Malcolm never considered himself very brilliant, but he had a penchant for computers. That was certain down to his bones. It wasn’t Sarah or Lily on his lips at the age of 12, but Packard Bell. That was his sweetheart, and the delicacies he trained himself for were not those of love but of slipping components into place without bending the connectors. Anyone who knew him, knew this, and more, that he would go on to earn his bread this way. His start was ignominious enough – the backend problem solver of a library’s website – but his ends came well and fast.
Behind closed doors, in whirlwinds of half-hearted associations, there were feet put forward and chips laid down. Inside of six months, he and three friends were dividing the proceeds of a startup acquisition between them and Malcolm made his first purchases: a ticket from San Francisco to New York City and the first month’s deposit on an apartment in gentrified Brooklyn. There was enough need for his talents there, and enough consultants wanting to pick his brain, that he held a steady course along the top of the world. It was how he came to be at Shraedenheimer’s with the rest of the young cutthroats and fathers’ daughters.
Only young money could enjoy $20 cocktails on wobbly stools, sitting along brick walls and brokering exchanges in authenticity with the guy handing them their drinks. Pretending they knew and shared in the reality of the broomcloset he would go home to that night, piled on top of six other bartenders and waiters and baristas. Tomorrow they would wake and try to believe they were all still a part of the same mad play.
Most of them performed these transactions flippantly and with an air of misunderstanding. As if they could sense the disgust in the bartender’s eyes, but had no idea why it should be there. Malcolm knew, and the bartender knew that Malcolm knew, but this did not make them friends. If anything, it made them bitterer enemies. Malcolm ordered more drinks than anyone ought, as if he could put downpayments on loyalty to the cause. His was a silent struggle, and he eschewed all other conversation that he might have to overcome the bartender’s rebuff. Then Grigory appeared.
The bell above the door chimed. A blast of chill air blew in from the night outside. There he stood, the snow sucking out into the black behind him and against the wind. The newcomer unfastened the broach of his felt cloak. He took off his hat and beat the snow away before replacing it atop his head, leaning as if about to fall but never doing so. The 17th century was a long time ago, but Malcolm supposed people still wore mantles and feathered caps. No one else seemed to notice, and the bartender hardly passed a glance. It was a big city, after all, and full of life too odd to exist any place else, like lichens that hold on through the bitterest cold.
The man slipped his hand through the lanyard at the head of his cane and approached Malcolm where he sat at the bar. Some of the flakes on his cloak, or coat, fell to the floor in a whirl when he laid the thick garment down between them. He set his cane on that and then his gloves, tugging the thick leather fingers off one by one. Wisps of the winter storm outside still hung about him. His hat he left on.
“A cold night for a Coke,” he said.
“There’s rum in it,” Malcolm told him, in that way only the very drunk can speak offhandedly to persons they just met.
“Certainly,” the newcomer said and gave his order to the bartender: two White Russians and a slice of lime.
“I don’t drink White Russians.”
“Well, Malcolm,” he said. “That’s why they’re not for you.”
“Do we know each other?” Malcolm slurred. “Maybe we met at a conference or something.”
“Oh, I know everyone in this establishment. Though, admittedly, not everyone knows me. I’m Grigory.”
“Pleasure,” Malcolm said and offered his hand, but Grigory did not take it.
“I’m not so sure of that.” The bartender returned, slid the White Russians over to him across the bar. Grigory squeezed the lime juice into both, a sprinkle of it hitting Malcolm’s hand. “We’ve only just started talking.”
A calm slid over him that at first he was surprised by, but rode out into an easeful bliss. This man’s words were a warm bath, too hot at first but after a moment became just right. He had said a thing and that was all, and did not give a damn what was said after it. Malcolm remembered the heroes of his youth, the same heroes every factory-town kid learns to love if he loves books because they’re all in the literary world to rely upon. Because you understand them.
He threw different mantles onto this newcomer. Hemingway was too large for him, and Bukowski too inelegant. He tried Dickens and then Tolstoy, but he was only nearer the mark. None of them really fit. He did not open the doors of home in the same way. Those writers squared up familiar windows, lit warm fires you might see from afar. Grigory, well, Grigory was in your home all along. He had brought it with him. The doors were opening, and he was inviting you inside. He was more a Rasputin than he was a Dostoyevsky, a companionable poacher of wisdom than a grounding wire back to reality.
“I’ve seen enough poor kids in the backs of rusted-out minivans to know what you’re saying,” Grigory told him.
They were six drinks deep and had been talking about home. Rather, Malcolm had been talking about home. About smokestacks and red dust, domestic cars and porchlights left on long into the dark. Only these were words, impressions onto paper. Shadows thrown by the light of the true meaning of things, where words lived. And he tried to explain that, too, with the dribblings of philosophic phrasing he picked up in college. The upper world, the Elysium of Concepts, that a chair was merely a shadow of the one true chair. All other chairs were meaningless. A throne was the stone in the field.
“Right,” Malcolm said. “It’s all a kind of illusion, everything else, propped up with belief. But what if you don’t believe? What if you can’t believe, if that’s your life?”
“You know,” Grigory started again, spinning his feathered hat on the bar counter. “We can escape the places we’re from. The trouble is, we get so busy trying to move and move and keep moving. Keep moving, I hear everybody say. Well they only keep moving because they have nothing to say. And they have nothing to say because they keep moving.” He flipped the hat upside down, as if he expected Malcolm to toss some coins into its enveloping darkness in exchange for his advice. “True escape happens when you’re standing still.”
“Or sitting down,” Malcolm told him and shook his short, stubby glass of whiskey, spilling a little over the rim and onto the bar.
“I wish it were that easy,” Grigory said and brought the last dregs of his White Russian to his papery lips. “I know you’re trying to, Malcolm. But you and I both know what you’re really running from. Everyone knows what they’re really running from if only they’d face it.”
“It’s not the kids in poverty or the rusted minivans,” he went on. “And it’s not all these sad people, if you can call them people. At least the poor are people. Collections of cultural narrative aren’t people. That’s the whole sorry, sad show, isn’t it? Illusions are very pretty, they make you feel full. But where does it end? What’s the real thing?”
“Well,” Malcolm breathed to Grigory, the reek of whiskey washing out from behind his teeth. “Well what is it, man?”
Grigory only smiled at him and slipped a stylus from a pocket lost inside his vest and a bottle of ink from another. Screwing off the cap, he took a napkin from the pile on the bar. “I want you to come to a thing I’m putting together,” he told Malcolm and started to write something on the wispy fabric.
Malcolm did not look, did not even breathe. A frustration built in him that he could not be sure of ascribing to the alcohol, but the little voice of something else to which he could put no name.
“Instead of stumbling over here to Schraedenheimer’s tomorrow night, I want you to come here. And maybe we’ll find you an answer.”
Grigory slid the napkin across the bar, and Malcolm took it in hand without looking.
“What is it,” he asked him, not wanting to look and see for himself. It was a feeling that reminded him of basements, woods at twilight, and parking lots with no lights. But Grigory didn’t answer, and he had to look down at the napkin to find the answer for himself.
There was a number written on the frail piece of paper, a little string of digits, and then a name. 5467 Lavarette, and beneath it: 9 o’clock.
“Lavarette,” Malcolm whispered to himself. “I’ve never-“
Grigory was gone when he looked up. The bell above the door had not rung, but the door stood open. The wind blew in, but the snow blew out. A heady blackness walled the bar from the world and made the flakes disappearing into it look like stars, the night like the void that most astronomers agree lies at the heart of everything. There were no streetlamps. The door whined closed.
“You going to pay for his too?” the bartender asked him, a great bush of beard stabbing out of his jowls. He leaned on the counter. There were anchors tattooed along his arms.
“Yeah,” Malcolm told him and looked back at the note and slid his card blind across the bar. “Thanks.”
Today and tomorrow stood like signposts on either side of an empty road, pointing different directions but to the same place. Sleepless hours passed in a grey limbo of random trips to random places. He ordered an old latte at a new cafe and paid no attention to the young college thing ringing him out at the register, black lipstick spread over full lips and the slightest cleave of breasts appearing from under her apron. These were often his delights, and he tipped well for them. But the coffee washed over his tongue like oil, and the day bled itself dry.
A mist had fallen over him since meeting Grigory the night before, and though he passed much of the intervening hours wandering from one cold Wi-Fi hotspot to another, bartering over job offers and job postings he never intended to take or toying with ideas for other startups, other passions, they were muted transgressions against a larger, brooding calm. The kind of swell that builds just behind the eyes, growing with every internal proclamation that there was no need for worry and worry should disperse. But Malcolm counted the seconds.
It was only half past 8:00 when he decided to step out onto the sidewalk in front of the crude brick building he had tried to call home for the past eight years, so different from the beachside broomcloset his money came from and hemorrhaged back to the memory of. The sidewalk was slick with ice and snow and cigarettes, dropped and stamped out. Malcolm nursed his flask, burning hot with $200 a bottle scotch. He checked his watch and let the cabs go, so as not to appear anxious, not even to himself. At 8:45, he stowed the little metal canteen after a final swig and raised his hand.
A little drift of snow followed him into the cab. The sweet, smoky smell of incense floored him. Something else sulked beneath it, sour and filled with loathsome nights of work. He was recalled to those nights in the labs at Stanford and smiled to think of those dark hours again. His friends, so they had been, still kicked around in the business. Malcolm had hung up his hat on that and took his coat from their doors. That often made him feel heavy, but he felt light in the backseat of the musty cab. His bones weighed nothing.
“Where to, boyar,” the driver said, leaning back and craning his neck. A pipe puffed like a beaten to shit train, cradled in dry lips half-hidden by the man’s salt-and-pepper beard. His hair wrestled with his knit cap, shot through with holes. It came out in curls, like his father’s did in old pictures when he was young.
“Do you know this place?” Malcolm showed him the napkin. The driver squinted.
“Yeah, yeah. I know it, boyar. Plenty. I will take you there.”
They entered the labyrinth of streets. Neon signs and tired faces. Storefront windows still stained with the residue of last winter’s salt trucks. Dead hobos, frozen to death on the stoop of a god that took everyone in on the cost of owing them nothing. The world outside was darker than the nights in the city allowed it to be, and Malcolm did not remember seeing that the windows were tinted.
“You’re Russian,” he called ahead to the cabbie, leaning forward a little on the seat. He saw the incense sticks burning in the cupholders. A subtle beat thrummed out of the speakers, too low to hear clearly but enough that the smoke buoyed according to the rhythm. “Your accent, I mean. Is it Russian?”
“You boyars ask too much in this country.” The stiff puffs of smoke from his pipe stalled long enough for him to laugh. “What does it matter? Just enjoy the ride. You never learn anything here.” He waved his pipe brazenly at the leaning fathers of skyscrapers that flitted by outside the dirty windows. “I haven’t.”
The taxi cut through the hills that lingered above the city, swerving along the highways until Malcolm was sick and wanted to vomit up his scotch. But, out of respect for the man, he did not. The city, a vast demon of light and steel amid plains of white ice, stretched out winking and throbbing below him. The road took him around another bend and it was gone, then reappeared again beyond a stand of writhing rime-soaked trees. Another curve, another dry heave.
“That’s it, boyar,” the cabbie said.
Malcolm looked up from between his knees, out the window at the tall hedge rows, the gate, the dusty gravel drive. His driver leaned back over his seat, the patched elbow of his coat thrust through the opening in the glass and into the passenger’s compartment. He looked at Malcolm expectantly. Something about that breach of peace called the happening of the situation home to him.
“This is you.”
“You know this place?” Malcolm asked him, peering out the window, his face lit up by the glow of the one lamp standing at the gate, a pockmark of light that melded with the surrounding dark.
“Sure, sure. Now hand me the cash and get out.” The old Ruskie laughed on his pipe, emitting jittering puffs of acrid smoke. “Or you can give me a little more and I will take you back. Up to you, boyar,” he said and turned back around into his seat. Malcolm heard the faint scratch of a lighter. It lit up the haggard face in the rearview like a mask of brimstone, then was gone. “I have all night. You, I think, might not. The past is never far behind, no?”
The door shut with the soft cough of plastic and rubber. The muffler blatted and chucked as the cabbie drove off, gravel rasping under the tires. Malcolm stood in a cloud of dust before the gate, the threshold lit by a lamp atop an old iron post embellished with floral patterns. Inside the pure glass panes burned a soft flame. It appeared to float, to dance. His hands felt heavy on the wrought-iron bars.
The great hinges whined and a high aria assailed him, soaring on the backs of crescendo after crescendo. He was startled enough to let go. The gate clanged shut. The heavenly voice died, the strings and flutes petering out to uselessness. He took hold of the bars again and the creak of the doors bled into the keen of violins. The heavenward pitch of the voice washed over and about him like a wave.
The small stones of the drive crunched under his boots and were so round and perfect that he did not feel he walked upon the earth. Tall hedges stood to either side of him, thick with shadows, and swallowed the drive as it tapered down to a path that ran between them. Malcolm hesitated at the edge of the light stemming from the old lamppost, but saw that the illumination was not so much less farther ahead. Overhead, the night was dimpled with stars and the moon shone full and burgeoning. The music beckoned. He chose to follow the gentle curve of the hedge, taking this turn and that.
Laughter flitted down the path, behind the walls and through the gloom. The orchestra drove on. His breath was gone by the time the hedges opened, sweeping away to enfold a broad meadow. The path terminated in a portico of lofty marble columns, starkly glowing under the stars, that cut through the heart of the clearing. Paving stones, the kind he remembered seeing in old drawings detailing ancient cities, ran the length of the avenue they ensconced and ceased at the edge of a pond that bordered upon a lake.
There were rough pillars of quartz arrayed around its edges like the laurel of an emperor kneeling before the bearer of his fleeting glory. They buoyed weightless in the air, free of the earth, with only the movements of the symphony to accouter their choreography. The orchestra sat upon them, playing on undisturbed by the oscillations. The moonlight fell full and wondrous on them and, joining with the light of the lanterns set at intervals along the portico and around the lake, scintillated across the dozens, if not hundreds, of shapes that laughed and proclaimed and moaned across the manicured lawn.
Naked men ran with nymphs garbed in leaves and twirling lines that served to cover nothing. They tumbled over the grass or jumped into the pond. Their play was the chorus to the subtle murmuring that emanated from those milling about the lamplit settees and tables set near the edges of the glade. Masks covered all their faces, costumes whatever parts of their bodies they wanted left to the imagination.
Little heads, black with the night or their skin, bobbed on the surface of the water. The refracted light wavered across their faces, peeling enough of the shadows away to see their beauty but not the truth of it. Sometimes an arm emerged to splash or swim or pull another close. There was such an ease to it, to the swimmers and the loungers across the wide lawn, that Malcolm fought his hands not to strip down into the same Grecian misnomer and flee in the welcoming shadows of paradise.
He had never dreamed of such an ease, such a simple passing of confidences, of hands and minds, of laughter and such understanding that the world seemed a forgotten thing. These were the afterworldsmen of Zarathustra. And then there he appeared: Grigory. He strode across the surface of the pond upon a bridge made of the mirrored stars, bedecked in his same heavy cloak and feathered cap. The water-dancers crowded around him. His cane swung and tapped to the tune of the symphony. His white teeth flashed. Malcolm could not help but smile back. When Grigory stepped ashore at the end of the portico, the two shook hands.
“Good of you to come,” he said, and threw his arm around Malcolm’s shoulders.
“How did you manage that,” Malcolm said and thumbed over his shoulder at the lake.
“Manage what,” Grigory asked anyway.
“I managed nothing,” he laughed. “This is the garden of perfect things. Nothing needs managed. It is as it is. And here,” he said and swept off his cap to place it on Malcolm’s head. “Is where you are who you should be.”
“I don’t know that I understand you.”
“Malcolm, Malcolm,” Grigory said and lightly slapped his cheeks, reminding him how much weight he had gained since landing in New York City those years ago. “There is no knowing and no understanding. That’s what escape is, where your attempts to know and understand cease, where those attempts have no grounds and no necessity. Here you can be truly free.” He gestured slowly to the fete of youth without youth, of an ending eternity. “Go on. Talk to anyone. You will not be disappointed. No one ever is.”
“I don’t have a mask. Or a costume, isn’t that the point of the party?”
“Someone will find one for you. I would, but it’s my party after all and I haven’t been around to everyone. That would be rude, you understand? Rudeness is strictly prohibited, and being loud. Or being ugly. Don’t worry about yourself.” He waved his cane as he walked, at the rest of the secret world, the others of this perfect garden. “They all started out that way.”
Malcolm looked about them at the others of Grigory’s pocket of wonder outside the city and saw how that could have been. Slight sweeps where there had been bulbous noses. Bodies that had been too shapely or were not shapely enough. Every thrust of bone or lack of one was crafted. To look at them, he could not have seen it. Time flattens expression, creating beauty out of a system of extreme pressures. The kind that hammers diamonds out of coal, or oil out of bones. But there in the garden, watching them laugh and covering teeth that were no longer stained and no longer crooked, standing abashed where once they concealed some defect of the body, Malcolm saw their imperfections as surely as he saw his own standing in the mirror.
“How have you done all this,” he asked his host, watching the quartz pillars rise and fall, the orchestra playing upon them, with a wonder that mortal things could not eclipse. “How can you change me?”
“The beauty is in the question, Malcolm. Now come inside. Enjoy the party. I have your scotch, even the little cheese cubes you enjoyed at that winery when you were eleven. What else, you ask? Anything you need, anything you might imagine. Someone will find you a mask, don’t worry. I’ll find you a drink.” He snatched a tumbler deftly from the tray of a waiter that appeared from behind one of the pillars, tall and dark and blonde and smiling at the both of them. “Here you are.” The smooth gold in the glass sloshed as their hands met. “Enjoy yourself.”
Malcolm searched the faces of those watching them for an answer. He brought the scotch to his lips, his hand trembling, and felt the numbing sting.
“Once you arrive,” Grigory said, poised with a smile. “You will never wish to depart.”
“But,” Malcolm tried to say, cleared his throat and let the scotch fall from his mouth. “What if I want to leave?”
“You may,” Grigory told him and gestured behind them at the threshold of the meadow in the walls of the hedges. They leaned and writhed away from the path, then collapsed over it in a wave of shadows and leaves. “But only this once, and if you should try to find us again the cabbie will not know the number or the street. He will know no one and nothing.”
“I want to believe you’ve done all this,” Malcolm said. “Grigory, I want-“
“There will be no more foreign or different place for you to find the truth of yourself.”
“It would be a lie,” he pleaded.
“The truly perfect don’t need a garden to house them,” he told him. “Only the world harbors those things, but across rivers of peril. Beneath heaps of refuse. You will have to look for it and it might evade you and you might die without it.”
“I will,” Malcolm muttered. “And I might.”
He did not notice the light dying until all he could see of Grigory was his teeth in the dark, the wink of his bright eyes. The music faltered so that he could hear the wind in the trees and the crickets in the grass. Malcolm turned to face the orchestra and saw the columns of quartz descend one by one in their coronal attitude around the pond and disappear into the earth. His knees got weak. He reached out for the nearest pillar to steady himself and fell onto his side. It was gone. In place of the paving stones there was only damp grass, and he was alone.
Clouds rolled in overhead, across the stars and moon, and a terrible feeling of trespass came over him. The earth was soft under his feet when he got up to run for the pathway that threaded through the hedges, but hardened the nearer he came. The air breathed cold and harsh, worming deep into his bones, from the mouth of the maze. On the other side, waiting in the warmth of the same old lamppost, the cab idled. Its breaklights blinked red and perfect in the night and threw the steady snow that fell into stark contrast. Trails of pipesmoke and incense filtered out of the windows, open just a crack. When the driver saw Malcolm coming down the lane, he leaned to work the handle on the passenger door and shove it open.
“Did you find what you were looking for, boyar,” he shouted.
Malcolm took hold of the door to open it fully and then slid down into the ratty seat, burned black here and there by fallen cigarettes. The bead seatcover dug into his back. He wanted to think that he did, but could not tell the driver. To do so would be to lie.
“I don’t know if I will,” he told the cabbie.
“So maybe you did.”
The cabbie dropped the shifter into drive and wheeled out back into the road. Malcolm laid his head against the window, softly as if he might shatter it. The gate to the hedges and the meadow beyond them, the softly twinkling lake, loomed indistinct in the lamplight. The flame inside guttered in the winter wind, but did not go out. The random gusts tugged the doors of the gate open and closed. Little drifts of strings and soprano voices eased out beneath the groan of the hinges, the breath of a beast lingering in the hidden garden.