“There is no permanent self,” he’d whispered louder than he’d intended. It was only in that moment he finally became aware of himself, what he was doing, and that he never meant to say anything out loud at all.
Marius Wojcik had been teaching philosophy for eighteen years. Philosophy, academia, was a world away from his parents’ restaurant in Chicago’s Irving Park neighborhood, and so much further from the traditional Polish upbringing he’d accepted, rejected, and grudgingly re-appreciate over the years. In the four years since his father’s death, he customarily wore his father’s maciejowka cap to obscure his receding blonde hair. But his mind was always Marius’ ticket out.
Except, he was back at the lake house in Michigan, looking for his estranged wife.
At the Burgess Public Library, Marius set his maciejowka cap back upon his head so maybe the little girl wouldn’t see him staring. He swore he saw that where the contours of her dark red skin met the rows and stacks of books behind her, lines of white light traced her out of the picture and if he squinted just so, he could see the darkness of her skin and, the lighted outline, the diverse colors of books in the background pulsating, blurring, converging, dissipating. He’d only started seeing the world—this simulation—in the past year. His wife, Anna, had left him—and on the same day he delivered his lecture about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. This was the same day he found documents online tracing his direct lineage back to the Roman emperor and philosopher. It was, perhaps, the greatest coincidence in a litany of them over three months—beginning with the tornado that tore through his and Anna’s backyard and her disappearing the next day.
The small Indian girl pleaded with her mother, pushed her mother with her back arched beneath sari and buttocks. Marius realized that one of the cellophane-jacketed books behind them was where Camus would have to be alphabetically. Marius pushed his reading glasses up the bridge of his nose and saw The Myth of Sisyphus in a brown-black-tan binding that reminded him of burned toast.
Every day, there were new coincidences. And Marius saw this as one of them.
They had actually been amplified since he got into Burgess from Chicago the week before. He’d inherited the summer house on Willow Lake.
Marius could tell she’d been there. It smelled like weed in addition to the musty lake smell and the odor of all his father’s paperback books that lined the shelves. He didn’t remember leaving the orange-and-gray-patterned quilt over the master bed. Ulysses sniffed at each ghost scent in the house; Marius followed room-to-room, allowing the bull mastiff’s cedar-like tail to knock him on his surgically-repaired knees. In the end, Marius decided the dog would have behaved the same no matter if Anna had been there recently or the last time back in May. It took talking to Roger, the long-time closest neighbor to confirm. He’d talked to her. Gray-toothed and feathered gray-brown hair, he’d told Marius he remembered talking to her clearly. Said she had a stack of brand new books tucked under her arm. He remembered because one of them was the Satanic Bible.
Marius knew that Anna was more Rushdie’s Satanic Verses than LaVey’s Satanic Bible, so he clarified with Roger and Roger agreed that that was possible, it may have been Verses rather than Bible, but either way it had freaked him out. Roger was retired from the factory he’d worked at for as long as Marius knew him, and though he now looked pregnant with a bowling ball, he was sharp enough to take him at his word.
That afternoon at the Burgess library, he’d left Ulysses to roost over the lake house—which Marius knew would consist of sitting on the left end of the couch and getting up to bark at speed boats on the lake—and came to the library attached to city hall two blocks from Burgess’ downtown. It was a marriage of utilitarian brick with hints of Art Deco. And everywhere the black squirrels Burgess, alone, was known for.
He’d cruised down back roads to get there and called his lover, whom he hadn’t told about Anna’s disappearance. She hadn’t picked up. Greta, his mistress, still worked the university library in Chicago. She was probably resigned to cataloging some books, whereas Marius had just resigned. And left town.
He spent the first week of his retirement wondering if he should look for Anna. And then, on Sunday—two days prior—Marius finally thought he should.
He passed through the Deco-themed double doors and without realizing what he was doing, let something internal guide him, something fixed by Dewey Decimals. It led him down one aisle, toward the 120s, toward philosophy, toward David Hume at 128.1.
Marius thumbed through and found the page he was unwittingly looking for. He read the same paragraph three times.
Once the little girl and her mother cleared the aisle next to his desk, he put the Hume aside and followed the 120s through the 130s, pulled a few books about the occult off the shelf and carried them back to where he’d been sitting. Marius traced his finger along spines and stepped over to the 200s across the aisle and the Satanic Bible. He stared, thought about old Roger and his beer gullet, his Bob Seger T-shirt, and wondered if Anna had really come to Willow Lake, had really had such a book under her arm while Roger talked to her. He questioned the smell of pot, the quilt, the paranoia of things out of place.
Marius took the book to another, more private desk in the corner of the library. Not for the first time, he wished libraries still kept check-out cards in pockets in the front or back covers of books. Maybe Anna had been there. Maybe she’d looked at the same books.
Outside, Marius saw rain move in, which seemed ominous given the books before him, and slunk down in the rough oak chair, looking at the lazy, fat streaks of rain slither down the large flat window to his side.
Once the rain had let up, Marius found a county sheriff’s deputy slapping at the top of his patrol car, yacking at sallow-faced elderly local in a fedora and Bermuda shorts.
“Up to five and a half bills. Found her with her kid all traumatized. Once the EMTs and firemen tried to lift her off her mattress, the livor mortis was so bad, she just broke open,” the deputy said. He gesticulated in such a way that Marius thought he was conducting an orchestra. Only after a second did he hear the splat implied by the gesture.
“And the little girl was there the whole time?”
“Yup. Days. Social worker’s the one that finally found her. Virtually catatonic, way I hear it. But you didn’t hear from me.”
“No. Of course. I ain’t hear shit. A shame. Damn shame. I knew her ma and grandma way back. I first heard it from a friend of her grandma’s, even though she’s gone now.”
Marius finally made out the deputy; saw through the lines on his face, how the decades had treated him curtly, made chin and jowl sag where they should have still been taut, how his more salt-than-pepper hair under the brim of his brown campaign hat made him look older than Marius. In fact, once Marius recognized him, he knew they were almost the same age: Gil Switowski.
The Switowskis were why his parents had even bought the house on Willow Lake. Gil’s and Marius’ dads knew each other growing up on the streets of Chicago, two immigrant Polish boys. The Switowskis were fixtures at the lake house, and Marius remembered smoking pot and listening to Pink Floyd and Gentile Giant and Van der Graaf Generator in his bedroom and talking about how deep it all was, how one day they’d smoke enough to “thread the needle,” they called it, and come out on the other side in a new plane of existence. It was his very first foray into forming his own, personal ontology—that is, his belief about the nature of reality. He rarely thought about those days clearing webs of hash and pot smoke with his hands, questioning and wondering. Marius believed it was, perhaps, the impetus that set the trajectory of his life and only then had it occurred to him.
“Pardon me,” Marius interrupted. He removed his cap, so Gil might get a better look at him. Marius, forever baby blonde, never bothered with keeping a mustache or beard. Other than his retreating hairline and the mangy eyebrows he’d usually let Anna pluck, he thought he should look like an older version of himself. He hoped. “Gil? It’s Marius. Remember me?”
Gil swiped his hand at the water atop the hood of the cruiser, squinted, and leaned on the same spot. “Son of a bitch. Mac, will you look at this. This guy and I used to toke up and listen to rock records together back in the day. Our parents used to be friends. Back before Gracie passed away. Last name was Vochek, right?’
The Switowskis’ mother was American. And the children of his dad’s old comrade and this woman had grown up almost entirely in St. Tom County. But it seemed to Marius’ ear that the Switowskis never spoke Polish at home like he’d had to. Most Americans did pronounce his surname that way. It was close enough that he’d gotten used to it and gave up correcting while he was in grammar school.
Marius reached out his hand to shake and was startled when Gil took the hand and reached around to hug him as well.
“I’ll catch up with you later, Dep.” The old man waved and crawled into his Mercedes as if every movement was pain and effort.
“Still have the folks’ old lake house? Haven’t seen you up this way in years. But I guess that must have been you in there a few weeks back when I drove by,” Gil said.
Marius was suddenly very self-conscious. Roger had seen her there, but there was no one else who had; no one else who’d lain eyes on Anna that he’d spoken with since the tornado. Even as he thought these things, Marius was struck by this convergence, this new coincidence in happening upon Gil Switowski.
“Actually, if you have a moment…” Marius told Gil about looking for his wife, his affair. When he got to the part about the occult, Gil stood to his full height—a full foot taller than Marius remembered—and spoke.
“Devil worshippers? Don’t know anything about that,” he said.
Marius rubbed at the dry skin on his left knuckle. “From what I’ve researched, they seem a harmless bunch, really.”
“Oh, I know. I knew a guy. Said they don’t sacrifice babies or animals. Said it was mostly about the power of the individual. No God or devil, mind you, but this guy still talked about magic and demons. I could look up his number once I get home. Bring it by the lake house later?”
Marius was relieved, but he also felt an uncanny sense of depersonalization, though he was holding the conversation, it felt like it had been someone else talking for him. He felt rivulets of sweat on his forehead and wiped at them with his hat. Just then, he realized he hadn’t replied.
“Kurwa mac,” he swore. “Sorry. I know she’s probably with friends and avoiding me, but I have to find her.” Marius did not tell Gil why. Marius wasn’t even sure why himself. He was already convinced that in terms of the simulation, their code just didn’t match up and envisioned the masters of the code pushing new buttons, reprogramming, realigning his life and that had to explain his persistent sense of dysphoria.
“Drop by anytime. I have a big dog named Ulysses. He might bark at you, but he’d probably just as soon ignore you if he’s outside,” Marius said.
On the way back to Willow Lake, Marius dialed Greta. With his eyes on the cow pastures, fields of tall corn, thick with crowding, stalks pushing, she asked him when he’d be home. He could still smell the rain through his car’s air conditioning; could see the moisture on the dark gray asphalt turning white-gray in the day’s heat. As he reached his turn to the lake, the conversation steered back to the lack of St. Tom County’s cell coverage and technology; the internet, the zombification of today’s youth and how Anna’s cooing over ridiculous cat videos led him to the conclusion that the cat videos were the “Welcome to the End” sign on the road to the end of civilization.
Finally, he told her about running into Gil Switowski.
“The first thing he says to you is he doesn’t know anything, but then he knows a guy? His information sounds…asymmetrical,” Greta said. She’d been obsessing over symmetry as long as he’d known her. Marius imagined she’d just finished a conversation with one of his former colleagues about Higgs boson and super symmetry.
“Yes,” he answered. “And I don’t think he’ll come by with the number at all.” Marius had pulled to the roadside to maintain his signal. He rubbed at the skin on the knuckle of his other hand, wondering why he thought he wouldn’t see Gil again.
Marius thought about codes. And strangers. And strange code running different programs. And when it came to him, Gil might as well have been living in an altogether different world and it was only some bug in the machine that put them together for those few minutes in the parking lot of city hall.
“I guess you have my work cut out for you,” the voice said. Marius held the phone in his open palm, away from his ear. He was about to hang up when she asked, “How’s Ulysses?”
“He’s a suka. But a loveable one.” Marius answered and ended the call. He set the phone on the seat next to him—tucked it between a chew toy, a pair of binoculars and the copy of Hume he’d only just then realized he’d stolen from the library. He wondered why no alarm sounded when he’d walked through the gate, why no one had stopped him.
Before he pulled back onto Harrison Road, Marius caught sight of one of Anna’s orange prescription bottles on the floor of his back seat. It was for clonazepam, generic Klonopin. Marius curled his fingers around the bottle, examined the darkened skin of his forefinger through the bottle. He then lifted the bottle, so the sun illuminated the orange that was meant to inhibit its spoiling effects. He read her name—maiden name, she’d never taken Wojcik—and realized Anna was never really Rushdie or Foucault or anyone else with whom he was familiar. In the sense that she just did what she pleased, Anna was much more LaVey than he’d ever realized. Marius wondered, too, if Anna had found something she’d be able to calm herself with in those pages. Turning down the gravel driveway of the house on Willow Lake, Marius parked. He eyed the Hume book next to him as if it were a stowaway passenger and saw the outline of its existence bend, fold, invert, and become a book he did not know.