From the author: Steven is a caretaker for an accidental hero. As he spends more time caring for a person who can't care for himself, he slowly recognizes gaps in his own life.
Steven was tired. He watched faces in the audience twist in uncomfortable amusement. This was Carl's reception, Steven thought. Carl was intended for places with dust two feet thick and darkness like an unopened eye. Was he meant for neighbors? Was he meant for coffee shops and grocery stores, book clubs and time saver tips? Was Carl going to clip coupons? Commute on the ferry? Grow an herb garden?
Steven watched the camera lights darken, watched the producers guide Carl off stage. No one thanked him for his time. The audience gave weak applause. There was murmuring about Carl’s strangeness. Answers had to be pulled from him. He was so literal. His eyes were white in white, and he had stared at the cameras the entire time. It was unnerving at best.
A production assistant delivered him to Steven and the two of them were encouraged to take their time in the green room, to enjoy some food, to soak up the experience, but the words were rushed and the assistant avoided eye contact. Steven gathered Carl and ushered him through the halls. Around them figures in blue coveralls shifted set walls for the next segment, their effort ignored by the audience. Carl seemed distracted by the workers, as if he was supposed to help them, take up one end of scenery wall and move it backstage. Steven couldn’t understand why until he spotted one worker with white-in-white eyes. If nothing else it was an easy tag to see.
He was relieved when at last they stepped from the studio building and into the open air. Rockefeller Center towered above them, the water of the canal lapping against the side of the building below them; the nearest ferry dock was only half a block away. Steven walked toward it without stopping to see if Carl followed. Carl always followed.
"Thank God these interviews are over," Steven said.
"I no longer do interviews."
"None that I'll be involved with."
"What will I do?"
Steven focused on getting his transit card ready at the ferry's boarding-gate. It was easier to deal with than questions without answers. It was late in the afternoon. Steven was tired and he wanted to go home. He looked at Carl who was watching the ferry approach. “Will I get on the ferry?”
Around 9 the next morning, Steven watched Carl from across the living room. Carl sat in his one and only chair. A news feed droned on the television. Carl's apartment, large as it was, looked odd with only one chair and a small table. The video screen hung on the wall, half as large as the space could have allowed but Carl seemed certain the size was what he wanted. He had said it was the same size as the video monitors in the mining installation. Carl's claiming the smallest of the three bedrooms had also caused confusion. Not an argument. Steven had learned that Carl didn't argue. He did as he was told.
"You should take the largest bedroom."
This was supposed to be Steven's first day back to his normal routine, his first in a month that wouldn't involve caring for Carl. Steven's assignment to liaison with Carl and assist in his settlement was at its end. The mining company had made the grand gesture of issuing Carl a visa which wasn't really anything other than a visitor's permit. They had provided a stipend that allowed Carl to get an apartment in the city, leaving him available for press tours and interviews. He wasn't exactly a spokesman, but the company had found a way to make the news of Carl’s accidental heroism work for them. There were people alive because of Carl. Children nonetheless. The company used that for free press. They allowed Steven to slap a name on Carl and take him onto television to show what the company’s worker had done. The worker was good therefore the company was good. They had made him after all. It was good business. The cost of engineering a worker as sophisticated as Carl only to lose him to public notoriety had to be offset.
Steven had done everything he'd been asked to do, and now he could return to normal work. State Department, LLC had other assignments for him, yet he'd still gone to Carl's apartment, as he had for a month. He questioned why he had shown up. A question he’d been asking the entire time he was there.
"What will you do today?" Steven watched clouds storm outside the window. He asked this question every morning. He had spent a full month trying to teach Carl how to live. He'd tried to kick start Carl by repetition. Carl expected repetition, had been designed for it. Yet every morning he received the same response.
"What tasks are necessary?"
"We had this conversation yesterday."
And the day before. Steven thought of an old saying, a definition of insanity, something about expectations and repetition. It floated just out of reach. The phrasing eluded him but knew he lived the message.
Carl looked at Steven. His pale eyes darted to the doorway, the window. The clouds. "Yes. We did."
"And you remember what I said?"
"You said I could do anything I like."
"Yes. So you'll be okay?"
"I will be okay."
Carl was definitive; not so certain was Steven.
Technically he didn't need to be here on this day. Technically. His superior at the State Department had told him as much. Carl had all he needed. He had a place to live. He had money. He had something that could be seen as a kind of freedom. He wouldd always belong to the company, but even a caged bird can choose where to land. Carl was "self sufficient."
"You'll be like training wheels," Steven’s superior had said. "Once he knows the ropes." The sentence ended there, awkwardly, infected with the uptilted emphasis of a question.
Steven left Carl's apartment aware of the silence in the halls. It was oppressive. The tapping of his shoes on granite tiles made the lobby seem larger, emptier, more expectant. Like it was to be filled and never would be. That somehow it was his duty to do so and he'd failed. It made him think of mausoleums and museums. Empty spaces haunted him, and followed him and stayed behind when he was gone.
He walked from the building entrance onto the elevated walkway. He could hail one of the cabs floating past or he could take the more leisurely ferry. Both seemed like panicked flight. He checked his phone, straightened his jacket, and knew nothing would ever fill that empty space, that Carl, left alone, would do nothing but count heartbeats until they stopped. He could picture Carl starving to death while sitting, waiting, in his chair. Why was that image so clear, he wondered. Why had it appeared so suddenly? And as he raised his hand to hail one of the flock of cabs speeding by overhead he was suddenly sick and exhausted and thinking of his father.
Steven's father had been a man he knew mostly from photographs. Not of, but photographs by his father. Landscapes and cities he'd photographed on business trips: arid shots of Houston roads like runways, the deadly tram running the street to the airport; airports in Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City; the parrots of JFK and LaGuardia; the Avenue of America canal. Steven's father had been a roving lens attached to a management consultant executive's body. He'd owned a briefcase filled with an executive’s tools, but what Steven remembered was the leather camera bag. Later his father became a voice, a phone-sized image, an email attachment from deep in Iowa farm country. When he'd entered retirement there had been some initial talk of Miami, or New Havana, or any of a thousand places he'd been, traveled, worked deals, made money, warm and sunny places filled with... not friends. People he knew. Cost wasn't an issue and Steven had gladly, vaguely, magnanimously offered to help out, an offer he knew both unnecessary and empty. And then, at what had felt like the last moment, his father had announced he would be moving to Iowa, to a small farm adjacent to land once owned and farmed by his father's great-grandparents, to a house refurbished by a former high school coach who had passed on. It was a home designed and decorated and furnished by the deceased, sold in its entirety by his two sons, library included. It was remote. It was small. It was unlike anything he'd known his father to do. His father had chosen an area sinking into the soil. His father—a man who enjoyed expensive food and gallant nights out—was going to sit in an Iowa farmhouse and read a dead man's books. His father had chosen a past he never had. Steven expected this poorly planned transplant to last less than a month.
Of course, the initial messages he received from his father were images. Lovely shots of hilly pastures, rocky paths, and the expanded and ever-growing banks of the Missouri River; half-submerged abandoned farm towns with neighborhoods explored by canoeists, kayakers, raccoons and possums; school yards and lawns reclaimed by swamp white oak, hackberry and willows. He imagined his father hiring local guides for a short time, then running low on subjects within a month, and patience even earlier. This was a man inclined to wonder what was taking his dessert so long moments after biting into his appetizer.
Yet the photos continued for three weeks, then four. And when they did stop it was only a few days before he received a call. When his father's image appeared on his phone he thought, "This is it. He's moving." He met his father's smiling face with his own.
"Well, boy, save the world yet?"
"Every day." An old joke, an old criticism that government work was wasted time and talent, an old admission that the old man respected his son's sense of service. The call wound down familiar paths, and ten minutes in Steven realized there was no bombshell in any of the pauses, that in the room behind his father, opposite of the computer on which he spoke, there were no moving boxes, only a nicely decorated and neatly ordered room. And something else.
"Dad, what's that behind you?"
His father glanced over his shoulder, jabbed a thumb and smiled. "The easel?"
"I've taken up painting." The old man laughed at his son's perplexed expression. "Don't think I'll be any good?"
"No, I." He didn't know what. "I guess I just never thought you had the patience for that kind of thing."
"Patience? Hell, I'm nothing but patient."
Steven laughed. "Dad the artist."
"Always been an artist, just never had the time. What do you think the camera was for?"
Had Steven ever known? Had he even wondered? He'd felt a sudden emptiness at the end of the call, like a memory he should have had was taken from him. He'd spent that evening looking through his father's photography while wondering if he knew who had taken them.
Steven reacted to his father's seclusion by ignoring him. He didn't know what to think of it, how to approach it. His father never asked him to visit, and would he have wanted to? Time between calls stretched from days to weeks to when-had-they-last-spoken. Was this Steven's fault, he wondered? After a time defined only by Steven's routine feeling as regular and uninteresting as taking a breath, he called his father, from the back of a cab much like the one he rode in from Carl's and was shocked at the thin face on the screen.
"How you doing, Dad?"
His father, gaunt and unshaven, smiled. "Just fixing the world's problems. How are you?"
Steven said something people say when saying how they're not, something as convincing as a bandage on a bullethole. What was Steven hiding? His father watched him carefully, then his own eyes began to dodge away from the screen in the same way Steven's were. They had the same tell when bothered. They threw silence at one another a moment, then again, until Steven's father broke it.
"I'm glad you called."
"Yeah. I was going to call you. Been meaning to. Avoiding it."
"Got some bad news."
And then the words didn't stop, not all the way home and beyond, and Steven wouldn't remember any of the ride, or notice that he'd started the call without earphones so it was broadcast into the entire cab, or be bothered that the driver—a Nigerian with hands that never left ten and two on the steering wheel, who checked his mirrors ceaselessly, who listened to the only station he could find, one high on the radio dial, that played Jùjú music—was trying hard not to listen but couldn't help but hear that Steven's father was sick, that the doctors weren't sure what he had but it might have been contracted during his years of travel, might be a virus that waited until his immune system grew old enough, tired enough to let it take flight. Or maybe it was the flying, the radiation of so many uncounted hours adding up to days, days to weeks, so much time at 40,000 feet. Whatever it was, the doctors were having trouble nailing it down. And this was doctors plural, not just one. Some in Chicago, another in Rochester, a specialist in a long line of specialists, another specialist who couldn't tell Steven's father why he was losing weight, why he had no appetite, why his sleep was thin and teasing all night, why his days were heavy and exhausted. Steven wouldn't understand why, as he climbed from the cab the driver would try to refuse payment, refuse tip, and offer not one but two blessings to Steven and his family. And as he rode the elevator to his own apartment he felt the same emptiness he'd felt at Carl's, the same expectation, and he didn't know any better how to fill it here than he did before. There were gaps all around his apartment, and they couldn't be found or even seen, only felt. Constantly. His father finished telling him the final details as Steven stood inside his door, the apartment dark around him, the sound of his footsteps finally silent.
His father stopped, and laughed. "Turn on a light, you look like a floating head."
Steven turned on a light, sat down, realized how tightly he squeezed the phone, how tired his arm was from holding it so close to his face for so long. "What are you going to do?"
"What I've been doing."
Steven nodded. And then, "Which is?"
"Working on my garden. Taking the pills they gave me. Working on my photos and paintings. Getting them organized."
His father didn't explain, and suddenly Steven knew why. To explain was to make plans for inheritances and ceremonies.
Steven let the silence dominate again, but knew it was his turn to end it. "So, you'll just keep on saving the world?"
His father paid him with a tired smile. "It's what we're all wired to do."
They had ended their call, and Steven sat on his sofa for a long hour or more, wondering if what his father had said was true.
And this time, arriving home from Carl's, he found his apartment overfull. Boxes of his father's belongings covered the floor, left only a trail to walk from front door to kitchen to bedroom. Boxes of books his father hadn't read, art supplies unused. The farmhouse was sold. The camera bag was on a shelf.