He had once committed a murder.
The trouble was, he couldn’t remember whom he had murdered or how exactly he had gone about doing it. One morning he had awakened bathed in sweat, his heart thumping like an engine about to seize up. Alma slept peacefully next to him, breathing through her mouth with delicate snores. The chalk outline of his victim, pointedly clear in his dream, had now faded away. How could you be a murderer if you couldn’t remember the specifics of your crime?
And how had the murder occurred? The dream-memory had involved not a gun but a knife, infinitely sharp, sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. Despite the gaps in the narrative, Brettigan did remember how blood seemed to be spurting everywhere, and the inner exposed body parts of his victim, and the screaming. He remembered the terrible baritone roar, the rattling, gurgling outburst of a man in his last moments dying under protest, the light going out in his eyes.
But who was the victim? And where did the rage come from? He couldn’t remember. You don’t expect a man like Brettigan to be a murderer. It wouldn’t fit his profile stored up in all the algorithms that were forming slowly, like sea slugs, on everybody, inside the godlike computers that no one could unplug. Here he was, a virtuous man, a retired structural engineer, a bridge designer who’d volunteered in soup kitchens, tutored disadvantaged children, raised a beautiful daughter and a handsome son, driven them to softball games, soccer games, attended their piano recitals, helped them with homework, walked his daughter down the aisle at her wedding, paid everyone’s tuition—a model citizen! Hardly a blemish visible anywhere! If anyone was qualified for the role of devoted father and faithful husband, he’d be at the front of the line.
And yet his dreams: his dreams would send him to the electric chair. Or the gas chamber. Which they didn’t have anymore. But they did have potassium chloride and would enthusiastically inject it into him.
“You, Harold, a murderer? That’s a laugh. You’re harmless. Always have been,” Alma had said when Brettigan told her his dreams. She yawned, lying next to him, and treated him to a patronizing chuckle. “You’re the most harmless person I ever met.” And she kissed him on the cheek before getting up to take her shower.
“Not that harmless,” he muttered. “I’m capable.”
Weeks later in a bookstore, idly paging through a collection of European and African aphorisms and fables, he had come upon this passage, planted squarely in the middle of the page.
In mid-life a man wakes up believing that he has committed a murder. He cannot, however, remember who his victim was or what method he has employed to do the killing. Despite his forgetfulness, for years the man is weighed down by the memory of his crime; his guilt becomes ineradicable and leads to his physical decline. On his deathbed he is visited by the angel of God, who tells him that his only victim was himself and that he has murdered his true self for the sake of the life he has actually led.
It sounded like one of Kafka’s parables or a story by Henry James. (Brettigan had in his early twenties been a reader of fiction but in middle age grew to despise it; fiction was like quicksand, dragging you down.) He didn’t care who had written this quaint parable with its lethal, accurate truth. Stealthily, he closed the book and replaced it on the bookstore display table. No one would ever know that this book had found him out. No one had seen him reading it. The other customers—that lady, over there, in the threadbare flower-pattern print dress, who was trying to memorize a recipe in an unpurchased cookbook, or that man reading a guide to explosives—they were all oblivious to him. The book, with its fables and aphorisms, had his number and was selling for $24.95. He had checked the price. Somebody had stolen his dreams and had put them into this book. The unconscious never takes a vacation. And capitalism sniffs out your secrets. It knows all of them by now and has lists with your name on them matched to a facial recognition file.
Wherever you go online, the Big Computer knows what you want before you want it. It’s ready for you and waits patiently, humming. It knows where you will be tomorrow and what you will be doing, and it carefully calibrates the shame you carry with you in hopes that you will buy something to restore your peace of mind.
He had had, he felt, a lucky life of good fortune and privilege, and if the sun was setting on people like him, middle-class white guys, well, okay. His only real cause for disquiet had been Timothy, their gifted boy. As the younger of their two children, he’d been born with an uncanny talent for mimicry, beginning at age six with imitations of his sister, Virginia, whose whine he could duplicate so accurately that if you were in the next room over or down the hall, you’d think she was speaking in her usual wheedling way. She dropped little pauses in her sentences and rushed her verbs and nouns together, and Timothy had somehow trained himself to parrot those habits too, so much so that the imitations gradually became distracting and weird, as Brettigan and his wife waited for Timothy to sound like himself. As he grew, the voices proliferated: he could sound like film stars or rock musicians or politicians or panhandlers or his parents. He could be anybody, but when he was himself, when the disguises disappeared and the masks fell, he seemed not to be present and accounted for. And he had a magician’s gift for vanishing, almost on the spot. He was there; you saw him; you looked away, and when you turned back, he was gone.
He had gravitated toward the theater, his natural home. He was astonishingly good-looking and had a handsome man’s indifference to engaging in intimate conversation and to exerting himself in courtship. In high school he played the Stage Manager in Our Town with a perfect New Hampshire accent. At the university he played the Gentleman Caller in The Glass Menagerie and Sir Fopling Flutter in The Man of Mode and Rosalind in an all-nonbinary As You Like It and King Creon in Antigone and Deeley in Pinter’s Old Times. Whenever he came home for visits, he sat in the living room staring at his iPhone screen, or he disappeared into the basement, where he memorized his next part. Conversations seemed to cost him a great deal of effort, and he never asked polite questions and could not feign interests that he did not have. Emotionally, he was always somewhere else, flirting with oblivion, a place where his parents could not find him.
He had many girlfriends, all of whom were initially delighted to be in his company and who thought they could turn his habitual half-smile and easygoing affability into a grin that signified love. But the half-smile was frozen in place, as was the affability, and the pleasant, speculative expression on his face never varied much in mixed company. Some coolness resided at his center, a little pinpoint of ice. He could be wonderfully wicked and entertaining, though it all felt scripted, and not by him, so the discouraged girlfriends drifted away from him or were discarded, confounded by his glacial surface and their own inability to melt it.And once Brettigan had seen a bearded man on a city bus who might have been his son, but the man got off before his father could reach him.
He had no cruelty in him, just an emotional absentmindedness that seemed to be part of his character.
After earning a BFA in acting, there he was, in Chicago, a star, playing the lead in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. And there he was, again, as Dr. Astrov in Uncle Vanya. And he would return to Minneapolis, he told his parents, for the role of Estragon in Waiting for Godot, but then something happened to him, a mystery he refused to explain. There had been a girlfriend to whom a calamity had occurred. “I need to become a person,” he told his father over the phone. There was an urgency in his voice that Brettigan had never heard before. What sort of person? The question encountered a silence. He claimed that he would live on the streets for a time, “as an experiment.” What sort of experiment? He would not explain.
He moved from apartment to apartment, sometimes telling his family and friends where he was. But then he became unreachable, unlocatable. At first he had called his parents to say he was all right, but he was going to “de-phone”; then he let his cell phone service lapse. He was somewhere here in the city, drifting, though no one seemed to know exactly where. One of Brettigan’s friends claimed to have seen Timothy sitting in front of the luggage carousels at the airport, sitting there unmoving, minute after minute. When asked whether he was meeting anyone getting off a flight, Timothy had said, “No. I just like to see families reunited. I like to see happiness. Don’t you?”
And once Brettigan had seen a bearded man on a city bus who might have been his son, but the man got off before his father could reach him. At other times Timothy seemed to be over there, on the other side of the street, ambling without destination, studying the sidewalk, distantly walking away, like an urban ghost who gave you glimpses of himself before dematerializing. He was only visible out of the corner of the eye—fleetingly, in a crowd leaving a stadium, or in the distance on an escalator, at the ballpark eight sections over, or in the backseat of a taxi speeding away.
You couldn’t report him because he wasn’t really missing. He was here somewhere. And now his mother dropped in on churches, the ones with their doors open, and cathedrals, Quaker meetinghouses, basilicas, synagogues, Kingdom Halls, chapels, mosques, storefronts, and meditation centers, sneaking in quietly and sitting in the back, surveying those who sat and prayed, trying to imagine him back into existence as a happy solid citizen in one of these congregations, but half-seeing him, instead, on street corners, on benches, with the ragged and rusted-out street people with their staring empty eyes.
He will turn up someday.
Only God knew where he was. And another question: Where had God gone to?
Excerpted from The Sun Collective by Charles Baxter. Excerpted with the permission of Pantheon Books. Copyright © 2020 by Charles Baxter.