Isle of the Dead

Norman Lock



1.

Six weeks before leaving New York to begin a new life in Kansas City, Karl found the three books, in a case where he had stored a camera lens unused since his “anabasis the year before.” Inscribed on each of their frontispieces in an ornate cursive hand was the name A. Böcklin.

“It’s not so much that their original owner was named for the nineteenth-century painter of Isle of the Dead,” said Karl. “That’s unnerving enough. But that I should have chosen them, not from the same shelf where proximity would have mitigated the effect of chance or whim, but from entirely different sections of the bookstore — that is what’s really unnerving. And strange.”

“You’re assuming that ‘A’ stands for Arnold,” I said, “when the name might just as well be Albert, Alfred, Adolph — or Arleen.”

“It’s Arnold!” he nearly shouted at me. “Make no mistake.”

I wondered at his fierceness, but to be frank, I did not understand his preoccupation and anxiety.

When I returned to my apartment, I searched the Internet for “A. Böcklin-Kansas City, Missouri,” and found this notice, posted during the previous year:

Arnold Böcklin, age 43, remains in a coma at Saint Luke’s Hospital, the result of a severe head-trauma injury suffered in a hit-and-run accident on August 22, outside his home on Sandusky Avenue. Members of the Kansas City Kiwanis Club, in which Böcklin had served in a number of executive capacities over the years, held a benefit dinner for Böcklin on October 19th at Lidia’s Restaurant.

2.

I said nothing about Arnold Böcklin of Kansas City, whose age at the onset of unconsciousness had been Karl’s own when he bought the three paperbacks during a trip from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Phoenix. Karl and I had fallen out over Palimpsests, his album of photographs taken of billboards and hoardings where “the delamination of time,” as he wrote of his project in the introduction, was revealed in a haphazard collage of commercial, political, and self-righteous exhortations. “By the injuries of weather and accident we glimpse our disintegration.” His prose style, like his pictures, was baroque, as if the world were a crust of manners, ornament, and signs empty of meaning. I thought that he had squandered art’s resources, as Borges in a preface of his own had once defined the Baroque. In my opinion Palimpsest had little to recommend it other than Schwitters’ delight in the colors and textures of trash. I said as much to Karl.

I was stupid to have goaded him. (I admit to envying him for the sale of his photo collection to Abrams.) I could see he was under a strain — “absorbed,” as he put it, “in the problem of the three books,” which had come to him “purposefully, if not supernaturally,” the year before, for a reason he could not guess. My not so well-meant criticism had enraged him, and he shouted for me to leave his apartment. I never saw him again.

Had I not behaved stupidly, Karl might have said how he felt about the confluence of their two, formerly separate but apparently parallel lives. (He and the twentieth-century Böcklin were the same age.) All that afternoon before going to see Karl, I had thought how Böcklin might have cast a net in the form of those paperbacks, trusting that someone with a like intelligence and sensibility would find them, regardless of how they were dispersed inside the shop, and by the strength of an extraordinary sympathy be held in thrall to them — or, more to the point, to their former owner. Once this idea had taken hold, I could not shake it. I was terrified. Not that I believed Böcklin had sought out Karl exclusively. To believe that there was anything more than coincidence behind the problem of the three books needed a suspension of disbelief impossible for my rationalist’s mind.

Two months after Karl had left his job as a photo editor for Axiom and his apartment on the Upper East Side, however, I followed him to Kansas City.

3.

I have often imagined my conversation with Karl, the one we never had.

“Wouldn’t it be better,” I would have told him, “to get rid of the books?”

“I can’t do that.”

“They’re not exactly rare —”

“I’m not interested in the books! Not any longer. They’re only a kind of writ.…”

“Writ?”

I would not have understood anything of this. Not at the time.

“A warrant, a summons requiring me to appear at a certain place, at a certain time … ”

“What place, Karl?”

“Kansas City. I’m not sure when. Soon, I think.”

“You think that A. Böcklin —”

“Arnold Böcklin.”

“That he wants you to come to Kansas City — and do what?”

“To take his place.”

4.

The books’ titles? Karl never told me. What matters is not which three books might have had power to ensnare him but that any books could have had such power. To say that a book has enchanted you, enthralled you, spellbound or captivated you is not what this story is about. Those are just expressions of interest no matter how profound or of pleasure regardless how intense. An encomium useful for book promotion. A blurb. But what had happened to Karl was something dangerous and truly “life altering.” What happened to him has nothing to do with reading. I doubt he had ever read his three problematic paperbacks although he might have read the texts themselves at an earlier time, under other circumstances. No, this account of mine has nothing at all to do with reading and everything with fatality, by which I mean fate and death.

What happened to Karl overturned reason. I almost said that what happened to him upset the order of the world, but I’m not sure that it did not somehow affirm it.

5.

Karl had abdicated in favor of Böcklin. How else does one write of a renunciation so absolute that the seat of oneself — the centrality of a man’s or woman’s being — is ceded to another? How else interpret an attorney’s letter naming me as Karl’s literary executor, with instructions to forward royalties earned by Palimpsest to Arnold Böcklin, residing in Kansas City, Missouri?

I went there in February, hoping to find Karl, or Böcklin — I was not sure which of them I would discover living in the 500 block of Sandusky Avenue. I found evidence of the latter, who, despite his dire Internet notice, appeared to be alive and well. I could only guess that Karl had assumed the other man’s identity. To what degree I cannot, even now, say. During my three days in Kansas City, Böcklin seemed just beyond reach. The office where he sold insurance was always closed, but a sign on the door indicated that he would return soon. Although I waited, I never saw him. One morning I went to his apartment and found hot coffee on the stove, toast on the table ready for buttering. Traces — always traces! Finding an appointment book on his dresser (drawers, like the closets, filled with clothing I remembered having seen Karl wear in New York), I went to the house of a client, only to be told I had “just missed Mr. Böcklin.” I did not ask the young housewife standing in the doorway to describe him; I did not want to raise her suspicions. No, that’s not the truth. I was afraid to be given so conclusive a proof. It would be better, I thought, if the facts behind Karl’s disappearance were commonplace. It would be better if he had been murdered, his body dumped into the Missouri River. Fear it was, also, that prevented me from going to Saint Luke’s Hospital. Would I find Böcklin in a coma, or Karl — changeling and object of a cruel metamorphosis accomplished on that isle of the dead which the nearly extinguished mind in deepest sleep will, perhaps, become?

Several of our mutual friends blamed me for not looking deeper into the matter. But by the end of three days, I couldn’t bear to think of Karl any longer. I returned to New York and did my utmost to forget him.

The following year, after picking up the thread of my life, I received a postcard from Kansas City. On the back, this sentence: Just as nature abhors a vacuum, filling its dead space by irresistible force, so will a weak will be absorbed by a stronger. It was written in an ornate cursive hand, which I seemed to recognize.