by Norman Lock, recommended by Slice
EDITOR’S NOTE by Celia Johnson
When a story is published it is fixed in place, but a great deal of toiling goes on beforehand. It isn’t easy to harness those nebulous particles that constitute fiction. The slightest whim can shift the direction of the plot. And with a new sequence of events, the characters, like passengers on a runaway zeppelin, are left to fend for themselves. Some survive. Others become mere electronic imprints in the history of a Word document. In “Missing Persons,” Norman Lock invites his reader to witness the carnage and creation of a story in flux.
The brilliance of Lock’s story lies in the quiet, the mundane. His narrator’s struggle is depicted through everyday moments: an exchange with a bureaucrat, a commute to work, a ride in an elevator. These experiences are, under normal circumstances, reassuringly stable. But in Lock’s world, they are undercut by a surreal ebb and flow of reality. What emerge are poignant — and often hilarious — parallels between the act of writing and day-to-day life. The bureaucrat, for example, finds it difficult to come up with the right words to describe an alarming situation. But even when he stumbles on a few accurate terms, he can’t do anything with them. “Words of that ilk would be laughable in a government report,” he explains to the narrator.
In “Missing Persons” you’ll encounter a narrator who is forced to come to terms with the fact that he is a product of fiction. And you’ll likely discover that his situation, uncanny as it might be, bears a striking resemblance to our own lives, marked by mortality and the caprice of the universe.
At Slice, over ninety percent of the work we publish is unsolicited. Lock’s story is one of the many gems that have arrived, without fanfare, in our submissions pile. Members of our editorial board were drawn to this story for individual reasons: the simple yet incisive language, the noir undertones, the weight of the spaces between each scene. But we were unanimous in our support of including it in our eleventh issue. Perhaps our combined admiration is best summed up by Lock’s own narrator: “I marvel at the many and varied revisions.”
Co-Founder, Slice Literary
KARL’S WIFE, LYDIA, WAS NOT THE FIRST person in the city to have disappeared in this way. A dozen cases or more had been reported since January, according to Mr. Grolsch, who received inquiries for missing persons with surnames beginning with the letters R through zed, “though none with zed have so far come to my attention.” He was a self-important, overly fastidious man whom I hated instantly.
“It was a problem for us,” Grolsch said. “Writing our reports. We searched for a word to characterize the peculiar nature of these disappearances. We settled on ‘abruptly’ to define what in each instance seemed common to them all, though I was never happy with it. It’s descriptive but hardly rigorous: missing persons seem always to be abruptly lost from view, whether they were last seen going out to buy a newspaper or cigarettes, leaving for work or to visit a friend, or peeling potatoes at the kitchen sink. Whatever the case, they have been ripped out of their lives, no matter how ordinary the circumstances surrounding them. Don’t you agree?”
I said nothing, unwilling to reinforce the man’s good opinion of himself — of his scrupulousness. Karl seemed not to have been listening.
“There was something sinister about those cases — uncanny even,” said Grolsch. “But words of that ilk would be laughable in a government report.”
I looked out the window onto the street below my apartment, trying to say how it was that Lydia had vanished. It was not, as Grolsch had put it, as if she had been ripped out of life. I felt no violence attached to Lydia’s disappearance, and neither did Karl, who could scarcely bring himself to talk about it, so great was his anguish. (He had loved his wife steadfastly if not ardently, and who can say which is the more durable.) On the contrary, it was as though she had been fading gradually from view and also from memory. The feeling that this was so might have arisen in us abruptly. In retrospect, there was a moment when Lydia was no longer so vividly present to the mind as she had been only moments before. There was that much abruptness about it. Karl and I happened to be together at the time, in a small boat on the bay while I scattered my father’s ashes into the water where, as a boy, he had loved to sail. Neither of us ever saw Lydia again.
“I remember Lydia as I would someone whom I haven’t seen for years,” I said to Karl, who stood behind me at the window. (Surely, those awnings on the apartment house opposite had been blue!)
“Yes,” he said evenly. And already I could hear in his voice that he, too, had begun to forget her.
“Are you living with someone?” Karl asked after I had emptied the room of late afternoon light with the wand of the venetian blind.
I did not understand him immediately.
“The cosmetics and shampoos, and the pink disposable razor on the bathroom sink. And this.” He produced a strand of black hair, as if in evidence. (What hair remains to me is gray.)
Abruptly (yes, that is how it was), I recalled the oval shape of a woman’s face that, gradually but insistently, filled in with details. And as it grew toward completion, the idea strengthened in me that the face belonged — together with the cosmetics, shampoos, the pink razor, and the strand of dark hair — to my wife, whose name, I knew now with certainty, was Marie, a woman whom I had met shortly after moving to the city.
“They’re Marie’s,” I said.
Yes, it happened in this way, too. I mean, there was not only forgetting: there was also recollection; not only people vanishing, but people swimming into view as if they had been a long time underwater. (I did not realize then that the swimmer was I myself … that the images that gradually rose up in my mind like something seen through the wavering surface of the water were the result of my own submerged existence.)
I was walking to work down a street that ought to have been familiar. I recognized nothing. Where the office building should have been was a vacant lot surrounded by a barrier of many different-colored doors. I opened my briefcase to find something to confirm the address of the company where I worked as a civil engineer: a proposal or a drawing on which was routinely stamped the firm’s name and address. I found, instead, a thick book of actuarial tables concerning life expectancy for various trades and professions. The address imprinted on a stack of business cards was of a street in Chicago. I have never been in Chicago.
And this: on the way back to my apartment, I entered what ought to have been a commercial district nearby the river, but it was — not empty, but unfinished. A kind of ruin, although in actuality I could not tell whether the area was in the process of being built up or torn down.
Lately I have felt an urgency, as if conscious of a growing shortage of time.
Karl and I:
“I was riding the elevator up when I noticed the other passengers’ faces were …”
“Like sketches, like photos on their way to being developed. They weren’t filled in.”
“Streets — entire neighborhoods are vanishing.”
“And then the elevator itself began to fade, and I looked down at my feet and saw nothing. Just my shoes and, beneath them, blackness. Nothingness. And when I looked up the faces were blank.”
“Some kind of sickness — we must, all of us, be falling ill with something.”
“I was riding up to the Missing Persons Bureau. To see if others who have reported someone lost described it in the same way — experienced it in the same way we did. No one had ever heard of Grolsch.”
Marie is typing. She types incessantly. Why? What can she possibly be typing? I have asked her, but she doesn’t answer. She looks at me as if she were making up her mind about something. Night and day, she types. I don’t recall her having done so earlier in our life together. Yesterday she said we were only recently married. That we had met on one of the bike paths in Central Park. She had hurt her ankle, and I had stopped to help her. I disagreed. I said we’d met at the Tribeca Film Festival. I didn’t own a bicycle. I didn’t think I could ride a bicycle anymore even if I had one.
“You’ve been working too hard,” she said.
“I haven’t been working at all. The office is closed.”
“Closed?” she said, eyeing me with the interest of a jeweler who sees through his loupe an unusual stone.
“Well, I can’t seem to find it.”
Karl is dead. Abruptly dead. He died of an embolism in the subway waiting for the Q train. His mother lives in Brighton Beach near the aquarium. Yesterday I boarded a train that would have brought me within walking distance of a funeral home on Ocean Parkway. I wanted to pay my respects to Karl. The train got only as far as Manhattan Bridge before unaccountably returning to Midtown. I had no idea — not the slightest sensation — that the train was circling back to the city (an impossibility, I would have thought); but at the train’s farthest reach the world seemed to fall away from me. It faded — the impression it made on me weakened. It was just as Karl had described his elevator ride to the Missing Persons Bureau. That evening I telephoned Karl’s mother. The woman who answered had never heard of him.
This morning I went to report Karl’s disappearance (for so it is, now that I find no trace of him); but according to the owner of the news agency on the ground floor, there has never been a Missing Persons Bureau in the building.
I spend my days in bed while, from the next room, I hear the soft clatter of Marie’s word processor. I think how lucky I am to be dying in the age of advanced technology: the noise of an old-fashioned typewriter — with typebars clacking like castanets and bell tolling the end of each line — would have finished me.
After lunch, which Marie brings me on a tray as befits a sick man, I called on what strength I had left and limped to the desk drawer where she keeps her manuscripts. She had gone out to meet her publisher and no longer bothers to hide her work from me, whose dependence on her is almost complete.
I have been reading her novel’s resolutely increasing manuscript pages, alert to the thickets of handwritten changes she has made in the margins and between lines of type. I marvel at the many and varied revisions: characters that seemed important become less so until they are finally erased or metamorphose into radically different persons; streets that were meticulously rendered down to the color of the awnings over their pavements are eliminated or altered to suit the plot’s restless innovations. It is already thirty pages since Karl was deleted by a line drawn deliberately in red ink. I wonder how long it will be before my own name is struck out.