Running on Empty
Ronald Sukenick

The wager was that he could live things out until he was tired of everything. He wasn't yet, not by a long shot--memory of brisk activity, rich food, rigorous concentration, vigorous sex. He could still go through Paris, for example, in a dream state, revisiting neighborhoods where he had lived. He would imagine three star restaurants and run through the rain.

It was like he had lived inside his imagination, anyway, living the life he had imagined and created for himself. The life he had imagined in his teens was almost identical with the one he looked back on in his 70s. He had even guessed well at his disappointments: obscurity, relative poverty, cult status.

What remained was the end game, constructed from remnants of memory. These emerged from a trance-like state in scatters with no obvious relation to one another. It was a matter of extrapolation, a game of what if into the future. What if in Paris he had gone back to the States to marry his girlfriend? He would have become an academic of economic necessity. Or if he had deserted the damp cobblestones of Lille to trip through the Sahara he'd be dead long since.

The race was Cairo to Capetown, and the guide was suspicious-looking from the start. They found the crew, minus guide, dead of thirst in the desert. Suppose he had gone? He might have vetoed the guide and saved them all.

These are like alternate lives. Each had had its own beginning and middle. They have the same ending. This one. It's like if he hadn't gone to California for half his life what would have happened? But each middle casts its own light on the end.

They were traveling cross-country to Los Angeles, sleeping in their tent. They were still in love. But when they got there they found it so expensive she panicked, wanted to come back. Was that the beginning of their end? He could see it as getting hysterical for alternatives. Now, anything to change the impending ending, the one thing he couldn't change.

Alternate lives. He could have had plenty. So why couldn't he have one now that he needed one? The clinical trial involving stem cells. Just in time. His malady had progressed almost to the brink of no return when they realize the treatments were reversing it. The tests are proof, but more immediately he can eat again without his choking cough.

They decide to go out to their favorite restaurant, the one down by the river. They begin with ice cold martinis and order a good wine. Afterward they hang over the river listening to the tide rippling down stream. It's good to contemplate that inevitable current without oneself being swept out by it. They grow amorous and return to their apartment. He had not had the impulse for many months but now he does and it's beautiful.

They are packed and ready for the trip. The next morning, early, they catch a cab for Kennedy. They have upgraded to business class and they are offered glasses of champagne on taking their seats, but decline on the grounds of his firm prejudice against champagne before breakfast. That however, exhausted his firm prejudices, and they are quite loaded by midflight.

He almost forgets about their destination, though he knows it quite well. Besides, there's a stopover in London with recuperative possibilities. But one of the best bistros in town is in their hotel, and they can't resist the wine list. He slips on top of the stairway going out and tumbles all the way to the bottom to the applause of patrons when they realize he isn't hurt. Upstairs in their room they make love and sleep like stones.

The next day they are in the new apartment, overlooking an enclosed market whose low roof gives them a view of red roof tiles stretching all the way to the Eiffel Tower under the smoke blue sky. They try to stay awake and go out to a cafŽ for pain au chocolat and cafe au lait. Then come home and fall into leaden sleep.

Jet lag, she says. we shouldn't have slept. We. The comfort of that. Common cause against the world.

Wake-up at an odd hour, they take a restorative walk on Rue de Seine, sunlight slipping away. Maybe their nerves are taut but one word leads to another and soon the mood turns bitter. Soon they aren't speaking. When they reach the Pont des Arts she goes off to the upstream side of the bridge, he to the downstream, a split that somehow seems appropriate.

But this will be his last trip to Paris and he doesn't want it spoiled. He takes her hand and kisses it, mock elegance matching the scenery. She replies with a slap, then, spat spit, she takes his arm and they walk on into the rising darkness.

They leave the bridge on the right bank, street lamps now filtering through the leaves. The chatter of the language all around him, the pressure to translate, give words the intensity of gems. They enhance the resonance of his memories, endowing them with an aura they perhaps never had, incandescent.

Words that here in the quiet of his study infer potential pleasure even from present pain through their meditative estrangement from hard reality. As in the word "metro" which they now invoke, but in what era? That of jetons, tickets, electronic cards? They ascend at St. Michel 20 years before and walk to his apartment.

The apartment consists of one large impractical room, painted black from ceiling to floor, a hooker's fantasy of a glamor pad. The woman he moves in with likes it, she has strong hooker fantasies. Maybe more than fantasy, her solo expeditions in the city, he doesn't ask. Maybe it turns him on.

But it ends badly. His unexamined suspicions. Now, why would he be jealous of a hooker? Literally the line dividing the apartment marked by a cord on the floor, it had come to that.

These flashbacks keep happening to him. They're part of his present. They fabricate his future, along with the other parts of his consciousness. Walking past the Pasteur Institute, where doctors have fabricated the cure for his disease. Ten years from now. But available immediately in his mind.

That's what he's come to Paris for. The city had that quality of dreaminess that he's after. It's open to any amalgamation of desire and fact. What he hopes for is a gradual leakage of desire in favor of fact. Till desire is exhausted and ready to be relinquished.

Would things have been pretty much the same regardless of options he had chosen? He suspects yes, his personality acting as a gyroscope no matter how much he might wish otherwise. No matter what Sahara or California might intervene. He had to submit to the conundrum that in his case failure sometimes marked success.

Such accountings were the measure of his days. He had invented the concept of the successful death, a death that achieves all or most of its goals, the major one being exhaustion of impulse. Followed by fadeout.

Fadeout is twinned by fast forward. The clinical trials at the Institut are what he's come to Paris for. He could already feel the first effects. Somehow it is his girlfriend who is paying expenses for this. She had put her body on the line for him, had gone all the way, he couldn't say why. Except that death was the new variable.

The time frames are getting confused, as they should. Go to sleep and the hidden well has to have the medical care and, to simplify, some anticipated sales didn't come through. Money is shorthand for his situation, partnering with death. Them. One depends on the other. He feels terribly absent from the situation.

It's all a hopeless gargle. Chronic. The only thing he can think of is to give in to it, as one does with time. This does not make him happy, but the alternative is something he does not like to think of. In fact, the last thing he needs is reflection.

Inviting interference. In context to become something else that cascades into fact of sorts. His next appointment at the Institut is Monday. The money from sales is minimal but a sign of life. Someone has to pay.

She's different from all the others in that she really wants to do what she talks about. And sometimes she does. A sign of life. One that gains momentum. Doing rather than thinking about doing is like cold cash rather than credit. As for him, he's attracted to women who are attracted to fact.

But given all that, which she is he thinking about? It's not as if they blend into one, but there is a continuity, something in common which make him feel faint with surprise. But surprise is good at present, until the end, which is invisible and the surprise only vacancy. Where do we go from here is the question--the answer, probably nowhere. Stories, stories can come together without ends, but this is something else.

Running on empty. He should have gone one-up on the time. He is aware that these are his last days, after all, deserving of certain solemnity. Whatever happens happens. That one time he even considered living with an Australian.

The party was huge. The amount of time it took, and other names to be invited, attended by word-of-mouth. He left her by pushing the envelope until he was outside the box. It was a duet with common sense. The denouement was fuzzy; the motive, as usual, desperate. It turned on running out of money and having to go back.

Eventually he brought her back, but it was not on the same terms. Nothing stands still, that was one lesson. And otherwise, don't count on anything. Not even vacancy. The best to set off adrift and go with the current. For this he needs to think of disconnecting many mental wires, as many as possible.

It's not so much melancholy as loss of thrust, she says. Her green eyes blaze. The same morale operation applies to everything, thrust or no. It requires imagination.

She'll regard his lifeless body as something left behind. Sense degenerating into nonsense. Part of the situation will be release, edging the grief. But let's not be too upbeat.

He'll leave everything to the machines, too much probably. It is astounding how much. And what a change! It will seem to him to be just a few short years. Unbelievable but true, he supposes it's how everyone looks at it. One day you're just not there.

People pass in and out of lives, on the other hand, all the time. An insight, a slight, and someone exits your life, never to be seen again, regardless of throb. After a while, he'll think, peace is only once. And forever, if you can think of it that way.

A wounded hand will point to the sky, a gesture of relinquishment. If you're lucky. Otherwise he won't get the chance to sleep away despair. Unless the Institut.

Why should she care so much? It must be organic. The pursuit of happiness is built into her dreams and everyone's. She is the best one though, the other end of the scale forgotten, they never piqued his imagination. Then there were friends, some for over 50 years, there's no way to say goodbye. The only answer will be don't stop. Spool it out and hope somebody loves it.

She'll find some scoundrel who will steal all the money through crooked accounting schemes. He'll be inventive in bed, something of a rake. With a little mustache. She'll be flattered, she'll believe him. But even so, not the same.

As the cottage by the creek, the sliding glass doors, the deck, his ugly secondhand furniture. The brash drapes drawn for days at a time. Death will be so lonely.

Best to stay focused on the Institut. Not looking from side to side but staring straight ahead, chin up, wind in face. Good will come of it.

Yes, his stance will be defiant. More through the tone of utterance than anything else. Plus they, he and she, will be harmonious to the very end. He hoped. She would assuage the coast of failing desires, seen from afar, he thinking about that, about the adequacy of it.

There was a choice between was and will be that he didn't like to think about. He tried to stick to is, whatever its inadequacies, but he kept slipping future. It will come at the keyboard, or so he will hope. With, he'll suppose, unhealthy tenacity.

His stubbornness will be remarkable and widely remarked. But oddly sepulchral. Half death wish, half lust for everything else.

They remarked that their journey will have started by then, the last to be attracted to the sky. But obviously the rainbows of the day would not endure amid other abstractions. Wishing he could do it with some others.

Others, unfortunately, are not involved--it will be something to handle by himself. But let's not dwell on it, on anything. He thinks of himself as a painter, painters don't dwell on destinations. Or definitions. They just get up every morning and do it.

And a good thing too, because he's losing his voice, soon he'll be mute. He'll have to impose speech rationing before long. Language will be the next to go, spoken language. Soon he'll be communicating with squeaks and farts. The only answer is to go slow, what's the rush? Another day, another opportunity--for what?

Already he can't read or write. He feels like the computer shutting down in 2001. If he limits himself to saying the essentials, he'll conclude, he'll wind up saying nothing. It's a great chance. Why not be upbeat, after all? Yes, speak first, think later. Or not at all. Have fun on the edge.

Some he will remember, some forget. Some made up. He'll remember giving him his watch, because he said he needed one. But he'll recall most acidly his many meannesses, his own, nothing to be done. Women mostly, but some men too. Culpable. Adulterating his host's wife, a pathetic college town in Iowa. In their kitchen, while he was upstairs.

Or he really regretted breaking with a friend without trying to explain to get it straight until too late. Or insulting an admirer just to get rid of him, the look on his face. Such things recalled still after many years. This the genre that will most likely come into his head.

Get to the exceptions, gatherings of the faithful testing the case, appreciations. To be the daring one of the size and another escalator. If nothing else that have fun, even animals. It Îs so hard to break loose, especially on his own by scrambling, if that's right. Still into elevated moves after all this time.

Anything else matter? Of course. He would design a course of action and another of takeover, you know that ahead of time, typically. Once he finds invented the lease of takeover, anything goes. To burst from inside, language, under its own pressure, his so sanguine hope. Why?

To determine the garble expose all ports. Polarize no hidden meanings. Will pulverize the end, no matter what. To see it as the day blames evening, a resource if nothing else, possibly a miracle. Because they do break down.

Possibly a spirit of the chance prevails, or is it the rhythm that counts so he will have to take risks? Do break down before hand önot faster than the fact, or so they say. It's almost an impossibility. Have the good sense not to try, you think, but he'll count himself in. Is the idea that it looks. The good to have to express the ambiguities.

Continuity is impossible to avoid, he'll guess, just because one thing follows another, it's hardwired. Once admitted it's exhilarating. He will be at the sloping edge of the cliff once again, the sliding couldn't be stopped, too scared to be scared. It is dangerous and unlawful to go off the trail the sign said. That will be his first encounter, a lucky one, only a broken ankle.

It will be a clear-cut case of transgression and retribution. And grace, inasmuch as a friend will carry him out on his shoulders. From there, with snowpacked boot he could walk. Though he barely will make it back.

The march of time. Coincidence is the only thing that can stop it. Breaking his ankle in Paris becomes the opportunity to finish Proust, just as on the earlier occasion he'll take the opportunity to stare into Grand Canyon for a week. Both time stoppers.

Time stoppers are life changers in his opinion, always. It is the position that changes, changing the view for ever, like almost getting killed on the highway. Asleep at the wheel big time, careening toward the moving van of reality by way of California, groping for a style at the organ.

There will be no end of followers, breaking new ground and possibly better. Risks. Like careening down the Pasadena Freeway at 100 miles an hour, eight kids in a coupe, they would have been flesh jelly. And these are just vehicular. Foolish but necessary.

Next will be fill-in-the-blanks on campuses as compasses. It's not so easy to find your way, not then or mental. Weirdness will seem to rain, and talk of alienation. Freshen up, it will never be the same. The careening.

After that life in the tenements, tenements of desire, therefore lucky to have nothing again. The party will never stop across the street in the bar of dreams. Manahatt. You want it you take it, not like now waiting for the Institut. Lost bearings.

And vulnerable at that age. But invulnerable in a way, too, through a virtuous innocence, challenging everything. He will pay, he'll find.

He'll never forget how they felt. Showing them off turned him on, he wouldn't be able to exactly say why. She led to trouble, learning to like it. Especially erratic, read erotic. Slurpy.

Remember DDT? Slaughtering waterbugs in dark apartments. Getting robbed proof of real-life, we'll be sure of it.

By contrast, to bring you quickly up to date, he's going now. Then, he was always coming, time and again. What a difference a date makes. Still, some things are deeply gratifying, like this thing. Playing with handicap. Clever?

Little else to afford to play, really want more. Really. Let's let loose currently, totally downstream determinants, playing off areas. Isn't that when he was always looking for and will be. Meanings relate to change of words, they really do. Where is his sense of fun is no matter. Is this mantic or just normal?

He would masturbate on her face demeanor and all, then bring her out for her husband to see. Those would be the interface required. Will he or won't he? Rubbery nipples. All is not lost, just most.

The Italian sense of space--vast, enclosed. He will never see again as his voice drones on, glorious fragments! Nor Paris, unless the Institut playing ball will, the old country coming to rescue the new.

And interfacing fatigue the summer has barely begun. What now? Mindful that the stress on the purity of language cannot be strange, where I go, I go. That could be anybody.

Freshen up! The serious and organic style has autopilot functions, no need to worry. Another advantage, his could be the stress that fracas. Nevermind the four seasons getting off the ground. It's minor.

He used to say he never knows when but will have reasons to regret it. This, too, after he punched him silly which proves, keepo duce, that things come back.

Too much too soon to do, until it comes, if you know he means it. Something pulmonary to call him nervous. Nonetheless forthcoming. Life is complicated but it never congeals, heart of a stress that does, come what may. Even chicken farci believe it or not.

He supposed it all made some kind of nonsense. The moving image mocks and then moves on. It's a hyper-hypertext. It was as if she walks to the apartment one day and disappears, ascending a spiral staircase to where? Heaven? The case is for missing persons, not much zing.

Stress the happy side: where? Driving with her in the antique sports car across this and that the eye with a great utility in looking. Sentimental? Or to go further, the clean crack of bats saying you can't eat like that in Paris.

Not denied in his head feels good. Nor an idea, how long can he keep it up? In the silver light. This whole exercise releases a lot of pressure to show what everything means, if you believe that. That's why they get so angry.

It could have ended right there if he hadn't veered at the last second, he keeps thinking that, will excised from his vocabulary. What would that have been like? Being borne away by the horses of forgetting. Nothing. Oblivious to pain at least.

Do we miss the children? Some say we do, though why they should care? Besides, what children? The one with the disagreeable wife or the one with prominent facial warts and impossible temper?

He'll sense danger there. She could hear him speaking to his machine in a flat, rhythmless monotone--a new habit for a new habitat. What he'll have in mind is no longer a writer he'll become a word artist in the changing atmosphere stained by flashing colored lights mentally. In her.

The hand of chance plays in your life more than likely killing. There are various kinds of disorder, some beneficial and many cases that have the choice, they don't. At that level there is no such thing as nonsense. Determined by everything else, as usual. Up to you can make a sense of the stuff.

This is what happens when you relinquish syntax: determination follows suit. But not any kind. The sense remains nonsense and most cases are flushable--what counts is choice, the warp of the meaningful. Hard to kill.

Whose story was right? Did she leave because he would not marry her or because he would, wanted to? Or something in between? Except that this and except that that. Most likely she tired of his excuses. So why not go away. All the way.

Nonsense will be dumber than he remembered: overflow over four days over four days I see and the what celebrates the saliva Israelis to see a can produce it is a good entree to drama's secretions that you have described from you take care of his right showed the Navy dry makes the choke the mind is another thing... highly overrated, don't you think?

He was involved in cutting across the grain--in words as in relationships. Structures will emerge. Babble doesn't emerge out of nowhere. He'll learn that one day, too late. It would be getting close to the end. The sky would be cloudy, the air congested, the view mysterious. Lightning on the horizon.

Near exhaustion now. Colored lights exploding in eyeballs. Yet he would be at it again. Tomorrow can take care of itself. Right now lids are closing for the better.

Touch me for the better, he'll insist. It was the bridge between bliss and myth, the latter merely an exaggeration. Playful, like baby talk.

Fertile nonsense. Cancel the reliability litigation.

He had many friends and friends to be made. Eddy the bartender he didn't know yet. Seventy years old and still on his motorcycle, unbowed through eccentricity, he lives in the future. Running on gas as if he had options.

Entering the realm of no choice it's a horse race. She loves him at first, among others, and he'll like that at first, who can say why? Is this avoided? Does it have a sense of its own, like a tree?

Desperation rhumba.

Liberation of the neurons, that is. While the body sleeps the mind feasts. While it lasts. While the ball bounces.

Cut the log lengthwise he'll get lumber, cut across, he'll get its age, its history, its mystery. But who is the question! Anyone?

He'll be the question. He'll become left-handed. Nothing will turn out as foreseen.

To sleep. A chance to dream.