albuquerque. I did though come otherwise unprepared: new passport but no hotel, and with so little money since being sacked that they almost didn’t let me in.

Into America. America’s psychic weight, like a holy mountain. The source of so much of the pop culture that I’d had to learn. Here passed a yellow school bus; there a dog hooked its leg at a red fire hydrant. Through the pane of a genuine diner I watched with watering mouth and eyes: they’re giving free coffee refills; they do give free coffee refills.

School was out for summer and what with my computer pawned and my tendency to get thrown out of libraries on Draconian hygiene grounds, I had little choice than to set up watch under the bleachers of the football field. Begging in town was distasteful but necessary; the shame though that I felt at not ensuring my solvency, even if on an interdimensional jaunt, was sometimes too much to bear, and I’d avoid mirrors in restrooms in case I saw my father’s disapproval in our eyes. Without money, hunger too became a constant, and I’d forage behind the diner, wondering if I’d even survive till this nightmare was done. At least I’d never scrolled into a world in which I was already dead. Yet no me was going to last forever, and the longer this went, the older I got, the fewer alternate lives there’d be left for me to scroll into. Like me, his parking spot was waiting, visible through the bleachers. The tarmac softened. His name on it wavered.

Had my progress, as I’d once thought, been linear, the variations would have led me only one way: away. While with a spiral, you at least got to ask yourself when the centrifugal might become centripetal… In other words, I had to stay positive!

And in the hot night, the sound of the crickets was recognisable and new. I know now why soldiers fear dying abroad. Not because they’ll be trapped as ghosts. But because dying is already lonely enough without having to do it in another world.

 

 

Janitors had begun appearing: it was the final run-up before school, and so I hid all my things in a dumpster, which looked like it might even be good for sleeping in since the sun wasn’t out for as long. The first day back was the last of this variation; it had its kids in cars and cliques and all the rest — but still no sign of him. Sabbatical? Suicide? Come late afternoon, the football team was practicing between my hiding place and his parking spot. I shoved them away in mime.

Screams, loud and high-pitched, like the schlocky trailer for a B-movie. It turns out the bleachers hadn’t hidden me from cheerleaders so much as censor-barred me.

He looked confused, the cop who was called, embarrassed by his redundant shouting and gun. I’d already gotten down on my front with my hands behind my head. See, I’d noticed just in time.

There he was! All twinkly eyes and compact motions, and he even saw me, Eddie Murphy, that nutty professor — my own mad scientist. He gave ‘the Bleacher Creep’ a worried look, almost a knowing look. I shook my fist at him as the cop dunked me into the patrol car and the fizzing on the radio got louder.

Until that day my experience of Eddie Murphy had been in 2-D, on repeats, out of chronological order, so seeing the Real up close, at odd angles, familiar but not quite right and alive, was like seeing a haunted doll or a creepy animatronic. (To think that he had veins and leg-hairs, that he sometimes farted.) Preoccupied with such, it only dawned on me later that the good few seconds now of varying upholstery and static meant that I was one more world along and yet still in a cop car.

This shouldn’t have been surprising; each scrolling had put me in a sham identical place to where I’d been before. But how the hell had my counterpart gotten arrested?

Pop culture, you liar! The prisoner gets no such ‘one phone call’; what I got was a lifetime-ban and deported. Only at the airport did I get a chance to speak with the person who would know. The gaps between rings are tensely long on international calls. Moments of our alternate life together ran like a romcom montage in my memory: under the sheets close-ups, hands held over wheat at the golden hour. I’d give anything to be back with her — back then. Oh my Carol, pull me back to you now: you’re my density.

“Reverse charges? You taking the mick?”

“Questions: questions that need answering.”

“Konstantin Onatoppovich,” (should never had taught her formal usage) “please don’t start that crap.”

“I suppose I have been acting odd. Or has he?”

“I think when you dumped me with no explanation-”

“Yes but where did I go?”

“The States.”

“Right. And why?”

“Cyberian Winter. The IT security conference?”

“An offensive name. Many of my-”

“Died in gulags — yeah you told me. Not many enough.”

“I never told you. Ah but this is perfect. Thank you, Ca- I mean, Miss Whitecastle.”

“Is that it? Wait a sec. Look, OK look. I know it’s been ages. And we still need to talk things out and things, but first… just come back, Kon.”

“Why? I’m not your boyfriend.”

Here she started giving me the nth degree — bickering that I won’t embarrass you with again (humourlessness, apparently, is my problem, that and avoidance). I let her hang, no doubt to answer the questions of the cops who’d failed to detain me.

What was her problem? She was going to find someone else, and long before me; to be precise, her Kon was going to come back just like she’d asked. Because if I was a usurper it was only temporarily, and the usurped all treated me in kind. My Carol had suffered more than any, suffered a whole series of impersonators, like me but not me, each swapped over for longer than the last, each unaware of the last or the next, each claiming, if you were to ask, his own facts about Eddie Murphy. But they all got back, got reunited, one by one, scrolling after scrolling. How long would she and I have to wait? How long can two people endure? Well, we shall find out.

My growing age and shrinking funds were already making it harder to keep on the trail, and what with the authorities too, I needed another solution to Murphy, a better one in any case than just hoping he’d want to stop and chat. Especially since what’d happened in the squad car had hinted at a good thing, maybe the best of things. Home.

Consider that after my arrest and escape, each new counterpart of mine was also on the lamb, but brooding, say, in a Californian motel with maps and memory aids, or absent in Wyoming from some project on cryptography or cartography. The question was, could I force a change, a major one? Determine what world would be next? Say I kept a man, in a room. The next scrolling along, would he be gone or would ‘he’ still be there, if for a variant reason?

What if the man kept in the room was Eddie Murphy?