The Phaistos Disk

October began badly. Ken Copeland had made a date to go to Greece with Sinead Gregory, a waitress twenty years younger than him. The day before they were due to leave, she called him to say she could not go.

He could tell from the street noise in the background that she was at a pay-phone somewhere. Sinead was crying. She told him incoherently that her boyfriend had come back prematurely from Colorado. She couldn't leave town with Ken if the boyfriend was back, because she expected him to marry her someday. Ken regarded it as one more sad sign of his general decline with women that he had invited a vapid little twit to Greece. It had been a while since he had dated women he respected.

The thought of canceling the trip was appalling. It was hard for him to get out of the office for two weeks--he had young recruiters to manage--and he scheduled his vacations months in advance. Nor did he want to go alone, though he could probably hook up with a lonely tourist over there.

He picked up the phone and called Keri, a woman three years his senior who had been a regular, casual, nonexclusive sexual partner for many years. This in itself was unusual, for all their contacts began with Keri calling him. She was an oddball, a professional potter with no small talk and no tenderness. She loved sex and always wanted him to leave afterwards so she could get back to work. She was the only one of his long-term partners-- all gone now except her--whom he didn't think of as his friend. He knew practically nothing about her; not if her parents were alive, if she had sisters or brothers, or was proud or critical of her own work. She was slender, hard, tall and entirely self-contained.

"You want me to go to Greece with you because some other woman dropped out?"

He had never seen her angry, never seen her sad, never seen her much of anything except sexually excited and then uninterested the moment after. Now, after all these years, he listened to Keri shrieking at him, in a frightening voice, a horror movie voice, he wouldn't ever have imagined was hers:

"You fucking gigolo. You're nothing to me, Ken, just a fucking gigolo. I use you for my enjoyment, you're a body, a thing. You don't get to insult me like this. Fuck you." And she hung up.

The next day Ken Copeland got on the plane by himself.

He flew to Athens, spent a day walking on the Acropolis, and went on to Crete the next morning. He had been to Crete many years before, with another woman, now married, whom he remembered fondly, and they had spent ten days exploring the northern shore of the island, from Heraklion to Chania. This time, his travel agent had booked him a hotel in a town on the island's southeast coast. He rented a car at the airport and drove down through the mountains, stopping to spend an hour at the restored palace at Knossos.

He was troubled by the thought that the reproduction of the friezes might, as everyone now knew, have little or nothing to do with the original artwork. The archaeologist, more Barnum than scientist, had taken smashed heaps of colored pieces and assembled them. No-one could really say if he had restored or created.

He went across the road to a little taverna full of cats and drank a glass of retsina, thinking that he was not really sure if he could spend two weeks alone here. He wasn't sure how he would have endured two weeks with Sinead. There were no common topics of conversation.

The town on the south coast was a modern one, not really much different than a town on Long Island: all modern blocky edifices built in the fifties, and shops selling international wares you could find anywhere. No hills, no whitewashed villas. The hotel, similarly, was a modern Marriott/Hilton/Westin kind of thing, which was apparently dear to Germans; it was filled up with them, the staff all spoke the language, and the restaurant served heavy Germanic food. Even worse, the guests were mostly old people. He went up to his room and slept.

In the morning, he took the car and drove east to a place marked on the map as a butterfly preserve. It was a strange attempt at an American-style national park: you paid a sleepy man your money at a kiosk in front, then followed a trail through an ever-narrowing arid canyon, and if you were lucky you saw a few not very remarkable purple butterflies. there was no naturalist, no interpretation, no illustrative displays about the butterflies. The trail dead-ended against the canyon's edge; from the cliff twenty feet above, a rubber hose hung down, so that you almost thought you were supposed to grasp it and pull your way up, but it didn't look safe and he didn't.

Things were a little more interesting at the topless beach across the highway; in the shower at the top of the wooden steps was a perfect-looking Austrian girl, about seventeen years old with really marvelous breasts, but she was with a boy her own age. He had blended in with groups like this almost until he was thirty, but as a forty year old, it was more difficult.

. Ken realized he was feeling sorry for himself. He got back in the car and drove east, until the road curved up north back towards Heraklion, and stopped at the minor ruin of a Minoan village. This was a more natural place; there were no reconstructed friezes, just the foundations of flattened houses, walkways and stone steps. It was windy atop the bare ruins, and he thought about the fact that the entire Minoan civilization had been swept away in a single year, for unknown reasons. Everything had burned, but it was not really known whether the flames were the result of an invasion by an unknown people or of a volcano on nearby Santorini.

Ken drove back to the hotel, changed from shorts into khakis and washed his face. He suddenly decided he would not be alone tonight, checked the bar and found Katerina Hagen, a schoolteacher from Berlin whom he surmised was taking her annual sex vacation in Greece, like thousands of lonely European women. She was a perfectly nice person, a little over the hill (he realized this meant she was his own age). When she was seventeen, she had probably been as lovely as the girl he had seen that afternoon in the outdoor shower, with animal grace and wonderful skin, but twenty-three more years of solitude, of visiting museums with girlfriends, reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and taking English conversation lessons, while waiting to find a man who was not a pig, had made her lined and sad. He turned on the old magnetic thing--the madcap smile, the half-laugh as he told a story, the electric, graceful movements of his hands and body--but wondered if Keri was right and he really was a gigolo. He decided he almost was. Gigolos did it for money; he did it because he couldn't bear to be alone.

Katerina came back to his room; partner number 150 in his life. He made love to her and she fell asleep contentedly, having redeemed a vacation that was not working out too well. He could not sleep but was able to do other things--read, write postcards--with that feeling of stability he had these days only when he had a companion. He made plans: Katerina was a walker, with nice taut calves and leg muscles; maybe they would go tomorrow or day after to hike the Samarios Gorge, down the southwest side of the island. But when she woke up a few hours later, she delivered an unpleasant surprise: this was her last day on Crete. In the morning she must return to Athens to meet her girlfriend. He asked, practically begged her, to change her plans to spend a few days with him, but she would not.

She returned to her own room to pack her things. Ken smoked a cigarette in the street and watched the swallows under the eves, then returned to his bed in the full grip of the logies he had evaded for a few hours. He read a detective novel he had bought in the Athens airport; it was a British thriller of a genre he detested, the story which is such a pale imitation of better stories you did not remember having read it a day later. It was a thrice-told story, a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. He put the book down and fell asleep on his back.

Ken dreamed that he woke from a deep sleep lying on his back in his bed in the room in the German hotel on the Libyan seashore of Crete, with a slightly irritated feeling in his right eye. He rose and went to the bathroom mirror, and discovered something, about the size of a miniature coin, attached to the eyelid. He peeled it away and examined it up close: it was a bronze-colored disk, completely inscribed with words in an unknown script written in a tightening spiral, from outside to in.

He woke up, turned on his side, and went back to sleep.

Ken had always liked Continental breakfasts: the good French bread, the jolly jam. He woke and ate early, got in the car and drove to Heraklion, where he spent several hours in the museum. In the shop he bought a little double-headed ax to place on his desk at work, next to the marble pyramid from Egypt and the stingray from Grand Cayman. He walked through the museum, a little ill at ease, trying to focus on Minoan and Ancient Greek pottery fragments and jewelry.

Then he saw the Phaistos disk. It was a bronze disk, about the size of a small plate, inscribed in an unknown language in a spiral running out to in. A placard beneath it, printed in Greek, German, French and English, confirmed that it was a mysterious object. The script used on it was unknown, and the words could not be interpreted.

He caught the logies again, so badly that all of the hair on his neck bristled on end. How could he dream of an object, then see it the next day?

He left the museum and went to drink the Greek beer, Fix, in a nearby restaurant. After he calmed down, he saw the explanation. He had brought with him a densely printed Blue & White guide to Greece, hundreds of pages long. It was back at the hotel. He was certain that when he looked through it that evening, somewhere in there he would find a line drawing of the Phaistos disk, or at least a description. If he didn't find it there, then perhaps he had seen it in a book owned by his ex-lover, Samantha. He didn't consciously remember knowing the Phaistos disk existed, but his mind had stored it away.

He ate pastitsio for dinner, then drove south pleasantly tired. When he got back to the hotel, he was too sleepy to check the guidebook (he was also afraid that he would find no reference to the Phaistos Disk and would get the logies again.) He had another drink in the bar--a scotch and soda this time--and went up to sleep.

He awoke in the early morning light, lying on his back and listening to the Libyan Sea surf outside his windows, with an irritated feeling in his right eye. He got up and went to the bathroom mirror and on close examination, observed a little lump on his eyelid.

He drove west across increasingly narrow mountain roads--the kind with an unfenced 200 foot drop on one side--and finally pulled off road along an olive grove. Other cars had parked here, near a dirt path with the footprints of many people. He followed it into the arid grove, enjoying the smell of the olives, which he had always loved. He kept reaching up to feel the lump on his eye, thinking about the possible implications. His father's lymphoma had begun with a growth on the eyelid. His father had been just ten years older than he was now when it happened.

He declared his abominable Greek vacation finished and, that afternoon from the hotel, booked his flights back to New York.

"I have bad news," said Dr. Stutz a week later. "The biopsy came back and confirms that the matter we removed from your eyelid was malignant. Cancerous." Stutz had the classic too orderly gray hair of the fifty-five year old suspiciously unbalding man. I'm not a doctor, Ken thought, but I play one on TV. How many times has he played this particular scene in his career? More often than I have slept with women, I suspect. "What kind of cancer would that be?" he asked the doctor. "A lymphoma," said Stutz.

Ken kept asking questions, but operated the conversation with a small corner of his mind. He had the curious impression that his entire body had just become a lung: it filled up with air which then all sighed out slowly. Then again, but less deeply this time. And again even more shallowly.

Stutz offered him professional hope. Doctors too are salesmen, Ken thought, or at least this one is. The doctor recommended an immediate and aggressive course of radiation therapy. Lymphomas were extremely dangerous but this one had been caught early. It was quite possible it could be contained. Stutz was clearly ready for the question about how long Ken might have to live, in a worst case, but Ken did not ask it. He stood up and said, "My father died of lymphoma at age 50. He lived eight months from the diagnosis. He ran fevers, lost a lot of weight and was demented." "Well, statistically--" Stutz began, frowning. "That's all right, Doctor," Ken said mildly. "I'll take your advice on the radiation. When do you want me back?"

He did not say anything at work the next day to his boss, Lyle Doggett, or anyone else. That night he called his ex-lover, Samantha, and told her. He had not spoken to her in almost a year. She was married now and had a small son.

"Christ, Ken, I'm sorry."

"I was thinking about the title for this phase of my life."

"What is it?"

"'The Death of a Salesman.'"

She uttered a surprised half-laugh, a staccato bark which she immediately stifled.

A few days later, he arranged to meet her. She had her fourteen month old son, Nicholas, in a stroller and they sat in a well-manicured West Village park. She was wearing a thick coat as it was already quite cold, and the baby was all bundled up. Her cheeks were flushed and he admired her wonderful skin, even more beautiful than ever (perhaps it was a combination of the cold, the baby, being married.) And her resolute hands. Samantha was not beautiful but was one of those women who men seek out because they have tons of character.

He decided not to tell her about his dream of the Phaistos disk. Instead, he asked how she was doing.

"I feel almost guilty to say this, but we're really good. Of course, we lost a year of sleep and we're just getting back toward normal. But I'm happy with my husband and my son."

"You did the right thing."

"I did the right thing."

"Samantha, would you mind telling me....What makes it good? I don't mean to sound jealous or bitter, but I can't even think about your life without feeling claustrophobic. You were always a free soul. You were the one woman who when you used to say you never wanted to get married or have children, I believed you."

"I like the routine," she said, rolling the stroller gently back and forth. "In my twenties, when you and I were together, I needed to get my degree, write my articles and my book. I didn't want any other demand in my life. Then I felt more settled and suddenly there was a man, Daniel, at hand...."

"Who slept on the sofa, I remember."

"I used to watch him sleep, the way I sometimes watch Nicholas sleep today."

"I never understood what you saw in him."

"This sounds grandiose," she said, "but I think I saved his life."

Ken laughed, and surprised himself. "My rescue fantasies end with the sex," he said. "They don't continue on to marriage, kids and a lifetime together."

"Mine began there." They sat in friendly silence together.

"I always liked that we could talk about any kind of thing," Ken said.

"So did I. And we still can."

"May I talk to you from time to time about my death?"

"Now you sound grandiose. A growth on your eyelid doesn't mean you're dying."

"No, if it was skin cancer. A lymphoma is different. That's what my dad had. It never cut him a break. Every week, it was in a different place in his body--his hip, his elbow, under his arm. 'He disagreed with something that ate him.'"

"I've always believed attitude counts. If you believe you're going to die..."

"I can't believe anything else. I saw what happened to my dad. Anyway, if I believe the worst and the best happens, its gravy. Better than the other way around."

Samantha was very puzzled. "You don't sound like a salesperson at all. I remember the way you always got yourself hyped up. 'If you will it, it is not a dream.' Dog said that you made the young people believe that bullets don't hurt."

Ken imagined a slow bullet, moving lazily through the air. He knew that he could avoid letting it hurt him. He couldn't avoid the bullet but he could avoid being hurt.

"I'm so comfortable with you, Sam. I always thought you were unlike any woman I ever knew. You're cold but affectionate. I can't explain what I mean."

"I know exactly what you mean. I haven't cried and you wouldn't want me to pity you. You said once....that I had gravity." She didn't want to say the word "grave."

"Gravity with a sense of humor....So you didn't answer, whether you'll see me through it."

"Through what?"

"My death, of course."

In an instant, she remembered a half dozen times she had asked him for something--she had called him once at three in the morning from the emergency room, when he was with Deirdre, and he had come. She had always had an unwritten contract with Ken. You respected the limits of what you could ask him (you could not ask him to get married, or even to be faithful.) In return, he never hesitated, and gave immediately when asked. It was probably the salesman, the crowd pleaser, in him. But the source didn't matter. He had always specialized in doing the right thing, and so had she, and she wanted to now. She didn't entirely trust him not to ask more than she could offer. But that could be dealt with later. Now she had only to say, "Of course you can," and she did.

He relaxed. "The funny thing is, after you left me, I started feeling sorry for myself."

Samantha was almost indignant. "You never felt sorry for yourself in your life."

"I did. Deirdre left me, then you did. Its over with Keri, too, as of a month ago. And I actually have spent a lot of the last two and a half years feeling self-pity. I only knew how to be young. I didn't know how to be forty, or middle aged, or old. Now, of course, I won't have the problem."

She was looking warily at him with her large dark eyes.

"I thought about getting married," Ken continued. "I was going to propose to someone."

"I know about this," she said. "I ran into Dog one day on Lexington Avenue, and he told me the story."

"I'll have to kill that pathetic shithead. Anyway, I didn't get married, because I didn't know how to carry it off with dignity. But I feel like I can do this pretty well. Its really funny, but the minute the doctor said I had cancer, I stopped feeling sorry."

"I still don't think you're dying. There are supposed to be phases. You know, denial, bargaining...."

Samantha hoped that all of this was nothing more than a desperate ploy for attention. If it was, she would forgive him. She did not want him to die. She immediately realized that she was the one bargaining with God.

"I thought about that. You know how you always relate things to what you know? I think of death as a sale. You know how we close people; you've watched me close applicants." Samantha nodded. She felt very close to crying now--she who had never cried her whole adult life. "We elicit their objections, then remove them. Maybe I had no objections. I never thought about it till now, but maybe I was pre-closed for this."

She turned her face away, then back to him. "Would you do something for me?"

"Yes, what?"

"Hold Nicholas." She lifted the baby out of the stroller and handed him to Ken. He had never held a baby and had to ask advice. "Support his rear," Samantha said. He held the child and smelled his fresh sleepy smell.

Because he was happier than he had been for some time, no-one at work suspected anything was wrong. Nevertheless, when he started the radiation therapy, Ken knew it was only a matter of time before he started showing physical changes. Then he felt a pain in his hip, and even before he went back to Dr. Stutz, Ken was sure it was another malignant dot in his body. He was not the kind of man who wanted to die in harness; though he had routinely worked fifty and sixty hour weeks for twenty years, he always regarded himself as an inherently lazy man for whom work was an effort. Other people were incapable of retiring; Ken always thought he would have retired at age 22 if he had the means. Ken had several hundred thousand dollars in the bank, a very modest sum for someone who had earned such a large income so many years, but he had always preferred to spend money on travel, restaurants and toys. His savings had never seemed sufficient for a lifetime, but when that lifetime shrank to seven or eight months, it was more than enough.

He took Dog to lunch at Ang's Chinese restaurant and told him.

"You fucking idiot, you can't be dying," Dog said. "There's obviously a mistake. You're a dyslexic fool. They probably told you you were 'rancid' and you thought they said 'cancer.' Fuck it, Ken Copeland isn't dying. You're going to live forever, you shitfaced moron." Dog was crying.

"Dog, man, stop it. We're in a restaurant and you're making a spectacle of yourself. What would Mr. Ang think?"

"Fuck Mr. Ang."

Ken told him he wanted to begin a leave of absence, probably a permanent one, immediately. "I'm not quitting," he was careful to tell Dog. "If this turns around, I'll come back. Anyway, I'll be around. You can come meet me and we'll have a beer or two." Though he expected he would be too medicated to drink.

"What are we going to tell the kids?" Dog meant the young salespeople.

"Tell them I had a family situation I had to go deal with."

"I can't imagine the office without you. Its been twenty years."

"Yes," Ken said, "and I wanted to kill you after about the first five minutes."

"When are you going to leave?"

"Right now," Ken said. "I'm not coming back up. You can keep my stuff. Re-assign my direct reports to Sam Hunter. You'll get by. You'll probably just have to work for a living."

Dog hadn't eaten a bite since Ken told him; he kept lifting a forkful of fried rice, then dropping it back to the plate.

"You paid me through last Friday already. Just leave it at that. I didn't do shit this week anyway."

But Dog didn't stop his paycheck. Psy Systems had direct deposit. When his next payroll turned up in his checking account, Ken called Dog.

"What am I supposed to do with it?," Dog said. "My kid has enough toys. You just stop goldbricking and come back here."

Some months passed and like his father, Ken was spared nothing. The tumors turned up in every part of his body. He remembered an old karate movie in which a man was hit by throwing stars all over. God was throwing blades at him and they were hitting him everywhere.

Dr. Stutz had switched him from radiation therapy to chemotherapy. He had lost a lot of weight and now he was going to lose his hair. He was nauseous all the time and his hands trembled.

He really couldn't live alone any more, though he tried. He was having a harder time taking care of himself. He had to call 911 now with some regularity to go to the emergency room at NYU. The doormen were getting tired of helping him and the neighbors were freaked out by the regular sight of Ken being carried down the hall by the paramedics. He knew it was only a matter of time before he heard from the landlord. He was a little frightened now, of the pain and the exhaustion and the likelihood that he would get into a mess in his apartment and not be able to call 911. It was hard to carry this off with dignity when you soiled yourself or fell down or your hands shook too hard to carry the pills to your mouth.

Sometimes he spiked a fever and would find that he couldn't think or talk straight. He would pick up the phone to call Dr. Stutz and he could never dial the number correctly, so that he wound up talking to strangers. In the hospital, he asked Samantha to adjust the television so that he was looking down at it. The next morning, he saw that it was attached to the wall, just below the ceiling. The antibiotics he was taking seemed to be causing an adverse reaction with some of his other medications and the doctors kept adjusting, fidgeting, changing things without making them any better.

One morning he woke up better than he had been in a while and was able to sit in a chair in his living room in the sunlight, looking at the double ax he had brought back from Crete and thinking about what to do next. It occurred to him that he had once again missed his timing--he who had been the master of the dance, with applicants and women. He had sworn to himself, that day in the park with Samantha and Nicholas, that he would not let it hurt, and now it hurt very much.

Samantha came by. "You have to go to your mother," she said. "Or hire a private duty nurse. I'll arrange it if you want." She felt very guilty; if she were single she would have moved in to take care of him. She pitied him at last.

Ken wouldn't look at her. "I need you to do something for me."


"Drive me out to Long Island."

"But you have your chemo tomorrow."

"No more chemo."

"You want me to help you die," Samantha said. She started to cry and, perhaps because she wasn't used to it, it made her ugly for a moment. She gulped and her nose ran and she leaned forward helplessly, her upper body twisting as she sobbed.

"Shit," Ken said. " I never wanted to see you crying."

"I know that." She was calming herself down.

"Will you help me?"

"Yes." She said it still not knowing if she would. She did not know what he would ask.

She went and called Daniel. He couldn't hear her words; she murmured on the phone, then came back.

"Is it OK?"

"Yes, he trusts me." She supported Ken to the garage. She had helped him into two sweaters and a coat, and she brought a blanket too, just in case. He was walking well today, and had much more energy, but she held his elbow just in case. They took out his Jimmy. She wondered why he didn't want the Ferrari, but she couldn't drive it anyway, because she didn't know how to drive a stick. She wanted to make him comfortable in the back seat but he insisted on sitting up front with her. He had brought a little shaving kit with him, full of pills.

She rarely drove, so she sat nervously behind the wheel, calming herself down, for a few moments before she pulled away from his apartment building.

"Where are we going?"

"To Montauk."

"Not to your mom's?" His mother lived in a town forty miles short of Montauk.

"She doesn't know I'm sick."

"How is that possible?"

"She's used to not seeing me for months at a time."

"Don't you want to see her?"

"Its better not."

He fell asleep and she didn't know the most direct way to Queens, so she got on the FDR Drive, took the Brooklyn Bridge and the BQE. He woke when they were already in Nassau, and for a long while he leaned on the window and stared out at the stark trees. It was early April and just starting to warm up. In a few places there was still old filthy snow in patches among the trees. They stopped at McDonald's and at Ken's request she bought him a hamburger, of which he ate only a few bites.

It was dark when they got to Montauk and she checked them into a suite in the Windward Shores, one of the few places that was open all year round. She took a room with a loft, and set him up in the bedroom and herself in the loft. He went to sleep immediately. Samantha sat up for a long while, thinking. She had been in a trancelike state the entire drive, unable to concentrate on the road and talk to him at the same time. She had formulated questions-- how will you die? what do you want me to do?--but been unable to ask them. A decisive woman in everyday life, she felt as if she had no will at all. In a way she was caught up in Ken's will, an idea she hated when it occurred to her. She knew it was not entirely true, because there were things she would not do if he asked her.

Ken woke up to find that Samantha had gone out; she had left a note on his bed. He stood up carefully to discover that he felt steady enough to move about.

During the entire time of his illness, from the day he discovered the lump on his eye to the present, he had not slept with a woman. Katerina Hagen had been the last partner of his lifetime. He had never admitted that to himself, until a day or two ago. At all times he had reserved the idea that he would sleep with Samantha once or twice more. He had worked out an elaborate daydream about the circumstances under which he would ask her, and what it would be like. It was the first rescue fantasy he had ever had in which he himself was rescued. Trying to map the daydream-Samantha to the real one, he would ask himself sometimes how she would react when he asked, but he had sold himself into believing that she would reach out to him with love and compassion. He deferred the act of asking her from day to day, so that he could continue elaborating the dream. And again, he had missed his timing, because he had waited so long that his body no longer wanted hers and he was probably incapable of the act. In any event he did not now believe that she would have agreed. That "Daniel trusts me" had illuminated a lot of things.

Samantha drove into town and bought herself a fresh t-shirt and underwear but kept on the same jeans as yesterday. By the time she came back, bringing him milk and his favorite breakfast cereal, Ken had fallen asleep again. He awoke after noon to see her reading an Italo Calvino book quietly by the bed.

"Let's talk," he said.

"OK." She put the book down.

"In the shaving kit, you'll find an envelope with a couple thousand dollars in cash. Drive to Wainscott and right alongside the road, you'll see a store called Main Beach Surf and Sport. Go in and buy a kayak, the sit on top kind. It won't cost more than seven hundred dollars, probably a lot less. Buy a used one if they have one. I'll need a paddle. If they ask about a life preserver, tell them you already have one. They'll work out some way to put it on top of the car for you. Don't let them sell you a rack; they should be able to do it with cheap foam blocks and straps. On the way back, stop at the liquor store in Amagansett and get me two bottles of Absolut. Then come back here."

Samantha was shivering.

"Don't fold on me, Sam. I need your help here. You promised you'd see me through."

"I'll go." He turned the television on and watched Warner Brothers cartoons for half an hour. Daffy Duck was speculating what kind of a cartoon he was in, while a huge hand drew airplanes, buildings and other props. When Daffy had been driven crazy, the cartoonist turned out to be Bugs. Ken fell asleep again. Samantha came back. It was now four o'clock. He had the beginnings of that shaky, shadowy feeling that presaged a fever. If he got sick before he could leave on his expedition, he might end up a prisoner of the critical care unit, silent but screaming inside. He didn't want that. He took the antibiotic the doctor had prescribed, to preserve his life until nightfall.

"This is a complicated plan," Samantha said, her voice trembling with care and sadness. "You're raising the bar again, to use your expression. Why do you want to do this? Let's get in the car and I'll have you home before night."

She had bought a variety of vegetables. He asked for the snow peas and she dropped them into boiling water in a pot, then sautéed them in a frying pan with soy sauce and ginger in the unit's kitchenette. They were delicious and he chewed them slowly, holding the taste of each one on his tongue for as long as possible.

He wanted to time things precisely so that they were at the beach right before dusk. He would put out to sea in the light but dark must fall shortly after, before anyone could see him and call the coast guard. They didn't know when dusk was and she hadn't bought a newspaper. He hit on the idea of calling the bait and tackle shop in town and the owner looked it up for them. Then he wrote letters to his mother and to Dog, which he sealed and asked her to hold for three days before mailing. In case he didn't die, she supposed.

Half an hour before dusk, he put on his sweater and coat and walked out to admire the kayak on top of the car. Samantha drove and he directed her to an isolated place between the town and the point, where a sandy path led over the dune to the beach. Samantha refused to drive the car onto the dunes, because she was afraid she might get stuck. Instead, she parked in a flat sandy place. There was no-one else in sight.

"Please unload the kayak."

It weighed about fifty or sixty pounds but she was able to undo the straps and slide it to the ground. In the car Ken was washing down Seconals with gulps of vodka. The kayak had a loop of rope protruding from its plastic nose, so she was able to pull it over the dune to the beach without too much trouble. It was orange with several green lightning-like stripes; its name was "Scrambler." The paddle was aluminum and there was a little cable by which she connected it to the kayak.

"Please come back home with me, Ken."

"Put the nose in the water."

She pushed the kayak into the water and held its tail firmly on the sand. It twisted as if trying to get out of her grasp. There was little surf, just a gentle swell. Dark seabirds were floating on the water, perhaps loons and cormorants. A couple of pink pearly clouds and the sun sinking down into New York City in the West. The breeze came up and Samantha started shivering uncontrollably.

The kayak had stops for your feet; you sat in it with your knees up. Below you, between your raised knees and your ass, was netting under which you could put your supplies. Ken put the two vodka bottles there and the shaving kit with the remainder of the pills.

"This water must be forty degrees. Please don't do this." Samantha was crying. "You'll be lonely out there. I'll be lonely here. Don't go." Ken took off his jacket and dropped it on the beach. He sat down on the kayak, which Samantha was still holding, and picked up the paddle.

"Push me."

When she didn't immediately comply, he looked at her. He had meant to hug her and say something to her, but he could only think of the expedition. He felt the strength of his resolve and the profoundness of his inadequacy. He had no words; if he said anything to her he might break. He was sorry he hadn't written her a letter when he wrote his mother. He didn't feel that he had been very much, but he must have been something, to have bonded her to him so resolutely. He stabbed the paddle into the bottom, and pushed as hard as he could. He felt the kayak sluggishly clear the sand and float free; with a momentary return of his old strength, he paddled furiously and was immediately a hundred yards out. The first time he looked back, Samantha was on the beach watching him. When he looked back moments later, he saw her running over the dune. He balanced the paddle in front of him, freed the vodka from the net and began to drink.

"On the day when I know all the emblems," he asked Marco, "shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?"

And the Venetian answered, "Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems."--Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities