Shapeshiftingby Jonathan Baumbach
We had always considered Joel crazy, but not, to put a fine point on it, crazy crazy. There is a difference. For Joel, who got off on being the center of attention, craziness was a form of self-presentation. He was a character in search of an audience, a deceptively shy provocateur with an over-the-top uncensored imagination. If it was his way to see conspiracy in virtually every public event, there was something in his manner, a sly, self-amused half-smile that suggested a barely hidden, ironic subtext. Joel knew, he had to, that his outrageous scenarios had only metaphoric counterpart in the real world. In the toils of his private life, married with two grown daughters (never divorced like most of the rest of us), a successful ad company exec, Joel seemed at least as together as most. As he got older, however, the line between performer and performance became harder to distinguish. And then just recently, his wife, Dotty, confided to Helena, my live-in girl friend, that Joel was behaving oddly, which worried her. What I said when she passed on Dotty’s remark to me was, “How could she tell?” I was kidding of course, but all jokes have their own hidden truths.
It all started, or seemed to, about a year after the Kennedy assassination. At a dinner party at the home of mutual friends, in which fewer than half of those present thought Oswald the lone assassin, Joel offered an elaborate scenario for the Kennedy shooting, which included a network of secret doubles, two Rubys, two Oswalds, and—I’ve heard this nowhere else—two Kennedys.
“Two Kennedy’s, huh? What about two Johnsons?” I asked.
“No,” he answered with deadpan solemnity and perfect timing, “one Johnson was more than enough.”
And then there was the election year when he announced that the two major parties were in collusion and had decided between them in secret meetings who would be the winner this time around. It was either his reason for not voting—I forget now—or for supporting a third party candidate who was destined to end up with no electoral votes. I was not alone in pointing out to him the high level of hostility between the two parties, the unforgivable things spokesmen of one party said about candidates of the other. How did that jibe with his theory? He would wink and say, “Well, they have to make it look good, don’t they?” And then he would offer us a drink (or not) and talk about something else, something closer to home. He rarely elaborated on his theories, presuming, or so his manner suggested, that his perceptions were self-evident to anyone who had his wits about him.
To tell the truth, some of his pronouncements had for fleeting moments crossed my mind as well only to be dispelled by rational second thoughts.
“So what is it this time?” I pressed Helena, who had been grudging about passing on the details of Dotty’s confidence. Helena and Dotty had been roommates at Wellesley and were exceedingly, sometimes vexingly close. Still, it was Dotty I had to thank for Helena—she and Joel had, rather slyly I have to say, arranged for us to meet.
“He accused Dotty of being an imposter,” she said. “Stuff like that.”
“He was speaking metaphorically, I assume.”
“Dotty doesn’t think so. He told her that he found her imposture—that was the word he used, imposture—sympathetic, even liked her at times better than the original, whom he nevertheless missed. That’s terrible. Don’t you think that’s terrible?”
I nodded dutifully, more amused than horrified but I continued to believe, or wanted to believe, that Joel was not exactly saying what he seemed to be saying. “So what did she say in response?”
“What would anyone say? After she cried for a couple of hours, she asked him to get help or to move out. He said he’d rather give up his home than put himself in the hands of some overpriced fraud.”
“She asked him to move out?” I had trouble connecting the dots.
“What did I just say?”
“They’ve been together for close to—what?—40 years. She knows what he’s like. This can’t have been as big a surprise to her as she’s making out.”
“Excuse me,” Helena said. “Conjecturing a John F. Kennedy double is very different from telling the person you’ve lived with for 36 years that she’s an imposter.”
“I take your point,” I said. Unlike Joel, my usual mode was not to provoke disputes but on the contrary I was known—it was my self-presentation—to go out of my way to keep the peace. “He didn’t actually move out, did he?”
“No,” she conceded, “though nothing has been resolved. As a matter of fact, Dotty wondered if you would be willing to talk to Joel.”
“Do I have to?” I said. “About what? You really want me to ask him if he thinks Dotty is not herself? Joel and I have never discussed our private lives.”
“I told her you would do it,” she said.
Though neither of us were drinking much these days, we met at a downtown bar for our talk—I was hoping Joel would find a way to say no when I suggested the meeting, but he accepted as soon as the invitation was in the air. It was almost as if he had been anticipating the request. He arrived late, late enough for me to think he wasn’t coming, and seemed at least at the outset uncharacteristically subdued.
“I know what you’re going to say,” Joel said after we had ordered our second beers and the small talk had shrunk to the point of near invisibility.
“Yeah,” I said. “I thought you might.”
And then for close to an hour, with a few momentary stops for breath, he talked non-stop, his subject transforming almost with every sentence, telling me more than I wanted to hear—it was like being trapped inside a buzz saw—and not a lot that I wanted to know.
I’d like to cut away from this scene for the moment to one that followed after I returned home and gave Helena a generalized report of our inconclusive meeting.
“He must have said more than that,” she said. “You were with him for hours.”
“It was as if he were talking in tongues,” I said. “Some of it made a kind of sense, but there was not much connective thread.”
“Does he really believe that Dotty is an imposter?”
“I don’t think the subject came up. It may have, but it went by so quickly, I can’t remember the implication.”
“Sometimes you have to ask these things,” she said. “You didn’t find out anything, did you? Nothing. Nada. Zip.”
“If that’s what you want to believe,” I said.
“I have to tell Dotty something. I bragged that you were good at getting information from people who didn’t naturally confide. But you struck out this time, didn’t you? What am I going to tell Dotty?”
“You could tell her that I struck out.”
She left the room which was the kitchen, but returned momentarily.
“Why do I feel that there’s something you’re not telling me? It feels to me that it’s the guys against the women, which is not like you. I wish you would tell me that I’ve gotten it wrong.”
“What I’m going to tell you now, Josh,” he said, “I’m sure you already know, though perhaps you haven’t formulated it for yourself quite the way I have. We all suspected when the movie, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers appeared that there were aspects of its story that seemed closer to prescience than fantasy. Isn’t that so? (I nodded when he paused for an answer.) Well maybe 15 years ago, maybe 25, maybe 30, maybe even longer than that, an advance party of what I call shape-shifting extraterrestrials took up residence in the United States. They were here whenever it was they arrived mainly for observation and study and they kept a relatively low profile. Only rarely, perhaps out of boredom or whatever, did they intrude on our everyday lives. Gradually, and I have some theories as to why which are probably obvious to you, their mission became more aggressive. As shape-shifters, they had the capacity to replicate any living form and they decided, or their high command decided, to probe our civilization. Who knew what their intention was beyond mischief or malice or some kind of godlike vengeance. We’re talking about a civilization so advanced that its way of perceiving was probably beyond our power even to imagine. You may remember that after the World Trade Center tragedy, I said it was likely that there was more there than meets the eye. (I did remember and I reluctantly said, “uh huh.”) It’s clear to me now that there were no suicide bombers as such. Or that at least half of the hijacking crew (as well as their organizers) were shape-shifting extraterrestrials and when the planes exploded they didn’t die, at least not in the sense that we understand death, but merely lost their human shapes or exchanged them for new ones. At the same time, these outsiders, these uninvited visitors as I call them, had infiltrated our government at its highest echelon. I can’t say for sure who is and who isn’t at this juncture, though I have my suspicions and, as we’ve seen, they initiated actions designed to undermine the prestige and power of what had been the most prestigious and powerful nation in our world. The seemingly pointless war in Iraq to be understood has to be seen as a hideous extraterrestrial amusement. They’re fucking with us, buddy. You can see that, can’t you?”
“I don’t know, Joel,” I said in a small voice, cowed by his certainty. “There are also other explanations.”
“Okay. Okay,” he said impatiently. “There is always some half-credible official explanation for whatever. Believe what you like if it gives you comfort. But you can see from the people around you, can’t you, that the shape-shifters have taken over more than just the leading players on the big stage. As with all public disasters, this one has its private ramifications.”
There seemed no point in arguing with him. “All right,” I said. “Say I accept your analysis, what’s next? What can I do that would help the situation?”
“I’ve given that a lot of thought,” he said. “There’s nothing we can do, Josh, nothing that would alter things, beyond helping those in the dark see the situation for what it is. I’ve told you what I know at great personal risk in the hope that you’ll pass it on to others. It’s a start, an inescapable necessity, to have an awareness of what you’re up against. You see that, don’t you? I’m trying to be hopeful, I really am, but my gut feeling tells me there is no hope. Or very very little. Our only hope, as I reckon it, and that’s a huge stretch, is that the shape-shifters will get bored with their manipulations and go away.” He looked as if he were doing all he could not to cry.
“That’s not much of a hope, is it?”
He did a double take as if there were something about me he hadn’t noticed before. “That’s what any of you would say,” he said.
When you’re talking to someone with absolute belief—and in this case there was no half-amused, sly smile to undermine his conviction—it shakes your own sense of reality, which is what I said to Helena.
“Joel’s always been full of shit,” she said. “You take him too seriously. You guys always have.”
And that’s when I got in trouble with Helena, not so much for defending Joel as for defending the way I wanted to perceive him. And while we argued, bad feelings turning to worse, I had the bizarre sense that this was not the admirable Helena I had been living with in relative contentment for fourteen years—our fifteenth anniversary was just three months away—but a barely convincing imposter.
Events move too quickly here to track them with the kind of cause-and-effect detail that particularizes them for the reader. About two months (perhaps three) after our “talk” at the Brass Bar, Joel was institutionalized for depression. My source for this information was Helena, who was in daily telephone contact with Dotty and whose conversations I sometimes eavesdropped on from my study with the door ajar, missing the equivalent of every third word. So I knew Dotty’s representation of events, or as much of it as Helena was willing to share, but almost nothing of Joel’s side. I did reach him once on the phone after several failed tries (the story was he went two weeks without a word to anyone) and was subjected to a brief rant before he hung up or the phone was taken from him. A few lines from what I think of now as a cry for help have stayed with me. “They know I’m onto them,” he said. “One of these days, you can set your watch on it, they’re going to put me out of commission. They’re going to make me one of them. Shhh. Someone’s coming. When it happens, you’ll know.” Other times when I tried to reach him, I was told he didn’t want to come to the phone. Once by Dotty, once by the older daughter, who was staying over after the break-up of her marriage.
Joel’s ostensible depression has created an ever-widening invisible rift between Helena and me. I say invisible because in public for the most part we are our old selves together. In private, uncharacteristically, she shows almost no compassion for Joel’s condition. One day, after one of her extended conversations with Dotty, she tells me, “She’s finally beginning to be able to admit to herself that she’s happier without him.”
“Is that a positive?”
“Why wouldn’t it be? I don’t understand what you’re asking. We want Dotty to feel better about her life, don’t we?”
“What about Joel?”
“This has nothing to do with Joel. Joel is of no use to Dotty in his present state. Joel is lost, and maybe always has been, in some kind of never-never land of his own creation.”
This is where our conversation would break off and I would think, wanting to see Helena in the best possible light, that maybe she doesn’t mean these remarks as harshly as they sound to me.
And then one afternoon when Helena is out of town visiting her parents, I go to see a revival of Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” and make a discovery that has nothing to do with the film. Almost directly in front of me—perhaps three rows separate us—I note the back of a head that looks very much like Dotty’s. When the film ends, I wait patiently for her to exit the row. What I haven’t noticed is that there is a man with her, someone I think I know but can’t place, and they are whispering to each other as they pass. I have to call her name to get her attention and even then it takes an extra moment for her to turn around. She greets me warmly—I’ve actually known Dotty longer than I’ve known Joel—and without hesitation (or perhaps the slightest hesitation) she introduces me to her companion as if there were nothing unacceptable at my finding them together. Her self-possession is almost too good to be true. We stop briefly at a local coffee shop and when discussion of the movie is out of the way, I ask how Joel is doing. “It’s hard to say,” she says. “They say he’s making progress, but when I see him I’m not always sure what they mean by progress.”
“I never knew that Joel had problems with depression,” I say.
“It’s very recent with him,” she says. “He’s had bouts of depression before, but nothing remotely like what he’s been going through.”
While we talk, her companion, whose name eludes me, observes our conversation like an eavesdropper, watchful and silent.
For some reason I can’t explain, I neglect to mention this chance meeting with Dotty to Helena, who, for all I know, knows more about the friendship with this other man than I do.
The mind, as the poet tells us, is its own place, which shouldn’t be news to any of us. I don’t remember how it started, though each morning I study the front page of the NY Times and find stories that conform with only the smallest of stretch to Joel’s shape-shifter alien theory. I discuss this with no one, not Helena, not even my therapist, though I have acquired a notebook in which I jot down these instances for future reference. I have the idea, which I realize is naïve and even a little dim-witted, of taking the notebook with me when I get around to visiting Joel (he’s been at the Forestvale Depression Center for almost eight months now) in the hope of cheering him up. It should please him to know that there are events out there that confirm, or seem to, his most singular beliefs.
I can’t say why I waited so long before visiting Joel at Forestvale, which is, in any event, a time-consuming thirty-two mile drive from the city. I have been thinking of going for a while, but I always find some excuse at the last moment to avoid the trip. One morning, however, this morning in fact, I decide to go without subjecting the impulse to a second thought. I have already driven a few blocks when I realize I have forgotten the notebook I have been assembling for Joel, and I drive back to retrieve it, the notion of postponing the trip once again making a brief uninvited visit of its own.
The main building, though formidably grim on approach, is a lot more cheerful on the inside than I might have imagined. The walls of the main lobby are decorated with travel posters for exotic places.
A cheerful white-haired woman who seems to be in charge warns me as we make our way to Joel’s room that he might not recognize me at first. Patients who go through the shock treatment sequence, she says, tend to lose some immediate memory. It turns out that Joel is not in his quarters and Mrs. Gassner, my guide, taken aback by his unexpected absence, actually looks under the bed before taking me to the Common Room. “He usually keeps to his own space,” she says. “That he’s out is a positive sign. I usually have to get one of the aides to take him to lunch.”
We find a crumpled version of Joel sitting by himself in front of a TV set that has not been turned on. “Joel, you have a visitor,” she says to him in her chirpy voice. Then to me: “You’re his brother, I assume. The resemblance is striking.”
“No,” I say.
Finally, Joel turns to look at us and there is a benign smile on his face I can’t remember having seen before.
“Joel, your brother is here to see you,” she says.
“Thank you for coming,” he says stiffly, getting up from his chair, narrowing his eyes to assess me.
Eventually, Mrs. Gassner leaves us to ourselves, though not before finding us a place to talk—we’re set up at opposites sides of a card table—away from the other patients. I have difficulty knowing where to start.
“Are they treating you well?” I ask.
“What do you think?” he says. “No really, I’m fine. Couldn’t be better. Who sent you?”
“You don’t recognize me, do you? I’m Josh…”
“Of course I recognize you,” he says. “You’re Josh, aren’t you? Aren’t you, Josh? What do you want, Josh?”
The longer we talk the less it seems to me that the man sitting across from me is Joel. Or to put it another way, his Joelness, the qualities I think of that define Joel, have been diminished to virtual absence.
And then maybe forty minutes into our conversation, averting his eyes which have momentarily come into focus, he says, “You don’t need to believe everything she says about me.”
“I don’t,” I say. “Everything who says?”
“You know who,” he says. “I can tell by looking at you that you know. She’s got to justify herself. We all need to maintain our own realities in the face of the evidence amassed against us.”
I don’t disagree.
It is at this point I think of showing Joel the notebook with its corroborating evidence, but then I realize that I’ve forgotten to take it from the car. When I try to tell him about it—it is not easy to explain without an immediate context—Joel claps his hands over his ears. “I don’t know where you got that,” he says.
“I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Eventually, he removes his hands from his ears and offers me another version of his eerie benign smile. “Don’t get your tits in an uproar,” he says. “Forget it, okay? If you’re not in the water yourself, Josh, it’s imprudent to make waves...The thing to remember, Josh, is that there are no crazy people in madhouses.”
When I get up to leave, we don’t shake hands but Joel thanks me again for my visit before turning abruptly away.
Barely a month after Joel comes home from Forestvale, Dotty gives a welcome home party in which, according to Helena, most or all of Joel’s closest friends are invited. On the way over, Helena and I have the following conversation in the car.
“Is she unhappier now that he’s returned?” I ask her.
“I know you’re kidding,” she says, “and I don’t know the answer to your question, but it’s possible. More than possible. When you get used to living alone, it’s hard to have someone invading your space again. You know as well as I do that Joel has never been easy to live with.”
If I knew that, I can’t remember knowing it, which is what I say though not quite in those words. “Then it’s especially nice of her to make this party for him.”
“Oh Dotty’s a good person,” she says, “though if you don’t want to be alone with someone, it’s protective to have other people around.”
“And you think that that’s the reason for this party, to have other people around?”
“No, though it’s possible. I have no specific information one way or another.”
There are nine other guests when we arrive, but oddly, in my opinion, no sign of Joel, who, according to Dotty, has gone out to pick up some more beer.
Helena rolls her eyes at the news, but Dotty gives no indication that anything’s amiss. “More people are coming it turns out than we originally expected. Joel thought it would be a bad omen to run out of beer at his own welcome home party.”
There is an understated “Welcome Home, Joel” sign taped to the refrigerator door.
I tend to drink moderately these days—two glasses of wine at most in an evening—but tonight for some reason, perhaps some anxiety on Joel’s behalf, I go past my usual limit. After my third or fourth glass—all put away before Joel’s return—I see no point in keeping further count.
“Please don’t get drunk on me,” Helena says to me in passing, but by that time I’m too far along to care.
I am aware that I’ve said some outrageous things to people, some of whom I barely know—the looks I’ve gotten in exchange are my evidence. I see what I’m doing, when I think about it at all—I try to remain as oblivious as possible—as a kind of comradeship with Joel.
I am not aware of the exact moment of Joel’s return, only that at some point he is there at the center of a crowd, talking to a woman who earlier in the evening—I have only the vaguest sense of when—told me to “fuck off.” And what could I have possibly said to her to have provoked such unpleasantness? In waiting for Joel to extricate himself, I lose sight of him again.
I haven’t had my opportunity to wish Joel well, when Helena comes by with my coat over her arm. “I think it’s about time I got you home,” she says.
“I haven’t talked to my friend Joel yet,” I say.
“Oh dear,” she says. “You seem to have insulted everyone else. You say goodbye to Joel, Josh, and I’ll say goodbye to Dotty, who won’t be at all unhappy to see us go. Josh, promise me, okay? That you’ll talk to no one else but Joel.”
I can’t make that promise, I tell her, though in the spirit of compromise I put down the mostly finished glass of wine in my hand on the first surface that approaches before going to look for my friend.
It takes the opening and closing of several doors—there is a couple necking in one of the guest bedrooms and for a moment I think the man is Joel—before I find him sitting by himself in the dark in the TV room, which also serves as a library.
“How’s it hanging, buddy,” I greet him. “Helena says it’s time for us to go.”
“Who is it?” he asks.
“It’s me,” I say, “though the correct answer is ‘It is I.’”
“It’s good of you to come, me,” he says. “I’m all of a sudden extremely tired of talking to people. Can you imagine? I’m not used to staying up this late any more... Good night, me.”
“Good night, buddy,” I say. “It’s been a great party except for the handful of extraterrestrials that slipped in under false pretenses.”
“Ah hah,” he says. “If I were you, me, I’d let my wife do the driving home.”
As if on cue, Helena comes up on me from behind and takes me by the arm, leading me out of the house with only verbal resistance on my part. I seem to sleep most of the ride home, though there is an unfriendly one-sided conversation going on between us in the interstices.
When I go to bed that night, pressed up against Helena’s back in our king-sized bed, the earliest stages of self-righteous anger and regret beginning to overtake me, I wonder what Joel was thinking during our abbreviated conversation. I think he didn’t know me in the dark or want to know me, whoever I was. He’ll figure it out, I suspect, or not. Helena will forgive me in the morning. She almost always does. I meant well, I tell myself as consciousness slips like bath water down the drain. I have the sense of watching myself fall asleep.
I dream of hiding out in the back room of a house I lived in as a child, working out a hopelessly elaborate means of escape, someone ratcheting the handle at the side door, while awaiting the inevitable appearance of the body snatcher, my other self, my monstrous self, a smile on his face you could die for.
Brooklyn native Jonathan Baumbach is the author of 3 collections of short stories and 11 novels including Reruns, B, Seperate Hours, Babble, Chez Charlotte & Emily and On the Way to My Father's Funeral. His stories have been anthologized in O.Henry Prize Stories, Great Pool Stories, Best American Stories, Full Court, All Our Secrets are the Same, Best of TriQuarterly among other.