A hospice nurse called Saul to say his grandfather was having trouble breathing and she asked him to come to the house. It took him twenty minutes to walk through the fresh snow from his apartment to his grandfather’s greystone on Humboldt Boulevard. Since he was young he’d possessed a strange kind of prescience regarding his grandfather’s death. He anticipated sitting on the same bed with his grandfather’s tiny and ruined body. He envisioned his grandfather’s hands and feet and elbows and closed eyes (the nurse would close them or he would), momentously at peace, otherworldly, and the ear-splitting silence between them, which resolved itself only after ten minutes or maybe twenty, he couldn’t tell, but in the end, resolved itself fully when he coughed into his palm, pointlessly it seemed, and said, thank you for everything, after which he imagined his grandfather saying, it was nothing, Saul. Then he remained silent because everything that was about to happen had already happened before. His grief was already traveling backward in time from Chicago to Tel-Aviv. He was already meeting himself coming the other way, like a shitty space-time opera, he thought, and then he left and the kind nurse entered the room.
Am I an orphan again? he asked himself later that day. Then he started washing his grandfather’s dirty dishes, glancing out the window at the snowy dunes on the rooftops and the clouds as they raced over the city like a cavalry of gray horses, and added, fuck, I’m too old to be an orphan.
The following week, on the Friday after the funeral, he returned to work. He worked at an old small hotel by the lake which had recently been renovated and which catered to wealthy European, Chinese, and American businesses, young couples, and the occasional nouveau riche transient. The hotel was called The Atlas. The building had a brick façade, a lobby with leather couches and a fireplace, a luxury conference room, a bar, a European-style elevator, and fifty rooms (each crowned with an original ink-on-paper drawing of a god or goddess of travel; so, for ex-ample, Room 2 was Chung-Kuei, Room 7 was Min, Room 33 was Hasamelis, Room 42 was Hermes, Room 19 was Ekchuah and so on, tactfully, but also, thought Saul, with an exhausting affectation of mythology).
On the rooftop of the hotel, there was a neglected and twisted garden worn by the irregular seasons. When business was slow or when he was on break, he went to the rooftop garden to read. For the most part, he read science fiction novels. Saul had a flexible schedule at The Atlas. There were three shifts. When he worked too early or too late he felt like a sleepwalker or a zombie. The 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift suited him well. His main responsibilities included reservations, check-ins, check-outs, preparations for business meetings and conferences, and responding to guest requests, which were sometimes reasonable and sometimes ridiculous or melodramatic.
He liked his boss Romário. Once, Romário, who was half Romanian, half Cuban and who spoke of Romania like it was a bizarre crime novel and spoke of Cuba like it was an irrevocable dream, had asked Saul what it was like to be descended from Litvak Jews. He told Romário that it must be like being descended from any other group of people. Other times, it felt like his skin was the cage of his ancient fate and there was absolutely no way out of his skin. This was his fifth year working at The Atlas. He had a salary that would’ve been laughable to most guests of the hotel.
At seven, during his break, Saul put on his black wool coat and went to the rooftop, which was covered in a thin layer of snow. He sat on a steel bench, drank hot coffee, and read a Russian science fiction novel by Stanisław Lem called Solaris, which was, in short, about a thinking ocean on a distant planet. This was the fourth or maybe fifth time he had read it. At eight, he returned to the front desk. The Atlas was hosting a conference for futures traders called OpenConCon, so this kept him busy for the rest of the night.
At eleven, he put on his black wool coat and clocked out. Then he went to a twenty-four-hour FedEx to drop off a package his grandfather had asked him to send just days before his death, a medium-sized white and brown box that weighed, according to the FedEx employee, just over nine pounds, and was addressed to a Maxwell Moreau in the Department of Physics at the Universidad de Chile in Santiago, Chile. Saul smiled awkwardly and shrugged when the FedEx employee said, oohhh! Chile, since he knew neither the contents of the package nor its recipient. Then he waited for the #72 bus and some fifteen minutes later transferred to the Blue Line.
He got off at California and walked to a small Mexican restaurant near his home. He sat at a booth and ate enchiladas and read more from Solaris. He read more about the strange and nightmarish thinking ocean and wondered if his grandfather had ever read it, but he had no idea and this made him a little miserable. He should know these things, he thought. He should remember his grandfather accurately. He should remember as much as possible about the man who had raised him, even though remembering anything always brought consequences of its own and forgetting could be a type of a gift. For a long while he watched people pass by the front window of the small Mexican restaurant. They were wrapped up like nomads, and he detected an air of melancholy and resistance about them, the American mirror of melancholy and resistance, he thought, and then he read some more until the restaurant closed.
On Sunday afternoon, he went to his grandfather’s house on Humboldt Boulevard, following a guilty need to pack up and get rid of everything as quickly as possible. His grandfather had bought the house with his modest savings as a high school teacher and historian. Saul had come to live with him at the age of five, just three months after his parents were killed on March 11th, 1978 during the hijacking of a bus on Israel’s Coastal Highway, a tragic event which journalists only later started calling the Coastal Road Massacre. In fact, one of the first English words he had learned, from hearing it so often in hushed tones, was massacre, a word, he now understood, that drew its very last breath from unreality.
According to his grandfather, his mother had met his father, an Israeli student, in a café on Devon Avenue. One year later, in 1971, they married and moved to Tel Aviv. All Saul had left of them were five photographs, which he kept wrapped in scraps of black Egyptian linen in a small wooden school box. He never looked at the photographs and he never showed them to others. He had very few memories of his parents or Israel, a nation that from time to time he imagined as a pyretic planet in another star system.
Still, occasional memories of his childhood before their deaths slipped through. Sometimes when he closed his eyes on the #72 bus or sat by himself in a late-night diner, he conjured up images of the solar-yellow Negev Desert or an iridescent skyscraper in Tel Aviv at night or a humming market in Jerusalem. But it was always in vain because his parents were nowhere to be seen in those images; they weren’t even shadows or ghosts. They had died when he was still far too young to influence or direct his memories. Like in some strange Philip K. Dick novel, time had stopped existing but something like the passage of time had still left its violent mark on him. He had an unreal father and an unreal mother, lost to an unreal war.
His first true memory, incandescent and brutal, was three months after their deaths. He was on a plane sitting by a window, but the shades were drawn and the plane was dark. He was terrified of flying, of traveling alone through an empty sky. Then the man sitting next to him lifted the shades and pointed out the window and said, look, that’s the Atlantic Ocean, and he looked and the sky and the ocean were the bluest things he had ever seen. They were, in fact, mirror images of each other. As long as he kept staring at the Atlantic Ocean, he told himself, he wouldn’t start crying. Then the man smiled in a way that was both tender and mischievous and said, I was born there, at which point Saul understood that the man was his maternal grandfather.
Later, in silence and exhaustion, they sat in the backseat of a taxi that smelled of disinfectant and coconut and dirt, a thick smell which almost put Saul to sleep, but he couldn’t sleep, he was either too tired or too excited, the taxi hurrying through the steel and cement labyrinth of the city, and then they were there, late in the evening, standing in silence and exhaustion on a stern and quiet boulevard with tall trees and streetlights that gave out a dingy, cone-shaped alien light, a dog barking from a nearby alley, his grandfather leading him toward a tall iron gate in front of a large brick house, a careful hand on his trembling bony right shoulder, a little after midnight on June 15th, 1978.
A few weeks later, Saul was packing boxes in his grandfather’s kitchen when he heard a thud on the front porch. Once outside, he saw a FedEx truck turning down the street and he found his grandfather’s package on the bottom step, somewhat dented but still intact and still addressed to a Maxwell Moreau at the Universidad de Chile in Santiago, Chile. The package had been returned to sender.
He took it inside and called FedEx. After nearly twenty minutes of rambling conversations with two representatives, he discovered that an executive assistant to a dean at the university had initially accepted the package on behalf of Maxwell Moreau, but then, some weeks later, had sent the package back with a notice stating that Maxwell Moreau no longer taught at the university nor lived in Santiago. Did the executive assistant to the dean give any new addresses for Maxwell Moreau? Saul asked the second representative. I don’t have anything like that here, sir, she said, at which point Saul envisioned a tiresome pilgrimage to Santiago, thanked her, and hung up.
Completely puzzled and sadly embarrassed that he hadn’t been able to fulfill his grandfather’s last request, he went to his grandfather’s desk and opened the package with a pocketknife. Inside of the box was a large manuscript titled A Model Earth.
Saul read and reread the name of the author on the title page of the manuscript: Adana Moreau (a writer he’d never heard of before). At first, he thought it was a history book, maybe written by one of his grandfather’s colleagues, but then he read the second page, which, otherwise blank, stated that the manuscript was a “sequel to the novel Lost City.” The third page had a dedication to Maxwell Moreau, who, Saul suspected, must somehow be related to Adana Moreau. The fourth page was the start of the first chapter. The manuscript was composed of nine-hundred and twenty-four letter-sized pages.
I don’t understand, said Saul out loud to himself.
After searching the office bookshelves, Saul finally found a copy of Lost City splayed open on his grandfather’s nightstand, its pages ruffled like a dead bird. At first, he was a little shocked that he had never seen the science fiction novel in the house before, but as he picked up the book he remembered that he rarely went into his grandfather’s bedroom and that the last time he had done so was to say goodbye to him after his death. The book, which was also written by Adana Moreau and which Saul then understood his grandfather had been reading some weeks or months before his death, was a first edition, published in 1929 by a short-lived (or so Saul suspected) publishing house in New Orleans called Amulet Books. On the faded cover was an illustration of a terrifying prehistoric flying creature, maybe a Pteranodon or a Quetzalcoatlus, and a stone portal in the shape of a perfect hemisphere somewhat obscured by jungle vines. The cover, so thought Saul, was a type of nod to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, but the similarities ended there.
He thumbed through the yellowed pages, searching for some other clues as to the book’s origin or nature—but of course it was in vain. The only thing to do was to read it straightaway, which he then did for hours while sitting on the cheap Turkish rug in his grandfather’s office, just like he had done during his childhood, occasionally taking breaks to eat a snack or piss, occasionally stopping to reread a word, a sentence, a passage, all while the light outside his grandfather’s office window shifted Chagall-like from black to gray to amber, while the night vanished, while the dawn broke and brought with it the damp, sympathetic breeze of a not-yet-bitter spring, truly unable to stop reading until he reached the end because it only took him the first page to know that he had stumbled upon the presence of something extraordinary.
Adapted from The Lost Book of Adana Moreau @ 2020 by Michael Zapata, used with permission by Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins..