"What astonished me most, I think, was the simple fact that he had a body. Until I saw him lying there in bed, I'm not sure that I ever fully believed in him. Not as an authentic person, at any rate, not in the way I believed in Alma or myself, not in the way I believed in Helen or even Chateaubriand. It stunned me to acknowledge that Hector had hands and eyes, fingernails and shoulders, a neck and a left ear -- that he was tangible, that he wasn't an imaginary being. He had been inside my head for so long, it seemed doubtful that he could exist anywhere else.
The bony, liver-spotted hands; the gnarled fingers and thick, protruding veins; the collapsed flesh under his chin; the half-open mouth. He was lying on his back with his arms out over the covers when I entered the room, awake but still, looking up at the ceiling in a kind of trance. When he turned in my direction, however, I saw that his eyes were Hector's eyes. Furrowed cheeks, grooved forehead, wattled throat, tufted white hair --and yet I recognized the face as Hector's face. It had been sixty years since he'd worn the mustache and the white suit, but he hadn't altogether vanished. He'd grown old, he'd grown infinitely old, but a part of him was still there.
Zimmer, he said. Sit down here beside me, Zimmer, and turn off the light.
His voice was weak and clogged with phlegm, a soft rumbling of sighs and demi-articulations, but it was loud enough for me to make out what he said. The r at the end of my name had a slight roll to it, and as I reached over and turned off the lamp at the bedside table, I wondered if it wouldn't be easier for him if we continued on Spanish. After the light was off, however, I saw that a second lamp was on in the far corner of the room -- a standing lamp with a broad vellum shade -- and that a woman was sitting in the chair beside the lamp. She stood up the moment I glanced over at her, and I must have jumped a little when she did that -- not only because I was startled, but because she was tiny, as tiny as the man who had opened the door downstairs. Neither one of them could have been more than four feet tall. I thought I heard Hector laugh behind me (a faint wheeze, the merest whisper of a laugh), and then the woman nodded at me in silence and walked out of the room.
Who was that? I said.
Don't be alarmed, Hector said. Her name is Conchita. She is part of the family.
I didn't see her, that's all. It surprised me.
Her brother Juan lives here, too. They are little people. Strange little people who cannot talk. We depend on them.
Do you want me to turn off the other light?
No, this is good. Not so hard on the eyes. I am content.
I sat down on the chair beside the bed and leaned forward, trying to position myself as close to his mouth as possible. The light from the other side of the room was no stronger than the light of a candle, but the illumination was sufficient for me to see Hector's face, to look into his eyes. A pale glow hovered over the bed, a yellowish air mixed with the shadows and dark.
It is always too soon, Hector said, but I am not afraid. A man like me has to be crushed. Thank you for being here, Zimmer. I did not expect you to come.
Alma was very convincing. You should have sent her to me a long time ago.
You shook up my bones, sir. At first, I could not accept what you did. Now I think I am glad.
I didn't do anything.
You wrote a book. Again and again, I have read that book, and again and again I have asked myself: why did he choose me? What was your purpose, Zimmer?
You made me laugh. That was all it ever was. You cracked open something inside me, and after that you became my excuse to go on living.
Your book does not say that. It does honor to my old work with the mustache, but you do not talk about yourself.
I'm not in the habit of talking about myself. It makes me uncomfortable.
Alma has mentioned great sorrows, unspeakable pain. If I have helped you to bear that pain, it is perhaps the greatest good I have done.
I wanted to be dead. After listening to what Alma told me this afternoon, I gather you've been to that place yourself.
Alma was right to tell you those things. I am a ridiculous man. God has played many jokes on me, and the more you know about them, the better you will understand my films. I look forward to hearing what you say about them, Zimmer. Your opinion is very important to me.
I know nothing about films.
But you study the works of others. I have read those books, too. Your translations, your writings on the poets. It is no accident that you have spent years on the question of Rimbaud. You understand what it means to turn your back on something. I admire a man who can think like that. It makes your opinion important to me.
You've managed without anyone's opinion until now. Why this sudden need to know what others think?
Because I am not alone. Others live here, too, and I must not think only of myself.
From what I've been told, you and your wife have always worked together.
Yes, that is true. But there is Alma to consider as well.
Yes, the book she is writing. After her mother's death, I understood that I owed her that. Alma has so little, and it seemed worth it to abandon some of my ideas about myself in order to give her a chance at life. I have begun to act like a father. It is not the worst thing that could have happened to me.
I thought Charlie Grund was her father.
He was. But I am her father, too. Alma is the child of this place. If she can turn my life into a book, then perhaps things will begin to go well for her. If nothing else, it is an interesting story. A stupid story, perhaps, but not without its interesting moments.
You're saying that you don't care about yourself anymore, that you've given up.
I have never cared about myself. Why should it bother me to turn myself into an example for others? Perhaps it will make them laugh. That would be a good outcome -- to make people laugh again. You laughed, Zimmer. Perhaps others will begin to laugh with you.
We were just warming up, just beginning to get into the swing of the conversation, but before I could think of a response to Hector's last comment, Frieda walked into the room and touched me on the shoulder.
I think we should let him rest now, she said. You can go on talking in the morning.
It was demoralizing to be cut off like that, but I wasn't in the position to object. Frieda had given me less than five minutes with him, and already he had won me over, already he had made me like him more than I would have thought possible. If a dying man could exert that power, I remarked to myself, imagine what he must have been like at full strength.
I know that he said something to me before I left the room, but I can't remember what it was. Something simple and polite, but the precise words escape me now. To be continued, I think it was, or else Until tomorrow, Zimmer, a banal phrase that signified nothing of any great importance -- except, perhaps, that he still believed he had a future, however short that future might have been. As I stood up from the chair, he reached out and grabbed my arm. That I do remember. I remember the cold, clawlike feel of his hand, and I remember thinking to myself: this is happening. Hector Mann is alive, and his hand is touching me now. Then I remember telling myself to remember what that hand felt like. If he didn't live until morning, it would be the only proof that I had seen him alive."
The Book of Illusions, Paul Auster